Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Praise of Men

The Praise of Men
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 27, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 12: 36-43
Proverbs 3: 13-24
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Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.

36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
When Jesus had said this, he departed and hid himself from them. 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him; 38 it was that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed our report,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 Therefore they could not believe. For Isaiah again said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart,
lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart,
and turn for me to heal them.” 41 Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42 Nevertheless many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: 43 for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.

As we close Chapter 12 of the Gospel of John, we must remember that this chapter has been very much like an earlier chapter in the Gospel. Chapter 6 and 7 were very similar. Here Jesus has just called Lazarus back to life, and enters Jerusalem to crowds and crowds of followers, so many so that the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders think all is lost and the entire world is going after him, but then here, by the end he finds himself alone. Back in chapter 6 Jesus fed the multitude by the sea, and people are begging for the bread he has to give, saying, Jesus give us this bread always, but then by the end of chapter 6 and into chapter 7 all of the crowds of people have gone. In both Jesus begins with a promising miracle, but then gets into details of what it all means, and the people have no time for it. Back then the problem was that he seemed to confuse them with his speeches, they ask for the bread he has to give, and he starts talking about eating of his flesh and blood, and Eugene Peterson's "The Message" translation captures it perfectly, saying they had no stomach for what he had to say. . . and here there is a turning of their eyes, a hardening of their hearts. . . Jesus invites them to become "sons of light," but by the end accuses them of loving "the praise of men, more than the praise of God."
This is an interesting topic, this idea of loving the praise of men more than the praise of God. It is certainly a statement that rings with a whole lot of truth for us, doesn't it. Even if we are giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt, and it was even our best day, if most of us were honest with ourselves it would still ring true because sometimes it is just hard to tell the difference. Put yourself in the Jesus' audience, these crowds who have come after him, because it is hard to know what is God and what is Man when religion gets mixed in.  The Pharisees are speaking for God on their side, and Jesus is speaking for God on the other side. How is one to know, especially when it may not always seem so black and white like that. What if 90% of what the Pharisees are saying is just exactly what Jesus is saying? What if you've listened to the Pharisees your whole life? It would be hard to tell the difference, so even if their intentions were to follow God, to worry about the praise of God more than the praise of Man it would still be difficult. . . For us it is the same. . . you have this church teaching this, that church teaching that, this pastor saying this, that pastor saying that, the Pope coming this week and saying a bunch of stuff, this politician saying one thing, that politician saying the other. . . this law being interpreted this way one day and that way the next. . . how do you know, even if you do have good God seeking intentions, it can be impossible, and do we really have those good intentions always. . . when the herd is headed in one direction, it is hard to stand up and point out how the other might be right. . . especially when the herd is claiming to be doing what God wants, how does the one stand up against that herd, when he sees God differently. . . God's will isn't something that can be decided by something as fickle as majority popular opinion. . . I mean in one week we go from Hosanna Praise Him to crucify. . . . how do you have enough confidence in what you know to be right, true, holy and from God, where does that confidence come from? Especially if people who have just seen amazing signs and miracles can't sustain that knowledge and faith for long? What happens if you are wrong, if you were wrong all along, completely deluded? How would you ever know?
And we are people pleasers, naturally, I think most people are anyway, we like to be liked. . . but we also need people, we need other people, we need people to help us, we need to get along with them, we need to go along to get along, as the saying goes. . . you need people, so you have to please them to some extent if you are going to rely on them. We see it all around us. This is one of those election primary seasons where this truth is just all so apparent all around us. .  . there are so many people out there, and you need to win enough of their votes to get done what  you think is right, and you have to get elected before you can do anything. . . so be what they want, get in then you can do what you want. . . hmmm, but where does it end, though? Because we are good, human beings are good at lying to ourselves, aren't we. . . well I'll just give in here, I'll compromise there, I'll bend a little bit today, but next week I'll hold the line. . . I'll be what they want this week, but next week I'll show them my true self. . . but next week never comes, and you never get completely back to square one ever, instead you end up a completely different person, before you even realize it. . . you begin to wonder if square one even existed ever, and that's just on a personal level. . .
Two of my favorite song writers of all time were roommates in college at Texas A&M, I mean how cool is that, and they followed different paths, which makes it all the more remarkable that they both became successful. They wrote many songs together, but there are two songs, one wrote one and the other wrote the second, and they speak to both sides of this people pleasing business, and of course like great folk and country songs it's not just about pleasing people, but pleasing a woman. The first is about changing to be whatever a woman wants. It's about doing whatever it takes to win her back. . . . It's by Robert Earl Keen and, I thought about doing both songs as the anthem today, but I chickened out, it's called "I Would Change My Life" and the hook is
I have spent my hours on some misbegotten dreams
and I have spent my money on some foolish hearted things
and I have spent my memories on some old and bitter wine

I would change my life, I would make it right, I would change my life if she'd only change her mind.

