"You can't serve two masters," said Jesus. And it's interesting how he put that.
There was no threat or coercion. He didn't say which master you should serve, just that you couldn't serve both. A simple fact. Serve God if you like, or mammon if you like. But you can't split the difference. You have to make a choice.
You can't walk east and west at the same time. Saying that doesn't tell you which way to go. It just says you can't do both.
Maybe I need to explain what "mammon" is. You don't often hear the word, do you? People don't say, "Well I made a lot of mammon today." "I sure love making mammon." "We do owe a lot of mammon this month!"
We don't hear that, but we do hear that, because "mammon" means money and the things money buys. And a lot of people serve money. They focus their energy there. They evaluate their success or failure in terms of money.
You pay a price for living that way, but they pay it. For mammon they lose sleep, lose friends, lose self-respect, lose health, or even a claim on the blessing of God.
But they think it's worth it. Anything is worth it when mammon is your life. Anything that's worth having makes demands, and so they pay the price. And you do have a measure of respect for that. For those who make commitments, no matter what they are.
Kentucky is like Virginia in what it requires of ministers before they can do weddings in the state. Someone who owns property has to go with you to the court house and sign a bond.
Soon after I was called to my church in Kentucky, a deacon named Russell Miller came and offered to do that. He said he'd drive me there and sign his name to the paper. He did it without knowing much about me, except that I was his new pastor. Four years later, when I left, I remembered that and thanked Deacon Miller. He'd made a commitment. Those you remember.
Jesus is telling us in the text that life is more simple than it seems. Which is good news, in a way. How many of you understand the new tax law? How many think you ever will? Everything is so complicated these days, isn't it?
But wait, says Jesus. There's a simple, basic choice at the heart of things. There are two ways, one broad and one narrow. There's a voice that says, "You shall have no other gods before me." And we heed that voice or reject it.
A divided soul is a sick one. To have gods before him and pretend otherwise is spiritual schizophrenia. A person with no settled loyalty, no central voice, trying to listen to many voices all at once. He ends up frustrated, anxious, and doubting.
How good to have that settled. How good to stand for something instead of trying to stand for everything. How good to be known by what you stand for.
George Washington turned to the words of Thomas Paine in the dark hours of the Revolution. He used them to force on his fellow countrymen the choice they had to make.
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
These are trying times for churches. Our task seems like conquering hell. But the hope is in people who offer themselves in response to challenge–people who have one master, who've made that basic choice, and show it.
There's a legend about forty wrestlers who were a band in one of Caesar's legions. They were campaigning in Armenia in the cold of winter. The forty were together because of their faith. They were Christians.
A letter came from Rome that said every man must bow to the Emperor's statue and offer sacrifice. And the forty refused. They said they could fight for their country but they couldn't do that. They said they worshiped one master–the Lord Jesus Christ.
Their General was a good man, and he thought well of them, as everyone did. But he had orders. He went and tried to persuade them, to no avail. They left him no choice.
At evening, the forty were stripped of their armor and clothing and shoes and marched out on a frozen lake near the camp. They went without resistance. The other soldiers sat by fires or lay quiet in their tents. And then they began to hear something. And it was singing, singing from out there on the ice.
"Forty wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Christ, claim for thee the victory, and from thee the crown."
Time passed, no one slept. Time passed, and as it did the singing grew fainter, fainter. Then something happened. A man appeared naked and trembling at the gate of the camp. He said he would do it.
But the guard who let him in had seen too much, and heard too much. Something inside him had decided already, and so he acted without hesitation. He took off his armor and clothes and shoes, and went off into that frozen night to join the thirty-nine.
For awhile afterward, the soldiers in the camp could hear his voice out there. For awhile, the singing rose up higher, like a dying fire with a new log added that becomes the fire itself.
"Forty wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Christ, claim for thee the victory, and from thee the crown."
And you think how nice that sounds. But then you remember that for you, or me, or anyone, it does not, and never will, come easy.
WHAT IS A BAPTIST?
