The Perils of Popularity

Who here remembers high school? For some of us, it’s been a while. My own high school 20 year reunion was a couple of years ago, or at least it should have been. I didn’t go. I’m not even sure if it actually happened or not, because, well, I didn’t go, I wasn’t too terribly concerned about going. It’s not like I look back on high school as the best years of my life. Not the worst years, either, pretty sure that would be junior high.

Read Romans 12:1-9 1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. 3 For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. 4 For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: 5 So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. 6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; 7 Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; 8 Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness. 9 Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. 

We probably all have some memories of high school, perhaps fond memories, perhaps not so fond. How positive those memories are relates largely to how much you enjoyed high school. If you had a good time in school, probably you have more good memories than bad. If you didn’t have a particularly pleasant high school experience, then you probably don’t look back with fondness. Maybe you try not to look back at all.

We’re not here this morning for a stroll down memory lane, however. This morning I want to talk about popularity. High school is one of, if not the most obvious environment where popularity and social status are centrally important. Certainly it is not the only environment where that is a major concern, but one where it is most keenly experienced, and is unduly emphasized. If you were one of the popular kids in high school, odds are that you had a pretty good time there, and that you look back on your school days fondly. If you were unpopular, then the opposite is probably true.

To some people, being popular in school was the most important thing to them. They had to wear the right clothes, say the right things, hang around with the right people, and that would further cement their popular status. Others may have wanted to fit in with those who were popular, but couldn’t quite achieve it, maybe because they didn’t have enough money, or they didn’t have the right interests or abilities, or they were just plain socially awkward. Still other people may not have been part of the so-called popular crowd, but they were part of their own particular group, and so they found acceptance and social status outside of the mainstream. And finally, there were those few who didn’t fit in, realized they didn’t fit in, understood that they were not popular, but they just didn’t care.

I’m not going to do a survey of everyone, but I’m willing to bet everyone here remembers fitting into one of those categories, or maybe more than one at different times. None of us here this morning is still in high school, but unless you never interact with other people, you still probably have some concern with fitting in, with being accepted, with being popular, even if it’s within a very small and select group of people. That’s a normal part of being human, and society encourages it. There are advantages to fitting in, and disadvantages that come with being unpopular, with being an outsider.

We’re quick to categorize people, to decide who is in and who is out, who is cool and who isn’t. In this province, often it’s who’s an Islander versus who is From Away. The world around us likes to categorize everyone and everything; it likes to put labels wherever it can. I’m not talking about those label makers you can buy at Staples where you punch in numbers and letters and it prints out a nice label on a tape that you can peel the back off and stick it to something. We have a couple of those machines at work, and they’re very handy, we use them to label parts and cables and all sort of things. We don’t use them on people, though.

The world wants to label us, it wants to label me and it wants to label you. Not a literal, physical label, of course, although there are those who wouldn’t complain if everyone wore a name tag all the time so you’d never have to worry about forgetting people’s names.  But more so than categorizing you, the world wants you to conform to a certain standard. It wants to make you in its image.

That’s what school is supposed to do, isn’t it? Everyone is supposed to pass tests and reach certain levels of competence in particular subjects. Everyone is supposed to conform, and they are held back to repeat the year if they don’t. Of course, nowadays it seems that all too often time people who don’t do well are promoted to the next grade level anyway, and so you get high school graduates that have trouble reading the back of a cereal box, but I digress.

I’m not here this morning to bash the public school system, but school is a part of how the world seeks to shape us. It’s not the only part, certainly. Society and culture at large are pretty good at that. The media, books, music, television, those seek to mould us, to change us. Our peers, we are certainly altered by the people we spend time with, and in particular by those we admire and look up to. While we are encouraged to look a certain way, to talk a certain way, to act a certain way, more than all of that, the world wants you think the way it does. There will be harmony, things will go smoothly, when everyone thinks the same way. That is a prevalent idea today in the world.

