11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
15 These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.
Pentecost Sunday is considered to be, by many people, the birthday of the church. During Christ’s earthly ministry the church had been gathering and forming and following Christ. The foundation had been laid. But only after Jesus was crucified and resurrected that the church really came alive, and that was when it was given the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Imagine you were present on the first Pentecost Day when the Holy Spirit arrived at the church.
This is how the Book of Acts records the event: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
Imagine being there! You and other Christians entered the streets of the city and began speaking in different languages, and being understood. How cool is that? Walk up to someone and speak German without a single lesson!
Peter, who has been a rather weak disciple, now bravely stands up and preaches --- and you are there!
Now imagine the years have flown by. Ten years. Twenty years. Thirty years.
The memory of that day has begun to fade.
You might even begin to question how true the memories might have been.
Did I really have fire sitting on top of my head?
Did I really speak German all of a sudden?
Faith, by its very nature, has to be renewed and revived. You cannot simply have an experience with God, and then not do anything to maintain that faith.
I have a nice garden in my back yard. It looks great – right now. There are red roses, and yellow daisies and all sorts of plants that attract butterflies. But if I don’t work at it, the garden will become overgrown with weeds. The roses will fade. The flowers will die.
And so it is with faith.
You have to work at faith, exercise it and nurture it. Or over the years, your spiritual life just dies of neglect.
Mother Teresa is known as a wonderful saint of a Christian. She gave her life to Christ. We think of her as never wavering. And yet, in private letters that have recently been made public, she struggled in her faith. God who once seemed so close to her, later seemed very absent. The memory of an earlier experience with God began to fade and for a long time she struggled with doubts which she revealed only to a few close friends. But she kept exercising her faith and nurturing it, so that she was able to overcome doubts and fears and continue to be the saint that we know her to be.
It is easy to become a person of faith, to dedicate one’s life to Christ, to respond with commitment when one has a mountain-top experience with God – but to keep the faith blooming takes work and commitment and the determination to stay focused.
The writer of the small book of Titus is addressing a person of faith. The value of this book is that we get to see how a person who has long been a Christian is being reminded in this letter to stay focused!
The writer of Titus encouraged this Christian to stay spiritually healthy by encouraging Titus to do three things.
First, stay focused on Christ. In the letter to Titus, the writer said, “we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
The story is told of a little boy who came forward for the Children’s sermon, and the preacher had a brown bag. Looking at the 6 or so children who had come up for the Children’s sermon, the preacher said, “Guess what I have in this bag.”
The little boy’s hand shot up in the sky and said, “Jesus Christ!”
The preacher was caught off guard by that. “No,” he said. “I don’t have Jesus Christ in this bag. Why would you say that?”
The little boy spoke up confidently, “Well, you’re a preacher, ain’t ya?”
“Of course I am,” said the pastor.
“This is a church, ain’t it?”
“Of course it is.”
“Well, it’s your job to talk about Jesus Christ, so my guess is that Jesus must be in that bag.”
Our focus should be on Jesus Christ. Sometimes we get distracted. We focus on ourselves and how good we feel or don’t feel. Or we focus on the world’s idea of success, and we forget to stay focused on Jesus Christ. Or we focus on how popular we are or want to be.
If we focus on Jesus Christ, everything else in life begins to take care of itself. We may not get the job we wanted, but if we stay focused on Christ, we learn to deal with that better.
We may not have the things we might like to have in our home, but by staying focused on Christ we learn to deal with what we have more effectively.
We may still have health problems but staying focused on Christ helps us to manage our stress and to face realities.
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel kept their focus on the Law. The would tie boxes on their hands, and boxes on their foreheads, and nail boxes on their doorposts. Inside these boxes was a small parchment with the Word of God. So that when they reached for something, the box on their hand would remind them that they were people of God. When they looked at something, they could see out of the peripheral vision that box on the forehead and they would know they were the people of God. When they left their home to go out into the world, they would be reminded of that box and remember – they were a people of God.
Now we shouldn’t have to put boxes on everything to remember who we are. But we need to do what is necessary to keep our focus on Christ.
A second thing we need to do in order to stay spiritually healthy is to stay focused with our self-control. The writer of our New Testament lesson told Titus, and us, “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”
If you are going to be a disciple of Christ, you should understand that the word “disciple” comes from the same root word as “discipline.”
To be a disciple is to be disciplined. To be disciplined means to have the kind of self-control that Titus was encouraged to possess.
“Marshmallow man” Walter Mischel is an Ivy League professor known for his experiments in self-control. Nearly 50 years ago, he created a test to see how various five-year-olds would respond to being left alone with a marshmallow for 15 minutes with instructions not to eat it — and with the promises that if they didn’t, they would be given two.
Preschoolers who waited longest for the marshmallow went on to have higher SAT scores than the ones who couldn’t wait. In later years they were thinner, earned more advanced degrees, used less drugs, and coped better with stress. As these first marshmallow kids now enter their 50s, Mr. Mischel and colleagues are investigating whether the good delayers are richer, too.
Now Mischel is in his 80s and in a recent interview said he wants to make sure that the nervous parents of self-indulgent children don’t miss his key finding: “Whether you eat the marshmallow at age 5 isn’t your destiny. Self-control can be taught.”
You may be a senior citizen well aware of your lack of self control. You blow up at people around you, your anger gets the better of you, you steal what is not yours, you cheat on your spouse – and you have the self awareness to know that you have no self control.
As Walter Mischel says of his Marshmallow experiments, self control can be taught. You can learn discipline at any age.
If you want to have a health spiritual life, stay focused on developing your self discipline.
So how do you learn self discipline?
Professor Mischel preaches a gospel of distraction and distancing:
The children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them. . . . If you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes.
So it is with the Christian – you turn your focus away from what is tempting, and focus on Christ Jesus. Always keep your focus on Christ.
Finally, Titus is told that actions are important to one’s spiritual health. As the writer of our New Testament lesson says, “be eager to do what is good.”
Your spiritual health is not just about having the spiritual discipline to avoid doing bad things, it is about having the strength to be eager to do the good things.
In the New Testament book of Ephesians, 2:8, we read, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
So it might be easy to think that salvation is all there is, and there is no reason to do good deeds because the good we do will not save us.
But doing good is important. Our actions are not important to our salvation, but they are important to maintaining a good spiritual health.
James, in his New Testament book, wrote, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:26)
In the Book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, the people could tell that there was something different about the disciples. They had tongues of fire on their heads and they spoke in different languages.
Today, it is through our good works that people can tell we are Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit.
In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus told us that we are the light of the world. He said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Our doing good reveals the Holy Spirit to others.
I had a doctor who used to tell patients that in order to be physically healthy, all you had to do were to do three things – eat right, drink plenty of water, and exercise.
The mentor of Titus wrote him with three simple instructions to keep spiritually healthy:
Stay focused on Christ,
Stay focused on Self-Control,
And Stay focused on exercising good deeds.
And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
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Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.