TO THE TOP OF THE TREE
Philippians 4:4-7 Good News Translation (GNT)
4 May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord. I say it again: rejoice!
5 Show a gentle attitude toward everyone. The Lord is coming soon. 6 Don’t worry about anything, but in all your prayers ask God for what you need, always asking him with a thankful heart. 7 And God’s peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus.
After Jesus finished saying this, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your Son, so that the Son may give glory to you. 2For you gave him authority over all humanity, so that he might give eternal life to all those you gave him. 3And eternal life means knowing you, the only true God, and knowing Jesus Christ, whom you sent. 4I have shown your glory on earth; I have finished the work you gave me to do. 5Father! Give me glory in your presence now, the same glory I had with you before the world was made.
6 “I have made you known to those you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me. They have obeyed your word, 7and now they know that everything you gave me comes from you. 8I gave them the message that you gave me, and they received it; they know that it is true that I came from you, and they believe that you sent me.
9 “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those you gave me, for they belong to you. 10All I have is yours, and all you have is mine; and my glory is shown through them. 11And now I am coming to you; I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Holy Father! Keep them safe by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one just as you and I are one. While I was with them, I kept them safe by the power of your name, the name you gave me. I protected them, and not one of them was lost, except the man who was bound to be lost—so that the scripture might come true. 13And now I am coming to you, and I say these things in the world so that they might have my joy in their hearts in all its fullness.
I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
It is probably not very polite to listen to someone else’s conversation when one is not invited to do so; nevertheless sometimes we do so whether on purpose or inadvertently, and restaurants are one of those places where one cannot help but overhear, especially as it is the way with some people if the decibel level is getting up close to that of a car or a train.
Anyway, one such conversation I was inadvertently an auditory spectator of involved a mother and a father and a young boy at a restaurant. Quite a nice restaurant it was. Not a five star or anything like that, but one where real napkins were used and they served appetizers and entrees and fancy things.
What caught my ear was the father’s voice and it was not hard to catch because to tell the truth, it had a very same tone and intensity that I sometimes use and furthermore it was saying the same kinds of words I am used to saying.
“DRINK YOUR TOMATO JUICE” the father said rather sternly and forcefully. Tomato juice happened to be the appetizer that came when you ordered the entrée. I am not sure why because I do not think most kids find tomato juice appetizing. I prefer clamato myself.
“DRINK YOUR TOMATO JUICE” maybe even a bit louder.
And then the sound of defiance was heard that makes every parent’s stomach knot with outrage.
“DRINK YOUR TOMATO JUICE” IN A VOICE THAT EVEN CAUSED STAR-STRUCK LOVERS TO TURN THEIR HEADS TO SEE.
And an even more defiant answer retorted:
“NO, I DON’T WANT TO.”
Now it was the father’s turn to raise his voice a little louder. It was rattle the wine glass time and even people on the street heard this one.
“DRINK YOUR TOMATO JUICE”
And here is where mother stepped in. Realizing that this war of escalating volumes was going nowhere and being so embarrassed that she looked as if she wanted to take an eraser and just rub herself out of the picture, mother quietly said to father:
(Here’s where I was a little impolite because I had to strain my ears to hear it, but curiosity got the better of me.)
She said quietly, “Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do”.
Now this did not have the quiet soothing effect the mother had hoped for, because father continued on with all stops pulled out.
“He cannot go through life doing what he wants to do. If he does only what he wants to do, it will kill him. Look at me, I’ve never done a thing I wanted to do in my whole life”.
Kind of sent chills up and down my spine. Imagine living with a person who has never done anything that he wanted or she wanted. His whole life. Her whole life.
Everything done out of duty and obligation and morals and the sense of right but hating it all the time.
Kind of like me having brussels sprouts, parsnips, lima beans and kidney for every meal for the rest of my life. Good for me. I’d be healthy as a horse, but I would hate it.
And as these chills danced up and down my spine, I thought:
This is the way Christianity is often presented.
Drink your Christianity. It is good for you.
And so Christianity becomes a duty, an obligation. Something you should do. So what if you do not like it? Do it or else. It is a command. “Drink it!!”
And what is implied by this approach is that Christianity is like Listerine. Good for you but kind of unpleasant tasting. The rest of the world is having all kinds of fun but they are being bad. And you are having no fun at all, but are being good.
And we wonder why teenagers do not swarm to the church?
