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1 Corinthians 7:29-32a
I love the story John Ortberg tells about a memory with his grandmother. He says:"My grandmother had just gotten out of jail. She was a roll away from the yellow properties. And the yellow properties meant trouble. They were mine. And they had hotels. And Gram had no money. She had wanted to stay in jail longer to avoid landing on my property and having to cough up dough she did not have, but she rolled doubles, and that meant her bacon was going to get fried. I was a 10 year old sitting at the Monopoly table. I had it all- money and property, houses and hotels, Boardwalk and Park Place. I had been a loser at this game my whole life, [My grandmother had beaten me every game before-mercilessly) but today was different, as I knew it would be. Today I was Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Ivan the Terrible. Today my grandmother was one roll of the dice away from ruin.
And I was one roll of the dice away from the biggest lesson life has to teach… it’s a lesson that some of the smartest people in the world forget but my grandmother was laser clear on.
My grandmother had taught me how to play the game… and she was a game player… and she did not like to lose. She didn’t get mean or mad, but she still was tough. She played lots of games with that toughness but she was feistiest when it came to Monopoly. Periodically leaders like General Patton or Attila the Hun develop quite a reputation for toughness. They were lapdogs next to her. Imagine that Vince Lombardi had produced an offspring with Lady MacBeth, and you get some idea of the competitive streak that ran in my grandmother. She was a gentle and kind soul, but at the Monopoly table she would still take you to the cleaners. My grandmother taught me that you don’t win without risk and she didn’t play for second place. So she would buy every piece of property she landed on. She would mortgage every piece of property she owned to the hilt in order to buy everything else. She understood that accumulating is the name of the game, that money is how you keep score, that the race goes to the swift. She played with skill, passion and reckless abandon.
Eventually, inevitably, she would become Master of the Board. When you are Master of the Board, you own so much property no one else can hurt you… you are in control… from that point on, it is only a matter of time. When she would finally win, she would take what was left of my money… put my little race car marker away… "Don’t worry about it,’ she’d say. ‘One day you’ll learn to play the game." I hated it when she said that.
Then when I was 10… I learned how to play the game…I was more ruthless than she was. I would play without softness or caution… ready to bend the rules if I had to…. Relentlessly, I drove her off the board…I had destroyed her financially and psychologically. I watched her give up her last dollar and quit in utter defeat. It was the greatest moment of my life. I had won… I was Master of the Board…
But then my grandmother had one more thing to teach me. The greatest lesson comes at the end of the game. And here it is. In the words of James Dobson, who described this lesson in his own playing of the game with family: Now it all goes back in the box. All those houses and hotels. All that property-Boardwalk and Park Place, the railroads and utility companies. All those thousands of dollars. When the game is over, it all goes back in the box. 1.
The lesson learned is that it is easy to get so caught up in the game that you forget… the game does not last forever. Not for me. Not for you either. Plato said that the entire task of philosophy can be summed up as melete thanatou -‘mindfulness of death."
It is clear that Paul had a sense of the mindfulness of death… not just of us individually… but of the death of the world as we know it. It all goes back in the box sooner or later… For Paul, God would decide one day to put it all back in the box when Jesus would return to finish what he began.
Now Paul got it wrong about the timing… he thought this would happen in his lifetime… Jesus would come again to judge the quick and the dead as we say in the creed… but he was not the first to be wrong about the timing… for 2000 years people have tried (and probably more than 2000 people and groups) to predict when the end comes…all got it wrong. We should know better. Jesus said, no one knows except God… but that hasn’t kept us from trying… or listening to those who do.
Though Paul may have been wrong about the time, I don’t think Paul was wrong about the lesson he learned and what he tried to teach us in light of the truth that eventually it all comes to an end. Paul knew that it is not up to us to decide when the game ends: God is the master of the board… always has been, always will be. In God’s time the end will come…
But for those of us playing the game right now the important thing is to realize that the end does come… and we do well to live life in light of that truth. We ought to live our lives with the end in mind… because it can make a difference in how you live. When you know the end is near-ask anyone in a hospice facility or someone caring for a dying friend… it sort of re-sets your priorities. You begin to think through what is and what is not important.
Years ago there was a fun TV show called, "St. Elsewhere" … The only line I remember from that show came from a hospital chaplain working on the oncology floor. She said to a doctor, "You know, I never met anyone here who wished they had worked an extra day."
I wonder how parent’s might raise children differently if they parented in such a way to prepare their children not just for this life-soccer games, music, preparing for a career… but also parented in a way to prepare their children for the truth that one day-those things come to an end… how do you parent for eternal things? How do you parent with the end in mind?
When you live with the end in mind… it sort of changes your perspective. It did for Paul.
Paul was fielding lots of questions about marriage…I don’t usually think of Paul as a marriage counselor. But the issues were real… some Christians were married to unbelievers… what am I to do… Some asked, if the end is near… and I am engaged…should we get married. Paul says you don’t have to, but you can if you want. Lot’s of questions about marriage…
Paul’s advice on how to live with the end in mind is sort of interesting:
"brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short: from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those
who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as thou they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away."
Don’t misunderstand him. He is not calling us to take a totally detached approach to life… In Romans he would tell us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice… Nor do I hear Paul telling us to have no contact with the world… no making a living or possessing or even enjoying the life we’ve been given for a short time.
I think his point is very simple… be in the world… while you are here… be a part of the world… enjoy it while you are here… but don’t be absorbed in the world as if this world were all there is… as if the game never goes back in the box.
He says this because he knows life is transient and these things will pass away.
He knows that the fabric of human society has no permanence… Sensual desire, human fun and tragedy, business, investment, politics… all that we give our lives to… is not as permanent as we think they are. I think 2008 taught many of us that lesson.
Someone wisely said: "all that is so precious to us of this age ‘passes like an actor leaving the stage.’
Paul is telling us this not to burst our bubbles-but quite the opposite: "I want you to be free from anxieties" (vs 32) I think he might add that he wants us to be free from anxieties so that we can focus on how to play the game while we are here in the way God intends us to play it.
And what is that? Paul doesn’t say it clearly, but I think Jesus does. Jesus told a story about a rich man who lost everything after a life of working hard and accumulation… he died before he could enjoy the fruits of his labor (Jesus called him foolish) and Jesus summed up the lesson at the end to make the point clear:
"So it is for everyone who accumulates riches for themselves but are not rich toward God."
The object of life, according to Jesus is very simple: Be rich toward God.
Again, John Ortberg is helpful here:"Don’t spend your life playing Master of the Board. It’s a sucker’s game. You can’t beat the house. But you can be rich toward God. Your life-with God’s help- can be a source of pleasure to the God of the universe. You can make God smile. When the game is over, all that will matter will be God’s assessment of our lives. Venture capitalists and Hollywood stars and school janitors and Somalian tribesmen will stand in line before God on level ground.
Being rich toward God means growing a soul that is increasingly healthy and good. Being rich toward God means loving and enjoying the people around you. Being rich toward God means learning about your gifts and passions and doing good work to help improve God’s world. Being rich toward God means becoming generous with your stuff. Being rich toward God means making that which is temporary become the servant of that which is eternal. Being rich toward God means savoring every roll of the dice and every trip around the board. 2.
Living with the end in mind means that you will put life in perspective and your priorities in place as a child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. When we do, Paul says we will be relieved of anxiety… we will find peace. And we will all win. Amen.
1. P11 ff – It All Goes Back in the Box – paraphrased.
2. Ibid p 29