Following How?

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short … For the present form of this world is passing away.             I Corinthians 7:29,31

“The appointed time has grown short … the present form of this world is passing away.”  The world is on the verge of ending.  Don’t get tied down with the things of this world, don’t get preoccupied with things that shortly will make no difference when compared to the backdrop of eternity.  St Paul is saying to his readers that they need to distance themselves from the things that are about to be destroyed.

It is wise advice.  If you build a fire, you must let go of the wood, or else you will be burned, the more serious burn will be caused by how tightly you keep on holding to the wood.  So let go, Paul says, before the fire reaches your hand.  Let go of this world and its ways, before it does damage to your spiritual life when the world is destroyed.

You cannot read the epistle for this morning without catching the urgency that the end of the world is quite close at hand.  How fascinating that such a reading should appear at a time like this.  The Middle East, with the outspoken hatred many Arab states have for the existence of Israel; Islamic terrorist groups threatening many countries, Iran and North Korea ramping up their nuclear agendas, and so many other tensions in the world make us realize all afresh just how the time could indeed be very short for the end of the world.  It is as if the Lord is using the present conditions of the world to reinforce His message to you and to me.

And yet thinking that the end could be this close can create a problem for us, a problem that happened to the Louisiana State University basketball team:

In the 1987 NCAA Regional Finals, LSU was leading Indiana by eight points with only a few minutes left in the game.  As is often the case with a team in the lead, LSU began playing a different ball game.  The television announcer pointed out that the LSU players were beginning to watch the clock rather than wholeheartedly play the game.  As a result of this shift in focus, Indiana closed the gap, won the game by one point, and eventually went on to become NCAA champions.
J. David Bianchin (Lawrenceville, Illinois), “To Illustrate”, Leadership, 3

It is important to take Paul’s words to heart, that the end of the world is just around the corner and we must orient our lives to that fact.  Even Jesus in the Gospel tells us that the time is ready and the Kingdom of God is close at hand.  Yet the danger is that this can become such a preoccupation that, like the LSU team, we forget that the game isn’t over yet.  There is still plenty of time left to make all the difference in the world – especially in our worlds.

And remember something else: Despite how well versed Paul was in all the prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah, and that he was profoundly inspired by the Holy Spirit, yet he really believed that the end of the world was going to happen immanently.  But that was some two thousand years ago.  That perspective we need to keep in mind, when some predict that the years to the end of the world can be counted on your fingers and perhaps your toes.  The LSU team story warns us that the game isn’t over just yet, and we may be surprised at just how much can yet happen and be done – it could be what can make all the difference in the world for people around you!

We do live in an age of tremendous and speedy change, especially in terms of morals and values, and in a real sense we need to take to heart Paul’s words: The present form of this world IS passing away.  Dramatic changes are happening in ways never before dreamed of.  Some things bring relief, some things bring fear.  With so much great and powerful things happening all around us, very easily we can be overwhelmed.  We can feel as intimidated was coach Woody Hayes did when he first came to Ohio State University:

Before Woody Hayes came to coach football at Ohio State, 24 years ago, he had been coaching at the much smaller Denison and Miami universities in Ohio.  “The first time I stood in the middle of the OSU stadium with its 86,000 seats staring down at me,” he recalls, “I was shook up.  My young son was with me and had hold of my hand.  He must have felt my reaction, for he said, ‘But, Daddy, the football field is the same size.'”
Lionel Crocker, in Newark, Ohio, Advocate, quoted in Reader’s Digest

We too can look all around at the vast world and feel equally as intimidated.  The time could be very short, and the world is so big.  But as Woody Hayes was reminded, that portion of the world for which he was personally responsible hadn’t changed – it was still the same size.  And, although not stated in the story, still the time in which he had to do his job hadn’t changed, either.  We also remember that as huge as the earth is, our own personal worlds haven’t changed.  Our personal worlds still contain us, our families, our neighbor, our community, and our church community.  And the time we have is exactly the time we need to do what the Lord said would be done before He comes.

