“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?”
We’re in the second week of a new series of messages here at NewSong entitled “Answering God’s Call.” The series is about the practical and very real ways God calls us into a life of discipleship. Last week we talked about the “Call to Obedience” and we discovered that obedience to God is where the Christian life begins and ends. We talked about how as believers we try all kinds of ways to get around this central truth. We perform all kinds of theological gymnastics arguing about doctrine and about what God “really meant” by this verse or that one, but in the end it all boils down to the choices we each make hundreds of times each day: will I obey God in this situation or will I not?
The essence of this series of messages is that we can become like more Christlike if we do the things Jesus himself did. We’re talking about living a disciplined life Jesus lived. We’re talking about being disciples, students, and practitioners of Jesus. We’re looking at the things Jesus did, so we can learn to imitate him and thus live the kind of life he lived. What did Jesus do? Some of the most important things he did was he obeyed God, he served God and others, he practiced self-discipline, and he dared to draw near to God in prayer, study, and meditation on God’s word.
The goal of these messages – and I’m going to repeat this every week - is to assure you that there is a path…there is a direction you can follow with your life, defined as how you spend your time, where your affections lie, and what your values are – that will take you where you really want to go. Unfortunately, as we said last week, that path doesn’t consist of “four easy steps” or “five principles of spiritual success,” or any such formula. There are steps to follow, and very specific ones, but the key is not memorizing steps, it’s really about a radical reorientation of how we live our lives.
Today, the second call we have to answer is “The Call to Serve.” Why serve? Because we want to do what Jesus did, and if there is one overriding image all four gospel writers tried to convey it is that Jesus Christ came to serve. Jesus has many titles in the New Testament, but if you weigh the evidence, clearly the title Jesus preferred was the “Servant of the Lord.” In Mark 10:45 Jesus said, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." And Philippians 2:7-8 says, "He [Jesus] emptied himself by assuming the form of a slave…he humbled Himself by being obedient, even to death."
Time and time again Jesus offered us a powerful model of servanthood. Who can forget the powerful narrative in the 13th chapter of John where the evangelist tells us in verse 13:1, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” How did Jesus do that? John tells us that Jesus got down on his knees and washed the dirt off his disciples’ feet. In the Jewish household of Jesus day, the lowest servant on the totem pole was the one who got that menial chore. But here is Jesus, the Lord of glory, taking a basin and towel and washing the feet of his friends (John 13:5). When he had finished washing their feet Jesus asked his disciples if they understood what he had just done for the them. He explained, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17).
Shortly after that, of course, Jesus went to his death on the cross as the “suffering servant.” Jesus was the unblemished Lamb of God who laid down his life for his sheep (John 1:29, 36). Although he was King of all creation Jesus submitted to the shame and indignity of a painful, humiliating death on a rough wooden cross. He died, the just for the unjust, serving God and God’s people to the very end.
So we are called to serve because Jesus served and we want to be like Jesus. But servanthood, and serving, much like obedience which we talked about last week, has a bad reputation in our society doesn’t it? We live in a country and an age of entitlement. Those who serve us our food, clean our hotel rooms or our houses, those who haul away our garbage every week are looked upon as “those who aren’t smart or rich or powerful enough to do anything else.” Sadly many of the people in those occupations themselves will apologize for what they’re doing by telling you they are just being a waiter, waitress or yard man “until something better comes along.” We have in our society something that Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “drum major instinct,” the desire to be out front, the desire to lead the parade, the desire to be first. Let’s face it, we all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. And being the one who is serving others certainly isn’t the way to accomplish that.
But I really don’t think I need to spend much time this morning “convincing” you that Jesus chose servanthood as his primary mode of being. I also don’t think I need to spend much time convincing you that few people today see servanthood as the path to greatness, despite the abundance of books about servant leadership and “leading from the bottom.” And I certainly don’t want to spend our time together today trying to make you feel guilty by saying something like, “You’re just not doing enough to serve. There are so many great ways you could make a difference for others, if you would only give time to them. So sign up – and get to work!” The truth is, most of us are already spread far too thin, and are struggling to connect with our families.
