There’s a certain genre of dream that many of us have; in fact, psychologists tell us that these are very familiar. They all fall under a category of: man, I am not prepared.
I’m supposed to do a wedding, and I have no notes. I can’t remember who the bride and groom are. Or I can’t get to the wedding. I have a flat tire. I have no gas. No map. No Bible. No brain.
I’m supposed to preach here at church, and I have no notes. Not only no notes, but nothing in my head. I think, “Surely there’s a Bible verse I can recall, an illustration, an old Reader’s Digest joke I can wrap around it.” But I’ll be sitting right here and my mind is a complete blank. I can’t even remember what denomination I’m in. The capper is that about half the time, I have nothing on but my underwear, and there are occasional dreams where I’m less well off than that.
Every now and then I will dream that I’m supposed to teach a class, and I have no notes, no syllabus, no textbook, no preparation, and a classroom filled with forty very naughty students. Obviously I can’t very well get control of them because I have nothing to say. The cousin dream to this one is that I am myself enrolled in college again, Grainger Hall at PUC, loitering around Andre and Winning Halls—the girls’ dorms—most of the time, and it’s one week before finals. Suddenly I realize that for some reason I haven’t been going to classes at all the entire semester! I simply . . . forgot. I’ve gone to dinner in the cafeteria; I’ve gone to Lake Berryessa to go skiing; I just have never gone to class. There’s a test this afternoon, and I have never once gone to class or taken notes or done any homework.
I have actually had college roommates who lived by the details of this dream, which is maybe where my subconscious gets the idea. But the irony is that, despite the many character flaws which I admit I have, coming to church without sermon notes isn’t one of them. I have forgotten other things, but never my notes. I always bring the laptop, and my Bible, and if I’m supposed to teach the primary Sabbath School class, I’ve always spent a couple of hours working on that, and I have those notes too. When I’m invited to do a Week of Prayer someplace, I work on those five talks well in advance. I don’t cobble something together on the Monday morning drive over to the school. I have pastor friends who will fly around the world to do evangelistic talks and who start writing the first sermon on the airplane . . . and then just try to stay 12 hours ahead of the wolves, but I can’t live that way, and I don’t. Still, for some reason, the dreams continue and all the exorcisms in the world won’t make them go away.
So all of us, as people and as Christians, have a certain built-in anxiety about our performance. How are we doing? Are we measuring up to the expectations that the church has for us? Are we good enough to deserve a home in heaven? Maybe the dreams come because of this spiritual insecurity. I have had people in this sanctuary confide to me that they lost sleep over the state of their goodness. Would it be enough?
We’ve studied the doctrine of perfection for several weeks now, and it’s always helpful to ask the practical question: What should we DO? Not here at church, but at home on Tuesdays. At the office on Wednesdays. With our kids on vacation on Sundays. What should be our effort? We’ve said all along that Christian golfers aim at the pin, not the sand trap; we try to sing right notes, not wrong ones. We want to keep the commandments, not shatter or ignore them.
I want to remind you again that we hold to four key principles of the faith. First, perfection is a good thing; we should make it our daily goal. Secondly, perfection is not the basis of our salvation. That is the core message of the Protestant doctrine of justification, spelled out in that classic black-and-white Martin Luther movie. Third, perfection is something that God gives us, by His definition and also by His timetable. And fourthly, perfection is for the primary purpose of honoring His kingdom, validating His government. The key text for that is Matthew 5:16: Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.
The Christian gospel of grace makes it possible for us to obey “in a new way, a less worried way.” However, that still means, on a practical Tuesday level, that when lustful thoughts come, I should strive to put them away. I can choose what I think about. When I am angry, I do two things: I trust in God and I also shut up. I guard my words. When I have a selfish impulse that competes with my sharing nature, I still try to respond to the nobler, weaker side and be good to someone who needs my help. So obeying in the “less worried way” still does have me sacrificing, forging habits, turning the other cheek, going the second mile, returning good for evil. I don’t care how much grace bathes this church; it will probably always take an alarm clock on Sabbath morning to get us here.
