God asks us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Pastor Terry explains what that looks like in the context of our lives.
Let me share how I want to proceed. I want to go at this in a certain way and understand how we’re going to do it. First, I want to share some reflections on the value of what I call a happy, joyful attitude. Then I want to shift into what is a pretty intense Bible teaching that isn’t frequently covered. It has to do with the unique makeup of the early church and the kind of dynamics that they had going on, particularly around coming together of many different types of people to share their love for Jesus. It was something that created a lot of fascinating relational interaction. Next, I’m going to take the teaching from the scripture that we’re going to look at and apply it to us to get us to think about how this might work in our workplace culture, regardless of where we work or how we do our work. Even those of us who are self-employed interact with customers and vendors. Some of us have clear-cut reporting lines. Some of us oversee things or people. Others could be students working or homemakers, primarily. Some of us are a combination of a number of things. I’m going to assume that there are principles we can take from this passage and apply it to our culture of work. I’d like to finish with a take-home principle that Jesus gave us.
Recently, my wife Cheryl and I do this every now and then. This neighborhood is constantly changing, now. I’ve been here at the church for over three decades. I’ve watched the neighborhood my whole life. That’s five decades. I watched it change in different iterations. This is a unique and new time in the city. There are new stores opening up all the time. There was a new ice cream parlor that opened up. We wanted to go check it out. It was a time of the day when there weren’t too many people there. We went in and said, “Hey, so tell us a little bit about it.” We were greeted. What I remember about the greeting is when we walked in, we were greeted with such enthusiasm. There was a smile; the guy at the counter was really proud of his product. He started telling us about it. We were asking questions and I was impressed. I said, “Are you an owner?” He said, “No, but I love this. Let me tell you how ours is different than everybody else.” He was really getting into it. The next thing I know, we’re taking pictures together. It was amazing.
I say that because he wasn’t an owner, but he had a heart of an owner. On top of that, he was really happy. When we walked in, he was smiling at us. Who doesn’t like a smile? Smiles make a huge difference. Have you ever gone to a restaurant, coffee house, or whatever, anywhere with happy intentions? I came only to be greeted by a stone face. Nothing, nothing, grumpy, irritated, unenthusiastic, clearly having a bad day. Or maybe just an unhappy worker. The bottom line is part of me wants to say, “Hey, I’m your customer. You could be nice to me maybe a little bit. Smile, maybe. What did I do wrong? I just came in. I was just saying, ‘Hi.’ Can’t you be nice?” “No. All right. What do you want?”
My wife says it’s because we were talking. We were laughing. I told her, “You know what I think it is hun? It’s because I don’t have a naturally smiley face. I wasn’t born with what I call a happy face.” Some of you, the Lord made with a happy face. You have a happy face. For those of you who have a happy face, you have a total advantage. Happy faces have an advantage. It’s like, you could be having a bad day, but your naturally happy face saves you. No one knows. I, on the other hand, did not get rolled out with such a gift. A couple of years back when I was having a rough patch in my life and I was coming off of that sabbatical. I was not really feeling great. I decided when I was going to come back, I was going to be a happier version of myself. I wasn’t going to project how I was feeling, which wasn’t great at the time. I knew that whatever you project, you reinforce. If I project how I’m feeling, I’m reinforcing that in me.
That’s the power of words. This happens in families and critical relationships. I talk about it all the time because it’s so biblical. Whatever we speak out, we create inside of us, words have the power of life and death. Do you want to love something more? Speak into it lovingly. Do you want to diminish it? Curse it. That’s what Jesus said. A lot of us don’t mean it, but we’re cursing things God wants us to be speaking life into. Sometimes, intimacy is an excuse to get reckless with our words. We can spend a lot of time right there. I was telling myself, “You know what? I’m going to come back differently. I going to try to go engage. Even though I don’t have a naturally happy face, I’m going to try to engage the environment with more preemptive joy.” I walked in and I started making an effort. I come in. The first thing I do is smile. “Hey, how are you doing? How’s your day going? What’s your favorite? What are your top three? The next thing I know, we’re having a conversation. Sometimes someone will say to me, “Aren’t you faking?” A couple of years ago would’ve said, “Yeah.” Now I said, “I’m not faking. I’m making room for His joy in my life. I’m making an environment better. Everyone, including myself, is getting to win here.” All of us, natural, non-happy faces, let us shine a bit more. All you happy faces, use your advantage card, shine out as joy. Put the gift into play. Attitude is something that I want to come back to a little bit later.
