December 16, 2007

"The Hard Road to Life"
Scripture: Matthew 7:13-23
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  My Health Alliance Plan has come up with a way to help clients monitor significant health problems such as Diabetes and heart disease. A nurse practitioner calls once a week to check on how things are going and to give helpful information on managing your disease. I am the type of person for whom this sort of monitoring is helpful. If I know someone is going to check in on me, I am far more likely to behave myself, eat the right foods and exercise more often. This particular nurse practitioner would like me to use a monitoring device that attaches to a touch tone phone. One simply punches in the blood sugar and/or blood pressure numbers for the day and the device will ask questions based on the data you entered. The insurance companies have learned that people are less likely to follow prescribed diets and exercise regimes if left to themselves. Granted there are people who are highly motivated and can stick to a diet or health regiment that has benefits for them. I am not one of those people. I start out with the best of intentions, pledge to adhere to a strict diet and then along comes a cookie walk or soon to be Vermont Pie Company and all good intentions fly out the window. Before I can regain control, the damage has already been done. So the monitoring piece is one way to keep me on the path to better health.

  Jesus knew what it was like to be tempted. 40 days in the wilderness has taught him much. He knew the human propensity to give in to those overt and subtle temptations that come along almost every day. It could even be that some of his followers were beginning to "wander" from the path he was laying down for them in his great sermon on the Mount. After all he had been talking about some pretty difficult ways of behaving and reacting to life's circumstances. (don't event think adulterous thoughts, or think about hating someone.) Jesus knew that there would be those who would lead his faithful disciples astray, flamboyant TV evangelistic preachers who would talk a good word yet belie those words with their actions and quest for other gods of money and fame. It is quite possible that Jesus knew that one of his disciples had already veered off course in his quest to fill the money coffers and make a profit out of all this travel and preaching. Jesus knew that following his way, the will of his father, would be difficult at times. Choices would have to be made day in and day out. Jesus knew that work place situations, family dynamics, church conflicts, struggles to be accepted and desire to be part of the flow of things could tempt a person to set aside righteous behavior in favor of the more "accepted" way, the easier way, the more profitable way, the less traumatic way. Jesus knew how wide the path of temptation was, and how easy it was to follow. So he warns his disciples and those who were listening to these final words of the sermon. It's one thing to hear Jesus' words and believe we understand them, but it's altogether different to follow them especially in a world that is increasingly seeing those words as irrelevant to today's living.

  The primary mode of operation for many people is to fend for themselves in this life, to create their world to fit their own needs before they reach out to the rest of the world. Some may live by good principles and have their own moral code, but when forced with situations in which those codes do not work, they will revise their moral codes to fit the times they are in. They may have lived by a sort of "golden rule", "do unto others", but when it comes to what's best for them the moral code can become "do unto me first before others get what I deserve." The trouble with following our own moral codes is that those codes have a wide latitude in which to change. We can begin to justify some very unrighteous acts in the name of our own best interest. Eventually, if we keep giving in to changing those codes to fit the perceived need, we can find ourselves wandering around in the middle of decision making that leads us to dead end living. We might no longer trust God, each other, or ourselves and find we have little direction in life. We have trouble finding the narrow gate that leads to real life, the Kingdom of God for which we were created. Is it any wonder that there is so much conflict and strife in the world? With everybody fending for themselves we continue to bump into one another as we wander from side to side of the very wide path.

  So Jesus warns his listeners: the way is hard, too many distractions, too many direction one could to, too many voices to listen to, too many easy ways out, too many sugar cookies and pies and cakes to tempt us, too much opportunity to sin and fall by the wayside, too many empty "Lord, Lord's", too little knowing Jesus! So what is the solution? Jesus gives that too, "Do the will of my Father in heaven!" "Wait a minute!" we say, "I left God somewhere along the path! How do I find Him again?" Now here comes the part that is simply the best: all we have to do is turn around and we will see that God has been there all along waiting for us to notice. You see, the one thing Jesus knew best was that God was and is right there no matter what. When we take the wide path, the path that leads to destruction and dead ends, we develop a sort of spiritual blindness that keeps us from recognizing that God is with us. What it takes to be able to see again is turning around, seeing where we have been without God, then letting Jesus set us on the path that leads through the narrow gate to life, to true living. We call that turning around, repentance, turning from our wayward ways and finding the path we were meant to travel on. Once we are back on that path, does that mean we will not wander again? Not necessarily, but it does mean that faith is strengthened within us so that when those temptations fly in our faces, we have greater strength to resist them and stay on the path. But we could still wander. That's what Jesus means when he says the way is hard.

  This Christmas is a good time to check and see if we have been faithful, if we have done the will of God, if we have loved our neighbor, if we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and given water to the thirsty. This is a good time not only to remember the birth of the Christ child, but what that ultimately means for us and our daily living. It's one thing to imagine holding a tiny, precious baby, but it's another thing to embrace what that baby represents and teaches. But when we do embrace Christ's teachings, we gain a whole new perspective on what it manes to be a child of God and how that translates into the choices we make.

  Jesus knew that we would face those "life stinks" moments and that we would be looking for ways to make life not so stinky, sometimes making poor, not so righteous choices. But Jesus also knew how we could experience true joy and peace even in those moments. As difficult as the path seems at times, Jesus is there to guide us, to turn us around when we wander off the path that leads to that narrow gate. Jesus is present in our prayers, in our gathering as the body of Christ in fellowship and worship, in our reading of the Word, in our singing and in our silences. Jesus is there! And Jesus is here in this season, in the lights and glitz and glamour, in the sounds and smells, reminding us of just how great God is to come among us and walk with us and teach us about life and about ourselves. It doesn't matter how secular this celebrative season becomes, it's still all about Jesus and we can do what we can do to remind people of that. So let's turn around this season and welcome the new born baby into our lives and in welcoming him we welcome and embrace the will of God found in his teachings.