Soon after I came to Luther Rice, Lou Clapper invited me to the National Press Club to hear a Baptist former governor of Georgia who was running for president. I didn't know much about Jimmy Carter then, but I went. And afterward we stood through the line and Lou introduced me to the man. I remember how he looked at me as we shook hands and asked me to pray for him.
It caught me a little off guard because I didn't know then if I wanted to pray for him or not. But I did later on. And after the election I was near a television, and there was a broadcast from Plains, and I heard the word "Baptist" mentioned. Something about what would it mean that we were going to have one in the White House. I grabbed some paper and a pencil.
The reporter was trying to tell what a Baptist is. He'd done research on the subject that very morning. He'd dressed himself up and gone out to church. Sang those hymns right along with the local folk. And he told what that was like, and what they were like, and then said:
"The Baptist church sets the style here in Georgia. And it's safe to say that it will set the style now in Washington for some time to come."
That did not turn out to be the prophetic statement of the decade! I do remember, though, my private excitement when Carter joined a local church and started going every Sunday. I kept on the lookout for those crowds of Silver Springers who'd heard about that and would say to themselves that if it was right for the president of the United States it must be right for them. And if a Baptist church was the place to go, there was a very pretty one there on University Boulevard between Wheaton and Four Corners! But Carter came and went and no enlargement of the parking lot was ever forced.
We are still here, though. And up the road is Wheaton Baptist, and Viers Mill, and Georgia Avenue, and Kensington, and Montrose somewhere on beyond. And down the road is Clifton Park, and University, and some others. And back behind me is Montgomery Hills. And behind you would be Colesville, and Calverton, and Hillendale, and who knows what else? So there are a lot of Baptists around. But they're hard to make sense of these days, even if you're one of them.
I'm going to try, though. As Jimmy Carter said, pray for me!
The first thing to say is that your relationship with Jesus Christ is what matters most. If you couldn't be anything else but a Baptist then you've made something out of it that ought not to be. For most of Christian history Baptists weren't even invented! We have a place, but it needs to be the proper place. We're church with a little c, not a big C. Church with a big C is all who have and do and will belong to Christ. And Baptists are only a few of those.
The Methodists came from Wesley, the Lutherans from Luther, the Presbyterians from Calvin, etcetera, etcetera–but where did the Baptists come from? We don't have a famous person who started us–we just started! We sort of started ourselves, almost like an accident. Some would say a bad accident!
Under James the First in 17th century England some puritan church people found the going tough and migrated to the Netherlands, where they took up with a group known as Separatists. You can tell by the name they weren't your regular crowd. Sometime in or around 1612 they began to practice baptism by immersion for believers only.
Their first statement of faith bore remarkable similarities to one belonging to the Presbyterians. Let's be kind and say it was "adapted," though "copied" does come to mind.
Baptist beginnings in America date to Roger Williams who founded a church in Rhode Island in 1638. In early America we were most numerous in Maine, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In 1700, the first association of churches was formed in Philadelphia. Along came a revival of religion known as the "Great Awakening" and Baptists were ready.
In 1812 two Congregationalist missionaries on their way to India adopted Baptist views and were baptized. One was a man named Luther Rice. He returned to America and began organizing the disorganized Baptists to support missionaries. A national body was formed, called the Triennial Convention because it met every three years.
When the country split over slavery, so did Baptists. Every other church group did the same thing, except the Episcopalians. Most have now been re-united. Baptists haven't. Our church is one that supports both national Baptist groups, though the chance of re-union now is about that of a snowball in a very warm climate!
What is a Baptist? A Baptist is simply a kind of Christian who believes and stresses certain things. None of those things are distinctive. They're all shared in common with some other group of Christians. I've heard people talk about "Baptist distinctives" as if there were some things we had the franchise on.
No, zilch. No one can name a Baptist doctrine that isn't the doctrine of some other group, or a Baptist practice that isn't the practice another group. There is no such thing. So we don't have a monopoly on anything–and I'm rather glad we don't. We simply have our list of favored principles and practices. What's on that list?
One thing is personal faith. Every individual decides on religion for himself. We give invitations. You walk down the aisle on your own. We baptize no infants on the faith of parents. Let them grow up and believe for themselves, then we can talk.
