A Winning Attitude
The verse I want us to look at this morning is Romans 12:21. "Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good." This speaks the language of struggle, of forces in collision, of a contest where an issue is decided.
It would appear that the Apostle Paul was something of a sports fan. At one time or another, he used most of the athletic events of his day as sermon illustrations. Which means it's O.K. for others of us, I guess.
Paul used the boxer, the wrestler, the runner, to compare life to a contest. It's a run for the prize, he said. It's a struggle against odds to beat out the opposition and win the victor's crown.
This doesn't mean Paul was a sport himself. Tradition actually tells us he was small and rather weak. He speaks several times of his physical infirmities. But most sports fans aren't sports themselves. It's a vicarious thing anyway. People who study columns of figures at a desk all day suddenly become screaming maniacs in front of television screens. It doesn't mean they have played or would play.
"Don't let evil defeat you; instead, defeat evil with good."
That surely is a call for a winning attitude in our service for God. It's a call for seriousness and intensity. It says that taking our Christian lives for granted won't do. We're in a contest where we can be whipped, and unless we shape up we will be whipped.
As a boy, I spent my summers on the shore of Norris Lake at a Boy Scout camp–Camp Pellissippi. Each Saturday there was a swimming contest. Everyone came down and watched. I found I was not especially fast on top of the water, but put me under the water and I could go a long distance. So the "underwater swim" became my event.
Unfortunately, it was also the specialty of another guy in camp, and he was good at it too. We pushed each other. Whoever went last had the advantage. You knew how far you had to go to win. Some weeks he won, and some weeks I did. It was good competition.
It's a funny world down there underwater. Seeing like the fish do and trying to swim like fish. You start out with lungs full of air, almost imagining you could stay down as long as you wanted to. But soon you begin to get reminded that you can't. You chest begins to throb. You keep saying hold out longer, hold out longer. You try to go to the absolute limit before you come up, but it's hard to time that.
I remember having dreams about swimming underwater. And in my dreams I was like a fish. I found I could breathe down there, just like a fish can. And so I'd swim on and on, length after length, and no pain at all. It was marvelous!
Maybe that helped. Because one Saturday I went way on past my best mark. And I knew as I climbed out, that my rival would never get that far. And he knew, as he dove in, that he would, that he wouldn't quit till he did. And I saw he was swimming well in the clear water of Norris Lake. And he made his last turn and had almost a length to get where I got.
Halfway there, everybody was watching. You found yourself holding your breath like he was. Everybody was quiet, because there's no need to cheer someone who's swimming underwater–he can't hear you anyway. And so people were quiet. Then I remember hearing the sound of all the stale air that came out of him all of a sudden and bubbled up to the surface.
He went the other way. He was sinking down. And he lost the contest that day, and could have lost more. They pulled him out, choking and gasping. A lot of water came out, and a lot of air went in, and he was O.K. No one doubted how much he wanted to win.
How much do we Christians want to win? Paul wanted his words to create a sense of urgency among us. He wanted us to know that in our service to God we either win or lose–no tie, no forfeit, no postponement. The whistle has blown, the oppostion is in motion. We overcome, or get overcome. We clobber, or get clobbered.
"Do not let evil defeat you," he says. Which means we are in danger of losing. The final seconds can tick away and find evil victorious in our lives. The best coach in the world can't make up the difference. He's on the sidelines, and we're on the field.
Goodness can be overcome by evil, this verse says. Don't ever believe it can't. Truth can be crushed to the ground. Hatred can shout down appeals for love. Unreason may prevail. Selfishness and greed can doom the poor. An innocent man may go to jail and a crook go free. It happens.
Notice how the strength of evil is recognized here. People can be defeated by it, overcome by it, struck down and unable to rise.
Roane County was what they called a "dry county." That meant you couldn't buy liquor there. Ha! Everyone knew you could buy liquor there. The sheriff knew, but didn't do much. Bootleggers do well in a dry county, and so do sheriffs who know not to do too much.
I was a college student and pastoring a country church in Roane County. And about once a week I'd see this long black car drive past the house and down to the Davidson place. His supply for the week.
Leslie Davidson was a pitiful case. All he did was drink. I can still see him sitting on the front porch of that shack in an old overstuffed chair. Just sitting and staring all alone.
I got up my courage and went to see him one day. I asked him about his life. I found he went to college once. I found he went to Maryville College, where my father did. I found they were there at the same time. I found he'd played football at Maryville College, just like my father had. I remember I could hardly believe it. He was blank about the name Briggs–he'd forgotten all the names.
And so I said, "Do you remember someone who played tackle and had two fingers gone off his right hand?" And his eyes lit up, and he said: "Oh yeah, I remember him. Hand may have been messed up but he sure could use it."
That man had a graduate degree. He'd been a high school principal and a Sunday School teacher. But for whatever reason, I never understood, death was his choice, not life. Something in him had met its match. Evil had won out. I preached his funeral.
Now notice how Paul suggests that our posture in such a world ought to be an aggressive posture. "Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good." He suggests we must take the initiative. The defensive stance is the most vulnerable stance.
That means being doers of the word and not just studiers and discussers. Hopers and wishers of it. We must decide on territory and take it. No one will hand it to us.
But what do I mean by "territory"? What is the evil we must overcome with good?
If you roam around in the context to that verse, you'll come upon this:
Love one another warmly; let your hope keep you joyful; share with the needy; don't be proud; don't repay wrong with wrong; live in peace with others; never take revenge.
So the evil that may overcome us in this world might be the kind a bootlegger brings, or it might not. It might be doing somebody a wrong to repay a wrong. It might be living at war when you could have lived at peace. It might be pride or haughtiness. It might be failing to share with the needy. It might be the failure to love.
Most people don't think of those evils as the kind that overcome you, but they are. They're the hardest sort, in fact. They're the evil that most people aren't even aware of. They represent the goals God has set for our lives.
The late Clarence Cranford told a story about a man traveling through the country and stopping to look at the side of a barn. It had arrows stuck in it, and every one was right in the bullseye of a target. He was so impressed that he stopped to ask who the marksman was.
But when he asked, they laughed and told him the marksman was the village idiot. And what he did was to shoot arrows into the side of the barn and then draw targets around where they hit! A lot of people live life like that.
They asked Jesus once: "Tell us, Master, which is the greatest commandment." That was asking about the target, was it not? Tell us, Master, where's the place where we either win it all, or lose it all?
And he said: "love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself."
Not easy. Not then, and not now. Not for me, and not for you.
But the thing about it is: that's what it takes to win.
ARE WE DETERMINED, OR DO WE DETERMINE?
Let me tell you a story. A very unhappy story from the days when Israel was possessing its Promised Land. Which meant, of course, they were un-possessing the people who were already living there. So it was a time of fighting and conquest.
Now in those days if you were a soldier on the winning side–and assuming you didn't get killed–you got to help yourself to what they called "the spoils." Which simply meant whatever the enemy had that was left and you wanted. Food, weapons, clothing, women, jewelry–you looked around and helped yourself.
Well there was this battle once, and before the battle they had their prayer meeting. They knew, of course, that the Lord wanted them to win, but I guess they just wanted to be sure he remembered. The Lord hadn't been very happy with them lately, and they hated to go into those battles without his assurance.
Anyway, the thing they got out of that prayer meeting was that the Lord would help them win today, but they weren't to take any spoils. No any. "Don't a one of you lay a hand on any of that stuff."
Well, what can you do? So they said O.K. and passed the word around. "The Lord says go out there and kill 'em, but leave their stuff alone." So they fought the battle, and sure enough, they won.
But there was this soldier, and his name was Achan. And Achan saw this coat. And man! it was just the coat he'd been looking for. Fit him just perfect, and looked so nice. The label said "Imported from Babylonia." And Achan knew he shouldn't do it, but he did it. He took that coat and hid it. He brought it home and covered it up and thought no one would ever know.
But they found out. They found out because the Lord was angry with them, and they asked him why, and he said because one of you did what I told him not to. And so they set out to find who it was, and they found that it was Achan.
Well, he confessed. He brought out the coat, and explained that he just wanted that coat so much, and didn't think it would cause all this trouble, and was sorry that it had.
And they said they were sorry too, but they were going to have to stone him anyway. And they got their rocks and stoned him to death.
But then they rounded up his wife and his children. And they said, "now we're going to have to stone you too." "Why? we didn't do it." "Yes, but he did, and you're his family, and that's how it works." And they stoned them.
One would hope that the Lord might have been angry about that, but there's no mention of it. Those were primitive people and primitive times. And their view of God was advanced for their day, but primitive by the standard of Jesus Christ.
They had this idea of collective guilt. One family member sins, but all have to pay the consequences. If one of them is bad, they all must be bad–so get rid of them. Let it be a lesson to anyone else who might be tempted to follow suit.
Well, there's quite a large step from there to what you heard in the 18th chapter of Ezekiel. Ezekiel says that idea won't do any more. They had it all wrong, he says. Every person answers to God for himself. God alone can be the judge. So you don't put another person's life to a vote. God has the only vote that matters at last. He sets the rules by which the game of life is played.
Let's think about those rules this morning. Especially about the matter of accountability, and about our freedom to make choices, right and wrong.
Let me put it this way. There are different kinds of bosses, aren't there? Some of you may have had different kinds. There are some who intend to be totally in charge. "Here's what you're going to do–now get busy and get it done." There are others who like the team approach. They call the group together, let people give their ideas, and then make a group decision. And there are others who do even less. They take a "hands off" approach. They tell you what your job is and leave it up to you to get it done. Call if you need help, otherwise you're on your own.
And now the question, what kind of boss is God? How does he deal with us? What is his management style?
There are those who believe that God is strictly in control of people and events. All choices are his choices. All outcomes are his outcomes. Even with things like children born retarded, they'll shake their heads and say, "well there must have been a reason for it." Meaning that God had a reason they might not understand, but they accept because they believe that he controls everything.
But if that's so, how can he be pleased or displeased with any thing we do? How can he reward good and punish evil if he controlled the outcome in either case? And how can we believe in him as a God of love and mercy, if we must hold him responsible for all the terrible suffering that goes on?
What I believe is this: that God could have been a dictator had he chosen to, but in creating man in his own image, he deliberately choose not to. He choose to make us accountable, but he also choose to make us free.
The parable of life is the Garden of Eden. We live in a place where God is present, but not too present. We know he's around somewhere, but he isn't standing over us and telling us what to do all the time. We can even forget, at times, that we owe all this to him. We can imagine ourselves completely in charge.
There are voices in our garden. We still can hear the voice of God telling us to eat any fruit we'd like, but don't eat that one. If we eat that one it will kill us, he said. But another voice tells us that's the best fruit in the whole place. Go ahead and have some, it won't hurt you.
And we stand there trying to decide. We look around at those trees and their fruits, trying to sort it out. We think of it this way, and then that way. We change our minds a dozen times before we actually make up our minds. And this is to be truly human. This is what makes us different from the beasts with whom we share this garden.
In his play Candle in the Wind, Maxwell Anderson had Madeline say: "No wild thing was ever shut in a cage without wishing for freedom. And of all wild things in the world, the most uncontrollable–the least tameable–is the human mind. No king or priest or dictator has ever tamed it. It cannot rest in captivity. It cannot sleep. It has no relish for prison food."
God gave us the ability to say yes or no. And with that came the responsibility of saying yes or no. Because there are consequences to our choices. The Garden of Eden shows that too. It's great to control your own destiny, but it also means you have less reason to blame anyone else when things get messed up.
If the devil made you do it, you have him to blame. But if not, well, you're left to shoulder your own responsibility. "Father, I have sinned and am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants."
That man we call the Rich Young Ruler–he came to Jesus asking about eternal life. Jesus told him what he had to do, but he didn't make him do it. The man stood there trying to decide, until he finally did, and went away. He choose that day whom he would serve. And that's the way God intended it.
You can take drugs if you want to–he won't stop you. You can learn to sing if you just decide. You can cheat on your taxes, or help crippled children, or abuse your own children. You have all those choices, and every one has consequences. You aren't determined–you determine.
It's as if the man you work for has to go away for awhile. And he needs some help with managing his affairs. And he calls several of you in and says: "Now let's see, George, you be in charge of this, if you will. And Agnes, would you manage that? And Sam, here's the key to my house, and don't forget to feed the cat."
The man goes on his trip with some concerns, as all of us do. He's gone a long time. And when he comes back home, the first thing is to call that group together and see how it went. If you did things right, he'll be pleased. But if you let him down, he'll be very upset. And the time to start thinking about all that is when he first hands you the keys.
Its sort of scary, right? Maybe you don't want that kind of responsibility. But maybe you can't avoid it. You stand to gain a lot or lose a lot. But if you do well, you may hear the boss say:
"Good job, Sam! I put you in charge of a little, now I'm going to put you in charge of a lot. Come on, let's get started!"
THE COMPANY HE KEPT
I remember this well from my hometown in the south. A person is known by the company he keeps. Which means virtue by association, or guilt by association. Birds of a feather flock together, it was said. If you're not one of the pigs, then why did I see you in the pig sty?
We heard a lot of sermons about "Christian influence." Which is why we were told that it was wrong to dance or go to movies or play ball on Sunday afternoons. They said it wasn't that those things were so bad in themselves, but you could hurt your Christian influence.
Well, our lesson for today tells about a time when Jesus hurt his "Christian influence"! You might say he fatally wounded it. He did something that religious people were offended by. He associated with some of the worst people they knew. It happened like this:
There was this IRS agent named Levi. And he was a good agent, which also meant that he was a bad person. He collected taxes for the hated Roman government, and himself, of course. A man like him was despised as a traitor.
Down home I used to know some mountain people. I mean real mountain people, who lived way back at the end of a road your car would have a heart attack if it had to drive on! They lived isolated from the world, living off the land to a great extent–just like the pioneers.
Now and then, some Game Warden from the city would go out there to enforce the law. But those people didn't appreciate hunting seasons or licenses or game limits. They hunted and fished when they wanted–they always had. I've heard them speak of "Game Warden" in exactly the same tone of voice that the people in Jesus' day spoke of "Tax Collector."
Well, one day Jesus went to the IRS office and said to the tax collector named Levi, "follow me." And the Bible says he got up, and left everything, and did exactly that.
A change like his is the exception in human behavior. We usually change our lives by small degrees, if at all. Someone gives up smoking, another goes on a diet or tries a new hair style. Or we trade cars or take up aerobics. Nothing radical, just a little fine tuning.
But now and then, someone may do more. An immediate about-face. Just snap! . . . change to a new home, new career, new religion, new everything, just like that.
That's what Levi did. So a life aimed at getting from others was re-directed at giving to others. A man whose hands were used to taking were re-trained for distributing and ministering.
Isn't that the test, after all? How much we're willing to give in proportion to what we receive? Everyone wants something out of it, but how much do you have to have? You want something out of church, out of marriage, out of prayer, out of raising children–but what does the ratio have to be, or you say "no thanks"?
If you can invest a 30% effort and get back a 70% return, that's pretty good, right? Any tax collector knows the value of that. But here in our story is one who was doing that and doing well, who quit it for a different arrangement.
The call he answered said "freely you have received, freely give." He began a new life of freely giving, where many days he worked long and hard for meager personal gain. A man turned inward became a man turned outward, a man with a mission of doing good in the world.
He started the only way he knew. He gave a dinner to introduce his friends to Jesus. But his friends were all tax people and other disreputables–for people in his circumstances tend to stick together, they have to. So there was a social gathering of the most despised folk in town, and Jesus, with his disciples, was there and apparently having a good time.
Some said it looked bad, others said it was bad. Those scribes and Pharisees, who loved to observe things and make moral judgments, said this wasn't right. And a chorus of their criticism arose.
Amazing! They lived in a world of military oppression, human slavery, rampant disease, wretched sanitation, social injustice, male domination, legal corruption–and their complaint was who had dinner with whom?!
"Who had dinner with whom" is really no one's business except the whoms–in my opinion. I think it would be a great day for the kingdom if religious people could give up the notion that everything that happens needs their approval or disapproval. Jesus preached not to try to judge the lives of others. Tend to yourself, and you have plenty to keep you busy. And because he practiced what he preached, he made himself a friend and not a judge, and was able to move in and out among all classes of people, and be a Savior.
I may be the worst one here to preach this sermon. By the nature of my job, I spend most of my time with "good Christian people." Why I go along for weeks and never hear anyone cuss! I don't know many publicans and sinners, and I doubt that you do. But if this is true, then we're not living like Jesus told us to. He said be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world." That means contact.
As far as Levi and his kind are concerned, our salt is sealed inside a salt box, and our light is hidden under a bushel. The world may see us at a distance, but not at the dinner table.
This is one of the amazing things about Jesus. Everyone else went around Samaria, not through it. But Jesus went through it and made friends with the people. He approached a woman at a well in Samaria, and you weren't supposed to do that. And you weren't supposed to have anything to do with Roman soldiers, but he did. And you must surely have nothing to do with a woman caught in adultery, but he did. The list goes on.
He probably could have preached on this a little, if he just hadn't practiced it so much. There's sometimes a permission to sit around and talk about some radical things, you just don't do them. To preach on it might get you in a little trouble, but to go out and do it could get you crucified.
But there's the point. It was the act that got him in trouble, but it was the act that gave him validity. When you talk about what you mean, you may or may not be understood. When you show what you mean, the issues become more clear.
