KNOWING THE GIFT OF GOD
Men can be hard on women, but women can be hard on women too. That one we call "the woman at the well" was there alone in the middle of the day. And that was strange because the other women of her village all came together in the cool of the morning.
Down in Tennessee where I used to pastor, there was a beauty parlor known as Myrtle's. Myrtle's was down at the end of Lewis Street. It was a place for women, and everyone knew that. If a man drove his wife to Myrtle's for a hair appointment, he let her out and went on up to the hardware store or the filling station. He knew you didn't go inside and wait, because the women were in there and it was a private sort of place.
Now fixing hair and getting beautiful was not the only thing the women did at Myrtle's. Myrtle's was a kind of information center. Information about all sorts of things, but especially about the people who never came to around, which was all men and some women.
Now going to the well in the morning was like that for the women of Samaria. It was fun! They were out there by themselves, and they were girls again. They caught up on the latest news, and solved many of the world's great problems.
So what is going on if there in the hottest part of the day is a woman at the well, drawing her water all alone? She doesn't know what she's missing out on? Or does she?
Does she know quite well? Does she know she isn't welcome in that other group, and, in fact, those women mention her frequently in their morning conversations?
She's had five husbands–five! So she is definitely someone to keep an eye on if you're a woman with a husband yourself.
She may not know how to keep a husband, but she does know how to get one. That's what they think, at least.
Jesus of Nazareth, who was traveling through, came to that well the same time as that woman. (I don't really like to call her "that woman," but her name isn't given. And I suppose around the well in the mornings she got called "that woman" more than a few times.)
Jesus already knew something about her. He knew about her problems in life, but he also knew about her potential as a follower of his. He knew she was ready to make a change if given the chance. He knew she would listen. So I think it's possible he came there that day hoping to see that woman.
According to the customs of the time, a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman had no business talking with one another anywhere, much less alone at a well at midday. But I guess she figured her record on observing the customs of the time wasn't all that great anyway, and she might as well talk.
She listened to him say that the water there was good, as far as water goes. But water doesn't go too far. You drink it now, and halfway back to town you're thirsty again. Like so many things in life, it doesn't last. She knew a lot about things not lasting.
But Jesus told her there was a kind of water he could give, and if you drank it you'll never be thirsty again.
And she was smart. She knew he wasn't talking about well water you carry in a bucket. He spoke of life. Of things that all of us want and need the most. About a faith you can live with, and even die with.
Jesus knew, you see, that she was a thirsty woman. Thirsty for that. And blessed are those who thirst, for they shall be satisfied.
And she–that woman at the well–believed and trusted the words of Jesus. And she–an outcast–became a messenger of hope and salvation to the very people who scorned her earlier. And the Bible says many believed, just as she had. And Jesus stayed there two days, and then went on.
Why do I tell that on Communion Sunday in February?
Just to say that we're all like that woman, or should be. We're all needy souls. We're all sinners who need forgiveness. We're all people who need more than any bucket holds.
Come to him, ye weary and heavy laden. Take his yoke upon you, and he will give you rest.
It doesn't matter what you've done. It doesn't matter who you've been. Why, you may have been the mayor of the town. But you drink, then get thirsty again, just like all the rest. You need his living water, just like all the rest.
His table is here before us. He invites us one and all.
Come taste, and see that the Lord is good. His mercy is everlasting, and his truth endures to all generations.
WHEN THE ANSWER IS US
Do you not say, "There are yet four months, then comes the harvest"? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. (John 4:35)
Just before my last visit to the dentist, I had a piece of filling drop out. He fixed it back, but explained that there isn't much of this tooth left, and the filling may not hold, and if it doesn't he has to crown the tooth.
One week after the new filling got put in, the new filling fell out. So now we get to do all that grinding and fitting and pay $400 for the new crown. Have I called and made an appointment to get that done? No. Will I call? Yes. When will I call? Who knows?
The tooth doesn't hurt. No one can see it. It doesn't bother me eating. I can't put it off forever, but I can put it off. And a lot of things we can put off do put off–and all of you procrastinators know that.
Jesus knew it. He knew it about his disciples. He knew it about people and their dealigs with God.
People who should tell about God put off the telling. And people who should respond to him put off the response.
In fact, the most common response to the will of God may not be "yes" or "no." It may be "later." "I'll do what you want me to do, Lord–pretty soon now." "I'll go where you want me to go–just as soon as I get around to it." "I'll trust you as my savior, Jesus–as soon as it's convenient."
The way God sees it, it's harvest time right now. But the way we see it, we still have four months. He's in a hurry, but we're not. He asks why aren't we busy, and we wonder what all the fuss is about. We have plenty of time. We never say no, we just say later.
This was going on there in the fourth chapter of John's gospel. Jesus had met the woman at the well and later preached in her village. The response had been remarkable. It was evident that Samaritans were ready to hear and believe the message of Christ.
Jesus wanted his disciples to be involved in that. All they'd done recently was stand around and watch. Watch someone else do what they should be doing too.
Is there something familiar about that? In the church today, don't a few people do most of the work while the rest stand around and watch? As if they're not needed? As if they're just along for the ride?
Jesus spoke of the time it was. He said it was harvest time. That the harvest was ripe. And he meant the harvest of lives that need to hear and believe his gospel. That harvest is ready, and a ready harvest means work to do.
My first summer out of high school I worked as a pea picker. California Packing Corporation had all this land in Illinois and Wisconsin where they raised peas and corn–and I worked there in the harvest.
I remember seeing a company car drive up to a field. A couple of men would get out of the car and walk out in the field. They'd stoop down and pick a few peas. Open the hulls, taste one or two. They were deciding. This field is ready to pick, or it isn't ready to pick. And when they said "pick it," we picked it. Sometimes all night with floodlights set up. If it rained, we worked right on. Because you don't mess around with a harvest. You do whatever it takes when it's harvest time.
That's how we should feel about the time it is today. That work is waiting. That we might like to say later, but the Master says now.
His gospel must be preached and taught. His Great Commission must be obeyed. As the Father sent him, so sends he us. And there are the hungry to give food to, the thirsty needing drink. There are the strangers who need welcome, and the naked to clothe. And the sick, and the prisoners.
Someone came late to church one day and asked if the service was over. The answer he got was that the worship is over but the service is just beginning. The service is just beginning. We come in to worship, and go out to serve.
We come to the table now. We'll spend a few minutes here. But know that this is the beginning not the end.
Outside, the harvest is waiting.
LIKE NEWBORN BABES
1 Peter 2:1-5
My granddaughter Ashley weighed six pounds when she was born in P.G. County Hospital ten months ago. Now she weighs eighteen pounds. That's growing 300% in just ten months.
Would you like to figure what you'd weigh next June if you gained like that?! I figured mine up, but I'm not about to tell you what it was! How about a show of hands here? Let's see who'd like to triple their weight as soon as possible!
Now you say that's ridiculous, and it partly is, but I know someone who does want to triple her present weight as soon as possible. Ashley does! I guarantee you she does. Right now in her crib she's dreaming of weighing fifty-four pounds and being three or four feet tall–wow!
And she'll get there. Because she'll eat, and sleep, and exercise. And eat, and sleep, and eat, and exercise. And eat, and exercise, and eat . . ..
Well, of course, Ashley does have this advantage–she's growing. Right now in life it's her main business. And we who are grown up already have no need to grow like that.
But what if we could grow spiritually like Ashley is growing physically? What if our prayer lives could triple in just ten months? What if our joy could grow like that? What if our stewardship could increase by multiples, not just by dribbles, and become sacrificial? What if the power and extent of our witness for Christ could triple?
The answer is that it can. That's what the text in First Peter is telling us. It's saying that Christians should be people ravenous for spiritual food and bent on spiritual growth.
"Please, Pastor, would you mind just preaching a little longer from now on? It does my heart good to hear a nice, long sermon!"
"Please, David, could you just let me have a few more of those names to visit? I love to do that."
"And Brother Lloyd Smith, I know you trustees have a lot to do, but could you just open up the church a little earlier on Sunday mornings? I'd like to come early for prayer like Korean Christians do. Six o'clock should be good."
Oh, I see some of that at times. I've seen people at our Bible studies this summer with eager faces. And after going on for a solid hour, I believe some nights we might have gone on longer. May five or ten minutes!
What do babies do when the food they're hungry for is late arriving? You know, don't you? Even my granddaughter will do that if the situation gets bad enough. They cry. They cry for food. Now listen:
"Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord."
The Greek word translated "long for" is a strong word. It almost reminds you of crying. In Psalm 42, the word's used to speak of longing for God like a thirsty deer for water in a dry land. So it's nothing casual. This is serious business.
Those who taste the goodness of God develop a thirst for things of the spirit. They have an urge to grow. Something says they don't want to be babies forever, there's something else to get on with. They have a compulsion to go on toward maturity.
That appetite is basic. Wherever Christian lives lack health and vigor, you'll find it lacking. You'll find people who've developed a taste for other things.
Notice how the passage began by listing some roadblocks to spiritual progress.
"Put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander."
A list of unchristian attitudes and habits.
Malicious, deceitful, hypocritical, envious, slanderous. Those have in common that they begin in the heart and end up doing something bad toward other people.
You first have this malice toward someone. The person may not even know it. You may not admit it, but it's there. And then one unsuspecting day it comes out. You do something. Envy, slander–all those other things just lie around and bide their time until finally an attitude becomes an action.
And the point to be aware of here is that either one will stunt your spiritual growth. You have malice in your heart and that does it. You do malicious things and that does it too.
I wonder, as Simon Peter wrote this, if he remembered how he and others argued at the last supper over who deserved the greatest honor? (Luke 22:24) Showing how easily people of good intentions can get caught up in strife and envy. How the desire to be humble servants of God gets replaced by a desire to get ahead of one another.
There's nothing pretty about all this, but it's a necessary reminder if you're concerned about spiritual growth. The truth is, God can keep you from sin, or sin can keep you from God. And ordinarily that's an either/or situation.
This list of hindrances Peter gives is about as sneaky and treacherous a list as you can assemble. These are things we think we can get by with. We think of them as lesser sins. But in fact, they're the greater ones.
Gossip is something no one admires, everyone says is wrong, and yet everyone enjoys doing when he or she is the one who's doing it. Someone else gives the lowdown on someone, and its gossip. But when you give it it's just the facts! And the facts never hurt anybody, right? And you did say not to tell anyone, so why'd they go and tell it?
Peter says to put off such things and then you can get on with the business of a Christian.
Notice how he speaks of drinking milk.
Milk is good food, you know. In Tennessee, I was known for milk-drinking. I kept it by the gallon and drank it like water. I kidded people there about drinking coffee, which I didn't do back then, and they kidded me about drinking milk. When I came to their homes, they always made sure they had some milk.
Milk is nourishment in the right form for a growing body. And Peter uses that goodness as a symbol of the health of our souls. Christian fellowship is like milk–it sustains you when the going gets tough. Prayer is milk–it builds you up. The study of scripture, the practice of worship, the effort of service, the confession of sin, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit–those are milk for our souls.
And did you notice how the term "salvation" is used there? " . . . that you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord."
A lot of people think of salvation as a static thing. You're given it, you start out with it, you hold onto it, and when you're finished, if things go right, you have it like a passport, just as it was handed to you in the beginning.
But here we find the dynamic view. Salvation is more like seed. It gets planted, dies, then grows into something new. All along it keeps growing. Through the seasons–spring, summer, autumn, winter–it changes.
It needs sustenance. It needs sunlight and rain and nourishment from the soil. It never stops growing into something new
So the question, is salvation a property you're just holding on to? Or something you're growing up into? That's the way it's supposed to be. And this is what happens if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. If you've tasted.
How important a taste of something can be. People have gotten a taste of music, good music, and it changed their lives. Some of you who've never gone camping and think it might be so awful, if you just went once, if you just tried, got a taste of it, might find it different. Or astronomy–what if you got a taste of that? Or even model railroading, as boring as it sounds? How important and charged with potential to get a real taste of something new.
On the other hand, you could get a taste of something like gambling. Put in a quarter, pull that handle, and have all that money come pouring out in your lap. And you could get such a taste of gambling that you'd hardly think of anything else. So tasting you have to watch out about.
But oh, to get a real taste of the goodness of God! To satisfy that longing we have in our hearts to know God, and be known by him. That can change your life. That can get you started on the greatest adventure of all. That can become the stack pole around which your whole life is built.
The message this morning is simple and basic. If you aren't a Christian, become one. If you are a Christian, become more of one. For there is more. I promise you, there is more.
And more, and more, and more.
WHAT HE CALLS US
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.
I'm sure you know the passage that begins, "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms . . .."
Some people were disappointed about getting a room, because the King James Version promised mansions. So they thought they were being short-changed.
But actually they'd been over-promised by an inaccurate translation. Anyone who isn't grateful for a place in heaven ought to have his head examined, anyway. And anyone who thinks he deserves a mansion there may think of himself more highly than he ought to.
Anyway, that famous passage is the beginning of a longer section of John's Gospel where Jesus speaks plainly of his death and tries to prepare his disciples for it.
It's usually the living who comfort the dying for what lies ahead. But here the one who's to die is trying to get his friends ready for it. It comes right after Judas left, and before the arrest of Jesus. And it contains some lovely and very intimate expressions that must have lived long in the minds of those twelve men.
What do they mean to him? And what does he mean to them?
Those are the crucial questions, right? Crucial for us as well. "What does Christ mean to you?" And "what do you mean to Christ?" Jesus put it in simple language no one could mistake.
He spoke of love. The Father loved him, and he'd loved them the very same. They should abide in his love, and love one another as he loved them.
How many of us will say to another, "I love you just as Christ loves you"? "You can count on me like you count on him." But that's the mark of a true church, Jesus said. "By this men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35)
He spoke of joy, and how his joy could live in them. A "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" goes on toward a cross speaking about his joy.
The first question for us all is "how much love do you have?" And the second question, "how much joy do you have?" And the sobering thought is that the biggest scandal in the world is an unloving and joy-less person who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
What sort of relationship will you find among peole who share love and joy? Will you find distance, or closeness? Will you find struggles for power, or willingness to go second miles? Will you find barriers that keep people apart, or an ease that binds them together?
Jesus said: "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends . . .."
When you call someone a servant, you think of that person as an object–someone to use in acheving your goals. When you call someone your friend, you think of that person as a subject–someone with goals of his own that mean much to you as they do to him.
Now in our sinful world, words often get used deceptively. People call you "friend" who mean to use you as their servant. They use fake friendship to manipulate you for their selfish ends. So when you hear one of them say: "Hey there, my friend!" you better be on guard! You better get ready for what's coming next!
Jesus is not that kind of friend. Jesus is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
You can be honest with him. You can trust him fully. You don't have to worry how he may be feeling toward you from one day to the next. He's the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
He's the bright and morning star, the rose of Sharon, and the lilly of the valley. He's the stone those builders rejected, become the head of the corner. He's the Son of God, before whom every knee shall bow, in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.
And yet he calls YOU his friend. You! And bids you come now as a friend to his table.
We can't do much to explain it. But we can do much to celebrate it.
"For I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:11-12)
"I have learned . . .." Wonder how Paul learned that? How long it took? And was it hard or easy to learn?
In any and all circumstances I can be content, he says. And did you notice he calls this a secret? A secret being something not many people know about. They may want to know, but they don't.
