Joseph decided to quietly divorce Mary when he found out she was carrying a baby that was not his. That alone puts in him a league virtually by himself, as he wanted to protect, rather than expose, the woman who had seemed to betray him. Then he did the unthinkable. He thought about what he was about to do. What would have happened to Mary had she been betrothed to an impulsive man? An angry man? A man who shoots first and asks questions later? A man who can always be counted on to blow up at the least provocation so that everyone around him walks on eggshells? God chose the man who would be the father to Jesus on the earth, and He chose Joseph. Here’s a lesson learned from this man’s character: thought should always precede action.
It was while Joseph thought about the events that were unfolding around him that an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. His thoughtfulness reveals a wisdom that Joseph had even as a young man. Someone said wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have preferred to talk. Perhaps we could say that wisdom is also the reward you get for developing the habit of waiting when you are not sure what to do.
The fact that Joseph got the answer in a dream tells me something else. Joseph did not make an impulsive decision about his betrothal to Mary. He slept on it, first. How many decisions have we made in the heat of the moment that had we just waited 24 hours would have saved us untold misery? I heard about a zoo in Friedberg, Germany that decided, (ready for this?) that they are no longer going to allow children to swim with crocodiles. Good call, folks! It seems that at birthday parties, the children could feed, touch, and even swim with crocodiles, as long as they were with an experienced guide. Wow. Some decisions you don’t need to sleep on, and that one falls into the “What took you so long?” category.
Maybe none of us are going to swim with crocodiles. We are much more likely to take other risks, like racking up large amounts of debt on our credit cards. Last year the average American family spent nearly $1,000 on Christmas presents, which doesn’t include what they spent on decorations, food, and trips to see grandma’s house. Most Christmas spending is put on a credit card. If you make the minimum payment on the card, it will take more than five years to pay off the debt for one Christmas, and you will end up paying an additional $500 in interest. Hey, probably the best thing we all could do for our financial health would be to pay cash for presents this year.
Joseph was a thoughtful man who listened to and followed God. God spoke to Joseph about staying in the betrothal and not running away from what would have been a scandal to the community. That is what love looks like: to suffer humiliation quietly for the Lord’s name. Then, God spoke to Joseph in a dream to tell him to take the child and His mother to Egypt, to protect them from Herod. Here’s another definition of love: to put myself in an uncomfortable place for the sake of Christ. Finally, God spoke to Joseph when Herod was dead to say it was safe to go back to Israel.
I can hear you say, “Well, hey, if an angel of the Lord appears to me in a dream and tells me what to do, I will gladly do it!” But that would be missing the point. The point is that in each case, Joseph heard from God. We can do that without angels and without dreams, can’t we? Joseph put himself in position to hear from God by being a thoughtful and just man, and by obeying what God said. We can do the same thing by being daily in the Word, weekly in fellowship with the church, and moment-by-moment being dependent on the Holy Spirit’s help and guidance.
Cindy and I enjoy reading through books together. At least a few evenings a week, we will curl up with a hot drink in the den and read a chapter or two. The book we are currently enjoying is “The Insanity of God” by Nik Ripken. You really should read this book, if for no other reason than to understand the title. Let me warn you, though. There are stories that will make you laugh out loud, and stories that will make you sob. Out loud. Let me share one of Nik’s lighter stories that took place before he and his wife went overseas for the first time.
They had spent months filling out paperwork and answering questions about their desire to serve as missionaries. Finally Nik and his wife got to answer questions in person. The board asked why they were interested in missions, and Nik’s wife told them about feeling called to missions even as a child. The board was impressed. Then they turned to Nik and asked when he had “received the call.” He said, “I read Matthew 28.” That’s where Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission, commanding them to go and make disciples of all nations, of all people groups. The board was not impressed, and they spent an hour explaining how overseas missions is “supposed to work.” They told Nik that it requires first a call to salvation and then a call to ministry and then a call to take the Gospel out into the world and finally a call to go to a specific country. They asked him then what he thought about that, and he wrote in the book that he was young and naïve enough to believe they really wanted to know what he thought. He said, “It appears to me that you have created a ‘call to missions’ that allows people to be disobedient to what Jesus has already commanded all of us to do.”
