Today is the third in a 5-part sermon series entitled “Reel to Real,” during which we will engage the popular culture through the medium of film. The intent is to add a Christian voice to the conversation being generated by each film. The springboard for today’s sermon is Ferdinand. The theme is perception vs. reality — things are not always as they seem.
Sermon 1: “Engaging With the ‘Real World‘”
Sermon 2: “Put Away the Chisel” (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
Sermon 4: “Being God’s Home For Another” (The Greatest Showman)
Sermon 5: “What Should I Do?” (The Post)
Scripture: Psalm 27
On or around Wednesday, August 20, 2014, I was mowing the lawn. Because I was mowing along the edge where the pine tree branches brush the ground, I was using the push mower. And because it was the time of day when the mosquitos were coming out, I was moving quickly. And because our backyard has two significant slopes, I was getting a good cardio workout. My heart rate was elevated and I was sweating. When I was done, I put the mower away and went inside to cool down and relax.
A week later I would look back on that evening and recall that it took my body a lot longer than usual to recover. My heart rate stayed elevated longer than usual, and was a while before I stopped sweating even though I was no exerting myself. But I just figured it was because I’d been pushing myself a little harder than usual. That’s how it appeared to me.
The truth was, I was experiencing what they later told me was a “heart episode,” and at the time I had no idea it was happening. The fact that I was doing hard physical work masked the reality that I was having a pre-heart attack. Which I experienced in full the following Wednesday, August 27, at 6am.
Here is a truth: things are not always as they seem. For example, how many bars are there in this image on the left? Your answer depends on which end you’re looking at. From one perspective, we see 4 bars. From another, we see 3.
Here’s another one. What do you see on the image below? (a Rubik’s Cube on a piece of paper) No one would blame you for thinking that, because that’s exactly as it seems. But now watch this video clip.
Things aren’t always as they seem. And this was a theme prevalent in the film Ferdinand.
Ferdinand is a wonderful movie for the whole family, and it contains a number of healthy “morals to the story.” It’s a story about courage and compassion. It’s about not giving into pressure to be someone you’re not. In its own way it even addresses the issue of racism. If you haven’t seen it, I’d highly recommend it for the whole family.
Here’s the basic storyline of the film. It opens with Ferdinand as a bull calf growing up on a farm that trains bulls for bullfighting. He’s the only bull on the farm that isn’t interested in training to fight in the bullring. He’d rather spend his days smelling flowers. As you might guess, he’s ridiculed by his bull calf peers, so eventually he runs away. He winds up at a florists farm and is adopted by the family. Here, he has free range of the flower-covered hills, and settles in to enjoy the rest of his life in flower-scented bliss.
Life takes a turn, however, when, as a full-grown bull he wanders into the town square in search of his adoptive family. Ferdinand doesn’t realize his own size, and unbeknownst to himself he’s now the biggest bull anyone’s every laid eyes on. His mere presence in town creates havoc, and it’s only made worse when he accidently gets stung by a bee and reacts as you’d imagine. After tearing up the town in his frightened frenzy, some townsfolk identify him as a good candidate for bullfighting, and in an ironic twist, he’s carted back to the training farm he escaped from years earlier.
This is where the story gets really good as he’s confronted with the pressure to be someone he’s not. On the outside, he looks like a fighter. That’s the appearance. But as we know, things aren’t always as they appear.
Which is a theme we find throughout the Bible, starting right at the beginning, in Genesis chapter 2. God creates Adam and Eve and places them in the Garden of Eden. He surrounds them with everything they need for a happy, healthy life. Everything in the Garden is fair game except for the fruit tree located in the middle of the Garden. This is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and God gives them clear instructions not to eat of its fruit. Doing so, he tells them, will result in their death.
For a time they stayed away from the tree. But there was just something about it that slowly draws them in. One day as they’re standing in front of the tree, gazing at it, the wily serpent slithers down from the branches and speaks to their intrigue. “You do know, don’t you, that contrary to what God said, you won’t in fact die!” the serpent says to Eve. “He told you that because he knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.” She’s convinced.
And so, “She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness” (Genesis 3:4-7).
The fruit had the appearance of being harmless. In fact, it looked delicious.
Lining the walkway of the house I grew up in were green bushes in which soft, bright red berries grew. To my young eyes they looked delicious, and I was often drawn to them. But my father made it a point to remind me on multiple occasions that despite their appearance, they were poisonous.
The fruit of this tree looked delicious and innocuous. But in reality, they contained a type of “poison” which resulted in their death. Clearly, it wasn’t a physical death. Rather, they experienced a spiritual death. Their intimate relationship with their Creator was lost forever, and sin entered the course of human history. So not only was the appearance of the fruit misaligned with reality, but so was the proclamation of the serpent that it would be a good thing to “be like God.” Alas, things aren’t always as they appear.
And then there’s the Old Testament story of David’s anointing as the future king of Israel. God tells the prophet Samuel to go to Jesses home where he will find and anoint the next king of Israel. When Samuel shows up at Jesse’s home, he instructs him to bring out all his sons. Every son except David is shown to Samuel. By all appearances, any one of these sons would make a good king. Even the prophet thought so. And so just as Samuel was preparing to anoint Eliab, the Lord speaks a word into Samuel’s heart. He says,
“Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16.7)
So David, Jesse’s youngest son, was brought before Samuel. Outwardly, David appeared anything but kingly. If a king was expected to also be a warrior, David didn’t fit the bill on account of his small stature. But God knew David’s heart and ordered Samuel to anoint the boy on the spot.
