Red Letter Challenge 4: Serving


The last year I was actively farming, soil and moisture conditions were good when we seeded our crops. We had tested our soil and supplied the seed with the nutrients it would need to produce a good crop. I remember being optimistic that spring and I had lots of hope that we would harvest a good crop in the fall. But that summer was hot and dry, with very little rain. And on the long weekend of August, our wheat crop was 12 inches, or 30 cm, tall and headed out. The heads of the plants contained very little grain. For most of the area of our fields, the crop was so bad that it was not worth harvesting. Only in the low spots where water usually gathered was there any significant amount of grain harvested.  It was a crop disaster.

This happened because of a principle called the First Limiting Resource. What this principle means is that, any living thing will grow towards its maximum  potential until it reaches  the maximum of the First Limiting Resource. Like a car that runs out of gas, an organism cannot grow when it runs out of something it needs. This principle is true for both plants and animals. When I went to Olds College to learn more about agriculture, we spent a lot of time learning how to balance livestock rations and calculate proper fertilizer blends for crops. Our instructors wanted to teach us how to do what we can to be productive farmers. But a farmer can only do so much. In my case, the First Limiting Resource was beyond my control. Would you like to guess what it was? …Water.

This principle is true for human beings as well. For much of human history, and in many parts of the world today, the physical growth of human beings is capped by whichever resource they run out of first. You can go about three weeks without food, but you will likely last only three days without water. We live in a corner of the world and during a time when most of us have everything we need to flourish physically. We don’t have to worry about running out of resources that limit our physical growth. We actually have the opposite problem. We tend to have an excess of resources available to feed our various physical appetites. But this overwhelming abundance of physical nourishment is leading to malnourishment in another, even more important area of life. With our focus on looking after our physical needs, we may be starving our own souls.

The principle of the First Limiting Resource applies to the human soul just as it does to the human body. Whatever spiritual resource you run out of first will limit your spiritual growth. That’s why we are having this series called the Red Letter Challenge. We are focusing on the words of Jesus and putting them into practice for two reasons: We want to make sure that we are feeding our own soul with what it needs to grow. We want our well-fed soul to reflect the love of Jesus into the lives of others. 

And today we have reached a pivot point in our forty-day, life-changing discipleship journey. Because the first two targets that we aimed at in our life of following Jesus were all about feeding our soul with what it needs to thrive. We spend time being with Jesus because that is how our soul is nourished, refreshed, and renewed. Then we reminded ourselves about the depths of Jesus’ forgiveness for us, something our soul needs so that we can grow to the spiritual heights that he wants to take us to. 

Switching Gears

Starting today, we are going to switch gears. The targets that we will be aiming at for the rest of the Red Letter Challenge are things that flow out of our well-fed souls, things like Serving, Giving and Going. Yes, we are blessed when we do these things and doing them will help us to grow even further in our spiritual life. But if our soul has not yet been fed with enough of Jesus’ presence or enough of Jesus’ forgiveness, then we are going to serve, give and go because we feel that we have to rather than doing those things because we want to. And that is a very important distinction for us to recognize. We need to be aware of what motivation we have in our soul. If you do the right thing for the wrong reason, it is the wrong thing.

The encouragement that I want to give to you is to constantly check your motivation by asking yourself, “Why am I doing what I am doing?” And then use the answer to tell you what your soul needs. Do I need more time being with Jesus and resting in his forgiveness? Or is it time for me to exercise my faith by serving, giving and going? Dear friends, You are the farmer of your own soul. No one else is going to do it for you. Make sure that you are feeding it well with the good things of Jesus.

As we change our focus to what a well-fed soul looks like, the target from Jesus that we will be aiming at today is Serving. To help us hit that target, we are going to be looking at some very famous words of Jesus, the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, which is in Matthew 5:1-16. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.