The Christian has in his or her life a list: the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20. We have 107 verses in the Sermon on the Mount, and much of that is extremely detailed. I could have many sleepless nights and preaching-in-my-underwear nightmares just from Matthew 5, 6, and 7. But all of these efforts are, at their core, a secondary game plan. Today, instead of thinking about all the do’s and don’t’s of Adventism, let’s simply go on a vacation trip to Hawaii. If I paid for the tickets, how many of you would like to go to Hawaii with me right now?
Sometimes today when I’m in a plane taking off from our local airport, it soars out over the blue Pacific Ocean, and I think to myself: Man, it sure would be nice to be going to Hawaii today. But then the plane turns around, heads east, and flies to Lincoln, Nebraska, or Oklahoma City, or some other place without quite as much sensory appeal. But every time I fly to Hawaii, I also have this thought: It sure is nice to be in a plane going to Hawaii and not trying to swim the entire way there. And therein lies a parable I want to share with you. In the interest of full disclosure I have to tell you that this is one first shared by Adventist pastor Morris Venden.
Now, the framework of this parable is that Hawaii equals perfection. If you get to Hawaii, you are perfect. If a Christian wants to improve his life and get all the way to perfection—that’s Hawaii. So now we really want to go there!
Everyone living in the Southern California town of Remnant, population 144,000, which is a suburb of Santa Monica, believes that it is important to swim to Hawaii. The sooner we can swim to Hawaii, the sooner we will also go to heaven. But it’s a very long swim from the Ventura Pier or the Santa Monica beaches all the way to Hawaii. Some of you have gone fishing in the shallow water on our side of the ocean; maybe you’ve gone on surfboards and actually gone several hundred yards out. It’s possible that a few of you have even chartered fishing vessels and gone as many as five miles out to sea. But in terms of swimming and getting all the way to Hawaii, I don’t know of many Christians who have gone very far out there. Most of them turn around many miles before the hula girls and the palm trees of Honolulu come into view.
Another reality is that no one really lives in Hawaii. A few people claim to have been there; I told you how Venden himself met one of them who said he had spent four years there. But there’s a common saying in the town of Remnant that if you claim you’ve been to Hawaii, that’s sure proof that you never have. However, here’s the twist: everyone in the town of Remnant focuses on swimming. There are swimming lessons for everyone: classes for new beginners, children, seekers. There’s a Thursday evening Bible study / swimming group, a New Mothers swimming club, a youth polo team. There are swimming seminars and five-day plans to learn how to swim.
But in this parable some bad news begins to spread around. People are saying that it’s impossible to get to Hawaii. It can’t be done. Frankly, people are tired of gasping and struggling and failing all the time. Maybe, they say, your only hope is that one day before you die, you’ll stagger up on the beach and have 24 hours there before they bury you. Which is what we call “righteousness by senility.” And so the conclusion is: maybe perfection simply isn’t something a Christian can hope to accomplish. And some swimmers begin to ask: “Who says that perfection—living in Hawaii—is important? Why don’t we just live here and be done with it?”
And yet the swimmer’s manual, which comes in a King James Version and several others, does talk about Hawaii. You ought to get there, it says on page after page. Matthew 5:48 says: “Be ye therefore a swimmer who gets clear to Hawaii.” So real discouragement sets in on the beach where most swimmers are still very near the California coastline.
It ends up there are two groups: one says it’s important, the other says it’s not important. The irony is that both groups still go swimming pretty much all of the time.
In Matthew 19:21 there’s a story where a rich young swimmer comes and asks Jesus what he has to do to get into heaven. And Christ says: Keep the commandments. “Well, I’m already doing that,” this kid says, adjusting his swim suit and putting on some more sun screen. “I’ve swum practically the whole way to Hawaii already.” On a surface level, he was a good person; he was obedient. If you defined perfection simply by deeds, he was a decent swimmer.
And Jesus says, “Well, there’s one thing more. Sell everything you’ve got; liquidate your entire empire, and come follow Me. That’s how you’ll have treasure in heaven. That’s how you’re going to get to Hawaii.”
I want to tell you right here: this is a terrible story. Sell everything? I haven’t done that; you haven’t done it. This young man wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. The disciples thought it was impossible; in fact, they freaked out. “Lord,” they gasped, “that’s a non-starter. That’s impossible.” Verse 25: Who then can be saved? Jesus, give us a break. Nobody can swim that far! And even Jesus hints at the impossibility of it by using the metaphor of a camel going through the eye of a needle.
