Life UNDER God

This is the first of five sermons I’m delivering based on the insights I’ve gained from reading Sky Jethani’s book WITH, Reimaging The Way You Relate to God.

Jethani’s book has really impacted my life and ministry so I thought I’d share the series with you. Again, I give credit to Skye Jethani for the concepts in this series and recommend his book.

Life WITH God
Part 1
Does God Like Me? Life UNDER God
Based on Matthew 11:28-30
Inspired by (and with credit to) the book With by Skye Jethani
Delivered on November 3 & 4, 2012

I prayerfully consider what books to buy and read, for three reasons. First, reading a book will require 20 or more hours of my lifetime. Second, it will undoubtedly have an influence and effect on my life, and I want that to be a positive, God-glorifying effect. Third, because a book will have an effect my life it will have an effect on what I preach, and it will hopefully have an effect on you as you listen to (or read) the message.

A book that has greatly affected my life and walk with God in the last few months has been With, Reimaging the Way You Relate to God, by Skye Jethani. Jethani is the editor of Leadership Journal, a publication of Christianity Today. I read most of the book while I was on my summer study leave at a monastery in Iowa. It was during the heat wave of the summer. As I read the book, sweated, walked and prayed, sweated, read some more of the book, sweated, and walked and prayed, I was being greatly affected by the book’s message.

One marvelous privilege of being your pastor and spiritual leader is that I get to invite you to follow me on my spiritual journey. Ever since I read the book With, Reimaging the Way You Relate to God, I’ve looked forward to sharing what I’ve rediscovered about how to walk with God.

Let me be clear: this sermon series is based on God’s Word, the Bible, and the truth contained therein. However, Jethani’s book brings clarity to a key aspect of God’s Word and His Truth. Therefore, at the outset of this series I express my indebtedness to Jethani and his book in helping me to better understand what life with God is supposed to be like.

If you, like me, have sought to be a follower of Jesus for some time, I believe that you too will gain a fresh grasp on how to follow Jesus in the best possible way. Those of you who are new to the faith, or maybe still exploring and seeking, will find that by grasping the truth of what we’re going to look at, and implementing it, you’ll advance past “GO” in the game of life in Christ and be way ahead in this game of all games.

Our Posture and Position with God

We’re going to affirm that there are wrong ways and a right way to look at our relationship with God. Skye Jethani used five words to help us understand what the Bible reveals about life with God. The five words are what we call prepositions. Here you have to remember a basic lesson from your elementary years in school about what prepositions are: they indicate a relationship or position between two words, ideas, or things. The five words, or prepositions, that we’re going to focus on regarding the way we relate to God are UNDER, OVER, FROM, FOR, and WITH. Prepositions relate one thing in a sentence to something else in a sentence. A preposition specifies a relationship, and Skye Jethani suggests that these five prepositions are positions we can have in relation to God. We’re going to look at life UNDER God, OVER God, FROM God, FOR God, and WITH God.

Again, the first four ways of relating to God are far from the best ways to relate to Him, yet many people use them all the time. We’re going to look at each of these four far-from-ideal ways of relating to God — one way in each message — and conclude with the fifth message focusing on the right way to relate Him: to be WITH God. However, I can’t wait until the last message to give you the proper way to relate to God, so we’ll end each message with a resounding affirmation that of all the positions the best way to relate to God is to be WITH God. Let’s begin by looking at Life UNDER God.

Appeasing the Gods

Our daughter Julie and her family live on a mountainside south of Mexico City, within twenty miles of the volcano Popocatepetl, often called Popo for short. In ancient times the Aztec Indians would make sacrifices near Popo to the volcano gods to appease them. They believed that they were under the control and influence of the gods, so they sought to influence and control the gods by various sacrifices.

Small shrines made in the shape of Popo have been found with crudely-carved human heads on top. The Aztecs would stoke a small fire under these shrines so that they would smoke like Popo. It was their effort to appease the gods and make the gods like them. That sounds silly, but much the same thing was done by people in Jesus’ day.

