The worst advice I ever received as a pastor came at the front end. It’s so obviously wrong it makes me wonder if I heard the man right. It was November of 1962 and I sat in the chapel of our home church, West End Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama. Pastor Bill Burkett had assembled a council of neighborhood pastors and a couple of denominational leaders to question me and then make a recommendation concerning my ordination to the ministry. The men were giving advice on how to succeed in the ministry when one of them fixed himself firmly in my memory with this strange counsel.
“Joe, study hard until you are forty years old. After that, lay your books aside and just preach out of the overflow.” If the others in the room found anything bizarre in that counsel, they didn’t say. A buddy of many years once heard me tell this and asked the obvious question: “What overflow!?”
I’m sixty-five now and still studying. When I left the pastorate last year and became director of missions for the 135 churches and missions that make up the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, I joking said to a friend with the same job in another part of our state, “Since I’ll be preaching in a different church every Sunday, I suppose one sermon will last me two or three months.” He said, “Two or three years!!” We laughed.
I try not to do that, to preach the same sermon every Sunday in different churches. Since the Heavenly Father knows precisely who will be present and what their needs are, the right thing is to ask Him what He would have me preach. So far, it seems to have worked out.
Which leads me to this.
For two Sundays recently, I was going to be preaching to the First Baptist Church of Luling while Pastor Todd Hallman vacationed in North Carolina. When I asked the Lord what to preach, instantly the impression came back to focus on the two men of Jericho, Bartimaeus and Zaccheus, from Luke 18 and 19. I did Bart the first Sunday and Zach the second and enjoyed it immensely.
In reflecting on these two men, I was struck by the way people around them became obstacles to them, hindering them from getting to Jesus. In Bart’s case, the people closest to the Lord Jesus are shushing him, telling this blind beggar to be quiet. In the case of Zaccheus, the people crowded onto the streets to see Jesus and became barriers in the way of the diminutive tax collector. He climbed a tree, you will recall.
I noticed also that earlier in chapter 18, when the mothers brought their children to Jesus, the disciples rebuked them. Talk about becoming an obstacle! These guys have a serious problem about people getting to the Lord.
So, I spent some time in both sermons emphasizing the need to help people come to the Lord and not becoming hindrances in their way.
Recently, a local pastor told me he had had to rebuke one of his church members. “A fellow had walked into our services off the street,” he said, “and naturally he was dressed shabbily. The best I could figure, this man hadn’t been to church in years. One of our men walked up to him and said, ‘Is that any way to dress when you come to the Lord’s house?’ I took him aside and rebuked him. I told him that God wants that man in church, that Christ died for him, and that we will welcome him no matter what he’s wearing.”
The following Sunday I was to preach at Highland Baptist Church in Metairie and, having had such a good time with Bart and Zach, I thought perhaps the Lord wanted me to preach one message about both men. For two days in my early morning studying, I pursued that approach. When it was not coming together the way it should, I did something radical. I asked the Lord what to preach. Instantly, the impression came that I should drop back into chapter 17 of Luke. I read the first 10 verses and was stunned by how all this fits together.
The early verses of Luke 17 comprise a warning from the Lord Jesus to His followers on not becoming stumblingblocks. Jesus pointed out it is inevitable that offences and stumblingblocks will occur, but woe to the one through whom they come. “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” That’s heavy stuff.
What do stumblingblocks do? They get in the way, blocking the path. They hinder the weak, the young, the elderly, the handicapped. They trip you up. Just exactly like the disciples did the mothers in 18:15, the people did Bartimaeus in 18:39, and the neighbors did Zaccheus in 19:3.
So it all began to tie together beautifully.
According to the first ten verses of Luke 17, here are four stumblingblocks God’s people must avoid:
1. Worldly sin. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” Do not let obvious sin remain unconfronted in your fellowship. Nothing causes seekers to stumble quicker than wickedness in the lives of church members.
Now, we have to walk carefully here. The Lord is not sending anyone out as a fault-finder or a sin-spy. There’s too much of that already. But in the case of obvious worldliness–we might think of gambling, pornography, drunkenness, adultery–the sinner should be confronted by one who loves him. That requires love and it demands courage, not to say tact. As Scripture points out, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27:6)
2. Religious Sin. “If he repents, forgive him.” Self-righteousness that refuses to forgive the penitent sinner may become a serious stumblingblock. God’s people are to welcome those who repent, otherwise we deny the very basis of our own salvation.
Self-righteousness has a lot in common with the pounds some of us pack on so easily. They come in so quietly and so easily become a part of our being that we fail to notice we’ve changed, that our clothes are tighter than before. We look in the mirror and see ourselves the way we’ve always been, but in subtle ways, we’ve changed. Our attitude has changed; we are quicker to condemn the fallen and slower to allow them back into our good graces. We have become negative toward others and proud toward ourselves.
Self-righteousness is one of the ugliest traits in many religious people, and a stumblingblock to the humble.
3. Legalism. Jesus said, “And if your brother sin against you seven times in a day and just that often turns and repents, then you shall forgive him.” And, as bad as that sounds–seven times in one day–consider what Jesus said on another occasion: “If he sins seventy times seven, forgive him!” (Matthew 18:22) A legalist is one who draws a line. This far and no farther will he go in forgiving or serving or giving.
The legalist is the fellow who says, “I know the Lord did not actually say this, but He would have if He’d thought of it.” He loves laws and rules. Not “the” Law of God, but “laws.” The legalist takes down the fences God erects to protect His children from the sinkholes and snares of life and rearranges them to fence in the believer. God’s Word has simply fenced off the danger. The legalist fences in the believer to the point he can hardly move or do anything without breaking a rule. “There!” he says, “Don’t you feel more secure now!”
This was the major sin of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. In His scalding sermon which comprises Matthew 23, Jesus pointed out how the Pharisees reorganized God’s Word, ignoring much and exaggerating some of the rest, to the point where they used and abused the weakest and most helpless people, and did it all in the name of the Lord.
Jesus would have none of this business in His followers.
4. A bad spirit. The first three stumblingblocks have to do with failures in others–by condoning it or refusing to forgive it or setting limits on just how much we would forgive. The fourth stumblingblock deals with our self-centered spirit that craves attention and appreciation and honors, putting ourselves up and others down. I love the example Jesus gives.
“Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, ‘Sit down and eat?’ Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I’ve finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper’? Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.'” (Luke 17:7-9, The Message)
Now, please note that Jesus did not say this is how God sees His children. But it’s how we should look at ourselves.
This was the sin of the disciples who rebuked the women for bringing children to Jesus. It is the sin of those leading the way into Jericho who tried to quieten Bartimaeus from calling for Jesus. It is an ugly spirit that loves to be the authority and to put others down. And it’s a stumblingblock to the world, a hindrance to anyone seeking Jesus, a barrier to the weak.
Our role model in all of this is the Lord Himself. The Holy Spirit rebukes and convicts of sin in our lives, and He forgives us again and again as we repent and turn to Him. (See John 16:8 and I John 1:9) There was no finer example to us then the Lord Jesus as He said, “I am among you as one who serves” and “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Matthew 20:28)
Finally, as I was saying above…
I love the way the teachings in the early part of Luke 17 are illustrated in chapters 18 and 19. One would almost think the Lord had planned Scripture that way. (Ahem)
After the guests leave, the old man locks the door and climbs into his attic. He pulls out an ancient chest and unlocks it. As he raises the lid, he sees there all the treasures he has accumulated in a lifetime of adventure. However, something strange occurs now, as it does every time he comes into his attic. He finds new treasures. The last time, he found an ancient coin that had not been there before. Today, he finds a string of pearls. It happens every time.
In Matthew 13:52, Jesus said this is precisely what happens every time someone who knows his Bible opens it. He finds new treasures.
Makes you want to open the treasure chest, doesn’t it?