They also become more clear for us bystanders. There now are two groups we can join–just two. Either we join Jesus sitting at the table, or we join the Pharisees watching in the yard. We join Jesus as the friend of sinners, or we keep ourselves apart and feel holy like the Pharisees.
What some would like to do, of course, is declare their agreement but not sit at the table. No way. Faith without works is dead. Jesus calls us to follow him, not admire him. And one day of our love will do the world more good than a lifetime of our blame. And love must do more than say so, it must sit down at a table of consequences.
There's a story about some people shipwrecked in a storm. A few survived, and they settled along the rocky coast where ships were often wrecked in those days. And someone said, "we should organize ourselves to help when there's a wreck. We should start a lifesaving station."
They did. And when the alarm sounded, those members would gather, and take their gear, and go out in the little boats to rescue survivors. They'd bring them to the station, give them food and warmth and care and rest.
As time passed, they improved the lifesaving station. They made it more attractive. They had fund-raisers, wrote a history, gave banquets, and bought uniforms.
But more and more, their main emphasis began to drift away from helping the shipwrecked. And the station itself, and the members, became the central thing. It got harder to find members willing to go out in the boats anymore. Finally someone said they could set aside some money and hire that done.
That worked for awhile, but not for long. One night there was another wreck and survivors brought in. And they were soaking and muddy, and some were bleeding. Afterward the place was a mess, and a lot of the members got very upset about it.
And the story is that they kept on calling it a lifesaving station, but no one went out, ever again.
We as Christians are called to go out–to "seek and to save that which is lost." Sinners and tax collectors, athletes, bus drivers, college students, bartenders, wealthy landowners, drug dealers, policemen, street people, car salesmen. Jesus is speaking of them when he says to us, "as the Father sent me, so send I you."
Our station here is nice–just look around. But let's keep going out. It's what we're here for.
THE CHRIST WE CELEBRATE
You know, you can be in the church, and be around Christians, and be like a Christian yourself, and still not give a lot of thought to what it means. Sure, you attend services and you put in money when they pass the offering plate–but why? what reason do you have for doing that? what justifies the effort?
As you know, the traffic has been wild these last few days. I mean, Four Corners is like a war zone! I was down there in the left lane ready to make my turn onto Colesville Road when I noticed this car on my right wanted in my lane, preferably ahead of me. Only there wasn't any space ahead of me. But he was making some. And after I had a few words to say about that and let him in, I noticed what sort of car this was.
It was a large American make, which I'm sure was nice for the two large men inside, both with cigars and hats, and two signs on the bumper that said "Veterans of Foreign Wars" and "I'm proud to be an American." There was also a small American flag flying from the radio antenna.
Now the only point I want to make here is that there's a set of beliefs that goes along with a car like that. You don't have to stop that car and ask the driver how he feels about Japanese imports, do you? Or Jesse Helms, or aid to the rebels in Nicaragua, or treaties with the Russians. You just know.
And that's good. Any organization worth joining has some reason for being. It has something its members get excited about. They have speakers who come in and speak about it, and they go out talking about it–they feel it's so important.
Now . . . in a Christian church, what's the equivalent of that? What should we go out talking about? Is it our program? our building? our music? our budget for this or that? Is it the fellowship we have with one another? Is it the good we're doing for people? No, not really.
Because if that's it, we're just another of who-knows-how-many social clubs that have programs and buildings and budgets and fellowship and efforts to do things for people.
No. The heart of things is our belief in Jesus Christ. And what is that belief? Well, you can put it different ways, and should. But here's how Paul put it:
"He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross."
What does "pre-eminent" mean? It means a person or thing that comes before all other persons or things.
If I'm pre-eminent as a preacher, it means I'm "top gun" in the pulpit. If you're pre-eminent in the fashion world, it means you set the style. If Lawrence Taylor is pre-eminent among linebackers, it means he's the best there is, without any doubt.
And if Jesus Christ is pre-eminent in everything–as the lesson says–that means a lot more than who can preach, or who's stylish, or who can play football the best. It means the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in him, and he deserves to become the center of our lives.
Pre-eminent in all the plans we make, in how we spend time and money, and how we treat people. Pre-eminent in how we live life in every detail. That's exactly what the New Testament Christians meant to affirm when they declared that "Christ is Lord." But that's a lot more religion than most people want who do want some.
This boy from the country was at a formal dinner where he knew nothing about how you do. At first, his sins were minor, like starting to eat before the hostess did, and then saying how silly it was to have two forks at each place when one would do fine.
But the thing they remembered most was when he put a large hunk of potato in his mouth and found it was too hot. He spit it out in his hand, dumped it back on his plate, and said "you know, some fools would've swallowed that"!
Paul's doctrine of Christ is nothing easy to swallow. In fact, he called himself "a fool for Christ." And Jesus called his way "the narrow way." He said few there are who choose it. So the Christ we celebrate may sometimes be popular as a religious figure, but obedience to his Way of the Cross never is.
Come to this table, then, not just to admire, but to pledge. Not only to appreciate his sacrifice, but to offer your own.
In this is life, and that more abundant.
Well there was this man, and he was what you'd call a "power figure." One account even says he was a king, and he may have been. Anyway, he was a person used to getting his way in life. When he started something, he usually finished it. When he told someone to do something, they usually did it. When he suggested something to a group, the group usually followed his suggestion.
This man decided to give a big party. In fact, all his parties were big. He didn't give little parties. But maybe he planned for this to be the biggest one he's ever given. People who give parties tend to think along those lines.
So he got his servants together, and they hired some others, and the man said "now you do this" and "you do that." And a date was set, invitations sent, food bought, tables arranged, entertainment planned–and it was goin' great! What a party they were gonna have!
Well the day came, and the man got all dressed up and ready, and went down there. He wasn't late, but it was almost time to start when he walked in.
But no one was there, except the people getting things ready. And they'd done that already, so they were just standing around trying to find something to do.
And the man looked around and said, "Where is everybody?" And they said, "We don't know." And he said, "Well you go find out then. You go tell the people we invited that it's time for the party." And they did that.
And soon they were back, and telling this powerful man that everyone they'd talked with had one excuse or another, and no one was coming to his party. No one.
Well, he said, "You're wrong about that. Those people we invited may not come, but someone will. You go back out and get some people. Go down on the south side of town. Invite the folk who don't usually get asked to parties–they'll come. Tell them whose party this is. Tell them they'll have the time of their lives."
So they did that. And there was a party.
There were a lot of people who were first invited to that party who wouldn't get invited any more. No sir, not any more.
Some of them wouldn't think that was very fair, though. Like one who bought and sold property all the time.
He got his invitation just like the rest. And it was one of those things he felt like he had to do, but didn't really want to do.
After all, why should he let other people run his life and set his schedule? Life's too short not to run it like you want to. And anyway, he never liked parties much. He always felt awkward at parties. He dreaded parties. What he really liked was making money in real estate.
He did intend to go to that party, though. He knew that he should. He knew it would look bad and be bad if he didn't.
During that day, he started once or twice to go get dressed. But he kept putting it off. It was like something he wanted to forget. And then there was this knock on the door, unexpectedly, and a man all out of breath said, "aren't you coming to the party?" And not knowing what to say, he said:
"I have bought a field, and I must needs go out and see it."
Huh! Well, it wasn't a very good answer. It had the advantage of sounding like something he'd be doing, but it didn't make any sense. He'd bought some property and now he was going to look at it? Anyone would know that of all people this man would never buy property he hadn't looked at first.
One excuse is as good as another, they say. But one excuse doesn't sound as good as another. This one didn't sound good at all. But the man at the door said O.K., and he left. And the man who loved real estate went on about his business.
We can't do what everyone wants us to. We all have to pick and choose among many needs, opportunities, offers, and invitations. We all have to sort out what's important, and what isn't. Say yes to this, and no to that. And pray to do the right thing when it counts the most.
I go thumbing through a stack of cards, cards like the one you had in your hand awhile ago. I pull out a card from that stack. This one is from a visitor to our worship almost six months ago. Lady with a teen age son, I remember, just moved from out of state. Came one Sunday and seemed interested. I called and talked with her and she said they'd be back. But they haven't been. I wonder if they found another church, or if they found they weren't really interested in a church.
So I pick up the phone and give this lady a call. I'm not the best person in the world to do that, because I'm not much of a salesman. If I were selling vacuum cleaners, I'd probably agree that you really didn't need a new vacuum cleaner. But the lady answers, and I say this is Pastor Briggs from the church. And how are things going, and how's your son, and I was wondering have you found a church yet?
When she says, "Well, they have attended some other churches," I know they haven't joined one yet. So I say we hope they'll come back to Luther Rice and visit again. But she says they've been busy. And sometimes they do go away on weekends. But they thought our church was nice–they wanted me to know–and the people were friendly enough, and maybe they'll be back sometime. But I know, from some years of experience with these things, that likely they won't.
Jesus said: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled." What hunger there was, or thirst there was–if that was what brought them here one Sunday–seems to be gone.
Maybe I should raise my voice and say, "Lady, I think you're making a big mistake. You're neglecting your soul and your boy. You're missing out on the best thing in life. There's a party going on and you've been invited. Now just knock it off with those lame excuses and get right with God!"
As a rule, the road to hell isn't paved with crimes and scandals. Not with murders and muggings. It's paved with a lot of harmless pastimes that became excuses for never getting around to the main business.
The main business of life is to know God and live as he wants us to live. But people have a way of making heavy the lighter things of life, and making light the things that should be heavier.
People will fret about a scratch on the side of their car more than the wounds of persons in pain. Read the funnies every day but claim they have no time to study the Bible. Think much of what they want and little of what God wants. As Nietzsche said, "You will have to look more redeemed if I am to believe in your Redeemer."
Divina Kweti told about visiting a church in England one Sunday for worship. A large church. She said there were 10 people there that morning, all of them were sitting in the back of the sanctuary. She said she felt so sorry for the pastor. But I guess he was used to it.
I suppose a lot of those invited guests had good intentions. They may have said "please ask us again sometime." "We'd really like to come to the man's party. It's just that now is such an inconvenient time."
Are there people who keep intending to do things, and there's no chance in the world they ever will? They'll keep on intending, but never get around to it. They substitute their intentions for actions. They keep repeating their excuses till they seem like valid reasons.
No one would decline an invitation to God's party, or would he? If you realized it's really his invitation you're receiving, how could you say "well I'd sure like to, Lord, but I'm really too busy right now"?
Do people believe that earth is hard fact, and heaven is just a hope?
You see, every person, every day, is writing his answer to the call of God. And either you say "please accept my regrets," or you say:
Out of my bondage, sorrow and night,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come:
Into Thy freedom, gladness and light,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of my sickness into Thy health,
Out of my want and into Thy wealth,
Out of my sin and into Thyself,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
I'm that voice on the telephone this morning. I'm trying to make sure the invitation has gone out to you. God is giving a party, and no one should miss it. You can think of other things you could do, but this is what you should do.
I won't keep you long. You can tell me no if you choose. You can even tell him no.
But I wouldn't. I wouldn't.
FINDERS KEEPERS, LOSERS WEEPERS
"Finders keepers, losers weepers." Some of you this rule could play havoc with! Your keys–where did you leave them? You had them just a minute ago, now where could they have gone? Or your coat–think back where all you've been and try to figure out where you might have left it. Umbrellas, even pocketbooks. Why, you might lose your brains–if they weren't so thick! (Just a joke)
Some people's effort of life is not to lose things, and other people's effort is to profit from those losses.
That was especially so in the land where Jesus lived. There were no banks, no safes, no security at all for valuables except to keep them with you or to hide them.
Diane and I visited Grace Fox some years ago, and she showed us where she had her silverware hidden. It was up under and inside the frame of an overstuffed chair. A lot of homes were being robbed for silverware because prices were so high. And sure enough, not long after that, thieves came to her house while she was away and turned it upside down to find her silver. Mattresses flipped over, drawers dumped out in the floor–all that. But they didn't find it. She was smart–like a Fox! (Bad joke but a good story)
Well that's the sort of thing people had to do in the time of Christ. So a lot of people would dig a hole way off in a field somewhere and hide their valuables in it. Which meant, though, that if the digger was the only one who knew the location, and then was killed or died, the secret was buried with him. Then there was treasure just waiting for some new owner to stumble onto. "Finders keepers, losers weepers."
And Jesus used that as an illustration of opportunity. The man in his story was poor. And he was plowing in a field that wasn't his, which is where all his plowing was done, because he had no field of his own. Nor had a thought that morning that today might be his lucky day–or perhaps he did.
Anyway, he surely was surprised when his plow point struck metal in the ground that afternoon. But he recognized his chance, and seized it. This wasn't his land, but it might be if he were bold enough. He went out and began selling everything he could to raise cash. He borrowed and begged and haggled and scrounged. He may have sold his mother's wedding ring, and other things he thought he'd never sell. But he did it with no regrets, because he knew that this was worth it.
Jesus is illustrating a religion of discovery and surprise and delight. Whose worshipers will come to church expectant, knowing it's a special day today, as if they're children again and it's their birthday at last. Everyone knows that anything can happen when you're a child and it's your birthday.
It's like the time we were hiking in the Smokies, just plodding along with those loads on our backs. Thinking how many miles were left to go, or what to fix for supper. When all of a sudden, just around a turn, there was this family of grouse.
Maybe I need to explain that a grouse is a type of pheasant, I suppose, a sort of chicken type bird. And there was mother grouse and at least a dozen little chicks. The chicks ran off confused, and in all directions, but we caught one or two. And when mother found out, she came back. She hid all her loose chicks in a thicket, and then came back.
Now except for flying away and being able to hide, the grouse is a defenseless creature. She had no way to threaten us into giving back her babies. So what she did was to offer herself. Little by little, she came right up to where we were. We could have hit her with a stick. It was as if she said, "Take me, I'm full-grown and ready for your table–but please, let my babies go."
We let her babies go, and they ran off so happy. And she was happy too. And away they ran to join the others.
We hiked away in a different frame of mind that day. We were alive to what might happen next. The mind imagined, and nothing seemed impossible around any turn of the trail.
That, friends, is a religious condition. To be alive to what may happen next. A lot of people aren't. And the story Jesus told is meant to show us that when the happening is a God-given opportunity, we mustn't be slow in our response.
There is a time to study and discuss and weight this side against that side. But there's also a time to have done with that and act. Be sure it's really treasure, and then go for it! The Bible says to "count the cost," but it doesn't say to spend your whole life doing it. The man who found the treasure counted the cost, but then quickly he paid the cost.
All to Jesus I surrender,
All to him I freely give.
St. Augustine reflected on the price he paid to follow Christ, and he wrote about it in these words:
"What I feared to be parted from, was now a joy to part with. For Thou didst cast them forth from me . . .. Thou castedst them forth, and for them enteredst in Thyself, sweeter than all pleasure."
HE IS ALIVE!
Being Easter weekend, I suppose, the Washington Post had an article in the Friday edition about some of the notable churches of the area. Ones you might pick out to attend on Easter Sunday. Luther Place Church was included in the selection–Luther Rice Church wasn't. But at least we were close. We sometimes get their mail!
The article showed how Easter is a time when the attention of the world is focused on the church, however briefly. And people go to churches–more than any other Sunday of the year. And the music is always special, and the pastors are encouraged, and the message goes out that God lives, God triumphs, and then we go home and hang up the new clothes, and it's over.
If you're involved with that year-after-year, you can get cynical about it. Preachers joke about it when they get together. It seems rather like the cherry blossoms that bloom out and then disappear so suddenly. One time a year they do that. And a cynic can say, "What's the use?"
But there is use. Good use. The Pharisee came to the temple to show himself off, but a publican came at the very same hour, and he was there to be renewed. He was there seeking help. He came to make a change in his life, and was never the same again.
That can happen on Easter. That can happen any Sunday. Or that can happen any time or day of the week when a person lets it happen. But Easter is our best reminder of why and how it happens. And I've chosen for this year a text from Revelation that puts it in one sentence from the lips of Christ himself:
"Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and have the keys of death and hell."
Notice how his words begin by acknowledging the fears we have. He says "fear not," and he says it because he knows our hearts,, and he knows we do fear. We pretend to be strong. We pretend we don't worry, but we do. Inside we tremble.
Between the cradles that hold us at first and the coffins that will hold us at last, there's a trail of dread. As children we imagine bears in the woods, and noises in the dark at night. As teens we fear rejection and ridicule. As students we fear failure, not just in class but in the bigger game of life itself. Couples fear what happens if they divorce, and sometimes what they're missing if they don't. The middle-aged fear heart attacks and cancer and growing old alone. The elderly have their fear of being cast off and unwanted.
And all along that journey, as we move from stage to stage, we die a little every day. And need help. Not just with the small issues of this or that, but with the greater problem of knowing what we're here for, and where we're going.
Who is it, then, who says "fear not" to people like us? Someone from outside? Some expert who camps in an ivory tower and writes books about things he knows nothing of?
No friends, no. Christ says this as one of us. He says this from the midst of our own situation.
On Friday I preached from his words, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" I said it's O.K. to feel like that because he felt like that. And it means a whole lot more, when someone tells you not to fear, that you know he knows from experience what the fear is like. And has found the way to overcome it.
So he doesn't instruct us as a philosopher or an expert. He speaks to us as a fellow-sufferer. Throughout his own agony, it could still be said that he trusted in God. And God was his deliverance. And so he–he of all men–can call us to fear not, as one who descended into hell itself.