Paul spoke of this secret in his letter to Timothy. He said:
"There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and have pierced their hearts with many pangs." (1 Timothy 6:6-8)
Remember a Gospel Song called "I am satisfied with Jesus?" Starts out so contented like. "I am satisfied with Jesus, he has done so much for me, he has suffered to redeem me, he has died to set me free." And then three times: "I am satisfied, I am satisfied, I am satisfied with Jesus."
And by that time you think you have on your hands a very satisfied piece of music. Until you come to that "but." "But the question comes to me, as I think of Calvary, is my Master satisfied with me?"
Remember feeling guilty when you sang that line? Is the master satisfied with you–how could he be? You think of all the points the preacher could bring up. Is he satisfied with your prayer life? Is he satisfied with your home life? Is he satisfied with your love for him? Your Christian service? And on-and-on you can go and feel guiltier all the time.
So where does that leave us about being satisfied? It seems to say that we can be satisfied with Jesus–yes–but not with ourselves. We know we're not who we ought to be, and we know he couldn't be satisfied with the likes of us. So we're content in a way, and we're discontent in a way. Maybe it doesn't get any better than that?
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him;
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich–yes, richer than a king–
And admirably schooled in every grace;
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Folks thought that Richard Cory had every reason to be content. They thought he was content. Why, he had all the things they were discontented about not having, so why shouldn't he be content? And he didn't have to put up with all the miseries and aggravations they did. So until "one calm summer night" it never entered their thoughts that Mr. Cory could be a discontented man.
We usually know little of one another's discontent. "High there, Joe! How are you?" "Oh, just fine–how 'bout yourself." "Just fine, just fine."
How much real information has been exchanged there? None at all. People say fine who are fine. And people say fine who feel like doing what Richard Cory did. He may have answered "fine" on his way to get the gun.
At the other end of the scale, there are, of course, some people content about everything. I knew one in rural Kentucky in the early '60's. Billy Best was perfectly content to have no job and no income. To live off the generosity of his relatives. To let the teeth rot out of his mouth and the socks rot off of his feet. He had no goals, no expectations. So there is a lazy, wasteful, and even wicked contentment.
Remember that perplexing statement Jesus made once? Said "don't talk about me bringing peace. I didn't come to bring peace. I came to bring a sword. I came to upset things, not smooth them over. And because of me, a lot of folk will be at odds with one another, not at peace."
But of course he did and does bring peace. All his life he brought peace to the troubled, and at the end of it he said to his disciples: "My peace I leave with you."
So you have quite a paradox there. Christ the calmer and Christ the disturber. Christ who brings contentment, and Christ who sows discontentment. And you know that the answer must surely be situational. There are disturbed people who need calming, and there are calm people who need disturbing. And my, for the wisdom to know the difference between the two!
When it began to appear that maybe I shouldn't pound the roads with my feet as much as I used to, I took up swimming for exercise. And just as I did with running, I record times and distance for my swimming and keep trying to go farther and faster.
There's a corner of my billfold–here, I'll show you–where I keep a little piece of paper with my best times for various distances. And it's satisfying, when I break one of those records, to put in the new time. So there's a contentment aspect to this piece of paper.
But there is discontentment about it too. In fact, the purpose of the thing is discontentment. I don't go to the pool to duplicate what I've already done. I go to improve and do better. Why, I want to make ancient history out of every record here. But still, there are efforts there that right now I'm a little proud of.
I hope that illustrates something. I hope it shows how you approach this matter of contentment. How life needs a proper balance between challenge and fulfillment. Between the drive to change your situation, and your contentment with the situation as it is.
You must feel good about some things. Don't be so hard on yourself–give yourself a break, for heaven's sake. But also have some goals, some changes you want made, some things you get angry just to think about.
And if you're the person who's always bearing down, maybe you need to let up a little. But if you've let up so much that there's nothing but slack in your life, then you could use some of that other.
Was Jesus contented? Huh? Simple question, yes or no?
Ah! but it isn't so simple, is it?
He was contented? Huh!
That's why he drove those money-changers out of the temple, right? Do you think he was contented with the religion of his day, with attitudes toward Samaritans, with the treatment of women, with the outcast situation of lepers and the mentally ill? No! Why, Jesus was discontented like most world-changers are. Profoundly discontented with a lot of things.
He was not contented, then? Huh!
Just listen to this: "He, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." He had joy, and he had peace. His life was full–he lived love. He always had time to stop and talk, even with children. He moved with a certain calm about him. He knew the constant love and presence of God. Sure he was content.
Now if we can be content in the ways he was, and discontent in the ways he was, we'll have something going.
Usually we get it backward. We gladly accept all the evils of the world that don't threaten us, and our discontents relate to selfish things like food and clothes and money and cars, and all of that.
I heard some young boys talking the other day. It was an "I have" conversation. One said he had a certain kind of skateboard that must have been the best you can buy. But then another one said he had an expensive bicycle. And another had his own television set. And each was trying, as they went around the circle, to get one up on everyone else. As if each 8 year old was adding up his net worth right there. They'd learned well the standard of our society which says you amount to what you possess.
And if your discontents in life relate to that, then they are worldly and wicked and self-destructive. But if they relate to the prayer "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" then they are holy and helpful and blessed.
That's the point.
DREAM OR DREAD
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Paul says the sufferings of this present world are not worthy of comparison to the glory that is to be revealed to us. "Us" being those who believe and trust in Jesus Christ.
The man had a realistic view of things, and notice what it was. This present world is a world of suffering, according to him. He pictures the whole creation as groaning together while waiting for something better. Paul thought of what was, and then he thought of what could be, and the comparison was painful.
There are so many swords around that plowshares could be made of. Thank God for the modest start Reagan and Gorbachav made. But it's only that: a modest start. There could be real peace on earth. There is a way to deal with pesticides and oil spills and endangered species. Famine and starvation, water undrinkable and air unbreathable. But now is a time of suffering those things while working and hoping for something better.
Paul sees the whole creation affected by the deprarvity of man. Cute little puppy dogs and nice little kittens are dying of cancer today because they breathed polluted factory air. Giant tortoses in the Galipigos that used to number 250,000 are down to 15,000 because people have carried them away to die.
Paul was ahead of his time, it seems to me. He had prophetic insight. He sees that creation itself is in bondage to decay, "subjected to futility" as he puts it, all because of the sins of man. Pretty colored fish that want nothing more than to swim in clear water like their ancestors did, trying vainly to survive in oxygen-starved, chemical-poisoned rivers.
Are we all doomed? Is there no hope?
Paul writes to say there is hope. He writes to say that in Jesus Christ there's hope for man and hope for the earth.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Reinhold Niebuhr, who was also, like Paul, quite a realist, wrote about the need of hope and the role of faith. He said:
It is significant that there is no religion, or for that matter no philosophy of life . . . which does not hold out the hope of the fulfillment of life in some form or other. Since it is man's nature to be emancipated of the tyranny of the immediate present and to transcend the processes of nature in which he is involved, he cannot exist without having his eyes upon the future. The future is the symbol of his freedom.
Some people think that in salvation God hands you everything all at once. But Paul says we're saved in hope, and hope you can see isn't hope. We hope for things no one can see or prove. That's how it works.
There's always something to anticipate, which means the present is always incomplete. We live from faith to faith, as the Bible puts it. People wish they could walk by sight, but the Lord calls us to walk by faith.
We reach a desitination only to discover the directions for going on to another one. We wait the fulfillment of one promise, only to get another in its place. And so the wait, and the expection, begin all over.
In You Can't Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe wrote:
Mankind was fashioned for eternity, but man-alive was fashioned for a day. New evils come after him, but it is with the present evils that he is now concerned. And the essence of all faith, it seems to me, for such a man as I, the essence of religion for people of my belief, is that man's life can be, and will be, better; that man's greatest enemies, in the forms in which they now exist–the forms we see on every hand of fear, hatred, slavery, cruelty, poverty, and need–can be conquered and destroyed.
Think of life as like a football field. The goal post behind you is called despair. Some days you feel yourself driven backward toward it. You dig in and try your best, but you lose ground that day. You feel bad. You feel yourself a failure.
The goal post out there ahead is called hope. And when days are good, you make progress toward that goal. Confidence grows that you'll get there soon, that you'll make it. And your encouragement is fuel for your present effort.
Hope keeps us going. Studies of mortality patterns in hospitals and nursing homes prove it. Death rates rise sharply after birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, and other anticipated days. People hang on just to make it to those days, then pray the prayer of Simon: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace."
In a fine little book called Creative Expectancy, Albert McClellan said: "The most miserable people on earth are those who can see nothing ahead. Men who live without hope are the true poor people of the world. They are the hollow people whose days are like empty boxes laid end to end, and the older they get the more those boxes look like caskets, until one day one of them is a casket."
A lot of lives are wasted on the motions of warmup for a game that never seems to get started. They spend their lives stringing and unstringing their instrument, but the song they came to sing remains unsung.
What a pity to live without anticipation, to dream no dreams and see no visions. Paul described this as "having no hope, and without God in the world."
There's a way of looking forward to things that's close to the pleasure of having them. Anticipation is a form of happiness. In some circumstances, it can be the chief pleasure life affords.
Poor slaves in early America sang a music of hope in the midst of hardship. They sang, "When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God's heaven." But they were barefoot as they sang that, and had no shoes at all. So that was a song of faith and vision.
Our choices are often just two: to dream, or to dread. The dreams replace our dread, or the dread replaces our dreams–one or the other.
I've read all the books of John Updike, and my favorite is an early one titled The Centaur. It's main character is George Caldwell, a science teacher remembered by his son. George is growing older than he was and trying to make sense of the life he lives. In this scene, he's giving make-up work to a student after school.
My father ruffled the book. "Name some erosional agents," he said.
She ventured, "Time?"
My father looked up and seemed to have taken a blow. His skin was under-belly white beneath his eyes and an unnatural ruddy flush scored his cheeks in distinct parallels like the marks of angry fingers. "I'd have to think about that," he told her. "I was thinking of running water, glaciers, and wind."
She wrote these down on her tablet.
The girl had stumbled onto something. And a middle-aged man who'd lately been feeling his life erode away was affected by it. Whose dreading had lately loomed larger than his dreaming. Who needed something more to live for than three square meals a day and a paycheck on Fridays.
How do you get hope, if yours has run low?
You can ask of God. Often times we have not because we ask not.
You can find it in his word. Read where Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he be dead, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."
Or you can get it from other people who have some to spare. The sharing of your hope with others is the best gift you can give. And when you may need it, the most welcome you receive.
As Paul nears the end of this letter to the Romans, he has an exhortation that goes like this:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)
May "abound in hope." What could be better than that?
HOPE IN A LAND OF DEEP DARKNESS
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. Thou has multiplied the nation, thou hast increased its joy; they rejoice before thee as with joy at the harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, thou hast broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Isaiah preached to people who lived in a land of deep darkness. Gloomy people–hopeless and depressed. People who'd resigned themselves to their problems, who were sure the best days had passed and it was downhill from there on out. People whose children were never happy as children ought to be. Whose children lived in dread.
There's a weariness and frustration in a land of darkness. People get weary of one another, weary of their leaders, weary of good causes, weary of speeches analyzing their problems, weary of religion and perhaps of God himself.
Jennifyr Gilmore sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth" at our adult luncheon this Thursday, and she reminded us that it only takes one person to push one button. But people were saying that 20 years ago, I remember, and no one's pushed the button yet. So we may not get quite as excited as we did the last time someone gave us that reminder.
But the fact is still the same. The fact is that nuclear holocaust is ready at a moment's notice, and no day or person is safe from its threat. And in all the history of this earth, no weapons system was ever invented that wasn't eventually put to use. And it only takes 8 minutes for a submarine off the East Coast to drop the bomb on Washington, where we happen to live. We know all those things, but they seem less threatening because we get used to them. Because we live in a land of deep darkness too.
So what Isaiah promised should sound good to us. People who walk in darkness seeing a great light all of a sudden. People who dwell in a land of deep darkness having light shine on them.
This is a metaphor, of course. Light is a symbol of the dawn of hope. Hearts that were gloomy become bright and cheerful. Faces that were hard and bitter become smiling and bright.
For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given.
So the hope becomes focused in a person, not a circumstance. The hope is about a new equation entering the scene. Just a child at first. But someone who'll do something for us we could never do for ourselves.
Isaiah describes this child. Not in physical terms, but in terms of his role. What he will become for us, and mean to us. Let's see.
There are four descriptions, and perhaps you know them well.
Prince of Peace.
I wish I could be a wonderful counselor. I wish I was able to go out to the Montgomery County Detention Center and move cell-by-cell through that facility, giving counsel to people whose lives are in a mess. Knowing just what to say, and how to say it, bringing help and hope to every person there.
I wish I could sit down with couples having trouble with their marriage and be a wonderful counselor. Or the teen-agers who're at odds with their parents. Or the victims of child abuse–I wish I knew how to counsel them so that would never again be a problem in their lives.
When do people go to a counselor? Do they go when they think they know the answers and have things in hand? No. They go when life hurts. They go when answers they thought they had turn out to be irrelevant. They go when there seems no other place to go. They go desperate.
How disappointing to go to a counselor and not be helped. To go looking for a way out, and become more confused and lost than ever.
A couple told me about some marriage counseling they'd had that was like that. They said they went in holding hands, and came out not speaking to one another! No wonder they soon gave it up, and called it a waste of time and money. It isn't easy being a Wonderful Counselor.
Unto us a child is born who shall be called Mighty God.
Something seems funny about that. How can a baby be a mighty God, and how can a Mighty God become a helpless baby? A Mighty God wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger?
The people Isaiah wrote to had been over-run by a foreign military power. The power they longed for was the power of mighty men going out into battle. The power we respect the most is that of 300 pound linemen, or an aircraft carrier, or a man with money. But the prophet's hope of power is in the birth of a tiny infant.
This is the time of year you get a lot a catalogs in the mail. Some of them are fun to look through, because they have so many new things. You find yourself turning the pages amazed. You say you wish you had this or that. Until the question comes, "What for??"
I saw this electronic measuring device for only $90 (regular price $150). You can set that thing down in a room and it will measure the room to quarter-of-an-inch accuracy without moving or being moved. That's really amazing, isn't it? I'd never have to use one of those old-fashioned steel tapes again. Only, I never use one anyway. So what do I need with this gadget, smart as it may be?
They had another thing you plug in the wall, then plug the telephone into that, and you can listen to what's going on in that room from anywhere you want to. You just call the phone with a special code, and the phone doesn't ring, it just listens.
Why, for only $200, I could get one of those and hear what Diane and Becky say about me when I'm not around. Wouldn't that be great?! We'd all three be going to see a counselor. Or how about the world's first hands-free cordless phone? They say it will change the way you use the phone forever!
What we want is seldom what we need, you see? Our salvation doesn't lie in what we look to for salvation. God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform. A child is born to a poor family in Bethlehem of Judea, but in that child all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And he grew up to be called the Son of the Most High, the Mighty God.
And as if that were not enough, he's also called the Everlasting Father.
You need a father–even the strongest among us do. You need someone who loves you no matter what, who's always there and ready to help, who understands when no one else does, who strengthens you every day just by the relationship you have with him.
But I learned last summer that earthly fathers aren't everlasting.
Mine left me just as I'll leave my own someday.
What all of us need, then, is an everlasting father. When you know you dwell in a land of deep darkness, you know you need that.
Unto us a child is born, and the last descriptor is: Prince of Peace.
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."
To walk the streets of any city is to see anger everywhere. Everywhere.
Yet Jesus came to change that. He taught meekness and humility. He said to turn the other cheek and go the second mile. He urged us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. He brought peace to the mind of a man who ran screaming around a cemetery at night. He gave his blessing to the peacemakers.
Who else deserves the title "Prince of Peace?" Is he not our Wonderful Counselor? The Mighty God? The Everlasting Father?
Unto us such a child was born. Unto us God's son was given.
Joy to the world! Joy to the world!
WHAT DOES GOD EXPECT?
Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.
"O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord."
"With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"
He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
There's a southern expression that says "he's done quit preachin' and gone to medlin'! You ever heard that? It means the subject got changed from distant matters to matters close at hand. Uncomfortably close at hand.
I thought of that as I studied Micah and our passage for the morning. For if you read back, you find the prophet had been preaching on the wickedness of other nations and how God would punish them for it. He says to his audience: "Your hand shall be lifted up over your adversaries, and all your enemies shall be cut off." (Micah 5:9)
Now that's really good preaching. Folk like to hear that kind of thing. Talk about beating up on their adversaries and they holler "amen! preach on!"
But then as chapter six begins, the preaching turns to meddling. No longer is Micah on the sins of the nations, now it's about the sins of the people hearing his sermon. "Woe is them" becomes "woe is us" and finally "woe is me."
Do you know any people who are always telling what's wrong with this person or that person and really need to get down on their own knees and pray about what's wrong with them? Do you?
Well, I'm sure you do. But I'm also sure that you're one of them! And I am too. We may not be the worst, but we all have this decided tendency to be hard on other people and easy on ourselves. Sharp-eyed about the sins of others and blind to our own. So a good prophet like Micah isn't about to let us get away with that.
Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people . . ..
We have our controversies with one another, but here God has a controversy with us. With a whole bunch of us who call ourselves his people. And we may not know that, we may be minding our own business and expecting God to mind his, but it doesn't work that way. Our business is his business, and he takes it seriously whether we do or not.
Imagine having to plead your case as Micah describes it there. We're summoned to give account of ourselves. Summoned to stand before the mountains, God, and each other for the occasion. And notice the question:
"O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
I hear excuses for why people won't help with this or serve on that. Why they won't be coming to things, or doing things around the church. But do you know, I've never had anyone say, "well Pastor, it's because I'm tired of God." They might say they're tired of me, but not of him. But Micah says it's really God they're tired of.
They say, "I'm tired of singing those songs they sing." "I'm sick and tired to doing things for people who don't appreciate it." "I'm tired of going to church and being told what to do." "I'm tired of teaching children and need a rest."
From our standpoint, that all seems reasonable. If God expects more from us, maybe he should have made more hours in the day. If he isn't happy with our service, maybe he expects too much. He needs to revise his expectations. Perhaps the Ten Commandments should be called the "ten suggestions."
But the Lord has a problem understanding that attitude. He thinks of all he's done for us, and all we owe to him, and just can't figure it out! He wants them to remember this blessing, and that deliverance, and their list of things sounds strange to us, but we have our own. Of all the blessed there are on earth, who is more blessed than us?
So why, on a day set aside for the praise and worship of God the giver of every good and perfect gift, are there empty seats in places like this, all up and down these roads, as people who claim to believe in God go living as if he doesn't even exist?
We live our lives in debt every day to the love and grace of God. But we are blind to much of it, or most of it, or all of it. And that, friends, is the controversy God has with his people.
He shakes his head. "O my people, what have I done to you?" "What have I done to deserve this treatment you give me?"
God is incredulous, as Jesus was that time he said: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" (Matthew 23:37)
It didn't make sense that people respond to Almighty God with such indifference, but they had. It doesn't make sense that we respond to God with such indifference, but we do.
The next question is, of course, "Well, what does God expect?" If he's so dissatisfied with us, what would it take to make him happy? Before he gives the answer, Micah lists some possibilities. He asks:
"With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?"
Burnt offerings, let's say? How about a lot of burnt offerings? Some rare, some medium, and some well-done, just to make sure. A thousand, or maybe even ten thousand burnt offerings to God. What a smoke! rising up from there toward heaven.
Or even . . . or even, burnt babies. That's what that means when it speaks of giving "my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul."
It was a custom in the Near East at that time to sacrifice your first-born child to God in order that he would later grant you many children and bless your home. Archaeologists find the ashes of sacrificed babies in urns at the corners of their houses. The custom of putting things in a cornerstone actually began with the ashes of those babies.
But Micah says no. No, please, that isn't what God wants. No ritual act, no matter how costly, is what he wants most.
He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Do we breathe sighs of relief on hearing that? It sounds so nice, and was John Kennedy's favorite verse. It seems so much easier than giving up your livestock or one of your kids.
Until you see that the verse is not just about our actions, it's about our attitudes as well. How we treat our fellow man, and how we feel about our fellow man. How we treat God, and how we feel about him.
Those are the things God cares about most. Those were the basis of this controversy. His own people had not been doing justice, or loving kindness, or walking humbly with him.
Yesterday's Post had a lot of news about Baptists. A church in Memphis kicked out for calling a woman as pastor, a seminary president forced to resign, an agency that wouldn't knuckle under about to be strangled to death. Not much about doing justice, loving kindness, or walking humbly with God reflected there.
Of course we all love kindness when we're on the receiving end.
I was at a restaurant the other day where people were waiting and the hostess made a move to seat a lady who came in after I did. And being Mr. Nice Guy I wasn't going to say anything about it, and didn't figure she would either. But she did. She said no, that man was here first, and pointed to me. So I was seated when I should have been. She did justice and kindness both, and made me think maybe she walks humbly with her God.
That's what God expects of us. That's what's important to him. That's why he'll say "come, you blessed of my Father" to some and "depart, you workers of iniquity" to others.
There's nothing fancy or hidden about what God wants. There's no secret formula there in Daniel or Revelation. He made it very plain and simple, a long while ago.
But if you think it's easy, just try living it every hour of every day. Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.
DON'T FORGET ME
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
They were having a service in this home for the mentally ill, and it was a Communion service. Things had started off well and gone along just about like they have here. Everyone was quiet and paying attention. Until something happened.
Halfway back on the right side a man stood up who wasn't supposed to stand up. And he somewhat shattered the dignity of that occasion by crying out "Don't forget me."
Well, they were used to things like that every now and then. They mostly stayed quiet and tried to act like nothing happened. The worship continued.
But the man who'd asked not to be forgotten wasn't about to be forgotten so easily. He came out of his seat, and up the aisle. He took hold of the minister's shoulder, and shook him, and said more loudly than before, "Don't forget me!"
The minister never did forget that! He even put it in a book, and that's how it came to me. And now you've heard it too. And who knows? you might even tell someone else before the week's out. So there are ways of insuring that you won't be forgotten.
The thief on the cross: "Lord, remember me when you get to that kingdom of yours." "Don't forget me, Lord." And Jesus said no, he wouldn't.
If a young man from West Germany was to penetrate Soviet airspace, and fly across the country, and land his plane in Red Square, would he get some attention from that or not? Would it be remembered that he'd done that?
In Dylan Thomas' radio play "Under Milkwood," there's an old blind sea captain named Captain Cat. He spends his time daydreaming about the past, especially women. His favorite woman to daydream about was named Rosie Probert. The Captain used to visit Rosie, as a lot of sailors did.
Rosie has been dead for years now. But one day Captain Cat has this vivid dream where he sees her again. He tries to talk about old times.
And Rosie seems to listen, but not hear. She seems far away as in a fog. Only aware that someone she used to know is trying to talk with her. And over and over she cries out her strongest wish and her sad predicament:
"Remember me! remember me! I have forgotten you."
As time passes, more and more things get forgotten. More and more people are forgotten. Things about people we should have remembered we just can't anymore.
My father outlived my mother by 16 years. Dad's memory is vivid in my mind today. I have dreams about him some nights. Mother, I certainly remember, but not as vividly. It's the nature of memories that they fade and become less distinct.
What then of things that simply must be remembered? Of people whose lives matter so much that nothing about them can afford to be lost?
Well, you write books about them, you tell stories, you erect monuments, you have special days–and you name things.
Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander came from my home town. Not a bad governor, I hear. We both went to Maryville High and both were Boy Scouts in Troop 88.
Well, driving around town this summer, Diane and I noticed all these Lamar Alexander roads and Lamar Alexander buildings and Lamar Alexander bridges and other things named for him. It was almost like maybe they should've renamed the town!
But naming things for people doesn't always do that much. I swim in the Martin Luther King Swim Center in White Oak. And I'm glad they named it that. But how many swimmers splashing around in there ever think of Dr. King while they're swimming, would you say? Not many is what I'd say. So the best reminders must be better ones.
Jesus of Nazareth, facing death, took his disciples to an upper room for their last meal together. And they had their meal, which was the Passover. And then he said, "Now, there's something else."
And he got this loaf of bread and broke it up and gave it to them to eat. They were all quiet, because they could tell this was something special. He told them this bread was his body which would soon be broken for them. And the cup of wine he passed around was his blood which would be shed for them. And they should do this after he was gone–they should have this meal–to remember him by.
It was his way of saying "don't forget me." And it was his way of underscoring what the main thing is to remember him for.
Not his good deeds. Not his great insights. Not his miracles of healing. Not his way with little children. Not his courage or compassion or any other of his marvelous traits. It was his atoning death for the sins of others.
That he gave not just his time and effort, but his very life at last.
Don't forget him. And don't forget that.
AND THEY CONTINUED
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, and to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
It's not how you start out–it's how you follow through and end up that counts the most.
New Year's Resolutions are a joke this time of year. I heard a reporter interviewing people on the street about their resolutions, and almost all of them were humerous or attempts at being humerous.
It becomes a sort of open season on hypocrisy. You say you'll do things you have no intention of doing. Or perhaps you do have some intention, but you know it won't last. You give yourself permission not to expect it to last. Many start out, but few finish.
The inspiring thing about the early Christian church was its tenacity–it's stubborn commitment to its mission in good times and bad. They had decided to follow Jesus–no turning back! no turning back! Though none went with them, they still would follow. No turning back.
I think you could make a diagram of the book of Acts, and what you'd have is a cycle where the faith begins within a group of people, and how that happened and what it meant, and then, next, how it continued to be worked out in their lives. And you see again and again how it spills over from one place to another, and the cycle is renewed all over again. Seldom, if ever, do you hear about the inception only. You always sense the movement toward outcome.
They have a great day–a great sermon, and a great response. Three thousand souls are baptized. All those people making New Year's Resolutions. All those old ways they're going to give up, and the new ways they're going to take up. Imagine what the skeptics had to say! Imagine the column an agnostic reporter writes for the newspaper, making fun of this and predicting nothing will come of it.
There's a southern saying that "it ain't the dog in the fight, it's the fight in the dog." And those folk who said to Peter, "yes, we believe he was the Christ, and we want to be saved, and we'll be baptized and serve him for the rest of our lives"–those people had fight in them.
You wouldn't know it right at first. The skeptical reporter can be partially excused. He had only his intuition and previous experience to go on.
But you begin to know more when it becomes apparant they intended to follow through with this. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." They sold their belongings and pooled their resources for the common good. And "day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God ahd having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
And as you follow this story chapter-by-chapter through the book of Acts, you get a clear sense that it isn't the sort of thing that's running out of steam, it's picking up steam!
There's a marvelous vision of Ezekiel's he tells about in chapter 47. The Lord had led him to the temple and shown him a stream of water coming out of it. Water to save and bless the land. And they measure a thousand cubits down and walk through that stream. The water is ankle-deep.
I used to wade in ankle-deep water. The little creek that ran through the College Woods in Maryville was like that. Fine for minnows and craw-dads and little bitty snails that hung on the mossy rocks. Fine for cooling your feet on a hot summer day. But not much of a stream if you're talking about the needs of a city, or even a town.
In Ezekiel's vision, they come out and go on further down. They measure another thousand cubits. And there, again, they walk through the water–and it's up to the knees. And the same again, and it was waist-deep. Then read:
Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through.
Is this all about water, or what? Oh no. Read on. The Lord tells Ezekiel:
And wherever the river goes every living creature which swarms will live, and there will be very many fish; for this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea; from Engedi to Eneglaim it will be a place for spreading of nets; its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.
That sounds like a prophecy of the Environmental Protection Agency, but it really has little to do with that. This is a poetic and symbolic representation of the spiritual benefits that flow from the temple of God to bless the earth.
Now you'd think that the closer you were to the temple, the greater would be the benefit. And the farther you got from the shadow of the temple, the less it would be.
What a marvelous vision that sees this in reverse. The longer the river flows, the deeper and wider it gets.
How great is the blessing that flows from the temple of God at 801 University Boulevard, West? And how far does it flow?
Is it ankle deep, or more? If you followed and measured it, what would you find? Would you find it flowing like a river throughout the seasons, so the trees along its banks bear fruit every month of the year?
We grow by caring about things like that. We grow by caring more for them than the host of other things competing for our attention.
The things important for us are those same things that were important for the early church. "Teaching" "fellowship" "breaking of bread" and "prayer." Sharing our possessions and distributing to those in need.
And as we give ourselves to those, the Lord will add to our number as he added to theirs.
It's a new year. Let's make the most of it.
INTO ALL THE WORLD
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."
Our celebration of the birth of Christ can have a broad or a narrow focus. It can be a few people in a small circle, exchanging presents with one another and conscious of nothing else. Or it can be seen as the global event it surely was. Instead of "joy to us, the Lord has come" it can be "joy to the world, the Lord has come."
My text this morning shows how Jesus intended it as joy to the world. How he gave a great commission to go into all the world with the gospel and make disciples. How we should teach those disciples to observe the same things he taught us–such as taking a loaf and a cup and sharing them in remembrance of him.
I never cease to be amazed at the audacity of the Great Commission. Here was a man whose tiny movement seemed headed for extinction, and he envisions it as a force to conquer the world. Here was a man whose followers were narrow and prejudiced in outlook, and he tells them to become friends friends with foreigners.
Yet tradition tells us the eleven did just that. It says that they went everywhere preaching the gospel, and that each one died in a foreign land. (where the disciples died).
I heard an unintended compliment once. It was said I was trying to turn Luther Rice into an "international church." And I was, and still am, guilty of that as charged. That's what Jesus said to do. That's what I was called as a minister to do. Any Christian who isn't trying to spread the gospel to every tongue and tribe and nation, isn't doing what Jesus commanded.
I can imagine if there'd been a First Baptist Church of Jesusalem, and Jesus was its pastor, he'd have been trying to get Samaritans to join it–don't you think? And there'd have been some folk who thought those Samaritans ought to stay to themselves and have their own church. Be fine to send them missionaries and then let the missionaries come back and show their color slides, but we don't want our church becoming a Samaritan church. No.
Jesus would have felt strongly about that. He might have cried, or laughed, or been furious. He'd have said that people will come from the north and south and east and west to sit down together in the kingdom of God. And here and now is where that ought to begin.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, why, there came Wise Men from lands way off in the East to worship him, as well as shepherds from just outside of town. And early on his parents took him to live in Egypt for awhile. And out of Egypt God called his son. And he grew up to tell his followers that as the Father had sent him, he was sending them.