I heard a story of a man who was visiting an old farmer whose religious persuasion was of the ultra conservative type. He was walking hand in hand with his grand-daughter talking about the problems of the world and every time he mentioned something that was wrong he would turn to his grand-daughter who was about 3 or 4 and say “We don’t believe in that, do we.” And she would agree and say “yeth”.
We don’t believe in drinking alcohol do we? Yeth
We don’t believe in smoking cigarettes do we? Yeth
We don’t believe in dancing do we? Yeth
And so on.
As they walked along they came to a pond with a whole bunch of ducks and the little grand-daughter looked up with questioning eyes and asked, “Grampy, do we beweeve in ducks?’
It is so easy to make following Jesus a whole bunch of things we should not do, because they are bad for us..
Or make it a whole bunch of things we should do because it is good for us..
We should pray.
We should read the bible
We should go to church
We should give money to the church.
I am sure you can think of lots of them. We should…or should not do….
But I am sure one of the missing ingredients in this whole Christian faith thing is contained in these words of Jesus.
“I say these things that they may have my joy in their hearts in all its fullness.”
Why do I follow Jesus? Why do you follow Jesus? Or why does anyone follow Jesus?
Now I have thought about this and thought about this. I guess that is part of my job to think about things like this. Why does a person follow Jesus?
I had some conversations with people and sometimes we talk about HELL. Now that is not my favourite topic, but the concept was raised and we discussed it. One person basically said that the reason that he was a Christian was because he did not want to go to Hell. He was afraid of Hell. Someone else said if there is no hell then what are we saved from. There is no salvation if there is no Hell.
Now I might as well come out and say it. I do not believe in a literal place of fire and torture for all eternity. My mind will not square with a loving God and a just God punishing people for ever in flames. What parent do you know would do that to his or her children?
I do believe that people are apart from God’s love and forgiveness and that is Hell. And there are those whose lives are so tormented physically, emotionally or spiritually that they are in Hell. Now that happens to be my personal belief which I have come to believe through my understanding of the scriptures and I believe it is scriptural. You do not have to believe that, but the point is this.
I do not believe in God the Father and follow Jesus through the Spirit’s help because I am afraid of torture for all eternity.
I follow Jesus because he fulfils my life and gives me joy. Knowing Him is a Joy.
It is one of the missing ingredients, I am sure. I know that being a Christian is not easy all the time, and I can quote you all the scriptures that talk about sacrifice and suffering and “taking up your cross…” and discipline and commitment and all that good stuff. And there are times that all these ingredients are missing too in a congregation’s life or in an individual’s life.
But joy. There is something about Jesus that is wonderful and marvelous and uplifting and awesome and right on and cool or whatever you want to call it. It is the best.
The hymn writer Oswald Smith put it in an old hymn:
“There is joy in serving Jesus.. joy that throbs within my heart;
Every moment, every hour, As I draw upon His power,
There is joy, joy, joy that shall never depart.
Now I picture myself as an ordinary person much like anyone else and much like you. You don’t have a spiritual giant standing before ;you. Neither do you have a physical giant either. So I try to understand God by making comparisons to everyday experiences and events. Now the most precious relationships I have are with my family. So I think about those relationships to try to understand my relationship with God.
Why do I love my wife? It is not because she has lots of money. She is very good looking but that is not the primary reason I love her. I do not love her because (contrary to popular opinion) he held a shotgun to my back and forced me to love her, otherwise he would shoot me.
I love her because she is a very special person whom to know is life itself. She is wonderful and she fills my life with love and joy.
In the same way, I do not love Jesus because he is rich and can make me rich. I do not love Jesus because his beauty and holiness are so overwhelming. I do not love him because God holds a gun to my back and threatens me with everlasting fire if I do not love Jesus
I love Jesus because he is a very special person. He is God come to us and he is wonderful; and He fills my life with love and joy. And that is salvation. Salvation is knowing Jesus Christ. It is having a wondrous, joyous, loving relationship with him.
What about sin? someone says. Is not that what salvation is about? Saved from sin. Is not it about realizing you are a sinner, repenting and being sorry for sin and asking forgiveness?
Sure it is. We are Saved from Sin. We are saved from the things we do that hurt our relationships with God and others.
WE are saved from sin.
We are saved to God. To having a relationship with Jesus.
As Jesus says here in this passage of scripture:
“Eternal life means (or heaven means or salvation means) to know you, the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ whom you sent.
