Sunday’s Sermon – Clearer than Mud

8Aug

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, August 7, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia and Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio. You can find other sermons, devotions, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

John 3:14-16

And just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, thus the son of man must be lifted up, so that all who believe in him might have eternal life. For thus God loved the world, that he sent the only son, so that all who believe in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

Mark 12:28-34

And when one of the scribes came and heard them disputing among themselves, and when he saw that he had answered them well, he put to him a question, "Which commandment is first among them all?" And Jesus answered, "The first one is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is one, and you will love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole being and your whole mind and with your whole strength. The second is, "You will love your neighbor as yourself. Greater than these are no other commandment.”

And the scribe said to him, "Good, Teacher, you have said the truth, that there is one and no other except him and to love him with the whole heart and with the whole understanding and with the whole strength and to love the neighbor as yourself is more far reaching than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices." And Jesus saw that he'd answered with intelligence said to him, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God." And no one dared to put a question to him any longer.

Clearer than Mud

Back when I was just about ready to graduate from Union Theological Seminary, I learned a valuable lesson in my first interview with a church pastoral search committee. Now, you’ve got to understand, by the time you get to the end of your last year, everybody, and I mean, everybody accept that is the Methodists, we’re all feeling the heat. You see, the Methodist graduates are assigned congregations, but we Presbyterians, when we graduate, man, we’re got to find a job in the church or we’re in big trouble. Of course, we refer to it as a call, because that seems more spiritual (we’ve been called
), but come on, if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. And so you can call it whatever you want, we all needed to find a job. And so, doing interviews is a big deal in those last few months. And I remember, my first interview was with a committee that actually came to the seminary to consider candidates.

And even though I thought it was doubtful that they would pick me, I mean, let’s get real, back in the ‘80s, most churches wanted a married man with young kids, and although I got the gender right, I was single with a cat, even though I knew the prospect of me settling in eastern North Carolina were slim, especially when I heard I was going against a friend of mine whose wife had triplets while living in Seminary housing (Man, that was solid gold), I still signed up, if only for practice, and so, when the time came, I went.

And as I recall, the interview was going pretty good, not great, but O.K., until one guy on the committee asked me a question that sort of froze me dead in my tracks. He looked right at me and sort of leaned forward and asked, “Are you a liberal or a conservative?” Man, there it was, for a minister looking for a job, the equivalent to a lawyer asking a witness if he was still beating his wife. You see, I knew that regardless of what I said, I had the potential of ticking somebody off. I mean, if I said “conservative,” everybody left of moderate would see me as narrowminded and judgmental. But if I said, “liberal,” those right of center would assume that I didn’t care about the Bible and that I had an “if it feels good, do it” morality. I was stuck, until I remembered something that Elizabeth Achtemier told us once in class, you know, that liberal and conservative really had vague and fluid meanings; therefore, if we were good, Bible-believing, grace-oriented, Reformed Christians, we should call ourselves “orthodox” and then explain what that meant. Now that’s what she said, and since she was pretty smart, that’s what I did. I told the committee that I considered myself orthodox, in other words, I was inline with the same faith that went back to Jesus and the early church, and then I spent a little time explaining what that meant. Well, after I said it, I felt this warm feeling of satisfaction, because I had danced my way through a potential minefield. In fact, I felt pretty good, you know, that I might actually get the job, until I asked if I’d been clear in my answer, and the guy who’d asked the question looked at me, smiled and said, “Clear as mud.” And at that moment, I started thinking about my next interview, because in my book, clear as mud ain’t good.

And I’ll tell you, it seems to me that often, we’re about as clear as mud when we, maybe as an individual but even as a church, when we muster up the courage and start sharing with others what this Christianity business is all about. In other words, I think we tend to make how a person can respond to the good news of Jesus Christ far more complicated and vague than it needs to be. Because, I’ll tell you right here and now, being a Christian is really simple. I mean, it really doesn’t involve a lot of stuff we’ve been told that all Christians have to know and do. For example, in spite of what you may have heard, in my opinion, being a Christian really isn’t about attending church. Now before I say anything else, I think there are a whole bunch of good reasons for believers to gather together. But hanging out at church doesn’t make a person a Christian any more than spending time in a garage makes a person a car. And I’ll tell you something else, being a Christian isn’t about getting your life straight, again, a good thing to do, but that’s something that’s possible for anybody; and even though doing it may make them nice people and pleasant to be around, it doesn’t make them Christians.