The world is so much smaller now than it was then. When Jesus gave the Great Commission, our part of it hadn't even been discovered. Had it been discovered, it would have taken six months or so to get there. Now we cross it in a matter of hours. We can call on the phone for a few dollars. We can mail a letter for a few cents. The world is more one place, only the people of the world have yet to realize it.
I think it would help if we could each take a ride out there in space–if our country ever has the nerve to do that again–and see it, see all the earth, as one place. One unit of God's creation. To which, in the fullness of time, he sent his son.
There's the North Pole where the Eskimos live, and down there's Mexico and South America. We see the Atlantic ocean, and most of Europe. Some of the Pacific, and maybe Hawaii. The green of Canada. The white of the arctic. The blue of the seas. It's all one place. One place. And one people, one human kind, whoever they are.
God so loved that world that he sent his only son to be its savior. God so loved that world that he said whoever believes on him will have eternal life. God so loved that world that he tells all who believe to spread the good news to others.
We've a story to tell to the nations. Let's tell it.
THE THINGS LOVE DOES
1 Corinthians 13
What if you could pick out a new name for yourself? Any name you wanted? After all, since you've known yourself a few years now, maybe there is a better name than what you were given before anyone knew what you'd be like!
Popes get to do that, don't they? Pick out a new name. And a recent one decided to call himself John Paul. John for the apostle of love, and Paul for the apostle of faith. At least that's how it was explained.
But John the Apostle knew some about faith. He wrote, "whatever is born of God overcomes the world, and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith." And the Apostle Paul knew something about love, because he wrote the 13th chapter of First Corinthians. And it says that even in the company of faith and hope, love is the greatest.
As you read what Paul wrote, you must remember about the folk he wrote to. He wrote to that bragging, brawling church at Corinth. Where more than your average share of mischief-makers were at work. Where worship could end with everyone talking at once. Where wealthy members got preferential treatment. Where everyone seemed bent on proving he was more spiritual than the rest. Where people sometimes got drunk in celebrating the Lord's Supper. Where poor people were shamed into leaving, so others would be more comfortable. Where some liked Paul, and some Apollos, and some Peter, and a few liked Jesus Christ.
To this church with those terrible problems was the famous "love chapter" sent. So it wasn't so much a poet at work, but a pastor. Doing a nice little piece to be read at weddings was the last thing on his mind.
Paul had decided the failure to love is the greatest failure. And the lack of love is the biggest problem–especially in a Christian church.
This is a chapter full of verbs. Paul wants to show what love does, not waste time trying to tell what it is. He wrote about love in practice, not in theory. He wanted his readers to be different, not just feel different.
It is our task as Christians to live love. Listen:
Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God. For God is love.
Much is at stake here. Paul begins by saying a person may possess any spiritual gift, but if there's no love, it's worthless. An eloquent tongue, a keen mind, a passionate faith, even a willingness to serve–those are perversions when love is missing. Love is the hardest thing, but it's the basic thing.
So what does love do? Read and see. You find, to begin with, it does patience and kindness.
They said Abe Lincoln never forgot a kindness or remembered a wrong. The human tendency is to do the opposite. And by the way, the word for patience means patience with people, not with circumstances. Being kind, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God for Christ's sake has forgiven us.
We should be that way because that's the way God is. God doesn't tell us to be that way, and then behave some other way himself. No, God is patient and kind. Read the story of Hosea. God doesn't cast people aside like we do. He doesn't give up on them like we do. And if you don't know that God has been patient with you–that you've tried his patience time and time again–you need to know that.
Patient, and kind. Remember kind. There's a sort of goodness that might be called a cruel goodness. Which is why the little girl at her bedtime prayers asked God to help all the good people be kind. There are a lot of people who call themselves Christians today who would have voted with the Pharisees about stoning that woman they caught in adultery. It's always been easier to stone people than to love them.
Paul goes on to say what else love does. It keeps from being jealous, and it keeps from being boastful. Huh!
According to Genesis, jealousy was the cause of the first murder. And I suspect if you search the paper today you'll read where it was the cause of some others last night.
Jealousy and boastfulness are selfish vices. They show the center of one's attention is one's self. That the success one most desires is one's own. They disallow pleasure in the success of others. They beget hatred where others come out the better. And hatred begets strife.
Paul said weep with the weeping and rejoice with the rejoicing. But jealousy and boastfulness won't let you do that. You feel like rejoicing when someone else weeps. You feel like weeping when they have cause to rejoice. And what a poor, sorry world is a world where that's the way people live together.
The people Jesus blessed are the poor in spirit. Those who have a humble sense of their need. The very opposite of pride and conceit.
Love "lays down its life for a friend," he taught. Only an unselfish person would think of doing that. The others ask "what's in it for me?" and head the other direction.
The selfish person is sour because he thinks he hasn't gotten what he deserved. The loving person is humble in her belief that no gift she gives is ever quite as good as it ought to be. The two attitudes are poles apart.
What else? "Not arrogant or rude," says Paul. Which is to say, "not inflated with its own importance, not behaving gracelessly." Why, in the church at Corinth the rich members were bringing gourmet food to church suppers and stuffing themselves full, while other members had nothing. So Paul told them all to eat at home. There was no way to have a real church supper, because some were so arrogant and rude.
Next is, "love does not insist on its own way." Love doesn't play boss, it plays servant. It doesn't live loud, it lives soft. It doesn't threaten or coerce or overwhelm or manipulate. Instead of controlling with force, love attracts devotion. People will do some things out of fear, but the greatest are always out of love.
Do you see how our state of mind has everything to do with how things come out? The word "repentance" literally means to change your mind. Life that was self-centered becomes centered in God and others.
Keep self as your main concern. Keep telling yourself that's the way to be a winner. But you and Jesus have a problem. According to him, that's the surest way to lose it all.
On it goes. "Love is not irritable."
James and John–disciples of Jesus. They were tired from traveling, and annoyed because some citizens of Samaria didn't treat them too nice. Their solution? "Let's call down fire from heaven and burn 'em all up!"
"Love is not irritable." And "not resentful," he goes on to say. Meaning it doesn't store up memories of past wrongs. The Greek word is an accountant's word. It speaks of entering figures in a ledger so they won't be forgotten. This translates to nursing your hurts, collecting them like trophies, and waiting for the time to get back.
And it "does not rejoice at wrong," he says. Tell me, what's more interesting to hear about a person, his rise or his downfall? Which gets more space in the newspaper? Isn't there a sad pleasure attached to hearing bad things about people you don't love? They asked Garrison Keillor why he was always on guard around reporters. He said maybe you should be on guard around people for whom witnessing your violent death would be a profitable event!
And finally, says Paul, love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
I saw that love in Joe and Mary Shadwick. Mike Shadwick, their teen-age son, had a brain tumor that took two long years to kill him. I never saw more love or devotion.
But, of course, we take pity on the sick–so that might not be the best example. What about the kid who takes off like the prodigal son? What does daddy say when friends inquire how he is? Or when his brother does?
How hard . . .
to bear all the things that have to be borne,
to believe all the things you want to believe,
to hope all the things that seem so hopeless,
to endure what would surely be unendurable–but for
the grace of God.
Love. Love finds a way to do that.
Nothing else will even come close.
THE WIDOW'S MITE
And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, "Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living."
Jesus noticed things. He noticed things no one else paid attention to.
They'd all be watching the center of attraction, the main show. But he'd be watching them. He had this uncanny way of knowing what was going on inside people's heads. As if he could read their thoughts. He was the kind of person it was awfully hard to lie to. Because you'd know as you started to tell the lie that he would know it was a lie.
He knew all sorts of things. He knew that certain people who seemed good weren't nearly as good as they seemed to be. And he knew that certain people who seemed bad weren't nearly as bad as they seemed to be.
I mean, there were religious big-shots people thought of with holy reverence, and Jesus saw them performing and laughed out loud! "You mean you let these hypocrites tell you what to do? You mean you send them your hard-earned money so they can buy those expensive robes?" And people went . . . "Ooohh!"
Then he'd point out some woman they all looked down on, like she was dirt under their feet, someone they wouldn't even speak to. Why, they almost stoned her for adultery one time. And he'd say to them: "She'll be in the kingdom before those other fellows." And they go . . . "Ooohhh!"
The bottom line was this: people saw things as they seemed, while Jesus saw things as they were. And in all of scripture, there's perhaps no finer example of that than the one we have before us this morning.
People saw things as they seemed. The temple had thirteen metal containers for receiving the offerings. And when heavy coins of gold and silver were thrown into those containers, it made a clatter like an army on a bridge. And when people saw someone with an elaborate robe, and large rings, and a stately air, and servants helping carry all the loot he was about to dump in there, they naturally assumed that this was great! this was just spectacular! this was front-page stuff!
"Wealthy donor contributes record sum"–that could be the headline. Get a close-up picture there, him with his arm around the Rabbi. Big smiles. And the Rabbi would speak of how long he'd known this man, and what a fine man he was, and that this was the most exciting thing to happen in his entire ministry.
But Jesus saw it differently. He saw that those who gave much had much left over after doing the giving. They gave what amounted to a token of their abundance. They gave to God like we give a tip at the restaurant. A small sum intended to make others happy, but surely no sacrifice. And they got a lot out of it, for they earned the praise and admiration of the crowds. Which was good for business, of course. Charge it to advertising, and write it off on the tax return.
No one there noticed what Jesus noticed. No one at all. They were all watching the obvious. But he saw what wasn't obvious. He saw what needed to be seen and appreciated, but wasn't. Yet, it was the most important thing that happened there that day.
It's amazing to imagine–imagine all that heavy metal tossed into thirteen large containers, and yet the sound Jesus heard was made by two small copper coins.
A widow gave them. A widow who was poor. A widow who could ill afford to give anything away, and needed someone to give something to her, she was so desperate.
What difference would her money make? She must have wondered as she waited in that line. Waited with those rich people and their large, heavy purses. Her with two of the smallest coins there were. Two denarii.
What do we know about her kind of giving? We're more like those others. We give little out of much, but she gave much out of little. Why? What on earth made her do it?
The story doesn't tell that. It leaves us to wonder. Wonder if such a thing is even possible in the world we know. As if this is something for preachers to use in sermons, but nothing that could happen in real life.
I haven't seen a lot, but I've seen some. I've known widows who gave their mites. I've been near people who gave much and held little back.
I had lunch with David the other day and told him about a stewardship drive I once led. I was a college student at the time, and this was a country church where no one had ever signed a pledge card in all recorded history, either modern or ancient.
But I decided they should sign pledge cards, and we could take a great step forward as a church of Jesus. So I designed a plan, enlisted help, prayed on my knees, preached fervent sermons, mailed out mail, and waited for the big day. I really expected it to be successful.
Instead, it was a dismal failure. The deacons didn't pledge, the people didn't, even the chairman of the committee didn't. I was young and new at this. I took it personally and felt repudiated. My sermons those next few Sundays were no joy to listen to!
But I do remember this. When the cards came in that Sunday–what few there were–I found among them a pledge from the poorest family in the church. Who owned no home and did hard work for other people at meager wages. Whose children's new clothes were always someone else's old clothes. Whose car might have sold for $50. And while I was still hurt and angry at the rest of the church, they came to me, their pastor, and said in simple faith how much this commitment had meant to them.
I'd called it a failure. But for them, in heaven's sight, it was no such thing. The crowds had come, and listened, and seen, and passed on by. But they had lingered there before the treasury, and been blessed.
The explanation of all such acts has got to be love. What else could it be?
Love is a spendthrift. Impulsive, generous, uncalculating. Love tries finding ways of doing more, not excuses for doing less.
And God must be the object of that love. No one gives the widow's mite for love of crowd or priest or temple. And you never do it out of duty, though some of that might help get you started.
How much do you love God? How much do you show it by what you bring to his treasury?
Money talks, it's true. And Jesus is interested in the tale it tells–that's why he was there that day. That's why he still is a watcher of treasuries.
He knows the struggles that go on. How part of us wants to be loving and sharing and generous. But another part would be greedy and selfish and hard-hearted. So it's a spiritual victory that's won or lost as we decide on what to bring to the treasury.
And isn't it amazing? twenty centuries later we still remember what one poor widow did that day. She showed how it isn't what you take from this world that counts for long, it's what you give to it. For God has a tricky law that says the more you give, the more you get; but the more you try to keep for yourself, the less you'll have. Of the things that matter most.
There's something about the widow's mite that judges us all. You could almost wish the woman had stayed away and never been heard from. Because her example eats up our excuses like an acid, and in the end we stand with mouths open as if to speak, and nothing at all to say.
If she did that, what should we be doing?
Ah, woman! you do trouble us! Why'd you have to go and do so much? And us in line right here behind you. And Jesus still standing there . . . and watching to see what we do.
"Now there was a day when (Job's) sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house; and there came a messenger to Job, and said, 'The oxen were plowing and the asses feeding beside them; and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.' While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, 'The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.' While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, 'The Chaldeans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.' While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, 'Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house; and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you."
"Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped. And he said, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.'"
"In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong."
It's a common assumption that the rich trust in their riches. That because they've gained so much in the way of material things, they must be materially minded. They've laid up treasure here on earth, how could they have had the time to lay up any in heaven?
Those things may often be true, but not necessarily. The story of Job gives another side. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, as Paul tells us. But it wasn't the root of evil in Job's life, despite the fact that he had plenty of it–at least for awhile.
Because the man lost all his worldly goods in terrible swift succession, and finally all seven of his sons and all three of his daughters. And instead of crying "why me?" as most men will do at such a time, he more-or-less said "why not me?" Why not?
What right have we to accept the good in life as if we deserve it, and then lament the bad as if we don't deserve a portion of that? "The Lord gave," Job said, "and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."
He isn't blessing God for taking his wealth away, but he is showing that his main dependence is on God, not the things with which God has blessed him.
A vital question for us all. Is our dependence on God, or on the worldly things he has given to our care?
Which would we miss the most: the worship and fellowship of God, or half our savings? Which do American Christians watch more closely, the progress of God's kingdom, or the progress of their investments? Which will upset you more, to miss your favorite t.v. program, or miss church?
The loss of things that mean the most to us are always the most devastating. If it's a husband, and he dies; or a boat, and it sinks; or a farm that fails, or even a puppy dog that gets run over by a car. Are there people for whom the greatest thing in this world is to live vicariously the lives of the rich and famous, the stars, the heroes? That's what all those magazines are about, isn't it?
Any thing in life can become your main thing, you see. Your reason for being. And you'll fight for it most fiercely, and grieve its loss most bitterly.
We learn a lot from our losses and how they affect us. We learn lessons about where our values were placed. We're given the opportunity, in time of loss, to re-consider how they ought to be placed.
When I was at seminary, we had a professor named William Hull. Hull taught New Testament and was known as a hard taskmaster. He was an excellent scholar, and also a commanding speaker and personality. He had the greatest gestures in the pulpit I've ever seen. He could read the Farmer's Almanac and hold you spellbound, just by the way he spoke it with his hands. (Remind me to work on that.)
The Dean of Students was Peyton Thurman, and he and Hull were neighbors. Years later, Thurman told me about the fire. The Hulls were out for the evening, and came back to find their home and everything gone up in smoke.
