This was the message I gave at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church for Christ the King Sunday, 22 November 1998. The scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1: 11 – 20, and Luke 23: 33 – 43.
I am posting it this weekend because of the references I made to Coach John Wooden and a piece that I will post later on my thoughts about this great man.
As I first read the Old Testament reading for today, I thought the leadership struggle in the Republican Party. Now matter what the reasons were, I think that Newt Gingrich lost his job as Speaker of the House because he let the power of the office overtake the responsibility of the office.
And as this year comes to an end, President Clinton is also finding out what happens because he has apparently allowed the power of the office to go overtake the responsibilities. Like you, I disapproved of what President Clinton has done but I am not sure if what this country needs right now is the spectacle that the Republicans in the House of Representatives seek.
In Jeremiah, God spoke to the leaders of Israel about what happens when one lets the power of the office to overcome the responsibilities of the office.
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.
God was angry with the Israelite leaders because time after time the leadership succumbed to the temptations of power and used the power of the office for their own personal gain rather than for good of the country.
But the scripture’s for today are not about power. After all, not many of us are going to reach positions of power. Rather, the focus on the scriptures is about sin and how we allow it to direct our lives. Each day we face decisions that can takes closer to God or farther away from him.
It is not unusual for us to face a situation that only we can solve. We have to be careful when we begin to think beyond that simple solution and begin to believe that we can solve all problems like the one we just solved. When that happens, we are as apt to fail as we are to succeed.
In the early 1700’s, John and Charles Wesley came to America fully expecting to be successful missionaries. They had studied, they understood or at least they thought they understood what Christianity was. Because of their studies, they felt they knew the right method for obtaining salvation. Yet, in 1738 they returned to England feeling that the whole time they were in America was a complete failure. This feeling was such that Charles Wesley was severely ill for the first few months he was back in England.
In the 1970’s, UCLA had the premier basketball program in the country. Coach John Wooden, who I admire as a leader and a teacher, understood that success was not guaranteed but something that you had to continually work for. But during the 1973 – 1974 his team lost four games, including the semifinal game in the NCAA national tournament. It may have been that North Carolina State was the better team that day in 1974, but as Bill Walton later pointed out, the attitude of the UCLA players had a lot to do with the outcome. Instead of practicing and preparing for the game, the Bruins felt that the game was theirs because they were the best. As a result, they lost the game.
Each day we face countless temptations. How we deal with them says a lot about our relationship with God. When we seek to push the limits of power beyond what is acceptable, this relationship gets strained. At the beginning of Eden, there was a peace in the world and mankind was at peace with God. But sin destroyed that peace and God sought countless time to restore that peace. Yet, like the kings of Israel, we are not always willing to allow our relationship with God to be the primary presence of our lives.
John and Charles Wesley returned to England in 1738 after their missionary service in Georgia feeling as if they were failures. Prepared as they were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither Wesley felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley was willing to say that they trusted the Lord. The turmoil in their lives after they came back can be directly related to that lack of trust in the Lord.
We are not alone when it comes to facing temptation. Jesus constantly faced the temptation of using his power as the Son of God for his own use. As he started his ministry, he was tempted by Satan to use his powers for his own good rather than for the good of the people he came to save. As he hung on the cross, he heard the taunts of those around him who did not understand his mission. If he were to have saved himself, then his mission would have been a failure.
As Henry Emerson Fosdick wrote,
First, then, our own experience suggests that power is always accompanied by the temptation to misuse it, and that the greater the power, the more self-restraint it requires to use it aright. Great temptations keep company with great powers. The little man fighting his little battles wishes that he were the great man so that the more easily he might overcome them; but when he understands the great man he sees that storms circle around his higher altitudes that make the petty battles of the lower level seem insignificant. The acorn seedling may be impeded by a few dead leaves, but it never will shake in the grip of the tempest until it becomes an oak. The analogy of our experience at once suggests that our Lord was tempted not less but more than we are. Haggard and hungry in the wilderness, as Tintoretto painted him, he was facing temptations that our puny powers can hardly imagine. “If thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become bread”; “If thou art the Son of God; cast thyself down”; “All the kingdoms of the world. . . if thou wilt worship me” His masterful powers were met by masterful temptations. (From The Manhood of the Master by Harry Emerson Fosdick)
On the day that Christ was crucified, two criminals were executed as well. One only saw power in its earthly form; he could only see Christ’s power as saving himself. The other saw Christ as his savior; he knew that the ultimate goal of a place in paradise could be his if he accepted Christ.
We see much the same choice today. Now, we may not feel that we are in a position of power but there are times when we do feel lost. There may even be times when we feel like those hanging on the crosses.
Only after Aldersgate, that moment in time when John Wesley accepted Christ as his personal Savior, could John Wesley know that he was truly saved.
“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. And an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Only when he accepted Christ was John Wesley able to understand the direction his life was to take.
After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and he “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, year, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always the conqueror.
But we do know that even in those darkest times, when we feel alone and lost, Christ is still there. Paul told the people in Colossians that Christ was our representative before God. By dying for our sins, by dying on the cross, Christ made it possible for us to have peace with God.
Today we celebrate Christ as the King. We see that in all his power and glory, all that was his from the beginning of creation, he still thought enough of us to die for us on the cross.
We are lost in this world of sin. We often face two choices. We can take the choice of this earthly world, allowing the temptations we face to lead us. The gains we make this way may give us momentary satisfaction but will not give us what we really want. But, when we accept Jesus as our Savior, when we follow Jesus, then as Paul wrote in Colossians, “he rescues from the dominion of darkness and brings us into the Kingdom”.
Jesus will lead us but we must first accept him as our Savior.