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We’ve come to the point in our series on outward focused lives where we consider how in the world we can change our natural default setting. From a life that’s “all about me” to a life that “considers the needs of others above our own.”
A reminder of our primary source text – one of the first writings in history to recommend this approach to life, in fact:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something
to be used to his own advantage;
rather he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant...
from Philippians 2:1-11
Paul (formerly Saul) of Tarsus
Lets begin by watching this video that we couldn’t see last week, taken by a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005…
THIS IS WATER - By David Foster Wallace from The Glossary on Vimeo.
We’ve examined the research, explored the benefits, talked about some of the essential ingredients. We know that an outward focused life is the way to achieve long term, meaningful success in life. We know that it’s the way to free ourselves from the tyranny of petty emotion and the gerbil wheel of trivial pursuits. We know that outward focused lives are the only kinds of lives that produce deep and lasting satisfactions. The only kind of life that’s contagious enough to fundamentally change the way people relate to one another and even the way we relate to ourselves.
And beyond that, we’ve seen that outward focused lives are the kinds of lives that are faithful to the image of God in us. The kinds of lives that flow from his divine breath, that have his wind at their backs, the kind of lives that cooperate with the restoration and renewal and resurrection he is bringing about in the whole of creation. We’ve seen the example of Jesus, the way he made the noble, humble choice to use his resources, authority, talents, skills, and status for the benefit of others, by lowering himself to serve, in order to raise others up. We’ve been inspired to see that the end result of his outward focused gaze, and compassionate actions, and humble sacrifices was in fact the most extraordinary kind of victory – an elevation of himself and all who follow in his path to glory and the life of the heavens inhabiting every fiber of his being, flowing to everything he touches, like a life-giving King Midas.
All that brings us to here. Where we are today.
We know two things that seem to be in tension with one another.
One, as we talked about last week, is that our default wiring is to help. If we attend to the other. In other words, if we can have what David Foster Wallace calls “awareness” or what Paul calls “Looking to the needs of others”, there are all kinds of things within us that are activated and lead us naturally into well-lived human lives, the kinds of life that give and bring life to us and others.
But the other thing is what David Foster Wallace warned about:
Our natural default setting: The automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
This default setting is the very thing that keeps our default “helping” wiring from doing us or anyone else any good.
Unless, of course, we can change it.
Anyone who has tried knows that this is easier said than done. On our own, in fact, it might be impossible. No matter how much choosing we do, how much of our wills we engage in the process. We might succeed in fits and starts, for periods of time. But what we really, desperately need, is help. And preferably, the best kind of help, help from heaven, from the one Paul suggests we’d do well to emulate and imitate. Jesus, Christ, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…
Wouldn’t it be great if he would help? Maybe if he’d come alongside of us, put a little divine breath in our lungs, some divine wind in our sails?
That’s what Pentecost is all about.
A new expectation leading to an empowered life.
Pentecost is a story about Jesus’ disciples waiting for him to show up with help for the mission he’d commissioned them on. After his resurrection, he appeared in a locked room, where they were hiding out in fear (if that’s not a picture of an “it’s all about me” life, I don’t know what is). He said “Peace be with you.” Said to them, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” And then breathed on them, saying “Receive my Holy Spirit.” Then, after hanging out with them for a while longer, told them that they were to wait in Jerusalem until his Holy Spirit arrived to assist them in their mission to carry his resurrection life to every corner of the earth. They ended up waiting until a feast day called “Pentecost,” which was 50 days after his resurrection. Once again they were gathered in a room together, but this room wasn’t locked, and they weren’t afraid, wrapped up in their own anxieties. They were praying, expectant, anticipating that sooner or later, God was going to do something great.
We’re going to look at the story of what happened in a few minutes. The main character is a fisherman named Peter. Pentecost transformed Peter’s life from a life characterized by fear to one filled with expectation, from a life fueled by emotion to one empowered by the Holy Spirit. You might say Pentecost changed Peter’s default setting.
Peter was a lot like us. When he was on his game, he was really on. Walking on water. Boldly answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am” by being the first to suggest that he was in fact God’s son. But he had plenty of downs to go along with his ups, and his downs seemed to follow a pattern. The pattern of someone showing symptoms of operating in his natural default setting.
Peter had a history as someone who lived fearing the worst, trying to take things into his own hands, and responding emotionally in pressure situations.
When Jesus wanted to go to Jerusalem, Peter tried to stop him for fear Jesus was going to be killed there. (The fact that Peter was right isn’t the relevant bit.) Jesus – because he wasn’t focused on himself, but instead was focused on God and pointed towards others - had an expectation that God’s power would be demonstrated when he went to Jerusalem – an expectation that Peter lacked. When Jesus was being arrested in Gethsemane, Peter tried to fight, pulling out his sword and lopping off a guard’s ear. Jesus expected it was God’s power that would win the day – an expectation that Peter lacked, because again, Peter figured it all came down to him, figured that he’d better take things into his own hands. Jesus, on the other hand, focused on God, pointed towards others, sees the man’s distress, expects God wants to make it right, and heals his ear. When quizzed about his association with Jesus while Jesus was on trial, Peter denied knowing him because he was afraid of what the authorities would do to him if they found out. Jesus understood that the only authority that ultimately matters is God’s authority – an understanding that Peter hadn’t yet experienced. Peter and Jesus, in other words, had different default settings.
