It's A Secret

Ben H. Swett
Bethany Christian Church
18 July 1993

Once upon a time, there was a man who had a hundred sheep, but one got lost. He left the rest of them in the pasture and went looking for the one that was lost. When he found it, he laid it across his shoulders and carried it home, rejoicing. Then he called to his friends and neighbors, "Come, rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost." (Luke 15:4-6)

You all know that story ... but what about the neighbors? Did they come? Maybe, and maybe not. Surely, some of them said, "So he finally found his stupid sheep. So what?" And others said, "What's the big deal? Oh, well, any excuse for a party."

Now suppose the man did not find his sheep. What then? Suppose he looked all day and came home sad and tired and hungry and discouraged. If he said to his neighbors, "Come, grieve with me, for I did not find my sheep," would they come? Maybe, but probably not. Most would suddenly find they had something very important to do that evening, so they would decline his invitation, with apologies.

Then along comes this crazy preacher. He says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. (Rom. 12:15) If one suffers, all suffer together; if one is honored, all rejoice together." (1 Cor. 12:26) What would the neighbors say to that?

Suppose one of them heard that message and said, "I can see rejoicing with those who rejoice, but why weep with those who weep? Don't you have enough troubles of your own? Haven't you heard the saying, `Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone'? What's wrong with that?"

How should we answer? I think we should say, "It's a secret." Because it is a secret, not known to the world at large, and not revealed by the way of this world. And we should not be too surprised at the idea that Christianity might have some secrets. They are referred to throughout the New Testament. For example, when his disciples asked Jesus why he taught in parables, he said, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand." (Matt. 13:11, Mark 4:11, Luke 8:10)

That's one of the scriptures that are hard to swallow. It is used as a proof-text for the doctrine of predestination, and other speculations, but I prefer a different approach. Okay: we don't like the idea that God would conceal anything from anyone, but He does. He intentionally hides some things from some people. Why? Do we know our God well enough to see why He might do that?

People keep secrets to hide their motives, but God reveals His motives in Jesus. We can read them in the gospel: God does not want anyone to perish; He wants people to have abundant and eternal life. Therefore, I believe God conceals a truth from those who would use it to their own or others' detriment. Even a good person withholds information from those who would use it to hurt themselves or others.

Let's apply that approach to what the preacher said about rejoicing and weeping. We rejoice with some people -- and weep with them -- because we care about them. No big mystery there. But why should we care about anyone? That's a secret.

Why did Jesus tell me to love my neighbor? If I do that, I hurt when my neighbor hurts. Is that what he wants? Well, let's look at it. Jesus said he was sent to earth so that anyone who believes in him might have abundant and eternal life, here and hereafter. Therefore, his commandment should serve that purpose. But how?

I think I see. I look around and notice that people who only care about themselves tend to live narrow, shallow, petty, boring little lives. Those who want pleasure without pain, joy without sorrow, are slaves to their own reactions. People are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but until they transcend that programming, they are not really living -- they are merely reacting, like robots, automata, mechanisms, or a knee-jerk reflex in the severed leg of a deceased frog. Those who care about less and less are somehow dying ... and those who do not care at all are dead. I think that's what Jesus was talking about when he said, "Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you, come and follow me."

Jesus does not promise pleasure without pain, or joy without sorrow, or freedom without responsibility. Liars do that; they always dangle that kind of bait in front of our eyes. But the truth is, it is good for us to open our hearts to both joy and sorrow -- our own and others' -- because that is how we live more fully. It is not good for us to merely seek pleasure and avoid pain, because that keeps us slaves to our own reactions -- and, as a closed mind stagnates, so a closed heart dies.

It is truly said: the key is inside. The key is courage. Christianity is not a spectator sport, or a game for cowards. It is a clarion call for a specific kind of courage: Dare to care! Dare to live!

To those who actually dare to care about others, the Lord reveals some secrets. Now, I don't know many of them, but I do know a few.

Focus your caring

Jesus told us to love our neighbor, but he did not tell us to love the world. Only God can do that. We simply cannot carry all the burdens, all the sorrow, and pain, and injustice of this world. But we can care for a few. Immediate family. Extended family. Friends. Neighbors. Co-workers. Church group. So it is Okay to care about people far away, and those we cannot help, but Jesus told us to focus our caring on those within reach and do what we can to help them. He does not want us to spread ourselves so thin that we become ineffective, bogged down, overwhelmed, useless. Brighten the corner where you are. That's all he asks of us.

