Sunday, April 26, 2015

April 26, 2015

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC

 

THE WORK GOD GIVES US TO DO

John 17:1-5

 

Sometimes words have meanings that are similar but not the same.  For example, the words “complete” and “finished”.  They are almost the same, but not quite.

An English professor gave her class this bonus question at the end of their final exam:  “Some say there is no difference between ‘complete’ and ‘finished’.  Please explain the difference in a way that is easy to understand.”

Only one answer received the highest possible score:  “When you marry the right woman, you are complete.  When you marry the wrong woman, you are finished.  And if the right one catches you with the wrong one, you are completely finished.”

I was in a 50 kilometer relay race yesterday.  My part was 15 kilometers.  When I handed off to the next runner as I reached my finish line, I was completely finished!

Some day we will cross the finish line of life.  We will be completely finished with the work God gave us to do.  Will it be a day of rejoicing or a day of regrets?

Jesus said, “It is finished,” as he died on the cross (John 19:30).  In the class many of us attended, Adam Hamilton said we can interpret these words in two ways.  It could have been an expression of resignation.  “I’m done.  It’s over.  I quit.”  Or it could have been a declaration of victory.  “I’ve done what God put me on this earth to do!  No regrets!  Praise God!”   Paul said it like this: “I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4:7).  Surely that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “It is finished.”

That is clearly what he meant in the scripture for today.  Jesus is praying:  “[God], I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).  Another version says, “by completing the work you gave me to do”.  So once again we have those two almost interchangeable words, “finish” and “complete”!

John chapter 17 is a prayer.  The whole chapter.  It’s part of a lengthy section called the “farewell discourse” .  The setting is the Upper Room.  The date is Maundy Thursday.  Judas has left the room.  Jesus knows why.  Jesus knows he’s coming back and when he comes back it will be too late for him to tell his disciples anything.  And he has a lot to tell them.  So this is his opportunity.  He gives them this farewell discourse.  It’s long.  It begins with chapter 13, verse 31.  It ends with chapter 17, verse 26.  Four chapters.  125 verses.  Just long enough to give Judas time to go collect his thirty pieces of silver and return with soldiers ready and eager to arrest Jesus.  So as soon as the farewell discourse ends, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss.

One of the 125 verses is John 13:34.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”  Another is John 17:4.  “[God], I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do”.

I think there’s a connection between the two.  The work God gave Jesus to do was to love one another.  That was his personal mission statement.  It was a real simple one.  They say you should keep mission statements short.  His was one word: “Love.”  And he would know his mission was complete when his followers would start modeling that love.  When they would start loving one another, even as he had loved them.

So, we know the work God gave Jesus to do and since the work God gave Jesus to do involves us, we also know the work God gave us to do.  We too have a simple mission statement.  But it’s more than one word.  We don’t just “love”.  We “love as we have been loved.”   We love one another as Jesus has loved us.

That sounds nice.  That sounds harmless.  That’s probably nothing you didn’t already know.  But how does that connect with our daily lives?  How does loving as we have been loved translate into the choices we make and the priorities we set every day of our lives?  Here are four words that might help:  clarity, courage, confidence, and commitment.

First, we need clarity.  We had a lot of fog in January.  Remember those endless cold, gloomy days with that extended temperature inversion?  On one of those days Helen drove right past the road she needed to turn on to get to work.  It was so foggy, she couldn’t see the sign.  She realized her mistake and got turned around.  Then she missed the turn-off again.  So she had to turn around a second time!  Third time though was the charm.

Without clarity, we’re going to be living in a fog.  We’re going to be lost without even knowing for sure if we’re lost or if we’re on track.  We’ll go straight when we’re supposed to turn.  We’ll turn when we’re supposed to go straight.  And we may or may not eventually reach our intended destination.

Jesus didn’t live life in a fog.  He was always crystal clear about who he was and why he was here.  He was clear about the work God had given him to do.  That’s why he could pray as he did that he had completed that work.  He wouldn’t know if he didn’t know what it was.  But he knew his mission, so he knew when his mission was complete.  He knew what he was aiming at.  Do you know what you’re aiming at?  As the saying goes, if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time!

There was a time in my life when I badly needed some clarity.  It wasn’t so much that I was living in a fog.  It was more like I was living in a whirlwind.  There was so much to do that only I could do and I was trying so hard to do it all I wasn’t doing any of it very well.  The harder I tried, the worse it got.  My head was spinning.  I was the proverbial one-armed paper hanger with an itch.  It was not a pretty picture.

Here’s what helped me.  I got clear on my priorities.  Everything I was trying to accomplish was not equally important.  Once I started getting first things first, everything else started falling into place.

And the first thing had to be God.  Jesus said that.  “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33).  God first.  I’m not telling you I don’t still struggle with this.  It’s easy to put God last, not out of intention, but just because there is so much else that demands our attention.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease.  And God is not a squeaky wheel.  God’s still, small voice is still and small.  It can easily be drowned out in the chaos and confusion of our daily lives.

So I decided God had to be first as a conscious choice and I needed to order my other choices accordingly.  That’s my primary identity.  I am God’s child.

