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The Voice of the Prophet: The Tyranny of the Urgent

June 25, 2006

John 17:4

One way a pastor tries to keep up is by reading. I have made a practice of staying in touch with people who teach in seminaries and divinity schools and finding out what books they are recommending to their students. That task has been easier for me recently because of my connection with two seminarians: my nephew Hudson, who was at Princeton University; and Scott, who has just completed his work at Harvard Divinity School. Reading is an important part of my preparation.

Today’s sermon really derives from a book I read this week while I was away on vacation. Our most recent seminarian graduate on the church staff, Nathan Neighbors, recommended to me Charles Hummel’s book entitled The Tyranny of the Urgent! Nathan said that professors required every student who attended Southwestern Theological Seminary to read this little book. Once the church staff has had the opportunity to read it, we will place a copy in the church library so that you, too, may read it. The title of today’s sermon comes from this little book, but the sermon itself does not.

A pastor often returns to the reading of scripture. One section of the Bible that frequently offers new ideas to me is the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. I want to call to your attention today one verse of scripture, John 17:4. You will recognize, of course, that this passage, called the Last Discourse of Jesus, provides the words Jesus spoke in the Upper Room following the Passover meal with his disciples before they went to the Garden of Gethsemane. On this night before he died, Jesus spoke these words: “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work that you gave me to do.”

Perhaps you have heard about a radio conversation between Canadian authorities and the captain of a very large vessel located off the coast of Canada.

Canadians radioed first: Please divert your course fifteen degrees south to avoid a collision.

Americans: Recommend you divert your course fifteen degrees north to avoid a
collision.

Canadians: Negative. You will have to divert your course fifteen degrees to the
south to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert your
course.

Canadians: No, I say again, divert your course.

Americans: This is the Aircraft Carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in
the United States’ Atlantic Fleet. We’re accompanied by three destroyers,
three cruisers, and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course fifteen degrees north. I say again, that is 1-5 degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this vessel.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse. It is your call.

We can be so determined to continue on the course that we have chosen to take. We think continuing our course is so right, but doing so will lead us to disaster. Often in our lives, we need a course correction. We need to gain our bearings, to pay attention to the compass of the spirit. Today, I want us to stop and think about where we are heading, the direction we are taking. I want to pause and see if we might be traveling on a dangerous path.

The way we can examine the compass of our spirit is to look at the life of Jesus, a man who, like us, was very busy. One gospel account describes the need for Jesus and his disciples to get away from everyone following the death of John the Baptist, whom Herod had beheaded. Jesus loved his cousin, so he was clearly grieving on this particular day. His disciples had been out on a mission, and Jesus said that they all needed to go away to a lonely place and get some rest. They got into a small boat and made their way across the Sea of Galilee, looking for an isolated location. That trip took an hour or so, maybe two or even three, depending on the prevailing winds. When they arrived on the other side, a large crowd had gathered. They had flocked to Jesus because they wanted to hear his teaching and experience his healing. The scriptures say that when Jesus got out of the boat and approached this crowd, he saw them as sheep without a shepherd. Though Jesus was grieving and feeling tired, he had compassion on them. He ministered all day, teaching these people, healing their diseases, and blessing their children.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and commented, “This is a lonely place.” What irony! How could the place be lonely with so many people? The statement was the disciples’ way of saying, “Listen, we cannot provide an evening meal for all of these people. Send them away.” Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt as if the pressures of life were closing in on you and you wanted to send them away? Schoolteachers and young mothers have felt that way. Jesus said, “No, you feed them.” Philip, who may have been the mathematician of the group, quickly calculated that it would take about half a year’s wages to feed the crowd consisting of 5,000 men plus their wives and children. Andrew, who was more resourceful, found a small boy who had a meager lunch of five loaves and two fish, food that would have amounted to a big fish sandwich from a fast-food restaurant. When the group sat down, Jesus blessed the food and broke it. After everyone had eaten, the disciples collected twelve baskets filled with leftovers.

The crowd dispersed as evening approached, and Jesus sent the disciples back across the Sea of Galilee in their small boat. He then went up into the hills to pray. You see this particular pattern in the life of Jesus. Even in his busiest times, even when he had had a very long day, he turned aside for prayer. Sometime after midnight, a terrible storm came up on the Sea of Galilee, frightening the disciples in the boat. Jesus came down from the hills, walked across the water, and calmed the storm with the words, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39). Those words calmed the anxious minds and fretful hearts of his disciples.