I’m going to shift into what is a pretty intense teaching in the scripture. It’s power-packed. It’s going to be extraordinarily controversial in light of the things that we are wrestling with, in our culture. I want us to understand it out of a context. Here’s something very important. The Bible, the New Testament is what I’m talking about, has to do with the life of Christ, how the church emerges and is to live. How we, as followers of Jesus, are to model ourselves after His example and what the scriptures teach us, and how to be a follower of the Lord, a Christian. The church was birthed. Jesus came into this world at a time of unique coming together of certain factors that created an environment for a quick movement of things. The Roman Empire covered most of the known world at the time. They exercised what was known as the Pax Romana. They used warfare and certain techniques to overtake and conquer large swaths of territory, North Africa, what we would call today, the middle east, the majority of Europe, including the lands that were sometimes referred to as the barbarian lands of what is now today, Germany and England. Even to some level France. The Romans pushed all the way to the borders, reaching all. It was vast, powerful, and overwhelming. The Greco-Roman culture was dominant.
The early church, after the resurrection of Jesus, merges in that same environment. The apostle Paul has a unique burden for non-Jewish peoples to come to know Jesus. They’re called Gentiles. As a result, you have many people, Jews who believed in Jesus’ Messiah. All the apostles were Jewish. Also, a large group of Gentile non-Jewish people began to come. They shared a common faith in Jesus. What’s more, other types of people were coming together as well. Once they opened up to the message of Jesus, they received Him as their savior, acknowledged Him as the risen one, and embraced Him as their Lord. They would come together in community. What started to occur was something that the world had never seen before. In Rome, Greece, and honestly, in almost every civilization in the world, there was some form of slavery. Roman slavery was different than what we might identify as American slavery, which was obviously an awful degrading institution that we are ashamed of as a nation. At the same time, it’s why we are grateful that at least a war was, at least partially, to change that situation. Why a president like Abraham Lincoln is so highly honored in our country’s history.
Having said that, in Roman culture, slavery is a little bit different. You had slaves that were oftentimes highly educated. They were sometimes called bondservants. They could be doctors and even policemen. It was a very different system. The thing we need to remember is Paul’s writing to the early church where this is a reality. For the first time in history, you had people coming together who would never have come together. It created very fascinating kinds of dynamics. You could sometimes imagine having a servant or a slave who was the leader of a church community. Someone who is a master of a household is sitting under that person learning the way of Jesus. Soldiers came together with others. This never had happened. They’re going to wrestle with the implications of what all that means.
I’m going to take us quickly through the scripture here. I’m going to read from the book of Colossians. I want to move through this to set the table for something. Paul writes, “Do not lie to one another saying that you put off the old self with his practices and then put on the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge after the image of his creator.” Here in this place, in this community, in this place of believers, he says, “We’re not identifying ourselves as Greeks, Jews, circumcised, and uncircumcised.” He even uses the word barbarian here, which for them would’ve meant a foreigner, an uncivilized one. A Scythian, which were Eurasian nomads who were noted for their savagery, foreigners, and savages. We don’t go by these labels slave and free. “Christ is all and in all. We’re all one in Him. I need you to act this way towards one another. Exercise compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, bearing with one another. This is how I want you to treat one another. If one has a complaint against another, I need you to forgive each other as the Lord has forgiven you. You must also forgive. Above all these things, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
The idea is that the church of Jesus was to emphasize commonality in Christ and unity in Christ, above everything. This is important even for what’s going on now for many of us. Again, I’m making the assumption that we hear this through the lens of where we are. If we’re sincerely following Jesus, and that’s our desire, then these words have even more import and meaning. Paul is saying your identity, firstly needs to be in Jesus, in Christ, more than in our ethnicity, more than in our cultural identification, more than in our national identity, more than in our social status. Some of us take great pride in our standing, our pedigree perhaps even, and our achievements. All of these things he says, it’s not demeaning to the distinctiveness that we are. What he’s saying is for a person who claims to love Jesus and has Him in their lives, it takes precedent over all those things.
