MAY 3, 2015

Rev. Dr. Richard C. Meyer

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            For better or for worse, we are creatures of habit.  Not to pick on my wife, because I have done the same thing, but a week ago she told me that she was driving east on the West Dodge Expressway, and missed the 156th Street turnoff.  Why?  Well for the previous fourteen and a half years, her office was near 114th and Dodge Streets. Now her office is at 159th and Dodge, but for fourteen and a half years it was on 114th and Dodge, and for all those years she would take the West Dodge Expressway all the way to the 120th Street off ramp.  So ten days ago, while on her way to her new office on 159th and Dodge, she blew by the 156th Street on ramp.

            Have you ever done that?  Have you ever driven by a place out of sheer habit?

            A habit is simply a grooved pattern of behavior. Some are very good habits to have, like walking on a treadmill each evening as we watch the news, or coming to worship every week. Some are not so good habits, like smoking cigarettes or eating a bowl of Ben & Jerrys ice cream just before bedtime.

            One reason that professional golfers practice so much is that they are trying to groove their swing. There is such a thing as muscle memory. If we repeat an action often enough, our muscles can do it almost automatically. That principle seems to work  better for professional golfers, however, than amateur golfers.  Countless hours on the driving range never seemed to do me much good.

            And while golf is a fun activity, it is even more important to groove our character. In other words, we can harness the power of habit in our spiritual development. Lets turn to the words of the Apostle Paul this morning.  Take out your bible and turn to I Timothy chapter four, the sixth verse.  If you are using the pew bible rather than your own bible this morning, its on page 964.

            Now, as you turn to that passage, let me say that what we are about to read is a little different in that, this letter of Pauls is written to an individual, rather than a church.  Four of Pauls personal letters wound up in the New Testament, one to Philemon, one to Titus and two to Timothy. Timothy was a young man whom Paul was grooming to step into his shoes as The Apostle to the Gentiles.  Timothy was much younger than Paul, some twenty to twenty-five years his junior, and Paul had left Timothy behind in Ephesus to watch over the church.  They had travelled to Ephesus together on one of their missionary journeys, and Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to further instruct this infant church in Christian doctrine and discipleship. Paul, himself, went on to Macedonia to further spread the gospel.  While in Macedonia, Paul pens a letter to his prodigy.  The first of two that wound up in the New Testament.  Lets read a portion of what he has to say to Timothy this morning.  Chapter four, verse six. 


            If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters


            The English does not do the Greek justice.  The Greek word for putting these instructions before the brothers and sisters, is a most suggestive word.  It does not mean to issue orders.  Rather it means to counsel, to advise, to point out, to suggest.  We get an insight here into Pauls preferred manner of teaching.  Timothy is not to issue instructions dogmatically.  He is not to arrogantly lay down the law.  He is to instruct the Ephesians with gentleness and humility.

            Lets continue on


            If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed.  Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives tales. Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training  is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.


            Train yourself in godliness. The Apostle Paul often used athletic metaphors and figures of speech. Later on in this letter he will encourage Timothy to fight the good fight of faith (6:12). In his second letter Paul talks about finishing the race (II Timothy 4:7) In his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes about track and field, and about laurel wreaths awarded to winners, and he encourages the Corinthians to run the race of faith in such a way that they may win it and win an imperishable wreath from God rather than a perishable wreath (I Corinthians 9:24-27).

            With all his racing metaphors I suspect Paul was a big fan of track and field.  I suspect that if someone had approached St. Paul and said, Ill race you to that sycamore tree over there, he would have heisted up his robe and have taken up the challenge.

            In fact, some scholars believe it was a track meet that brought Paul to Corinth in 51 AD, specifically the Isthmian Games.  An isthmus, you remember, is a narrow strip of land with a sea on either side, and Corinth was located on an isthmus, and the Greeks held the Isthmian Games there. The Isthmian Games were held both the year before and the year after the Olympic Games while the Pythian Games were held in the third year of the Olympiad cycle.

