Costly, Messy, Beautiful Obedience
Costly, Messy, Beautiful Obedience
The key word in the title of this message is "obedience." When I did a Google search on obedience, the most popular sites fell into two categories: dog obedience or the Stanley Milgram experiments.
In the early 1960s, Milgram, a PhD student at Yale, started a series of experiments called Obedience to Authority. Participants included a learner, a teacher, and an experimenter. The experimenter represented the voice of authority. The teachers, who were ordinary people like you and me, were supposed to administer electric shocks to the learners whenever they answered a question incorrectly. The teachers didn't know it, but the learners were actually paid actors. When they received the shock, they would cry and groan, but in Milgram's experiment, most of the teachers obeyed the instructions of the experimenter and kept increasing the level of the shock. Ultimately, over two-thirds of the teachers kept obeying the experimenter in the white coat until they punished their learners with the maximum shock of 450 volts.
Based on this little survey, apparently obedience is a nasty word. We're suspicious of obedience. It's something that you do for dogs but not human beings. It's also mindless, scary, and hurts people.
Or is it? Our text, Genesis 6, tells the story of messy, costly, beautiful obedience from an ordinary man named Noah. It's not what we might expect about obedience. Through his story, we learn it's when we're loving God, knowing God, and experiencing God that we're living a life of active obedience to God.
God makes the first move.
To begin with, the story of Noah's obedience—like every story of obeying God—does not begin with Noah; it begins with God. In the midst of the human disaster of Genesis 6:5, there is this bright ray of hope: "But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord." Noah found grace because God, in his grace, found Noah.
The world is filled with ancient flood stories, but there are crucial differences and themes in the biblical story that set it apart. The Babylonian flood stories, for example, emphasize the heroic image of the main character. The biblical Flood story begins with God and emphasizes his grace. Only then does it tell us about Noah's simple, humble, but costly response to God's grace. It all begins with God.
Here we have a foretaste of the Good News of Jesus. In the New Testament, we're told over and over again that God saves us, favors us, chooses us, forgives us, and sets us free from the power and penalty of sin and the sting of death. We are also reminded it is not by our own moral effort or progress; it's all by his grace. Some people say, "I've heard this before; I want to move on to the 'deep stuff.'" I'm sorry, but there's nothing deeper than the Gospel. Nearly every problem in the spiritual life—pride, elitism, a failure to love others, joylessness, impatience, lust, greed, and a failure to be generous—can be traced back to a failure to apply the work of Jesus on the cross and the sending of his Spirit.
That raises another very important question I hear often: "If I'm saved by God's grace in Jesus and it isn't based on my good deeds, then why would I want to be good? Couldn't I just live the same life I've always lived and then just ask forgiveness?" No, because once you understand God and his grace, you want to change. Jesus is the one who set you free from the bondage of sin. He redeemed you when you were utterly lost, and as a result, you love him. When you're in love, it changes everything about you—your actions, attitudes, motivations, and affections.
So this story of obedience is first a story of God's grace. When you're chosen and loved beyond your wildest imagination, you will love God in return. When you love him, it changes everything. You will live a life of costly, messy, beautiful obedience.
The radical obedience of an ordinary guy
All of this leads us into the story of Noah, the man who epitomizes costly, messy, beautiful obedience. Genesis 6:9 tells us "Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God." The word for blameless meant free from defect, wholesome, sound. It does not imply Noah was perfect or sinless, but it does imply something special about Noah: he was consistently obedient to God. Notice the following verses:
- 6:22—"Noah did everything just as God commanded him."
- 7:5—"And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him."
- 7:9—"as God had commanded Noah."
- 7:16—"as God had commanded Noah."
- 8:15-16, 18—"Then God said to Noah, 'Come out of the ark' … So Noah came out."
