Change for Good: Say No More Often - Rev. Louis Timberlake

Change for Good: Say No More Often
Luke 15:1-10
Louis Timberlake
September 11, 2016

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins,[a] if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Dr. Tim Elmore is an author and speaker. He tells a story of his friend Dick Wynn attending a leadership conference with the famous leadership expert Peter Drucker. Dick said that it was an incredible experience, absorbing the wisdom and insights of this management guru. Around the end, with about ten minutes left, Peter Drucker stopped his presentation and told the participants to take out a fresh sheet of paper and use the remaining time to write down everything they planned to do as a result of their time together. Dick said that everyone began frantically writing all of the new ideas and insights that had resulted from this incredible experience. About five minutes into this, Peter Drucker told them to stop. They were confused, but he looked at them, told them to flip their papers over, and begin writing all of the things they planned to stop doing, in order to make room for everything they wanted to start doing. Dick said that he looked around and everyone was just sort of sitting there at first, not writing anything. But it got Peter Drucker’s point across. There’s a trade-off for everything that we do. For everything that takes our time or energy, there’s something else that can’t get that time and energy.

Life is full of trade offs. Even being here this morning is a trade off. It was a trade-off to not sleep in, fix a big breakfast, and stay in your pajamas for half of the day. It was a trade off to not to be on the golf course or a hiking trail this morning. There are some that did go golfing or hiking and their trade off was not being here this morning.

We make trade offs all the time. Do I pour more time into advancing my career, or do I spend more time with family, even if it means I don’t get that promotion? Do I spend all of Saturday or Sunday watching football or do I spend some much-needed quality time with my spouse? Do I binge on Netflix for four hours or do I go exercise, or read a stimulating book, or catch up on work around the house?

At times, the right decision is clear. Making the right decision isn’t necessarily easy, but there’s a clear, better option. At times, it’s not so clear. Sometimes, all possible options seem “good.”

Our lives are a series of decisions--some large, some small--but all are trade offs. When we decide to take one path, we are also deciding not to take another path. And yet, how conscious are we of the trade offs? How often do we stop to consider the paths that are set before us and where they might lead?

I think the biggest question that I ask myself (or need to ask myself), from time to time, is where am I taking a “good” path, but not the best path? Where am I choosing something good, but, as a result, not choosing something significant? Something that is truly worthy of my finite days.

Often, we don’t ask this question until we are forced to ask this question. What is truly significant in life? Often, it takes some monumental, even tragic event to put us on our heels, to force us into a place of perspective. Today, of course, marks the fifteenth anniversary of one of the most tragic days in our country. Today, we are reminded of the frailty of human life, of the presence of evil in our world--in the hearts and actions of fellow human beings. We are reminded that, just as we are frighteningly frail, we are also strong beyond our beliefs. Just as we have the capacity for evil, we have the capacity for tremendous self-sacrifice and courage. And, as much energy as we put into dividing ourselves and opposing each other, we are able and we are a better people when, in the midst of our differences, we come together and celebrate our intrinsic connectedness as human beings and children of God.

That is significant. Not just good, but significant. Worthy of our lives. Unfortunately, we don’t often live out of that kind of perspective.

This question of the good vs the significant is what makes these two parables of Jesus so challenging and so compelling. A pragmatic person will read of a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to find one and think, “that’s an awful decision.” Because, of course, what if the ninety-nine wander off in the shepherd’s absence and he doesn’t even find the one sheep. Then he has no sheep. Part of shepherding means that you’re going to lose one from time to time. In most sectors, a 1% loss is acceptable. A 99% loss is bankruptcy.

And yet, Jesus says it as if it were a foregone conclusion. “Which one of you does not leave the ninety-nine to find the one?” They’re nodding right along with the shepherd analogy. They know all about sheep. But, then he says something that is utter nonsense and, while they’re still trying to figure it out, he launches into another parable. A woman has ten silver coins. That’s a good bit of money for an average person. This is probably the entirety of her savings. So, she loses a tenth of her savings and, understandably, turns the house upside down trying to find it. If you lost a check for tens of thousands of dollars, you wouldn’t give up until you found it. Anyways, she finds it, which is good. But, then she does something that doesn’t make sense--she throws a party. Parties cost money. This is an important reality when your savings are such that losing a single coin is a major problem. The pragmatic person thinks, “I’ve got to come up with a better place to store my money.” But she celebrates by spending her money.

These trade-offs don’t make any sense. These are not wise trade-offs. These are not the practices of a sensible person. But, he’s not really talking about sheep or coins, is he?

The beginning of this passage tells us that that tax collectors and sinners were coming to spend time with Jesus. This upset the religious people–the Pharisees and the scribes. Basically, the unchurched people–the people that didn’t really “belong” in the church–started showing up to church and taking all of the good seats and it upset the church people. And so the church people started talking. “Why is he spending time with those people? Doesn’t he know who they are? What they’ve done?”

“Why would he trade time with good religious people like us for time with a bunch of sinners?”

But, what Jesus is doing is showing them the difference between what is good and what is significant. Those ninety-nine sheep that don’t wander off? Staying with them is good. No one could fault the shepherd for staying with them. It’s a good decision. But, what is significant is the shepherd who will risk everything to save the one.

Sometimes, we have to say “no” to the good, in order to say “yes” to the significant.

Some of the most difficult decisions that we face in life involve saying no to something good. Saying no to something obviously harmful is its own challenge and one that many of us face from time to time. But, the real difficulty comes in trying to figure out when to say “no” to something good, so that we can say “yes” to something else.

It’s a common theme throughout the scriptures. You may know the story of the prophet Samuel, sent out to find the next king of Israel. The first king, Saul, has become a walking disaster. So, God sends Samuel to find a new one. God tells him to invite a man named Jesse, who had eight sons, to bring his sons to see Samuel. When they arrive, Samuel tells Jesse that God has told him that one of Jesse’s sons will be the next king, but he’s not sure which one. So, one by one, Jesse introduces his sons to Samuel. Samuel meets the first son and he is this tall, strong, handsome young man. He looks like a prince. Samuel thinks, “Surely this is him.” But, God says, “It’s not him, don’t pay attention to his appearance.” Jesse brings in the next son. “Now this has got to be him. This is a future king if I’ve ever seen one.” “Nope. Next.” With each son, it’s the same story. Until, finally, there are no more sons. Samuel says to Jesse, “Are these all of your sons?” And Jesse said, “Yes. Well, except for the youngest, David. But he’s still a child. I left him to keep the sheep.” Samuel said, “Well go get him!” And sure enough, when David walked in, God said to Samuel, “This is the one. This is your king.” And King David went on to be one of the most renowned figures in biblical history. The other brothers probably would have made fine kings. But, sometimes you have to say “no” to something good in order to say “yes” to something significant.

Where, for you, does the good get in the way of the significant? Where is saying “yes” to something that isn’t inherently bad preventing you from saying “yes” to something significant?

We are not good at saying “no,” are we? We are conditioned to believe that we can have it all and we can do it all. The problem is, when you try to do everything, you don’t have enough time to do anything well. And, so we stay constantly busy, never really taking the time to consider whether what we’re doing is what we should be doing. And we get tired. And then even the good things don’t really feel that good anymore. And then time goes by and we look back and think, “how much of all of that was truly significant? It seemed good at the time, but was it significant?”

In order to start doing something, chances are you have to stop doing something. In order to say “yes” to something, you have to say “no” to something. Where do you need to say “no” to the good, so that you can say “yes” to the significant? 

Consider this question this week. Talk about it with someone else. And then make a change in your life. Where do you need to say “no” to the good, so that you can say “yes” to the significant?

Thom Rainer is the CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources and an active blogger and podcaster. About a month ago, he published research on declining churches. Now, Lifeway is one of the largest Christian resource providers in the world. They have thousands of employees, produce millions of resources, and have connections with countless churches. Rainier wrote that, based on 25 years of studying different churches and literally writing books on the topic of church vitality, the health of a church boils down to one thing. One thing that consistently determines whether a church is thriving or declining. One thing that determines the significance of a church’s ministry.

Thriving churches are outwardly focused and declining churches are inwardly focused.

It’s that simple. Millions of books have been written on church growth and church vitality. But it really comes down to that one thing. Is your focus outside the walls or inside the walls? That’s where significant ministry finds life. This doesn’t mean that there should be no inward focus. You need both. But the vitality of the church hinges upon an outward focus.

Why is that? Why isn’t it enough to just focus on our needs? Well, this passage tells us why. It’s because Jesus’ focus is outside the walls. Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to go after the one. Jesus says “no” to hanging out with the religious people, so that he can say “yes” to spending time with the sinners, the tax collectors, those that others looked down upon. Jesus says “no” to the good, so that he can say “yes” to the significant.

We don’t just need to say “no” in our personal lives, so that we can say “yes” to other things. Sometimes, we need to say “no” as a church to some things that seem good, so that we can say “yes” to the things that are significant. Life is full of trade offs. Being the church means making trade offs. So, may we make the right trade offs. May we make the trade offs that Jesus makes. And may our ministry be significant.

Discussion Guide for September 11: Say No More Often

  1. Share how you try to set priorities in your life.
  2. Share something to which you need to say “no” in your life.
  3. Share what you’d like to be able to say “yes” to more often.
  4. Share how you plan to change for good by resetting your priorities.