It's Character That Counts


January 28, 2007

DR. WILLIAM L. SELF Senior Pastor, Johns Creek Baptist Church

Take your Bibles and turn to the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel and I’m going to start reading at the 28th verse. Let’s stand together as I read this passage this morning. This is the concluding part of the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 6: 28-34

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will He not much more clothe you — you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

May the spirit of God, who authored these words let them be his word for our lives as we live these days.

“Hi, my name is Bill.” (You’ve been to those meetings?) My name is Bill and I’m addicted to infomercials. You know what infomercials are? Those little things that come on in the middle of the night. They’re bad TV and they keep telling you what the 800 number is. Some nights I can’t sleep, and when I can’t go to sleep by reading dull books, I sometimes slip into the family room and click on the television.

And there they are, all night long, those infomercials and I’m addicted to them. In fact, the addiction got so bad that Carolyn hid the credit card from me. You know, the one place I did resist all of this though. I didn’t buy that can to spray your head so it looks like you have hair. I didn’t buy that one.

But the one that got me started on it was the Ginzu knives. Now I don’t know whether any of you own any Ginzu knives at all, and for those of you who are uninitiated, Ginzu knives were the first of these infomercials that came out and they were absolutely marvelous. You could take a Ginzu knife the size of a paring knife and it was so strong you could level a rainforest with it. But the thing that amazes me about the Ginzu knife is that it comes with a lifetime guarantee.

Now, I’ve thought about that. This has a lifetime guarantee. Whose lifetime is it guaranteed for? So, I was in an impish mood and I called the company. Three in the morning, I didn’t have anything else to do and so I went through all of their prompts. After 30 minutes of listening to Beethoven’s Sonata,I finally got to a human being. He put down his pizza. He came to the phone and I said, “I have a set of Ginzu knives and they’re guaranteed lifetime, whose lifetime?” He said, “How old are you?” I said, “Never mind.” I said, “Well, do you mean it’s my lifetime or is it the Ginzu knife lifetime?” Now this is kind of silly, but I only tell you the truth. I said, “What if the knife breaks?” He said, “Well its life is over. It’s guaranteed for its lifetime. The guarantee goes away.”

Now this ironclad, lifetime guarantee that the Ginzu knife has is not as good as the guarantee that Jesus gives. (Now how about that for an introduction? Move around my elbow to get there.) Jesus gives us an ironclad, absolute guarantee. If I were some television preachers, I would tell you that it’s the road to riches. It’s the secret of all of our success. It’s how to get your needs met, and that seems to be the Number 1 criteria of our culture.

Jesus was interested in our daily lives. Now, those of us who preach a lot give people the impression that Jesus is only interested in our deep spiritual life, but Jesus is interested in our daily life. He was deeply concerned about day-to-day, practical, mundane needs. He spent a great deal of his time healing the sick, feeding hungry people and telling the sick and the hungry about the needs that He could meet. You read what He said in the latter part of the book of Matthew, and it talks about the test at the final judgment. The test at the final judgment will not be how many Bible studies we’ve been to, it won’t be how many Bible verses that we have learned. The test at the final judgment will be did we feed the hungry? Did we take care of the sick? Did we do the things that we should have done for those who were the oppressed of our culture?

The gospels, if you read them carefully, present Jesus as wanting us to have what we want to have. I think there’s not a person within this room or who I know of anywhere, who does not want his physical well-being taken care of. We want economic security, food, clothing, and health. Jesus never talked against those things and He guarantees us that those will come. Jesus tells us that He loves us and that God loves us, and God will care for us. Jesus never minimizes the basic necessities of life, even though we read about those who’ve try to live without them or tried to divorce themselves and live like hermits out in the desert, we see that Jesus did not really tell us to do that.

But Jesus gives us this guarantee. He says that He will take care of our needs and God will take care of our needs, but we will never get them without fulfilling one condition. That one condition is “Righteousness.” “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” What does the verse say? Seek ye first, not second, or third, or fourth. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

Now let me pause here and look at this. The kingdom of God generally is interpreted in church and correctly as the sovereign reign, the sovereign reign of God in our hearts. Understanding that that’s the sovereign reign of God in our hearts, then when we give our lives to Jesus Christ He reigns. The kingdom of God is not some kind of citadel, off away from our lives. It is inside of us. That’s the kingdom. Now we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Now what do we mean by that? Right action is what righteousness really is and we seek it for those around us. We seek it for our community and I am correct if I have read the scholars correctly on this, that we seek it for the community in which we live.

That’s not some kind of blue law enforcement. But it’s a sense of righteousness and justice with everything and every part of the community we’re a part of. We try to get these things other ways. We try to get food, clothing and shelter other ways. Jesus said, “No. I’ll take care of that. Don’t worry about what you’re going to wear. Don’t worry about what you’re going to eat. Don’t worry about your house. Just put righteousness first and I’ll take care of those things.” Now this is a spiritual law. It is in the scriptures. We’ve read this passage a thousand times. Righteousness comes first. Righteousness comes before anything is added on to us. That’s a spiritual law. It’s a law, like gravity.

