I want to begin by telling you about this book. When Sue and I were in high school, we were active members of our youth fellowship. There must have been 40 or 50 of us. A farmer in our congregation was so concerned about the spiritual life of the youth that he purchased a book for every one of us. If I recall correctly, he bought 50 or 60 of these books at $3.50 a piece and gave each one of us a copy. You can do the math, but in the 1950s, that was a lot of money. And it moves me to this day to think of this man’s dedication.
The book was Separated unto God, written by J.C. Wenger, a well-known Mennonite theologian. Years later, Sue and I were privileged not only to meet him, but to sit in his classes. He writes that one of his goals in writing the book was to “deepen the conviction with which the truth of separation unto God is held by the members of such bodies of Christians as Mennonites . . . and Church of the Brethren.” And he writes about areas of our lives in which we need to recognize that we are the temple of the living God and that God lives in us and walks among us. We are not just separated from the world; we are separated unto God.
One of the scripture passages this book is based on comes from II Corinthians 6. The idea of this scripture is that just as you would not hook up a mule and a horse together to get work done, neither can you expect to bring together believers & unbelievers or light & darkness or God’s temple & idol worship and still be pleasing to God. Some things were never meant to be brought together; they are incompatible. They are headed in opposite directions.
It’s like the guy who saw someone struggling with a sofa in a doorway so he got on the other end to help. They pushed and tugged, but it would not move. Finally, the guy put his end down and said, “It’s no use. We’ll never get it in there.” The other guy said, “In? I thought you were taking it out.” You can’t push and pull at the same time.
The Bible says Christians are the temple of God. A temple is a place where God lives. So if God is going to live within us, we need to live his way, not some other way. If God is going to walk with us, we need to get in step with him, not somebody else. If God is going to be our God, then we need to act like his people and separate ourselves from those things that pull us away. As God’s people we are set apart from the world and separated unto God.
All of us have experienced the tug of the world that pulls us away from God’s way. In my own life, there have been several decision points that helped me see the importance of being separated unto God. I want to tell four stories to illustrate the meaning of the text.
Education. One of the first times I became aware of the importance of being separated unto God had to do with education. Sue and I grew up in a large, rural, Mennonite church in southeastern Iowa. We were both privileged to grow up in homes in which our parents were devout followers of Jesus and faithful members of the church. For both of us, our daily schedule included a time for family worship when as a family we read the Bible and prayed. And on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evening, no matter how busy our parents were on the farm, their work never kept them from church.
Our parents’ devotion to Christ was expressed in many ways. One of the most significant for Sue and me happened when we were ready for high school. Our parents were troubled by some of the activities at the local public high school and they wanted to separate us from those influences. My father went to talk with the school officials, but they could not promise any changes. So several parents decided to send their teenagers to a Mennonite high school 35 miles away. One of the dads bought a station wagon and got a job near the school. He drove eight of us to and from school every day that first year. It was a considerable sacrifice for our parents. Not only did they have to pay transportation costs and school tuition, but they had to do without us that additional hour morning and evening when we could have been helping with the chores on the farm. By the next year there were enough students for a small bus. Two years later it required a big bus. Neither Sue nor I would trade those four years of Christian education for anything. That decision of our parents reinforced our understanding that we are the temple of the living God and that we are to be separated unto him.
I’m not saying my faith would not have survived in a public school, but sometimes God presents us with opportunities to move with him through a door so we can avoid being mismatched with people and influences going in the wrong direction.
A Christian high school may not be possible for any of you, but for you teenagers who are thinking about college, I want to put in a plug for Christian colleges. I know college education is expensive and you may be able to get a cheaper education at another school, but you won’t find the support, encouragement, and opportunities to develop your spiritual life. The choice you make will affect the rest of your life.
I was reminded of the impact of a Christian college last week. Some of you remember a young man, a student at Bluffton in the late 80s, who was baptized here. Last Wednesday, he gave us a surprise visit. He had his share of struggles with alcohol and tobacco, but is now an exuberant Christian with a wonderful wife & family. He works as a successful television reporter. He knows what it means to be the temple of the living God and what it is to be separated unto God.
We are so grateful that Dani (student assistant) can be with us for the summer. We are especially grateful that she has chosen to be separated unto God. For the rest of you, no matter how old you are, remember that God wants to live in you. Use your body, your mind, your energy to please God. His promise in v 18 says, “I will be your father and you shall be my sons and daughters.”
