From the editor
John Ortberg is a master communicator, whether through preaching or through writing. Preaching Today is blessed to have him as an editorial advisor and regular contributor. As you read this newest sermon from John, look for a few things: his redemptive use of humor (he's one of the best at this), the great lengths to which he'll go for clarity's sake (notice how he is always careful to define things), and his mastery at application (when you notice the transition into application, you'll see that this sermon fits his audience in California like a glove).
One of the wisest people I know is a man named Max Depree. For many years he was the CEO of an innovative Fortune 500 company called Herman Miller. Depree has written classic books on leadership and anchored the board of trustees at Fuller Seminary for 40 years. Max is asked to speak a lot about leadership, and at one session somebody asked him what the most difficult thing was that he personally had to work on. This was Max's response: "It's the interception of entropy."
Max's reply is where I got the title for this sermon. I now deeply regret the title, because all week long I've had people with advanced degrees in physics or mechanical engineering come up to me and ask, "Do you know what entropy is?" I believe entropy is a term from physics that has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics and the availability of energy. It speaks to the fact that the universe is winding down. If that's not technically correct in your field, I don't care. Some of you will have a burning passion after this message to help me be better informed about what entropy really is. I just want you to know: I don't care. For this message, here's the loose definition that we're using for entropy: everything that is left to itself has a tendency to deteriorate.
Entropy is a great enemy of the human spirit.
If you have ever bought a new car and driven it off the lot, you've witnessed entropy. You lose several thousand dollars as soon as it goes off the lot, because things have a way of deteriorating on their own. If you've ever seen a group of kids on summer vacation, you've noticed that by late August, when they're sitting around somebody's house and one of them says, "What do you want to do?" everybody else says, "I don't know; what do you want to do?" That's entropy. Everything when left on its own—when not given attention and energy—has a tendency to deteriorate. That's the way it works in human life. When you become apathetic or complacent or settle for the path of least resistance in some area of life, entropy sets in and dreams die and hopes fade. Then a terrible thing happens: you learn you can live with mediocrity. It's not a great life, but you can tolerate it.
Entropy is a great enemy of the human spirit, so the writers of the Book of Proverbs have a lot to say about it. One thing they say is that the wise person is always on the lookout for early signs that entropy is setting in. Proverbs 27:23-24 shows us the picture of someone who has livestock and how they need to monitor its condition. Though the words speak of livestock, they are true in any area of life: "Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations." Everyday you have to be on the lookout for entropy. Though things might have been okay yesterday, that doesn't mean they stay okay forever. Put any important area of your life on autopilot, and risk entropy that is both subtle and destructive.
Over the years Max Depree has made a list of the signs that entropy is advancing. I want to read a few of the signs to you:
- A tendency toward superficiality
- Unresolved tension in key relationships
- No longer having time for celebration and ritual
- Confusing heroes and celebrities
- A loss of gratitude
- A vague, chronic sense of guilt
Entropy can damage every area of life: our friendships, our work, our families, our characters, and our finances. Entropy can certainly damage a church. When a church first gets started, it's a little group of people whose dream is to be used by God to touch their community. They realize there are poor people who could be helped; there are children that need to learn about God; there are people who are a million miles away from God and need to be reached, prayed for, and brought into the community to meet Christ. Over time, though, a really bad thing happens: entropy sets in and the dream dies. Entropy takes over in the church and the focus shifts from "What's God calling us to do in this world?" to more internal things. People go from living as servants to being consumers. They start to argue over stuff that doesn't matter.
God calls everyone to action in life.
God's will for the human spirit—for individuals, families, workplaces, and churches—is that it would never suffer entropy. That's why much of the Book of Proverbs deals with this problem. Consider Proverbs 24:30-34. The writer says:
I went past the field of a sluggard,
past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment;
thorns had come up everywhere,
the ground was covered with weeds,
and the stone wall was in ruins.
I applied my heart to what I observed
and learned a lesson from what I saw …
A little while ago, my wife kidnapped me and took me to Nappa Valley for a romantic, overnight getaway for just the two of us. I had never been to Nappa Valley before. It's lovely. What struck me as I was going past the vineyards was all of the thought and action that went into the rows of vines. A fruitful, productive vineyard is a thing of beauty. But here's the thing about vineyards: they don't just happen by themselves. Vineyards don't just spring up by accident. Someone is behind them.