Jesus made a remarkable comment on the night before he died, “I have completed the work that you gave me to do.” Did that mean that all the blind could see? Did that mean that all the lame could walk? Jesus had called Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus, and the son of a Syrophonecian woman back from the dead. Surely, Jesus could have raised more from the dead. What about the lepers? He had touched and healed lepers. Was leprosy eradicated? Had all the hungry been fed? Remember that the Lord’s earthly ministry was only three years in length. How could Jesus say that he had completed the work that he had been sent to do when so much more work still needed to be done?

I imagine that your experience is somewhat like mine. When my head hits the pillow at night, I never feel as though I have gotten everything done. I do not think I have ever put my head on the pillow and said, “Lord, I did it all. I got everything done that You wanted me to do.” When I lie down at night, I am more likely to say, “Lord, if you had just given me thirty hours today, maybe I could have gotten everything done. If I had not become tired and sleepy, I could have done it all.” My prayer ought to be the prayer of the ancient church: “Lord, I have done things which I ought not to have done. I have left things undone that I should have done.” It is not just a confession of sin; it is also a statement about how I order my priorities. I imagine we feel the same agony, the realization that our life is complicated by the fact that so many people have an idea about what we should and should not do with our time. We have the idea that we ought to be more efficient, that we ought to do it better, that things are so urgent that we must do them right now.

As I look at the life of Jesus, I see that he is never concerned about efficiency. You never see our Lord driven by a sense of urgency. Jesus often visited the home of Mary and Martha. On one occasion, they sent for him because their brother was sick. Jesus waited four days before traveling to their home. Once there, he found that their brother had died. Both Mary and Martha rebuked him, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died. Surely, if you had managed your time better than this, we would not be suffering” (John 11:21).

Experts tell us that only about one-third of the people who come to hospital emergency rooms actually have an emergency. Only about one-third of the people who go to urgent care facilities actually have an urgent need. Weekly, I receive mail with the words Urgent – Reply Requested printed on the outside of the envelope. More often than not, the piece of mail is offering to put me in debt. That offer might be urgent for the sender, but it is not at all urgent for me. That is an example of the tyranny of the urgent.

Let us look at another day in the life of Jesus, one that occurred very early in his ministry. According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus was in the town of Capernaum. He astounded people when he went to the synagogue and taught with authority. Jesus cast out the evil spirit of a man there and then returned to the home of Simon Peter with James, Andrew, and John, only to find that Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever. Once Jesus healed her, she got up and prepared a meal for them. This Sabbath day for Jesus is like Sunday for a preacher. He had had a long day; but he worked well past dark, taking care of all of these people. Look at Mark’s gospel, Chapter 1, beginning with Verse 32:

That evening after sunset people brought to Jesus all the sick and all the demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons…

Very early in the morning while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed…

Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Lord, everyone is looking for you!”

Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – not back to the people who are looking for me.”

Can you see how Jesus responded? Jesus does not make himself available to those who are demanding his attention. He is not allowing the tyranny of the urgent to control his actions. Again, we see a pattern in the Lord’s life. It seems that no matter how busy he is, he takes time for prayer. Jesus refused to be driven by the urgent. How do we make a distinction between what is urgent and what is important? Jesus made that distinction. The distinction is a matter of priority.

During another visit to the home of Mary and Martha, Martha was frantic with activity, fussing because Mary would not help her with preparations. Jesus said, “Martha, you fret and worry about so many things, but only one thing is needful, and Mary has found it.” Mary was sitting with the Lord, learning from him. What is “needful” in our lives is time with our Father in heaven, time with the Christ who loves us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:33, Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything else will fall in place.” It is a matter of priority. Jesus sets the example.

If your life is hectic, if the urgent, the tyranny of the urgent drives you, take the time to stop and pray. Francis de Sales said, “Every Christian ought to pray one hour a day unless that person is very, very busy. Then the person ought to pray two hours a day.” I am not telling you that to make anyone feel guilty. I know some of you do not pray two hours a month. I am saying that if this tyranny of the urgent drives your life, the first action to stop. Check your inner compass, your spiritual compass. Examine what is most important, not necessarily what is most urgent. The motto of the French Foreign Legion is, “When in doubt, charge.” Christians are not supposed to live that way.

