Tell Me Why

 

For three years now, I have preached a summer series using a children’s book as a second reading in our worship service. We read the book in whole and talk about it specifically in the children’s sermon, and then it is referenced to varying degrees in the main sermon which closely follows the theme of the book.

Today’s book is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessor, by William Joyce.

 

Deuteronomy 6:4–13, 20–25

 

Tell Me Why

“Start with why.” That’s the advice of business guru Simon Sinek in his book by the same name. He looks through history at leaders of corporations and social movements who were able to not just be successful, but built a movement among their followers, employees, and consumers. In a nutshell, he dissects what it is about great leaders that allow them to inspire so many to take action. And over and over again, he finds that the way they both think and communicate starts with a statement about why they do what they do.

This is the graphic Mr. Sinek uses to illustrate his point.

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On the outside, we have WHAT: this is what we do. For a business it is their products or services; for a church it might be things like bible studies or missional activities.

Inside that is HOW. For a business, the HOW explains what makes their products different than the competition—be it design, efficiency, features, and so on. Think of it this way: WHAT explains what we might buy and HOW is what we would say to explain our choice. For a church, HOW might be things like the Golden Rule, or the Great Commission, or an understanding of the End Times—all of which would shape the actual ministry that is taking place in the WHAT circle.

The innermost circle is WHY. WHY is, quite simply, the purpose, cause, or belief that is the entire reason your company—or church—exists. It is the core identity from which everything else should come.

Mr. Sinek argues that most of the time, we begin our communication with WHAT we do, then move to HOW we do it, and we usually aren’t even aware of WHY we do it. But the most effective communicators, leaders, and companies work this the other way around—they start with WHY they exist, then move to HOW they live that out, and end with WHAT they do.

Or, put differently, “a WHY is just a belief, HOWs are the actions we take to realize that belief, and WHATs are the results of those actions” (Sinek, Start with Why, 85).

The Elevator Pitch

Now I realize this sounds complicated, but it really is quite simple. The easiest way to illustrate this is using the concept of the elevator pitch. The idea of an elevator pitch is that you should be able to make a pitch for your business in the time it takes you to travel a few floors in an elevator with a stranger. It is the answer to this question: In about a minute, why should someone attend First Baptist instead of one of the dozens of other churches in town?

If you haven’t ever considered what to say in a scenario like this, you’re going to be ill prepared when God directs someone your way.

So think about it right now. Imagine you are in conversation with a coworker, a family member, or even a stranger and the subject of faith and church comes up. Most of the time, our “elevator pitch” starts with WHAT. For this church, it might sound like this:

We meet on Sundays at 9:30 to worship God. There’s Sunday School for all ages. We have men’s and women’s groups that meet during the week, as well as an after school program and a youth group. We allow some community groups to share our space. I’ve been a part of the church for a long time now and it feels like a family to me.

That’s starting with WHAT. That’s beginning with the things we do.

Now listen to the difference when we start with WHY:

We believe that each person is someone God deeply loves, and that knowing Jesus is something that is freeing. The way we live that out is by practicing hospitality, learning to hear God and each other, and working toward the liberation of those who feel trapped and alone. We gather to worship God each Sunday at 9:30, we meet in small groups to discuss life and the Bible, and we partner with a lot of community groups who share our mission of breaking the cycles that hold people back.

It’s quite a difference in its impact—even though it communicates all of the same information as in the first presentation. Mr. Sinek argues that this second presentation will always be more impactful because it presents information in the way our brains naturally work. It inspires us instead of convinces us.

God Starts with Why

Starting with WHY as Christians and as the Church means we start with story instead of programming. It begins with “who we are” instead of “what we do.” And even though we have gotten this sooooo backwards over the last century or so, starting with WHY is really the example we see throughout the Bible.

When the first humans are created, God starts with why: “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish…and…the birds..and…the livestock…and over ever creeping thing” (Gen 1:26 ESV).

When God begins working through a specific family, God starts with why: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3 ESV).

When the angel appears to Joseph, encouraging him to still wed Mary (his pregnant fiancée, the message from God starts with why: “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21 ESV).

The whole Bible is a story of WHY—and it is filled with stories of WHY. When we start with WHY—when we start with story—we are not selling something. We are instead inspiring people.

Another author (Chuck DeGroat) talks about why telling stories matters (Faith Storytelling Kit PDF). Using the perspective of our Christian faith and the backdrop of the Bible, he gives seven reasons why telling stories matter:

1. We are hardwired for story: Science has shown us that this is how our brains work—and that “we thrive when we listen and tell.”

2. We are meaning makers. Telling stories has been the way we have made sense of our experiences and world for thousands of years.

3. We are honest. In telling stories, we learn there is more shame in the kind of radical editing that makes us look good than in telling the simple truth of our struggles, our failures, and and our suffering.

4. We are wounded. All of us have been hurt. Psychologists have discovered that telling stories of hurt actually help us take control of our lives and find healing from those wounds.

5. We are storied beings. Our Christian faith is one that roots our own individual, 21st century lives in the 1st century life of our Savior. The path of discipleship that we walk together is of finding the story of Jesus told through our own lives.

6. We are liturgical. What this means is that our worship is corporate; it is something that we do together. And as we move through the year, our worship reenacts the stories of Jesus’ Advent, birth, and baptism; miracles and parables; entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and the Garden of Gethsemane; his crucifixion and burial; the resurrection, and the ascension. The way we worship is driven by stories-told and stories-reenacted.

7. We are commanded. Over and over in scripture, we are commanded to remember and to tell the story.

Deuteronomy

Our scripture lesson is one such example. Here in Deuteronomy 4, the Israelites are in the midst of their wilderness wanderings—in between slavery in Egypt and nationhood in the Promised Land. Moses—following God’s lead (as always)—wants them to see that their willingness to tell the story of what God has done is directly connected to their ability to survive and thrive in the future. It’s a simple thing—storytelling—but if they don’t do it, they will not succeed. That’s why Moses is so emphatic:

Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deut 6:7-9 NIV).

Moses wants to make sure that the ancient Israelites are never far from a tangible reminder of the story of God’s liberation.

In v.20 of our reading, Moses even makes it clear that when asked about their practices and their worship and this constant remembering, their answer needs to start with WHY.

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors. The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the Lord our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness (vv.20-25 NIV)

Stories matter. The Bible—while a collection of stories—is itself one giant story of God’s loving and redemptive work. And the testimony we see in scripture is that storytelling is evangelism. Storytelling is how we communicate who we are, who God is, and that what we do matters.

That means it’s important to think about the story of your own life—and how to tell it. It’s not about making yourself look good—the bible stories we read each week do not paint sanitized pictures of flawless heroes; they depict deeply flawed, fully human beings. But it is important to start with WHY. If you’re talking about faith, or church, or anything else in this world that matters, I want you to tell me WHY it matters to you.

No, that’s wrong……it’s not about me. The world needs you to tell them why it matters. Everyone’s story matters, and the world needs to hear how God has redeemed you. And that is a story only you can tell.

Prayer

God,

We give you thanks for your Son,
our Savior, Jesus the Christ—
the Word of God who became flesh
and dwelt among us.

We give you thanks for his example and teachings,
and also for the path he marked for us:
a path that pursues peace, love, and hospitality
towards friend and stranger alike.

We give you thanks for the love you have for us,
a love that is self-sacrificing,
a love that is serving,
a love that is without strings attached,
and a love that survives—and even overcomes—death itself.

We give you thanks for the hope we have in you.
Hope that testifies that what was began in Jesus
will find completion in our own lives.
Hope that is certain our own brokenness,

and pain,
and hurt,
and death

can be resurrected,

resuscitated,
revived,
restored,
reconciled,
and renewed.

We love because you first loved us.

Give us the courage to tell of your love,
of your action in our lives—
be it provision or reconciliation,
liberation or welcome—
Help us to tell others why we need you.

Amen.

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The Apple of God’s Eye?

 

Psalm 17:1-9

 

Living Stories

We talk about the Bible being a “living book.” But I wonder sometimes whether we realize what that means.

There’s a piece (in my mind) that is Holy Spirit driven—the Bible continues to speak in powerful ways to each of our lives, today. Unlike some other ancient texts, it transcends time and space to attend to the needs and challenges of this current era. That’s inspiration—happening even now through the work of the Spirit.

