July 29, 2012

Changing Your Priorities

Passage: Ephesians 4:17

"Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds."

Bill, an ardent blue jays fan had really poor season tickets.  His seat was way at the back in the upper deck.  In frustration at one game, he searched the stadium with his binoculars to see if there were any empty seats that might have a better view.  Suddenly he spotted an empty seat, down in front, right behind home plate.  Bill thought to himself, “What a waste!”;  so he quickly made his way down to the empty seat.  When he arrived, he asked the fellow sitting next to the empty seat:  “Is this seat taken?”  The man replied, “Well it used to be my wife’s seat., but unfortunately she’s passed away.  You, know, she was a great Blue Jay fan.”  “I’m really sorry to hear about your loss,” replied Bill.  “But this is such a great seat, why didn’t you give it to a friend or relative?  “Couldn’t”, the man replied, “they’re all at her funeral.”

Do you know people whose lives are totally consumed by professional sports?  I don’t mean playing the game.  I mean spectators who only watch other people perform?

How many people do you know, who live for their weekends;  but when the weekend arrives, all they do is sit in front of their televisions, beer in hand, watching others perform?

So, what’s the priority in your life?

The apostle Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, told the new Christian converts in that congregation that, because they have accepted Christ into their lives, they could no longer live the way they had done in the past.

Has being a Christian changed the way you live?

I’m reminded here of another story I heard recently.

According to this story, a driver was approaching an intersection which had a traffic light.  Just before he reached the intersection, the light turned yellow, so he did the right thing.  He came to a stop at the crosswalk.

However, when he stopped, the woman driver who was tailgating behind him, was forced to jam on her brakes; with the result that she dropped the cell phone she’d been using and spilled her coffee.  She was furious.  In response to this annoyance, she began to honk angrily and to shout profanities at the driver ahead of her.

In the midst of all this noise and confusion, a police officer approached her car with a serious look on his face.  Without much explanation, he ordered her out of her car; and before she knew what was happening, she was put into his squad car and taken to the police station.  At the station, she was searched, fingerprinted, then placed in a holding cell.

About an hour later, the woman was released from the cell and escorted back to the booking desk, whereupon the arresting officer apologized for his misunderstanding:

“I’m very sorry,” he said.  “You see, I saw how angry you were.  And I heard you swearing at the other driver, but I also saw the two bumper stickers on your car; one which said: “What would Jesus Do?  and the other: “Follow me to Sunday School”; - so I naturally assumed you must have stolen the vehicle!”

I wonder, would your co-workers, or the strangers you meet during your daily routines, recognize you as a Christian simply by the way you conduct yourself?

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul provides us with a brief, but rather vivid glimpse into the lives of the Gentiles who were living in Ephesus at that time.  To be blunt, he said that the citizens of this city have completely abandoned themselves to ‘licentiousness’.

Now ‘icentiousness’; isn’t a word in common use today; but I think it’s a good word to describe what is going on in much of North American society in this 21st century.  The word ‘licentiousness’ means:  ‘lacking in legal or moral restraints, particularly in regard to sexuality’.

Continuing with his description, Paul says that Gentiles are generally ‘greedy in the practice of every kind of impurity’.  It doesn’t take very much imagination to picture the kind of society he’s describing; one which has sunk into complete moral collapse; a culture lacking any kind of moral restraint.

Sometimes people today are tempted to look back on those ancient times with a bit of smugness.  After all, those were pagan times, in an ancient culture.  But I wonder, how much has our society really progressed from those pagan days?

As I was preparing this message, Toronto had just experienced another Gay Pride parade; a spectacle watched by literally millions.  Now, apart from the legitimate goal of freeing homosexuals and lesbians from the harsh and often cruel treatment many have endured, - what is this parade really celebrating?  Is it not complete freedom from any moral or social restraints?  How different is that from the Gentile community in Paul’s day?

Last month, an article in the Arts section of the Globe and Mail caught my attention.  Its title was ‘In praise of cheaters’.  The article bemoaned the fact that so many people are cheating on their partners these days that adultery has become boring.

“Whole dating services”, wrote Sarah Nicole Prickett, “are built for cheating hearts…..and studies, (the kind you see on Yahoo.ca) - claim more of us cheat than ever, and more of us are women; it’s all as common as common-law.  Worse, it’s just so banal.”  (Globe June 29/12)

What a sad commentary on our modern society that is!  Yet it simply makes Paul’s words more relevant for us today than ever.  His warning to the Ephesian Christians echoes down through the centuries to Christians of every age, telling us:  “that’s not the way you learned Christ!”

