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First Reading = Matthew 18:6-9
6“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.
7Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! 8“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.
This is our second week in our series trying to discover our divine design – how we can live the life God dreamed for us during this phase of life. Last week we talked about gaining clarity around our purpose from God during this phase of life, and it doesn’t have to be big and grand. The two tools I gave you were imagining what you dream would be true about your life when someone writes your headstone, and then dreaming about your three year horizon.
This week we are looking at uncovering the true you. If last week was about where you’re going, then this week is about where you’re starting from today. And the key this week is to engage in extreme honesty with yourself. The famous physicist Richard Feynman once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
So this week is an invitation to look unhaltingly, unwaveringly, unerringly at who and where and what you are today. No matter what you tell yourself, God isn’t fooled. So today let’s try to stop fooling ourselves and see what God sees.
In our text today, Jeremiah is passing along God’s admonishment and invitation to the people of Judah. God challenges them to return to him wholeheartedly, not just with their lips but with their whole beings. God acknowledges that it will be difficult and painful for them to put down some of their treasured sins and little white lies and diverging priorities and self-centered practices. But that wholehearted return is what God asks.
4If you return, O Israel, says the Lord, if you return to me, if you remove your abominations from my presence, and do not waver, 2and if you swear, “As the Lord lives!” in truth, in justice, and in uprightness, then nations shall be blessed by him, and by him they shall boast.
3For thus says the Lord to the people of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns. 4Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn with no one to quench it, because of the evil of your doings.
Twenty-four years later, I still count this as one of the greatest commercials I have ever seen – especially since I still remember the product it was advertising. The commercial shows a montage of a man painstakingly painting the grass in the end zone of a football stadium. In fact, it’s the end zone of the Kansas City Chiefs, with their iconic red background and large block white lettering. The man looks at his completed work with a satisfied grin. And then one of the football players comes up and pats him on the back and says, “That’s great…but…who are the Chefs?” As the man realizes he left out a letter in the “Chiefs,” all he can say is, “Great googily-moogily” and shake his head.
Is it going to work if that man said, “Maybe no one will notice?” Of course not! Or would it work if he did what my son does what I tell him he skipped a letter in a word he’s learning to write? He slides a super skinny, tiny version of the letter in between the other letters. Could the painter slide a tiny little “I” between the “h” and “e”? That’s not going to look right come game time! Or could he, being unwilling to change anything, petition the NFL to rename the team to the “Chefs” before the game on Sunday to accommodate his own preference to not start over on the end zone painting?
No, his only course of action is to start over. It’s painful. It’s annoying. It’s time-consuming. But admitting the reality of his missing “I”, admitting that he wrote “Chefs” instead of “Chiefs”, and then fixing it – that’s his only way forward that has any value. Other people will notice if he just pretends it’s not true. Other people will notice if he just tries to slip a tiny little “I” in there to fix it shoddily. And the whole NFL won’t change the name of the team just because of the end zone painter’s preferences.
Now, that may sound pretty silly. It may seem silly to imagine the painter saying, “That doesn’t say Chefs! I don’t have a problem!” It may seem silly to imagine the painter saying, “Easy fix! I’ll just slap a little ‘I’ in there. That’ll be good enough. It could be worse!” It may seem silly to imagine the painter saying, “Well I think they should be renamed to the ‘Chefs!’”
It seems silly, doesn’t it? And yet…and yet…have you ever thought to yourself, “I don’t really have a problem?” Have you ever thought to yourself, “Well, what I’m doing isn’t right, but it could be worse!” Have you ever thought to yourself, “I don’t think God should do that or be that way! If God were truly loving…if God were truly just…if I were God…?” When I catch myself thinking thoughts like those, and those are pretty common thoughts, I try to imagine it coming from that end zone painter. Because I bet that’s just how silly I sound when looking at myself from God’s perspective.
As I said to start, this week is an invitation to look unhaltingly, unwaveringly, unerringly at who and where and what you are today. No matter what you tell yourself, God isn’t fooled.
So what do we need to do to uncover the true you? What do we need to do to get the excuses out of the way? What do we need to do to get the masks and the camouflage out of the way? What do we need to do to uncover the true you?
I live within walking distance of a trail. And when it dumps a foot of snow, I like to head out on the trail at night with my snowshoes. No one else is crazy enough to be out there. And everything is so calm, so serene, so smooth with all that snow on top of it. But if I didn’t know the terrain already, I would be taking a huge risk doing that. Because it may look smooth with a foot of snow on top of it, but under the surface there are holes, rocks, tree branches, and all manner of things that can trip me up.
What’s under the surface of your life and your soul? What looks OK on the surface, but maybe a foot down it’s a jumbled mess? Let’s be honest with ourselves since we’re not fooling God anyway.
God Cares About the Separation
And let’s also be honest with ourselves about another thing – God cares. God cares when we do things that lead us further from his presence. We know we have forgiveness in Jesus, but God still cares about we do, what we feel, and what we think.
It’s pretty obvious that God cares in our text from Jeremiah. Listen to how it starts. “If you return, O Israel, says the Lord, if you return to me, if you remove your abominations from my presence, and do not waver, and if you swear, “As the Lord lives!” in truth, in justice, and in uprightness, then nations shall be blessed by him, and by him they shall boast.” That’s pretty obvious, right? God cares.
But what’s less obvious is the breadth and depth of how God cares. God cares about the abominations – the big, obvious, headline-grabbing sins. But keep reading. God also cares about our faith, that we can swear “As the Lord lives!” So it’s not just right behavior, it’s also right faith.
But keep reading. God also cares about “truth…justice…uprightness,” our text says. So God cares about our personal actions and also our society and how we contribute to that society.
