Skip to content

The Benediction: Serving in Joy

June 15, 2014

Sermon:  The Benediction: Serving in Joy
Text:  Mark 10:35-45; John 13:1-5, 12-17; Philippians 2:1-11

Today I want us to look at two passages from the New Testament. Turn first, please, to the Gospel of Mark, beginning at Verse 35. Hear now the Word of God.

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Now turn to John 13:1-5, 12-17:

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

We can have little doubt that Jesus had an agenda here; he wanted his disciples to know well that they were to have a life of service. He returned to this teaching several times because it took awhile for his followers to understand that responsibility.

Notice how Jesus taught this lesson about service – with his words and through example, which are the best teaching techniques.

It also takes us time to learn the discipline of service. We all have difficulty with this principle. I would remind fathers and grandfathers on this Father’s Day to teach by word and by example. It takes both methods.

The word servant and the word slave in the Greek New Testament are interchangeable. We do not like to consider ourselves as being a slave; that term seems offensive to us. I am talking here about chosen bondage, not protecting our turf. We choose to be a servant, a servant of Christ, which means that we give up our rights in order to do what God has called us to do. This notion goes against our grain because many of us live by a pecking order, a concept that comes from the hen-house.

Chickens have a pecking order, with one chicken at the top, one at the bottom, and all others positioned in a rank between the two. We want to be sure that others who know us give the proper respect we think we are due. We do not want anyone to mistake our rank. A military way of thinking about this is that we spend a lot of time “polishing the brass on our collars.”

So many people in the Bible have exemplified a life of service. We read in Luke 7 of the New Testament about one military leader, a centurion, who has authority over at least one hundred men and probably more in Capernaum. This man of rank wants Jesus to heal one of his slaves who is at the point of death. A surprising twist in the story is that this centurion does not make the request himself. Jewish leaders come on his behalf to ask Jesus for aid, which seems counter-intuitive. Jews hated Romans, the army of occupation; but here we see them in Capernaum, asking Jesus to help a Roman centurion, by saying, “He deserves to have you do this because he built for us a synagogue.”

I have been in the ruins of that very synagogue built with large stones. I do not know whether the centurion provided money to build it as some centurions could be fairly wealthy. I do not know whether the centurion used Roman soldiers under his command to perform the manual labor. I do know the Roman army was filled with good engineers.

Jesus is ready to go, but the centurion sends word, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. I understand what authority is. I give orders, and my men obey. You speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”

Jesus does just that. He speaks a word, healing this centurion’s servant. Then Jesus makes the remarkable observation, “Nowhere in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10).

The centurion’s request is characteristic of a person of service. We see in him that a servant heart is a faithful heart. This is why Jesus concludes one of his most famous parables with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23).

I never met Henri Nouwen, but I have certainly enjoyed reading his books. Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, psychologist, and theologian, taught for a while at Notre Dame, then at Yale, and later at Harvard. All along the way people could not understand why Nouwen left academic settings and went into menial positions, providing service. It was especially difficult for them to understand his giving up a position at Harvard and going to a place called Loches, a community for the mentally ill. One of my favorite French teachers, Billie Edmonds, told me how to pronounce this word. A proper French interpretation is “the arch.” A friend from Cameroon said that the word means “sledge hammer.” Both Paris and Toronto have places named Loches.

One method of treating the mentally ill at Loches is to assign each patient to a person who is allegedly well. I say allegedly because having worked in a state mental hospital, I know that the line between those who are well and those who are mentally ill is very, very thin.

Nouwen, who spent the last seven years of his life, serving as the caregiver for one male patient, was not concerned about either academic achievement or status. He simply wanted to serve as Jesus had done, putting aside any concern about pecking order or rank. Jesus had demonstrated his own servant’s heart by taking up a towel and basin and washing his disciples’ feet. He taught his disciples to do the same, and his greatest service was giving his life as a sacrifice.

Blanche Littlejohn’s father, Mr. H. T. Littlejohn, ran a general store on Magnolia Street next to the old Kennedy Library. He sold feed, seed, hardware, lumber, and anything else imaginable. If someone needed an item, he could get it.

Mr. Littlejohn held the position of chair of the building and grounds committee at First Baptist Church in Spartanburg a number of times. He was very conscientious about performing this job. He often checked on the church staff and made sure the grounds were in good order. That position is one of the most thankless within the church. Currently Ryan Atchley serves as chair here at Morningside. Gene Ellis and Lester Collins have held that position, as have many others in the past. It is a tough, tough job.

Dr. John Slaughter, the pastor of the church, was upset over the fact that Mr. Littlejohn kept falling asleep during sermons. He told my dad, the deacon chairman at that time, “I want you to have a talk with Mr. Littlejohn. Let him know that I do not appreciate his sleeping through my sermons.”

My dad responded, “I’m not going to say a word to him, Dr. Slaughter.”

“Why not?”

Dad explained, “Mr. Littlejohn works hard six days a week, running his own business and taking care of his family. Then at 2:00 on Sunday mornings, he comes to this church and stokes the furnace with coal so that when we get here for worship the buildings will be warm. If Mr. Littlejohn wants to sleep through your sermon, that is just fine with me. It ought to be fine with you. Don’t say a word to him about it.”

Service is often hidden, behind the scenes. This must be what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). Some acts that we do for other people and some that we do for the Lord need to be kept private, secret, hidden from sight. Our prayer should be, “Lord, make me a servant. Allow me to serve, not because of any glory but simply because I love you and want to serve you.”

Have you heard about the Boy Scout who saw an old woman standing on the corner? He took her by the arm and walked her across the street. When they reached the other side, the woman started thrashing the boy on the head with her cane.

He asked, “Why are you hitting me? I helped you cross the street.”

She answered, “I didn’t want to go across the street.”

Another dimension to this service is that we do not serve because we want to meet our own needs. True servants do not push themselves, do not impose themselves on others. Instead, they offer their service and wait. Sometimes a life of service requires waiting until the right time.

You may have heard of Sergeant Richard Kirkland, who was from South Carolina. He is sometimes known as the “Angel of Mary’s Heights.” He fought on the Confederate side in the Battle of Fredericksburg. On December 13, 1862, the Confederate forces were behind a stone wall along a road. Up on the hill was a big house. The Union forces, on the hill, kept charging. Hundreds and hundreds of soldiers for both sides lay on the field between the house and the wall, some dead and many wounded. During the night both sides listened to the groans, cries, and pleadings of the wounded.

On the morning of December 14 Sergeant Kirkland went to his commander, General Kershaw, asking for permission to carry water to the wounded.

General Kershaw at first refused, saying, “I cannot grant you permission.” Finally he relented, “Okay, you can take them water, but go at your own risk.”

“I will go at my risk. May I carry a white flag?”

“No. You cannot carry a white flag while giving them water.”

Richard Kirkland filled all the canteens he could carry with water, climbed over the wall, and moved from one soldier to another, offering water to many and blankets to a few. He made no distinction between fallen Union and Confederate soldiers. General Kershaw would say that it took about an hour and a half for Kirkland to move from one wounded soldier to another. Both sides quickly realized what was happening and called for a complete ceasefire.

Kirkland’s service is important because he made no distinction between soldiers considered enemies and those considered allies. He treated each man the same. Christian service makes no distinctions and plays no favorites. It treats everyone equally, completely without discrimination.

Richard Foster writes about service as one of the disciplines of the Christian life in his wonderful book The Celebration of Discipline. He says that the grace of humility, the virtue of humility, can only be cultivated in the Christian life through service.

Humility is very elusive. You have heard about the wag who said, “I am so proud. I finally accomplished humility.” One of the great ironies about humility is that if you think you have humility you probably do not. Because humility cannot be earned, Richard Foster calls it the “grace of humility.” He says that humility is given to those who have a servant’s heart, a faithful heart that is tuned to God. Having a servant’s heart means being unconcerned about rank and pecking order, being willing to serve in hidden ways and without discrimination, and cultivating the grace of humility though probably not knowing it.

