“True North and Other Points of Orientation”
30 April 2000 Sermon
Text: Matt.6:24-33 & Hebrews 13: 1-7 & 15-18
Our text for this morning is found in Hebrews 13:17:
Obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves: for they
Watch over your souls as they that must give account, that they may do it with
Joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.
We have returned to the task of studying those texts which have the purpose of defining for us what a church which lives by scriptural guidelines should look like. Right now, we should ask God to quicken our minds. We should ask that He highlight for us what we are supposed to hear; that is, we ask Him to open our minds to what He is saying that should be marked, attended to and noted for future application.
A word about our sermon title. There is a certain, momentary exhilaration that comes from being lost in the woods, to finding yourself without a clear and immediate sense of where you are. If you are not lost in some serious woods, and faced with extreme conditions, you can laugh about your loss of orientation and count on figuring out a way to get home. There is a certain euphoric sense of liberty perhaps from knowing that you can head in any direction at will. But if your situation isn’t a pleasant lark, you are very soon going to need to employ some survival skills to orient yourself and to begin getting yourself out of danger. This is where true north comes in. If you have a compass with you, it is prudent to use it and select a course to follow from where you are to where you need to be. The compass helps you escape the fate of going in circles, getting nowhere and becoming exhausted. Following a stream is another strategy. It will eventually bring you to a bridge, the bridge to a road and either on that road, or in some home, or town located on that road. Once you are somewhere it’s easy to get yourself headed home. Life is like a wilderness experience—emotionally, physically and spiritually. It is good to travel through life with a good compass, with survival skills and with an ear attentive to those who have more experience than you are at living. In the wilderness of this life, our compass is the Holy Spirit. Our survival skills are our Christian training, knowledge of the truth and upbringing. And the company of the saints, those who worship, study and grow together as community, supplies our source of wisdom and experience. We are a Word-saturated people of faith and practice. In that context we experience moral order, find our purpose and our meaning.
Now, let’s directly examine our text: “Obey those who rule over you.” We are charged to obey those who rule over us, who have the duty to oversee and to guide us because this supply of leadership is God’s remedy for the recurrent experience we have of being lost in the wilderness. And if we populate that wilderness and call the result either the world, or society, the moral order of the Christian life is God’s remedy for the disaster of moral anarchy in wider society. Moral anarchy is the opposite of godly order. It is either rule-less-ness, or it is a situation wherein the rules are being redefined so that no one knows what they are sufficiently to participate in a moral, or righteous manner.
God has chosen to establish and to place us, His people, in a pastoral context, a spiritual home. While this latter is to be discovered in the analogy of the sheep and the shepherd, and is found everywhere in scripture, most of us are less knowledgeable about what the bible teaches on moral anarchy. Moral anarchy is a state of spiritual disorder, of lawlessness. Moral anarchy is the rule of sin in our private and public lives. In the Old Testament, moral anarchy is behind the charge “that everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”(Deut. 12:8 and Judges 21:25) Israel was “without a judge” to lead and direct the people. Moral anarchy is a current concern for us because there are some people in our country who believe that moral anarchy is necessary for personal freedom. They confuse being without restraint, which is licentiousness, with true liberty, which is the responsible and moral exercise of freedom. If we obey those whom God has placed over us, we will not suffer the ravages of anarchy—we will have godly guidance and we will prosper under it.
Secondly, we note that it is to our great advantage and blessing, while living in that spiritual home, to submit to that leadership. And that is because they watch over us, take care over our souls, as they that must give account. Here’s the picture of a form that such accounting might take. Imagine yourself at the great White Throne Judgment. We will all be there. When it comes time for you to render account of yourself, those who have had spiritual authority over you, those who are charged with spiritual care for you will be summoned to appear as witnesses. Your unconfessed, and neglected sins will be exposed for all to see and prominent among those sins will be some about which I instructed you, warned you, even admonished you to repent of. That’s why I may be among those witnesses—so that your sin is seen for all that it was: stubborn and defiant as well as wrong. I, as one of your spiritual leaders, will be asked to testify as to your spiritual condition, your walk, and your faithfulness. Now if you don’t think that possibility effects me deeply, please think again.
These are difficult things to talk about dispassionately. I mean that part of me needs to rejoice that so few of you are giving me a hard time as your spiritual guide. Most of you are gracious, attentive and, yes, properly submissive. So the ninety-nine need to know what an encouragement they are to their spiritual leadership, and to me, so that they won’t make the mistake of thinking I am not blessed by your growth, your zeal. It is also important that I speak positively before trying to be realistic about the one lost sheep—you know, the squirrelly little rascal who is always jumping the fence, listening to the world, the flesh and the devil on his way to frolic in the wolf infested woods around the sheep pen! May God deliver me from the tendency to obsess over the problems. May He deliver us all from discouragement sent by the evil one who enjoys afflicting us with heaviness, fatigue and negativity. Indeed, you should pray specifically for me to escape the Elijah syndrome—that is spiritual letdown after our magnificent Easter season!