Henry Blackaby makes an important point: God is at work in the world around us. If we pay attention to what God is doing, He will invite us to become a part of that. Paying attention to God is how we get our sense of direction.

About a week ago, Jack Dodds and I were talking about teaching vacancies we have in our church programs. I have prayed about the Nominating Committee’s hard work of trying to fill those vacancies. God does not want our children’s classes to be without a teacher. He has a person in mind for every single one of those positions, a person to teach those classes. Unless those individuals stop long enough to get their bearings, long enough to get that sense of direction, they might miss the opportunity God has for them. God can give us that sense of direction; but we must stop, pay attention, and listen in order to find it. P.T. Forsyth said that the worst sin is to be prayerless. If we are without prayer, we are just moving helter-skelter without any guidance at all from God.

We must ask ourselves what is most important in our lives, not what is most demanding, not who is screaming the loudest for our attention. The sense of the urgent cannot drive us. What is most important in our lives should.

A young boy about eight years old came to me and asked, “Dr. Neely, would you take me fishing?”

I answered, “Yes, I will be glad to take you, but I want your daddy to go with us.” It was more important for that father to take his eight-year-old fishing that it was for me to take him fishing.

It took nearly four months for the father to find an afternoon when he could go fishing. After we started fishing, I discovered that he was not necessarily interested in fishing because no one had ever taught him how to fish. It only takes about a pound-and-a-half bass on the end of your line to realize the joy of fishing. The little boy caught a fish first, and then the father caught about a pound-and-a-half bass. Once he did, he was hooked.

I guess we had been at the pond for about an hour when the father’s pager rang. He picked it up, looked at it, and said, “I have an urgent phone call I need to make. What should I do?”

I answered, “You need to take that pager and sling it as far out into the middle of that pond as you can. Nothing is more urgent than what you are doing right now, being with your son.”

The urgency of everything drives us, but deciding what is most important is the way that God leads in our life. We simply cannot ascertain that unless we take the time to stop and listen. If not, we are headed for trouble. At the end, we will wind up feeling as if we did not accomplish what God desires for us to accomplish.

We can understand how Jesus could say, “I have accomplished all that you sent me to do” when we consider the events of the next day. God’s mission for His Son was more important than healing more blind people, more lame people, or more lepers. The next day, Jesus died on the cross. At his death, his words were, “It is finished. It is completed.” The greatest work God sent Jesus to do was the work of dying on the cross to save all of us, to save a lost world from sin. His example is the path we must follow. We must learn to stop and wait upon the Lord.

I read a story about a young college student who was especially skilled as a platform diver. He could leap off the platform, do all types of contortions in the air, and make a perfect entry, headfirst, into the water. This student, who had aspirations of being an Olympic diver, was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He had a gnawing sense that God was calling him into the ministry, but he really did not want to hear that call because he dreamed of winning an Olympic medal.

Every morning, this diver went to an indoor pool to practice his skills. One morning after practicing, he realized that one of his dives was not going so well. Later that night, he returned to this pool. Not wanting to call attention to the fact that he was there, he left the lights off in the building. He climbed up on the platform, walked to edge, and prepared to make this dive. Balancing on the balls of his feet with his heels hanging over the edge of the platform, he stretched out his arms. As he did so, the moon, shining through the skylight, cast a shadow on the back wall. The young man saw his shadow, which formed the shape of a cross. At that moment, he felt so convicted. He knelt down on the platform and surrendered his life to the call of God in that moment.

A security guard who had seen the young man enter the arena came in and turned on the lights. Only then did the diver see what he had not seen before – an empty pool. It had been drained for cleaning that afternoon.

If you are determined to do things your way, you may be heading for disaster. Stop. Pray, and consider the direction God would want you to go. Then surrender. God will deliver you from the tyranny of the urgent. You will discover what is most important in your life. God has spoken to every one of us.

Perhaps some here do not know Christ. The Lord Jesus is speaking to you today. He wants you to give your life and your heart to him. Some here may have known for some time that God has been leading you to become a part of this church family. If that is the case, we invite you to make that decision. A young person here may know that God has been calling him or her to fulltime Christian service. Have you resisted listening to God speak to your heart and give you a sense of direction? If so, could I urge you this day to stop, pay attention, and surrender your life to him? As we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “More Love to Thee, O Christ,” you are invited to respond to these invitations from God.

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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