I love that story because it has so many applications. We Christians sometimes like to hide behind the fog of ‘feeling a call’ as an excuse not to do the plain things the Lord has commanded us to do. “Well, you know, I would have people over to my house for a meal,” someone says, “but I just don’t feel called to do that. It’s not my gift.” You don’t have to read much in the Bible to see that God’s people are commanded to exercise hospitality.
Someone else says, “I don’t go to church very often. It’s just not my thing.” If church is not your thing, you should reconsider whether Jesus is. It makes no sense to say that you love the head while you are indifferent to the body.
Another person says, “Well, I don’t know much about what the Bible says, but I don’t need to; the pastor (Priest? Father? Bishop?) is supposed to read that stuff and tell the rest of us what it means.” That kind of thinking led to the Reformation.
The classic example is when a Christian says, “Tell people about Jesus? What do you take me for, a fanatic? Besides, that’s not my calling. I’m not good at it. Other people can do that, but not me!” Read Matthew 28. In fact, dive in and read the whole Gospel, any of the four, and see what Jesus trained his first disciples to be and to do.
Then, go practice sharing the good news. Tis’ the season, after all, and hearts are more open to hear at this time of year the reason we celebrate Christmas.
It was spring, but it was summer I wanted,
the warm days, and the great outdoors.
It was summer, but it was fall I wanted,
the colorful leaves, and the cool, dry air.
It was autumn, but it was winter I wanted,
the beautiful snow, and the joy of the holiday season.
I was a child, but it was adulthood I wanted,
the freedom, and the respect.
I was twenty, but it was thirty I wanted,
to be mature, and sophisticated.
I was middle-aged, but it was thirty I wanted,
the youth, and the free spirit.
I was retired, but it was middle-age that I wanted,
the presence of mind, without limitations.
My life was over,
but I never got what I wanted.
I don’t know the secret to the changing seasons. I don’t know the secret to a long life. I don’t know the secret to keeping a clear complexion, or keeping my hair from turning gray or turning loose. I don’t know the secret to avoiding the flu in the winter. Those would be nice secrets to unlock, and I would be happy to share the answers with you if I stumbled upon them. But can I tell you a secret? This one is huge, and makes long life, hairiness, healthy skin, and flu-freedom seem trivial in comparison. It is particularly appropriate to learn this secret during this season of the year, as we bask in thankfulness for family and as we approach a time of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas. OK, here it is:
I am learning the secret of contentment. I am not able to say with Paul, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” No, I am still learning. But, what Paul said was no glib statement from a man in a chaise lounge on the deck of a cruise ship, sipping a lemonade and reading Grisham. Contentment in any circumstance for the Apostle Paul included having his back laid open with a whip more than once, being stoned and left for dead, being shipwrecked, and sitting in a Roman prison awaiting trial and possible execution. He says, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Whether he had a full belly or not, whether he had just been beaten or just been welcomed to a warm home, Paul was content. It stands to reason that Paul didn’t fret about losing his hair, or his complexion, or even his life! He had found the secret of contentment.
The secret of contentment is that it is found in joyful submission to Christ. It is realized as we grow in our trust that He does all things for our good. We can trust Him when there is plenty, and we can trust Him when there is nothing at all. Whether he was sleeping on the rock floor of a dungeon or in a comfortable bed, Paul’s life was in God’s hands, and he knew it. He kept himself under God, accepting with joy everything God brought his way, instead of putting himself over God by expecting or even demanding a quieter, easier, more prosperous and enjoyable life. Those who do not know Christ have what they have simply from God’s general providence. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, as the Bible says. Jeremiah Burroughs writes, “But the saints have (what they have) in a special way. The saint says, ‘I have it, and I have a sanctified use of it, too; God goes along with what I have to draw my heart nearer to him, and sanctify my heart to him.’” There it is. The secret of contentment is found in trusting God for each moment of each day, that what He gives is for our good and for His glory.