Now to refresh a moment, we never break the law of gravity. There’s not one person in this room who has ever broken the law of gravity. You don’t break the law of gravity. You break yourself against it. The law is still there. You can go out here when the service is over, and run this traffic light. You didn’t break the laws of the county or city or state, whatever they may be. The law is still there. You’re broken if you’re caught, and you will be. We don’t break God’s laws. God’s laws stay there. We break ourselves in trying to get by them.

Now this law is ironclad. Righteousness first. Let me apply it a little bit. In marriage, romance will start a home. Fidelity maintains a home. Trustworthiness supports a home. Fair play will develop a home, but romance is only the starting part. The foundation of any home is ethical. You take a home and take ethics out of it. Take righteousness out of it and you don’t have a home. You have a confused mess. Thank you. We don’t break God’s laws. We break ourselves against them.

Now Jesus delivers us from having to major on a minor thing, things that don’t matter. He says. “Don’t center your life on petty urges of your body.” They don’t matter. He’ll take care of that. Don’t live after unrighteous mammon. And you know, in this world we live in a global culture that aggressively manifests mammon. Mammon is that worship of things that are evil in this world, that pull against the righteous things. We worship the gods of money, and market, and materialism, and militarism, and the god of “Me.” We bow before those gods, trying to fulfill our needs. Jesus said, “You don’t have to do that. Let Me take care of your needs and you do the things that bring righteousness to this world.”

l’ve watched people sacrifice their lives, their children, their friends, their status, everything about them on the altar of taking care of Me, filling My stomach, putting fancier clothes on My back and a bigger house around me so I can keep My stuff. Jesus said, “You don’t have to do that.” He says, “Let’s re-focus on righteousness.”

Now what is righteousness? If we’re supposed to seek righteousness, first what is righteousness? If we want this guarantee, if we want to understand this law of Jesus, what is this? Now in this sermon, I’m going to use the word “Righteousness” and “Character” and “Integrity” all wrapped up the same. I’m not going to try to define them out separately because I think righteousness and character are so close in their definition that there’s no sense trying to make a distinction between them. “Righteousness” is a name the Bible gives to certain moral attitudes that mark good character and create healthy communities. Hear me say that again. “Righteousness” is the name the Bible gives to certain moral attitudes that mark good character and create healthy communities.

Becoming a righteous person must be at the top of our priority list. You don’t hear that much anymore. People don’t talk about character and righteousness and living a good life. Somehow in the media, those understandings of life have been stroked with an idea you’re square. You’re not cool. You’re not with it. Jesus said, “Don’t be that way.” He said, “We want you to create a righteous world, create a righteous nation, create righteous communities, create a righteous family.” It is the craving of our lives to have these things, but somehow there is this block inside of us that thinks that religion is only our own personal piety and we must not invest it in the nation, in the community, or in the family. They’ll think we’re prudes. But Jesus said it should be the craving of our lives.

I really do believe when you come down to the basis of it, righteousness is a choice. If Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” didn’t he make it a choice? If He said, “Seek this,” then we probably have the choice not to seek it. He said, “Let your primary goal in life, let that goal be to choose righteousness.” We’re all the sum total of our choices. I’ve made some pretty stupid choices. I bought some things on infomercials that I shouldn’t have bought, but it’s a choice I made. When our lives are over, someone will add up our choices and see what we’ve become.

Jesus said, “Choose right action. Choose the moral attitude that gives character and creates healthy community. Become a righteous person.” Our life is brief and God gave us the life. And He shows us how to use it. Our character — now remember I’m using “Character” and “Righteousness” wrapped up as the same thing — our character is destiny. If you don’t remember anything else I say today, I want you to hear me say, “Character is destiny.” Righteousness first and character is destiny. Whatever you are inside, whatever you are when no one’s looking, whatever you are when you think you won’t get caught, that’s your destiny.

Like the man who wrote a letter to the IRS. In that letter he said, “Enclosed, find a check for $100. I owe you this and I haven’t been able to sleep well at night and if I still can’t sleep I’ll send you the other $100 I owe you.” Righteousness first. It sounds so prudish; our forefathers in the pulpit would list everything that was wrong for people to do. And there was always somebody who found a way around every law, every prohibition the church set up and then there were those who just went through them.

I remember as a student going to a student conference somewhere down in middle Florida, and some young lady stood up and her devotional was a listing of all the things she didn’t do since she became a Christian. “I don’t do this, I don’t do that, I don’t eat this, I don’t eat that, I don’t go here, I don’t go there.” She went on and on and on. I was in the back of the room and all I thought was, “What in the world does she do?” She didn’t even breathe. That kind of prohibition has gotten in the way and I would not list the things we don’t do.

