WHAT REALLY MATTERS IN 2017?

Matthew 25:31-46 (NET)

One day, we know not when, Jesus will return here in glory, and we will be able see him sitting on his rightful throne. Every nation and every generation that ever lived will somehow be there, and we will watch Jesus separate the sheep from the goats, the sheep being his authenticity followers and the goats, well they are the phoneys. The sheep will be told they can enter into their inheritance, a kingdom prepared for them the same time that the foundations of creation were breathed into existence. The goats got it bad, obviously, because they were sent to eternal punishment. Not the naughty step for 5 minutes, but a place that is the opposite of eternal life. The difference between whether we will be marked as sheep or goat is pretty simple, it is about what we did and did not do.

Philip Yancey interviewed a young alcoholic who had formerly been an active church member, but had allowed Alcoholics Anonymous to replace the church. When questioned why, the young man responded, “Mainly I’m trying to survive, and AA helps me in that struggle far better than any church.”

Yancey explored further, “Name one quality missing in the local church that AA somehow provides.” The alcoholic stared at his coffee, watching it go cold. Finally he looked up and whispered one word: “Dependency.” He explained, “Most church people give off a self satisfied air of superiority. I don’t sense them consciously leaning on God or on each other… Maybe God is calling us alcoholics to teach the saints what it means to be dependent on Him and on His community on earth.”

Many of us lived as people pleasers in 2016. I am guilty as charged. When you come to a new place, start a fresh ministry, it becomes very easy to become a people pleaser. So in a form of confession, but trying hard not to sound pious, I can see how in 2016 I squandered too much thought, energy, and passion pursuing praise from others. I’ll tell you something about this though, the bitter fruit this bears is pride when I succeed, despair when I fail, and envy when others do things better than me. Perhaps there is a slight chance this has been your experience too, when you have lived as a people pleaser.

I don’t particularly want to live this way in 2017. I do not want to bear the fruit of pride, despair, or envy. I’d like to end this year with more of the fruit of Holy Spirit, which The Bible tells us are … I but if I am honest, I can often feel trapped and uncertain of how to overcome the shallow, selfish bent of my own heart. This is where a fellow from history can help. Richard Baxter (1615 – 1691) was an English Puritan church leader, poet, hymn-writer, theologian, and was most controversial in his time.

He has been called “the chief of English Protestant Teachers” and after some false starts, he made his reputation by his ministry at Kidderminster, and around the same time began a long and prolific career as theological writer. After the Restoration he refused promotion up the ecclesiastical ladder, and became one of the most influential leaders of the Nonconformists, spending time in prison. His views on justification and sanctification were controversial because he placed much emphasis upon the necessity of repentance and faithfulness. Baxter wrote more than 140 books in his lifetime. His Christian Directory alone is over one million words. Some of those words challenge me this year, to spurn the shallowness of my own heart and dive deeper into what really matters. Baxter writes in seventeenth-century language, so “judiciously” means “rightly,” and “liberal” means “generous.” His words may be dated, but the thought is utterly relevant:

Study first to be whatever (judiciously) you desire to seem. Desire a thousand times more to be godly, than to seem so; and to be liberal, than to be thought so; and to be blameless from every secret or presumptuous sin, than to be esteemed such. And when you feel a desire to be accounted good, let it make you think how much more necessary and desirable it is to be good indeed. To be godly, is to be an heir of heaven: your salvation followeth it. But to be esteemed godly is of little profit to you. (Christian Directory, Part 1, Chapter 4, part 3)

APPEARANCE VERSUS REALITY

Baxter’s words expose the shallowness of my soul. This is simply because far too often I have preferred appearance to reality. I’ve cared more about what people saw than who I was. Which gets me thinking about the different ways we tend to want to portray our virtues between writing a CV for a job, and hoping about the way people may write the eulogy for our funeral service?

In his moving and important book The Road to Character, David Brooks distinguishes between CV virtues (the skills that contribute to external success) and eulogy virtues (the virtues at the core of our being). He then makes this confession: I think most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the CV virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. . . . most of us have had clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we have for how to develop a profound character. Which takes me back to Richard Baxter. Baxter’s counsel, I think, is like a mirror, showing our shallowness. It’s a prod, urging us deeper.

“Study first to be whatever you (judiciously) desire to seem.”

The word judiciously is a safeguard. Remember that the older use of the word is better termed ‘wisely decide’. Baxter doesn’t recommend that we pursue anything we simply wish we had or could be, but rather those things we have deeply and wisely determined are the best, most honouring of God, things. There is quite a difference between the two. The desire to seem rich to others shouldn’t motivate me to pursue riches, but rather to repent of a love for money. That may be an obvious statement, but what about my desire to seem merciful, kind, wise, just, and generous?

You see, there is a huge difference between wanting to appear to be these things, and doing whatever it takes to become them?