Life under God’s Yoke

The scribes and Pharisees had studied the Torah — the Law of God, the first five books of our Bible — in great detail. They decided that it contained 613 laws; 248 were positive and 365 were negative. Then they came up with rules and regulations that would keep people from breaking those 613 laws. Those rules and regulations became known as the “tradition of the elders” and were considered to be as much the laws of God as the laws themselves. This, of course, was a real burden for anyone to bear. It was like a yoke that beasts of burden wore when pulling a heavy load. It was how they kept God happy and pleased with them. Of course they never knew when they had done enough to keep on the good side of God and to keep His blessings coming.

That’s life UNDER God, living under His control and trying to keep Him happy. It’s not just the Aztec Indians around Popo or the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time who did that. We fall into the trap of living UNDER God today. What’s a common response that we make when things go wrong? We often ask, presumably addressing the question to God Himself, “What did I do to deserve this?” When things go wrong we can easily believe that we’re being punished by God because He’s mad at us. When things are going reasonably well, we think that God must be pleased with us because He’s blessing us.

However. that doesn’t always seem to add up. For example, parents might really try their best to raise their children in the ways of the Lord, but one or more of the children rebel. The parents may have claimed the verse that states, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) However, one needs to remember that that verse is found in the Bible in the book of Proverbs. It’s a proverb, which means that it’s a summary of something that more often than not is true. It’s a proverb, not a promise. Raising a child right doesn’t guarantee that they’ll turn out right.

I’ve seen a number of cases where soon after a person turns his life over to Christ he’s hit with a serious health issue. Sometimes the illness leads to much suffering and even death.

A young person takes a vow before the Lord to remain sexually pure until marriage, and does that, but their mate, because of a previous lifestyle contrary to the Lord’s will, gives a sexually transmitted disease to the innocent mate.

Just because we seek to serve the Lord and please Him, it doesn’t guarantee that life will turn out the way we’d like. We can try to live by the rules of God or perform rituals for God – rituals such as worship, Communion, Bible reading, and prayer – in order to manipulate God into doing our bidding. Trying to appease and control God by following rules and rituals is similar to trying to control a radio-controlled toy with the two joysticks on the transmitter unit. We think that we can get joy by controlling the joysticks of rules and rituals. The reality is that God doesn’t play by such rules!

The result in some cases is deep and profound disappointment and disillusionment with God. Well-known pastor Matt Chandler, according to Skye Jethani, gives that as a major reason for youth being “de-churched.” Youth see the promises being made by Sunday school teachers, pastors, and parents that if you abide by God’s standards life will be good. Sometimes it’s not good, and the youth don’t know what they should believe — so they stop believing.

Even if we don’t stop believing, if we live with this performance-based relationship with God we’re always going to wonder whether we’re doing enough to please Him. When things go bad, we often doubt that we’re doing enough. Such a faith results in fear that we’re not pleasing God — or appeasing Him — enough. Then there’s no place for God’s grace in our relationship with Him — and His grace is what it’s all about.

Getting Out from Under Life with God

Let’s go back to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who carried, and asked others to carry, the heavy burden, or yoke, of trying to please God. Jesus said — and this is amazing — “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Jesus was saying that instead of focusing on burdensome rules and rituals — a heavy yoke indeed — we should take upon ourselves the burden of being with Him, in His yoke with Him, because He’s gentle and humble. We’ll find it restful, because His yoke is easy and light! Jesus invites us to be with Him in His yoke: WITH Him! Jesus’ call to us is always and foremost a call to be with Him! It’s a relationship, a closeness, an intimacy.

Does that mean that rules (seeking to do what’s right and good and godly) and rituals (such as worshiping, reading the Bible, and praying) aren’t important? Not at all. They’re very important, but we shouldn’t do them so that God will accept us; we should do them because we’ve responded to His love, grace, and mercy. We do them because He does accept us! We seek to please Him because He has already extended to us His love, grace, and forgiveness! Our response of living for Him isn’t a duty; it’s a delight!

When we follow Jesus we aren’t guaranteed that everything that happens to us will be good. However, we’re always guaranteed the joy that comes from being with Jesus, no matter what’s happening!

We aren’t called to live under the burden of trying to appease God and manipulate Him so that we can get good things. God is the good thing! Give up the burden of trying to live UNDER God, and accept the blessing of living WITH God!