I Want To Believe But... Week Two
Today we are going to continue our sermon series for the month of October entitled, "I Want To Believe, But..."
This series addresses the fact that many of us struggle with our images of God, and some of us struggle so much that we find that it's hard to believe in God altogether.
Some of us may have said: "I want to believe, but..."
I can't believe in a demanding God.
I can't believe in an angry, joyless God.
I can't believe in an absent God.
I can't believe in a heartless God.
Architect Matthew Fredrick once wrote that even though most of the objects that architects draw lend themselves to simple line drawings, there are some things like cars, furniture, trees and people that don't.
He says that a fairly common way of doing these drawings to first draw the box you imagine the object came in. Then draw the object within that simplified container.
Interestingly, this is what most of do with our concepts of God. We are so overwhelmed with the task of trying to understand God and what God is up to that we create the box God came in, so to speak and then try to fit God into that box.
It doesn't work. God frequently defies our notions of God, and definitely can't be fit into any box--especially ones like we just described.
This series will help us discover new ways to think about God that are free from the kinds of boxes.
Let's get started... I'm going to run a sales pitch by you, and you tell me how exciting it is, okay?
What if I told you that I could guarantee you Divine favor and all you have to do is follow some simple rules... There's like 600-plus rules give or take that you need to follow just so we're clear.
Oh, and there's a lot of varied interpretation of those rules depending on which people you are hanging out with. So what might be a hard and fast rule in one group of people may not be all that big a deal with another.
And you won't know which group is which at first, because of they all kind of adhere to some of the rules, but not all of them. Truth be told, some of the rules--no one keeps, but you have to know them anyway.
So here's my offer--you agree to keep all of the 600-plus rules, and figure out the additional varied rules, and determine which is a rule with one group and not another, and I can guarantee you that God is going to be mighty pleased with you, my friend.
Would you sign up for that? The answer is no, you wouldn't--when I put it like that, right? But the truth is, this is basically what happens in Church-y world all of the time.
And sometimes you don't know if you've violated an actual rule until it's too late, and then all of the people in the group where that rule is a rule are mad at you.
In those moments it can be like getting a speeding ticket and then your defense is, "I didn't know the speed limit." You're going to get the ticket.
The fact is, Church-y world is full of all kinds of hidden rules and regulations that you don't discover until you get in there and get involved. And everyone in Church-y world claims that their version of the rules is the "biblical" version.
So what happens when you become rule-obsessed? You lose your joy, that's what. This is one of the many reasons so many people are reluctant to explore Christianity.
Seriously, there are so many people outside of the Church looking in and wondering why in the world anyone in their right mind would want to be a part of a group that is so obsessed with rules and regulations, and who seem to have lost their joy for Jesus, and turned their Christian life into a series of checklists and duties.
Today we are going to turn out the box that declares God is joyless and only concerned with our blind obedience to rules that in many cases Jesus himself wondered why people were keeping them.
Here's what I want us to know--the thread that is going to weave its way throughout the entire sermon:
Following Jesus should be about "want to," not "have to."
In Matthew chapter 23 Jesus tees off on some religious leaders for creating a joyless and rule-obsessed culture.
By the way, the one group that Jesus came after time and again were the religious people. He ate with sinners, healed the sick, hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors, touched lepers, but had his hardest words and critiques for the people who had reduced their relationship with God down to checklists.
Here's what he teaches his disciples:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[a] wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.This is a photo of a Moses seat in an ancient synagogue. This is where the person who was reading the Torah to the congregation would sit. It was a place of honor, and the people who sat in that seat had enormous sway over who was allowed to be a part of the synagogue life.
Jesus points out how his hearers should not do what the religious leaders do because they weren't adhering to the rules they were imposing. They would make ridiculous outward signs of piety and holiness by making their phylacteries wide and the tassels of their garments long.
Images of these to explain...
To these Pharisees, however, they weren't doing anything wrong at all.
In fact, they believed they were doing everyone a favor because they were setting the example of how the Hebrew people should return to traditional values, and stop becoming more and more like the Romans.
So they came down hard on everyone, imposing some ridiculous rules to ensure that no one broke them.
Like I said, you stood to lose a great deal if you crossed these people.
But Jesus takes their theology and their nationalism apart, piece by piece. Here's just a sampling of what he tells them.
13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. 
15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Jesus taught that when it comes to God, it's all about a relationship over rules and regulations.
I'd like to break this down into some practical terms for us today.
Let me ask you what all of these companies have in common: Sears, General Motors, Lehman Brothers & Kodak.
They are either bankrupt, defunct or they required serious taxpayer dollars to bail them out in the case of GM. And why?
In the end, their problems came down to Negative vs. Authentic Leadership.
Negative leadership attacks people brings out the worst, drags people down. It creates a culture of joylessness and suspicion.
But Authentic leadership does the exact opposite. Authentic leaders bring out the best in people, empowering them to succeed and thrive. Authentic leaders create a culture where new ideas are given space to grow. Authentic leaders create a joy-filled workplace.
So what can we learn from this? IF YOUR RELIGION IS ALL ABOUT RULES AND NOT ABOUT RELATIONSHIP--it becomes negative, not authentic. And nobody wants that.
Where do you find yourself right now?
Do you have a real relationship with God? Do you feel connected to Jesus in a heart forward kind of way? Does your religious life bring you joy?
Or are you struggling because somewhere along your journey someone told you God only cared about the rules? Are you struggling because there isn't a real sense of joy in the practice of your faith? Are you just not having any fun?
Then maybe it's time to take that old box apart and live differently. Because God desires for you to have abundant, joy-filled life---this is what Jesus stated as his primary objective. And this should absolutely light you up with joy, and freedom.
Because following Jesus should be about "want to," not "have to."