October 9, 2016

I Don’t Want It to Be True

Many times when people and even whole organizations talk about what they believe and plan, they’ll announce one thing publicly while privately things are not quite as they seem.  It may not be that there is an actual discrepancy between public and private, but rather an organization doesn’t feel the need to broadcast internal conversations.  This could be for good reason if there are plans in the works whose too-early revelation could cause unneeded problems in their eventual rollout.  But it could also be that an individual or group is being intentionally deceptive about what they believe in order to avoid unwanted opposition or arguments against their real aims.

As we talked about a few weeks ago, we sometimes do this same sort of thing when we have doubts.  We talk a confidant game, but on the inside we are a shaky mess of doubt and questions.  Do you know who else does it, though?  Atheists.  While many, many folks who claim the mantle of atheism will offer detailed reasons for their disbelief, if you’ve ever had the chance to have a conversation with a committed unbeliever, you sometimes get the sense that their stated reasons, however convincing they may sound, aren’t the real issue.  You catch a whiff of this in that no matter how many answers you bring to their questions and challenges to the Christian faith, there is always another reason for unbelief waiting in the wings.  Eventually you start to suspect that no matter how many answers you bring, it won’t be enough.

Sometimes, though, you find someone willing to be honest about what they believe.  At the risk of public embarrassment, they are willing to stand up and boldly explain what they are really thinking.  One such man is Dr. Thomas Nagel, a professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University.  Writing a few years ago in a book entitled, The Last Word, Nagel made a rather startling confession: “In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence.  Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods.  I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself.  I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.  It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief.  It’s that I hope there is not a God!  I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

What Nagel confesses here is startling in its honesty.  While perhaps he may cite reasons to support his unbelief from any number of realms—science, history, archaeology, and so on—at the end of the day, he doesn’t want to believe.  His doubts about the Christian faith are not primarily intellectual, they are moral.

This morning we are in the fourth and final part of our series, I Doubt It.  The whole idea for the journey we’ve been on together over the past few weeks is that we all experience doubt in our lives from time to time.  It may be doubts about a job, a person, the particular direction we’ve chosen for our lives, or even our faith in God.  When we experience these doubts, we need to be honest about them so that they don’t eat us up from the inside out.  When we doubt we need to let it out, figure it out, and then live it out.  With this general process in mind, we spent the next couple of weeks talking about specific doubts, namely, the reliability and worth of the Scriptures and the problem of evil in the world.  What we discovered is that the Scriptures are not just true, they’re useful, and that God allows what He does for a reason.  These aren’t necessarily easy truths to apprehend fully, but that doesn’t make them any less true.

Still, though, while we could have spent weeks addressing specific kinds of doubts people have about the Christian faith, for some folks it would never be enough.  They would always manage to find one more reason to remain in their unbelief.  This is again because as much as they cite intellectual-sounding arguments against the faith, their doubts are not primarily intellectual in nature.  They are moral.  Just like Dr. Nagel, they don’t want the faith to be true because of what it would mean for their lives.  In this kind of a situation the process we laid out in the first part of the series won’t likely be helpful.  This is the case because unless the person happens to be as honest as Dr. Nagel—which is unusual—he’s not likely to be in a position where he is willing—or perhaps even able—to be honest about his doubts.  In other words, she’s not going to get them out no matter what we do.  This is even the case when it’s a believer whose doubts we are addressing.  When the source of our doubts is moral, it is not our minds standing in the way of getting things resolved.  It is our hearts.  The problem is not one of information, but of will.  The only solution here is to come to a place of repentance and to commit or recommit ourselves to the path of Christ.  Or perhaps to put that another way: While doubt itself is not sin, if our doubt comes out of a place of sin, the only way to resolve our doubting will be to deal with the sin.

Yet think about what’s going on when it is a matter of sin preventing us from fully apprehending the life of Christ.  What is it we are saying in these times?  Are we not proclaiming at least by our behavior that we doubt the worthwhileness of the life of Christ?  Indeed, if we thought it was more worthwhile than the lifestyle of our sin we would be pursuing it instead.  The thing of which we really need convincing is that the life Christ calls us to is objectively better than anything else.

