I preached the following sermon this morning at St. Paul’s Church of Uganda in Nkokonjeru, Mbarara, Uganda.
As someone from the United States of America, there is something that has been impressed upon me through my culture called the “American Dream.” The American Dream is a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and moving up in social status through hard work. James Truslow Adams in 1931 described this dream by saying, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” The United States Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed (or provided) by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
To put it simply, the “American Dream” or this idea of the “good life” is all about you. This dream is about living the most comfortable life possible and having anything you want, as long as you work for it.
There’s a song by Kanye West written about the good life and there’s also a band called One Republic who has a song written about this idea, but the songs simply follow what I’ve already explained. However, there is another song called “New Dreams” by a Christian rapper, Trip Lee, whose approach to the good life I’d prefer to share with you.
The song starts with him saying, “I was taught that living the good life meant getting everything I could, but I’ve been shown a brand new picture of the good life and it’s glorious.”
He then explains that he had chased success, women, money, and that eventually he realized how shallow these things are and that they left him empty and hurt others. He finishes the song by saying, “my dreams are different; you know that I’ve been changed now. The good life is the life that’s been laid down.”
That last line is interesting, isn’t it? “The good life is the life that’s been laid down.” He’s talked about all these other things which fit into the “American Dream” or what he’s been taught of the “good life” but then he gives a definition which is the exact opposite of what the world has taught him. He says that instead of the good life being about him, it’s about laying down his life.
Now where could he have found such a counter-cultural message to make this definition from? It couldn’t be from the Bible, could it? Turn with me to John 12:23-28.
Just before this passage, there were some Greeks who requested of Philip to see Jesus. So Andrew and Philip took them to see Jesus and here we find what Jesus had to say.
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came down from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”
What does Jesus mean when he says “anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”?
This sounds contradictory. Why would you keep something that you hate and lose something that you love? Wouldn’t you hold something close that you love and get rid of something that you hate?
Jesus actually explains this concept in Matthew 19 when a rich man asks him about what he needs to do to earn eternal life. Jesus lists off some of the commandments and the man says that he has done those things, so Jesus then asks him to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor, and that he would then have treasure in heaven.
The response of the rich man was not to run off and sell everything he had, but instead we’re told that he went away sad! Now why would this man go away sad? Perhaps it’s because he had been told to give up the thing that he loved the most. And this thing that he loved the most was not God, but it was money.
So when Jesus says in John 12 that in order to keep life you need to hate your life, he does not mean to hate yourself or to hate those around you. Instead, he means that the way we love every other thing in this world, every other aspect of our lives besides him, should look like hate compared to how much we love him.
If we truly loved God more than any possession or any dream that we have, if God asked us to give it up, we wouldn’t even have to think about it, because we would simply want to serve God through what he has asked us to do.
In Genesis 22, God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Now, in context, this barely makes sense. Abraham was a little over 100 years old by this point and Isaac was the result of a promise that God made to him and his wife who were well beyond the years of bearing a child. So why would God ask Abraham to give up the very thing he was blessed with?
The New International Version gives away the end of the story by titling this section as “Abraham Tested.” So we know that God has it in mind to test Abraham by asking him to do this. But if you think about it, he had a good reason to do so
Have you ever known anyone who was getting close to the point of no longer being able to bear children who was then blessed with a child? A child tends to be a parents pride and joy, but in this circumstance, even more so.
When there is something that we want more than anything else in the world and then we finally get it, either by our own achievement or through the help of others, sometimes that very thing becomes our life.
For some people it’s a child (like it was for Abraham and Sarah), for others it’s a job, for others it’s a degree from university, for others it’s lots of money, and for others it’s something else.
None of these things are bad in themselves. In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us that you cannot serve both God and money. But we never find money condemned itself in Scripture, instead we find this as a condemnation regarding greed and hoarding money. In fact, Jesus encourages giving, which is hard to do if you don’t have anything to give.
In the same way, a child is certainly not a bad thing. All throughout the Old Testament, when someone will have a child, unless the circumstance the Lord has brought them through is unfavorable, they will regard the child as a blessing!
