Sermons – Volume Three
THE COMPANY OF BETRAYERS
My mother died in 1971. Seventeen years ago. I still remember her, of course–no one ever forgets. And yet I don't think of mother as often as I used to. And every year that passes, I suppose, there are some things about mother I do forget.
If I were to make a conscious effort to remember mother better, I suppose I could think back and write down a lot of things. I could get out the old pictures and look at them. And somewhere I have a lot of mother's letters I could get out and read. A few of her friends are still living, and I could sit down and talk with some of them. So, yes, there are things I could do to remember mother better.
Jesus, before he died, told his disciples to remember him. The night he was betrayed, he told them that. He took a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, he said these would remind them of his body broken and his blood shed, and to eat and drink them in remembrance of him.
So how can we do that to make it better? How can memory become more vivid? How can we insure that important details aren't forgotten and the experience stays meaningful?
Well, we could come on the same night they did–Thursday night. And we could have bread and wine ourselves. And we could recall what we know about the things that were said. And we could try our best to re-create in our imaginations how circumstances were then.
You see, we come to our Lord's Suppers with full knowledge of how things came out. They didn't have that luxury there. We come relaxed with the aid of nice lighting and music. They didn't. We come with the familiarity of something repeated over and over again–they didn't. They were there in a bind.
It was an illegal meeting they were having. The room had been chosen for security. The doors were probably locked, and at times they may have all gotten quiet to listen for noises outside. There was a feeling of threat and of fear.
And there was also an internal problem. Jesus had announced that one of them was a traitor. One who sat around that very table. And no one seemed to know who it could be. In fact, all of them were wondering if he could possibly mean them.
Something momentous was about to happen–you could feel it. But what? and how to be ready for it? One of them had been sharpening his sword that afternoon. He had it with him there. But he was also remembering how Jesus had taught them about turning the other cheek, and he felt funny about having a sword in the first place.
What future did they have? Had something gone all wrong? If Jesus was the Son of God, wouldn't God take care of things and let nothing bad happen?
But the foods on the table spoke of death. His body to be broken, his blood to be shed. They needed a table of life, and it sounded like a table of death.
And those symbols were about to take on greater meaning. It was Thursday. The cross lay ahead on Friday. The shepherd was about to be smitten and the sheep scattered. And after his beaten body was taken down and put in a tomb of rock, they would wait and wonder. Some would even go back to their fishing.
Easter would change that later, but it couldn't change it that night. They were together in the valley of the shadow of death, and they feared evil. They ate and drank with little idea of how it would all come out.
What a difference those next days made! What a difference when outcomes are made plain and you could see things as we do now! What a difference it made in how we see the hand of God at work in human affairs, and the lives of those disciples too.
The unassured became the assured to become the assuring. The unredeemed became the redeemed to become the redeeming. The ungathered became the gathered to become the gathering.
They knew now where they were going. Into all the world, preaching good news. Teaching his teachings and baptizing in his name. Their lives were so changed and new that they themselves became part of the evidence of the truth they preached.
A bunch of betrayers became a band of witnesses. And that transformation is what we seek and pray for in our own lives as we remember them and Him.
He was dead, but now is alive. And we were dead too, but now are alive by the power of his cross.
That's what we're here to be reminded of.
BREAD OF GLADNESS
I don't know where or when the expression "turned on" began, but you hear it a lot. "He's really turned on," someone says. Do "whatever turns you on," you get advised. People are turned on to sports, or to music, or romance, or even good books. Something electric happens, like a switch being thrown. Lights come on. Changes take place.
"I was glad when they said to me, Let us go to the house of the Lord." (Psalm 122:1) There we have a person who was turned on to the house of the Lord. That's one of the things you can get turned on to.
Sometimes, of course, instead of glad, we're busy. Or we're tired. Or we have other, more exciting plans. Sometimes we'd rather sleep late. Sometimes we've spent time with unholy things that dull the appetite for sacred worship. Or we just don't see the point.
So there are many things to be besides glad! But glad is the best. Glad is what the Lord wants. And glad is what we find among those early Christians I read about in the scripture lesson for this morning. Listen again:
Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God . . ..
It's interesting how the Lord's Supper was combined with regular eating in the early church. They had what they called their "love feast" or "agape meal," which was what we'd call a church supper. Then at the end they celebrated communion. Only later did the two become separate, as we have them now. One upstairs on Sunday, and the other downstairs on Wednesday night.
Maybe we should set aside a year and do it like the early Christians. There's something good and even holy about sitting down and eating together as brothers and sisters in Christ. What if you had to come out on Wednesday night and do that before you qualified to take communion? Would you ever bother?
Why celebrate communion in the first place? Because it's required? Because it's the thing to do? Because you came and had no choice?
The early Christians did it out of gladness. The Lord himself had invited them to his table. They took it as a blessing, a wondrous opportunity.
You get invitations, don't you? So-and-so requests the honor of your presence at such-and-such. And sometimes you dread whatever that is, but other times you circle it on the calendar and wouldn't miss it for the world. Someone you care about invited you to something you look forward to.
Well Jesus of Nazareth requests your presence at a dinner in his honor. It's to be held right here in just a few minutes. So how do you feel about that? Are you glad? Are you excited? Could it be an experience you'll treasure for months to come?
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to the twelve. And I love what it says about their response: "Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord."
Gladness is good. The Lord loves gladness. The Lord loves coming to a gathering and bringing gladness to it, as he did there. As he did at a wedding in Cana. As he did in those meetings of the early church. As he can here.
It's a useful thing to ask the source of the gladness we find in life. Does it come from material things or from spiritual things?
The dead man had asked to be buried in his new Cadillac. A bulldozer had dug a suitable hole, and a crane was there to lower the car down. The body was at the wheel, immaculately dressed, hat straight, rings shining. The paint and chrome of the car were gleaming. And as this took place, an impressed mourner was heard to whisper: "Man, that's livin'!" That's livin'.
Now things can seem like livin' that aren't really livin'. That are more like dyin'! And even professing Christians can be more impressed by things that pertain to death than by things that pertain to life.
Hear again the question Jesus asked: "What shall it profit if you gain the whole world and lose your own soul? What will you give in exchange for your soul?"
What shall it profit if you gain a bigger house than all your friends, but have no home in heaven? What shall it profit if you gain prominence in this life, but have no record in the Lamb's Book of Life? What shall it profit if you gain the praise and honor of men, but never hear the master say "well done, thou good and faithful servant"?
What shall it profit?
You'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold.
You'd rather have Him than have riches untold.
You'd rather have Jesus than houses or land.
You'd rather be led by his nail-pierced hand.
SINGING THE SONG WHEN YOU DON'T FEEL LIKE IT
I had lunch with John Soto last week, and he told me about looking through the leftovers from the yard sale. They were about to be "discarded" as we say. And he found there a copy of the book "Exodus" which he'd read years ago. He took the book and re-read it. He said it was almost like reading it for the first time, and how powerful it was, and how sympathetic it made you feel for kicked-around people, whoever they may be.
Well, of course, those Jews in "Exodus" weren't the first of the kicked-around Jews. From the days of the Prophets on, the peoples of Judah and Israel lived in a political buffer zone. They were traded like merchandise between Egypt and the kingdoms of Mesopotamia. In 587 B.C., Jerusalem fell again–this time to Babylon. Many were carried away to exile. A few remained at home.
The Jews had no hope of overthrowing a conqueror themselves. Their hope was for someone to beat up on whoever had beat up on them, and that the new ruler might be a better one. Sure enough, in 538, the star of King Cyrus began to rise in Persia. Isaiah called him the "Lord's anointed." In 515 he let the captives return to their homeland, and the period we call The Exile came to an end.
Sometime during that Exile, Psalm 137 was written. And it expressed all the range of feelings that troubled the hearts of those held captive. And I think you'll find that they're pretty much the response of anyone who faces problems that defy solutions. Who find themselves captive to an unhappy situation. Let's see.
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
There speaks a soul that's tired but not crushed, a faith which is burdened but not extinguished. Here were people spending time as slaves in a strange and foreign land. It was good to remember home. And it was bad to remember home. To think back on those happier days was pleasant, but also painful.
"We had it made back then, didn't we? Didn't we have it made? Maybe we didn't know it at the time, but now we know it. And now it's gone. And it could be gone for good."
Don't most of us have something we weep for when we remember? Small towns where every face was familiar, where days were restful, where a civil disturbance was someone's dog barking loud at night, and teen-age crime was turning over an out-house at Halloween.
Birds hatching in a nest, a nighttime sky filled with stars, your first high heels, that small apartment where you washed a lot of diapers, a father or mother who've left you now. This is why collecting old things is so popular. It helps you re-live the good old days. When you could buy a Barlow pocket knife for twenty-five cents. Boy!
The young people get tired of that in a hurry, of course. It seems like the adults are rubbing something in. Like they're saying, "we had it made–you don't."
But the adults are also curious about what the kids are up to these days. Because it would add to their sorrow if they thought there were things they missed out on! And neither generation ever knows the answer to that question.
If the exiles had their sorrow for the past, they also had their frustration in the present. They were mocked by their captors. "Sing us one of your Zion songs," they'd say. So when they'd hear one coming, they'd hang up their harps in the willows, trying to evade this mockery.
Proud sons of Jacob, forced to sing their sacred songs for the amusement of pagans. What if they had to sing one like Psalm 46? Sing it while their enemies laughed and made fun?
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God will help her right early. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Psalm 46:4-7)
That always sounded good back home in Jerusalem. God seemed near to them there, and the words so true. How different to sing it now. Sing it here where things had gone so wrong. No wonder they couldn't do it. Did it only under protest.
But you know, although they didn't want to sing the song, they still remembered what the song was all about. They still said to one another: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither." Which shows you don't always have to sing the song of Zion to carry the feeling of it in your heart.
There in the captivity of Babylon, a strange thing took place. The faith they'd taken for granted back home began to mean more to them. Back home they sang the songs and thought little of it. Here they found it hard to sing, but the songs meant more and more.
It often takes a situation like that to make us find out how religious we really are. How much God means in our lives.
When times are good, we have perfect freedom to sing the songs of Zion, and couldn't care less! But when we lose the chance, we begin to miss it. And then we might just be ready to make a renewed commitment. The crisis is our danger, but also our opportunity.
There's a film called The Wind and the Lion about an uprising in Morocco during the days of Teddy Roosevelt. The young Americans who went there to deal with the uprising had absolute confidence. They were from the greatest nation on earth, and they were invincible.
Once in the story, a young diplomat is telling those backward Moroccans how things are. He says, "We have people who can do things you can't begin to imagine. We have people who can do anything."
And that's exactly what they thought. Any problem can be solved. Except that there in Morocco that met up with some that couldn't. It became their Babylon–their crisis of opportunity.
The response you make in times like that can be useful or useless. You can make things better, or make them worse. You can turn to anger. Listen:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, "Rase it, Rase it! Down to its foundations!" O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
That's not very nice is it? To want little Edomite babies smashed to pieces on the rocks because their parents had rejoiced to see your downfall?
The Edomites were a neighbor tribe of people way back home, and there was no love lost in the situation. So when Jerusalem fell, the Edomites said "Ha! Ha!" They couldn't have done this themselves, but they became cheerleaders for those who did. That was all history by the time of Psalm 137, but Israel still remembered it, you see. They especially remembered it in their hours of frustration.
Now the interesting thing is this: the Edomites were far away and out of the picture. The Babylonians were the ones they really should have cursed. But they were too close! They had ears that could hear and swords that could cut! They had whips to punish with. So curse the Edomites way back home–they can't do anything about it!
Anger works that way. It sneaks around. It hides and broods and plots. You take the anger you feel toward one person and take it out on someone else. People get kicked by someone they're afraid to kick back, and then go looking for someone they can kick. We live in a world where this goes on all the time. And everyone will do it unless love takes over. Unless you can learn to sing the song even when you don't feel like it.
Anger and frustration and self-pity are all self-defeating. They feed on themselves. They keep us where we are. They become a captivity of their own.
But the gospel is this, that "if the Son shall make you free, you will be free indeed." Free to respond in a positive way to the most negative of circumstances. To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. To come unto him–laboring and heavy laden as you are–where he will give you rest.
Even in the worst captivity, there's rest and there's freedom. With men it's impossible. But with God, all things are possible. Even that!
I DON'T KNOW HIM
"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren." And he said to him, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." He said, "I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me."
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house. Peter followed at a distance; and when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a maid, seeing him as he sat in the light and gazing at him, said, "This man also was with him." But he denied it, saying, "Woman, I do not know him."
A lady called me yesterday to put herself on the prayer list. She has surgery this week. When you're on your way to surgery, you want your friends to know. And you'd like to know that they care, and you have their support.
Jesus was on his way to be nailed to a cross, and knew it. So he gathered with his friends and tried to tell them. He wanted on their prayer list if he could. He needed their support.
Like some of us, they were better at talking support than actually giving it. I had a man call and tell me once that he supported me "100%"–to use his term–but when decision time came it was more like zero. Peter said he was solid as could be–he was 100%. He was ready to go to prison, ready to go to death–he was ready for whatever it took in support of his Lord.
Jesus knew that wasn't so. But do you tell the man in a situation like that? He isn't lying, he's just deceiving himself. What he said reflects the ideal he'd like to live by. But when he gets in the actual situation, other factors come into play. Being scarred to death, for instance. The talk sounded good, but talk was all it was.
Jesus wouldn't let him get away with it. Just like we shouldn't get away with it when we talk pious talk about doing this or that and never lift a finger to do any of it. Boy, if you could buy us for how much we do and sell us for how much we talk about doing, you could make quite a profit! Jesus told Peter that before the night was over he'd deny him three times.
After that they went to Gethsemane. He said watch and pray, then went on farther to be alone. They went to sleep. He was in agony, and they were sleeping–what a contrast.
Then there were torches, and soldiers, and the flash of swords and armor, and the face of Judas in the shadows. Jesus was arrested and led away to a so-called trial. And what would happen?
"Hey, Peter, here's your chance, Boy! Said you'd go with him to prison or to death? Looks like it might be one of those. And looks like those other disciples have disappeared somewhere. He'll be needing you tonight. I guess you'll go along?"
Peter did go. He tried to go. He followed behind, but the further they went the further back he got. Maybe he thought a live disciple is better than a dead one. Maybe he was thinking what a terrible thing it was that Judas had done. Maybe he was glad he had a nap because it looked like a long night. We can wonder, but we'll never really know.
What we know is what he did. He came to the house of the High Priest where Jesus had been taken inside. Outside were a lot of people, and they had a fire going. Peter got up close, and three times was accused of being a disciple. Three times he said no, he wasn't. The last time he even cursed.
How embarrassing! This hero, this saint, this esteemed leader of the early church. Why, he walked on water once. Jesus called him a rock and said he'd build a church on faith like his. But there that night he really blew it. How embarrassing to all of us.
I mean, this is like finding out that Sylvester Stallone is hen-pecked, or Dexter Manley is afraid of the dark, Dear Abbey is seeing a psychiatrist about her personal problems, or Jerry Falwell grows marajuana in his back yard!
How on earth did this get in the Bible? Someone told on Peter, right? Not likely. No one who knew him was around, and I doubt that Jesus was a tattle tale. I think Peter told it himself–told it sadly as a lesson to others.
Right after the third denial, they were leading Jesus away, and he passed close by, and their eyes met. Fresh on Peter's lips were those bitter denials, and then Jesus was there and looking at him. That's when he came to himself, and it says he went off and wept.
He felt like Judas, I suppose. There were similarities. Both had played the traitor. And afterward, both felt guilt, remorse, and panic. But Judas went and hanged himself. Peter wept, but then went on with the rest of his life.
That's one of the lessons here. You make mistakes, but you go on. You have your cry, then pick yourself up. The grace of God is our help, not our accusation. Feel rotten if you must, but then get over it. Easter is coming soon, and Pentecost is after that.
The man messed up beside that fire, but at least he was there. Where were the others? Peter followed at a distance, but at least he followed. The others forsook him and fled. He didn't do it right, but at least he tried. You have to give something to the person who tries.
We must be subdued and reverent around that fire. We're in the presence of a mistake so simple and natural that any one of us might do it and think nothing more about it.
We who sin our sins in secret have no right to judge an honest man who dared to let his be known. It's easy to read the story and feel smug. Someone proclaimed a lofty ideal and then fell flat on his face–how funny!
No, not funny. Funny is what people with no ideals will make of it when someone else's get them in trouble. But the fact is this–that before his life was over, Peter did go to prison and finally to death in the service of his Lord.
To do what's right in an evil world is hard. It's hard. No one does it perfectly. But if we can just be strugglers at it, as Simon surely was, then there's hope.
Victor Frankl was a Jewish doctor who survived the German camp at Auschwitz. A man of strong faith, he put many of his experiences in writing. One tells of a plan to escape.
He'd gotten permission to go to town for a consultation about a patient's illness. A member of the resistance was to meet him there with clothing and documents. The Allied armies were close by, and getting to them seemed a good chance to take. He was almost ready to leave, when he had an urge to see his patients one last time. He writes:
I came to my only countryman, who was almost dying, whose life it had been my ambition to save in spite of his condition. I had kept my intention to escape to myself, but my comrade seemed to guess. In a tired voice he asked me, "You, too, are getting out?" I denied it, but I found it difficult to avoid his sad look. After my rounds I returned to him. Again a hopeless look greeted me and somehow I felt it to be an accusation. I ran out of the hut and told my friend that I could not go with him. As soon as I had told him with finality that I had made up my mind to stay with my patients, the unhappy feeling left me. I did not know what the following days would bring, but I had gained an inward peace that I never experienced before.