We believe in soul liberty and the priesthood of every believer. I don't dictate your faith to you, and you don't dictate mine to me. No one stands between any Baptist and his Lord. We believe in direct access. And we've avoided creeds that presume to say to anyone what he has to believe. We've said he should be free to believe what he finds in his Bible and in his soul.
One of the problems today is that they're some new kids on the block who don't appreciate that. They'd like to tell you what to believe and me what to preach. They'd like to have a creed like the Catholics do and use it to make people straighten up in line. If that ever happened, true Baptists would have to go somewhere else.
Baptists began as a minority suffering under a state-run church. We said there should be no such thing. We said when you give religion political power, or politicians religious power, you do a bad thing. We said when you mix the two you get a bad mix. This is why Bob Jones, the most conservative Baptist I know, calls Jerry Falwell "the most dangerous man in America."
I remember those fears when Kennedy ran for office. If that Catholic gets to be our president then the Pope in Rome would run our government! But John Kennedy believed in separation of church and state more than a lot of modern-day Baptists do! We now have some Baptist popes who'd like to take over the government. I say don't let them.
Our tradition was expressed by Baptist John Smyth who wrote in 1612:
"The magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion or doctrine; but to leave Christian religion free, to every man's conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions . . . for Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience."(Quoted by Torbet, A History of the Baptists, p. 480)
Baptists believe in the independence and autonomy of the local church. For instance: Luther Rice church ordains women. There are some Baptists who disapprove of that. But then, I disapprove of how they do. I read their stuff and it almost makes me sick. The fact is, though, that they can't make us change what we're doing, and we can't make them change what they're doing. And that's the Baptist way. Each Baptist decides for herself, and each local church decides for itself.
"What's your church like, Jane?" "It's like what we want it, Ken!" (Reference to a song by Ken Medema about his becoming a Baptist.)
That sounds like chaos, and sometimes is. But I like it. It means we debate a lot of things and vote on a lot of things. The Baptist system is a democratic system. Every person has the same rights. The president of the company, and the janitor who empties his waste basket, if they belong to the same Baptist church, each has one vote. I like that.
I think the Baptist way has something to offer in an age where people worry that the systems which control their lives are out of their control. Centralized authority is efficient–give it that. Let a few smart people run things for the good of all. But every so often, the natives get restless when you do it like that. Those at the top get out of touch. And then you can have an uprising.
When you have a system where things are decided at the grass roots, you have creative potential, and you have demonic potential. In other words, God can do a lot with it, or the devil can. And things can change hands in a very short while.
At our best we're a people who take the Bible and use it as a guide for living. At our worst we make it an object of worship and a tool of controversy. Have you seen those ridiculously huge American flags some car dealers float above their lots? Are they saying they're more patriotic that a place with just an average flag? And all true patriots should drive in and give them their business, huh? Well that's how some people use the Bible. They have a contest going to see who can make his belief in it look the biggest. But that's not a use of the Bible–that's a misuse.
At our best we worship and serve the Lord with the heart and with the mind. At our worse, we leave out one or the other. And end up with feelings and no reasons, or with reasons and no feelings.
At our best we combine preaching the Gospel with meeting human needs. We tell people about the Bread of Life but we send food along too. We give shelter to the homeless, and a meal, and a job if we can–but we do it in the name of Christ who alone can save the soul and meet a person's deepest needs.
The scripture lesson read this morning was chosen for a reason. It's about the most Baptist-sounding passage I know of in the Bible.
There was that band of believers, solving their problems under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, dealing with disagreements in their midst, using the democratic process, and trying to live in love with one another, even when they found it hard.
They were like us, or we like them. For the only thing sure about their future was that they were the ones in charge of it.
Baptists can be pretty tough in some of those situations. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was established in Greenville, South Carolina with a faculty of four in 1859. James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly, Jr., and William Williams. There were 26 students. But along came the war, and the school was forced to close. Its future was in grave doubt.
That faculty of four had a meeting. And one of them said, "Let us quietly agree here that the seminary may die–but we will die first." No one forgot. The school lived. Historian Robert Torbet says "it gave to the Southern Baptist Convention a strength which was invaluable, for it shaped the doctrinal and ecclesiastical viewpoint of the ministerial leadership throughout the Southern States.