If the Christian Church in North American has failed in anything in recent years, it’s surely in the unwillingness of church leaders to speak out against the steady decline in morality that has occurred since the end of the second world war.

When was the last time you heard Christian leaders from any of the major denominations, speak out publicly, about the decline in morality?

You will often hear church leaders defend the underdog, or call for justice in dealing with minorities, - but do you ever hear them calling on Christians to live moral lives, or to be, as Paul put it, “imitators of God?  Unfortunately Church leaders seem unwilling to speak out against this gradual but persistent slide of society into a state of licentiousness.

They’re more concerned about being politically correct, or wanting to show the world that they are connected with modern trends, so they’ve turned a blind eye to the moral decline that’s going on all around us.

Although I don’t agree with their methods of enforcement, I have to admire our Moslem friends for the courage their leaders demonstrate in demanding high moral standards from their people.

There’s a great deal of discussion going on in the media these days in response to the increase in gun violence on our streets.  Some are calling for more law enforcement, saying that we need more police officers on the streets.  Others argue for programmes to get kids off the streets.  But I don’t hear very much talk about the root cause of violence.

Think about it for a moment.  We’ve allowed virtually any reference to faith in God to be removed from the classroom.  Both in our schools and in the media, we’re told that we’ve simply evolved from lower life forms; and that there is no real meaning or purpose to life, save that of the survival of the fittest.

Why then should we be surprised when young people think that the only way to survive on the street is to wipe out the opposition?

Paul’s message is a strong reminder that Christians are summoned to a higher calling.  Listen again to what he said:

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.  Be angry, but don’t sin…..”  (and then he gives us a piece of advice which every married couple ought to write on their hearts with indelible ink), “don’t let the sun go down on your anger….”  (verses 25 & 26)

“Don’t let the sun go down on your anger”.  I wonder how many divorces and broken homes could be prevented, if every couple practiced that rule?  And what a wonderful message to teach our young people. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger!”

Paul’s remarks don’t end with those words.  He speaks to common thieves, telling them to give up their stealing.  He points at gossips, saying “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths.”  And to all of us, he says:  “Put away from you all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.”

I heard recently of a congregation in the GTA that has just approved a new set of operating principles for its members.  This congregation is now requiring every member to swear that he or she will not break a set of moral rules which they have outlined.  Now quite frankly, I think that congregation has it all wrong.  And that’s not what Paul is calling for in his letter.

Christianity isn’t defined by a rigid set of moral rules.  That’s the mistake the Pharisees had made.  They thought they could gain God’s acceptance by sticking rigidly to their Law.  But Jesus taught a different message.

He said that it’s not ‘the letter of the law but rather the intent of it that is important.  When He was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, (which in the eyes of the Pharisees was considered to be work), Jesus replied:

“If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?  How much more valuable is a man than a sheep!  Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”  (Matt. 12:11-12)

Time and time again, Jesus told His followers that it was their hearts that had to change, not their knowledge of, or obedience to, a written law code.  Pointing to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, He said:

“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”  (Matt. 15:8-9)

When criticized for allowing His disciples to eat without first washing their hands, Jesus replied:

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality; theft, false testimony, slander.  These are what make a man unclean; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him unclean.”   (Matt. 15:17-20)

And that’s the point Paul made in his letter.  To be a follower of Christ, it’s imperative that our hearts be transformed.

The Christian Church in North America has failed to emphasize clearly enough the importance of remaking our lives into the likeness of Christ; and allowing the Spirit of God to enter our hearts and minds, so that they may be remade in His image.

The Good News of the Gospel is that if we allow it, the Holy Spirit can, and will enable us to rise above the social condition of our society.  As Jesus said, we are to be like yeast, working in the world, helping it rise up out of its moral decay.

The life Paul is asking Christians to live isn’t an easy one, and it isn’t without hazard.  Even after we’ve accepted Christ into our hearts, we will still face a constant battle with ourselves and the world around us;  but it’s a battle for which we have been equipped with special weapons to help us.

In chapter 6, he describes these weapons, saying:

“Put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.  With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”   (Eph. 6: 11-18)

Some people may object to this language of war.  But my friends, that’s exactly what we face, a battle.  Whether we like it or not, our faith is under attack.  There are constant forces around us attempting to undermine what we believe, and how we live.  But for those of us who have accepted Christ’s call, it is up to us to defend our faith, not just in words, but more importantly in the way we live.

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us; to Him be glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever!