Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Modern Day Parable

Second Sunday Lent
Sunday, February 17, 2008
John 3:1-17

Nick never wanted to be in the limelight. Sometimes your calling puts you into the limelight to a degree. He had always wanted to serve in the church in some fashion. When he was a boy he would gather his little brothers and sisters around himself to play “church.” He would be the pastor, of course, and they would have to sit there and listen to his sermons and give of their allowance for the offering.

In high school he received great joy from being involved in the youth group servant events and counted as the highlight of his youth the mission trip he took to Estonia. He couldn’t speak or understand a word of Estonian but would never forget the grateful look on the little boys and girls’ faces as he played with them and helped build a new church for them.

He wasn’t happy only when he was doing “spectacular” things like mission work, though. He liked helping out around the church. And received especially great joy when people congratulated him for his maturity and faith that seemed to be beyond his years. Many people talked about how the Church at large would be blessed if such a fine young man were to go into the ministry. And recalling those days when he would play “church” with his brothers and sisters, he, too, had often thought about and prayed about whether he should go into the ministry.

As he found himself in college he felt like he couldn’t quite get a handle on how best to serve the Lord. There were many opportunities he could take advantage of as he had done in high school with all the servant projects. But it seemed so much more hollow now. Being in college there weren’t as many people around to give him accolades. To urge him on in his service to the Lord. There was an emptiness in him that hadn’t seemed to be there before. If people in his home congregation had thought he was so mature and strong in faith beyond his years, what was now happening to him, now that he was older, and supposedly wiser?

He didn’t have his pastor to talk to anymore now that he was so far away from home. Well, he could call him, but that just didn’t seem the same. But now that he really thought about it, did he ever really talk to his pastor that much anyway? He just kind of took the whole God and service thing for granted and never really seemed to have that much of a need to talk to him. Everything had seemed so fulfilling. Would any of his friends here at college understand what he was going through?

He had heard of people and even known a few who ended up giving up on the Church altogether. They were searching for something that they couldn’t find in Church. They were seeking help from God in their problems that didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight. I wonder how those people were doing now, he thought. Then a striking thought came to him—he could pray for them. And he felt guilty about how little he had thought to pray for people in his life. He was much more comfortable in the physical activity of helping people than in the spiritual care of them.

It sounded kind of odd, but maybe this was a sign that he was actually maturing. He was actually now seeing things for what they really were rather than what they appeared to be to so many people. Even worse, he was beginning to see himself for what he really was as opposed to what so many people thought he was. If he had to admit it, he would have to say that he was a hypocrite. All of his serving he had done in the church wasn’t really about God but about himself. About how it made him feel. Oh yes, he loved God and wanted to serve Him, but he was much more fulfilled about the feeling he got from knowing that so many people thought highly of him.

Was he really the strong and caring Christian so many people had thought? And if not, what did that mean for him? If he was in fact a hypocrite, then what could he do about it? Would simply confessing his sin and trying to do better help him feel better? Would it actually make him better? Would it replace the emptiness he felt? The way the people he had helped in the past felt was what he wished he could feel from God. But that feeling was out of reach.

So what could he do? How could he change things around so he could feel that he was truly serving God and not feel empty inside himself? How could he feel that God really did love him and that this wasn’t just some game where he would do things and people would ooh and ahh over how wonderful of a blessing he was? Right now the only thing stable in his life was the church he was attending while away from home. It didn’t seem to fill that emptiness inside, but there was something about being in God’s House week after week that gave him some sense that there was an anchor in his life.

He tried praying more. He even tried finding some service projects to do to give himself a sense of fulfillment. And while it was nice to be able to help people there still seemed to be a hole in his faith life. When he returned home for the summer break he wasn’t sure how the people in his congregation would react to him. Surely they would notice how much he had changed. Surely they would be able to tell that he wasn’t the same old kid they had known so well. He knew they would see right through him to his disillusionment.

But when they saw him it was as if he had never left. They treated him like a year had never gone by. He was the same old Nick to them. They were every bit as proud of him, especially now that he was a big time college student. It seemed that all he had to do was be who he was and they saw something in him that he knew was not really there.

This made him feel even worse. He now felt like he was living a lie. Oh well, he’d go through the motions during the summer and then at least he’d be able to go back to school and he wouldn’t have to deal with the uncomfortable situation of feeling like he was pretending to be something he was not. But that was just the thing. He wasn’t pretending. They were the ones who were making him into something he was not. He was increasingly seeing that he was anything but a faithful servant of God. That, if anything, all those wonderful things he did for others was every bit as much for himself as it was for them. It would be a long summer.

It did start out that way. One of the members of the congregation owned a hardware store. He offered Nick a job and his parents thought it would be a good idea to learn a line of work like that, even if he were going to go into the ministry some day, or some other vocation.

So to the hardware store he went. Learning about tools. The different kinds. The different uses. The differences in quality. He also found something interesting happening to him. He began enjoying talking with the customers about the tools. What they needed, what they were attempting to do. He was beginning to get good at helping them pick out the right tools for them. And he was enjoying helping people in this way, even though it seemed like it was anything but a spiritual form of service like he had done so much in the past.

But perhaps the best part about the job was being able to talk to the owner during those times when they would do inventory. Nick was really beginning to like him. The owner never pried into his personal life, and yet was humble and likeable and interested in Nick as a person, that he found himself opening up more and more to him. He also found something that he had never really experienced before, and that, as odd as it sounded, was someone who was serving him. Someone who was taking time to help him. Nick had never really felt he needed help. He had always thought of himself as the one who serves others, not needing others to serve him.

