Person Holding a Cross

Godly Examples

[I having been posting some fairly old sermons recently, so I thought I post one that is fresh. I preached this one today at Timonium UMC in Timonium, MD.]

Children have a way of pointedly putting the ball in our court to show them Christ. Noted theologian, Rodney Atkins, tells a story around the same theme that I also want to share with you. Let’s watch him tell it:

OK, now I have to apologize for sandbagging you on the theologian thing. Atkins may also be a theologian, although I doubt it, but he’s really a country music star. I’m a fan of country music in part because it is about the only music genre these days outside of Christian music that actually upholds sound values. And this song is one of those. This song is all about the core message for today: as Christians we have to be godly examples for our children, grandchildren, and, really, anyone who wants to know Christ.

I love this song because the prayer that is featured is one that I have to pray way too often: “Lord please help me help my stupid self!” My most frequent variation is “Lord please keep me from embarrassing you!” Honestly, I’ve often wondered what was God thinking when he chose us to represent Christ….people full of self-centeredness, hypocrisy, and just plain sinfulness. Just think about that. Christ relies on people who all too often embarrass him!

I fear that too frequently folks look at Christians who fail to meet the standards they set for others and turn away from Christ for that reason. I know our youth in particular have finely tuned hypocrisy meters that have bells go off at the slightest sign that we are expecting them to do as we say and not as we do. So, if we are to serve the cause of Christ, we must be godly examples and my emphasis is on “being” rather than speaking.  Act boldly, but speak humbly.

Our scripture lessons today from Second Timothy and Titus set forth in great detail what it means to be a godly example to others. There really is just too much meat there for this one short meal, so I am going to commend Titus to your own personal study. I want to spend our time with Paul and Timothy.

The essence of Paul’s message is that it is essential to spiritual faithfulness that individuals follow godly examples. Timothy has had Paul as an example and, if you look back to chapter 1, verse 5, you will see that Paul also mentions Timothy’s mother Eunice and grandmother Lois as godly examples for him. But in encouraging Timothy to follow godly examples, Paul also necessarily is telling us what it means to be a godly example.

Paul established for Timothy three basic criteria for godly examples to follow. In verse 10 Paul emphasizes for Timothy that Paul’s life has been an example for Timothy in contrast to men he has mentioned earlier who strayed from faith. In so doing Paul is emphasizing the critical role that character plays in a godly example. The life and words of a godly example are consistent. The practice and the preaching are the same. That hypocrisy bell should not ring! Paul mentions six key characteristics: conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, and perseverance. Act boldly, but speak humbly.

The next aspect of a godly example that Paul addresses is scriptural grounding. Paul mentions in verse 15 that Timothy was grounded in scripture from infancy, presumably by his mother and grandmother. He goes on to detail in verse 16 how scripture is key to setting forth what it means to be godly. As Paul explains, “all scripture is God-breathed.” Simply stated, we cannot be godly examples if we do not seek God through his Word. If we are not grounded in scripture, it is all too easy to conform our lives to what we think is right than live the life that God intends for us.

Finally, and in my mind the most important of three very important factors, is Paul’s statement in verse 12 that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Now we are at the point where the rubber meets the road. If we are going to be godly examples as Christians, we have to be willing to lead lives that witness to Christ when it is difficult, inconvenient, and stressful. If we are going to be Disciples of Christ, that must mean that we live in him always, not just when it’s easy. If we are going to be Disciples of Christ we will experience pressure from the secular world. Indeed, if we are not feeling secular pressure in one way or another because of our Christian stand and profession, it may be that we are not living out our Christian faith in the eyes of this world. For we will be constantly faced with the temptation to sin and all too often surrender to that temptation. So it is these times of testing, and particularly when we fail, that are the real challenges for us to be examples for others. For how we deal with our failures is part of the example we set.

On Christmas Day, just a few weeks ago, American missionary Robert Park stepped out onto the frozen river between China and North Korea and began walking into North Korea. He did not do so stealthily, but proclaiming the Gospel as he crossed. He knew he would be arrested and left a video behind discouraging rescue. He said he was going to proclaim the Gospel and would stay as an example. He has not been heard from since. Robert Park acted boldly, but spoke humbly. Robert Park is a godly example.

We may not face physical persecution as Robert Park, but we certainly face social pressure, criticism, and sometimes outright exclusion if we stand fast in the name of Christ. We live in passionate times. People seize onto religious, political, and social issues with great fervor. We live in a society where influences and temptations not of God abound. Our children and youth are particularly pressured to turn from Christ and follow a secular path in ways and with frequency that are unprecedented. Even our corporate, educational, and governmental institutions subtly and often openly push them away from faith in Christ.

