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    The Wisdom to Know the Difference

    Sabbath Day Sermon, Saturday 19 May 2001

    Many years ago when I was visiting Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), I saw, hanging on the wall of a safari shop, a brass plate partially framed in wood. It caught my eye, and although it had nothing to do with the country I was visiting, I felt compelled to buy it. I bought one or two other momentos of that visit but only this one survives. I have always had it near where I work because the message it bears is timeless - one of those jewels of wisdom that never perishes. It's not in the Bible - even though the bible teaches similar things - but was written many centuries ago by a Catholic monk whom history has made famous because of his love of animals:

    Grant me the Serenity to accept
    The things I cannot change,
    Courage to change the things I can,

    Over the years I have come to better appreciate the meaning of the words of this wise man, though I did not fully understand them in the beginning.

    Young people are full of idealism. They see many injustices in the world and a passion is kindled within them to do something about them. I remember as a student being bewildered, upon starting my first term at Oxford, by all the different student organisations and clubs there were. Shortly after arriving at Oxford we took a tour around the Examination Schools which, for that day, had been taken over by hundreds of groups with their own tables, chairs, banners and posters. This annual event was called "Fresher's Fair", a "fresher" being a new member of the university. And it was certainly a fair as the different societies recruited for their organisations, trying to get the freshers to part with a few pounds to buy an annual subscription. There were political groups, religious groups, cultural groups, collectors' groups, philosophical groups, outdoor sports groups, indoor sports groups, animal rights activists, people from Green Peace, CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Amnesty International, etc.. In the end I just joined the Chess Club as I didn't particularly feel like committing myself to anything more just then.

    Over the years I was at Oxford I attended many different organisations. In many of these the students involved fervently campaigned for a better world, each with different ideas as to how best to do it. I remember one disruptive term when various political groups organised demonstrations and sometimes they clashed, forcing the university police to step in. Each passionately believed in his way of changing things and in the end resorted to violence. The one and only time I ever went on a student demonstration march was to protest against their groups disturbing the peace of the university and town. They were so absorbed in their ideological beliefs and struggles that many of them spent very little time doing what they were there for: study.

    One man I knew and befriended was a passionate communist. He loathed capitalism, the banking system, the West, religion, and anything non-communist. He would sing communist songs in the shower next to my room and I would sing anti-Communist ones back. We had a lot of laughs. What happened to that dedicated socialist? Today he is a bank manager! His politics changed radically from left to right. I think it was Winston Churchill who once very wisely said: "If by the time you're in your 20's you're not a socialist, you haven't any heart; if by the time you're in your 20's and you aren't a conservative, you haven't any brains!"

    Now some very idealistic people may be horrified that anyone would change his views in such a radical way and yet, you know, this behaviour is very normal. The apostle Paul knew all about this particular phenomenon and was concerned for young people, knowing how passionate and irrational they could sometimes be. He, and the other apostles, reminded their readers that God never changed - he is stable, and not subject to the changing feelings and thinking of fallen man.

    I had my dreams when I was young - grand ambitions, which changed many times over the years. One by one I realised that they were not realistic and so quietly let them die. Finding what God's will for my life was took time, especially as I did not find God until I was in my early 20's. Even now things I thought were what I should be doing turned out not to be.

    The fire of youth is spellbinding, hypnotising. There is something exciting about bubbling energy. And indeed such energy can be used for much good. But equally it may be misdirected and take the soul mesmerised by it into very dangerous waters. The apostle Paul warned: "Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart" (2 Tim. 2:22, NIV). That's pretty strong language, but then Paul was not one to mince his words - it he saw a danger, he warned people about it. But he never condemned something that was wrong without also giving a corrective - without pointing the true path to go: "Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels" (v.23). Of course, if people simply used God's word as their source of truth we would never need to quarrel. Indeed, Paul adds: "And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth: and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will." (v.24-26).

    I have, over the last two days, been counselling a marriage that has been breaking up. The husband and wife have each turned to different ministers for support and there are currently two sides in a pitched battle, with neither willing to calm down and talk things out. I told the wife that I wasn't at this stage interested in who was right or wrong but in whether they could find love, grace and peace in the Lord first, since both claimed to be Christians. Without that, proving who was right or wrong was utterly meaningless since, as the adage goes, "He who is convinced against his will, remains unconvinced still." I read some of the emails the couple had exchanged and was shocked at its vulgarity. So I told them that so long as they behaved in such a Christ-dishonouring way that God would not bless them. First they would have to find the love of God in their hearts. Because without that, there can never be any communication.

    The first piece of advice that that Francis of Assisi gave to himself was: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." The word 'serenity' means 'peace'. As you grow older you soon realise that no matter how idealistic or energetic you are, there are some things you can never change. Evil has been in this world since Satan started talking through the serpent, and evil will remain here until Christ returns and establishes His own reign of righteousness. Many noble men and women have, throughout the centuries, tried to build Utopia - an ideal city or nation, where only goodness exists and evil is banished. Back in the 1400's Sir Thomas More wrote a book called "Utopia" which was a reaction against the abuses Catholic Church in which he spelled out his vision of a happier world. His dream never came to pass. The Pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower to found Puritan colonies similarly had lofty dreams of an earthly utopia and met with a degree of success at first but eventually failed. The society they formed, which eventually became the United States, is one of the most wicked and immoral countries on earth today.

    As you study history and the noble ambitions of men, you soon discover that utopia cannot be built here, even though there have been many projects which showed signs of promise. And the reason such projects always fail is because in order to have a perfect society you first need perfect men and women. And these simply don't exist.

    It is possible to lose a lot of sleep, get agitated, and possibly very depressed thinking about the world and how we would like it to be and yet knowing that in reality we aren't going to make much difference in terms of creating utopias. Virtually every utopia degenerated into naked evil because man is simply unequipped to handle power and influence for any length of time. Humans are soon puffed up in vanity and before long are exploiting the people they once thought of helping.

    Francis of Assisi wanted us to understand this reality for our own inner peace. What he was saying, in effect, was: don't burn yourself out worrying about or striving to do the impossible. Be realistic. And even more important, learn to accept that you are limited and powerless on such a scale. But he didn't leave it at that - he also said that we should have the "courage to change the things we can".

    The problem is we are usually so blind - especially when we are young - that the things we think we can change we can't, and the things we think we can't change, we can. Francis ended his prayer by saying, therefore: "And Wisdom to know the difference".

    I know may fine people who are involved in politics because they want to make the world - or at least their place - a better one to live in. And yet inspire of all their hard efforts, what kind of a world do we live in today? What small improvements have been made here and there like, for example, eliminating extreme poverty, have been overshadowed by the tidal wave of violence that has swept everywhere. I was only reading in the newspaper the other day of a helpless old man who was set upon by thugs and mercilessly beaten up by them - they in fact crushed his face completely on one side. As a friend of mine in Oxford once said: "Clear one slum, and two more take their place." And it is true.

    Only the other day a friend in America sent me an article about how some good people made up their minds to clear up some slums in the Harlem quarter of New York and to give the poor people there decent housing accommodation. So they bulldozed the slums and built beautiful apartment blocks with every possible convenience to make life better for these people. But what did the people do? They defaced the walls, urinated in the corridors, and turned the blocks into centres for crime.

    There are many things we can change in the world but the chances are our work will be destroyed by someone else later. What, then, can we change? Better still, what, then, should we change?

    A great Chinese philosopher knew exactly where all change had to start. He knew that politics without religion is worse than useless. If you want to stop being hit by bullets by someone firing at you, it's a waste of time building a lead suit and letting him take pot shots at you for ever. The only solution is to disarm him by going to the problem's source. This philosopher said:

    If there is righteousness in the heart,
    there will be beauty in the character;
    If there is beauty in the character,
    there will be harmony in the home.
    If there is harmony in the home,
    there will be order in the nation;
    When there is order in each nation,
    there will be peace in the world.

    The solution to the worlds problems starts with me and you. It must begin in our hearts. When a heart is pure, beautiful character results - kindness, gracious words, thoughtful actions, to name but three. Such things radiate out of a person and affect everything around them for good. But they don't necessarily change other people, a problem that all philosophers have wrestled with. Many have realised that to change a person from within, supernatural activity is required.

    That such change is possible we know because the man, Yah'shua (Jesus) accomplished it. His was the only unflawed human life ever. So pure was His influence that even non-Christians are often attracted to His teachings. I had a Buddhist friend in Oxford University who regularly read the Gospel of John because he was so attracted by the purity of Christ's life. A couple of weeks ago I met a Muslim who read the New Testament inspire of what his religion teaches about that book, because he saw in Yah'shua (Jesus) someone to look up do. There's a British socialist politician, who I believe is still alive, who had a terrible reputation amongst the Conservatives for his radical and sometimes pithy language, and though he did not believe in Yah'shua (Jesus) as the Son of God, he looked up to Him as the kind of man that society needs. There is something about Christ that attracts nearly all but the deepest sinners because even though they often reject His claims as the Son of God they can at least see that here was a man who had such beauty of character. Most people would probably say that He was a very good man. There was simply no evil about Him. But the problems begin when we try to explain why and how He was so good.

