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  • Adam Schell

Looks Can Be Deceiving

We’re now five weeks into the season of Lent. And, as the author Sarah Parsons explains, Lent is a time when we:

look at our lives and ourselves, not so we may criticize ourselves more harshly but so we can identify the obstructions that keep us from God. Lent gives us a chance to look at such obstructions and to move them gently away so that we can come closer to the one that gives us life, the one whose triumph we will celebrate on Easter morning.

What Parsons is saying here is that Lent is a season of both reflection and action. It’s a time when we look at our lives so we can try to find the things that keep us from following Jesus. And it’s also a time when we recommit ourselves to following Jesus as we move forward.

But you know what? You can’t really recommit to following Jesus if you don’t know what that means. So throughout the season of Lent at Melbourne Heights, we’ve been working our way through a series of sermons called Follow Me? where we’ve been talking about what it means to follow Jesus.

And a lot of us believe the same thing about following Jesus that I believed about being a pastor right after I was ordained into ministry almost twenty years ago. After my ordination service concluded, my parents threw a party in my honor – complete with a giant sheet cake and presents. And there was one present in particular that caught my attention that day. It was from the church I was working in at the time, they had all pitched in and bought me a real-life briefcase.

I was twenty-two at the time, so in my mind, there were only two possible things that a briefcase could be used for. You could either fill it with hundred-dollar bills and take it with you to some shadowy parking lot to pay off a ransom to the mob, or you could use it to hold the secret codes for America's nuclear weapons. But my briefcase wasn't stuffed with hundred-dollar bills or nuclear codes, so I had no idea what to do with it.

But I knew that just holding that briefcase would make me look like a professional minister. So I went home and filled that briefcase with anything that looked even remotely churchy. I put a leather-bound Bible and a few devotional books in it. I put in a couple of empty manilla folders and labeled them things like “Sermon Ideas” and “Future Bible Studies” so that if someone ever opened my briefcase they would think I knew what I was doing.

So from the very beginning of my time as a minister, I wanted to make sure that I looked the part.

And that was something that I continued to do when I first started pastoring a church a few years later. I wanted to make sure that I looked the part. So on my first Sunday in my first church, even though I had no clue what I was doing and I was more than a little nervous...I straightened my tie and buttoned my jacket and strode to the pulpit like I was the President getting ready to deliver the State of the Union address. And I preached that sermon like I was Billy Graham and Billy Sunday rolled into one. And when the service came to an end, I took my place at the sanctuary door and shook hands, and made small talk like thousands of other ministers across the country did that day. And when I went home that afternoon, I felt like I had at least looked the part of a pastor.

Then Monday morning rolled around, and I got in my car and headed to my church office for the very first time. After pulling into the church parking lot, I spent the next half hour unloading boxes from my car. And with those boxes stacked up against the wall, I plopped down at my desk and spent most of my morning twirling around in my desk chair trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing.

And since I still had no idea what it was that I was supposed to be doing, I decided that I should at least look the part of a pastor. So I got to work hanging up my college diploma and ordination certificate because nothing is more reassuring to someone popping into the pastor's office than seeing that their minister has actually been credentialed by some official institution.

Then I realized that nothing could look more pastoral than an office lined with books. So I started unpacking my boxes. I pulled out all of the books I had managed to collect throughout college and in seminary. I dusted off devotional books I hadn't looked at since high school. And I proudly displayed every Bible I had ever owned...including half a dozen of the cheap little New Testaments the Gideon's passed out on my college campus. All totaled, I think I had enough books to fill about three of the shelves in my office...but I somehow managed to organize those books well enough to make it look like my office was full.

And that's how the first five weeks of my ministry went. I woke up on Sunday mornings and I dressed like a pastor. I stood behind the pulpit and I preached like a pastor. During the week I sat down in my office and worked at my desk like a pastor. So five weeks into my ministry, I thought the most important thing about being a pastor was looking like a pastor.

A lot of us think the same thing is true when it comes to following Jesus. A lot of us think that the most important thing about following Jesus is looking like you follow Jesus.

A lot of us think that the most important thing about following Jesus is looking like you follow Jesus.

So when start following Jesus we want to make sure we look the part. So when we start following Jesus we’ll go out and buy a brand new Bible. And when we buy that new Bible we want it to have all the bells and whistles. We want it to have study notes and a comprehensive concordance, we want it to have geographical maps and character profiles, we want it to have commentaries and footnotes. And when all of that gets crammed into one book, it ends up weighing more than a bowling ball.

And we don’t stop with a Bible. When we start following Jesus, we like to have little reminders of Jesus around us all the time, too. So we’ll go out and buy t-shirts with clever little slogans on them, or throw pillows with Bible verses cross-stitched into them, or wall calendars with daily devotionals printed on them.

But here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter how many Bibles you have or how much Christian merchandise you own, none of those things make you any better at following Jesus.