This is a secret too good to keep to yourself. Pass it on!
It was a blazing hot day in war-torn Somalia in the summer of 1992. Five tons of grain had arrived earlier, and a long line of hungry people was waiting. There was a military presence at the feeding center, to keep order and protect lives. As the line moved slowly and the supply of wheat dwindled and the heat soared past 100 degrees, the hungry crowd began to grow restless. That was when one of the least likely people waiting for food decided she had had enough. An older Somali woman with deep wrinkles received her ration of wheat and then began to lose it. One of the American workers closest to her was affectionately called Bubba by the rest of the team. He was a huge man, an intimidating presence to any who didn’t know him, a gentle teddy bear to all who did. Those who spent time with Bubba were drawn to his gentle heart and his warm smile. He was not just checking off a box called “do random acts of kindness.” He was in Somalia because he loved people and wanted to help relieve suffering, wherever he could.
The old woman unleashed a verbal attack on Bubba, and though he knew she was furious, he couldn’t understand a word she said. Nik Ripken was there and was thankful that Bubba didn’t know the names he was being called. Bubba just towered over the angry woman and smiled at her. This seemed to infuriate her even more. The crowd stopped and stared at the one-sided confrontation, and Nik ran toward the event to see if he could help. He then understood the source of the woman’s anger. She was complaining about the animal feed that was being given to the people for human consumption. She had a point. The sub-standard wheat came from the United Nations contributing members, and it was product that nobody had wanted, and no one could sell. Bubba didn’t know what she was saying, though, so he kept smiling at her.
That’s when she decided to try another method of communication. The woman put down her two bags of wheat, grabbed two fistfuls of dirt and dust and wheat chaff from the ground, and hurled them with all her might into Bubba’s face. The crowd went quiet. The soldiers locked and loaded their weapons. All eyes were fixed on Bubba, who was temporarily blinded by the assault. That’s when the plot turned in a direction no one expected. Bubba wiped the grit and grime out of his eyes, turned to the old woman with a smile, and began to sing.
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time, You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, crying all the time. You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
She didn’t understand a word he sang, but she stomped off before the second verse began. The relieved Somali guards walked over and thanked Bubba for easing the tension, and said they didn’t know he was such a singer. “Oh, yeah,” he grinned, “I’m a famous singer. Back home, they call me ‘Elvis!’”
Nik Ripken told this story in his book, “The Insanity of God,” and concluded, “I had observed one of the most impressive demonstrations of Jesus’ love that I have ever seen. A kind, gentle, godly example of humility and humanity had instantly defused a situation so volatile that it could have turned deadly within seconds. Bubba had done that simply by following the seemingly insane teaching of Jesus who had instructed His followers to ‘love your enemies.’ Bubba had met angry hostility with a simple smile, and a very unlikely hymn…In that moment, I learned some good lessons about cross-cultural relationships. What I had mistaken at first for naiveté, I came to see as nothing less than the love of Jesus.”
Sometimes, the best thing to do is sing.
Are you a worrier? Do you come from a long line of worriers? Maybe you are one of those moms who has told her kids, “I’m a mom. Moms worry.” Then what would you say to someone who said, “Do not worry about anything?” I know, you would say, “Obviously not a mom.” But let’s be real; it’s not just moms who worry. Everyone worries, and today, anxiety is all the rage. The latest statistics indicate that anxiety is the leading mental health disorder on college campuses, racing towards epidemic status.