I am blessed of God to have entered into that heritage. And I will help preserve it. Or die first.
YOU BET YOUR LIFE
It's like a leap into darkness from the top of something high in the air. With nothing but someone's word that you'll not be hurt, that to do this is really to save your life, not to lose it. That there's a net of safety down below you there. And this is a test of whether you believe the one who's urging you to do it.
Walk carefully to that edge and look over. It's dark down there. Your eyes strain to see. You wouldn't have to see the whole net, if only you could see just a little. But nothing–you see no net, you see nothing.
And you stand there torn, hesitating. Is this faith or is it foolishness? You have much to lose if you do jump, and much to gain if you don't. You have much to gain if you do, and much to lose if you don't. And standing there at the edge and looking down, those thoughts keep cycling and recycling at computer-like speed.
You never liked high places. Any other test would be better than this. But what will you do? You must decide.
Now, from the perspective of modern American religion that seems like an extreme metaphor indeed. It seems so far out of the middle of the road that it isn't even in the road. And we love the middle of the road–where it's smooth, and flat, and wide, and safe. Where most people travel. Where the shoulders and the drop-offs are the greatest distance away.
But from the perspective of Jesus Christ, the writers of the New Testament, and the life of the early church, our choice of ways is a curious choice. For they found the way to be hard and narrow that leads to life. And as for ways that are broad and thronged with travelers, Jesus said those lead to destruction.
So he'd go up to a tax collector, let's say, a man named Matthew, and urge radical change in his life. Even though the man worked for the Roman government, and if you were living then that was the government to work for. He had a good job, a good living, a good future. And then comes along a penniless unaccredited rabbi who calls him to leave all that and become a follower of his?
I'm concerned about the nature of faith this morning. The Bible says we're saved by grace through faith. But what does that mean? Does it really mean you act on something other than reason? That you try things you can't be sure of? That you head off for places you've never seen, and neither has anyone else? I think so.
What did God do for us in Jesus Christ but take a risk of faith? Listen: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . ."–but wait! Hold everything! Right there at that point what has happened and what will happen?
God has given his only Son. With what assurance? With what assurance? Tell me, was this guaranteed to work or not? How many people on your block has it worked for? What percentage of college professors has it worked for? Or labor union leaders? What percentage of people in any state, any county, any nation, have had their lives transformed as Jesus Christ can do?
God made his astonishing sacrifice with firm evidence that how many people would believe in him and have everlasting life?
None. The answer is none. God gave his Son with no promise or pledge, nothing signed in advance. He took a risk, a risk for us all. A straw in the wind, a shot in the dark.
"He came unto his own, and his own received him not, but . . .." But there were some who did. And to them he gave "power to become sons of God."
He did this, though, as a kind of holy experiment. Mix two parts this and three parts that and see what happens. That sort of thing. And the point I'm making is that the God who took a chance with us now calls for us to take a chance with him. And the fact that we're made in the image of God means we have it in us to do that, if we will.
You ever watched those people who beg on the street? You notice they always seem to have something wrong with them. Blind or crippled or something. And they sit there beside a building, or maybe on the steps where people go up and down. And you do hear things about how much money some of them take in, but you don't see much sign of it.
Anyway, I heard a story about crippled man who did that. Always sat in the same place in front of this church. He may have figured church people almost have to give something now and then. It makes church people feel good to give you a little something. Then they don't have to think as much about other things they don't do.
Anyway, the man was sitting there and a lot of people were coming and going. And along came two preachers. I guess they were in a hurry. Preachers are always in a hurry, whether they're hurried or not. They at least can look hurried, as these two did.
The man thought they might hurry on by as he put out his hand. Other people were watching to see if that happened. In fact, there was actually a little audience for this. Preachers are always sizing up the religion of other folk, so now and then the folk appreciate a chance to return the favor!
So the man held out his hand, empty of course. And they saw it, and came over. And he thought then that they were going to give him something. And they were, but not what he thought.