You see, Paul wasn’t making his comments about the end of “the present form of this world” in a sense of panic.  He wasn’t seeing everything disintegrating around him and therefore screamed out like some “Chicken Little” that “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”  But rather like the general addressing his troops on the eve of the battle, he is telling us not to become distracted in our mission, or else we become vulnerable to the counter attacks from the sin all around us, from Satan himself, and even from our own fleshly desires.
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There are some reactions that we can have to this:  The first is that we can resist Paul’s message that we focus on the mission that lies before us, which Jesus gave us, that is, to make disciples of the world – our world.  I have my car, my TV set, I have my standard of living, my recreational activities, my house, my hobbies, many other things that I am involved with.  I value them all very highly.  Now Paul tells me to act as if very easily by tomorrow all these things won’t exist, not so much that they will disappear, but rather that their importance cannot match what the things that are eternal must have.

And that really creates a struggle in me.  I enjoy these things.  They are fun.  They give me certain satisfactions.  They also can give me a lot of headaches.  They also can so fill my time that just don’t have time anymore.  But I don’t want to give them up.  However, did you notice that Paul doesn’t say that all these things must be given up? He does emphasize, though, that they are to pale in significance when placed next to the things that are eternal.  And that perspective is something that we really must do, when we consider the stakes that we are dealing with.

It is hard, and sometimes only reluctantly do we listen to Paul’s words.  We do recognize that Paul is right, and what he is emphasizing is indeed important, because, otherwise, why else are we here in this church?  We do need to place the proper perspective on all the many elements of our daily lives.  But that is so hard to do, because our very natures resist such change and also resist any attempt to get closer to what the Lord wants.

What then is the answer for us?  The answer is found in the Gospel [Mark 1:14-20].  Today Jesus comes before us in especially His Word and simply says, “Follow Me.”  He does not lay out a large quantity of demands and commands, He does not insist on us doing all sorts of mental and/or spiritual gymnastics, He does not require that we swear off everything nor anything.  Just simply He says, “Follow Me.”

But how those words tug at us!!  What makes people follow after a person?  Usually it is because he has something they want.  If he were a singer, then it would be because of the way that he expresses himself in song.  If he were a political leader, it would be because of how he can lead them through the needs and problems of political life.  If he were a sports figure, it would be because they admire his physical ability and talent.

But look at how the disciples literally dropped everything to follow Jesus!  Why?  What drew them so powerfully to follow Jesus?  What draws you to follow Jesus?  Is it not more than His offer of Salvation?  By no means is His gift of eternal life a minor thing, but isn’t there much more?

In Jesus, God Himself came to walk this earth, to share our bread, to walk our roads, to stand by our sides.  In Jesus, the face of God is shown to be one of extraordinary concern and love.  In Jesus, we have that security of knowing that He is indeed in control, even when things look their darkest.  In Jesus, we have been given the amazing right to be called God’s own beloved children, to have a depth and wonder of a relationship to the Creator of the universe that just cannot be matched anywhere else.  In Jesus, we see such meticulous care for us that even the hairs of our heads have been numbered.  Indeed, we find our hearts tugging to follow Jesus.

However, a distinction must be made.  “To follow Jesus” is not to merely learn the correct things to do, nor is it to have the correct doctrine – all of which the Pharisees had tried to do with the Old Testament.  It is not to glean information about Jesus as a gossip columnist might do.  It is not to follow Him because we merely expect Him to be useful for us and our lives.  We follow Jesus not simply to find out about Him, but rather that we meet Him, getting to know the world, life, and eternity through His eyes; to come along with what He is passionate about; to touch the people whom He touches; and to give of oneself alongside of Him Who withheld nothing of Himself from those who came to Him.

The disciples had to come to grips with the fact that Jesus did not fit into the box of their convenience, merely to echo their perspectives, values, and prejudices.  We also are called upon face and to repent of this attitude toward the Lord.  However, in Holy Communion comes Jesus’ invitation to really get to know Him as He comes to give of Himself to us.  As we look at the work of the Church at large, as we see the people with all of their weaknesses who surround us in this vast community of believers, He invites us to follow Him, to see as He sees, to work as He works, to love as He loves.

And therein lies our answer.  As we follow Jesus and experience His relation of love toward us, as we delve deeper into what He has done, does do, what He wants, and what He promises, then as Paul described, the present form of our world passes away.  As we watch Jesus in our lives, those things which ARE important take their place in relation to the things that are eternal, because in Jesus we have indeed found that one thing needful, that one thing that will never be taken from us: we have found the God Who really does walk this earth in front of us as we learn from Him what He and we are all about.

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