Sermons – Volume Four
ONE MAN'S EASTER
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Laz'arus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go into Judea again." The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?" Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any one walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him." Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, "Our friend Laz'arus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep." The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, "Laz'arus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." Now when Jesus came, he found that Laz'arus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11:5-26)
ONE MAN'S EASTER–SCENE ONE. It's a quiet, peaceful, country place. For Jesus and his disciples, it's a hallowed place, because John the Baptist began his ministry here. Right there in that water he baptized crowds of people who came all the way out here to listen to his preaching.
He was dead now, of course. Beheaded in prison, still in his prime. It served to remind the group about the danger of the times.
Though they may have needed no reminder. After all, the reason they were here was reminder enough. Jesus had given sight to a young man born blind, and it started a firestorm of controversy. Then he talked about himself as a shepherd, and how a shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He said he was about to lay down his life for his sheep. He had this on the authority of his Father in heaven.
And then–as the last straw–he said "I and my Father are one." "We're one."
They tried to stone him. They tried to have him arrested. But he escaped, he and those twelve, and they came here beyond the Jordan. All that other took place in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where the trouble was.
So now just imagine when word comes that a dear friend is sick. Lazarus of Bethany. And Bethany is back there on the outskirts of Jerusalem. And Jesus is saying he must go there.
Eleven of those twelve think this is madness. "We can't do that–not now, and maybe never. It's . . . why, it's suicide!" Like sending Salmon Rushdie for a weekend in Terhan–all expenses paid! Take a few of those books along in case someone wants an autographed copy. That's exactly what it was like.
But when others had had their say, the disciple named Thomas had his. He quietly said, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
Loyalty. Is there something to be said for loyalty? This is my friend, this is my cause, this is who I am, and by golly I don't change horses in the middle of any stream. In fact, I'm not much on changing horses at all. I like to keep a horse.
You other fellows do as you wish, but I've come this far with him and I'm not about to quit now. Here I am, Master, I'll be ready when you are.
King David had a rough-cut soldier who put it well: "Wherever my lord the king shall be, whether in death or life, even there also shall thy servant be." Loyalty so great that a man would say, "If you die, I have no wish to live." Or, as one poet put it:
I will not let thee go.
The stars that crowd the summer skies
Have watched us so below
With all their million eyes,
I dare not let thee go.
I will not let thee go.
I hold thee by too many bands:
Thou sayest farewell, and lo!
I have thee by the hands,
And will not let thee go.
What if modern Christians could have that same fierce loyalty? Would people let a little rain stop them? or a little headache? or the worry that someone might not like it? Would volunteers be hard to find who'd spend four hours of time just once a month in a Parent's Night Out program? Would eighty percent be glad enough to stand around and watch while twenty percent do all the work?
We tend to excuse ourselves by the behavior of others. Someone says "what about you?" and immediately we turn and say "well what about him." And he turns immediately and says "what about them?" And round and round and round it goes, and where it stops . . . (can you help me out?).
Nobody knows. But what we need to know is this: every man shall give account of himself to God. Every woman shall give account of herself to God. Thomas was giving his account, and it shows pretty clearly that he was no weak-willed follower. And because of his example, the whole group decides to go.
ONE MAN'S EASTER–SCENE TWO. It's a couple of weeks later, and sure enough, they're in Jerusalem. They're in an upper room–as secure a place as they could find–and Jesus is telling them not to be troubled. He's doing that, of course, because he knows they are troubled. He's saying he's going to prepare a place for them and then will come again. He says they understand that.
Well, they didn't understand. Not a one of them understood. But Thomas was the only one with enough courage to speak up. He says they don't know what he thinks they know. He confesses his confusion and dismay.
Hard as it is, it's always better to confess your ignorance than pretend your knowledge. For one thing it's a lot more honest. So Thomas does that.
I'm not sure any of them really got the point that day. Jesus was about to leave them, but not for good. He was going somewhere they couldn't follow him, though they might one day. He was going where prophets go who won't be intimidated by entrenched evil. He was going like a sacrificial lamb.
We can't blame them for not understanding. We have our hindsight, they had their fears and confusion.
Worse came to worse. Praying in a garden late at night, he was taken by soldiers, tried by officials, tortured, and condemned to die. The next day–Friday–they crucified him between two thieves.
He forgave the people who did it. He even prayed for them as he hung on the cross. He lived for awhile and spoke several times. He died that afternoon.
They took down the body and placed it in a tomb. The tomb was donated by a wealthy Pharisee with a kind heart who thought this was a terrible mistake. The Romans sent some soldiers to go and guard the tomb.
ONE MAN'S EASTER–SCENE THREE. It's Sunday evening. The disciples are together in a room with the doors locked. That is, most of them are. Judas isn't. Judas is dead by his own hand. And Thomas isn't. Where is Thomas?
We don't really know, but we can wonder. Wonder if he's walking alone in the night. Wonder if he might have climbed that hill where it was done, where the stain of blood was still on the ground. Or wonder if he was thinking thoughts like Judas thought.
Ten disciples are together and suddenly become aware that someone else is in the room. Jesus is in the room. And he says "Peace be with you" and shows them his hands. And this, of course, is one of the most tremendous moments you can imagine. "He was dead, and now he's alive. And he's here with us again." They were amazed and overjoyed.
The scripture says, "Now Thomas was not with them when Jesus came." I'm not sure if that's a critical comment or not. Maybe it's just factual. But it still shows how you never know what you may miss out on when you skip the meeting. You hear people talking later and ask them to tell you about it, but that's not the same. You need to have been there.
Some of you were here yesterday morning for the Easter Prayer Breakfast. Some of you were not present, although all of you were invited. That's a factual statement, not a critical comment. Those of you who didn't come missed something. But even if I tried, I can't give you what you missed.
To hold hands and pray with those dear brothers and sisters, the way that young man sang, the way that Shackleford breadfast tasted–I can't give you that. Things you miss, you just miss. Although sometimes, by the grace of God, there is a second chance.
ONE MAN'S EASTER–SCENE FOUR. The same room, eight days later. The same group there, only Thomas is with them now. They told him what happened when he was gone, and sure enough, he couldn't believe it. He said he'd have to see for himself. And he's about to.
The Lord appears again, just as he did before. And he goes immediately to Thomas and offers his outstretched hands. As if this was the whole purpose of his coming there. The response of Thomas is to say, "My Lord and my God!"
Talk about finding the right words to say, Thomas did. They went straight to the heart of the matter. He put into language the wonder of his relationship with Christ. Lord and God. My Lord and my God.
Someone who questions things as Thomas did and comes out of it a believer is always stronger than the person who never questions. That's one of the lessons here.
The most perplexed and troubled soul in the house this morning may find faith in an instant. The grace of God is ever patient with those who have honest doubts. And after all, it isn't so much our search for God that matters. It's his search for us. God in Christ is ever in search of us. To meet us at just that time and place where salvation is possible.
The same Christ who did that for Thomas is here today to do it for others. To come behind doors that have long been closed, to be seen in his loving kindness and tender mercy.
In the presence and power of his Holy Spirit, Christ is alive today and offers his life to all who believe.
Your Lord . . . and your God is he.
And that man's Easter can be yours too.
THREE WISE MEN
I've preached a Christmas sermon every year for over thirty years. I wouldn't suggest that you run out of things to say, but you do find yourself going back over the same territory. And so, each year, you keep on the lookout for territory you never have covered.
This year I noticed the Three Wise Men. My past history with those gentlemen is that I've never bothered them and they've never bothered me! But this year I decided it was time.
I remembered we have a hymn that tells their story, so I got the hymnal and looked it up. Only I couldn't look it up because it isn't in our hymnal. Well, it must be in our former hymnal, then. I looked there and found it isn't there either. I had to go all the way back to the old Broadman Hymnal to find it, but there it was.
We three kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with loyal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
Well, there are some problems with that rendition, which may be why the later hymnals have not seen fit to include it. Indeed, there are numerous problems.
In the first place, the Bible says nothing at all about these fellows being kings. They weren't kings. The word for them is "magi" from which our word "magician" is derived. Most translators use the term "wise men," but others have "astrologers," "magicians," or "star-gazers."
In the second place, the Bible never tells how many there were. One tradition says there were twelve in the group. But people sometimes think they need to help the Bible out with things like this, so later tradition not only gave us a number, it gave them names: Malchior, Caspar, and Balthasar.
Melchior was said to be an old man with white hair and a beard, who brought the gift of gold. Caspar was the kid of the bunch–rosy-cheeked it was said–and he brought the incense. And Balthasar was a middle-aged man, and he brought the myrrh. (If he'd forgotten it, I guess he would have de-myrrhed–ha!)
In the third place, the Bible doesn't tell us the wise men followed a star. It says they saw one in the sky back home, and that started them on their journey. And then it says that when they got to Bethlehem, they looked up overhead and there it was again. But the star didn't lead them on their way in between, as is also said in "The First Noel."
And finally, the Bible says they came from the east, not from the orient. Persia is a likely guess. Astrology was popular there. So the distance you're talking about is a thousand miles, and even on fast camels the wise men wouldn't have arrived just after the shepherds did. Six months to a year is a better guess.
So what happened was this. Wherever it was they were from, these men saw a bright and shining star. Being inclined in that direction already, they decided it meant something. They calculated it was in the direction of Judea, and one told of rumors that a new king was to be born there. They decided to go and see. They took presents for the occasion.
Arriving in Jerusalem, they began to ask around. They said they'd seen a star back home, and heard something about a new king being born in this land. Did that mean anything to anybody?
Well, of course, the land already had a king, and his name was Herod. And if the wise men had been a little wiser they might have asked a few questions about him. For Herod was about as mean a so-and-so as you can imagine. And his dominating personality trait was jealousy. So you know that a mean and jealous king will be interested to know that some foreigners are in town asking questions about his successor!
The wise men find themselves in Herod's office. And he'd like for them to keep on looking for this new king. And he'd appreciate a report when they have one, because he'd like to see and meet the young lad and worship him personally!
Now if those men were wise at all, they knew something was the matter with that. They knew kings like Herod don't worship other kings. They knew they'd gotten into a situation that was–as we say–"politically delicate." So they left.
Some people told them Bethlehem was where they wanted to go. And Herod may have had them followed as they went there. Sure enough, when they got to Bethlehem, they saw their star again. Right up overhead. And now they knew they were close. It even seemed to be directly over one particular house.
And they went in the house–notice "house," not stable. And they found Mary and Joseph, and the child. Notice "child," not baby. And whatever tells people things told them this was what they'd come all that distance for. And they did worship. Grown men got down on their knees in front of a little child and gave him their gifts.
The wise men never did report back to Herod, but he knew enough already. In one of his famous rages, he gave orders to kill every boy in Bethlehem under two years of age. And it was done. And the boy Jesus would have been one of them, except his parents got a warning to flee. And they did. They fled all the way to Egypt and lived there till Herod died.
Now I would think the presents those wise men brought provided the means to make that journey. I would think.
All we know further about the wise men is that they went back east were they came from.
Now except for the part where innocent children are slaughtered, that's a wonderful story with at least three lessons. (1) Search for the Christ, bring him your treasure, get down on your knees and worship. (2) What people give to Christ allows him to go where he needs to go and do what he needs to do. (3) Christmas is about giving.
Andrew Fuller was raising funds to support the mission of William Carey in India. And a man he knew stepped up and said, "Well, Dr. Fuller, seeing it is you, I will give five pounds!" But Fuller wasn't pleased with that. Something about it wasn't right. He straightened himself and said to the man, "Seeing it is I, you will give nothing. But seeing it is the Lord Jesus, how much will you give?"
And the man was quiet a minute and then said, "Seeing it is the Lord Jesus, I will give fifty pounds."
A wise man. There can never be too many.
2 Peter 3:1-13
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (2 Peter 3:8)
John Claypool tells a story from the early days of his pastorate in Louisville. He went to visit an older member of the congregation who was dying at home at the end of a long illness.
The two had never met, but the sick man must have found John a person he could talk with. He began discussing the basic issues. His guilt about things he'd done in life and couldn't change. Some unfinished business he had. The strange mixture of faith and fear as he looked ahead. Claypool calls it "one of the most significant and poignant human encounters that I have ever known."
The man's wife was in and out of the room several times that afternoon. She seemed interested in what was going on, but took no part in it. She was around like a nurse might have been around. She kept a distance.
But afterward, she followed her new pastor out into the yard and said, very emotionally:
"Young man, don't you ever do again what you did this afternoon. We are doing our best to cheer Daddy up and to keep his spirits high. Things are bad enough as they are without all this morbid talk about dying. I don't want that word ever used again in his presence. Unless you can make me that promise, I will not let you come back again."
Huh! Imagine being in a dying condition, and no one around you is even permitted to use the word. Everyone around you acts like you're getting ready for a Florida vacation. Just imagine.
Another dying man was talking with his wife. "Mama," he said, "be sure to put David in charge of the store, O.K.?" And she said, "David? Why not Nathan? He's a smart boy." The man was weak. He was too tired to argue, so he just nodded. But after while he whispered, "Give John the station wagon." And she said, "But, Papa, Benny needs that. He's got the biggest family." "All right, then, give it to Benny. But let Becky have the country house."
"Papa," she said, "you know Becky hates the country. We'll give it to Rosalie." And the man groaned a long and complaining groan and said, "Mama, who's dying, you or me?"
It's not a bad question, because the answer is, of course, that we all are dying. We all are in a dying condition every day we live. We're all on our way, and no telling when any of us may conclude the journey.
Why, thirty years ago when I knew them she claimed to be in bad shape. She worried and complained and made herself and everyone around her miserable. She was always going to doctors and having tests and getting treatments. And he never complained a day in his life, and never was sick.
But today, he's dead and she's alive. All her life she claimed to be a goner. Must have done her good!
Well, what we need here–if we can manage to get it–is a proper perspective. A Biblical perspective. What we need is relief from our anxieties so we can see this thing from a larger perspective–from God's perspective.
With him–as our text this morning tells us–a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
That's a little confusing, isn't it? His days are like thousands of years, or are thousands of years like a day with him? Which? It's like saying he travels at the speed of light, then turn around and say it's a snail's pace. What sense can you make of that?
Perhaps that the quality of days is what counts, not the quantity. Years and even lifetimes can be wasted and matter for nothing. On the other hand, efforts can be made that God will slow down or even stop to see the outcome of.