What I would like to do is to convince you that servanthood isn’t so much a battle about how much time you spend doing things, as much as it is an issue of our attitude – where our minds and hearts are. The challenge is to have the mind and heart of Jesus in all aspects of our lives – and when we do we’ll naturally serve others. And so we’ll be servants in the ordinary days of our lives, not just on extraordinary occasions.
So please turn off your “guilt gauges” for me now, and let me simply do what I know to do best, and that is to share with you something that happened in my life and the biblical implications we can draw from that experience.
Exactly one year ago to the very day – last year this Sunday was on Sept. 11, I left here right after church to drive to Ocean Springs, MS. Like you, I listened and watched on August 29th last year as hurricane Katrina exploded onto the Gulf coast. For whatever reason, the more I listened and watched, the more I felt I simply had to go down there to do something. I tried to no avail to hook up with different folks already going down, but in the end I simply got in my car and drove down by myself. It so happens I have a good friend who is a Methodist pastor in Ocean Springs who agreed to put me up and to get me involved on a work team when I got there. I spent my time working in only one home, carrying out all this poor guy’s worldly possessions to the side of the road so they could be hauled off to the dump. His home was destroyed: photo albums, trophies, furniture, clothing, tools, all completely ruined. My trip was a short one. I got there Sunday night and was back home by Wednesday afternoon. And yet it was such a powerful experience for me. I’ll never forget what I saw, smelled, and felt those three steamy days.
As I drove back home I began to reflect on my experience. I was wondering what had been so moving about the experience. Why I felt so good while I was down there. And why on earth I felt so compelled to go. Did I go because I was curious? Was it so people would think I was a great guy, so willing to serve? Did I go because God sent me? What was it that was so powerful about that serving experience? I had my planner open that day as I drove back in my car and I jotted down some notes about the experience – at the top of the page I wrote, “What I learned about serving.” Perhaps my sharing these things with you will spark something in you.
SERVING HELPS OTHERS
The first thing I jotted down was the most obvious: serving helps others. Serving helps other people. Like I said, that’s pretty obvious, but when you’re in the midst of such severe devastation and you think about the little you have done, you begin to question if you’re doing any good at all. When I thought about the little I did, working in one house of thousands that were destroyed in the hurricane. The magnitude of the damage was overwhelming and I didn’t necessarily do much, but the one family I did help certainly benefited from my time and effort to get down there.
My experience there reminded me of a story you may have heard before about a man taking an early morning walk on the beach. Looking ahead he sees a figure that looks like he’s dancing next to the water’s edge. As he gets closer the walker sees that the other person is standing in the midst of hundreds of starfish that have washed up on the beach during the night. The second man is reaching down and picking up the starfish and throwing them back into out the ocean. The walker asks the man what he’s doing and the man replies he’s throwing them back in the ocean because the sun is coming up and the tide is going out and if he doesn’t the starfish will die. The walker looks around at all the starfish lying on the beach and says, “But there are hundreds of starfish here, you can’t possibly make a difference!” Then the second man picked up another starfish and threw it into the water, past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”
The most obvious and primary goal of serving is to help other people. This is implicit in what James had to say to us this morning, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16) Serving helps others.