I think perhaps that the best way we can do this is to simply compare what Christ offers with what the world offers.   So what does Christ offer?  He made it as clear as He could in John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”  Abundant life.  That’s what Christ offers.  A life that is filled with joy and peace and love.  It is a life marked by giving generously and investing well in other people.  It is not always an easy life, but it comes with a deep sense of contentment.  It is a life free from anxiety and stress.  It is infused with hope and faithfulness.  By it, other people are honored in ways both small and large.  And this isn’t just empty boasting about it.  We see Jesus demonstrate this life for us in both word and deed over and over again in the Gospels.  He declared Himself a servant of people.  He told the disciples to leverage their power for the benefit of others.  He poured Himself out to the point of exhaustion on a regular basis.  He met the needs of others and nothing was too small as to be beneath His notice.  In what is perhaps the second greatest display of humility ever given, on the night of the Last Supper he took on the position of the lowest servant in the house and washed the disciples’ feet.

John described the scene like this in John 13:3: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper.  He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. . . .When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garment and resumed his place, he said to them, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’”

We know this serving others even to the point of dying on a cross in our place led to the abundant life Jesus claimed to offer because, as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:9, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  I’d say that’s about as abundant as it gets.  I’d say that whatever that guy says is the path to abundant life is probably worth following.

Yet what does our culture offer us in exchange?  It offers happiness and the satisfaction of all our desires.  It proclaims that if we will do whatever it takes to get money we can purchase the good life.  It tells us that our best life will be found when we are most true to ourselves.  And oh by the way, if we don’t get there as quickly as we’d like, it’s probably somebody else’s fault.  We just need to keep meeting ours desires, whatever they happen to be, and we will eventually experience the abundance we seek.  And yet…what does it deliver?

I was actually thinking about this the other morning as I was having my quiet time.  I wrote this in my journal that morning: We often wonder how we will find happiness and satisfaction in our lives.  Our culture tells us continually that these are two of the highest values we should seek.  We look for them in a whole manner of things that are self-gratifying.  This makes sense, of course.  It is only natural to think that our greatest happiness will be found in making sure that all our desires are met.  After all, is not a lack of happiness merely a symptom of unmet desires?  Many different worldviews today proclaim this to be the case.  But then we walk this path and discover that it isn’t.  We meet all our desires and find at the end of the journey that we are only left with more desires in need of being filled.  What’s more, because we’ve filled all the easy desires, the ones that remain are much more difficult to satisfy and often riskier to fulfill.  They may even be desires that are fulfilled only at the expense of other people.  At the end of the day, when we are following this path to happiness—the very path our culture tells us assuredly will end in our absolute happiness—we are not happy.

The Scriptures proclaim another path.  It is laid out for us in the life of Christ to be sure, but that’s not the first place.  It appears back in the Old Testament as well.  Check out this remarkable declaration from Isaiah 58:9: “If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.  And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.  And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”  And here you thought the Old Testament prophets were all about gloom, doom, and judgment!

Consider Isaiah’s powerful words here.  If we will pursue what is right; if we will no longer entrap anyone under a yoke, under a burden that is both heavy and restrictive; if we get rid of passing unrighteous judgment on others and commit to doing what is right—not what is personally satisfying; if we will pour ourselves out for others and seek to meet the needs of those who are struggling to see their own needs met, then we will find all the happiness, satisfaction, and even joy that we are seeking.  We will raise up the foundations of many generations.  We will even repair what is broken in our own culture.  The greatest delights in life will always be found in giving ourselves in service to others.  This is because such efforts will always put us in line with the love of God which we experience best by giving it away.  If you are seeking happiness and satisfaction, the best way to solve that is to serve someone else and seek to make them happy.  This is what the life of Christ offers and which sin keeps us from experiencing.