And when you are loved and you love in return, there is joy.
St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century monk, wrote about his joy in knowing God. So passionately he wrote that his words sounded like a young man passionately in love with a young woman.
“One dark night
fired with love’s urgent warnings
Ah, the sheer grace!-
I went out unseen
My house being now all stilled:
O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The lover with His beloved.”
The words may be antiquated but one catches here a sense that here is something different from the way we often understand the faith. John of the Cross is not thinking of duty but ecstasy. He has not reduced Christianity to a Listerine religion. Yucky but good for you… He has not reduced it to a bunch of “shoulds” and “should nots.” He is saying most poetically there is joy in following Jesus.
I remember way back when I first was married. It was a joy to do the laundry. It was a joy to peel the potatoes. It was a joy to wash the dishes. Because I was with the one I loved.
I remember the first night Kirsten came home from the hospital as a baby. And I got up in the middle of the night to feed her and change her. It was ecstasy. I remember changing her diaper for the very first time. JOY.
(After 4 children and ten thousand diapers, I was just moderately happy.)
But you know what I am talking about. Sometimes the things we think are dreary and drudgery are the result of our attitudes and not finding the joy that motivates our lives. Sometimes we just lose perspective on the things that really matter.
I pray that as a parent I do not get bogged down with the difficult task of being a parent that I forget the love and joy that comes from being a parent. It is like the woman who wrote to Ann Landers complaining that her husband snored too loudly. What could she do? Another woman wrote in saying she should thank God. HER husband used to snore but he died. She would give anything to hear him snore again.
Sometimes in the church we lose perspective too. There are lots and lots of tasks to do. Bills to pay and work to be done and sometimes it seems for some that church life is a burden. Meetings and even arguments and there are problems with leaking roofs and toilets and on and on it goes and not enough people are sharing the load.
But if we could just return to that fountain of life and take a big drink of Jesus. Not because we have to, but because we want to. If we could spend more time knowing him and talking to him and thinking about him… …maybe we all could sense ecstasy, not duty.
Joy in knowing Jesus and all the tasks that seem so dreary at times would become joyous because we are with the one we love.
So my charge to you Connie and to the people of Braeside Church is to not forget that the joy of the Lord is your strength, and your motivation.
Return to the fountain of Jesus and take a big drink of joy. And preach like the angels did on Christmas Eve. Behold I bring you tidings of great joy. Today is born in your hearts, a saviour whose name is Jesus.
For what we all preach is the gospel. The good news of great joy, that we are universally loved and accepted by God, and we too can practice and live this good news by loving our neighbours as ourselves.
A dozen years or so ago I used to spend a couple of weeks each summer volunteering as a chaplain at Camp Glen Mohr, one of our Church camps. It was a wonderful experience and I was impressed by the counselors who came back year after year and not for the money because counselors get paid peanuts. But I think they come back because of two reasons. Good relationships or Friendships. And the other reason, Joy. They enjoy it there and there is a sense of joy about the camp.
Now in one particular spot there is a big old pine tree, about 80 – 90 feet high, which has nice big branches and is good for climbing. So one day there were about 23 kids climbing in the tree at one time, and one of the kids was as high as 30 feet. When the kids got down from the tree, one of the counselors said to me; “Would you like to go to the top with me?” I said “NO, not really, I am a little afraid of heights”. “Oh come on” he said, “I’ll help you” “Well I’ll go till I get scared and then I’ll stop” I replied. So we climbed about halfway and I said; “far enough”. “Come on” he said, “you can go a little farther up.”
Well with his encouragement I went to the very top of the tree. Holding on and swaying as the wind blew I could see out over the lake. And there was a real sense of joy and peace and oneness with God that came over me. Because I had trusted this counselor to guide me to the top I had such a wonderful experience and I thought this was a lot like faith.
Some people will never get through to enjoying Jesus and experiencing joy and peace and oneness with God because they will not trust enough to climb to the top. That is go all the way with Jesus an commit one’s life to HIM. They want a little bit of him, Enough to think they are OK or enough to say they fulfilled some duty or obligation. Enough to say they have had their Listerine and it did them some good. Enough to say that they have their eternal fire insurance.
BUT Jesus says: I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly….. I have come that they might have my joy in their hearts. So think. Think of the happiest moment in your life. The greatest joy. The highest tree you have ever climbed. That is Jesus speaking to you saying. “trust me I can take you higher”.