Coming into yesterday, I had been fighting with the sermon all week.
I wasn’t sure it was the best way to start the year. I wasn’t sure it was the best way to start the Defining Moments series.
I even confessed my inner struggle with the two friends who pray for me each Sunday at 7:30 a.m. Yet something interesting happened in the middle of that confession and subsequent prayer.
For some reason I prayed that “the Holy Spirit would speak truth to the people of Good Shepherd” in that sermon. Not that I would speak truth, but that the Holy Spirit would.
I’ve never prayed those words in that way before. Yet as soon as that prayer happened early on Sunday, I decided I liked it. And so I prayed those approximate words on the platform each time before beginning my message.
What happened? Well, the people who were there can decide, but all I know is that from my perspective the inner battling ceased because I relinquished command of the morning to Someone Else.
Here’s a rough transcript of what happened yesterday. The REFRAIN is: You can lose everything chasing after nothing.
Check it out:
You’ve felt that. I’ve felt that. You’re in some situation, some setting, and it is simply excruciating . . . and you just can’t get away from fast enough or far enough. Not long ago I was in a Methodist meeting and it was so depressing, so devoid of content, so, yes, excruciating, that I started actinglike I was taking really good notes. You know, like the speaker is just mining gold and you want to get every nugget down? But you know what I was really doing while it looked like I was taking notes? Making a list of the greatest tennis players in the history of the world! (AV) Federer, Laver, Nadal, Sampras . . . When I was done with thatlist, it was then where I’d want to live when I retire – which, if I had to sit through many more Meth meetings like that, would be tomorrow. And when that was over, I was GONE – no mingling, no hanging, just escaping.
You’ve felt that. You’ve done that. Biz meetings, church committees, awkward holidays with blended family or fractured family. You just CAN’T WAIT to get out. SW Airlines asks, “wanna get away?” and we’re like, “YES!”
But sometimes it’s a bit more serious than a preachers meeting or quarterly sales meeting, isn’t it? Someone here is caught up in a job and it’s not just a meeting or a day, it’s the job itself. And now that 2013 has come and gone with no new job offer, you don’t know how long you can take it. Others, it’s even church. You’re fidgety, forced to come by someone else, and you can’t wait until it’s over every Sunday. And when you’re able to make your own decision, you will flee this or any congregation. And then for a few of you, it’s not even church, it’s deeper than that – it’s faith. You grew up in it, but you never really felt it. Honestly, you’ve found it much more restrictive than liberating and although you still call yourself a Xn, you are really just holding on by a thread. And part of you wants that thread to break so you can escape the faith and live exactly how you want to with no rules from on high.
Someone else here can’t wait to escape your parents. They’re too lenient. Or too strict. Too something. You can’t wait to be out from under their influence. A few of you single people are probably involved in a romantic relationship and you’re feeling smothered. You want to get out from under it but you don’t know how. And then here’s what I know: more than a handful of you who are married today, on this first Sunday of 2014, have these dreams of a new, single, you. You feel trapped, cornered, obligated, and you just have this intense longing to escape. For some it’s the glow of someone else (either specific or imagined) and the commercial asks wanna get away? and you’re like, “Absolutely. I made it through the holidays and now’s the time.” Because we’re convinced that whether it’s job, faith, church, or spouse, that there’s something better out there. Better job, church, mate. Leave this, chase that, get better. And while you’re deciding if and when, you’re in the middle of a defining moment. (Should I stay or go?)
Which is exactly where the story known as The Prodigal Son begins. Jesus is the story teller here, and this is probably the most famous story he ever told because its applications are so universal: God, kingdom, faith, and family. Mostly, family. The drama built in to this story is so multi-layered, so universal, so fascinating. Look how it opens in 15:11:
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.
Ah, two sons. Notice: it doesn’t say they are brothers (they are), just sons. Clueing the alert reader into some kind of inexplicable divide between the two of them. And then look at 15:12:
12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
Now: this younger brother would have naturally been entitled to a third of the inheritance – older bro gets 2/3 – but as is the case with most inheritances YOU’VE GOT TO WAIT FOR THE DAD TO DIE FIRST! Why is the younger so impatient here? We don’t know. Perhaps he wanted to escape the dynamic at play here – birth order, shadow standing, second fiddle playing, obeying the rules of others. But what he’s asking is this: “Dad, I want you dead. Now. Since you’re not, give me my stash today so I can live as if you are.” And dad – an enabler? guilty? wishing mom was around? – capitulates and gives it to him.
Look next at 15:13:
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country
I love that because it has TOTALITY (“all that he had”) and ANONYMITY (“distant country”). Something deep inside him longed to escape everyone and everything he had ever known. To take EVERYTHING and go to a place where NO ONE KNEW HIM. Maybe it’s to escape the burden of being under the thumb of his dad and brother. Maybe it’s because he had a hole in his heart because of mom’s absence. Whatever the motivation, it was his defining moment and he decided he wanted to give up on all his responsibilities and give in to his desires. You know what that’s like. I know what that’s like.