What would it be like to put your feet on the floor in the morning and not be anxious? Not only that, but what would it be like to be a person marked by joy? Oh, and for the trifecta, what would it be like to live your life in peace? Impossible, you say? I have good news that a life filled with peace and joy is not a pipe dream, nor should it be all that unusual for those who know Jesus and follow Him. I would direct your attention to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and chapter 4. In verses 4-7, Paul essentially gives us a path to follow that is different from anything the world can offer. First he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Alistair Begg says that this is only possible if we look at joy the same way we look at love. Most of us, Begg says, are more likely to think of joy as a victim of our emotions, rather than a servant of our wills. So we would say, “Rejoice? How can I rejoice in the Lord? Let me show you my doctor’s bills. Let me tell you about my job. Let me show you the suffering in my marriage, my family, my body, my soul. Rejoice? I don’t see how.” It is true, though, that even in deep sorrow, we can choose to rejoice in the Lord, if we make joy a servant of our will. Tony Merida writes, “Would this practice not conquer sins like envy, gossip, arrogance, discontentment, and complaining? These sins grow out of a heart that’s not finding joy in Christ.”
After encouraging us to let our reasonableness be evident to all, Paul says something shocking. “Do not be anxious about anything.” Is Paul kidding here? That’s not even possible, is it? I remember being with a good friend, Rob, in Kenya one time, and I told him my mom was praying for us every day. He looked at me and said, “My mom is worrying for us, every day.” John Piper says, “Anxiety seems to be an intense desire for something, accompanied by a fear of the consequences of not receiving it.” It normally involves something like money or relationships, things or people that we really value. Anxiety happens when we imagine the future in a worst-case scenario and then give in to our fears. A friend told me recently about going through a battery of tests a few years ago, seeing one doctor after another, as they tried to figure out his chest pains, his shortness of breath, fatigue, loss of appetite, and panic attacks. There was absolutely no physical cause they could find. They finally asked him about what was going on in his life, and he told the doctor about the enormous stress he had been under in his job. That was it. He told me, “Mark, I got very close to leaving the work that I had believed I was called to. I had no joy in it anymore.”
In Matthew 6, Jesus says the same phrase three times as he reminds us of how much more the Lord loves us than he does the flowers and the birds, yet he takes care of them. What phrase does he repeat? “Therefore, do not be anxious.” If we ignore this, we live as practical atheists, telling people we believe in God and we trust Him, when we really don’t.
Here’s an idea that comes right from the Lord himself. Instead of being anxious about anything, instead turn that worry into prayer. At the first sign of anxiety, call out to the Lord with your fears and ask for his peace. Bad habits die hard, and the change will not happen overnight. But soon you will be amazed at the level of peace and joy that marks your life.
Others will be amazed, too.
“You pick two topics out of the envelope, choose the one you like the most, and then take it to the hallway outside. You will have two minutes to prepare a one-minute speech.” That’s what I told my college students, and though they groaned a little at the prospect initially, they actually enjoyed it, especially once their turn was done and they could watch and enjoy what the others came up with for their topics. In fact, when the round was over, several wanted to do a second impromptu speech! Then it was my turn. At their insistence, I had told them that they could choose a topic for me, any topic, and I would have to speak for a minute without preparation. One of my classes chose “the migration patterns of the Alaskan moose” for my topic. Well, what can I say? I know absolutely nothing about the creature, except that it is huge. So I went for humor and talked about how important it is to miss a migrating moose with your Miata. It could ruin your whole day, otherwise.
Another class had a ball picking the topic they wanted me to speak about. I could hear them howling with laughter as I waited five minutes in the hallway for the big announcement. Finally I was ushered into the classroom. “Professor Fox,” one of the most energetic students said with a wicked grin, “we want you to speak about safe sex.”
I smiled as I approached the front of the room and stood behind the podium, praying that I would not waste this opportunity to speak to such an important topic. I started by saying, “Sex is a wonderful creation of God. It was his idea, and he gave it as a gift to husbands and wives to increase joy and intimacy in marriage. It deepens the love they have for each other, it builds trust and tenderness, and of course, it can produce life. There is nothing perhaps better, on this side of heaven, than loving sex in marriage. And of course, that is where sex is safe, and the place for which it is created: marriage. When it is used outside of the bounds of marriage, sex can be destructive. It is like a fire. When you have a fire in the fireplace, it is a wonderful thing. It warms the house, and produces ambience and joy. But when the fire is in the living room, on the rug and in the couch, it brings destruction, fear, and great loss.”