Things aren’t always as they appear.
This isn’t just a truth for people in the Bible; it’s also a truth for us to remember. How many of us here feel like we’re making a significant positive impact on the lives of people our community? I can’t say I necessarily feel that way. In fact, over the past twenty-five years, I’ve often wondered what difference I’ve made in the lives of the people I served, as well as others in the larger community.
But here’s the truth (and one I try to remember when I start to doubt): God has uniquely equipped every one of us to have a part in helping change people’s lives for the better. Too often we compare ourselves to others who seem to be doing great big things for the Kingdom, and then come to the conclusion that what we have to offer is nowhere near as impactful. I’m not all that important. Who am I compared to that person? We draw conclusions based on the way another’s life and work appears to us.
For many of my early years in ministry I invalidated almost all that I did because I often compared myself to pastors my same age who appeared to have it all together, whose ministries appeared to be touching the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. They were authors. They led megachurches. They were making videos for small groups and reaching Christians world-wide through their teachings. They were highly creative and insightful. They were everything I wanted to be but didn’t seem to be. I’d look at them, then look at me, and ask myself, “And what have I done?”
What a waste of energy and thought that was! All because I failed to live by the truth that despite how it may appear to me, those people I idolized have the exact same problems I have. They suffer the same insecurities, even though you wouldn’t know it by looking and listening to them.
Consider the swimmer, Michael Phelps. If there’s every a modern day person who eludes self-confidence and a sense of achievement, it would be him. But the truth is, despite his almost herculean achievements in the pool, and his godlike status in the sporting world, he puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like you and me. There an article at CNN.com about the fact that he suffers from severe depression, and has contemplated suicide on multiple occasions. Who wouldn’t have thunk it? Not me; not based on the appearance of his amazing accomplishments.
So, maybe it’s so that when it comes to our ow discipleship, most of us here may not be spiritual Herculeses’. Even so, the truth is God has equipped every single Believer in this room with a set of spiritual gifts which, when put to use, will result in peoples’ lives being changed. We may not always be the main player in their transformation or conversion. And, to use a baseball analogy, we may not always be the closer that gets to pray with that person when they finally make their decision to turn their life over to Christ. But where does it say that that’s what we’re called to?
In 1 Cor. 3.6 Paul says, “I planted the seed and Apollos watered it.” Paul’s point: I did one part and someone else did the next part. The fact is, you do play an important part of the big picture of changing lives, even if you can’t see the difference you make. Again, for some of us, it may appear that we have little or no impact on the Kingdom. But I think the truth is if you’re earnestly asking God to use you to make an impact on this community for sake of the Kingdom of God, that’s a prayer God has promised to answer.
If there was ever a man whose ministry made a huge and lasting impact, it was the Apostle Paul. And yet he struggled, too. He often found himself being accused of running his ministry with wrong and bad motives. In today’s reading, Paul’s accused of manipulating people in order to acquire worldly stuff. He knows they’re mistaken, and he knows he has the right to defend himself against their misguided accusations. But he also knows that his strategy has to reflect the reality that things aren’t always as they appear.
And that’s because Christians believe that what may appear to be a conflict with other people is often a spiritual battle. For example, in Matthew 16, when Peter attempts to keep Jesus from going to the cross, Jesus knows who is behind Peter’s words. Peter speak the words, but it isn’t really Peter, is it? In response, Jesus addresses Peter but speaks directly to Satan: “Get behind me, Satan! You are standing in my way.” Jesus knows that despite how it appears –a conflict with Peter—it is ultimately a spiritual issue.
This is Paul’s point in our reading today. Paul says,
It is true we live in a body of flesh. But we do not fight like people of the world. We do not use those things to fight with that the world uses. We use the things God gives to fight with and they have power. Those things God gives to fight with destroy the strong-places of the devil.” (2 Cor 10.3-4).
When you and I find ourselves in conflict with people, we’re to use spiritual “weapons” for spiritual “battle.” What is the main spiritual weapon at our disposal? Prayer. First and foremost, above all else, prayer. Why? Because it may appear to be a conflict with flesh and blood. But more often than we probably realize, it’s a spiritual issue, and requires a spiritual solution. Why? Because things aren’t always as they appear.
Perhaps the most significant example of this in the Bible is Jesus’ resurrection. By all appearances, he lost. He was crucified, he was buried in the tomb, a stone was rolled across the entrance so that no one could get in and take his body, and guards were set in place. For two days Satan danced in victory, because it appeared he’d won. But not everything is as it appears. On the third day Jesus was resurrected and returned to life. Despite how it appeared, Christ triumphed over the Enemy of our souls. He triumphed over death. And today, life triumphs over death.
When he lives in a person, he brings that victory over death with him and applies it to that person. And when he abides within a community of faith, such as this or any church, he applies his life to the congregation as a whole. Know this: the risen Christ lives within us, making us alive through the Holy Spirit. And making us thrive through the same Spirit. Even if you don’t see yourself as a spiritual giant, the biblical witness is that in Christ you are a vital part of all that God is doing in this city at this time. God has equipped us for ministry, and once again today he will send us out from here to bear witness to his love and light. Because, despite how it may appear, God is already stirring the hearts and minds of people to whom he will guide each one of us this week.
Let us now pray that we’ll make ourselves available to him so that we can be used in whatever capacity he sees fit, whether big or small, in the slow but certain transformation of Adrian, Michigan.