A Christian math teacher once had a young man come up to him during a break in their college algebra class. And he said with a very happy look on his face, “I won $600 at such-and-such casino the other night.” Early in the semester, when the professor talked about the practical reality of negative integers, he had mentioned that visitors to Las Vegas probably know a lot about negative numbers, so this student was proud to be the exception to the rule.
When the teacher asked him the secret of his success, he replied, “Well, I always play the same game and just stay with the same tactic all the time. I don’t deviate from it.” He didn’t seem to know much about finely-tuned computer strategies or card-counting, so the teacher decided that he must have just been very lucky. But then he said, “And I played that same way all last summer, lots of times, and I’m up something like $1,600.”
Well, Las Vegas pros say there’s nothing more irritating than people who play like morons, making all the wrong moves and still constantly winning in spite of themselves. But the Christian teacher said to him, very gently, “You know that in the long run, the fixed percentages in those games are going to finally eat you up. The downhill slope at a gambling casino is something you simply are not going to beat over a lifetime.” Everybody who knows anything just hooted when William Bennett, author of the famous Book of Virtues, claimed that he had played high-stakes slot machines for decades and broken even the entire time. That simply is not possible mathematically.
Let me quickly abandon this particular motif, and come instead to a spiritual reality that is more fixed in concrete than the 5.39% you buck if you sit down at a roulette wheel or the 17% you go up against if you spend an afternoon at Santa Anita Racetrack. Our Bible subject today is the question of fighting: arguing, debating, holding grudges, criticizing others, bickering over theology, fomenting dissension over music and worship styles. And the hard reality is that criticizing other people is a mathematically doomed delusion. It simply isn’t going to work. If you want to change things and improve the world by criticizing and stirring up conflict, you’re going to end up disappointed.
There’s a wrenching Old Testament story we find in the book of Numbers, and I remember reading this as a boy in those old Bible Story books by Uncle Arthur. Three men named Korah, Dathan, and Abiram developed a critical spirit there among the children of Israel. This was at Kadesh, just on the borders of Canaan, after the 12 spies had brought back the discouraging report about giants in the land, and after Israel had faltered in their faith. Instead of going right now into Canaan and taking over in victory, the Israelite “grasshoppers” were going to wander in the wilderness for an extra forty years. So it’s understandable that people were out of sorts and looking for scapegoats, and these three men, the Bible says in chapter 16, “became insolent.” They were openly critical of Moses and Aaron and very vocal in causing the entire community to become embroiled in anger and dispute.
In this particular case, God didn’t wait around to let the roulette wheel of time prove that their critical natures were a fatal plague. If you read the story—and don’t let your children hear this at a tender age—God actually opened up the earth and just swallowed up these three families, along with their tents and toys and tricycles. It’s interesting that God says to the rest of the people, right before this “Big Gulp” punishment, “Move away from the tents of Koran, Dathan, and Abiram.” He knew that this infection of rampant criticism was a deadly thing, and He didn’t want to destroy innocent life along with the guilty.
But what if God had simply permitted this strife to play itself out over five or ten years. Would things have improved in the ways these three malcontents wanted? Would the Children of Israel have been blessed by their verbal barbs? And here in this 21st century, are there churches where the members can hold onto a pattern of criticism and cynicism, and still point to vibrant growth and lots of baptisms and people beating down the doors to join that church?
A lot of you here today aren’t old enough to have experienced the fascinating cesspool our nation knows as Watergate. A year or so ago, Jon Stewart or one of the late-night comics was trying to get some laughs out of the latest scandal, which he called: “Dick-Cheney-shooting-a-guy-in-the-face-gate,” but this was nothing compared to the several years where conflict seemed to rule in Washington, D.C. Historian Richard Reeves wrote a book entitled Richard Nixon: Alone in the White House, which was crafted out of a whole slew of new material: tapes and notes and papers from presidential aides like H. R. Haldeman. Reeves describes a Nixon alumni reunion that happened back on May 17, 2000, something like six years after Nixon passed away. A lot of the Watergate figures were also dead by then, including Haldeman, but a good number of people who served from ‘68 until August 9, 1974 got together and reminisced and remembered. Many of them still had those old Nixon-style flag pins in their blazers. Nixon’s grandson, Christopher Cox, led the group in saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
And as Reeves tells the story, a lot of these people, a quarter of a century later, were still almost in a daze, going around saying to each other, “What happened? How did this thing fall apart on us the way it did?”
You look at the numbers. In 1972, Richard Nixon won reelection over George McGovern, beating him by 18 million votes. Five hundred twenty electoral votes to 17. He beat him 49 states to one. The whole nation was red except for Massachusetts. Even San Francisco voted Republican. And less than two years later Nixon was quitting in disgrace, waving to the staff outside the White House and getting on Air Force One to fly back to California.