Some years ago a study was made of hockey star Wayne Gretsky. He does amazing things at extremely high speed. He sees things happening and reacts to them in ways other people can't.
The study concluded that Gretsky is able to see in something like slow motion. His vision is the key. It's as if he has longer to respond because his vision is way ahead. As if anyone else would look excitedly and say, "there's my shot!" But Gretsky looks calmly and says to himself, "now I have three ways to go here, which one do I want?"
Thousand-year days. Thousand-minute hours. Thousand-second minutes. Where time takes its time. Where God takes his time because something worthwhile is going on.
God fast-forward's through most of our days because there's nothing there he hasn't seen and isn't used to. I mean, people sitting back on their upholstery and watching eight hours of TV a day–what's remarkable there? And if you're God above who made them in his image and having to watch this go on and on–why, sure, you put a thousand of those years into one! Get it over with!
But now and then there are lives that do different. And suddenly God backs up the tape and puts it in slow motion. He wants to see this better. He wants to take his time with this.
Wasn't that the meaning in the seventh chapter of Acts? That seventh chapter which we sometimes forget when we read the familiar verses that open chapter six. Where the early church chose deacons to deal with a problem it had. And we sometimes skip the list of names there because some are hard to pronounce. But the first on the list isn't hard–it's Stephen. And the next thing that happens is that Deacon Stephen gets in trouble.
Just imagine, being elected a deacon, and being all proud and pleased about that, and next thing you know it gets you hurt and killed. That's what happened with Stephen.
And I won't tell his story now, but I think you remember it. And I wonder if you remember what Stephen saw at the last. Verse 55. "But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God."
In every other passage of the Bible where Jesus is at the right hand of God, he's seated. But there in Stephen's hour of courage, you find him standing.
"Why, look down there, Gabriel! There's a man who hasn't let me down. Why, he's telling about me right now. He's got a crowd of people there who think my life was only a joke. He's telling them the truth. But my, he could get in trouble doing that–just like I did. Don't bother me, Gabriel. I want to see this!"
A thousand-year day. Things slowed down in heavenly time because there was something to slow down for. Jesus standing up because there was something to stand up for.
Must you be a martyr and get stoned like Stephen? No. Does it take that to get God's attention? No. What does it take to get God's attention??
I'm glad you asked that question! I think it's a good one. I think there are answers to it. And I think a good frame of reference is to do as the prophets sometimes did. To look back on events as if from the future.
"He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." Was. If we were writing that, we'd have said "he will be despised and rejected." But the prophet saw it as prophets see. The prophet saw it with that slowed-down, enlarged-up, widened-out perspective. So he could write about it as a completed event, even though it hadn't even happened yet.
Our lives. Our lives aren't even finished yet, but we can think of them as completed events if we will. We can heed the old tombstone inscription which said:
"Remember friend as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare to die, and follow me."
I doubt that the lady in Louisville put that on her husband's stone, and I wouldn't want it on mine. But to walk among the grave stones now and then is not a bad thing. As I did up at Harper's Ferry not too long ago. People like us who've made their mark–the last day lived, the last breath taken. But what is the mark we are called to make?
A hundred years from now you will want to have been unselfish with the blessings of life. God measures us by what we give to the world, not what we take from it. Ask not what life contributes to you, but what you contribute to life.
I knew a man in Tennessee named Riley Millsaps. He drove a concrete truck and served as a deacon. Riley wasn't a smart man, or a wealthy man, or a good-looking man. But he was a friendly man, with a smile for everyone.
And he would station himself at the door of the church on Sundays. And if you came there in a bad mood and wanted to stay that way, you better go around and come in the back. Because you couldn't get greeted by Riley Millsaps and stay in your bad mood. No way. And he's been dead for fifteen years or so, but I still remember that. He gave that as his gift, and it made a difference in the West Maryville Baptist Church.
A hundred years from now you will want to have invested something in the lives of those then living. Your children and grandchildren. Others' children and grandchildren. You'll want to have given them more than candy and clothes and good time here and there. They need things to live with, but they also need things to live for. What will you have shown them that life is to be lived for?
A hundred years from now you'll want to have trusted Jesus Christ as your savior. Repented of your sins and asked God's forgiveness. Been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Lived a God-fearing, grateful, dedicated, Christian life.
And that will be far more important then than the multitude of things that seem important now. That we fret and fuss over. That we compete with one another to achieve. That we use to pass away the time of our lives.
God so loved you that he gave his son to be your savior. It's his gift to you. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus. You will want to have accepted that gift.
And you will want to have shared it with as many others as you possibly could. In as many ways as you could. In as many countries as you could. For as many years as you could.
Those are the things that will matter then. Let them matter now.
THE ALTERNATIVES OF LIFE
"When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the sages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:20-23)
On of my favorite preachers is a man named Fred Craddock. He tells of going home each Christmas to a west Tennessee town where he visits a friend named Buck. Buck runs a restaurant on main street. He always has coffee and pie at Buck's place.
But one year he went in and Buck said, "Come on, let's go get a cup of coffee." Craddock said, "What's the matter? Isn't this a restaurant." And Buck was irritated and said he don't know any more. Sometimes he wondered.
They went to another restaurant down the street. Buck said to Craddock: "Did you see the curtain?" And Craddock said, "Yes, Buck, I always see the curtain."
Now this was some years ago when the curtain in Buck's cafe separated the white section from the colored section. The colored folk came in the back door and stayed behind the curtain.
Buck said, "Fred, the curtain has got to come down." And Craddock said, "Good, bring it down." And then Buck said, "That's easy enough for you to say. You come here once a year and want to tell me how to run my business." And Craddock said, "Well, leave it up then."
And Buck said, "Fred, I take that curtain down and I lose my customers. I leave that curtain up and I lose my soul."
Life hands us situations where we have to choose. Where the choices have consequences. And where a wish to not be in the situation is wishful thinking, because we are. And the alternatives we ponder are of more than intellectual curiosity. God himself is directly involved.
One of the earliest Christian writings we have besides the New Testament is a church manual called the "Didache."
Didache means "teaching," and this was written in the second century. It has a line that says: "There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways."
You remember how Jesus spoke of two ways, one broad and the other narrow. One popular and the other not. One easy and the other hard. He said "the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." (Matthew 7:13-14)
So there are choices to make. And the fact that people choose not to choose doesn't take away the fact that you choose even as you do that.
April 15th will roll around soon. And you might not want to file a tax return. On the other hand you might not want to tell the government that you refuse to do that. What can you do then? Just ignore the situation, not think about it, and hope it goes away? You can. But in doing that you still choose a course of action which has consequences. And the fact remains that when the day arrives you either have or you haven't.
Remember the call of Joshua? "Choose you this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15) The man did not waver. His mind was made up.
Jesus came to a time in his ministry where the way ahead of him narrowed. The cross was coming up if he kept on his present course. His options were shrinking. The words he'd said earlier about walking the narrow way now applied to him. And the record says, "He stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem." He'd made his choice.
Now, in our text this morning, Paul describes the fundamental choice of life. Where you go one way or the other. Where the choice has the greatest of consequences. Listen:
The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Choices. You choose between wages or a gift. Sin on the one hand or God on the other. Death in one direction, and eternal life in the other.
Now it would seem that's a clear and easy choice. Who could want toil and bondage instead of something free and gracious? Who wants sin as a master and God as an enemy? Who prefers death to life? Just give me my card. I know which box to check. Do you think I'm a fool??
If you see it like Paul does, it looks that easy. But most people don't see it like he does. Else why are churches empty and jails full? Why? Wlhy aren't churches full and the jails empty? Why are bitter words common and kind words rare? Why aren't kind words common and bitter words rare? Why is nothing safe that isn't locked and guarded? Why are we all afraid? Why do you sometimes hear the worst of things about what you thought were the best of people?
Temptations to sin are strong, and glimpses of eternity are few, especially if you're not looking for any. The urge to better your business is far more popular than the urge to better yourself with God. Standards of conduct tend to weaken, not strengthen, with each succeeding generation. Someone asked what was meant by the term "status quo" and got the answer: "It's Latin for the mess we in"!
I remember a hot day in Tennessee. I'd been working outside and boy! was I thirsty. And I bought a cold drink, an orange soda. And I was looking forward to every drop of that cold, refreshing drink.
But something happened there that complicated the situation. I'd had just a swallow or two, and a yellow jacket was passing by who was thirsty too, and got in my drink. And there I was. I couldn't see him, but I could hear him buzzing down there inside that aluminum can. And I wanted the drink that was there so bad. But did I want it enough to swallow a live yellow jacket?
That's our human dilemma too. We want what we want but there's a price to pay. There are things in life that do taste sweet, but there's a stinger around if we try it. Sin pays wages, and the wages of sin is death.
We live in a world where enormous consequences are in force. Where God takes issues seriously, even if we don't. Someone imagined an eighth word from the cross. Jesus says, "If I'm O.K. and you're O.K. then what am I doing here?" The cross shows how badly we need the help we often feel no need of.
Copernicus discovered the earth was revolving around the sun and not vice versa. That was heresy in his day, but he went ahead and published it in a book called "The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies." It came from the printer just in time to be placed in his hands as he lay dying in the month of May, 1543.
Copernicus was a devout Christian. On his tombstone he left the following testimony: "I do not seek a kindness equal to that given Paul; nor do I ask the grace granted to Peter; but that forgiveness which Thou didst give to the robber–that I earnestly pray."
You can say it's hard to be a Christian and be right. But you can also say it's hard not being a Christian. The Bible says "the way of the transgressor is hard."
It's hard to face the problems of life alone. It's hard to live without prayer and the fellowship of praying people. It's hard to lie down at night without assurance of salvation. It's hard feeling guilty and unforgiven of your sins. It's hard being around others who do have faith and feeling the inadequacy of your own. It's hard.
Fortunately, though, you can re-consider. You don't have to continue on your present course, much as we have the tendency to do that.
In a recent biography of Lyndon Johnson, he's quoted about his actions in the Vietnam War. He says, "I never felt I had the luxury of re-examining my basic assumptions. Once the decision to commit military force was made, all our energies were turned to vindicating that choice and finding a way somehow to make it work."
You see there how situations tend to lock us in. To rob us of options and leave us enslaved. But we must always resist that tendency. For we can change. Those reaping the wages of sin can turn around and accept the gift of God, which is eternal life.
In a highland village was a shepherd and his little daughter who loved him. She followed him over the moors as he tended the sheep. Most of all she liked to hear him call the sheep. His voice was clear and free in the mountain air.
The little girl grew up to become a beautiful young woman. She went off to Glasgow to take a job. At first she wrote her father often, but then less and less. Finally the letters stopped.
Rumors spread that his girl had changed her way of life. In fact, a lad from the village was in the city one day and saw her. He tried to speak with her, but she pretended not to know him. And he came home and told her father.
The old shepherd gathered some things together and headed for the city. He took his shepherd's staff and walked the streets. He looked for days, in vain and with a heavy heart.
Then he remembered his shepherd's call. He went back to the streets and called like he used to for the sheep. And the girl was sitting in a room in a run-down part of town when she heard it.
It was unmistakable. It was her father's voice, and he was calling her. And whatever might have kept her there was nothing beside the urge to follow that voice.
"Come home. Come home.
Ye who are weary, come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling.
Calling, O Sinner, come home."
AROUSED BY WAY OF REMINDER
2 Peter 1:2-15
May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall; so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Therefore I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to arouse you by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. And I will see to it that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (2 Peter 1:2-15)
"I'm glad you reminded me of that." "Thanks for reminding me of that." "Would you please remember to remind me to do that?" "Don't forget to remind me, now."
If you're like me, you're a person who needs reminders. I need them from other people, and I need them from myself. I make notes to myself to remind me of things. Sometimes I make notes to remind me to look at the notes I've forgotten to look at!
In our text this morning, Peter says "I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them . . .. I think it right . . . to arouse you by way of reminder."
Arouse. Do you like that word "arouse"? Probably not, because the word is suspicious the way we usually hear it. "He was really aroused this morning." To hear that makes us nervous. But "arouse" can be a good word. People can be aroused for God who were lazy and complacent, and that, of course, is what Peter means to do.
He says "I intend to remind you of these things, though you know them." It isn't what we don't know and need to learn, it's what we do know and are neglecting that may hurt us the most. As if our biggest need in going to church isn't to be informed, it's to be reminded. It's to find a note on the bathroom mirror that says act like a Christian today. We knew to do that, but were about to forget. We were about to play the devil.
Peter returns to this theme just two chapters later. "This is now the second letter that I have written to you, beloved, and in both of them I have aroused your sincere mind by way of reminder; that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles." (2 Peter 3:1-2)
Aroused by way of reminder. Aroused to act a different way. Like the old slave's prayer that Martin Luther King used to quote: "O Lord, I ain't what I ought to be and I ain't what I'm gonna be, but thanks be to You, I ain't what I used to be."
Someone called President Theodore Roosevelt a great man in his presence, and he turned and said: "No, Teddy Roosevelt is simply a plain, ordinary man. But highly motivated." Highly motivated.
Two years ago on a lovely spring day the senior adults had a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield. Down past Little Roundtop our guide told a story I still remember. That a company of soldiers there ran out of ammunition. The enemy they were facing expected them to retreat. But, instead, their leader ordered them to fix bayonets and charge. Those soldiers did, and it so surprised the enemy they turned and ran! The guide told us that classes of West Point students are brought there in busses and told that story to illustrate what discipline and motivation can accomplish.
We have resources within us that amount to much. If only they can be aroused. If only we can be reminded by some one or some thing and moved to action.
A few Sundays ago I mentioned the day of my conversion in 1954. That made some of you think back to an experience of your own. Some did that for the first time in a long time, and came and told me about it. So you see how we have this need of reminders.
Paul wrote to the Romans and said, "I myself am satisfied about you, my brethren, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God. (Romans 15:14-15)
As he sometimes does, Paul seems to speak out of both sides of his mouth there. He says he's satisfied with them, then turns right around and says they need some bold reminders. Maybe it's like the young man who came up to Ghandi and said, "You have no integrity! Last week I heard you say one thing. Today you are saying something different. How do you justify such vaccillation?" And the great man answered, "It is simple, my son. I have learned something since last week."
Well, what reminders do you need? What reminders would arouse you to greater devotion in the service of Christ? What ones could make you a personal witness for him? or cause you to give more than you pledged to his work this year? What remembrance might bring you out for evening worship tonight at seven thirty?
"Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." You remember that, don't you? Could be that you need to think about it some more. That Christ loved you and gave himself that you might have life. Unworthy as you were–unthankful and unholy–he did that. He saw in you a potential for goodness. And how have you done about living up to that potential?
It often goes like this. You get convicted of your need of God. You become eager and earnest. You have an experience of salvation, and for a while there's nothing you wouldn't do to carry out the will of God. But then later you notice how other Christians don't seem so serious and dedicated. One wishes you could influence them, but what happens is–they influence you. And you slack off. And maybe the first time you realize this has happened is when you see someone else who's young and eager in the faith. And you say to yourself, "Why, that's the way I used to be." Used to be.
The Lord's Supper can be a reminder. It should be. The bread is his body which was broken for us, and the wine is his blood which was shed for us. And we eat the bread and drink of the cup until he comes again. So the supper is a reminder of what has happened and what is going to happen.
Diane and I went to the Christmas concert of the Washington Choral Arts Society. There was a featured work on the program, and after it was over and people were still clapping, the conductor turned around and motioned to someone in the audience to come up on the stage. And the man stood and started down the aisle. And then people began clapping even more, because they realized who this was. This was the person who had written that.
When the author appears onstage, you know the play is over. And some day, some time, when enough has been said and enough has been done, the Author of Life will appear again on the stage of human history. The one to whom everything is owed. The one to whom all of us shall give account. Be reminded of that. Be reminded.
"Reveal Thy presence now, O Lord,
As in the upper room of old;
Break Thou our bread, grace Thou our board,
And keep our hearts from growing cold."
So Jesus again said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:7-10)
There are four-door cars, and there are four-door churches. I used to pastor one. Up there on the hill with parking in front, the out-house to the side, and the graveyard out back. The doors came right in to the auditorium with no halls or vestibules. And one was there, two were back there, and the fourth one over there.
If something made you mad it was easy to get out. If you were out and wanted in, it was easy to do that. The two bad things were the wind that blew through there when too many doors were opened at once. And that the preachers never knew where to stand at the end of the service!
Doors. Doors are important. They open, they shut, let some in and keep some out. Doors make statements. I'm a private sort of person who shuts the door a lot. But I had a preacher friend who was just the opposite. His trademark was that the door of his office was always open. Always. For about 25 years at the Red Bank Baptist Church in Chattanooga, that's the way it was. And people liked it.
Well, doors are symbolic in scripture too. They symbolize the call of salvation. Listen: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:20)
How do you feel when there's a knock at the door and you have no idea who it might be? Do you dread to answer it? Or are you glad that someone has come to see you, and you can't wait to open up that door and see who it is?!
Christ knocks at the door of people's hearts. He wants them to know his love, and that's good, that's exciting. But he also wants them to change the way they live. He even has demands to make. So it's always a good news/bad news thing. That is, there's the talk of a crown, but there's also talk of a cross.
Doors become the symbol of opportunity gained, or opportunity lost. Doors that used to be open and inviting can get closed and become forbidding.
Jesus told a parable which I call the Parable of the Silly Girls. It went like this: "Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, `Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, `Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.' And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, `Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, `Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." (Matthew 25:1-13)
Back at seminary, we used to have these what-are-you-going-to-do-with-your-life deals. And speakers would come in and speak and leave their literature. Campus ministry was attractive in those days. And there was a lot of emphasis on missions. And teaching had a lot of attraction. And also there was always a guy there in uniform to represent the military chaplaincy.
That never had much appeal for me, but I could have done it if I'd wanted to. Could have. Not now, though. I'm past the age. Considerably past it. A door that used to be wide open there in front of me is now shut tight forever. And it doesn't just happen to silly girls, it happens all the time. "Choose you this day," and we do. And actions have consequences.
A closed door can be the symbol of our regret and despair, but an open door can be the symbol of our opportunity. The Lord of the church had this message for one in Ephesis:
"I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut; I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name." (Revelation 3:8)
Now if you're really serious about serving Jesus Christ, it's nice to be told that there's an open door in front of you and no one will allowed to shut it.
Paul came to Troas on one of his missionary journeys. And this is how he describes it: "When I came to Tro'as to preach the gospel of Christ, a door was opened for me in the Lord." (2 Corinthians 2:12)
So there are doors that open to what we want for ourselves, and there are some that open to what we want for others. Doors of service.
This week I gave 25 of your benevolent dollars to a young man from Ohio who came here to find work because he said there isn't any where he's from. He seemed nice enough. The shelters have been full at night and he's been sleeping in the woods. Doesn't seem to mind. He has a new job with Giant Food making $6.00 an hour. He showed me his card. And Friday was his first payday in this new land of opportunity he's come to from Ohio.
I wish him well in this new year. I'm sure you do. We can all use a nice turn of events. So be on the lookout. It may be sooner than you think.
THE DYNAMITE OF GOD
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.
You people are really dear to me. Not just as friends and supporters. Most people have those. But it's the faith you have in Christ, and I have in Christ, that makes our fellowship a special thing. And it is special.
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God's will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.
You do get anxious for things you may at last succeed in. Things you've wanted for a long time, and prayed about for a long time. What I've wanted is to come to Rome and see you people and worship our Lord together.
For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.
I know that sounds confused. I was confused. At first I was talking like a preacher talks, as if everything depends on me. But it doesn't. I have as much to learn from you as you do from me. We're all in this together. God gives us all our own gifts and our own ministry.
I want you to know, brethren, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish: so I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
Greeks and barbarians don't have anything to do with one another, right? Greeks despise barbarians, and the feeling, I'm sure, is mutual. Never the twain shall meet. Except that they ought to meet. And in Christ they can meet. In Christ all people can meet together and become one in him. That's my vision, and the best of all places to start would be there in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
I hate being ashamed of something, don't you? Having something you must keep a secret, or try to keep a secret. Well the gospel should be no secret. Woe be to us if we treat it like a secret. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I'm the chief. And I must make sure I tell others that, as many as I possibly can.
It's the way of sermons to start slowly and build up in momentum. Our friend Dr. James Dunn preached in Greenville on Friday evening. He had an audience that was large, live, and eager. He began with what he called a sociological analysis of contemporary Baptist institutions.
It was incisive and interesting. He'd written a manuscript and followed it word-for-word. It was a message to make you think, and we did. That lasted for most of the time.
But Dunn knew, and I knew Dunn knew, that a sociological analysis ought not to end as that. Not there, with that audience, on that night. And so, when the last word had been read from the last page, he reached up with both hands and thoughtfully removed his eyeglasses. He folded those glasses, left to right, and then right to left, and deposited them in his coat pocket. And I said to myself, "Oh boy! Watch out!"
Watch out, because all heaven is about to break loose! Which it did for about five minutes there.
Now if you examine the first chapter of Romans you see that Paul begins in a low key. He begins by making contact with his audience, by creating a setting, by getting their interest and attention. But around the sixteenth verse you sense a shift of gear. It's still the first of the book, but the author is sounding its theme.
The Gospel (Good News)
is the power of God
(you could translate it "dynamite")
to all who have faith.
Gospel is the good news that God sent his son to be the savior of the world. And Paul says that's the power of God in our world today. That message, that witness, that testimony. That's what the power of God resides in.
Of course, it's also the wisdom of God. And it's the love and mercy of God shown. And it reveals God as he is. And a lot of other things. But most of all, this Gospel is the power of God. It's what he depends on to get things done.
Now let me ask, what does a human being's power consist of? Yours or mine or anyone else's? For some people, it's the power of money. For some it's physical strength, or perhaps good looks. For some it's cleverness or diligence or leadership ability. Power.
Now let me ask, how do most people imagine the power of God? Don't a lot of them think it's the power of threat? the power of an earthquake? or the power of hell or of death. Don't most of them think that his power is like ours except magnified to a greater degree?
No, says Paul, it isn't that way. The power of God in the world rests in the good news about Jesus Christ. He does have other power, of course, but this is what he chooses to depend on. And depending on it means he depends on us, for how are they to hear the news unless we're faithful in telling the news. If the power of God in the world is news, then the working of that power depends on those who spread the news.
Chanticleer was a proud rooster who always crowed at sunrise. He believed he brought the dawn and so did others. For as long as anyone could remember this had been so. He was the maker of the sunrise.
But one morning Chanticleer slept late and when he got up the sun had risen without him. He was amazed and also embarrassed. Now all the others in the barnyard would know that he really didn't bring the dawn. Something else brought the dawn.
He reflected on his situation, determined to salvage something. Finally he announced: "If by my crowing I cannot bring the dawn, then by my crowing I will celebrate its coming." And he did that and did it well.
The gospel isn't ours, we're only its stewards. But we celebrate its coming, and we announce it to others. We testify to its power to save and bless.
Even here at this table where the news is told.
IN THE FULNESS OF TIME
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:3-10)
Sometimes a term gets written bold in our daily consciousness. When my father died in Tennessee, Diane and I spent time in the home of Dr. and Mrs. Arthur Bushing–Art and Dottie. Art has just gotten a computer and was full of questions. Since we were his guests, I was delighted to help.
Early in our visit, I used a term that struck Art's fancy. He'd shown me how he was trying to do something or other and asked me was that right. Well, it was right in the sense that washing dishes in the bath tub is right. You could do it that way, but it's not the best way.
I called it an "inelegant solution." Well that became Art's favorite term for the next week. "Inelegant solution." He used it whenever it fit the occasion, and a few times when it didn't. He liked to joke about it, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear him still using it.
Well, the Bible has terms like that. Terms that writers use with joy and gusto. Terms that pack punch. That often are reserved for the holiest of occasions.
Listen: "He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell." (Colossians 1:18-19)
Listen again: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.. . . And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. (John 1:14-16)
Fulness. You find it in the Old Testament too. "The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein." (Psalms 24:1) "Thou dost show me the path of life; in thy presence there is fulness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore." (Psalms 16:11)
It became a favorite of Paul's. He tells the church at Rome: "I know that when I come to you I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of Christ." He prays that "Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.
But the one for us to ponder today is in Ephesians, where he speaks of salvation brought through the coming of Jesus Christ. And he calls it "a plan for the fulness of time."
Now, some people like to think about things that are hard to think about, and others don't like to think about things that are hard to think about. Whichever way you are, this theology of Paul's is surely in the heavy category.
Someone complained to Carlyle Marney that his latest book was hard to read. And his reply was, it was hard to write too! We ought not to avoid everything that's hard. So what, then, can we make of this "fulness of time" as it speaks of the coming of Jesus?
I think it means something like this. Imagine all the time there is. All that's happened before us, and all that will happen after us. Stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and imagine all the time it took to make that there. Then imagine that far into the future if you can. And then believe that the most important thing ever to happen in all that time was Jesus of Nazareth!
He is sum and substance of God's purpose for all that ocean of years. A carpenter in a corner of a now-vanished empire. Nailed to a criminal's cross after a short life. And yet he's the hope of all time. He's how you figure out what life is all about. He's how you know God and find salvation.
As Pascal wrote: "The God of Christians is a God of love and consolation, a God who fills the souls and hearts of his own, a God who makes them feel their inward wretchedness, and his infinite mercy, who unites himself to their inmost spirit, filling it with humility and joy, with confidence and love, rendering them incapable of any end other than himself."
I read a story about a millionaire. He was interviewed, and they asked him what was the happiest time of his life. The answer was one you'd never guess.
The happiest time in his life was three weeks he lay in a hospital sick with typhoid fever. What on earth did he mean?
He explained that the hospital was crowded, and many tempers were short, including his. But there was this nurse there who just amazed him. She was overworked and tired, but she did everything with grace. A selfless person. She never came in the room without bringing love and peace. So unlike all the other people he knew. It was like heaven, he said.
Jesus was like that. Jesus helps people be like that. Jesus made the world a better place. Jesus helps people make the world a better place. Whatever the problem, he's the answer to it.
If you call yourself his follower, he can help you be a better one. If you aren't, you can become one by accepting his salvation.
Either way, there's always more to learn of Jesus Christ. As long as there's time.
GRACE UNDER PRESSURE
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I am not speaking of you all; I know whom I have chosen; it is that the scripture may be fulfilled, `He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.' I tell you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me." When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, "Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me." The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, "Tell us who it is of whom he speaks." So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, "Lord, who is it?" Jesus answered, "It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it." So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, "What you are going to do, do quickly." Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the feast"; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night. (John 13:12-30)
It was Thursday. The loud reception of Palm Sunday had died away now. The branches they stripped from trees to wave had begun to turn brown. Those coats they threw down in the road in their wild excitement had long since been picked up and dusted off to wear again. It was oddly quiet. There was nothing of Palm Sunday left and it seemed so strange as they thought back on it.
You know how you do something on impulse and then find it odd or even funny that you did it? You think back and ask yourself if you really did or said a thing like that? This is how last Sunday seemed on Thursday evening.
Somewhere behind closed doors was a high-level meeting to discuss what to do with Jesus of Nazareth. He was a threat to the religious establishment. All sides could agree on that. A loose cannon rolling on the deck that might run over someone. So a group of the someones had come together to decide on what to do.
There seemed to be some reason against any idea they came up with. They couldn't get rid of him on a holy day like the Passover. They couldn't do it without approval from the Romans. They couldn't do it in a way that provoked sympathy from the crowds. It had to be done quietly. Like an inside job.
And low and behold, there was a knock at the door. Like an answer to prayer. Low and behold, here was a grim-faced and nervous man who was one of his very disciples. They never knew his motives, but they were clear about his intention. He thought Jesus must be gotten rid of.
So they paid him money, and a deal was made. Whispered information was exchanged. Money for information. It still goes on, right? On Wall Street, at the Pentagon, where someone needs a witness who'll say the right thing, where odds are made on sporting events, and on you could go. Money for information.
Judas left the information and took the money. Then he returned to the meeting of the Twelve as if nothing had happened. Like walking into church being lately come from a place we don't talk about in church. He kept thinking of any way they might find out, and he kept assuring himself that, no, there wasn't. He was safe with his secret.
Imagine him, then, when the Master himself got a basin of water and a towel and began to go around that circle washing feet. A servant usually did this, but tonight it was do-it-yourself. And Jesus was taking the place of the servant.
Imagine this, that Jesus will come there and bend before the man who'd just betrayed him. Imagine this, that he'll take his feet and wash off the very dust of that treacherous journey. What do you think while a thing like that happens?