Second, I am a husband.  God has blessed me with a wonderful wife, so I realized I had better let her know how important she is to me.  Jesus Christ comes before Helen for me, but that’s all.

Third, I am a father.  God has blessed me with three wonderful children.  They need me in their lives.  I resolved that I would be in their lives.  Even as they went through stages when they weren’t sure they wanted me in their lives.  And I’m also a son and a brother.  I include my whole family in number three

Finally, I am a pastor.  I don’t want you to feel bad, but as you can see, you’re fourth!  There’s a reason you’re fourth.  If I don’t do one, two, and three, I have nothing to offer you.  I used to put my role as pastor first.  I found out it that didn’t work so well.  I found out that I’m a much better pastor when I am clear on my priorities.

So we need clarity, and if we are going to do the work God gives us to do we also need courage.  Courage is fear that has said its prayers.  Fear is a normal human emotion.  Feeling fear does not  make you a coward.  Allowing fear to rule your life probably does.

Courage is fear that has said its prayers.  That means when we invite God into those areas of our lives where we are afraid we are no longer afraid.  Or if we still are afraid, at least the fear is no longer in control.  God is.

Sometimes we face scary things in life that we simply have to face.  God will help us.  Friends will help us.  But we the ones who just have to suck it up and face these things.

Other times the scariest thing we have to face is our own built-in resistance to change.  We get comfortable with our lives.
Whether our lives are bringing glory to God or not, we like things just the way they are.  We might even love the comfortable predictability of our lives more than we love God.

We can have clarity.  We can see things as they really are.  We can know where we are and where we need to be.  We can have our priorities all figured out.  But that’s just the first step.  Without courage it will be nothing more than an intellectual exercise.  Nothing will change.  Our built-in resistance to change is just too strong.  We have to face our fears and act on our faith.  That takes courage.

And that also takes confidence.  It takes self-confidence.   Believing in yourself can take you a long way.  Jesus told us to love the other person as much as we love ourselves.  Some of us need to love ourselves more.  If you love yourself, you will take care of yourself.  You will improve yourself.  You will develop your God-given gifts.  You will prove to yourself that you are a capable person.  You will think positively about yourself and your abilities.  So when you start a project, you won’t be held back by fear of failure.  You will be propelled forward by expectation of success.  People accomplish great things who believe they will accomplish great things.

All that’s true.  But that’s only part of the truth.  Believing in yourself can take you a long way.  But only so far.  There’s a limit to how far believing in yourself can take you.  When you start believing in God, there are no limits.  God is able to do “exceedingly abundantly more than we ask or think, according to the power at work in us” (Ephesians 3:20).  Self-confidence is good.  God-confidence is better.  With self-confidence, you can do things that stretch your abilities.  With God-confidence, God can do things through you that exceed your abilities.

So we begin with clarity to see where we are and where we need to be.  Next comes the courage to do something with this insight.  And then the confidence to believe that we can do it.  Actually, to believe that God and we can do it!  And one more.  We can have clarity and courage and confidence and still nothing changes.  Finally, it takes commitment.

In an earlier life, I was pastor at the UnitedMethodistChurch in Burley, Idaho.  Those of you who have been here awhile can relate to the situation that church was facing when I got there.  They had an old downtown church building with lots of problems.  And they had an opportunity to build something new on the edge of town with lots of room to grow.  They had a Building Committee in place but they hadn’t met in a long time.  They were discouraged.  Building that new church just seemed like an impossible dream.

At one of the early Building Committee meetings, a woman named Jean King brought a piece of paper that she distributed to the group.  It was something the German poet Goethe had written long ago.  She read it to us out loud as we followed along.  It was just what we needed to hear.

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back.  Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

We had clarity.  We needed a little more courage.  We needed a little more confidence.  But most of all what we needed at that point was commitment.  We needed to get off the fence.  Fish or cut bait.  Take a leap of faith.  Whatever figure of speech we might use, that’s what we needed.  We needed to begin.

Where do you need to begin?  Where do you need to make a commitment?  Where do you need to make the first move?  Goethe was right.  When you move, God moves.  Things start happening that never would have happened had you held back.  “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Clarity, courage, confidence, and commitment.  The work God gives us to do requires all four.  But remember, the work God give us to do essentially is to love.  To love as we have been loved.  That’s what Jesus told his disciples in that farewell discourse.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

He continued:  “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  Someone wrote a song based on that very verse.  “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

We can accomplish a lot in life.  We can be successful.  We can be respected, even admired by others.  We can be remembered as church members, church leaders, men and women of faith.  But by the standard Jesus lays down here, there is only one way to know whether or not we were even Christians.  Did we love?  Did we love as Jesus loves us?

 

Thank you God for the life you have given us.  We can get so caught up in the living of our lives that we fail to remember that we are accountable to you for how we live our lives.  You put us on this earth for a reason.  And that reason is bigger and better than taking care of ourselves.  You have work for us to do.  You have people for us to love.  We’ve heard it all before.  We know it all by heart.  But God, today may we make the commitment that will made today not just another day.  May this be the day we start taking Jesus seriously.  In his name,   Amen.