One Is the Loneliest Number

This past Sunday we covered one more load we carry when we try to do life apart from Jesus as we draw near the end of our series, A Heavy Load. This week we talked about the load of loneliness. Life was not meant to be lived alone. We were made for relationships. When we do life without Jesus, though, maintaining those relationships because entirely more difficult than it should be. Read on to find out why and how we can fix this.

One Is the Loneliest Number

Have you ever spent a significant amount of time alone? I don’t mean simply hanging out at home when nobody else is around for a couple of hours. I’m talking about a time when you didn’t have anybody around for an extended period of time. Honestly, Covid subjected a lot of folks to that in ways and times they were neither expecting nor for which they were prepared. And maybe you’re sitting there thinking how much you would like to have an extended amount of time by yourself because you can’t think of the last time you weren’t being constantly bombarded by people, but it’s a different animal wanting something like that because you can’t have it and being stuck alone because you can’t be around people like you want to be. Being alone…isn’t good for us. 

If you haven’t experienced an extended period of loneliness before, there are a couple of films that put it pretty powerfully on display. One was Sandra Bullock’s space adventure from 2013 called Gravity. Bullock plays an astronaut on a mission under a commander played by George Clooney. While they are on a spacewalk, their ship and the rest of their crew are destroyed by space debris and the pair are quickly left trying to figure out what to do while floating by themselves in outer space. Not very long into their adventure, Clooney sacrifices himself in hopes of his actions saving Bullock. It’s still another 45 minutes worth of film, though, before she makes it back to earth and she’s alone for all of it. In space. Without a ship. 

The other film I’m thinking of is the 2000 Tom Hanks movie, Castaway. Hanks plays a FedEx employee whose plane crashes and he finds himself stranded on a deserted island with nothing but the few packages from the ship that float ashore to survive. In both films, the main characters make it back to civilization (because, of course they do), but in their isolation during their ordeals, both characters begin to lose a bit of their grip on their sanity. Bullock imagines that Clooney’s character suddenly shows up outside of the ship she has managed to find and gives her the encouragement to keep on working to return to earth and not simply give up and die in space. This whole sequence is later revealed to be a hallucination. For Hanks, he famously befriended a volleyball he named Wilson. Wilson became his best (and only) friend in the world. When he finally constructs a raft to try to escape the island back to civilization, he loses Wilson when a wave hits the raft while he’s sleeping, and grieves mightily over the lost ball. In all likelihood (within the context of the story), that volleyball was the key to his survival. 

Now, were both of those characters driven a bit mad by their circumstances and the extreme isolation they brought? Yes. But when you give a moment’s worth of consideration to our driving need to have relationships with other people in our lives, both situations make sense. The fact is, we need people. I say that as a raging introvert who sits with perfect contentment in an office by myself most of the week. We need people. We need people we can talk to and love and help and be helped by and grow with and even argue with. We need people. When we try to do life without Jesus, though, that need becomes a whole lot harder to meet. 

This morning finds us nearing the end of our teaching series, A Heavy Load. For the past three weeks we have been talking about the challenges of doing life apart from Jesus. Now, pursuing life apart from Jesus is an understandable thing to do. Life with Jesus can be tough. It certainly means having to say no to a whole bunch of things we’d rather be doing if we could have our way (to His credit, Jesus was rather explicit about our having to do that in order to follow Him). Not a few young people have walked away from their faith citing intellectual disputes with the Christian worldview, but what they were really wrestling with were moral objections and the desire to do the things their peers were doing without having to carry a load of guilt for doing them. Some people have been hurt by the church and so don’t want anything to do with the Jesus they think the church is proclaiming. I don’t blame them. I’d probably feel the same way if I was in your shoes. Other folks have been told all their life that they can’t do it on their own and so they can’t imagine having to actually rely on someone else and prove all their critics right. There are a lot of reasons why someone would try to do life apart from Jesus. But what we invariably discover when we start down that path is that life without Jesus can get heavy after a while. Shouldering all the burdens and challenges of life on our own can wear us down. In this series, we have been talking about why life with Jesus is just better than the alternatives. 

