Summer Requests – FBC Laurens
June 2, 2013
I wasn’t a stellar math student in any shape, form or fashion. As a product of a rather small public high school, a number of my classes were with the same teacher who had been cursed with a front row seat for several classes of and experiences with my mathmatical ineptitudes. One day during my senior year he called me out into the hall for a little one on one conference. Over the years, he had been patient, encouraging and gracious. But that particular day, he cut right to the chase. In direct, clear language, he challenged me that my problems were not due to inability, lack of understanding or a result of the subject matter being too difficult. The bottom line, in his opinion, was that I was lazy, that I lacked focus and that I was failing to apply myself as I should. The moment had come for honesty, forthrightness and direct conversation. Though I didn’t like it one bit in the moment, I have long since looked back with appreciation on both that day and his candor.
Most of us here today know what it is like to have a heart to heart moment with someone. At times it is our duty to be the bearers of straight talk and at other times we are the ones who must listen to others as they share the unvarnished realities of a situation. Though Jesus is often remembered for his graciousness, patience and long suffering, the gospels do record a number of moments when he too was forthright and direct. Our text for today is one of those occasions.
The setting was Jesus preparing to send the disciples out to share the news that he was the messiah with the surrounding Jewish population. As he readied them for this work, he also took time to directly address some basic yet hard to accept aspects of the kingdom of God. It seems that in a sense, he wanted them and those they would share with to be very clear about some key principles and tenets of this faith they would be proclaiming.
Some of these statements were difficult words for the disciples to hear and they are not easy words for us to wrap our arms around today either. Among those blunt but important to hear statements were the words of Jesus at the heart of our worship today, “whoever finds their life will lose it and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
These difficult words are a little bit easier to grasp when read in Eugene Peterson’s translation of the scriptures called The Message. There, these words in Matthew 10:39 read, “if your first concern is to look after yourself, you will never find yourself. But if you forget yourself and look to me, you will find both yourself and me.”
Now sometimes we want to insinuate that these are difficult words to understand. That simply is not true. No, doubt, these are difficult words to accept, hard words to digest and challenging words to live by. But, they are not hard words to understand. As a result, they illustrate a great shell game that we like to play when it comes to the life of faith and the scriptures at times. What I mean is that we sometimes argue that we don’t understand what God wants us to do when truth is that we understand, but , we just do not want to do what is asked of us.
The command here is clear. Every day and in every major life situation, we are called to begin with the question of what does it mean to put the kingdom of God first? Today, or, in this or that situation, what does it mean to honor God? This should always be our primary question rather than beginning with what is in this day or situation for me? Once we know the answer to the question of what would most honor God, the call is simple – do it.
The promise of God here is clear too. When we consistently seek first the kingdom, we will also reap the greatest joys and benefits for our own lives. Seeking first the things of God will lead to the best type of life for our own benefit. In essence, one could say that this idea or this basic statement from Jesus is the Eureka moment of faith. The Greek word Eureka, long associated in the US with the California Gold Rush literally means “I have found it” or “I’ve got it!” It is an expression of sheer joy in finally finding that which one has long been seeking. In this verse, Jesus provides us with the life we have long been searching for but it doesn’t come in the package any of us would have expected. Rather than being a result of always asking what is in it for us, the life we’ve always wanted and dreamed of comes as we begin at all times by asking what is in it or what is best for the Kingdom of God.
Rather than dissect this idea further with countless statements or arguments, let me do my best to explore it with a powerful story of someone who actually put flesh and bones on this gospel command of our Lord. Some of you will immediately know the name Eric Liddell. Others of you will quickly remember his story from the classic Oscar winning movie about a particular period in his life called Chariots of Fire. Liddell, who was the son of missionaries to China, was a world class runner. In the 1924 Olympics, he was considered one of the favorites to win the 100 meter race for Scotland. In an amazing turn of events, though, Liddell never made it out of the starting blocks. The reason was that the preliminaries that year in the 100 meters were held on a Sunday. As a devout believer, Liddell always began by asking how his running could honor God. Since he did not believe he could honor God by racing on Sunday rather than worshipping, Liddell simply chose not to compete. Think about that for a moment, here was someone who was a favorite – not a dark horse – but a favorite to win an Olympic gold medal. But, he willingly passed up on the opportunity because he began by asking how he could honor God through this moment rather than by starting with what was best for him as an individual.
Amazingly, if you know the rest of the story, you know that Liddell unexpectedly won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics anyway when he won the 400 meters which was not a strong event for him, or one where he was predicted to do well.
But, without question, what is most remembered is what he failed to do in the 100 rather than what he accomplished in the 400. Now, one could argue that maybe there was a way that Liddell could have found a middle ground for both worshipping and running on the Sabbath or said another way maybe there was a way for him to both honor God and follow his dreams. But, what one cannot do is argue with what led him to the decision he made and that was his desire to begin by saying how can I best please or honor God in this moment. This was a day about God not about Eric Liddell and his ordered his actions around that desire.
This attitude was also characteristic of his whole life. Beyond 1924, Liddell was guided by following God not self. This led him to the mission field in China where he died during the days of World War II while still in his 40s. It even led him to give away his prized running shoes on one occasion during his last days to a young boy who had no shoes simply by reasoning that the shoes were more valuable to the boy than to him.
What I find so powerful in Liddell’s story is the fact that his example destroys a common misconception that we often have. So many times, when we think about the idea of seeking first the kingdom, we conclude that this means destroying our own goals, dreams or hopes for our lives – that is to say our secret ambitions. But, notice what happened in Liddell’s life. His asking the question of how he could glorify God in all that he did, didn’t lead to his stopping to follow his passion of running. Rather, it simply led to new priorities and at times a reorienting of his running so that his first and foremost goal through his gift and his passion was pleasing, honoring and serving God rather than simply furthering or promoting himself.
Let me end with a question. Did all of this really lead to more profound life for Liddell? You tell me? Can you name any other athlete of the 2000 that competed in the 1924 Olympics? Eric Liddell sought first the Kingdom and ways of God. In return he lived a richer, fuller and more profound life than few have ever known. If we dare to begin each day and each activity with the question of how can I seek first the kingdom, I believe that we can discover something similar. It really is true. If we risk seeking God first, we can and will find the best of ourselves as well. Living this way, truly can be our Eureka moment too. Amen. (Idea of this paragraph comes from Eric Metaxas in his book 7 Men, Thomas Nelson Press, 2013, pg. 58.)