Thurman said he met him in the yard. He heard him say, "I don't know what I'm going to do." Which was especially strange if you knew Bill Hull, because Bill Hull always knew what he was going to do. But there before the ruin of his life's belongings, he wasn't sure.
It was temporary, though. Thurman said in five minutes or so, he'd thought through things and reassessed. And was much like Job, after Job's own losses. He was ready to put this behind him and go on with life.
People who're able to do that give testimony about their values and their dependence. Lives that don't consist in the abundance of things they possess. Their losses are less threatening, for they have resources no one knows about.
Neil Diamond has a song where he goes through a rhyming list of dead people well-known in public life. Some you hadn't thought of for awhile, but as soon as you hear the name, the memory comes back. Then the song continues:
And each one there
has one thing to share:
they have sweated beneath the same sun,
looked up in wonder at the same moon,
and wept when it was all done
for bein' done too soon.
And this is true, of course. But it's also true that for a person of faith like Job, it may not be done when it's done. Despite the gaining or loosing of this or that, he still thinks goodness and mercy shall follow him all the days of his life, and he shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
To have that faith, you must hope in more than things of earth. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of God stands forever. Nations crumble, kingdoms perish, but the throne of heaven stands. "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling."
How did Job react to the losses he suffered? It says he "rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped." And they heard him saying:
"Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."
Job felt naked. He felt uncovered and unprotected. He felt vulnerable and afraid, and yet was able to find the resources he needed through faith in God. His feeling of nakedness let him find what those in fine clothing often miss.
The state of Maryland has some experimental schools where pupils are required to dress alike. They dress in neat but simple clothing you can buy inexpensively. This does away with social pressure and competition to outdo your peers with expensive, stylish clothes. (I suppose a lot of parents would vote for that!) The article told about a P.G. County student recently stabbed over a $95 pair of designer sunglasses.
"Clothes make the man," the saying goes. And women even more. But that's an advertiser's lie, if ever there was one. Clothes make no man or woman better in the sight of God. Naked we came here, and naked we leave. We hide behind our coverings, but not from God who looks not on outward appearance, but on the heart.
In the last years of my father's life, I noticed his urge to get rid of things. "These old quilts here," he'd say, "I won't need them anymore. You take them home. Use them, or give them to somebody."
He gave me the last of his guns. He gave me back presents he forgot I'd given him. Old books, old dishes, old letters and diplomas. He gave me things I didn't need and didn't want, but took because it was important to him.
Naked he'd come into this world, and naked he was about to return. We bring nothing in, and we shall surely take nothing out. When Dad died I trucked away everything he had in his room and in storage and sold it to a relative for $300.
Jesus, of course, did even better. At the end, the only possession he had was a coat. And the soldiers who crucified him passed the time by gambling for that.
But he left more, of course, and that's the point. He left his teachings, his acts of love, his saving grace. He left a zeal for God in the hearts of followers. He left joy in the lives of children, and light on the faces of blind beggars. And had he left more in the way of material goods, he might have left less of those–but who can say?
The point for us is the fact of how we came, and how we shall go, and how we can make the most of our opportunities in between.
Two Sunday nights from now, we'll have a concert and testimonies by the Christian Performing Artists Fellowship. It should be quite an evening. They have so many musicians that we're planning to set up the extension for this platform we use every year or two for something special.
That extension was hand-built by a Luther Rice young person. It's been around here a little longer than I have. But I never knew who built it till the other day.
Troy did–Troy Waldron. "He, being dead, yet speaketh." So those folk better sing well, and play well, and dance well–because that's holy ground they'll be standing on.
You see, don't you?
We come with nothing, and leave with nothing, but we can go to something. And we can leave behind us a legacy of love that continues to bless the life of earth. And we can demonstrate, as Job did, that lured on as we are by worldly possessions, our highest aim is pleasing God.
For we are persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Job, of course, knew nothing of Jesus.
But he does now! He does now.
NEARBY, OR FAR AWAY
O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
I heard a story which said that in a certain city there was an old and respected Rabbi, and he was dying. The news had gotten around, and his friends and family and others who were just admirers had gathered at the house. He lay in an upstairs room.
As many as could get inside the room were there, and others were outside the door, and some were lined along the stairs, and, in fact, the line went out the front door and across the porch and down into the yard.
The people there in the room with the Rabbi hoped, of course, that a great man like this would have something profound to say at the last. Those closest to the bed were bending down so as not to miss whatever words he spoke.
They were rewarded. The Rabbi's beard moved a little, and his chin trembled. The words were feeble but unmistakable. He said . . . "Life is like a river."
This was whispered from ear to ear around the room, and out the door, and down the steps, and across the porch, and out into the yard until it came to the last person in line, who happened to be a young seminary student. And with all due respect to the source and circumstances, it sounded like nonsense to him. And when he heard it, he turned back to the person beside him and said "why?"
And that person said "why?" to the next person. And the question began its journey across the yard and the porch and up the stairs and back to the Rabbi's bedside, where the person who heard "life is like a river" in the first place bent down and whispered "why, Rabbi? Why is life like a river?"
And his answer was, "So, it isn't like a river then"!
In the realm of profound things, the questions come easy, but the answers come hard. We think a thing is settled, and then right away it gets unsettled. No person's view is safe from another person's "why?"
Thomas Carlyle liked to say with his acid tongue that what the country needs is someone who knows God other than by hearsay.
But it surely is a lot easier to be uncomfortable about someone else's knowledge of God than to be comfortable in your own. This is the struggle all of us have.
One thing about it, though, no one discusses God in his absence. Anyone who talks about God is judged by God even while he does it. Anyone who thinks about God has his thoughts known to God.
To know ourselves is hard enough. To really know and understand another person is harder. And to know and understand Almighty God who made us–what is that?
It's simply the goal of life, that's what. It's what we need the most to do. We need it for ourselves. As Karl Barth put it: "The knowledge of God is not a knowledge that leaves us untouched; it draws us along. God takes us into his service. He does not leave us as we were, and he does not let us 'know' him as though we were independent. He becomes All for us." (from The Faith of the Church)
God can seem so far away at times, so unconcerned, so out-of-the-picture and irrelevant. And yet, at other times, the better ones, he can seem to us like he seemed to the psalmist.
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
The man or woman who wrote that took God seriously. He, or she, felt locked in a struggle whose outcome was not assured. This was a person who prayed every day, who felt the need of forgiveness. Who sometimes wanted to be close to God and other times wished to be as far away as possible.
Paul Tillich wrote that "a God whom we can easily bear, a God from whom we do not have to hide, a God whom we do not hate in moments, a God whose destruction we never desire, is not God at all." And if you've ever tried to take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, and just be rid of these problems–you know what that means.
The Bible says God is a spirit, and those who worship him must worship him "in spirit and in truth." And it may well be that we should think more of God as a spirit to worship than a puzzle to figure out. That prayer and praise and thanksgiving and confession–those will do us far more good than our definitions.
No one thinks his way to heaven. The curiosity we have about God is good, but only if it leads to something more personal, more joyful, more immediate and worshipful.
Dag Hammarskjold said "God does not die on the day when we cease to believe . . . but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated by the steady radiance renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason."
To live in this world and miss out on that is hell itself. To live created and in the midst of this grand creation, and never know the great Creator–that's the greatest tragedy. To spend a few years in time, and never know the timeless one.
Listen: "Of old thou didst lay the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of thy hands. They will perish, but thou dost endure; they will all wear out like a garment. Thou changest them like raiment, and they pass away;' but thou art the same, and thy years have no end. (Psalm 102:25-27)
God is the one in whom our lives make sense.
The only one whose presence can fill the hollow void of our hearts.
The one we can never see but always feel.
Who loves us even though he knows us exactly as we are.
Who revealed himself in the life and teachings of Jesus.
Who alone can know what's on the mind of every person in the room.
Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, our Heavenly Father.
NOURISHING THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
It was said of St. Francis that "his soul was absorbed and assumed into the abyss of the Divinity and Light, and it was buried in the ocean of God's Eternity and Infinity . . . it was like a drop of wine absorbed in a deep sea. As as that drop finds nothing in itself but the sea, so his soul saw nothing but God in all and above all." (from The Little Flowers, p. 164)
That sounds like a little much to most of us. To most of us, the goal of being a Christian lies in doing things. What people you helped, what wrongs you righted, what numbers of people you won to faith in the Lord, what money you gave, meetings you attended, etc. We tend to think of things in terms of activity.
But we ought not to forget that aspect of our faith which emphasizes spirituality. Like that of St. Francis. Like that of the psalmist whose words I read this morning. Who said of himself: "It is good to be near God. I have made the Lord my refuge."
Man doesn't live by bread alone, although sometimes we seem to be trying it. We may be feeding our bodies but starving our souls. We need a hunger and a thirst for righteousness. We were made for fellowship with God, made in his image, with a God-shaped void inside us. Our hearts remain restless till they find rest in him.
Is this easy or automatic? No. You have to intentionally work on it, as St. Francis did. And I have the feeling that it's something like a diet. It's easier to start one than to keep it going.
The initial stage of most new relationships is easier. The honeymoon phase. The new house, new baby, new church, new job, new car. There can always be problems even then, but the honeymoon is fun. It's what happens afterward that determines things.
Jesus tells us to "abide in him." Abiding is a continual process. It's something you must give thought to every day.
In the letter to the Hebrews, they were challenged to "go on toward maturity." Toward maturity. Which implies that we never get there, we just get closer. But getting closer is a very important thing to do.
Jesus had a parable where seed was sown in shallow soil. And when it sprouted it looked just like the other plants. But, alas! It was doomed to fail, because there was no depth of soil for the roots to grow in. It sprang up quickly, but then withered just as quickly. So are many efforts to take God more seriously.
Efforts that have a chance to succeed will be governed by certain principles. There's the principle of discipline. We must work at faith and prayer with the same deliberateness as building a house or learning to speak a new language. Could anyone hope to learn Spanish just by wishing he could? Yet wishing is all some people ever do about a closer walk with God.
There's also a principle of community. Success is more assured in company and covenant with others. Sometimes they can lift us up and carry us on, and other times we can return the favor. We serve as priests to each other. The worst thing to be when trouble comes is alone.
There's a principle of balance. As you study the life of Christ you find a cycle of withdrawal and engagement. Jesus withdrew to lonely places to be alone and pray. But he came back from those craving work to do. Our private devotions and our public efforts each depend on one another. So it isn't either/or but both/and.
Dag Hammarskjold has a little diary of a book called Markings which is covered with the fingerprints of his effort toward becoming a person in unity with God and his will. In the minds of many people, he was a modern saint. In the last entry of his diary before he died in a plane crash in 1961, he wrote of dreaming about a mountain. He said:
Twice I stood on its summits,
I stayed by its remotest lake,
And followed the river
Towards its source.
The seasons have changed
And the light
And the weather
And the hour.
But it is the same land.
And I begin to know the map
And get my bearings. (Markings, p. 181)
Well, how far can we follow the river toward its source? How close can we come to God? What advice will a good map give?
Perhaps to travel light. As Paul wrote once, the Christian needs to think like a soldier who has to select the essentials and leave the non-essentials behind. You can burden yourself down with things that do no harm except to keep you so busy you have no time for God. There are folk who can always give you ten good reasons why they can't help with this or go to that.
I record scripture and prayer into a telephone devotional every day. But I hear people say that they're too busy. It lasts three minutes! Anyone who doesn't have three minutes in the day to devote to scripture and prayer ought to do some kind of reassessment.
We must set priorities. We may aim for everying, but it won't work. You have to select.
Mary and Martha. Jesus himself came to visit in their home. And Mary spent her time sitting still at his feet, listening and wondering at his words. Martha knew there was work to be done, and so she passed the time with the pots and pans, bothered by the state of the house as some people will be. And Martha missed out, but Mary didn't.
We'll never be the people God wants until we learn to let some things go. Good things that are enemies of the better things.
John Baillie tells a story about a man who was traveling on the border of India. He was richly dressed and riding a handsome horse. A band of robbers met him and asked him who he was. "I am so-and-so, the servant of such-and-such," the man replied. "And I am taking this horse to my master's son as a gift from his father." Well, that was all the robbers needed to hear. They knocked the man off his horse, and took it.
He walked on on foot, and sure enough, he met another band of robbers. They stopped him in the road and asked him who he was. He said he was so-and-so, the servant of such-and-such, and he was carrying in his turban a fine gold chain, a gift of his master to his son. Never had a band of robbers had it easier. They knocked the turban off his head, took the gold chain, and rode away. The servant walked on.
He was nearly to his destination when a third band of robbers met him and took the fine robe he was wearing.
So he came to the door of the house, wearing only a loincloth, and when it was opened, he said: "I am so-and-so, the servant of such-and-such, who is your father, and I bring for my master's son this gift . . .."
And he reached, and took from his armpit the Great Pearl, now called the Mountain of Milk, which is to this day the chiefest among the treasures of that land.
So let us–if need be–give to others any costly thing we possess. But hold steadfastly to that treasure of the soul. And let us be ready to present it at last before the throne of God, to whom be glory and praise for ever and for ever. Amen.
A SAFE TENT
I usually don't open and read things that come bulk rate in the mail. But this past week I did. It was a long, high-powered ad for a newsletter on investing money. There were all sorts of fearless forecasts about this and that. Including one on page 12 that said:
"The AIDS Plague will affect society in ways that you can not now imagine. AIDS is 100% fatal. Scientists and medical research people are not optimistic about an immediate cure to vaccine. They do not expect to develop an effective vaccine within the next two decades. Public health officials estimate that as many as 2.4 billion people (half of the world's population) will die from AIDS within the next 15-20 years."
"Economically, the insurance and medical health systems could be devastated in the 1990's. Nothing short of a spectacular medical breakthrough will keep western civilization from suffering the worst catastrophe in the history of the world."
"In a future issue of the XX Digest, this crisis will be described and explained in greater detail. It is, in fact, the most important report Mr. X has ever created involving your survival and the way you should invest now . . .."
Wow! That makes you want to grab your Visa card and dial their toll-free number and get that newsletter right away! Just a hundred dollars for 12 issues–that'd be worth it. Call the bank and tell them to get your money ready, you'll be doing other things with it from now on. Until you calm down and begin to realize that an advertiser just tried to scare the daylights out of you in order to sell his product.
Like the psychiatric hospitals with the television ads that try to scare parents about their kids so they'll sign them up for some expensive program. Like the people trying to sell health insurance to the elderly by raising the threat of insurance cancellations. Like those endless deals where were caught in some remote corner of the world with our money stolen and no traveler's checks. How will we survive? The threats are all around us.
The telephone rings and you answer in your usual voice. "Hello," you say. And silence. "Hello." You say it again, but with some irritation. Irritation because you can tell that whoever called you is still on the line and saying nothing. Then "click" and it's over.
Except for the next part where you stand and wonder what that was. Was it a wrong number, or was it something else?
Things go through your mind. If you're in the house by yourself, they do. If you remember there was a strange car in the neighborhood as you drove in. If you're a woman living alone. If your spouse has been acting funny lately, like something might be going on, and a stranger could be calling who wouldn't want to speak with you.
All sorts of things. But things you'll never know about, so why worry? Or maybe you should worry.
"Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen."
I never did want to die before I woke, did you? But we did think about it when we said that prayer with mother. And we still think about it, even if we don't say the prayer anymore. The house we live in may be nice, but we're never quite sure it's safe. We live there worried.
