There is a story involving Yogi Berra, the well-known catcher for the New York Yankees, and Hank Aaron, who at that time was the chief power hitter for the Milwaukee Braves. The teams were playing in the World Series, and as usual Yogi was keeping up his ceaseless chatter, intended to pep up his teammates on the one hand, and distract the Milwaukee batters on the other. As Aaron came to the plate, Yogi tried to distract him by saying, “Henry, you’re holding the bat wrong. You’re supposed to hold it so you can read the trademark.” Aaron didn’t say anything, but when the next pitch came he hit it into the left-field bleachers. After rounding the bases and tagging up at home plate, Aaron looked at Yogi Berra and said, “I didn’t come up here to read.”
I would imagine that most of you have walked through a busy fair ground. There are all the folks walking around eating their footlong hotdogs and cotton candy, rides like the ferris wheel and the bumper cars, and the games: the dime toss and the three milk jugs that you have to knock off the stand with a baseball. Not only do all these rides, concessions, games, call out to you with their flashing lights and bright colors. But there are also the hawkers. Those guys and gals that call out, “Step right up, test your skills.” “Try your luck!” “Win the little lady a teddy bear.”
We would probably all like to think that we are immune to such tactics to get us to let loose of our hard-earned money, but if you are not careful, before you know it, you’ll find yourself sitting at the top of the ferris wheel with a corn dog in one hand, a 25 cent stuffed bear that cost you 30 bucks to win in the other, and a stomach ache from too much cotton candy!
Why do we do such things? It could be out of compulsion or a lack of discipline or because sometimes we aren’t just all that bright. Any number of reasons, but deep down we are seeking to be satisfied in someway. To find that one thing that will make us truly happy. If I was to break into song at this point, it would be that little diddy by Waylon Jennings, “Looking for love in all the wrong places,” because many times that is all we are doing.
Qoheleth, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, wrote, “I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” His reason was to discover the purpose and value of the various pursuits in our lives: wealth, wisdom, possessions, honor, pleasure, and labor. He did it all, apparently knowing no limits.
He concluded his discussion of each of these pursuits by declaring their purpose and value to be, “Utterly senseless, everything is senseless!” “Meaningless of meaninglessness! All is meaningless!” “Futility of futilities, all is futile.” “Absolutely pointless! Everything is pointless.” “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” All of our wealth, wisdom, possessions, honor, pleasure, labor are nothing. Are you depressed yet? If we left it there, we all would be, but Qoheleth does not leave it there and neither shall we.
The book Ecclesiastes concluding verses say this, “The end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Qoheleth is telling us that without God in the center all of these pursuits are futile, pointless, vanity.
To seek wealth and possessions for their own sake is futility; however, to build up for yourself treasures in heaven provides eternally and abundantly. To seek pleasure for pleasure sake is the epitome of self-centeredness, but to truly love as Christ loved us, to encounter joy in God and one another is one of the many blessings of creation itself. I’m certain you can see the difference. The problem is that we so often look for these things apart from God, and anything apart from God is defined in one simple word: sin.
So where does this fit in with our Gospel reading today? In our reading, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”
I would suggest to you this morning that the pursuits in our lives, wealth, pleasure, honor, etc. are the “hired hands” of our lives. Like the hawkers at the carnival, they are constantly calling out to us and eventually draw us away from God. How? Consider possessions. To have many possessions requires much work. It takes time to care for them, money to upkeep them, dedication to stay up to date and informed about them. As we pursue these distractions we set God aside. He is no longer first in our lives, but only an afterthought.
The same is true when it comes to seeking honor. To seek honor requires constant attention to self, how you look, what you wear, what you say, what you do. For anyone to say, “I’m not one seeking honor” is probably not entirely all true, because from childhood to adulthood we seek to fit in and to be a part. In young children it shows itself in that need to be the center of attention, which can make a child spoiled. When we get into our teen years it has everything to do with the kind of jeans you wear to how drunk you got on Friday night. As an adult, it seems that we are in a constant competition with one another. Yet, these “hired hands” in our lives, no matter what category they fall under and as attractive as they may seem, require much of our time and attention that draws us from God, and at the first sign of trouble will abandon us.
Where is the child’s honor when they finally get a desperately needed swat on the backside? Where is the teens honor when – because of bad behavior – they are flunking out of school? Where is the adults honor when they lose their job and can no longer keep up with the payments?
The problem – sin – means that in the midst of trying to satisfy all these pursuits, by following the hired hands, God is nowhere to be found. However, the Lord Our God is a jealous God. He does not tolerate anything being put before Himself.
A passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians helps us to understand the right approach: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”
I resolve to know nothing except Christ Jesus and Him crucified, so that you can know the power of God. It is a bit like Hank Aaron saying to Yogi Berra, “I didn’t come up here to read.” I didn’t come up here to read the fine print on the bat, to listen to your chatter, to be distracted by you, or to forget the purpose for which I’m here. Instead, I came up here to slap it out of the park! St. Paul in his mission is saying, “I’m not worried about my life, my honor, what I will eat, where I will sleep, or what you may say, think, or do to me. I’m only here to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In a similar manner, you and I must not forget that which is to be at the center of our lives: The Lord Our God. Yes, we work to provide for our families. We have possessions to clothe ourselves and to enjoy life. I’m not saying you must retire to the desert and live in a cave. He placed us here so that we can experience joy, fellowship and an abundance of His blessings. However, when we endeavor to do anything we must ask the question, “Where is God?” Are we following the hired hands or are we following the One who was crucified for our sake?
Shut out the voices of the hawkers and the hired hands. Fear God, and keep his commandments. Keep Him at the center of your pursuits, for the Good Shepherd, Jesus, will never leave you or forsake you.