And there was other silence in the room that evening. For certain others there had come lately from an argument over which was the greatest. Which of them should sit in the seat of honor and be served by others. And here before their very eyes is their leader taking the lowest place of all. Imagine their feelings as water dripped into the bowl. The only sound you could hear in the room.
Afterward, at supper, Jesus said that someone would betray him. And there were hasty glances all around the room. And the Bible says they all were saying to themselves, "Is it I?" And no one knew.
And then he took a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and passed them around. These were his body and his blood, he said. His body broken, his blood to be shed. Eat and drink these in rememberance of him. It was almost over with him.
He knew he was being done in. He knew he was being lied to. He knew about Judas, and he knew about their argument, and he knew that as soon as trouble came they'd all be gone into hiding.
There was much to scold about, be mad about, be discouraged about. There was everything to feel sorry for himself about, to pout and cry about, to be hostile about.
But instead–instead of any of that–he washed them, and he fed them.
Most people respond to the mis-behavior of others with threat and hostility. Jesus responded with love and affection. He was despised and afflicted by men, yet he opened not his mouth. He was led as a sheep to his sheerers. Grace under pressure.
Someone will pull out a sword that night and strike a clumsy blow in his defense. And he'll say he needs no such defense from anyone. Put up your sword, he'll say. If I did things with swords, I wouldn't need yours. Those who take up swords just get others to do the same and then a lot of folk get killed. Swords aren't the answer.
And friends, if swords aren't the answer, then guns aren't the answer either. Or planes or ships or bigger bombs. Or soldiers or policemen or courts or prisons. Or any other form of force or violence.
Jesus is the answer. Or perhaps I should say the love of Jesus. Or perhaps I should say the love of Jesus in us. That's the answer.
There are a lot of bad people in this world. A lot I'm afraid of. And I know we have to restrain those folk, and I sure am in favor of that. But you don't change people by restraint. You change people by love.
You don't beat it out of him–you love it out of him. That's what Jesus did. That's why he went to the Cross. That's why he refused an army of angels.
And he says to us, his followers:
By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love.
There can never be too much.
HE IS WITH US
There was a simple, folksy motto that used to hang in homes. People cut it out of magazines and framed it in dime-store frames. Sometimes ladies even crocheted it.
Christ is the Head of this home, the unseen Guest at every meal.
At times, it was no more than a slogan, of course. A cliche like the hugely impressive Bible always displayed but never read. A feeble purchase of heavenly insurance.
But other times it was devout and sincere and meant much. Put there by people who loved God and loved the Bible. Who believed the words of Christ in Matthew 18: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." And then a few chapters later his saying, "I am with you always, to the end of the age."
There are options about the presence of Christ. There are three possibilities.
(1) He can not be with us, and we travel the road of life alone.
Or (2) he can be with us, and we aren't aware of it. Like those disciples on the road to Emmaus. This stranger joined them and walked with them, but only later did they know him as the risen Lord. And we can have the same problem. He can be at our sides and we keep asking where is he? He can be our ever-present help in time of trouble and we act as though we have no help at all.
Or (3) he can be with us, and we know it, and feel assured by his presence.
Is there a greater promise than to say he is with us always? Always! Can I assure my children and grandchildren that I'll be with them always? My own father never gave me that assurance. In fact, he pointed out on several occasions that he wouldn't be with me always, and we discussed together what that meant. All of us need to have those discussions.
Someone is lonely, or confused, or shocked, and needs a friend. I go. My presence seems to help. Time passes. It's getting late. I sneak a look at my watch and think of how to make a proper exit. I'm one limited, fallible person with other things to do. Who will walk out the door in just a minute now. Yes, it may be good of me to have come, but, no, there's no assurance that I'll be with you always. I'm leaving.
How can Jesus say he is with us always? He doesn't mean in bodily presence, obviously. What does he mean?
He explained this to the disciples in John's Gospel. He said he wouldn't leave them comfortless and when he went away would send another Comforter to take his place. The absence of his earthly presence would be filled by the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. That's how he's with us always.
I think this falls in the category of things that have to be experienced or they always seem like nonsense. You have to experience the Holy Spirit, in you or at least in someone close. You have to see demonstrated that the power and presence of Christ does things in people's lives that are real and even miraculous.
People quit doing things that needed to be quit, or start doing things that needed starting. Which they wouldn't have quit or started under any other influence. Attitudes are changed, sacrifices made, victories gained where defeat had always ruled before.
In Paris in 1666 there lived a Carmelite monk known simply as Brother Lawrence. He spent most of his life working in the kitchen of the monastery. But his spirituality so impressed the people who knew him that they made a book about him called The Practice of the Presence of God.
"A wholly consecrated man, he lived his life as though he were a singing pilgrim on a march, as happy in serving his fellow monks and brothers from the monastery kitchen as in serving God in the vigil of prayer and penance. He died at eighty years of age, full of love and years and honored by all who knew him . . .." (p. 9)
It was said "that his prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but divine love; and that when the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with God, praising and blessing Him with all his might, so that he passed his life in continual joy . . .." (p. 24)
Brother Lawrence wrote this in a letter to a friend:
"He requires no great matters of us: a little remembrance of Him from time to time; a little adoration; sometimes to pray for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, and sometimes to return Him thanks for the favors He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles, and to console yourself with him the oftenest you can. Lift up your heart to Him, sometimes even at your meals, and when you are in company; the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him. You need not cry very loud; He is nearer to us than we are aware of." (p. 48)
KINDNESS AND LOVE AT THEIR APPEARING
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)
You may not know the name William Barclay, but most preachers do. Barclay wrote a seventeen-volume commentary on the New Testament that's simple, scholarly, reliable, and full of things you can use in preaching and teaching. It has been called the "Saturday night special." If you don't know what that means, you don't need to!
My friend Clyde Francisco said many times that he'd like to write the Old Testament equivalent of Barclay's commentary. He spoke of doing that when he retired. Too bad he couldn't.
The goal of Barclay's writing was to help people know Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly. And he does that for thousands of pages through every chapter and verse of the 27 New Testament books.
I think that lends a lot of credability to a statement Barclay made about our text for this morning. He said "there is perhaps no passage in the New Testament which more summarily, and yet fully, sets out the work of Christ among men than this passage." O.K.? Then it sounds like something we ought to take a long look at.
Hear it once again: "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life."
It's not the language of the street, is it? I mean, it has an "other-worldly" sound. "Washing of regeneration"? Would you go up to someone and ask if he'd like some "washing of regeneration"? Would he know what you meant?
Modern people do think about their salvation, but they think in earthly terms. Their hope is in doctors and medicine. Their security is federally insured by FDIC. The salvation of the nation is its army and weapons. Isn't that what people think? Isn't that what they really trust in?
Their hope is a good education for their children, in vitamins they take, and the exercise program they follow. They're intent on making the most of this life–this one. Not in hoping for something by-and-by.
God is not their refuge and strength. If you have trouble, you call the police. If you need money, you sit down with your banker. If you're sick you put your trust in the hospital. If you're depressed, you call the psychiatrist. If you find yourself lonely, you turn to an entertainer.
So it may be some problem to get another point across, but it needs to be done. All earthly hope is failing hope. All earthly solutions are temporary. It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment. We need the longer look of a passage like this one in Titus.
You find there the answers to four great questions:
What shape are we in?
What hope have we?
Does salvation work?
Where are we headed?
They come in that order and we'll look at them in that order. First, the shape we're in. "We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another."
I think it's important to know that's about the universal predicament of people. It cuts across all lines of culture or clan. People in urban ghettos pass their days in malice and envy, and so do those in luxurious surroundings. So do people in quiet farming villages, and in foreign countries. Hating and being hated is how we all end up without some conscious change.
Whitefield saw a criminal on his way to the gallows and made his famous remark, "there but for the grace of God go I." And he was right, of course. And the hope of such a statement is for people to see and admit the desperateness of their situation. To say:
I am foolish, I am disobedient, I've been led astray. I'm a slave to various passions and pleasures. I am passing my days in malice and envy. I am hated by others and hating them.
You see, it's one thing to admit the world's in bad shape. It's another to admit you're in the same boat! But it's the first step, and without it you never take another.
The second question, What hope have we? Is there a way out of our mess or not? Can anything save us from it, and if so, what?
Paul's answer is . . . the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior. That's our first, last, and only hope. God's kindness and God's love. And those, Paul says, have "appeared" to us in Jesus Christ.
Pope John Paul I published an interesting collection of letters. Not the kind you write and mail to someone, but the kind that make a statement. He had one addressed to Jesus that included this:
"You are that good father who, at the return of the Prodigal Son, flings his arms around him in a long embrace. A scene to be found on every page of the Gospel. In fact, you approach sinners, men and women, you eat at their table. You invite yourself, if they do not dare invite you. You really seem–this is my impression–to be more concerned with the suffering that sin produces in the sinners than with the offense against God. Instilling the hope of pardon, you seem to say: 'You cannot even imagine the joy your conversion gives me.'"
So our hope is the loving kindness of God we know in Jesus Christ. But how does hope become reality? How does Jesus make a difference in people's lives? How does salvation work?
Before he tells us how it works, Paul tells us how it doesn't work. It isn't "because of deeds done by us in righteousness." In other words, we can't and don't save ourselves. The merit that earns salvation is the merit of Christ. All of our righteousness is as filthy rags.
Ever seen any filthy rags? Yucky, smelly, oozing, rotting, filthy rags. How much would you give for a whole big pile?
Well that's what human effort is worth by itself, according to the Bible. So by grace are we saved, through faith, and than not of ourselves–it is the gift of God. By the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.
Washing . . . and renewal. To be cleansed and made new again. Though your sins be as scarlet, they can be white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they can be as wool.
That happens in the present, but what about the future? Where are we headed? What have we to look forward to?
Paul says we're heirs. We're "heirs in hope of eternal life."
When billionaire Howard Hughes died, a lot of people claimed to be his heir. They wrote wills disguised as his, naming themselves as beneficiaries. They seemed to feel that the greatest thing in the world to be was an heir of Howard Hughes. Huh!
But the scripture points to something far better than that. The scripture says you can be an heir of God! You can be a child of his with an inheritance he promises! Listen: "Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, the things that God hath prepared for those that love him."
That's the best thing there is. It's the only thing.
LOVING GOD WITH YOUR ALL–THREE
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live." But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, `Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:25-37 RSV)
Now this is my third sermon on the same passage. But if you've been following and comparing, you may have noticed that it's not exactly the same passage. I've read it from Mark and Matthew and now Luke, and there are differences. I'd like for us to notice what those are, and what they say about the nature of holy scripture.
Mark and Luke both have Jesus saying to love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. Matthew has heart and mind and soul, but leaves out strength. Mark has a devout scribe asking Jesus the question. Matthew and Luke have it asked by a lawyer whose motive is to trap Jesus if he can. Only Luke has the follow-up question, "Who is my neighbor?" Only Luke gives the story of the Good Samaritan as the Lord's reply. Jesus tells the questioning scribe in Mark that he's close to the kingdom. But in Matthew and Luke, the smart-aleck lawyer is far from it.
Now which way did it really happen? How do you decide? Or do you want to construct some far-fetched theory that it really happened three different times and each gospel is right on the money? When it's pretty obvious that these are three accounts of the same incident, each with minor variations.
This is not what my sermon is about–it's just something you get with it. And this isn't what the Bible is about–but it's something you get with it. And I think it's important that you not be disturbed or confused or have your faith threatened by difficulties like these. The message of faith we have in the Bible is inspired and fully sufficient for our needs. But not the way every I is dotted and every T is crossed. I think you have to make that distinction, and these passages are as good an example as any.
Now . . . the thing to focus on is what it means to love God with your all. What it means as we relate to the church, and what it means through the days of the week. What it will mean as we stand before him one day and give account for the life we lived. What it means as we decide what portion of time, money, and energy we spend on things that are more than selfish. What sacrifices we make.
That's why Luke used a story. He wanted us to get the point. He knew how we like to talk in abstract terms and never get around to practicing faith in actual situations. We raise our hands and say "yes, of course we love God" and then turn right around and deny it with the choices we make.
We go hurrying down some road, already late for an appointment. We're not having a good day at all. We've had enough problems, and don't need another. Yes, we do notice someone there beside the road who could use help, but it won't be from us. We have other things. The decision is made already. We won't give it another thought.
And if someone stopped us there and said "but don't you love God?" we'd have no time for him either. Of course we love God. Why, we go to church almost every Sunday. People who preach to others should mind their own business. Huh!
Two times Luke paints this picture. There on the Jericho road. One was a priest, and the other a levite. Men who surely loved God with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. But they passed on by and never stopped to help the fallen traveler who lay beside the road.
What kind of sermon would it take to change that? What kind of words would have people calling the nominating committee and demanding jobs to do? Instead of turning aside the calls they do get by claiming to be "too busy." The priest and levite both claimed to be too busy.
Luke's sermon to us was the next person down the road. A good Samaritan. He came, he saw, and he helped. He got down in the road beside a beaten man and did what he could. Doing what doctoring he was able to. He put the man on his own animal and took him to an inn. Then gave the innkeeper money and promised more if needed.
Did he have to do this? You might say no, but he might say yes. He was constrained by love, the most constraining thing there is. He was constrained to costly action, not to easy words. He settled for no well-wishing or promise of prayers. He rolled up his sleeves and dirtied his hands. He showed how love is no sentiment, but a commitment.
Malcolm Muggeridge writes about a visit to Mother Teresa's hospital. Bodies were all over the place. One man had his throat cut from ear to ear. "That was it," he said. "That was too much. I had to leave. I went back to my room, to my cool drink and my solitude and my typewriter. Then I left Calcutta. Sister Teresa stayed. She's still there."
He added: "That's the difference. Love hangs in there. Love sticks. Love stays and struggles with the ills and ailments and heartaches and the dying destitutes of the human race."
Love hangs in there. If you love God with your all he can give you some miserable, frustrating, discouraging task and you'll stay at it. Because you have an inner resource. You don't need success or fame or pats on the back to keep you going. If you were William Cary you could work in India for years without a single convert.
There's a big difference when you do things for your personal success and when you do them for the Lord. With the Lord you leave the success to him. You do what he wants you to, and that's enough. Why, you could even suffer for righteousness' sake and be blessed. You concentrate on being faithful and leave the rest to him.
The southern tip of Africa was always a treacherous place to sail a ship, especially in the old days. It was originally known as the Cape of Storms, and rightly so. But King John II of Portugal wanted to encourage travel around the cape. He saw it as the gateway to India. So he re-named the place. He called it the Cape of Good Hope, which it has been ever since.