Well, the first speech of Eliphaz in the book of Job offers hope. It contains a dreadful list of the plagues that beset us, but gives assurance of God's protection to those who put their trust in him.
"He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven there shall no evil touch you."
You read on and find that the list is lots longer than seven. But it can be as long as it wants to, because seven, in Hebrew thought, is a wild card. It means a whole gob. Not seven times but seventy times seven–and more.
"In famine he will redeem you from death, and in war from the power of the sword. You shall be hid from the scourge of the tongue, and shall not fear destruction when it comes."
I know little of famine or of war. But I do have some acquaintance with the scourge of the tongue. I've been scourged by some, and seen others scourged, and isn't it something how that's put right beside war and famine. And isn't it something how the miracles science and technology have done nothing to lessen the fear of those ancient enemies?
Men could do away with famine, but we won't. Men could do away with wars, but we won't. We'll keep on talking about it, but we won't do it. And so the next war becomes more terrible with every new invention.
Now the thing about our worries is, they get the best of us, or we get the best of them. There's not much middle ground. And Eliphaz sees here the grandest kind of triumph of faith over fear. He sees a soul so trustful of God that nothing can overcome its trust. Listen!
"At destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth. For you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be a peace with you."
"Hey there, Mr. Lion! I'm not afraid of you. Nice set of teeth you got there. Oh, don't bother to get up. Just you lie there and take it easy. My name's Daniel, by the way."
"Hey there, Famine! I sure am hungry, you know that. And you may get me this time–yessir, you may get me. But you'll only get these bones and this skin, you won't get me. I'm safe in the love and care of God. I have something more precious than all the riches of this world. I have food to eat that you know not of. No sir, Famine. You won't get me!"
"At destruction and famine you shall laugh . . .."
How much laughing do we do in the face of our troubles and fears? How much laughter echoes down the halls from death beds and intensive care waiting rooms? How many people faced with bankruptcy can laugh about it? How many wives whose husbands up and left can laugh? How many who lost the ballgame they most wanted to win?
But couldn't we do more laughing at the things of earth if we were but stronger in the things of heaven?? Are there times when the greatest act of faith is to laugh?
To be able to laugh at yourself, laugh at the world, laugh at misfortune, laugh in the very face of disaster or even death. Isn't that what Paul was doing in Corinthians when he exclaims:
"O death, where is thy victory?"
"O death, where is thy sting?"
What happens is, we get comfortable in our trust of earthly things. We lay up our treasure here, because it seems to make sense. We believe in God, but he seems so irrelevant to our everyday situations. Until, one day, calamity strikes like it did Job. And then the much we laid up here can seem so small. And what little we laid up there can seem so much.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path."
Notice how Eliphaz describes the condition of those who live in trust like that.
"You shall know that your tent is safe, and you shall inspect your fold and miss nothing. You shall know also that your descendants shall be many, and your offspring as the grass of the earth. You shall come to your grave in ripe old age, as a shock of grain comes up to the threshing floor in its season. Lo, this we have searched out; it is true. Hear, and know it for your good."
"You shall know that your tent is safe."
A tent is a precarious sort of home. So exposed, so defenseless.
I've seen houses with high fences and strong gates all around. And then inside they had floodlights in the yard, and double locks on doors and windows. And alarm systems, and even a guard. Now there must have been some reason for the fear that made them spend so much effort and money on security. Col. North spent how much was it? And even after that, how much security is there if someone is out to get you?
But here in the book of Job is this mighty metaphor of confidence in God. A person is sleeping in a tent and feeling safe. Just a layer of cloth between him and the storms, and his enemies, and the noises of the night, and the wild beasts–whatever beasts there are. But he sleeps soundly there, and is not afraid.
As it says in conclusion to the fourth psalm:
"In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety."
Thou alone. Nothing else can.
1 Samuel 1:1-3:21
Samuel's father, Elkanah had two wives . . . and Peninnah had children, “but Hannah had no children."
If having one wife is good, why wouldn't two be better? For a long time in Old Testament history, they thought it was. If fact King Solomon, who was wise, thought the more wives you had the better still. He had more than you could keep track of with a computer. Wives! He had them like a collector–which is what it amounted to.
Imagine having two wives. Wife A and wife B. Or if you are a wife, imagine being one of two, instead of only one. That would change a lot of things, wouldn't it?
You have a fuss with wife A, and all you do is just go make up with wife B. And by the time you have a fuss with her, wife A will be ready to make up again.
I'm saying there could be a lot of competition, where you have two wives. But, of course, you also have that when you have two children–they compete with one another. And between one wife and one husband you can have competition too. Elkanah's poligamy simply added one more to the list of tensions that make life difficult.
"Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children." And children were the main thing a woman was for in those days. Not having children was the most serious defect a woman could have. And they blamed it on her–always did–when we know now that more often it's the fault of the man. This shows how soon you get in trouble if you defend the Bible as infallable in terms of modern science.
"This man used to go up year by year . . . to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh."
And when they went, Elkanah would give a portion of the sacrifice to Pininnah, and a portion to all his sons and daughters by her, and then last of all, a portion to Hannah, his well-loved but barren wife. And Pininnah would say, "Ha! Ha!" And Hannah would weep.
What a cruel and terrible thing to weep over something you have no control over. Hannah had tried her best to be a good wife. She'd tried to have children. And because she had none, the society she lived in considered her a failure of a wife, of a woman, of a person. In those days, a woman would rather die than be childless–which is why Hannah cried her tears at Shiloh and would not eat.
". . . remember me . . . (and) I will give him to the Lord."
Hannah prayed this prayer before Eli, the priest at Shiloh. Eli who had two sons who were also priests, but not good ones. Hophni and Phinehas were their names, and they were a disgrace to their father and a disgrace to the Lord. The Bible says they were "worthless men."
Hannah's prayer was in the nature of a bargain. "Give me the baby I need to get even with my rival, and I'll give him to you, Lord." Sound's fair, but not all that noble.
But then, whose motives are absolutely pure? Who serves God for nothing? Who doesn't hope that what you do for him will somehow get you something in return? Hannah did, and it worked. It says the Lord opened her womb, and she had a son, and his name was Samuel.
She kept her promise–you have to give her that. She didn't make the promise and then keep the kid, as some might do. As soon as the child was weaned–about 3 years of age–she took him to Eli the priest, and there he lived. He grew up in the house of the Lord, raised by an old priest who'd been a failure at raising his own. Here's what the record says:
Now Eli was very old, and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. And he said to them, "Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealing from all the people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. If a man sins agains a man, God will mediate for him; but if a man sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?" But they would not listen to the voice of their father . . .. (1 Samuel 2:22-25)
You wonder what thoughts the young Samuel may have had about that. He was the good boy. Worked hard, always did what he was told. And he saw how Eli made efforts to keep his sons in line, but they never worked. The sons were a disgrace to him and to the priesthood.
I'll bet young Samuel said to himself that he'd never allow a thing like that. Why, he knew how to control himself, so why wouldn't he know how to control a couple of children? I'll bet he made judgements like that. He said to himself that Eli was a good man, but a weak one. He wanted the right thing, but wasn't strong enough to get it done. Samuel the man would do better!
I hate to skip ahead, but let me do it just for this. Go to Samuel when he was Eli's age, and see how that went. Listen:
When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his first-born son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. Yet his sons did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, "Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations." (1 Samuel 8:1-5)
Now the Lord was evidently pleased with Hannah. After Samuel, she had three more sons and two daughters. Once she got started, she had kids right and left. And I don't know if it's accidental or not, but after that we hear not a word about the other wife, Peninnah.
Back to young Samuel, though. The Bible says he continued to grow "both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men." As the disgrace of Eli's house grew more painful every day, word began to spread that here was a young man the Lord was pleased with.
It was a troubled time, you see. There at almost the end of the period of the Judges, where the next thing would be their first king. It was a time of political uncertainty, and spiritual uncertainty. As the Bible puts it, "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision." (1 Samuel 3:1)
Young Samuel was destined to be the architect of that transition. He played a number of vital roles. Their last judge, one of the first prophets, and a major influence in the selection of two kings. But he dreamed none of that, of course, as he went about doing the tasks that Eli the priest assigned him.
People have heard the call of God in many ways. Moses was in the desert and saw a burning bush. Isaiah was at worship in the temple. James and John were fishing. Paul was on the road to Damascus.
And Samuel? Well, Samuel was trying to get to sleep. And he thought he heard Eli call him. He though he heard Eli say "Samuel?" So he got up and reported to Eli. But old Eli had no idea what he was talking about because he hadn't called him. So he said go back to bed.
Samuel did. And after while, he heard his name again–"Samuel?" And back he went to Eli, and back he was sent to bed. You hope that neither one badly needed sleep that night, because it seemed there wasn't going to be much.
Samuel goes back to bed, and sure enough, it happens again. And notice how he needs Eli there. You get the idea this could have gone on all night. Samuel needed help with his vision–someone else's help. And the much-maligned Eli was finally able to do that. A failure as a parent, and a failure as a priest of the Lord, he nonetheless had an insight, and made a lasting contribution.
He told Samuel to lie back down, and to answer, if he heard the voice again: "Speak, Lord, for your servant hears." And Samuel heard the voice again, and that's exactly what he said. And the Lord told Samuel there were big changes in the works. That the house of Eli had seen its day.
Next morning, Samuel tried to act as if nothing had happened the night before. No one wants to give bad news to a person who's been his friend.
So Eli asked, and Samuel told him. And Eli said, "It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him."
"And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground," is how the story puts it. A few of yours and mine have fallen to the ground, but none of his. "And all Israel . . . knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. Then it says:
"The Lord appeared again at Shiloh."
Things got straightened out, so the Lord came back around. Hadn't been around for a long time. Just imagine–they'd been having church right along, but the Lord paid no attention, and paid no visits. Now, though, he did. Because a man had answered his call with whom he was well pleased.
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes–
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries. (Browning)
Who can tell what God may do on any day with any life devoted to him?
AFTERWARD HE SENT HIS SON
"Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? They said to him, 'He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.' Jesus said to them, 'Have you never read in the scriptures: "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes"? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.
I went to a vineyard once. Diane and I were at the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. We went out for a drive on a lovely summer day. And there on high ground overlooking Lake Seneca we found the Glenora Vineyard, and stopped. The grapes were green, not ripe, but they were growing in splendid abundance. Row after row, field after field, tended to perfection.
Some things are new, of course. Science and technology have come to vineyards. They showed us that in the visitor center. But other things about growing grapes are exactly the way they were in the time of Christ. In the time when he told a story about a vineyard that predicted his death.
Once upon a time, a man who was often wise and always good bought some land he thought would be just right. He didn't exactly need it, because he was rich and owned many things. But he'd been restless lately to try something new.
As God himself was restless, long ago, when he said, "I think I'll make me a world. A brand new one. It'll have oceans, and some mountains, and lots of trees and forests. And I'll make fish to swim in the water, and birds to fly in the air."
And he made all that. But still, it seemed to lack something. He still was restless.
Right then, God had the most incredible thought. Why, it must have scarred him a little just to have the thought. Because he was thinking about making some people to live in this world who'd be a lot like himself. Like him. Huh! And he did that.
It's always a gamble when you do something you never did before. The man in the story Jesus told bought land for a vineyard. And he wasn't used to doing things half-hearted, so he did it right.
He paid top dollar and got the best land he could. He put a hedge all around it to keep out the animals. And inside the hedge he built a tower. You could get up there and see all over the place. And that was important in those days, because people would rob you blind.
People will still rob you blind! Lady told me the other day about leaving her car in the parking building near Silver Spring metro. She came back from work and found the car up on blocks and her tires all gone. County police called one of our members at the office to say his car was upside down on Georgia Avenue. The guy who stole it got chased and lost control. What was left of the car wasn't worth fixing. We know people will rob you.
But that tower meant a pair of eyes could see out all over that vineyard and spot intruders. Good idea. But an idea that works for you can also turn and work against you–as we'll be seeing later on.
In the days of Adam, the Lord had this great idea about making a man. But by the days of Noah, he was sick and tired of the whole business. He wished he'd never thought of it. The way things start out isn't always the way they end up.
There was a hedge, then, and a tower, and a winepress, and the land, and people to work it. Now those workers lacked nothing. The landowner spared no expense. He provided them everything necessary for their success. And soon now, it would be up to them. He'd be gone, and they'd be in charge. He was trusting them. Does that remind you of anything?
When we look at the heavens, the work of his fingers, the moon and the stars which he has established, what is man that he is mindful of us? Yet he has made us little less than God, and has crowned us with glory and honor. He has given us dominion over the works of his hands. He has put all things under our feet–all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea. (see Psalm 8:3-8)
So that landowner put the vineyard in their hands and went away. He went far away, and was gone for a long time.
A patient man, he was. He had no problem waiting for things. He knew quite well that the work of a vineyard is the work of time. You get no fast results.
What was happening at his vineyard, though? It really is a shame to say. A shame and disgrace. Those people he hired and trusted, they were greedy and unscrupulous. They forgot who they owed this to. They began to think of it as their place, not his. The longer he was gone, the stronger and bolder they became. Why, they even cursed him and took his name in vain!
Oh, listen! "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator." (Romans 6:1,4-6)
As I said, the landowner was a patient man. But he also knew when the time came for the labor of the vineyard to start paying off. He knew when it was time for there to be some fruit. A good landowner always knows that. He knew when people he'd trusted with his property should have something ready in their hands to give him back. And shame on anyone who lives and feeds on the goodness of a man like that and renders nothing in return.
Dogs have bitten the very hand that fed them. And people have done the same. These were about to.
Harvest time came. Harvest time. And the landowner sent servants to inquire about his crop. He wanted only what was his. What was fair and just.
But they, from their tower–his tower–saw those servants coming. And they knew whose they were, and why they'd be coming to the vineyard at harvest time.
The landowner wanted his harvest–their harvest. And they said NO! "This is ours, not his. We worked for it, let's part with none of it. There are many of us and a few of them. Come on, they're almost here."
And so the big bunch beat up on the little bunch. Like the U.S. Marines attacking Grenada, or the Redskins playing a high school team from the Eastern Shore. It was a mis-match. Some were killed, and the rest fled. And news of it came to the landowner.
What are the options for a man of peace facing open defiance? A man who wants nothing more than just a fair shake, who hasn't been given a fair shake? Who wanted to live and let live, but now in spite of that there'd been a killing?
What were the options for old Jacob, who had sons who did a similar thing. Listen:
They saw him afar off, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild beast has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." (Genesis 37:18-20)
Can you overlook a thing like that when it's done? Apparently you can, because the landowner did. He sent other servants to that vineyard with the same message: "Tell me about the crop, and let me have what's mine." But they did to them the very same. Some were beaten, some were stoned, and some were killed. What will happen now?
If you will . . . love the Lord your God, and serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be full. Take heed lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, and the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and he shut up the heavens, so that there be no rain, and the land yield no fruit, and you perish quickly off the good land which the Lord gives you. (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)
Our first impulse is to have evildoers "perish quickly." But here was a man who was not willing that any should perish, but that all should come a knowledge of the truth. He'd promised them more than enough to live on his land, but they were greedy for more. The vineyard of his dreams had been poisoned by their greed.