SERVING DEMONSTRATES YOUR FAITH
I jotted down a second thing I learned about serving after Katrina. Serving demonstrates your faith. Again, it’s like James says in our text today, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds?” (James 2:14) and he goes on to say, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”
Unfortunately we tend to think of faith as a noun, like it’s something you “get.” We make it institutional and doctrinal and impersonal. In reality faith is a verb and it has a life of its own – it’s meant to be active and living. Faith exists to be demonstrated. Serving God and others puts arms and legs, hands and feet to our faith. Serving makes faith real. It can do so in surprising ways too. As a pastor over the years I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. When you’re leading a church – any church – you inevitably have people in your church who seem like decent, upstanding citizens, but they don’t necessarily look like the standard definition of a believer. They don’t seem to fit in to the normal mold. And then, something will happen – a crisis or a cause – and suddenly these folks are leading the charge, demonstrating their faith, while others who you would have thought were so strong in the faith withdraw and don’t live out what they claim they believe.
One of the neatest things about my Katrina experience was the ecumenical spirit of what was happening. In the house I worked at we had people from UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief), a Baptist church-building team from North Carolina, and a Catholic relief organization all to stop at this one house within a space of just a few hours. As we worked there together, all denominational labels and doctrinal differences disappeared. We were just believers demonstrating our faith by remembering Jesus’ words when he said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40). A second thing I learned was serving demonstrates our faith.
SERVING GLORIFIES GOD
The third item on my list I jotted down on the way home from serving in Mississippi was that serving glorifies God.
I can’t tell you how may times in the 72 hours I was down there that someone said something like, “Oh…you’re from Georgia? What made you come?” And I would respond, “Well…God brought me here.” The same thing happened in Ghana – sometimes villagers would look at me and say something to the effect of “Why are you really here?” and I’d say, “Christ sent me.” And those of you who have worked with us at any of our servant evangelism events know that when we offer people free water, or any other gift they are reluctant and always want to know our “angle” for helping them. When we plainly tell them we’re doing it for God because God loves them the people are amazed, and God is glorified.
On a more technical, theological basis, I’d say that serving glorifies God because serving is actually a form of worship. That’s why it feels so good when you’re serving – you’re glorifying God which is what worship is anyways. You may recall Romans 12:1-2, which explains this, Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” In other words, when we’re serving God we’re worshipping him and therefore we’re glorifying him, which is what we were created for.
It’s an odd illustration, but I stopped by BJ Fisher’s auto shop last week. BJ, in case you didn’t know, takes old cars and makes them all new again – usually better than they were when they rolled off the assembly line for the first time. When I was there the other day he had cars all the way from what looked like wrecks to beautiful high performance cars. I don’t know why I asked him this, but I looked at one beautiful yellow Charger and I said, “Well, does it run?” And he said, “Of course!” It occurred to me that when those cars run well, they reflect on BJ and his craftsmanship – they glorify him in a way. In the same manner, when we serve God – when we do what we were created to do, we glorify him. Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God appointed in advance for us to do.” When we do that – when we serve God and others in his name, we glorify God.
SERVING LEADS TO RELATIONSHIPS
The next item on my list that I jotted down on my list that day as I drove toward Atlanta was that serving leads to relationships. A year later, I’m still in contact with the family whose home I worked in after Katrina. Now not all relationships are going to be long-term ones, but serving creates honest, caring, healthy relationships with other people.
The interesting thing with serving in Christ’s name is we often see people at what they might describe their worst. When you’re sloshing around in someone’s house in the overflow of their septic tank and everyone is sweaty and the folks you are helping have just lost most of their worldly possessions and appear on the verge of shock and tears the entire time, two things quickly emerge. On the part of the one being served there is a profound lack of dignity for them. On the part of the ones serving, it is very humbling and you have a profound sense of just how well off you have it yourself.
Serving somehow creates a path between people. Somewhere in the midst of the other person’s need and your ability to offer what you have a common ground appears upon which you can meet. Such relationships can get very deep, very quickly. It’s like you shoot past all the typical weeks or months of small talk you would do with a typical person you might meet and you go right into the deeper stuff of life. For instance, I saw people who I would guess had seldom if ever prayed in public take the hands of one of these victims and pray the most beautiful prayer for that person you could imagine. Destroyed houses became sanctuaries of communion between people and between God.