"Fear not," he said, "I am the first and the last, and the living one . . .." The living one.
I was never a Mason but I pastored a church once where most of the men were. The lodge hall was right beside the church, and I was in there on several occasions. It was an old lodge, and I remember that around the walls were the pictures of past Grand Masters looking down. Many of them dead, of course. And the older members could look up there and remember. They were "gone, but not forgotten." But they were gone.
As Christians, we have a master. But he's not a "past master," he's our present master. He's not a face in a frame with a date inscribed. He's "the living one." And where two or three are gathered in his name, he himself is there in the midst. More than a memory, more than someone honored. He's alive, and is our hope. He tells us, "because I live, you shall live also."
You see in the text, though, how he became the "living Christ." You see it wasn't automatic, wasn't easy. You hear him say,
"I died, and behold I am alive . . .."
He died before he arose. He descended before he ascended. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Who came to his own, and his own received him not. Who was crucified, dead, and buried three days before he came out of his tomb.
He knows the trials we face. He knows the twilights in which we stand. He knows the bitter taste of failure, the hurt of rejection, the pangs of loneliness and fear. And if we ever suppose ourselves immune from such harms, we need to be told that he wasn't. If we dream our faith will keep us from misfortune, we must learn that his didn't.
What were his beatitudes? Blessed are whom? The poor in spirit, he said. And those who mourn. And the meek, and the persecuted, and those who have all manner of evil said against them. But he leads such as those to see how their sufferings can be redemptive, as his were.
The deeper down a person is, the more certain it is that Christ can lift him up. The high and mighty are much further from the kingdom. That man whose barns were full. The older brother. That rich young ruler. You must humble yourself under the mighty hand of God before he can exalt you in due time.
Jesus of Nazareth did that. He bore his griefs and carried his sorrows. So now he can bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. He was dead, and now is alive to be our savior for evermore.
So the final word is this: that he has the keys of death and hell. He has the keys.
You know, it can be good or bad that someone else has the keys to something that's vital to you. If someone you don't trust has your keys, you can be in big trouble.
So the good news of Easter is that someone who loves us has the keys! Someone who throws his arms out wide and says "come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." He has the keys to that rest.
He has the keys! And he never dangles them before us, daring us to get them if we can. Leaving us to wonder if we ever will. His sheep know his voice as he leads them, and they shall never perish. He came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.
When does this begin? Well, when do you want it to?
Hear the words of Karl Barth, preaching on Easter in 1955:
"It is now all-important for us to cling to this truth. That he, Jesus Christ, in his life, is our present. Not our past is our present. Not the great darkness casting its shadows out of yesterday into today. Not what we rightly or wrongly hold against ourselves and probably against others as well. Not the world with its accusations and we with our counter-accusations. Not even the well-deserved divine wrath against us, let alone our grumbling against God, or our secret thought that there might be no God after all."
"Therefore," he continued, "not we ourselves, as we are today or think we are, make up our present. He, Jesus Christ, his life is our present; his divine life poured out for us, and his human life, our life, lifted up in him. This is what counts. This is what is true and valid. From this point on we may continue our journey into the future. And this is the future which grows out of this present–you will live also."
So again I ask, if that new life could begin for you, when would you want it too?
HOLY, HOLY, HOLY
Over the years, I've seen a lot of things in worship. Not all of them connected with worship. I see some things you might be surprised at.
It's an opportune situation when a church is arranged like this one. The pulpit up high and in the center of things. When I'm up here, you can see me better than anyone else, and I can see you better than anyone else. So one thing that happens on Sundays is–you watch me, and I watch you.
A person once called me after church to object to the color of shirt I had on. Another person told me going out the door that my hair was too long. I've seen people get angry at something I said and walk out. I've seen people see someone they didn't want to see in church and walk out because of that. I've seen naps taken, notes passed, things whispered, hands held, flies swatted, kids smacked, gum chewed–I've see it all.
I've also seen intentness and eagerness. I've seen tears. I've seen joy and gladness that made my own soul glad. I've seen insight happening, heads nodding. I've watched burdens being borne, and sorrows carried. I've seen paths of remembrance traced on people's faces. I've seen heaven come down and glory fill a soul.
But what is supposed to be happening when we meet here? That's our question this morning.
Someone is there at the door as you enter, and he hands you this thing. Every Sunday he hands you one. Program, bulletin, menu–something. And I doubt that you study the entire thing every week. Part of it never seems to change. But that might be the most important part. There on the cover, in the biggest letters of all, it tells what this is all about. "The worship of God at the Luther Rice Memorial Baptist Church."
The worship of God. This isn't entertainment, though it can be entertaining. This isn't education, though it can be educational. This isn't something that's done for you, or to you, it's something you do. If it's done at all.
You see, no matter how good I am, or the choir is, or the ushers, or the organ, or the lighting or anything–we can't make you worship. We can help, but we can't make you. You have to do that yourself.
And no matter how bad we are, we can't keep you from worshipping. We can hinder you, but we can't keep you.
You are the person God holds responsible for your worship. You alone can humble your heart before him. You alone can take the words of the hymn and make them your praise to him. You alone have the power to confess your sins and ask forgiveness. Your attitude determines whether saying the Lord's Prayer is useful or useless.
I'd guess that on the day Isaiah came to the temple, there were others there too. I'd guess the very day he had this most splendid of worship experiences in all of scripture, there were others with blank expressions on their faces.
Let's not dwell on them though. Let's discover how a person in worship can experience the presence and power of God.
"In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord."
Strange way to mark a year. But we do that. We do it when someone special dies. Mention 1971 and immediately it flashes through my mind–"That's the year Mother died." I may not say it, but I can't help but think it.
Something like that may have been the case with Isaiah. When someone dies that you loved and admired and were close to, you begin to re-assess. A person who always went to church before may quit. Another who never went at all may start. In the year that somebody died.
Uzziah was the king, though–not a relative. Uzziah was a king that Isaiah was attached to. He may have been shattered by this loss. He may have wondered how things could go on without this leader. So how significant that his vision begins, "In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord . . ."
Isaiah had been looking to the king as his source of strength. Now, with the king gone, he was able to look beyond, to see the power behind the throne, to see a vision of the King of Kings.
We can't help but be influenced by events in national life. And the health or sickness of our country is something we must pray about. But here in Isaiah's vision we find another truth. Kings come and go. One is killed, another resigns. One leaves in disgrace, another rises to take his place. We are affected, but not determined, by all such politics.
We see the Lord! And he is over all. And to him all people from the smallest to the greatest must someday give account. And he shall reign forever and forever.
It is possible, that before Uzziah died, Isaiah the Prophet had placed more trust in him than he should have placed. To be close to a man in power is a drug-like experience, to which many get addicted.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Now listen: one of power's corruptions is to exalt the personality of men so they become God-like in the eyes of followers. And may become objects of worship and adoration, surpassing the Lord God himself. That, friends, is the real scandal of power-greedy television evangelists. In my opinion.
Isaiah sees God on his throne, and there's beauty and mystery. He sees creatures with six wings, flying about and singing loudly. Their song was this:
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory."
And the place began to shake. And then . . . it filled with smoke.
I've always been intrigued by that smoke. Of all the things you'd expect in a vision of God, who would look for smoke? Clouds maybe, or blinding light, or birds and beasts and robes and crowns. But smoke?
We had smoke in here one Sunday. I remember it well. Up high above the balcony there was smoke coming from an electrical fixture. And men were leaving their seats and rushing around. They set up ladders. And I kept trying to preach. And they began turning out most of the lights, and heads were turning around to watch. Believe me, it did not contribute to our worship that day. And it was only a little smoke.
The text says the Temple was filled with it. So that the throne of God was obscured. Everything was obscured. And with nothing left visible around him, the prophet begins to look within him.
"Woe is me," he cries out, "for I am lost."
Sometimes it takes the smoke. Sometimes we're too fixed on the world around us. The world within us needs our attention. Sometimes we've said too many "Woe-are-they's" (for they are lost), and what's needed is this "Woe is me, for I am lost.
Now you might think that a person crying "Woe is me" is a person in bad shape. Well, save your pity. The person who needs pity is the one who's spiritually apathetic. Inspired by nothing, ashamed of nothing, committed to nothing. Of all the temptations, plagues, and curses in this world, the worst of all may be spiritual apathy.
Isaiah was not apathetic. He was troubled, troubled about his life. His vision of God made him examine himself. Every vision like his does. But out of that would come his help. He was like the Publican who prayed "God be merciful to me, a sinner." A woe-is-me sort of prayer. But it led to his salvation.
Out of the smoke, Isaiah heard a voice. He heard the voice of God. And the voice said, "Whom shall I send?" And the young prophet answered, "Here am I; send me."
God loves to gather people for worship. But then he loves to send them out. He wants them to know and feel his presence, but then he has work to be done, and it's time to do it.
True worship brings us in, and then sends us out. As you leave the church on Sundays, you should ask yourself this question: "What am I going out to do that I didn't know about when I came in?"
I believe Isaiah's whole life was changed by this experience. I think he was never the same again. And I don't say that can happen every time you come to the temple. It doesn't need to.
What can happen, though, is this. You can find yourself in the presence of God here. And you can praise his holy name, just as saints and angels do.
You can discover something about yourself in such a place. Something that needs fixing, or tending, or beginning in your life. God will help you with that.
And you can go away with the business of heaven on that worldly mind of yours.
What a difference. What a difference!
THE INTERIM MENTALITY
Do you know what time it is? Let's all look at our watches and see. My watch says . . .. How much time do we have left, then? Is that a lot of time, or not a lot? Do you wish it was over? After it is over, how much more time will you have?
In our scripture lesson today, Jesus talked with his disciples along those lines. He spoke about a "short time" they must live in–a time of his absence. He'd be gone for this time, and when it was over, they'd see him again. So it was a time between two other times–an "interim."
Jesus tried to get them ready for that, because there could be confusion. He was facing his cross. The disciples didn't know that, but he did. He knew they were used to his presence, but how would they do in his absence? So he tells them.
"Something bad is going to happen, and you won't be seeing me for awhile. You're going to be sad, while other people around you are happy. You're going to be out of sync with the time you live in. But don't worry. After this is over, you'll see me again. And your sadness will be turned to joy."
Now that was their time, not ours. But it strikes me that the same is true for us. We live in a similar time–a time between the times. The Lord was here once, but he isn't now, and yet he will be again someday.
We live in a time when our sorrow for a world of pain and misery is waiting for a joy that will come someday, but isn't yet. We hope for things and work for things that are not yet. Sometimes we get anxious and frustrated, as if earth is supposed to be heaven. But it isn't.
We know in part, we prophesy in part, and only when "that which is perfect comes" will that which is in part be done away.
We aren't living in the long time yet–we're still in the short time. So like those disciples, we have to learn to use the interim. We have to go on with things unsettled and unsure. We have to make the most of present situations and not waste them away by wishing for other situations.
Wayne Oates wrote about 30 books and is still writing. He told us the secret is to take 15 minutes of time and put it to good use. He said you'd like to have whole days of uninterrupted time, but you won't get that. You have to use the bits and pieces.
Most people just think there's not enough time to do all they want, and so they do nothing. Many people imagine nothing useful to do with their lives, and so they never use time, they just pass time. They fill it up with something, anything, to get on through it. Television will do that for every hour you can stay awake, and then put you to sleep!
We act as if we have eternity, but what we actually have is what Jesus called "a little while." Long-timers can do things one way, but short-times have to do different. They have to plunge in, get started, make the most of things right now. Waiting is an enemy. The future is now.
If I should stop talking right now and give you the time until 12 o'clock to sit there quietly and use that time for communion with God–how well could you use it? What if 15 minutes was all the time you had left? How would you use it?
When I first tried preaching, I had the great fear young preachers have of "running out of soap!" You're supposed to have a lot to say when you preach, but you aren't always that sure. So I developed a defensive habit. I'd stretch the opening of the sermon for all it was worth. Comment on the music, or the attendance today, or the weather–hasn't it been nice lately–and that sort of thing.
Good shape was having most of the time used up and all that stuff I'd prepared still waiting to be said. That's why I sometimes preached twice a long back them. This insured I could fill the sermon time with the sermon, and often, at the end, be able to say how much more I had to say if only there were time!
Now life is like a sermon, and the time you have allotted for it isn't all day. It's "a little while" and no more. And the introduction can be the enemy of it, just like mine used to be. You can fill life with trivia and shortchange the sermon. Time can even run out on you before you get started.
So there are things that short-timers don't need to mess with. Paul wrote to young Timothy: "No man who makes war entangles himself with the affairs of this life." (2 Timothy 2:4) Short-timers must avoid entanglements.
You have to ask what's useful and what isn't. You have to set priorities. You have to let some things go, just because life's too short.
If we were living in the long time, maybe we'd have time to explain ourselves to everybody–but we don't. Maybe we could afford the luxury of anger and resentment–but we can't. Life is too short to nurse hurt feelings. Say "to heck with it" and go on.
If we were long-timers maybe we could sleep all we want, buy all we want, see and learn all we want, say all we want to say and do all we want to do. But we can't, you see, because we're short-timers, not long-timers. There are times to take our losses and move on. There are times to shake off the dust of some town and give up on what we were trying to do there.
Jesus meant for the disciples to be realistic about their situation, but he also wanted them to be hopeful about the future. Listen again to what he told them:
"You will cry and weep, but the world will be glad; and you will be sad, but your sadness will be turned into gladness." (John 16:20)
We see in his words the two poles of our existence: joy and sadness. Was there ever a life that didn't know both? The ball seems always to be bouncing back and forth between those two ends of the court. And how we learn to handle our sadness has a lot to do with when and whether it turns again to joy.
In his book called Apology for Wonder, Sam Keen gave us this:
"Every man covets the opportunity to take the measure of his life and be able to pronounce the judgment, 'it is good.' And it is only to the degree that we are able to forge the diverse moments of pain and pleasure, emptiness and fullness, loneliness and love, and failure and success into some meaningful and gracious whole that we are able to escape that resentment and bitterness which form the roots of gnosticism, neurosis, and despair. Finally, the most significant index we have of the stature of a man is the amount of pain and tragedy he has been able to bear and still rejoice in the gift of life."
Elizabeth O'Connor says "the sick in their suffering are closer to what is real. They see the things that really matter and are for a time in possession of different values." Then she adds, "The difficulty is that the sick in bed and the sick in heart do not have the power to do what they think about, and when they are well again and walk by still waters, they have forgotten."
Short-timers can't afford to forget. Short-timers must remember. Take the bar of soap in your bathroom and write on the mirror: "a little while," "a little while."
No deception, no pretending. Short timers need to get things straight. Earlier in the 16th chapter of John, Jesus had been saying:
"I did not tell you these things at the beginning, for I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me where I am going. And now that I have told you, your hearts are full of sadness. But I am telling you the truth: it is better for you that I go away . . .." (John 16:4-7)
You see there how things needed discussion, but the disciples avoided discussing them. So Jesus had to force the issue. Honesty is better even when the truth hurts. If time is really short, there can't be anything we dare not mention, even in church.
Now to sum things up, there'll always be those who try to live in the long time. They'll try to have it all, and have it now. They'll try to do it all, and say it all, as if they can gather all the future into the present and store it up.
One of them even filled his barns and then built others–a long-timer if there ever was one. But God said, "Thou fool, this night thy soul is required of thee, then whose will these things be?" His time had run out, like it or not.
Others take the risk of traveling light. Others are willing to follow Christ in his sufferings, believing in his promises. They get comfortable with the word "until." They walk by faith.
But those may turn out to be the long-timers, after all. He gives to them eternal life, and they shall never perish. He tells them, "Come, ye blessed, inherit a kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
Theirs, with him, is the power and the glory, forever and forever.
I find myself in a dilemma that goes like this. If I'm in the office working, I think of things that need doing outside the office. I say to myself that I need to get out of here. But when I'm out there, I think of all the work that's back at the office. And so it goes. I need to be two people, but I'm not.
It sometimes crosses my mind as I sit at my desk that Jesus had no desk. And you might describe his style of ministry in terms of walking around.
Walking around. That's how he spent a lot of his time. That's the occasion for so many happenings in his ministry. Listen: "As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth." As he passed by.
His disciples were with him, of course. He walked around, and they walked around with him. And all of them saw this blind man together, and he became the center of their attention.
One good thing about a blind person's handicap is that you can stare all you want to and he never knows it.
The disciples stopped and stared at this blind man. They shook their heads, and thought about it, and had a question.
"How could they help?" No. "What should they say to a person like this?" No. The question they asked was really this: "Whose fault was it?" "Was it his, or was it his parents'?"
It's interesting how the question of fault gets raised. Anytime we face unpleasant situations, we want to know whose fault it was. Who can we blame for this? It frustrates us if a bad thing happens and there seems to be no one to blame.
This couple you know is getting a divorce. Whose fault is that? You class room wasn't clean this morning–who's to blame? Two cars tangle bumpers in a parking lot, and immediately the question of fault becomes the main question. It's what the present hearings on the Iran matter are all about, isn't it? Who can we blame for this?
So the disciples of Jesus are starring at this blind man and asking who's to blame? But Jesus gives a very strange answer. He more-or-less says that no one is to blame, and the question isn't appropriate, and what they need to do is ask what God would have them do to work his works in this present, evil world.