But keep reading. Who receives a blessing if the people get rid of the headline-grabbing sins, if the people return in faith to God, if the people invest in personal and societal truth, justice, and uprightness? Who benefits? The text says, “then the nations shall be blessed by him.” So God cares about Judah. God cares about Israel. But God also cares about all the nations, not just his chosen people.
If you’re keeping score at home, texts like this one contributed greatly to Jeremiah’s distinct lack of popularity. No one wants to hear how they need to get rid of their own abominations. People like to point out other people’s abominations, but not their own. No one wants to hear how they haven’t upheld God’s truth, how they haven’t invested in creating God’s justice on earth, how they haven’t lived an upright life in the eyes of the all-seeing Creator.
But in Jeremiah’s time they really didn’t like hearing how God cared about the nations. They wanted to hear about how God cared about their nation. They wanted to hear about how they were the chosen people in the promised land. They wanted to hear about how they were the shining beacon of faithfulness in a pagan world. They wanted to hear about how they were special – unique – as a nation. And yet we heard last week that Jeremiah was appointed to be a prophet to the nations, not just Judah or Israel. Jeremiah was repeatedly thrown in prison, ostracized, and attacked because people thought he wasn’t patriotic enough when he said God cared about the nations.
Jesus got the same reaction from people for many of the same reasons. In our first text today, we heard Jesus reaffirm that God still cares. “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.”
Later in Matthew, Jesus addresses the religious leaders with an unpopular message. In Matthew 23 he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” I love this image! Jesus is saying they’re so outwardly religious, they make sure to account for their home gardens when they tithe to the temple. Can you imagine making a trip to church to give a portion of your herb garden to the offering plate? It would certainly smell nice!
But he calls out the gap between their outward religiosity and their actual contributions to the things God cares about. They did what was visible and personal, but neglected the internal and the social. So God cares about religious hypocrisy. No one wants to hear about that, either. Jesus calling them out like this was one of the reasons the leaders killed Jesus.
So let’s recap some of the things God cares about. God cares about our faith in him above all else. God cares about about the big headline-grabbing sins. God cares about our commitment to the truth. God cares about our individual contributions to justice as a society. God cares about the uprightness of our internal life. God cares about what we do. God cares about what we see. God cares about what we say. God cares about what we think. God cares about Judah, Israel, and all nations. God cares about our faithful spiritual practices. And God cares about our religious hypocrisy.
Does anything on that list sting? Should anything on that list sting? It may hurt to look this honestly, but God used the image of plowing a field in our text from Jeremiah today. Plowing a field is literally tearing a hole in the soil and turning the surface soil upside down. It’s hard and destructive work. But it enables new life, new growth, a new harvest. Are you willing to plow the field even if it hurts? Because God cares about all of that and more!
But remember that our goal this week is to uncover the true YOU. We aren’t trying to uncover the true THEM! I bet when you heard that list of things God cares about, you could picture other people who do those things. I bet you know people who you believe are committing headline-grabbing sins, or disregarding the truth, or neglecting justice, or failing to live an upright internal life, or showing religious hypocrisy.
That may be true. But knowing what’s separating THEM from God doesn’t help YOU draw closer to God. Where do you need to return to God? Where do you need to care about something God cares about? Where do you need to be faithful to Jesus instead of being a modern-day Pharisee? We’re looking in the mirror, not looking through the window today. And yes, I know that’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for me, too. Some things on that list sting for me, too.
Each week we’re going to give you tools to actually apply these concepts to your life. So here are a few tools to help you uncover the TRUE you as God sees you – the ups and the downs, the well-done’s and the warts, the sinner and the saved.
For the first tool, consider the different major chapters of your life. Those chapters could be chronological or thematic – you can decide how to divide up your life. Within each chapter, consider what lies you were living and what Gospel truths were trying to set you free.
For example, when I was in high school I believed several lies about who God is. I believed that my emotions were negative, so I tried to squash them into nothingness. That’s a lie. I also believed that God would only accept me if I achieved perfection or something really close to it. That’s a lie. I battled with hopelessness. That’s a lie.
But I also had a firm foundational belief that Jesus was God. I had a firm foundational belief that I could talk with Jesus and that he would interact with me and my life rather than being distant and uninterested. Those are Gospel truths that were trying to set me free from the lies I was living.
What lies were you living in the chapters of your life? What Gospel truths were trying to set you free in the name of Christ? And once you’ve trained yourself to think that way, apply it to your current chapter of life. What lies might you be living right now? And what Gospel truths are trying to set you free in the name of Christ? Lies and truths – that’s the first tool.
The second tool is pretty simple. If you want to uncover something that is separating you from God and separating you from the life that God dreamed for you, just look for this internal thought. Whenever you hear yourself thinking about something you’re doing, “Well it could be worse…” that’s an alarm bell. Jesus said we should pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin. I can’t imagine him saying, “that thing you’re doing is OK, because at least you’re not doing it as bad as those eight people over there.” That’s not how God works. Jesus grants us forgiveness, but he still calls us to change our lives and live as God dreamed for us. An action that could be worse can still pull you away from God. A hurtful thought that doesn’t make it’s way out of your mouth can still poison your heart. So the second tool is to watch out for “it could be worse” and bring that to God in prayer intentionally.
Sisters and brothers, remember what Richard Feynman said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
This week is an invitation to look unhaltingly, unwaveringly, unerringly at who and where and what you are today. No matter what you tell yourself, God isn’t fooled. So today let’s try to stop fooling ourselves and see what God sees. Even if “it could be worse,” God still cares. So I invite you to take some time this week to consider what separates you from God. We’re not wondering what other people are doing, we’re pointing our finger through the window, we’re looking at ourselves in the mirror.
What do you see in the mirror? What does God see in the mirror? Amen.