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Sermon for Sunday February 21, 2016

FIRST READING Jeremiah 26:8-15

8 And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die! 9 Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant’?” And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD. 10 When the officials of Judah heard these things, they came up from the king’s house to the house of the LORD and took their seat in the entry of the New Gate of the house of the LORD. 11 Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.” 12 Then Jeremiah spoke to all the officials and all the people, saying, “It is the LORD who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. 13 Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God, and the LORD will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you. 14 But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. 15 Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.”


PSALM Psalm 4

1 Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I was in distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer. 2 “You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; how long will you love illusions and seek after lies?” 3 Know that the Lord does wonders for the faithful; the Lord will hear me when I call. 4 Tremble, then, and do not sin; speak to your heart in silence upon your bed. 5 Offer the appointed sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. 6 Many are saying, “Who will show us any good?” Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord. 7 You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine abound. 8 In peace, I will lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me rest secure.

SECOND READING Philippians 3:17–4:1

17 Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. 4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.


GOSPEL Luke 13:31-35

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus,] “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”


Paul W. Powell in his book, The Complete Disciple, describes a picture painted by a famous artist. It’s a picture of a wagon train in the old West. Nighttime has fallen. The wagons have been circled for protection. In the center of the circle of wagons is a campfire and a group of rugged men are gathered around it. The wagon master, a muscular man with an uncut beard, has a map spread out before him. On the map is a heavy black line which zigzags across the map showing the course they’ve taken to this point. They’ve traveled north part of the way, then south, but their main direction has been west. Evidently there’s been an argument about which way to go next. But the wagon master has placed one finger on the end of a black line. With his other arm he’s pointing toward some dark, hazy mountains in the distance. He seems to be saying, “We may have to go south around a mountain, or north across a river, but our direction will always be west.” That’s how they’ll reach their destination, by moving forever westward. One of the secrets to a successful life is to have your eyes fixed upon a goal and to pursue that goal with all your heart.
Just as the early pioneers were determined to go westward, every person who makes a difference in our world has his or her eyes fixed on a worthy goal. St. Paul is considered to be one of the most influential people who ever lived. And the main reason he was so effective, was that he kept his eyes fixed firmly on a goal that simply could not be surpassed.
St. Paul wrote, earlier in the third chapter of Philippians: “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:8-11)
It’s an absolutely marvelous statement of St. Paul’s passion for serving Christ. This is why St. Paul has helped so many people over the past two millennia. He knew what was truly imperative in this life, and he gave himself completely to accomplishing what was important. Unfortunately, many people live ineffective lives because they don’t focus on that which is most essential.
One of the most important lessons for life involves setting and maintaining priorities–putting first things first. Without priorities . . . The athlete fails to win the prize . . . Couples fail to achieve marital happiness . . . Financial goals go unmet . . . Businesses go bankrupt . . . Parents falter in raising their children properly . . . Students fail to make the grade . . . Dreams remain unfulfilled . . . Churches become stagnant in their ministries.
E. Stanley Jones in his book, Conversions, tells us that when people first started voting in India, the world’s largest democracy with two hundred million potential voters, many of the voters were illiterate. They got over this difficulty by placing the ballot boxes in a row with a symbol on each box representing the various parties. This way even those who couldn’t read knew who they were voting for. However, one man, says Jones, tore his ballot into small bits and dropped a piece in each of the ten boxes. He voted for all ten parties. But what he didn’t realize was, that in doing so, he actually voted for no one! The reality is, we only have a certain amount of time and energy and material resources that are allotted to each of us.
