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Monday, November 21, 2011

"Seeking the Best Thing” (Matthew 26:59-66)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christian author Eugene Peterson has written many books and is perhaps best known for his translation/interpretation of the entire Bible. His work is extremely popular and many of you use it. It is called The Message.

As tremendously talented as he is at Greek and Hebrew and at the craft of writing, Peterson started out as a pastor, and still views himself primarily as a pastor. In the 1960’s his denomination, the Presbyterians, sent him to start up a new church in Maryland. What was then farm country is now DC-Baltimore urban sprawl. The denomination demonstrated vision in predicting a population boom. That boom happened, and Peterson’s church grew to be a strong, thriving, lasting congregation.

But the process of building it was spiritually draining on Eugene Peterson. He longed to help people know God and walk with God throughout their lives. The longer he was at the work of church planting, the less appealing church growth was for Peterson, because church growth involved numbers – number of baptisms, number of new members, number of dollars tithed. He celebrated when a person was born again, truly saved in a new found faith in Jesus Christ. He sensed though that his denomination was more interested in the numbers saved than the individual stories of actual people meeting God. He felt that this work of Church-planting and church growth was reflective of business models and success was determined the way businesses determine success. He wanted to be someone who cared for and grew souls. He felt the denomination wanted him to grow the Presbyterian brand of American Christianity.

He also thought the denomination did not care how he was doing personally. Part of his work was to file a report every month. The first page was statistics. How many calls had he made (this was church planting and he needed to bring people together to form a new congregation)? What was the worship attendance? The second page was to be devoted to Peterson’s personal, spiritual journey as he planted this church. He came to believe that the denominational leaders were only looking for measurable results. So they only read the first page of his report and ignored the subsequent which were much more personal and to Peterson more important.

To test his theory, that he was being ignored, Peterson got creative. In the next report, he filled out the numbers as he did each month. But on the personal reporting page, he wrote in detail about a long, slow slide into depression. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t pray, and had no zeal for his calling. He thought maybe he should consider quitting. Could they recommend a counselor? No response. Of course, this wasn’t true, but he wanted to test the leaders, and they failed the test.

So, he took it up a notch. The next month, he turned the reporting as usual, and then wrote on the second page his personal report. Again imagined, he developed a drinking problem. The congregation graciously ignored it, but one Sunday, one of the elders actually had to complete the sermon. So he felt he needed treatment. What did the denomination recommend? No response.

The next month, he fell into an affair. He was counseling a woman in an abusive marriage, but they ended up together, in one of the church pews. They were discovered by the ladies who came into arrange the flowers for Sunday morning. He thought that was it, but apparently in that community, swingers were admired. The next Sunday, attendance doubled.

It got to be great fun for Peterson and his wife, imagining new shocking things to write that his overseers never read because all they wanted was to see that the church was growing, people were being baptized, money was tithed, and the numbers were up. He wrote in another report that one very unorthodox scholar believed there was a psychedelic mushroom cult in 1st Palestine and Jesus was a part of it and He, Peterson, was going to introduce this drug-use as a part of the church’s worship. And he was changing the liturgy to fit the sex-crazed, drug-addicted culture in which he ministered. Never did he get any response.

The time came to meet with the denominational leaders in New York City. The church plant was successful and the church would now be on its own. The council thanked Peterson for his good work and faithful reporting. He thanked them for all the resources they provided including his paycheck. Then he asked why they had never read any of the personal reports. They assured him they had, but they were caught. He asked why they never sent recommendations when he was in trouble with alcohol. He asked why they didn’t recommend a therapist when he was depressed. On and on, and they had no answer, and they were shocked upon first hearing of the stories of sex and shrooms. Peterson writes, “Their faces were blank, and then confused – followed by a splendid vaudeville slapstick of buck-passing and excuse-making.”[i]

The leaders of the denomination got what they sought – a successful church in a growing area. Were they seeking the right thing? They completely missed a human being, a story, albeit a fictional story. Were they looking for the right thing? Are we?

I always say 30 was the most important birthday of my life because I stopped trying to be “cool,” and realized I never was “cool,” and never would be. It wasn’t really about my coolness one was or another. I started really liking myself, not in a arrogant or narcissistic way, but in a healthy way.

However, at 10 years old, I got it into my mind that I wanted to be cool and that meant I had to be friends with certain people. My real best friends, Michael and Doug, were too familiar to be cool enough. I don’t know why, but I thought Earl was the coolest kid in our class. So when we had sprinting races in gym class, Earl asked me to let him keep pace. I was about the fastest sprinter in that class, which, when you think about it is pretty cool. But I couldn’t see that through my Earl-envy. Earl asked me to ease up and I did because, it’s Earl. I finished in fourth place, not first. The phys-ed teacher chewed me out. He knew I was fast and he knew I was placating my “cool friend.” He didn’t like me jeopardizing my potential for the sake of popularity.

Later, Doug, my real friend, was coming for a sleepover. I convinced him and my mom that we had to invite Earl. So, Doug and I went with Earl to Earl’s house so he could get his sleeping bag. My mom was crystal clear. Earl lived on the other side of Rochester Road. She said, “Don’t cross that road. Wait at the road for Earl to get his stuff and then the three of you walk back.”