The Beatitudes (Mt. 5:1-12)

As you do that, let me share with you a bit of background to help you to understand what is going on. Jesus is near the Sea of Galilee, in the northern part of present day Israel. This was the area where he was most of the time as he taught and healed people and mentored his disciples. The events in our passage happened when Jesus was very popular and large crowds of people would follow him around. One day when a large crowd was following him, Jesus went up on a mountainside and began to teach. 

He begins with a section of teaching that is often called The Beatitudes, a set of statements that each begin with the word “Blessed.” To be clear, Jesus is not giving us nine steps to get to a #blessed life like an attractive social media maven might do. No, Jesus is telling us that we are already blessed when our lives begin to reflect the characteristics that he is pouring into us, because those characteristics indicate that we are on a  trajectory that will end with us enjoying the redemption and renewal of all things that Jesus is going to bring about at the end of time.  

Our world says that what you have is the measure of whether you are blessed or not. Those who have the greatest beauty, the best car, the best home and the most money, are the ones that the world considers the most blessed. These worldly attitudes have been the same for nearly all of human history, and some people think that the purpose of religion is to help you get those worldly blessings.  

But Jesus is the one that we want to follow as we live life in this world, not Kim Kardashian or Cristiano Ronaldo.  And Jesus says, “Pay no attention to those things. They are only temporary. They are only the result of good circumstances, but one day they will all fade away. To find out if you are really blessed, look deep within yourself to see the work that I am doing in your soul. If your life indicates that something of me is flowing out of your soul, that is how you will know that you really are blessed.” 

So Jesus tell us what it means to live a blessed life. The poor in spirit are those who know that they need God and they are blessed right now because they are already living in the kingdom of heaven through their relationship with Jesus. Those who live in the kingdom of heaven are blessed right now even as they mourn for they will have the comfort of seeing their believing loved ones again in the new heaven and earth to come. Those who are meek and gentle, not asserting themselves over others because they trust God to make all things work out for good in the end are blessed right now because they will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for God’s right standards to be applied to the whole world are blessed right now because they will be satisfied when Jesus comes back to make us and all things right. Those who show kindness and mercy to others are blessed now because they will be shown exponentially more of that same kindness and mercy by God at the end of time. Those who desire inner purity and uprightness in their own life are blessed now because they will be given the fulfillment of their desires when they are brought face-to-face with God. Those who seek to extend the range of God’s shalom peace and wellness are blessed now because God will declare to all humanity at the end of time that they are his children. Those who suffer in this life because of their faith in Jesus are blessed now because their faithful love for God above all else will result in an everlasting reward in heaven.

It’s not what you have, it’s what Jesus is doing in your soul that determines whether you are blessed or not. That is why it is important for us to be with Jesus and receive his forgiveness. And Jesus often does his best work in our soul when our circumstances are the opposite of what the world considers blessed. Often it is when we lack worldly beauty that Jesus makes us beautiful on the inside. Frequently it is when we lack worldly riches that Jesus is able to help us grow in being spiritually rich. Often it is when we lack physical health that Jesus helps us to be spiritually well. It is when we are at our loneliest that we tend to be more open to Jesus drawing us closer to him. As followers of Jesus, we don’t believe in karma, we don’t believe that the reason people suffer is always because they have done something wrong. And we don’t believe that God causes or wants us to suffer. But we do believe that God can bring good things out of suffering, and sometimes that good thing is the transformation that Jesus is doing in our soul. So we can be thankful for the soul blessings Jesus is giving us, even as we suffer. Like a diamond is formed by coal that is put under pressure, so also Jesus is making each of us into something more precious and durable than we ever were before through the tough times we face.

Being Salt & Light

Jesus then tells us about the impact our life has on others. Again, he uses the present tense to indicate that the word pictures he uses to describe his followers are true representations of what is happening right now. He starts off by saying, “You are the salt of the earth.” (Mt. 5:13) Salt’s main function in ancient times was for preservation. Without refrigeration to keep food for long periods of time, food was salted so that it would keep. However, for this preservation process to work, the food and the salt had to be next to each other so that the preserving qualities of the salt could have an impact on the food. 