Noah's motto was, "Just do it—God's way." Did you notice Noah never speaks for the entire story? God gives four little speeches, but Noah just keeps his mouth shut and does his job. Now, he's not a mindless robot. He's a flesh and blood human being with real problems and struggles. When you come to Christ, God doesn't expect you to be a mindless robot either. John Polkinghorne, the brilliant physicist, said, "Many people think that faith involves shutting one's eyes, gritting one's teeth, and believing six impossible things before breakfast, because the Bible or the Pope … tells us so. Not at all! Faith may involve a leap, but it's a leap in the light, not the dark. The aim of the religious quest, like that of the scientific quest, is to seek motivated belief about what is the case … It's not a technique for whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. " Noah may well have questioned, doubted, and argued along the way, but all we have is the end result of his journey. He received God's grace and then he responded by listening and obeying God. Noah perfected the art of obedience—not the art of thinking about obedience. He acted, putting faith into practice, and as Noah put his faith into practice, he shows us that obedience is costly, messy, and beautiful.
Obedience is costly.
Obedience will cost you something. Notice the details of the ark in Genesis 6:14-16. Someone has estimated that the dimensions imply Noah's boat was 95,700 square feet. That's much smaller than the modern ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II, but it's also much larger than Columbus's Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. The length of 450 feet equals one and a half American football fields. This was a massive project! Imagine what obeying God cost Noah. It wasn't a hobby; it consumed his time, money, energy, and life. When you're in love, it affects everything about you. Obedience is the flow of God's love in your life.
My 19-year-old son has recently become my teacher in this regard. My son wants to spend the next semester in Nairobi, Kenya. This declaration came right after a friend of mine, who recently visited Nairobi, told me she considers it one of the most dangerous places on earth. When I told Matt I was reconsidering where he wanted to spend his next semester, he nonchalantly replied, "Dad, you better get used to me facing danger. God has called me to the mission field, so you can say 'no' to Nairobi now, but you can't protect me forever."
I hung up the phone, got down on my knees and prayed, "Father, change my heart. Let my faith cost me something. Make it a daring and dangerous adventure of following you."
Does your faith cost you anything? Does it cut into your lifestyle at all? Does your worship cost you anything? When King David entered a worship service, he said, "I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God offerings that cost me nothing" (2 Samuel 24:24). So if you come up to me after a worship service and say, "Thanks! That was a perfect service—exactly what I wanted," I will say, "I'm so sorry worship cost you nothing this morning. I'm so sorry we had cheap worship, and you didn't offer anything valuable to God."
Obedience is messy.
Noah's obedience was also messy. Genesis 6:9 describes Noah very simply with these words: "He walked with God." Genesis 5:24 describes someone else who walked with God: "Enoch walked with God, and then he was no more because God took him away." That's neat and clean obedience. We obey and God removes us from the mess of life. But that's not normal Christian spirituality. Normal Christian spirituality means living for God and walking with him in the midst of a hurting, broken, messy world. Jesus said normal Christian spirituality means letting your light shine into the midst of darkness. Jesus said: Go back into the darkness and form a community of my people who will reach out and shine my light into the darkness as they love one another."
I always get agitated when we—the people of Jesus—slip into an ark mentality. An ark mentality says, "We just have to get inside, shut the doors, keep the bad influences out, and then hold on until Jesus comes, God opens the doors, and lets us out so we'll be free at last!" In the midst of a flood, an ark is a wonderful thing. But an ark is also a very messy place. It's part of life in the ark.
The whole point of the ark was not to permanently escape the world; the ark was created so Noah and his community could reenter the world as bearers of an alternative reality. In other words, the church isn't a refuge from the culture around us; it's the place that helps us enter into and engage the culture.
Obedience is beautiful.
At this point, you may be thinking, Costly, messy, obedience—why would I ever want that? Noah's life shows us something else about obedience: it's beautiful. Obedience brings life to Noah and his family.
Perhaps that's one of your fears about obedience: it's ugly, hurtful, and painful. We've all probably heard awful stories of people who said, "God told me to do this. God told me to leave you. God told me to hurt you." In other words, obedience turns people into total creeps. But that's not what happened with Noah. God's call and Noah's obedience produced a thing of beauty for Noah, his family, and the whole earth. Obedience leads to blessing.