I closed by saying that I know these ideas may seem antiquated to them, and impractical, because sex is viewed by most as an entitlement. We have grown much more permissive as a society in our attitudes toward sex, with more than 60 percent of millennials believing sex before marriage is “not wrong at all.” But if we really want to practice sex that is safe, we will be willing to wait until marriage for it.
I know that the world says we Christians have our heads in the sand when it comes to sex. And that we need to be preaching to those who choose to pursue sex outside of marriage that they must do so in a way that prevents disease or pregnancy. I get it. But implicit in that message, and becoming more explicit every day, is the proposition that sex is amoral, that it is simply a bodily function, like sneezing. I don’t apologize for presenting the other side of the argument, appealing to young people who are living in a sex-saturated culture, that there really is a way for sex to be safe. And good.
When I finished my speech, the students gave me a hearty ovation, and some made comments to me as they were leaving. One senior said, “Hey, that was awesome. Great job.”
I left the classroom thankful that I was able to share just 60 seconds of encouragement with young people I have grown to love and care about.
Where do I belong? Where do I fit in? We all want to know the answer to those questions. For some, it is a lifelong pursuit. I remember my high school days with pain, because I really didn’t know where I fit in. In my school there were five groups. At the top of the food chain were the popular kids. Some were athletes or cheerleaders, others were not. But they were the kids everybody else wanted to be like, and to hang out with. I remember a recurring dream where one of the popular guys would see me carrying my tray in the cafeteria at school, and he would call over to me: “Hey, Fox, come join us!” Then I would wake up.
Next in the pecking order were the jocks. You didn’t have to be the quarterback or the starting point guard, but if you were on the football or basketball team, you were cool and got invited to all the parties. Tennis? Umm, not so much. I played tennis in 9th and 10th grade, and we even won a city championship. But tennis didn’t cut it with the jocks.
The third group was the brainiacs, the smart kids. They were the ones who, if they even bothered to show up at the football game, brought their chemistry book with them. But at least they belonged to a group, and I wasn’t in it.
Then there was the group that we called the druggies, the ones who wore Black Sabbath T-shirts and were always smoking cigarettes in the bathroom and talking about their latest party. Those guys scared me.
Finally, we must not forget about the rednecks. These were the good ol’ boys who drove their pickups to school and backed them into a parking space in the gravel lot. They couldn’t wait for lunch break because they would eat their sandwich and Fritos outside, gathered around one of their trucks, “talking boss,” whatever that meant. I, uh, didn’t have a truck, and didn’t have the nerve to back my dad’s 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass into a parking space next to them. So, I didn’t fit in with those guys, either.
That was it, the five groups in my school. Oh, wait, there was one more: “others.” That’s where I hung out: with the rest of the losers. And to be honest, that’s where the majority of the Christians fit in. Still do. We are the “other” guys and girls. We ate together, went to church together, and sometimes prayed together early in the morning before school started. And though we knew where we fit in, sort of, mostly we knew where we didn’t fit. I had Christian friends who would have done anything to break into one of the other groups.
Maybe some of you feel that way, whether you are 17 or 37. You are still trying to figure out where you belong. I have great news! All who come to Christ by faith belong to him. We are accepted in the beloved. We are called by Christ to know him and to help others to know him, too. But our citizenship is in heaven; that’s where we will fully and finally and forever belong. I have thought about having a passport made up that says “Heaven” for my citizenship status, but my impression is that the guys at passport control are not known for their sense of humor.
Who are you? Where, really, is your identity found? That question, at least in our culture, is perhaps more confusing than it has ever been. But the Bible makes it plain. Our identity is not found in our race, or our gender, or our politics, or our education, or our athleticism, or our economic status, or our marital status, or our children, or anything else. Our identity is found in Christ: that is where we belong.
And, you know what? If there’s a football team in heaven, I’m showing up for tryouts with my new and glorified body.
