This morning we are talking about “Serving Like Jesus.” Jesus decided the issue of service early on. Right after his baptism, the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, where he was tempted by Satan. In chapter 4 of his gospel, St. Luke tells us that, at some point, in some way, Satan “took (Jesus) up” and gave him a vision of “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” Then Satan said:
“All this authority and glory has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.”
And Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”
Few people set out to serve Satan. Mostly, we set out to serve ourselves. Like Frank Sinatra we want toarrive at the end of our lives singing, “I’ve done it my way.” Unfortunately, in making ourselves our top priority, we find ourselves in opposition to God. In his temptation, Jesus chose to serve God, not himself. In refusing Satan’s offer of authority and glory, Jesus uses two powerful words. First, he uses the Greek word “proskuneo,” here translated by the English word “worship.” Proskuneo means to prostrate, or humble one’s self before God, as before a king. Second, Jesus uses the Greek word “latreuo,” here translated by the English word “serve.” Latreuo describes the the kind of service that we render to the one to whom we have given our allegiance. In point of fact, either Greek word can be translated by the English word “worship,” for each describes a stage of worship. Our worship always begins with submission, but true worship always issues in service.
Jesus settled the issue of his personal submission to God during his temptation in the wilderness, and he never looked back. All of his life and work was lived in submission to the will of his Father. When Jesus knelt in the garden he prayed,“Not my will but your will be done.” Jesus lived his commitment to the bitter end, forcing a conflict with the authorities who arrested him, gave him a mockery of a trial, and crucified him between two outlaws.
Few of us settle the issue of submission like Jesus, “Once and for all.” Many of us go through life “limping along between two opinions.” Somedays we serve God. Somedays we serve ourselves. The people who really change the world are those who, like Jesus, settle the issue once and for all, and then, never look back.
It is a shame we vacillate so. When we seek God, and God’s will for our lives first, God handles the rest. Jesus was crucified by the hearts and hands of sinful men; but the cross was not the end of his story. On the third day God raised Jesus from the dead, and exalted him to a position of power and glory that far exceeded anything he could have achieved in partnership with self and Satan. In Philippians 2 the St. Paul describes both the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus, and he urges us to follow his lead of service to God. The apostle writes:
Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant, and being found in human form he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is 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 Christ is Lord,” to the glory of God the father.
Jesus humbled himself before God. He settled the issue of submission, and then he served God in all that he did. He looked into the face of his Father, and then he looked into the faces of the world, and he spent his life, and his death, bringing us back together.
Jesus has a lot to teach us about service.
First, in Matthew 6:24 Jesus teaches us that it is impossible for us to serve two masters. He says that we will hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. Then he sums up by saying, “You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Now you know that Mammon means not just money, but money and the whole money system. You also know that this is not supposed to be a stewardship sermon, but a sermon about “Serving like Jesus.” However, we cannot talk about serving like Jesus without listening to what Jesus has to say about service. And one of the few times Jesus talks about serving, he points out that we cannot serve God and money.
Does this mean that we should not be interested in money? No; that is not right. In complex societies like the one that Jesus lived in, and like the one we live in, money is a necessity. It has replaced barter as a medium of exchange. Without money our lives would be much more difficult. Can you imagine trying to trade your latest apple harvest for a new tractor. You do have an apple harvest don’t you? It may be possible to make such a trade; but it is not easy. Money is a good thing, and I believe that John Wesley was absolutely right when he spoke to the early Methodist about money saying, “Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.”
When Jesus says that we cannot serve God and money, he does not mean that we cannot use money, he means that we must not allow money to use us. That is, we cannot make all our decisions based on money. We put money in its proper place when choose between two jobs, and take the job that offers less pay, but more opportunity for doing the things we want to do for the people we love. We put money in its proper place when we make some promise involving money, and then keep that promise, even when it cost us more than we thought it might. Psalm 15 says a person is righteous when “ he swears to his own hurt and does not change.” We put money in its proper place when we pass up some luxury that we have promised ourselves, so that someone else might enjoy a necessity.
When Jesus says that we cannot serve God and money, I do not think he means that we cannot use money. Nor do I think that Jesus implies that every contest for our affections would be between God and money. In Romans 16 St. Paul says that some of us serve our own appetites. Our appetites are many. In 1st Thessalonians 1 the apostle says that believers in Thessaloniki turned from idols to serve the living God. Ordinary, Paul defines an idol as a false God, made of wood, or stone, or some precious metal. Yet, he knows, and we know that there are idols of many kinds. In fact, there are so many idols, that my idol and your idol may not even resemble one another. The thing that is wrong for me may be right for you, and vice versa. Here is the kicker: Money is one of many idols, but money is often what we might call “the gateway idol.” If we have plenty of money, and if we allow it to control us, rather than putting it into its proper place, we often end up serving the idol or idols of our own choosing.