Hurting people don't need our speculation about why they're hurting. Most of them have enough blame as it is–they need no more from us. But there might be something they need from us. We must work the works of him who sent us, while it is day. The night is coming, when no one can work. We must work to beat the night.
The disciples heard all this. But still, like us, they were frail believers with little skill or experience in healing the blind. So all they could do was observe what might happen, and what they saw was this.
Jesus begins by spitting on the ground. Only time in the Bible that Jesus spits! Only place I know of where spitting becomes a holy and redeeming act. Spitt!
He spits on the ground, and makes a little clay down there, and then smears it on the blind man's eyes and tells him to go wash it off.
Was there ever a more unlikely healing than that? Just imagine how funny the man must have looked! Like something out of a cartoon, something to laugh at. Hey, look there at Mudface! Where ya' going, Mudface?
God does work in mysterious ways! We wish we could specify the how of these things, but normally we can't. And if the outcome is a good one, we shouldn't worry about the course matters took to get there.
Last week's Dobson film was on raising adolescents. He said the main principle is a simple one: get 'em through it! Any way you can!
You want your son healed by his listening to all your good advice. You want his character built by playing on the football team. You want him on the honor roll, sought after by colleges, graduated, married, settled, and successful by 26.
He might get there, but not by that route or by that timetable. He might get mud on his face along the way. He might look ridiculous and make you look ridiculous. But then after that's over, things could turn out fine. God has a sense of humor. That never hurt anybody.
Well, Mudface came back, and he wasn't Mudface any more. He was Brightface, because he was healed, and he could see. And all the people who knew him were astounded, of course. And the news of it spread. People kept asking how it happened, and over and over he told it. He told it so much, he got tired of telling it.
It came to the attention of the religious authorities, and they launched an investigation. You can't have just anyone going around town and performing healings, after all. And this was done on the sabbath, they heard, which was illegal. And if it was true that the man who did it made some clay, that was illegal too!
So they brought in the man for questioning. Imagine that. He thought his troubles were over, now that he could see. And right away he has to learn that this world of people who can see–this world he'd always longed to be a part of–is a world that has its troubles too. He learns about the law that says most of the time when you think you're getting rid of your problems, you're just trading them in for a different set.
The Pharisees heard his story, then dismissed him. They could see that he could see, but some of them wondered if he'd really been blind before. So they called in his parents to find that out.
His parents were afraid. These were powerful people they were facing. And no smiles on their faces at all. They were men in power, but threatened by the deeds of someone who could do things they couldn't. Someone people might begin to follow instead of them.
The parents said he is our son, and he was born blind. But we don't know what happened. We don't know anything else. If you want to know something, ask him. He's the one who knows what happened. Thanks a lot, Mom and Dad!
If the young man had been listening outside the door, I guess he said "uh oh! right then." And sure enough, they send for him and now they get really rough. They say bad things about Jesus. They call him a sinner. And the young man wants to know how he could heal people if he was a sinner. And that makes them furious. And now, with nothing to lose, the young man begins to say the things you do not say to men like that.
A preacher told me once about hearing another preacher's resignation sermon. He said he sat there during the sermon thinking, "you can't say what you're saying"! "You can't say those things." And he couldn't, but he was. Same thing with this man born blind. He said:
"Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
It's a terrible thing to get hit over the head with your own religion! Nothing will make a person madder than that! So faces were getting red and jaws were swelling up and shaking. And the speech they were hearing might have gone on longer, but they were not about to let it.
They said to the man, "You were born in utter sin. Do you think you can talk to us like this." And they kicked him out.
Not just out of the room. They kicked him out of the synagogue. They excommunicated him, as Catholics would put it. They disinherited him as a Jew. From that time on, his parents and friends must have nothing to do with him, or the same would be done to them.
It must have been dramatic when Jesus heard of this and came back to see the man he'd healed. What kind of reception would he get? When they talked it over, would there be some wish that no healing had ever taken place?
They came eye to eye. And the young man with his brand new vision searched the face of Jesus. And Jesus, with his profound ability to know the thoughts of others, found there what he hoped to find.
He found faith. He found no regrets. He found a heart overflowing with love and devotion. He found a person not content to accept favors and do nothing in return. He found a follower.
"Do you believe?" said Jesus.
And the young man answered, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him.
Now he could really see.
BY FAITH, NOT BY SIGHT
2 Cor. 5:1-9
This sermon began as a conversation with one of you. The subject was God, life, pain, perils, assurance, and how to cope. I was being asked–in some desperation I thought–"How do I know God cares about my problems? How do I really know he hears my prayers? How do we know when we're doing his will?"
I listened to hear how I'd answer that. I found myself saying there's no scientific proof, no absolute assurance, and God is at work in our world but not at our command. I said it's a lot easier to see how he has helped us than to predict how he will. And I found myself quoting this scripture, "we walk by faith, not by sight."
The question, "How do I know this?" is surely a natural and important question. In a world uncertain as ours, we want to be as sure as we can about things that matter.
That man on the corner is collecting money for crippled children, he says. And you believe in helping crippled children. But how do you know that your money will really go for that?
Someone has a used car for sale, and you need a car. But what about the risks? The owner says this car has nothing wrong with it–nothing he knows about, at least. But how do you know there's nothing wrong? Why's the owner selling it, if it's such a good car? Who could you get to look and tell you if it's O.K.? Even then, what will you know for sure about any used car?
In a way, life is like a big used car lot! Hey, that one looks good. "No, stupid! That's not the kind of car you need." Well, this one then. "But did you see that smoke when it started up? Better think twice." And you fear to decide, but then you do get very tired of walking around the car lot trying to decide.
New jobs are like used cars–you don't know about them. New friends, new neighborhoods, new schools, new treatments, new investments. Marriage–you can kick the tires if you want to, but you won't know much until you sign the papers and try it awhile.
What I'm saying is, we walk by faith and not by sight. This isn't to say we have no help, it isn't to say we walk alone. But it is to say that faith is faith, and always involves some risk and some uncertainty. Ask Abraham. Ask Paul. Ask anyone who ever did much that counted in this world.
What would it mean to walk by sight? That you see exactly where you're going. That you know where you are every minute. No blind corners, no dark alleys, no valleys of the shadow of death. His rod and his staff comfort you every minute of the day.
Some people are so sure of God they pray for parking places. "I'm in your will Lord, so give me one right in front of the store." And should they have to walk three blocks, they wonder what's wrong with their prayer life! Everything is certain. Nothing is seen unclearly.
Jesus encountered that. People who want everything as plain as night and day. They pestered him to prove himself. "Show us a sign," they said, "and then we'll believe." "Convince us beyond the shadow of a doubt, and we'll follow you too."
They dared him to get up on the tip top of the temple–way up there almost touching the clouds–and throw himself down. Down where any mortal would splatter all over the pavement squares.
But no, now him. They'd see the angels come rushing to catch him in mid air. And they'd say "ahhh" and believe for sure. Providing, of course, they really saw that happen. And maybe watched the re-run in slow motion, just to be sure.
Jesus took that as something of an insult. He told them, "No sign will be given you except the sign of Jonah." "As Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the whale, so will the son of man be. Now figure that out!" They never did.
Faith is faith. And faith means believing in things you can't see or prove or sometimes even understand. It means trusting the truth of another person's word about what's what. It means acting as if things are so that you can't really prove are so.
What had Paul been talking about when he said we walk by faith and not by sight? Why, he'd been saying that when we die we'll have a home up there, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
"How do you know that, Paul?"
I suppose he might have said something like this. He'd say, "Well this is what Jesus taught us, and I live in faith that what he said is true. And the more I live that way, the more I become convinced that it is. And if you'll accept it and try it, I think you'll believe it too."
Notice the stress on personal experience. "So we are always of good courage," he said. "We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him."
Christian faith is more than a set of doctrines you accept or reject. It's a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And I know that's a doctrine too, but it's a vital one. It isn't what you believe that defines the life of faith, it's who you believe in.
"I know whom I have believed, and am sure that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day." (2 Timothy 1:12)
Paul knew what he believed, but he chose to stress the personal–the whom. So "walking by faith" is more than just what we believe, but whom. It has a dimension of obedience, and of fellowship.
Jesus was at a feast one day, and was teaching. Some people questioned his teaching. They asked about his authority. His reply was this:
"My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If any man's will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority." (John 7:16-17)
Now what does that say? It says that assurance about the truth of God results from living out the will of God. It says our faith should be in him, not in a set of propositions about him. It says the proof of the pudding is in the taste, not an examination of the pudding under a microscope.
You may not always get an answer to your questions. But what you will get is this: you'll get an inner strength that doesn't need answers to go on. You'll get grace to say "it is well with my soul" even though your soul doesn't feel very well right then.
You say, "Lead, kindly light! amid the encircling gloom. Lead Thou me on. The night is dark, and I am far from home, lead Thou me on. Keep Thou my feet; I do no ask to see the distant scene. One step enough for me."
One step. To walk by faith and not by sight is a matter of steps. And sometimes one is all you have, all you can see, all you know to do. But you do that. You take it. You remember you've been there before and taken steps like that before, and somehow they got you where you are now. You live one day at a time. You live in trust.
You see, if God fixed it so we could walk by sight we wouldn't need him. But we do need him, and this is our constant reminder. We never gain resources of our own to allow our dependence on them alone. It's faith from start to finish.
Karl Barth wrote that "the gate at which all hope seems lost is the place at which it is continually renewed."
There's a place in Pilgrim's Progress where the way became very narrow, and as Christian approached he could see that there were lions there as well. Of course, he hesitated. But the Lord told him to go on, and to keep exactly in the middle of the way, and he'd not be harmed.
Huh! What do you do in a case like that? Life brings us to such places, doesn't it? Where no easy choices exist. Where your faith is tested once again, and just as painfully as ever. Where it looks like it might be foolishness. Where others would surely quit.
Christian paused, and then walked on. He stayed exactly in the middle of the way. And as he approached the narrow place, he saw what he hadn't seen before. The lions were chained. And he passed among them, and was not harmed.
The flame shall not hurt you,
He only designs,
Your dross to consume,
And your gold to refine.
ONENESS AT THE TABLE
They may be sailors. You see them gather at an altar on the deck. You hear them sing. "Almighty Father, strong to save, whose arm hath bound the restless wave; who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep." And they may glance out over those waves. But then they turn back, back to the worship of almighty God.
They may be black and hot and crowded in a small church that could sure use some paint. But everyone smiles. They smile at something in the sermon. And a woman in the front row waves her hands in the air and calls out, "Bless him, Lord. Thank you, Jesus!"
They may be students who go to hold services in a county-run nursing home. One plays the piano, one leads singing, and another is about to preach his first sermon. Today they think they're training for their future. But someday soon they'll look back on this as the time of their lives.
It might be three families who braved a New England snowstorm to gather for worship without their minister who couldn't make it. They missed him, but not so much. One of them took over who'd never done a thing like that before. And it was the start of something. Now he's in the ministry himself.
It could even be in Russia. They know to be careful about it, but they do it. They meet in someone's home, down in the basement. And they light candles and set them on the table. And someone has the bread, and another the wine. And Christ is there in the midst, just as we pray that he'll be in our midst.
All God's people are one in the spirit, one in the Lord. And we pray that our unity will someday be restored. We suffer our divisions. We strive and compete for territory. We disgrace ourselves by our uncharitableness toward one another. We talk sweet and fight dirty. And a world for whom Christ died sees little of his power to save.
There is not on this earth a perfect Christian or a perfect church. There's none that's perfectly formed, perfectly run, perfectly supported, perfectly obedient. As one man put it, "The church is both holy and sinful. This is the root of the problem of the church, that is a union of sinful souls with the Holy God."
I was encouraged, this weekend as I led retreat for members of church in Arlington. I saw how tough is that vision of being the Lord's people together in a family of faith. One of our jobs was to form a prayer for the church. And one of the group–a young person just out of her teens–wrote this:
"I thank and praise you for our church, O Lord, especially for people like Ray who means so much because he greets each person with a warm smile and a warm handshake and always has a good word to say and never complains about all the work he does."
"Renew our worship of you, we pray, and especially help us to be open to change and new fresher ideas. We become so staid, O Lord. Make us more alive and willing to accept–even if it means changing some rituals we have that are dutifully carried on."
"Bless our pastor, Lord, and let him be enlightened and refreshed by us. And not always him being the worker. Allow him to be renewed as we strive to ease his burden. And help us to more fully recognize him and his needs–not just our own."
"Help us young adults and the youth. Allow us to be the new spiritual leaders that we need. I can help by working with the children as I do and supporting them in their growth. Help me to not get discouraged when some of the adults get down on the children."
"Renew your church, O Lord, beginning with me! Make us more enlightened by your spirit. Rekindle our faith and make us stronger. Lead us in your path. And unite us as we praise your holy name."
Something like that puts another slant on all the pitiful stuff you read in the paper these days. We are bowed in shame, and yet not broken in spirit. In spite of every setback, the Lord is building his church. And the gates of hell will never have the final say.
Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, how long?
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.
Guy called me one day who was as far off my wavelength as I can imagine. The kind of person who loves to talk with preachers and go around to different churches with his ideas. Like this UFO he'd seen near Burtonsville which meant the Lord was coming soon, did I know?
He had other ideas, too. And was willing to come to Luther Rice and tell us about them. But you know, I gave that man 45 minutes of my time, or he gave me that much of his, whichever way it was. And I learned some things.
No, I didn't need a speaker right then. Sure, he could send some material. But in the end, I spoke of him as my brother. He asked me to pray for him, and I said I would. I asked him to pray for me, and I'm sure he did.
With no great effort, even the two of us could come to the table together. "With all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forebearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace."
"One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in you all."
With just a little effort, any two of us can come to a table like that.
A PROPER PACE
Let's say you're driving home from work, and you're on the beltway, and it's jammed. The radio say's there's been a wreck, and four lanes are down to one lane. At this time of day.
Cars are bumper-to-bumper moving along at 10 miles an hour. If you call that moving along. And no one in this mess is going to get where he's going much ahead of anyone else. Right?
But the guy behind you keeps trying. Several times now, he's blown his horn. He thinks there should be no space between any of these cars, and if there is he should force his way into it. He acts like he's the only one affected by this problem.
He bangs his fist on the steering wheel. He's alone in the car, but he's talking out loud. You suppose it has nothing to do with conversational prayer! His face is red, his neck swollen. He seems to think the closer he stays to your bumper the faster he'll go.
This is stupid, right? Stupid! He won't get home any sooner, he'll just be more wrung-out when he does. He'll be tense and upset, and the family will know to stay out of his way. All that adrenalin in his system, that acid in his stomach, all the sweat he's sweated–if only he could just relax.
That lady in the grocery line has the same problem. There are two people ahead of her with their groceries filling up the belt. But this lady seems sure that the sooner she jams her stuff into that few inches of space at the end, the sooner she'll get out.
For this she's ordered a kid out of the way, jammed the man ahead of her in the rear with her cart, and a jar of pickle halves is about to fall to the floor and get smooched. The kid will laugh to the side, but no one else will.
The checkout person has seen this all before and will not work a fraction faster. She may even go into her patented slow motion routine. And now the guy in front is mad and about to say something. And just wait till you see the look from the fellow who comes to clean up the pickle mess!
Now the problem here is more than how to handle minor irritations. As Jesus suggested in the lesson we read this morning, it has to do with an attitude toward life, toward ourselves, and toward the heavenly father.
Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds. Consider the lilies. What do you gain by being so anxious, people of little faith? Your heavenly father knows your needs. Seek first to live a life that pleases him, and don't worry about all this other.
Misdirected effort, useless motion, over-serious concentration, mental self-defeat–those were the things that Jesus warned of. Why waste the stuff of life on trivial pursuit? Why push against walls that never yield? Why waste your one tank-full of fuel by driving with the brakes on?
Jesus believed it isn't the effort you make that counts, it's where that effort is directed. If the energy of life is spent on worry, fear, suspicion, anger, guilt, jealousy, envy, greed–and other things like those–it will only be wasted. "The wages of sin is death."
Jesus practiced what he preached. There was a calmness about him, a pace with which he moved. The Rich Young Ruler came running to him, not the other way around. A man behind on his schedule, but Jesus wasn't–he always had the time. People pushed him but he didn't push them. He even played with children!
He once said that to enter the kingdom of God you must become like a child. We wonder what he meant by that, but I think it has something to do with this. To be as the lilies that toil not and sow not, but trust their father in heaven. To be like children who can sit for hours and just wonder. Who can laugh and have fun. Who can feel that enough is right about their situation so nothing must rush to be changed.
It was years ago. With some ten others I
was hiking on the Appalachian Trail
where it traces out the border of
two neighbor states, Tennessee and North Carolina;
a line the bear give little notice to,
protected as they are by laws of both.
Anyway, I was miles ahead, all by myself,
or miles behind. Funny, I can't remember
now just which–and it doesn't matter like
it did back then. Well, tired from hours of climbing
up a slope which finally brought me on
a ridge and let me see, like trying out
for God, the world below–I looked down on
the random sprinkling of its towns and cities,
busy in work we'd left them with. I'd spent
a week just putting one foot in front of the other,
moving my bed one twenty-mile step farther
each day, wondering on that poor-man's Babel
if anyone down there ever looks up here.