And Jesus tells us this in the passage of scripture we’re going to be reading today. So, if you’ve got a Bible close by go ahead and grab it and turn with me to Matthew 6. And, as you’re finding it, I’ll remind you that the book of Matthew is one of four biographies about Jesus that we have in the New Testament. So the book of Matthew tells us about Jesus’ birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection. And it also records some of Jesus’ teachings for us. And that’s what we’re going to be looking at today.

We’re going to be looking at part of what Jesus teaches in his longest recorded sermon – something we usually refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus touches on a whole lot of different areas. But at the beginning of Matthew 6, Jesus has a warning for us. So let’s start reading in verse 1, and we’ll see what that warning is. Matthew writes:

1 “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

2 “Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 3 But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing 4 so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

5 “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 6 But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

7 “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard.”

Matthew 6:1-7 (Common English Bible)

So, in this passage, Jesus is warning us about only looking like we’re following God. And let’s be completely honest here, it’s not that hard to look like you’re following God. The truth is, if you do everything that Jesus tells you not to do in this passage, then you look like you’re following God.

If you stand up in church and make a big deal out of dropping money into the offering box, then people will think you’re following God. If you go out to lunch this afternoon and you pray a long, elaborate prayer before the food comes, then people will think that you’re following God.

But there’s a difference between looking like you’re a Christian and actually following Christ.

There’s a difference between looking like you’re a Christian and actually following Christ.

And following God isn’t about what you can see on the outside, it’s about what God is doing to you on the inside. And that’s the way to know if you’re actually following Jesus or not. Because anyone can carry a Bible. Anyone can wear a Christian t-shirt. Anyone can drop a little money into the offering plate. Anyone can say a fancy prayer. But if you’re really following God, then God is changing you on the inside.

And the Apostle Paul, who is the foremost missionary and theologian of the first century, tells us what it’s like when God is changing us on the inside in a letter that he writes to followers of Jesus in an ancient city called Galatia. Paul tells us that God will produce fruit in us if we’re really following him.

And when you think about it, this metaphor makes perfect sense. And that’s because we all know that if you have an apple tree then it’s going to produce apples. Or if you have an orange tree it’s going to produce oranges. So if we’re following God then we will produce godly fruit in our lives.

And Paul tells us what that fruit is like in Galatians 5:22 and 23 when he writes:

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.

Galatians 5:22-23 (Common English Bible)

So, if you’re really following Jesus then you’re going to produce godly fruit in your life. You’re not going to be focused on having a new Bible with all the bells and whistles, you’re going to be more loving, and joyful, and kind. If you’re really seeking Jesus then you’re not going to be focused on what logos on your t-shirt or what needlepoint is hanging on your wall, you’re going to be more patient, and faithful, and gentle.

So following Jesus isn’t about looking the part, it’s about producing fruit.

Following Jesus isn’t about looking the part it’s about producing fruit.

And that was something I realized five weeks into my ministry. It happened on a Tuesday morning, and I hadn't even started to get ready to go to work when my phone rang. It was a deacon at the church who called to tell me that a long-time member of the congregation had just passed away. This long-time member had been bedridden in a nursing home for the last few years, and I had only had the chance to meet him the week before...but as soon as I heard the news, my heart sank.

I showered and got dressed as quickly as I could, and headed straight to the nursing home, where I met this church member's widow in the hall. With the tears still welling up in her eyes, I did the pastorly thing and offered my condolences to her. After a few minutes, I offered to follow her back to her home so we could sit down and talk about her late husband.

As I sat in her living room, she started sharing stories about the man she had spent fifty years of her life with. And, as I sat in an overstuffed chair in the corner of her living room, I felt the same way I had five weeks earlier when I sat down in “the pastor's chair” for the first time: I had no idea what I was supposed to do.

But just being there beside her as she dealt with real emotions and real grief, I knew she needed a real pastor…not just someone who was trying to look the part. That morning she needed someone who could love her while her heart was breaking. That morning she needed someone who can help her find a little bit of peace in one of the most difficult moments of her life. That morning she needed someone to be kind to her and gentle with her. That morning she needed someone who could remind her of God’s faithfulness to her.

So that morning, I stopped trying to look like I was a pastor and I finally became a real pastor. That morning I shared with a grieving widow the fruit that God was growing in my life.

And we all need to do the same thing. We need to stop trying to look like we’re following Jesus and actually follow Jesus.

We need to stop trying to look like we follow Jesus and actually follow Jesus.

So if you want to follow Jesus, don’t worry about what that looks like on the outside. Instead, focus on what God needs to do on the inside. Ask God to change you, Ask God to grow fruit in you. Ask God to help you be more loving and joyful, more peaceful and patient. Ask God to help you become kinder and a better person, more faithful and gentle. Ask God to help you with your self-control.

And when you see this fruit grow in you and show through your life then you’ll know that you don’t just look like you’re a are actually following Jesus.

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