March 29, 2015

Getting Somewhere

I like starting with survey questions every now and then just for fun so let’s do some this morning.  How many of you have ever been on a drive, just to go on a drive?  Now think about this next one: when you go on drives like this, do you get anywhere?  I mean, sure, you may travel some number of miles, but do you get anywhere?  When Lisa and I were in Denver and before we had any of our boys (who don’t really have the concept of riding around without a particular reason down yet) we would occasionally go on drives around the area because it was a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment…and it’s hard to go somewhere in Denver that’s not beautiful.  We saw a lot of places around the city from houses that left you slack-jawed to mountain vistas that took your breath away.  I don’t know that we ever got lost on any of these drives, but it did take us longer than usual to get home on occasion.  But, while these were good times spent together, we never got anywhere.  If we didn’t leave the house with a particular destination in mind, we generally didn’t find one.  On the other hand, there were plenty of times when we left with the goal in mind of going somewhere or seeing something.  It may have been Estes Park or Pikes Peak or the Garden of the Gods or Red Rocks Amphitheater or the 16th Street Mall Downtown or Park Meadows to eat at our favorite restaurant and the list goes on and on.  In each of these instances we may have taken different routes to get there to keep things interesting, but we always got somewhere.

You know, although they may not have this as a clearly formulated picture, a lot of folks think of the Christian life as a drive through the country.  What makes us Christians is the particular way we do the driving but beyond that we’re mostly just going along for the ride of life.  There’ll be pretty times on the journey.  There’ll be harder times as well.  We may encounter a flat tire or two.  Storms will blow up occasionally, but so will the glories of fall in the mountains.  These are all parts of the journey and journeying with Christ will allow us to weather the hard parts better while enjoying the good times more fully.  Now sure we technically know that all of this is going to end in Heaven someday, but if we’re honest, most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that.  The real thing is the journey.

There’s a problem here, though.  While it’s great to make sure we are enjoying the journey and it’s true that if we aren’t journeying with Christ it won’t be nearly as pleasant as it will otherwise be, if we give all our attention to the journey instead of the destination, the likelihood that we’re ultimately going to get somewhere isn’t very good.  Sunday driving is nice, but beyond the temporary entertainment it may provide it’s usually just a waste of gas.  You see, the thing is: Jesus is going somewhere.  During His time on earth He had a clear sense of mission, of purpose, of direction.  He was going somewhere and everything He did throughout His life and ministry was focused on getting Him there.  He journeyed well, to be sure, but He journeyed well because He was clear on the destination.  Everything He did for the three years of His ministry was focused on putting Him in place to make the triumphant entrance into Jerusalem we are celebrating this morning.  And that was only because of the part of His journey that came next: His trip to a Roman cross that culminated in the empty tomb.  Journeying with Christ is great, but if we are not equally clear about and focused on our destination there is a very good chance that Jesus will leave us behind as He moves ever forward toward seeing His kingdom firmly and fully established.  Journeying well is great, but as popular as it is right now to think in those terms, if we’re not going somewhere we’ll never get there.  If you’re not going somewhere, you’ll never get there.

This morning finds us in the sixth part of our series, The Heart of Christianity.  If this is the first part of the series you’ve been with us to hear you are coming in near the end of the movie.  When you get home if you’ll go to the church’s website printed there in the bulletin for you, you will be able to find all the previous parts to enjoy, share, or even use as a cure for insomnia.  The whole goal of this series is to equip you with the tools and knowledge you need to be able to offer a clear and compelling answer to the higher-than-usual-number of folks who are considering the worth of the Christian faith at this time of year.  The tools and knowledge are taking the form of practices that are essential to the faith.  We’ve been fairly specific so far, but this morning I want to take a bit of a step back and look at an issue that really is foundational to the success of all the rest of this.

In the third week of our series we talked about the importance of living a transformation lifestyle.  We talked then about the importance of renewing our minds as the key to not only undergoing, but maintaining this transformation.  This renewal of our minds, though, takes a lot of work.  It’s hard.  It requires what all hard things require in order to do them well: discipline.  But, the renewal of our minds is not the only kind of discipline a successfully lived Christian life requires.  It necessitates the development of a number of different types of discipline.  These various forms of discipline, sometimes called the spiritual disciplines, are not simply tools to help as we journey, but like each of the essential practices we have described so far, they help keep us moving along the path in a specific direction, toward a specific destination.  This is important, again, because Jesus is going somewhere, not simply going, and if we want to be where He is then we need to make sure we have the same destination in mind.  If we’re not going somewhere we’ll never get there.

This idea of the Christian life being characterized by a pursuit of discipline is actually something the apostle Paul talked about.  On more than one occasion He compared the life of a Jesus follower to the life of an athlete in terms of the kind of focus and discipline it requires to excel at each.  One of these times came in his first letter to the believers in ancient Corinth.  If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, find your way to 1 Corinthians 9:24 and take a look at what he says here with me.  “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?  [To which his audience thought, “Yes, that’s how a race works.”]  So run that you may obtain it.”  Just as an aside here: they knew this.  Corinth was home to the Isthmian Games which were one of the various annual sporting festivals like the Olympic Games that were so popular among the people.  In other words, Paul is saying: “You know how a race works?  If you are in a race the point is to win.  If you run, it is to win.  Otherwise you don’t bother running.”  To this end, and look at v. 25 now: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath…”

The winning athletes of ancient Greece and Rome received a laurel wreath as their prize and such a crown guaranteed them a great deal of recognition and income.  Today the winners receive a gold medal instead of a tree branch, but the recognition and income is pretty consistent.  But in order to get that, they do indeed exercise self-control in all things.  The typical Olympic athlete trains for 6-8 hours a day…in the off season.  They get up early, work hard, eat well, get plenty of rest, go to bed early, and start over the next day.  Now just think about this for a minute.  If they sleep 8-10 hours a night and work out for 6-8 hours a day, that only leaves 8-10 hours in the day.  If you figure 3-4 of those are taken up by eating, that’s really only 4-6 hours for other things.  There’s not a lot you can do with that much time.  With that in mind, imagine how many opportunities an Olympic athlete turns down.  Imagine how many times they say no.  Imagine how many things they could be doing but aren’t.  What more most Olympic athletes are young.  They are in the prime of their life when they could be doing a lot of other things.  Why?  Why do all this?  Because they have committed themselves to a particular destination and are relentlessly focused on getting there.  Their choice of destination determines everything about how they live.  The disciplines to which they submit themselves are all about helping them get there as quickly and efficiently as possible.  And hey, they wouldn’t do all this to themselves if they didn’t love it.  They are able to more thoroughly enjoy the journey precisely because they are so clear on the destination.  Without a destination in mind, these journeys they are taking would be pointless.  If you’re not going somewhere, you’ll never get there.

Make the switch with me here.  Paul is saying that the Christian life should lead us to the same kind of lifestyle.  We are to be relentlessly focused on the goal.  Everything we do is to move us in the direction of realizing our goal.  And what is our goal?  Let’s be clear on this.  Our goal is the kingdom of God.  Our goal is life after the manner of Jesus.  Our goal is a world where Jesus is freely recognized as king and in which people behave accordingly.  And, while the goal of the athletes in Paul’s day was a truly perishable tree branch, and even Olympic athletes today get a medal which is made of metal which will eventually perish, our goal is imperishable.  Think about this.  The goal of an elite athlete is temporary.  It may bring a lot of glory in this life, but that is in this life.  When our lives end, the glory ends with us.  Oh sure the stories of some long deceased athletes are still told today, but eventually they won’t be.  They will be forgotten.  Theirs was a temporary goal.  By virtue of the nature of our goal as followers of Jesus—a permanent kingdom—it ranks as more important than anything else we are otherwise pursuing in this life.

So then, what do we do?  Well, if our goal is higher and more important, then it seems that our level of discipline should be at least equal to that of these elite athletes…if indeed we have committed ourselves similarly to our goal.  Paul would seem to agree.  Come back to the text with me at v. 26: “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.  But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Got all that?  While we are to enjoy our journeys with Christ, there’s no place for Sunday driving the Christian life.  And think for a minute about why that is.  What reasons might someone use to defend Sunday driving?  It’s good fellowship time with one another.  Well, where will the best possible fellowship with other people take place?  In the kingdom of God.  Thus, the more we can do to intentionally bring it about, the more and better fellowship we will have with other people.  Or how about this: We find surprising new, fun things as we Sunday drive.  Do you think we’ll ever plumb all the depths of God in this life and cease to be amazed by what we find?  The more consistently and doggedly we journey toward Him, the more we’ll learn about Him, the more we’ll be delighted by what we find.  If we are wandering aimlessly on our journeys to the kingdom of God, the likelihood is that we’ll get off course.  We may find surprises in life like that, but they aren’t going to be good ones.  We may know the direction we are supposed to be going, and may even point other people in that direction, but as Paul says, if we are not ourselves disciplined to stay on the path toward our goal, we run the risk of missing it.  We could keep doing this, but you get the point.  If we’re not going somewhere, we’re never going to get there.