We looked at this through the lens of anger. Without Jesus, our culture seems primed for anger lately. And when there is no God to make right the injustices about which we can do nothing ourselves, anger seems to be our only available option. As we saw with the help of Jesus’ brother, James, though, our anger doesn’t solve problems; God’s kindness does. Sometimes, though, anger isn’t what we are really feeling. It is merely a mask for a fear of some kind. When we do life without Jesus, fear can take control of our entire narrative. As we discovered when talking through the story of Jairus, the synagogue leader, fear is a natural result of entering into a season of unknowns. It is the body’s and mind’s way of preparing us to deal with whatever we might face. Well, without Jesus, life is a giant pile of unknowns that we face on our own. The antidote to fear, however, is trust. When we have someone near whom we trust to be able to handle whatever might pop up on our path, we can go forward with confidence knowing that none of them are going to overwhelm us. And, given that even death itself proved to be no obstacle to Jesus’ ability to push forward in accomplishing God’s plans, whatever is going on in our lives poses no threat either. Fear falls apart in the face of trust in Jesus. 

Finally, last week we talked about the green-eyed monster. When we do life without Jesus, we are on the hook to provide for ourselves what we need to survive. When we carry that particular burden and see someone else getting by apparently a whole lot more easily than we are, our natural reaction is to want what they’ve got to make our own journeys a bit easier. Wanting what someone else has, though, is never going to be a recipe for life success. As we were reminded by Paul’s wisdom for Timothy, envy leaves you empty. In Jesus we can have confidence that all of our needs are going to be met and then some. Even if we don’t seem to have enough now, He will make sure we don’t lack any good thing. And, since He is the one who has all the resources in the universe at His disposal, we don’t have to want what anyone else has. Instead, we can rest contentedly in what He has provided for us. Envy leaves you empty; contentment fills you up. 

As for this morning, we are going to talk about one more load we carry when we try to do life apart from Jesus. Now, certainly there are more loads than these four, but these are the big ones. This particular load gets right at the heart of one of our most basic needs as individuals created in the image of a relational God: people. To say it again: We need people. More specifically, we need relationships. As God said when looking down at a rather forlorn Adam before the creation of Eve, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Yet when we try to do life apart from Jesus, our natural instincts are typically not things that foster, nurture, and develop the kind of close, meaningful relationships we need to thrive in life. Instead, we tend to rather self-destructively tear them apart. I suspect many of you know exactly what I’m talking about. Well, this morning I want to show you how doing life with Jesus lightens this load in a way nothing else does. 

In order to do this, we are going to look together at a passage of Scripture that at first will seem like it has nothing to do with any of this. But stay with me for this journey and we’ll see together how it really lies right at the heart of what we need here. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to the back of the New Testament. We are going to start in Hebrews 10. 

Now, we’ve talked fairly recently about Hebrews in general. The letter is the one New Testament letter whose author we don’t know. There are a variety of guesses out there, but the truth is that we simply don’t know. What we do know, though, is that it is the most theologically deep of any of the New Testament writings. The author was writing to a group of Jewish-background Jesus followers to convince them of the superiority of Jesus and the new covenant to Moses and the old covenant. He spends a great deal of his time showing how and why Jesus is simply better than anything the old covenant had to offer. He looks at the Law itself, the sacrificial system, the priests, and the like. By the time we get to chapter 10, he is finally ready to put a bow on this whole line of argument and move on to something else (namely, an exploration of faith and a call to persist in that faith through whatever trials may come because of it). That’s where I want to pick up this morning. 

In Hebrews 10:19, the author opens with a resounding, “Therefore…” which, of course, means we have to find out what it’s there for. That’s what I just summarized for you. In light of all he has been arguing about Jesus’ being greater than any priest or sacrifice under the old covenant, what do we need to know? Look at this with me: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus–he has inaugurated for us a new and living way through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)–and since we have a great high priest over the house of God [again, that’s Jesus]…” 

Pause right there a second. Do you understand all of that? The author is using old covenant language that his audience would have understood immediately, but which may seem a little foreign to us. The goal of any ancient worshiper was to get into the presence of the god. The presence of god was contained in the inner sanctuary of the temple. Typically, there was a heavy curtain hanging in front of the entrance to this sanctuary, and in order to pass through it you had to purify yourself with animal sacrifices. Presiding over all of these efforts was a high priest who kept himself ceremonially clean and able to intercede for you to enter into the presence of the god when you couldn’t manage such a thing on your own. We think in similar terms today. We want to enter into God’s presence. We just don’t have a temple in which we do that anymore. We can go straight there through Jesus. 