    The goodness of Yah'shua (Jesus) can never be understood until we accept three vitally important facts about Him:

      1. He was God incarnate;
      2. His death was not a parable of divine love but God's unique remedy for sin; and
      3. He rose again from the dead on the third day as the Scriptures testify.

    We can never understand the beauty of Christ's character until we have perceived that the reason He was so pure and good was because He was, and is, God. What this means is that the beauty of character we so often wish to emulate cannot come naturally from man himself, but only supernaturally through God.

    Now how can this help us? Well, for one thing, God became a man to show us what was in actual fact possible ... not in our own strength, but in His. Yah'shua (Jesus) was both God and man and was able to demonstrate that when man and God are linked together, the kind of utopia that all decent people want can be achieved. But only in the Lord's own way and in His own time.

    One or two of you here may have heard of the great British reporter and television and radio broadcaster, Malcolm Muggeridge, who was a a devout Christian and wrote a book called, Jesus: The Man Who Lives. It took him a long time to understand what Christianity really was, but when he did, it was as a bold of revelation out of heaven. He wrote: "I never knew what joy was until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden (indebted) to Jesus" (Fontana, 1976, p.121).

    He went on to say: "All earthly joys, even the homely ones of human love and work and companionship, pale into insignificance compared with this other joy that Jesus pre-eminently brought into the world, of escaping into reality from the fantasies of the will and the appetites where everything is upside-down and the wrong way round..." (p.122).

    People want the goodness, the purity, the beauty and the joy they see in the man Yah'shua (Jesus) but refuse to accept that in order to obtain it they must see beyond the man and into the face of God. For that which made the man Yah'shua (Jesus) all of these desirable things was not some latent quality in man himself but the infinite power of goodness which comes from God Himself, and which can come to us, and be revealed in us, when we accept the God-Man Yah'shua (Jesus) into our lives. And to do that, we must first accept Yah'shua (Jesus) (1) was more than a good man but God incarnate; (2) is the only remedy for that which is keeping us out of heaven, sin; and (3) that He physically rose again from the dead and is eternally live to intercede on behalf of those who trust and obey Him.

    Yah'shua (Jesus) is not, moreover, something "new". He was always present even before He came, and is mentioned many times by name even in the Old Testament. When someone accepts Him as Lord and Saviour, it is not the first time they have met Him. The Russian writer Tolstoy wrote:

      "An idea comes close to you only when you are aware of it in your soul, when in reading about it it seems to you that it has already occurred to you, that you know it and are simply recalling it. That's how it was when I read the Gospels. In the Gospels I discovered a new world: I had not supposed that there was such depth of thought in them. Yet it all seemed so familiar; it seemed that I had known it all along, that I had only forgotten it" (Bulgakov's Diary, 18 April 1910).

    To know Yah'shua is not to have a mental picture of him or even recall His sayings. To know Him, as Tolstoy said, is to be aware of His presence - a presence which fills your soul with beauty and which in turn causes you to reflect that beauty in all your deeds. It brings with it serenity - peace - and a comfortable assurance that all God expects us to do is to change the things we can, and to do so with courage, and not confuse those with the things we cannot.

    The one who knows and loves God reflects God in his personality, giving assurance, comfort and peace to all those who approach him. Such a person is whole. But a soul which is restless and cannot find repose is a soul that has somehow, and in some way, not found Christ, or lost Him, because he has been too occupied with the things that are beyond his reach and which were never supposed to be in his reach in the first place. Always, always, God places before us things we are supposed to touch because they are near. To manifest that beauty of Christ is to reach out and touch that which is near and to leave your blessing upon it by emptying yourself into it. And so, when God opens a door for you, don't retract in fear, but pass through it in confidence, knowing that's its proximity to your soul was purposeful, especially if that door leads to good and beautiful things.

    And finally, of Francis' prayer I will say one more thing, and that is how he not only anticipated but verily expected change. We are to have courage to change not only the circumstances of others by loving and serving them, but change our own circumstances too.

    May this unsurpassable beauty of Christ shine from us as He desires it to, by realising, as Malcolm Muggeridge did, that true joy is not an expression of our own will realised but in simply walking in His. Amen.

    This page was created on 1 July 2001
    Last updated on 1 July

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