August 28, 2016
By John Partridge*
Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-14 Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Jeremiah 2:4-13
How many of you like detective stories?
Some of us like Agatha Christie novels with Miss Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot, or we enjoy reading the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. Some of us like watching television dramas with a detective element like NCIS, or CSI, or of course, either of the two current Sherlock Holmes dramas. I admit that I was several years late to the party, but a year or two ago I discovered the television series “Castle” and now we watch it often and are still catching up on a lot of the older episodes. In any case, this past week we were watching a rerun from early in the Castle series and in it a young man was killed while his friends were playing Russian roulette. Of course they all claimed that they often did it but that no one was stupid enough to play when there were actually real bullets in the gun. Instead, they liked to point an empty gun at one another and pull the trigger… except for one night that it wasn’t empty. That, of course, leads to the mystery to be solved.
But I thought of that episode when I was reading today’s scriptures because of the striking parallels. We begin this morning in Jeremiah 2:4-13, where God, through his prophet Jeremiah, brings charges against Israel for the crimes that they have committed against him.
4 Hear the word of the Lord, you descendants of Jacob, all you clans of Israel.
5 This is what the Lord says:
“What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me?
They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.
6 They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord, who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and ravines,
a land of drought and utter darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?’
7 I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.
8 The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols.
9 “Therefore I bring charges against you again,” declares the Lord.
“And I will bring charges against your children’s children.
10 Cross over to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and observe closely;
see if there has ever been anything like this: 11 Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols.
12 Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror,”
declares the Lord.
13 “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
God says that the entire people of the nation of Israel had strayed from him, had begun to worship worthless idols, and then became worthless themselves. They forgot the God who had given them so much and they took for granted the things that God had done for them. And as they wandered away from the God of their forefathers, they corrupted the very things that God had given to them. Even worse, their leaders, both religious and political, were as bad as or worse than everyone else. Jeremiah says that the people, whose job it was to read and interpret the law, did not know God. The leaders of the nation actively rebelled against the instructions of God and the prophets who were supposed to speak God’s words to the leaders and to the nations, began to prophecy in the name of another God altogether.
As I watched that episode of Castle, I thought, “What kind of an idiot would willingly play Russian roulette?” To play Russian roulette is a heartbeat away from choosing death itself. To do so would require depression, or suicidal thoughts, or some other kind of mental imbalance. And yet, Jeremiah describes for us a time when an entire nation chose to play Russian roulette and gamble that the fun that they are having is worth death.
Let’s be clear. No one woke up one day and decided to hate God. There was no single moment when the nation of Israel decided to abandon the God that had blessed them, brought them out of slavery, given them their land, and had cared for them. There was no single moment when everyone decided that suicide seemed like a great idea. But all the same, gradually, one decision at a time, one small compromise at a time, the people of Israel picked up a gun because it looked like it might be fun, pointed it at their heads and, one poor choice at a time, began to load bullets into the chambers of the pistol. There was no single moment when the nation of Israel suddenly decided to choose death and commit suicide, but they arrived in that place all the same, one step at a time, gradually drifting farther and farther from God until they began to represent all the things that God hated and left God with no other choice but to pull the trigger of the gun they had loaded.
But there are other choices that can be made.
In Luke 14:1, 7-14, Jesus warns us of a principle danger that causes many of us to make bad choices and start down the road that leads to death.
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
This simple parable of Jesus can be applied far more broadly than our occasional invitations to fancy dinners. The message in Jesus’ story is that when we allow pride to lead us, trouble inevitably follows, even in something as simple as where we sit for dinner. Instead of allowing our pride to lead us, make your choices humbly instead. Or, even better, instead of using what we have to make ourselves look good in front of other people who can afford their own dinner, use what we have to help people who cannot help themselves. Jesus’ message is that one key to staying close to God is to make choices that are guided by humility rather than pride.
But what else is there?
How can we avoid making the sort of bad decisions that lead us away from God?
In Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Paul says this:
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. 3 Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
6 So we say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?”
7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Paul makes us a shopping list of things to help us make good choices. Of course, this isn’t all that there is, but if we can remember this much, it’s a good start.
Love one another, show hospitality to people that you don’t know, remember those who are in prison, those who have been mistreated, and people who cannot speak for themselves. Honor marriage, even if that marriage isn’t yours and even if you aren’t married yourself. Keep yourselves sexually pure. Don’t ever allow money to become the most important thing in your life but instead, be content with what you have.
These things, Paul says, will help us to stay close to God and make choices that will help prevent drift.
But that isn’t all.
Remember your leaders who taught you about the word of God. Consider their examples, both good and bad. Learn from what they taught you, but also learn from their mistakes as well as their successes. Paul says that we should continually sacrifice our time to offer God praises. Paul knows that it takes time and effort to come together as followers of Jesus Christ to worship and praise God and he calls this time and effort a sacrifice that we offer to God.
And finally, do good and share with others. Paul describes both of these things as sacrifices as well. Doing good isn’t always easy and it isn’t always free. Doing good costs us time and effort and money and so does sharing what we have with others. Doing good and sharing with others can be costly, but these are ways that we can offer sacrifices to God regardless of how much money we have.
None of these things are complicated. None of them are terribly difficult. But every single one of them is a place in our lives where it is remarkably easy to become selfish. Every single one of these things can be blind spots for us that allow us to make compromises, small choices, baby steps, that lead us away from God.
Israel didn’t wake up one morning and choose death. They didn’t suddenly decide to rebel against the God that had rescued them and everything that he had ever taught them. Israel never made a conscious choice to put a loaded gun to their head. But bit by bit, step by step, one compromise after another, one selfish choice after another, they did exactly that.
Our prayer is that we do not do the same.
Let us not choose death.
Instead, let us remember the things that we have been taught by Jesus, by Paul, and by others, so that we might stay close to God and not drift away, one small compromise at a time.
Did you benefit from reading this?
Click here if you would like to subscribe to these messages.