I would rather turn it over and say, “If you’re going to seek the kingdom of God, it’s righteousness first, character is your destiny, and in every situation you go into: work, home, school, neighborhoods, church, community development, whatever it may be, your first and primary goal should be righteousness and character.” I cannot define what that would be because the situation changes. Sometimes you have to cut it very closely. I guarantee you’re not going to be appreciated. Jesus made it very clear. Those who are peacemakers are going to be criticized and they will say all manner of evil against you. But I’ll guarantee you one thing; healthy communities are made by people who seek righteousness first — in your business, at the ballot box, in your neighborhood, in your family. No one else in our culture will encourage you like the gospel to seek righteousness first.

Now, usually a preacher will illustrate this by telling about Mother Teresa. But very few of us get pushed into the streets of Calcutta. Very few of us have that opportunity, nor can we sell all and go to Calcutta. What about those of us who are like us? We have good jobs and good families and live normal, decent lives.

These two illustrations may speak more to where most of us are. One is John Wooten. He was the UCLA Basketball Coach in the 1960s and ’70s. It was said of John Wooten that he was so square that he squeaked when he walked. He was from the Midwest, had a very limited social background as he grew up. His family was hard scrabble poor. Basketball was his way out of it. His values were formed in the church, by the gospel, by the community, and by his family and by his circumstances. He went on to be the coach of a midwestern college and they did very well, and then he had a chance to go to two colleges that were big time.

One was UCLA. He was square. He was Midwestern. They were smooth, cool, sophisticated, but for some reason John Wooten went to UCLA. He was recruiting all of these hotshot basketball players. They could go anywhere in the country. They wanted to play for UCLA. They didn’t know about this John Wooten who was there, so when he got them together every year, the first 30 minutes of practice you know what he taught them? How to put their shoes on.

Now these were young men were destined for the NBA. They were looking for the big bucks and stardom and this square little midwestern coach said, “We’re going to learn to put shoes on.” The reason he did that is he said basketball, once they got a hold of it they understood is a game of stopping and starting, stopping and starting. “If your shoes are too big your socks roll up, you have trouble with your toes, then you have foot problems and I can’t use you all season, so we’re going to learn to put on our shoes and socks.”

Then he started teaching them the words “Team” and “Respect,” and he said, “There are no stars on our team. We’re a team.” He talked to them about “Dignity” and “Selflessness.” He had six national championships in a row. One time his team won 88 consecutive games. He is considered the best coach in the history of the game and they said of his it was not because of anything except his character which bled into his coaching skills which raised young men up on their feet.

He said to his team, “Don’t worry about your image. Don’t even worry about your opponents. Be always kind and gentle to your opponents. Be unselfish at every turn.” He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame because of his integrity, because of his character, because of his righteousness. Do you hear what I’m saying? The world cries out for people of integrity. We can shout, “Jesus saves,” until our lungs come out, but until they see we’re people of integrity and righteousness it means nothing.

I don't know that the name Romeo Delair means anything to anybody in the room, but he was the Canadian military officer who was assigned by the Canadian government to the UN to be a peacekeeper. He’d helped keep the peace in Cambodia and he had also been in Bosnia.

Then, when the UN saw what was happening in Rwanda, where the Tutsi tribe was being killed by the Hutu tribe — 800,000 people that we know about and probably a million people were killed — in a period of about eight months, the UN decided that maybe we ought to get the Europeans and the Americans out of there, so they sent a force of 2,500 people to Rwanda.

Romeo Delair was the man who was in charge of this force. Canadian, of high moral character and he thought his life calling was to be in a force to help bring peace to troubled areas. When he arrived there he saw how desperate the situation was, he appealed to the UN, “Send us more troops and give us the permission to settle this issue,” and they said, “No, you’re there only to get the Europeans and the Americans out.” He did some things parallel to the Hotel Rwanda experience and saved 25,000 Rwandans, but 25,000 on a scale of 1,000,000 is only a drop in the bucket.

He constantly battered the UN to give him permission to separate them and to solve the issue and to give him more equipment to do it. They wouldn’t do it. Finally, after the bloodshed was over, he returned to Canada. It was a terrible thing. He had nightmares. He had post-traumatic stress syndrome, but when he was able to balance it all out he said, “I want to go back to Rwanda. That’s where I’m needed. That’s where righteousness and character is needed.” So he went back on his own and has spent the rest of his life there, investing character and integrity and righteousness in a bad situation.

I said to you last Sunday, “I want us to be a transformational church.” I want us to be a church that sends people into its neighborhood and community, that transforms them. I want us to be a church that transforms its businesses. I want us to be a church that’s known by people who stand for righteousness. We are free to seek the deeper things that Jesus told us to seek and He’ll take care of the essential things. If we understand that righteousness comes first, that character is destiny and He will take care of the essentials. We take care of His mission in the world. “Go ye therefore and make disciples.”

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and these things will be added unto you.”

(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)