Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.
This morning we are talking about the habits of Jesus. When I first planned this sermon I intended to talk about all those things that Jesus did that we can emulate pretty easily—things like being regular in worship (Luke 4:16) and constant in prayer (Luke 22:39-45). I was going to talk about the Master’s Bible study habit, and point out how Jesus spent so much time studying the Law and the Prophets that by the time he was 12 years old he astounded the religious professionals in the temple with his knowledge of the Jewish Scripture. (Luke 2:42) Well, all these things are true; but none of these habits get at the keystone habit of Jesus.
You remember what a keystone is. A keystone is the wedge-shaped stone in an arch that holds all the other stones in place. A keystone habit is the one great habit in the life of a person or an organization that makes all the other habits effective.
In the days of his flesh, the keystone habit of Jesus was one thing and one thing only- seeking and doing the will of God. In John 4:34, Jesus spoke to his disciples saying, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.”
Now one might suspect that if seeking and doing the will of God was the keystone habit in the life of Jesus, the New Testament itself will be filled up with the phrase, “the Will of God.” I checked this out. I was surprised to see that Jesus does not talk about seeking and doing “the will of God” as often one might think. In fact, Jesus uses the phrase “will of God” just once (Mark 3:35). In addition, in prayer, Jesus twice speaks the words “thy will,” meaning “the will of God” (Matthew 6:10; Matthew 26:42). So, too, he uses the phrase, “the will of my father” four times, and the phrase, “the will of him who sent me,” as in John 4:34, four times more. So, by my count, in the gospels, Jesus refers to the will of God eleven times.
That is better, but if the keystone habit of Jesus is seeking and doing the will of God that is still not all that often. I figured there had to be more. I reasoned that there had to be a thought and expression just different enough from the phrase “the will of God” that my Bible search software was not smart enough to find. It turns out there is! As students of scripture, many of you will remember that in the teaching of Jesus the will of God is intimately connected to the kingdom of God. We know this from the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. He taught them to pray saying:
Our Father, Who Art in Heaven;
Hallowed be Thy Name;
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done,
On Earth as it Is in Heaven.
The phrase, “Thy Will Be Done on Earth as it Is in Heaven,” illustrates and explains the phrase, “thy kingdom come.” The coming of the kingdom and the doing of God’s will are one and the same.
Jesus uses the phrase “kingdom of God” more than forty times. He uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” almost thirty times more. You should know that these two phrases are interchangeable. Matthew, arguably the most Jewish of the gospels, uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” as a circumlocution to avoid saying the Divine name, as was the habit of the Jews. Yet, in Matthew, the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” means exactly the same thing as the phrase “the kingdom of God” means in the other gospels. “The kingdom of heaven” is not reserved for some future time in the sweet-bye-and-bye. It reveals itself today, right now, each and every time we sacrifice our own will to the will of God.
Let me illustrate the importance of the kingdom of God in the life and ministry of Jesus. I will use just two examples, though examples abound.
According to St. Mark chapter 1:14-15 the first sermon that Jesus ever preached was about the kingdom of God. Following his baptism by John, and his time in the wilderness where he was lead by the Holy Spirit and then tempted by Satan, Jesus came back into Galilee, “preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in this good news.’” (Mark 1:1-15)
Or, what about this, according to Matthew the most comprehensive and important sermon Jesus preached was the Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught his disciples this world was flawed and far from perfect, but that a new world is coming. Jesus taught his disciples to live by faith, to trust God to supply their needs. The keystone phrase in the whole sermon is found in Matthew 6:33 where Jesus says, “Seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness, and everything else (that you need) will be added to you.”
Now, according the Charles Duhigg, the keystone habit is supported by what researchers call “small wins.” Small wins are exactly what they sound like. They serve to spread the keystone habit throughout the life of a person or organization. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are put into place that favor other small wins. As small wins increase, people and organizations gain increased confidence in their keystone habit.
A good example is Michael Phelps the Olympic Swimmer who has won more Olympic Gold Medals than any athlete in the history of the games. (Phelps has 19 gold 22 total.) There are many reasons for Michael Phelps’ success as a swimmer. He has big hands, a long, powerful torso, short legs and feet that rotate beyond ninety degrees. Michael Phelps can bend his feet more than most ballerinas. Phelps is also a little bit obsessive compulsive. This is true of most highly successful athletes. He trains hard, harder than anyone else. His one problem was getting nervous. His coach helped him beat that by setting up a series of small wins before every race. He rises on time. He eats his breakfast of eggs, and oatmeal, and 4 high calories shakes on time, and never varies the menu. He starts his warm-ups on time, employing various strokes, and swimming more than a mile. Think about that—before Phelps races for the first time, he has already swum for more than 45 minutes. Then he puts on his racing suit, which is so tight that it takes 20 minutes to do that. Then he puts on his headphones and listens to the same mix of rap-music that he has been training to. As a part of Phelps training routine he puts on imaginary videotape that his coach suggested that helps him visualize every element of every race. Every time Michael Phelps engages in one of these training exercises he experiences a small win that prepares him for a big race, and a big win.
