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November 1, 2020 Sermon – The Forest for the Trees: Spiritual Apathy

November 1, 2020 Sermon
“The Forest For the Trees: Spiritual Apathy”

*Scripture Reading – Mark 10:17-22

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

“The Forest for the Trees: Spiritual Apathy”

A man RAN up and knelt before Jesus!!!!

I bet you can relate.  Can you remember that time – maybe not that long ago…or maybe a very long time ago – when your faith burned so brightly for Jesus that you were literally or metaphorically RUNNING toward Jesus?

  • Maybe there was a time when worship and group Bible study were the highlights of your week, so much so that you spent the rest of your time – time working, time with friends, time out on the town – daydreaming about and LONGING for Sunday morning or your other dedicated God-time to roll around again.
  • Maybe there was a time when you or someone you love experienced a miracle – perhaps a healing from sickness but it could be any miraculous thing – and you were so thankful that you found yourself responding by zealously giving more of your time and attention and energy to God than any other thing.
  • Maybe it was right after you first heard – or finally understood – the gospel message and came to the realization that Jesus DID, IN FACT die for you, that God loves you THAT much…and it was just so overwhelming that you wanted to give as much time and energy to God as possible.
  • Maybe it was during or immediately after a mission trip or other outreach endeavor, and you had a kind of mountaintop experience that filled you up to the point of bursting, and you wanted to keep that feeling going, so you ran around looking for other ways to help people and engage in the kind of sharing of love that leads to the tangible receiving of God’s love.
  • Maybe it was at a time when God comforted you after a loss, when you had absolutely no strength but suddenly encountered God carrying you, God providing for you the strength you lacked.
  • Maybe it was so long ago that you were a child – perhaps you had encountered something amazing in a Vacation Bible School or Sunday School class – and you just wanted to run, run, run to Jesus.  I see this quite often in children!

I bet you’ve been there before at some time in your life – which is why you are STILL here following Jesus: you can remember a time when you literally or metaphorically RAN up to Jesus and knelt before him…and you can remember the REASON you ran up to Jesus and knelt before him.  Even though that reason may have faded some, it’s inside of you, it’s a part of you, it keeps you coming back to Jesus for more, perhaps keeps you longing to have an experience like that again.

(PAUSE)

Today is the fifth Sunday of a 7-week long sermon series entitled “forest for the trees.”  Throughout my ministry, it has been very easy to feel like we in Christ’s Universal Church struggle with seeing the forest for the trees.  So, God has directed me to offer a sermon series to help you – help us – wrestle with this issue, to help you – help us – prayerfully seek discernment about what constitutes the forest and what constitutes the trees…at this moment in human history.

You might recall that what I’ll refer to as “the forest” during this series is what Jesus was primarily about and so what God calls Christ’s Church to primarily be about…which is communicating the gospel of God’s grace, communicating the message that God offers us life when we by our sins deserve death.  And I’ve told you that another way to state Jesus’ primary purpose is in terms of ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth, God’s kingdom, of course, being the place where everyone does the will of our God who is graceful. 

Presently, we’re in the midst of looking at some of the trees that get in the way of our focusing on that amazing forest of God’s grace.  In these sermons, we’re looking at the trees God identified in the scriptures, particularly looking at how these trees manifest themselves today, how they distract us from our primary purpose in this time and place.  AND, we’ll be looking to see what we can learn from the scriptures about how to overcome the distractions, how to look past the trees and get our focus back on the forest, back on our primary purpose.

(PAUSE)

Today’s tree is the tree of spiritual apathy…which might seem strange since I just asked you to recall a time when you experienced the OPPOSITE of spiritual apathy, asked you to remember a time when you were so on fire for Jesus that you could imagine yourself running up to and kneeling down before Jesus…like the  man in our gospel reading for today.

But an interesting thing happened to that man when he ran up to Jesus.  And, on the one hand, I wish this thing had NOT happened; I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.  On the other hand, I’m rather happy this interesting thing happened to that man and got recorded in scripture…because it’s something that happens to almost every follower of Jesus at one time or another, so it’s important that the gospel writers knew of a story like this one so they could share it with us and so we can learn from it. 

Y’all, this amazing story, this story that begins with a man who is very zealous in the faith running up to and kneeling before Jesus, this amazing story ends with the very same man experiencing what I’ll call today the tree of spiritual apathy.