What was wrong with Peter? He’d seen Jesus’ example. He’d heard Jesus’ teaching. He’d even been discipled, trained by Jesus – hands-on – for years.
Nothing was “wrong” with Peter, necessarily. At least not anything that’s not wrong with all of us.
Peter was just missing something. He lacked the one thing that makes the outward focused life possible in us sin-infected human beings. The one thing that can change our default setting.
Peter lacked that one thing, that is, until Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit a few weeks later, as the feast of Pentecost was being celebrated in Jerusalem. And then everything changed for Peter. And by extension, for the world.
Jesus doesn’t just teach us a new way to be human. Jesus doesn’t just model a new way of living for us. Jesus comes to dwell within us through his Holy Spirit, empowering us to live his kind of life, to do the same kinds of things he did, with the same get off your butt compassion, the same heaven drenched vision of the world around us, the same life giving power, the same freedom granting authority.
Once, the bible describes Jesus as “the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead.” Which we understand of course to mean that his resurrection is just the first of many – that we too will be raised from the dead when he returns again. Pentecost, in a sense, is when the resurrection begins at a deeper level. A kind of waking up of human lives, anticipating the resurrection.
Here the students of Jesus are expectantly waiting. No striving, no people pleasing, no frantic efforts to fulfill the great commission out of anxiety and worry, or desire to be significant. No giving up and doing their own thing because nothing had happened yet. Just waiting and praying, with expectation, because that was their marching order from Jesus. And as they wait, eyes looking to Jesus, Jesus pours out his Holy Spirit, and all heaven breaks loose.
Acts 2:14-24 (2 clicks)
Peter’s last experience with a crowd had caused him to flee in cowardice and fear. Not this time. Empowered by the Holy Spirit this time, Peter isn’t concerned with what the crowd may do to him, but instead with what he expects God might be doing in the crowd. So he begins to speak what the Holy Spirit puts on his heart to say.
Peter’s sword, wielded by his own power and initiative, had once cut a guard’s ear, to no avail. This time, Peter’s words, wielded by the power of the Holy Spirit and under the Spirit’s initiative, cut the crowd to its heart. Peter’s words had a power and love and authority beyond his own. The Holy Spirit was in him and carried on his every breath.
Acts 3:1-10 (2 clicks)
Looked straight at him. Opens the door for compassion. Gives him a chance to see what God is doing. Had the guy look at them. Wants the guy’s attention, not for his own sake, but for Jesus’ sake.
The guy expects something, something that he really wants (some cash), but so much less than Jesus has for him.
Peter, it seems, expects that something extraordinary is going to happen. Nonetheless, no elaborate, well-rehearsed incantation. No 21 steps to healing a cripple, masters degree level prayer. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk. Gutsy, eh? Spirit empowered compassion, coupled with great expectations – what we might call faith - moved him to do that.
Gives him a hand. Again, simple expectation makes this the natural thing to do. Gives the guy a chance to respond to the Kingdom rushing towards him. But the “instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong” part is all the Holy Spirit. The praise part, that’s the Holy Spirit’s gig. The amazement and wonder generated? The Holy Spirit.
There may be quite a lot we can get from these stories. But let’s at least get this: Outward focused lives fueled by our own misguided desires and lived by our own power are going to end with discouragement and burnout. They’ll become all about us, and destroy us. Looking to ourselves always opens the door to death. But outward focused lives fueled by an expectation of Jesus’ kingdom coming in power and empowered by the Holy Spirit become all about Jesus and bring salvation to many. Looking to Jesus always leads to life.
What if you want what Peter has? How do you get it?
1. Wait & Ask. Start by waiting and asking for the Holy Spirit. At home, in the car, in your bed at night. At work, at your small group, at church. Ask other Christians to lay hands on you and pray for you. Keep asking until you know the Holy Spirit has come. And then keep asking for more!
God wants to give you his Holy Spirit. More than anything else. And his timing for answering will always be perfect. Our job is simple. Asking and waiting.
How will we know he’s come? Jesus didn’t tell the disciples how they would know…but they knew alright. The same will be the case for us.
2. Do a daily gut check. Once the Holy Spirit comes, learn to be sensitive to Jesus’ compassion stirring in you. Look to the interests of others, as we talked about last week, and notice when you get moved. When you do, go with it. With whatever it is Jesus moves you to do or say. Then keep track of the results. You’ll start to learn how the before and after match up. God moved me, I obeyed, God acted, Jesus got glory. Or not. Don’t get discouraged by the mistakes – sometimes we just get it wrong, sometimes we just don’t see God’s power at first even though it’s there.
Always Jesus will be teaching us, because we’re in this together with him. For the glory of his name. For the blessing of his creation. For the freedom and return of the prodigal sons and daughters of our Father in the heavens.
What’s the point of an outward focused life, anyway? Is it to be well liked, to gain the approval of others, to feel good inside about yourself? Never! If that’s the case, outward focused lives are ultimately still about us. Jesus is calling us to live beyond ourselves. Jesus, who died for us, is calling us to live for him. To live for his glory, the fame of his name, the return of lost children to Abba Father’s welcoming embrace, the coming of God’s kingdom to every corner of creation.
[ “That Day” speech by MLK, Jr. ]