What happened? One of the Watergate men was named Elliott Richardson, a man who died just a few months before this reunion. He had been Nixon’s attorney general, but had resigned in protest after refusing to obey Nixon’s order that he fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor, which led to something called the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre.” And Richardson had said to this biographer: “Nixon wanted to be the Architect of his Times.”
But then you read the book. And on page after page, chapter after chapter, there are stories of tragedy. Here and there is greatness. There are moments of rare courage; Nixon was a consummate statesman in many ways, a brilliant, incisive thinker. He mastered the issues. In addition, he could be tender, noble, self-sacrificing, courageous. He had greatness in him. He actually had an amazing ability to gently comfort a hurting person, to be personal and warm. He once had a secretary who just couldn’t spell a certain word, and he finally went out of his way to always bypass that word and use other language, just to not keep embarrassing her.
BUT . . . most of this book is a long, sad chronicle of bitterness. Of fighting. Of quarreling and dissension, the splits and the schisms and the splashes of anger.
In the intro to the book, Reeves writes this: “Nixon’s inaugural address, lifted stylistically from Kennedy’s 1961 speech, was built on a sign held up by a young girl in Ohio as he campaigned there: ‘Bring us together.’ But Nixon could not do that. He saw people as groups, to be united and divided toward political ends. The architecture of his politics, like that of his foreign policy, was always based on manipulating groups and interests, balancing them or setting them against one another, whichever suited his purposes or the moment or the times.”
In ‘72, which was that historic election year, Nixon was masterful at visiting both Moscow and Beijing, pitting Russia and China against each other instead of against the U.S. And since the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he achieved breakthrough arms and trade agreements with both superpowers by driving wedges between two countries that had been longtime Communist allies.
Back to Richard Reeves’ intro: “Nixon glorified in cultural warfare, dividing the nation geographically, generationally, racially, religiously. He believed that was what all politicians did. His ‘silent majority,’ a resentful populist center of working and middle-class Christians, loved him not for himself but for his enemies.”
It’s kind of sad that the last line of this postmortem mentions Christians as being a key part of this angry, restless, ready-to-hate constituency. And even today, so many people in the secular world look into our parking lots, and read how Christians are always marching, always suing each other, always engaging in the politics of personal destruction. Does that kind of ongoing civil war get those onlookers to come in here and visit us? Not too much.
Well, what does the Bible say for us on this subject? I guess there must have been a lot of Nixon posters and a lot of anti-Nixon posters in the ancient streets of Colosse, because this is what Paul writes to all of the new Christians there: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:12-14).
It’s interesting that the Bible says to clothe ourselves with compassion. I can look around this morning and see the outfits that you took pains to wear to church today. We all put on these items of apparel and then we walk into God’s house. And what would it be like if we made a decision, there in our own homes on Sabbath morning, before hitting the freeways: “I’m going to clothe myself with an attitude of compassion. I’m going to put on a coat of kindness, a flannel shirt of forgiveness, a poncho of patience”?
I know we have all had the experience of having to go out into a cold world and perform some act of service, some deed of Christian love. We don’t feel like it. Our house is warm and cozy; there are wonderful things on television. But we have this divine appointment. So I imagine you do what I do too. As I get to my parking spot, I have to simply put on an emotional coat of enthusiasm. I have to say, “I love people. I love sharing these ideas. I love the witnessing opportunities. I love serving. And for the next couple of hours, even though it’s raining, I am going to look like I am the happiest, most fulfilled, most aren’t-we-having fun guy these people have ever met.”
And the Bible is true. We can decide to have different thoughts. We can put on a coat of forgiveness, or forbearance, of remembering that Calvary is more important than the fact that you like a different kind of music than others seated in the same Christian sanctuary as you, or that you don’t like the necktie the preacher is wearing.
I know this diagnosis in Colossians 3 is easy to read, but really hard to do. I know that. Paul says: “Bear with one another.” Well, I don’t want to. “Forgive each other; forgive those grievances.” But my grievances are really justified and documented and well-rehearsed. Someone read in Matthew 19: “Love your neighbor.” And he responded: “Good luck. I’d like to see you love MY neighbor.” There’s a classic line about American legend Will Rogers: “He never met a man he didn’t like.” And someone replied: “I’ll bet Will Rogers never met so-and-so.”
But we face the hardness of this invitation, the seeming impossibility of this wardrobe of chosen charity, with two truths. First of all, we have to. That’s it! We have to put on this necktie of love . . . why? Because the Bible tells us we have to.
In his book, Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness, Jerry Cook tells about a scenario where three ladies were all employees of his church. Choir leader, secretary, office assistant, whatever. And for some reason, they weren’t getting along. The office politics between the three of them had just gotten toxic, and the entire church staff knew it.