So then, given that we have this incredible access to God the Father through Jesus the Son (mediated by the Holy Spirit), what do we do? He gives us three things starting in v. 22. The first one is this: “…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.” In other words, given that we have this incredible access to God, let’s take advantage of it and go to Him through Jesus. The second thing is this: “Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful.” That is, let us stand firm in our confession of faith in Him because the one who made it possible isn’t going to quit on us. And there’s one more thing. Verse 24: “And let us watch out for one another to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” 

Now, this last thing is interesting. The first two easily make sense. Given that we have this incredible access to God through Jesus, let us take as full advantage of it as we possibly can. If you have access to God in Christ, then go to Him (in Christ). To boil that down even more: If you can get to God, then you get to God. We might naturally expect there to be something else along these lines when we come to the third thing on the list. But there’s not. While the first two are personal responses, this third one is relational. If you can get to God, then you get to God, but once you’ve done that, turn around and make sure everyone else is getting there too with you. That is, if you can get to God for yourself, that’s great, but don’t do it on your own. 

There’s even more here. This isn’t simply an encouragement to help other people in the church get to God. This is a call to help one another stay close to God in Christ. It’s almost like the author thinks getting to God in Christ is something between you and Him, but staying there is between you and Him and the rest of His body. It’s like he thinks none of us can do it on our own; like we need people to be a part of the process. We need to have each other’s backs. We need to provoke each other. That word in particular is really interesting. It is the Greek word paroxusmos. It imagines someone doing something that causes someone else to do something. The cause could be inspiration or exhortation or even just plain irritation. The idea is that we should goad each other to action like the members of a sports team might pump each other up to win a big game. 

Look around you. These people are your teammates and every single day you are engaged together in a contest in which everything is on the line. If you don’t do your part and they don’t do their part, the loss we all sustain together is going to be staggering. Not only do you need to make sure you are doing your own full part, then, to advance God’s kingdom against the ever-encroaching darkness of the world, but they need to be doing their part too. If you see someone starting to slack off or not doing the things we need them to be doing in order for us all to succeed, then the rest of us need to call that person to action. This doesn’t mean we jump all over them or criticize them or call them out to embarrass them publicly. It means we encourage one another. We love one another. We support one another. We pray for one another. Like Jesus did. It means making sure we all show up for practice and the pep rallies and the extra sessions so that we are all ready to get the win together. And what is the win? Advancing God’s kingdom by loving the people around us and seeking to do good to them. And as we see the day drawing near when the final buzzer is going to sound, we double down on our efforts in this direction because life itself is on the line. The Christian life is a team sport. 

But when we try to walk through life without Jesus, we don’t do “team.” Out there the world is in some ways just like Darwin described it. It’s everybody for themselves. The strongest survive while the rest get trampled under foot or perhaps devoured to feed the appetites of those who have the power. We adapt and we change and we grow, but it’s all only so that we can make sure we’ll have what we need to survive until tomorrow. Now, do we make alliances with the people around us and commit ourselves to those alliances? Sure we do. That’s where towns and cities and countries and cultures come from. We have that inherent need for relationships that we talked about, and we have an intuitive sense that we can’t survive on our own. But that doesn’t mean we’re really working together. Rather, we’re all individuals working in the same general direction. But as we go, we each have our own agenda, and when that agenda conflicts with the agendas of the people around us, all bets are off. Or, as Paul wrote and which we’ll talk about in more detail next week, “the works of the flesh [which was the consistent image Paul used for the life lived apart from Jesus] are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar.”

