SERMON: The V-Shaped Life

SERMON 3.25.18 – The Prayer of Jesus & the V-Shaped Life

This is an example of the kinds of sermons I’m preaching these days. They are thick, juicy but too long! There’s at least 3 different sermons packed into this one. Don’t tell my congregants, but I really am setting a goal to shorten them a bit in the coming months. (But no promises!)


Almost 20 years ago a little book called The Prayer of Jabez sold millions of copies to Christians looking for a scripture-approved formula for a happy life with ample material blessings and free from pain. The book is based on an passing reference to an otherwise obscure person in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10:

“Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And God granted what he asked.”

This a beautiful prayer, and when taken in proper balance with the rest of Scripture, is worthy of imitation — with certain qualifications. Let us all pray for God’s blessings, presence with us, and protection from unnecessary suffering. Jesus taught us to pray for God’s blessings in the form of “our daily bread” and to “keep us from harm” by praying “Deliver us from evil.” However, when pulled out of the broader teaching of the Bible, especially the entire New Testament, and turned into the goal or pattern for the Christian life, it is dangerous.

Why? Unlike Jabez living 2,500 years ago in a much different world where food was scarce, lifespan was short, and rival warring kingdoms were threatening your borders, we live in the most prosperous land and times in history! By and large, God has blessed us already; our borders have been enlarged; his hand is upon us and most of us live relatively pain-free and comfortable lives compared to the rest of the world. Therefore, I think we need to be praying not so much for more blessings, but what to do with our blessings? 

The entire New Testament invites us not to the pursuit of happiness but the Kingdom (Matt 6:33), not personal prosperity but personal sacrifice for others, and not a pain-free existence but a life of self-sacrificial cross-bearing! We’re invited to follow Jesus into a cruciform pattern of life and we’re promised (by Jesus himself!) that suffering is part of the package (especially) if we’re faithful to His call. Yes, God does pour out material blessings on His children at times, but such blessings are to be the byproduct of obedient discipleship, not the goal of our discipleship itself.

We must read the Prayer of Jabez alongside other texts that emphasize the blessings of the Kingdom often come only on the other side of suffering and sacrifice:

“Now if we are children, then we are…co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom. 8:17).

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

“There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised,  since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 11:35-12:3).

And if you’ll go back and read the rest of the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 which celebrates by name all the heroes of the OT, you’ll notice Jabez isn’t among them, honorable though he was. The heroes were those who spent their life for God’s sake, not those who worked overtime to spare themselves hardship, enlarge their borders and pile up material blessings.

Now, this Sunday’s lectionary for Palm Sunday features what I want to call The Prayer of Jesus, that stands in sharp contrast to The Prayer of Jabez. Like many Jews of his day, Jesus’ imagination was steeped in the OT scriptures, and his brilliant mind could bring to mind texts like this in his daily prayers but especially times of desperate need.

THE SPIRITUAL HABITS OF THE SAINTS

Dallas Willard said in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines that Christians all want to have the same dynamic faith and spirituality of Jesus or the Apostle Paul, but we aren’t willing to taking on the same spiritual habits and practice that made them that way!

We see a concert pianist moving effortlessly across the keys, making spellbinding music, and think it was raw talent? We forget the thousands of hours of practice and years of dedication to become that accomplished.

Similarly, a young couple struggling in their marriage look with envy at a happy couple celebrating their 50th anniversary, and conclude it must have been a good match and natural chemistry! They don’t consider the work, sacrifice, commitment to certain values and even hours of marriage counseling along the way!

With Jesus and to a lesser degree the Apostles, we tend to chalk up their superior faith and spiritual zeal to a supernatural anointing!  I mean, Jesus is God! Of course his prayer life is good! (He’s talking to himself! And even I’m pretty good at that!) He was sinless and had such godly character because he’s the second person of the Trinity! And Paul, well, he wasn’t God but certainly had certain divinely-inspired advantages over me in living out this Christian life!

Now, even if we grant Jesus the divine Son of God factor, and admit that Paul was probably an exceptionally gifted and brilliant man, I still think much of their spiritual zeal, knowledge and character was shaped by very human habits and spiritual practices.

INHABITING THE SCRIPTURES: LIVING THE SCRIPT

Today, I want to again emphasize the power of soaking our minds and our imaginations in the narrative world and promises of the Scriptural story.

You can be a casual Bible peruser reading an isolated verse out of context each morning and try to apply it to your life like your morning make-up or a shot of cologne, to make you look, smell and feel a bit more Christian as you begin your day. This is better than nothing, but this is light years from beginning to immerse yourself in the character-forming, mind-transforming, value-shaping soil of the Bible’s larger story and deeper truths. True spiritual maturity begins to happen when we stop applying the Bible to our life, and instead start applying our lives to the Bible’s unfolding plot!

And I can’t think of a better test case or example than Jesus himself. I can’t think of a moment in his life when he most needed to let his mind and actions be driven, not by his emotions or personal desires, but God’s will than in his last week as he marched toward his destiny —  the cross.