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous one, whom you have now betrayed and murdered. (Acts 7:51-53)
But God is the God of another chance, and they would have theirs.
"What can I do?" the landowner thought. "How far can I go? How far will they go?"
"I know what I'll do!" he said. I'll send my own son, my only son. I'm the owner of that land–every acre, every tool, every grape on the vine. I'll send my own flesh and blood. They'll listen to him."
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. (John 1:9-11)
The son went by himself, apparently. As vulnerable as could be. And from that tower, they saw him coming and knew it was him. There were no second thoughts. "We'll kill him too," they said. And did.
And as they beat him, his blood, all red, mingled with the red of wine that belonged to his father. Whose own son's blood was shed in his very vineyard.
Despised and rejected by men–a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. As one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole. And with his stripes we all are healed.
All we, like sheep, have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Oh! the lengths to which God will go to save sinners such as them. Such as them.
And such as us.
SHADRACH, MESHACH, AND ABEDNIGO
Diane and I went to see a play in Olney the other night. Almost $40 for two tickets, and my idea. The play started out, and for the longest time there in the first act, I thought we'd have done better going to the laundromat to watch people wash their clothes! But then by the second act, things really got going, and I got off the hook.
This sermon could be like that play. It starts slow and then builds up in excitement and intensity. But for about five minutes now, you're gonna have to hang in there and hope this is all leading up to something. So get ready.
The book of Daniel tells stories set in the time when Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon and Jehoiakim was king of Judah–about 587 B.C.
But the book wasn't written then. It was written much later–almost 400 years. So the question arises why someone in 167 B.C. would write stories about then.
The answer is, the author really wanted to write about what was happening in his own day, but was afraid to. He lived in a time of suffering and persecution. For Jews, it was like the persecution of Christians under Roman emperors like Nero and Domitian. The days that produced the book of Revelation. In fact, Daniel is the Old Testament equivalent to Revelation in the New Testament.
It was subversive literature. The enemies of God would think it was a bunch of funny stuff about ancient history. But the friends of God would read and know it was about their own distress. It was written about events of other days, but they could read between the lines that it was really about the present mess. It was a message from heaven to give them hope and courage. The term for this is "apocalyptic literature."
The ruler at that time called himself Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus was his name, but Epiphanes was a title he gave himself. It meant "illustrious"–Antiochus the Illustrious. But behind his back, his subjects gave that a different twist. They called him Antiochus Epimines, a rhyming Greek word which meant "Antiochus the Madman."
And he was that. His most famous act was to erect an altar to Zeus over the altar in the Jewish temple and force people to worship a sacrificed pig! This is later referred to in Daniel as the "abomination of desolation." (11:31)
And so the story will seem to be about happenings in the long-ago days of Nebuchadnezzar. But it was actually about the present. And what the book succeeds in doing, is to make itself a historical parable that brings us hope in the midst of trial in any generation. Listen:
Jehoiakim was in his third year as king of Judah, when Nebuchadnezzar came over from Babylon and really beat up on him. (Nebuchadnezzar is so hard a name, let's call him King Neb for short.) And in those days when one king beat up on another, he always hauled off a bunch of loot. So King Neb raided the temple, and got all the valuables. And then decided it might be nice to take a few people.
So he called his chief eunuch, Ashpenaz (we can call him Ash) and told him to round up some bright young men who were of noble birth and also "without blemish, handsome and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning and competent to serve in the king's palace."
Well I don't know how many young men we have around here who fit that description! But Ash went out like a good chief eunuch should, and found some. Their names were Daniel, and Shadrach, and Meshach, and Abednego. They became like foreign exchange students over there in Babylon.
King Neb got what he asked for in those students, but he also got something he didn't ask for. They were smart and unblemished, and all of that. But they were also religious. They were devout young Jews in a pagan land. So you might imagine some problem could arise.
But it didn't, at first, until King Neb got an idea that he should honor himself. And he made a golden statue of him that was sixty cubits tall and six cubits wide. A cubit is the distance from your elbow to the end of your hand, so the thing was a whopper, and no telling how much gold it had.
There's something funny in those measurements, though. It was sixty by six, which multiplies to sixty six. And to Jews that meant there was something bad wrong. Sixes were like thirteens to us. Hotels don't have thirteenth floors, and airplanes don't have thirteenth rows. They have them, of course, but they won't mark them. And so this statue of King Neb, gorgeous as it may have been, was like that. It was bound to cause trouble.
King Neb was proud of it, though, as anyone would tend to be who had a statue of himself that big and expensive. So he wanted a big dedication service. And he put out the word to all the satraps and prefects and governors and counselors and treasurers and justices and magistrates and any other kinds of politicians they had, that this service was going to be held and attendance was required.
He assembled musicians who could play the horn, and the pipe, and the lyre, and the trigon, and the harp, and the bagpipe (which King James called the "sackbut"), and other instruments too numerous to mention. And he said the way this was going to work was when they heard the music, everyone was going to fall down and worship the statue.
King Neb had learned what all kings learn, that to get real obedience out of people you need some patriotic music! You get everybody worked up with that, then they'll do what you want. Then you can say you won't be putting up with anyone not doing what he's told.
Then you can say if anyone should choose not to bow down and worship your statue, he'll be cast into a burning fiery furnace. King Neb did that, and things moved along.
Now you'd hope that no one would spoil the king's day on a day like that, but someone was about to. Some Chaldeans came up and whispered in his ear that not everyone fell down and worshiped when the band struck up. They said it was Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego.
There are always some Chaldeans around, aren't there? People who like to start trouble. Can't stand it when things are quiet and peaceful. Can't stand the thought of a fiery furnace waiting out there somewhere, and no one to throw in it! So they nominated the three students.
Well the king was furious, as you'd expect. And he said bring the fellows there to him. And you hold your breath for what will happen. You wonder what's going through the minds of young believers in a God who said to never bow down before a graven image.
Another time, the king might have sent them to the furnace right then. But the exhilaration of the day may have mellowed him a little. So he said, "Well here's what we're going to do, boys. I'm going to have the band there play the music one more time. And you can fall down and do what the other folk have done, and things'll be O.K. Otherwise it's off to the furnace."
You wonder, as they decide, how much of that other bowing was in love of king and country, and how much was in fear of the furnace!
Forced bowing may be on the rise. The new head of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board has written up a doctrinal statement. Which is a fine thing for anyone to do. We should all write one and then bring them together and discuss them. Only he's taken his and said all the home missionaries have to sign it or be kicked off the payroll.
This sure gives the phrase "praying for our missionaries" a whole new dimension!
I wouldn't sign the thing (unless Diane made me!). Even if I believed every word of it exactly like he did, I wouldn't sign it on principle that no person has the right to force his beliefs on others. That forced bowing is a sorry spectacle, especially for people who call themselves Baptists. Who honor the name of Roger Williams!
All human institutions, be they political or religious, are prone to set up statues to themselves. Wherever power and wealth get trusted to a man like King Neb, people are tempted to use theirs like he used his. Things are done that violate the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me."
Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego have had time enough to decide now. And they say there's no need to have the band play, because they won't be bowing. They say,
"Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up."
I like how they said that. They said they thought their God would save them, but even if he didn't, they'd still make the same decision. Baptist prophet Clarence Jordan preached a sermon from this text amid the racial strife of the '60's, and said, "You know, if we've got to take our choice between living in a country where men are slaves or dying in a furnace where men are free, we choose the furnace." (The Substance of Faith and other Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan, Dallas Lee, ed., p. 51)
Well the king said "heat up the furnace, we got some fellows here to go in it. Heat it hotter than it's ever been before." And it says they got it seven times hotter than the previous furnace record. That was like an August day in Washington when the previous record was 101 and it got to 707!
Normal criminals you can burn at normal temperature. But guys like these, who're threats to people in charge of things, you have to deal with more severely. The furnace was so hot it killed the workmen who threw in the three students.
They didn't have to go there. But they did, you see, because they had to go there. They had to do the right thing instead of the expedient thing. They had to be true to their God and his will, even in this strange and hostile land.
King Neb didn't usually go around the furnace afterward. The furnace had never needed going around to before. But this time it did.
So when the thing cooled down enough, he went there. It was still real hot inside. They opened the door, and the king looked in. He saw four live men inside, walking around like a nice spring day. He saw three students and someone else who looked, he said, like "a son of the gods."
He hollered in there to come out. And the three came out with not a hair singed.
The fourth we don't know about. Maybe he stayed to see if anyone else was coming in he could walk around with. We don't know.
What we do know is, there's right and wrong both in this world. And God is on the side of those who choose what's right, no matter what the threat or cost may be.
"Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:9)
UNDER THE MIGHTY HAND OF GOD
1 Peter 5:6-11
"Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen."
The scripture passage we heard this morning is a message of encouragement to Christians who find the going tough.
It have a theory about tough going. It says the other person's tough going will seem godly and heroic, while your own seems godless and depressing. Had you realized that?
I think I can illustrate. This Wednesday evening we're having what for our program? The Johenning Center in Southeast Washington. A tough place to work for Jesus Christ. But we who come out, and sit there, and watch those slides will feel all good about the Johenning Center. And the heads of those who work there will seem to have halos around them.
But do you suppose it feels like that to work in the Johenning Center on an ordinary day? Do those people walk around in spiritual ecstasy? No! They more likely feel a headache in their head than a halo around it! They cast their eyes out here in the suburbs and think this is the place to be. But we could tell them a few things about that, couldn't we?
So what this passage suggests to me is: when you're in a tough situation you need someone who's outside it to give you encouragement. You need a person who isn't burdened with your particular burden to give you a pat on the back and tell you, "hang in there." Then maybe next week you'll need to look him up and do the same. That's how that works.
You could say, "now be patient–God's going to exalt you in due time. Cast your cares on him, but look out for the devil, because he's on the prowl and you may have a fight on your hands. But then the Lord himself will restore, and establish, and strengthen you. Praise be to him!"
But that's abbreviating–so let's look at the passage more closely.
It begins with a familiar saying: exalt yourself and be humbled, humble yourself and be exalted. You remember Jesus saying that, and the Apostle Paul. But why on earth would you say that to a person who's already bowed down under persecution? Tell him to "humble himself." What a strange way to give encouragement. Like telling someone who's down flat already to flatten out some more!
Ah! but there's our misconception about humility. Humility doesn't mean thinking badly of yourself, it means not thinking of yourself so much–as others do. Because you have other loyalties. Humility means not getting impatient with those other loyalties.
On the choir retreat, we talked about egocentricity (self-centeredness) and theocentricity (God-centeredness). The exhortation to humble yourself under the mighty hand of God means being theocentric. Being centered on God. Deny yourself, and do his will. Those who do this will find themselves exalted one day. Those who don't, who try exalting themselves, will be defeated in the end.
"Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you."
What a mighty assurance, "He cares about you." And what a bitter complaint, that someone who should care about you doesn't. "He doesn't care a thing for me." "She doesn't care two cents about me."
We care a lot if no one cares a lot about us. We all need to be cared about by someone we love and respect. How bitter was that cry the psalmist uttered, "No man cared for my soul." But even when that may be so, the Lord does.
We're told to be sober and watchful of an adversary. Prowling around like a lion of the jungle. Imagine a lion on the prowl. Imagine being prowled by a vicious lion.
Being prowled isn't the same as being attacked, of course. A prowler may become an attacker, but isn't one yet. A prowler is looking for things, especially for opportunities and for weakness.
Someone would like to see you mess up good–did you know that? Someone would just love to hear you curse God and stomp out of church. Someone would like to mess up every good relationship in your life, and make you so lonely you could cry. Someone is studying to see where you're vulnerable, and devising cleaver schemes to make you sin against God.
Notice how the text says, "Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world."
Some Christians don't realize they're part of a "brotherhood throughout the world." Their notion of the kingdom of God goes no further than their own national anthem. But perhaps the greatest prayers are when American Christians pray for Christians in China. And African Christians pray for Christians in Russia. And Korean Christians, who pray in an unheated church at 5:00 a.m., pray for Christians in America, who need it more than they suppose.
Jackie Robinson's autobiography was titled, I Never Had It Made. Well who does? who does? In the sight and service of God, who has it made? Who needs no one's prayers? Who can tell his soul to eat, drink, and be merry like that rich farmer did? Who needs no humbling under the mighty hand of God?
Surely I've made the answer obvious. The text makes it obvious. We can go it alone, or live in dependence on the mighty hand of God. There are just the two choices. And one may seem easier and better at first, but you must take a longer look.
You're going to suffer for a little while. It tells us that. And no one enjoys the thought.
I used to go to Scout Camp every summer. And before you could do that they made you have a physical that included a tetanus shot. As a boy, I did not like the idea of someone sticking a needle in my unharmed flesh. It seemed like an invasion of my God-given privacy! And I dreaded those tetanus shots so much–sometimes months in advance–that I suffered far more from my dread than from the actual shot.
I can take a shot pretty easily now. I say what the heck? They do it and it's over, right? It's no big deal. If you suffer, it's only for a little while.
After you have suffered a little while, just a small moment of time like that, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you.
You'll come through this. And it may seem long now, but it's only a little while. Then, it'll be over. And you'll be pleased with God, and he'll be pleased with you.
All suffering for righteousness' sake is redemptive suffering. The burdens you carry for Christ are saving burdens. You save your life, and it gets lost in the end. You lose your life, and it gets saved in the end.
So which are you trying to do? You trying to gain the whole world? You can lose your soul like that. You trying to take it easy and leave Christian work to those who seem to enjoy it more? Someday he could be telling you he was hungry, and you didn't feed him; naked, and you gave him no clothing; homeless, and you were glad it wasn't you and thought the county should be doing something about it.
The way of Christ is the way of a cross. Not just his cross, which we're all quite willing to accept. But he says there's a daily cross for each one of us followers to bear. Meaning it isn't easy anywhere, on any day, to be humble, obedient, prayerful, vigillant, and diligent.
You get discouraged. You get frustrated. You find yourself jealous of others who seem to have it made. You feel shame for how some Christians act. You get down on yourself for not doing better than you do, and tempted to quit.
But after a little while of that, the God of all grace, the God who himself called you to his service, he personally will restore you, and establish you, and settle you in his eternal kingdom.
That's my choice. What about you?
BREAD FOR THE WORLD
Exodus 16:13-21, John 6:25-35
I know some about mountains, and some about lakes and rivers and oceans, and some about cities and towns, and some about farm land and country living. But I know little, if anything, about desert.
Put me in those other places and I'll get along. But put me in the middle of a desert, and I don't know if I'd get along or not!
There are so many strange things out there in a desert, and so many familiar and needed things that aren't out there! Like food, and water–to name just a couple that come to mind.
Well, the Israelites had that very problem. They wanted out of Egypt, and they wanted into the Promised Land. But between the two there was the desert of Sinai, and some other desert. And they spent 40 years out there.
It shouldn't have taken 40 years, of course. The distance was no farther than from here to Charlotte, or maybe even Greensboro. But they were on foot, of course, and had all their kids and the old people and some belongings. And they weren't allowed to travel on Saturday. I know all that.
But let say they made 5 miles a day–just an hour's fast walking–and did that six days a week. You have there a 10 week trip. And that's using Charlotte, not Greensboro.
But they took 40 years. So they sure must have gone the long way, or been lost a lot, or been scarred of where they were going, or been sick along the way. Or all of the above.