In order to become effective in our work, our homes or in our communities, we must set priorities. Otherwise we become like the cowboy who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions–or the voter who tore his ballot into pieces–he got nowhere at all. This brought to mind one particular night while I was on patrol in Anchorage, Alaska.
As a reserve police officer, I would ride with one of the regular officers and share duties with them. One particular, and unusual I might add, night, it was pretty quiet. It was just past two in the morning and we were so bored that we were literally checking the locks on the city park’s gates. Without any warning, we hear the alert tone over the radio and both of us froze in our tracks. The alert tone is an officer in distress alert or shots fired signal and it’s a call for help. Our first reaction was to jump back in the car and start driving. But where would we go? Without a destination, we would simply be driving in whatever direction we thought was best. We needed to have the destination, the goal, in order to head in the right direction. The same thing happens to us when we fail to set priorities. When we head in multiple directions, or in the wrong direction, we find ourselves moving from one trivial thing to another. We must stay focused on what’s important.
There was an interesting news story online about a year ago. It was about a photo making the rounds on Instagram. This photo showed the top half of a humpback whale emerging from below the water’s surface. It was a beautiful image–but what was happening in the background as the whale emerged, got just as much attention as the whale itself. In the background, a man sits in his sailboat glued to his smartphone. What makes it so interesting, and so baffling at the same time, is that the man is just few feet away from the spot where the whale is surfacing and he doesn’t even seem to notice.
The shot was captured by photographer Eric Smith near Redondo Beach, California. That area is known for whale watching. We don’t know if this man’s purpose was whale-watching or not, but, if so, he missed the whole thing. Smith said he snapped about five pictures of whales with the same boat in the vicinity, and in each image the man’s eyes are trained on his phone, not on the whales. It’s a great metaphor of many people’s lives. Far too often we’re focused on things that matter little, while the truly important matters go unattended. Most successful people have a plan for their lives, and at the top of that plan is that which is of critical importance.
It’s been said that when retired football coach Bobby Bowden played baseball in college, he never hit a home run. In fact, his senior year at Howard College, he was the only player not to hit a home run. One day, he hit a line drive against Auburn. As he approached third, the coach was waving him on. As he made his turn, he heard his third base coach say, “But hurry!” When he touched home, the team was ecstatic, slapping his back and shaking his hand. He had finally scored a home run. Meanwhile, no one noticed the first baseman yelling for the catcher to throw him the ball.
When the first baseman caught the ball, the umpire yelled, “out.” When Bobby Bowden ran so joyfully around the bases, looking toward his first home run, he had failed to touch first base. So his one home run was negated. Maybe that’s why he became a football coach. Anyway, you can probably imagine he later told his players, based on his own experience, “If you don’t take care of first base, it doesn’t matter what else you do.” Therefore, successful living is about taking care of the things that matter most.
A great exercise this morning would be for each of us to make a list of five things in our life that are really critical to us. If this were a workshop rather than a worship service, I’d be tempted to pause and have each of you make such a list. With that in mind, I hope you’ll take the time after lunch to do just that. Make a top-five list of what’s most critical in life and once it’s completed ask yourself, where does my spouse fall on that list . . . my children . . . my work . . . my responsibilities to the church, the community…etc.? Where does my faith fall on that list? Then realistically, ask yourself, how well does my weekly schedule reflect my priorities? Will your priorities help make you the kind of person you mean to be?
A student at Amherst College, soon after entering school, put over the door of his dormitory room the letter V. Because of that V he endured all sorts of ridicule. But he paid no attention to the scorn nor would he disclose the secret of the letter. When his four years were over, and graduation day came, that student was appointed to deliver the valedictory address for his class. Then the mystery of that letter V was revealed. It stood for valedictory. That letter on the door held before him, during his four years, the ideal that he had set for himself.
What letter could you put over the door of your house that would remind you, as you leave your house each day, what your life is all about? Would you put up a letter M that stands for money? Or a P for prominence or position? It’s a good idea, someone has suggested, that every once in a while we look at the letter we’ve put on our door as a reminder of where we want to go with our life. Life is about focus and determination. We don’t have to attend a motivational seminar to learn that. Most of us have already learned it in our daily lives. We simply need to be reminded from time to time.
