The Carrot or the Stick?
The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Exaudi)
May 17th/18th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
History is filled with famous duos, and not merely the likes of Batman and Robin, Sonny and Cher, or Cheech and Chong. No, I’m thinking of more timeless and substantial duos. For example, death and taxes, a tandem widely considered the only two certainties in this life. Likewise, it is commonly believed that there are essentially only two ways to motivate someone: the carrot or the stick. You can use the carrot to motivate, like holding a carrot out before a horse to coax it in a specific direction. You can try to motivate by holding out a reward of some kind in the hopes that another person will be inspired to pursue that reward. Or if such promises are ineffective, you can always resort to threats; instead of using the stick to hold out a reward, you can use it like a jockey in a horse race. In that case, the fear of punishment might motivate action. If you want your child to clean her room, you can promise ice cream when the job is done or you can threaten to ground her if it’s not. Carrot and stick. If you want your employees to meet their quarterly sales goals, you can motivate them with promises of a Starbucks at home espresso maker for the top sales person, or you can fire the least productive member of your team each year. Carrot and stick.
But what about God? What do you use if you want to motivate God to forgiveness? What if you want God to act in your life? Do you motivate God with the carrot? Or with the stick? Do you promise God some reward in return for his action? Do you promise that if he acts in your life you will return to church, or give more in offering, or stop sinning some particular sin? Or do you try to motivate God with the stick? Do you threaten that if he fails to act in your life that you will turn your back on him entirely? Do you threaten to stop believing? To stop praying? To abandon him all together? How do you try to motivate God to act?
The ugly truth that we don’t like to admit, even to ourselves, is that we have nothing that could spur God to action. We can’t threaten him, for he doesn’t need us. He’s God. He doesn’t need anything. Threatening God is as useless as threatening to stop buying Lions tickets until the NFL does something about its player conduct. A multi-billion dollar organization doesn’t listen to threats like that because they don’t need my hundreds of dollars in ticket money when they make billions of dollars on television revenue. I’m small beans. Just like I as an individual can’t threaten the NFL to get them to do what I want them to do, so also I can’t motivate God by threats. I’m not that important.
Neither can I motivate him by promise of rewards, for what do I ultimately have to offer? My life? That’s not much of a gift. Jesus himself said that out of the human heart comes all manner of wickedness. Why would the holy God be motivated by me offering myself to his service when what comes with me is baggage and sin? If we are honest we will admit that we are sinful people. We lie. We cheat. We gossip. We fight over trifles. We assert our own rights over the needs of others. We are selfish, smug, self-righteous and self-important. We are spoiled brats who think ourselves more important than we actually are. We reek of entitlement, acting as if we are so important that God would be lucky to have us, as if we are doing him a favor by believing his Word or coming to church. But God is not sitting up in heaven like a teenage girl waiting by the phone for someone to ask her to prom. He is not anxiously waiting for us to finally give him the attention he somehow desires from us. The inconvenient truth is that attention from us is not all we imagine it to be in our own minds. No, our threats and our promises will not inspire God to act.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t act. Listen again to the words he spoke to the prophet Ezekiel: “It is not for your sake, O House of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.” God is in fact motivated to act, but not by manipulation. He is not motivated by carrot or stick, but by his own holy name. He is motivated by who he is, not who we are. He is motivated because he is love. He is motivated because he is merciful and compassionate. And that love and mercy and compassion have motivated him to act for us – to vindicate his holy name.
Here again we ought to be careful, for we tend to miss the mark. Ask yourself: What does it mean that God will vindicate his name? We would like it to mean that God is going to do something so that all his opponents are silenced. We would like it to mean that he will do something to show all the evolutionists that they were wrong and we were right. We would like it to mean that we will finally be able to tell the unbelievers or the Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses that they were wrong and we were right. We would like it to mean that he will do something to show the sinful culture just how wicked it is so that we can tell them that we were right. We would like it to mean that he will do something to show all the enemies of the Gospel that they are doomed for all eternity, that they were wrong and we were right. In short, we actually want God vindicating his name to mean that he vindicates ours, that he silences our opponents, that he avenges the struggles we have endured.
But this is not how our Lord has chosen to vindicate his name, and when we miss that, we miss one of the great miracles, one of the great acts of mercy that our Lord has ever done. Our Lord vindicates his name not when he proves his rivals wrong, but when he proves himself true. He vindicates his name not in judgment, but in mercy. He vindicates his name when he keeps his promises, when he acts as the compassionate and loving God that he claims to be. If you want to see the vindication of God’s holy name, look around the room today. Look at the people sitting here with you. Look in the mirror.
For who among us today is anything worth redeeming? Who among us today possesses that one skill, that one ability, that one piece of knowledge so vital that the Kingdom of God cannot survive without it, or without us? Who among us offers something invaluable to God? None of us. Not even one. And yet God acts. God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God showed compassion and mercy of his name in that while we were yet dead in our trespasses and sins, lifeless beings with hearts of stone, he sent his Son into this world. He became one of us. He lived the life we could not. He died the death we deserved. He conquered death, he rose to life, he ascended into heaven, and he sent the Spirit to dwell in us. He gave us a new heart and a new spirit. He put his Spirit in us so that we could walk in his ways. He removed our hearts of stone and gave us hearts of flesh. Now we are alive in him. Now we are his people, not because we were worthy, but because he is love. And now we love because he has first loved us.
So be “self-controlled and sober-minded,” Peter says. Let us not think of ourselves more highly than we ought. Rather, in humble repentance, let us confess that apart from the new heart Christ has put in us, we can do nothing. We have nothing to offer. We have nothing to give. And in humble repentance, let us rejoice in the forgiveness we have been given and the new lives and hearts that have been placed in us. Let us keep loving one another with the love we have been shown in Christ, for such a love covers a multitude of sins. Let us not wait for the proper motivation to love, be it carrot or stick. Rather, let us love because of who we have become in Christ. We love in the way that he loved us. Such love bypasses the opportunity to hold a grudge and instead covers a multitude of sins. Such love lives together in hospitality, without grumbling. Such love does not envy the gifts of another, but rejoices in the gifts we individually possess. Such love does not demand its own way, but rejoices in the gift of community and the opportunity to walk together in love, sacrificing ourselves for the good of the community and the good of the Gospel.
We now live in such love. As each of us has received a gift, let us use it to serve one another, as stewards of the gifts of God that he gives with great variety. Whatever that gift may be, each of us uses it in such a way that God may be glorified through Jesus. We don’t wait until it is to our advantage to use it. We don’t wait until we fear punishment for not using it. We are not motivated by carrot or stick – but by the love from God that pours through us to our neighbors, to the community around us.
Our efforts to love might fail by worldly standards. We can expect to meet with resistance. “Don’t be surprised,” Peter warns, “when the fiery trial comes upon you.” Our love may be shoved back into our face by a world who doesn’t want it or doesn’t think it needs it. But we love anyway, for we are not motivated by the world’s carrots or sticks. The love of Christ compels us. We will continue to do the work of the church in this place, making use of the unique gifts God has given this congregation, not because the world offers us some carrot or stick, but because this is who we have been created to be. Regardless of what happens in the voters’ meeting after church, we will continue to live in the grace of God, to proclaim his Gospel, to shape the lives of the next generation with that Gospel in the classrooms of our school, and to bring the gift of that Gospel into the lives of the people in our pews, for we are not motivated by the carrots or sticks, the threats or rewards of the world. Rather, this is who we are in Christ.
May the Spirit of God continue to produce such a desire among us, giving us living hearts of flesh to replace the lifeless hearts of stone, in order that through us the world might know of her Savior.