As soon as were out of sight of my house, I said, “Hey, we’re going to Earl’s.” Doug said, “Your mom said not to cross Rochester.” But Earl lived on the other side and Earl was cool and I wanted to be cool. That’s what I was looking for! My mom certainly wasn’t cool. And Doug’s coolness factor was in doubt because he wanted to listen to my mom, not Earl.

So we broke the rules and went to Earl’s house and starting walking back and everything was fine until, just on the wrong side of Rochester, we were surrounded by Larry Padget’s gang. Larry was going to have some fun, bullying me around and there wasn’t much I could do about it. Larry took his time in this cruel tormenting game. Right about the time he was going to move from petty taunting to the rearrangement of my face, my dad rode up on bike to see why were taking so long.

He ran Larry’s gang off. Then he told me I had to go confess my disobedience. I wish he had just killed me on the spot. I swear when my mom got that yard stick, it sounded like a light saber being opened. And I learned that Earl wasn’t so “cool,” and being “cool” wasn’t so great.

It took another 20 years before I finally understood – I had been seeking the wrong thing. I didn’t like myself because I tried to live up to false ideal, idols I had created. I was a mostly happy person, but I didn’t find deep inner joy, joy that comes in good and bad times, until I stopped trying to advance myself and started looking to something else as the deepest longing of my life.

I’ll get to that, but I don’t want to jump ahead. What is it we long for? What do we seek? Success that can be measured and show me to be more successful than my cousin or my Father or the guy who was my nemesis in high school? Does my own joy depend on me being better than someone else? What do we seek? To be the best church around – not just a community of faith, but one that is better in some measurable way than other communities of faith? What are we looking for, longing for?

Jesus miraculously cured a man on the Sabbath day, and as he did, he declared himself to be greater than the temple (Mt. 12:6). Upon hearing this “the Pharisees went out and plotted against him, how they might destroy him” (12:14). Later, after entering Jerusalem, with Jesus’ popularity at a fever pitch, the leaders in the temple cannot stand it. “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Him to death, because they were afraid of the people” (Luke 22:2). And finally, with Jesus arrested, betrayed by Judas and dragged in chains to the home of the high priest, “The chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus” (Mt. 22:59).

The group that condemned Jesus the night of his arrest, the night before the crucifixion was a diverse bunch. Pharisees on the council concerned themselves with the pure practice of Torah religion. Men of the book and of the law, they could not believe God would send a Messiah who did the things Jesus did, befriending tax collectors, violating the intricacies of Sabbath law for the sake of blessing wounded people, and showing mercy to Gentiles. The Sadducees on the council clashed with Jesus over the theology of resurrection. They also chafed at Jesus’ unapologetic critique of their hypocritical approach to religious leadership. And the chief priest himself, contended with Jesus because Jesus claimed authority over the temple and thus over the interpretation of and practice of faith in Israel. Furthermore, the chief priests and temple elders feared Jesus’ bold preaching would eventually rile up the Roman overlords and perhaps Rome would react against all Jews, not just those of the Jesus sect. For these reasons and many, many more, these disparate groups who were usually at odds with one another all came together seeking the same thing – the death of Jesus.

Normally these religious leaders weren’t murderers. How could their inner longings become so distorted that they actually felt this solution, one that is ultimate and unchangeable, was the right one? They most certainly would have depicted themselves as the heroes if they had written the history of Jerusalem in 30AD. How do good people become villains?

How does righteousness become corrupted to the point that we who consider ourselves faithful come to produce evil? Doesn’t it start when we long for something less than the very best thing?

The Presbyterians weren’t wrong to want to have a thriving, growing church in Western Maryland. But at the cost of neglecting the souls who were transformed in those churches and neglecting the lives of the pastors they sent to oversee those churches …

I wasn’t wrong to want to be friends with Earl. I was wrong to use Earl to make think of myself as cool. It’s a mistake I repeated too many times in my teenage years and into my 20’s.

Religious leaders aren’t wrong to seek out the pure practice of faith in worship and daily living. Religion scholars are not in the wrong when they strive mightily for the right understanding of scripture. But when preachers and priests and theologians and scholars get so caught up in their own rightness that they miss the presence of God when they are the very ones who ought to be pointing out the presence of God …

What are we longing for?

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem” (Mt. 2:1). These were Magi from Persia, and they knew Judaism well. In 6th century BC, many Jews were forced into slavery in Babylon (modern day Iraq) and Persia (modern day Iran). When Cyrus permitted Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem, thousands of Jews returned, but just as many remained for they had lives there. They lived in harmony with the Persians. The Magi took a special interest in these Hebrews.

In this era, unlike today, science and religious knowledge worked hand-in-hand to discover truth. These Magi studied the stars as well as the prophecies of many ancient religions. So when God spoke the birth of Jesus through natural phenomenon, a star, they were the ones to notice. They knew this was of God – the God of the Jews.

Assuming the King of the Jews would want to see prophecy fulfilled as much they, gentiles, they went to Herod “asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’” (2:2). We have come to pay him homage.

They came to worship. They longed to bow before the God who produced this wondrous star. I believe these Iranians – that what Persians are – unique people in history discovered in themselves the longing God puts in all of us, the longing to worship Him. Many people replace that longing by seeking popularity, success, power, knowledge, satisfaction in romantic love or career or relationships; we cannot be fulfilled until those things are all set beneath this one thing – the deep desire the pay homage to God.

Departing from Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, the Magi

set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


[i] E. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, MI, 1992), p.79.

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