Sermon 23 August 2015
Is it easy being a Christian?
These days, there are so many other things going on in our lives that our attention can be drawn away from putting God first in every part of our lives.
Joshua told the tribes at Shechem:
‘Get rid of the idols your ancestors worshipped when they lived on the other side of the Euphrates river and in Egypt.’
I think this is a text for us. God is telling us to get rid of those things that distracted our ancestors, our parents, people of our culture in the past. And that may not just mean the past in archaeological terms, as it did for the tribes of Israel. It could mean things that were important to you in your past. Maybe even yesterday. Anything that distracts us from putting God first can be considered an idol.
But, I hear you say, I don’t worship other gods, Buddhas, flying spaghetti monsters, or new age stuff.
No, maybe not, but idols can be many things. They can be the idol of money. The love of money is the root of all evil, it has been said. Money in and of itself is neutral, and it’s quite useful really. Certainly when we don’t have enough we notice it!
If our pursuit of income is the first priority in our lives, other things get out of balance. Living a God-centred life doesn’t mean we need to become hermits and live in a cave, eating huhu grubs – unless we’re Bear Grylls – it means getting a balance. Not a bank-balance.
Money is often a great cause of pressure for us – whether we have enough to do what we need to do, or what we want to do. It also causes resentments when one half of a couple spends it without discussing it with the other partner. It’s easy to feel resentful and entitled when we feel hard-done-by in terms of spending money.
When you get the junk mail in from the letter box, how do you feel? Do you look at the lovely leather couches and wish you had one? Or wish you had another one? Again, in itself this is neutral, but craving, coveting and desiring Stuff can distract us from what really matters.
The culture we live in is all about who has what, and our success is often measured in terms of our Stuff. But we know that we matter to God no matter who we are, what we have, how successful or not we are in the eyes of the world.
Stuff is an idol that can hold us back.
There are many other idols – sports can be one, even family can be an idol. Some people put their children on a pedestal and indulge them, doing everything for them, at the expense of their characters. Have you seen people who are run ragged taking their kids to every extracurricular activity on the planet, only to find themselves too exhausted to live their own life?
There are many idols.
Joshua has his priorities right. ‘My family and I are going to worship and obey the Lord!’ or, the old version, ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’
As members of Christ’s body, that’s what we are trying to do. And it’s not always easy is it? Obeying the Lord is all very well when we know what is required, such as not murdering, not lying. But there are always grey areas. Lying is one actually. Have you ever lied to your child – ‘no, there are no chocolate biscuits left ‘- when you know that there is one actually but you are saving it for later, when they are in bed? Guilty.
Saying what we want people to hear is an instinctive human reaction, – we want others to think well of us. Our reputation can be an idol. But Godly character says we own up to the truth, even when it hurts.
When I was a child I heard a story about George Washington, who, as a boy, cut down the family cherry tree. I don’t know why he did it, but the lesson of the story was that he owned up to it, he admitted that he was the wielder of the axe.
As a kid, I thought, so what? He cut it down, he admitted it.
But as I get older I realise how hard it can be to admit to deeds that do not show us in a good light.
If we truly follow God’s voice this all gets easier.
This is where the Holy Spirit helps us. It gives us boldness, to speak the truth and the Gospel. To own up, to be brave, even when we know we will be thought less well-of. The same Holy Spirit that empowers us to tell others about the Gospel also empowers us to live the gospel. And this is often the more impactful testimony.
Others will see our Godly character, not just when we are doing nice, kind, Christiany things, but when we stuff up, how we react. Our character as Christians is under scrutiny from the world – anyone who publicly claims to be a Christian better be squeaky clean because the press gleefully finds any inconsistencies.
My friends, we all have inconsistencies. None of us is perfect. We are all on a journey, and it’s not a straightforward one.
But why is it so hard?
There is opposition. There is a very real enemy to God, and – unfashionable though it may be to name it, that enemy is the devil. We are in a battle – Jesus has won the war but the final skirmish is not yet over.
That’s why we are encouraged to Put on the armour of life. This passage we heard read today from Ephesians is often familiar from Sunday school posters, and it’s a good one to keep coming back to.
We are urged to put on all the armour that God gives, so we can defend ourselves against the devil’s tricks. We need to take this seriously. The spiritual forces of evil are present in the world, and will exploit any chink in our armour, any gateway. Physical illness can become a gateway for spiritual harm too, and the other way around. When we pray for the sick, it is good to pray for protection from any attack of the enemy, which can come in the form of worse symptoms, depression, anxiety, bad dreams and many other ways of feeling worse than we do already.
If we put on God’s justice like armour, we don’t allow ourselves to act in a way that could be remotely unjust or unmerciful. If we let our guard down, the enemy can whisper in our ear – ‘wouldn’t it be easier to ignore the just way? After all, who will notice?’
Have you had that internal dialogue when you are tempted? How about when the person in the dairy gives you too much change. Do you give it back? Do you gleefully put it in your purse and feel you have had a bonus? These little things train us in the big things. I’m sure you know not to steal, after all, it is a clear commandment. But how about stealing time? I have belonged to several choirs over the years, and served on various committees. Many people on the committees use their work email, and are obviously sending choir emails during work time. No one will notice, but, actually, it can be stealing from their employer’s time.
Again, the enemy whispers on our shoulder.
How else does the armour of God protect us? ‘Use our faith like a shield, to stop the flaming arrows of the evil one.’ Those thoughts and ideas that are not Godly are the flaming arrows, but arrows can also come from people around us, people we love, people we work with. Comments people make are often very good at going in deep, wounding us to the quick.
The most incorrect nursery rhyme ever is ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ They do hurt, and hurt bad. We mull over comments, we let them fester, and often we develop a desire for comeback, for a chance to explain, or to get even.
If we use our faith like a shield, reminding us of who God is and who we are in God, those arrows can be deflected, and even if we hear them they can become less important in the bigger picture. Someone criticises you? Okay, it happens. Be reminded that God loves you, be humble and don’t try and get even. Godly character will result. Your faith will help you grow.
It’s not so much that the comments people make are from the evil one – we don’t need to tell people that the devil is speaking through them, though some versions of Christianity can be that direct. It’s more that a gateway is formed where the darker spiritual forces can gain a toehold. How we respond will determine whether our portcullis is up or down.
Again, if we are often praying that the Holy Spirit will give us the words, these challenges can be easier to handle.
I’m not going to assert that life as a Christian is easy. You know it’s not. But it can be easier than doing it alone.
John’s Gospel tells us about the life-giving Spirit. When we feel that the life has been sucked out of us, by circumstance, by illness, by busyness, by sour relationships, we can come back to the life-giving Spirit. God breathed the Spirit into the void, and the world was made. No matter what theories there are about cosmic origins, it still needs an impetus, an influx of energy to get started. The Spirit of God breathing life has always been part of the universe, and I would remind you that it still breathes life into us. Slow down from your distractions, breathe it in. Simon Peter had it right – ‘Lord, there is no one else we can go to! Your words give eternal life.’
May you feel an ever-increasing revelation of the eternal life you have in God, and trust God to energise you by the Holy Spirit’s power this week.