But there’s another dimension I see too. There are strong resonances between these ancient stories and our lives. They are our stories, too—told with other names and places, but entirely analogous to what you and I experience each and every day.

In the story of Adam and Eve and the first sin, we find a retelling of every time we choose our own way over God’s way.

In the story of Noah, we see a retelling of every time we think the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we find encouragement that God will be faithful.

In the story of Abraham, we find a retelling of every time we try to force God’s will into being through our own efforts and initiatives.

In Jonah, we have a retelling of every time we try to run away from God.

In Job and Ecclesiastes, we have a retelling of our struggle for answers in the face of senseless tragedy or injustice.

And so on. These stories are our stories. Part of why they have become scripture and Bible is because for so many hundreds and thousands of years they have lived in us—they have spoken the truth of who and how we are, and of what life in the world and with God is genuinely like.

Such is our story for today. In the episodes from the history of ancient Israel that we will look at this morning, we do not read ancient history, but current events.

Reflecting on a nation of God’s favored people, we find application for our own, oft-called “Christian,” nation.

Examining the hearts of ancient people of faith, we find our own hearts—and sin—revealed.

Living stories of a living book coming alive.

Psalm 17

While there’s much in the Psalm that could be applied in this way this morning, I want to focus on two adjacent lines, which have captured my imagination, mediation, and prayer of late: “you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes” (v.7) and “keep me as the apple of your eye” (v.8).

You see, there is a connection between seeking refuge in God, being saved, and being “special.” These elements are interdependent, kind of like our Baptist churches. They are distinct from one another, yet also reliant on one another to form a functional whole.

And yet our propensity—as Baptists and as humans—is to emphasize the individual and neglect the whole; to amplify our independence and silence elements of interdependence. And when this happens, things never go well for us.

When we do seek refuge in God, we are saved, and we feel special. Perhaps, as we read here and other places in the bible, we are special—friends of Christ and children of God.

And yet…… The testimony of scripture is that when we associate too strongly with our specialness—when our whole identity is wrapped up in being “the apple of God’s eye”—when we are most convinced that God is on our side——that is precisely the moment when the bottom falls out, because that is also the moment when we stop actually taking refuge in God. That is the moment when we trust our identity for our protection instead of trusting God. That is the moment when our expectations of God actually become idolatrous.

History of Israel

There are no better illustrations of this than can be found in the history of ancient Israel. As descendants of Abraham, the people of ancient Israel know they are special. They are without a doubt “the apple of God’s eye.” Centuries of covenant relationship have proven to them that God loves them and pays them particular attention.

They were saved out of Egypt.

They were given the Law at Sinai.

Their battles for control of the Promised Land were fought and won by God alone.

For them God raised up righteous leaders—”judges”—to get them out of binds with the Canaanites.

And during generations of kingship, they were protected by God from invading powers.

But they began to think themselves invincible. They began to see God as a totem of protection—a cross to wear around your neck to ward off evil spirits, like the bloody lintels of Passover night in Egypt. As long as they maintained the symbols, they believed they could wield God as a weapon for their protection and benefit. Jerusalem could never fall, because God would never allow it.

Captivity of the Ark

Back in 1Samuel 4, there’s an interesting story along these themes. It’s one of those stories that should have stood as a warning against this kind of thinking to later generations. But like so many of the lessons of the past, we choose to repeat our errors instead of remember and learn from them.

In 1Samuel 4, the Israelites are once again at battle. If you read their story from the beginning, it seems like they’ve been at war for generations now. War appears to be something they’ve gotten good at, from the strategic brilliance of folks like Joshua and Gideon to the mundane brutality of others like Jael or Ehud. The Israelites are a force to be reckoned with, and they have dominated the Philistines for some time. And so, at this point in the biblical story, the Philistines are revolting, trying to escape the destiny of becoming “slaves to the Hebrews,” as we read in v.9 of 1Sam 4.

At the beginning of this chapter, however, a battle is fought, and the ancient Israelites are defeated (v.2)—four thousand Israelites die that day. But defeat doesn’t seem possible—How can they lose with God on their side? They are the people that God favors; it is inconceivable that any human power could triumph over that!!