Of course, trials and fires and prison camps are not our usual problems. But life brings us its daily choices. Do we know what's right? and will we bring ourselves to do it?
As Christians, there are actions we take that say "I know him." And there are others we take that say we don't know him.
"Know him" actions are these, according to Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, self-control.
"Don't know him" actions are just the opposite: hatred, gloom, strife, impatience, unkindness, wickedness, treachery, pride, indulgence. Those say a lot more about a person than any bumper sticker on a car can make up for.
What it means to do the will of God may not always be clear. But we must be on the lookout, even in the unexpected.
For instance: we know how Jesus and the Twelve met for supper and he washed their feet. But do we know what to make of that, what to do with it?
I was at the pool one morning. I'd gone for my swim, shaved, showered, and dressed. A lot of men come there in the mornings to do that. And we make our mess, and go off to work, and someone has to come and clean it up.
So I got to thinking. I imagined an exclusive club where high class people come for exercise. And a group of men are there in the locker room who all know one another. They're all successful. They pay good money to come there and expect to find the place well-kept. They hardly notice that while they're standing around talking business or sports, a handicapped young man is going from toilet to toilet with a brush and a pail and a roll of paper towels. They've seen him there before, but no one knows his name. No one will ever know his name, because he seems retarded and cleans the toilets.
What if one of those men–the most prominent in the group–should look over there at that boy. And what if he should have an impulse to do something. Should leave his friends and their conversation and walk over there. They'd be turning to see what was up. They'd think he might be getting someone told about the condition of the place who ought to be told.
But no. Right there in the locker room he gets down on his knees beside the boy and the toilet. And he says, "Here, son, let me help you." And he unrolls paper from that roll of towel. The knees of his fine suit are down on the floor where people walk. And he begins to wipe the commodes.
And the boy looks around and smiles his funny smile. And the standing men can think of nothing whatsoever to say.
Would a man actually do a thing like that?
I know one who would. I know one who did. And he said to those who watched him, and to us, that he had given us an example, that we should be servants of one another, and consider that none is so high, or so mighty, as to be better than the most common service. And indeed, the servant of all is the greatest of all. He said that.
He said preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, the recovering of sight to the blind, the setting at liberty of those oppressed. He said proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. Doing that affirms him, and neglecting it denies him.
He goes on to his cross. And what of us?
ALIVE FOR EVERMORE
"Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades."
There's an often-told story about the battle of Waterloo, and how news of it arrived in England. The message was sent by light signal from a ship at sea. It came to a man on top of a hill, who relayed it to another hill, and so on to London.
The message had four words: "Wellington defeated the enemy." A victory message. But the story is that a fog closed in with just two of those words having been sent. The first two, of course. "Wellington defeated." And that was taken for the final message and sent from signalman to signalman, and spread around the country as the news of defeat.
Only later–when the fog had lifted–was it seen that there was more to the message. And the final message was, of course, a message of victory.
Well, on that day we strangely call Good Friday, the message was: "Jesus Christ defeated." Defeated. Crucified, dead, and buried. He saved others but he could not save himself is what it looked like in that fog.
But Sunday came, Easter came, and the outcome was totally different. The first message was not the final one. The message was, "Jesus Christ defeated the enemy."
And I know of no finer statement of it than the one which stands near the beginning of the Revelation to John.
"Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades."
I'd like for us to look at that statement in some detail this morning. Let's notice first of all that it begins in a very honest way by acknowledging our fears. He says "fear not," and he does it because he knows our hearts and knows we do fear. Strong as we may pretend to be, inside we tremble.
Between the cradles that held us at first, and the coffins that will hold us at last, there's a trail of dread. Childhood fears of bears in the woods and noises in the dark at night. Teenage fears of rejection and the risks of love. Student fears of failure. Parent fears of missing the mark. Middle age fears of job-loss and heart attacks. Old-age fears of being cast aside unwanted. And those who live in fear die a little every day.
Who is it then that dares to tell people like us not to be afraid? Someone with no idea of the things we face? Who says the words easily, like someone who never raised any kids and gives advice to those who do?
No, not at all. Jesus says the words from the very midst of our situation. He too was pressed and thronged and pushed in all directions at once. He too was restless and uncertain, filled with fear and dread. He too felt the absence of God. His prayer "Why hast thou forsaken me?" shows all-too-clearly the distress he was in.
So he can speak from experience about the fears of life. As one who faced the same enemies we face, and ended up victorious. So he inspires in others his own strength and confidence. And his victory becomes theirs.
Rose Kennedy has written about her loss of three famous sons. She says: "I think of my eldest son Joe when his airplane exploded over the English Channel. I recall kneeling heartbroken at Jack's coffin in the Capitol Rotunda. And I weep again at the remembrance of Bobby's funeral cortege in New York . . .. I take renewed strength and courage in the thought that as Jesus Christ rose from the dead, so my husband and my sons and our daughter will one day rise again and we shall be happy together, never more to be separated. My spirits are lightened and my heart rejoices, and I thank God for my belief in the resurrection."
Our source of hope is that Jesus is the first and the last and the living one. When we gather for worship like this, and as often as we do it, we come with a promise that he'll be in our midst. And that means more than just his memory. A lot of people are with us in memory. But Jesus is with us in his living presence through the Holy Spirit.
I was in a meeting hall once, and there were all these dead people looking down from the walls where their pictures hung. Past leaders, there with their dates of service. Some remembered, some forgotten.
Jesus is with us in a different way than that. He was dead, but now is alive for evermore. He was earthly and limited, but now is heavenly and unlimited. He was our predecessor, but now is our contemporary. We feel his actual presence here. And it often changes things.
German pastor Martin Niemueller was a prisoner of Hitler during the war. For a while he was at a camp where they hanged one prisoner every day as a matter of policy. No one knew when the knock on the door would be for him.
So Niemueller says he went over a speech he was ready to make if they came for him. He'd say, "You criminals, you murderers! There is a God in heaven. Wait and you shall see!" And every time they took someone, he'd go over it again. He had it ready.
But then one day, it dawned on him that Jesus Christ made no such speech as he faced the end. That instead, he prayed for those who nailed him to the cross. He heard him say "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." And the presence of the living Christ made him change his speech, in a place as strange as Hitler's prison.
"Oh, the love that drew salvation's plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary."
The difficulties we face, the twilights in which we stand, the struggles we endure, the failures we encounter–he knows them all. He knows the loneliness, the fear. But he whispers: "Blessed are the poor in spirit! Blessed are those who mourn! Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, as you do, and even the souls who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Yours too, if you want it."
Remember what he said about the keys? "I have the keys of Death and Hades."
Someone who knows and loves us has the keys that matter most! And he doesn't dangle them in front of us, he offers them gladly. He says to all who believe in him, "Because I live, you will live also." His victory becomes their victory.
Theologian Karl Barth put it this way: "It is now all-important for us to cling to this truth that he, Jesus Christ, in his life, is our present. Not our past is our present. Not the great darkness casting its shadows out of yesterday into today. Not what we rightly or wrongly hold against ourselves and probably against others as well. Not the world with its accusations and we with our counter-accusations. Not even the well-deserved divine wrath against us, let alone our grumbling against God, or our secret thought there might be no God after all. Therefore not we ourselves, as we are today or think we are, make up our present. He, Jesus Christ, his life is our present; his divine life poured out for us, and his human life, our life, lifted up in him. This is what counts. This is what is true and valid. From this point on we may continue our journey into the future. And this is the future which grows out of this present: 'You will live also.'" (Deliverance to the Captives, p. 32)
Remember that book and movie titled "The Yearling"? 1938 is when the book was written. It had a crippled boy in it named Fodderwing Forrester. And he died, and his neighbor Penny Baxter was asked to pray over the grave. "Penny advanced to the grave and closed his eyes and lifted his face to the sunlight. The Forresters bowed their heads." And this was the prayer:
"Oh Lord. Almighty God. Hit ain't for us ignorant mortals to say what's right and what's wrong. Was ary one of us to be a-doin' of it, we'd not of brung this pore boy into the world a cripple, and his mind teched. We'd of brung him in straight and tall like his brother, fitten to live and work and do. But in a way o' speaking, Lord, you done made it up to him. You give him a way with the wild creeturs. You give him a sort o' wisdom, made him knowin' and gentle. The birds come to him, and the varmints moved free about him, and like as not he could o' takened a she wild-cat right in his pore twisted hands."
"Now you've done seed fit to take him where bein' crookedy in mind or limb don't matter. But, Lord, hit pleasures us to think now you've done straightened out them legs and that pore bent back and them hands. Hit pleasures us to think on him, movin' around as easy as ary one. And Lord, give him a few red-birds and mebbe a squirrel and a 'coon and a 'possum to keep him comp'ny, like he had here. All of us is somehow lonesome, and we know he'll not be lonesome, do he have them leetle wild things around him, if it ain't askin' too much to put a few varmints in Heaven. Thy will be done. Amen.
Is that a realistic hope or not? For we all have stood out beside some grave and pondered something like it.
Without Easter, I say it's not. But with Easter, I say it is. Because Christ lives, we can live also. He's the resurrection and the life, and whoever lives and believes in him, though he be dead, yet shall he live.
So I ask you, if this new life could begin for you, when would you want it to?
A FAMILIAR VOICE
How do you suppose you'd feel if I told you I'd preached this sermon to another group of people and none of them could make heads or tails of it? I tried to read a book once where the author said right in the preface that you probably weren't going to understand what you were about to read! And he was mainly right!
Now what I'm getting to is verse 6, where it says "this figure (parable, illustration) Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them." You should take up a text with some humility where it says the first people who heard it couldn't understand it. We should also make some extra efforts.
This passage, as you've already heard, is based entirely on the experience of raising sheep. I doubt there are too many of us who've done that. I did briefly serve a church in Kentucky where some members raised sheep. And I sometimes had the experience there of looking out the window of the church and seeing a flock of sheep grazing on the hillside not far away. I tried to be real sure of myself there when I made any reference to sheep or shepherds. I mean, I could tell you that sheep sleep standing up, and you wouldn't know the difference–but they would.
Now before we look at what Jesus said, let's notice the context. This passage comes right after he had restored the sight of a young man born blind. You may remember what a stir that created, and how the religious leaders expelled this man from the synagogue because he spoke with approval about the one who healed him.
It was the most drastic punishment they could deal out, and this to a young person who still had the glow of his new-found faith. That, it seems to me, explains the references we find to false shepherds. Hirelings who care for themselves but not for the sheep. Jesus had just seen an example.
So he said to them, "Now you know how a sheepfold is, don't you? You've got this large enclosure, and a good stout door, and a fellow there whose job is to guard the door. And I come along, and I'm the shepherd. The fellow at the door says Hi! and opens up. The sheep inside hear my voice and know it's me. And I know every one of them, because I'm their shepherd. And I'm here because it's feeding time. The sheep are always happy about that. I get in front, and they follow along behind. And we all go out where there's the greenest grass you ever saw."
But then he told them that sometimes a man comes along who wants to mess with the sheep. He doesn't go through the door, because the fellow there wouldn't let him in. He climbs up over the wall and gets in that way. And the sheep don't know him, they won't follow him, but he sure does cause a lot of confusion, and sometimes damage.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Now what this is all about is the relationship of Christ to his people. Notice how there's a reciprocal knowledge between shepherd and sheep. The shepherd knows his sheep by name. He knows each and every one. If he has a hundred sheep and one is out lost, he'll know which one that is. He'll know it's Elmer again, or Clarence, or whoever.
And the sheep? The sheep know him. They know his voice. They know he's their shepherd, and won't follow anyone else.
As you may know, we have this yellow cat at home named Dufus. And Dufus, let's face it, isn't the smartest cat in the world. But still, Dufus knows whose cat he is. He's Becky's cat. But if Becky isn't around, if it's just Diane and I, then his choice is Diane. And if Becky and Diane are both gone–you guessed it–Dufus will have something to do with me. Dumb as he is, Dufus is selective in his responses to people.
Now that's exactly what Jesus is illustrating with the sheep and the shepherd and the ones who aren't real shepherds. And the point is your response to him. Do you love his appearing? Do you follow where he leads? Do you have a place in your heart for him that no one else can ever occupy?
Sheep stray, of course. Sheep are bad to stray. So a shepherd is the most patient of men, because he has to put up with so much. But he does because he loves his sheep. He'll lay down his life for them. He'll go out in the rain or the dark or through the worst thicket you can imagine, just to restore one strayed sheep back to where it belongs.
I suppose then you could say this: the thing that matters most is that he knows us. Knows us by name. Because like sheep we all have strayed. Doesn't say "could stray" or "might stray," it says have strayed. And sometimes a strayed sheep doesn't know who he is anymore. So it's important in a time like that that there's a shepherd who does.
There are times a sheep may so wander as to forget what flock he belongs to. May be so often missing that the flock forgets him. Sheep forget, and flocks forget. But Jesus says
I know my own!
And that means he knows where we belong, even if we don't. And will go to any lengths to bring us back where.
This is meant, of course, to have you ask yourself about your own relationship with Jesus Christ. Are you getting closer to him, or farther from him? Do you hear his voice often, or not at all? Do you follow him with love and affection, or grudgingly and of necessity? He'll lay down his life for you, but what will you lay down for him?
This Saturday at ten o'clock some of us are going out where people live in the areas around our church. We're going as Christians and members of Luther Rice Church to meet people–some of whom are like strayed sheep with no shepherd and no flock. Now anyone can do this after David Henry shows you how. And it can help people–and it can help our church. It could even help you to do it.
Is this something you would do, or not? If not, why not?
Jesus is interested in that sort of effort. It says so plainly in the text. Listen:
I have other sheep, that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.
But we have a part in that, you see. Jesus said he came to seek and to save the lost. But then he also told his followers that they are sent as he was sent. He told them to go into all the world and make disciples. And that means a lot more than just paying the salaries of people who come back and show us their color slides in the Weaver Room. It's sometimes easier to go into all the world than to go right around us.
I have a lot of admiration for Jimmy Carter as a practicing Christian. A friend of mine is pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church Carter belonged to while he was governor of Georgia. They say that often on Thursday evenings, Jimmy Carter would drive away from the Governor's Mansion, and down the hill to his church to go out visiting. And there were people around there who answered a knock on their door to find the governor of the state. Not as a politician, but as follower of Jesus, and a supporter of his local church.
Jesus came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. But what exactly does that mean?
If it said he came that we may have money, and have it abundantly, we'd need no explanation. Come that we may have children, and have them abundantly, we'd know exactly what that meant. But what is he saying when he speaks of abundant life?
I've sometimes wondered if this is the same as "eternal life," but decided it isn't. It speaks not about the quantity of life, but the quality of it. It speaks as he spoke to the woman at the well, that whoever drinks deep of the water he gives will have a spring of water inside him, welling up unto eternal life. It speaks not of things that go on and on as they are, but of things that become qualitatively different.
As if there could be a wedding feast in trouble, and Jesus was the kind to come to the rescue. As if you can forget about forgiving someone up to seven times, now you have the grace to do it on and on. As if his yoke is easy and his burden light. As if the way of the kingdom is becoming like the children. As if five loaves and three fish can feed a multitude now. As if his spirit will be poured out on all flesh and the sons and daughters–daughters–will prophecy and the young men dream dreams and the old men see visions.
Contrary to some opinion, Jesus is no joy-killer, he's a joy-bringer. He's no wet blanket, he's the picnic basket! He has what all people want, if they but knew what they want.
Come unto him, all who labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest.
He stands at the door of your heart. He came there to knock, and does. And you can open the door, and he'll come in. Or you can ignore it, and he'll go away.
To know him is life. Choose life! Choose life!
GREY HAIRS AS A CROWN OF GLORY
We've just been through a curious section in our long study of the book of Job. The suffering Job had three friends–Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar. And most of the book is what they said to Job and what he said to them.
They were older men–respected, experienced, educated, and leaders among the people. But right at the end of the book there appears a new character–a young man named Elihu. Elihu has been listening all this time his elders discussed the mysteries of life. And he was upset, because he felt they should have solved those mysteries, and they hadn't, but he could.
And Elihu doesn't want to come on like a brash young upstart whippersnapper, but that's what he's about to do. He'd been raised in a society that taught respect for age, and tries to give it lip service–but that's all it is. He finally says:
It is not the old that are wise, not the aged that understand what is right. Therefore I say, "Listen to me; let me also declare my opinion." (Job 32:8)
And for six long chapters his own ideas come pouring out. They sit oddly in the book, for no one ever replies. Not Job, not any of his friends. And after the speeches are over, the drama simply moves on. They stand as the protest of youth that old fogies should be heard, perhaps, but then ignored. Dispensed with as soon as possible. Young minds are the future. Old ones are for nursing homes.
Do we live in a time when "Elihuism" is more common than it was? Of course we do, and that's partly good. Surely none of us would like to have a society where you have to wait and get old before you make your mark.
About a year ago I had the fascinating experience of hearing a speech and afterward a question and answer session by Bill Gates, the founder and president of Microsoft. A founding father of the personal computer. A well-rewarded genius–now worth about 50 million dollars. And he's thirty years old, or was when I heard him speak. Elihu would be proud. And why not? why not?
In a day of rapid change–and in fields where this is most acute–everything a person knows may be obsolete in a matter of months. So the newcomer is able to catch up quick. And if his elders do little to stay on top, they soon are excess baggage. They soon are moaning "stop the world, I want to get off."
Their prayer is in Psalm 71. Listen:
Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth. Now also when I am old and grey-headed, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come. (Psalm 71:9,18)
What an anguished, touching, heart-rending prayer that is. And it either is our prayer or will be some day. "Don't let me be a cast-off in the time of old age. For I have so much to say and show to those who will take my place. It may not be the latest technology, but it's the stuff of living, the reason for our existence. Lord, don't let me have that to contribute, and no way to make the contribution."