Strength gone, I felt a sudden curious power
of something else that took its place–a celebration
of escape which moved me as I topped the ridge
to throw down my load and lie face up on long
soft grass. Listening to wind music in the hemlock
trees, bathed in sun glow that streaming
downward warmed the chill of high altitude.
Un-pushed and un-pushing. Or so it seems from now.
Relax, relax–why can't we relax more? Why must everything be push and shove? The television: you sit down and turn it on to relax, but what you find are people tense and screaming at one another, or angry and shooting at one another. The news of the hour is always the bad news of the hour. Who needs all that? How many plane crashes does a person need the details of? How many rapes? How many murders? Sufficient for each day is the trouble thereof–why add more to it?
Jesus told a parable where seed was sown, and some fell among thorns that choked it and crowded it aside to die. Jesus explained, "this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful."(Matt. 13:22)
The "cares of the world"–that's the news we're so used to. The "delight in riches"–that's where the advertising department comes in. Before those guys are through, you're wanting things you don't have, don't need, and can't afford.
Robert Frost had a poem about a woman whose life was tied to the farm. Her job was to cook and wash and clean and tend to the needs of working men. One day a drifter camped near the farm, and they become friends. She tells him about her life:
I didn't make you know how glad I was
To have you come and camp here on our land.
I promised myself to get down some day
And see the way you lived, but I don't know!
With a houseful of hungry men to feed
I guess you'd find. . . . It seems to me
I can't express my feelings, any more
than I can raise my voice or want to lift
My hand (oh, I can lift it when I have to).
Did ever you feel so? I hope you never.
It's got so I don't even know for sure
Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything.
There's nothing but a voice-like left inside
That seems to tell me how I ought to feel,
And would feel it I wasn't all gone wrong. . . .
It's rest I want–there, I have said it out–
From cooking meals for hungry hired men
And washing dishes after them–from doing
Things over and over that just won't stay done.
By good rights I ought not to have so much
Put on me, but there seems no other way. . . .
I s'pose I've got to go the road I'm going:
Other folks have to, and why shouldn't I?
I almost think if I could do like you,
Drop everything and live out on the ground–
But it might be, come night, I shouldn't like it,
Or a long rain. I should soon get enough,
And be glad of a good roof overhead.
I've lain awake thinking of you, I'll warrant,
More than you have yourself, some of these nights.
The wonder was the tents weren't snatched away
From over you as you lay in your beds.
I haven't courage for a risk like that.
Bless you, of course you're keeping me from work,
But the thing of it is, I need to be kept.
There's work enough to do–there's always that;
But behind's behind. The worst that you can do
Is set me back a little more behind.
I shan't catch up in this world, anyway.
I'd rather you'd not go unless you must.
Now I don't know the answer to that woman's problem, or to my own. But I know some questions to ask, some tests to apply.
You have to ask what good is this? what good is that? Instead of increasing your effort, you sometimes have to narrow it. You have to invest yourself where it counts. You don't burn the firewood of your life out in the front yard and wonder why the house stays cold.
You must get in touch with God. Jesus said to "watch and pray." We can spend so much time watching that we have no time to pray. Or we could pray a lot and fail to watch. But however you work that out, you need to make time to seek the will of God in your life.
And you must discover the medicine of fun. It is important to ask–when you have a problem–"have I prayed about it." But it may also be important to ask, "have I laughed about it?" Laughter is a medicine of the soul. Blessed are those whose gift it is to make us laugh.
And you must learn, as Jesus did, to get away. You see him pushed by the crowds, and then you find him alone in the wilderness. You see him burdened by some decision, and then you find him sitting on a hillside at dawn. He knew that the time you take off doesn't necessarily count off. Your soul needs it.
To sum it all up: life is more than food, the body more than clothing. That "more" is worth striving for. The rest just isn't.
I was fairly religious as a boy, but I was full of mischief too. I paid some attention to the serious side of things, but I also was alert to the funny side of things. Like having this Sunday of the year when the solemn pastor of our church had to get up and read about the animal Jesus rode on Palm Sunday, using a term that sounded much to vernacular for Church–had we known what "vernacular" meant!
We would giggle. And sometimes pass notes you made sure you didn't take home with your Sunday School quarterly. The minister would read out loud this word he wasn't used to using, we assumed, and we'd watch for signs that he was uncomfortable. But being the professional he was, he read with poise and authority, and nothing ever showed.
Modern translations have made this easier by using the term "donkey." But even there, the picture of Jesus riding on one is strange and still laughable. The donkey is a funny animal, especially for a grown man to ride. So our childhood mood about the day may not have been far off the mark after all. It was a day to shake your head and wonder, "what on earth?" "What on earth?"
Why did he ride what he rode? Why did he ride at all? Why had he come to this city where his enemies were strong and waiting? What did he have in mind for this day, and how did he feel about it when it was over?
It seems to me that what we have on Palm Sunday iss something of a demonstration. Jesus was telling the world that he hadn't come to be an earthly ruler, as so many said he should be. They wanted to make him king, and here he was saying "no thanks" in the strongest possible way. A king rides on a horse or in a chariot, but he chose a jackass instead!
"Ha! Now what do you think of that!"
It was like he was laughing too. Laughing at them. Poking fun with this ridiculous gesture.
"Here, my Zealot friends, here's what I think of politics. Here's the kind of king I'd make. I've been talking, but you haven't been listening. I told you my kingdom wasn't of this world. Just look now. Look at this!"
So what you had here was a man in protest of the popular image of his role, though quite committed to the role itself.
I know some about that. I encounter people with ideas about what a minister should say and wear and do. I've had people try to tell me how long my sideburns should be, as if I was their property and they owned me because they put money in the plate my salary came out of. And if I've kept a few un-ministerial ways through these years, it may have been my own small protest.
"You don't own me, and I'll ride on what I want to ride on." Even a motorcycle, if I care to!
But of course, people who have an idea in their minds can often make what they want out of the situation. They can take what he meant and turn it around to what they want. Just notice.
He came in no chariot, but they could act like he had. They could still holler "king." They could raise a chorus, "blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." They could strip palm branches from the trees and wave them in the air. They could ignore the plain intention of Jesus and make this be what they wanted it to be.
It can happen to any of us. You intend one thing, but it gets taken another way. You say one thing and people hear something else. You never meant it the way it came out. And things like that are hard to change, once they happen. Hard to change.
So the plan of Jesus got messed up by the enthusiasm of his own followers.
That can happen. Paul tells us there's a zeal for God which is "not according to knowledge" and thus extremely dangerous. Like the people today who want to grab the power of the state and use it to further their goals for the church–in violation of the American constitution and the historic principles of Baptists. They have a zeal, but not according to knowledge. Full of answers, but what answers they are!
Well, let's look at this again from the standpoint of Jesus. He knew there was trouble if he came to Jerusalem, but he did it. Why? As if something drew him there. As if he must come there and see it through, regardless of the cost.
There are things a man has to stick with, even against his self-interest and his better judgment. You ask him why, and he says it's just something he has to do.
It must have seemed so strange. There on the outskirts of town, he took two of them aside and gave these instructions:
"Now you go on up ahead. In the village there you'll see a donkey tied. Untie it and bring it here. If the owner tries to stop you, tell him this–'the master has need of it.' Don't worry. The man will understand."
You know what that's like? It's like me getting John Fritts and Lloyd Smith and saying: "You all go down to Four Corners and wait by the 7-Eleven. Watch for Metrobus number 989. The bus will be empty except for the driver. Tap on the window. When the driver opens up, you tell him, 'the Master needs this.' Then bring me the bus." Would that work or not?!
From the disciples' standpoint this seemed about that crazy. They had no copy of Matthew's gospel in their pockets to know how it was coming out. They went into it cold. But still, it says, "the disciples went ahead and did what Jesus told them."
And it worked. It worked because they did what he said to do. Things always work better that way.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Christian martyr, wrote a book titled The Cost of Discipleship. He used this illustration. What if a father tells his son to go to bed–what will he do? Will he just do it, or will he begin to think of other things?
What if he says to himself that what this means is, his father doesn't want him to be tired. And he can overcome his tiredness just as well by going out to play. And so he does. But what has he done? Bonhoeffer says:
"If a child tried such arguments on his father, or a citizen on his government, they would both meet with a kind of language they could not fail to understand–in short, they would be punished. Are we to treat the commandment of Jesus differently from other orders and exchange single-minded obedience for downright disobedience? How could that be possible?"
Bonhoeffer argues that only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes. He says "Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ."
C.S. Lewis had an illustration about his toothaches as a child. He said he always had this dilemma if a tooth began to hurt. Mother could help it if he told her. She always had something around the house to ease the pain. But he also knew that she'd take him to the dentist next day. And the dentist would look at every tooth in his mouth, and one by one would set out to make everything right.
The dilemma, said Lewis, was that he wanted relief from his present pain, but not the whole works! And our dilemma in life is often the same. We call on the name of the Lord like going to the drug store for a dose of pain killer. But the Lord has so much more in mind! The Lord wants to do more for us than that. He wants to set other things right as well, and will try to.
There was once a poor man whose house was bought by a rich man. Being naive, he thought the rich man wanted to live in his house. So before he left, he cleaned things up. He washed the windows, swept the floors, repaired the roof, oiled the hinges on the doors, and many other things like that.
But he misunderstood, and all was for naught. The rich man sent a crew of workers who set about to tear the house down. Piece by piece, they took it apart, down to the ground. Oh, they saved some of the materials. They even used some to build the new house that went up there.
"If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation," says Paul. The Lord must sometimes tear us down before he can build what he plans to build. And the life Jesus came to call us to, is a life where his will deserves first place.
Going to town to get a donkey may not seem hard, but doing it is the thing. We recognize his claim on our time, and the priority of what he wants. That can get us ready for other and harder things.
Like turning your left cheek to someone who hit you on the right one–because Jesus says do it. Like thinking you've been patient enough at 7 times and finding you have to go to 70. Like going through Samaria because you're following him and that's the way he's going.
"Take up your cross daily, and follow me," he says.
Sounds like you could lose your life that way. But then again, sounds like you might just find it.
William Barclay wrote a verse-by-verse commentary on the entire New Testament. It consists of 17 volumes and is widely used and appreciated. Barclay is a devout and scholarly student of the word. So it would tend to get your attention when he writes about a passage and says:
"There is perhaps no passage in the New Testament which more summarily, and yet more fully, sets out the work of Christ among men than this passage."
Is it John 3:16?–no. Is it something from Paul out of Romans?–no. Is it Christ's great invitation, "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden . . ."–no. He speaks of Titus 3:3-7.
And indeed, as you study it, that one, brief passage seems to preach the gospel in a unique and convincing way. It's written in an intimate, personal style–like an autobiography. And it answers three big questions about salvation.
Now, what do I mean by "salvation?" I mean what you think I mean. I mean the hope of a personal relationship with God that changes our lives in the present and in the future.
There's a notion of salvation that has nothing to do with God. There are people whose view of things is from an earthly, materialistic standpoint. What you see is what you get; what you don't see is someone's imagination.
Their hope is in doctors, in bank accounts, in a strong national defense. Salvation is an education for their children, or a fitness program for long life. God isn't their refuge and strength–they turn to the police for that. Or the banker, or the hospital, or the psychiatrist, or the entertainer.
I'm not saying if I get hit by a car I don't want you to call an ambulance–O.K.? I'm not pretending I have no concerns about money for retirement. I wouldn't ask you to believe that I take no pleasure in worldly goods.
But I'm saying there's a trust in earthly things, and a trust in heavenly things, and the salvation Paul speaks of means a trust in heavenly things.
As I said, I find here the answers to three questions. FIRST, "What is our human predicament?"
"We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another . . .."
That's a dismal picture, isn't it? That's how things go if you ignore God. Without his help, that's what any society comes to, regardless of good intentions to do something different. We hope to be free, but end up slaves. We pass our days in malice and envy. We hate others and get hated by others.
How easy to do that. How easy to hate. And every time we hate it comes back on us in the form of more hate. And then we must raise the level of our own hatred. And on and on it goes, and our days are lived in malice.
But if God can save us, and change us, then the principle can work for good.
The hating become the hated, but the loving become the loved. Every time we love, it comes back on us in the form of more love. And then we must raise the level of our own love. And on and on it goes, and our days are lived in love.
Love is eternal. Love lasts on. There's faith and hope and love, and the greatest is love.
George Whitefield watched a criminal led away in handcuffs to be hanged. And his response was to say, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
I think that's the tone of what Paul wrote to Titus. He gave himself no credit for changes in his life. No pat on the back. No feeling of superiority.
Only when a person is honest and realistic about the seriousness of his predicament will he seek God and find God. He must say:
"I am foolish, I am disobedient, I have been led astray. I am a slave to various passions and pleasures. I am passing my days in malice and envy. I am hated by men and hating them."
You see, it's one thing to read the newspaper or watch television and complain about the shape the world's in. But a person who wants to be saved must recognize the shape that he or she is in. Anyone can bemoan the human predicament generally–it's another thing to admit your own personal predicament. But that's an essential.
Now let's look at the SECOND question you find answered in the passage: How does salvation work? And the answer:
"But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out richly through Jesus Christ our Savior."
Salvation is possible through the goodness and loving kindness of God in his son Jesus Christ.
I told you once before about our cat, Dufus. I haven't told you we've lately screened-in the patio that opens off the dining room, and Dufus likes to go out there and watch the birds, and the squirrels, and the flying insects.
He does have this problem, though. When he's out on the porch, he wants back in the house; and when he's in the house, he wants out on the porch. And all day yesterday I was the only person home to let him in and out. That wasn't good news for Dufus.
In the cool of early morning, I decided to sit on the porch and study awhile. I called Dufus and informed him of this. He came as far as the dining room, where I was holding the door. But alas, Dufus wasn't sure. He walked around and rubbed against the table legs, trying to make up his mind. I finally said, "That's it, Dufus," slammed the door shut, and sat down on the porch.
That settled for Dufus the question of where he wanted to be. He tried to tell me then that, yes, he really did want to be on the porch and, please, would I open the door again. And I said . . . no way!
So I sat out there and wrote my sermon on the loving kindness of God! While the cat inside complained of my hypocrisy and hardness of heart! And I guessed that there was something there worth pondering.
A lot of people imagine God gives us our chance and then shuts the door when we fail to take it. Maybe he'd rather not be bothered anyway. Maybe he's a lot like we are.
Dufus was dealt with as Dufus deserved. But the Bible teaches that God doesn't deal with us as our sins deserve. Instead, he deals with us in loving kindness, and he saves us, not by our good works, but by reason of his love and grace.
Salvation is a free gift you can never earn, you can only accept. It's the prodigal son coming home, deserving nothing, but welcomed with open arms. It's a lost sheep that would never find its own way back, being found by the shepherd who cared enough to go out looking. It's by grace, through faith, and that not of ourselves, but the gift of God.
The Bible says all our righteousness is like "filthy rags." Not just dirty rags, filthy rags! You ever seen any filthy rags? How much would you give for a big pile of them right now?
It isn't to despise our human efforts, it's just to say that you better not trust them to get you to heaven. You need the help of God for that.
THIRD question: What is our lasting hope? Notice how it reads:
"So that we might become heirs in hope of eternal life."
Heirs! What does it mean to be an heir? I'm an heir of David Briggs–I'm his only living child. Most of us are heirs of someone, or have those who are heirs to us. When Howard Hughes died, hundreds of people tried to claim themselves as heirs.
But Paul speaks here of being an heir of God, and what a difference.
Given your choice, what kind of heir would you rather be? Would you rather get a house and some money, or "a kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world"? Would you rather have some more of what you already know about, or something else–something like this:
"Eye hath not seen, earn hath not heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, the things that God hath prepared for those that love him."
Well . . .?
SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF GOD
Sermons were a big thing in early America. There was a time when half of all the books published and sold in our country were books of sermons. Some of us would like a return of those days, but I don't think that's likely!
Preachers back then often had one great sermon they preached over and over. They became known for that sermon, and some are still. One is a Presbyterian named Jonathan Edwards, whose famous sermon was titled, "Sinners in the hands of an angry God." They say it made hell so real that people would grab the back of pews for fear of falling in and burning up.
I've never noticed anyone do that when I preach! The old term for it was being "under conviction." Some would shake and tremble. Sometimes even faint. I've never aspired to make anyone faint, but there have been times I prayed for some of that "conviction"!
"Sinners in the hands of an angry God." The word "angry" stands out, doesn't it? There are people you know you don't want to have angry at you, and surely at the top of the list is God.
My Dad and I were down in the District one day. I was driving and went through a traffic signal that did not stay yellow as long as it should have before turning red. And a policeman sitting there and watching things was sure it was more red than yellow, so he pulled us over.
My Dad was always the feisty type. I could see him getting up in this guy's face and calling himn a a blind so-and-so. I imagined that happening as the policeman walked up to our car. I remember giving Dad the hardest look a son is allowed to give his father. And I said, "Dad, let me handle this–don't say anything." I handled it by not saying anything!
Well now, if a person doesn't want a policeman angry with him, he sure doesn't want God angry with him, does he?
But is God like that? Is God like parents who use anger to control their children? "Better do what Mommy says, or Mommy will be mad at you." She might even tell Daddy. And you know if Daddy gets mad you've got big trouble on your hands. So you better be good, if you know what's good for you. Control.
How do children feel about parents when they have parents like that? How will they look back on this when they're grown up and out of the home? What kind of parents will they become when it's their turn someday? And is this the way God is with us, his children?