But then some astute person recognizes a pattern. Patterns are our salvation and damnation. Sometimes patterns show us the rhythms of life that we must recognize to succeed. Other times, such correlation does not equal causation—what we see as a pattern obscures the real causes.

This story is one of the latter times. This astute person realizes that when they carry into battle the Ark of the Covenant—which for the Israelites (and their enemies) was a visible representation of their God—they won. Every time. Never fail.

But when they did not bring the Ark into battle, they did not always win.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? If they bring the Ark into battle every time, they simply can’t lose. All they have to do is bring the Ark into every battle and they will never be defeated.

Except…… this is one of those times where correlation does not equal causation. Bringing the Ark doesn’t lead to victory; trusting God for salvation brings victory. Or, to put it in the terms of Psalm 17, taking refuge in God results in salvation.

The ancient Israelites thought they were the apple of God’s eye, and that God would never allow harm to come to them. But they put their trust in a wooden box instead of into the Creator of the universe, and as a result, 30,000 Israelites died that day, and the Ark itself was captured by the Philistines.

Exile of Judah

Many years later, as the ancient nation of Judah is threatened by foreign powers, it again begins to overemphasize its “special” relationship with God, believing (as I mentioned earlier) that Jerusalem can never fall to a foreign army. After all, God had promised them “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever. And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers” (2Kings 21:7-8).

As a result, they believed they were golden; they were the apple of God’s eye—God’s chosen nation——to quote Psalm 56:11: “what can man do to me?” And so they trusted in their special status. And they trusted in their own political prowess. And they expected—genuinely expected—that nothing bad could or would ever happen.

Of course, they forgot about the second half of that promise: “if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them” (2Kings 21:8).

They remembered the “getting saved” and the “being the apple of God’s eye” part, but they forgot about the “taking refuge in God” part. They forgot that trust needed to be anchored in God, not their status or identity. They forgot that being the apple of God’s eye was a conditional state—favor to be revoked if conditions changed. And changed they did, as Israel took refuge in themselves instead of in God.

Israel’s downfall happened because they thought they were God’s nation and thus could not fall. In doing so, they made their identity into an idol, trusting themselves for their own protection instead of seeking refuge in God.

The Remedy

There is, of course, an easy and obvious remedy. In the words of the psalmist, “take refuge in [God]” (Ps 17:7). Or in the ancient confession of Christianity, live out the commitment that “Jesus is Lord.” The key to continually trusting in God alone for protection is to remember that God and God alone is king. God and God alone is able. God and God alone will save us.

Our allegiance is not to the nation of our residence. We are instructed in Leviticus 25:23 to live as aliens wherever we find ourselves. This is an image Peter develops further for Christians in 1Peter 2, urging us to both “fear God” and “honor the emperor” (v.17).

Our allegiance is not to a president, king, or ruler. The ancient confession that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous confession to make, as it implied that Jesus is lord and Caesar is not. By insisting that we live under God’s watchful eye instead of complying with the government’s demands, many faithful have experienced great suffering and even death, from the time of Daniel on through the present age.

Our allegiance is not to a party or a platform, but to the ethic and life initiated by Jesus Christ, who proclaims “good news to the poor… liberty to the captives…recovering of sight to the blind…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—a Jubilee Year, the year of liberation and forgiveness when everything goes back to the way it was created to be.

As Christians, it has never been our dominance that drew people to Christ. Those drawn by power are those who are always drawn by power, and their purposes have nothing to do with those of the Savior of the world.

Instead, it has been our humble and quiet willingness to suffer for the good news of God’s love that has spread the name of Jesus throughout the world. The cause of Christ has been advanced the most when we genuinely take refuge in God, trusting in God alone for our salvation, whether or not anyone thinks we’re the apple of God’s eye.

Prayer (inspired by Psalm 17)

Hear my prayer, O Lord!

Probe our hearts
examine us and test us
see if there is any evil in mouth and intents.

Where, we ask, have we been bribed by the world?
Where, we pray, have we been implicit in violence against our neighbor?
Where, we implore, have our feet stumbled from your paths?

Remind us of the wonders of your great love.
Remind us of your salvation.
Remind us that you are a refuge from the foes and forces that work against your work of Jubilee.

Shield us from enemies without and within
And make us new again.

Teach us to follow Jesus your Christ. Amen.