Why we do what we do

Sermon 25 Oct 2020

Deut 34:1-12

I Thess 2:1-8

Matt 22:34-46

There is a series of Christian videos for children called Vege-tales. Some of you may have seen them with your grandchildren – if not, I recommend them for entertaining programmes that bring a clear Christian message, albeit voiced by Larry the cucumber. A talking cucumber might be an unusual carrier of God’s word.

But the reason I mention this series is that at the beginning of every episode there is a saying, ‘why we do what we do’. The makers of these programmes for children make it clear that their driving motivation is out of love for the children, not to merely entertain but to share the Gospel message of love and hope with them.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians spells out too his reason for what he is doing –

So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.’

Christian ministry isn’t an easy one, as I’m sure you all know. Paul encourages us by his example to share our own selves as we share the Gospel. This means sharing our hopes and our dreams, our triumphs and our despairs, with those around us. It is how we face life that marks us as Christians – are we proud when all is going well? Or do we give the glory back to God? Or when life turns to custard, and not sweet, hot custard, but lumpy cold stuff that’s burnt on the bottom, do we blame God? Or do we turn our face towards Jesus, confident and determined that nothing will take God’s love away from us, as we continue to put one foot in front of the other?

Paul had a really hard time proclaiming the Gospel. He was quick to tell his hearers about it:

‘though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.’

Paul can sound as if he is boasting about the hard time he had, rather like the Monty Python skit about the three Yorkshiremen, as they try to outdo each other about how hard their childhood was!

I think Paul is being encouraging, rather than boastful. He is telling the Thessalonians that they are worthy of his great effort, that they need to hear the Gospel. And that the love of God is freely available for them. In this he is also encouraging them, and us, to do the same – to share the Gospel with everyone, no matter how difficult it is.

It is difficult though, isn’t it? It seems that we live in a world of apathy at best, and outright hostility towards the church. When members of our on family don’t want to hear about the good news, when their eyes glaze over if we try to tell them about the hope we have in Christ, what can we do? Never give up, Paul would say. But maybe we have to be a bit crafty about how we share it. We show our love fro Christ in how we live our lives, how we love each other, how we behave when life is hard. This might seem too little, but it shines out from us, and people do notice. We have a hard job as Christians too, fighting against the bad reputation that some so-called Christians have given the church.

I was encouraged recently when a friend of my daughter’s was listening to people criticising the church for supposedly being rich and hoarding resources. He stated that all the Christians he had met were hard-core socialists! I was really glad to hear that, because Jesus’ own example is one of radical socialism, caring for others and not trying to grasp for himself.

Paul must have come up against criticism of why he was spreading the Gospel, because he justifies why he does it:

‘For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.’

Why would a Christian spread the Gospel out of deceit or trickery? I am thinking of some of the notorious televangelists here, who are always calling for large donations of money, and seem to spend it on themselves rather than where the need is. People like this give the church a bad name, and unfortunately the media are quick to publicise these stories rather than those of the many millions of Christians who are actively loving and helping others.

Paul tells us why we have been entrusted to spread the Gospel – not to please mortals, but to please God.

It can be very hard to please mortals. I had a friend who was an organist, and she said of her choice of music that you’re never going to please everyone, so you may as well please yourself.

Pleasing God is more than that though. How do we know if we are pleasing God?

We can hold our actions against scripture, or the short-cut, ask ourselves, what would Jesus do? If we can confidently say that we are loving others in the way Jesus would, we are on the right track. But if it takes a bit of finagling to put our desired ministry alongside this standard, it is time to re-think.

In our Gospel reading, we have another of the Pharisee’s questions to Jesus. Unlike last week’s one about the tax, this one is an easy one.

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment.

Fairly standard answer, the Pharisee thought.

But then Jesus confounds them with the sheer power of love.

“And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

This is a help for us in those what-would-Jesus-do moments. If our action is loving our neighbour as ourself, then we are on the right track. But Jesus’ next comment is also really important.

‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Whenever the church is arguing over details of theology, or what the book of Deuteronomy or Leviticus says about whatever contentious issue is foremost, we need to remember Jesus’ words. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments, and must be interpreted in their light. This is why there is such freedom in Christianity – or should be. Rather than trying to follow lots of rules about what not to eat or wear, or who not to talk to, we just need to look at Jesus’ words. Love God, love neighbour.

Here we have help available to us – we don’t need to think it through all by ourselves. We have the Holy Spirit to counsel and to guide us, to warn and revive. It’s good to practise listening for the voice of God. To do this we need space, time, freedom from distraction. This can he hard to find in a busy modern world, where there are so many things to attend to, and so many entertainments available. Even when we have free time it’s easy to fill it up with watching tv, reading, playing on the computer…but to hear from God takes a conscious effort to clear our diary for a bit, a time when we have no distractions, and can let God speak to us.

During the week I went for a walk in Riccarton bush, and for me it was a time to encounter God afresh. There were no people around me, no phone, nothing but the sound of the birds in the tall trees, and I stopped, and just listened for God. Where can you encounter God this week?