Frankly, this story unsettles us . . . but let’s back up and take a hard look at it. Jesus is actually addressing here the issue: can we get to be perfect? Can we focus on this sin, then that one, and then some other one—in other words, swimming, swimming, swimming—and finally drag ourselves up on the front porch of the Honolulu Hilton? Yes or no?
Matthew 19 seems to suggest this tactical sequence: do this perfection “bit” . . . and then come and follow Jesus. Which frankly is an impossibility. The disciples were right when they said so. The reality is that we have to come to Jesus the very first thing, before we can ever hope to be perfect. But as we take a second look at this text, we discover that Jesus is actually telling us how to be perfect. There are some deep spiritual lessons in this passage of Scripture.
What are they? What does Jesus tell this young man to do? “Go and sell all that you have.” Now, that’s talking about more than money. Jesus is saying, “Get rid of what you have, what you trust in.” This rich young ruler trusted in his money. The Tyndale commentary observes: “He has become a slave to his possessions. There is much wealth in his house, but leanness in his soul.”
You might be rich in talent. Stop depending on your talent. You might be rich in good looks; you’re overcome every time you look in the mirror. Get rid of your dependence on your good looks. Perhaps you’re rich in brains; you can do things and solve things and understand things in half the time that other people do. That’s wonderful news, but in a sense, you need to sell your brainpower, in terms of trusting in it, depending on it. In the Bible, Jacob was a man who always had a brainy plan, a scheme, a way of tricking others and getting to the top. It took a long time before he trusted in God instead of his wiles and the fake fur on his forearms.
For decades Adventists have argued and debated about jewelry; I can’t solve that issue in two minutes here in this sermon which is on another topic. But here’s the verse in I Peter 3:4: Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
And if you read this verse carefully, it doesn’t say in stark black-and-white terms that you should never wear fine clothes or own anything made of gold. But it’s speaking about the fact that our beauty shouldn’t come from that. We shouldn’t count on that for our self-esteem. Our quiet, loving Christian character should be the beautiful thing.
The NIV notes say about jewelry: “Christian women”—men too, of course—“should not rely on such extremes of adornment for beauty.” I’ve read the suggestion that it may be all right to have riches if heaven administers those riches; and the same would be true in this area of our adornment.
I believe that this expression, “sell all you have,” is Jesus’ blunt way of saying that we must get rid of all things that we depend upon as a substitute for dependence upon Jesus Himself. Give up, not only on your money, or your good looks, or your abilities, but on your SELF. This is the essence of Jesus’ teachings—self-surrender, giving up on self. The Adventist classic, The Desire of Ages, tells us: “[The rich young ruler’s] exalted position and his possessions were exerting a subtle influence for evil upon his character. If cherished, they would supplant God in his affections.” The song, I Surrender All, isn’t really about a list of things. It’s about all forms of self-reliance. I surrender all other salvation plans except for the Jesus Plan.
Let’s confess here that this is a high calling; discipleship is a lofty, noble, hard thing. It would frankly be easier to have a temporal list and work your way down that list. Notice here that the Bible doesn’t say that all of us should get rid of our money. But we need to give up depending on our money. Or our abilities. Our brains. Our degrees. Our looks. And if our money is so much in the way that it keeps us from depending on Jesus, then we need to actually get rid of it. Frankly, the offerings we pick up here in church are—and ought to be—much more for the purpose of being a spiritual discipline for us than they should be for the practical financial uses they go to. God could always provide those some other way, but our giving helps us to consciously stop depending on our own cash and our earning power.
We sometimes encounter what I would call “the hard sayings of Jesus.” In Matthew 5:29, He says this: If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your whole body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. Your right hand—the same thing. Jesus is not teaching self-mutilation here; the Christian faith is not a Taliban religion. But He is using this grisly metaphor to tell us that we need to do whatever it takes to get into and to stay in a trust relationship with Him. If we cannot shed our depending on our jewels, then we should sell our jewels. My spouse and I often pray to Jesus, “Lord, help us to learn lessons the easy way. But if we need it, then send the hard ones too.”
Now, what does this have to do with our fictional swim to Hawaii? Let’s get back to our story. Here’s the connection.
