The following sermon was preached at Trinity School for Ministry Chapel, 4/18/11
Based on the Lectionary Readings for the day: Psalm 51, Jeremiah 12, and Philippians 3:1-14
One of the required readings in Evangelism class this semester is a book called The Ten Most Common Mistakes Made By New Church Starts. As the title suggests, it’s a catalog of common errors made in the process of planting churches. I was surprised at what ended up at #1 on their hit parade. More than money challenges, time issues, staffing issues, the #1 mistake was – in the authors’ words – “Neglecting the Great Commandment in Pursuit of the Great Commission”. Letting our ‘first love’ get sidetracked.
Our readings for this morning come from three very different settings but they’re really about the same thing: maintaining a relationship with God. Counting everything as loss for the gain of knowing Him.
The first reading, from Jeremiah, comes from the time before the Babylonian captivity – when people were worshipping false gods, and abusing anybody who took a stand for the True God. In this particular passage the priests and prophets are plotting to kill Jeremiah. And Jeremiah is wondering what God is up to. He knows that God has promised to protect him (that was settled back in chapter 1) but so many things are going wrong and it seems like God isn’t doing anything about it. So Jeremiah prays this prayer:
Jer. 12 “1Righteous are you, O LORD, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? […] 3…set them apart for the day of slaughter.”
And God gives a surprising answer. It’s bad news, but with a touch of gentle humor. God says:
“5If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?”
In other words… ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet. Things are going to get a lot worse’. But having said that, God then opens His heart to Jeremiah, and shares His deep sorrow over His chosen people. God says:
“7I have forsaken my house; I have abandoned my heritage; I have given the beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies.” […] 10 “Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trampled down my portion[…] 11 They have made it a desolation… The whole land is made desolate, but no man lays it to heart.”
God’s heart is broken over the rebelliousness of His people, and He shares his pain and sorrow with Jeremiah.
At this point Jeremiah could have said “God, this is too much for me, I can’t handle it. Find somebody else to be your prophet.” But Jeremiah didn’t do that. Given the choice between living comfortably like the false prophets, or losing it all in order to suffer alongside God, Jeremiah chose God. He counted his friendship with God to be greater than all of the losses he was experiencing.
And in our passage from the Psalms we see David making the same choice. This time the circumstances are very different: by the world’s standards David has it all… land, palaces, wives… hey, it’s good to be king! Except that on this particular day the prophet Nathan has just confronted him, in God’s name, with the fact that David has committed adultery and murder. And the heart of God’s accusation is: ‘you have taken a poor man’s wife, and you have taken an honest man’s life, and in doing so you have despised Me’.
And David is cut to the heart, and he prays to God. And the central theme of his prayer, David’s greatest desire is this:
“10 Create in me a clean heart, O God… 11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”
The thing David fears most is the loss of his relationship with God. He does not want to lose the Holy Spirit; he does not want to lose God’s great hesed, his great loving-kindness. But at the same time he knows that there is nothing he can do to hold onto them. If there is going to be forgiveness and restoration it has to come from God. And so David prays:
“16 you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; … [but] 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart… you will not despise.”
David is willing to lose his pride, his reputation, his desire to hide his sins – David was willing to lose face, and everything that goes with that. And he will face a lot more difficulties because of his actions, but his relationship with God is being restored and for him that’s the most important thing.
And in our New Testament reading we see the apostle Paul saying the same thing. Paul is telling the Philippians to put no confidence in the flesh, and in doing so he says this about himself:
4“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.”
And having said all that Paul then adds:
“whatever gains I had, I count as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Paul has given up home, safety, a promising career, everything he knew, for a life on the road facing dangers and shipwrecks and all kinds of uncertainties. And he says he counts all he had as “rubbish” (putting it politely – the Greek is far more coarse) — it’s all just trash compared to knowing Jesus.
So we see the prophet Jeremiah, King David and the apostle Paul – all three, bearing witness that they are totally depending on God’s mercy, and that knowing Him is greater than anything else in the world. They would give up anything for the privilege of being friends with God, of walking with Him.
As I speak these words I realize I’m preaching to myself too. I am as likely as anyone to let church work or community work or whatever distract me from my relationship with God. And the thing is I can’t even improve that track record without God’s help – I can’t begin to know Him better unless He reaches out to me.
And that’s what Holy Week is all about. It’s a week in which God reaches out to us with His whole heart, in which He says He considers His losses to be worth it in order to gain… us. AMEN.