We read from Romans chapter 12 to start this morning. There are many useful and pertinent ideas in that chapter, but the one key phrase I would like to focus on right now is from verse 2: be not conformed to this world. That is a vitally important warning for anyone who would follow Christ. Do not try to be like the world around us. The world wants to shape you in a particular way, it wants to fit you in a mould and squeeze you into a shape it likes, with attitudes that go along with the majority, and certainly without any strong convictions about such matters as sin, and truth, and right and wrong. The world does not want people who stand out, it wants uniformity. That is this world’s plan for you and me. Like it or not, this world system has been striving to conform each and every one of us to its image from the day we arrived in the world, and it will continue to do so until the day we depart.

That’s not God’s plan for us, though. He does not want us to look like the world. Instead, as the verse says following the warning about being conformed, we are instructed rather to be transformed, by the renewing of our minds, and to prove, to demonstrate, the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God. The Lord of the universe doesn’t want us to look like the world. That is not His plan, that is not His objective. Instead, He wants us to bear the image of His Son.

Why not be like the world? The reasons are numerous. First, we are not to love the world, nor what it offers. Don’t feel the need to turn there, but 1 John 2, verses 15 and 16 tell us to 15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

The things that this world offers are not of God. What are these things? They are summarized here as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. The first one, lust of the flesh, those are things that cater to our physical desires, what our bodies want. The second, lust of the eyes, that’s what caters to what we see, what looks good to us. And the last, the pride of life, that is whatever gives rise to pride, to arrogance, to self-importance. What do all these things have in common? They are all about selfishness. Satisfying our desires, making ourselves feel good, and being proud of ourselves, that’s what the world offers.

We wonder why this world isn’t a better place sometimes, but the answer is obvious. This world is configured to cater to our selfishness. It’s not even that self-centered behaviour is encouraged and rewarded, although many times it is, it’s that this is our default setting. When the world tries to put systems to place to encourage altruism, it’s very much an uphill battle.

Remember communism? It’s largely fallen by the wayside, apart from in places like North Korea, but there was a time not to long ago when dozens of countries around the world operated under this system, or at least tried to. The basic idea of behind communism is that instead of having rich and poor people, everything would be owned in common, and would be shared out equally. That way you don’t have those who own the land and own the companies ending up with all the money and all the power. Under communism, things are shared so that everyone gets enough. It’s a great system, in theory. In practice, not so much. That’s because communism depends on people, and people are selfish. The people who administer things take more than their fair share, and that means there isn’t enough left for everyone else. What’s more, under this type of system, hard work and innovation are not well rewarded, so there’s little incentive to do your best. The result is that there is less to go around, and there wasn’t enough in the first place, so you end up with bread lines, fuel shortages, and eventually revolutions.

Our system today is not much better in terms of distributing wealth, and we don’t really pretend that it is. Our society basically runs on the idea that greed is good. Get as much as you can for yourself. Selfishness is its own reward. It’s also its own punishment. He who dies with the most toys still dies. That’s what this world has to offer, and that is not of God. It is designed to turn us away from our creator, and to focus on ourselves. When we are more concerned with our wants, our worries, and our desires, we will not be looking to our maker. When we love the world, when we put our time into the world, into following its plans, when our efforts are directed toward getting ahead, toward making friends in the world, to catering the world’s favour, then  our capacity to love God is reduced. The passage says if any man love the world, then the love of the father is not in him. That is a strong condemnation, and a sobering warning.

That’s just one reason we are not to be conformed to the world. As we have surely been taught, I know I’ve said myself from this platform not so long ago, no man can serve two masters. We are not able to love God and love the world, because the world is opposed to God. Please turn over to John chapter 15 to look at that, starting at verse 18 If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. 20 Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. 21 But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me.

The world does not love God. How could it? The world does not even know God. It is impossible to love that which you do not know. You can be interested in that which you not know, but you cannot love it. The more likely reaction is to hate and fear what you don’t know. This world doesn’t know the Father, and it doesn’t want to know the Father. And it certainly does not want to know the Son. Let’s read a few more verses that illustrate that.

22 If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin. 23 He that hateth me hateth my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father.

There is a reason that the world hates God, a reason that goes beyond mere ignorance. The world hates God because He is perfect, and they, and we, are not. The world hates God because His glory cannot abide their sin, and His message cannot ignore their sin. God’s message to those who would follow Him is to be transformed, to renew the mind, to be remade in God’s image. Christ called on people to repent, to turn from their sinful ways. He said, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. The world, by and large, does not want to repent. If you bring a message of repentance, of turning from sin, then the world is not going to like you. If you represent a God who requires repentance, then the world will hate you, just as it hates Him, just as it hated Christ.

Being hated is not compatible with being popular. Much as we cannot love God and also love the world, so can the world not simultaneously hate us and love us. That simply doesn’t work. In fact, if we are following God, if we are seeking to act how God’s word instructs us to act, to live in a way that causes us to even slightly resembles Christ, then we should not be surprised if the world gets upset with us. The servant is not greater than his master, and if Christ is our master, then the world shouldn’t treat us any better than it treated Him.

Next week is Easter, which is of course the time of year when we specifically celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection. We remember this every Sunday morning when we break bread, but this time of year is when that is at the forefront of our thoughts, and indeed of all of Christendom’s attention. This Friday, so called Good Friday, is when we remember Christ’s death on the cross. That’s how the world responded to the Son of God, they rejected Him, they conspired against Him, and they crucified Him. That’s how this world treated our saviour. If we are following Him, why should we expect the world to like us? Why should we expect the world to accept us? It didn’t accept Him, it didn’t like Him. We should not be surprised when the world dismisses us, disparages us, or outright hates us.

In the verses we read a few minutes ago, the disciples were specifically warned that the world would hate them, because they were chosen out of the world. If we have become outsiders, then the world will not accept us. If the world likes us, if we are in fact popular, that is indicative that Christ is not very visible in our lives, that His words are not being presented by our words.

If we want to be like Christ, we should not be seeking the world’s approval, we should not be striving for popularity, we should not be trying to fit in. Christ did not do this. He may have done things that caused some level of popularity for a time, after all, healing the sick generally makes you pretty well-liked by those who were ill, and those who have friends and family who are no longer suffering from poor health. But at no point did He shape His message in order to court popularity, or to entice people to follow Him. If anything, He did the opposite. On more than one occasion He told someone who had been healed to not draw attention to the miracle that had been done. Someone who was seeking the world’s approval would gladly take the free publicity. He spent time with the rejects of society, with the people on the outskirts rather than the high and mighty. And speaking of the high and mighty, He called the religious leaders hypocrites, and compared them to white-washed tombs, all pretty and clean on the outside, but inside full of death and decay. Finally, he told everyone, small and great, young and old, to turn from their evil ways and to follow Him. Not exactly what you say to people if your objective is to make friends and influence people.

No, we are not to search for the world’s approval, we are not to search for the world’s friendship. Quite the opposite, in fact. In James 4:4 we are told that the friendship of the world is enmity with God, and whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. That is saying it about as strongly as is possible. To be a friend with the world is to the enemy of God. You don’t get to have it both ways.

There are a lot of people who claim to follow Christ, but when you look at their behaviour, it seems pretty obvious that they are putting a lot of effort into following the world. There are many, many politicians we could name, many of them American, who profess the name of Christ, but will say whatever they need to say in order to get votes. They are of course public figures, it is very easy to put them under scrutiny, but how often do we seek the world’s favour? Not on a grand scale, but on a small scale, a personal level. Do we remain silent when we could provide answer a question to someone who has spiritual questions? Do we decide that is best not to rock the boat? He who knows to do right, but doeth it not, to him it is sin.

That’s not to say that we can’t have friends in this world who are not necessarily followers of Christ. And that is not to say that we should be unfriendly people, or that we should seek specifically to be enemies of the world. It will be almost impossible to share the gospel with the people around us if we are unfriendly toward them. The world will make enemies of us sooner or later; we shouldn’t feel the need to do the world’s job for it.

No, we should be friendly, we should be approachable, we should be willing to help those who need help. If we look at Christ, at His ministry, we see that people were constantly approaching Him, asking Him questions, asking Him for help. He did not turn them away, sometimes the disciples may have, or they may have tried to, but Christ had time for little children and for poor beggars, for rulers and for servants, for widows and for soldiers, for foreigners, for tax collectors, for the healthy and for the sick. He had time for those who came asking hard questions to trip Him up, and those who came with sincere questions because they lacked understanding, but they wished to learn. He had time for those who believed, and those who questioned, and those who simply did not know.