The truth about joy

Why were the early Christians so joyous all the time? The fact is, they weren't. That's a myth, a falsehood. But they found joy where others did not, and they felt sorrow where others did not. They enjoyed things others thought were foolish; they were disgusted by things that others enjoyed -- such as the gladiatorial games -- and they suffered over things others thought were amusing or boring. And so it is today.

Freedom from compulsion

Jesus does not call us to a grim, compulsory altruism. That is a form of slavery, and he would set us free. Remember what Satan said to him: "If you are the son of God, prove it! Turn these stones into bread." Likewise, human parasites say to us, "If you are a Christian, prove it! Feed me, clothe me, house me, entertain me, and make excuses for all my sins. That is the Christian thing to do." But they don't know what it means to be Christian. You are not a slave. Unlike a slave, you have the right to choose which burdens you will and will not carry.

But why is that a secret? God only reveals this truth to those who already care, and more specifically, to those who are weary and heavy-laden from carrying too many people's burdens. He does not reveal it to those who do not care, because they use it to their own and others' detriment: "It's my choice, you know. I don't have to care. I don't have do anything for anyone." Those who think that way are dying. Their little lives are narrowing, narrowing, as they sink into self-centered apathy, boredom, and that eventual, irreversible inertia which is spiritual death. And the way they misuse this truth accelerates their dying.

A healing secret

In the book of James we read, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed." Confession is linked to healing throughout the New Testament. But confession is good for the soul and bad for the reputation. So confess in secret -- to those who will not use it against you or spread it as gossip. And when you receive a confession, keep it a secret.

Freedom from circumstances

Paul wrote: "I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want." (Phil. 4:12) I believe Paul was telling the truth. I believe he knew that secret. But I don't. Not yet. So I still have more to learn -- and that's good. Churches are stagnating because of the notion that Christianity has no secrets, nothing more to reveal, and thus nothing more for us to discover, or learn.

Bethany's secret

There is something happening here, in this church, that is difficult to describe. People feel it when they come in, and wonder about it, and sometimes ask about it, but we don't have words for it. And that's Okay. We feel we are doing something right, but we're not sure what, or how. Perhaps it's a secret. Perhaps we are learning something here that the world in general does not know, or see, or recognize.

Look around. Notice that the people you feel closest to are those with whom you have laughed -- and cried. They are part of your family. Relationships formed in joy and sorrow remain long after the immediate joy or sorrow has passed.

And it is not the big things, but little things, that bind us together--things that others might find trivial or foolish or boring.

For example, a month ago, I heard this testimony from a beautiful young woman who was raised in this church. She said, "There is something special about Bethany. I remember, when I was a little girl, there was an old man named John Garver who always greeted me at the door. He bent down, and took my hand, and smiled at me ... and he knew my name."

Little things ... a pat on the back, a shared joke, a sudden squeeze when words won't suffice -- or unashamed tears when any one of us is hurting. These are vital signs, signs of life, symptoms of what it means to be alive in the land of the living.

Therefore, it is right for us to laugh together, and weep together, because it is good for us, individually and collectively. Daring to care for each other enriches our lives, here and now -- and that is what God wants for us, here and hereafter.

I would like to conclude with a little story that may illustrate some of these points.

THE PARABLE OF THE RING

Once upon a time there was a king ... and he was a pretty good king, or at least he tried to be ... but he was not happy. The pressures of his job kept getting to him: decisions, decisions, decisions. Everybody brought him problems. And there were some big problems, too, sometimes: crop failures, floods, bandits in various places, a province in rebellion, a neighboring king preparing for war.

Finally, he said, "Alright, already! Enough of this! Go round up all the wise men and women in my kingdom. Tell them I want an antidote for all this stress."

And of course -- you know the story -- nothing they came up with worked, until one wise old man gave him a ring and told him to look at it whenever he was feeling stress. On the ring was written, This too shall pass. That worked pretty well. It helped the king through a lot of troubled times.

But, as Paul Harvey says, "Now for the rest of the story."