I don't want to dwell on that anguish this morning, but I have heard it. Perhaps most memorably from a dear lady we all loved. A person always smiling, loving, and encouraging. Who bore her years well and gladly most of the time.
But I came into her hospital room one afternoon, and when she saw me she started to cry. She'd had a stroke and felt useless forever.
She didn't just cry a little–it was more of a wail. And her words I'll never forget were these:
"O Pastor, it's awful to get old."
What I said to her that afternoon I don't remember. I may have held her hand and predicted a better day tomorrow. Whatever it was, it was nothing very profound.
I could see down the years where I might be lying in a bed and feeling the same way. There are times it is awful to be old.
But go to Children's Hospital and you can find the same thing. And there are times being a teen-ager is excruciatingly awful–as witnessed by the figures on teen-age suicide. Being a young parent can be awful. So can being middle-aged. Every stage in the journey of life has potential for pain too great to bear. It's a struggle from start to finish.
So the veterans of that struggle are to be honored. Those who've lived and seen it all have much to tell us. Elihu may know more about the latest breed of camel, but he knows little of himself and larger plan of life. Restless to talk, and impatient to listen, he needs someone to slow him down. He needs someone who has slowed down.
"Wisdom is a fountain of life to him who has it . . . he who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city . . . there is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death . . . (and) a hoary head is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life."
Grey hairs as a crown of glory! Old age as an honored achievement. Long years as a coveted prize, as the mountain peak of worthy travel. That's the positive and priceless perspective of the biblical writers.
And what a shame that the attitudes of modern society will tell those with grey hair to go soak it in a bottle of coloring and make it "look young" again. Meaning this "crown of glory" the Bible speaks about is seen as a crown of shame. And the age in years that someone really is gets kept as a secret like a blot of the past. People lie about their age as if it were a sin to be covered up.
My father was always proud of how old he was, but he never seemed that old. He didn't need i
HIS POVERTY, OUR RICHES
2 Corinthians 8:1-9
Now as you excel in everything–in faith, in utterance, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in your love for us–see that you excel in this gracious work also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
The apostle Paul was taking an offering in the churches that knew him. Not for himself, not to build a building, not for missions or missionaries–it was an offering for the poor and hungry.
He wrote letters, he traveled and spoke, and he sent out a helper named Titus. For a time in his life, I think it's fair to say that Paul was obsessed with this effort.
Paul was smart. He got a committee of lay people to handle the money. Because he knew anyone raising money for a good cause can be suspected of being the cause itself! And he avoided that. It would be nice if all preachers did!
Now it's often amazing how much money people will voluntarily give away. I mean, with no obligation whatsoever to do it. Someone says, "won't you give something to help us here" and people reach for their checkbooks. Sizeable organizations exist entirely on voluntary contributions. Our church is one.
But something rather substantial has to motivate that, because people have their own selfish interests. Money we give away is money we might have spent on ourselves. So what will cause a person to do it?
That's the question Paul pondered as he wrote this letter. On what should he base his appeal? What will touch the hearts and open the hands of those early Christian believers? Well, this was what he came up with:
You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Notice he didn't say "you know his requirements." He said, "you know his grace."
The old covenant was a covenant of law where requirements were met to earn God's favor. The new covenant is a covenant of grace, where God in love extends his favor to people who could never earn it. Paul preached that salvation was by grace through faith, and even the faith to believe in God is no work of ours, but a gift of his.
And Jesus Christ is the supreme example of God's love in action. He does for us what we never deserved, nor could ever have earned. So the result is a thankful heart, and not a proud spirit. We boast when we do something on our own, but when it's done for us and given as a gift, the result is humility.
Someone rich as heaven became poor and penniless for our sakes. Someone who rubbed shoulders with angels came to our world to rub shoulders with lepers and beggars. Someone with every reason to do nothing, did something. Paul put it this way in a letter to the church at Philippi:
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
And this was "for our sakes" that "by his poverty we might become rich."
Now Paul didn't mean limousine-rich. He meant blessed with the things that make life worthwhile.
FOR JUST ONE MAN
We belong to a community swimming pool that's open in the summer, and it's two or three minutes from the house, so that makes it convenient. I go there a lot to swim my laps.
Except that sometimes in the summer it gets too hot, especially in the middle of the day. It's not too hot for the bathers, but it is for swimmers. So then I go about eight in the evening and swim when it's cooler. As the days get shorter, it's dark by that time and hardly anyone is at the pool.
I was there the other evening and had the pool to myself the whole time. With three lifeguards on duty! Not that they were up on their high chairs or anything. When I came they were sitting around in the clubhouse watching T.V. They took turns going out to sit beside the pool and watching me swim my 32 laps. I was well guarded!
I kept swimming right on up till closing time, which is nine o'clock. Then I showered and started out. They were all waiting for me to leave so they could leave. I had the feeling they might have closed up sooner if I hadn't been there.
In fact–as I went out the door–I heard the last of a sentence, like you do sometimes. The last four words. He said something . . . something "for just one man."
I suppose it was some kind of complaint or maybe a smart remark. "Pretty good service for just one man." "Lousy shame to keep this whole pool open and us here for just one man."
"Well hey, Buddy, I pay my dues. The sign on the door says open till nine, and that's what time I got out. And if I should drop back around tomorrow evening about eight-thirty I expect to find the lights on and you or someone here."
I have to admit, though, it's a funny feeling to have the whole thing open just for me. Like a great big fish tank–a really huge one–and only one fish. Swims down to the end, and then back, and then back again. All by himself. All that water, just for him. For just one man.
But you know, the Lord has deals like that. The Lord has things one individual can take advantage of, and it doesn't matter whether anyone else does or not.
He might like to have a crowd but he doesn't have to.
The Lord is like that shepherd whose time wasn't wasted going off in search of one lost sheep. Just one. Go out in those hills a long way, search for a long time, bad weather or not, all for one sheep.
Individuals don't get lost in the crowd with God. It's like the very hairs of your head are numbered. It's like he counts the birds that fly around, and if one is missing in the morning he asks where it is. He so loved the world–all people–that he gave his son so whosoever believes shall be saved. And "whosoever will" might turn out to be one person. The Lord would have done it all for just one person.
Nicodemus–just one of all the Pharisees. The Woman at the Well–just one woman, and her not so well thought of. Zacchaeus–just one man. The woman taken in adultery–just one woman, and her a disgrace. The rich young ruler, the young man born blind–all those people and more he dealt with one by one. His whole attention–all the time they needed.
Why, the Bible even says there's rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. One.
"Why, look down there, Gabriel! Isn't that James Wells sitting in church for the service this morning? Why, he hasn't been inside a church in thirty years. Since his parents made him go and hoped it did him good. And . . . would you look at that! he's sitting up close to the front, like he really means business.
And now he's got his hymnal open and . . . do you hear that! James Wells is singing "Down at the cross where my Savior died, there where for cleansing from sin I cried . . .." Isn't that the sweetest thing you ever heard. I wonder what's got into him? No, don't bother me, Gabriel. I want to see what happens there. I wonder . . ..
Just one man, don't you see? What a miracle of grace to believe the Everlasting God will know and care for just one. Will see and hear and notice the things other people aren't even conscious of. Men and women look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. Men and women spend time and money and energy on the outward appearance. Trying to "look good" and "make a good impression" on those who have that as their standard of value. Thinking it isn't what you are but what you can appear to be that matters most. He who sits in the heavens laughs. Or maybe cries.
You might even see this in a temple crowded with people. Wall to wall. And the offering was being taken. All the crowd was coming up and putting in their money. Hundreds, maybe thousands. Lots of noise as it fell down in the treasury.
But is God impressed? Is he all excited? Does he think that something wonderful is happening here?
Yes, he does, but not the way these people think. He's not impressed by this crowd, and he's not excited about that money. He hasn't counted people or dollars.
But what he has done is spot a poor widow who threw in two copper coins. Tiny coins, the smallest there are. But all God's attention is on her. No one else noticed because her outward appearance wasn't so great, but he did. She thought she gave the least that was given that day, and he knew she gave the most. Just one woman.
Or remember the one in a crowd that was following Jesus one day? They heard he was on his way to work a miracle and wanted to go and see it. Wow! The farther they went, the bigger the crowd got. Going down that narrow road, it was building to building people. Everyone getting shoved and bumped. But something was about to happen. Something no one would ever have known about except for Jesus.
This woman in failing health made her way through the crowd, getting shoved and bumped as she went. She was trying to get to Jesus. She believed he could heal her of the hemorrhage she'd had for years. She'd spent all her money on doctors and medicines. And she was saying to herself that if she could just touch him, or even touch his robe, that would be enough.
Everyone in the crowd was thinking one thing, and she was thinking another thing. And she finally got up there right behind him. He and the rest were moving along in a hurry, so it was hard. But she reached out . . . out, and just barely . . . barely touched the hem of his robe.
And Jesus felt that touch. Didn't even touch him, but he felt it. And he stopped still, and of course the crowd stopped too. And they got quiet. And he said, "Who touched me?" "Who touched me?"
And they began to tell him that a lot of people had touched him. Some even laughed and thought he was making a joke.
But this was no joke. That woman had believed and been healed, and Jesus knew it. And the whole parade just took a break while he called her up and affirmed her faith. All of that, for just one woman.
Will Campbell has a character in his book The Glad River named Model T. He vowed that after the army he would never again have a number. So he refused to get a Social Security Card, and they took him to court for it. When he explained his refusal, the prosecutor said: "But you're a number now. You're number 15062. That's your case number, did you know that?"
And Model T. answered: "No, sir, that's not my number. That's your number for me. But it's not my number."
We come down to the point that God doesn't number people either. God doesn't need to number, because God knows us all. He loves us all. He calls us all by name.
Some are out working in the fields right now, and will sit at the dinner table tonight. Others took money and went far away in search of something they thought they wanted. The father hasn't forgotten them, and never will. Wherever they are, they're still real to him, and he to them. Even feeding hogs they are.
One of his neighbors says, "Well, count your blessings, Man. You've got one good boy, he's all you need. Be thankful, and forget about that no-good one."
But the father can't do that. The father is father of that lost boy just as much as the one at the dinner table. His heart aches. Sometimes in the long afternoons he sits on the porch and stares down the road. Where he sees nothing he hasn't seen before on all those other days. And when he finally gets up he sighs a heavy sigh and shakes his head very slowly.
And you might think–if you were there and saw it–that the father was giving up.
Not on your life. He'll be back there on that porch again, to sigh again, and then come back again. On and on. All for just one prodigal son.
Could I ask you a question? Are you a person God loves but wishes better things for? Are you someone he spends time on the porch because of.
If so, there are two things to remember. One is, you matter to the father. The other is that wherever you are you can come back home.
And if you do, he'll be ever so glad. For just one child like you. He'll call everyone together and bring out the best food. They might even have a band and dancing. All for you, because you've come home where you belong.
If you ought to do that, why wait any longer?
JESUS IS THE KING OF KINGS–SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE THE KING?
Psalm 21:1-7 and Rev. 19:11-16
Just listen to this letter!
Dear Senator Hatfield:
I want to make it clear that when I did vote for you, I did not cast that vote with the idea of making you more powerful than the president of the United States. You only speak for Oregon, sir. Why do you think you have the right to interfere with our president? Have you forgotten that God's way is to respect and honor those in authority? What higher power is there than President Nixon? God put him there. "Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God."
Now the passage I read from Psalm 21 has very much the same viewpoint. The nation's leader is the earthly representative of God himself. The Lord sets "a crown of fine gold" on his head, bestows "splendor and majesty" upon him, and makes him "most blessed for ever" so that "he shall not be moved." This used to be called "the divine right of kings."
Citizenship meant subservience. You didn't have to think, all you had to do was obey. The king would do your thinking for you. And his thinking was God's thinking, they all believed. He was God's chosen.
Now that's a comfortable arrangement as long as you're in favor with the king, and as long as the king is able to pull it off. Of course, if he takes you into battle and you all get whipped, you might begin to question his divine wisdom. You might start wishing for some say in the matter. But you see why people will go along with this. It's simple, and it's easy.
The religious equivalent is to have a pope and a hierarchy you just submit to. You believe they're ordained by God, and know what's best, and all you need to do is trust them and obey.
The Southern Baptist Convention took a giant step closer to that in San Antonio. Just read the resolution on the priesthood of the believer. It says obey your leaders and quit trying to think for yourself. And that's exactly what this new breed of so-called Baptists do. Who would ever have believed that this could happen to the kin of Roger Williams? I mustn't dwell on that though–it's not our subject today.
What was that other scripture I read? The one from Revelation? It comes from a different time. When Caesar was no friend of God, but an enemy. God doesn't like the king or what he's doing. Instead, Jesus is preached as the King of kings, and the Lord of lords. And he threatens to kick all of them off their thrones and rule the nations himself.
Well, that's a whole new ball game, as we say. Revolution is in the air. Fourth of July stuff. Persecuted Christians read those words and found courage. They scoffed at the king and said he'd get what was coming to him. They would not obey any king, they must obey God and not man.
Well, think with me now. On this American patriotic holiday week-end, which situation are we in? Should we be giving unquestioned obedience to our government and its policy? or should we be in open defiance of it?
I think the answer is that we live in a situation quite different from that of Psalm 21 or Revelation 19, and that neither answer can be the answer for us. The blessing of living in America is that we can be participants in the processes of government. Where government is said to be "of the people, by the people, and for the people."
Where we must always be deciding if the state is playing the friend of God or the enemy of God in its actions and policies. Where we must always be raising our voices to bless some things as right and curse others as wrong. We must neither withdraw from this process nor merge with it. As Christians, we are in the state but not of it.
A born-again person has a citizenship in heaven–has it now. The Bible says that. So there's a sense in which you pledge allegiance to any nation with your fingers crossed. You can't put the state in God's place. He says in the first commandment to have nothing in his place, and doing so is idolatry. There is a patriotism which is idolatry itself.
God bless America is a perfectly good petition. But "God bless all nations, who become One through faith in Jesus Christ" is what matters most.
I say this to put our national allegiance in the perspective it belongs. That isn't to say it isn't important. And I think that between the situation of Psalm 21 which calls for total civil obedience and that of Revelation 19 which calls for total civil disobedience, there's another way.
Remember when they came to Jesus and asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? There were two sides on that among the Jews, and they wanted him to take sides. He called for a Roman coin and held it up. Then he said what? "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are Gods."
In my opinion, that's the text that speaks more directly to our situation. You have two realms and two duties. You have choices, sometimes hard choices. As for some of our young men in the 60's. They heard their country say go fight a war in Vietnam. They heard their God say not to do that. That puts you in quite bind.
Jesus is saying we belong to two separate realms, and we owe something to each one. To deny either loyalty is a sort of treason. And we pray that neither one gets in conflict with the other.
Some people profess both loyalties, and then deny one or the other on a practical level. They give their loyalty to Caesar and only lip-service to God. Or they choose God and say politics is dirty business they have nothing to do with. They leave the business of government to the politicians.
But Jesus said be concerned with both. Jesus told us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and take care of the prisoners. Those are also the concerns of politics and government. Christians can serve their calling from God through involvement in the government of men.
Health, education, welfare. Broadcasting, advertising, law making and law enforcement. Defense spending, nuclear policy, environmental protection. Who can live responsibly on this earth and claim no part in the process by which those are done and decided?
It's a fact that people are starving to death in our world. It's also a fact that more fertilizer is put on American lawns, golf courses, and cemeteries than is available in all of India to grow food. What does God think of that? Is there anything to be done about it?
Of all the people who die in our world, over 25% are children under five years of age who die of disease and malnutrition. Over a third of the people in the world are presently suffering from malnutrition.
Now God would have us be concerned enough to pray about that. But is that all? Should we be trying to do something about it? And if we should, doesn't that almost have to mean getting involved in the political process?
Many people, of course, are apathetic about God and Caesar both. They have no patriotism or religious zeal either one. No love of God or country either. Self-interest and non-involvement are their politics and their religion.
Now when Jesus said what he said about Caesar and God, what was it he was holding up? Money! Here, let me hold up some too! See this, people? Render to the U.S. the things that are the U.S.'s, and to God the things that are God's.
Don't think money is all of it. But don't think it's not basic or important. Pay your taxes to Caesar, and bring your tithes and offerings to God. Support your country, support your church. Both mean more than money–but they do mean money.
I spent a week traveling in Mexico. And I didn't just see the places American tourists fly in to and then back out of. I saw the country and the people. I saw how folk live in remote little villages where land is so poor you can't imagine anything could live.
But I saw people working hard with very little. I saw farming being done just like my father did it as a boy. I saw clothes being washed in rivers. I saw homeless people lying drunk in public places, just like here. I saw where forest fires had burned with nothing to stop them. I saw food being eaten that would have sent us to the hospital or the funeral home. But everywhere, I saw people working to build, to live, to get something ahead.
And I came back with strong feelings. Why can't a rich country like ours do more for people who live right at our borders, like Lazarus at the rich man's gate? And how can any of us complain about the things we complain about?
Oh, the line was long at the supermarket, you say? Be glad you have a supermarket! Your car isn't running just right and they said they fixed it? Be glad you have a car! They haven't fixed the road in front of your house? Boy, if you want to hear about roads that need fixing, you talk with me!
Am I glad I went to Mexico and saw those things? Yes. Was I glad to get back to the U.S.? You bet!
