HOW TO FACE LIFE’S PROBLEMS
(The presence of problems does not mean
the absence of God or his control or care.)
Pastor Jeff Wood
First Presbyterian, Sebastian
July 19, 2015
Did you hear about Mr. Hokie Pokie dying and the trouble they had with him down at the funeral parlor? Yeah, it seems that with him and the casket they kept putting his right foot in and he’d put his right foot out, his left arm in and he’d put his left arm out.
Haven’t you found that Life is kind of like that? Stuff doesn’t fit, comes out? An investment hasn’t been climbing but descending. Your kid. Why is he so right on here and so off over here? We might even think it about the whole spiritual life. Praying is tough, tough, tough. We get the right foot of prayer in and the left foot of Bible reading pops out, or we get some gentleness in but a struggle with greed pops out. Or the church. That mission project we got involved with looks fine but there was that thing with the carpet. Fine here but a pain there. We find ourselves asking, “What gives? What am I doing wrong, we’re doing wrong, God’s doing wrong?”
Interestingly enough some folks came to Jesus with just the same kinds of question. They had been thinking that God would show up and then things would clear up. God’s messiah would arrive and straighten things out. Instead he’s been stirring things up or, oddly, just sitting tight. Religious leaders are bothered by him. The Roman occupation army is still there. In the part of the Bible we are going to this morning, there are people saying, “The program with you isn’t clear as a bell. What gives?”
Let’s hear what Jesus says. If you are trying to connect your life with God’s and there are problems still in your life, or if you are thinking that you want to try life with God, so you can know what to expect, hear what Jesus says. If you are looking at the world or the church and seeing a mess, then hear what Jesus says. It’s about problems, how to face them.
In the name then of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit these words: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? When then did the weeds come from?'
"'An enemy did this,' he replied.
"The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?"'
"'No, he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'"
And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.
I once heard a counselor say, “There is an answer for that but do you know what the problem with it is? It is so simple that most people won’t attend to it; they’ll act as if it is simple, it will just happen by itself..” We have this story from Jesus and what we can draw out of it about life is simple. May we listen and apply.
Lesson one. The first lesson is indirect but important. There is something here in the very staging of the story that we could easily miss. Ever stub a toe and break it? Remember how your attention keeps looping around to that ache? Problems have a way of preoccupying us and it is totally normal for us with Jesus’ story to notice and be bothered by the enemy and the weeds. It is the hurt big toe. But one of the givens in the parable is that there is a God and he is sowing good seed. When thinking about how to face problems see that God is and God sows and God sows good seed. See the good. The Bible says there are gifts in life and that every good gift comes down to us from God. God is and God sows gifts and messages. He sows to us even Jesus Christ. Isn’t it great that we know him and he knows us whatever else is happening around us? See the good and you see God. See the good. Heed the seed.
Sometimes our lawns can get so out of shape that we are thinking weed-killer this and weed-killer that … but we should consider what an old farmer advised, “You ought just concentrate more on growing grass than killing weeds.” That’s a great principle. Concentrate on growing grass more than killing weeds. See the good, feed the good. The Bible says, “Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, admirable, … think about these things.” (Phil 4:8) Get yourself to noticing the good seed.
Lesson two. Now with a lawn that has, say Augustine and Bermuda (those types of grasses in it), if you water well (instead of starving weeds), you will find that the Augustine will crowd out the Bermuda. The good grass will overtake the bad grass. That doesn’t happen in Jesus’ story. Got that? The wheat doesn’t crowd out the weeds. I wish it did but it doesn’t. Good doesn’t just overtake evil. This isn’t a bright progress of humankind parable. So while we see the good we need also to live with the bad … for the time being. In other words, we can handle problems if we expect them and say, “That’s the way this life this side of eternity is.”
Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest ranking POW in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. He advised against plain optimism saying that those folks succumbed. Rather he advised, paradoxically, to be optimistic and realistic. Believe you will overcome but that it will be a long, hard battle. That’s the lesson here.