It really captures it. . . he's so lonely, she's left, maybe she was right, maybe he was a fool, maybe he should get his stuff together, maybe he should do some soul searching to figure out what is important, and to become a better  man, but it is also a line of desperation. . . how much change is necessary, and when does it end, how far does he have to go. . . it is a really slippery slope to losing yourself in just the way we are talking about. . . that world choosing pleasing men rather than pleasing God type stuff. . .
But then the other one is by Lyle Lovett, and it's lyric is just as poignant, just as hard hitting, just as basic and straightforward in its simplicity, but so much harder to actually do and say. . . he writes:
And I have seen my share of long nights
And I have told my share of lies
And I have run into the darkness
When I saw the look in your eyes
But if the night didn't lie in the darkness
Then the daylight would be hard to find
And if the truth didn't turn to a weakness
I would have never have spoken my mind

And if the stars didn't shine on the water
Then the sun wouldn't burn on the sand
And if I were the man you wanted
Then I would not be the man that I am

But how hard is that song to sing. . . how hard is it to just let all that hang out there and say it, to know yourself well enough to give it all up like that. . . and that is just knowing yourself with one person, getting back to square one like that, you can see it as a possibility, I mean the success of Lyle's song, the reason so many people can relate is we've been there, we've felt like saying that, but that it is still so rare, and that's just one person getting back to square one, but how can we as a species ever get back there, through all the lies and manipulations. . .  to a really truly honest world, where we are pleasing God and not just the images of eachother that we use as a shield on the outside that have become us through use? Where would you even think to begin?
So when Jesus says, you love the praise of men more than the praise of God, he's no doubt right. . . yeah we do, but how would one go about changing that? There is this poem by Emily Dickinson, that has such a powerful line, she writes:
Parting is all we know of heaven,
But all we need of hell.

She's getting at the truth that no matter whether you go to heaven or to hell there is parting, and that's enough to make a hell. . . missing your family, friends, and you of course believe in heaven, but you don't know, all you know is the parting. . . it may be more. . . I honestly think this fact that we can't get back to square one of honesty as human beings, that there are just so many lies built on top of lies over centuries, that that's all we need of sin. . . it's enough to destroy, its enough to separate from God, there may be more to sin than that, but it' is certainly enough. . . And like Denzel Washington says in the movie, "Glory" in response to Mathew Broderick's Colonel Shaw and his conversation about the Civil War going on and on without anyone winning, finally Shaw says, "It stinks huh" and Denzel's character, Tripp, says, "Yeah, it stinks bad, and all of us are covered up in it, ain't none of clean." That's enough to know about sin. . .the details beyond that get us in trouble, and have us pleasing men, rather than trying to get to that honest place with God.
So where do we start? How do we start being able to please God, rather than men. . . I think humility is big start, confession of our capital S, Sin, our ignorance, our eyes covered, and blurred by lies and mirages, image rather than reality. . . and then we ask for God, we ask for Jesus to be our eyes. . . and then we take the time to look, we ask God, we ask Jesus to be our ears, and we listen. . . we ask God, we ask Jesus to enter and to fill our minds, with no mediator, no man in between, but with brothers and sisters at either side. . . and then we ask God, we ask Jesus to fill our hearts. . . and then we love. . . and then just maybe we get glimpse. . . and we do it all over again, lest we grow too confident. . . When we come together as a church to praise God, it is by no accident of a design that we Call each other to worship, we confess our Sin, and then before we open the word we pray. . . I open each sermon before I read the scriptures with the same prayer, I never thought I would, I never planned it that way, I never set out for it to be that way when I began my ministry, or when I wrote the poem, but I pray:
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.

If you've ever wondered why. . . I hope you see now. not my eyes, but his, not my mind, but his, not my life, but his, his way, his truth, his life. . .pleasing God, knowing the difference, bringing us back to that square one of honesty, starts with God, because we cannot do it ourselves. . . it starts with him. . .  I spoke to the boys at Blue Ridge Thursday morning. . . I have copies of my homily in the fellowship hall if you'd like to take a look. . . and I posted it on my blog. . .I spoke to them about this topic too, though differently. . . I spoke them about acting beyond the rewards, doing things because you know it's right. . . that is Pleasing God. . .but it takes humble discernment and that takes patience,  may we then be patient humble seekers in all we do, in all we are, to try, to be open, . . .to be pointed in that direction rather than our own, and then you begin to feel grace, and grace is always enough. . . thanks be to God, Amen.