Paul goes on to say in Galatians 3:26, “For you are all children of God. You can see it through faith in Christ Jesus.” He’s writing to believers. “All who have been united with Christ in baptism.” Water baptism’s important. Some of us have been following Lord for a little while and we’ve never been baptized in water. It’s a public identification with Jesus saying, “I’m identifying you, your death, burial, and resurrection. I’m coming out with my heart open to you. I’m letting it be known publicly that I am part of the family of Jesus. Now, what’s happened inside of my life already is now being evidenced out.” What’s interesting is Jesus said the one who believes Him is baptized. He talked about it and then He modeled it. It means something. I’ve talked to some people and they said, “I’m older. It’s humbling.” I think that makes it even more significant. If we love Him, we’ll identify with Him. I would encourage some of us who have never been baptized to consider being baptized and going through the class. It’s not that difficult to do. You can sign up and then go for it.
Having said that, Paul says, “Like putting on the new clothes.” It’s just like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. He says, “For you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now that you belong to Christ, you’re true children of Abraham and His heirs.” Just like you’re part of a lineage of faith. God’s promises to Abraham belong to you. You’re part of that heritage of spiritual faith in life. I don’t think it’s denying our distinctiveness. I think what it has to do with amplifying what unites us. I don’t think I’ve been able to identify that better in any service than I just did right here with this one. It’s not about saying these things don’t matter. What it is saying is this matters most. Do you see the difference? Let us be grateful for who and what we are. Obviously, within the context of what the Bible describes as being morally healthy. Where the scripture contradicts the culture we are to submit to the scripture, not ask the scripture to submit to the culture. That means at times we will be counter-cultural and that’s okay.
I can only imagine though when the leading slaves and bondservants read this, whether it was in Colossi or Galatia, they said, “Well, there’s no distinction here. That’s great. We’re all the same in God’s eyes.” It’s been said at the foot of the cross, the ground is level. When they looked at it, they could say, “Yeah, we’re all one.” But the truth is when they left that community, when they left their gathering, they all had to deal with the fact that in their real world, they were still in these situations and couldn’t change them. No matter how beautiful that truth was for them, it came into clash with the reality of the real world. They had to deal with that. They had to wrestle with that. What does that mean? “If we are all one in Christ, but when we walk outside, we’ve got these other issues we’ve got to wrestle through.”
Paul was writing not to try to justify anything but simply describe. “This is the situation we find ourselves in. It’s not going to change right away. Here’s how I would like you to operate within the context of what is clearly not a great situation.” At the end of Colossians 3, Paul says, “Bondservant, obey in everything, those who are your earthly masters.” He’s saying to people, who basically own you, “You’re charged, but not by way of eye-service as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing, honoring the Lord, in whatever you do. Work heartily. It’s for the Lord. Don’t do it for men. Knowing that from the Lord, you will see the inheritance as your reward because you are serving the Lord Christ.”
The wrongdoer is going to be paid back for the wrong they have done. There’s no partiality when it comes to God. We all stand the same way. “Masters, in turn, need to treat your servants justly and fairly, knowing that you are going to be answering to God.” The scriptures never say it’s wrong to way want to change an evil institution or a bad situation. It’s just reminding us that there’s an even higher law that has everything to do with our freedom. Paul is essentially making the case that followers of the Lord are responsible for their attitude, actions, and words, regardless of the situation we find ourselves in. Even when it is unfair or institutionally degrading. He’s saying, “Don’t ever let that define you. Remember who you are first in Christ.” No one can control our hearts, words, or attitudes. “You don’t do it for man”, Paul says. “No, you do it unto the Lord. You work for the Lord.” That’s a different thing altogether.
I want to shift that. A lot of us are wondering, “How does that relate to faith and work?” That’s a great question. I’m going to answer that right now. Although 21st-century employees in a free enterprise system are not accustomed to viewing themselves as bondservants or our employers as masters. In fact, I will say for some of us, the leverage has actually shifted dramatically. I talked to my oldest son, and we were having this conversation. It is a free agency out there. That changes things. Leverage shifts at certain times, but the principles in these verses can so easily be applied to our modern ever-changing, increasingly sophisticated workplace. I want this to apply no matter what kind of work we do because, in the eyes of the Lord, all work is honorable. If it’s done honestly. Who do we work for? We love Him. We work for Him.
