From time to time, I like to take issue with the use of the word “Christian” as an adjective…a word describing something else. “Christian behavior,” “Christian practice,” “Christian school.” Now certainly it can be a useful designation, and we have a general sense of what we mean by those things, but I think that the word “Christian” can only really be used to describe a person. We take on the name of Christ at baptism and become “Christian”…someone who has taken vows of allegiance to God as revealed in Jesus Christ and who has pledged to live life from within that relationship.
Being a "Christian" does not mean being a person who followed a specific set of rules but rather someone who is committed to becoming a certain kind of person...a person who is like Christ. Christian faith is not about rules so much as it is about character. It is not what you do, it is who you are. The commandments and laws are important, it's just that our best hope for keeping them is to focus on molding our character to be more like Christ so that living according to the laws of God becomes a natural part of who we are rather than forced from the outside.
Now all of that may be true, but it's not much help to hear unless we're going to also talk about how we go about becoming more like Christ. The passage in Philippians about having the "mind of Christ" which many scholars think represents one of the earliest hymns of the Christian church, I think gives us some clues. But it is the passage from Zechariah that I want to look at first, because I think it is the most important.
The setting for this little passage is in the time when Israel's exile in Babylon has ended and they have returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the Temple around 538 BC. Zerubbabel is the King of Israel and Zechariah is both a prophet and a priest who is there to advise the King and to help Israel. Zerubbabel, who I'm going to call "King Z" has a massive job in front of him. The Temple he was rebuilding was the one built by Solomon....one of the largest and most amazing buildings in the ancient world. And it wasn't just the Temple...the whole city was in ruins...the city that Solomon had given so much splendor. How could anybody live up to that? Zechariah gives the answer, "Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord."
This is critical. All the work that is about to be accomplished...the new city, the new Temple...is not going to come about because of the might of King Z's army or by the power of the royal throne. Israel came out of captivity because God ordained it and the city and temple will be rebuilt by the Spirit of God. It will take human participation in that work. People will need to be obedient and cooperative with God's Spirit, but God is the foreman on the job as well as the owner of the company. God's might and power, not the King's will get the job done.
Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord. Whatever task we face as Christians, if we are being obedient to God's will for our lives, the results are not ours to worry about. How can I possible raise this baby? You can't. Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord. How can I manage this company? How can I face this illness? How can I go on without my husband? How can I pastor this church? The answer is all the same...you can't...I can't...Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.
And so it is as we face the massive task of developing the character of Christ within ourselves. It can seem overwhelming. Others have done it so much better. We stumble and fail so often. How can we possibly do it? Answer? We can't. Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.
That message is our hope as we approach the beginning of the task...as it was Zechariah's word of hope to King Z. It is God's task, beginning to end. With relief we can give God responsibility for the results at the beginning, and then in humility we give God the credit for the outcome at the end.
That said, it is important to remember that we do have a role in all of this. God might be the Queen Bee, but we drones still have work to do or the hive will falter and be lost. While some Christian denominations would say that if God wills it nothing can go wrong, that’s not United Methodist belief. We believe that people have real freedom and that much that happens in the world is a result of us either going along with God’s will or standing opposed to it. That’s why molding our character is important. We need to develop our souls and our relationship with God to the point where we most often make the choice that is in keeping with God’s will.
Notice as we start out in the Philippians passage that this all springs from being united with Christ. Just minimal exposure to day to day life shows us that we become like the people we hang out with. A few years ago I took a trip up to Bar Harbor to celebrate a 30-year friendship with my best friend, Celeste. Just before Celeste left home for the trip, her daughter gave an exasperated sigh and said, "Now you're going to come home talking like Anne again."
Well, I haven't really explored what she meant by that or why she thought that was such a dreadful thing, but her point is well taken. When we associate closely with people, over time we each take on the attributes of the other. We pick up mannerisms and expressions first, and then come behaviors and expectations and modes of thought. Children model their parents, friends model their friends. That is why, teenagers, your parents are concerned about who you go out with.
It is the same principle with God. If we want to become more God-like, we have to spend more time with God. A large part of character development for Christians is the natural process of becoming like our friends over time. As we spend more time with the Great Friend, we go through changes that we often don't even realize until one of our children notes that we are coming home sounding like God again.
Which means that developing such a character takes time. Even though your heart may change overnight from heading away from God to a new desire to head toward God, it is going to take the rest of you a while to catch up. I have a dear friend in Florida who periodically gets disgusted with everything in her life and decides to change. So, when she wakes up the next morning, she vows that it will all be different. She goes on a diet, decides to be in church every Sunday, vows to spend more quality time with her children, to keep the house clean, to be more patient and understanding with her husband...and the list goes on. It lasts about two weeks, at which point the stress of trying to completely change everything in her life at once gets too overwhelming and she falls into all of her old patterns. Then the cycle starts over.
As we become aware of things that need changing in our lives, that's an easy mistake to make. And it's even easier for those around us who have long been aware of the changes we need to make and have been hanging all of their hopes for change on some sort of conversion experience. Do not expect of yourselves, and do not expect of others, that change is going to occur overnight. Character development is a life-long process, and we need to take it one step at a time. I once heard someone say, “We don’t go to heaven, we grow to heaven.” I like that.
Again, none of this is done apart from God. We need the work of God's Spirit rather than our own might and power to accomplish the task, and we won't have the help of God's Spirit if we don't stay connected. I'm going to begin sounding like a broken record, since you've heard this in a number of different sermons, but the way we stay connected is through the good, old Christian basics of prayer, worship, and Bible study. Whether you are asking how to know God's will for your life, how to find the joy and peace you seem to be missing, or how to become more patient, compassionate, brave, loyal, humble or loving...the answer is all the same. You have to put in the time and effort to get to know God. It has to be a priority.
Once we have begun to grow in that way...which, like our sins, is often more evident to others than it is to us...then we are ready to move on to verse 2 of the Philippians passage. Once we are that far, says Paul, we complete the task of becoming like Christ by adopting the attitude of Jesus in our day to day lives. That attitude, it turns out, is one of obedience to God and service to others.
That is how we participate in God's work of transformation in us. We have to first get to know God well enough to understand when God is asking us to do something. The relationship has to come first, and then we are to be obedient and live life in service to others. Now there's a whole sermon in that alone, since that is easy to get mixed up. Service to others needs to be tied to obedience to God for our own protection. Without the obedience piece, dedicating ourselves to serve others can merely foster the development of tyrants.
My call to serve is not the cry of someone for help. My call to serve comes from God when someone calls to GOD for help and God decides that I am the best one for the job. I spent a lot of my life without that critical understanding and I both burned myself out and went deeply into debt giving what I did not have and could not provide just because people came to me for help. God is the intermediary...the Holy Spirit interprets between us...we address our calls for help to God and God is the one to figure out how to provide what is needed. Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.
This is a big topic and we're not done, but for this morning I want you to realize that attaining the character which will produce the fruit of God in our lives has its origin in our relationship with God. We work on that first and when that begins to flow more naturally, then we have the guidance we need to work out the kinks in our relationships with others. Seek ye FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. THEN all these things will be added unto you. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Jesus puts that first and then comes naturally love your neighbor as yourself. It starts with relationship with God and then God is in a position to instruct you how to proceed from there.
It's a huge job, but we don't have to do it by ourselves...in fact we can't do it by ourselves. It is not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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