By Pastor Vince Gerhardy
Some of you may have read Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland. Alice falls asleep and has this amazing dream where everything seems to be upside down and back to front.
She encounters White Rabbit with a pocket watch but is always running late,
a Caterpillar (of all small brained creatures) who gives advice and bits of wisdom,
a grinning and talking Cheshire Cat that keeps vanishing,
the King and Queen of Hearts who are always saying “Off with their heads!”
Then there is the rude Mad Hatter who is always rebuking Alice for her rudeness.
Alice notices that everything is quite back to front in this strange world. She discovers surprise after surprise as she meets back to front people and creatures.
Reading the Gospels is never as puzzling as the adventures of Alice in Wonderland, but sometimes you wonder if Jesus does get things back to front and upside down. Today’s reading is an example of this. He says that those who are great will be the least in the Kingdom of God and those who are humble will be the greatest. That’s so back to front.
We are more used to the idea that those who get ahead – the winners in this world – are those who push themselves forward, promoting their worth over and above everyone else.
Winners are the successful people;
those who make a lot of money;
those who are famous;
the ones who outmanoeuvre others;
those who are good at using the moment to outdo others and make more for themselves.
It is these people whom we call successful and hold in high regard.
In Jesus’ day, people had much the same idea about what makes a person successful as we do today.
The Gospel writer, Luke, ushers us into a large room where a dinner party is in progress. Jesus, a guest, notices other guests scrambling for seats of honour. At the head of the table is the host, a Pharisee, leader of the local community. As the guests arrived Jesus noticed how they were jockeying for the seats of honour next to the host.
After watching all this Jesus says, “Here’s how parties work, God’s way – ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted’.
Jesus is not telling his listeners something new. Guests familiar with the Scriptures would have recognized that this is a concept that runs throughout the sacred texts of Judaism.
But it’s still a shock. Imagine puzzled looks. ‘Hey Jesus, what do you mean? Everyone knows you get what you deserve. You earn a good reputation and so you deserve a good place. That’s the way the world works’.
Then Jesus goes on saying that when inviting people to a dinner party don’t invite your friends, or relatives, neighbours as you would normally do, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
How ridiculous is that! Inviting every drunk, street kid, drug addict, cheat that you can find, is sheer madness. Jesus is redefining what “hospitality” is. Jesus said, ‘Next time you have people for dinner, don’t ask those who can do you favours in return.
Ask the poor for whom such delicacies are only in dreams.
Ask the powerless, the vulnerable, those who are regarded as nothing by society.
Just imagine the happiness you could bring into people’s lives and the richness they would bring into your life as you sit down and have a meal with them’.
This is so back to front. Who in their right mind would do something like this? When you think about it, it’s not so different to Alice who found herself in ‘Wonderland’ where everything was so back to front.
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And these aren’t the only instances of Jesus’ back to front ideas. He said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; and whoever will lose his life for my sake and the sake of the Good News will save it” (Mark 8:35). And on several occasions, he commends the most unlikely people for their faith or good deeds, like Samaritans, lepers, the Syro-Phoenician woman, tax collectors and prostitutes. Why doesn’t he say nice things about the people whom you’d expect him to praise – the respected and wealthy people?
Jesus is back to front and upside down. He does this to highlight that the ways of the Kingdom of God are not the same as that of the rest of the world. What is considered right and good in the world may not be the case in God’s Kingdom. These back to front ideas tell us something about the way God deals with us in grace rather than giving us what we really deserve because of our sin. God’s ways are so back to front because in the world ‘what goes round comes round’.
Jesus expresses these back to front ideas to urge us re-examine what it is that we have accepted as right, whereas in actual fact they are not God’s ways at all.
It is so easy for a Christian to be taken up with a certain attitude or way of life that is so opposite to what God wants. The argument always goes, “Everyone else is doing it.” But just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean it is right and God-pleasing.
Just because it is the trend to move in with a partner and live together before the commitment of marriage, that doesn’t make it right.
Just because every one else at school is cheating or plagiarising, doesn’t mean that this is right thing to do.