Jesus doesn’t give us a big explanation here about the presence of evil and problems in the world. He doesn’t encourage us to excuse ourselves with, “The devil made me do it.” He doesn’t encourage us to see a demon behind every bush. He doesn’t lecture a lot about all this. He just briefly and definitely makes it clear that there is an enemy.
Handle problems by expecting them.
Lesson three. See the good. Expect some bad. Three, release the judgment. We get so often into handling problems by figuring out payback. Life is hard. Someone did us wrong. We are upset and take it on someone … maybe even ourselves or God. But with payback we are not handling problems so much as increasing them. It embroils us and wraps us so that we are like a dog on a leash under a picnic table, tangled and stuck.
Besides what it does to us, the basic reason for not doing payback is that we are not able to judge rightly because we do not know it all. Remember, the owner of the field (God), stops the workers from their suggestion to get in there and separate wheat and weeds. Too hard to tell this particular weed from the wheat until the heads sprout. That’s what Jesus recognizes. Even if you could, you’d damage the wheat in the process because those roots are tangled together. God knows more and cares more than we.
Stephen Covey, the author, tells of being on a subway and getting irritated at a man’s children making a fuss. Confronting him about it, the man said, “Oh, I guess you’re right. We are coming from the hospital where their mother just died and they don’t know how to behave.” Looked like carelessness but wasn’t. Looked like a weed but wasn’t. You just don’t know. If Jesus, left the final sorting to God, then how much more should we? This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be discerning, discriminating, evaluative. But it is to say, “Forget payback and leave it to God.” Make good judgments but don’t be a judgmental person.
Lesson four. Here’s the final point: Trust the care. There are fingerprints of care all over this little parable.
I once long time ago had some car problems and there were a couple of trips into the dealership’s shop. The last straw was driving home and finding that something that hadn’t been broken was now broken in the process of fixing whatever original problem it was. Ooooooh, I was so mad. I called and got the manager. I gave him a piece of mind (and I don’t have that many pieces I can afford to give away). Do you know what he said? “That is inexcusable. Bring it in and I will personally see that we make everything absolutely right.” That calmed me down. That was nice to hear. God says, “I personally will make everything absolutely right.” The harvest will come and I’ll sort it out. That’s God’s care. Trust it.
While some of our problems are grave and we should have a gravity in looking at them, let’s consider gravity on the planet. In outer space people lose muscle. God works all things together for good for those who love him; he uses even the weeds, if you will, to develop character.
There was that accident at the intersection with the tortoise and the snail. When the traffic cop arrived he asked, “What happened?” And the tortoise and the snail answered, “I don’t know. It all happened so quickly.” There is something funny about God and us and time. Birthdays come slowly but exam days too quickly. Just desserts come to others too slowly and to us too quickly. But in this story of Jesus what is clear is that the problems are here just for a time.
Yes, the world’s got strife…but just for a time. Yes, the church is a mixed bag … but just for a time. Yes, the spiritual life is hard … but just for a time. Yes, there are a hundred things that give you and me heartache and confuse us … but just for a time. And that it is just for a time and not forever is because God cares.
And he says there is a purpose for that time, to not hurt the wheat, to see which seeds turn into wheat and which into weeds. He’s taking care of you, of the world. That world is too valuable to just write off.
There is nothing in this story, even with enemy and bad seed, that cries, “This is out of control!” No, God is in control and he cares. Trust that.
See the good. Expect some bad. Release the judgment. Trust the care. Jesus knows we all have a bunch of Mr. Hokie Pokie’s to deal with. Some are frivilous and some are awful. He knows. He’s at work. He cares. He has won and he will make it all complete.
Prayer: I don’t know what problems you have come with here today. What evil has got your goat or got you down. I do know the Bible says, God’s here in Jesus Christ and He is at work. Bring this message in to your life and ask God to help you believe it. “God, we wish everything were all clear but we thank you for telling us today that you understand what’s going on, that you are for us, and that you will make things right. Tie that message into our hearts and help us live as good, wise, and hopeful people. Make it so by your Spirit we pray. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
If you would like to talk with someone about this message or your spiritual life, or to have someone pray with you, the pastors and elders of the church
welcome your call.
