I like the story of a man driving along, minding his own business, when a lady driver came up behind him, obviously in a great hurry, and started tail-gating him. He came to traffic lights, they turned yellow and he slowed down to stop. Nothing unusual about that. Except the lady behind him screeched to a halt in her car, hit the horn and started screaming in frustration at her lost chance to get through the intersection.
She was talking on a mobile phone, and was very angry. Then she heard a tap on the window and looked up to see the face of a serious looking policeman. He ordered her out of the car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, finger printed, photographed and held in a cell. She was distressed – what had she done? After a few hours she was taken back to the booking desk and was told by the police officer. “I’m very sorry for the mistake. I pulled up behind you when you were blowing your horn and cursing the man in front. I noticed all the bumper stickers on the back of your car which said “what would Jesus do” and “Follow me to Sunday School”, plus the Christian fish emblem on the window. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car”.
How embarrassing – she was a committed Christian but had lost it in those moments at the traffic lights. As I thought of that story, it occurred to me that we Christians are setting an example all the time – either a good one or a bad one. Albert Schweitzer once said “example is not the main thing in influencing others – it’s the only thing”.
Thomas Jeffersen said “I have ever deemed it more honourable and more profitable to set a good example than to follow a bad one”. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. So often we are being watched when we don’t realise it.
Our neighbours may see us go off to church on Sunday morning, but what do they see from us the rest of the week? Are we setting a good example to them by our language and actions? There are lots of people who are watching us – our spouse, our children, our friends. We are observed in what we do, what we say, how we say it, how we do it, and when we do it. Whether we like it or not, we are being watched.
In New Testament times there was a young man named Timothy. Probably in his late teens or early 20’s. The apostle Paul had some advice for him:
“If you’re going to be a leader, make sure no-one looks down on you because of your age, because no matter what your age, you can be an example for God. You can be an example for good. If you set this example for good, you will be able to lead others to a greater knowledge of God, and to a greater and a living faith” (1 Timothy 4:12-16).
Paul was trying to tell his young friend that faith is not something you say, but something you live. It’s all about setting a good example to others. He said that if he was to be an effective teacher he had to stay close to God. Age had nothing to do with it – young or old, he could be a fine example to others.
And this lesson applies to us as well today. The truth is we learn by example, don’t we. Don’t be like the mother who when she took her little boy to his first day at school said to the Teacher “My Sam might do something wrong sometimes, but if he does, can I suggest you always punish the child next to him, because my son learns by example!”. I don’t think that’s the way to learn, but we do learn by example.
We copy those who are around us, and follow those who are important to us. That’s why we who are parents have a big responsibility to always give our children a good example to follow. You and I can be a bad example. The word for ‘flu’ comes form the Italian word ‘influenza’ which literally means “the influence of a cold”. In other words, you can be a flu virus for others – you can be a negative influence. Or, you can be a good and positive influence.
Young Timothy from the Bible had to learn that to accomplish his life’s purpose and service for Jesus Christ he had to stay close to God if he was going to be an effective influence – in what he said and in what he did. He had to work hard and get along with all kinds of people. Paul said,
“I want you to practice the gifts that you have been given. You have to exercise to keep your body fit and strong, so you have to use the gifts that God has given you to keep your faith strong and keep the church strong”(1 Timothy 4:8)
The great soccer legend Pele was once asked “what do you think is the secret of your success?” This was in the 1960’s and he was one of the greatest athletes in the world. He said “I am the first to practice, and I am the last to leave. That’s my secret”. It sounds simple, but true greatness actually takes effort. To live for God and be effective for Him takes effort and time. God has given us His Holy Spirit to help us develop the gifts He’s given us also. But we have to exercise these gifts, and giving a good example to others is one of them.
Maybe today you’re not sure what your gifts are. Be patient, because God, who is a God of love, will show you. It may take time, but He will let you know. We each have unique opportunities to serve Him. God’s grace is for any age, young or old.