The writer of Proverbs 24:30-34 says: I was going past a vineyard, and it was a mess. There were thorns all over the place, the grounds were covered with weeds, and the walls were falling down.
To understand the angst behind this proverb—to understand what we're dealing with today—you have to understand that in the ancient Middle East, a piece of land capable of growing crops was one of the most valuable things in the world. To be the owner of a vineyard was to be blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime.
Entropy, then, starts with the failure to comprehend that this is my one and only chance at existence on this planet. Everybody gets a vineyard. When you were born, you got a vineyard. You got your body, your mind, your will, and some relationships. You got financial resources and the chance to do some good work. You got a soul. Everybody gets a vineyard, and that vineyard is my one and only shot on this planet. It's the opportunity of a lifetime, and I don't even have to care for it on my own. God will partner with me.
Nonetheless, God never forces anybody to take action and care for their vineyard. The writer of this Proverb says, "I was walking past a vineyard, and I thought of what it might have been." He sees that the vineyard could have been a thing of beauty. It could have been a source of pride, joy, and income to the owner. It could have been a blessing to everybody around it, because in ancient cultures a place that grew things that people could eat or drink from was a blessing to everybody. But the vineyard the writer observed wasn't any of those things. It fell tragically short of what it might have been. The writer wonders why: Was there some catastrophe? Was there a drought, flood, fire, or some other disaster? No. It was just sheer negligence on the part of the owner of the vineyard. He had no idea what he had. He was throwing away the opportunity of a lifetime. That's the strange power of entropy. It's not even a thing. It's sheer neglect, and people throw their lives away because of it everyday.
This proverb makes me think of a man I know. In honor of Proverbs, we will call him Sluggo. He's a great guy and I like being with him, but he is not content with his work. He feels like he could have a more rewarding or challenging job. We sometimes talk about the situation, and I'll say to him, "You know, you could do something about that." But Sluggo always has a reason why he couldn't. He's convinced that his supervisor won't develop him. He's convinced that the organization is too political for him to be able to advance in it. He says, "I'm not going to play those political games." I tell him, "Well, you could get another job." "No, that's too risky," he says. Sluggo has grandiose dreams for what he could and ought to be doing, but he will not take a single step from where he is. Sometimes I'll just take him by the lapels and say, "You know, Sluggo, this is your one and only life, and it's just draining away and it doesn't have to be." Sometimes I want to put my hands around his neck and choke some sense into him. This is why I'm not an effective counselor.
I'll tell you one proverb that could change Sluggo's life: "Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies lack judgment." What the proverb is talking about is living in reality. It is saying that I must work in the land that I actually have—my life, my body, and my relationships.
I have a friend in the writing and publishing business, and people will sometimes ask him, "How can I become a writer?" He'll tell them how it usually happens: You write an article and submit it to a magazine, and then it gets rejected. You submit it someplace else, and it keeps getting rejected. Then you write another article, you submit it, and it gets rejected. Then you get to know the editor a little bit, and you find out more about writing and keep working on the craft. Eventually you write an article, and it gets accepted. You keep writing articles for a while, and then you do a couple of chapters in a book. Then maybe you co-write something with somebody else as you keep learning. My friend says that when he tells people this, they have a consistent response: "No. That's not what I want to do. I want to write a book and have it sell millions and millions of copies and be rich and famous and humble and give God all the glory. That's what I want to do."
People have these fantasies: I want the perfect marriage, I want the perfect circle of friends, I want the perfect career and the perfect education; if I can't have that, then I won't do anything, because I'm beyond the vineyard that I happen to be in. The writer of Proverbs says we must start with reality. Work the land that is your land—your body, your life, your relationships, your work—because that vineyard is all you have. If it's ever going to be different, it won't be because the vineyard fairy comes and sprinkles fairy dust on it. It will be because I asked God to help me. It will be because I've asked him, "What's the next step that you want me to take?"
Entropy goes unchallenged in a number of ways.