When I tried to come up with a name for today’s tree, I struggled a bit.  There are so many different ways to describe this phenomenon…and a good description requires more than just a few words, more than just “spiritual apathy”.  With more words, what I can tell you is that this is about the result of us followers of Jesus not receiving from God, not receiving from Jesus, not receiving from our faith the results or answers we desire from God, from Jesus, especially at times when we are most zealous in our faith.

Consider the man in the story.  He’s about as zealous a person of God as I can imagine:

  • You’ve got to be pretty zealous to have kept the commandments.  Especially if I’m reading this correctly to imagine that when Jesus specifically mentioned six of the commandments he was mentioning them as a way of referring to ALL the commandments, not all 10 of the commandments but all 613 of them.  ANY person who kept all 613 commandments since youth is a zealous person of God.
  • This man sought Jesus out, ran to him, and knelt before him.  OK, I get it.  If you were absolutely, 100% POSITIVE the Messiah was within shouting distance, I’m guessing all of you would run to him (to the extent you’re capable of running.)  But, what if you were NOT certain? Was anyone outside of Jesus’ disciples – anyone who hadn’t spent years walking with Jesus – really certain at the time Jesus walked the earth that Jesus was the Messiah?  (Even the people who proclaimed Jesus as Messiah on Palm Sunday seemed to have changed their minds by Good Friday.)  And if you weren’t certain, you still might run to check out this Jesus with your own eyes, but would you humble yourself to the point of bowing down?  And if you weren’t certain – even if you would run as far  as shouting distance, how far would you go to seek out and find this maybe-Messiah?  It seems like this man likely travelled a great distance.

Unfortunately for this man, something changes during the story, something that causes a movement from zealousness to what I call spiritual apathy.  This man starts out as zealous a person of God as I can imagine, but he ends the story “shocked” and “grieving” and “going away” from Jesus instead of continuing to run toward Jesus, continuing to travel WITH Jesus. What the heck happened?

What happened is that God – via God’s Messiah, Jesus – did not do what this man wanted God to do.  This man received a different answer from God than what this man wanted to receive.  This man asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, and he CLEARLY received a different answer than he desired.

  • Maybe he desired to be affirmed…to have Jesus applaud him for keeping the commandments since his youth, give him a high five or a thumbs up, and say something like, “You’re awesome just the way you are, so you ALREADY will receive eternal life; nothing more is required.” 
  • Maybe this man wanted Jesus to give him some new command, some new direction, that would require very LITTLE of him:  
    • Go dip in some pool or another three times;
    • Take a few moments to recite the correct words or creed; 
    • Memorize a few passages of scripture.
    • Perform one more acts of service, one action of love;
  • Maybe this man wanted Jesus to give him a challenging – but not TOO challenging – assignment, something more than one simple act but much less than a whole life commitment:
    • Attend Sunday worship two or three times a month;
    • Go on an annual mission trip to help people in need;
    • Attend a weekly Bible study;
    • Get more involved in whatever was the equivalent of the leadership of his local congregation;

I don’t really know WHAT answer this man expected from Jesus, but, one thing we know for sure is this man expected an answer that was DIFFERENT from the answer he received.  After receiving what might have felt like a LITTLE bit of affirmation, after receiving what might have felt like a command to do that which he was ALREADY doing (and so even more affirmation), and after receiving no less than the LOVE of Jesus…this man received a response that was so far outside the boundaries of what he expected that this man left grieving. Somehow, Jesus KNEW the ONE thing that would be most difficult in all the world to do, somehow Jesus KNEW the one thing that was REALLY holding this man back, and Jesus told this man he had to do THAT.  For this man, that thing was money and possessions; his STUFF was holding him back from receiving eternal life because he was placing his stuff above God, above Jesus.  Jesus knew the one thing this man NEEDED to hear was also the one thing this man did not WANT to hear…which led this man to a time of spiritual apathy – dejectedness in the faith from receiving an answer from God that differed from the desired and expected answer.  This is what I mean by spiritual apathy, and it can – and does – happen to us all; it can transform us from zealous to dejected…which has the effect of causing us to focus on this dejectedness, the tree of spiritual apathy, instead of focusing on the big picture of God’s gospel of grace, the big picture of what we, the Church, are supposed to be about as we follow Jesus.

