September 30, 2012
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE CENTER OF THE YOU-NIVERSE
Here’s the picture of the week. Some of you were watching live. If you weren’t, I’ll bet you heard about it the next day. Two referees, both with a perfect view of the last play of the game, each reaching the opposite conclusion. One signals touchdown. The other signals touchback. That’s not the same thing, by the way. One way Seattle wins. The other way Green Bay wins. Seattle won, but general consensus is that it was a bad call. Some called it, “Clueless in Seattle”.
If there were only two people left on earth, you can be sure of one thing. They would disagree. Like back in1895, there were only two cars in the entire state of Ohio. Can you guess what happened? They crashed into each other. Whenever there’s somebody else in this world and not just me, there are bound to be problems.
That’s what James is saying. “Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way.” In other words, we are selfish. We are self-centered. Our default setting is to behave as if we were the center of the universe.
Back when we had a teenage daughter living at home, our television would frequently be tuned to a program called “My Super Sweet 16.” It’s a reality show about rich parents planning sixteenth birthday parties for their spoiled daughters. The party budgets range from $10,000 to $500,000. One mom takes her daughter to Paris to shop for her party dress. Big name entertainers are frequently hired to perform. I think Tim Swanson has done a few. On one memorable episode, Audrey screams at her mother, “I hate you!” because her birthday present, a $67,000 Lexus was delivered before her party, not after as she had specifically requested.
On another episode, 15-year-old Amanda looks into the mirror. She says, “I get happy looking at myself. I love money. People say it doesn’t buy happiness, but I think it helps.”
It’s a show people watch because we enjoy watching other people being ridiculous. We’re voyeurs. It makes us feel better about ourselves. We feel less self-centered and self-absorbed when we watch those who are truly over the top. However, this show should come with a warning. “Viewer discretion advised: You might see yourself in today’s episode.”
Deep down we differ from these spoiled brats only by a matter of degrees. We aren’t that bad. But we are bad. Here’s what James says: “You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way.”
That’s why we have wars and that’s why we have quarrels. Nations doing everything in their power to kill and maim as many as possible from the enemy nation. Families living in a war zone at home, where every word spoken escalates the tension in the room. It’s the same cause, whether many lives are lost or a few feelings are hurt. We want our own way. We want to be the center of our own universe. If everyone else would just get out of the way and realize that “it’s all about me”, we would suddenly have peace.
Well, that’s one way to peace. The Frank Sinatra way. “I did it my way.” The problem is, this way really only works if you’re the only person on earth. Otherwise, you’re going to run into that pesky problem of other people who think they are just as important as you are. In fact, I’m not sure if you would get away from wars and quarrels even if you were the only person on earth. You’d just be fighting with yourself. Paul has that famous passage in Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). And in today’s passage James speaks of the fighting that goes on “deep inside yourselves” (1:1).
Sooner or later, and sad to say for many it’s later, we’re going to have to figure out that life doesn’t work very well when everything has to revolve around me. That’s one of the insights, by the way, of this “Sweet 16” show. These pampered girls who get everything they want, end up miserable. In the Bible, King Solomon is a prime example. When you’re king, you get your own way. And Solomon was king at a time when Israel was ridiculously wealthy. There was nothing he couldn’t have. Did it make him happy? He writes in Ecclesiastes, “I hated life” (2:17). I think I heard that on “Sweet 16”, too. “I hate my life.”
The spoiled child way is not the best way. The best way, James tells us is not to be the “center of” but to be “centered in”. We aren’t the center of the you-niverse, but we are centered in the One who is. We are centered in God. And as soon as we stop being the “center of” and start being “centered in”, a huge change is underway. No longer do we insist on having things our way. Our purpose in life is now to participate in God’s way.
And so we come the “how to’s” for this week. We’ve seen that James tells us how to live a Christian life. You can see the five earlier “how to’s” on the screen. We could add just one more today. It might be something like, “Be centered in God.” But James, practical as he is, breaks it down for us into steps that are less vague and more doable. Baby steps, as Dave Ramsey might say.
The first of these, and the sixth in this series is: 6.) Resist the devil. Eugene Peterson says it more colorfully: “Yell a loud no to the devil and watch him scamper.”
I know you don’t all believe in a literal devil. I don’t believe in one running around dressed up in a red suit and carrying a pitch fork either. But I absolutely do believe that the demonic is part of the world in which we live. If you don’t believe in the demonic, turn on the news. We live in a scary world. And the scariest part of it is that we can’t go into our room and lock the door and escape the demonic. Because it’s like one of those horror films. The evil you are trying to flee is inside your locked room. It’s inside you. And here’s the real scary part of it. Any one of us could very easily say yes to the devil and no to God and be carried over the edge and do something demonic. Maybe not horrible enough to make the news, but horrible enough to betray everything we believe and hold dear.
Don’t take the devil lightly. That’s part of James’ message. But here’s the other part. Don’t let the devil push you around. Because the devil backs down really quickly when you put up a fight. The devil is like that playground bully who acts tough but who runs away crying like a baby when you fight back. “Yell a loud no to the devil.” Make sure it’s loud! Make sure you mean it! “Yell a loud no to the devil and watch him scamper.”