The summer was quickly coming to an end. Soon he’d be off again to school, and, he feared, to the emptiness he had felt all last year. Should he open up so much as to let his new found friend in on his secret? Should he risk the hurt of maybe being rejected?

He worked up the courage and decided it was worth the risk. He knew something had to be done. All his life he had placed his life in his own hands. Time to place it in someone’s else’s. He had gotten himself nowhere but in an empty search for meaning. Maybe his friend really could help. Maybe he would indeed be everything he had been—a friend, a brother in Christ, even a person God had put in his life for just this time when he really needed something, someone, anything.

It was the hardest thing he had ever done. Really, so much of what he had done in life was easy, now that he thought about it. So many things came naturally for him. Serving people was the easiest thing in the world. Receiving the accolades of others was par for the course for him. But this… this was tough. Never in his life had he dreamed he would be spilling his guts to someone. And for that matter, in a hardware store! But God works things in ways we don’t always expect, and in its own way this was a very freeing experience. He actually felt lighter. He didn’t spare any details. He didn’t try to make himself sound better than he really was. He thought more than once that the owner of the hardware store would react judgmentally, explaining how he sure wasn’t the person he thought he was!

But what he received instead was silence. Nick had carefully explained all his feelings, all his confusion. His friend sat there the whole time listening intently. Never bored, never reacting negatively. Just listening. Seeking to understand exactly where Nick was coming from. And when it was all over, he just sat there in thought. Appearing as though he had something profound to say but not sure of exactly the right words to use. Nick sat there also. What does he think of me now? What will he say? Will he tell my parents that I have some serious problems?

When the owner finally did speak, it was soft but deliberate: “What you need to do is die.”

Now this was something Nick had never expected to hear! A good chastising might have actually been better to receive than this! What was he talking about that I need to die? Every Christian knows that suicide is a sin. Maybe he was so worked up in telling his own story that he misheard. “Excuse me, maybe I misunderstood you, did you say I need to die?”

“Oh you heard me just fine. That’s exactly what I said.” But his tone was not harsh. In fact, it was very soothing. It had a comfort to it as if what he said would make all the sense in the world and put the matter to rest.

Okay, so he heard him right, but certainly did not understand what he could possibly mean by that. His owner was a straightforward kind of guy, so he decided to just come right out and ask him what he meant by it.

Again there was a pause. As if he were pondering over his great sympathy for Nick. But again, this did not make Nick feel at all as though the man were looking down on him. His very demeanor, in fact, gave Nick a sense of comfort, of safety.

The pause this time wasn’t as long and when he spoke this time it wasn’t as cryptic. “You are the victim of a sense of Christianity that it’s all about you and your life. You may never have asked God directly, What are You going to do for me today?, but your life actually revolves around that sense of entitlement. As if God owes you something. As if all those accolades were exactly what God thinks of you and ought to think of you.”

As he was talking, Nick was struck by two things. The first was that he was immediately convicted. He was not enjoying one bit hearing these words. But at the same time, hearing them was a relief, because he knew everything he was hearing was true. He had even known it already, but had just never been able to admit it. The second thing was that there was no hint in this owner of the hardware store of any self-righteousness. He was not coming off as if everything he was saying applied to Nick but not to himself. Nick was actually feeling even lighter, as if a burden was being lifted off his shoulders at the very moment. That this man was telling him this stuff not to bury him in his wretchedness but to lift him out of it!

But he still was not getting the connection between this newfound insight and the fact that he needed to die. His friend continued: “Well, this is where we so often get Christianity confused with what the world wants. Or maybe we should better say, what we want. Because aren’t we so often more in tune with the world than with Christ? Why did Christ come? It was to die. That doesn’t sound like a happy, self-esteem promoting message, but isn’t that why He came? He’s God and lives forever. The reason He came to earth was to die. And the Bible says that if we go on living as we do then we’ll die eternally. That’s because we’re wrapped up in sinful flesh. But if we die… If we die, well, then we’ll live. No, I’m not talking about committing suicide, I’m talking about Baptism. I’m talking about what actually happens when we’re converted—about what happened when you were Baptized.

“You’ve seen firsthand how your life, as wonderful as it looks on the outside, is really a hollow shell. It’s really death with a happy face on it. But when you die, then you live. If Jesus hadn’t died, we would have no life. If we do not die with Christ in Baptism, we are not raised with Him. So often we don’t realize that Christ didn’t come to die to make our life better on earth, but to save us from eternal death. He came to give us life forever with Him in heaven. All the stuff you do to help others is not stuff you do so much as God’s love for you in Christ overflowing to others. You’ve been feeding off the good feeling that comes from serving. But you’re dead. It’s no longer you who lives but Christ who lives in you.”

At this point it was Nick’s turn to be silent. And the owner of the hardware store sat perfectly content in the silence. Nick had a strange sensation. He felt a contentment he had never really known before. But the weird, even wonderful, thing about it was that it wasn’t one of those feelings that everything from here on out is going to be okay. The very contentment was actually in knowing that everything wouldn’t be okay. But it was in just such circumstances that Jesus came. It was just for such people as him that Jesus came to die. And if he could receive a blessing from this man he had come to know in a hardware store when he never expected it, he could see that God had great things in store for him. That heaven, in fact, was in store for him. That between now and then God would be giving a little bit of heaven to him in the Lord’s Supper that he would eagerly look forward to receiving often. That in receiving such a gift he would know that all of this wasn’t about him but about his new life in Christ. Amen.


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