For eight hours, he prepares his uniform and his mind for duty. Every day of his duty, he gets a fresh haircut. And when he is on duty, he will not vary from his command a single step, or for a single second, no matter the weather, no matter the hour of the day, no matter the day of the week, no matter the number of people watching, and no matter if no one watches at all.
You've seen his picture, of course, for he is the unflinching guard, the sentinel, a member of the Third United States Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, the men and women who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside our nation's capitol.
For every minute of every day, since July 2, 1937, the Old Guard has stood guard. And there is nothing casual about the way the work is done Arlington.
When a sentinel comes on duty, he walks exactly 21 steps across the tomb, representing the 21-gun salute, the highest honor given to any military or foreign dignitary. When he turns, he faces the tomb, and remains in that position for 21 seconds. He turns again and walks 21 steps across the tomb. When he completes the short journey, he stops, turns toward the tomb, and pauses for 21 seconds. Over and over, the sentinel repeats the process, until his shift is completed.
When the job is done well, it is nearly impossible to discern any movement of the young soldier's head, or weapon. With an average age of only 22, these young, enlisted men and women, with ranks ranging only from Private First Class to Specialist, prepare for weeks to take a turn at the tomb.
They will be assigned to groups by their height. No more than two inches will separate those who take responsibility for duty shifts. And yet, somehow, all of the sentinels seem taller, straighter, and a bit prouder. Part of the reason for the ramrod appearance would be from the shoes the soldiers wear. Though they are standard, military issue boots, the heels and soles are built up a bit, not for protection from the weather, but to aid in the walking, the turning, and the distinctive clicking of the heels. Strict training ensures that the guard will be unflinching and unwavering in duty, no matter the heat of summer, no matter the driving rain of December, or the frozen snow of February.
And most importantly of all, the guard will remain posted, and the steps will remain perfect, even when there is not another soul in sight, when no one is watching to see if the sentinel remains diligent at midnight. (Source: http://www.tombguard.org/)
Let us say something about the members of the Third United States Infantry Regiment of the US Army. If you want to join this group, you'll have to learn a new way to walk. To walk in the same way as the rest of the humans in Arlington National Cemetery is to give up the privilege of walking with the Old Guard. To miss a single step when it's your turn to guard the tomb is to miss the opportunity to stand with those who've stood before you. To misunderstand the motivation behind your duty is to miss the point entirely. For this is the point: Inside the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery are men who gave their lives for the freedom we know. Surrounding the Tomb of the Unknowns are more than a quarter of a million graves of others who gave their lives in service to this country. And around that single cemetery are thousands upon thousands of cemeteries in the United States ... and around the world ... where the bodies are reminders that our freedom isn't free at all. Instead, it came with a fierce and terrible price tag, and such sacrifice is worth a 24-hour guard, seven days a week, 12 months out of the year.
You just don't walk the same way when it's your turn to guard the tomb.
Neither should we, those who carry the guard for the name of Christ.
We're embarking on a new year, and our minds are drawn to new commitments, or even fresh versions of previous commitments. Whether your hope for 2008 includes a better way of balancing your budget, or simply finding less of you to balance on your bathroom scales, almost everyone is in a mood to consider change as the New Year approaches.
The challenge from the Bible could encompass all of that change. To put it simply, the Bible's message is that we're expected to walk in a different way, once we follow Christ. It doesn't matter if a crowd is watching - as is the case right now - or if no one at all is watching. It doesn't matter if the watch is pleasant, or difficult. It doesn't matter about the circumstances, the physical, emotional, or even spiritual strain. Walking as a follower of Jesus requires a different step than the rest of the world ... and sometimes, I'm afraid, it requires just as much work as if we were members of the select force that guards the Tomb in Arlington.
I'd like you to find the book of Ephesians, and just keep a book mark there for a few weeks. Before this series is over, I pray you and I will have some memory markers that will make this year a banner year for standing strong, for standing tall, and for standing proud of the way we represent our Savior.
The message from Ephesians is incredibly relevant, despite the fact the words were written nearly 2,000 years ago. The city was a huge city, and a transportation hub. The culture of Ephesus had several similarities with our culture.
Though their technology was different, their weak points were the same. They had a tendency to like sinful practices. They were materialistic to a point of overkill. They had sexual practices that left nothing to the imagination, and nothing seemed to shame them.
And yet, right in the midst of a very difficult environment, a church sprang up. As Paul ministered to this small group of Christians, it became obvious that people were hungry for something real. They wanted something more than what their money could buy, more than what their lustful imaginations could create. And as they listened, as they considered the life of Jesus, and as they changed their ways, their number began to grow. In fact, so many people in Ephesus came to Christ and began changing their way of living, the economic core of the city was threatened. Change so dramatic came to the town, a riot involving 25,000 or more people broke out, with the writer of this little letter being the focus of the fury. (Acts 18-19 has the full story.)