Consider how this spiritual apathy affected the man in the story.  Sure, Jesus told the man to do the one thing he didn’t want to do.  But the man didn’t have to focus on it.  The man could have joined Jesus disciples; the man could have asked Jesus for the strength to do this thing Jesus told him to do.  Instead, the man focused on the thing that negated his zeal for God, focused on the thing that distracted his focus from his purpose, focused on his spiritual apathy – maybe for the rest of his life: we don’t really know the end of his story.  We do know that his focus on this spiritual apathy led him away from Jesus, away from God’s kingdom, away from his purpose, for at least a time.

This can happen to us, can’t it?

  • Maybe you pray for God to heal you, someone you love, or even the whole nation or world…and God doesn’t respond with the answer you desire.  When we truly want or need something like a healing from God, this is when we tend to get pretty zealous in our faith right?  I read this week that  35 million Americans who rarely pray or attend worship services have started praying during the COVID-19 pandemic.  As the pandemic drags on and even gets worse, I wonder how God’s response to these people’s prayers will impact them.  Hopefully, it won’t lead to spiritual apathy…but, I imagine it’s unrealistic to expect that some of them won’t go away grieving and prevent a focus on what really matters because God has not yet given them what they wanted.
  • Maybe you expect that God will lead you to more success in life, so you pray for success…but God doesn’t respond by blessing you with the kind of success you were seeking.  This is fairly common in our society – more common than you might think.  I read this week that 37% of Evangelical Christians believe that God will ALWAYS reward true faith with material blessings.  I don’t know about you, but that just doesn’t jive with my experience.  So…for people who believe that, when they DON’T experience material blessing, there’s an opportunity for them to experience grieving and a spiritual apathy that will prevent a focus on what really matters.
  • Maybe you expect that God will do something about the state of our nation, so you pray for a change…but God doesn’t respond with the kinds of changes for which you hoped.  Maybe the wrong candidate wins a big election, or a ballot measure passes that you think will lead us to more division, or the general sense of divisiveness just keeps increasing with no sign of slowing down.  This is a very common phenomenon.  I read this week that  62% of Americans believe the coronavirus is a message from God to humanity to change the way we live.  What’s going to happen when the coronavirus doesn’t change us the way these 62% of Americans expect it to change us?  (I seriously doubt all of them are expecting the same kind of change, so SOMEONE is going to be disappointed.)  I’m guessing some will go away grieving and let their spiritual apathy prevent a focus on what really matters.
  • Maybe you expect that you will have some kind of religious experience that will change your life.  I imagine most people – when they become followers of Jesus – expect some kind of significant experience like this.  Actually, I’ve had quite a few TELL ME that they expect this kind of life-changing experience.  Often, people tell me they expected it at the time of their baptism.  And yet, I read this week that 57% of regular churchgoers say they never had a religious experience that changed their life.  God never responded to that particular desire in the expected or desired way.  It would be easy for them to move away from God grieving, to experience a kind of spiritual apathy that prevents a focus on what really matters.

I hope you see that this can happen, that this does happen, that opportunities for this spiritual apathy to creep in and overtake our zeal for God, for Christ, abound.  So…what can we do.

I’ve said this every Sunday of this sermon series, and I’ll say it again – the answer is very simple; it’s not necessarily EASY to do, but it’s simple.  For this particular tree, but one thing is required: we’ve got to stop EXPECTING anything from God except what God offers.  In the story, the man expected something from Jesus, expected a particular response.  Jesus provided a DIFFERENT answer.  That was the problem.  For us, anytime we expect a particular answer or action or response from God rather than listening for and accepting whatever God offers, WE create the fertile ground for spiritual apathy.  The problem is NOT God’s response – God’s response is always good.  The problem is our expectation; the problem is us expecting God to bend to our will.  If we can listen for whatever it is that God offers and seek to discover the goodness, the love, the miracle, in whatever God offers, we will NEVER lose our zeal for God; spiritual apathy will never distract our focus from God’s grace and the in-breaking of God’s kingdom here on earth. 

(PAUSE)

I began the sermon by asking you to recall a time in your life when you literally or metaphorically ran to and knelt before Jesus.  I hope you can recall such a time.  I imagine you desire to feel like that again.  And the amazing message of today’s scripture passage is that you CAN.  All it takes is removing your expectations of God, of Jesus, and replacing them with an acceptance and praise of WHATEVER God offers. 

Amen!