I think not. Or at least, not by choice. God is love. God is merciful. God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to a knowledge of the truth.
The Bible portrays God as loving, and it says that he is love. The Bible also portrays God as angry, but it never says that he is anger.
Edwards had a point, though, a good one. All of us are sinners in the hands of God. We're helpless in our sin, and helpless in God's hands. Whatever the rules of the game of life, we don't make them. We can only hope to discover them and live according to them. We change not a jot or tittle ourselves. The big question is never what we think of God, but what he thinks of us.
We're at his mercy. We're like a person in a store with goods on all the shelves. But we have no money to buy with, no credit, no checks to write. And the only way that anything in this store will ever be ours is for someone to give it as a gift.
That there is such a gift is the gospel, the good news. God so loved us, so loved the world in fact, that he gave us his son. And whoever believes and accepts that gift will never perish but have eternal life.
Notice the verbs in that verse. Notice which ones are God's and which ones are ours. God does what? He loves and he gives. We do what? We believe and have. We believe someone, and because of it we have something–eternal life.
Now that's good news if there ever was good news. God loves us, even as sinners. And he's not trying to catch us, or judge us, or punish us. He wants the best for all of us. He hasn't made salvation inevitable for anyone, but he's made it available for everyone. The deal could have been a whole lot worse.
Remember, though, that there is a response we have to make to this ourselves. Our hope is in the Lord, but we must choose his hope. The Lord wants no one lost, but people can be if they insist. He doesn't force his way.
When I was in Carson-Newman College, there was a chapel service every day and students were more than requested to attend–we were required. If you skipped chapel for no good reason, you could get in trouble. And they checked on us. There were assigned seats for chapel, and there were persons there with a chart who marked and reported every absence.
Some of the students who weren't so religious would sometimes wait till the seats were checked and then slip out. But some of the students who were religious would then report them to the glory of God! How much any of this mattered to the Lord is something you can think about.
But there are some things that God expects. His love and kindness don't imply that he asks no service. He says "my yoke is easy and my burden light," but still it is a yoke, and it is a burden. And the wonder is, as we respond in love and faith, the weight seems light, and we are burdened but not oppressed.
I asked one of our members to do something this week–a task that took several hours of effort and some expense. The person did it, and I felt grateful. But afterward, I got a phone call thanking me for asking! Telling me to ask again if I had a need like that again! I was grateful to the member for doing the job, and the member was grateful for such a job to do.
Do you see what happens? When you freely surrender to the will of God, when you serve because you want to, not because you think you have to, the yoke is easy and the burden light.
It still matters, though, whether we serve or not. Avoid mistaking the benevolence of God for indifference. God is not indifferent to how we live. He does have an agenda.
All of us have sinned and come short of his glory. So all of us need salvation–not just a little, but a lot–and not for only a little while in life, but all the way through.
The people God can help the most are those who know their need. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who know their spiritual destituteness.
I think Jesus had some sarcasm about him. He was talking with the Pharisees one day, and he said to them: "Those who are well don't need a doctor, just those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
And they thought, "how nice that he sees it our way. He knows we're the righteous, and we don't need him, so he can spend his time with those sinners who do."
They'd been had by his sarcasm. Their pride and self-sufficiency were an illness of the worst sort. They did need him and just couldn't see it. They would miss his point that day, but not later when he said to them: "Why, the prostitutes and tax collectors are going into the kingdom ahead of you."
We are saved by grace if we're saved at all. The only prayer is "God be merciful to me, a sinner." Blessed are the beggars to God in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Theirs who never claimed to have deserved or earned it. Who never demanded it as a right or privilege. Who never put in on a sleeve and wore it. Who never took it for granted, never lost the wonder, never acted like they had it made.
The truth is that God owes us nothing, and we owe him everything. We live from his goodness alone, holding out our hands like beggars.
The same year I found out about chapel attendance at Carson-Newman, Karl Barth preached a sermon titled "Saved by Grace." In it he said:
That God is God, not only Almighty, but Merciful and Good, that he wills and does what is best for us, that Jesus Christ dies for us to set us free, that by grace in him we have been saved–all this need not be a concern of our prayers. All these things are true apart from our own deeds and prayers.
But to believe, to accept, to let it be true for us, to begin to live with this truth, to believe it not only with our minds and with our lips, but also with our hearts and with all our life, so that our fellowmen may sense it, and finally to let our total existence be immersed in the great divine truth, by grace you have been saved, this is to be the concern of our prayers.
THE GREAT TEMPTATION
As you try to understand a passage in the Bible, one of the questions is, "when does this come?" In other words, what happened just before it? what happened right after it? what was its historical setting?
Now you can't always know that, and it isn't always important. But for the story of the temptation of Jesus it is.
You're tipped off by the word "then." "Then was Jesus led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." When was then?
You look back to the previous chapter and wow! you can hardly believe it. You find him there beside the Jordan with John the Baptist. And both men are dripping wet, because a minute ago they waded out into that river and one baptized the other. And as they came up out of the water, the place became a scene of glory. Heaven opened up, and the voice of God said:
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
Then . . .
Then things took a new turn. Something happened you wouldn't have expected. Right away his brand-new baptism got put to the test.
There's a time of let-down that's normal after an experience like his. But notice what strange language the language is. He was "led up by the Spirit" to be "tempted by the devil." As if the will of God and the will of Satan had become one. So that as this struggle took place, you could say it's what God wanted, and you could also say it's what the devil wanted.
God wants us for himself, and the devil wants us too. And each is bound to have us if he can. And we alone determine the outcome. Is that true?
In Browning's poem "Bishop Blougram's Apology" there are a couple of lines that go like this:
When the fight begins within himself,
A man's worth something.
I think the temptation of Jesus is the story of "a fight within himself." That's what all temptation is. It wasn't a fight with the devil, as you might suppose. It was a fight with the devil's ideas, his lies, his enticements.
We aren't meant to think of the devil as being there in bodily form. I doubt that Jesus was even aware of the devil's presence until all this was over and he got to thinking. Then he said to himself, "What made me have all those thoughts I had out there?" And suddenly he knew the answer.
But notice how Browning put that. "When the fight begins within himself, a man's worth something." Times of peril are also times of opportunity. Ease and apathy are the greater harms. Our trials and temptations can bring spiritual victory as well as spiritual defeat. A chance to rise as much as a chance to fall.
Jesus would emerge from this more able to be the savior of mankind. More able to face what lay ahead. More able to be steadfast amidst the pressures that would later swirl about him.
But don't think it was easy or automatic. Don't think of this as a mock battle peacetime armies hold for training purposes. No live ammunition, no real casualties. This was nothing of that sort. Jesus could have failed this test.
He was alone, and in a wilderness. Imagine that. Imagine how vulnerable you'd feel, and how apprehensive. All alone, and in a wilderness.
I have a good radio on my motorcycle. Around here I pick up maybe forty, fifty stations. But I once crossed some desert between Denver and Salt Lake City that was a desolate as I've ever been. I could see 20 miles behind me, and nothing–not a house, not a car, not a filling station. And up ahead, the very same. And I tried my radio, to have some contact with the world at least. But I could pick up not one FM station, and not one AM station.
But I had gasoline and a map and good tires and a motor running well. And I was only passing through. I'd have a motel room in Salt Lake City that night, and a restaurant for dinner.
But what if you were all alone in a place like that with no way out? What if you were there when darkness fell? What if you waited till down and then hiked this way, and then that way, till all ways looked the same. What if you started seeing things when the sun got hot overhead–things that weren't really there. What if you were hungry, and tired, and thirsty, and afraid. And what if that went on for forty days and nights?
Now if you can imagine that, you can better appreciate the power of this passage.
I'm not suggesting the main issue was his own survival. But when your life is threatened, as his was, you can't help but be affected. Still, Jesus had his mind on other things. He was thinking back on the things he felt at his baptism. He'd come to this desert to sort out what it meant to be called the Son of God. He was wondering about his mission, and what lay ahead.
It was rocky where he was. There were rocks everywhere, all sizes and shapes. He was looking at some that were, oh, about like this, and sort of round and smooth like loaves of bread. And it came to him that if he were the Son of God, he could turn those into bread. Delicious fresh-baked bread. He could turn a few of them into bread and have enough to eat himself. Or he could turn all of them into bread and have enough to feed every beggar, every poor child, all the hungry and starving of the world.
He could do that easy! Was that the thing to do?
Now the thing about temptation is, there's always something that makes it sound like a good idea. This sounded like a good idea. It sounds like a good idea to you.
We think it's a good idea, because we have funds to buy food for the hungry. We have groups like Bread for the World, and those are good. Jesus could build his mission around feeding the hungry, and let that be it. Who could argue?
But then he thought of a scripture he'd learned as a boy. It said, "Man shall not live by bread alone." And he thought that, no, there's an even greater need in the world. A deeper though less obvious need. Man has a hunger in his heart. And that's the hunger he was sent to satisfy.
But how do you get people's attention to do that? How do you get them to know their spiritual need and turn for help? What will startle a shallow generation out of its indifference?
He found himself on the tip-top highest pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. And there was a tremendous crowd gathered because word had spread that a man was about to jump. So all the curious were there to see him splatter.
But no, they won't see that. His Father in heaven won't let a thing like that happen. As he falls through the air, they'll see angels come swooping to catch him and let him down gently. God will have to do that or be embarrassed. And so many people will see this miracle, that his fame will spread with no effort at all. It will be easy.
Jump! Let go and jump!
He's breathing fast. His heart is racing. He's close, ready, almost . . .!
Let me ask you something. What if I, Ed Briggs, could pray hard and God would work a miracle through me. What if I could make something happen no scientist would ever explain? I'd make my face and my voice appear on every television screen all over this world.
People would say "what's this?" and switch the channel. But I'd be on the other channel too. I'd be on every channel, and heard in every language men speak. And no one could explain how a thing like that happened. Every newspaper would have it on the headlines next day. And I'd use that broadcast to preach salvation through Jesus Christ. People would have to believe.
If a person could do that, is that what he should do?
In those dizzy heights above the crowd, Jesus of Nazareth decided no. The easy way isn't necessarily the right way. God will not stoop to tricking people. And he calls us to be faithful to his plan, not to come up with a new one of our own.
He must have been tired after that. Whole days must have passed–weeks maybe. He may have gone a long time with no more of those disturbing episodes. He may have been at peace, thought things were settled, and looked forward to getting out of there and back to work.
But no. Now he begins to think what all of us think at times. We think it when we've just been through something like he had. "What do I get out of this? What's in it for me?"
The devil took him to a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms, and said: "You can have all this–you." "I can tell you how." "You interested?"
Of course we're interested. Someone passes in one of those long, shining limousines. It has stereo, and a bar, and color T.V., and a telephone. And that's just the car! Imagine the house, and the club, and the clothes, and the yard, and the people to do all the work. Yes, we're interested. We try not to stare, but we are.
I'm not sure the devil hasn't shown some preachers those kingdoms of the world and their glory, and offered them a deal. That could have been one of them who just passed in his limousine! On his way to preach somewhere. Imagine the parsonage!
But Jesus said, "let me alone, you devil." Jesus Christ rejected exactly what some of his modern followers are trying their best to get! And immediately the devil left him.
When we see things for what they are and make the choices necessary, it goes well enough. It's when we're confused, when every choice has a smile on its face, when the will of God is held captive to the will of the flesh–then we stand in mortal danger. Then we desperately need to make this story ours.
In the hour of trial, Jesus, plead for me,
Lest by base denial, I depart from Thee;
When Thou seest me waver, with a look recall;
Nor for fear or favor suffer me to fall.
With forbidden pleasures would this vain world charm,
Or its sordid treasures spread to work me harm;
Bring to my remembrance sad Gethsemane,
Or, in darker semblance, rugged Calvary.
Should Thy mercy send me sorrow, toil, and woe:
Or should pain attend me on my path below;
Grant that I may never fail thy hand to see;
Grant that I may ever cast my care on Thee. Amen.
THE IDENTITY OF THE CHURCH
1 Cor. 12:12-21
We belong to the church–most of us. But who are we–as a church? Who are we supposed to be?
I don't know if you're confused about that or not. If you're not, maybe after a sermon on it you will be! The fact is, there's a lot of confusion about the identity of the church. And maybe there should be more, because so many people have joined up and just accepted whatever the idea seemed to be without giving it any thought.
Most other institutions in our society don't have this problem. The American Cancer Society knows exactly what it's there for. They may have differing ideas on how to go about what they do, but their reason for being is crystal clear. I doubt that associations of service station owners have to meet and debate about the purpose of a filling station!
Football teams, political parties, schools, businesses–all may have difficulty with how to get the job done, but not with what the job is.
It isn't that easy with the church. We're not so sure just who we are or what we're for. What did Jesus have in mind for us? What things should be at the top of our lists, the main concern of our prayers? What are the measurements of our success, the signals of our failure?
If you read the history of the church you find different views on that. Even in the Scripture, you find yourself drawn in different directions.
For early Christians coming out of Judaism, there was the model of the flock. They were sheep who had a shepherd. But they lived among wolves like lambs, needing shelter. They were God's faithful, often huddled together and needing his protection. Often scattered and depending on him to find them and gather them back together.
They were an outlaw religion at the start. The mighty Roman Empire said be loyal to us or else. So they came to think of themselves as pilgrims–a colony of heaven, living in a hostile world and threatened by fearful beasts. Just read the book of Revelation to get the sense of that. Any thought of joining the society of which they were part was a strange thought indeed. They looked on themselves as pilgrims passing through.
As things will, that later changed. Constantine the emperor became a Christian himself, and suddenly the church had clout. People tired of being pushed around were ready to do some pushing themselves. And now their self-perception changed, and the model of an army came to be. "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before."
I'm convinced that Jesus would have found that a strange song indeed, but they weren't. They saw themselves as an army of God sent out on a mission to conquer the world, just as the armies of Rome had once done. And sometimes they had no qualms at all about using the same deadly weapons Rome had used. They became the "Church Militant."
Now what image guides the thought of Christians today? After what do we pattern ourselves? I know there's no one answer to that, but I will suggest that there's a prevailing mentality in which the church is seen as a business. We're here to market a product, show a profit, apply sound management, and achieve the kinds of success that a business achieves.
Grow, build, expand. Hire people who produce. Keep the stockholders happy. Be cost efficient. Waste no resources on ventures that have no profit potential. Use whatever methods work. Give out rewards when the trend is up, punishments when the trend is down. Be successful at all cost.
Now we even have what is called the "Electronic Church"–based on the model of mass entertainment. Sound, lights, costumes, makeup, rehearsals, choreography. Offerings by mail or credit card or pledges through an 800 number. Courses by correspondence. Items of all kind promoted for sale, as varied as the gift shop at Disneyworld.
But can you read the New Testament and imagine Jesus selling souvenir tee shirts with his name and logo across the back? Or John the Baptist offering free camel rides to get folk out of town to hear him preach? Or Paul telling his chauffeur to bring the limousine around back tonight because he doesn't feel like being bothered with all those people after services are over!
What we need to do here is get back to the Bible, it seems to me. To a place like the one read about here this morning, where Paul is writing to a church and describing what the church is supposed to be like. He uses the picture of a body–a living, breathing, actual body–composed of various parts and yet united inseparably. In this body there's great variety–because there are many separate parts serving various functions. But also an organic union, because all take their life from the same source, and the destiny of one is bound up in the destiny of all the rest.
Paul is saying that anytime a group of people come together under the Lordship of Christ to form a group like that you have church. So that church isn't something you go out to, like you go out to a concert, it's something you must be a part of. There has to be a vital connection.
That has its liabilities, as Paul shows. If one part of a body suffers, all the body suffers. I've had a sore foot for two months now. The rest of my body would like to ignore that foot, but the foot won't let it. The rest of my body points out to the foot that it's causing a lot more than its share of problems, and always has. The rest of the body would like to ignore the situation, but the rest of the body better not. This right hand and arm that love to take a tennis racket and smash a big serve will need that foot to do some running if the guy should hit it back–right?
Many modern Christians are in no mood for a church like that. They don't want to suffer when someone else suffers. They don't want responsibility. They have enough troubles of their own without getting involved in anyone else's. A little religion might not hurt, but find some way to get it while keeping your distance.
That kid who's tying knots in the cords of the venetian blinds–do you have to put up with him? That lady who's hard of hearing and always has to be told again–must you take your time for that? Some know-it-all who rambles on and on, or a person behind you who sings off key, or a preacher with opinions that make you furious. And then a phone call from someone you don't know who wants you to serve on a committee.
The Bible says "Christ loved the church and gave himself for it." And the only way anyone gives himself or herself for the church is through love. That's the point of the next chapter. We read 1st Corinthians 13 at weddings because it sounds so nice there, but it was written about the identity of the church. How members of one body can manage to get along, and the only way they'll manage.
I was in a church once where a man began causing trouble who never had before. He started snapping at people and criticizing everything. If you saw him coming, you wanted some reason to duck in a Sunday School room. Maybe dust the blackboard or something till he got on down the hall. It was like his whole personality had changed.
Well, I found out what the matter was. He was at that age in life where job security is a main concern. And down at work they were trying to force him out. He was in good health. He still did as much work as anyone. But he could see these younger men just lined up at the door, waiting to take his place. He imagined sitting in a rocking chair with a robe over his lap, and he knew he wasn't ready for that! And for quite some time, until all this passed, he was a pain to put up with.