You can live in the past, and be constrained by it. Or you can learn from the past, leave the past in the past, and run without hindrance toward the finish line. Which character in the New Testament, based on his past, was least qualified to be a leader in the church? That would be Paul, the pre-conversion terrorist whose passion was to track down and imprison Christians. After Paul’s conversion, he could have easily crept back to his hometown of Tarsus, lived a quiet life there, minding his own business, feeling bad about his past sins, and waiting patiently for death. Except for one minor detail: the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. He was chosen, and he was called, and God had a plan to use his life (and yours and mine) for the Gospel. That means that no one reading this column has a past that is bad enough to disqualify you, even if you have been a terrorist. So, what do we do if we want to know Christ and be useful to him in ministry? Paul said it like this: “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining towards what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Anything in our past or our present that would rob us of our run after Christ needs to go. That could mean failures of the past. We all have them. That could mean successes of the past. We all have those as well. Leave them there, along with your past defeats, and press on. This also means that if we are presently entangled in a way that hinders our pursuit of Christ, we need to disentangle. Young people, if you are in a relationship with someone who doesn’t make you want to be more like Christ, that is a clear warning from God that he or she may not be the right person for you. I would encourage you to seek godly counsel and not make a lifelong mistake.
Maybe it’s not a relationship with a person that hinders your run, but just a life filled with trivial pursuits. Paul wrote, “Have nothing to do with silly, irreverent myths. Rather, train yourself for godliness.” Silly, irreverent myths, or silly, irreverent activities could describe about 95% of what is on television or Netflix or at the theater, couldn’t it? Be honest with yourself about this: are you saturated with entertainment to the point that pursuing Christ is either a third-place hobby in your life or something that doesn’t even show up at all? What would it look like for you and me to train ourselves for godliness? To strain forward toward what lies ahead instead of simply living for the next movie, the next Netflix series, the next reality show, the next video game, the next ballgame, the next golf outing, the next shopping spree, the next ____________(fill in the blank with your preferred entertainment option.) It doesn’t mean we have to chuck our golf clubs in the lake or our TVs in the woods. It might mean, however, that we put limits on the many ways we tend to “amuse ourselves to death.” It will definitely mean that we begin an earnest run after Christ. Look, you can put one of those silly and sad 0.0 stickers on the back of your pickup if you want, proudly announcing that you don’t run unless something is chasing you. But you cannot put that sticker on your soul. If you know Jesus, you are called to run after Him with all your might. Period.
Knowing Jesus and helping others to know Jesus was all that really mattered to Paul. It was the one thing that marked his life more than anything else. He let nothing get in the way of that pursuit.
What one change could you make in order to pursue the one thing that matters most?
It is an amazing thing to me that, 30 years after Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he expresses the cry of his heart in a letter to one of the churches he planted: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” What does that statement by Paul teach us about Christ, except that yes, we are able to know him! Even as a 15-year-old, this verse captured me the first time I read it. Maybe I saw then with immature faith that this was the greatest cry of Paul’s heart. He had forsaken the pursuit of fame and fortune as a Pharisee, and had given himself fully to the pursuit of Christ. Could there be anybody in the first century who knew Christ better than Paul? And yet, here is Paul crying out from a Roman prison that more than anything, he wanted to know the Lord.
It has been a 45-year pursuit for me — longer for some of you, shorter for others. I know that I will finally fully know Jesus when I meet him face to face, but I want to know him on this side of heaven. I want to grow more like him. The big theological term that describes what I desire more of, is sanctification.
Sanctification is the process by which we grow in our relationship with Jesus. It is progressive and continuous until the day we die. And though God takes the initiative, sanctification requires our participation. Therefore, it looks different in different people because of the amount of participation by the individual. The disobedient Christian grows much more slowly than the obedient one. You know this is a law of physics: Speed x Time = Distance. If you drive at 60 mph for one hour, you will have driven 60 miles. It is also a spiritual law. Persistent obedience over time leads to maturity. Sanctification happens as we take a “long walk of obedience” with the Lord, cooperating with the Spirit of God in the plan He has chosen for us.