Now that didn't change the situation there, of course. But it's often your attitude about the situation that matters most. More than the situation itself. Some people can put a gloomy face on the brightest of days. While others can smile and be glad in the Lord no matter what the darkness. Love makes the difference.
Must we be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize, and sailed through bloody seas? Sure, we must fight if we would win, increase our courage Lord. We'll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by your word!
What does it mean to love God with all your heart and soul? I suppose we can use the analogy of human love. Where you can't get someone off your mind. Where you thrill to their presence, and feel lost in their absence. Where no present you can buy is ever good enough. Where your love and devotion can make an absolute fool of you, and you don't even notice! Is that the way you love God?
What does it mean to love him with all your mind? Awhile ago when I was explaining about the differences in those passages of scripture, were you interested? I know that wasn't inspiring, and I wouldn't say it was practical. But if you love the Lord with all your mind, it makes you be a student. You want to read and listen and discuss. We do a lot of that on Wednesday evenings at seven o'clock, and we'd love to have you join us.
What does it mean to love the Lord with all your strength? That's what the Good Samaritan did, wasn't it? He used his time, his strong back, his means of transportation, and the money in his pocket. In other words, he used what powers he possessed.
We should take stock of those powers. We have time and talents–how can we use them to show our love for God? We have property. We have money in our pockets. We have influence over other people that's surely a part of our strength. We have abilities, training, gifts. And to love the lord with all your strength means putting him first in the use of those resources.
There was a lad in Pennsylvania whose daddy was a coal miner. One day he met him at work. Met him as he came up out of the mine, as black and dirty as could be. Coughing the dust out of his lungs. He had a hard time telling who his daddy was, he looked so much like all the others.
That was a decisive moment. As he saw that, the boy made a decision and a commitment. He promised himself that he would get his father and mother out of that place. And he would never raise his sons to do that, or do it himself. And the way he knew to do it was play football.
He played it with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. He won the Heisman Trophy and became a pro. And we don't like him much around here, because he's beaten us so often. But you know he can run, and now you know what makes him run. Tony Dorsett.
What makes us run? What makes us run in the struggle that matters most? What can motivate us to go all out for God?
Love can, and has. And it will, or would.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode'mus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him." Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicode'mus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.' The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:1-8)
When things get old, they sometimes lose something. They don't look like they used to, they don't function the same. They show their age.
Some of my father's possessions he gave me while he was living. Others he didn't. They were among the stuff the nursing home said remove from their premises the day after the funeral. One was the scrapbook my brothers kept during World War II.
The scrapbook itself was inexpensive to begin with. In it they pasted clippings from newspapers that told of battles won or lost, ships sunk, speeches by Hitler, replies made by Roosevelt, and the general ebb and flow of the war as reported in the press.
That scrapbook is nearly 50 years old now. Needless to say, it isn't what is used to be. You handle it as delecately as you can, but still the pages come apart. Several times I've said I should copy it onto new paper and then let it alone. Copied on good paper, it could have a new life. Be strong again and last another 50 years at least. That fading document of the '40's could have a resurrection in the '80's. This, I think, is what Jesus and Nicodemus were discussing.
"How can a man be born when he is old?" How can things change that haven't changed in years? How can we expect more than what's always been before? Is is possible to wipe clean the slate and begin all over again?
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which means he was a fairly rigid man. The Pharisees were the conservatives of their day. Their opponents were the Sadducees, who took a more liberal view of things. The Sadducees welcomed questions, but Pharisees weren't so fond. Questions made them nervous.
They were more inclined to walk over to the temple at the hour of prayer, stand in the holiest place, and thank God they weren't like the average people of earth. They tithed, they gave alms, they certainly were like no tax collectors who had to beg for the mercy of God. No, Pharisees were well off, even with him, they thought.
But Nicodemus had become uncomfortable in that comfortable state. It failed to keep him satisfied. His soul was restless.
And a restless person is a person at risk. He may discover a pearl of great price, or he may give one up and never find another. Dissatisfaction leads to changes for the better, or changes for the worse. And often you don't know which till it's too late to change it.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. By night because the nightime hides things. People do things by night they don't want to do in daylight. They see people at night they don't want to be seen with.
No one knows what other contact Nicodemus had with Jesus, but there surely was some. He was favorably impressed. He calls Jesus "Rabbi," a term of great respect. Calls him a teacher come from God. He mentioned the signs and wonders he'd done. None of this was why he came, but it set a friendly tone for conversation.
Now, one of the fascinating questions was who determined the subject. There with all those nice things said, Jesus proceeds to speak about re-birth. Had Nicodemus come to talk of something else, and got pre-empted? Or did Jesus know that's what he had on his mind in the first place? I happen to think that's the answer.
He says: "Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." He said "one." He didn't say "you." This was a theological conversation. From start to finish it had that tone. Everything in the third person. Jesus wasn't talking about Nicodemus as such, but the needs of mankind in general. This is a conversation in which all of us are included.
We–all of us–must be born anew. Born again. Born a second time, or a third, or no telling how many. We cannot stay as we are. The Spirit of God must re-claim us for him in an act as traumatic and even painful as the birth of a baby into the world.
We sometimes call this "regeneration." It's a radical thing. It's like you have a car with many problems, and there are two alternatives. You can try repairing and replacing things, and hope that holds you for awhile. Or you can send the thing to the crusher and get you a brand-new one. Jesus is talking about changes in our lives that are just that basic.
We get in ruts and need to get out. We form habits that drag us down. We allow sin to gain an upper hand and must do something drastic or lose our own souls. We make resolutions and break them the very same day. We need more than fixing up.
In Graham Greene's novel, The Power and the Glory, the main character a reprobate priest who gets caught in Mexico and condemned to be shot. On the eve of his execution he sits in a cell with a flask of brandy and thinks back over the failure of his life.
"Tears poured down his face," Greene writes. "He was not at the monent afraid of damnation–even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that momnent that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint, and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted–to be a saint."
That's what Jesus and Nicodemus were talking about. How life can end up better than that. But notice how Jesus says you never do it on your own. It won't just happen. You must be born of the spirit, he says. Flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit. Flesh decays, while spirit endures. Flesh needs spirit for its salvation.
The spirit of God that saves us is like a wind that comes. Unannounced, uncontrollably. You don't order the spirit of God, you submit. You say, "Lord, I've made a mess of things–trying to manage this and manage that. You manage it for me if you will." And he does. With men it's impossible, but with God all things are possible. Even that.
Notice how Jesus made it a must. "You must be born anew," he said. You must.
Not long ago I went to the pool to swim. I have a bag I take with all my swim gear in it. I set it down on the bench beside the locker and started getting ready. That goes automatically–the way I put things in the locker, everything. Except something didn't go right that day.
I reached in the bag for my swim suit and none was there. Then I remembered it was hanging at home. But maybe I had an old one in the bag? I went all through the stuff. No, none. What to do now? There I stood.
Well, the Montgomery County Recreation Department has rules about these things, and besides, I'm a modest person! I did do that once by moonlight at Boy Scout Camp, but this was no such place. I was there ready and with all kinds of gear for swimming–but the one absolute essential was missing. So I called myself stupid a couple of times and went home.
I'm illustrating the "must." Life hands us a few situations where it's yes or no and nothing about it to negotiate. You have it or you don't. It's win or lose, and nothing in between.
You must be born anew. You must be born anew. You.
What does this story mean for you? Are you higher in standing with God than Nicodemus was? Sure, you believe in Christ as Nicodemus was only beginning to, but I'll tell you something. Christians can get caught up in the outward form of religion just like the Pharisees did, and be no better off. Be in dire need of new birth, just as they were.
The question to ask is this: is your relationship with God a dynamic thing or a static thing? Moving along or just standing still? Do you know Christ or just know about him? If God were out of your experience the next seven days, would he even be missed? Do you keep trying the same spiritual goals and getting no closer?
Then maybe you need it. You need new birth. You need a prayer like this (and may we all bow our heads):
"Come, Holy Spirit, come:
Come as the wind, and move among us,
Come as the fire, and burn inside us,
Come with healing for our hurts,
and forgiveness for our many sins.
Come as you came to Nicodemus,
now so long ago.
Come and use us up completely in the
service of Jesus Christ.
We pray in his name . . .."
RATHER THAN LIGHT
John 1:9-13, 3:17-21
"The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the word, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." (John 1:9-13)
"For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God." (John 3:17-21)
There are creatures in this world that have no eyes to see any light. They need none, because they live out their lifetimes in places where all is darkness. The depths of a cave, the depths of the earth, the bottom of the seas.
And not every creature that lives in the light can see the light. There is blindness that interferes. There are many, like blind singer Ken Medema, who have to be told about sunsets and rainbows and moonlight on fresh-fallen snow. Blindness.
But then there's another, and more destructive, form of blindness. There's spiritual blindness. There are those who see and enjoy the sunset but refuse to believe in God who created it and them. Who make use of the creation, but give no thanks nor prayer to any Creator. They might see evidence of him if they would, but they don't. Spiritual blindness.
In the Gospel of John, the Christmas story is described this way: "The true light was coming into the world."
Now, if the true light is coming into the world, you'd hope everyone there will see it and be glad. You'd hope for cheers and celebrations and dancing in the streets. You wouldn't think the true light would come into the world and people pay no attention. Surely not.
That can happen, though. It can happen because there's such a thing as spiritual blindness. Where you could see if you wanted, but you don't want to. Where, as John's Gospel put it, "men love darkness rather than light."
Light is revealing. Darkness you can hide in. The light of Jesus shows things for what they are. Ugliness is ugly. Selfishness is selfish. You don't get close to Christ and bring those things with you. They belong to the darkness. Which is why people will prefer to dwell there.
Down south where I came from, I often had an experience that left me with a strange mixture of feelings. It went like this. I'm the preacher, right? I'm the pastor of First Baptist Church in this small town where everyone knows everyone. And I walk in some room–let's say the hardware store–and there's a group of men gathered in a circle. And one sees me coming. And I hear whispers, and then silence as I get closer.
"Hi there, fellows! Nice day, huh? Whatcha' all so quiet about? Doesn't have anything to do with me, does it?"
But I know it does. It may not be right, but when I walked in the room, their conscience walked in too. God walked in. And whatever they were talking or telling was untalkable or untellable any more. And I could protest that I was no burning bush in the desert for which a person should take off his shoes, but no matter. Light had shined in that darkness–God's light.
Now the Bible is realistic about our situation. It observes how we prefer the darkness. We keep finding excuses that we use as reasons for the distance we keep from God. He sent his son to be our savior, but getting serious about that is like making a will. Something to do another day.
It's been 20 years now since a U.S. intelligence ship named the Pueblo was captured and held by North Korea for almost a year. Before that happened, an average of two or three men attended worship services on that ship. There was no chaplain. It was not a ship where God was very popular.
But the capture changed that. Men who had taken God for granted now began to take him seriously. Men who had cared nothing for worship when it was easy began doing it now that it was hard.
The only Bible they had was what they could piece together from memory. But they did that. They searched their souls and pooled the resources of recollection. The put together the Lord's Prayer, the twenty-third Psalm, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, John 3:16, and anything else they could remember.
Do you see? We stay in the shadows all too often. We pay big attention to little things and little attention to big things. But now and then something happens to change that. Now and then it's like those shepherds in their field.
The Lord gets our attention. We see his light. We follow the best hunch we have and meet a miracle face to face.
SALVATION AS FUTURE
Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. (Romans 13:11)
If you have presuppositions, and if you let it, the Bible can be a confusing book.
Where I grew up, Baptists presupposed that salvation was a full and instantaneous transaction. Like collecting your prize money. You walk up to that window and claim what you have coming. In cash, please. They put it in a bag and you walk away with that bag clutched tightly in your hand. Every penny. And by golly it's yours–no if's, and's, or's, or but's.
April 18th, 1954, is when that happened to me. Seventeen years old. Six months away from my first sermon and eight years away from a seminary degree. But I was earnest and eager, ready to change the world. Where Baptists had a motto that year, "A million more in '54." And that's where I took my salvation and headed.
Now, to do some credit to our tradition, I do believe I was as much a child of God then as I am now. But I don't believe my salvation is the same now as then. There's something instantaneous about it, and there's also something progressive about it. As Paul put it in the morning's text, "salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed."
Which means my salvation is different now than in 1954, and if things have worked as they should, I'm nearer to it now than I was then. Meaning my time at the window hasn't arrived as yet. What I've received is a pre-payment or something. I'm a journeying pilgrim, not an arrived one.
Now lest you think we've stumbled onto the only place in scripture where an idea like that is expressed, let me show you some others. First Peter, chapter one, verse three: "We have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time."
Salvation is only ready to be revealed? and the time of it's revealing is the last time? That's what it says. It says
salvation is ready, but we must wait for it now. While we do we are guarded through faith. So what you have there is a mix of things settled and yet unsettled, present but still to come, secure and yet still to be decided.
And just a little further in the same chapter we read: "Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls." Salvation is an outcome which has not yet taken place. Huh!
There's something else in chapter two, verse two: "Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation, for you have tasted the goodness of the Lord." Tasted.
You ever meet these people in the supermarkets who want to give you a taste of something? Just one bitty little bite of this pork sausage on a swiss cheese cracker with some special sauce over it. Just a taste! Whatever those things are, they're always fattening, have you noticed? So I never take that stuff, because I know what a taste of it will result in. I'll buy whole boxes of the stuff and take it home. I'll hide it from Diane and Becky and eat it all myself. "No thank you, Lady, I don't care for any!"
Well, Peter says we taste the goodness of the Lord in order to grow up to salvation. We get the taste first, then we have to do something about it. We take a first bite that makes us want more bites. So much for the idea I've heard expressed that "I did all my church-going when I was a kid."
That person must have got hold of some spoiled stuff. If they'd tasted the real thing, they'd still be wanting more. But now they don't you see. And that says something about the nature of salvation. About it's progressive nature.
Notice how Paul put it in the letter to the Philippians: "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12-13)
There again, you see how salvation is partly of God and partly of man, partly accomplished, and partly to be accomplished. We're told to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Then Paul assures us that God himself is working within us.
What would that be like? Perhaps like a wise and kindly employer who gives a young man his first job. He explains it to him carefully and answers his questions. Then he pats him on the back and says, "You're on your own now, Son. Good luck!"
Is that boy really alone? No. His employer wants him to work as if he is. It's important to do that. He wants to see him self-reliant and self-motivated.
But he plans to keep an eye on that boy. And behind the scenes, he's going to see that others get involved, and the assignments made are proper, and the treatment given is fair. And if worse should come to worse, he'll be ready to step in himself.
We work out our own salvation, but God is always working within the situation. We should work as if all depends on us, and trust as if all depends on him. And know that what we're working toward is the future, not the past.
Let's look at one other scripture, this from Romans eight: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:22-25)
If there's a point to this sermon, I suppose it's that–anticipation. Working in the present, but living toward the future.
As if we were given property by our master, who said take care of it while he's away. He gives it to us, tells us that, and then leaves.
We can think of it is our property. In a sense, it is. It's ours to do with as we please. My car, my money, my house, my kids, my church. We work out our own agenda.
But the thing we must keep in mind is, this is the little picture, not the big picture. These are what the master has given us now, but this is just a start. This is to see how we manage. And one day in the future, he'll be coming back to see how we've done.
That can be a good day, or that can be a bad day. Depending on how we use the present, you see. Depending on how we see the present as contributing to the future. His future, and our future.
Lay not up for yourselves treasure on this earth. Moths eat it, rust corrupts it, thieves break in and steal it. But lay up treasure in heaven. Lay up for the future.
Ask yourself, when you put your head on the pillow at night, what treasure you laid up in heaven that day. What work you did on your salvation? What efforts you put forth that went beyond meeting your own personal needs?
Paul said he didn't consider himself to have arrived at the goal he sought. Instead, he was pressing toward it every day. It was the goal of being obedient to the call of Christ. And he said he put everything behind him in quest of that goal.
To work toward the future. To see it through the eyes of faith. That's the point.
Steinbeck had a lesser-known novel of World War II called The Moon is Down. It has a story from Norway where German troops had occupied a small town. The mayor was an old man named Mr. Olden. A man who loved freedom. He was brought before the colonel as a hostage. He'd be killed if people in the town caused trouble, they said. He was pressed to ask for the town's surrender.
But he will not. He will go to his death instead. And he will say to that colonel: "You see, sir, nothing can change it. You will be destroyed and driven out. The people don't like to be conquered, sir, and they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and free men who win wars. You will find it so, sir."
True salvation can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. It knows that the final word is still waiting to be said.
Like that story of the missionary who arrived back in the states on the same ship as Teddy Roosevelt. And as the missionary carried his bags down the ramp, there was a band and a cheering crowd to meet the President. And not a soul to welcome him.
He was feeling a little sorry for himself, until a voice inside him seemed to say:
"Just remember, my Son, that man is home. But you're not home yet!"
Home coming. What a day that will be!
SOMETHING TO SHOUT ABOUT
And when he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he drew near to Beth'phage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat; untie it and bring it here. If any one asks you, `Why are you untying it?' you shall say this, `The Lord has need of it.'" So those who were sent went away and found it as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, "Why are you untying the colt?" And they said, "The Lord has need of it." And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their garments on the colt they set Jesus upon it. And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road. As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out." (Luke 19:28-40)
However it happens, when life brings us an experience of pure joy, it's a thing to cherish. There's so much fear, so much dread, so much pain and toil and loneliness. There's so much to cry about, feel guilty about, shake your head about.
How often do you get to stand by a road and be so moved you take off your coat and throw it down in someone's path. How often will you feel that hollering at the top of your lungs isn't enough? that you must have something to wave in the air along with it.
How often will your heart beat BLESSED . . . BLESSED IS THE KING . . . BLESSED IS THE KING WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD? how often? How often will you let go the reins of your emotion enough to feel like that and act like that?
Someone is bound not to like it if you do. Nothing worse than some over-excited people around when you want peace and quiet. Nothing worse than someone around who takes his
religion more seriously than you do. Nothing worse than watching a parade you have no sympathy for. So they complain to the leader of the band that he should stop all this commotion. And he says he couldn't if he tried!
If these were silent the very stones would cry out.
Ever heard a stone cry out? Stones don't cry out, we say. But Jesus is illustrating how powerful some joys can be. How people with hearts like stone can shout aloud and be glad aloud. How people who would shut others up may join their commotion.
I come to this road every year. I have for 33 years now. And always I'm struck with the terrific contrasts you find here. The contradictions, the paradox.
That the Christ who hears all this hollering in verse 38 is found weeping in verse 41–just three verses later. That many of those people who shouted his praises on Sunday will be calling for his crucifixion the following Thursday. And how a man can be hailed as a king and then treated like a common criminal. And how cheering someone else's effort says nothing about the commitment of your own effort.
So I struggle with this day. I always struggle. I struggle to hold my critical self in check. To let the day be what it was without looking ahead. If a thing was good when it was good, why ruin it with what happened later?
They thought it was something to shout about. And it was. It was, and still is.
The things we care enough to get excited about are what? Some men playing ball? News of a promotion? Someone who honks behind us in traffic? Word of drugs and killings in the District of Columbia?
Is it possible we are judged by God as to the sources of our joys? That the scandal of the church is its joy in material things and complacency toward spiritual things? That the prayer we need most is the prayer of the Psalm 51 which says, "Restore to me the joy of thy salvation." The joy.
Do you realize how much we complain? How long and grim our faces are? How much our prayers are prayers of "poor old me."
Lord, we have so many problems. And we don't know which way to turn, Lord. And we wish we could please you better, but know we probably can't. And things just aren't like they used to be, as you know well. But at least we know you're sorry for us, because we have it so hard. Thank you for that. Amen!
Now if this came from people wandering around in goat skins and hiding in caves to escape persecution, the Lord might have some sympathy. If he heard it from someone thrown down in a lion's den, he might nod his head. But this is from prosperous Americans who have no appreciation for how well off they really are. And the Lord must gesture to some nearby angel and say "what on earth!"
A religion without joy is irreligious. A religion of complaint is a sad and sorry spectacle to the Lord who made heaven and earth.
In his book titled Bed and Board, Robert Capon has a piece about the joys and sorrows of families and churches, which he compares. It goes like this:
"First (the father) silences the group with a long, rather pompous prayer and litany. His wife places before him a leg-o-lamb. Mysteriously upside down. He begins carving and serving plates. The first-born must have no gravy on his rice, the third begs off the mushrooms, the eldest loves lamb, but not that much–this piece is all fat–I can't eat that many carrots. The youngest knocks over a glass of milk. Down toward him it races like a flood across the land. He jumps up and back, but over the edge it pours and hits his right trouser leg below the knee. She has unleashed a cataract of milk in three short years. She has spilled it backhand, forehand, side arm and elbow first. She has upset glasses with her head, her feet, her shoulders and her knees. With her rump, her belly and the middle of her back. He remembers only one successful escape from milk spilled on plastic and nearly broke the chair to do it.
The dinner over, conversation finished, he gives the order to clear for dessert. What follows, however, is a discussion of the past six weeks of duties. Who has cleared, who has not, questions of evidence, discrimination and fairness. Where he sits presiding over the table. Soggy napkins, crumbs and crusts, half eaten, ill appreciated dinner. With arguments still going on over who hit who.
Finally the table is cleared. Chocolate souffle with whipped cream is brought in and unites the group in praise.
It is not the heavenly Jerusalem, but neither is it chaos. We are the solitary set-in family.
I love them all, their faces and voices, their bodies, their minds, and I thank them for their company these long short years.
Hear this my friends for it is a parable for you and your church. There will be messes a plenty, unappreciation, and fights. The table will appear to be a disaster at times. It is not the heavenly Jerusalem, but neither is it chaos. We are the solitary set-in family. Love them all as best you can. Their faces and voices and bodies and minds. And thank them for their company these long short years."
I'm illustrating joy and gratitude where gloom and discontent might otherwise reign. I'm asking if you're more compatible with the palm-wavers in their waving or with the Pharisees in their grumbling. No problem was ever solved by grumbling. Nowhere in scripture is the name of God ever hallowed by grumbling.
William Tyndale, in the prologue to his translation of the New Testament in 1526, wrote this: "Euangelio (that we cal gospel) is a greke worde, and signyfyth good, mery, glad, and joyfull tydings, that maketh a mannes hert glad, and maketh hym synge, daunce and leepe for joye."
In all of life there exists no stranger phenomenon than this: that people given much will gripe and complain, while those with little rejoice and offer humble thanks.
One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
'Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tell us the way to go.
Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate,
As we voyage along through life:
'Tis the set of a soul
That decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
(Ella Wilcox, "The Winds of Fate")
We all want to change our circumstances. We want to be younger, or thinner, or prettier, or richer, or healthier. Maybe we'd like to work somewhere else, or live somewhere else. Sometimes people even get the urge to try a different church and see if they'd be happier there. The grass at our feet seems pretty thin and dry, but over in the next pasture it looks green and inviting.
The problem is, the cows over there think the very same thing! They look over here in our pasture and wish they could make the switch. All grass looks greener at a distance. Everyone wants a change of circumstance.
But the thing we may need most is a change of attitude about the circumstances we've got. To learn in whatever state we are therewith to be content. To summon joy and banish gloom. To say:
Though Satan should buffet,
tho' trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded
my helpless estate,
And hath shed his own blood for my soul.
That's something to shout about!
Well, that's the end of the sermon. Here I usually lead us in a word of prayer. But today being Palm Sunday I feel a little crazy, I guess. I feel like seeing if you've caught something of the spirit of the day. Just a minute (get hand microphone).
They waved on Palm Sunday, right? And I know we're not used to waving here in church, but I wonder if we could. Just down there in your lap where no one behind you can tell. Just a little (demonstrate). Can you do that? Don't worry–it won't hurt you. In all the history of waving, no one has ever been injured by it.
Thanks–I appreciate the support. What about the rest of you? Can you join us just a little. Keep it up. Don't stop till I tell you.
Now of course, those people on Palm Sunday didn't wave like that, did they? Are there maybe a few brave souls who would stick your arm up and really wave? How about it? O good, I was afraid no one would! Can some more of you lift up your arms and wave like that? Thank you–that looks great.
Diane, are you there? Are you worried how this is going to come out? Me too! (or) Well I'm glad you're not, cause I am!
Well now, those people beside that road–do you suppose they sat down while they waved? Are there some people here who would stand up and wave? Could some more of you do that, now that you see how? Is it possible we could all do that?
Keep on waving now. We're ready for one last thing. Would you repeat after me . . .
Diane, are you still there? Was that a good hosanna or not? Could they do better, do you think? Let's see . . .
Hosanna! (Hosanna) To the King! (To the King!)
Who comes in the name of the Lord! (Who comes in the name of the Lord!)
Amen. (Amen) Amen! (Amen!) Amen! (Amen!) And now let's pray:
"Lord, we confess we're not very good at praise. We feel things we never say. We say things we never feel. Help us, we pray, to feel the most about the things that matter most. We pray in the Master's name . . .."
Woe is me! For I have become as when the summer fruit has been gathered, as when the vintage has been gleaned: there is no cluster to eat, no first-ripe fig which my soul desires. The godly man has perished from the earth, and there is none upright among men; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts his brother with a net. Their hands are upon what is evil, to do it diligently; the prince and the judge ask for a bribe, and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; thus they weave it together. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of their watchmen, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. Put no trust in a neighbor, have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your bosom; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man's enemies are the men of his own house. But as for me, I will look to the LORD, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the LORD because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me forth to the light; I shall behold his deliverance. Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, "Where is the LORD your God?" My eyes will gloat over her; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets. A day for the building of your walls! In that day the boundary shall be far extended. In that day they will come to you, from Assyria to Egypt, and from Egypt to the River, from sea to sea and from mountain to mountain. But the earth will be desolate because of its inhabitants, for the fruit of their doings. Shepherd thy people with thy staff, the flock of thy inheritance, who dwell alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old. As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt I will show them marvelous things. The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick the dust like a serpent, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their strongholds, they shall turn in dread to the LORD our God, and they shall fear because of thee. Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger for ever because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion upon us, he will tread our iniquities under foot. Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as thou hast sworn to our fathers from the days of old. (Micah 7:1-20 RSV)
Preachers do dream. And as things go, some dreams are good, and some not so good. Being persons with responsibility, they sometimes have what I call "responsibility dreams." Where you agonize over a situation that hasn't gone so well. One you feel responsible for.
Some years ago, I had one of those dreams so vividly I still remember it. It was a throwback to my high school years when I raised tropical fish. At one time I had a dozen tanks of fish I took care of. Which is a lot of time and effort. I did some things with tropical fish that I'm still proud of today.
But occasionally my motivation for that hobby would run low, and I'd get behind on cleaning tanks and feeding fish.
When that happened, it was the fish who suffered, right? They're the ones who didn't get fed. They're the ones who had to swim and try to breathe in dirty water. They suffered my neglect.
Yes, but there was something else. I also suffered their neglect. I suffered the pain of my conscience when I realized what was happening. I suffered my burden of responsibility for the situation. And, as I say, I had this dream about it some 30 years later. And I wrote a poem called "Swordtails."
I begin to see what kind of room this is.
Someone's fish are here in their long glass
tanks. Angelfish and Danios and Swordtails
of various shades. Female Guppies dark and
pregnant, eager males waiting around to
do the job again. Betas with the flowing
fins that take such a beating in a fight.
And the tiny Neon Tetras that always
seem electrically charged. Fish that
all need feeding. I used to hike to the
ponds and collect mosquito larva, then
watch them gobble. And raise small fat
worms in yeast. And select dried foods
from the store, influenced by ads in the
National Aquarium magazine. Three feedings
a day for some, especially at breeding
time. Takes care to raise fish right.
Which hasn't been given these fish here,
I see as I look around. Plants dead from
no light. Smelly water down to little or
nothing. Motors quiet that used to send up
invigorating bubbles and filter everything
through white spun glass and black charcoal.
It's hard to imagine them lasting through
such neglect, but some have. Some must have
eaten dead others to stay alive. No fault
of their own, I think. Then it begins to be
told in my stomach that I was the one in
charge of this. All my old stuff is right
here as I left it. I must have been away
somewhere, or did I just forget? As if whole
pages are missing from the book. High school
boy and the hobby he spent time on. Instead
of parties and dancing and things like that.
Raising fish came easier. Now I stare at all
the sad ruin, and feel it becoming my accuser.
Good fish have starved here because I never
came around. Days must get long when your
world is twelve inches down and eight across.