Christians committed to this idea have changed the world time and time again.  This commitment to pursuing the good of others even at the expense of our own led to the Roman Empire becoming Christian.  At the beginning of the first century the Roman Empire, for all its glory, was a sinking ship.  It was a moral nightmare that only grew worse as the years wore on.  Rome’s demise as a world power did not come from the political barbarians at the gates as we are so often taught in school, but from the behavior of the moral barbarians on the inside who were so steeped in their paganism that they could not recognize the damage they were doing to their culture.

But then came these weirdos claiming to follow a God who was above every other God; a God who demanded a radically strict moral code of His followers; a God who compelled His followers to an even more radical willingness to serve and care for others: abandoned infants, the elderly, the widows, and the sick.  When plagues swept through the Empire, pagans who could headed for the countryside to escape.  Christians stayed and took care of not only their own dying, but their dying pagan neighbors as well…even when it meant the loss of their own lives.  Gradually the people of Rome, as well as the peoples who conquered them, came to see that the lifestyle of these followers of Jesus led to an abundance of life that their own religions and cultures simply could not produce.  We even have the record of one Emperor, Julian, who complained bitterly about how the Christians’ tendency to care for their pagan neighbors was pouring buckets of water on his attempts to reignite the flames of Rome’s traditional paganism.  Well, let’s draw the line of connection here.  While we aren’t seeing all the fruit of it yet, our culture today is not so far removed from the culture of ancient Rome.  A good argument can be made that our culture, while secular in word, is really on a path to the paganism of the past.  We may give our gods different names and we worship them with a different set of practices, but our devotion is no less sincere.  Yet now just as then, following Jesus offers a better life.

If you are or have struggled with doubts about the worthwhileness of the Christian life—a set of doubts that very often come out of a personal struggle with sin—the only solution you will find is not to express those doubts, although you need to do so, but rather to commit yourself to the life that is truly life.  If your doubts are primarily moral in nature, you don’t need false intellectual justifications for them, you need repentance.  You need to let Jesus in and experience the abundance He has to offer.  You need to keep sin out and refuse to let your desires be your master any longer.  They are too small a thing to live for.  Satisfying them will never lead to the kind of happiness and fulfillment you are seeking.  Your sin may feel good—most sin does in the moment…otherwise we wouldn’t do it as much—but you know as well as I do that it only leaves you empty and longing for more.  Rather than continuing to run down the path you know won’t lead to life, why not take the path of humility and find the thing you are seeking.  Kick out the sin and invite Jesus in.

Paul makes the first part of that abundantly clear in Romans 6.  Listen to this: “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?”  And again a few verses later: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin.”  And still again now in v. 12: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  In other words: Kick out the sin and invite Jesus in.

This only takes a simple invitation on your part: Invite Jesus in to make you whole and lead you to experience the thing you want most.  You’ll never find that thing in any of the sin you are pursuing.  Kick out the sin and invite Jesus in.  I mean that whether you are an unbeliever or a confessed Christian who has been living on the margins of the faith because of some sin issues you just don’t want—or perhaps find yourself unable—to let go of.  Kick out the sin and invite Jesus in.

Yet for someone in this position, this may be the point at which they are asking a different question: How?  How could God let someone like me in?  Or perhaps it’s like this: How could God let someone like me back in?  That one’s especially tough!  Come on, you’ve thought it before: I’m too broken for God.  I’m just not on good enough terms to try and approach Him.  Let me get a few things straight and then I’ll move back in His direction.  But the tough truth is: You’re not going to move back in His direction once you get things straight because as long as you are trying to straighten things out on your own it’s not going to happen.  Thankfully God has already done all the leg work that needs doing.  All you have to do is receive it.  Kick out the sin and invite Jesus in.  It doesn’t matter how far you feel from God, let Jesus in.  You can do this because of what God has done for you out of His love for you.  In fact, because He loves you so much, He did all the work before you were even interested in moving His way.

