“Going ‘All In’”

Lent 5

March 13, 2016


Text: John 12:1-8; Philippians 3:4b-14


          I don’t often watch televised poker. To be honest, I find it rather boring. But one aspect of the game does seem to be relevant to where I find myself going with this sermon this morning. At some point, a player will push all of his or her chips into the middle of the table and go “all in”. In other words, that player is betting all of his/her chips on that hand. If the player wins the hand, he/she stands to gain a great deal. If the player loses, he/she is eliminated from the match.

          I was reminded of the act of going “all in” when I thought about the story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet. (You recall she was the sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.) She poured ¾ of a pound of very expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, then used her hair to dry them. This was an extravagant, costly, risky, over-the-top expression of her devotion to Jesus.

          It is no surprise that some who were present for the meal where this happened did not approve of Mary’s actions. We read that Judas Iscariot (the disciple who betrayed Jesus) started complaining that this was a waste and the perfume, which he said was worth a year’s wages, should have been sold and the money given to the poor. I can relate to Judas’ complaint. I was raised by parents who became adults during the Depression. I was raised to believe extravagance is not a good thing. It is easy for me to see Mary’s act as extreme.

          But Jesus did not see it that way. When Judas complained, Jesus responded, “Leave her alone. She has used this perfume to prepare me for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” Jesus knew he was approaching the time of his death in Jerusalem. He recognized and appreciated Mary’s extravagant act for what it was—an act of great love and devotion, intended to give comfort and encouragement to Jesus as he faced the most difficult days of his life. Of course, one can also show one’s love and devotion to God by giving to the poor, and Jesus expected that his disciples would continue to have many opportunities to do that.

          Paul the Apostle also went “all in” for God. He was “all in” as a devout Pharisaic Jew before his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. In today’s reading from Philippians, Paul tells about his impressive credentials in Judaism: “I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.” Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, was seriously devoted to his Jewish faith, maybe even fanatical when one considers the fact that he persecuted the followers of Jesus.

          After Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, however, everything changed. The one who had been a fanatical Pharisee went “all in” just as hard in following Jesus. In fact, he said that he regarded his previous credentials in Judaism as a loss, even as manure (in fact, the colloquial term for that substance is actually the best translation of the Greek in this passage), so that he might gain Christ and be found in him. He instead chose to go “all in” in living out a righteousness that is based on trust in Christ, knowing Christ, living in the power of Christ’s resurrection, sharing in Christ’s sufferings, and being conformed to Christ’s death, in order that he might share in Christ’s resurrection life.

          Paul also recognized that he had not arrived at his destination yet. The game was in progress and the outcome still uncertain. So he threw himself completely into the pursuit of God’s righteousness in Christ—as he wrote to the Christians at Philippi, “I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.” This pursuit took Paul on journeys over large portions of the Roman Empire to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. He threw his whole life into this effort. He went “all in”.

          We live in a world where the idea of going “all in” for God strikes people as strange. Often going “all in” is equated with being fanatical. While being a fanatic about one’s favorite sports team is seen as perfectly normal in our world (after all, the word “fan” when describing a sports fan is simply a shortening of the word “fanatic”), being fanatical about God strikes many people as weird or even dangerous. Of course, there are some reasons this has happened. When it comes to religious folk, the ones who are identified as being fanatical seem to want to make society over into their own image, convert people to their way of thinking and acting, or reject and mistreat people who don’t conform to their norms. We think of people such as the Religious Right or ISIS. I have yet to hear of anyone being called a fanatic for trying to be like Jesus by loving their enemies or welcoming and accepting society’s rejects. But I suggest that laying aside one’s privileges and prejudices to share God’s love in word and deed is truer to the idea of going “all in” for Jesus than is going around condemning and judging people who don’t believe, act, or think the way we do.

          But for me, and I suspect for most people, the biggest impediment to going “all in” for God is divided loyalty. I am committed to God, but I am also committed to many other things, some of which can be easily fit into my commitment to God, others perhaps not so easily. It is easy for me to become distracted by lesser goals that may keep me from pressing on toward the goal of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

          Another way to understand this impediment is to understand it as being rooted in fear—if I go “all in” for God, what is going to be left for me? It is easy to forget that going “all in” for God is actually where you and I will find the fullness of life God intends for each of us and for the church. As Jesus said elsewhere, “Those who seek their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the good news will find it.”

          In the story “Stone Soup” that was shared for our children’s time today, the people of the village pretty much had to be tricked into letting go even a little bit of what they had so the hungry travelers could make the soup. We who belong to Jesus Christ should not need to be tricked into sharing even a little of ourselves. For that matter, we should not need to be tricked into going “all in”, for we have our example in Jesus himself, who freely and willingly gave his life completely for our sakes and the sake of all the world. He calls and invites us to take up our cross and follow him.

          So God, help us to go “all in” for you, even though it is often risky, knowing that your Son went “all in” for us and came out victorious over the power of sin and death for our sake and the sake of all people everywhere.                                                           Amen. 

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