As much as the world is filled with wickedness, and we need to be aware of that, and to guard against it, after all, we are in the world, but we are not to be of the world, we are not to be contaminated with the world’s corrupting influence, but Christ died for the world, for the billions of people in it. We need to remember that. God so loved the world. Not the world system, with all the sin and the corruption, but the people who so desperately need salvation.

It’s the world system that we need to be worried about, and unfortunately, most people around us are deeply ingrained into it. That’s why we have so many warnings about becoming entangled with the world. Psalm 1, verse 1 reads 1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. There’s an interesting progression in that verse. It starts with walking. Walking in the counsel of the ungodly means listening to those who are against God, taking advice from unbelievers. That is a dangerous start down a slippery slope, because it proceeds to standing in the way of sinners. I remember being younger, and after youth group we would often stand around and hang out and talk in the parking lot, sometimes for hours. You aren’t going to stand around chatting with people who you strongly disagree with, are you? You’re going to go and do something else. But if you stand with sinners, eventually it progresses to sitting down with them. You don’t sit down if you aren’t going to stay a while. It’s a step by step assimilation into the world, into the world system. Blessed is the man who does not walk, stand, or sit with the world, who does not fall into that trap. The Psalm goes on to further contrast the godly with the ungodly, who are compared to chaff which the wind blows away, and ultimately which perish.

Another warning that comes quickly to mind is from 2 Corinthians 6:14, be not unequally yoked with unbelievers. That’s a passage that could easily support an entire sermon, but we’ll just touch on it for a moment. The most common application I’ve heard is the warning, generally delivered to young people, about dating, and marrying, a person who does not share your faith. That’s absolutely a valid interpretation, but hardly the only one. Any close, long term association with those who do not follow God is a type of unequal yoke, and is a danger to the believer. It is far more likely for the believer to be brought down than for the unbeliever to be brought up through this type of arrangement. As the verse in 2 Corinthians says immediately following the warning, for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

It’s not easy for us to accept that unbelievers are on the side of darkness, and are in fact the enemies of God, but that’s scripture clearly teaches. Such were all of us before we believed, and that is the way we would quickly go if left to our own selfish ways. We cannot have an effective relationship with God and with the world, it does not work. The world will always seek to conform us to its image, it will not be passive toward us if we are aligned with Christ. We should not expect it to, as we read from John 15 earlier, the world hates Christ and it will hate His followers.

Let us remember that the world is not on our side. It does not have our best interests at heart. In fact, the world is united in its opposition to God. We read earlier from Psalm 1, the verse next Psalm opens with 1 Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, 3 Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. The world does not want to abide by God’s laws, it does not want to follow His ways. People who do not otherwise get along will work together in opposition to God, to His plans, and to His people. If you pay attention to the United Nations, how many times have countries that don’t see eye to eye on hardly anything find common ground when there is an opportunity to condemn Israel? For the sake of time we won’t read these passages, but in the gospels we can see how the Pharisees and the Sadducees conspired together against Christ. These were two largely opposed groups that disagreed on a lot of things, but when it came time to deal with the Son of God, they worked together to arrange His death.

In closing, I would like to read one last verse, this is actually the verse that inspired the sermon. It’s from Proverbs chapter 11, verse 21 Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished: but the seed of the righteous shall be delivered. The world is filled with people who seem to think they can oppose God, who think they can go about in their wickedness and not suffer any consequences. They are wrong. Even when people overcome their differences and work together, if they are working against their creator they will eventually fail. Sometimes it takes a long while, other times it happens very quickly, but the wicked shall not be unpunished.

That is what the world has to offer, and that is why we are not to be conformed to it. The world is opposed to God, and if you stand in friendship with the world, then you stand against your creator. That’s not the side I want to find myself on. I trust that this morning you will take a moment and consider where you stand, and whose favour you seek.