I think one of the best ways for us to insure that we have put money into its proper place is the tithe. The first month of our marriage, Elayne and I did not tithe, and we finished the month in the red. We spent every dime we had. The next month, we started tithing, and immediately, our money seemed to go further than it did. In those days, as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marines, I made $430 a month, and right off the top we gave $43 dollars to God’s work. Elayne was a Baptist and I was a Moravian, so we split our down the middle. We gave $35 dollars to the Moravian church and $8 dollars to the Baptist church. Of course, the tithe is just the beginning. In order to keep money in its proper place, we will eventually want to give more. We may up the percentage of our gift. We may even find ourselves engaging in spontaneous acts of charity. When we start spontaneous acts of charity, we discover the truth of the scripture, “It is better to give than to receive!”
There is a second point that Jesus makes about serving. He sets an example of service, and he says that it is through the service we render to others that we achieve true success for ourselves. Now this must be hard to understand, for not even the disciples of Jesus fully understood it. In Mark chapter 10, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?”And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” And Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten remaining disciples heard this, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them:
“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. And then Jesus pointed to his personal example. He said, “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45 RSV)
Jesus returned to this theme several times. He told his disciples that it is only those who humble themselves, who will be exalted. Likewise, in John 13, Jesus took a towel and washed their feet, saying, “14 You call me your Master and teacher, and so I am , if I then, your Master and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” I have never participated in a foot washing, but one day, I was helping my father, in a way that he could not help himself. I was embarrassed. Then I realized it must be worse for him. I said, “I have never been to a foot washing, but I suppose this is like a foot washing.” He said, “I suppose it is.” The tension was broken, and somehow, God was there.
The Twelve did not learn this lesson of serving one another as easily as we might have hoped. In Acts chapter 6, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostles are working hard at doing lots of things in the church at Jerusalem. They often find themselves waiting tables, because the Jews and Greeks are jealous of one another, and they want the disciples to exercise portion control. The Twelve think they are not making good use of their time, so they approach the congregation at Jerusalem saying, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” It was after this appeal that the church elected seven men to be deacons, including Stephen the first martyr of the church, and Philip the great Evangelists. I think it is interesting that two of the seven deacons achieved more prominence in the history of the church than all but three of the original twelve disciples, Peter, James and John. It may be that the disciples should have kept serving tables, while they preached the gospel. We might have a better memory of them.
Of course, in saying this, I am preaching to and perhaps, against myself. I have never been afraid of serving tables, or of setting tables up, or of taking tables down. However, there are some things I have left undone. For instance, several years ago, a person approached me and asked, “Worth, why don’t you go on mission trips?” I answered that I had gone on several mission trips, and would like to go on others, but I did not consider it my primary tasks at New Philadelphia. On another occasion, a pastor asked me why I did not seek a more prominent roll in our community, volunteering as a chaplain at the hospital, or volunteering to serve on various boards and with various agencies. I gave him a more detailed answer. I said:
“Well, just before I went to seminary, I was a rifle platoon leader in the Marines. In the Tactical Basic School they taught us that platoon leader’s weapon is not the rifle or pistol he carries, but his whole platoon. Then, in seminary, I discovered that the book of Ephesians makes a similar analogy about pastor-teachers. In Ephesians 4 we read that the role of the pastor-teacher is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” I believe a pastor’s role is two fold. 1) As a pastor he or she is supposed to care for the congregation, both individually and corporately. 2) As a teacher he or she is supposed to prepare the individuals in the congregation for life and witness.”
Now I think I have done o.k.with the pastor part. And I think you have done a great job with the life and witness part. Many of you are involved inside and outside of this congregation. Not only do you “serve one another” within this church which is Biblical and right, but you “serve your neighbor” in our community. You work for Sunnyside Ministry, and Laurel Ridge, and Crisis Control, and Samaritan Inn, and HOPE (Help Our People Eat), and others besides. You have done a good job, but I have not. I have allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good. I have waited for perfect conditions and they have not come, so I have often left the teaching part undone. I have often tried to do more myself, without helping you to do more, because, quite frankly, it was often easier to do it myself. That is a wrong attitude on my part; and you know it, and you have started to say it. Not long ago, I was speaking to a young man saying how much opportunity we had before as a congregation, and how I was going to turn things up a notch and do more. He said,“I don’t want to know what you are going to do; I want to know what I need to do!”
I suspect that is true for many of you. You want to do more, and you want to know how to do it. You want to serve like Jesus because you already know that it is in the service of others, that we find fulfillment for ourselves. Not only so, but in serving others we often discover that our own faith grows by leaps and bounds. When John Wesley questioned his own faith, he approached, a Moravian brother, Peter Boehler, and asked him if he should leave off preaching. Boehler said, “No, John Wesley, preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” I will say the same thing about service, if you lack faith, then serve until you have faith, and then because you have faith, you will serve. In Matthew 25 Jesus promised his disciples and us through them that in serving others, we are serving him, and sometimes, as we serve others, he allows us a moment of recognition so clear, that we are never the same again.