What did they eat all that time?
Exodus says they ate a strange, bread-like substance known as manna. It says they got real tired of it, but at least it kept them alive. There are several things to understand about living off of manna.
God provided as much as the people needed, but no more. Any you tried to store up spoiled and made you sick. God provided the manna, but you still had to go out and gather it. He ran no delivery service. Anyone who stayed in bed at manna time would go hungry for the day.
What if there'd been no manna? What if God had turned his back on the whole parade? It's very simple–they would have perished. They lived dependent on God on a daily basis. They must have his manna, or be doomed.
The Gospel of John takes that Old Testament story and makes it a parable of God's dealings with us today in Jesus Christ.
Christ is our bread from heaven. He alone can satisfy the hunger of our souls. And we must have his nourishment, not just now and then, but on a daily basis. He is our sustenance in the desert of this world. We walk by faith.
There's a group of Presbyterians known as "Free Presbyterians." Last summer I was lost in Greenville, South Carolina and passed one of their churches. They'd named it Faith Church as others have been named. So that made the full name "Faith Free Presbyterian Church." But I wondered how a stranger might interpret that. If he might read it: "Faith-free Presbyterian Church"!
There may be some faith-free Presbyterians. I know there are some faith-free Baptists! Free of daily dependence on God. Free of spending time in prayer. Free of the need to come to church, except perhaps at Easter or Christmas. Free of using pledge cards and offering envelopes. Free of needing to read the church newsletter when it comes–just throw it out with the rest of the junk mail.
I think there are a lot of prospects for a faith-free church–if there could be one.
But the thing of it is, what a lot of people think they need isn't what they need at all. And what they think they can do without–all this religion business–is really what they need the most.
Next Sunday is Grow by Caring commitment day. Some will take that seriously and others won't. Others will pay no attention, because the last thing they want in their lives right now is a new commitment. Their interest is what others can do for them, not what they can do for others.
But Jesus taught that those who give receive. That in loosing our lives, we actually save them. That those who forget themselves benefit themselves the most. That faith and hope and love are the greatest things, and the greatest of those is love.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who know they're poor in spiritual things and determine to do something about it. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness–they shall be filled.
Those who hungered for power or praise or any other worldly thing, may get what they want, but not what they need. Here's what we need:
Bread of the world in mercy broken,
Wine of the soul in mercy shed,
By whom the words of life were spoken,
And in whose death our sins are dead:
Look on the heart by sorrow broken,
Look on the tears by sinners shed;
And be Thy feast to us the token
That by Thy grace our souls are fed!
REST FOR THE WEARY
Do you ever get tired? Have you ever been weary? Do you know what it is to be exhausted?
Would you say it's tiring to live the Christian life? Is it wearying? Is it sometimes exhausting?
Paul has a saying, "be not weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not." Huh. That implies some Christians do get weary in their well-doing. They never have a season of reaping because they faint first. They mean well and do well, but don't hold out. They faint on the way to the payoff.
People get weary in their prayer lives. Preachers get weary of sermons and visits and endless complaints. Parents get weary of children, and children of parents. We get weary of jobs, even good ones, weary of school, even good schools, weary of marriages that seem like dead-end streets. We get weary of efforts at self-improvement. We find ourselves self-defeated, even before we start.
So aren't most of us in a situation that needs to hear the invitation of Christ:
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me. For I am meek and lowly of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls."
He seems to know us, does he not? He knows we labor and are heavy laden. We thought he might not know that, but he does. He knows our souls need resting.
So he invites us to come to him. To take his yoke, to learn of him and find the rest we need.
But notice how the burden of doing that remains with us. He invites, but never forces. He says come to him, but we're the ones who have to do that. He knocks at the door of our hearts, but we must open up.
At home the other day, we had a T.V. set die of old age. It seemed foolish to try to fix it, so I went out and bought a new one. I was telling about that the other day, and a friend asked me where I bought. He named a certain store that runs big ads in the papers. Was that where I went?
I said no, no thanks. I didn't buy it there, because I don't like walking in a store and being attacked by sales people. I like to make up my own mind about things, even television sets. So I don't care if Circuit City does have it cheaper. There are some aggravations I have to put up with in this world, but that's one I don't.
Now, there are well-meaning people who try to sell Jesus the same way. But he didn't. They try to cram religion down your throat, where he said "here it is, you take it or leave it." We deal with a savior you can say no to. We'd better think what no means, but we can say it and mean it, and he won't stop us.
Contrary to some evangelists, he invites us to join him for our good, not his. He doesn't need us as a possession of his, we need him as a possession of ours. He can do without us, but can we do without him? We're the ones weary, and he's who can give us rest. So when he offers, we should listen.
Tell me, though, is the offer to lost sinners only? To the pimps and drug-pushers and alcoholic reprobates? Is it an offer from insiders like us to outsiders like them? Or is it an offer that comes down from above, apart from any human institution, an offer to lost sinners and saved sinners both?
I think it's that. I don't think you come to him once and for all. I think he's the vine and we're the branches, and we must abide in him daily or be cut off. I think each time his table is spread before us, it's an invitation to come as the weary we are, and seek his rest.
He gives us joy–joy at living in a world God made for our enjoyment. He gives us peace–peace knowing that in all things God works for good with those who love him. He gives us the gift of love, the greatest gift of all. We love him because he first loved us, and we know we've passed from death to life because we love each another. We belong to a fellowship of those who love.
You never earn those gifts, you just accept them. They're the greatest thing in life, and all you have to do is come in faith believing.
So let this bread be heaven's bread to you. Let it do your soul good. Let you mind be lifted up above all faithless fears and cares.
Something was offered for you once, and something is offered to you now.
Receive it and be blessed.
WHEN IT COMES TO US
Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered: "If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? Yet who can keep from speaking? Behold, you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have made firm the feble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?
"Think now, who that was innocent ever perished: Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. The roar of the lion, the voice of the fierce lion, the teeth of the young lions are broken. The strong lion perishes for lack of prey, and the whelps of the lioness are scattered.
"Now a word was brought to me stealthily, my ear received the whisper of it. Amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice; 'Can mortal man be righteous before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?'
There are times when a friend is expected to say something.
If you and I are friends, and we pass in the hall, and you see that something has horribly burned the side of my face and all of my hair, you don't just say "Hi there, Ed, nice day isn't it?"
More is expected than that. And it may not help the situation, but at least it acknowledges your awareness of my problem, just as I'd do if it were the other way around. Friends do that.
But knowing what to say is harder than knowing to say something. If a business has failed, or a funeral took place, or a child got arrested and put in jail.
We try to put ourselves in the other person's place. "I know what you're going through"–maybe we try to say that. But how true is it? How much do any of us ever know about the pain of other people?
Eliphaz the Temanite had this very problem. He had a friend named Job who was really down. Down flat. Flatter than a gander's arch, as Tennessee Ernie used to say.
It wasn't just one thing, it seemed to be everything. His fortune was gone, his children dead, his health failed, and Job was miserable. So Eliphaz knew he couldn't just say "Hi there, Job, how are you today?" Something more was called for.
But the thing about it is, at a time like that you can say the right thing, or you can say the wrong thing. And you can mean to say the right thing, and have it come out wrong. You can wish later you had the words back. But even then, you still don't know what might have been better.
Sure enough, Eliphaz said the wrong thing. At least for Job it was the wrong thing. It didn't help at all, and it hurt him like a new wound on top of an old one. Listen again to what Eliphaz said:
Behold, you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?
In other words, Job, you always seemed to have the answers to other people's problems, so now why can't you deal with your own? You handled it fine when trouble came to friends, why can't you do the same now that it's come to you?
Now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed.
I told you Eliphaz said the wrong thing, but that isn't to say that what he said was wrong. Not at all. What he said was right, but it still was the wrong thing to say to a friend in trouble. Truth is truth, but the truth can hurt. Truth can be used as an instrument of hurt.
The truth may be that you are an arrogant, selfish person. And to tell you that is to tell you the truth. But if I tell you that, in just those words, it sure won't do much to improve our relationship, now will it? And it probably wouldn't help your arrogance or selfishness much either.
It was true that Job, who was strong in helping others, was now weak in helping himself. Is that unexpected?
Why, here's a person who's always cutting up and telling jokes. He can cheer you up. People go out of their way to see him every day, because he cheers them up. Everybody except himself. No one would guess it, but he's a sad person. He's lonely all the time–that's why he carries on like that. And it's sad that he can do for others what he's unable to do for himself, but that's the way it is.
Have you ever noticed most marriage counselors have been divorced a couple of times? That folk who are great with other people's kids have big problems with their own? That all psychiatrists seem a little crazy themselves? That no preachers are really as good as they seem on Sunday in the pulpit? Had you noticed?
Well, congratulations! You and brother Eliphaz have something in common! You both have hold of a great truth about life. The question is, what are you going to do with it? We've seen what Eliphaz did, but what are you going to do?
I have a suggestion about that. I think we should avoid becoming judges of other people's situations. I think we must give more support and less advice. And I think every time we see a brother or sister in distress, we should say to ourselves, "there go I, but for the grace of God."
The Bible says God sends his rain on the just and on the unjust–right? Which means it may rain on your parade at any time, no matter who you are.
There's a verse in First Peter that says:
"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed." (1 Peter 4:12-13)
Don't be surprised when trouble comes. Don't be surprised as though a strange thing were happening. This isn't strange. This is just life! Did someone promise you something different?
The July '87 issue of National Geographic had a fine article on timber rattlesnakes. It was also the story of a Dr. William Brown, a biologist who's devoted a lot of time to finding out how rattlesnakes live. Among other things, the article said they're an endangered species and deserve protection. That they seldom do harm to human beings unless deliberately provoked.
Well, some months later there were two letters in response to that article, both by women:
(Letter 1) "I was thrilled to see the article on timber rattlers. Hardly anything is written about snakes, as they repel a lot of people. In future articles how about the bushmaster and the fer-de-lance? I know this is asking a lot, but I'm 85 years old, so I can't wait too long!" (Alice Pennock, Kezar Falls, Maine)
(Letter 2) "The benefits of a healthy rattlesnake population were entirely lost on me, a resident of north-central Texas, where rattlesnakes are neither endangered nor novel. The day I received the July issue, I received a serious rattlesnake bite on the calf of my leg. I was not warned, and the snake was not provoked." (Shelly Stewart, Walnut Springs, Texas)
Well there you have the truth about rattlesnakes! But it all depends on who you ask. And to use one person's experience to judge someone else is not a fair thing to do.
I happen to like snakes myself. But I might not like a bite on the calf of my leg!
Eliphaz was like a lot of us, he cared more about the point he wanted to make than about the person he was talking with! He was more concerned about being right than about being helpful.
I think Job knew that. People in his situation learn a lot about phoney friends. They learn to cringe when the speech begins, "Well now, Job, if I were you . . .." And perhaps they learn that there are sad limits to what frail humans can do for one another, and God is where our true salvation lies.
Remember that puzzling advice Paul has in Galatians, chapter six? He begins by saying bear one another's burdens. Then three verses later he says each one must bear his own!
Perhaps, in his own poor way, Eliphaz was trying to bear Job's burden. But it wasn't long before Job knew it would never work. And was driven to God for his refuge and strength.
Naked he'd come into this world, and naked he would leave it. The Lord gives, and he takes away. But blessed is his name. And blessed are those who can say with Job, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him."
Who have we but him? When fortunes fail, and friends fail, and health fails–who have we but him? Blessed are those who know this.
People were turning away from Jesus once. It seemed everyone was turning away. And he looked to those Twelve and said: "Are you going away too?" "Are you?"
And they said, "Lord, to whom could we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that you are the Christ, the son of the living God."
And that settled that. And it can settle it for us.
THE CHRISTMAS STORY
Don't you feel sorry for someone like Quirinius? Every year at Christmas time we hear his name. "In the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria." And no one has any idea who that was, because this is the only time he's ever mentioned. He's there sort of like a bookmark that helps you find your place.
You can look Quirinius up in secular history, though. You'll find his first name was Sulpicius. (I suppose if you had to have a last name like Quirinius you might as well have a first name like Sulpicius!) He became a Roman consul in 12 B.C. He was sent with an expedition against some rebels in Alecia, and later received in Rome in honor of his victory. And he died in Rome in A.D. 21, and was given a very nice funeral by Tiberius, the emperor at that time.
So now you know a little more about Quirinius, in whose days as governor of Syria Caesar Augustus decided it was time count folk. So he ordered a census.
Now when we have one of those, the census comes to us. But back then, you had to go to the census. In fact, you had to go to the place where you were born, and sign up there.
Can you imagine a deal like that today? Where were you born? Not so many of us were born right here. You'd have to fly or drive or take the bus. You'd have to go all the way to Jacksonville, Florida if you were me. All that way just to fill out a census card, and then come back. I guess the airlines would love that!
But of course there weren't any airlines when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And Joseph and Mary were in Nazareth, and he had to go sign up in Bethlehem, and she was expecting most anytime, and Bethlehem was about 70 miles away.
When I was high school age, I once hiked 35 miles in one day. But I sure didn't hike another 35 the next day! 70 miles is about a four day trip on foot, assuming you have good feet and aren't too far past high school age.
Now the big pictures on the wall in Sunday School all show this nice little donkey, and noble Joseph walking ahead and leading it, and humble Mary riding side-saddle looking quite contented. But that's just the way some person imagined it. I hope they did own a donkey for Mary to ride, but the Bible says nothing about that. One would assume, from what it tells us, that both of them walked.
You'd have a lot of time to think about things on a four-day walk. If you were Mary, you'd wonder on and on about having a baby that no one was the father of. You'd wonder if silent Joseph really believed the explanation. And, of course, you'd wonder what having a baby is like, this being your first.
If you were Joseph, you'd wonder exactly what Mary thought you were wondering. Do you really believe this? Did you really marry an already pregnant woman on faith that this was a miracle of God and in accordance with his wishes? But of course it helps some that you also have to wonder what on earth you'll do if she goes into labor out here on the road!
Well, they made it, though. They came to Bethlehem where Joseph was from. So he knew right where the inn was, even in the dark. Maybe he knew the Innkeeper, who knows? But there sure were a lot of people in town–people everywhere. And the inn was full, but they could stay in the barn out back.
Another thing those pictures always did was make that barn look so good inside. Sort of like a living room all decorated up for Christmas! I've been in a few barns, and none of them ever looked like those pictures to me. But the couple did the best they could. And then . . . it started. Just like it had waited for the trip to be over, and now it was time to get on with it.
A few miles out of town there was a field with a lot of sheep in it. And some fellows were there who took care of those sheep, and they were sitting around the fire and doing very little when something happened.
This bright light began shining down on their field. And they were looking up and rubbing their eyes when angels began singing about glory to God and peace on earth. And they told those fellows that something had happened in town that they should go and see. They said it was good news about a great joy. They said a Savior had been born who is Christ the Lord.
And the shepherds said "well, this is something we got to see" and started to town. The Bible says they came with haste. And by that time Mary was finished, and had her new baby all wrapped up and ready to show.
And those shepherds became the first tellers of that "good news of a great joy." They heard it from others, they saw it for themselves, and then they went out and told it. All over town they told it.
That's how that's supposed to work. Someone tells you, you come and see for yourself, then you go tell others, so they can see for themselves.
Good news! Great joy! Come and see–go and tell.