And finally Cook called them in and said this: “Look, this has to be fixed. I don’t really care what the issues are, frankly, who’s right and who’s wrong. But the simple fact is that the Bible commands you to work it out. It’s not an option; it’s not a recommendation. You’re commanded to forgive each other, love each other, bury the hatchet, sacrifice the grudge, whatever. And that’s a command as binding as ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’”
So what happened? Cook told them, “You can take my office. Go in there and put your cards on the table and work this out. Compromise, discuss, dialogue, whatever it takes. But I want all three of you, individually, to give me a phone call tonight and tell me this thing is all wrapped up.” And then he went out and went golfing. He spent the afternoon whacking a little white ball all over the yard, knowing that the mighty enforcing power of the Word of God was going to get this thing done. That night he got three phone calls. “Are we good now?” “Yes, Pastor Cook.” “Okay, thanks a lot.” That was it.
Philip Yancey passes along a story told by Walter Wink in his book, Engaging the Powers. Ten years after World War II ended, two peacemaker brokers tried to get some Polish Christians and some German Christians together, hoping to mend fences and get these fellow believers reunited. And they asked the Poles: “Could you possibly forgive these guys? The Germans are truly sorry, truly repentant, for what happened to your relatives. Can you reconcile?”
And to a man, the Polish Christians said: “There’s just no way. No way in the world. Every stone in Warsaw is soaked in Polish blood. We cannot forgive! Sorry, there’s just no chance.”
Well, that kind of fizzled out the meeting, but they finished the gathering and all stood up to leave. They held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer together. And when they got to the part, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” the main protestor who had so vehemently said, “No way,” stopped the prayer. And with a pale face, he suddenly said, “I guess we have to forgive. We have no choice but to forgive. It’s not an option. In our own power, true, there’s no way. But we couldn’t say the ‘Our Father’ if we failed to obey what it says here.” Christian willpower is really just giving our will over to God and accepting His power. And that’s what these fragile believers did.
Eighteen months later the two groups met, they reconciled, and they formed a Christian alliance that is still going strong. Why? Because the Bible commanded that they do it. The hardness of the challenge was overcome by the reality that this was the kingdom rule.
But let me make the second point, going back to what we already said. If we choose a life of criticism and conflict and dissension, especially here at the church, the plain truth is that we’re choosing a life that is already a proven failure. It’s a fact: the politics of division and strife, and the spiritual life of division and strife, are doomed approaches. They simply are not going to work.
Again, these many Nixon biographies make that point well. The tactics of division did work, after a fashion and for a while. There’s a famous story where a young, fiery speechwriter named Pat Buchanan helped his boss engineer a political strategy regarding race and busing and affirmative action. “Mr. President, let’s frame our arguments this way, making these A-B-C points. Our silent-majority people will really respond to that.” And someone in the White House pointed out that the policies Buchanan was advocating were bound to divide the nation right in half. This was going to be a red-blue chasm a long time before that became a popular metaphor. And Buchanan just gave the critic a smile and said: “If we cut the country in half, I guarantee you our side’ll get the bigger half.” And maybe you can win one or two elections that way. But can you really create a generation of peace like that? Can you forge a lasting prosperity for all Americans? Can you grow your political party long-term by calling a lot of other people “them” all the time?
Two former participants in the Religious Right later left that movement and wrote a confessional tell-all book entitled Blinded By Might. In it, Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas address the tendency of Christians, especially in our most caustic, argumentative, condemning moments, to invade the world of politics and expect national parties to do the things we almost demand that they do. “Adopt our planks into your platform or we’ll bolt the party; we’ll vote with our feet.” And when one prominent media Christian made those kinds of threats, a senior party chairperson quietly responded: “Jim, political parties win through communication, not through excommunication.”
I don’t know how often you get to the book of Titus, which is a small three-chapter letter from Paul. But the new Christians in Crete—of course, everybody Paul wrote to was always a new Christian—had fallen almost immediately into the failed trap of “Us vs. Them.” Some believed that all new converts needed to keep the entire Jewish law, including circumcision . . . which was keeping a lot of people out of the baptismal tank. The Democrats in the church said, no, we don’t agree. There were some Christians who were clinging to old Jewish myths and what they called “genealogies,” which were probably mythical stories attached to Old Testament history. Other Christians were ready to chuck all of that stuff. And finally Paul gives them, and us, this warning: But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law. And notice this. Why? Because these are unprofitable and useless.
And that’s it. You can have this fight, but it’s a useless fight. It’s like trying to make a living and support your family playing roulette forty hours a week. The Bible tells us in scarlet letters: these discussions are doomed. These tactics are terminal terrain. They simply are not going to work or bear fruit. If you want to kill ten prayer meetings in a row debating these points, yes, you can sure do it. But at the end of the day, things won’t be better; they’ll be worse.