Eventually, long after he had to rush out of Ephesus in order to save his life, Paul wrote his church with a simple instruction for what he expected of them. He urged them to do what you're probably hoping to do as a new year dawns. He called them to a new way of living, or as the guards around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier might say it, to a new way of walking.
As a prisoner, as one who was paying a dear price for his faith, he urged others to live the life he would life, if only he were free to be among them. He urged them. He begged them. Remember when Jacob heard that Joseph was dead? Remember when Isaac heard that his mother had died? The Hebrew word that matches the word Paul used right here is the same one. It's a word picture of people breathing deeply, gasping for breath, because the news is so urgent. Because life has changed so much. It's an emergency of emotion ... and it's the same word Luke used to describe the way Peter preached when the Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost ... with the wind of God bearing down on the city, with miracles happening all around, Peter urged the people to pay attention ... Jesus was the Messiah ... you crucified him ... but he loves you, and he wants you ... accept him!
Paul says, nearly breathing deeply with the desperation of it all: "I urge you to walk in a way that honors Christ. I'm begging you to do this!"
Ever been called to jury duty? It's a "summons," or an invitation to participate in the judicial process of your country. However, this invitation, this "calling," isn't really an invitation that leaves an option of whether or not to attend. If you know a good "calling" when you see it, you'll show up for jury duty! That's the exact concept Paul used when he asked his church in Ephesus to live a life worthy of their calling. It's an invitation to participate in the Christian lifestyle, but it's not an invitation that provides an opportunity for us to decline. God expects us to walk - or live - in a Christ-honoring way the same way a judge expects you to show up when he or she "invites" you to court!
But before we consider how we might live in 2008, we can't miss a foundational point of the Bible's message of how we come to be included in this invitation to walk a certain way.
I. The way you live has nothing to do with the way you were saved
Ephesians 2:8-10 - For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God's gift - not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation - created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.
Paul is always careful to remind us that we're saved by grace, and by no other means. You can't avoid enough sins, bake enough pies, make enough hospital visits, read enough Bible, or give enough money to be saved. Just can't. You can't "walk in a way that honors God" and hope that'll be enough to walk your way into heaven. If we haven't accepted the gift of grace, there will be no grace at all.
With Christmas just passed, I suppose this room is filled with people who've received all kinds of electronic gadgets as Christmas gifts. My goodness ... you've got MP3 players, PDA's, DVD players, cell phones, and personal computers loaded up with software that will make your head spin.
Now here's the deal. If you received such a gadget as a gift this Christmas, it was free. It didn't cost you a dime. You didn't have to pay taxes on it, and you didn't have to wait in line in an overcrowded store to buy it. You didn't have to pay for shipping, and you didn't even have to wrap it. Your one and only goal in the transaction was receiving and accepting the gift. That's it. That's all. There's nothing more in the transaction process.
You don't need some theological treatise to understand the concept of receiving a Christmas gift. It's easy, it's wonderful, and it's common.
But that is the point. Receiving the gift of salvation, receiving the ultimate Christmas gift is easy, it's wonderful, and it's even common. Millions and millions of people believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior.
But there's as big a step between receiving Christ and living a life that's worthy of that gift as there is in receiving an MP3 player and actually figuring out how the thing works. A person with a personal computer who takes the time to learn how to use it effectively is a completely different animal than a person with a personal computer who is just flabbergasted by the thing. How different an animal? It's like this. The people who got in there and figured out the computer first, made the most money. Some of them are the richest people in America. The people who first saw the potential of the Internet were the people who made the most money from the Internet. Even today, now that the Internet has become a common part of life, some people make money off their junk by selling it on E-Bay, but millions of Americans haven't taken the time to understand how E-Bay works, so their junk just takes up space, and the potential profit slips away.
Paul discovered, after he was saved by grace, that through his faith in Christ, he could better control his thoughts, his lusts, his anxiety, his anger, and his feelings of guilt. He didn't find a prison of things he couldn't do because he had accepted Christ ... he actually found a freedom from knowing Christ that allowed him to sing while he was in prison! And because he knew all that would happen, if people would just plug into what was available to them.
So get it clear right from the start that there's a huge difference between receiving the gift of salvation, and then using that relationship. Huge difference. And your actions in life have nothing to do with how you are saved. Salvation is by grace alone, grace made available only by the death of Jesus on the cross.
The letter to the Ephesians is a letter to Christians, and this sermon is a message to Christians. Paul says, "I urge you to walk in a way that's worthy of the calling you have received." This is a letter to people who've already received the gift. If you've never received the gift, and you try to plug these principles into play, it just won't work. You might feel better for a while ... you might even see some positive results ... kind of like a person who makes and keeps a New Year's resolution ... but it won't be the same thing.
