You may wonder whether a sermon in a Sunday service is the place to be talking about being a credible Christian man, given that at least half the congregation are women, but let me suggest that at least some of what we’ll talk about today is equally relevant to women, and even those bits that aren’t are important for all of us to understand so we can support the men among us in being more credible as Christian men. Besides which, women will get their chance later in the series.
The great difficulty in thinking about what it means to be a credible Christian man is that we first need to think about what it means to be a man in today’s world. This whole question of where men find their sense of identity has become one of the major issues, for men at least, over the past 20 or 30 years. Men are no longer sure of who they are. For example, we’ve been told so often to get in touch with our feminine side that we’re not sure what our masculine side is any more. Our place in the workforce, our position in society, even in the church, has all been changed as more and more women enter areas that were previously the realm of men alone. Now that hasn’t been a bad thing. There were inequalities and injustices that badly needed to be addressed. But men have struggled to deal with these changes, probably more than women have.
So let’s begin by thinking about where men tend to find their sense of identity. Let me suggest that most men find a sense of identity in one or more of the following areas: sporting achievement, particularly in team sports; in career achievement, how far they’ve gone in their chosen profession, how high they’ve climbed the corporate ladder, how big their business is, etc; academic achievement: how many degrees they have, how many papers have been published; they might get a sense of identity from being a parent, though again, fathers, it seems are often not sure what that means for them. But they do get something from the things their children do, the sporting, career, or academic success they have. Occasionally a man might find his sense of identity from his family background, the things his parents have done. Finally, our financial security, our financial achievements, might be an important factor for some of us.
Now you may have noticed a theme running through that list as I spoke. That’s the theme of achievements. It seems to me that achievement is central to the way men see themselves. When they fail to achieve, they get depressed. Apparently the suicide rate for men in country Australia has risen markedly over the past few months, as men have seen their livelihood burnt away by day after day without rain. Men struggle when their livelihood is taken away by something like a prolonged drought. It isn’t just that times are hard. Times are often hard on the land. But there must be something deeper that leads men to despair to the point of suicide. I can’t help but think that it has to do with their sense of identity being undermined by their inability to provide for their families.
You see a similar phenomenon with men who have recently retired. You often hear of men who have gone into a serious decline when they no longer have their work to go to. That’s why it’s so important for men to prepare for retirement. Particularly if their work is the source of their sense of identity or of their self esteem.
So if men get their sense of identity from what they do, can you see that that may be a problem for Christian men?
Let me explain. What does the gospel teach us about our identity? What have we learned in 10 months of sermons on Romans this year? Well, we’ve learnt first of all that there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s approval. Our achievements as Christians don’t make us right with God. Rather, our identity as Christians comes as a gift from God who adopts us as his children. We don’t earn it. It comes as a gift. Who we are as God’s sons and daughters has an eternal reality that’s independent of what we achieve. So if we want to live as witnesses to Christ, proclaiming a gospel of grace, based on what Jesus Christ has done for us and nothing else, how are we going to do that as men? How are we going to throw off the old way of thinking that says who we are depends on what we do?
Now let me say that this isn’t really a recent phenomenon. Men have always found their sense of identity in what they’ve achieved. Even in the days of Moses God had to warn them against thinking that they were self-reliant. We read one of those warnings in our first reading today. The people of Israel were about to enter the promised land after escaping from Egypt and spending 40 years wandering from place to place in the desert. God was about to lead them in and give them victory over all the inhabitants of Canaan. They were to drive out all the people from the land and then would be free to live in their cities and farm their land. And so God reminds them that the source of all they have is the word of God (8:3), then he warns them "do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, (14) ... [and] 17Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." 18But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth." He says a similar thing in Deut 6:10-12: "When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you -- a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant -- and when you have eaten your fill, 12take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."
You see the danger we face is that we look at what we’ve achieved and we begin to think that we’ve done it. That it’s all due to our cleverness, our skill, our wisdom, our foresight. Instead, we need to look at our achievements with humility; with a sense of dependence on God. If people are going to look at us as credible witnesses to the gospel they need to see that we’re dependent on God for everything we have, not just our salvation.
Similarly in the area of financial success, financial security. How does it look when we proclaim a gospel that says our eternal security depends on the work of God alone, yet we always seem to be worried about our material security.
There’s a couple of interesting things in that reading from Matthew we had today about the rich young ruler. Notice that when he asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, the question is put in terms of what good deed he must perform. i.e. what he has to achieve. And notice that when Jesus lists the commandments he leaves out the last one. It’s as though Jesus knows that that’s the one that’ll catch him up. He knows that the one thing holding him back from a whole hearted obedience to God is his wealth, or perhaps it was his reliance on his wealth. In other words, his self-reliance. And so Jesus holds that one back and then gives him a simple task to do. ’Sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.’
Now the issue isn’t just that he has this wealth. It’s more to do with how much he relies on it. And how he uses it. And to what extent can he give it up?
So is that relevant to what we’re thinking about today? Well, I think it is for some of us. How many Christians claim to have all they need in Christ? How many would claim to believe that our real treasure is stored up for us in heaven, yet when you listen to what we talk about, and watch where we spend our time and our energy, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of it concentrating on worldly wealth rather than heavenly riches.
Now I realise that this sort of thinking will put some people into a difficult position. You see if I say that my first priority is God and in particular that worshipping with God’s people on a Sunday is the most important thing I can be doing, because God’s word tells me not to give up meeting together, what do I do when my boss asks me to work some extra hours on a Sunday morning to get some important task done? Or what do I say when the boss organises an office picnic or family day on a Sunday? Do I say "Sure. I’ll be there." Or do I act in a way that’s consistent with what I claim to believe about my priorities and tell the boss that I can’t be there until after church? Even at the risk of earning the boss’s displeasure. Of course the same sorts of questions could face any of us when friends or families put things on on a Sunday, or when our kids’ sports teams or scout or guide groups have special Sunday functions that conflict with our meeting together.
What does it say to our credibility if we never seem to blink an eyelid when these sorts of decisions arise?
I mentioned Brian Booth a few weeks ago. He was someone who went out of his way to remain consistent to what he believed. So much so that he was willing to give up a place in the Australian Olympic team because for him, worshipping with God’s people on a Sunday was his first priority. And that consistency of behaviour meant he was a powerful witness to the faith he proclaimed.
Another area, where I think we all have a problem, but certainly men do, is in the area of admitting our mistakes. It seems to me that there’s a strong mentality in our culture that says never admit you’re wrong. Instead, find an excuse that explains it away. Now for men this is a great difficulty, because to admit you’re wrong is to admit weakness, and we all know that for men weakness is the greatest sin. And to admit I made a mistake or that I did something that I shouldn’t have done requires great humility on my part doesn’t it? It might mean I have to go to the person I’ve wronged and ask their forgiveness. It’s interesting isn’t it: I have no problem going to the almighty God, the creator and judge of the universe and confessing my sins and asking for forgiveness. But when I have to do it to my wife or my children or my friends, I hate it. I’ll avoid it at all cost.
Yet the gospel we proclaim says that everyone of us is a fallen creature who continually fails to live up to God’s standards. We’re people who continually fail in our obedience to God. Our message is that the breakdown of relationships is a given unless God comes and changes our hearts. So how do we live that out in our lives, in our relationships with people? Do people see us admitting our mistakes and seeking forgiveness, seeking to make amends, or do they see us as no different to anyone else in the way we avoid taking responsibility for our sins. The credibility of our witness might hang on that question. And it might take a lot of practice to change the answer.
Finally, our credibility as Christian men will depend to a greater or lesser extent on the way we use and express our sexuality. As Christians we proclaim a message that includes the premise that God created men and women to be in lifelong faithful relationships with one another and that when two people are joined in sexual union they become one flesh. That, at least, is the biblical view on sexual relationships as I understand it. So if we’re proclaiming that sort of message we’d better be living it as well, hadn’t we? We live in an age when sexuality is high on the agenda. There are no taboos any more in this area. So we’re likely to get involved in conversations where people’s sexual exploits are discussed. Now I’m not suggesting we make any moral judgements about the behaviour of other people, unless of course they’re our Christian brothers and sisters with whom we have that sort of trusting relationship. There is a danger that sexual sin is treated as worse in some way than other sins. But I would say that it’s important that we be seen as pure in this area in particular. Last week we read from Ephesians 5:1-4 "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 3But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. 4Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving." We don’t need to be prudish in the way we behave when people start to tell vulgar jokes or talk about their latest exploits in fornication, but neither do we need to join in as though this were OK. Instead let our words be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that we may know how we ought to answer everyone (Col 4:6), so that we come across as people who are credible when we speak about our faith in the living God who made us and sustains us. And let’s make sure that our own lives are characterised by the sort of moral rectitude that the gospel requires.
Well, there’s much more we could say, I’m sure. I don’t know that I’ve covered half of what it might mean for us to be credible as Christian men. Unfortunately time is against us. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t spend some time thinking about how your life in all its many aspects reflects your faith. In the end, only you can work out what it means for you to be a credible witness for Christ. And as I said at the beginning, the women among us can help us as we think about those sorts of issues, remembering of course that the issues that women face will probably be different, though no less important to our task as witnesses to the gospel.
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