We are never going to become perfect by dwelling on perfection. It will only come by dwelling on Jesus and His character. This is a powerful principle of the Gospel. The Bible invites us to aim toward perfection. But we don’t aim for perfection by aiming for perfection. We don’t succeed by making a list and dragging ourselves via New Year’s resolutions down that list. That approach never has worked and never will work. We can’t make a list long enough and accurate enough; what’s more, what really is perfection? Faulty humans cannot define it in all its fullness anyway. Our human list is a paltry, cosmic joke, a nursery school drawing.
By the time you get rid of sin #1, and #2, and #3, and #4, you’ll find that sin #1 has returned with a vengeance. I’ve proved that in my own life a hundred times. Again, we don’t get to be perfect by focusing on perfection; we get to be perfect by focusing on Jesus. Because He is perfect. You and I are always going to become like the things we most look at and admire, whether it’s the Jesus we find in the Bible or the movie stars we see up on the screen. The Adventist commentary for Matthew 19 reminds us that we can’t achieve perfection by the deeds we do; Jesus is calling us to a “complete change of heart and life.” It’s a whole new attitude, a full allegiance to this new Friend.
But back to our Hawaii project. We have all these discouraged swimmers up and down the beach. No one has gotten very far out to sea; no one has seen the palm trees of Waikiki. And one day a wonderful rumor begins to pass its way from one swimmer to the next. There’s an airplane parked at the airport, and it’s heading to Hawaii. If you get to know the Pilot of the plane, He will simply take you there. You don’t have to swim or buy fins or snorkels; you just get acquainted with this generous Pilot. And while some swimmers keep insisting, “No, we must swim! We must strive! We must work!”, the others say, “No, we must head for the airport.”
There’s a beautiful story that you and I find in the book of Genesis chapter five. And it’s amazing how quickly the human race walked away from this relationship with the friendly Pilot and begin marathon swimming sessions instead, began building their own towers of Babel jutting up into the heavens. But there was a man named Enoch who loved God. The Bible doesn’t say that he worked real hard to be perfect, although he did live a holy life. He didn’t keep a list; he didn’t try to swim farther out to sea than the other early patriarchs. But he must have been perfect in God’s eyes, because there’s a quiet little report that tells us Enoch was suddenly gone. Genesis 5:24: Then he was no more, because God took him away.
Isn’t that beautiful? Enoch reached perfection, not by trying so hard to reach perfection, but by walking with God. The Bible explicitly says so in the same verse, King James Version: And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.
I have a sacred invitation for all of you today, and I say it to my wife and to myself. Would you like to grow in grace and become perfect in the ways that God wants you to? Then walk with God. Spend time with Jesus. Adopt a life pattern where you spend some time regularly thinking about Jesus and fellowshiping with Him and talking about Him with other people. To the extent that this church can, we will help you. Coming here and being with us is a good step. “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; look full in His wonderful face.”
In the book Mere Christianity, which many of you have, C. S. Lewis has a quiet, reflective essay he once wrote on the question of perfection and faith. And he finished with this thought: “I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue”—that sounds like swim to Hawaii, doesn’t it?—“yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world.”
Maybe you have had the heart-tugging experience of looking through an old dresser drawer and there finding a birthday or graduation card from a departed loved one. Maybe it’s the last card you ever got from Dad before that sad day at the cemetery. And you sit there, holding the yellowed sheet of paper with its kind and tender words in the familiar handwriting. Now, way back when, Dad was the enforcer of rules. He expected hard work and obedience and perfection. All good dads point us to the higher path. And yet, now, as you reflect with the moisture of memories in your eyes, you have no recollection of the rules, the childhood restrictions, the framework of obedience you had to live under. It was there, but you have no awareness today of that elementary structure meant for a small and fragile boy. Today you just remember the fellowship, his kindness and care, the perfection of sitting next to him and feeling his warm love. Shall we pray?
Father, we see today that the perfection You call us to is higher than all of the commandments in the Bible could ever picture. And it challenges us to realize that we have to give up depending on anything lesser, anything prettier, anything more convenient, anything else. But thank You for promising that if we will hold fast to our love of Your Son Jesus, He will take us to the Hawaii of heavenly perfection, and personally bear the cost of that trip. In His name we pray, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.