So consider how all this impacts a pastor’s prayer life. As your pastor I do pray for you. I pray that you will not fall into sin, I pray that you will not continue in sin. I pray for a spirit of repentance to fall upon you. I pray for blessing to be multiplied to you I pray down pride and flesh, addictions, anger and foolishness. I pray up your growth in maturity, your giftings and your prosperity. I try to bind up your spiritual adversaries before they can do you harm. And I pray them off when you are under assault, or have been wounded! I pray for the perfection of your soul and the protection of your soul. I do preventative and pre-emptive prayer work. And the more I consider my accountability, the easier it is to pray fervently, and to pray longer.
To be perfectly clear, I am sharing this window into a pastor’s life to increase our effectiveness in working together. There is a danger that I will come across as if I am saying, “Oh, poor me . . . please feel sorry for me.” That is not my intent. I want you to know what Watching over us, taking care over our souls actually looks like.
Sure, sometimes, I feel that I am surrounded by inflexible and unrepentant, 100-year-old sinners—and to be honest, I feel like one myself some days. Just like you, I deal with the stubborn intractability of my own sin and as if that were not already more than I can bear, I have to turn around and do it again for others. And not just once, but over and over again, I am driven to my knees over the blatantly stupid, defiant and wretched things that I do—that is, my sinfulness. But the good news is that when I repent, I am restored, refreshed and renewed—ready to go at life again and to succeed over and over before stumbling another time.
This life of prayer is a pastor’s work. This is also the work of the church. It’s what we are here for. It’s hard work. It’s trying and demanding and, sometimes, grievous and discouraging work. It is also exhilarating, powerful and marvelous. How we need each other. We need each other’s prayers. We also need to make it easier on each other. So it is written, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief. When you understand what it is that your leadership is expected to do, perhaps it will be easier for you to understand why we say your choices are our choices; your sufferings are our sufferings. We also say, your victories are our victories; we triumph with, alongside and through you! That is why your submission is a gateway to joy—it makes our work easier to know that you not only respect what we do for your sakes; but that you value our advice enough to take it once you’ve asked for it. When we need to call you to repentance, life would be so much easier if you would simply do so. If you would press in, ask for help in overcoming; earnestly endeavor to please God, we would hear less frequently remarks like “I’m not ready to repent.” That’s like jumping over the fence and into disaster.
Do you have any idea what happens inside my heart when a sinner says that to me, “I am not ready to repent?” “No,” you say, “but I bet I’m about to find out.” Right you are. First, my heart is seized with terror for your lack of reverence for God. Remember, fear of the Lord is the beginning of understanding. So, next I am flabbergasted: “Are you really so foolish as to trifle with our Holy God?!” You see, I know enough to be terrified for you. Please learn from me. If you know of any wicked way in you, repent now. Any worldliness . . . abandon it right now. Worldly counsel is the kiss of death; rather seek practical godly wisdom and live. Don’t be wise in your own understanding means, among other things, do vainly imagine that you can manipulate, control and direct your life in defiance to God and escape judgment. Our God is inescapable. He looks at the heart and reads your faithlessness, your bitterness and anger for what it is. He sees your willful rebellion and defiant sin and has set a date to settle accounts with you. And, having warned you, nothing I say will stand in your defense. You will have robbed both me and yourself. You will have robbed me of the opportunity to commend you to my Lord. And you will have robbed yourself of your rewards. That is why it is unprofitable for you to grieve those in leadership over you. How I long to commend you all, but some are, sadly, slack of soul and indifferent . . . others are as rigid as a rock. Turn and be changed and the God who has pursued you, all your life will receive you to Himself to the honor and glory of His Name.
On the other hand, most of the time my heart is gladdened. Most of the time what I do hear is, “I repent.” Sometimes I hear, “Thank you for pointing this out to me. I had no idea how angry, selfish, or vengeful I was being.” Often I hear encouraging reports long after a significant encounter and those reports make my heart ring the changes of gratitude, great peals of joy filling the air, crashing down the length and breadth of Cobboseeconte. Huge sound waves of victory, spiritual triumph which confirm me in my calling, and lead me to exult that God has been all too kind to bring me here among such a people as you, at such a time as this. What honor, what privilege . . . if only others knew of the great and glorious things our God is doing in our midst, they would come and see! Oh, God, make them envious and eager so that they might turn from sin and enter in!