And you know, being a Christian sure isn’t about making a bunch of vague promises about what we’re going to give Jesus or where we’re going to invite him. You know, I’m always fascinated whenever I hear good, sincere Christians talk about how we’ve got to give our lives to Jesus. Now, what exactly does that mean, giving your life? And how do you know when you’ve done it? Frankly, I’ve always thought a better question is, will you give your television to Jesus, and I’m talking about unplugging it, putting it in your car and taking it the Salvation Army? I know plenty of folks who’ll give their lives every single day but not their TV or even their cable service, especially with football season starting. And what exactly does it mean to ask Jesus into your heart? Is it just saying the words, because that’s really easy, too? Or does it also involve doing something else, you know, like going to church or straightening out your life? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you, what I do know is this: there’s no verse that comes to mind in the entire New Testament that mentions giving Jesus your life or asking him into your heart. Now, if we want to sound spiritual, we can talking about how we’ve done it, just so long as we understand that, according to the Bible, all this vague giving and asking really doesn’t make a person a Christian any more than going to church or cleaning up our act.

And I’ll tell you, actually I think that’s really a good thing, because like I said, what makes a person a Christian is really simple and clear. And it’s the kind of message that we can share one-on-one with a friend sitting on the other side of a kitchen table or that can become the foundation of the kind of church where a person can come and see Jesus. And if you’ve never heard this before, you may really want to listen.

You see, to be a Christian, I believe there are two things we need to know and two things we need to do. That’s it, four different things, and they have nothing to do with church attendance or personal improvement or making promises that sound good but are incredibly vague. And you know, they’re all in the passages we read today.

You see, according to what we just read, Christians know two things. First, they know that they are loved by God. Remember what it said in John: “for thus God loved the world” or according to the King James, “For God so loved the world.” Now think about what that means. It doesn’t say that God loves certain people, living in certain places, or that God loves folks who go to church and who have their lives together and who have either given him stuff they really can’t control or asked him into any internal organ; it doesn’t say that those are the ones he loves. And the rest, man, he’s going to send to Hell in a heartbeat. No, it doesn’t say that. Instead Jesus said that God loves the world, the whole world and everyone in it. And when you add to that Paul’s promise that “...nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” I’m telling you, that’s powerful stuff. And this is the first thing that all Christians know; God loves us. And second, all Christians know that he entered our time and space as Jesus Christ: 100% God, 100% human. Now, I’ll tell you, I really don’t understand how that works or how he did it, but you know, that’s alright. He understood how to do it, and I know he did it. You see, I know he came and communicated in a way that I can understand and I know that when he died as a human somehow I died with him and I know that, because he was raised from the dead, I can hope that one day the same thing will happen to me and I know that when he ascended back to the Father, a little of all of us went with him; therefore, when I tell God about all my fears and frustrations and doubt, man, he really understands. This stuff, I know.  And I’ll tell you, I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “For thus God loved the world, that he sent the only son...” God loves us and he came to us as Jesus Christ; now, I believe these are two things that Christians know.

Just like I think there are two things that all Christians do, and I’ll tell you, they’re both kind of based on what we know. In fact, it’s like a minister once told me when he saw that my view of Christianity had become really complicated and that I was struggling with doing enough to be a bonafided, card-carrying Christian. He said, “Ed, you’re going to have to live with the fact that God loves us. Now, what are you going to do about it?” Well, based on what we just read, there are two things that Christians do, but not to get God to like them, rather because God already loves them. I mean, first, I think all Christians have chosen to believe. They have faith. They’ve decided to trust. And that’s right in that verse from John. You see, after talking about God loving and giving his son, Jesus said, “...so that all who believe in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Now, I want you to notice that he said “believe in” and not “believe that.” You see, it not about believing a lot of stuff, it’s simply believing in God. It’s simply trusting in the one God who does what he promised to do. That’s it. That’s faith. And I’ll tell you, when we make that decision to trust in God, we’ll understand that our lives will go on long after we’re dust. But more than that, we’ll also be able to live in the light of that life, that eternal life right now. I’m telling you, Christians simply trust God; that’s the first thing they do. And then second, I think all Christians do a little loving ourselves. I mean, we’re going to love God as best we can and we’re going to treat our neighbor like we’d want to be treated. I’m telling you, it’s not rocket science, when we know that God loves us, we’re going to love him back and we’re going to love others. Along with deciding to trust, that’s just what Christians do.

Now, in case you were wondering, the church that interviewed me back in 1987, they didn’t hire me, I’m sorry, they didn’t call me. They called the guy with the triplets. But that’s alright. If I hadn’t taken the path I ended up following, I wouldn’t be here. That’s seems pretty clear to me. And as to the faith we share, let’s not make being a Christian unnecessarily complicated or vague. Instead, let’s focus on the two things that all Christians know, that we are loved by God and that he sent Jesus for our sakes. And then let’s talk about the two things that all Christians do, that is, we all trust in God and we all love him and one another. And let’s make that our message to the world. And you know, if we do, what we share to those who may have never heard the truth, it’s going to be a whole clearer than mud.
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