It seems to me, from the number of television programmes about them, that there is an extraordinary interest in antiques in the UK. I read recently of a man who had worked for a long time in a local antique shop. A friend of his had popped in their one day, and asked how he might be able to recognise true antiques from clever reproductions. So his friend showed him a four drawer dresser and challenged his buddy to tell him whether it was real or fake. It was darkened oak, beautiful, and it looked very old. he gazed over the workmanship and the ornate carving into the wood. He ran my hands over the finish and looked under the legs. He opened all the drawers and slid them out and examined them. He unscrewed the knobs and looked at the metal screws that connected them to the wood. After a most thorough searching, he concluded that it was indeed a genuine article. His friend from the antique shop smiled and explained how the average consumer is accustomed to the look of modern machined furniture and are often fooled by their preconceived notions about antiques. A smooth finish is a dead giveaway that modern power tools were used. A shallow scratch showed pale raw wood underneath. He explained that milk paint was used to coat antique furniture, which would seep deep into the wood for an enduring finish. A slight scratch would not reveal naked wood. The dresser drawers were finished with a nice stain, even to the backs, but old furniture makers never bothered to paint areas that would not show.

In this way, that antiques expert had demonstrated that clever forgeries exist and that serious collectors need to be on the watch for them. The Bible speaks to us in Matthew 25:31 about fraudulent children of God. Our scripture today is a rather vivid account of the last judgement, where the true children are called sheep and the frauds are called goats. The difference to God was when he measured their actions. Between what they said they were and what they actually were. The sheep clothed the naked, ministered to the sick, fed the hungry, visited those in prison and gave the homeless a place to stay. I am soundly convinced that God is fully able to see our hearts and to know if we act for impression or if we act out of a sincere love to be Christlike.

The goats looked somewhat like sheep from a distance but when it came to being the true acts of godliness they fell way short and were condemned. They spoke about great and lofty religious goals but never settled down to do the normal Christian acts that quietly bless others in an integrity of worship that rises up to the Lord as a very pleasing fragrance. The true children of God were motivated by the spirit working within them, to act out of love and we are amazed when God rewards us in the end. In our day-to-day lives let us strive to not only look like God’s children but live the life that proves who we belong to!

LET IT MAKE YOU THINK

The reason Baxter’s words can help us and encourage us (in addition to bringing conviction) is this: My desire to seem can serve as a springboard to a much more important aspiration to be. Baxter wrote: “And when you feel a desire to be accounted good, let it make you think how much more necessary and desirable it is to be good indeed.”

Let it make you think. Here is a personal example – at the beginning of last year I had the urge to tell friends I was reading through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Impressive to do this, but it should have been nothing more than a reminder to me that I must immerse myself in the Holy Scriptures, get reaquainted with parts of it I have not touched for years, and allow the over-arching story of Go’s grave and love, from start to finish, to reignite my faith. Which is more beneficial, having people think that I’m deeply read or beingdeeply read? Which prepares me better for heaven, the number of Facebook posts of my insight about Christ or the fresh view he has given me of his glory? Reality is infinitely more precious than appearance, and Baxter urges us to let our desire for the appearance of something good remind us of the surpassing value of the actual good. Let it make you think. Baxter recommends that we should meditate on the vanity and brevity of people’s good opinions, and that we should think even more about the rock-solid joys we gain from good character and a secure future in heaven.

WHAT REALLY MATTERS

So what about you, in 2017? If your heart veers toward reputation over reality, toward applause over substance, let me say something about D.A. Carson’s Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor. It’s the story of his father, Tom Carson, an unheralded twentieth-century Canadian pastor who served humbly for almost six decades. Few ever knew his name, but Tom Carson read widely, ministered deeply, cared for his wife, shepherded his children, studied the biblical languages, and memorised Scripture. Most importantly, he had a vibrant, deepening experience of God and the gospel until the day of his death. He lived for what really mattered, knew real, substantial joy in the midst of suffering, and is now in heaven. Compared to that, who cares whether he wrote a book or made it onto television?

There definitely was a time in my life when I wanted the recognition, the applause, the bigger church, the more powerful role in Christendom. And I have watched friends of mine, who wanted the same, clawing their way to get it. I don’t think too highly of myself in those times. When I made the choice to come here, to a small village Chapel, there was a part of me that was telling me I could do better, would probably waste some big church experience — I am sharing this with you because I can see how this was my CV talking, not what I hope my eulogy may sound like. It is a humbling thing to realise the truth, as Baxter cautions us, “Our hearts are so selfish and deceitful, naturally, that . . . we must carefully watch them lest self be intended, while God is pretended.”

And so, the huge question I place in front of us is to ask if we are pretending or if we are pursuing God? This will be a fight. But let’s enter that fight in 2017, eager to live for the glory of God and pursue what really matters.