February 23, 2020*
By Pastor John Partridge
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Matthew 5:38-48 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
For those of us old enough to remember the original Mission Impossible television show starring Peter Graves, Martin Landau, and Barbara Bain, or if you’re young enough to only remember the more recent Tom Cruise movies, we can probably hum the theme song to ourselves and some of us have occasionally done that as we merged into traffic on the freeway or imagined that we were embarking on some new daring adventure.
The general theme, or plot, of these adventures is, of course, that the IMF, the Impossible Mission Force, was occasionally offered tasks that, by all outward appearances, were so crazily difficult that they seemed, to anyone else, to be completely impossible. And in every opening segment, we would hear a recording that essentially said, “Good evening Mr. Phelps. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” followed by a description of something that sounded impossible but which, the team always managed to accomplish by using technology, deception, wit, and trickery.
But, if we’re honest, sometimes the things that God seems to ask us to do, seem no less difficult than some of the tasks given to the Impossible Mission Force. With that in mind, let’s look at some of those “impossible” missions that we’ve been given, and think about what they mean to us ordinary people without the resources of an entire secret agency behind us. We begin in Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 where God explains the mission of his followers to Moses.
19:1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.
11 “‘Do not steal.
“‘Do not lie.
“‘Do not deceive one another.
12 “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.
13 “‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.
“‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
14 “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.
15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.
17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
God describes his impossible mission for the church in the first sentence: Be holy. The rest of the passage is nothing more than an explanation of what God means by “be holy.” And while some of the things that God commands us to do are reasonable, some of them are harder than others, and doing all these things, all the time seems to be almost humanly impossible.
Remembering to set aside a part of our income for the poor is difficult, but easy to forget. You would think that not stealing is easier, but statistically 75% of us have stolen office supplies or other things from our employers, and if you include coming in late, leaving early, or overstaying our breaks as theft, then I think that number is probably already pretty close to 100 percent. Lying or deception creeps into our lives far too easily, showing favoritism toward the poor or toward the wealthy and powerful is a great cultural temptation, holding a grudge is easier than it should be, and actually loving our neighbors is much harder than we ever expected it to be.
Keeping one of these commands would consume a lot of time and attention, but keeping all of them, at the same time, suddenly becomes improbable.
And if that wasn’t hard enough, in Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus adds more layers of instruction on top of that and makes it even harder.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good; and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus says that we should not resist an evil person and turn the other cheek, but for most of us who have been taught to be independent adults, it is flat out hard, if not impossible, to not stand up for ourselves and fight back. And even harder to not stand up for our loved ones. But Jesus’ warning reminds us that the danger of resisting evil is that, in doing so, we risk committing, or even becoming, evil ourselves. And after that, Jesus says that we’re supposed to love our enemies? How hard is that? And pray for those who persecute you? Folks, if I am being persecuted, there are a lot of things that I might want to do to the person responsible for my persecution, but praying for them is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind. But Jesus’ whole point here is that in order to be holy and be the kind of perfect person that God wants us to become, we must be loving, and the kind of love that God wants us to have is hard. Real love isn’t just love for the people who can do things for you, or for people who are like you, or just for the people who can love you back.
Real love is loving, even to the people who hate you and persecute you. Real love is loving the people who are too poor, or too young, or too old, or too powerless, to do anything for you in return. If we want to be the people that God created us to be, if we want to be more like Jesus, then we need to love the way that Jesus loved. In fact, not only is real love hard, Jesus says that if love is easy, then it may not be real love at all.
So, why is our mission impossible? Why are the commands of God and Jesus so incredibly difficult? First, it’s because God, being perfect, cannot tolerate imperfection and wants us to become perfect as well. But there’s more to it than that, as Paul explains to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 where he says:
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
You and I, and all the followers of Jesus Christ, are building on a foundation laid by Jesus and a foundation which Paul says, is Jesus. But what we are building on that foundation is more than just a life, it is, we are, God’s temple and, in the eyes of God, God’s temple is sacred and holy. Together, we are God’s temple. It isn’t this building that we are sitting in, or some building past, present, or future in Jerusalem, we are God’s temple. And God intends for his temple to be holy, pure, and perfect.
So how does that help us to understand our impossible mission?
It helps us to understand because it establishes the goal.
In football, gaining a few yards against incredible opposition is good, but it must be in the right direction, and everyone understands that a ninety-nine-yard gain still doesn’t count if you can’t cross the goal line. It makes a difference, as a runner, if you are just going outside to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine or if your goal is to run, and complete, a half-marathon. Football players, runners, choirs, bands, artists, and athletes understand that getting stronger requires that we push ourselves and a big part of that is knowing what the goal is. We don’t get stronger, or faster, or increase our agility and stamina if we only do the things that we can already do easily. In order to get better than we already are, we must strive toward a goal that is unreachable at our current level of skill and fitness.
Our spiritual growth is no different.
God wants us to know what the goal is so that we know what direction in which to travel and to push us to work toward that goal. A runner that begins to train for a half-marathon might not be able to reach that goal, but you can bet that they’re going to become a better runner than they were before they started. As Christians, if our only goal is “pretty good” or “good enough” then we aren’t likely to ever challenge ourselves enough to change. It is only by striving toward the goal of perfection that challenges us enough for God to genuinely transform us into something better than we were before.
So yes, doing all the things that God wants us to do, and following all the teachings of Jesus are going to be incredibly difficult and almost completely impossible. But it is only by attempting the impossible that we can become more like Jesus.
You can almost hear the message on that tiny tape recorder:
“Good evening Mr. Phelps. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is… to become perfect.”
I know that it’s going to be difficult. And I don’t know if I will ever get there.
But I’m going to try.
How about you?
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