I rode across that Rio Grande River at Laredo about 10 o'clock in the evening. There at the border, the man in the uniform looked me over. He said, "Are you a U.S. citizen?" and I said "Yes, sir, I am." I think he could tell I was. I had papers to prove it if he didn't. But he didn't ask to see the papers–he didn't ask to see anything. He said to come on in, and I did.
I came back from Mexico with a strong feeling that I can be a better American–and I can be a better Christian. And those are two of the things God wants you and me to do.
LOVING GOD WITH YOUR ALL–ONE
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." And the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And after that no one dared to ask him any question. (Mark 12:28-34)
What does God want? What does he want most? What has he been most dissatisfied with you about, and what would he be the most pleased to discover?
Isn't that the question of our hearts? The question of wise and simple men alike? The question of the classroom, the question on the street. Of young and old, to the north and south and east and west, for living and for dying, when we ponder life as we were meant to. "What does God want from us?"
They came to the great rabbi Hillel and asked him that. He said, "What you would not have done to yourself, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, and all the rest is commentary." Every man who's said to be great will take his turn with the same question.
Jesus had been having a discussion with some scribes and Pharisees. And a newcomer joined the group–a scribe himself–and he had a question. This question. The question.
Now questions are sometimes asked in an honest way to get understanding. And they're also asked to put someone on the spot and perhaps uncover a weakness. The recent political debates are a good example. Where you ask your question hoping for a bad answer, not a good one. Where you want the question to make you look good, not the other person. Where questions are a form of combat.
And you might suppose this question put to Jesus was like that, but I think not. The scribe who asked it was later commended by our Lord. He was no adversary, but a friend. He did us all a favor, and himself as well.
"Which is the first of all commandments, Master?" "What's the most important thing there is?" "What does pleasing God depend on?"
And Jesus said to love . . . to love God . . . to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and . . . and your neighbor . . . and yourself . . . and your neighbor as yourself.
And the scribe who asked that question had the light of understanding on his face. He believed the answer, not just with his head, but with his heart as well. And he said,
"Why, this is more important than all those offerings and sacrifices we make such a fuss over. I make such a fuss over. Why, God cares more about this than that."
And Jesus told him he wasn't far from the kingdom of God. He was on the right track and only a step or two away. He may have embraced him right there. And you can easily imagine this scribe becoming a Christian, and a good one.
Now the philosophical question is: "What does God want?" But the practical question is: "What does he want with you?" And Jesus answers both questions. But to get close to the kingdom of God, you have to take it in the personal sense. You have to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself. That this is true for other people makes no difference at all unless it's true for you.
Pascal was right when he said the knowledge of God is very far from the love of him. And also when he said that human things must be known to be loved, but divine things must be loved to be known. Love is the key that opens the way to heaven.
So this is the first answer to the question, "What does God want?" He wants our love for him. Think of that, and what it means.
Most rulers care only about your obedience. Just keep in line and do what you're told. Don't rock the boat, and you won't get hurt. Don't ask questions, keep your mouth shut. That's what rulers want.
But here we have the Ruler of Rulers asking for love instead. The Author of Life and Death concerned about our affection. The Holder of All Power, refusing to hold power over us in quest of love, which can only be voluntary.
If he were not God, one might think this a big mistake. Because fallible human beings are sooner moved by fear than by love. We respond to threat more than anything else. Defensive reaction is what we're best at.
If you don't believe that, just consider this. Will the general public donate more money to fight the threat of AIDS, or to help AIDS victims? In other words, will we give more dollars out of fear for ourselves or out of love for other people? The answer has been made abundantly clear, again and again.
The preaching of fear is more effective than the preaching of love in terms of worldly success. To get action, get them scarred.
I was pastoring a church in rural Kentucky when the Cuban Missile Crisis came along. And a man who hadn't darkened the doors of that church in years showed up. He thought he was there because of God. He came down the aisle and rededicated his life in front of all the people.
But as the missile crisis faded, so did his love of God. It lasted a few good Sundays, and that was all. And then we knew what we thought we knew but weren't sure of before. We knew he hadn't come because he loved God. He came because he was scarred. And when the threat was gone, so was his devotion.
Now the Lord knows this tendency well. It's plain to him just like it's sometimes plain to us. And yet he doesn't want us to fear him, he asks us to love him. Though fear is more effective and efficient. Though ten will act to save their own hides for every one who'll act to save someone else's. "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down his life for a friend." It isn't the common thing.
Love is something no power can force and no money can buy. It comes from something deep inside, where the Image of God dwells. To love freely is to live freely, and to love forever is to live forever. As someone said, love rules without a sword, and binds without a cord.
What does God want? Number one, he wants your love. And number two, he wants your all. That's what it means to love him with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. We'll ask what those mean specifically on another Sunday. Today let them mean what they mean in general.
They stand for the total YOU. They mean there's nothing about you that God has no claim on. They mean an un-committed Christian is something there isn't any such thing as. They mean God counts us in or out, one or the other, and the way isn't broad and easy, it's straight and narrow. If you find a crowd you've likely missed it.
Guess what someone said at our prayer meeting last Wednesday evening? He said he had no more ambition for worldly success. That the one ambition he had in life was to get as close to God as possible. One ambition.
And I believe that's so, but not for a lot of us others. It's like we said yes to God with our fingers crossed. "I love you, God," but not really. "I'll go where you want me to go," just don't ever call me. "All to Jesus I surrender," but listen, I do have other plans you should be aware of. "I am thine, O Lord," but please stay out of my pocketbook and my bank book–those are off-limits.
Now we may not like that kind of introspection, but listen to this from the letter of Hebrews:
"The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do." (Hebrews 4:12-13)
John Woolman was a Quaker and practicing Christian of the 18th century. His biographer writes: "To understand better the condition of oppressed slaves, he traveled under the southern sun on foot rather than on horseback; and to comprehend the miserable lot of ordinary seamen, he crossed the ocean in the steerage rather than in a cabin. He exposed himself also to the hardships suffered by the Indians. As he wrote later, he was 'thankful to God, who thus led about and instructed me, that I might have a quick and lively feeling of the affliction of my fellow creatures.'"
What else but the love of God and neighbor as yourself will cause a person to live such a life?
And who else will hear him say at last, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant?"
LOVING GOD WITH YOUR ALL–TWO
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sad'ducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:34-40)
Before I begin, I want to make an announcment. It's important, so please listen.
If you've looked at the report this week, you've seen we're meeting our budget for the year. That's the good news. But it's a little deceptive. The other side is that the '88 budget was a bare-bones thing that allowed nothing to really expand our ministry. We can keep things going as they are, but I don't think that's good enough.
We should be advertising our church to the world around us, which we don't have money to do. We need a new sign on University Boulevard–the one there now is about to fall down. We ought to be giving more than 10% to missions. We need to junk those old vans and buy some new ones. We need a lot more money to do the things a church of Jesus is supposed to be doing. So . . ..
So I'm announcing a new program here today that I think will take care of that. Let me tell you what it is.
A lot of you have lost relatives and family members in the last few years. And I know you want to be certain that they are safe and secure in God's kingdom. You want to know that you've done all you could to see to it that's so.
Well David and Edrie and Jennifyr and I have set aside a time each week to pray for your loved ones. We'll do this in exchange for substantial contributions of money for the church. We even have a certificate we'll give you when you give your money. So you'll be assured that your loved ones won't have to stay in purgatory, and we'll have a lot more money to do the work of the church. We know you will all want to participate in this.
Now if some of you would pick Carol Wilson up off the floor, I'd like to say this really isn't a new program. It's a very old one that was used for centuries. In fact, it provoked the Protestant Reformation.
The Pope in Rome needed money to complete St. Peter's Cathedral, and he thought the easiest way to get it was to sell indulgences. Having people buy prayers for their deceased loved ones.
You surely would do that for your own mother or father, wouldn't you? If you believed it would help them in the next life?
Why, just think how much money guilty sons and daughters would part with. How money would come pouring in from inactive members who never give a dime for the regular things. How people might even compete with one another to see who'd give the most and show they care the most. All for a good cause. All for the good of the church. I think that's a great idea, don't you?
Oh, you don't? Well, but you might if I could just convince you about purgatory. You might if you could just see the potential of such a thing. Or would you?
What will cause people to give their money to the work of God? What should cause them to do that? Does God mind if it's fear or guilt or some kind of trick? Or does he want us to love him with all our heart and soul, and do whatever we do because of that love?
He does, of course. That's what the text is all about. And it shows how hearts matter to the Lord. He doesn't just care about the outcome of things, but how you get to the outcome. He cares about you as a person, and how you care about him. He's not interested in obedience that does it grudgingly and of necessity.
The Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus. He said he wanted eternal life, and how could he have it? Jesus said "well, don't you know the commandments?" And he did, of course, and he quoted them right there. He said he kept them, every one, and had all his life. Obedience.
But he knew, and Jesus knew, this wasn't enough. He knew and Jesus knew this still left a great void in his life. So he said, "But isn't there something else I lack?"
He didn't want to lack something else, of course. But he knew he did. So he asked Jesus what he lacked. He had the good works, he had the obedience, he had the outward appearance. But what did he lack?
As you know, Jesus told him to do one more little thing. Just sell all he had and give it to the poor. That's all! And the more you have, the harder that would sound. Tell that to Jack Kent Cooke. "Yes Sir, Mr. Cooke, sell the Redskins and everything else you have and give it to feed the poor. Good idea, huh?"
But you miss the point if you think that Jesus was mainly concerned about a collection for the poor. No. He was mainly concerned to see if a man would show love for God with all his heart and soul. With nothing held back. And that's what he's concerned to see in you. So ask yourself the question about what it is that shows your love for the Lord. Is it seen so that no one could have any doubt?
I lost a good buddy down in Tennessee last week. He came in from a hard day on his tractor, turned on the T.V., sat down on the sofa, and died with one shoe on and one shoe off. Geneva came home and found him about two hours later.
Don had been Sunday School Director for the church a long time. This year he was the Outreach Director. He was a sort of "hundred percent guy." If he was for you, he was for you 100%. If he was against you, it was by the same percentage. But not many were in that category. He was a positive person who always had a lot of friends. And loved the Lord one hundred percent.
Sit down with a paper and pencil sometime. Draw a line down the middle of the page. Write over on the left side, "things I do that I wouldn't be doing if I weren't a Christian." And on the right side, "things I don't do that I might be doing if I weren't a Christian." Then make your list.
Now the thing that shows about a lot of people is that being a Christian doesn't make much difference, one way or the other. It's no blessing, and no curse. It's no convenience, and no inconvenience. It's just a tame and harmless adjunct to life. You probably have more loyalty to your favorite show on television.
Will Herberg has said: "The religion of the modern man is thus frequently a religiousness without serious commitment, without real inner conviction, without genuine existential decision. What should reach down to the core of existence, shattering and renewing, merely skims the surface of life, and yet succeeds in generating the sincere feeling of being religious. Religion thus becomes a kind of protection the self throws up against the radical demand of faith."
John D. Rockefeller was a hard worker–a driven man. He became a millionaire at the age of 30. At 43, he owned the largest business in the world. And at 53 he became the first billionaire.
But his efforts had taken a tremendous toll. At 53 he was a physical and emotional wreck. He thought his life was over. His biographer said, "An awful age was in his face. He was the oldest man I have ever seen." He had all that wealth, but couldn't enjoy it.
Then came a great turning point. The man realized he really owned nothing on a permanent basis. He realized there was more to life, that maybe he'd been missing the best part of it. And he might be happier with less, not with more.
Rockefeller started giving his money away. He found it more fun giving money to people than it had been getting it from them. It was also a challenge putting money to the very best use in the service of humanity. He lived love for God and for his neighbor. He became a joyful man, and saw his health return. He lived to be 98.
Living love is good for you. Living greed isn't. Living strife and envy and selfishness and conceit–those aren't either. It's more blessed to give than to receive. Those who lose themselves find themselves. Those pre-occupied with saving themselves end up losing themselves. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and live unconcerned about the rest.
O Master, from the mountain side,
Make haste to heal the hearts of pain;
Among these restless throngs abide;
O tread the city's streets again,
Till sons of men shall learn Thy love,
And follow where Thy feet have trod;
Till glorious from Thy heav'n above
Shall come the city of our God.
NAILED TO THE CROSS
If I asked you about "body building," I suppose you'd think of a gym where sweating men lift heavy weights. Or maybe one of those newer, parlor-type places where the ladies join in with their color-coordinated outfits. You see a lot of magazines about that. Body building.
Paul had a concept of body building, but of a different sort. Listen:
His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ . . .. (Ephesians 4:11-12)
Body building. Building up the body of Christ which is his church, his people. Building the strength of that body. Not letting it be fat and lazy, lolled out on the sofa of its decadence, gorging itself on an unwholesome diet. But lean and fit, with the glow of health about it. Filled with the Spirit. Assured, and assuring.
Doesn't just happen, though. Any more than those muscles just happen to grow on the other kind of body builders. Much of Paul's preaching and teaching was specifically intended as body building. And our text this morning is as good an example as you can find.
He begins on a note of concern. "See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit." He goes on to preach Christ in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells, and through whom a believer comes to fullness of life. Then he centers in on what that means to an individual. And the crux of it is forgiveness.
God has "forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross."
When people make lists of the things they want, what do they put on those lists? Homes? cars? travel? Or maybe acceptance, contentment, self-respect. How often on anyone's list would you find forgiveness? And yet, how powerful and basic is that need!
I was looking in the face of a dying man. I said, "Is there something I can do for you?" I suppose I meant can I tell someone something? Can I call the nurse to give you a shot? Can I write down the details for your funeral service? "Is there anything I can do for you?"
And he said, "Yes." And I waited. And what he said was, "forgive me." It was so unexpected, I didn't believe that's what he'd said at first. So I had him repeat it, and he did. And then I began to think back. I thought, what in heaven's name can this possibly mean? I knew of nothing. So I said, "Forgive you for what?"
And he mentioned something that seemed very trivial there. Something I never in a moment held against him. And I started to say there was no need for my forgiveness–there was nothing to forgive. But then I remembered we had a dying man in the bed there, and I mustn't tell him there was no need of my forgiveness. I must tell him he was forgiven.
Forget what I thought about the thing, it was what he thought that mattered. So I said the words he'd asked to hear–"I forgive you." And that was that. Except that later I pondered long what all this meant, and how strong is this need of forgiveness as we relate to one another, and to God.
We all mess up. We say what we shouldn't say, and do what we shouldn't do. We condemn other people for the smallest of sins, and excuse ourselves for large ones. We hide our real motives, which are selfish at best. We give lip-service to God while living the life of a practical atheist. We have much to be forgiven of.
This is why we need a Savior. A body which was broken for us, blood which was shed for us.
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!
A PERSISTENT WOMAN
(1) And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. (2) He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; (3) and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, `Vindicate me against my adversary.' (4) For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, `Though I neither fear God nor regard man, (5) yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'" (6) And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. (7) And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? (8) I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
Diane and I, when we're away on vacation, like to go out to the stock car races. There's a lot of fun and excitement, and a good chance to see a lot of the local citizens. So on Saturday evening we went to a 200-lap event at the Nashville Motor Speedway.
Car 49 took an early lead, but was soon passed by car 14, who lead for most of the race. Car 14 was something to watch in action. The way it seemed glued to the road in the turns, the quickness passing slower cars, the power and acceleration when called on. Car 14 seemed the ideal combination of the best machine and the most skillful driver.
After about 175 laps Diane said something to the effect that no one was going to beat that car the way it was running. And I agreed one hundred percent. Tell the man down there to get out his checkered flag. Might as well wave it now as later.
Only the other race car drivers weren't operating on our assumption. And several of them were watching this show from just about half a lap back. And 200 laps on a 5 eighths track is a long way to go. About like driving down to Chattanooga from here.
And with some 15 laps to go, you began to notice something about car 14. Every time he let off the pedal to slow for a turn, some smoke came out the tailpipe. And this got worse, and was not unnoticed, I'm sure, by the drivers back behind.
And car 102–who had never led in the race–began closing, and closing, and then passing. Took the lead and never gave it up. Car 14 barely managed to come in third.
So it isn't over till it's over. Persistance pays off. You don't give up because you're behind. You hang in there. You refuse to quit.
Jesus had his own story to teach that, which I've already read, but want us to look at in some detail this morning.
(1) And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.
Notice the alternatives there. You either pray or lose heart. Praying can keep you from losing heart, and may be the only thing that can. People who lose heart are people who've failed to pray, or pray right, or pray enough. Isn't that what he's saying?
And notice he says you ought always to pray and not lose heart. As if to say that if you don't pray always, you'll always lose heart. Those are your alternatives.
How sad is the person who has lost heart. Whose bright and shining hope has turned to black despair. Who sees no good outcome as possible at all. A defeated person.
How terrible is the roller-coaster ride of a person who looses heart, then makes a mighty effort to gain it back–and does–only to lose it again the very next day.
When you get in that shape, you start suspecting the whole process of gaining hope again. You say to yourself that a hopeful feeling is nice and all that, but you know it won't last. You know you'll be back in the pits before long.
Instead of controlling your life, you feel it being controlled by forces you have no control over. And you feel powerless to change that. Let's go on with the story though.
(2) He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man;
There's a lesson here about what you do with parables. Ask the average person who is represented by this judge and they tell you God is. But he isn't. He isn't at all. This is a thoroughly secular man, an unprincipled man. Unscrupulous, hard, selfish–all that God is not.
(3) and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, `Vindicate me against my adversary.'
Now you wonder what kind of adversary a widow woman has. Was it a partner her dead husband was in business with? He took both shares of the company and wouldn't give her a dime? Or was it a landlord who demanded his rent but refused to make repairs? Or a creditor who claimed her husband owed him something she knew good and well he didn't, and to pay it would take her last dime?