But again, then, what do we do with all of this?  Well, first and foremost we make sure we are going somewhere.  Here’s the question: are you committed to the goal?  Are you committed to the same end game that Jesus was?  Have you put that objective ahead of every other objective you have for your life?  What are some of good things you have turned down because of your higher commitment to this goal?  Because here’s the hard truth: If you haven’t done this, if you have something else currently serving as your chief goal, then regardless of what it is or even how noble it seems that is what will be the focus of your time and energy.  Resources that could otherwise be used to move you down the path of Christ will be diverted to whatever this other thing is.  And again, this other thing may not be a bad thing.  But if it is taking your time and attention away from this more important goal, it’s not the best thing.  Sunday driving is good.  But getting somewhere new on purpose…that’s better.  If you’re not going somewhere, you’ll never get there.

What we need are tools to help keep us focused on the path.  As I said before, these tools come in the form of spiritual disciplines.  Spiritual disciplines are specific practices aimed at helping us grow in righteousness—they help us be more right with God and with people.  They generally fall into one of two categories: disciplines of engagement and disciplines of abstinence.  The former are aimed at helping us engage more fully and rightly with God and with the world around us.  Some examples here are service, prayer, worship, Bible reading and study, celebration, and spiritual friendship.  In each of these we are engaging more fully with the world around us through the lens of Christ.  The disciplines of abstinence are about taking up Jesus’ call to deny ourselves in order to follow Him more fully.  These practices intentionally create space in our lives wherein we can connect more fully and freely with God.  Some examples here are solitude, silence, fasting, sabbath, sacrifice, and secrecy.  Each of these and others like them are the spiritual equivalent of the workouts that are an essential part of the life of an elite athlete.  And just like the disciplines an athlete in training pursues, these are goal-oriented practices that move us down the road toward our desired end: the expansion of God’s kingdom in this world.  If we’re not going anywhere, we’ll never get there.  But, when our goal is clear and our pathway is committed, we can’t go anywhere else.

So here’s what you need to do: take up these disciplines and make them a regular part of your life.  Each one of them addresses a common habit or attitude that can derail our pursuit of the path of Christ.  Chances are, you have one of these bad habits or attitudes present in your life and with some discipline you can remove it so you can run your race to win.  But, lest you get the wrong idea here, these aren’t practices that are pursued in isolation from the rest of what’s going on in your life.  I know that you have jobs and household chores and family responsibilities.  You have errands to run and beds to make and bills to pay.  Those things have to get done.  You have to get adequate amounts of rest (which in our busy culture is a spiritual discipline unto itself).  There’s a good chance you have some extra-curricular activities and hobbies to which you are committed.  All of that takes up a lot of time in your day.  If you tried to simply add a bunch of disciplines into your life in isolation from everything else you would simply be adding to the busyness which is the last thing you need.

That’s not at all what I’m saying you need to do.  Rather, the spiritual disciplines should be incorporated synergistically, that is, made a part of the things you are already doing.  And, they should be pursued in appropriate times and ways.  A good workout routine doesn’t consist of doing the same things over and over, but rather of striving for a healthy balance and variety of things all of which move you down the path.  There are some disciplines like prayer and Bible reading that should be every day affairs.  If you’re not doing those two things every single day you are not following Jesus as preparedly as you should be and you need to fix that.  Others like fasting and taking a time of sabbath should be regular parts of your routine but perhaps not daily activities.  Still others like solitude and silence will come more infrequently.  But, the thing about the spiritual disciplines is that, again, they are to be pursued in conjunction with your other activities.  They are to be like a spiritual GPS that helps keep you headed in the right direction while you are driving offering course corrections and even traffic updates (for the really nice ones) along the way.  You can find little ways to intentionally serve the people around you after the pattern of Christ every single day.  You can constantly be working on memorizing one verse or another, reading it, going over it in your head, and meditating on it in the spare moments you usually spend scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed.  You can make fasting a regular part of your week choosing a meal or two or even a whole day to take all the times you normally spend eating and intentionally seek out the presence of God instead, letting your hunger for food remind you of your spiritual hunger for your heavenly Father.  You can intentionally build times of solitude and silence into your week to act as a bulwark against the busyness that otherwise continuously threatens to overtake you.  See?  These can be seamless and not too intrusive.  You can do this.

But, make no mistake, because these are practices aimed at advancing a higher end than the others you normally pursue there will be times when they come in between you and these smaller, less worthy goals.  In those times you’ll have a choice to make.  It’s a choice, though, whose outcome will be determined by what you have set as your chief goal.  If you’re not going somewhere, you’ll never get there.  But with the spiritual disciplines as your tools and the kingdom of God firmly set as your destination you’ll soon find yourself well down the road of living the life you’ve always wanted.  You’ll have a clear destination and getting there will be an incredible journey.  I know I’ve said several times this morning that if you aren’t going somewhere you’ll never get there, but the truth is that we’re all going somewhere.  We just need to be sure we are going to the right somewhere—the somewhere Jesus was headed.  That’s a somewhere worth setting before everything else.  May you find yourselves on the right journey and headed for the right destination.