I think school is starting soon for many folks, so I want to tell you that the mother of a 6th grader once said to me that school wasn’t meant for boys. They hurry through their school work, she said, and don’t really care if they do a good job or not. What they really want is to finish each task in a hurry so they can go out and play.
But there is a bit of the child in all of us, and I think we understand the feeling this mother described – that work is a burden to be cast off as quickly as possible. Children grow to become adults, however, and we learn that work and other responsibilities bring benefits to ourselves and others. We learn the value of doing things well, to be thorough and persistent, to look for the big picture, to have a sense of purpose, and to pay attention to details. Knowing that we can do something well is one of life’s great satisfactions.
Sometimes, though, we need an extra push to do well. It’s easy to decide to do well at the start of something – a project or a career or even in September when the school year begins. But as days go by and work piles up, challenges may arise and enthusiasm wanes. Our spirits may slip and we can tell ourselves that something usually comes along to make a hash of our efforts so what’s the point of doing well?
This isn’t the frame of mind, though, that our Lord has in mind for us. If something is worth beginning well, it’s also worth finishing well. The Lord sets an example for us and provides the inspiration we need. As the people in in this morning’s gospel text observed, he does all things well. What’s more, he passes his desire for excellence on to us. He gives the will not to lower our sights, but to keep our eyes focused on the best we can do.
He performed well every part of the mission his father gave him – he healed the sick and consoled the grieving; he spread the word of truth; he gathered disciples and created a kingdom of believers; he gave his life as a sacrifice for our sins so that the highway of salvation will always be open to us. Everything he touched turned out well. Such great faith and love filled him that nothing could discourage him. The excellence of his work drew people to him, as in this morning’s gospel.
A little background information will help us appreciate it better. The cities Mark mentions were outside Israel. In the days when the Israelites returned to their homeland from captivity in Egypt, God commanded them to take this area for their own, but they lacked the strength or will-power to carry out the task, so Joshua’s army failed at this part of their mission. Tyre and Sidon became important centers of trade and industry. Pagan religions flourished there. Instead of churches, as we see on the streets of southern Ontario, the people worshiped at temples dedicated to false gods with such names as Zeus or Hercules or Dionysus. Tyre was famous for its purple dye; Sidon was a prosperous port; the Decapolis was a region of cities the Romans had brought together in a tight-knit league for defense and trade. For centuries, this area was closed to the religion of the Israelites so the people there didn’t hear the word of God.
But Jesus took it upon himself to visit this pagan territory. He performed numerous miracles of healing. As Isaiah said the Messiah would do, he healed the lame, opened the eyes of the blind, and unstopped the ears of the deaf. People usually want better lives than what they have. We can imagine life without illness or poverty or war, without anger and fighting and unbelief. Some of the folks in those pagan lands, where Jesus may have stayed for six to eight months, saw in the Lord the fulfillment from God of their deepest wishes. They knew that Jesus understood their infirmities of body and soul and that he would heal them in good time if they kept faith with him. They understood that he would do more for them than any powerless pagan deity and so their hearts went out to him. “He has done everything well,” they exclaimed and gave glory to the God if Israel.
Jesus accomplished through faith and love what the army of Joshua could not do. He brought the kingdom of God into a strong-hold of hard-hearted paganism and many people accepted it for as long as Jesus was with them. He introduced the church of God into gentile territory, and it has been there ever since. What’s more, he didn’t act hesitantly or with a spirit of experimentation, he visited pagan cities with conviction and certainty that his work would produce good fruit, and so he did all things well.
He still does things well today. The society around us values talent, whether in sports or work or entertainment. We can be in awe of folks who use their abilities well. We also hear about people who use their talents to get the best of others.
Jesus breaks through worldly ideas of excellence by way of the Bible to bring us himself and his promises. If we’re discouraged or discontented or tempted to close in on ourselves, Jesus opens our hearts to focus on him. He gives us himself to feed on and enters our hearts to become part of us. We discover that true excellence depends on other values than worldly ones, in particular faith and love.
Now, it’s a characteristic of some Christians to have our failings and our sins always before us, but we can’t aspire to anything worthwhile if our shortcomings perpetually haunt us. Faith begins with the trust that our trespasses are forgiven through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross and that this forgiveness is salvation. Since we always want to do things for ourselves, we put up numerous impediments to admitting that we need to be forgiven. It’s easy to make excuses for ourselves. Someone once said to me that even some folks who attend church regularly may not understand their need for forgiveness or that forgiveness is available. I doubt that’s true for anyone here, but just in case...if we don’t trust that Jesus died for all the sins of all mankind including our own, then everything we do now will be shallow and second-rate and disaster will befall us in eternity. Fortunately, Jesus’ forgiveness never stops, and abundant joy awaits even those who come to appreciate what our Lord has done after years of neglecting him. Faith begins with gratitude for Jesus’ pardon.
This saving faith has an impact on our daily lives now. It brings us confidence in ourselves. We are certain that the accusations of Satan and some of our neighbors can’t hurt us. Saving faith means that we look in the first place to God and not to other people for meaning, direction, and approval. Saving faith makes it possible for us to do well everything that comes our way.
The second ingredient of excellence is love. There are many different kinds of love. Here we mean the kind of love that God has for mankind, the love that sent Jesus deep into the heart of paganism with the healing word of God. St. Paul said the last word on Christian love – that without it a person is nothing. Absence of love has the same effect on the quality of work as the absence of faith – the results are shallow and noisy, like tinkling cymbals. But with the kind of love that seeks the highest good of others, the outcome is bound to be excellent. Christian love isn’t easy, but God makes it possible. We don’t brood about people who make life unpleasant for us but focus on Christ and our understanding of his plans for us. Then we see our neighbors’ failings less and less and think instead about what we might do for them in love and with the wisdom and insight the Lord gives us. We’ll never be perfect in love on this side of the grave, but with God’s help we do our best. Our attempts to bear the burdens of others is what God means by love.
Jesus did all things so well that his ministry in the Middle East almost two thousand years ago reverberates in the world today as our congregation testifies and thousands of others demonstrate. The Holy Spirit brings us together to teach us, to pardon us, and to transform us so that we too become excellent. As we go about our tasks of love, we know that in Christ we, too, do all things well.
We remember that for Christians, excellence is more than mastering skills and the ability to influence others. Our Lord gives us his qualities to live by – faith and love. Whether it is school or work or raising a family or helping out in church and community, things go well because we act as our Lord did – in faith and love, which are the guidelines that lead to Christian excellence and the qualities the Lord intends to fill our lives with. So in his Name we rejoice. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.