            Of course, this may have not been the primary reason he travelled to Corinth in the Spring of 51 A.D. He went because there was a Jewish community there, and he went because Corinth was the major east-west maritime trade route, a strategic place to be, but he also went because in the spring of 51 AD a number of people would have been in Corinth for the Isthmian Games. This would have provided a golden opportunity for Paul and his traveling companions to reach more people with the gospel.[2]

            And in verse eight, the Apostle Paul the sports nut acknowledges that physical exercise is a good thing, but he says spiritual training in godliness is much better. Why? Because physical training can help only during our lifespan on earth whereas the value of spiritual training will carry over into eternity. Each of our godly grooves, our godly habits, will have eternal importance.

            This morning, as we continue our Spring Cleaning sermon series, I want us to ponder some of the good and some of the not so good grooves, some of good and not so good habits, that impact our well-being.  I propose we weed out the bad habits and begin grooving more godly habits. 

            In so doing, I want to first acknowledge the challenge.  That is to say, I know this wont be easy. I think of a teacher and his pupil, who took a walk through a forest. Suddenly the teacher stopped and pointed to four plants close at hand. The first was just beginning to peep above the ground, the second had rooted itself pretty well into the earth, the third was a small shrub, while the fourth was a full-sized tree. The tutor said to his young companion, Pull up the first plant. The boy did so eagerly, using only his fingers. 

            Now pull up the second. The youth obeyed but found the task more difficult.

            Do the same with the third, he urged. The boy had to use all his strength to uproot it. 

            Now, said the instructor, try your hand with the fourth. The pupil put his arms Go around the trunk of the tall tree and couldn't even shake its leaves.

            The teacher said, This, my son, is just what happens with our bad habits. When they are young, we can remove them readily; but when they are old, it's hard to uproot them, though we pray and struggle ever so sincerely." 

            Some of our less than stellar habits will be difficult to uproot.  They are well grooved.  We have been practicing these poor habits for years.  So, I know it wont be easy.

            On the heels of that statement, however, I want to say, it may not be easy, put it is possible.  As the Apostle Paul said, and by the way, this is one of my top ten verses I say to myself when I need to refocus my thinking.  Remember that assignment from a couple of weeks ago when we talked about cleaning up our thought life?  Remember one of the suggestions was to come up with a top ten list of scriptures, to help us refocus our thinking in a more positive light?  How many of you have done that?  How many of you have your top ten list?  How many promise to put together the list this week? Well, one of verses on my list, comes from the Apostle Paul, when he said, I can do all thing in Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13). 

            Barry Gastrock and I went to a church growth conference a couple of weeks ago in Lincoln.  One of the speakers was a Methodist clergy person named William Willimon.  I was a little anxious about listening to Willimon speak.  I had read a number of his books, and I didnt want to be disappointed by hearing him in person.  He has been one of my spiritual heroes and I hoped he would be as good of a speaker as he is a writer, and he was.  He did not disappoint.

            Anyway, years ago Willimon wrote a story that appeared in a periodical, the Pulpit Digest.  He told the story of some investigative reporting by a man named Philip Haille.

            Haille wrote of the little village of Le Chambon in France, a town whose people, unlike others in France, hid their Jews from the Nazis. Haille went there, wondering what sort of courageous, ethical heroes could risk all to do such extraordinary good. He interviewed people in the village and was overwhelmed by the ordinariness. They weren't heroes or smart, discerning people. Haille decided that the one factor that united them was their attendance, Sunday after Sunday, at their little church, where they heard the sermons of Pastor Trochme. Over time, they became by habit people who just knew what to do. When it came time for them to be courageous, the day the Nazis came to town, they quietly did what was right. One old woman, who faked a heart attack when the Nazis came to search her house, later said, 'Pastor always taught us that there comes a time in every life when a person is asked to do something for Jesus. When our time came, we knew what to do.

            I suspect we each know a harassing habit or two we need to uproot in our lives. As we continue our spiritual spring cleaning, lets not go overboard.  Lets simply identify one habit we need to weed out and begin work on uprooting that habit from our lives.  Lets begin some spiritual training in godliness and remember,  We can do all things in Christ who strengthens us. 

            Lets stand and sing and prepare to come to the Lords table.

[1] Introduction adapted from Holy Habits a sermon by Bill Bouknight.    

[2]Going for the Gold: the Apostle Paul and the Isthmian Games,