I start to pour new water in one tank, then
remember about chlorine. Has to sit a day or
so to get it all out. Only what if you're a
sick fish and turned on your side already?
Down below on a leaning shelf I find food.
It is old and stale, and the can falls apart
in my hand. Lord! How any stuff of mine
could get in a shape like this I still can't
believe. Or what may happen next. But I
know now this for sure: that these are my
fish, and some are still alive. It seems a
time to salvage what could still revive
and go on. Or else to get out now and shut
the door on such a stinking rotten dream.
The prophet Micah was a man who felt a burden. Things that didn't seem to bother other people bothered him. He felt responsible. He saw his nation going on its merry way and giving no thought at all to God.
He saw covetousness rampant. "They covet fields," he said, "and seize them; and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance. (A prophecy of the "hostile takeover" if you will!) Therefore thus says the Lord: 'Behold, against this family I am devising evil, from which you cannot remove your necks; and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time.'" (Micah 2:2-3)
He saw corruption in high places. "(The heads of the house of Jacob) give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for hire, its prophets divine for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, 'Is not the Lord in the midst of us?'" (Micah 3:9-11)
There in that situation, the prophet has his own bad dream. In his dream, he's hungry. Not just hungry for anything, but hungry for fruit. Oh, he longs for some delicious, lucious fruit. He can taste it in his mouth.
And he dreams he goes to the vineyard where fruit is grown. He goes expecting to find it there, and how good it will be. But when he arrives and begins to look around, he sees no fruit. He finds someone and asks where all the fruit is? And they tell him it's the end of summer, and the fruit is all gathered and gone.
The prophet is a strong-willed person who hates to accept a thing like that. So he goes out looking. He looks on every tree and on every vine and finds not one apple or pear or fig. Not one. This fruitful place is an unfruitful place. Frustration and disappointment.
Now this isn't about fruit at all. Just as my dream about the fish was not about fish at all. Micah's dream is about the shortage of people who bear fruit for God. He says so in verse two: "The godly man has perished from the earth, and there is none upright among men." So the prophet feels alone in his devotion to God. And a person who feels alone is a person who sooner or later will feel afraid.
Standing alone in the deserted orchard of life–the only one left who cares. While others go about the business of living in selfish pleasure. "They all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts his brother with a net. Their hands are upon what is evil, to do it diligently; the prince and the judge ask for a bribe, and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; thus they weave it together." (Micah 7:2-3)
And there in that despairing posture, the prophet has advice to give. Listen to what it is: "Put no trust in a neighbor, have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your bosom; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man's enemies are the men of his own house." (Mican 7:5-6)
Boy! Is that the advice you want to follow? Don't trust your neighbors or friends, or even your wife. Don't trust your son or daughter, much less your in-laws. Your enemies are everywhere. Don't trust anybody! People who say all you have to do is take the Bible literally and do what it says ought to read that one!
But what you write or say when you're distressed like Micah was is usually not the final word. And this wasn't either.
As his prophecy nears its close, you find this: "Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger for ever because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion upon us, he will tread our iniquities under foot. Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." (Micah 7:18-19)
Now he has his eyes on God, you see. And that's perhaps the greatest lesson here. It's easy to focus all your attention on the circumstances around you and take your eyes off God. You feel deserted and afraid because you leave him out of the picture. You see things in a short-sighted manner.
It's important for deacons to be men and women who see God in the picture, not out of it. That's important for all of us. That the Lord is greater than any day's problems. That he always has the final say. That there's a sea with depths in which he can cast the very worst of our sins.
Never leaving us nor forsaking us. But keeping in perfect peace the souls of those whose minds are stayed on him.
THAT'S HOW I SEE IT
Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" And he answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him 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. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: `You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.' But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
The Fourth of July was coming up. And every year in this small Minnesota town they had a parade. They were patriotic folk, and everyone turned out to see the parade.
But all they ever had was a parade, and that was a problem to some forward-thinking individuals who thought that now and then it might be nice to have something a little different.
And one of those people happened to read that off in the city they were going to have what was called "a living flag." People were going to march down main street holding up red or white or blue squares of cardboard overhead. And they'd be so arranged that those colored squares would form the stars and stripes and be beautiful.
Well, that sounded like the best idea there'd ever been to celebrate a Fourth of July. So they set out to do this in their town too. They worked and assembled and organized. And the PTA got involved, and the Lion's Club, and the churches. And it was hard getting all the people they needed, and all the squares cut and painted, and all the instructions mimeographed, but they did it.
And every last citizen they had turned out to help make up the Living Flag.
Only it took every last citizen they had to make up the flag. And so, when everyone was finally in place, and all the arguments had been resolved about who should be standing where, there was no one left to see the flag. All any of them could see was the unpainted side of the cardboard up overhead, and a lot of armpits of others who were there under the flag with them.
Some people began to say they were going to get out and go see this thing. Then others would tell them that, no, they'd ruin the flag if they did that. They'd leave a big hole, and who'd want to show off a flag with a hole in it on the Fourth of July! But then others began to say what a shame it was to make this thing and no one be able to see it.
So finally they decided to let just one person from one of the edges go up on the roof of the feed store and look. And he did. He looked down and saw the most glorious patriotic sight that had ever been seen in the history of that town. And he began hollering down to all those people on the ground how wonderful they looked, and how beautiful this was.
That was the end of the Living Flag. All at once, it began disintegrating. Everyone wanted a look! But by the time they got where they could look, the flag was gone. They'd been involved in something proud and glorious that day, and yet most of them went home frustrated about it.
The church of Jesus is a wonderful and glorious thing. The service of Christ and the worship of God are wonderful, glorious things. And yet often our very involvement in those things keeps us from seeing it. We stand in the sun with our arms upheld and getting tired, and fail to realize what a grand and marvelous thing we're a part of.
Let me give an example. At the church in North Carolina where I preached last month, I found some wonderful Christian people doing some wonderful Christian things. They love their church and their community and their new, young pastor. I saw people sharing lives and helping others in a way that pleases God, I know.
But, of course, I was an outsider with an outsider's view of things. I had the advantage of seeing the whole flag from the roof of the feed store. But I did hear some talk down on the street. Some complaints about the building, some concerns about the congregation getting older. And I found that as with most churches there was a "touchy subject" you didn't want to touch.
The P.A. system. They'd spent $7,000 on the P.A. system and it still didn't work. I mean didn't work at all. And the member in charge had heard the talk and gotten his feelings hurt. But he's the only one who knows anything about the system. So are they going to try to work this out with him, or call in an outsider for help? Right now, they just avoid the subject.
Not knowing any of this and standing around talking after the first service, I said out loud to the pastor, "Mike, you need to fix the P.A. system here." He almost ran for cover. He looked all around to see who'd heard this. And I didn't know how, but I could see I'd put my foot in my mouth. So the rest of the time I did just like them–I avoided the subject and preached real loud!
Well, the fact is that any human group will have those problems. We have ours here, which I'd be the last one to mention, of course. Some you have to work out, and some you may have to live with. A well-meaning, elderly man, holding his square of cardboard with the blue pointing down, not up, and getting his feelings hurt when the kid behind him says something. But it shouldn't take away from the fact that it's great of him just to get out here and be involved in this effort. Mistakes will happen.
It's important for us to look at life in the larger perspective, and not be distracted by passing and incidental issues. It's easy for us to pass the time of day counting our problems instead of counting on God.
You find an example of this in First Kings, chapter 19. Queen Jezebel was after a prophet of the Lord named Elijah. And a man of the Old Testament, much less a Prophet of God, wasn't supposed to be scarred of a woman, but Elijah was. Jezebel was a woman who loved seeing men be scarred of her.
Well, it says in verse 4 that scarred Elijah went a day's journey into the wilderness, sat down under a tree, and asked God to let him die. Instead of that, the Lord got him some food to eat, but the food didn't help. Elijah is full of complaints. He says, and I quote, "The people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." (1 Kings 19:10)
Elijah saw himself as defeated and alone. He saw himself as the only one God had left to count on. He believed his failure would mean the failure of God, since God had no one else to turn to.
But you know what the Lord told that prophet? He told him in verse 18 that he had seven thousand more as good as him! Seven thousand who'd not bowed down to Baal, and weren't about to! Seven thousand who could take his place if needed!
So Elijah wasn't really alone, except that he'd made himself alone by his own self-pity. He thought he was standing in the street by himself–a sort of one-man flag–and God told him there were seven thousand others right down there with him!
Walt Starling, who broadcasts the traffic from his airplane, was our speaker for a dinner some years ago. He puzzled me when he asked to have the microphone handed down to his seat at the table. He started his speech sitting down, and people were looking to see where in the world he was.
He spoke about perspective. And then he stood up, and got on the stage like any good speaker should. But he'd made the point that that's what his business is about. Perspective.
If you're caught in a traffic jam, it's hard to know anything except that you're stuck. You might see to the top of the hill, but you don't know how many more hills there are before you get out of this thing. But if you're up there in a Cessna overhead, you see exactly what and where and can even guess how long. You see things clearly.
Listen: "While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, 'What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?' And they stood still, looking sad . . . (because they'd just been talking about his recent death). (And) when he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him . . .. (Luke 24:15-17, 30-31)
Now when it says their eyes were opened, it doesn't mean they actually had them shut. It means a moment of spiritual insight occurred. A perspective was gained that was lacking before.
In the letter of First John it says "he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes." (1 John 2:11) Doesn't mean real blindness like our speaker from Gallaudet talked about on Thursday. It means spiritual blindness. Where you have the means to see with, but don't.
How often the Glory of God and of earth is missed or taken for granted! We could have had the experience of a lifetime, but we said "ho, hum." We could have heard the angels sing but thought it wasn't worth our time. We could have had joy in Christ but let some minor problem mess it up. As Jesus said, with marvelous irony, we strain a gnat from the soup of life, then turn right around and swallow a camel! Tail and hoofs and hump and all! We who will have no gnats in our soup!
We pre-determine what a day will bring. We set ourselves on a course to be unhappy, frustrated, disappointed, critical of others, and down on ourselves. Don't try to get me out of that, Preacher. That's the way I want it, and that's the way I'm going to have it!
O.K. You can do that. We all do that from time to time. But we need to recognize exactly what that is. Blindness. Having eyes to see with, and not seeing. Ears to hear with, and not hearing.
People walk around just waiting for something to take offense at. And if nothing good occurs, they have to create something.
Persons made in the Image of God spend days like robots. Or moaning about this and complaining about that, with no appreciation for the wonder of life. While the fruit of the Spirit is
What a waste. What a waste!
And it may be that vision is the key. That we won't do things right until we see things right. That a prayer to see things right is the first prayer we need to pray.
In one of those letters with which the book of Revelation begins, there's this: "I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see." (Revelation 3:18)
Salve to anoint our eyes that we may see.
See the glory of God. See the glory of his Church. See the glory of lives that are dedicated to his service.
Our lives, could be.
Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Anani'as. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Anani'as." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." And the Lord said to him, "Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, and he has seen a man named Anani'as come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Anani'as answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Anani'as departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized, and took food and was strengthened. For several days he was with the disciples at Damascus. (Acts 9:3-19)
Some stories the Bible tells once. But others, like Paul's converstion, are told more than once. That one is told four different times.
It was a decisive event for Paul, and for Christian history as well. Take any historian's list of turning points in Christian history and it will be there. It may even be the world's most famous conversion.
We tend to stand in awe of stories like this. We're all used to gradual change, not sudden change. The idea of a person walking out the door one morning and coming back totally different is foreign to the way we expect things to happen.
When Watergate figure Charles Colson came out of prison and announced he'd become a Christian, there were lots of skeptics. I was one. Some former friends of Colson were even more inclined to say this wouldn't last long. It was a passing and temporary thing. But it wasn't, we see now. The man must have meant it.
Paul's turnaround had a background, of course. I think it began with a prayer he overheard while holding some people's coats. A young Christian name Stephen had preached about Jesus to an angry mob and found himself being stoned to death. But he prayed for his enemies, just as Jesus had. And Paul heard, and never forgot it. I think afterward he heard the words of that prayer as he tried to sleep, and every time he saw a fist-sized rock laying on the ground.
For awhile, though, he got worse instead of better. Stephen didn't convert Paul, he just got him under conviction. Paul plunged into the most extreme kinds of action he knew. He became the arch-persecutor of Christians.
He tried to blot out the memory of Stephen's fallen body by piling others on top of it. He breathed out threatenings and slaughter. Even his close friends may have thought he was getting carried away. The thing about fanatics is, they can't stay the same. They have to keep getting more and more fanatical.
You see, when a person has his doubts, when he's been shaken as Paul was, he tries even harder to convince himself. Which is why I doubt the notion that the fanatic is the strongest believer. There's reason to wonder if he isn't really the weakest. A defection just waiting to happen. Someone who worries that if he ever stops a second, he'll never get going again. So he becomes perpetual motion.
Paul did nothing halfway. He was never inconspicuous. Educated by Gamalial, the brilliant scholar, he was a great thinker. Later in life a Roman official even worried that his learning had made him crazy. He was also a great sufferer. Stoned, shipwrecked, hunted, hounded, accused, abused, diseased, deserted, misunderstood–all that was Paul. But in spite of anything and everything, he stayed with his task. His tenacity was incredible.
And he was a great writer, of course. Scholars credit Paul with varying numbers of New Testament books–some with 13 or 14. And we know he wrote others in addition to those. And how good it is when a man or woman of action can also be a writer. It means so much for the future.
When you have a person like that, you always like to go back and see how they got their start.
National Geographic has an article on William Faulkner in the current issue. In case you'd forgotten, Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949. But as a boy he loved hunting and horses and sports, and things like that.
At Ole Miss William Faulkner made a D in English. One of the literary societies refused his application for membership. Shortly before he won the Nobel Prize, there was a move among the faculty at Ole Miss to award him an honorary degree, but it was voted down. Afterward, they brought it up again but decided it was too late. Those things are always interesting.
Well, the road to Damascus was 140 miles long. And there along that road went Paul, who was known as Saul in those days. He's looking for the enemies of God. But he'll find out there on that road that he is one of them. If fact he later will call himself the "chiefest of sinners."
It's a sobering and terrible fact that a person can believe devoutly he's doing the will of God and be doing no such thing. That some the the most awful deeds ever done on this earth have been done in God's name. I sometimes think there's nothing the devil loves more than religious fanaticism. It does more harm than all the athiest's put together.