Can I ask a fundamental question here? Have you ever received the gift? If not, wouldn't you like to do that, on the first day of a new year? Wouldn't you like to start off the year by making the single best decision a person can ever make?
II. The way we walk is seen in how we treat others
Ephesians 4:1-3 - I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds [us].
Look at the qualities Paul lists immediately, while his instruction to walk in a way that's worthy of your calling are still echoing in the air.
- Bearing with one another.
- Loving people.
- Working hard to keep the unity among believers.
It's pretty simple. When you make an effort to live in a Christ-honoring manner, it immediately affects the people around you. It's like the foot washing in the upper room. It's a way of living that goes against the grain. It shocks people ... all the humility and gentleness. It stuns people, at the strength they find in such a person.
If this is you, then it's like this. The people around you go first. Other people get the best portion. People you live with, people you work with, people you study with, play with, hang out with ... they get more than you do. They get more honor. They get more prestige. They get more joy. They might even have more stuff, more money. It's a lifestyle that says you will be the servant, and they will be the served.
Why? Because you make sure it happens that way.
You know what's really fun? When you fill a house with people who've all made the decision to live in a manner that's worthy of the calling they've received. It's incredible. In a marriage, you've got a husband and a wife trying to out-give each other all day long. And both of them can't believe how good it is to be in that marriage. Wow! And when siblings try to take care of the other one? It's overwhelming. It's the stuff your favorite stories are made of ... when a big brother stands up for his little brother, when a little sister brags on her big sister to her friends ... when siblings can't think of anything better to do than spend time with that brother, that sister, when there's genuine admiration for the good grades, or the sports talent, or the musical skill, or the way she has with people ... or whatever it is.
When a church is filled with servants ... servant leaders, I like to call them ... miracles happen. Look just one paragraph above this little passage in Ephesians 4 and you'll get this incredible statement:
Ephesians 3:20-21 - Now to Him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think -according to the power that works in you- to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
The only way this ever happens is through is best called spiritual maturity. A young person, a young adult, can be spiritually mature. An older can still be a spiritual child, still be horribly immature when it comes to caring more about others than self. Patience isn't a quickly or easily learned trait. Bearing with one another sometimes takes all the effort you've got. And only the strongest will pull it off. Only the most committed will get it done.
An Admirer once asked Leonard Bernstein, celebrated orchestra conductor, what was the hardest instrument to play. He replied without hesitation: "Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm or second French horn or second flute, now that's a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony." (Source: James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, Tyndale, 1988, p. 450, Brett Blair, Sermon Illustrations, 1999.)
The only way our church has the harmony it has, is that so many people are willing to play second fiddle. It's amazing ... truly amazing. But if you've ever heard orchestra discord, you know why harmony is worth the effort.
III. The way you walk is up to you
The Bible is making a challenge, this morning, but no one alive knows the results of this challenge. The way you walk ... the choice of how you live ... is completely up to you.
The circumstances around you, no matter how good, or how bad, cannot control how you react to those circumstances. And therein is exactly what we're focusing upon ... those choices are the "way we walk."
A young wife named Jennifer prayed like this:
Lord, I pray for ... wisdom to understand my man.
Lord, I pray for Love, to forgive him.
O Lord, I pray for patience, to deal with his moods.
But O Lord, I do not pray for strength, for if you give me strength, I will beat him to death, Amen.
OK. She's making choices. She's laughing about the difficulties of getting used to marriage. We can handle that.
What a great thing it is, when a person makes a choice to walk in a Christ-like way. What an incredible impact it makes. And you know what? The only person in the world who can make that decision for you ... is you!
Is it hard? Is it terribly difficult?
A married couple was celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. At the party everybody wanted to know how they managed to stay married so long in this day and age.
The husband responded, "When we were first married, we came to an agreement. I would make all the major decisions, and my wife would make all the minor decisions."
At which point the wife took up the tale, "And in 60 years of marriage we have never needed to make a major decision."
Walking in a way that honors Christ may sound like a major decision ... to walk in a way worthy of your calling. But in a sense, this major decision is made with a long series - a lifetime, even - of minor decisions. You just make ‘em one at the time, like one little step at a time, and pretty soon, you're walking in a brand new way, right into a brand new year.
Don't miss the opportunity to tie in a new ministry, a new Bible study class, or a new discipleship training opportunity with this message. People are in a mood to change many things every year around Jan. 1, so give them an opportunity to start a new habit by joining your ministries. With all the language about "walking" in this message, you can literally invite them to walk to a certain place in your church to get more information about a ministry, to sign up for a class, to attend a class, to join the church, and of course, to make a profession of faith. Some churches even promote a "Join-the-church-Sunday" and prepare people weeks in advance. With the assurance that there will be others walking forward, many who've resisted the urge will follow through on this particular Sunday.