Pillars of Christian Character: Obedience
Twenty years ago, Eugene Peterson wrote a commentary on the Psalms of Ascents – Psalms 120-134. These are the songs that Jewish pilgrims would sing on their way up to worship in Jerusalem. The book has the intriguing title of "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction." It has become a Christian classic.
What Peterson calls a long obedience in the same direction, the Bible calls steadfastness. It means to get on the road and stay there. To hang in there. To keep on keeping on, as the old folks used to say. That is how the Christian life is to be lived. It is lived regardless—regardless of circumstances, regardless of opposition, regardless of feelings, regardless of discouragements, regardless of hardships, regardless of put-downs, regardless of doubts and regardless of obstacles. Day by day, one step at a time, we are to persevere to the end. In fact, we are to live the Christian life in spite of the circumstances, opposition, feelings, discouragements, hardships, put-downs, doubts and obstacles because we are more than conquerors!
This morning, I want to preach the second message in a series of sermons I’ve entitled: Pillars of Christian Character. Last Sunday we looked at the necessity of developing faithfulness. This morning we will examine obedience.
Obedience is not a soft, syrupy word. It is a gritty, tenacious one. It challenges us to do what God commands, to go where He leads, and to speak what He inspire``s. Two of the finest examples of a steadfast obedience are Mary and Joseph. Their lives paint a picture of obedience in its full context and reveal to us the difficulty and delight of devotion to God.
I. OBEDIENCE IN SPITE OF CIRCUMSTANCES
- Nazareth was a small, obscure village nestled in the hill country halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea
- it was a town that had little to offer
- I’m sure the teenagers in Nazareth complained to their parents the same way that teenagers in Linn complain – “But there’s nothing to do here!”
- like the restless youth of our day I'm sure the teenagers of Nazareth dreamed about the metropolitan communities of their day ...
- ... Athens
- ... Rome
- ... Cairo
- ... even Jerusalem
- any place had to be better than dull, monotonous Nazareth where nothing exciting or out of the ordinary ever occurred
- in Nazareth there lived a young woman named Mary
- we have no indication of any personal looks that set her apart from other girls her age
- in God’s eye, she was an ordinary girl whom He planned to use in an extraordinary way
- in Mary’s life, we see A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
A. HER OBEDIENCE EMBRACED THE CONSEQUENCES OF HER FAITH
- God's grace was delivered by the angel Gabriel who called Mary God's favored one
- the message was startling
- Luke 1:30-35 “And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” (KJV)
- Mary was a virgin
- she kept her body pure as an expression of obedience to God and her love for Joseph, her fiancé
- what would people think and say?
- her parents?
- her friends?
- her fiance’?
- her community?
- ultimately, Mary considered the whole situation to be impossible
- but Gabriel affirms "nothing is impossible with God"
B. AT THE HEART OF MARY’S OBEDIENCE IS FAITH THAT GOD CAN MAKE THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE
- Mary did not demand an explanation
- she did not complain that she had insufficient information
- she simply obeyed
- v. 38 "Be it done to me according to your word."
- too often our obedience toward God is conditioned on whether that obedience fits into our personal agenda
- if we are not too inconvenienced ...
- if we are not overly burdened ...
- if it makes sense ...
- then we obey, but if none of those conditions are met, we don't
- ILLUS. When I felt God’s call to salvation, I essentially fell into the Kingdom. There was no prolonged resistance on my part. However, about a year after I was saved, I began to sense God calling me into the ministry. That was not a part of my agenda. I spent almost a year denying God and being disobedient to His calling. I saw ministry as an inconvenience, too large of a burden and something that simply didn’t make sense.
- if we obey only when we want to and believe only what is understandable, we do not really trust God; we’re really only trusting ourselves
- real faith trusts the heart of God even when we cannot trace the hand of God
II. OBEDIENCE IN SPITE OF CONFLICT
- circumstances can make obedience perplexing, and conflict can make it painful
- when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, the news must have been painful for him
- he assumed the worst
- he thought that she had been unfaithful
- according to Jewish law, Joseph had two options
- he could divorce Mary publicly and shame her in a court of justice
- or he could "put her away privately" through a confidential divorce
- the conflicting desires swirling around in his mind must have been agonizing and caused great mental conflict
- would he yield to legalistic dogma and make an example of her?
- or would he yield to the tender love he felt for Mary and save her from open shame and embarrassment?
- the fact that Joseph did not want to disgrace her reveals the depth and tenderness of his love for her
- in the midst of his own hurt, he was thinking of her feelings and welfare
A. OBEDIENCE IS RARELY EASY OR CONVENIENT
- “For I have come to turn “ ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:35–39, NIV84)
- before Joseph could act on his inclination to begin the process of divorce, an angel of the Lord informed him in a dream that Mary was pregnant by means of the Holy Spirit and that he should take her as his wife
- from the human perspective that revelation did not make things a whole lot easier
- people would still point fingers, family members would still whisper, neighbors tongues would still wag
- Joseph's obedience was bound to bring conflict
- conflict with his family
- conflict with his friends
- conflict with himself
- the selfish response would be so appropriate
- the righteous response seems so difficult
- his obedience in spite of conflict is a refreshing testimony to anyone who has experienced the distress of conflict
- his action reminds us that obedience does not afford us the luxury of being neutral
- ILLUS. C.S. Lewis once wrote that, "There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan."
