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Basically Honest

A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on July 8, 2012.

Revelation 2:8-11

Morning Prayer:

Our Father, we, your children, come humbly before you this morning.  We know that you are light and in you there is no darkness at all, but in the path of our lives, we see where we have cast shadows of sin.  We know that you are truth, yet memories of deception linger in our minds.  O God, we lament the condition of the world where hostility and distrust color every endeavor, and every conversation seems to include these elements.  O God, how shall this world be a better place without better people?  Who should be on the cutting edge of character if not your children?  Therefore, for the sake of your witness in the world and for the sake of our future together, make us hunger for righteousness.  Do not let us be satisfied with anything but the good, the honorable, the noble, and the virtuous.  Teach us to thirst as well for the truth, to seek nothing else but the honesty, the upright, the authentic, and the uncorrupted things of this world.  Honor ever effort of integrity and cause every lie to fail.  Reveal the causes that reflect your desire for us and hide from our sight all temptation that would diminish our witness for you.  O God, we confess our weakness to live up to these things so we pray for your spirit to dwell in us fully so that we might stand and persevere in order for your will to be done upon the earth.  In Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.

Meditation Text:

People who are content being basically honest are admitting that when the stakes are high enough, they are willing to be dishonest.  Doesn’t that mean they are basically dishonest?  I once heard that a former presidential press secretary told a university audience that he believed in always telling the truth to the press.  That way, he said, they will believe you when you have to lie. 

                                           —Michael Josephson in The Power of Character 

If you had to list the challenges that the world face, what would be on your list?   On my list would be politics.  It has seemed for a number of years that the two-party system is dysfunctional and not able to work together.  Each one blames the other, and I think to most of Middle America, it is a very frustrating experience. 

Also on my list is climate and this relates to the first thing on my list.  You cannot even get an answer on climate without it being a political discussion.  People of various political persuasions are saying that science has to be this way or it must be that way.  I don’t know why things are the way they are, but I am confident that the recent number of days above 100 degrees is different from what many of us have experienced most of our lives.  I think it is fairly easy to say that the polar cap is melting and water is rising.  Again, people disagree as to why that happens.  If we wanted to list the challenges that the world faces, climate would be on there.

Terror has not gone away and we can list a number of things about that.   High on my list is the fact that the world is basically honest.  Many of you know me well enough to know that there is going to be something behind that.  That sounds like a good thing, so how could that be a bad thing?  Surely, things such as gangs, drugs, drug wars, and any number of more violent things should be above the problem that the world is basically honest unless we stop to realize that sweeping through our culture and engulfing just about everyone, including Christians, is this problem that we have become satisfied with what I call people being basically honest.

You have read the title of today’s sermon and chances are you have read the meditation text, but what is the problem here?  Michael Josephson who writes and teaches for a foundation about character was giving a workshop one day and talking about honesty.   He had been talking about the need for character and what character involved, and at a break, someone came up to him and said, “You are making me uncomfortable because, basically, I am an honest person and I can’t live up to this.”   The meditation text for today is Michael Josephson’s response.  What is the difference between saying, “I am basically honest,” or “I am basically dishonest.” 

If we were to give an honesty test, how high would a person have to score to be considered honest?  If you made 51 out of 100, would that make you an honest person?  If you have a balance, the balance would settle to the side of honesty, but is being honest half the time good enough to say that you are honest?  Surely no!  Would we want to deal with anybody who lied to us half the time?

If we were to think of a passing grade in school as being 70%, would we say that when a person speaks to me honestly seven out of ten times would that be high enough?  No!

If you were married and you were dealing with a spouse who was honest with you 90% of the time—so that only 10% of the time when they spoke to you they were lying—would that be the basis for a loving and lasting relationship?  That would probably come out to three or four good lies a day.  When you stop and think about it like that, is that honest? 

What does it mean to say that a person is basically honest?  If we were to allow 10% dishonesty, it is laughable to consider that honesty.  What we really say is, “I am basically an honest individual.   When the living is easy and when there is no pressure, I can be honest.  I can tell the truth.”