Thank God at least for courts where widows can go and get protection from adversaries. If only they could be more just and prompt. As this woman is one of the best examples of. People go to the courts with a genuine grievance, and what do they get? Delays, that's what. Sometimes for years. There are things that shouldn't have to wait for years. Well, it says:
(4) For a while he refused;
Judges are good at refusing things, of course. And putting them off. And saying there's some technicality that stands in the way.
but afterward he said to himself, `Though I neither fear God nor regard man, (5) yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'"
And the lesson here–and the only lesson–is that persistence gets results. If you need something, ask for it. If you get refused, ask again. If you know you're right, if you know you deserve it, keep asking until someone does something. Even judges that neither fear God nor regard man may give in eventually. People who do nothing because of other people's needs may do something because of their persistence.
(6) And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says.
And "Lord" here means Jesus, of course. And he's asking us to consider the one lesson this story preaches. If at first you don't succeed, do what?
Try, try again!
Try at prayer, try at marriage, try to win someone to Christ. Try at loosing weight or learning French. Try at offering an acceptable apology. Try getting to where you always pay the bills on time. Try at any worthy goal in life.
Jesus is giving you this lesson. He points you to this widow woman, who could have given up and quit a hundred times. Whose case was as good as dead. Whose friends held out no hope at all. This is a lesson for all the losers who may yet turn out to be the winners. Who've never had it made, but never quit trying either. Half a lap behind.
There was fog on the California coast on the Fourth of July morning of 1952. Out on Catalina Island, which is 21 miles away, a woman waded into the water and began swimming toward the coast. Her name was Florence Chadwick and she hoped to be the first woman to swim across. Already she'd been the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions.
The water was cold that morning, and the fog so thick it was hard to see the boats that went with her. Some carried television cameras. The swim was broadcast live. It made exciting viewing, especially because of the sharks that kept happening by and the marksmen with rifles whose job was to keep them away from the swimmer.
Time passed, and miles passed. The problem was not so much the distance, not so much the fatigue. The problem was the water temperature. It was numbing. After 15 hours of swimming, Florence Chadwick asked to be taken out. She said she couldn't go on. Her mother and her trainer urged her not to quit. They said she was near the land.
She looked for the land, but saw none. All she could see was the fog. And after fifteen hours and fifty-five minutes of strenuous toil, she was taken out–just a half mile from land.
After she got warm again, the meaning of this event became more clear. She cried her tears of failure. And she said to a reporter,
Look, I'm not excusing myself. But if I could just have seen the land, I might have made it.
"If I could just have seen the land."
We spend much of our lives in a sea of uncertainty. We spend much of our time trying to be sure about our destination. And often, if it's there at all, it's hidden by the fog. What then can motivate us to keep working toward our goal?
Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and now is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Looking unto Jesus, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.
Be of good cheer. He has overcome the world. And in his care and strength, we shall overcome.
IS IT SAFE TO PLAY IT SAFE?
Ever hear someone say, "the Bible is so clear and simple even a child can understand it"? I have. I've heard people say that who cared more for what was said about the Bible than anything else. Whether it made sense or not!
There are things in the Bible that children can understand. But there are other things we scratch our heads about. They leave us confused and wondering. For instance, this:
To him who has will more be given, and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (Mark 4:15)
How cruel and unfair that sounds. The guy in the chauffeured limousine is going to get a bigger and newer model soon, and the one driving the old clunker is about to have his repossessed! The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Those who have more deserve more, and those who have less deserve less. Is that how things are?
It is how things are–at least some of the time. But how could Jesus be in favor of that? If indeed he was.
The place to learn about this is in the Parable of the Talents, which is also a parable of life.
A wealthy man is going on a journey. A long journey. And if you're a wealthy man, you have more to do before you pack your bags and leave. You have things that must be tended while you're away. The guy in the old clunker just packs it up and heads out. But the one in the limousine has instructions to give.
So Jesus tells how the wealthy man did that. He called a meeting with his department heads. And he told them, "now while I'm away, you be in charge of this, and you be in charge of that." And he gave them each his power of attorney to buy or sell, to pay or sue, to manage his resources any way they saw fit.
Now there are jobs where you do what you're told, and that's all you're responsible for, and there are jobs where you make decisions that have consequences. And all of a sudden those servants are in that tougher sort of role. The boss had put them in charge. Now they're about to get a taste of what it's like to be the boss. And it isn't all fun. In fact, it's scary business.
I used to say to my daughters, "I'm not going to put up with that." And they'd say to me–in so many words–"O yes you are, you have to!" They learn to say that before they learn to talk! But what goes around comes around. I hear my daughters, who are parents now, say to their kids: "I'm not going to put up with that." And my grandchildren get a gleam in their eyes, and they say: "O yes you are, you have to!" And then I begin to see what the great thing about being a grandparent is! It's that!
Well, I hope you see my point–there was one. It makes all the difference when you have the responsibility. When you're within the system you can "knock the system" but when you're put in charge of it things change. Those servants found that out.
Here you are with the master's checkbook in your hot little hand, and along comes a guy who says does he have a deal for you! There's some land outside town you can buy real cheap and make a killing on, because the Jerusalem City Council is sure to want it for the new camel barns they have in the works. But you can't wait and think about this deal. If you don't want it, someone else will.
Well, people do make killings on deals like that. But they also lose their shirts. Is it better to be safe then sorry? How do you decide? What would the master have decided? Do you see how scary this is?
Well, Jesus tells us nothing about the deals that were made, or those that weren't. He tells the outcome of the story. That the master of those servants was gone a long time, and when he got back he called a meeting to see how things went.
One man had done remarkably well. He'd doubled the value of what was his to manage. Another had done the same. But then they turned to the last one. And the master must have had some concern about him in the first place, because he gave him less than the other two. What he did was take and hide the money. He'd kept it safe, but gained nothing from it.
The master was angry. He said he wouldn't have a servant like that. He said take that man's property and give it to one of the others. And then he explained:
To every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (Matthew 25:29)
Wasn't Jesus teaching that what we don't use for God we're about to lose? And there's no way of doing what he wants without running some risks?
Aren't we asked to consider what risks we've run to do what God requires? Have we cared more for increasing his kingdom, or maintaining our own security?
Conventional wisdom says minimize your risks, you have so many of them. We risk our lives when we pull out of the drive. We risk our homes when we leave them unguarded. We risk our jobs if we step out of line. We risk someone's friendship if we tell him the truth. So why not play it as safe as you can when you can?
But you see, that's exactly what the worthless servant thought! He dug a hole in the ground and hid the master's money there.
Some 10 of our members went calling on strangers yesterday to tell them about our church. To do that is to risk rejection. But what's the alternative? What if everyone plays it safe and does no such thing?
They ask you to teach a class, so how do you decide? There could be problems, right? You could even be a failure. They mail you a pledge card, and what do you do with it? Something bold or something cautious?
I'm illustrating what it means to dig in the ground and hide money. I'm illustrating why we do it–to avoid the risks of commitment. We like to say, "well yes I'd be glad to try, but I don't want to promise."
What if you tried to get a loan at the bank, and you said to the officer, "now I'll try to pay this back, but I don't want to promise"! But you have to promise, don't you? And not just verbally. To marry a wife or husband. To get a job, use the library, drive a car. To do anything that matters in life you have to make some promises.
What if we elected our next president and the inauguration ceremony was being held? What if Mr. Chief Justice opened his constitution and read where you solemnly swear to do this and that and faithfully discharge the duties of the office of president? And what if the person we elected–I started to say "man" we elected but thought better of it–what if he or she looked down at that outstretched Bible and got cold feet? Said something about doing all those things but would rather not take that oath?! How would "we the people" feel?
You see, there's a kind of person who hardly dares to climb out of bed in the morning, afraid some terrible thing may happen. Well, a terrible thing has happened! Fear has taken control of life. Something intended for the sunlight lies buried in the ground. Doors are closed that the keys have been thrown away for.
The chance for a good life doesn't rest on huddling in a corner and protecting ourselves. It rests on the faith to stride into the marketplace with what the master has given, and seek what we may gain from it. And the fear of that risk is why many people never become Christians, and others settle for mediocrity.
Our days bring opportunities. And we take the risk and seize them, or play it safe and do nothing. So easily and unnoticed that can happen. A friend gives one small signal that he needs our help. He wants to talk in a confiding way. But we don't need that today, and we change the subject. Slam!
People get an urge for God, but go just so far with it and then hesitate. They hesitate at the point of risk and commitment. And after awhile of lingering there, the urge is gone and never comes back. You use it or you lose it. Slam!
We think we're doing what's best when we do the selfish thing. But Jesus taught that this isn't counted as we think it is. The outcome isn't what we expect it to be. Listen:
He that shall save his life shall lose it, but he that shall lose his life for my sake shall save it.
You may know that radium was discovered by a devout and unselfish pair of scientists–Marie and Pierre Curie. They could have made a fortune on their discovery. All they had to do was patent the process and become its developers. But they knew that took time. And they knew that lives could be saved if radium were available at once.
So what they did was literally to give it away. They published their secret to the world and said "go ahead, use it." They did it on faith it was the right thing to do.
Worldly wisdom says they lost in the process. Heavenly wisdom says they gained in the process. There you have the choices.
You take a chance. You act on faith that it really is more blessed to give than to receive. That it really is the Master's wish. That this is what he'll want to know about on that day he comes back.
He'll say, "Well, let's see now; how did you do?"
PREPARED AS JESUS TELLS US
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What will you give me if I deliver him to you?" And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him. Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?" He said, "Go into the city to a certain one, and say to him, `The Teacher says, My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples.'" And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the passover. When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; and as they were eating, he said, "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me." And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, "Is it I, Lord?" He answered, "He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born." Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Is it I, Master?" He said to him, "You have said so." Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
People don't always do the thing they're asked to do.
For example, a man came to the swimming pool in a cranky mood the other day. An older man who may get more satisfaction out of griping than anything else. (That's not a general statement, now–that's a specific observation!) And there were a lot of young kids there for swim team practice who probably get more satisfaction out of aggravating a man like that than anything else. (That is a general statement!)
So . . . down at the other end of the locker room I heard doors slamming. Locker doors. As if one of the kids was going up and down the rows and slamming all the doors. Nice.
Then there was a roar. The only thing you could call it was a roar. At the top of his voice, the cranky man shouted: "Quit slamming those doors!"
It was no suggestion–it was a direct order. It came from someone 70 years older than someone else. Who was a long way now from being eight years old and in a mischievous mood. Who may have ordered a lot of people around in his day. Only this was not to be his day.
"Quit slamming those doors!" All the others of us heard it, of course. And the others included many boys of similar age and disposition who belonged to the same swim team as their brother under attack. And they had not been slamming locker doors themselves, but this was as if they had and were being told not to. By a cranky man in his 70's who'd run them all out of there if he could.
So . . . all over the locker room, steel doors began to be opened and shut that didn't need to be opened and shut. Every available boy was opening and shutting every available door. It sounded like a prison break. It was show-somebody-something time. I even thought of slamming one myself.
As I said, people don't always do the thing they're asked to do.
But in our scripture lesson for today, they did. It's something I never noticed that much, but how plain it is. How before the Last Supper, Jesus told them exactly what he wanted, and they carried it out to the letter. Let's see.
The disciples come to him and say, "Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?" Notice their assumption about the preparation. They assumed they were going to do it, and they simply asked where. Jesus told them where, and then we read:
"The disciples did as Jesus had directed them."
That brings up a question. Do modern disciples still do as Jesus directs them? Do they move at his command? Or are they more like children loose in the locker room of life? Who will do as they darn-well please.
Jesus spoke of that once. He said it's like children playing in the marketplace. Nothing satisfies them. Someone says "let's play this game," and no one wants to. Another says "let's go do that," and there's a chorus of complaint. Each one has his own idea, and no one is willing to go along with anyone else's idea.
They're a bunch of spoiled children, he's saying. Ungrateful, undisciplined, and good for nothing.
So it's a favorable contrast to read that the disciples "did as Jesus had directed them." But it should give us some pause to realize how much like those children we often are.
A pastor I know has a saying, "Old church members never die–they just get offended." Offended. And the offense is usually some ego thing. Didn't get spoken to right, or treated right. Didn't get their way about something. Didn't get the proper recognition.
We act as if we're here to be served, and with every right to complain about the service. But Jesus says we're here to do the serving, and he's the one to be the judge of how it gets done.
We sit in our easy chairs and hold out our feet to have someone wash them. But Jesus says we should be standing up with a towel around our waist and a bowl of water in our hands. We should go get down on our knees and wash feet ourselves. He says he isn't too good to do that, and we aren't either. He says he came to serve, not to be served, and the same deal applies to us.
Ask not what your Lord can do for you, but what you can do for your Lord.
True disciples do that. They find out what he wants them to do, then they get busy to do it.
You don't have to, of course. But you better. You better.
(1) "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. (2) In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (3) And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (4) And you know the way where I am going." (5) Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" (6) Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.
I went to visit someone at the Baroness Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga. In the nine years I served a church there, I went often to that place. Most of our people who went to a hospital went to Erlanger.
When you go for years, the place becomes part of your turf. You learn which elevator is balky, and which one isn't; which rest rooms have real paper towels and which have those awful blowers. Where you're likely to find a parking place. You learn to know where a room is when you hear the number. And you learn the short-cuts that can get you from one place to another with the least effort.
But one day I found something added. Up on third floor, they'd cut a hole in the side of the building and connected it to an outside stairway that went down to the parking lot. It made a great way to leave the building, because you by-passed the elevators and the crowd in the lobby. So I made a habit of it.
Sometime later, I came there with one visit to make, a room on the third floor, a room near that doorway. So up the three flights of steps I climbed, thinking I was being smart.
But I found that what we had there was a one-way door. It would let you out if you were in, but it wouldn't let you in if you were out. The only way to get in the building was still the one around front where the big sign was.
That's how this sermon came to be. As I walked back down those flights of steps and around to the entrance, I thought of Jesus' saying that he is the way to God, and no one gets there except by him. He's the way, the truth, and the life.
He said that to calm some upset individuals. They'd just heard about a traitor in their midst. And then he told them he was leaving soon. They knew where he was going, he said.
But Thomas spoke up saying they had no idea where he was going. Thomas hated to nod his head that dumb way you do when you're saying you understand something you don't have the fogiest notion of.
Thomas was a show-me type of person. Who wanted evidence. Who couldn't pretend about a faith he wasn't sure of. So you're always curious to see what Thomas will say about a matter. Jesus once announced he was going to Jerusalem, and they began saying how dangerous that was. What did Thomas say? "Let us also go with him that we may die with him." He also said he'd need to see the mark of the nails to believe in the resurrection. But when he saw, he uttered his great confession of faith–"My Lord and my God!" And this Thomas is the one to whom Jesus says he's the way, the truth, and the life.
What about the way to God? The way of truth and life. Is it simple or complicated? Is it hard or easy? Is it available anywhere you look for it?
There could be many ways, couldn't there? Perhaps it doesn't matter what faith you have, as long as you have one, and you're sincere. Perhaps there are many roads, all with different names, all leading to the same place. Pick any you want, and it's all the same. There could be many ways.
On the other hand, there could be no way. Life could be a blind alley down which we journey toward nothing. The only question is when do you reach the brick wall at the end of it. Only fools and dreamers know of heaven. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die, and that will be that.
Or it could be that there is a way–thank God for that–but it's rather specific. That God so loved this sinful and rebellious world that he offers us a hope of salvation. That he gave his only son to live a perfect life and finally die on a cross, and that whoever will believe and trust in him won't perish, but have eternal life.
That's what the Bible tells us. That's the bottom-line meaning of the life of Christ. Jesus is the way. The way to what we need and want the most. Peace with God, forgiveness, assurance, a friend in time of adversity, an inspiration to follow.
Jesus is the way. He personally becomes the way for us. He doesn't just give us a map and leave us on our own. He takes us by the hand and leads us as we walk with him.
What a difference that makes. Just think of the people who've given directions and then said you couldn't miss it. You drove away confused, and the thing you knew best was that you could miss it, and were about to!
There's a company named Sanborne's which sells insurance for travel in Mexico. They also give fine information. I got a whole book of it, more than a hundred pages, all specific to the route I was going. And every evening, I'd take that book and read all I could about where I was traveling the next day.
There were also maps of towns and cities, with all the hotels and gas stations marked. So as I neared Guadalahara, I knew there was this road called the Periferico, that ran all the way around the city, sort of like our beltway only just two lanes. And I knew it was the route I should take to the Hotel El Tapatio. I had the map on the gas tank in front of me so I could follow it. How could I miss?
I missed because there was construction on the Periferico, and a detour which this map made no mention of, of course. I thought I was going right, but the farther I went the more I knew I'd missed it. I ended up in a small village I never knew the name of. There, in some desperation, I approached a citizen and said, "Pour favor, Senoir. Est Periferico??" "Please, sir, is this the Periferico?"
And despite my poor Spanish, I saw instant recognition in his eyes. He understood. He said "no" and pointed back the way I'd come. I knew I must have missed it at the construction. The day was getting late. I was tired and anxious. I rode back and found a policeman there. I asked my question, and he showed me the road I needed to take. He showed me the way.
That was a welcome thing. But notice that Jesus does even more than that. He says more than just–"I show you the way, I show you the truth, I show you the life." He says he is those things. He becomes those things for us.
It's like you were lost, and someone, instead of giving directions, just said: "Listen, I know the way you want to go. I've been there myself. I'm afraid you'd miss it on your own. Here, let me take you."
That goes beyond just giving instructions. Jesus takes us by the hand, leads us, walks with us. He becomes the way for us. And because of that, we can follow him through the dark, or through a storm, or when we're confused about the way ourselves. We don't have to see the destination. We can walk by faith and not by sight!