In 2008 in Beijing this paid off big time. When Phelps dove into the water for one race, his goggles were ajar and leaking water. There was nothing he could do. A swimmer can’t afford an extra shoulder shrug, much less the time to adjust goggles. The problem got increasingly worse, and by the time Phelps reached the final turn, he was almost blind. He could not see the black line that marked the bottom of the pool, nor the black tee that signaled the approach at the end of the pool. Phelps did not panic. He had long ago visualized this scenario, and once, in Michigan, his coach had had Phelps swim in a pitch-dark pool, just to prepare him for the race he was now running. As Phelps made the final turn, and entered his sprint, and neared the finish, the crowd was cheering wildly. But Phelps did not know why they were cheering. Was he in the lead? Or had he been overtaken? He had started counting his strokes knowing he had 19, 20, or perhaps 21 strokes to finish. He counted them off 19, 20, and then a big 21. As he reached the end of his 21st stroke his hand touched the edge of the pool. He ripped off his goggles and looked at the scoreboard, beside his name he saw the letters “WR.” It was a World Record—and a Gold Medal. Michael Phelps’ small wins had prepared him for the big race and the big win.
Let me give one more example: weight-loss. People used to think that the only way to loose weight and to keep it off was to change one’s lifestyle completely. Follow a strict diet. Join the gym. Work out every day. The problem with this approach is follow-through. Lots of people start strong, but they can’t keep it up. Then researchers decided to try the small win approach. They asked 1600 people with a desire to loose weight to record what they ate, every day if possible; just one day a week if that is all they could manage. An amazing thing happened, as people wrote down what they ate, and experienced small wins, and they soon altered other aspects of their life. They ate better quality meals. They drank more water. They watched less TV. They took the stairs instead of the elevator. They committed to an exercise routine. They changed their lifestyle, not all at once, but over time, through a series of small wins. In a number of studies, lasting over six months, “dieters” who simply wrote down what ate, every day, shed fifty-percent more weight than people who did not.
So, what were the small wins that reinforced Jesus’ keystone habit of serving the kingdom of God?
They were everywhere. In Matthew 12, people accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. Jesus responds:
27 If I cast out demons by Be-elzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Every time Jesus healed someone who was sick, or cast out an evil spirit, it was a small win — the kingdom had come, and the small wins were preparing him for a bigger test and a bigger win.
Let’s talk politics for a moment. During the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Romans were in control of Jerusalem and all the territory of the Jews. Caesar ruled the known world, and it was common for both the Romans and the people they conquered (with the exception of the Jews) to reckon Caesar a God, in effect confessing, “Caesar is Lord.”
Jesus did not accept that. He knew that Caesar was like any other man, and that the kingdom of Rome was like any other kingdom. Someday it would be shaken. Someday it would fall. Only the Kingdom of God cannot be shaken and will abide forever.
The prophet Zechariah has prophesied saying:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass. (Zech. 9:9)
Jesus definitive challenge of Caesar came when he mounted the colt, the foal of an ass in direct fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, and rode it into Jerusalem, and those who went before and those who followed cried out:
“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:1-10)
Today, a great many scholars believe that as Jesus was entering Jerusalem through one gate of the city, on the other side of the city there was a Roman procession, including long lines of legionaries, bright from head to toe with weapons and armor. Jesus was staking his claim to the kingdom and on the way to the kingdom. The Roman kingdom was established by the sword. When questioned by the high priest Jesus said:
“My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.”
Jesus knew long before the hymnist wrote:
For not with swords loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums;
With deeds of love and mercy
The heavenly kingdom comes.
Of course you know the rest of that story. By Friday the crowds were no longer shouting, “Hosanna!”, they were shouting, “Crucify him!” At last, rejected by his own people, and abandoned by his disciples, Jesus was put to death on a Roman Cross. In a manner of speaking, he was blinded by the darkness. The crowds who were there around the cross mocked him, saying, “If you are the king of the Jews save yourself.” (Luke 23:37) Even the governor mocked him, causing a sign to be placed over his cross in three languages, Hebrew, Latin and Greek, saying, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19-20) His only throne was a cross. Jesus even felt the absence of God, and cried out saying, “Elo-i, Elo-i, lama sabach-thani?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. Even his closest disciples lost hope. His enemies thought his small wins nothing, for they believed they had won the big event. They thought they were done with him. Then, on the third day, God raised Jesus from death; and, as the apostle says, God gave him a name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus, not Caesar, but Jesus, is Lord! (Philippians 2:5-11)
Let me leave you with this thought: Each of the small wins experienced by Jesus were big wins in the lives of those he touched. He asked us to continue his mission. If we do, we must adopt his keystone habit. It is not prayer, nor Bible Study, nor attendance at worship, though all these things are important, they serve the keystone habit, which is seeking and doing the will of God. When we do God’s will, the kingdom comes, one small victory at a time, and it is an unshakable kingdom ruled by the unchanging Person, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. And he guarantees that the day of the Big Win is coming.