The Barna Group, an organization that studies faith issues and trends, reports some disturbing fruit that this secular pressure is now bearing. Barna reports that “by an overwhelming margin – 74% to 23% – adults agreed that their religious faith was becoming even more important to them than it used to be as a source of objective and reliable moral guidance.” Well that’s good news right? Hardly. “50% of the adults interviewed agreed that Christianity is no longer the faith that Americans automatically accept as their personal faith.” 82% of people under the age of 25 “said they develop their own combination of beliefs rather than adopt a set proposed by a church.” Barna concludes that even as to professing Christians, “Americans are increasingly comfortable picking and choosing what they deem to be helpful and accurate theological views and have become comfortable discarding the rest of the teachings in the Bible.” And perhaps even more disturbing, Barna reports in a different study that 16-29 year olds are increasingly leaving the church and not returning. One of the major reasons reported by the group is they no longer see Jesus in Christianity.

So where are we in all this? Well, in simplest terms, look about you today. I see a lot of gray hair and not many people under 30. Like it or not, we as a congregation own this problem. And I don’t have any overarching answer or solution. But I will posit one thing we can do. We can commit ourselves to being godly examples for our youth. If they are saying they cannot see Christ in us then that is a serious issue. But I am not certain what that means. Who is the Christ that they seek? The secular world presents Christ as a community activist and focuses on Christ-like behavior, ignoring who he is, why he came, or what it means to live in his Kingdom. Do they seek that Christ or the Christ of the Gospel?

My opinion is that for too long we of the church have been slowly and systematically compromising the Gospel message to accommodate with the secular world’s image of Jesus rather than define Christ in contrast. In a time of heated and attractive passions we have become lukewarm and as a consequence lose appeal. We have allowed the secular world to define what it means to be a Christian. Christians have been characterized as rigid, rule-based, and hypocritical. Sadly, some Christians have lived down to that image by speaking boldly and judgmentally instead humbly as examples of Christ. And all too often our response has been to over-react and compromise the Gospel in an effort to show how really tolerant and accepting we are.

The real message of the Gospel does not compromise with the secular world. It is a message of sinners redeemed in a world that does not want to hear about sin. The secular world wants to declare us to be hypocrites because we sin while proclaiming against sin. They confuse opposition to sin as judgment against sinners and we allow that confusion to succeed because we fail to loudly proclaim that the Gospel is about what Christ can do with and for sinners such as us, not that we are not sinners. Jesus Christ does not ignore our sin, but instead redeems us from it. It is a message of tolerance and grace for sinners but not for sin, and it will always be unpopular to a secular world that wants to accommodate, rather than confront, sin. After all, never forget that the message was so unpopular that it got Jesus crucified! So, if we are to be godly examples for those who seek Christ, we have to start by proclaiming the real Christ, not the caricature that our society tries to present. We must extend Christ’s grace to sinners through our behavior and distinguish between sin and sinners with our words. Act boldly, but speak humbly.

Paul has assured us that the world will stand in opposition to us. If we do not stand passionately in contrast to that opposition how can we define Christ in the face of secular appeals? Our children, youth, and those seeking Christ are watching. How often do others look at us and say, “Oh that’s what it means to be a Disciple of Christ!”? If we are to be godly examples, we cannot be lukewarm about the Gospel and we must be willing to stand for Christ when our society says compromise. We must be lukewarm only to self. The example we set must be as those who allow Christ to transform them and give him the glory.

God chose us to be Christ’s witnesses on earth because we are sinful. That’s the wonder of the Divine Conspiracy. Godly examples are humble redeemed sinners, not the self-proclaimed saints that the world defines as Christians. The secular world wants to focus on our sin and declare us to be hypocrites when we fail to be saints. If we are truly to be godly examples, we have to be honest with ourselves and others about our failures. For Christians fail. But the message is that Christ prevails. That in the midst our failures, Jesus Christ can transform us and still do amazing work through us. Godly examples witness to God’s grace because we experience it, not because we are worthy of it.

If people are saying they do not see Christ in Christians then we have allowed them to look at us instead of Christ. We have allowed them to think that being godly Christians are being perfect in behavior, instead of being perfected in Christ. And when our witness focuses on what we do instead of what Christ does, our failures and compromises inevitably become the focus instead of our brokenness healed through God’s grace in Christ. Submission to Christ is the core characteristic of a godly example. And so to be submitted, godly Christians we really should start with the prayer from Rodney Atkins’ song, “Lord help me help my stupid self.”  So let us pray.

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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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