The trouble is life is rarely like that.  Life is filled with pressure and, sooner or later, something is going to be at stake.  Sooner or later, there is going to be an issue of success or failure or pressure from the outside.  The temptation is going to be whether or not to fudge, to spin things just a little more in our favor, to deceive and say words that might be literally true but give a false impression so I can say, “I told the truth,” when we know that is not the truth. 

When pressure comes, we fudge, lie, deceive, distort, or spin enough to get what we want.  There really is a crisis of this in our culture.  Let me give you a few examples.  I will use one name because it was a very prominent case in the news.  It did not take any effort to look this up. 

Years ago, Sears was one of the major automotive repair places across the nation.  They went from paying their mechanics by the hour to paying them on commission.  When they did, the mechanics were told, “If you don’t make your commission, you will not get paid and if you don’t make enough commission, you will be fired.”  There was the need on the part of the Sears’ mechanics to offer you services you really did not need, and to diagnose repairs that did not need to happen.  Sometimes the mechanics said repairs were done that never took place because they were not needed. 

There was a major class-action lawsuit across the country, and Sears was found liable for this.  Sears had created a culture in which the only way their employees would succeed was to lie, to cheat, and to say that cars needed repairs that did not really need to happen.  That is part of the pressure, the sweep, and the movement where the expectation is that we are going to do whatever is necessary to get the job done.  The job was to make the quota so the employees could make a living.

People who would never teach their children to lie, people who would never lie to their parents, people who would never lie to their spouses, and people who would not cheat on their taxes were forced, day in and day out, in their world to decide, What am I going to do? and the pressure and the temptation were there, so they caved. 

Another great example is diagnosis shopping for SAT help.  Let’s just say you have a teenager who wants to go to a school and they are 50 points shy on their SAT of making their score.  You can get a diagnosis about a learning disability that will allow them more time on the SAT.  Parents who would be totally distraught if their children ever cheated on a test, plagiarized a paper or turned in work that was not theirs, will shop until they can find a professional who will give the right diagnosis because an extra hour on the SAT could result in a high enough score to go to the college of their choice.  All of a sudden, the pressure is on for a child’s happiness.  I want my children to be happy.  I would want my grandchild to be happy.  When the pressure comes, we would begin to say, do, distort, twist, and rationalize in our own minds just enough to get it the way we want it.

A study shows that one-fourth of all the people in this country believe that it is perfectly legitimate to lie to your insurance company about the number of miles that you drive to work in order to reduce your insurance rates.  One-third believe that it is perfectly OK to lie to your insurance company about your address so that you can be in a zip code or particular location where the rates are lower than your actual address.  All of these things are just a part of the world we live in.  People have come to accept all of these things and we are all basically honest. 

These are just three examples.  We could all come up with others where people would say, “It’s no big deal.  All I am really trying to do is get . . .”  We can see where that is going where we are basically dishonest.  The job, the children’s happiness or money is at stake and we will do whatever is necessary.

You may be wondering how the passage from Revelation 2:8-11 fits into this.  The Book of Revelation begins with the first chapter as an introduction, and in the next two chapters, John writes letters to seven churches in the world of Asia Minor.  The cities have funny names like Pergamum and Thyatira.   Verses 8-11 contain the letter to Smyrna.  Smyrna was under persecution.  Nero’s time had passed.  Domitian was now the emperor and he was far worse than Nero in his persecution of Christians.  Christians were marked.  They could not buy, they could not sell.  Imagine if you went to any store in Rome this afternoon, and they told you, “Sorry, you can’t buy gas, you can’t buy food.  Sorry, you can’t trade here,” because you did not have the mark.  There was nowhere you could go to get what you needed.

Other Christians were arrested, tortured, and killed.  The word of John in this particular section of Revelation is that our faith has consequences.  He says to these early Christians, “Persevere.  No matter what happens to you, live the life that you are called to live in Christ.”