That's what the great hymn by John Henry Newman is all about. "Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, lead thou me on. The night is dark, and I am far from home, lead thou me on. Lead thou my feet. I do not ask to see the distant scene. One step enough for me."
A young priest in Paris was thinking of calling it quits. He'd discussed his problems with counselors, but remained in a state of turmoil. Until a wise and kindly friend told him this: "My son, go down to the cathedral, down to the front near the altar, and kneel before the large crucifix. Look at it. Think about it. Then say this: 'Lord Jesus, you did all that for me, but I don't care.'"
The story says the young man went gladly, thinking there was nothing hard about this. If it proves something about the situation, he could do it, no problem.
He found the place, knelt down, glanced up, glanced down, looked back up and could not look away. He thought of what he'd come there to say. He even tried to say it, "Lord Jesus, you did all this for me and I . . ..
He found he couldn't say it. He found he couldn't tell Jesus he didn't care. He found he did care. And having come to this verge of denial, he was suddenly ready to renew his journey of faith.
Jesus is the way for you, and the truth for you, and the life for you. It's exactly that personal, and that available. Come to him, all who labor and are heavy laden. He has rest to give you.
If not this . . . what?
If not you . . . who else?
If not now . . . WHEN?
THE TIME THAT IS PAST
1 Peter 4:1-5
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God. Let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. They are surprised that you do not now join them in the same wild profligacy, and they abuse you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4:1-5)
I think I usually have your attention when I first walk up here–right? And I don't want to blow that by seeming to get technical, but have you noticed there's a difference in that program you have in your hand or somewhere there? It looks different, doesn't it? Some might even say it looks better.
New technology has made its way to the church office. What you have there is called "proportional printing." And those big headings which used to be made out of stick-on letters and glued down in strips every week, now come right out of the computer, easy as pie.
Years ago in the office, our standard was a mimeograph machine. You had to type a stencil that made you pay for any mistake. One wrong letter and out came a bottle of smelly blue goop, and a brush to brush it on with. Need one extra line and you had to type the whole thing over. And you always got ink on your hands, or even your clothes. But our office staff got good with that process. And Luther Rice had one of the nicest looking bulletins that mimeographing could produce.
So it was with some reverence that I came across a whole stack of saved stencils the other day. About a foot thick. No telling how many hours of work those represented. But useless now, totally useless and out-of-date. I picked up the stack and threw it in the trash.
On my trip through Mexico this summer, I made 350 color slides. A lot of those I went to considerable effort to get. I stopped and parked and walked somewhere and spent time and energy. I wasn't sure my camera was working right–I was worried about that–but I made the pictures anyway.
Back home, I decided the smart thing to do was develop one roll first to make sure. The roll came back bad. Blank, blank, blank–thirty-six blanks. I had nine more rolls all neat in their cans, lined up on my desk. I stood there a long moment. I thought of those marvelous sights I hoped to show people and tell them about.
But that was not to be. And it was nothing fret or worry could do a thing about. It was something the Apostle Paul included when he talked about "forgetting those things that are behind." I picked up the nine rolls and threw them in the waste can.
Some pasts you don't need to mess with anymore.
That's what the scripture is telling us this morning. It was written to Christians who only lately had lived their lives apart from God. Who might look back over their shoulder at times. Who might think it better to be prospering as pagans than suffering as Christians.
Which do you think is better, by the way?? To be a prospering pagan or a suffering Christian?
So Peter writes to bolster up their will for living in the present and toward the future. He calls them "to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God." To "let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry."
In other words, to throw away the old stencils, attached as you might be. Because the future waits, and the past can be its enemy.
Two men met on the street. One said to the other, "Would you give me a match?" The other man said nothing. No response. He didn't even look up. So the first man said, "Listen, buddy, I asked you for a light. If it isn't too much trouble, you could at least say something."
And the second man turned and looked at the man who'd asked him for the match. He looked him over from head to toe. He did that before he said a word. Then he said:
So, you want me to give you a match? I give you a match and you'll say "thank you" and I'll say "it's quite all right." And you'll say "nice day, isn't it?" and I'll say "sure is." Then you'll say your name is so-and-so and what's mine? And I'll say "glad to know you, I'm Tom Smith–want to get a cup of coffee?" And you'll say fine and we'll get a cup of coffee. And you'll invite me to your home, and I'll invite you to my home. I have a beautiful daughter. You'll meet my beautiful daughter. You'll fall in love with her and marry her and have a houseful of kids. NO SIR, I'M NOT GOING TO GIVE YOU A MATCH!
The past is more comfortable and comforting than the future is. At least the way most people think.
Napoleon's mother is recorded to have said: "Son, you think that you are Napoleon, the world conqueror. But you have an anxious mother who asks you, 'where will you end up, and what will your outcome be?'"
Good question, right? But what is the answer? And is it good, or bad?
We hope for what the famous lines of Robert Browning's speak of. "The best is yet to be, the last of life for which the first is made." That life is going somewhere, like a drama with a plot and a climax. That all have a right to a future with hope. Where there's less of what we used to be, but more of what we were meant to be.
But another poet, T.S. Eliot, had a darker view. He wrote:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.
Of course he's right that we can hope for the wrong things, or hope in the wrong way, and end up bitter and disillusioned. But to give up on hope is to lose what no one can afford to lose.
God gave Abraham a hope. God told him of a larger future for himself and his descendants. God called on him to give up much to work for that future. But still, he never told him exactly what it was or where it was! And he went out, "not knowing where he was to go."
He had to settle for believing that God would give him such a future without seeing how it was going to take place. He had to put his confidence in God.
And he had to do that for a long time, because Abraham and Sarah had no descendants until very late in life. Both their bodies were long past the normal age when it finally happened. And so they named him Isaac, which in Hebrew means "a surprise." A surprise! But that was just like God, who ever makes it plain that we "know in part and prophesy in part" and see "as through a glass darkly."
At times, what looks absolutely essential in terms of our well-being turns out to be something different indeed. And what seemed to be totally evil winds up as the bearer of unexpected blessing.
There's a powerful illustration of that in the story of Saint Augustine.
You may know his father was a pagan and his mother a devout Christian. In the early years, Augustine
had more of the pagan in him. He became a student of rhetoric–a noble thing for a student in those days–and quickly advanced beyond the limits of his teachers in North Africa. The next logical step was to move to Italy.
His mother, Monica, was opposed to that. She feared that if he became separated from her Christian influence, he'd be lost for good. She did all she could to keep him home. But on a night she was praying earnestly in a chapel by the sea, her son was boarding a ship bound for Italy. Her fervent hopes and prayers were dashed to pieces.
But there was something Monica didn't know.
Monica didn't know that the finest rhetoritician in Italy was a Christian preacher named Ambrose. And he was likely the best person in the world to challenge this young pagan with the Christian faith. And when Augustine arrived in Milan, it was immediately recommended to him that he go to the cathedral and study the form of Ambrose's sermons.
So he did that, and the rest is history. And the truth of the matter is, God granted his mother's request, but not in the form she made it. He gave her what she wanted, though not the way she asked for it.
What we must learn is trust. That "in all things God works for good with those who love him."
Trust in him with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding.
His is better. His is better.
A SECOND TOUCH
And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, "Do you see anything?" And he looked up and said, "I see men; but they look like trees, walking." Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and saw everything clearly.
The old hymn, "Rock of Ages," has a curious line that says: "Be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure."
My text for today is the story of a "double cure." Where the first cure wasn't quite enough, and another was needed. Perhaps there's a lesson about our need of double cures. When the first touch doesn't do it all. When you need the touch of the master again.
You see, things don't always turn out right at first. In fact, Brooks Hays used to say the Lord made so many Baptists because he never had one turn out right. Could be so!
The story here is simple enough. They brought this blind man to Jesus to see if he could help. Jesus said to him, "let's get away from all these people to where we can have a little privacy." And they did that. And then Jesus put spit on his eyes and asked him what he could see.
Why spit? Well, spit was believed to have healing powers, and indeed it does have some. You believe it does, as a matter of fact. If you burn your finger, what do you do with it? Put it in your mouth! If you cut your finger, what do you do with it? Put it in your mouth! Even doctors do that! And Jesus didn't need to use spit, but he was operating on the level of people's current assumptions.
"Do you see anything now?"
Yes . . . I do, I see it! It . . . looks like a tree standing straight up. It has limbs sticking out and pointing. But . . . no. I see now it's moving around from where it was, and trees don't move around. At least, I don't think trees move. It's . . . walking. Walking like people walk.
So Jesus touched the man again, and after that he could see things clearly. After that he could see things like Jesus saw them.
The stage where you see some but not enough is a crucial stage. You can almost wish for blindness again if you're in that condition. If you have no hope of being better. Who wants to live seeing men that look like trees walking around? Live in fear and confusion? At a stage where something has to give. Where you go backward or forward, one or the other.
The story of this half-cured man says something about the condition of people whose healing has not gone far enough. And how many there are! Who've had a little of Jesus, but not nearly enough. Whose view of reality is dim and clouded. Who see Christ as an accessory, when his desire is to be the changing force of their lives.
Even Jesus didn't always get it right the first time. I mean no disrespect. I mean no diminishment of his healing power. We limit how far our healing can go. We do.
The power of God could change anything you want to name, but the power of God won't change some things. It won't change hearts against their will, because God has set himself that limit. He gives us our choice, and respects our choice.
There were people Jesus couldn't heal because of their unbelief. The Bible tells us that. Jesus wouldn't force the Rich Young Ruler to become a follower. There were things he wouldn't force in dealing with people. Things that depended on the individual and his own response. Just as there are things that Jesus might like to do for you right this minute, but can't because you aren't ready, you aren't willing.
I was never much of a carpenter, but I have done some. I know if you hit a nail with a straight, sure blow it goes right in. But if you hit a crooked, glancing blow, it does what? It bends. It may bend bad. And what good is a bent nail stuck there in the wood? You can't hit it again. So what do you do if you don't want to waste that nail?
You pull it out–that's what that other end of the hammer's for–and you lay it down on something solid. On something flat and hard. You turn it just right and hit it just right and you may get it reasonably straight. Be careful though! This is no new nail. This is a nail that may yet be saved, but you must treat it just right. Place it just right, and hit it good, and it may just work.
It's the same with us. It's the same with our lives. We get bent and useless, and the Master Builder has a decision then. To cast us aside, or try to straighten us out and use us again. To give us a second chance, a second life. Take what's crooked and make it straight again–reasonably straight. That's what Jesus does, and that's the lesson I get from this passage.
This miracle looks like more than the story of one person's sight. Especially as you see where Mark puts it in his gospel. Look back to what happened just before this, and ahead to what happened right after.
Before this you find a passage about the dullness and short-sightedness of the disciples. Jesus is trying to get them to understand about the miracle of the loaves. He refers to their hardened hearts and asks, "Do you not yet understand?" Then comes this story of the blind man and the stages of his healing.
Right afterward they go to Caesarea Philippi. There it is that we see their vision and their lack of it. They say Jesus is the Christ, the son of God. But then they turn around and deny that he must suffer for others.
So the point is that maybe we should see this healing not only as one man's rescue, but as a parable. A parable of what Jesus was trying to do with his people then, and also with his people now. Those disciples had but a blurred and partial vision. And us?
There's a poem about the Apostle Paul where he reflects on his conversion and says:
Let no man think that sudden in a minute
All is accomplished and the work is done–
Though with thine earliest dawn thou shouldst begin it
Scarce were it ended in thy setting sun.
What hope there is in this blind man's story that lives can change! Imagine, feeling your way out of the house one morning, meeting Jesus during the day, having him touch you once or twice, and coming back with eyes as good as anyone! Not every day can bring a change like that, but some can. More could if we were open to the possibility.
Some years ago a man was desperate in prison. He felt his life was over. He'd devised a plan to provoke a guard into shooting him and was about to carry it out. As he got ready, a fellow prisoner sat down beside him. He took a stick and scratched in the dirt one vertical line and one horizontal line. A cross.
For the longest time, the man who'd decided to die sat staring at that cross. And the savior who died there seemed to move in his heart. He opened something inside himself. He chose life instead of death. And you've heard his name–Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Down in my home state, a woman was cooking breakfast, and heard a noise, and turned to find a gun pointed at her. The man who held it had escaped from state prison, found the back door open, smelled country ham, and come in to eat. After running through the woods all night he was hungry.
The woman stayed calm. She told him if he'd put away the gun she'd fix some breakfast. Or he could keep on pointing it at her if he wanted to, but it might be hard to eat eggs if he did. The young man sat down, put the gun in his lap, and told her how he liked his eggs. She fixed him the kind of breakfast a working man in Tennessee likes to find on his table.
Then she got to telling him about her family. She asked him about his. He asked her why she wasn't scarred, and she told him she was a child of God and he would keep her safe–one way or another. She said that God's Son, Jesus Christ, makes a big difference in anyone's life, no matter what kind of a bind he's got himself into. And about an hour later, she drove that man back to prison to give himself up and start a new life.
That happened. That can happen.
A twenty year old boy or man was standing in a cemetery once. Wasted by drugs and drink and too much running with the wrong crowd. He was alone at his father's grave.
He didn't come there to do that. And he wouldn't have been there at all except for the death of some relative, and the rest of the family more-or-less insisting that he had to come. He'd left the others talking and come over there to see where his Dad was laid. First time he'd been since it happened.
And there with the cemetery weeds wrapping around his ankles, he remembered climbing onto his Dad's lap. His Dad had loved his children. And there were always Lifesavers in his pockets, and Juicy Fruit in his coat. He remembered the smell of his after-shave and the strength of his arms. His arms that could hug like a bear.
He heard his Dad's voice in his ear: "Always tell the truth, Son. Live like Jesus taught us, and you'll have a good life. And we'll be proud of you. We'll always love you."
The young man heard all that and more. Heard it as he never heard it back when it was said. It was real now. His Daddy was present there. And something happened, so that the weeds wrapped around the ankles of a different young man than the one who'd come in. He went away from there, and was never the same again.
I know you've had one touch at least. But how do things look? Is everything clear?
Jesus may not be finished with you yet. You could need a second touch.
He does that. He does.
THE TRUE CHURCH
Luther Rice . . . Memorial . . . Baptist . . . Church.
It's fairly easy to explain about Luther Rice–we have plaques in the yard that do that. And "memorial" is clear enough. The meaning of "Baptist" is in total disarray these days, so much that I hate telling strangers I am one. And "church" may be one of the most brutalized and butchered words in modern vocabulary.
A church may have a building but no building is a church. A church may have a meeting, but no meeting is ever called "church" in the Bible. You don't go to church, you take it with you! You're it! You don't go to a meeting at the church, because no meeting place can be a church. Only people can be a church.
Only a special kind of people. Related to God and to one another in a special way. Why, you can have two or three gathered together and have a lot of church there. And you can have two or three thousand and no church at all.
Once upon a time there was a brother and sister, Ugolin and Salange. They had a hard life. Their mother died young and then their father deserted them. And Ugolin was a hunchback. The people of the town made fun of him. Cruel fun. His only friend was the village priest, Father de La Roudaire, who rescued him from the jokes that were played on him for people's amusement.
Salange was accused of stealing and sent to prison. When she came back, she turned to prostitution. This made Ugolin's life even more miserable, because now there was more to taunt him with. So he walked to the river one day, walked in, and never came out. When Salange heard about it, she took a gun and shot herself.
Sunday rolled around and the people of the town came for Mass. But their priest had other things in mind. He said in his sermon:
My friends, when Judgment Day comes, I shall stand before the Lord, and Jesus shall say to me: "Father de La Roudaire, where are your sheep?" And I will bow my head and say nothing. And he shall say again, "Father de La Roudaire, where are your sheep?" And I will continue to hang my head.
And he shall ask a third time, "Father de La Roudaire, where are your sheep?" And I shall not even raise my head, but I shall say to him: "Lord, they were not sheep. They were a pack of wolves."
That story illustrates what we know already, what we know from so many recent and current events. The church of Jesus can be the light of the world, or . . . or it can be a part of the darkness. It can be as black as any darkness there is, and blacker, because it claims to be the light.
How do you find the church of Christ today? Let your fingers take a walk through the yellow pages? Just look there sometime and see how confused and confusing it is! Are all these religious groups the same? Is Christ offered equally among them? Are all of them his? or some? or even . . . none.
Which is the true church, and how do you tell it?
There are three classic answers to that question. One is the test of historical succession. You say Jesus founded one church and gave it his blessing. Whichever group can trace its origins back to him is the true church, and any that came later are counterfeit. Its all a matter of history.
Others say it isn't how long you've been in business, but what kind of business you do. They say the test is doctrinal purity. History means nothing, it's what you stand for now that counts. Take the doctrines of a church and compare them with the Bible–that gives you the answer.
And then there's another test we hear. Some say the test is numbers. If a church is gaining in numbers, God's pleased. It not, he's displeased. Numerical growth is the sign of a true church.
A lot of people must believe that, because studies show that the major growth-source of growing churches is getting the dissatisfied members of static or declining churches.
Well, which test do you like? Is one or the other of these the real thing?
I say no. I say a church may pass each of these tests with flying colors and still be false. I think there's another and more important test.
The same month and year Luther Rice's sanctuary was being dedicated, I was graduating from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. That following year, I worked on a Master's degree in Church History. I took two seminars where the question of the church was much in evidence.