Now, when put in the particular context in which we are talking about it this morning, of course that sounds terrible. No one in their right mind would want to live like that. Lived in the moment, though, it doesn’t usually feel like anything is at all amiss. I mean, yeah, we occasionally feel like things should be other than it seems like they are all the time, but that’s just life being life. Everybody gets that sense every now and then. When it comes right down to it, though, you really can’t trust other people. You have to look out for yourself. If you don’t get yours, somebody else might get it instead and how would that be fair? Take all you can in the moment because you just don’t know what tomorrow may bring and you want to be prepared for it just in case. That’s just how life has always been done. Everywhere. And by everybody. 

But do you know what’s missing from that picture? Relationships. If people can’t be trusted, real relationships are impossible. If you’re looking out for you and I’m looking out for me, we may work together when our interests align, but not other than that. And relating will be for reasons of convenience, not genuine affection. If all you are concerned about is fairness, you’ll always be trying to work the angles to your advantage whether it benefits the people around you or not, and nobody wants to be around somebody who’s like that. And if your overriding focus is making sure you’ve got what you need for yourself, you are not going to be giving any attention to the best interests of anyone else. That is not fertile relational ground. And you can do life that way. People try to do life that way all the time. But after a while, it gets really heavy. 

What Jesus offers is something radically different. He offers a family in which everyone is welcome no matter who they are, where they’re from, what’s in their background, or what may be in their future. He frees us to actively look out for the needs of the people around us because He’s promised to meet all of our needs. We don’t have to give a single thought of concern to tomorrow (that doesn’t preclude wise planning) because He can handle whatever it may be. He gives us the assurance that we will never face any of the things that might pop up on our path alone because He will never leave us nor forsake us. And sometimes the fulfillment of that promise comes in the form of His Spirit moving to assure us in our hearts, but more often than not it comes by way of a fellow member of the body of Christ giving us the phone call or text or email or letter or direct word we needed in the moment to know He is near. And the reason we have all of these things that we don’t have apart from Jesus is simple: The Christian life is a team sport. 

We need each other. I need you and you need me. You need the people next to you, and they need you. And this isn’t in some touchy-feely way that we all lose who we are as we get absorbed into the larger consciousness of Christ. That’s New Agey, science fiction weirdness, not the life of Christ. God is making you and me both into incredible, unique individuals who reflect His image in powerful, personal, and public ways. What this means is that we are being knit together in spite of our differences; united in Christ amid our intentional (on God’s part) diversity. We have been given a task that we cannot complete unless every part is playing its God-designed part. The Christian life is a team sport. 

So, what you need to do is simple: Be a fully functioning part of the team. Or, if you don’t like the sports metaphor, let’s change it up. You need to be fully committed to the unit. You need to be invested in the family of God. The Christian life was never intended to be a solo venture. God made you and me for relationships and then He gave us a context in the church where those relationships can be fostered and grown into something that allows us to reach our maximum potential in Christ. So, again, watch out for one another. Provoke, encourage, prod, goad, irritate each other if necessary toward love and good works. 

And don’t neglect this gathering as some are in the habit of doing. That’s right, churchgoing is a habit. Engaging with the body of Christ is something that becomes what you do because you do it. I know that doesn’t seem very spiritual, but it doesn’t have to. I know you don’t need to hear this because you’re in the room, but I’m going to tell you just in case. You can share this news with someone else if need be. With a limited set of exceptional circumstances, whether you are here or somewhere else on a given Sunday morning is a choice you make. If you get into the habit of making another choice, then, given the opportunity, you will. If you’re in the habit of choosing to be here, the opposite will happen. 

But you’re not to be here simply because it’s right to be in church. You’re here because your team needs you and you need them. Neither of you can fully accomplish getting and staying in the presence of God through Christ on your own. And if you aren’t getting and staying in the presence of God through Christ, you’re missing out on the life that is truly life. You’re missing out on being equipped by the Spirit with the tools you need to do the work God has set before you. God is advancing His kingdom and He’s doing it primarily through this body. You can’t be a part of that when you’re operating on your own.The Christian life is a team sport and the day is drawing nearer all the time. 

Imagine being in a place where you have access to all the relationships you need to be and do everything God has called you to be and do. You have that in the church. We all do when we’ll commit to doing this together. The Christian life is a team sport. Let’s make sure we play it well. 

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