If it feels like my Nixon stories have picked on just one political party today, I can quickly balance the scales. A Democratic political operative named Bob Shrum has been around for a long time. Every four years the top candidates always vie to land him on their team. “Get Shrum; he’s a veteran.” But the fact is that this guy has headed up something like seven consecutive losing candidacies. He has a lot of experience, and all of it is on the deck of the Titanic. Whatever he suggests never wins.
And in our own spiritual lives, as we try to foster an atmosphere of love and unity here at this church, why should we hitch our wagons to a mental attitude that we already know going in is a falling star? Many decades the great Dale Carnegie penned his classic bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People. And in his very first chapter, he says this about the temptation to criticize other people: “Criticism is futile.” Let me repeat that. “Criticism is futile.” Why? He tells us. “It puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.” And then for more than 200 pages, with story after story, he tells high-profile anecdotes about people who wanted other people to change. Who wanted other people to do things differently. Who wanted to effect a shift in policy. So they criticized their opponents. Did it work? Did the people change? Did the atmosphere change? Did the policies change? Almost never. You aren’t going to get what you want out of that other person if you shout at them or embarrass them. It . . . will . . . not . . . work. It simply is not a battle tactic that brings the desired results. It’s a fixed reality that criticism and controversy are failed weapons.
In his recent book, When the Enemy Strikes, Pastor Charles Stanley points out that Satan doesn’t hit us with any new temptations. The Bible tells us, Every temptation is common to man. There’s nothing really inventive here; Lucifer has been employing the same old strategies since Eden. Why? Because they always work. And often he gets us to do something that we already know is a failed, fallen idea with grief at the end of it.
So we all know what it feels like to know these realities, and then still do the hopeless thing because of our natures. Richard Nixon honestly wanted to be a unifying, courageous leader. He wanted to “bring us together.” He once was talking with a friend about the man he was Vice President to, Dwight Eisenhower. And he reminisced by saying: “Everybody loved Ike. But the reverse of that was that Ike loved everybody. Ike didn’t hate anybody. He was puzzled by that sort of thing. He didn’t think of people who disagreed with him as being the ‘enemy.’ He just thought: ‘They don’t agree with me.’”
So how can we come to this church and “be like Ike”? Well, we have this Bible mandate: clothe ourselves with a determined attitude of kindness. Of forgiving. Of not arguing. Of wrapping up all of our relationships in love. If we tear off our necktie of charity one Sabbath, that’s all right. Put it back on. Ask forgiveness. Start again. Ask forgiveness. Start again. Take the larger view. Seek God’s help.
And once in a while, look in instead of out. What is our emotional wardrobe here on Sabbath mornings? Do we come here ready to fight or to forgive? To embrace or arm-wrestle? Again, Nixon got to the White House in 1969, really determined to do good things for the country he loved so much. He had bright visions for the nation. This Richard Reeves tells how Nixon was a loner; he would go off by himself to a secluded office overlooking the Rose Garden and fill a yellow legal pad with memos: “From RN . . . to RN.” He would write encouraging notes to himself, as he looked into the mirror and reflected on what America needed from its Chief Executive. He’d been in power for 17 days when he wrote this: “Most powerful office. Each day a chance to do something memorable for someone. Need to BE good to DO good. The nation must be better in spirit at the end of term. Need for joy, serenity, confidence, inspiration.”
And we look back now from the safe pedestal of the future and sympathize. It’s a tragedy that President Nixon reflected and saw the high bar. He read the Magna Carta of Colossians chapter three. But in his own power, he just could not get over that bar. Not by himself. He couldn’t get over hating, attacking, dividing. His adversaries were doing it to him, and he soon resolved to get even and do it back to them. He finally said to his friend Bob Dole: “I just get up in the morning to confound my enemies.” And after five-and-a-half years, the failed infrastructure of “enemies lists” and revenge and IRS audits brought the presidency of this lonely, embittered, brilliant man to an end.
Well, that’s history. But we can learn from history and the pages of God’s Word. How the God of all peace and all peacemakers must look down in despair when you and I deliberately steer into the low road of controversy! His own divine yellow legal pad is filled with hopeful achievements for His church and His people. God has kingdom plans for this church right here. Plans for peace and for unity and for the kind of growth that happen when there is peace and unity. But He needs for me and for you to do this hard but proven thing. Clothe ourselves in kindness. Bear with one another. Turn the other cheek. Bear with one another. Forgive.
It sounds like a broken record, but it happens to be playing the one song that works. Shall we pray?
Lord, You’ve given us the power of choice, and each day of our lives we need to choose to wear the wardrobe of a peace-filled, unity-seeking life. Help us to come to this holy place and build bridges of understanding. Help us to see the big picture, and to prepare now for the harmony that defines heaven. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.