Check out what Paul writes about this in Romans 5.  This is amazing: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Did you catch all of that?  God made these incredible overtures to make the Christian life and the abundance it brings us available before we were even ready to accept them.  It’s even more than that in fact.  He did all of this not only when we weren’t yet ready, but when we were still in open rebellion against Him.  We were His enemies.  Listen: If God was willing to send His Son to die for yours and my sins so that we can be in a permanent relationship with Him while we were still in a state of open rebellion, what do you think are the chances that He’ll be willing to draw you back to Himself to experience the abundance you are seeking even though you have a little bit—or even a lot—of sin standing in the way?  I’d say they are pretty high.  Kick out the sin and invite Jesus sin.  And if after this time you continue wrestling with doubts and make dumb mistakes and misunderstand Jesus and so on, you’ll still be in pretty good company.  It’s company the disciples occupied pretty forcefully the whole time they were traveling around with Jesus.  They wanted Jesus to be a certain way, to fit into a certain preconceived box they had in mind and He just wouldn’t.  It took them three years of being with Jesus in person and then being filled with Holy Spirit before they really got their hearts and minds around it all and even then they still blew it on occasion.  They blew it, had their own issues with sin, and most assuredly experienced some of the doubts that came with such territory.  But, they had tasted the abundant life and knew they wanted more.  They were reconciled by His death; they wanted to live by His life.  Living by His life is where you and I are going to find the most life too.  If your doubt is from sin, kick out the sin and invite Jesus in.  The life you think you have apart from Him is nothing in comparison to the life waiting for you to enjoy for the first time or at least more fully than you have ever known.  You need only invite Him in.

Invite Him in if for no other reason than that He worked so hard to be able to come in.  He gave up His life for you when you had no interest in such a sacrifice so that when you did you’d be able to receive it and the gifts that come with it.  That’s exactly where I want to take us as we wrap up both this sermon, but also this whole series.  Listen, I don’t care how big your doubt is, when you put it up against an experience with Jesus, it is going to shrink in size.  It may not go away in its entirety, but it will shrink in comparison to His glory.  It will shrink because when someone says, “I love you,” and then dies in your place to prove it, all of a sudden, there’s not really much of anything that can leave you doubting the extent of His love and the worthwhileness of whatever kind of lifestyle is necessary to live in it.  In the bread and the juice of the Lord’s Supper we are reminded of exactly this.  Remember what Jesus did before He ate with the disciples?  He demonstrated His sacrificial and service-oriented love for them by washing their feet.  When they ate He radically reoriented their thinking about the elements of the Passover meal.  Then He backed up what He said by demonstrating in an even more powerful way the extent of His sacrificial and service-oriented love for them.  He let His body be broken almost beyond recognition to pay the price for their sins and not only theirs, but yours, mine, and the sins of the whole world.  He let His blood by poured out to the last drop in order to make a new covenant of life with the Father whereby everyone willing to receive His sacrificial death as effective for them can live their lives in the shadow of His eternal life.  This act was so precious, so doubt-defeating, that His followers have remembered it ever since just as He told His disciples to do.  We eat the bread and drink the cup in order to proclaim it, and we will keep doing this until He comes again.

This morning, I invite you first to have a conversation with Jesus.  It doesn’t have to be long.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  It can be as simple as: Jesus, I need you to come in because I can’t do it on my own.  But have that conversation.  Invite Him in and let Him wash away your sin.  In just a minute the deacons are going to serve you, first the bread, and then the juice.  I want you to eat and drink as you receive them and as you are prepared.  This is a moment that is going to be between just you and God.  Sometimes we eat all together, this morning is going to be more personal.  If you have Jesus in you, take and eat and take and drink with joy and gladness in your heart.  If you have little ones still with you who aren’t quite there yet, have them wait.  You can have a conversation together when you get home about why you had them wait and how they too can participate when they’re ready.  And then when we’re finished we’re going to stand and sing the great hymn Blest Be the Tie together.  For now, though, let us allow our experience with Jesus to give us the confident faith we need to move forward in His life together.