Notice Genesis 9:9-11:
"I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth."
Through his obedience, Noah became the bearer of a new, alternative reality—the reality of blessing, the reality of God's grace. Through his obedience, Noah bore witness to and left a legacy of God's grace.
We sometimes think Noah was perfect. But he was sinless and needed grace like all of us! Take a look at Genesis 9:20-23 and Noah's drunken adventures. But more often than not, we see that Noah as a man of obedience.
Do you know one thing that blocks us from the beauty of obedience? We always think we need more information. We say, "I'd like to obey, but I need some deeper teaching on that issue. If someone would just feed me, then I could obey. It's someone else's responsibility, and I'm a victim of my own disobedience." Yes, we do need to question, explore, and get answers. The Bible isn't always easy to understand. We need to understand the principles of biblical interpretation, read the verses in context, grasp the historical and cultural context, and define biblical words with care and patience. That's hard work, and God wants us to engage our brains. But there comes a point in our lives when we're no longer seekers or infants; we're the mothers, fathers, big brothers, and big sisters of the faith. At that point, we need to say to ourselves, How much more information do I need before I can respond to God with costly, messy, and beautiful obedience?
I often take time to ask myself: Do I need more information about forgiveness before I let go of my grudges and release those who have wounded me? Do I need another teaching on Christian community before I decide I need a small group? Do I need more training on how to pray before I actually set aside time to seek God in prayer? How many more Bible studies do I need before I decide it's time to downsize my lifestyle and give the money towards something that will last for all eternity? Do I need more information before I share my faith in Jesus with other people?
I have a friend whose son is on my son's soccer team. We've known each other for almost four years. I have stood beside him for hours, watching our sons sweat, run, kick, and dive in the grass. Last week, my friend told me about how his two best friends had recently died. These sudden deaths have rocked his world and left him with a deep, empty, and unquenchable sadness. I claim to have a story of Good News for him, a story of forgiveness and a new creation in Jesus. Through Jesus I have found favor with God, and he can have that too. And furthermore, according to my theology, my friend is now lost in sin. Do I need another sermon on sharing my faith or the theology of evangelism? Do I need someone to feed me so I can share my faith?
The problem in my life is pretty simple: obedience might get costly or inconvenient. It might get messy. I might get hit with questions I can't answer. I might invite him to church, and he might say, "Sorry, but I found your service irrelevant. It's not for me." For many of us, our problem is summed up in one word: disobedience.
I have a neighbor—an atheist by the way—who told me something very profound. I was admiring the many projects he's completed in his back yard. "How did you figure out how to do all this?" I asked him.
"It's pretty simple," he drawled, "I just read the manuals and then I do it. Of course, there's an important element in between; it's called courage."
As a Christian I would put it this way: We read God's word and then we obey it. But there's an important element in between: it's called love. God loves us and showers us with grace, and it changes everything about us. We want to respond with love for God and others.
I want to offer an invitation and a challenge. First, let me offer the invitation. Do you know God's grace? Can you marvel at the love the Father has for his children alongside the apostle John? To all of us broken sinners, here's the Good News: "Christ died for us while we were still sinners. This proves God's love for you."
God is waiting for us right now. We've been in the far country. We've been wandering in the land of disobedience. But there is a Father and because he is calling us, we can come home. Every time we look at the Cross, we remember God's love is vast, deep, unconditional, and everlasting. When we look at the Cross, we remember this isn't mindless, wishful thinking. Turn and run home. Run into your Father's arms. Romp in your Father's house because Jesus has invited you in.
Secondly, because God loves us, I want to issue a challenge. Where does your obedience refuse to go? Where do you say, "Sorry God, but that's too messy, too costly, too inconvenient?" Let me say it bluntly: if you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, if you consider yourself to be under his loving authority, where are you in active or passive disobedience? If you have put your faith in Christ, you have the Holy Spirit dwelling within you—the one who will guide you into all truth. So let him guide you.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.