Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Necessity of a Challenge

Meet the Challenge – The Disciple’s Way - The Necessity of A Challenge

The theme of our capital campaign is Meet the Challenge – The Disciple’s Way. I have adopted that same theme for a series of messages that we begin today. Meet the Challenge is a theme for life, because life is full of challenges. There are challenges on a global scale, a national scale, state, community, church, family, and individual. We are surrounded by scores of challenges, and meeting those challenges is the charge and the way of Disciples.

Today I want to begin with The Necessity of A Challenge, which probably sounds like a strange statement, but it is a valid truth about life, I believe – we need to face challenges. We need to face challenges because challenges give us focus, they give us strength, and they help us become the people God created us to be. We will survey some of the stories throughout the Scriptures that tell us of challenges and what we can learn from them.

Today we start with a passage about the calling of the twelve. The gospels have more familiar passages of the calling of the disciples – Peter, James, Andrew, and John beside the sea and Matthew in his tax office – but this one is different. Jesus calls a large group of his followers to him and presents the twelve as his inner core of followers. It is an interesting group, a group that would never come together under natural circumstances; they are far too diverse in outlook and perspective to come together on their own. The crowd must have looked at that group of twelve and thought, you’ve got to be kidding me.

We know that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen; they were small businessmen. Matthew, we know, was a tax collector. What do small businessmen complain about, among other things? Taxes. Matthew was probably the one who collected the taxes from Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Tax collectors made their living by basically cheating people. Reading between the lines somewhat, I think it’s safe to say that these four fishermen were not thrilled with being brought together with Matthew. We know that Judas Iscariot was a Zealot. A Zealot was one committed to the overthrow – by any means necessary – of the Roman government. Matthew, as a tax collector, worked for the Roman government. To Judas, Matthew was a traitor to the Jewish people and as a Zealot would be committed to using violence or any other means against people like Matthew. These were polar opposites when it came to politics. This was a bigger gap than putting Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama on the same committee. James and John, we know, were sometimes self-promoters. They sought power and glory by asking Jesus to seat them on his right and left when he came into his kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45) and the others were not happy about this brazen display of reaching for power. Judas Iscariot – there were two disciples named Judas – was known to steal from the collection on occasion. That’s not a way to ingratiate yourself with a group of people. And what about Peter, James, and John, the three who were obviously closest to Jesus? Do you wonder if there was any jealousy on the part of the others? Why did those guys get all the attention? And then there were the others that are almost never mentioned – the other Judas, Philip, Bartholomew, James, Simon, and Thomas. Thomas gets a mention for his desire to go to Jerusalem with Jesus and then for his disbelief of the resurrection, but the other guys are almost unknown to us. Did they ever feel slighted?

My point is this – I believe Jesus very deliberately chose this odd collection of twelve very different individuals to provoke a challenge. How can you get anything done with a group so diverse? How can you get anything done with a group who under most any circumstances would be at each other’s throats? If you want to get something done, pick people who can at least get along!

But Jesus didn’t do that. What a strange combination he picked – and he picked them intentionally. And you know what’s amazing? How often do you find any evidence in the gospels of dissension among them? Almost never. We know the other ten were unhappy with the request of James and John to be elevated to positions of power, but there is almost no mention of problems in that group. There was no mention of the political discussions between Matthew and Judas Iscariot, which must have been very animated and interesting.

Here’s why I think we don’t see dissension – because the twelve were given a challenge that lifted them above their self-interest and differences. And here’s the great truth about challenges and why we need to be challenged – challenges lift us above the things that threaten to separate us and mire us down in our own narrow self-interests.

Jesus was constantly challenging his disciples – to be like a city on a hill, to love their enemies, to pray for their persecutors – all of these tremendously challenging statements that asked the disciples to rise up the lower parts of human nature, challenges that ask us to seize upon the image of God that is a part of us and to emulate those qualities rather than sinking into the lower part of ourselves.

That’s a mighty big challenge. But isn’t that what we really want, let alone really need? How many of the famous speeches in our nation’s history are famous because they presented a challenge? John Kennedy’s famous words, you know them – ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. FDR’s famous line from his first inaugural address – So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. There’s a challenge – the proposition that all men are created equal. A proposition is an idea, it is a hope not yet realized, a promise not yet fulfilled – but it’s also a challenge – here is what we could be. We are not yet there, but we have moved closer, but where would we be without such a challenge?

Twenty-nine years ago this week I moved from Dothan, Alabama to Louisville to complete my seminary degree. I had almost no money when I moved there and no place to live. I had no idea where I was going to stay my first night. After getting settled into an apartment with two roommates I had very little money for food. I would go to a store in Crescent Hill and buy a loaf of bread and a Styrofoam cup of turkey or chicken salad – and I don’t really like turkey and chicken salad all that much – for a couple of dollars, and I would eat it for every meal until it ran out. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner. To this day I really don’t like to eat plain popcorn because of eating so much of it in those days.

But you know what? It was an exciting time. It was a challenge, but I loved the challenge. I think I learned more at that time in my life about faith than at any other time.

We need a challenge. We’ve got a big challenge in our capital campaign, but it’s not our only challenge. You’ve got challenges and I’ve got challenges. May we find what God is teaching us through those challenges.

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