Perhaps you’ve witnessed the same thing – a tragedy in a neighborhood such as a fire or the death of a neighbor, and suddenly neighbor is serving neighbor, helping any way he or she can, and pathways for relationships are opened up. Serving leads to relationships.
SERVING IS A BLESSING
The last note I jotted in my planner – and I’m sure my list wasn’t exhaustive – is I wrote down serving is such a blessing! I actually already knew this, but if all the other stuff wasn’t enough reward for serving, there is always what might be a selfish motive if it became the prime motive – and that is that serving makes you happy! Serving brings joy. Anyone who has ever served knows this – whenever you set out to be a blessing to someone else by serving them, you always end up getting what seems to you to be the greater blessing.
I hate to say it, but I think the reason this happens is because when we serve others we take our minds off ourselves and our measly problems and we focus on someone else, even if it's only for a little while.
This is really the heart of what I learned – or actually learned again – on my trip a year ago. In the backwards-seeming, upside down, topsy-turvy world of God’s economy, what seems to the world to be drudgery, a waste of time, or a pain, actually turns out to be the “good stuff” – the place where you get to experience the abundant life Jesus promised us.
I’ve discovered (and you probably have too) that in life there are certain things in my life that drain my battery physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Then there are other things in life that charge my battery. Serving, even though it seems like it would be very draining – in the case of Katrina relief it meant driving 8 hours to get there, sleeping on the floor, spending the day with people who have just lost their worldly possessions – actually turns out to be a great blessing. Serving is the good stuff!
As I close let me offer some practical thoughts about what to do with what we’ve learned about the call to serve this morning. Again – please don’t hear me saying, “do more, spend more time, get busier…” Keep the guilt machine off.
The best thing I can probably tell you is you don’t have to go out of your way looking for ways to serve people. You don’t have to go to Africa, or to clean up after a hurricane, or find a cure for AIDS to serve people. Just do what Jesus did – remember, he is our example! What Jesus did was to serve people along the way as he went through life. He didn’t necessarily seek out folks to serve – he served people wherever he met them – he had an servant’s heart. Believe me, you won’t have to go far to find someone to serve.
I read a story about a man who was in a hurry to get to work. He backs out of his driveway and has to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting a boy riding on the sidewalk. Then, as he drives, traffic is bad and he was catches every light. As he sits in his car at about the ninth red light he hit the man pounds the steering wheel and exclaims to no one in particular, “Come on! What’s wrong with you people! Can’t you see I’m in a hurry!” He was almost to work when he made his regular morning stop at Starbucks and, of course, the line is long and even though they’d been standing there in line for five minutes when the man in front of him is asked for his drink order acts like he still hasn’t decided what to order. Finally, it’s our friend’s turn to order and just as he’s about to say “Tall Mocha Frappacino” the indecisive man jumps back in front of him in line to add a scone to his order. The man can barely control himself. He finally gets his drink and is now visibly shaken he’s so tied up with what’s been going wrong in his life so far this morning. So he doctors up his drink at the little stand where they have the cream and stuff and then he takes a seat at a table. As he does he notices someone has left a box sitting on the table. Curious, he opens the box and he finds a pair of glasses inside. He puts the glasses on and suddenly, when he looks around the room he sees labels on everyone.
He looks at a woman and her daughter and sees, “Her husband just left her fro another woman.” He looks at the man at the next table over and sees, “Just lost his job.” He looks out the window and sees a young man sitting in his car and the label, “Sees no point in going on, considering suicide.”
The point of the story? You don’t have to travel halfway around the world; you don’t have to shave your head and learn to chant; you don’t have to give away all your possessions to the poor in order to serve someone. There are plenty of people who you can serve wherever you go. Just follow the example of Jesus, listen for the call to serve – hear his still, small voice, feel his gentle nudge guiding you to whom you should serve. And as you go, enjoy the joy of knowing you are doing exactly what you were created to do. Let’s pray.