How do we do it, then? How do we grow in our relationship with the Lord, to truly get to know Jesus? Let’s acknowledge that part of our growth comes from just doing the work: reading and studying the Bible, learning to pray, obeying the main things and the plain things of Scripture. But our spiritual maturity is also affected by our relationships. If we spend time with people who know Jesus better than we do, we will likely grow in our relationship with Jesus ourselves.
Ask yourself this question: “Who knows Jesus better than I do that I am close to?” I am fortunate to live with someone who knows Jesus better than I: my wife! She is not only my best friend and closest companion, she has been my example and teacher in many ways over these 35 years of marriage. I also have friends who are more mature than I in their relationship with the Lord, and I learn by being with them. I would suggest you ask someone who is close to the Lord to have coffee with you. Ask them how they know him like they do. Listen carefully, and begin to follow their walk, until it becomes your own. Be forewarned that those who draw near to Jesus will be changed. He will ask you to stop some things that are important to you, and start others that have been neglected.
The long walk of obedience will be worth it.
I had a friend named Jack Robinson growing up. It’s true. You millennials might not know that people used to use that name to explain quickness: “Are you going to the beach?” “Just as quick as you can say Jack Robinson.” Well, my friend was quick, but not always as quick as I was. We competed in everything. Running. Throwing sticks. Wrestling. Climbing trees. We even competed in selling vegetable seeds door to door. But every time we competed, the winner had bragging rights. That’s why we competed, so whoever won could brag. The winner would always brag about how much he trounced the other, and the loser would always have an excuse for why he did not win. Bottom line? We wanted to be the best.
So did Paul, known as Saul of Tarsus before his conversion. With all seriousness, Paul included a list in his letter to the Philippians about why he had more reason to brag about his past accomplishments than anyone. He says, in effect, “You think you have reason to brag? Step aside, son. You ain’t got nothing.” I’ve noticed that when Paul brags, he uses poor grammar, just to make a point. Paul continued, “Let me tell you about a man who was a legend in his own time. That man, my boy, would be me.” I am using poetic license, of course, but Paul did brag to the Philippians, in order to make this point: though he climbed to the top of the ladder as a religious person, when he arrived at the pinnacle he discovered his ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. Paul discovered, through a blinding flash, that salvation is not a do-it-yourself project.
Had it been, Paul would have been a rock star in his day. I imagine a first century show called “Israeli Idol” that Paul would have won, every single year. Because the show wouldn’t have been about singing or dancing, but about reciting memorized Scriptures. Praying long, elaborate prayers. Fasting. And of course, Paul’s favorite talent: persecuting Christians. He makes the case in his letter that there was no one who even came close to having his devotion, his zeal, and his righteousness under the law.
Ahh, there’s the rub. The law cannot make one righteous any more than a mirror can clean one’s face. The law, like a mirror, shows us our need for cleansing. In the midst of his busy pursuit of making himself acceptable to God, Paul was apprehended by the Lord himself. On his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, Paul met the Savior and exchanged his pharisaical robes of self-righteousness for the righteousness of Christ. Paul’s life was turned right-side-up. But, wait…
What about his resume? His pedigree? His studies at the feet of Gamaliel? His blamelessness “under the law”? Paul uses a crude expletive to describe all of his past accomplishments. He calls it rubbish, or, “dung.” The word was sometimes used in the Greek to describe the piles of, umm, stuff you see people scooping off the ground with a plastic grocery bag on their hand and then turning the bag inside out. I saw a lady do that recently while she was walking her dog, and then I watched in amazement as she put the grocery bag in her purse. Paul would be horrified at that, but even more, he was mortified at the wobbly foundation of do-it-yourself salvation that he had been standing on until he met Christ.
I don’t know what happened to my childhood friend and competitor. I just know that as quick as you could say “Jack Robinson,” 50 years have gone by since we were racing up Walden Avenue together. Maybe I will find one day that Jack came to the same place I did, and that he put his life and his faith into the hands of the One who can turn anyone right-side-up. I hope so.