Marriage. My second story has to do with being separated unto God in marriage. Now I never had any doubt that the woman I would marry would be a Christian. I never dated a non-Christian. I would never have considered it because I knew that if I was going to reach the potential God had for me, I could not be mismatched with someone who was not committed to Christ.
Even though I was confident that ultimately God would guide me into a relationship with the right person, that doesn’t mean I was patient. I suppose I was not the only one who prayed for God to provide a partner like He provided Eve for Adam. Adam didn’t seem to have to work for it or worry about it. Not that I wanted to lose a rib, although I think I’d have been glad to do that. I remember asking God questions like, “If not that one, who?” And “if not now, when?” It seemed like a long time, but eventually I realized that God provided a real gem close at hand and even though Sue and I had known each other all through childhood, God lit a fire in our hearts and we realized that God had kept us for each other. We knew from the beginning that we were the temple of the living God and that he had set us apart for some kind of ministry. We were ready to become missionaries if that was what God wanted. We got engaged during college and we married at 21 years of age.
Let me just say, if you still have the decision about marriage ahead of you, determine right now that you will let God lead you to someone who is separated unto God so that you do not become mismatched with an unbelieving spouse. Don’t take short cuts; don’t try to get ahead of him. God will lead you.
If you are married and your spouse is not a believer, remember that you are the temple of God and that God wants to use you to bring that person to Christ. Let your spouse know that as v.17 says, “God wants to welcome you and He wants to be your father” In marriage, we are the temple of the living God and we are to be separated unto him.
Career. My third story is about career choices. When I graduated from college, I had a degree in English and a teaching certificate. I was offered a contract to teach. At the very same time, however, we were being asked if we would consider going to Japan as self-supporting, English-teaching missionaries. We had a decision to make. It wasn’t that teaching in the public school was bad or comprising; I’m convinced that God could have used us there. But if we were going to walk the more obedient way, we knew that I’d have to give up that contract for an uncertain future.
The assignment we took in Japan was one no one had ever tried before. We didn’t know the language; we didn’t know how things would turn out. But we knew that we were temples of the living God and that we were separated unto God and if we were going to find that more perfect way, we needed to go to the land of the Rising Sun. And we have never regretted it. We learned a lot about God, about people, about ourselves.
Some of you are thinking about your future career. Let God guide you into one that God can bless. Find work that builds rather than destroys. Find a career where you can work with people rather than manipulate them, a career that promotes health, rather than takes it. There are some jobs you simply cannot take as a Christian because you are separated unto God.
Sometimes your convictions may have a positive effect on others. Sue and I knew a man in Chicago who worked for one of the early video game companies. He was a member of the church we attended there. You may recall the video game Pacman. He was one of the designers. Later his company came up with a proposal for a new game that was violent and they called him in to ask his advice. He told them that if they decide to produce it, he will have to resign. They respected his position and his expertise so much, they turned in a different direction. He knew that he could not use the talents God had given him to produce something that devalued life. That would be a mismatch. He knew he was the temple of the living God and that he was separated unto him.
Ethics. My last story is about ethical behavior. While I was teaching in a Japanese university, a student in her last year got into academic difficulty and failed my course. She had been absent. She hadn’t done her work. She already had a job and if I didn’t pass her, should would most likely lose that job opportunity. This was in the 70s when a big thing in the news was the Lockheed scandal. The U.S. company Lockheed had bribed Japanese officials with millions of dollars so they would decide to buy their airplanes. Some of those officials ended up in prison. I wonder if the parents of this girl thought that since Americans offer bribes they also take them because one day our doorbell rang and there were the parents of this girl. They had come to “thank” me for my teaching and to ask if I might reconsider my grade for their daughter. She had missed school because of her mother who had been ill, and so on. I said I could not do that. As they left, the father laid the envelope in front of me. It contained about $200. I sent it back the next day.
All of us are confronted with the temptation to engage in immoral, unethical behavior from time to time. It is at those times that we need to remember that we are the temple of the living God, that God lives in us and walks among us. We are not just separated from the world; we are separated unto God.
The letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians still gives us guidance today. This passage warns us of the dangers of being mismatched with forces and influences of the world. Pulling and pushing at the same time won’t work.
But it also promises that if we remember that we are the temple of the living God, God will live in us and walk with us. He will welcome us and he will be our father and we shall be called his sons and daughters. And if you have not claimed that promise for yourself, I pray that you will soon.