WHAT IF...? (Mark 12:1-12)
Pastor Jeff Wood
First Presbyterian, Sebastian
July 12, 2015
A long time ago I was in a pot-luck line and I scooped up some beautiful red jello. Sitting down I bit into it expecting strawberry or cherry and what did I get? Tomato! Yuck! I am fine with tomatoes but not when your taste buds are ready for strawberry or cherry. I expected one thing and got another.
That jello reminded me of a case in Hackensack, NY in which a husband and wife got into a dispute over dinner. He ended up walking with the bowl of jello over to her, reaching in and getting a handful, and throwing the jello at her. That broke the ice and they laughed. But then she, of course, had him arrested for carrying a congealed weapon without a permit.
I expected one kind of jello and got another. The couple expected one kind of dinner and got another. Has this ever happened to you? Maybe you expected an IRS refund and found you had a bill instead. Maybe you expected a quick and easy repair job on your car and it turned out to be quite a hassle. Guess what? God, too, has expectations … of you and me. Many times he doesn’t get what he was looking for. That’s what our passage is about today. We’re going to look at that and also take it in a slightly different direction.
At this point in the Bible Jesus is confronting the scribes and Pharisees. Confrontations related to expectations. Note that Jesus had confrontations. So often we think of Jesus as benign and many in the world see him as pale and docile. But Jesus is not that. He has an edge. He got in people’s faces is the way we’d say it today.
(Some of you may be looking for God. You are here today but not completely in the fold. No one may really know that except you. You sense that there is a master designer behind this universe and you know a hunger related to him in your own soul. But you have not seriously considered Jesus as him just because Jesus is conveyed as so docile. But let him be real. Consider a real Jesus.)
Jesus is confronting the scribes and Pharisees. A lot of times we think Jesus confronts the reprobates of the world, the atheists, the scoffers of religion. But here he’s jarring against scribes and Pharisees, aka the Religious. It isn’t hard to see scribes and Pharisees as the guys in black hats and leave it there. But these are the ones, in all their society, who were most likely to be at synagogue (or church) every week. They were not Christmas and Easter attenders (they didn’t have those holidays then actually but you know what I mean). So when we are around these guys in the Bible, it isn’t a bad thought to ask, if we’re church goers, “Could how they are be how I am?”
Oddly, then, for Jesus much of his confrontation is with the religious. In three of the gospels, there is the same trilogy of stories that speaks to this clash. You can remember the trilogy by the letter "T" -- The Tree, The Temple, and The Tenants. All three while about the clash also make one point: God expected one thing and got another. What did God expect? And let’s come at it in another way – what do we expect of God and could we find something else?
1He then began to speak to them in parables: "A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 2At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. 5He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed. 6"He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, 'They will respect my son.' 7"But the tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' 8So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9"What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10Haven't you read this scripture: " 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; 11the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes ?" 12Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and of his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.
Of the tree God expected fruit and got nothing. Of the temple God expected a house of prayer and got a den of robbers. Of the tenants God expected people who would welcome and share; instead he got people who rejected and murdered.
Straightaway I want to ask a "what if" question. That’s the title of this message so let’s ask a what if question. Let’s ask it of the vineyard. What if they had received God's messenger and given some of the fruit of the harvest? I suppose things would have been pretty happy. They’d feel good about their situation with the owner, their integrity, … no looking over their shoulder, no distrustful hoarding. They’d have been in pretty good place. So why didn't they just share the right part with the owner? It comes down to one basic point. They didn't want to share; they wanted total control; that if the owner came in, they expected they’d be less well off.
Ben Johnson, an author and speaker, tells of being on a late night flight seated next to a 35 year old woman with a PhD. Sometime during their rather transparent conversation she acknowledged that she often heard a voice that said, "You've been given so much and now it is time to pay up." Ben asked her curiously, "Why don't you listen more carefully to that voice which is leading you perhaps to God?" Her answer? “I don't want to give up control of my life to God.” Is this true for you in some way? Very many have a fear that God will mess up our lives.