There came a time when things were going well. Crops were good, no floods, most of the bandits had been captured or persuaded to go into another line of business, the rebellious province had an earthquake and was busy cleaning up, and the neighbors had a new king who was not interested in making war. It was a time to celebrate, so the king threw a party -- but right in the middle of that joyous occasion, he happened to look at his ring: This too shall pass.

That made him sad. And the more he thought about it, the sadder he became. So he summoned the old man and said, "What about this ring you gave me? It works two ways. To be precise, it spoils what little fun I have. Do you have an antidote for that?"

"Well ... yes," the old man said. "There is an antidote ... but it's a secret. It cannot be taught, because it only works if you discover it yourself. And it should not be told to most people, because there are certain prerequisites."

"Hmm," said the king. "How about a hint?"

"Well ... Okay. I can tell you where to look for it. Go back through your memories, of good times and bad, and notice what has not passed away."

This kept the king busy for quite awhile, between his many duties, but eventually he summoned the wise old man again and said, "I only find one thing that has not passed away. In good times and bad, I have tried to be a good king. I have tried to see what was right, and to do the best I could under the circumstances."

"Okay, you're getting close. Now, what else do you do, in addition to being a king?"

"Well ... yes ... I try to be a good husband, father, grandfather ... brother, son ... friend. I have tried to be a good man, all my life, and to get better as I went along."

"Why?"

"Why! Why not?"

"Hmp! Why not ... indeed! But what is your reason for trying to live this way?"

"Hmm ... well ... let me see ... it's because that's the kind of person I want to be ... and because I care about people."

"Bingo!" said the sage (or whatever word carried that meaning in those days), "You have discovered the secret antidote. With your permission, I will engrave it on your ring."

"Please do," said the king, not at all sure what it was that he had discovered.

Next day the sage returned. When the king saw the new inscription on his ring, he smiled to himself, and nodded.

It read:
This too shall pass
But I shall continue
And that is the rest of the story.

Will you pray with me?

Dear Lord, help us to see what needs to be changed in our lives, and what does not need to be changed. Help us to repent more quickly and easily when we go astray, but let us not live in perpetual repentance. Help us to see more clearly when we are on track, going the way you would have us go, that we may continue. Amen.


13 July 1993 -- Prayer in preparation for 18 July sermon

Dear Lord, what is it that they -- and I -- need to hear?

We care. The key. Eyes to see. Ears to hear. Then all follows.
A key is designed to open something -- something closed and locked.
The closed mind. The closed heart.
The key is courage.
Dare to care. Dare to experience both joy and sorrow.
Then eyes to see beauty -- and ugliness. Ears to hear good news -- and bad.

Those who want pleasure without pain, joy without sorrow, are slaves to their own reactions.
Those who care about less and less are dying. Those who do not care at all are dead.

This is a truth that sets us free -- free to live more fully -- but it is a secret, a truth not revealed to everyone, because many do not have eyes to see it or ears to hear it. For many people, this truth is a silly notion.

Cut through the myth, the magical thinking, the falsehood, that says we should always be joyous, happy, carefree. It is not true. The early Christians did not have -- or seek -- joy without sorrow, pleasure without pain. And they were not crazy, or as other-worldly as some people think. They found joy in ways the world does not know about. They reacted differently to the world around them.

Meditation on loving

If I love my neighbor as my self, whatever helps him pleases me--and whatever hurts him hurts me. That is the risk I take. My joy and sorrow are automatically linked to those I love. But it can be a clean sorrow -- unashamed, with no apology and no attempt to avoid that reaction -- if I know I have chosen to love this person, and if I know that vicarious joy and sorrow are automatic results of that choice.

Other scriptures about secrets

When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:3-4)

When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:6)

When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:17-18)

Nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light. (Mark 4:22, Luke 8:17)

The secret nature of God

God does not punish anyone for anything, no matter what they have done. The results of sin are automatic, not judicial. God lets people go astray if they insist, and He welcomes them back if and when they return, but He does not punish. Jesus revealed -- and concealed -- that truth in the parable of the prodigal son. Remember? The father did not even ask the prodigal son what he did in the far country; he just welcomed him home.

But why is the nature of God a secret? Look at the parable of the sower: people react in different ways. Those who are sorry for their sins greet that revelation with great joy and a vast sense of relief. But those who want God to punish sinners do not want to hear that truth -- so they don't. And those who are not sorry for their sins merely take it as license to go on sinning.