Let me explain the way our minds allow entropy to go unchallenged. The writer of Proverbs 6:6 says: "How long will you lie there, you sluggard?" Verses about the sluggard often have an edge to them. But it's not that the writer's being cruel to sluggards; he just wants the readers—you and me—to see the danger of this pathway in life. "How long are you going to lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep?" In Proverbs 24:30-34, he observes: "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest"—and then one day disaster breaks in on you like a bandit.
The words that are repeated in these verses tell us something about how sluggards justify their inactivity. Sleep, slumber, folding of the hands to rest—those are all pictures of passivity or inactivity. How much longer does the sluggard say it's going to go on? "Just a little while; I'll take action soon." That "little while" turns into weeks and then months and then years.
I read a story in the L.A. Times a long time ago. A guy goes to the house where he grew up and knocks on the door. Because he hadn't been there for 20 years, he finds himself getting sentimental. He asks the owners if he can walk through the house, and they let him. While in the attic, he finds an old jacket of his. He puts it on, reaches into the pocket, and pulls out a stub. It's a receipt from a shoe repair shop. He realizes he had taken a pair of shoes there 20 years before, and in the midst of the move, he had never picked them up. On a whim he decides to go to the shoe repair shop. Just to be funny, he takes the receipt out and hands it to the guy behind the desk, saying, "Are my shoes ready?" The guy goes back to the workroom for a minute, comes back to the counter, and says, "Come back a week from Thursday." That's the mind of the sluggard; they're always saying, "A week from Thursday."
In my own life, I don't tell myself, "Never"; I tell myself, "A week from Thursday." I have to take care of my diet and my body, but "There's only one day a week that you can start a diet—Monday—so I'll start then." I know I need to get my finances in shape to get out of debt, and I've always wanted to give to God and be generous, but "I'm going to do that next year." We know we need to get our spiritual lives in shape and get involved in a church, but "When we have kids, I know our sense of spiritual responsibility will increase." We know that prayer's really important, but "When I'm old, I bet I'll be devoted to prayer; right now I'm busy with so many responsibilities." The writer of Proverbs wants to sound a wake-up call, and I hope that happens for you. The danger is not that I say, "Never"; it is that I say, "A week from Thursday." This statement gives me permission to avoid doing what God is calling me to do today.
The writer of Proverbs tells us that the sluggard specializes in making excuses. It doesn't take much of an excuse. It could be a pretty flimsy one. That's how the mind of the sluggard works: because their commitment is not to doing it, any pretext will serve. Sometimes we justify inactivity because we tell ourselves we are overwhelmed and fatigued—that we do not have enough energy to do what we know we ought to do. Consider Proverbs 26:14: "As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed." You're thinking about getting up, but a kind of centrifugal force is holding you back. It's like a husband sitting on the couch. His wife says, "Why don't you go outside and play with our son?" or "Why don't you go mow the yard; the grass is so high that the kids went out two days ago, and we still haven't been able to find them." The husband explains: "I don't have any energy. I gave at the office, and I'm completely fatigued." Yet then the phone rings, and someone asks him to go golfing. What happens next? It's a miracle! All of a sudden, strength and vitality come swooping into his body like the swallows coming back to Capistrano. It wasn't an energy problem at all, but he told himself it was.
As sluggards we don't see our own "sluggard-ism." Consider Proverbs 26:16: "Sluggards are wiser in their own eyes than seven people who answer discretely." In the ancient world, seven was often a number that suggested completeness or fullness. The idea of this proverb is that in the sluggard's mind, the rationale for not taking action is always stronger than authentic wisdom. There's a blindness that comes with the condition of entropy.
We all suffer from selective entropy.
My guess is that a lot of people in our community would say, "I have problems, but laziness isn't one of them. If anything, my problem is that I'm too busy. I'm running too fast and working too much. I'm a Type A overachiever." Just because we may think this about ourselves doesn't mean the sluggard has nothing to teach us. Most of us suffer from selective entropy. We may be quite active—even hyperactive—in a bunch of areas in our lives, but there's always one vineyard that we don't like to talk or think about despite the fact that the weeds are getting pretty high.
- Imagine the dad whose career is going great. He's climbing the corporate ladder high and fast. He's got a Rolodex file full of names, but the kids are drifting away. That vineyard is a mess.
- Or it's the mom who drives to a lot of soccer games and is going full blast at work, but her soul is shriveling away inside.
