Sermon: A Surrendered Life
Scripture: Philippians 2: 5-11
Date: July 31, 2016
I feel like I have been too critical of the beach the last couple of weeks by just focusing on the sand and the heat, the things I don’t like, so I want to start today by telling you what I really like about the beach (other than the seafood.). I really like being in the ocean. I fancy myself as a world champion body surfer. (Show picture). If there was an Olympic competition for body surfing, I am confident that I would be in running for a medal. And though the surf was not really good for body surfing this year, I got enough good rides to lead me to question why a 29 year old man (and counting) who’s not in the best of shape still stands out there by himself staring out into the ocean for extended periods of time waiting for the perfect wave to ride. Now I have to tell you that I have not always been a world class body surfer. When I first started going to the beach with Karen’s family after we were married, I struggled to catch the waves. And when I did, more often than not, I got swamped and dumped, rather than get a good ride. It really took me some time to realize that my problem was that I was trying to fight the waves, in a sense tame them, so I could then ride them. The result was that I was more often than not trying to catch a ride after the wave had already broken on top of me. What I eventually figured out was that I could never win a fight against a wave. After all they have been doing their thing every day since the first moments of creation. And that if I really wanted to ride one, I had to stop fighting it and surrender to it. Rather than me trying to catch the wave, I had to let it catch me. And once I began to surrender to the waves, my career as a body surfer really took off. But I’ve got to say, surrender came hard. My nature has always been to fight rather than surrender. When I was a kid growing up, one of my biggest heroes was John Wayne. And there was one thing that you always knew watching a John Wayne movie, and that was that no matter how bad things got, John Wayne would never surrender. It just wasn’t an option. Even death was preferable to surrender. Real men don’t ever surrender. It was a lesson that was ingrained in my generation and it still impacts a lot of the choices I make in life, both positively and negatively.
So as I have been thinking about this living water that we’ve been talking about that Jesus offers, all of this came to mind as I read these words of Paul. Because I think what Paul is writing about is this tension between our human propensity to fight for our place in this world (to overcome the world), and the idea that to receive the living water, what we talked about last week as the Grace of God, we must first surrender ourselves in this world.
You know, it’s an amazing thing when God catches you. We talk about it being a choice on our part. When I first started into the ministry the slogan for the United Methodist Church was “Catch The Spirit”. But in my experience, it really wasn’t a matter of me catching the Spirit as it was the Spirit catching me. God called, the Spirit tried to catch me, and I ran. That’s how it worked all through high school and college and even a year of law school. Oh I gave lip service to God. I went to church. I gave the appearance of a Christian, but, in my heart and mind, I was sure that I didn’t really need God to make it in this world. I was doing just fine. Until I wasn’t. I had life by the tail. Until I didn’t. And so I fought and fought against God for several years before surrendering to live a different kind of life. It was only when I was willing to surrender my life in this world, that I truly began to ride the wave of Living Water, of God’s grace.
A missionary talks about that act of surrender when he writes:
One night, while on a mission trip to Haiti, we sat under the trees in the cool of the evening. Someone asked, “How did you get here? Not how did you manage to be on a mission trip to Haiti, but how did you get here, as a disciple?
People told stories. Someone’s husband had died after a brief illness. Life, as she knew it, was taken from her and she had to start over. Somebody else just wandered in out of curiosity, liked what he heard, and had been here ever sense. Another had been put here while still a kid by committed Christian parents and he never left. Someone else had wandered away from the church of his youth, been around the block two or three times, fought a war, built a business, but still got drawn back toward the church in middle age.
At the end of the evening I muttered, “Jesus is amazing. His relentless, resourceful reach is . . . amazing”.
You see these were stories of lives that had been surrendered to and for Christ. They are the kind of lives that I think the Apostle Paul was thinking about when he wrote this letter. Probably thinking about his own process of surrender, which had not come easy for him.
The picture that Paul paints with these words, is the picture of a servant. Jesus “became like a servant”, he says. And how did He do that. Through this process of surrender. He chose to surrender. To become like Christ, we must ultimately surrender ourselves. Chuck Swindoll writes:
Here’s the good news: when we live surrendered lives before Him, becoming like Him leads to an ever-increasing reality. We don’t have to pray for it. We don’t have to strive to accomplish it. Focusing intently on Christ naturally results in a lifestyle of greater and greater selflessness.
And so what Paul is giving the Philippians is a portrait of a surrendered life. In the 3rd and 4th verse, he describes a life of surrender as a life that is not motivated by selfishness or empty conceit, that regards others as more important than self, does not look out merely for your own personal interests, but also looks out for the interest of others. A surrendered life is a self-less life. William Willimon spent many years as the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. And in one of his books he presents what he found to be a surprising portrait of a surrendered life.
One night, some years ago, a Duke fraternity invited me to give a talk. The Dean requires them to have a certain number of programs each year in order to give fraternities some semblance of respectability. My assigned topic was “Character and College”. I thought, “Lord thou hast delivered them into my hands.”
So I went to their fraternity section in the dorm and knocked on the door. The door opened and I was greeted by a young boy of about nine or ten, I imagined. What is a kid doing here at this time of night? I wondered. Surely there are rules against young children in the dorm this late.
“They’re waiting for you in the common room,” he said. “Follow me. I’ll take you there.”
We wound our way back into the common room and the fraternity was gathered, glumly waiting for my presentation. As I began my remarks, I noticed that the little boy climbed onto the lap of one of the brothers. He fell asleep with his head on the shoulder of this college student.
Well, I hammered them for the moral failures of their generation for about half an hour. When I finally finished, I asked if they had any questions or comments. Dead silence. So, I thanked them for the honor, and made my way out. I heard the college kid say to the little boy, “You go on and get ready for bed. I’ll be in to tuck you in and read you a story.”
When we stood just outside the door, the fraternity boy lit a cigarette, took a drag on it, and thanked me for coming out.
“Let me ask you,” I said, “who was the kid there tonight?”
“Oh, that’s Darrell,” he said. “The fraternity is part of the Big Brothers program. We met Darrell that way. His mom’s on crack and having a tough time. Sometimes it gets so bad that she can’t care for him. So we told Darrell to call us up when he needs us. We go over, pick him up, and he stays with us until it’s ok to go home. We take him to school, buy him his clothes, books and stuff.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “I take back all of the stuff I said about you people being bad and irresponsible.”
“I tell you what’s amazing,” he said as he took another drag on his cigarette, “what’s amazing is that God would pick a guy like me to do something this good for somebody else.”
A surrendered life. Paul says that Jesus “gave up His place with God and made himself nothing” – for us. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he said, “I must decrease so that He may increase.” When we surrender our lives we begin to decrease so that He can increase in us. So what must we surrender. Well, the simple answer is everything. But let me suggest some specifics that can be implied from Paul’s instruction here.
And I’ll begin with the one that no one ever wants to talk about. First, we must surrender our possessions. Our material goods. The THINGS of this world. In the words of the message, Paul says to the Philippians: “Don’t push your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting things. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” In a sense, putting our tithes and offerings in the plate on Sunday morning is the most selfless thing we can do. It is an act of surrendering what the world values to bring glory to God. When we surrender our lives to Christ, we begin a life time quest of making ourselves nothing, and Jesus everything. Remember that Jesus tells the story of a rich young man who desired to become like Christ and so he came and asked Jesus what he needed to do. And so Jesus lays out the requirements of Discipleship. Keep the law. Serve others. And the man says but I have done all that. And Jesus says, well there’s one more thing. You’ve got to surrender yourself. Jesus said you must give all that you have to the poor. He didn’t say a tithe. Or a small portion. Jesus said, you must give everything. Surrender yourself. But the young man couldn’t do it. You see it was never about the amount that the man gave, it was more about what he held on to. He was not willing to surrender himself, and so, scriptures say, “He went away sorrowful because he had many things.” One writer is very practical on this point. He says to make a list of any material possessions that you know are near and dear to your heart. Then go to God in prayer and release them one by one. A.W. Tozer begins such a prayer this way: Father, I want to know you, but my heart fears to give up its toys. Please root from my heart all those things which I have cherished so long and which have become a very part of my living self. To surrender our lives we must surrender the things of this world.
And then secondly, to surrender to Christ, to let the living water fill us, we must surrender our time. James writes: You who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such and such city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” don’t know what your life will be like tomorrow. . . . You ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live to do this or that.” I heard a preacher say:
I am convinced that wise planning of our time is good. But time, like material possessions, must always be held on to loosely. Plan wisely, but be ready for God to rearrange things and take you along paths that may feel dangerous to you. And He isn’t obligated to inform you . . . or request permission to upset your . . . . agenda!
Surrender your time with the assurance that God can make better use of it anyway.
And then finally, we must be willing to surrender life itself. Just before he writes these words, Paul tells the Philippians that he is in chains, a prisoner for Christ, awaiting execution. And it is ultimately not just our life we surrender, but also the lives of those whom we love the most in this world. And that’s where being filled with the Living Water becomes very difficult , a life of surrender becomes so hard. But we must realize that nothing this side of heaven is permanent, including life. Those waves we are riding will come and go with the tide. But yet we sometimes go to great lengths to preserve life on this earth. It is so hard to let go. Near my family’s cabin in Colorado, there is a little town called Nederland. Now Nederland is known for two things. One is the high percentage of marijuana users in comparison to the overall population. It is a very laid back town. And the second thing they are known for is the dead body that has been kept on dry ice in a storage shed for more than 20 years. Grandfather Bredo was brought to Nederland by his grandson and daughter in 1994, already dead, from a cryogenics lab in California and has been kept on dry ice in that shed for all these years. The hope was that doctors would develop a cure for the disease that he died of, and they would be able to thaw him out, bring him back to life, and cure him so he can live on. Well I’m not sure what of the original vision remains because several years ago the grandson was deported and the daughter was evicted from her home but the storage shed with the body has been preserved and an ice company has been paid to deliver fresh dry ice every two weeks to keep the body frozen. Every year the town has a “Frozen Man Festival” to celebrate their most famous resident. They have held on to his life for more than twenty years. Sometimes we go to great lengths to hold on to life on this earth. It is so hard to surrender life.
I have recently been reminded of a conversation I had many years ago now, with a young woman who had lost a child at a very young age. And I said to her that I couldn’t imagine anything more painful. What helped you get through it? And she said, “I gave my children back to God when they were born with the understanding that he would let me raise them for a time. And so when he was ready for one to come back to Him, I had no choice but to let go.”
When I stand at the graveside with family and friends, I always pray a prayer of Thanksgiving for the life of the one who has departed, and I say, “Before He,She was ours, He was yours. And now we offer Him back to you.” To be like Christ, we have to be ready to let go of those whom mean the most to us. Surrender ourselves and them to God. It’s never easy. Especially when it’s a loved one. I have been watching with fond remembrance this summer the neighbor across the street teaching his little girl to ride a bicycle. First she would only ride when he ran along side holding on to the bike. And then there came the day when he ran along side and let go of the bike. Initially that caused great panic when the little girl realized that he was not holding on to her. But eventually she was okay with him just being there to grab hold in case she started to fall. And then there came the day when she took off on her own. And this past weekend I noticed that he had to get after her because she had ventured beyond his sight. I have been reminded of a poem called “Learning the Bicycle”. It’s describes the process of a parent teaching a child to ride and it concludes with these words which describes so beautifully this process of surrender.
Tomorrow, though, I will run behind,
Arms out to catch her, she’ll tilt then balance wide of my reach,
Till distance makes her small,
Smaller, beyond the place I stop and know
That to teach her I had to follow
And when she learned I had to let go.
We must surrender life and those whom we love.
This process of surrender is a curious thing, however. It begins when we realize that everything we have comes from God in the first place and that He blesses us with the things of life on this earth (including life itself) for a time, but we must be willing and ready for Him to receive it all back to His glory. We decrease, so that He can increase. Paul tells the Philippians that Jesus “gave up His place with God and made Himself nothing.” And why did He do that. So that He could become a servant. In fact the more accurate translation is slave. We do not surrender for our glory – we empty ourselves in order to glorify God. When we are transformed in the image of Christ, we become a servant. It was the kind of life that the rich young man could not embrace and he walked away sorrowful. He considered himself a ruler, not a servant. Put Paul says that we must empty ourselves so that we can be filled with others. Empty ourselves in order to be filled with the living water. Jesus, Paul says, “was born to be a man and became like a servant.” In essence He was willing to surrender His divinity and become a servant. It’s what happens to us when we turn from the conformity of the world and accept the transformation in the image of Christ. But most of us struggle with this idea. Well perhaps it will be somewhat comforting to know that the disciples struggled with this understanding. They thought that because Jesus called them, that they were something special. They argued about which one of them was the greatest. And they tried to keep the riff-raff, the women and the children away from Jesus, lest the King be tarnished. And no matter how many times Jesus modeled the role of a servant, they just did not get it. Or more likely they got it, but they weren’t willing to surrender themselves. This is perhaps most evident by the actions of Peter in the Upper Room at the last supper. The table that was prepared for the Passover that night was called a triclinium. (Show picture) And there were specific places where the guests would sit, based on how much favor they had gained with the host. Which is why some of them were arguing on the way to the meal about which of them was the greatest. As you faced the table with the U open towards you, the host would be in the second seat from the end. And the most honored guests would sit on his left and right. And then the other guests would take their places in descending order. The place at the far end on the right side was usually occupied by a servant whose job it was to wash the feet of the honored guests and then serve the meal.. Scripture tells us that Peter took that place. But, though Peter was humble enough to sit in the place of lowest prominence, he was too proud to perform such a menial task. And so Jesus, the host, takes up the basin and the towel and sets out to wash the feet of the Disciples. He would have begun with the most honored guests which scripture indicates were John and Judas. The last feet he would have come to were those of Peter. But even then, Peter refuses to understand Jesus as a servant and he balks at the idea of Christ washing his feet. To be a true servant we must be completely emptied, in order to be filled by the Holy Spirit. Once Peter realizes that he says to Jesus, “don’t just wash my feet then. Bathe all of me in your living water.”
And so Paul says that To be a servant, Jesus emptied Himself of his divinity and became weak and vulnerable for our sakes. In humility He became obedient – even though that meant going to the cross. Those who are conformed by the world worry about who is the greatest, too great certainly to pick up a cross and carry it. Too great to care about the blind and the lepers and the little children. Too great to pick up the basin and wash feet. It is only when we empty ourselves of the world, let go of those earthly pursuits, that we are ready to be transformed in the image of Christ. That we become His disciples. Where are you? Are you still like Peter and you tuck your feet under you when Jesus comes around with the basin and the towel? Or are you ready to take the towel and the basin and start washing feet? This altar is a place of surrender. You come now and surrender your life this moment.