Author Steve Goodier tells the inspiring story of Fred Lebow. Fred complained to his doctor that he lacked energy. His doctor advised him to take up running. From this suggestion, Fred discovered a new love! He was 39-years-old when he entered his first race. He beat only one other contestant: a 72-year-old man. But he loved it, so he joined the New York Road Runners Club. Later, Fred organized New York City’s first marathon race. But what Fred really enjoyed most was bringing people together.
He believed that anybody should be able to run, and enjoy running, regardless of their age or background. That’s why, today, more than 28,000 people from all over the world compete in the New York City Marathon sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club. However, there were obstacles to Fred’s dreams.
A New York gang warned Fred that nobody had better run through their neighborhood. That didn’t stop Fred. He went immediately on the offensive. “I need someone to protect the runners in your area,” he said to the gang members, “and you look like just the fellows to do it.” He gave each of them a hat, a shirt and an official jacket. That year, when the marathon went through their neighborhood, those gang members proudly guarded the runners along their way. Fred was a man with his eye fixed firmly on his goals. However, there was one race he could not win.
In 1990, Fred Lebow found out he had a fatal brain tumor. “In 1992, he ran his final race . . . A bronze statue was created of Fred in his running clothes, checking his watch. It’s now placed at the finish line of every race. Fred died in 1994, but as one sports writer said, ‘Fate handed him a short race. With his gall, with his love of life, Fred Lebow turned it into a marathon.’” Fred Lebow showed what an ordinary man with an extraordinary sense of focus and commitment can accomplish. And so did St. Paul.
There’s nothing that we read about St. Paul that indicates that he was especially talented, or great-looking, or impressive of stature. In fact, he had at least one prominent weakness, which he called his “thorn in the flesh,” which would have defeated many people. But St. Paul deeply influenced the faith of millions of people.
St. Paul influenced others because his life was focused entirely on serving Christ. “But one thing I do, forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14-15) St. Paul’s life was focused entirely on serving Christ. There’s no stopping a person who has that kind of focus and commitment. Robert Reed is the kind of man who has that same kind of focus about life.
In the book, The Applause of Heaven, the author writes, “Robert’s hands are twisted, and his feet are useless. He can’t bathe himself. He can’t feed himself. He can’t brush his teeth, comb his hair, or put on his underwear. His shirts are held together by strips of Velcro. His speech drags like a worn-out audiocassette. “Robert has cerebral palsy.
The disease keeps Robert from driving a car, riding a bike, and going for a walk. But it didn’t keep him from graduating from high school or attending Abilene Christian University, from which he graduated with a degree in Latin. “Having cerebral palsy didn’t keep him from teaching at a St. Louis junior college or from venturing overseas on five mission trips. “Nor did Robert’s disease keep him from becoming a missionary to Portugal.
Robert moved to Lisbon, alone, in 1972. There he rented a hotel room and began studying Portuguese. He found a restaurant owner who would feed him after the rush hour and a tutor who would instruct him in the local language. Then he stationed himself daily in a park, where he distributed brochures about Christ. Within six years, seventy people had been led to the Lord.
People sit around and complain they’ve never had the opportunity to do anything meaningful in the world. Does any of us have a debilitating disease? What then are we complaining about? That may sound a bit harsh, but here’s what you and I so often lack–focus and commitment, especially in our Christian faith. St. Paul writes, “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (3:13b)
The truth is, many people live ineffective lives because they don’t set priorities. Successful living is about taking care of the things that matter most. St. Paul’s life was focused entirely on serving Christ. That’s where we need to focus our lives as well.
I read that on the Australian coat of arms is a picture of two animals: an emu and a kangaroo. These animals were chosen because they share a characteristic that appealed to the forefathers of that country. Both the emu and kangaroo can only move forward, not back. The emu’s three-toed foot causes it to fall if it tries to go backwards, and the kangaroo is prevented from moving in reverse by its large tail.
Maybe we need an emu and a kangaroo on our personal coat of arms so we’ll be reminded to never move away from God. We need to set our focus and goals on the high and lofty goal of serving God alone, a goal like St. Paul’s, that lifts us heavenward. Only then can we be all that God has created us to be. We need to see Paul as an example of living for Christ and listen to what he wrote in verse 17: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”

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