Just because your friends
put down those who have achieved something,
or ridicule people who are different,
or brand all Muslims as terrorists,
that doesn’t mean that this is what God wants.
Just because a friend has problems with someone or something or has adopted certain attitudes, that doesn’t mean that we should follow suit because don’t want to disappoint that friend. This is a particularly difficult choice because of our sense of loyalty and fear of losing a friend.
You see, it’s so easy for us as God’s people to quite unwittingly and unintentionally say things that are right when they are wrong. This is what Jesus is saying today in our text. God’s ways can be so against what is the accepted standard in the rest of the world.
Why do we find following God’s ways so hard and following the crowd so easy?
There are several reasons.
Firstly, there is the problem of standing out. If you adopt an attitude that is different to everyone else then all and sundry will notice that you are different and that your ideas are different. You may even be labelled as weird. And so to avoid that, it’s better to go along with everyone else.
Secondly, the ways of the world can be much more appealing and easier than those of the Kingdom of God. It’s easier for friends to go their separate ways rather than trying to resolves the problems.
It’s more appealing to have sex with a number of partners than to be faithful to one.
Thirdly, the shift from God’s ways and the ways of the world can be ever so subtle. This is one of Satan’s cunning tricks. He makes you think that you are following the ways of God’s Kingdom whereas in fact you are following his ways.
A member of a Christian congregation saw nothing wrong setting up a Buddhist shrine in her lounge room and offering prayers there every morning. Friends had done the same thing, even gave instruction how to set it up and what it meant. This person saw that others were doing it so thought it must be okay. We may say, “How could they?” But it does happen. The blurring of the line between wrong and right happens gradually and cleverly that we hardly recognise that we have been led away from Jesus and his will for our lives.
Fourthly, the culture we live in is very good at producing popular trends. We call it the “in thing”.
It’s the “in thing” to wear certain style of clothes.
It’s the “in thing” for men and women to spend loads of money seeking the perfect looking body.
It’s the “in thing” to be so focussed on ourselves and having our needs fulfilled that we don’t see the bigger picture and how we can meet the needs of others.
It’s the “in thing” to ignore how our behaviour impacts on the community, in our case the community of the church.
It’s so easy to follow what is “in thing” without even checking whether this is what God wants us to do or not. We follow the crowd without realising that what we are doing may not be what God wants.
And since this is Fathers’ Day, a day we focus on the family and its unique place in God’s plan for the people of this world, it’s a good idea to ask ourselves:
Do I spend time with those I love – playing together, working together, learning together, having fun together as well giving guidance or discipline.
Is my home a place where Jesus is spoken about and taught frequently and I model what it means to be a Christian in today’s world?
Or have I fallen in step with the rest of the world and find myself too busy, too tired and too hassled?
To follow God’s ways may seem like the more difficult path, in fact the path that seems so back to front compared to the ways of the world. Jesus never promised that following God’s ways would be the easiest path.
This is the way God’s people stand out from the rest of the world.
We can witness to the world that there is a better way.
We can give evidence to the world that being a member of God’s kingdom is something very special; that it makes a difference in the way we live our lives.
The question that remains to be answered is – “how do I find out what is God’s ways for my life and my family? What does it mean to live as members of God’s Kingdom?
The answer is simple – God’s Word, the Bible. This is God’s message to all of us and reveals to us God’s Son. This Word tells us that God sent Jesus to heal the fractured relationship between God and us and that now as his people we have a special role to play in the world – to live as his children and stand apart and give witness to what are God’s ways. He wants us to make a difference in the lives of others and not simply to blend in with the rest of the world.
The Bible also reminds us we are very poor at being people in God’s Kingdom who make a difference because they are different. Our sinfulness wants to take the easy path, to do the “in thing”, to follow the crowd and not stand out. Everyday our best intentions are sidetracked. We are upset and feel really bad that we have let God down again.
The Bible reminds us that everyday he declares us “forgiven”. He makes us clean with his precious blood. And then he invites us to live as his people in his Kingdom – letting others see in us Christ and his plan for the world.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2007, Vince Gerhardy. Used by permission.