It’s also not a bad thing to work, in fact that was one of the first things that God told man to do!
And it’s a good thing to get a degree from university.
So if these things are not bad and they’re okay to have, we just shouldn’t love them more than God, how do we live in light of this?
This idea of “laying your life down” isn’t just mentioned by Jesus in John 12. In fact, he keeps referring to it in regard to his own life and then says “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
So what does it mean to lay down your life for another?
When we look at Jesus’ life, laying down his life meant giving up what he “deserved” and to put himself after others. In fact, more than that, he literally gave up his life so that we might live. And although he calls us his friends, we were, by our own doing, his enemies.
So this is not a simple call of doing what is convenient or easy for you for those who are kind to you, but this is a call to humbly do whatever it is that God calls you to. And I don’t mean whatever God calls you to do as a profession or with your life, but what he calls you to do each moment.
In 1 John 3:16, John writes “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” but John doesn’t stop there. He continues to say “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
The most real way we can love God on this earth, is to show his love to those around us. And as Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, this call is to love even your enemies.
It’s common in the United States for a sermon to be summarized by several points which give you practical steps in how you can carry out what the pastor or speaker has talked about. There is nothing wrong with that concept and most sermons I have written include that, but for this message, I don’t think it’s necessary.
This message is simply addressing the fact that although my culture or your culture might convince you that the point of life is to get money, have cars, have a nice house, or get a good job, this is not biblical. You can have money, you can have cars, you can have a nice house, and you can have a good job, but they ARE NOT the point of your life. If these things are the point of your life, you ARE NOT living for God.
This message is a wake up call to those of us who need to check our hearts and start living for others instead of ourselves. This message is also an encouragement to those who are already doing that. I know people in this room who live in a way that they only want to help others and serve God. I also know people in this room who live for themselves more often than they live for others.
Living for others is a struggle and I honestly have a hard time with it. This message is just as much for me as it is for you. Even in being asked to preach this morning, I at first declined because I was unhappy with being asked last minute. I personally believe that preaching and sharing takes preparation and it is not good to prepare last minute. However, I stopped and thought about how it was ridiculous for my views to get in the way of God using me. I also thought about the fact that if I wasn’t the one to preach, someone else would be and he would also have to prepare last minute.
It wasn’t easy to prepare for this yesterday as someone who likes more time to study and pray through preparation for preaching or teaching, but because I knew I was doing what God wanted me to do, because I was choosing taking this task myself and allowing God to speak through me instead of pushing it off for someone else, I feel that this is the good life.
Who am I to complain about an opportunity to share what God is teaching me and what I believe he has to say to others just because of the time at which it is presented?
However, this message is not about me. This message is not about how I’ve gotten this right every time…because I haven’t. In fact, I said “no” several times before I said “yes” about preaching this morning. It wouldn’t do me much good to make this message about me, because it would likely just point out how often I fail at making others my priority. But instead, this message is about God and what he can do through you and me when we allow him.
Some pastors like to promise things which God has not promised, like that if you accept Jesus Christ as your savior that you will get everything you’ve ever wanted. However, I’m here to say that if you choose the way of the cross, if you choose to follow Christ in this life, it will be the most difficult thing you’ve ever chosen in your life. It will be hard and life will not always go as you’d like…but this life is only a grain of sand in comparison to eternity and if you do choose Christ in this life, I can promise you that you have a whole life to look forward to after this one.
Revelation 21:1-8 says,
Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars–they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
I’m not asking you to choose between heaven and hell, because that’s too easy of a choice and no one in their right mind would choose hell. I’m asking you to take the gift that God has given you in Jesus Christ. His death has paid the debt that your sins have earned you. I’m asking you to lay your life down as a response to that gift so that God may work through you.
There is no secret formula or prayer to recite, though I will help lead you through a prayer if you have a desire to follow Christ, but all it takes is asking God to have his way in your life and allowing him to come into you and guide you. Are you willing to give up the world’s idea of the good life and instead pursue God in gratitude for all he’s done for you?