- Or it's the couple that has what looks like a great house, a great life, lots of friends, and lots of stuff. But they haven't had a meaningful conversation with each other in months. Everyday they're drifting a little further apart. Everyday there are more weeds in the vineyard of their marriage.
- Or it's the middle-aged guy who looks okay on the outside but whose finances are so messed up that sometimes he can't sleep at night.
Most of us have at least one area where there is some entropy. So what do you do? If you're willing to say, "I have a vineyard where there are some weeds," the writer of Proverbs 6:6 has some advice: "Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise."
Have you ever looked at how an ant stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest? There are two particular lessons we can learn from the ant. First, the ant does not require external motivation—no commander, overseer, or ruler applying the whip. It knows that if you're waiting around for somebody else to get your life into shape—if you expect your boss, parents, teachers, spouse, or friends to make you do the right thing—you're in serious trouble. Ants take care of the vineyard. Now, I ought to be accountable to other people. I ought to tell other people what I think God's calling me to and ask them to question me about it. But I'm responsible for my life, my vineyard.
Second, the ant understands the law of opportunity. Even in the summer, the ant stores its provisions. Maybe I wish it wasn't summer. Maybe I'm tired, and I wish the kids weren't so young and demanding right now. But they'll only be this age one time. Whatever season you are in is reality; it's your vineyard. The writer of Proverbs says the ants understand time better than we do. We have this one life, and it goes so fast that we're surprised by it. We must go to the ant and learn to understand time, because we have this one vineyard to take care of in life.
Many of us don't want to look at our vineyard because we're ashamed or embarrassed. We think, Everybody else around me seems to be doing so well with their lives, and I have been so neglectful in this one area. I know it's important—that it's not a trivial thing—and yet I've neglected it. Here's the good news: though we can never overcome entropy on our own—because it's too much for us—it's not too much for God. People that understand physics and engineering have told me that part of the law of entropy is that the universe is winding down and that it is irreversible. But entropy isn't irreversible to God. Entropy will not get the last word in creation, and it doesn't have to in our lives either. The good news is that Jesus says, "Just ask me, and I'll help you with it." This is the strangest thing about entropy: it has such power, but it's also weak. If you trust God and take one step of faith in your vineyard, God will help you in such a way that you will think, You know what? This isn't nearly as overwhelming as I thought it was. If God will help me—if I trust him and take one step of action— entropy is not nearly as formidable an opponent as I thought it was.
Where is God calling you to action in your life?
The question is this: where is God calling you to ask him for help and to take action? Maybe it's in your work life. Proverbs has a lot to say about the work that God calls us to do. In the New Testament, Paul says that whatever you do, do it with all your heart as unto the Lord—as if you were doing it for God. Are you doing that? Maybe your attitude about work has been going south, and God's saying, "I want you to do it with all your heart; just take one step in faith."
Maybe your vineyard is a financial situation. Proverbs has a lot to say about finances. In Proverbs 3 the writer says, "Honor the Lord with all your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops." Maybe finances are the vineyard that you've been neglecting, and God is saying, "Trust me; just take one step in faith."
Maybe your vineyard is a circumstance concerning your physical health. Paul writes to the church at Corinth, "Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? Therefore, honor God with your body." Are you doing that? How are you treating the temple? You don't have to be obsessive about it like our society can sometimes get, but maybe you've been neglecting your body, choking out the life that God wants for you.
Maybe your vineyard is your soul. Jesus said: What will it profit a human being if they gain the whole world? Things may be going great in the career vineyard, in the financial vineyard, or in the social vineyard, but what about your soul? God says, "I'll help you with that if you take a step towards me." God is our model in this. He created the world and then watched as human beings brought sin and death into the picture. God could have said, "Well, that's it. I'll just let entropy take over and let the world go to hell." But God wouldn't do that. He never follows the path of least resistance. So he developed the plan expressed in John's gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish"—shall not have entropy take over his life—"but have eternal life." Maybe God is showing you that you've never really trusted him with your soul, but always say, "A week from Thursday." I don't know how to plead with you any more urgently: do something today. If you've never told Jesus, "I want you to be my forgiver and the Lord of my life," do it now.
This is your day. This is your vineyard. This is it. If you take that one step, God really does respond.
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For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism" and "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize."
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.