Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
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What Do We Value The Most?

Mark 1:14-20 and 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

 I find this to be a very difficult passage to preach.  It’s basically about the whole idea of what it means to “live in the world but not be of the world.”  And that is a difficult idea to define in precise terms.  We have no choice but to live in this world, but how do we differentiate ourselves from it?  How do we live by different values and priorities than the world around us?  That’s not a cut and dried subject.  

 The second reason I find it hard to preach is because I know that I am just as tempted by the things of the world as anyone else.  I find it hard not to feel hypocritical talking about these things.  I know the truth is that I am to one degree or another hypocritical in all of my preaching.  I preach the word of God on many subjects, and I know that I fall short on all of them.  I guess I just feel it here more than in some other areas.  I try not to become too attached to the things of this world, but I find it difficult.

 The general principle here, and in Mark 1, is that to enter into the Kingdom of God means to value the things of God more than the things of the world.  We are supposed to live with an awareness that the world and “all it contains” will pass away.  This world is temporary.  Our lives here are short, so we must live with a sense of urgency.

 Paul, like most early Christians, believed the return of Christ was always close, always imminent.  He expected that persecution was very likely.  By this time there had already been sporadic persecution of Christians here and there.  Within a decade of this letter, there would be a much more significant persecution of Christians, in the reign of Emperor Nero.  And within a generation, there would be an Empire-wide persecution of Christians that would take the lives of tens of thousands.  In light of these things, Paul thought it best not to become too enmeshed in the things of the world.  The more enmeshed a person became, the more difficult it would be to flee from persecution, the more tempting it would be to compromise to avoid it.

 Even in the absence of persecution, it becomes more and more difficult to obey God as we have more and more worldly entanglements.  Even marriage can be seen as an entanglement.  Some people think that Paul had a low opinion of marriage because of what he has to say in this chapter.  But the same Paul who said it was perhaps “best not to marry” also used marriage as an illustration of the relationship between Christ

and his Church.  So I don’t think Paul was down on marriage as much as he was simply pointing out the potential conflicts it could create, especially in a time of persecution.  

 The question these verses challenge us to ask ourselves is, “What do we value the most?  What is ultimate, life-defining, for us?  Is our relationship with God truly our first priority?  Is it more important to us even than our marriage?”  That question becomes even more difficult when marriage is between one person who desires to obey God and another who does not.  Paul and Jesus both warned about the dangers of being “unequally yoked” for that very reason.  Our most significant human relationship should be one that builds up our relationship with God, not one that stands in the way of it.  

 Paul talks here about four things that can “trap” a person and keep them from being willing to obey God.  

 The first is marriage, but I think we can also say human relationships in general.  Marriage is singled out because it is the most significant human relationship we have.  But certainly other relationships can hinder our faithfulness to God.  Are we willing to obey God, to go where we says, to do as he says, even if it upsets the people we are in relationship with?  And sometimes it will.  I know people who have seen relationships, even marriages, fall apart because of their commitment to following God.  

 The second potential trap is happiness.  If we are happy and successful and content in our present circumstances, are we willing to leave them behind for the sake of obedience to God?  What if God asks us to leave behind the things that have brought us happiness?  

 The third potential trap is sadness.  Now that might seem counter-intuitive.  If we’re sad, then wouldn’t we be eager to leave that if God called us to?  That might seem obvious, but we often seem to get “stuck” in the bad circumstances of our lives.  We often have a hard time moving beyond the bad stuff.  

 The fourth potential trap might be the most common:  Wealth.  The world seems to be driven by a pursuit of wealth more than anything else.  And it is not easy to resist this temptation, especially when we are constantly bombarded by messages that subtly say, “If you just had more, then you’d be happy and satisfied and fulfilled.”  Our modern technological world means that we can hardly go for a few moments without hearing or seeing some kind of message telling us to want more.  It’s impossible to turn on a

television or look at the internet or open a magazine or newspaper without seeing some message telling us that we are unhappy because we don’t have enough.  

 Instead, Scripture tells us that our attitude toward wealth should be “to make good use of the things of the world without becoming attached to them.”  This idea is called stewardship.  Stewardship is the understanding that we do not own anything, only God truly owns the world and all that is in it.  But we are entrusted to use things for a time, and so we should make wise use of them.  We should not become attached to them because we know that the present “form” of the world will not endure.  It will soon pass away, so we should use what we have been trusted with now in ways that honor God and for purposes that will endure.  

 John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement summarized the Christian attitude toward wealth with three simple rules.  The first was “Earn all you can.”  Well, that sounds good to the world, but there’s more.  The second was, “Save all you can.”  In other words, live as simply as possible.  And the third was, “Give all you can,” use as much as possible to invest in the things of God that will last.  

 As much as possible, we should live unencumbered by the world.  A good example of that is debt.  Our society’s attitude toward debt seems to be that “If you really want to live the good life, then you’re going to have to go into debt.”  God’s attitude toward debt, found in Proverbs 22, is that the “borrower is a slave to the lender.”  If we owe someone money, then they own part of our lives.  We are not truly free.  And it might stand in the way of us doing what God has called us to do.  In the Methodist tradition, when a pastor is ordained, they are asked a series of questions that go back to Wesley.  One of them is “Are you indebted so as to embarrass yourself?”  Wesley didn’t want to ordain indebted clergy because he knew they were not truly free to go and do as God commanded.

 We find ourselves in that situation.  Ten years after seminary, we are still in debt.  And it weighs heavily on us.  Sharon has twice taught the Financial Peace curriculum, which places a heavy emphasis on getting out of debt.  And I guess it’s made me feel especially guilty to be so “encumbered” by the world.  

 No doubt about it:  It’s not easy to live this way.  We just can’t eliminate the competing loyalties in our lives.  At best, we can only minimize them.  As much as we

want to be faithful to God, we must also be faithful to other people and things in our lives.  But we also should not pretend that it’s impossible to put God first.  

 Our Gospel lesson from earlier reminds us that it is possible to value the Kingdom of God above the things of the world.  Jesus called four fishermen to leave their worldly entanglements for the sake of the Kingdom.

 The Kingdom of God is the reign of God in personal relationship with his people.  It is both a present and future reality.  The fullness of it will not be experienced until Christ returns to finish his work of renewal, but that doesn’t mean that we are not already living in the Kingdom right now.  And we are called to continue to live into the reality of God’s reign in our lives.  

 Jesus sought out four fishermen for his disciples.  These were not poor or disassociated men.  These were respected and established members of the community.  They were part of the small middle class in first century Galilee.  If they were able to hire other men to work for them, then they were not poor.  And they were engaged in a family business, which meant a lot.  It was a serious matter to leave one’s family in that society.

 But that is what Jesus called them to do.  He called them to walk away from home, family, livelihood, and familiar circumstances.  That was a great price to pay for the sake of the Kingdom.  But they were willing to do it.  They were willing to do it for the sake of a personal relationship with Jesus and for the sake of a great task to which he called them.  Jesus is also calling us to a personal relationship with him and a great task.

 But I want to end with an encouraging note.  Something we know from the other Gospels, is that this was not the first time Jesus encountered these men.  They had met him and had heard his message before.  It’s not as if Jesus called them out of the clear blue sky.  Mark doesn’t mention those previous encounters because he is focused on the urgency of the Kingdom call.  But it seems that these men had previously followed Jesus for a time and then gone back to fishing.  

 Even the men who knew Jesus in the flesh found it difficult to follow and obey.  But eventually they did.  If we find it difficult to value the things of God above all else, then we are most certainly not alone in that.  But it is possible.  We can do it.  

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