Resist the devil. And then, 7.) Draw near to God. These two really belong together. Drawing near to God is what makes the devil scamper. And look at this: It says to resist the devil and he will flee from you. And it says draw near to God and he will draw near to you. See what’s going on here? What makes the devil flee is what makes God draw near. Devil repellent and God bait come in the same spray can. When you’re on the right track spiritually, the devil is going to get out of the way and God is going to move right in. “Yell a loud no to the devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time.”
How do we say that quiet yes? How do we draw near to God? Coming to worship for one thing. Your presence here this morning tells me you’re serious about your walk with God. There are a lot of other things we could be doing with our Sunday mornings. Watching more bad calls, this time by the real referees is one of those things. But you’re here. Because drawing near to God is important to you.
And of course an hour a week isn’t enough. You wouldn’t survive on one meal a week. You won’t survive spiritually and you certainly won’t grow if Sunday morning is your only time to be fed. “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” We sing that every week at Simply Worship. And it’s really true. Daily worship, daily Bible, daily prayer – those are the practical steps we take to keep the devil far away and to keep God near at hand.
So resist the devil, draw near to God, and finally, 8.) Humble yourself. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you” (4:10). Or as Peterson has it, “Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet.”
This one takes us full circle to back where we began. Our problem is we insist on our own way. Our problem is we think the world ought to revolve around us. Our problem, in other words, is pride, the opposite of humility.
Paul speaks of pride as being “puffed up”. He speaks of those who oppose the teachings of Jesus as, “puffed up with pride” (I Tim 6:4). He speaks of those who take pride in what they know. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (I Cor 8:1). What I picture when Paul talks about being “puffed up” is someone being blown up like a balloon. Puffed up. Swollen. Too big for your britches. And of course you know what happens eventually when more and more air is pumped into a balloon.
That happens to prideful people. There’s that verse in Proverbs. “Pride goeth before a fall” (16:18). You see it time and time again. People who get too full of themselves, people who get overconfident, people who answer to no one but themselves. The balloon gets bigger and bigger and fuller and fuller. And then it happens. Kaboom!
When it happens, it’s a horrible thing. But when it happens, it can be the best thing that ever happened to you. Sometimes our bubble has to burst. Sometimes we have to fall and fall hard. Sometimes we have to hit bottom.
Chuck Colson died this year. Those of us who lived through the Watergate years remember Chuck Colson as the epitome of arrogance and self-importance. He was pretty important after all. He’s 38 years old and he’s Special Counsel to Richard Nixon, President of the United States. He became known as the president’s “hatchet man”. He would get things done that the president wanted to get done. Nothing got in his way, certainly not the law. And yes, he was the one responsible for compiling Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.”
Chuck Colson pled guilty to obstruction of justice, a felony, for his role in Watergate. He served seven months in prison. He had fallen from the pinnacle of power and prestige to the depths of humiliation and despair. He had hit rock bottom.
Before his sentencing, he was given a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. It’s a book you should read, by the way, if you haven’t already. It has a chapter called “The Great Sin”. It’s a chapter about pride. Here are some of the words Chuck Colson read.
Pride is competitive by its very nature: that is why it goes on and on. If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy. The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God. In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that — and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison — you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God (pages 110-111).
Chuck Colson was sitting alone late one night in the driveway of a Christian friend. He burst into tears. He said he cried so hard it was like trying to swim under water. It sounds like James. “Hit bottom. Cry your eyes out” (4:9). He prayed what he called his first real prayer. “God, I don’t know how to find you. But I’m going to try.” Take me, take me, take me, he repeated over and over. He was a nominal Christian before. Christ was on his list, but self was at the top of that list. For the rest of his life, and that turned out to be 37 years, Christ was first.
While in prison he became aware of the shortcomings of our prison system. He was haunted by the desperation and hopelessness he had witnessed. He became convinced that God was calling him to develop a ministry to prisoners. He called it Prison Fellowship. It’s now huge. It’s in 120 countries. It’s impossible to measure the good it has done.
Many tributes poured in when Chuck Colson died last April. One unlikely tribute came from Lanny Davis, who served as Special Counsel to President Clinton, the same job Chuck Colson held in the Nixon administration. It was at the National Prayer Breakfast several years ago. Chuck approached Lanny and said, “I’ve waited for a very long time to say something to you. I am sorry. May God forgive me”. Lanny Davis was taken aback. He had no idea where this was going. Chuck Colson continued, “You know, I’m the guy who put you on the enemies list – that was wrong. Please forgive me.”
Lanny Davis said this: “I looked into his eyes and I felt a strange and deep peace. It was eerie. I also saw a profound goodness and spirituality. My eyes teared up. ‘Of course I forgive you Mr. Colson.’” Lanny then asked for Chuck’s forgiveness, because he had years before spoken with hatred about him. Chuck gave him a bear hug. “I learned an important lesson that day,” Lanny Davis recalled. “I vowed that I would never use the word ‘hate’ about people in politics with whom I disagreed.”
There’s a big difference between being the “center of” and being “centered in”. It’s a big step to go from spoiled children, insisting on our own way to humble servants, wanting nothing more than God’s way. It’s a big decision we each have to make, and probably remake a few times as we move through life. Will we get down on our knees before the Master? It’s the only way we’ll get back on our feet.
Lord God, it really comes down to deciding who’s in charge. And the answer is really easy, though the journey to reach that answer may not be. You are in charge. You are Lord over this universe. You are Lord over my life. And so humbly we bow before you, and confidently we rise to serve you, not ourselves. In Jesus’ name, Amen.