In the same way, Jesus’ followers, right now, have a preserving impact on the world. As bad as things are in the world, if there were no followers of Jesus present at this time, things would be even worse. The light of Jesus reflected from us into the world holds back the darkness from completely taking over. However, for Jesus’ preserving qualities to flow through us, we need to be next to and serving people who do not yet believe in him.

Next Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” (Mt. 5:14) Again, Jesus is speaking to us from a different time. Two thousand years ago, light was produced by wood fires, candles or oil-burning lamps. Artificial light, like we have now, did not exist. A family might have one lamp for the entire home, and it was placed on a centrally located lampstand so it could illuminate the entire house. In the same way, we don’t keep our faith so hidden that nobody could ever tell if we actually follow Jesus or not. We do good things for others in a visible way so that they can see, not us, but Jesus through us.

What does it look like?

So what does being salt and light look like? Here is what I think it looks like in my life. As I be with Jesus and feed on his Word, he is doing something on the inside of me. Then, as I share what Jesus has put in me, I find that it resonates in a positive way with the people around me, even if those people are not following Jesus. A few years ago, we started hosting an annual street barbecue at our house to help our neighbors connect with one another and get to know each other better. We haven’t been able to do that for the past couple of years because of Covid-19, but we are going to go ahead with it this year. A few days ago, I mentioned the barbecue in a couple of conversations with my neighbors and they are both looking forward to this event.

In a followup text conversation, one of my neighbors said, “…so nice that you take the initiative to do this!” I replied, “I think that connecting people & building community is a good thing.” You know what their reply was? “Absolutely!”

And here’s the thing, the value that I wrote of “connecting people and building community” is in me, but it is not something that is natural to me. By nature, I am someone who sucks all the oxygen out of a room so that nobody else’s light can shine, except mine. When left to my own devices, I ignore community when it doesn’t serve my purposes. I like to do what I want, when I want to do it.

But Jesus has put something of himself inside of me. And when I am able to get over myself and let those nuggets of Jesus’ goodness shine through me, incredible things happen. I find myself saying and doing things that I would otherwise never do. I see things happen that I could never make happen on my own, even if I wanted to: hearts are being touched, friendships are being made and community is being formed. The other day I was thinking that it is almost like we have a little community church on our street and, though some of our neighbors may not yet know him, that church is centered around Jesus.

When  we look to ourselves, all we will ever see are limiting resources. But when we look to Jesus, that’s when we can have hope. We have hope for today, because he is transforming us more and more into his likeness through the challenges and opportunities he sets before us. We have hope for the future because we know that one day Jesus will come and make us and all things right. We can have hope for the people around me because Jesus is within us and we are in their midst. We cannot save ourselves but we can help to save someone else. As we think less about ourselves and more about the people around us, more of Jesus’ goodness will shine through us to them. And that goodness of Jesus that he has placed in us will resonate with the hearts of the people around us as we let it shine. You see, Jesus is already at work in their lives, preparing their hearts to receive the love that he will share with them through us.

The most inspiring person I ever met

One of the most inspiring people I ever met was an elderly woman in a nursing home named Mary. She was confined to a wheelchair because of Parkinson’s Disease. She needed a hoist to lift her in and out of bed.

By any worldly standards, her life was definitely not blessed. And yet, whenever I went to visit her she was so cheerful and full of joy. I would go to visit her thinking that I would serve her and I would leave thinking that she had served me by encouraging and inspiring me. And here it is, twenty years later. Mary is in heaven by now, and I am still being inspired and encouraged by her. The reason? Her life verse was Philippians 4:13, which she would quote every time I visited her, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13 NKJV) This is how God works. It’s not what you have, it’s what Jesus is doing in your soul that determines whether you are blessed or not. 

And it is by serving others that the blessedness Jesus has put in us comes out. 

May each one of us be a Mary to the people around us. Amen.

(This sermon is based on one written by Zach Zehnder, which you can find at redletterchallenge.com. This sermon was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on March 27, 2022. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)

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