Most of us know the story of Palm Sunday — the Triumphant Entry — by now. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey and was hailed as the long awaited Messiah, he was acting in ways that only God can act, and making claims that only God can claim, and these acts and many more lead us to eventually discover that Jesus was actually God incarnate. But this doesn’t mean that he left his full humanity off at home during his final week and did what he did only with the divine part of him (as if you could divide him up like that!). The way he went about being fully God in human flesh was to be so in a fully human way, taking on all the human limitations while also availing himself of all the human capacities to accomplish his mission. He was not 50% God, 50% man. He was fully God, fully man.

The Bible says, “He grew in stature and wisdom” (Luke 2) and “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” and “he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:7). We grant that his tears and suffering revealed aspects of his humanity, so why not see his teaching style and ability, his deep and intimate knowledge of God, his unwavering faithfulness and spiritual vitality as also partly deriving from his humanity.

I think we need to see in Jesus this Holy Week not just the divine Son walking 6 inches off the ground, un-phased by fear and totally resolved in accepting his fate, but instead a man whose life script was shaped by key Scriptures that he meditated on and found strength and purpose from. He didn’t act how he acted in this last hours merely because he switched off his humanity and let his divine attributes take over. His behavior was consistent with the deep prayers he had been praying for years, and in line with the key roles of certain figures in the Scriptural story he felt he was now taking onto himself.

THE PRAYER OF JESUS & THE SUFFERING SERVANT

In particular, Jesus seems to have meditated extensively on the strange “Suffering Servant” figure of Isaiah and saw his own life and ministry playing out or enacting on the stage of history the script of this figure! The four Servant Songs are found in Isaiah 42:1–9; Isaiah 49:1–13; Isaiah 50:4–11; and Isaiah 52:13—53:12 and were likely on the forefront of Jesus’ mind as he entered Jerusalem that final week and made his final march toward the cross.

Now, let’s read part of one of these Servant Songs and imagine Jesus meditating and praying these lines every day for year upon year, imagining himself into the role and aligning his life and behavior according to the Script. We’ll take it bit by bit, drawing out the key themes we see manifested in his personal character and behavior.

Isaiah 50:4-9

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,

that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.

  1. Jesus certainly had the tongue of a great teacher, and throughout his ministry found ways to sustain the weary with the right word. “Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). The fiery zeal that burned in his belly like Jeremiah before him melted hard hearts and warmed the weary souls, while only letting his words scorch those religious scribes who were not open to his message.

Morning by morning he wakens–
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.

The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.

  1. Jesus lived with his ears tuned continuously to the Father’s voice, retreating to quiet places morning by morning to pray and listen as one who is taught. “The Lord God [had] opened [his] ear” and he went about trying to open others — often teasing and warning with his signature “Let all who have ears to hear, listen.” Because of his ears tuned to the Father’s voice, he was able to resist the other voice (especially Satan) who tried to get him to rebel against the Father’s will and “turn backward” to avoid the suffering of the cross. With ears open, he was able to say, “Nevertheless, not my will by thy will be done.”

I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me;

  1. We can draw a direct line between this script in Isaiah 50 and the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught and exemplified a non-retaliatory and non-violent ethic in the face of conflict. If Jesus indeed prayed this prayer in the days, or years(!), leading up to his final week, his final fate came as no surprise to him. He had played the scene out in his mind many times over, with vivid imagination and great detail. These words were on his mind and lips as the soldiers put on the crown of thorns, spat on him and mocked him, dressed him in a purple robe and sneered at him while taunting him, “Look, he save others, but he cannot save himself!” Instead of “getting even” or defending himself, he remained quiet and calm in his firm belief that “The Lord God helps me.”


therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.

  1. Jesus didn’t live for the world’s approval or fear his accusers’ attempts to shame and disgrace him. His compass was set to the Father’s will and he lived with the same firm resolve we see here — “I have set my face like flint” — to accomplish the task for which he came to earth. Inspired by these lines of Isaiah, Jesus lived with an unwavering trust in God’s ability to vindicate Him.

Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.

Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.

It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

  1. Finally, you sense a bit of confident defiance building up here in the Servant. Let Evil throw everything its got at me! “Bring it on!” The Servant, like Jesus and Paul after him, was filled with a fearless faith & calm in the face of adversity. One hear’s echoes of Jesus’ conversation with Pilate in John 19:10-11: “Pilate said, “Don’t you realize that I have the authority to release you or crucify you? Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me if it were not given to you from above.”  Or, Paul: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Or “Who can separate us from the love of God?” Bring it on! “Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me! He will declare me in the right!”

So, its easy to imagine Jesus’ life and vocation — his very identity — bound up in the role of the Servant in Isaiah, and it was by years of meditation and recitation of such scriptures that gradually made it the script he would play out when the time came. What about his followers? Did they share a similar approach to the Scriptures? How about us today?