Paul had been one. But there on the road he has a vision. A violent vision, as you might expect for a man in his circumstances. He's struck to the ground and blinded as well. He hears a voice call his name, which he knows to be the voice of God. And he says,
"Who are you, Lord?"
Who are you? You're God, but whose God? Are you my God, or are you their God? Surely you're not their God.
The bad news was he was theirs. He was Jesus, whom Paul had been persecuting. The good news was, Jesus wanted Paul on his side. He had plans for him.
And right then and there, a change of sides took place. As dramatic as any you can imagine. A man became what he'd just been the sworn enemy of. As if two teams were facing one another in the Super Bowl. And halfway through the game a star player from one team walks across the field and joins the other one. Takes off his old jersey and puts on one of a different color. Makes friends of his enemies, and enemies of his friends. Just like that.
Incredible. But it gives us hope that we need not be the same forever. There really can be turnarounds. Even people that have taken God for granted for years. Mail comes from the church and they throw it in the trash with all the rest of the junk. But on any unsuspecting day, something can happen to change that. And then they'll take those things from the mail and read them word-for-word with great interest and delight. It makes all the difference in the world.
People that are mean and hateful can become loving and tender by the power of God. People who're disturbed and disturbing can be made calm and calming. People who are always critical of others can become affirming and supportive. People self-obsessed can turn generous. The weak and passive can become strong in the Lord.
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, but rise and enter the city and you will be told what to do."
You've been a great pain to me but I can make something out of you yet! Your sins are many, but there's not a one that can't be forgiven. The past is past. Now is the day the future begins.
Did you notice how the Lord told Paul to go on and get started, then later he'd be instructed what to do? That's the way of faith. Why, if God told Paul about every thing he was about to suffer, he'd have been overwhelmed. You take it one day at a time anyway. "Be not anxious about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself!"
It says they led Paul into Damascus by the hand. What a picture! He came there as an avenger, and was led into town like a little child. But this man who began his new life as a Christian led by others would later on lead thousands of his own.
Actor Alec Guiness was in France making a film. He was playing the part of a priest, though in real life he was an agnostic of long standing.
One evening after the filming was over, he began walking home, still dressed in his costume. Night fell as he walked. He became aware of footsteps behind him. A frightened boy was there, who came up and took his hand and held it tightly as they walked.
He knew that boy thought he was a real priest, and felt better because of it. The boy was better for believing in something that wasn't so, and yet it felt like it was so, or could have been so. Put in a holy man's place, the actor began feeling holy himself.
He says from that moment he became a man who trusts his life into the hands of God.
And the point and the promise is, wherever you've been or whatever you've been doing, you can do the same.
WHY STICK WITH IT?
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Jesus then said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world."
After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God."
I've never had a bumper sticker on a car of mine, but I never fail to read those on other people's cars. I saw a new one the other day. One that made me think. It said, "Would Jesus wear a Rolex?"
Rolex is a very expensive brand of watch. The people who wear them have a lot of money. Some people who wear them want others to know they have a lot of money.
Some television evangelists have a lot of money and wear these watches too. One even has a whole collection of them. The bumper sticker asks if Jesus would wear one.
Good question! Would Jesus pay thousands of dollars for a watch and wear it around to impress folk? Not the Jesus I read about in scripture. The Jesus I know–if he had a Rolex–would probably take it off and give it to the next beggar he met. Nor would he live in a guarded mansion or be chauffered around in a limousine.
But those, you see, are measurements of success in our society. Even for preachers, it seems. In a competative world that rewards the winner and punishes a loser, you are what you've been able to pull off. You are where you rank on the charts. You publish or perish, shape up or ship out. You keep up with the Jones's or feel ruined.
I find when I meet a stranger and get asked what I do for a living, there are two questions. First, what kind of church I'm the pastor of. And next, always, "How big is it?" How big is it?
And I say 303 members. But boy! if I could just say a thousand or two. Or ten thousand. Or tell them we have thirty thousand members at Luther Rice Church, just like that one in Dallas. We have so many people I haven't even met all the deacons!
If I could tell them that, I wouldn't need a Rolex watch! But would Jesus Christ be concerned about telling them that? Is worldly success a heavenly measurement?
Well, friends, consider the scripture we heard this morning. It reflects the fact that early in the ministry of Christ, he was popular with the crowds. They followed him around wherever he went. But then those crowds began hearing unpopular things.
That being a follower of his isn't easy, it's hard. That a cross lies ahead–not just for him, but for all his disciples.
And so they became, as we say, dis-enchanted. This wasn't what they had in mind when they ate the free food on the hillside that day. No.
Many turned back and walked no more with him. No more. The size of his congregation shrank. Attendance was down, offerings were down, morale was down. It was the crisis of his ministry. And how would he handle it? How would the Twelve handle it?
If they were like modern disciples, they might have begun to question their leader. "We expect him to bring people in, not drive them away," they'd say. "The reports do not look promising. Something needs to be done. If he can't do the job, maybe what we need is a new Messiah."
Call that the "Rolex Mentality." Worldly success as a heavenly measurement. Size as the yardstick of spirituality. No matter that those crowds were there for the wrong reasons. Man looks on the outward appearance of things, and a crowd looks good. A crowd you can hide in.
You wonder how Jesus felt about this turn of events. Seeing his popularity evaporate. Watching the size of his following go to pot. Did he think of himself as a failure then? Was he in despair?
Or did he have other standards by which he measured the effort of his life? Was he unaffected by the rise or fall of the market on any given day?
That's what I think. I think Jesus had obedience to his Heavenly Father as the first and only measurement. I think a Rolex was the last thing on his mind. I think those who preach and glorify their worldly success in the name of Jesus do him great dis-service.
Now, notice. Jesus turned to the Twelve and said, "Are you leaving too?" "Are you going to bomb out like the rest of those folk?" "Are you as shallow and superficial in your loyalty as they were?"
It was a tremendous moment. It was hold-your-breath time.
And they said, "We're going to stick with you." "You have the words of eternal life, and we're not leaving."
I want you to see the similarity between the commitment of those Twelve and the commitment of Jesus himself. His commitment was to the Heavenly Father, not to his own success. An all-weather commitment. Their commitment was to him, and so it could disregard the fluctuations of his popularity.
You see, we have these two identities. We have our identity with Jesus one-to-one. And we have our identity with others who follow him. You're an individual Christian, and you're a corporate Christian. You pray alone in your closet, and you pray with people in the public gathering.
The point of the passage, it seems to me, is that the personal commitment to Jesus is primary. To be joined to an organization without a personal attachment to him is getting the cart before the horse.
The crowds had joined his following, but not him. They were what we'd call "church members," but with no personal surrender. They were like the illustration in James of a ship without a rudder. Tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, every shift of fate, every whim and fancy. Nothing durable about that.
We sometimes sing, "I have decided to follow Jesus." The tune is a folk melody from India, and the author isn't known. So I guess Edrie won't ever have a story to tell us about that one. Anyway, the third verse says.
"Tho' none go with me, I still will follow,
Tho' none go with me, I still will follow.
Tho' none go with me, I still will follow,
No turning back, no turning back."
The point being that everyone must decide if he's following the crowd, or following Christ. Following Christ, you may find yourself with a crowd. You may. Praise God if you do. But always be a little suspicious, for Jesus says the way is narrow and few there be that find it.
Anyway, be always ready for the day when the crowd turns its back, and it's you and a few, or even you and him.
What you need then is some encouragement perhaps. Encouragement and a proper perspective.
We follow the Man of Galilee. He said the foxes have holes and the birds have nests, but he had nowhere to lay his head. A homeless man.
But he went about doing good. He travelled light. He was in the world to give to it, not to get from it. Often a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Other times a boisterous, laughing man with children on his lap. But a man for others. A man who sought little for himself.
The symbol of our faith is an old rugged cross, not a shiny, expensive watch. Let no one judge your faith in him by standards he himself rejected. He said the the way to be great is get a bowl of water and wash dirty feet. He did that himself, if you remember.
The devil once showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory and said he could have all that if they could make a little deal. But he said no deal.
He said his kingdom was not of this world. But a lot of Christians today act like it is. And others are envious who ought not to be.
The service of Jesus is its own reward. The servants of Jesus are the salt of the earth.
Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God–those are what count. Those are what we'll answer for at last, they make life worthwhile. Many said to be first will come in last, and the last first. Jesus said so.
I know I've rambled this morning. Maybe the point hasn't been plain enough, or maybe it's been too plain. But I'm stressing your personal involvement with Christ. Keep that in good repair and be not anxious about the future.
He is our future. It's all we need.
WHY I AM A CHRISTIAN
Of course, the usual question is: "Are you a Christian?" Are you? The people who come up to you on the street asking "are you saved?" "are you born again?" have that to ask. And the stories evangelists tell, like one I read just the other day.
The Titanic was going down and there were people in the water. And this sinner, this skeptic, was there. And so was a famous preacher. And the two were acquainted. And it just happened that the waves washed them close to one another, and the preacher shouted, "My brother, are you saved?" And just then a terrible wave washed over him and he was drowned in the sea. And the skeptic trusted Christ right there in the water and later stood up in a testimony meeting and told how he was this famous preacher's last convert.
You wonder about the historical accuracy of stories like that, but they do get attention to the question. "Are you a Christian." And the question is good. We should ask it of ourselves and of others.
But having asked that, there ought to be something else. You are a Christian? good! But why are you a Christian? Why?
Is it because that's the way you were raised? Or because you live in a society where it's the accepted thing do? Or because someone got hold of you when you were young and twisted your arm and you haven't thought about it since? Or because you wanted to join the church and that's what they said you needed to do?
Those are not the answers of a daily walk with Christ. Those are the answers of a faith that's taken for granted. That will conquer no evils and endure no hardships. That has no fire in its eyes and no love in its heart. That stays on accustomed paths, and will walk no others.
But it's easier to be the critic than to be a witness. It's easier to show the weakness of others' religion than to show the strength of your own. And it would be easier for me to lecture on why you should be a Christian than to testify as to why I am. But that's my effort this morning. To tell in simple terms why Ed Briggs is a Christian instead of something else, or nothing else. Why?
I'm a Christian first of all because of Jesus Christ. Because of who he was and what he did, and because I believe
in who he was and what he did. "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness." A man who changed the world, and a man who changed me.
There's a saying in sports that "winning isn't the main thing, it's the only thing." And we should put that same emphasis on the person of Christ. He isn't the main thing–he's the only thing. In the sense that leaving him out leaves you with nothing that will last long.
This is why Paul and others speak of Christ in terms of a foundation. The bed rock on which a structure is built. Which gives it strength and stability. Paul says there is no other foundation but this. And to build the house of your life on anything else is to face the storm and flood and know that sooner or later the foundation will give way.
A man who was a farmer built his life on hard work and wise management. And he did well, but he left God out. His god was worldly success, which he thought was the best thing of all to have. And when he gained it he said he'd take it easy now and enjoy things. But that very night he heard a voice that called him a fool and told him he must now face God. No, not later, now.
In the second place, I'm a Christian because I want my life to matter. Now I'm not saying there aren't people who matter much to the world who aren't Christians. No. But for me the ones who matter most have been, and are now, and will continue to be be. They have the best example in the world to follow. They follow the most selfless and loving man who ever lived.
Back in the sixteenth century the Spaniards were using a pass in New Mexico that led into Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. It was called El Morro, and featured a great wall which came to be known as Inscription Rock.
Travelers who came by there would carve their names and the words in Spanish, "paso por aqui," which means "passed through here." They might be famous or not. They might come that way again, or they might never be heard from again. But they had come that way once and wished to be remembered for it.
This is to illustrate that I'm a Christian because of a desire to make some mark for the time I spend in the land of the living. To be remembered for something Christ-like and therefore enduring. And if it can't be carved in stone, at least let it be written in the hearts of some people I tried to help.
There's another reason of a different sort. I'm a Christian today because of people who were faithful witnesses in other days. We take it for granted how the gospel came to us, but we shouldn't. Someone had to tell someone who had to tell someone else, because the message of salvation is spread by people. Christ told people to go into all the world and make disciples. And if people don't do that, no disciples will be made.
The moment you become a Christian you become responsible to God for helping others have the same experience. Christians before you were faithful in doing that or you wouldn't be a Christian today. And you must be faithful, or you fail in your highest calling. We are meant to be channels through which the water of life flows to others, not sponges that just soak it up and hold it.
People need the gospel. People need salvation. They need it to be right with God and right with one another. They need the experience of grace in which sins are forgiven and burdens are lifted.
Down in the Tennessee town I came from, people used to know one another by car. Charlie was the white chevrolet. Don was the green pickup truck, and so on. You recognized your friends that way, just passing on the road. And you always waved. It was as bad to pass on the road and not wave as it was to pass on the sidewalk and not speak.
Around here, of course, the cars are too many. We become anonymous when we get out on the road in our cars. And even when we park in the church parking lot. But anyway, for four years now I've been the gold Volkswagen Jetta that parks near the pastor's study.
I've been real worried about the Jetta lately. The front end has a problem, the brakes are bad, the heater puts fumes in the car, there's a noise I'm not sure of, and the tires are nothing to brag about. I've had notes to myself for months to get some of those things fixed. But I've done nothing.
Except Friday I did. Friday I did something at last. I took that car to a dealer and traded it in on a new Honda Civic. What they gave me for it wasn't that much, but they took it for better or worse. And I like the new little Civic, but the greatest feeling was to know that nothing that was wrong with that Jetta has to bother me ever again.
And now when I step on the brakes, I know the linings are clean and thick and new. And the tires have deep black tred. And the heater fills the car with fresh smelling warm air. And the front end doesn't wobble, and I hear no strange sounds. And chances are I have miles and miles to go before I ever will.
What a relief to trade in the troubles that nag you! What a relief to make a new start! What a relief to hand someone else the keys and turn your back and walk away.
Now listen to this: "If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, and behold, the new has come." God in Christ doesn't try to repair us, he makes us new! He gives us a deal where we can turn our backs on things that used to nag us. He calls them forgiven. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. And we can trade in the one and drive away with the other. New creations in Christ Jesus!
John Masefield has a short poem with the simple title, "Truth." It says, "Man with his burning soul, has but an hour of breath to build a ship of truth, in which his soul may sail. Sail on the sea of death, for death takes toll of beauty, courage, youth, of all but truth."
And Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life, will help us on that journey. Come unto him all who labor and are heavy laden. He will give you rest.