Some of us may work for people, for example, who arere not nice. Maybe they’re selfish. Maybe we have people who oversee us or are up the chain who are arbitrary, petty, or critical. When they get mad, take it out on us or demean us. Maybe some of us feel that even in a company that treats us somewhat well, we really only valuable to them because we’re a means to an end. Not because they cared about us. We’re interchangeable. What is our responsibility? How do we respond in such a situation? What should our attitude be? When you find yourself in a situation where you don’t enjoy your work, what do you do? Or when the people who you report to don’t treat you well? What do you do? Many of us have been wrestling with this. What does it mean to follow the Lord and have to deal with that environment? What is our attitude like? Do we join with others when they complain and murmur behind their back? Do we secretly plot to contribute, if at all possible, to their demise? The saboteur behind the scenes, the Count of Monte Cristo, waiting, counting my days. If the opportunity arises and I get to hurt you the way you’ve just been hurting me, I will do it.
Do we slack off because we say, “This is such a poor working environment. People are treated so poorly, exploited, and taken advantage of here, that when I’m not being watched, I won’t work great. I do less than quality work. Do I justify it because they’re not nice people? Some of us may say, “Well, you don’t know my boss. You don’t know what working for her is like.” Or, “He has such high expectations and he treats me disrespectfully, talks down to me. I don’t like the guy. He really bugs me. I’ll do what I have to do, but I’ll never go the extra mile for him. When I get a chance, I’m out of here. I don’t care how many free lunches, dinners, discounts, and transportation allowances I get. Or the super-cool facility with the sleeping pods, creative spaces, trendy chairs, and that really good cafeteria, I don’t really don’t care. I care a little bit about those things, but I don’t care enough to stay here for those things.” We can all leave our jobs. I’m not saying that sometimes we don’t feel like we’re trapped. Some of us can feel that way. There are reasons. “I got so much on me. I can’t make that move. I hate it here. I’m stuck. Lord, help me. I’m capped, but I have no options.” The people Paul was writing to had no options. This was their life. It wasn’t like, “Well, I don’t like my scenario or situation here, so I’m going to go try.”
Paul’s saying, “Look, if that was true for them, it’s true for us.” We are all responsible for our attitudes, actions, and ethics. These principles apply now quickly. I mean quickly because some of us also find ourselves in situations where it’s hard for us to be open about our love for the Lord. We are in a cultural environment that’s very intimidating. I know because I’ve talked to you. Either because of the sheer godlessness of it or the almost aggressive ferocious anti-Christian attitude exhibited in subtle and not so subtle ways. We may feel that if we speak up or dare to question the acceptable group think, then we will be punished, held back, marginalized, stigmatized, maybe even passed by. It is possible. Many of us, feel like we are expected to participate in acceptable public and social expressions, many of which carry overt political overtones. At the same time to keep any faith that we might have in Jesus utterly private and unexpressed. Yet, the Bible clearly teaches us that we are not to be ashamed of Jesus, His gospel, or our love for Him.
I’m going to put up two verses on the heels of this. One of which is pretty clear and the other is super intense. They both came from the mouth of Jesus. The first is Romans 1:16, a verse I learned and memorized as a new believer in Jesus. Paul says to the Jew and Greek, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. The good news of Jesus is the power of God unto salvation to whoever believes.” Jesus said, “Oh, whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation of Him will the son of man be ashamed when comes in glory of His Father with Holy angels.” Clearly, loved ones, we are not to be ashamed of Jesus. We must be willing to take a stand for Him when required. If so, may we be courageous. Yet, we are to be thoughtfully courageous, not to be reckless and foolish. There is no virtue in thoughtless courage.
This is the last verse we’re sharing. Jesus says. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. You need to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.” There is a certain sense that in this world and culture that we live in, innocence is devoured. The naive are eaten alive. When Jesus used the sheep for His example, there is no animal more vulnerable than a sheep. They don’t have anything, no claws or teeth. We have wildlife in San Francisco, raccoons, skunks, all kinds. Sheep don’t have odor capacity. They just have fur. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I said, “They have fur, right?” I meant wool, but it came out “fur.” Sheep have wool. You think, “Oh, that protects…” No, actually sheep are not smart. They get stuck so easily. They’re wandering around and next thing you know, they’re stuck in a bush, They can’t get out. They’re stuck, utterly vulnerable to a predator.
Jesus says, “I’m sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” He says that, knowing that He is going to be the utter example. He’s going to get devoured by a wolf pack. He already sees that coming. He knows, “They are going to tear me apart. The lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. It is going to get real ugly for me. Real ugly.” Ripped apart from all parts, spit on, demeaned, torn apart, the wolf pack on Him. He says, “I’m sending you out as sheep amongst the wolves.” Then He flips the metaphor. He says to His disciples, “I need you to be as wise as serpents and as innocent and gentle as doves.”
A serpent is an interesting thing to refer to because, usually when He talks about a serpent, it’s negative. Very rarely is it something that’s used in a positive way. A serpent is typically something that is feared. But the way Jesus is using it is positive. He’s basically saying in the same way that the serpent moves is subtle, swift, unnoticed, underestimated, patient, purposeful, cunning, noted for their quickness and sensing danger, their capacity to pull back or strike. He’s using the image in a very different way. It’s very strategic, thoughtful, and sensitive. Jesus is saying, those who would follow the Lord are to be wise people. Perceptive strategic people. If at all possible, problem solvers, not problem contributors. We’re to bring trust, honesty, and solutions because that’s what we do because we work for someone. That someone is the Lord. That’s who we do it for. We need to be a people that could be trusted. Whose word means that we don’t have to have someone watching us because we live under a different rule and way. We’re not looking to create more problems. We’re helping to solve those problems. May the Lord fill us with wisdom and do it.
When I say, increase our wisdom capacity, I mean that’s a large part of what we’re going to be doing here. In the next few weeks, we’re going to be zeroing in on, “How do I create wisdom for operating in very complex environments? How do I represent the Lord?” The second part of that verse, “I want you to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent and as gentle as a dove.” That’s that fourth one, which is a reminder we are to come into a situation and be an innocent people, essentially harmless, gentle, compassionate, kind, and peaceful as much as possible. We are not to make things worse. We’re to try to tap this. We try to be peaceable. Bring it down as much as it lies within me to be as much at peace as I can to be. What a fascinating combination. On the one hand, strategic thoughtfulness. “Lord, give me the wisdom to sense what’s actually happening here. Prayerful, thoughtful, trying to assess the situation, being very careful about how I’m acting in it. At the same time, Lord, keep my spirit so that I do no harm. I’m known as a kind person.
One of the ways to increase your wisdom quotient is a quick shot of wisdom injection, the 31-day plan. There are 31 Proverbs in the Bible, Psalms, Proverbs. Those 31, you can read one a day for a month and say, “Lord.” I would encourage you to take one. Read it from a classical translation and then a more modern one, like a New Living Translation. Read them and just say, “Lord saturate me with wisdom for the environment that I’m in. Let some of these things that I’m reading settle into my soul.”
In the coming weeks, we will look at Daniel. The Bible has so many examples in the Older Testament of the kind of people who had to be in very difficult places and live out their faith. People like Joseph and Esther. The one that we’re going to spend a few weeks with as a case study is Daniel. Daniel’s an amazing figure. He has to function in a changing empire. He’s brought into a captive place. He’s a foreigner. He has to adapt to a culture that does not, in any way, understand his love for God. He has to walk with skill and thoughtfulness. It’s a dangerous environment. He has expectations of him. He has to know, “When do I draw my lines? Where do I draw my lines? What can I compromise? What can I not compromise?” When we talk about work his week, we’re going to get into that.
In the meantime, may the Lord keep our attitudes right. In fact, let me just go ahead and pray. I’ll pray over this time that we’ve just shared. Even now, Lord, I ask that what we’ve just shared as we’ve thought about, at least in some beginning way, what it means to work your way. I want to be a people who are not defined by our environments. Instead, because of what you’ve done in our lives, who we ultimately work for, which is you, if we claim you or have allowed you to claim us, then how we live, work, act, and react has to do with our love for you and the guidance of your words. Help us to be happy. Help us to be strategic. Grow our wisdom capacity and our compassion so we’re not using people or angry at people. I pray for more of you in our lives, Lord. That’s what I’m really asking for. May that be what it is for all of us. This is what I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.