Have you noticed that people who serve in this way do not have hectic or frantic lives? Everything that Jesus accomplished, as recorded in the Gospels, was done in three years. Can you ever imagine Jesus putting his head down at night and being frustrated because he did not get everything done? I doubt Jesus had that problem.

If we truly live a life of service we begin to have a better realism about our own limits. We must realize that we simply cannot do everything. We can live with a more unhurried pace. We can live with a peace that knows that we do not have to be superhuman. We can live more contented because God has called us to be servants. We need no check-off lists. In fact, real servants probably do not even keep lists. They make themselves available, serving as God gives them the opportunity. They experience a greater joy and a deeper, almost unimaginable love for God. Service is a Christian virtue.

Richard Foster tells a story about serving with joy in his own life. A neighbor, who was having car trouble, called Foster. Not really wanting to borrow Foster’s car to do his many errands, he just wondered if Foster could drive him around town while he completed these tasks. Foster admitted that he grumbled about the neighbor’s request but decided to assist.

On the way out of his house Foster picked up a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. He said, “I always carry a book with me so I’ll have something to do if I have any idle time.” As he went through this routine of driving his neighbor from one task to another – the post office, the drugstore, several other stops, and finally the grocery store – he said to his neighbor, “You go on in and do your shopping. I’ll sit here and read.”

At one stop he opened Life Together to a place bookmarked and read these words:

The service that one should perform for another in the Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means initially simply assisting in trifling, external matters. There are a multitude of things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the smallest service, for the lowest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own life too seriously.

Can you imagine Richard Foster reading that passage? He closed the book and bowed his head, thanking God for this lesson in service.

How do we give Christian service?

Richard Foster first tells us that we must guard the reputation of other people, not making comments about people that will hurt them. Christian service means giving up gossip and getting rid of the rumor mill.

Second, we must be willing to be served. If people want to do some act of kindness for us, we should allow them. We must let other people help us.

Third, we can offer common courtesy by simply being polite, thoughtful, and kind. We do this especially by saying, “Thank you.”

Fourth, we offer hospitality, by helping people feel welcome – even people we do not know or like.

Fifth, we give a listening ear, making time to pay attention to what others need to say and hearing someone’s heart.

Sixth, we care enough that we find a way to get under another’s burdens, help them carry it, and pray for them. We find a way to get under the load and help them carry it. Paul calls this the law of Christ.

Seventh, we share the word of life with another person, telling them about Jesus and what he has done for us. We take the time to give them the good news.

These suggestions for Christian service are simple. They neither require us to volunteer for every non-profit organization nor mean that we work and work and work until our tongue hangs out of our mouth. We must cultivate a servant’s heart as a way of life.

Two of our grandchildren stayed at our home this past week. Clare and I are always delighted to keep them, but we are tired. I have washed tiny feet every night this week. The children are ticklish, and they do not necessarily want me to wash their feet.

A life of service does not mean that we have to grab a bowl or basin and wash someone’s feet. It means we take advantage of the opportunities to do similar acts. We perform many acts of service for our children and grandchildren that are even more difficult than washing feet.

In trying to form the connection between Christian service and Father’s Day, I thought about my father. He was far from perfect, but he worked hard and served others. He washed dishes with the best of them and cooked grits better than anyone I have ever known. When we were young he used to line up and polish all of our shoes on Saturday night so that they would be ready for church Sunday morning.

More often than not, he whistled a low tune while doing those kinds of tasks because he was serving in joy. Our benediction mentions that joy: “We are a family of faith, living in hope, serving in joy…” We are required to provide service with joy.

How do we find that joy? We consider the acronym JOY – Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. Romans 12:3 tells us, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Do not think of yourself better than others.” Philippians 2:14 tells us, “Look to Jesus” as an example. Paul gives us in Philippians 2:8 the words of an ancient hymn and explains that “Jesus took the form of a servant, humbled himself, and became obedient unto the cross.” Jesus is our example for serving in joy.

Is joy a part of your life? Of course it begins when you acknowledge Jesus as your Savior. If you have not done that, we would like to encourage you to respond in whatever way God leads.

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2014



Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: