Getting Our Priorities Right
by Paul Hazelden


Text 1 Corinthians 15
Theme Because of the resurrection, people matter more than things
Subject   Caring for other people
Title Getting Our Priorities Right

Crisis Centre Ministries

It's a real pleasure to be here today with you.

I have been asked to say a few words about Crisis Centre Ministries, so with your permission, I will do so before we properly start on the sermon.

I have some pieces of paper here, and experience tells me that if I don't mention them now, I'll completely forget about them by the end.

Jill (please stand up!) can sell you books of meal vouchers, to give to people if you come across them begging in Bristol.

Please feel free to take copies of the coloured leaflet. Many of the details are out of date, but it still gives you a good feel for the sort of things we do. Several thousand copies of this were printed a few years ago, and I'd really like to use them all so we can produce something a bit more up to date.

If you would like to receive our quarterly newsletter, or our monthly email prayer letter, please add your contact details to this sheet.

We are very keen to send you news of what is happening because we want - we need! - your prayers. Behind all the activities we undertake there is a very real spiritual battle for the hearts and lives of the wounded and vulnerable people we are caring for. Without prayer, nothing else is going to make a significant difference.

The purpose of our work is to bring God's grace and healing love to people with life-disrupting problems. Most of our clients are homeless, and most are alcoholics or drugs addicts. We are working with some of the most vulnerable people in our society - some are, in theory at least, living on benefits; while others have fallen so far, they don't register on the official statistics any more. We are working to see their circumstances transformed, and their lives rebuilt.

This work is strategically important. A great deal of government money is going, in theory, to help these people. In practice, it is going into a lot of well-intentioned schemes that performance-driven, and our clients see very little benefit from these schemes for that reason. Our clients cannot access these schemes, they cannot comply with the conditions for a wide variety of reasons. They struggle to fill in the forms, they forget what day of the week it is and miss appointments, and most of the time they don't want to risk being let down and rejected yet again.

All these projects are performance-driven, so they all want to help the people who are easiest to help. They don't want to work with people who will not give them a cost-effective positive outcome. Nobody wants to work with the people who don't want to change - so it is very often left to the voluntary sector to care for the most needy, and for the most part, that means Christian groups like us.

I can talk with you after the service about the details of what we do, if you are interested. But more important than the details of our work is the fact that we work though volunteers.

We operate according to a few core principles. I don't want to talk about the most important of these right now - we will come back to it later. The other key principles are...

One final plug - our aim is that our evangelism is done in a very particular way... do join us.

 

Getting Our Priorities Right

The Long View

I believe that everybody is good at something, and when you find out what you are good at, you should run with it. I found out early in life that I'm really good at annoying people, and I've been working on it ever since. It came naturally. At school, for example, when my friends or schoolmates were excited by the results of a football match, or upset about some minor injustice, I would really annoy them by asking: what difference will it make in a hundred years?

A hundred years from now, you and I will both be long dead. What difference will it make then whether some insignificant person was really rude to you one Winter afternoon, or whether a referee was biased in some long-forgotten football match? I might not have been very tactful, but still think it's a good question.

Think for a moment about the things you and I did last week. What difference will any of it make in a hundred years time? In a thousand years? When you think about it, the really important question we need to ask ourselves is: what did we do last week that had eternal significance? In the long run, nothing else matters.

I would like to return to this question a bit later.

In the mean time, let us look at a familiar passage where Paul is pointing us towards the long view: 1 Corinthians 15. I'm sure you are all familiar with it, but let's just read a few verses to get a feel for the message.

 

Resurrection

Paul has a lot to say in 1 Corinthians 15 about the resurrection: because Christ has been raised from the dead, we shall be raised; as with a grain of wheat, that which is sown and dies is not the same as that which comes to life; so our bodies too will be sown in weakness but raised in power, sown as a perishable body and raised an imperishable one.

The bottom line is this: we shall be raised from the dead, just like Jesus was, if we are joined to Him - if we are a part of Him. If we belong to Him. It's not a matter of being a nice person, or being sorry about what we have done, or believing the right doctrines. The question is - do you belong to Him? Is He your Lord and Master, your King and your God? Does He rule in your life, or is He just an advisor you sometimes listen to? If you are not sure of the answer, or not happy with it, then please talk with someone at the end of the service.

This chapter is full of wonderful truth, and we could spend all day exploring the various truths Paul touches on. But we have to ask the question: so what? It is brilliant stuff, but what difference does it make to the way we live?

Perhaps I have been unfortunate, but usually when I hear people preaching from this chapter, or about resurrection, it is in the context of a funeral service. Because we believe in the resurrection, we can look forward to being reunited with our lost loved ones. Now, of course this is a good, appropriate and helpful message to give in the context of a funeral service. It's probably a helpful message to give every now and then in a normal service - Christians are the only people I know who are able to face the reality of death, and this is something that makes us really distinctive in the modern world.

But is Paul offering a message of hope to grieving relatives in this passage?

 

Dissatisfaction

Paul is clearly giving a message of hope, a message which is vitally needed today.

Many people in the Western world are experiencing a deep and damaging sense of dissatisfaction. People today are, on the whole, richer than ever before, healthier than at any time in history, and they have more leisure. On the material level, for us in the 'developed world', all the promises of the Industrial Revolution have come true, and we are living in conditions that any earlier generation would regard as paradise.

And yet, every survey undertaken, tells us that we are less happy than before, more depressed, more likely to get divorced, and we are finding ever more elaborate way to kill ourselves. According to Mind, suicides in young men aged 15-24 are now 67 per cent higher than they were in 1982. We know about the dreadful number of people killed each year on our roads, even if we don't want to think about it, but for every one person who dies in a road traffic accident, two people die by committing suicide. We do not live in a healthy and happy society.

The simplistic response is to say that this is a spiritual hunger, and people just need to find Jesus. Unfortunately, almost all of the depressing statistics are equally true of Christians - even Evangelical, spirit-filled Christians. Something is wrong, and our faith and our church life does not seem to hold the answer.

 

Finding Meaning

We sometimes sing a song with the line: "I want to give my life to something that will last forever," but so many Christians I meet feel that they don't manage it. So many people have this problem: we want to invest our time and energy in something that will really matter, and yet we so often find ourselves doing things that seem to have little, if any, significance.

I don't have time to go into details, but I would like to suggest a root cause for this problem, and a cure.

Everything in our culture today is me-centred. The problem we have with Biblical Christianity is not that it isn't true, or that it doesn't work, but I am not at the centre of it - God is.

When we re-orient our lives around God and His truth, then we find the meaning we so desperately need - if we take on board what He has to say about two things: community and eternity. Remember - truth doesn't work unless you live it.

 

Working for the Lord

Returning to the passage, and reading to the end of the chapter, it appears that this teaching about the centrality of the resurrection to our Christian faith is not for Paul a message of hope in the face of personal loss. Hear what he actually says:

"Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain."   (1 Corinthians 15:58)

What is the connection between resurrection and working for the Lord?

What, actually, does working for the Lord mean in this context? I assume I can take it for granted that you know it's not about going off to become a missionary of a minister. It has to be something every Christian can do, no matter what our circumstances or calling.

Working for the Lord has to be about the Christian life: doing good, praying for people, blessing them, prophesying, healing, delivering from demons... I could go on all day

We know the sort of things involved in working for the Lord, the trouble is there are just so many possible things we could be doing. We can't do all of it. We need a set of priorities. Which is where our subject comes in - we desperately need to get our priorities right.

We must be absolutely clear about our priorities, because if we are not, we will find ourselves drawn into a way of living that wastes our time and energy on the unimportant and the irrelevant.

 

Joy

Before we continue to answer this question, I think we need to make one brief side-track.

I would guess that some of you, like me, were taught the acronym 'J-O-Y' in Sunday School. It is a reminder of how you can experience joy by getting your priorities right: Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. I have been a Christian around 30 years. I have lost count of the number of people Sue and I have talked with and counselled over the years, and I have to tell you this: it doesn't work.

If you consistently try to put Jesus first, others second and yourself last, you will not experience joy. You are guaranteed to experience misery, and if you work really hard at it, you will probably experience a nervous breakdown.

There is nothing wrong with putting Jesus first. In fact, Jesus can go first, second and third. Everything we do should be done as an act of worship to Jesus. Everything - whether it is building a car engine or washing the dishes, catching up on the filing at the office or going shopping, making love or watching TV - everything can be done in the presence of the Lord and as an act of worship to Him. If anything is not being done this way, we will have serious problems in our Christian life.

But if you consistently put your needs behind those of other people, you will fall to pieces. The needs of other people will swamp you. You won't have time to eat or sleep. Their grief and frustrations and petty concerns will drive you insane.

The Bible does not tell us to put others first. It tells us to love people, and to "seek first the kingdom of God." Yes, we are called to a sacrificial lifestyle. Jesus gave everything for us, and we are called to give everything in response to Him. Yes, that means sacrificial use of our time and money, but not sacrificial in a stupid way. It means sacrificial in a Spirit-filled, balanced way, like Jesus. In perfectly following His Father's will, there was time for rest and sustenance.

In following Jesus, we do have duties and obligations. I have a greater duty to care for my family than to address the problem of third world debt, a greater duty to bless the people in my church than to solve the problems of the NHS. This doesn't mean I spend no time on third world debt and the NHS - it is all a question of balance, of adjusting our priorities so that they come into line with God's.

 

People Matter More Than Things

Many years ago, I read a book by George Burton. I can remember next to nothing about the context, but the title has stayed with me ever since: 'People Matter More Than Things'. Of course, they do, you say. Of course.

But do we live as though that were the case? Do we treat every person we meet as if they were of infinite value? It seems to me that this is the connection between our work for the Lord, and the resurrection: we work to love and care for and bless other people because we are looking forward to the resurrection, and spending all eternity with them.

Jesus tells us to 'store up for ourselves treasure in Heaven' - but much of the time it is difficult to know exactly what that means, or how to do it. Look around your home: how much will come with you into Heaven? Not the favourite comfy chair or the latest food mixer. But the people you live with will have an eternal destiny.

I asked earlier what did we do last week that had eternal significance. It was almost a trick question. Most people will answer 'nothing' - and feel very guilty about it. But I want you to know that anything you did for another person had eternal significance. Every kind word, every act of forgiveness, every gentle response matters.

I firmly believe that nothing we do for other people is ever wasted.

What has made the greatest difference in your life? Other people. Your life is shaped by your family and friends and the other people you have met - the things they have done for you, and with you, and to you. For good or ill, it is other people who change our lives, and we have the opportunity every day to touch and change other peoples' lives.

We can live as though the people we meet are of infinite value. My eldest son broke a casserole dish last night. There are many ways to use such an event constructively - to help him think about what he stands dishes upon, to learn the value of clearing up after himself, and so on. Perhaps we didn't use the opportunity as well as we could have done, but at least we tried.

I have been with other families when something similar happened, and the consequences seemed deeply destructive - the value of the dish or ornament was stated and re-stated, and the stupidity of the child was loudly repeated. The impression given was that the broken object was more important, more highly valued than the child.

I'm sure this was not really the case, but that is what came across in the words. That is what was being lived. Do we live as though other people are of infinite value?

The new lounge suite, the car, the house - they are all just scrap, or soon will be. But what you do with and for other people will last forever. Do we believe this? Does the way we spend our time, and the way we spend our money reflect this?

 

The Right Priorities

How can we have the right priorities? By living according to our Father's priorities. For God so loved the world...

And when we say He loved the world, we don't mean the rocks and the stones. He created then and they are good, but He loves the people in the world - all the people. They are all made in His image, and Jesus died for every one of them.

Going back to our work at Crisis Centre Ministries for one minute - this is fundamentally what we are about. Loving people. We do a lot of different activities - we feed people, and help them find somewhere to sleep, and help them come off drugs and stay clean, and train them and help them find work, and write letters and go with them to court, and lots of other things. But these are all just details - what we are doing is showing God's love, and building relationships so that His love can be shared more deeply and more completely.

And I can tell you, it works. Loving people is difficult, it is painful, it is time-consuming. We are faced with impossible demands and unreasonable expectations, and often it feels like it is a total waste of time. But in all the mess and the pain and the activity, God is present, touching people's lives, and changing them bit by bit.

And, sometimes, it is simply breathtaking to see the beauty He is creating in lives that were broken and wasted and empty. To see someone who has almost literally nothing giving to another who is even worse off; to see someone giving themselves in worship, when just a short while earlier they were only concerned about themselves and how to get their needs met - that is to see the hand of God at work.

You don't have to volunteer with us to see this happen, although we would love to have you. You can see it happen in your own home and shop and office and school. God so loved the world... that includes your family and friends, but also the bus driver and the shop assistant, and the noisy neighbours, and the kids round the corner who have never learned respect, and the beggar in the shop doorway. Somehow, God's Spirit within you will enable you to treat each one with dignity and respect, to show that they matter.

Maybe tomorrow, you will give a kind word to a stranger you will never see again in your life. And ten billion years from now, the blessing you communicated through that word will still be living on, because the resurrection means that every human life has infinite value, and nothing you do for someone else is ever wasted.

"Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain."   (1 Corinthians 15:58)

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