But wait a minute. Let’s look a this control matter. A) How much control do we really have? B) The control we do have, how do we do with it? C) Is total control all that great? D) Isn’t sharing pretty good?
How much control do we actually have? How many of you decided when and where to be born? To be male or female? To have red hair or brown hair … or white (I mean originally, not with hair color in a box) ? or how many of you insured that there were high schools or other institutions for yourself at which to be trained? Or, for some, you were drawn into love years ago, did you really control all that? Maybe we think we have more to lose control-wise than we actually do?
Then the bits of our lives that we do have control over, how often do we with them find ourselves painted into a corner? making mistakes? We have some measure of control over our finances and we mess that up a lot of the time. Half of us in America are messed up in terms of our eating and we have some measure of control over that generally. Many talk about control freaks and that’s usually based in fear (not so great) and when we do it with spouses or family members, that never works out.
Or if we did have supposedly have total control is that a great thing? What does the quest for total control get the tenants? They get to be looking over their shoulders for the next messenger from God. They get to feel like thugs and fugitives. They get to hoard and view life from the vantage point of distrust. Excuse me? Are these really such great things?
Then there’s that sharing is pretty good. I was talking to someone who was downsizing and they were going to rent … making the point that they had had enough of leaky faucets, taxes, peeling paint, weeds in the yard, and bills. It doesn't sound so bad to have a landlord to share some of that with. We teach our kids that it is nice to share. Ask lovers and all they do is pine away about sharing with one another.
For all just said, we angle for control. We expect one thing with it and yet we get something else.
Each of has a vineyard of sorts. Each of us is a vineyard. We have lives that God has made and invested in and in which he wants to share. He built us with an imago dei, a nature for relating to God. But for all the blessings of being given life itself, being made to be able to relate to a creator, for the energy, the talents, the sustaining, … he come to us with the expectation of being welcomed and sharing, a share of life in a way but more, the sharing of life. Instead he gets from us the sinner’s thought that he’d spoil our lives. That him present is bad news, that our life as delicious will be over. A felonious expectation. Instead he gets from us the thought that with more of God, the more for God in our lives there will be less of me and less for me.
But what if the truth is entirely different? Isn’t this what the Bible and Jesus and the Spirit are trying to tell us? That our expectation is wrong and that instead with more of God, the more for God, in the kingdom of heaven, there is more of us and more for us. What if we found not a lesser life but a higher life? More self identity, more self control, more strength, more peace? Time again this is God’s message to us – with me you’ll have springs of everlasting water flowing from you, that if he gave up his own son for us how will he not along with him freely give us all things, that the kingdom is more than eat and drink but peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, that we can have fruit of the Spirit (peace, joy, love, self-control…), that we can displace fear and timidity with a spirit of love and self-control, that he doesn’t spoil life but helps with life … come to me you who are weary and I will give you rest, that, as another parable says, to be with him, learn of him, indwell the kingdom of heaven, is the greatest opportunity available to a human life and is a pearl of great, great price. There’s another parable in which the fellow sees God in his life as a pearl of great price, the best deal that can be found in life. Jesus describes life with him as fountains of living water flowing out of one’s soul. What if God in our lives was better than we could have guessed? I Cor. 2:9 says, “What God has planned for people who love him is more than eyes have seen or ears have heard. It has never even entered our minds!”
God has also sent messengers to you today. Not just those in the parable and he’s asking you to share with him. These messengers have come as you have read the Bible, talked with friends, heard inner thoughts, and listened to sermons. And today, this message is a messenger. What if you welcomed God and shared life with him? I expect, on the basis of Jesus Christ and his word, that you’d find less than you feared and more, more, more than you ever hoped for.
If you would like to talk with someone about this message or your spiritual life, or to have someone pray with you, the pastors and elders of the church welcome your call.
Pastor Jeff Wood has been a pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Sebastian since 2014.