THE CHURCH IMITATES JESUS, HIS LIFE IS OUR SCRIPT

The early Christians at times followed Jesus’ example and re-read the Scriptures in light of their new faith in Christ and great commission, and found themselves living out certain roles and scripts in a fresh way. Paul certainly found his vocation and identity in Isaiah’s Servant Songs, called to be a light to the gentiles.

Yet, the life script we Christians are called to inhabit is the the story of Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. As Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ…I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal.) and  our lives are now “hidden in Christ Jesus.” Our life is to be conformed to the pattern, or shape, of Jesus’ life.  So, what shape is it? What’s the pattern Jesus left us?

A great way to find out is to imaginatively sneak into one of Paul’s early house churches and observe them in worship.  Do you hear the sound of singing? If you listen carefully (and understand Greek) you’ll know its one of the earliest hymns preserved for us in Phil 2:6-11. It reveals in stunning beauty the shape and goal of Jesus’ life, while completely subverting or reversing the shape and goal the life envisioned in the Prayer of Jabez.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

    and gave him the name that is above every name,

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

The hymn begins with Jesus already possessing all that Jabez hoped and prayed for. Christ had all the blessings of Heaven at his fingertips; he abided in the perfect presence of Trinitarian love;  he could have used his status, or equality with God, to his own advantage, bossing around celestial slaves amidst the limitless borders of Heaven that couldn’t be enlarged any more. Rather than basking in such blessings and avoiding all pain and discomfort, the early Christians made this the theme of their song, too.

THE SHAPE OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

The pattern of Jesus’ life was the V-shape curve (see below). The pattern of the American Dream and Prayer of Jabez are both a curve that is straight “Up & to the right” (see below) This is to miss the V-shaped life we’re called to imitate. This is to skip over Good Friday’s suffering and only celebrate Easter’s victory. Its a Christianity without the cross, and therefore a Christianity without Christ. The V-shaped life believes God when he says, “Those who humble themselves, I will exalt” and “If you want to find your life, you need to first lose it for my sake.” The V-shaped life is about “being unified with Christ” in his life, sufferings and resurrection; not just seeking blessings from him like a Genie in a Bottle. Paul said, “I want to know Christ, to have fellowship in his sufferings” (Phil. 3).

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BUT HOW DID JESUS & PAUL BECOME THAT WAY?

It doesn’t come naturally, nor easily. Again, we want the spirituality of Jesus or Paul without the spiritual practices that made him that way! Jesus was shaped by the Story of Scripture and his prayers were his time of rehearsing and meditating on the Scriptures. The Words of Scripture literally and figuratively became flesh, and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus.

We can rack our brains theologically and metaphysically pondering exactly how the Word, the Second person of the Trinity, became flesh 2,000 years ago. But let’s also ponder how other truths of Scripture took on human flesh as Jesus lived out their script in his life, and how other Christians like Paul and others did the same. The Word of God became flesh once and for all in Christ, the God-man. But still today the words of God are waiting to be incarnated and lived out in ordinary Christ-Followers like you and me sitting here today.

How does this happen? Simple yet hard.

  • When you choose to value others above yourselves, the word has just become flesh.
  • When you don’t return evil for evil but leave room for God’s vengeance in your next heated conflict, the word has become flesh.
  • When you stop storing up treasures on earth, and instead invest in things of eternal significance, the word has become flesh in you.
  • When you sell your stuff and give to the poor, or visit people in prison, or give a cup of cold water to the least of these, or seek first the Kingdom of Jesus over other earthly Kingdoms, the word of God is taking on your flesh and blood.
  • And hopefully others “see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven!”
  • When we pray ourselves into the story of Jesus’ beautiful, self-sacrificial Kingdom on the move through his followers who have been rescued out of other dead-end narratives and idolatrous stories and daily choose a V-shaped pattern of life, the Word has become flesh!

CONCLUSION & CHALLENGE

BUT WHAT STORY ARE YOU INHABITING? 

WHICH SCRIPT ARE YOU PLAYING OUT? 

IF YOUR LIFE IS A DRAMATIC PLAY IN A SMALL CORNER OF THE WORLD’S STAGE, WHO IS DIRECTING THE PLOT?

Jesus was faithful to his life’s call, and stayed on script to the end not merely because of his divine powers, but because his prayer and devotional life daily had him immersing himself in the Story and rehearsing his role. When the Hour finally came, and the curtain went up, he knew his lines and performed his role like second nature.

Let us immerse ourselves in the narrative of Christ’s life and as we’re joined to him in thought, word and deed, our own lives will begin to take the same V-shape as Christ’s life. We imitate Paul as he imitated Christ. I close with Paul’s great desire for his people, and ask God to make it our great desire:

2 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by 

being like-minded [with Christ], 

having the same love [as Christ], 

being one in spirit and of one mind [with Christ]. 

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit [like Christ]. 

Rather, in humility value others above yourselves [like Christ], 

4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others [just like Christ].

JUST AS CHRIST INHABITED THE SERVANT SONGS, MAY WE INHABIT THE CHRIST HYMN & MAKE HIS V-PATTERN OUR PATTERN FOR LIFE.

LET’S PRAY.

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