Paul tells us the only way there is to do that. The only way is love. Even when you'd like to beat it out of him, all you can do is love it out of him. You don't cut yourself off. You don't drop out of church, or try to make him drop out. Real church is nothing you can drop in and out of. You help someone when he needs help, and he'll help you when you do.
Jesus said to his followers, "by this will people know that you're my disciples, if you have love for one another." He could have added, "by this will people know that you're not my disciples, if you don't have love for one another." Love is the key to the identity of the church.
Easy to preach, hard to practice.
So many churches just want to use you. So many preachers do. And so many people just want to use the church. All they're interested in is having their own needs met. They pick a church like they pick a savings plan–which one will do me the most good?
And so you have churches exploiting people, and people exploiting churches. And the vision of a body united in love, which Paul saw and preached, is seen through a glass, darkly, if it's seen at all.
One of my teachers wrote a book called The Integrity of the Church. In it he says:
It is presumptuous for us to contemplate that we are not just people, worldly people, but God's people. It is mind blowing to think that we, sinful and finite human beings, play a role in the divine purpose for humanity. Yet that is precisely what the scriptures say about the church. God has chosen us; we have not chosen Him. He has covenanted with us to be our God; we have responded by covenanting to be his people. (Glenn Hinson, The Integrity of the Church, pp. 190-191)
Maybe the time is right for some of you to enter into that covenant. Maybe the time is right for some others to get more serious about it. Maybe so.
THE LITTLE MAN
My friend Paul Bauer, the Presbyterian pastor, was telling me about a 22-year-old man he knows who's 5'10" tall and weighs nearly 300 pounds. His coat size is 54. But Paul says his bulk is all muscle. He's a weight lifter. He can lift nearly 600 pounds above his head. Some man!
Dave Butz is a big man, right? And Joe Jacoby. And a new one they drafted for next year–I forget his name. Joe Gibbs said he might make those three the captains and send them out together for the coin toss to intimidate the opposition. Big men.
Now there was a time when physical size had a lot to do with personal power. The big men ruled things because they were the big men. When matters were settled by hand-to-hand combat, size had more importance than it does now. More depends now on who's the smartest, or the shrewdest, or the best trained and disciplined–things like that.
Zacchaeus was a small man in a world where that was more of a handicap. But save your pity. The man had managed in his own way. What he lacked in size, he made up for in toughness. Zacchaeus was a tax collector.
It had to be rough to be a Jew and collect Roman taxes from other Jews. You had to look people right in the face and show no sign of weakness. You had to be the person under control while they got angry. And if you were a little man, you had to be able to hear them laugh, and then work hard to get the last laugh. You had to be like Mark Leonard.
Leonard was a freshman on our football team when the rest of us were seniors. He was small, but he was tough. He only had one speed–flat out. He only had one way to hit you–as hard as he could.
And that was O.K. when it was a game and you had that visiting team out there. But in practice, there was no visiting team. And Leonard played that way in practice–when it was us.
He did things like staying after practice to run extra wind-sprints, do some more chin-ups. In no time at all he had the coach's eye. The coach even got him special blocking pads because he hit so hard. The rest of us never needed any special pads. And he was little and a freshman! We wanted to break his leg!
That's who Zacchaeus was. Zacchaeus the tax collector. Zacchaeus who more than made up for his size, but paid a price for it. You can imagine how people turned their backs and shut him out. You can imagine their stares and the hush when he walked by.
Zacchaeus had said "I'll show you!" to the world and proceeded to do it. But there were times it seemed a hollow victory. You come out ahead, but how are you ahead? You have the advantage, but what advantage is it if you aren't happy? Zacchaeus wasn't happy. He needed something more.
What happened by the road that day is like so many stories in the Bible. It has no prelude and no postlude. We know nothing of what led to it, or what happened after it. All we know is this:
A Jewish tax collector–motives unknown–makes a move toward Jesus, waiting for him beside the road, and even climbing up a tree. And Jesus, passing by, stops and calls his name, and invites himself to the man's house for the night. People are astonished, and critical of course, but this takes place. And the man's whole outlook is changed after that–changed literally overnight. That took place in Jericho.
You need to know that Jericho was a classy place to live. So lovely that Mark Antony once gave it to Cleopatra as a present. The Herods used to winter in Jericho because the climate was so mild. Herod the Great died there, and ordered the murder of some leading citizens so there'd be mourning in the streets. His son built a palace in Jericho. They say the air was fragrant with the smell of roses.
But the soul of a person can be totally out of accord with the person's surroundings. Zacchaeus was living in a classy place, but felt like he was living in hell itself. It was his hell. For he was there a lonely, hardened man.
Who says the person in the limousine has it made? Why, the factory worker who sweated to make the limousine could be better off. At least his wife and children love him. Who says ghetto kids don't have a chance, and rich kids are a sure bet? Who says because she always smiled and made good grades and never disobeyed her mother that all is peace inside her soul?
The Prodigal Son lived in a sort of Jericho. He lived where he had it made. So what made him announce one day that he wanted out? As if there were something more important to settle? Something the ease of his surroundings could never provide him?
So it was with Zacchaeus. He was rich, it says in verse two. Which was the most that could be said about him up till then. That was what his entire life added up to. "He was rich." The bottom line. The final figure. And the man had grown dissatisfied with that, and gone looking.
Now when Jesus and Zacchaeus met on the road, you could ask the question, "who was looking for whom?" For the hunter and the hunted got confused in their roles. The Bible says Zacchaeus "sought to see Jesus," but then it says "when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and saw him."
Maybe it's like the verse that says, "We love him because he first loved us." We seek him because he's seeking us already.
Saint Augustine wrote: "When first I knew thee, Thou didst raise me up, that I might see there was somewhat for me to see, though as yet I was not fit to see it."
As Paul Scherer put it: "If anything ever happens in our lives, it will happen because wherever we hide ourselves, in what dark corner, there is a love that whispers and prods about there with its wounded hands; walking yonder on the streets, hungry, and someone yesterday gave him food; thirsty, and someone gave him drink; a stranger, and someone took him in."
Isaiah has the Lord say to the backslidden: "Before they call, I will answer." (Isaiah 65:24) Just think of that in your time of need–before you call, he will answer! What a testimony to the grace of God!
As I said, Jesus invited himself to the home of Zacchaeus. He did that knowing that to make yourself the friend of an outcast makes you an outcast too. He left people standing in the middle of the road and shaking their heads and pointing with their finger–"murmuring," it says.
Sometime in life, every person has to settle what he does about the opinions of others. Can people rule over your life by the threat of harsh judgments? Will you be conformed, or transformed? To follow the example of Christ is to have a certain disdain for popular opinion.
Of all the factors that determine what our lives amount to, the least is what other people say about us. Man looks on the outward appearance. Even then, he often looks through jaded glasses. Only God looks on the heart. To live by flattery and praise is to starve your soul and lead a superficial life.
Did you notice in the story how unconditionally Jesus acted? Most people would have done it like this:
"Now listen, Zacchaeus, you really are in a rotten business, you know. I'd like to help, but you have to help yourself. Now tell me you'll change your ways, and then I'll come to your house"!
No such thing. He comes to our houses in hopes that we'll change our ways. He loves us and accepts us as we are.
Zacchaeus was a changed person, beginning with that experience. And did you notice, how it showed itself through his pocketbook! He said he was going to give half his money to help the poor. He said he was going to give money back to all the people he'd cheated.
Do this sometime: take your checkbook and read through it. Read for what it says, or doesn't say, about your religion. Does that checkbook show the love of God at work in your life. If it doesn't, it should. Zacchaeus' did.
A straight line was drawn across the page of his life that day. It divided all that had come before it from all that would come after it. The man was determined it would be that way.
Did he change jobs? Did he leave Jericho? Did he gain back the favor of his neighbors? Did his family understand? Did he ever preach? Did he live long, die young, or what?
We know none of that, but we can imagine this. That he stood taller now. He felt that way, at least. And it was so good to feel that way.
It didn't matter how other people felt, as long as he felt that way about himself. And he did. And you can too.
THE LORD . . . YOUR LORD?
"Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
How important is that, would you say? How many people need to hear and consider it? How seriously should it be taken?
The phone rings while I'm eating dinner. I think maybe it's one of you, so I get up and answer it–very nicely! But it isn't one of you. It isn't anyone I know. It's a man who wants me to subscribe to the Montgomery Journal on some special deal they're offering–ha! ha!
The man on the phone thinks that's important. More important than my supper getting cold on the table. I should stand there and talk with him and give the answers he wants. Then I can go back to eating.
But no, I won't do that. I need the Montgomery Journal like I need a new pair of boxing gloves. I don't plan to do any fighting, and I don't need another newspaper. And anyway, no telephone salesman is going to tell me what I need or don't need. And I'll bet you feel the same way.
But you see how each of us determines what's important to him or her. And how things that are important to one person don't amount to a hill of beans to someone else.
But the question we must ask is this: is there some truth so vital to the success of life that every single person needs to hear and accept it?
At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and every tongue confess, that he is Lord!
I'd like to talk with you about what that means. I'd like to believe it's important enough to interrupt your dinner, and have you stand there for an hour, shifting feet, with the phone to your ear, and forget all about the food on the table. I think people would be well-advised to take it just that seriously.
But then I know that you control that. I can be hung up on, just like anyone else. The lordship of Christ can be ignored like anything else can.
The idea of having someone as your lord is surely a difficult thought. We like to be in control of our own destinies. We don't like the idea of submission. How can people who consider themselves powerful bow down on their knees before someone else? Don't we need to think a lot before we do such a thing?
Or maybe there's an easier way. Maybe we can use the language and just not mean it. He can be the lord, but not our lord. We can make the claim, but not the surrender. Maybe that'll work.
Then, of course, there are substitutes. There is God, and there are gods–many gods. Paul spoke of some whose god was their belly–as he put it. Meaning they were ruled over by their appetites.
"Whose god is their money." They work for it, cheat for it, worship and adore it. Money determines what they do and who they are. Or it could be power, or even a hobby that becomes obsessive. It could be something good and even holy.
"Whose God is their children." "Whose god is their physical fitness." "Whose God is their friends." "Whose God is their Bible." "Whose God is their reputation."
I hope I'm confusing you with this. I hope it sounds like God–if he approves of what I've said–is rather high-handed and demanding. He is. He's a jealous God. His first commandment is this: "You shall have no other gods before me."
God is not honored at all unless he is honored above all!
You take any good thing in life, put it in God's place, give it the devotion he deserves, and you've made it evil–you've made it an idol. You've worshipped the creation more than the creator. And it doesn't matter that you do all this in a religious-sounding way, it's idolatry just the same.
Some people idolize their religious experience. They put the feelings they derive from Christ above their personal obedience to Christ. Their obsession is what he means to them, not what they mean to him. They go to church like an addict goes to his drug dealer. And Marx is right to call that arrangement an opium for the people.
Consider the example of Jesus. At the very beginning, you find him saying "I must be about my Father's business." He showed submission. From one day to the next, one sermon to the next, one beggar to the next, he lived his life like that. All the way to Gethsemane, where you find him on his knees before God, saying "not my will but thine be done."
Now tell me, how can we let him live that way, while we live another way? He excused himself from no duty to God, and we excuse ourselves from any duty to God. He lived totally for others, and we live totally for ourselves. Or at least we tend to.
Let's say you're driving your car one evening and a policeman pulls you over. He tells you both tail lights are burned out, and you're a hazard on the road, and you must leave your car where it is till that's fixed.
You won't like that. You won't see why you couldn't just drive the car very carefully to the next service station. You won't like doing it the policeman's way, but you will because of who he is. How much more ought we to obey God?
If you're a foreman, and the plant manager stops by and says the meeting time's been changed and you'll have to adjust your schedule–you don't get mad and argue, you do it.
I was flying into Chattanooga one day, and the tower called and said "Beechcraft 2393J, would you hurry it up? There's a United jet behind you on final approach." You think I argued? I hurried it up! If he'd said pull out of the pattern and let the big guy land, I'd have done that.
Now if it's important–sometimes at least–to obey man, how much more important is it to obey God? Listen to what John Henry Newman said about it.
"The smallest things become great when God requires them of us; they are small only in themselves; they are always great when they are done for God."
As Christians, we're not our own. We were "bought with a price," the Bible says. Therefore we're to glorify God in our mortal bodies, it says.
The heresy of all heresies is to think you can accept Christ as Savior in theory, and reject him as Lord in daily living.
He must be Lord in all areas of our lives. You don't build walls around some and say he has no business there. His business is especially there. Lord of our time, lord of our money. Lord of our dreams and ambitions and decisions large and small. Lord of how we talk and act. Lord of our political views. He must be in us both to will and to work for his own pleasure.
Now it takes a lot of faith to let someone play that role in our lives. You have to be pretty sure about it to trust yourself to someone else.
The disciple Thomas is sometimes called "Doubting Thomas." When told about the resurrection, he said he'd have a hard time believing that unless he saw for himself. But then he was shown. He saw the evidence he needed, and more. And his statement of conviction is about the best there ever was. He said to Christ, who stood before him with hands outstretched:
"My Lord and my God."
My Lord, my God. What a difference those pronouns make. Do you call it "that church" or do you say "my church?" "Their pastor" or "my pastor?" What about "my team," or "my friend," or "my president?"
Can you speak of the Lord personally like that? Is he your Lord?
Behold, he stands at the door and knocks. If you hear his knock and open the door, he'll come in. He'll come in and dwell with you. He promises to do that.
An important person doesn't usually come to you. You have to make an appointment and go see him. You have to have a seat and wait your turn. But the Bible pictures the Lord of heaven and earth as knocking on the door of your heart and waiting there to enter.
What if you hear it but do nothing about it? How long will he stand and knock before he goes away? If he does go, will he come another day to stand and knock again?
Better to sieze the moment. Better to open wide the door.
He is the Lord. Beside him, there is no other.
THE NARROW GATE
Moods change. Yours do, don't they? Sometimes you feel you're on top of things, and other times you feel like things are on top of you! Every question seems to have two sides. It's this way–however . . .. It's that way–but on the other hand . . ..
I've been listening to a recording of the music from the play "Les Miserables," which I was fortunate enough to see at the Kennedy Center. One of the songs is titled "Red and Black." Red is the good color: the brave, the hopeful, the heroic. Black is the bad color: the symbol of overpowering evil. And the song alternates from one to the other, just as our feelings do.
The Bible itself does that. It's moods change often. You find gloom and despair, and you find confidence and hope. You find God triumphant, and you find evil triumphant. The way to salvation looks easy at times, torturous and forbidding at other times.
For instance, Jesus once said that his yoke was easy and his burden light. But there in the lesson for today he speaks of a narrow gate and a hard way to travel, so hard that few will ever make the journey.
Read the Psalms. You'll find if you took scissors and cut each one out, you could make two stacks: those that shout with joy, and those that moan with pain. And sometimes you'd have to cut a Psalm in two, putting half of it in the stack labeled "red," and half in the stack labeled "black."
Even Jesus had days when crowds thronged him and acclaimed him, and then others when he feared that even the Twelve were about to desert him. Some like that Sunday they had a parade, waving palm branches in the air, and others like that Friday they forsook him and fled.
There may be more about this to accept than there is to understand, but we keep trying. People have what looks to be good fortune, and it doesn't turn out well. Others have what looks to be bad fortune, and nothing could have turned out better. We find things hard, but we see some people who make them look easy.
I had a friend in Tennessee who was a carpenter. He was the best one I ever saw. But it was almost deceptive to watch him because he made it look so easy. He never hurried, but then he never missed the nail or bent one either. Or had to saw something over. Or had to stand still and figure things out. He knew exactly what he was doing every minute, and nothing was ever wasted. Try keeping up with him for a day or an hour, and you had big problems. A way that looked broad and easy became a narrow one indeed.
There's seldom an easy way to anything worthwhile. It isn't sure that you'll succeed by working hard, but it's sure that you'll fail by not working hard. Greatness is a product of toil. In living, as in buying goods, the old saying holds true: "You get what you pay for."
Edmund Burke made a speech in the House of Commons, and his brother Richard was there. It was a great speech, they said, and someone mentioned that to Richard. He said, "I have been wondering how it has come about that my brother monopolized all the talents of our family; but then again I remember that, when we were all at play, he was always at work."
Plato's Republic begins with a simple sentence 22 words long. Plato was a great writer, he made it look easy. But if you look at the original manuscript of Plato's work, you find he wrote and rewrote that one sentence some 13 times.
Dylan Thomas, at his death, had been working on a short poem of twenty or so lines. They found 65 pages of his effort on that one poem.
Thomas Gray began "Elegy Wrote In A Country Graveyard" in the summer of 1742. He worked on it 8 years, allowing no one to read it, because he wanted to get it right first.
Carlyle Marney was a preacher's hero for a lot of us. And we thought the Lord just gave him that voice, and that mind, and that way with ideas and words. He was on such a higher level that it seemed to excuse our lower levels. But Clyde Francisco told me about rooming in the same dorm with Marney at Southern Seminary, and hearing him practice his preaching with an old wire recorder in the late hours of night–while others slept.
It may be that all ways are hard, that life is hard, that pleasing God is hard. It may be that ruin stands ready to claim us on any day. It may be the people we admire never had it easy, they just made it look that way.