In one, we studied about the Landmark Baptists, who were the fundamentalists of the 1850's. And I read things like this:
Why, it is patent as the day that the only true churches of Jesus Christ in the world today are Landmark Baptist Churches. Landmark Baptists alone have and can give the true church and scriptural baptism. We alone can and do set the Lord's table in its scriptural appointments. We alone have divine authority to missionize the world. (W.A. Clark in the Arkansas Baptist)
But in another, we read from the Anabaptists, sometimes called the "radical reformers" of the Sixteenth Century. One of them said:
To my mind, I am one with all churches in that I pray for them, in that I despise none, because I know that Christ the Lord has his own everywhere, be they ever so few. (Casper Schwenckfeld, 1529)
I took that matter very seriously. And as I pondered it in Louisville in 1964, it came to me suddenly and with great force that Jesus himself had spoken a word on the subject. Jesus himself had given us a standard for identifying a church of his. It was as if he said it again, and to me:
By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
There it is! That's the real test–his test. Without that, nothing else counts, nothing at all. Love is the thing that makes a church a church. Without it, there is no church, no matter how old a group may be, how biblical its doctrines, or how many its followers. Religious groups may grow astoundingly, build buildings mightily, take in money overwhelmingly, and leave all competition in the dust behind. But unless they're successful in living love, they not only fail as a church, they fail to be a church at all.
Medical science may someday have synthetic replacements for most parts of the human body. Hearts, kidneys, eyes, lungs–all in different sizes for different folk. But no one dreams that you could go to the parts store, gather up the right number, and make yourself a human being. No, because it takes life for that.
And love is the life of the church. Without it we're no more than a collection of parts. Some of which may actually work. But unless there's love in a church, it isn't, and never will be, the Body of Christ.
The same is true of each individual Christian. Love is the mark of a Christian. If you fail at love, you fail at everything. No matter what service you do, what class you teach, what dollars you give, how many bulletins you fold, or anything else. Love is the first and great commandment.
And love is the greatest gift we have to give. People who commit suicide don't do it for lack of money or food or clothing to wear. They do it for lack of love. People can endure great hardships, but they're extremely fragile when it comes to loneliness and rejection.
Even the church of Jesus can be a place where nobody knows and nobody cares. But if churches are centers of love as Jesus described, people will come as for water in a desert place. And if they fail to find it, they'll just believe they stopped somewhere else in the desert.
Paul tells us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. But do we know one another well enough to know what's happening there? Are we sometimes glad when bad fortune comes to others, and jealous when good fortune comes? So we rejoice when others weep, and weep when others rejoice?
Those people sitting around you this morning–what do you know or care about them? Do you pray for them? Do we only touch like marbles in a bag? Or can we bless a tie that binds our hearts in Christian love, a fellowship of kindred minds that's like to that above?
I'll tell you a story to illustrate. In one of my country churches, we had this deacon named Neil Butler. Neil was a big man, and a good man. He ran a bulldozer for a living, and loved his Lord and his church and his pastor.
But one night a group of us men were working late at the church, as we often did. And things must not have been going well, because Neil turned and said some harsh words. Harsh words about me. I was the problem, he said. The other men turned their heads and pretended not to hear.
I don't say much is situations like that. I kept quiet and went on with my work. I was sure this was no indication of Neil's love for me, but a test of my love for him. That's the way I took it.
Across all these years, no mention has ever been made between us of what was said that night. But on a warm summer day, as breezes blew in the pine trees, I drove up the lane to his house, and he came out and met me in the yard.
For awhile, we talked about this and that. And I pulled a weed and chewed on the end of it. And he pulled one and chewed on his. Then finally he said, "You know, Pastor, we don't appreciate you like we should." And that settled that. I knew what it meant, and he knew I understood. And most of all, we knew there was love between us that nothing could erase.
Love never fails. Of all the powers that are powers, none is greater than the power of love.
God calls us forth to be his people–his church. He calls us to live his love to one another. It's the badge of our identity–the test of our validity.
With it, we're the sheep of his pasture. Without it, we become a flock of wolves.
Death, and life. Choose life.
1 Peter 4:7-11
Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.
Notice we're told to do one thing "above all." Someone says it's the main thing. But a lot of people say that about a lot of things.
How do you stress the importance of something you feel the importance of? How do you get the attention of people with other things on their minds? Forget everything else I say, but listen–really listen–to this one thing.
Did you ever count how many people try for your attention every day? Always for something they say is important. Why, you can't watch television, listen to radio, read magazines and newspapers, without swarms of people all competing for your attention.
They have something vital to let you know about. Are you listening? And right in the middle of their pitch you hear the telephone ring and it's someone else who wants to sell aluminum siding for your brick house!
So we all get good at turning off and tuning out those messages. We install filters on our sensitivities that won't let them through. It's a world where people have to do that to survive. But what if you're a witness for Jesus Christ in such a world? How do you get your point across?
I sometimes read the newsletter of a pastor who thinks every word he utters is vital to the welfare of God, man, and the universe. You've never seen such capitalization and underlining italicizing and bold-facing as he does. Every second or third word is given some kind of emphasis.
But you know what? That doesn't work. You get used to it. You take it for granted as you read his stuff, because it's just his style. It's the common thing.
But now–and here's the point–when the author is an inspired writer of holy scripture and says to you, "do this or that above all else," you should take notice. You don't find that often in the Bible. Jesus called something the "first and great commandment" once, but he didn't call everything that.
Think of all the things that are excluded when you say to "do this above all else." Here the duty to love is put above all matters of doctrine. It isn't how straight you talk, but how straight you walk. It's put above the needs of the poor. Above job and family responsibities. Above health and personal happiness. Not to disparage those things–this simply is most important.
"Hold unfailing your love for one another." What does it mean to hold something unfailing? To hold a wife or husband unfailing? To hold a promise unfailing? To hold loyalty to a friend unfailing?
"Love covers a multitude of sins." What is the "multitude of sins" love covers? If you're writing to a group of church people and urging them to love one another, what are the sins among them? I sin against you. You sin against me. They sin against them. She sins agains him. He sins against her.
Anger, jealousy, greed, envy. Backbiting, nit-picking, misunderstanding. Coveting, slandering, flattering, lusting, manipulating.
Isn't there always a multitude wherever people live and work together? And what if there's no way on earth to avoid that, except to have the love that covers it?
If love covers a multitude of sins, what happens if there is no love, and all those sins accumulate?
I think it's like a story Jesus told once. A demon lived in this house, but one day left. The owner decided this was a good time to clean up the house, and did. He threw away the trash, made some repairs, and swept out the place real good. But he did nothing that would keep the demon from coming back to live there, and that's exactly what happened.
The demon saw what was done, and said "hooray." Then he went out and got seven of his buddies, and they all moved in. And now things were worse than they ever were before.
If love doesn't cover the multitude of our sins, they soon become a bigger crowd. They multiply. Instead of a tiny hurt, you've got serious hurt. Instead of minor greed, you've got a lot. Instead of a slight misunderstanding, you've got a first-class fight.
There's a time in the life of a raging fire when a small bucket of water could have put it out. There's a time in the life of most human conflicts, when a little bit of love would have done the job.
How can I say that? Well, let me tell you. Because love is patient, and is kind. It isn't jealous, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. Those are some of the things that start fires, you know?
And love doesn't insist on its own way–which unloving people often do as a matter of habit. And love isn't irritable or resentful–which surely helps. And it never is glad when things go wrong, but always when they go right. And it bears all things, and believes all things, and hopes all things, and endures all things. (See 1 Cor 13:4-7)
People who love do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility they count others better than themselves. They look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others. They have this mind among themselves, which is theirs in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (See Philippians 2:1-8)
It was said of King Frederick of Austria that he loved music, but not all music–just music played on a flute. But not all music played on a flute–just the music played on his own flute. But not all the music played on his own flute–just the music he played on his own flute!
How do people like that get along with the rest of the world? Not so well. All their love is for themselves, and none of it for others. And people may fear them and obey, or need them and go along, but they don't love them. How can you love someone who doesn't know the meaning of the word? Unless you're God, or like God.
There are things in the Bible that aren't so clear and plain. Things you puzzle over. Things there are legitimate debates about. But this duty of love is the clearest thing in scripture. Listen:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:12-13)
We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren, as is fitting, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. (1 Thess 3:12)
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works. (Hebrews 10:24)
Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. (1 Peter 3:8)
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. (1 John 3:14)
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)
If any one says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
Budget time is coming up, and you'll hear that we need more money–which we do. Sunday School teachers are now being enlisted for the new year, and we need more of them. And we need more people who'll visit prospects and do outreach. We need more children and young people around. We need more members in general. We have many needs.
But let me tell you our biggest need. Above all those others is our need to love one another as Christ loved us. If we do that, all the rest will take care of itself.
The greatest sin anyone ever commits against the Body of Christ is to be unloving. That's the greatest. Because the first and great commandment is to love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.
Have you done it? Will you?
WEEP FOR YOURSELVES
And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning to them said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!' Then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us': and to the hills, 'Cover us.' For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?"
Luke tells us it was the women who wept as Jesus climbed the hill to be crucified. And that's what we expect, I suppose. Then, and now, women do most of the weeping.
Then, and now, it's unmanly to cry in public. Men are the strong ones. We honor the memory of Big John Wayne–tough cowboy, pistol-totin', hair-on-the-chest, don't take nothin offa nobody. And the modern heroes with their submachine guns and karate kicks. Those fellows don't cry when some girl leaves. They spit! They say, "so what?"
Men are like that–or are they? Are they really so strong and unemotional? What would men be if they didn't try to be like they're expected to be?
Jesus wept. He wept for Lazarus, and over Jerusalem. Jeremiah did too–they sometimes call him the "weeping prophet." David wept greatly and in public for his son Absolom. Peter wept about denying his lord. Some men can weep.
A man who can't denies something about himself. He wears a mask. There's a part of him he's afraid to have seen. And we may call that strength, but it really isn't. A strong person ought not to be afraid of letting his feelings show.
But on the way to the cross, things were as they usually are. The men were carrying swords and spears and looking grim. The women were weeping.
Who knows what to say to a weeping woman? What man especially? Is there anything a man is more helpless before than a weeping woman?
But Jesus had something for them that day. He was there with his cross and they were crying along behind. And he stopped and turned and told them to weep for themselves, not for him.
Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.
"Daughters of Jerusalem, you think I'm the one who has trouble? You're the ones who have trouble. You're the ones who need your prayers."
"Daughters of Jerusalem, you want to follow along and see what happens to me? You can do that if you like. But I'll tell you, what you need to do is open your eyes and see what's happening to you."
Is it easier to weep for him? Is it easier to sing sentimental songs and cry over him? Easier to weep for him than to weep for one another. Sure it is! It's a lot easier to get religious people to weep for Jesus than to weep for fellow human beings in trouble.
"When, Lord, when? When ever did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger? When ever did we see you naked or sick or in prison, and wouldn't help you out?"
"We might treat other people that way, but surely not you! We may not cry over others very much, but we surely do cry over you. Isn't that enough?"
"No, it's not enough," he says. "Don't weep for me, weep for yourselves." "Weep for the hungry and thirsty and the lonely and cold and sick."
The man was about to be nailed to a cross, and that's what he told them. That's what he tells us.
There's a kinship in tears. There's a kind of fellowship in suffering. And Jesus had known his share. So when he heard those women and their crying, he didn't say "don't do that." He said, "don't do it for me–do it for those who need it most."
"I'm not the victim this looks like. You may think it's the end of the line for me, but it isn't. You're the ones I worry about now. So weep for yourselves–I'm in good hands. Why, I've got 10,000 angels I could call down here if I really wanted to. Don't weep for me."
The women had a problem, there. What to do now. What to do when you're all worked up to cry over something, and then you're told not to do it? What to do when you're told to cry for something, and you don't see any need to?
We've solved that day's problem. He said don't weep for him, and so we don't. He said weep for ourselves and our children, but we don't feel like doing that–so we don't. What happens is, we don't weep for anything.
Whatever it is that makes us weep, we kill it inside us. Like an abortion. Like a neutering. Something that used to function won't function any more.
We watch 10,000 murders on television and cry not a tear. We read of scandal and betrayal in government and say "ho hum, what's new?" We respond to starvation in Ethiopia by shaking our heads.
And yet Jesus, in his highest, most solemn moment, tells us to weep for ourselves and for our children.
Weep for the Andy Gibbs' and Len Bias', and so many just like them whose names aren't famous.
Weep for the struggle of blacks in South Africa. Where black and white miners go down into those mines and come back out to receive unequal paychecks.
Weep for a pastor friend, run out of his pulpit after 35 years. Don't just say "well, that's too bad" but care enough to weep.
Weep for high schools where policemen guard the halls. Policemen with guns, because the students have guns–even little kids. And people are afraid–weep for that.
Weep for those who've never heard the gospel of Jesus. And for those who have, and take it for granted.
Weep for trash thrown out in the streets, and poor people who stand in long lines for nothing.
Weep for animals run over in the roads.
Weep for something! Why can't we weep?? Are we ashamed, or do we just not care?
I was home in Kentucky one day with my brand-new seminary diploma, and the phone rang. It was a man named Forrest Pollard who was chairman of a pulpit committee for a church in Tennessee. One thing led to another, and I went there.
Forrest was the postmaster. And if ever there was a pastor's friend, he was it. He never failed to help me any time I needed it. If he thought I was right, he'd help me. And if he thought I was wrong, he'd tell me, but he'd still help me. A pastor needs friends like that. A few trouble-makers can keep you on your toes, but those are the people who keep you on your feet.
Halfway through my time there, Forrest died. We buried him during the week. And that Sunday I came to church, thinking it was over.
Wrong. Sitting up there in the chair with 30 seconds to go before time to preach, I looked out where he used to sit and missed him. I began to cry and couldn't stop. I remember saying to myself not to do this, but it didn't help. They sang another hymn and I went on crying. I got up and tried to start the sermon, but the one I'd prepared took on a strange inappropriateness. Weeping was all I felt like that Sunday, and all I did.
I took it as an embarrassment. I should have saved my grief for some other time, I thought. For late at night or alone in the study. As if there's no proper weeping in the church, or even with friends. So we spill our tears alone. But we ought not think that way. Jesus tells us otherwise.
Remember how, in Hebrews, it says that "Christ learned obedience through what he suffered"? (Hebrews 5:8) Maybe the weeping he asked for is because he knows something. He knows that plan wasn't just for him, but for us as well. We too learn obedience through what we suffer.
Do we believe the suffering is all for him? Do we think there's a cross for him, but none for us? "Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free? No, there's a cross for every one, and there's a cross for me." That's why I must weep for myself. Because there's a cross for me.
It may be in the nature of things in this world that all progress involves someone's suffering. Some inner compulsion that makes people act against their own self-interest, for the good of others. Which almost always ends up in weeping for someone somewhere.
Martin Luther King, Jr., leaving the sanctuary of his church and setting his face to go to Memphis.
But the glory of it is, out of that suffering comes not only our redemption, but our joy as well. Jesus "for the joy that was set before him endured the cross." (Hebrews 12:2)
Joy and suffering are a strange pair together. Suffering and joy–an "odd couple," if there ever was one. But there they were together on the way to the cross. The joy of Christ and the suffering of Christ–there together. We'd like to grab them and pull them apart if we could. To us they don't belong together. But to the saints, they do and have. The way to the top of the mountain leads down through the valley.
John Henry Newman labored to help the victims of an epidemic in Sicily. Out of that experience he wrote:
Lead, kindly light! Amid th'encircling gloom, lead
thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
lead thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet; I do no ask to see the distant scene;
one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that
Thou shoudst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now,
Lead thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears
pride ruled my will;
Remember not past years.
So long Thy power has blessed me, sure it still
will lead me on o'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent
till the night is gone; and with the morn those angel
faces smile which I have loved long since,
and lost awhile.
The weeping and the joy. They do belong together.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrits! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, "If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets." Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent ABel to the blood of Zecharieh the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.
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!
Earlier this year, I spent several hours in the waiting room of the welfare office in Rockville. I wasn't there to sign up myself, but one of the clients thought I was. He told me he could tell I was an educated person, and must have had some tough luck or something. Happens to all of us, he said. And he gave me several good tips about dealing with the welfare people. I thanked him for his advice.
If you have a couple of hours sometime, I recommend you go up there and sit in that waiting room. Take a magazine, and maybe a sandwich. I can imagine Jesus doing that. You see a lot, and hear a lot, there in the welfare office.
I heard a woman tell her kid: "You keep talking back and see if one of your teeth won't be missing." I watched a man who was obviously mentally ill. He kept getting angry, then cursing at screaming level and stomping out of the place. The woman with him said to someone, "Don't worry, he'll be back in a minute." And she was right, because in just a minute he was back. He came in and apologized to the whole waiting room, which more-or-less accepted his apology. And he was meek as a lamb for awhile, and then got angry all over again. After several times, they almost called the police. What hope has a man like that?
Jesus might have wept there, as he wept over Jerusalem. As he weeps over cancer, and AIDS, and drug addiction. As he weeps about hunger and famine and the shooting down of civilian airliners. As he may have wept over the war among Baptists in San Antonio. As he weeps when worthy efforts fail because no one cared.
Do we weep? And if we wept as Jesus did, would we do more of what Jesus wants?
We have our excuses for not weeping. People see pictures of folk in destitute countries and say "they could do better than that if they really wanted to!" They say it with no idea what they're saying. They say it because it seems to excuse them from caring.
We weep selectively. Someone loses a mate to cancer and gets sympathy and support. Someone loses one through divorce and gets blame from former friends. One gets wept for and the other gets a hard time. There seems to be good hurting and bad hurting.
I know a woman whose marriage was headed for divorce, she says, only her husband died first. She frankly compares the support she got with what lay ahead if the marriage had ended the other way. She says she was lucky. She knows how people weep selectively. We weep for those who get what they didn't deserve; we don't weep for people who get what they do deserve. We think we know what people deserve. We think we can judge that.
But notice here an opposite lesson. The passage about Jesus' weeping for Jerusalem stands at the end of a chapter where he shows his greatest displeasure for that city. He finds much fault, yet responds at the end with compassion, not with blame. He hates their sins, but loves them as sinners. He gives us no license to weep selectively.
Any significant action we take begins with two things: AWARENESS and CONCERN. And those are the requirements of weeping. You have to know enough, and you have to care enough.
Sometimes we have awareness but no concern. Are you aware of the homeless in Washington? Mitch Snyder has almost guaranteed that you are. But what is your level of concern?
Are you aware of child abuse? but are you concerned? Of racial prejudice, but are you concerned?
There's a term for awareness I'm sure you've heard. They call it "consciousness raising." Someone says his job is to "raise people's consciousness" about certain problems.
Now that's good as the first step, but it isn't good as the last step. It's good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough to guarantee results. Awareness can stop short of concern, and do it again, and again, and again. You can get your consciousness raised and re-raised and re-re-raised. But a point comes when you don't need your consciousness raised, you need your behind kicked. You don't need more air put in the tires, you need the engine started. You have enough information, what you need is some inspiration.
There are people who seem to be immune from inspiration. You can give them all the information you want, and that's fine. Like the crowd at Athens, they're always ready to hear some new thing. But the information never inspires, and neither does anything else.
Let me tell you something about the state of the church today. This is a homespun analysis, I know, but I think it makes a point. The problem of the church today is that you've got people with zeal but no knowledge who keep messing things up. And you've got others with knowledge but no zeal who sit around talking but never get into action.
Am I right or not? That is how it is. Write "zeal without knowledge" over one column, and "knowledge without zeal" over the other, and you can put most folk on one side or the other. And the problem is, there should be a third column that says "knowledge with zeal." And that's where everyone ought to be, but few are.
In Guadalahara, I had a delightful English-speaking guide who spend 5 hours showing me his city. I told him I wanted to see was how people lived, the poorest and the richest, the cleanest and the dirtiest. And that's what he showed me.
He did it well. And we didn't just drive and look out the windows of the car. We parked and walked. We went places I'd never have gone by myself. I saw things I could have lived in the city for years and never have seen on my own.
The last thing we did was see the homes of the wealthy. I don't know where your favorites are in Washington, but some of mine are Foxhall Road and Cathedral Avenue. And Bradley Boulevard isn't too shabby. And River Road, where Fourth whatever-it-is-now Church is located. Every city has those sections, so I saw the ones in Guadalahara.
Only I didn't exactly see them. I went by them and tried to, but it was hard. They were all surrounded by high brick walls you couldn't see over. You saw the top of the house and the tops of the trees, but you couldn't see much else. There was always a gate at the entrance with either a guard or an electronic device that provided security.
They lived in fortresses, in other words. They were there on islands in a sea of threat. Some of those walls had sharp glass imbedded in the concrete on the top. Anyone who tried to go over it was in for quite a surprise.
Does Jesus weep over a thing like that? Over people so poor they risk that to steal food or clothing? Over people so rich they become captives of their own riches? Living as if in prison! Nice people, important people. Jesus must surely weep, but do we? Is there anyone who can weep over all there is to weep about?
Since I've been going to Furman a lot of years now, I have some rituals established–things I always do and don't intend to change. I always stay in small motel just up the road in Traveler's Rest. At $25 a night, that suits me better than the college dorm. There's a restaurant in Traveler's Rest that serves a great southern breakfast for about $2.75. Fifty cents more if you want country ham instead of bacon or sausage.
I like to get the local paper and read it while I eat. And I like to watch people come and go and listen to their conversation. It reminds me of good times growing up in the south. Or it reminds me of some bad times growing up in the south.
A lot of good ole' boys come to this restaurant. Good ole' boys who build houses, run bulldozers, race stock cars, grow corn, and things like that.
And Friday morning I was there. And it was a little late and I was almost the only customer. But while I was eating my grits, the door opened, and two of 'em came in and sat in the booth next to mine. And they were carryin' on and having a good time. And they ordered, and got served. Two good ole' boys with a lot to talk about. Sitting across from one another and enjoying a Friday morning in their town. There with people who all knew them, and all said "Hi."
One was white, and the other was black. And Jesus Christ in me felt good to see that in Traveler's Rest, because I know how it used to be. Jesus Christ in me felt good, just as sometimes in the past he felt bad because of that terrible dis-ease, that condition where this was not possible, where race hatred was preached in the name of religion and Christ hung long on a cross of shame.
Do you see what I'm suggesting here? Jesus Christ in us by the power of the Holy Spirit still weeps over some Jerusalems, and rejoices over others.
I know that's subjective. I know there are contradictions. Down in Texas at the Baptist meeting, I saw people leap to their feet and shout the victory of Jesus like a touchdown pass to Art Monk. While I sat silent.
They thought he was pleased with what they were pleased with. I thought I heard him crying, though. I thought he was being disgraced in that arena. So there's a lot to sort out as you try to have the mind of Christ. There's a lot to pray through and agonize over.
To see things as his eyes do. To feel about them as his heart does. To reach out and touch with hands that have in them his power to heal and to bless. To suffer with him those times when nothing seems to work and all there is to do is weep. To care enough to do that.
But is there anything more important about being a Christian?
I went to college already planning to be a preacher. A "ministerial student" was the usual term. And since the college was church-related, there were other ministerial students there–quite a number of them. So, of course, I joined up. I became a member of the Student Ministerial Association.
My first memory of meeting with that group was a thunderous sermon by an upper-classman on the text: "No man cared for my soul." Which he could just quote and look at you hard and make you feel guilty.
"No man cared for my soul."
"No man cared for my soul."
"No man cared for my soul."
He took this in a narrow sense. We all took it in a narrow sense. It meant we should care enough about people's salvation to tell them about Jesus. We should go out with the groups on Saturdays and preach in the jails and on the streets. Then come back and report on the results.
We said the thing a person needs most is believing and trusting Jesus. All other needs are secondary to that. So this is where we must focus our caring and our effort. As I said, we took it in the narrow sense.
Our zeal was good in what it included. But it was wrong in what it excluded. To get one thing right, we got a lot of other things wrong.
And this tended to make objects out of people. Customers to be sold something. Persons for whom we had only one interest. Profess faith in Christ and do it quick so we can get on to someone else. And if a person tried to talk about other things that were on his mind at the time, we waved it aside. We'd say "yes, but are you a Christian?"
The meaning of the scripture is broader than that. "No man cared for my nephish," is what the Hebrew says. And "nephish" is the word used in Genesis where God breathed into man his breath and he became a living being. Not just a "soul," but a body, and a mind, and a spirit–everything about us, in other words.
In the Old Testament, if someone big and mean gets after you, you run for your "nephish." You run to preserve your whole being, not just your spiritual welfare!
So the text in Psalm 142 means that. It's the bitter lament of a person who feels no one cares. He feels abandoned. "No one cares for his nephish" means no one cares about him, one way or the other.
There was a powerful film about the homeless recently, with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Didn't stay out very long. It was called "Ironweed."
In it, there was a storefront mission where you could get hot soup in the evenings in exchange for sitting still and listening to a sermon on salvation. After soup and sermon, everyone had to leave.
It was terribly cold night one night. And some of those drifters found this woman almost frozen. They brought her to the door of that mission and said couldn't she sleep inside, just tonight? The people who ran it said no, it was against the rules. And so she died on the street near a mission for Jesus that cared for her soul, but not for her.
The text is about compassion for the needs of others, whatever they may be. Drug addicts, AIDS patients, arrogant so-and-so's, battered spouses, abandoned children, mental illness–you can make the list as long as you want to.
We say by our words and deeds, "I care." Or we say by our words and deeds, "I don't care." Or sometimes we say by our words "I care" and by our deeds "I don't care." And that may be the worst of all.
It's usually an assumption that if you're involved in the help of others, you do care about them. Lawyers really do care about people with legal problems, right? Doctors really do care about the health of patients, first and foremost. Shriners and their crippled children. People who raise money for the March of Dimes. Why else would people be involved in those things, unless their motive was compassion?
But Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy's unforgettable sufferer, didn't find it that way. He found people who cared about doing their jobs and earning their pay, but not for him as a person.
He was sick and dying of a strange illness. But he needed more than baths and medicine. He needed love and respect and understanding. He needed to know that his life had mattered for something to someone.
Those people who came to his room–he needed them, not just the things they brought.
Their attentions left him cold. His wife, his children, his old friends, his many doctors. The flowers, the cards, the candies all wrapped up. In spite of it all, he felt terribly alone, anguished, and abandoned. Listen to this quote:
"From the doctor's summing up (he) concluded that things were bad, but that for the doctor, and perhaps for everybody else, it was a matter of indifference, though to him it was bad. And this conclusion struck him painfully, arousing in him a great feeling of pity for himself and of bitterness towards the doctor's indifference . . .. He had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him."
And that was despite the fact there were people around him constantly.
People have a need to be cared about. And is there anything that hurts more than to find out no one does?
He's lost his job. "Who cares?"
She's proud of her son. "So what?"
Their daughter ran away. "Well, I have troubles too."
You hurt my feelings. "So?"
I need your help. "You must be kidding!"
Wayne Oates wrote a book called The Revelation of God in Human Suffering. It it he says:
The Christ who holds the fate of the universe in his hands . . . has chosen to make himself known through the pangs of the hungry, the desperation of the sick, the exposure of the naked, the loneliness of the stranger, and the self-defeatedness of the prisoner. Christ continues to reveal himself anew in the extreme needs of "the least of these his brethren." In them we do not find the mere footprints and fingerprints of where he as been. Here we find his feet and hands themselves. Here we do not hear an echo of his voice, but the voice of the Christ himself. Here we find the Christ himself achingly involved in the destiny of human beings." (p. 17)
"Achingly involved." A vivid phrase. How often does it describe our caring for one another? How often have we had assurance that a caring person was "achingly involved" in our own problems?
You can't always know, of course. There are those who care but don't communicate it. And there are hypocrits.
You may think someone cares who doesn't. And you may think someone doesn't care who does. The Lord is the only judge of this. But since it matters so much that a person feel cared about, it's important for those who care to communicate it. It's a tough world out there.
Robert Frost wrote a poem about an Indian in a white man's town. He called it "The Vanishing Red."
He is said to have been the last Red Man
In Acton. And the Miller is said to have laughed–
If you like to call such a sound a laugh.
But he gave no one else a laugher's license.
For he turned suddenly grave as if to say,
"Whose business–if I take it on myself,
Whose business–but why talk round the barn?–
When it's just that I hold with getting a thing
You can't get back and see it as he saw it.
It's too long a story to go into now.
You'd have to have been there and lived it.
Then you wouldn't have looked on it as just a matter
Of who began it between the two races.
Some gutteral exclamation of surprise
The Red Man gave in poking about the mill,
Over the great big thumping, shuffling millstone
Disgusted the Miller physically as coming
From one who had no right to be heard from.
"Come, John," he said, "you want to see the wheel pit?"
He took him down below a cramping rafter,
And showed him, through a manhole in the floor,
The water in desperate straits like frantic fish,
Salmon and sturgeon, lashing with their tails.
Then he shut down the trap door with a ring in it
That jangled even above the general noise,
And came upstairs alone–and gave that laugh,
And said something to a man with a meal sack
That the man with the meal sack didn't catch–then.
Oh, yes, he showed John the wheel pit all right.
The Miller was a violent man who settled things a violent way. Those people are still around, as we well know and read about most days in the newspaper. A cruel man, we'd say. And the symbol of it was his laughing.
He laughed, "if you call such a sound a laugh." And even when he came back upstairs, he "gave that laugh."
To laugh with people is one of the nicer things there is to do. But to laugh at people is one of the worst–regardless of whether you do them harm or not. Such laughing is harm.
It's easy to criticize violent behavior like the Miller's. But we must also remember what Jesus taught. He said to hate someone is a form of violence too. If you hate someone you commit murder in your heart. And the way not to hate is to love. Love in word, and love in deed.
As he hung on his cross, he looked down and said to John, "take care of my mother." His thought was of others, even at at time like that. And John took her into his house, it says, and did what Jesus asked.
He'd been cared for himself, and knew it. He knew Jesus cared about him. And he didn't just learn about receiving. He learned about giving too.
Which is the main thing Jesus wants from any one of us.
YE SAINTS OF THE LORD
Saint Edrie Hough . . . Saint Arlene Miller . . . Saint Weaver Doyle . . . Saint John Soto . . . Saint Diane Briggs. Sounds funny, doesn't it? Sounds funny because "saint" is one of the last things we'd think to call one another. And yet the word is used commonly of ordinary Christians like you and me, throughout the New Testament.
"Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints that lived at Lydda." (Acts 9:32)
"To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 1:7)
"To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Cor 1:2)
"So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God." (Eph 2:19)
"To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ." (Eph 3:8)
"Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, (Eph 6:18)
What does the word "saint" mean? It means pious, God-fearing, and especially "holy." We sing "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts," but "saint" reminds us that those who love God grow like him. They become holy too. Paul said without holiness no one will see the Lord.
And yet I dare say, modern Christians tend to think in secular terms, not holy terms. It's even hard to get us quiet for the worship of God. Our kids bring McDonald's hamburgers and eat them in the sanctuary. We may shut our eyes for the prayer, but what do we think about? Are we more comfortable as the man who cried out to God for mercy, or the one who stood satisfied in the temple and said he was in good shape? Is there anything that puts us in awe?
Wayne Oates told about being chaplain in a mental hospital. He was new on the job and trying to get around to meet everyone. He told of introducing himself to a man who looked him over and then said: "So you're the Man of God here?" And Oates said his first impulse was to disclaim. He thought of himself as the student chaplain, not the Man of God. But then he thought that really he was what there was of a Man of God, and he ought not to beg off. So he said yes, that's who he was.
I searched the New Testament and made a list of things that are called holy. Things held in reverence as unique and special. I found holy city, holy kiss, holy man, holy angels, holy child (Jesus), holy prophets, holy name of God, holy covenant, holy ground, holy church, holy hands, holy mountain, holy calling, holy faith. And the question that follows is: What's on your list? What's holy to you?
I also noticed that "saint" is almost always plural. The only time in the New Testament where "saint" is singular is Philippians 4:21. "Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren who are with me greet you." 62 different passages where it's plural, and then this one where it's not, but really is. Instead of saying "greet all the saints" he says "greet every saint." So it's really a plural after all.
No individual is ever called a saint in any passage of the Bible. You're never a saint by yourself. You're always a saint in company and covenant with others. 62 times.
I think that's remarkable. It shows how God intends for this to be a team thing, not a matter of superstars. But there are modern saints who'd like to be superstars. And modern Christians who want to follow, and nearly worship, that charismatic leader up on their pedestal. I think they should go back and read the first commandment.
What on earth is a Christian preacher doing with a mansion, a Rolls Royce, and a hundred million dollars? What on earth? And what is it about average working people that makes them idolize such persons and use them as saints? Is it that we shrink from being saints ourselves and must do it through fantasy about the lives of people we know only at a distance?
God calls us each and every one to live holy, exemplary lives. To go about doing good in the world. To show the love of Jesus to others. To be the light of the world.
We're a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that (we) may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called (us) out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Pe 2:9)
To us he says: "You shall be holy, for I am holy." (1 Pe 1:6) And that means we put self aside. We remove it as the centerpiece of our concerns, and have a new focus. As Paul put it, we "look not every man on his own concerns, but on the concerns of others."
This past week I overheard a man telling about his first wife. He was talking with a stranger and saying how she didn't like sports or exercise like he does.
Well, strangers can be curious about what became of first wives. So the other man said: "Did she die?" And the reply was: "No, unfortunately."
He went on to explain that they were married 27 years but became bad for one another and decided to split. No, she didn't die. Unfortunately!
But for whom was it unfortunate that the wife under discussion didn't die? Was she somewhere right that minute, sitting in a beauty parlor with her friends and saying, "You know, Alice, it's really unfortunate that I didn't just die when Harold and I split up"?
"That would have saved him so much embarrassment, having to explain what happened." "If I'd just died no one would think a thing about it.
But unfortunately that's not what the first wife thinks. Unfortunately she'd probably like to see Harold dead, not her. And so when Harold says "unfortunately" he means about him. He means he'd feel better with strangers in the locker room if he could tell them she died.
He was thinking of himself, you see. Only himself. His first wife might say that was typical.
Every day and hour we live, there are situations where our saintliness is on the line. Little things, big things. Attitudes and actions. How we act, and how we react. Days and hours where we're called to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.
"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience." (Col 3:12) "Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." (Heb 12:14)
Saints thrive on action. They love God with all their hearts and their neighbor as themselves. They may get discouraged, but they never quit. They use themselves up for God.
In 109 A.D. the Romans built a huge aqueduct to bring water from a spring near Segovia, Spain. For eighteen centuries that aqueduct did its job. Long after the Roman Empire was gone, it continued working as a testimony to their engineering skills.
But then something happened. Well-meaning people decided the thing was so old and historic it ought to be preserved. Rather than have it carry water anymore, they should build a new water system and save the aqueduct. So they laid modern pipes and diverted the water. After 1800 years, the flow of water stopped.
That was the death of the aqueduct. Without the flow of water, the hot sun dried its mortar, and stones loosened and fell. Whole sections eventually collapsed. What centuries of use had never harmed was destroyed by idleness. People are not much different.
In a Baltimore church some years ago, they found an old document. An unknown saint's prescription for living. It was dated 1692, and it read:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.