Where the lure of escaping responsibility and indulging desire makes you act contrary to your deepest beliefs and your best interests. Lord, there sure have been times when I’ve wanted to abandon ministry and embrace landscaping, tennis teaching, Chippendale dancing. Whatever. In those defining moments, the lure of giving up on responsibility and giving into desires can be overwhelming.
Which I suppose is why 15:13b & 14 is so essential:
and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.
Oh, do you know what happened? The glow of life out there turned out to be nothing more than a mirage. It over-promised and under-delivered. And he ends up losing all of it (“squandered his wealth,” not squandered poverty). So in his defining moment he chose escape rather than perseverance, he gave up on and gave in to and that which he gave in to turned out to have a bitter after-taste. Now: the story here in Luke 15 has a happy ending with full restoration (deal with that in coming weeks), but I want you to avoid his flight, avoid his famine, avoid his mess, avoid the first part of the story. Why? Because I know that I know that I know that a lot of you are in a defining moment just like his and you’re fixing to make the same kind of decision he did. Why? Because you can lose everything chasing after nothing. That’s right. You might abandon your career, renounce your faith, leave your family, all because it looks better, sweeter, nicer over there and then you discover, “Bleh. That taste is the bitterest of all.” You lost all that and this is what you got. Nada.
Listen: if you are at a defining moment and hatching an escape plan, repeat it til you believe it: REFRAIN. REFRAIN. It would break my heart if this church was full of a whole lot of people holding on to nothing.
Now: before I say anything else, can I give one caveat to all this. This: if you are in a relationship characterized by abuse – physical, sexual, verbal – I urge you to exit that now. At least for the short term and more likely for the long haul. Please do not hear what I’m not saying. This message is not some call to victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse to grit their teeth and bear it for the sake of some higher calling. You are high calling enough to step away from an abusive situation.
But for the greater majority of you who have the urge to get away from a loveless marriage or a restrictive faith or distant parents or even to get away from this city of Charlotte, REFRAIN. You know why I’m so emphatic on this? Because you take you with you wherever you go. You just do. You might leave that marriage or abandon this city or forsake that job and you wake up one morning a year later and you’ve got the same problems you did before. Why? Because you’re the problem! It’s like people who think, “if I just move, all will be good.” Nope. Why? Because they went with them when they moved! You can escape from your setting but you’re the one who is truly inescapable.
Do you have the honesty to acknowledge that? To do an inventory of your life, to check your character defects and to admit, “OMG. I am the common denominator in every problem and every broken relationship I’ve had. REFRAIN.
So many of you know exactly what I’m saying and you just never had a language for it until today. You know why you know all this so well, from experience? Because you are the collateral damage from when mom or dad or both lost everything chasing after nothing. They lost YOU chasing after a mirage! You STILL feel the kick in the stomach from all that, even at a time when you should be “all better.” Oh by the power of the resurrected Jesus and through the grace of his Holy Spirit, please don’t pass that cycle on to the next generation. Please. And just a hint, especially if you considering or are in the early stages of that extra-marital relationship: he or she who will cheat with you will cheat onyou. It’s in the track record. Break the cycles. I believe it’s what God does best. REFRAIN.
Because there is something so beautiful about tenacity. Something glorious about seeing all the ways that Christ is in the middle of your mess. That he reigns even in a situation you want to escape. Colossians 3:11 remains one of my favorite verses: Christ is all and is in all. And all means all! That unhappy marriage, that wavering faith, that seemingly dead end job, that crappy church. Plumb the depths of who and what you have, mine it for all its treasures, see your role in the problem, before you even THINK of leaving it. Because I love hearing those reports of the senior citizen couples who hated each other in middle age, stayed married anyway, and now are in the throes of love, looking back with few regrets and holy memories. It’s all so typical of gospel truth, gospel living, and even gospel sharing.
It’s like what happened in the ministry of John Wesley, who founded the movement that became the Methodist church:
Sunday AM May 5 – Preached in St. Ann’s; was asked not to come back anymore.
Sunday PM May 5 – Preached at St. John’s; deacons said Get out & Stay out.
Sunday AM May 12 – Preached at St. Jude’s; can’t go back there either.
Sunday PM May 12 – Preached at St. George’s. Kicked out again.
Sunday PM May 19 – Preached on street and kicked off street.
Sunday AM May 26 – Preached in meadow; chased out of meadow when a bull was turned loose during the service.
Sunday AM June 2 – Preached out at the edge of town; kicked off the road.
Sunday PM June 2 – Afternoon service, preached in pasture; 10,000 people came.
You don’t know what your crowd of 10K is gonna show up. Don’t lose everything chasing after nothing. Find the abundant everything where you are.