“The Golden Question: What Do You Want?” on Matthew 7:12 by Joe Ellis – Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023
My sermon this morning will be a bit different — more of an imaginative exploration into this passage. Bear with me, I think it will be fruitful. Jesus is giving a summary of the law and the prophets. That is, if you were to boil down all of Torah into one sentence, for Jesus it would be this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He expands on this a bit later, saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) “Loving your neighbour as yourself” and “Do unto others” are two ways of saying the same thing. I’ve been surprised by the depth in the Golden Rule. Maybe you were like me, wondering what this well-worn verse could possibly say to us after all these years. After all, “The Golden Rule” is something that we teach children from their earliest years. Usually, as kids we’re expected to take this saying as an encouragement to be kind, to share, to be generous. For me, that understanding has basically carried forward in my life — until this last week.
Last week, I experienced a sort of supernatural epiphany with this passage. This passage felt like I had stumbled upon an enchanted reflecting pond — my first thought upon seeing it was, “Oh! How lovely.” You expect these ponds to be a couple feet deep, at best. So, I was startled to look closer and discover that I couldn’t see the bottom. I dropped in a rock, and just saw the rock sinking, sinking, and sinking until it was utterly swallowed up in the darkness below. Suddenly, I started thinking that there should be signs warning kids about coming too close to the pond. That’s been my experience of the Golden Rule - it has an alarming depth that will sneak up on you and if you’re not careful, it will pull you in.
“Whatever you want others to do to you, do just that to them”. Picture yourself, lying on your belly peering over the edge of this bottomless pond. Gradually your focus shifts from trying to see the bottom towards being transfixed by what you see on the surface. You begin to realize why they call it a reflecting pond — because you see your reflection with startling clarity. Perhaps more clearly than you would like. As you stare into the pond, you grow uncomfortable that the pond seems to be showing back to you your character, not as it is, but as you think it is or as you would like it to be. That’s what the Golden Rule does for us at first: as we look at it, it reflects ourselves back to us as we think we are or what we think we should be. Its subtlety is that you might not even realize what it's doing, but it is reflecting back who you think you are or would like to be with startling accuracy.
Take a moment, how have you thought we’re supposed to live out this Golden Rule? “Whatever you want others to do to you, do just that to them.” Specifically, think about what you want others to do for you? This is where your reflection as you believe you are starts coming into focus. What you expect others to do for you becomes a picture of how you see yourself. What’s the picture that’s coming into focus? What do you want others to do for you?
The Golden Rule shows us ourselves by asking a simple question: what do you want others to do for you? I’m going to take a stab in the dark, and wonder if many of us would like to have our answer be “Not much” or “Nothing.” What do you want others to do for you? Nothing. To live and let live. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “I don’t need others to do anything for me, so long as they don’t actually hinder me.” “I’d rather have people not be rude to me.” What do you want other to do for you? Show kindness? Be polite? Be friendly? Show common decency.
What do you really want others to do for you? Not too much? Or do you want them to help you? To help you because you cannot help yourself? To help you because you are desperate and you have no hope unless your brother or sister lends you a hand and helps you out of this bottomless pit you’ve fallen into? My guess is that most us would prefer not to have to answer the Golden Rule that way. Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, dear, no. That’s not what I want from others. I don’t want to need help. I want to be in a place where the only thing I need from others is to perhaps show a little kindness and friendliness.” That’s the ideal, really, to not need really anything at all. “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” Can you see how this Golden Rule can become a bit of a mirror? Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Are you thinking, “I’m fine, really, I don’t need much?”
But if we stare long enough and hard enough, this Reflecting Pool doesn’t allow us to keep looking at this self-sufficient image of our ideal self. As we stare at this reflection, a disturbing magic seems to take place. You see something that you hadn’t been able to see before. You see a cable, appearing from the depths of the water. There is a slow movement to this cable, it slowly moves downward into the abyss. Something pulls from below. You follow the cable up with your eyes, and find it coiled on the bank right next to you. You glance back at your reflection, and it looks deeply concerning, seeing that the cable is attached to your arm. The coils on the bank are gradually getting smaller as they silently slip down into the water. Actually, your reflection looks pale with fear. You look at your arm, and yes, there is a cable, and yes, it will eventually pull you down into the pit. The cable is made up of many tiny strands, each with a name. One of them is called ‘sickness.’ Another strand is ‘addiction.’ Another one says ‘sin.’ One says ‘war.’ Another says ‘ecological destruction.’ Still another says ‘old age.’ One of them says 'family suffering.’ Another says, ‘violence.' One of the strands says, ‘family dysfunction.’ One of the strands reads ‘unexplained catastrophe.’ Each of our cables looks different with many labelled strands, but these are the things of life, that with a strong violent tug, pull us perilously close to the abyss. These are the moments you are reminded that you are not in control, and that you will die.
It's in those moments that your reflection of self-sufficiency is replaced with a look of despair. Precisely in that moment when you feel the relentless pull of those cables down into the bottomless abyss, that’s when we are invited to hear afresh these words of Jesus, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Now here again is that question: what do you want? Do you want help? Do you want to be free from this bondage to sin and death? Do you want someone to cut this cable that is dragging you downward into this watery grave? Do you want to see that look of despair washed from your reflection? Do you want to see the death taken away? What would you have done for you? Can you relate with Paul who cried out in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”
“Do unto others as you would have them to do for you?” What would like done for you? It’s precisely in that moment, who the one is in the Golden Rule who will do for you becomes sharp and clear. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” In that moment, the only ‘other’ that matters is Jesus. Do unto others as you would have Jesus do unto you. Jesus alone can save you — but is that what you desire? Jesus alone can save you from this bondage of sin and death that surely will pull you into the abyss. But is that what you would have him do unto you? What do you want? The Golden Rule demands for you to answer that simple question, “What do you want?” You need to decide because the weight of death is becoming so heavy, pulling you downward. What do you want?
The force of the cable thrusts you forward, your face is inches from the water. And by God’s grace you say what you want: “Help me.” That is what you want. “I want help!” That is your answer. Help is what you would have this ‘Other’ do unto you. Then, in horror, you watch what you want take place before your eyes as this cable of sin and death releases you and becomes clamped to the arm of your Messiah. The cable becomes taught, his body plunges in. His body hangs suspended for a moment, your reflection replaced with his bloody face, before the pull catches up and he sinks down, down, down until his shadowy body is swallowed up in this watery abyss.
There you lie on the bank, next to that watery grave, exhausted from the struggle of what might have been. As you rest for what feels like days, you look — something catches your eye. You look deeper down into the pool. You see some dark shape far below. It's almost not a shape but a mere shadow of a shape. Slowly, you discern movement. The shape starts rising up towards you, rising back up towards life. The shape soon reveals a pierced hand, a crown of thorns, wet matted hair, a face full of life. Christ rises up towards you from the depths. But he stops just beneath the surface of the pool. He looks at you from just below the water, and he calls you in. He calls you to die. To plunge into that watery abyss from which he just saved you.
Christ bids all of us to come and die. As Paul says in Romans 6:3-4, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Through baptism, we are the living dead. We have died in Christ and have risen with him in newness of life. For the baptized, physical death is not plunging into an abyss. Death is drawing us near to Christ in our life. Those cables that were around our wrist (sin, sickness, death, etc.) they are no longer violent forces pulling us downward into a watery abyss. They might touch us, they might hurt us, they might cause us great sorrow, they might even kill us — but their only power is to draw us closer to Christ.
“Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” This is what Christ has done for us. This is what you wanted ‘The Other’ to do for you, the only “Other” who matters. Now, the ‘you’ that you are has forever changed. You are no longer the self-sufficient one who once looked back at you from your reflection. Nor are you the one who was riddled with despair, doomed to the abyss. The ‘you’ that you are now is Christ’s reflection. This is freedom. You are free from the weight of sin and death. You have answered the question of the Golden Rule: What you wanted was freedom, and in love He has set you free. He has cut the cable that held you.
Of course, there is only one Saviour, one Messiah. His work of saving is for Him and Him alone. Yet He calls us to work alongside. Do unto others, as I have done unto you. He says this explicitly in John’s Gospel in 13:34-35: “A new command I give you” Jesus said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” As Christ has loved you, you and I are to love others. Free from the shackles of sin and death, we are free to love without fear. We are free to love with strength and courage in this broken, hurting, sunken and drowning world. “Do unto others as I have done unto you”. We go into places where we will find nothing but hurt, sickness, sin and death, and there we are set free to love — knowing that we shall only be drawn closer to Christ.