- ILLUS. In 1959, Nate Saint was one of five missionaries who were killed by the Auca Indians. He once said that his life did not change until he came to grips with the idea that "obedience is not a momentary option ... it is a die-cast decision made beforehand."
B. GOD OFTEN SHAPES HIS BEST WARRIORS IN THE CRUCIBLE OF CONFLICT
- for Joseph, obedience meant yielding his opinions and desires to the will of God
- such obedience is easy to write about and easy to preach about, but it is not always easy to do
- ILLUS. Eric Liddell was a Scotsman who loved to run. When he raced he felt the power and joy of God flood his life. His ability would eventually take him to the Olympics in 1908 where he would win a gold medal for Great Britain. The movie Chariots of Fire was partially about his life. It portrays a young man who was willing to obey God and hold true to his convictions in spite of conflict. When he learned that the qualifying heat for his race was on a Sunday morning, he refused to run rather than miss attending worship. His friends, his coaches, his team mates and even the Prince of Wales all prevailed upon him to no avail. The papers in London ridiculed him. Only later, when a team mate switched races with Liddell, did he go on to become a gold medalist. This same man, whose obedience was fired in the crucible of conflict, would later go as a missionary to China. When the Japanese invaded that country during WW II, Liddell had the opportunity to leave. Instead he stayed and ultimately died as a prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp. He understood the meaning of obedience despite the conflict it can produce. Shortly before his death, he wrote: "Obedience to God's will is the secret of spiritual knowledge and insight. It is not willingness to know, but willingness to do God's will that brings certainty."
III. OBEDIENCE IN SPITE OF CULTURE
- the actions that Joseph and Mary took separately, and then together as a couple, went against the common wisdom and custom of their culture
- they were obedient to the will of God in their lives despite the prevailing wind of cultural opinion and expectations
- Joseph and Mary submitted to God's purpose and accepted the embarrassment from a society that would spread despicable rumors and count the months from marriage to birth
- surely they were aware of the stares and heard the whispers
- they learned that obedience can produce profound social conflicts concerning people's thoughts and actions as opposed to God's thoughts and ways
- they were willing to move against the current of society to obey God
- ILLUS. Let me tell you the story of Telemachus. He was a fourth-century Christian whose boldness changed Roman society. He was a Christian hermit who lived in a remote village, tending his garden and spending much of his time in prayer. One day he thought he heard the voice of God telling him to go to Rome, so he obeyed, setting out on foot. Weary weeks later, he arrived in the city at the time of a great festival. The monk followed the crowd surging down the streets into the Colosseum. He saw the gladiators stand before the emperor and say, "We who are about to die salute you." Then he realized these men were going to fight to the death for the entertainment of the crowd. He cried out at the top of his voice, "In the name of Christ, stop!" As the games began, he pushed his way through the crowd, climbed over the wall, and dropped to the floor of the arena. When the crowd saw Telemachus rushing to the gladiators and saying, "In the name of Christ, stop!" they thought it was part of the show and began laughing. When they realized it wasn't, the laughter turned to anger. As he was pleading with the gladiators to stop, one of them plunged a sword into his body. He fell to the sand. As he lay dying, his last words were, "In the name of Christ, stop!" Then a strange thing happened. The gladiators stood looking at the tiny figure lying there. A hush fell over the Colosseum. Way up in the upper rows, a man stood and made his way to the exit. Others began to follow. In dead silence, everyone left the colosseum. The year was A.D. 391, and that was the last battle to the death between gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. Never again in the great stadium did men kill each other for the entertainment of the crowd, all because of one tiny voice that could hardly be heard above the tumult. One voice - one life - that had courage to speak out in spite of what the culture might think.
What is the conclusion of the matter? God’s elect must respond to him in faith and
obedience. Listen to what the Apostle Paul says about this founding patriarch of the Hebrew people: Hebrews 11:8 "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out . . . obeyed; and he went out, . . . “
The Bible says that Abraham heard, he obeyed, he went. And Abraham went at God’s command even though he did not know where he was going. Abraham had no clue concerning his future, but he responded to God in faith and that caused him to act. Obedience and faith always go together. Some have tried to separate them as though you can have one without the other as though obedience is unnecessary if you have faith. But such alienation of obedience and faith has no root in Scripture. It is an attempt to accommodate the pragmatism of modern Christianity that goes heavy on talk but light on walk. Faith is never a passive attitude or merely a state of mind. Faith involves the deep affection of the heart and mind toward Jesus Christ, and goes forth in obedience. There is no room in biblical teaching to claim to have faith without it springing forth in some measure of obedience. As Eugene Peterson wrote over twenty years ago, what Christians need is a long obedience in the same direction.
A long obedience in the direction of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. It's the only way to go. As Churchill said, "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense."