Where is Your Center?
March 07, 2021*
By Pastor John Partridge
Throughout our lives, there are many times when the center becomes important.
The most important actor is said to be center-stage. Children that want to feel important are trying to be the center of attention. When we ride a bicycle, design, or fly an airplane, the center of gravity is critical. In rocketry the relationship between the center of gravity and the center of pressure determines whether you fly or crash. If you are setting a project up on a lathe, you must carefully calculate where the center of the work-piece is or, wherever the chuck and the spindle are set will quickly become the center regardless of whether you intended it to be that way. If you are trying to walk across a balance beam, or a tightrope, or even just a log across a creek, keeping your center of gravity over the beam, rope, or log is the key to crossing successfully. In all these things, and in a great many others, it is the center that is important, and keeping the center in the right place is critical to arriving at your destination safely and achieving your goal. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that scripture says the same thing. If we want to arrive at our destination safely, and achieve our goals, it is critical that we center our lives in the right place.
We begin this morning with what many people consider to be some of the simplest rules for life, the Nine or Ten Commandments (depending on how you count them) found in Exodus 20:1-17.
20:1 And God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Obviously, I could preach an entire series of sermons on these basic instructions, but this morning I want to focus on just two or three. Depending on you how you count them, “You shall have no other gods before me.” and “You shall not make for yourself an image…” is either one, or two, commandments but either way, the instruction is clear. Our relationship with God is important and God will not accept second place. And that relationship is also why God sets aside one day each week for us to rest, to remember, and to spend time together when he commands us to, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
God insists, even requires, that we keep him, and our relationship with him, at the center our lives.
And one of the best-known illustrations of the seriousness with which God takes our obedience to that commandment is found in John 2:13-22, where Jesus arrives in God’s temple in Jerusalem, and finds the Court of the Gentiles, the place of prayer for non-Jews, filled will merchants, bankers, and livestock.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate the freedom of the Jewish people and to give thanks to God for his strength, wisdom, and guidance in leading Moses and the people of Israel out of their captivity in Egypt and into the Promised Land. But in a place that had been deliberately set aside as a place for Gentiles to meet God, Jesus finds it filled with people who have put profit before prayer, wealth before worship, and greed before God. In this place that was supposed to be the center of praise, prayer, and worship, Jesus finds the leaders of the church breaking commandments 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 10, and, if we include the events of Easter, we can add commandments 6 and 9 as well.
Jesus is so offended by this violation of God’s house that he drives out the animals, scatters the money across the courtyard, and flips over the tables of the vendors and bankers. And, rather than dispute their wrongdoing or profess their innocence, the offenders ask Jesus what authority he has to rebuke them, and Jesus responds by offering his own death and resurrection as proof. But, of course, not even his disciples understood his meaning until after the events of Easter had unfolded. But, when they remembered what Jesus had done, and what he had said, “they believed the scriptures and the words that Jesus had spoken.”
The mistake of the vendors, the bankers, and the church leaders was that they allowed something other than God to become the center. Certainly, in a temple that was dedicated to the worship of a Jewish God, the court of the Gentiles was used less frequently than any other. It was entirely possible that, particularly during a Jewish feast or festival such as Passover, that few, if any Gentiles would be using the space set aside for them. But God had deliberately created a place for them. And when the church decided to use that space, they moved God aside and placed practicality, profit, convenience, and greed in the center of their lives and in the center of their worship in his place.
It is that idea of centered-ness that helps us to understand some of the other difficult things that we find in scripture as well as in our spiritual lives. And this is the idea that allows us to understand what Paul is saying to the church in Corinth, and to us, in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 when he says:
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
There have been times when I read this passage and puzzled a bit over what Paul meant by destroying the wisdom of the wise when much of scripture points toward, and sings the praises of, wisdom. Similarly, it is difficult to say bad things about intelligence, or intelligent people, so if I didn’t also know some particularly foolish intelligent people that would also be difficult. But Paul goes on to criticize the teachers of the law, philosophers, and preachers and it can be hard to make sense of what he’s getting at. But, if we look at this passage through the lens of centered-ness, it comes into better focus.
The message of the cross is foolishness to the people who are perishing. Or, put another way, the message of the cross doesn’t make sense to the people who have rejected Jesus. But while that rejection can come in many forms, and while some of those forms can occasionally be surprising to us, at their core, all of them have the same root cause, the removal, or the absence of God at the center. Those who seek wisdom without God in the center become foolish. Those who study to become learned and intelligent but who do not keep God at the center will be frustrated. The teachers of the law and scripture, who shift God away from the center and allow rules, or politics, or power, or anything else to take God’s place in the center has, ultimately, rejected God.
Without God at the center of our lives, our strength, our philosophy, our wisdom, our religiosity, all fail.
Not only are we commanded to keep God in the center, and not only is Jesus deadly serious about maintaining that centered-ness, but our very lives also depend upon it.
Allowing God to drift away from the center means that we have rejected him and allowed something other than God to take his place. And rejecting God… is death.
If you are trying to walk across a balance beam, or a tightrope, or even just a log across a creek, keeping your center of gravity over the beam, rope, or log is the key to crossing successfully. In all these things, and in a great many others, it is the center that is important, and keeping the center in the right place is critical to arriving at your destination safely and achieving your goal. If we want to arrive at our destination safely, and achieve our goals, it is critical that we center our lives in the right place.
As we continue our journey through Lent, I urge you to think about where your heart is and to reflect upon the condition of your inner being as you answer the question of the first four commandments:
Where is your center?
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/g88ngwoGI64
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.