For these Christians in the ancient world, it is a matter of life and death.  For us, it is rarely that but there is a tremendous amount of social and peer pressure.  There is a certain amount of not wanting to be ridiculed.  There is a certain amount of pressure to get along and not draw attention to ourselves.  Living for Jesus and living the righteous life that Jesus has called us to live have consequences.  To live a genuinely—not a basically—honest life and to indicate that we do so because we are God’s children, is there anyone who thinks that would not have some consequence for us?  Do we think someone would not include us or single us out?  It has consequences.  If we live the life of righteousness and a genuinely honest life, we will pay. 

A story that haunts me happened in the 1500’s in mid-Europe.  A part of the tradition where Baptists come from includes the Anabaptist tradition.  Ana means again.  These were Christians who did not believe in infant baptism.  They would baptize again, and it was a derogatory term by many Christian groups.  They were baptizing believers.  There was an Anabaptist named Dirk Willems and he had been captured for his faith and had escaped.  He was escaping across a frozen lake and there were two men pursuing him.  One of the men fell through the ice.  Dirk Willems heard his cry and stopped for only a moment and went back to help the man out of the icy water.  About the time he helped the man out of the water, the town sheriff arrived on the scene and the person whose life was saved said, “He could have gotten away, but he risked his life to come back and save me.  Let him go.”

The sheriff said, “No, we have the law.  We have to uphold the law.”

So they arrested him again, took him back to town, tortured him, and eventually burned him at the stake.  Faith had consequences.  Living up to the righteousness that he perceived in Jesus Christ cost him his life.  The word of John to the early church in the Book of Revelation and to us today is that whatever circumstances we find ourselves in we are to live up to the faith that we proclaim no matter what the consequences. 

In part, this could be a community club speech or a speech for Scouts or something like that because it is basically a “do right” speech.  What distinguishes this message as a Christian message apart from just “do right”?

If we look at scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament alike, there are places where we are reminded that the children of God should reflect God’s character in the world.  The Ten Commandments are not simply rules that everybody should know instinctively.  The Ten Commandments are part of a description of God’s people so that you could look at a people, see the way they live, and say, “These people reflect the character of God in the world.  These are the kinds of people that God can make.”

In the New Testament, time after time writers say that we are a holy priesthood.  We are supposed to be holy as God is holy.  Jesus says, “Perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.”  Every time, it is a way of saying that people who live for Christ are supposed to reflect Christ’s character in the world.  If we serve a Christ who loves others, we are to love others.  If we serve a Christ who loved his enemies, we are to love our enemies.  If we serve a Christ who was the perfect sacrifice, although we will never achieve his perfection, our goal is always to strive to live like Christ.  We say this in our church covenant.  We hunger and thirst for righteousness.  We should be able to say, “This is the kind of people that God is able to produce.  Because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we will live up to the consequences.” 

Let me tell you one more story.  I knew a pastor a few years ago who was stopped for speeding.  By the way, this story is not about me.  As the police officer was approaching the car, the pastor undid his seatbelt in order to be able to move to get his driver’s license.  The policeman asked the pastor, “Do you know how fast you were going?”

The pastor said, “Yes sir, I do.”

The policeman said, “Oh, you don’t have your seatbelt on.”

The pastor said, “Well, I undid that just to get my driver’s license.”

The policeman said, “I tell you what.  I am going to ticket you for not wearing your seatbelt and that will be a lot less on your insurance and we will just let it go at that.”

The pastor said, “No, I had my seatbelt on, but I was speeding.  If you are going to give me a ticket, give me a ticket for speeding.”

The policeman shook his head and said, “Well, that’s a first,” and walked back to his car. 

Isn’t that a shame that we don’t live up to the Gospel.  How many of us would basically be honest and say, “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me.  I got out of that one.”  That’s a first.  Let’s not let it be the last.  Let us be the people who, whatever the consequences may be, would live up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.