The words of Jesus surely force an agonizing decision. If you believe him and commit yourself to his hard and narrow way, how do you know you aren't playing the fool?
You look over there and see all those people on that broad way, and they seem to be having such a good time. For them, the future is now. They're living with no constraints. To them, you seem like a fool, and sometimes you seem like a fool to yourself.
But Jesus says that broad way isn't what it seems. It leads to destruction, he tells you. He tells his story of a young man who tried it. Went off with his whole inheritance and spent it in riotous living. But then that future ran out, and another future took over. There was a famine in the land, and a famine in his soul. And he found there really was a better future.
You see young people like him. You see them hitch-hiking their days away–broke and hungry and lonely. Someone sold them on indulgence, but it isn't working out so well. They rejected patience and foresight and discipline, but what have they gained that leads to anything better?
Those are the terms of the narrow way: patience, foresight, and discipline.
I have some nice guns at home. I haven't fired one for 10 years, but I used to. I used to love precision shooting. My best gun is a .22/.250 with an FN Mauser action, a Douglass premium heavy barrel, a fiberglass-bedded laminated stock, and a 15 power Unertyl telescopic sight.
The sight is two feet long, and looking through it is something of an experience. It sees so far, and so clearly. Distance shrinks. You don't look at barns, you look at knotholes. The thing is so powerful it moves a little each time your heart beats.
But for that narrowness of focus, you pay a price, because you exclude so much of the landscape. It may be hard to find your target. But if you're going to hit something the size of a quarter from 200 yards away, you need that.
Do you see my point? Jesus is telling us that to gain the best objectives we must narrow our focus.
What do you want in life? What do you need? What on earth are you living for? Those are questions of focus, and questions of width. You can aim for everything and end up hitting nothing. You need a plan, a way to follow, and Jesus can be that way.
Let's look at what he said again. He said there's a wide gate and an easy way. Lots of travelers travel that. And there's a narrow gate and a hard way. Not many people choose it.
Now let me ask you what if anything this has to do with popular religion? Have you found the best church when you find the biggest church? What has a church advertised when it says it's the biggest?
Jesus believed the crowds will go for the discounts. More youth will go for a party than a work project. More adults will join a bowling league than a visitation group. More money will be raised for houses of worship than houses for the homeless. More people will listen to sermons than will do what they propose. The list could go on. And the way of Christ remains what he said it was–the narrow way.
The short hop is really the long haul. Hardship is the rule, not the exception. Peter wrote, "Brethren, do not be surprised by the trial which is coming upon you." "Surprised." People who know from the outset that the way is hard won't be surprised when it gets to be that way.
The Lord of the church says to his church: "Fear not, little flock." "Little flock." He'd like for it to be big, of course. We'd like for it to be big. But he calls it "little flock" because he knows the gate is narrow and the way steep, and most will choose another way.
If you look at the hymn "Have Faith in God" you find that the tune is named "Muskogee." Muskogee is a town in Oklahoma. B.B. McKinney was leading singing in a revival meeting there in the midst of the Great Depression. He was serving a church in Texas at the time, and he got to thinking of the members who were literally walking the streets and standing in soup lines. He sat down and wrote:
Have faith in God when your pathway is lonely,
He sees and knows all the way you have trod;
Never alone are the least of his children;
Have faith in God,
Have faith in God.
Things may not be easier. But they will be better.
A TALE OF TWO HOUSES
I suppose Jesus knew about building houses. His father, Joseph, did what for a living? A carpenter, the Bible says. Which meant, I would think, that he built houses, or helped build houses.
A son, in those days, followed the trade of his father. And during that long span of silence, the time from age 12 until his late twenties when he was baptized and began his public ministry, you can well imagine that Jesus built houses, or helped build houses.
It's a lot of work to build a house. It takes time, and it takes money. And there are risks in building a house, especially if you don't know what you're doing. You can work a lot and spend a lot and have little to show for it. You can end up with something that looks good but isn't good.
Houses are like people. They're usually seen and judged by the exterior. But the paint may be shiny and the grass mowed to perfection, and still the house could be about to burn down or fall down.
Just imagine the one who built his house on the sand. It was his only mistake, as far as we know. He should have known better, and maybe he did. Maybe something warned him, but he was so anxious to get started building, he went right on. And after things got underway, well . . . then he was so busy he never thought about it anymore.
You see, if you get by with something for awhile, you tend to assume it will never come back to haunt you. But it sometimes does. This man was about to learn that.
He finished his house one day. And maybe he had some friends over to celebrate. Maybe he showed them all around, and everything they looked at looked fine to them. It was fine. Except that underneath it all, where houses need to be strong, this one was weak.
To survive, it would have to be a very lucky house. It would have to stand in a place where the violence of nature never came around to call. It would have to be favored by fair weather and gentle rains and pleasant breezes all its days. But there's no such place.
Another man had built close by, just about the same time. It took him a lot longer to get started. He began by digging down. He was concerned about the foundation for his house, and only when he was sure that that was ready, did he begin to do the other things.
One day the sky got so black. The air got real still for awhile, heavy air. You looked around you to see what was happening. You couldn't see much. But then you could hear a little thunder off in the distance, just a little. The wind stirring just enough to shake the leaves. And then more. And louder thunder that came in fast, and wind that began to double the little trees down against the ground. People running for cover. And then rain that seemed almost like solid water falling down out of the sky, and the ground became a river. Water was rushing everywhere, trying to find a way to go. And things were floating by. And it just kept coming.
When it was over, one of those houses lay in ruin. You couldn't sell it; you couldn't repair it. People came just to stand and look at it. They'd shake their heads and say what a shame. They'd say what a fool was the man who built this house. Didn't he know better? they'd say? Didn't he know better?
Now what was Jesus the carpenter telling us in this story? It wasn't a lesson in carpentry, I assure you. He was saying that a life which leaves God out of its plans is a life that will come down to ruin someday. He was saying there are essentials and non-essentials in this world, and you better learn the difference between the two. He was saying there's more to life than meets the eye, and that's the most important part.
What things are we pre-occupied with most of the time? What's the main focus of our attention? What things do we get upset about most easily? What delights us when it goes well, and disappoints us when it doesn't?
Who among us by being anxious can add anything of value to his life? Aren't the things that we're usually anxious about all in the category of the frivolous? Oh, maybe that's too harsh, I don't know. But even our anxiety about health, let's say. Should that be our main concern? Isn't Jesus telling us that the foundation of life is more than that?
Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Be anxious about his favor, not your own well-being. Concern yourselves with serving him and others. Lose yourself in such service. Do that and when the storms of life arive to beat down on you, you will survive. You'll be more than conquerors through him who loved you.
We're called to take the longer look here.
Little girl got picked up and put in the car one day. The family was in a hurry and didn't have time to explain. They'd explain after they got started. When she finally got a chance to speak, she said: "When we get where we're going, where will we be?"
"When I get this education, what am I going to do with it?"
"When this factory gets into operation, will it be helping or hurting us?"
"When we get old, will we love one another or hate one another?"
"When our children take our places in this world, will that be good or bad?"
If we shy away from questions like those, that's building on the sand, in and of itself. As Plato said, the unexamined life is not worth much. Jesus is calling us to ask what we're here for, and then to live on the basis of it.
All too easily we adopt the values and attitudes of those around us. Our lives become directed and determined by the whims of politics or fashion or economics. We lack an inner source of reference, a direction that we ourselves determine.
The smartest girl in my high school class was a very tall girl named Nana Newberry. Nana was shy and rather awkward, but she was smart. And one year we had this teacher who was not so smart–bless her soul! And she was trying to teach us English literature, which she had some problems understanding.
But I give her credit for developing an ingenious technique for dealing with that situation. Every time we'd meet up with a literary question, she would put it to a vote. "All those that think it's this way, raise your hands? All that think it's that way raise your hands." And she would watch which way Nana Newberry voted, and that would become her authoritative answer on the subject!
A lot of people vote with Nana! They take the easy way out of any situation. They let others do their thinking for them. They build on sand and risk the loss of what efforts they do put forth.
I built a house once. It took me all morning. It was out in this field where the grass grew high in clumps, and I decided to build a grass hut. Like one there was a picture of in National Geographic. I got some poles and made a frame. I pulled that grass and tied it into bunches. I covered the frame with those bunches of dry grass, and I had me a house.
Then I decided to cook lunch in my house. I got some wood and made a fire. Then I went off to the kitchen to get a pan and a plate and something to heat on the fire.
But while I was gone, that fire attacked my house. It threw off a spark that landed in dry grass, and a morning's work was burnt up in a flash. Being young, I cried when I saw it.
That can happen to grown-ups too. You can work, and then lose what you worked for. You can give your life to things that are like dry grass–just ready to go up in smoke.
The things that are seen are temporal. The things that are unseen are eternal. As for prophecies, they will pass away. As for tongues, they will cease. As for knowledge, it will pass away.
So much will pass away. Everything will pass away.
Everything except faith, hope, and love. Those three abide–faith and hope and love.
Dig deep, and build on those.
These poor cicadas. They have no armor like the beetles, no stingers like the bees, no protection of any kind. They have no judgement about the ways of people and machines. And they can't fly worth a hoot.
I was on the beltway Friday and they were being slaughtered out there by the thousands. Of course, they seem to be around by the millions! But this is my point:
There was a time when the Christian church was like a cicada on the beltway. And that's especially true of the occasion we commemorate here today. When the future depended on twelve men around a table in a rented room upstairs. And they were divided, and confused, and afraid.
We know how it turned out, of course. We know how they went everywhere and preached the gospel to all nations. Crowds gathered, souls were saved, baptisms held, training given, offerings taken, churches built, and all that.
But there in the room where they had the Last Supper, they seemed like a candle about to be snuffed.
Imagine they'd applied for a loan at the local bank. A loan to build a new building with. Imagine anyone believing in this bunch enough to loan them money!
Gentlemen, it's hard to imagine a more ridiculous application than this. It's from one of those tiny sects that come and go with the times. Apparently the only thing that keeps them together is their leader. An able man, but I have it on good authority that he's about to be arrested, and that will be that.
At one time, this group did have some following. But it didn't last. People got disillusioned and went their way. The few who remain have little savings and no collateral. One who used to be a tax collector was well off before, but has nothing now. They claim there's a family in Bethany willing to sign, but this is all a waste of time. Let's get on with the other business.
So the twelve sat around the table, and must have wondered, as Jesus called it his last supper, if it might be theirs too. Without him, how could they keep on? What could they possibly achieve? They had about the same opinion the bank had.
Sure enough, Jesus was arrested, tried, and nailed to a cross–just as he predicted. And they were scattered, and fled into hiding. It looked like the end.
But then a miracle of God happened. Jesus rose from the dead and gathered them back. They were empowered by his presence. He spoke with them about many things, and told them that now they would go out into all the world, and greater things would be done through them than were done through him.
They were transformed! As Jesus had come back to life, they came back to life too! As if they had died with him, and been raised themselves, and now were alive with him as he was alive.
Simon Peter, frightened by a servant girl on the night of his arrest, preached in public to a crowd of thousands. The timid found their voices. The disorganized became united. This band of the confused became a band of the commissioned–turned outward, not inward. Evangelistic instead of defensive.
Now my point is this: the Lord's Supper reminds us of our peril, and of our potential. We, too, can participate in that miracle through which our human efforts are empowered by God, and the church begins to function as he intended.
Have your own way, Lord. Have your own way.
You are the potter, we are the clay.
Mold us and make us after your will.
While we are waiting, yielded and still.
Let's be waiting. Let's be yielded. Let's be still for these next few minutes.
Then let's get busy.
WHAT DO WE SHOW WHEN WE SHOW 'EM?
You know, when you're already upset, and maybe haven't been able to express it like you'd like to, and something else comes along to upset you even more, you may be about to make a big fool of yourself!
I'd think those disciples weren't happy about being in Samaria in the first place. They were Jews where Jews had no business. But they had this radical leader who thought that was silly and needed changing. They got "dragged along," as we say. And they were seething inside, but afraid to say so!
Also, if you look back in the context of the passage you find other unpleasantness. First there'd been an argument over who was the greatest. Jesus had heard it and been displeased. He took a child on his lap and said this is who's great. You hot-shots have a lot to learn. Now knock it off!
Then next they got in an argument with a preacher from another church. They said he was infringing on their territory, and told him to knock it off! But Jesus said let him alone, and they should mind their own business. It was not the best of days!
So it was a disgruntled bunch that followed as he made his way. And what if they came to some village, and he wanted to stop. And what if the people asked where they were headed. And they said Jerusalem with a little arrogance in their voices. And what if these people they hated told them, "Well if that's where you're going we sure don't want you here"?
And now you wait. And you know you won't have to wait long. Someone is about to tell someone something. And whatever it is will sound fine to the teller. Something else will be talking now. All their old prejudice, all those past frustrations, all that lay behind that argument they had–a need to rise above others regardless of how they did it.
You're about to see how the troubled become the trouble-makers. The upset become the upsetters. Happy people spread their happiness. Unhappy people spread their unhappiness. Something like:
"Hey, we don't have to put up with this. There's nothing in this town we need–we've lost nothing here. You're like Sodom and Gomorrah–remember them? And we're going to ask our God to do the same thing here. You all are going to pay for this. You all are going to burn!"
They wanted to call down fire from heaven–that was their solution. The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control–the Bible says. Were they self-controlled? No! They were controlled by the worst of things that control us, that make us act as we do. Fear, guilt, jealousy, anger, self-conceit.
One of the obvious things we learn here is not to ever decide on things when you're upset already. And try not to say very much either! It'll come out wrong every time. The disciples thought they were proposing a solution. What they were actually doing was adding to the problem.
At first, Jesus had only the matter of how to handle rejection by the Samaritans. Give him a few minutes and he'd have worked that out. He'd have responded with love and kindness and understanding. Then they'd have been ashamed of their hasty words and welcomed him with open arms. That's how it would've gone.
But no, not now. Now so many irrationalities had been let loose that there was no way back. Now Jesus had the problem of how to handle his own men. God does have his problems with the world, but the ones that pain him most are the ones he suffers from his own people.
"Call down fire from heaven!" What kind of solution is that? A quick one, and an easy one. Call on someone else to take care of this once and for all. We'll stand out here and watch. Almost like remote control. Do something to people as a substitute for doing something for them or with them.
The kingdom of God suffers much from that mentality. As Campbell Morgan said many years ago: "It is possible to be zealous for the honor of God in a spirit which puts us out of fellowship with God." He was right, and this is an example.
You see, when we're beset with problems–tough and perplexing problems–we tend to forget that it still matters how we solve them. We tend to go for whatever might work. The end starts justifying the means. And before you know it, people whose business it to work for love and peace are proposing solutions you'd expect from crooks and gangsters! That's exactly what happens in this passage, and it happens today.
The disciples wanted a miracle in reverse. They wanted to use God's power to destroy and punish. But Jesus never used it that way. He used it to save and heal and bless. Never once did he use it for settling a personal score, or for taking a life.
Instead, he filled up nets with fish. He calmed fever. He fed a multitude and changed water into wine at a wedding feast. He restored health to ten lepers all at once. He gave sight to a man born blind. He made a withered-up hand as good as new.
Jesus used his power to calm the storm, not to stir one up! So how sad that the very people he'd been closest to ignored that example so completely.
Jim Tohey, Mark Hatfield's aide, told us at Cal Larson's Memorial Service that due to Cal's efforts the money going to EB research has increased to over three million dollars a year. You say that's good, and it is. But then you need to realize that it's far, far less than the cost of one warplane, one tank, one large gun or missile. And we build those by the thousands.
Our national policy is right in line with the disciple's solution. Get tough with 'em–kill the suckers! And our brightest minds and biggest budgets go for that. Our resources are put there instead of efforts to help and heal. We work our miracles in reverse.
What happens when a prosperous nation like ours is beset with social problems like crime, poverty, drugs, and deadly, incurable diseases? We often turn to the quick fix, instead of the problems themselves, and the people affected. We call for stronger laws and more police to back them up. And then watch the evening news behind locked doors to see what happened.
The text is showing us that what matters isn't simply that we solve our problems–it matters how we solve them. It might make sense to clobber the opposition any way you can, but the Lord says otherwise. He says:
"Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Overcome evil with good, not with more evil! Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another. If any has a quarrel against another, just as Christ forgives you, you should forgive them. Whoever compels you to go a mile, go with him two. If someone slaps you on one cheek, just haul off and . . . WHAT?
So there they are, deep in Samaria. And the Samaritans thumb their noses and ask them to leave. The disciples want to retaliate. What will Jesus do?
Well, it says he turned and rebuked the disciples. Then he took them on to another village.
His words aren't recorded–I wish they were. But notice it was the disciples he rebuked–not the Samaritans. It must have been with sadness that he turned to leave. There are times to pursue a thing, but then there are times to let it lie awhile. "A time to speak, and a time to keep silence."
But in turning away from that village, was he turning away from Samaria and from Samaritans?
No. He went on to the next village, it says. And what happened there we don't know either, but it must have been better than this was.
You have to plan on setbacks in life. You have to not let them throw you off course. You have to mind your own faithfulness to the will of God and never give up. Never give up.
Because of that, there'd be another day in another village of Samaria. And the record of it says:
"Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony . . .. So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, 'It is no longer because of your words that we believe, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.'"(John 4:39-42)