They said they were flat broke right then, but they could give him something even better than money. They said in the name of Jesus Christ to get up and walk. And he believed that, and tried it. And he did get up, and could walk. And then he found he could run and jump up in the air. And he went into the church, running and jumping up in the air and praising God for what had happened.
The names of those preachers were Peter and John. And the book of Acts, where that story's found, gives the reaction of the crowd. It says, "Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John . . . they wondered, and they recognized that they had been with Jesus."(Acts 4:13)
I tell that simply to ask, where in us is the boldness to act in faith, by which the world will see that we have been with Jesus? I tell it to urge a boldness of our own as we make our commitments to Grow by Caring. If the contents of your commitment should be displayed to a crowd of the curious, would they be amazed and see that you had been with Jesus? Or would they smile politely, or go "Ho-hum"?
J.H. Oldham has written, "There are some things in life, and they may be the most important things, that we cannot know by research or reflection, but only by committing ourselves. We must dare in order to know. Life is full of situations to which I can respond not with part of myself but only with the commitment of my whole being."(quoted by Wm. Dyal, It's Worth Your Life, p. 130)
Albert Camus tells the story of a lawyer who was crossing a bridge late one night. He heard the cries of a drowning woman in the darkness below him. But the bridge was high, and the current swift, and no one there to know. He ran from the scene. But he found in later life that he could never run far enough. The memory of it haunted him. And once, as it did, he cried out: "Oh young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have the chance of saving both of us!" (quoted by Dyal, p. 131)
That illustrates a fact of life–that we shrink from making commitments, and yet need to make them. That we love our security, and yet it spoils us.
We may be more secure when we're the most insecure, because Jesus said that in the process of saving our lives we're losing them, and in losing our lives we're saving them. So there's a lot to consider as you wonder what's smart and what's dumb.
The Rich Young Ruler had ease and security. He came to Jesus like a man with money walks into a store to buy something. He's there to get what he wants, and has what he needs to get it.
"Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
"Is there some card you need me to sign? Would you like a nice donation, perhaps? If there's something to learn or memorize, I can do it in no time at all! What is it, just tell me?"
And Jesus said:
"Sell everything you have, then give all the money to help the needy."
You remember in school when boys used to scrape their fingernails across the blackboard? Remember how it made your nerves stand on end? Well two things Jesus said did that to the Rich Young Ruler.
First, he spoke of giving money away. And second, he spoke of giving it to the class of people who didn't deserve any money because if they weren't so lazy and worthless they could have as much as anyone else! And now he wants me to take what I've worked hard for and give it to deadbeats who'd have it spent in no time.
But when that anger died down, perhaps he did consider it. Something had drawn him to Jesus. Settled as he was, he was unsettled now. He thought of taking Jesus at his word and actually doing it.
It would have taken courage. To trust someone you can't be sure in advance you ought to trust. But the man drew back. And the Bible says he "became sad" and went away.
My, what a sadness! What a sadness.
CONSTRAINED BY LOVE
2 Cor. 5:11-20
I know of no word more crucial for understanding the mind of Jesus Christ than the word "love."
Everything Jesus did and said was based on love. Love is what motivated him, and it's what he used to motivate others. "Having loved his own, he loved them to the end." He said, "If you love me, keep my commandments." His greatest commandment was to love God and then your neighbor. By this would all men know that you are his disciples, if you have love for one another.
Jesus believed that love is the greatest power there is. Because of love, a person will even lay down his life for a friend. Because of love, people carry the loads of others, even second miles. Because of love, mountains are moved, and lives are changed. Faith, hope, and love–those are the things that matter in this world–and the greatest of them is love.
I looked at our list of Grow by Caring tasks with love in mind. I looked at each one and asked myself, "Would love cause a person to do this?" And "if love wouldn't, what would?" I found that love is one way to all of them, and the best way to some of them, and the only way to a lot of them.
"I will help a foreign-born community member to develop conversational skills." Why? Because the love of Christ constrains me.
"I will serve as a van driver or car driver to pick up people for Sunday or Wednesday services." Why? Because the love of Christ constrains me.
"I will observe a daily time of prayer and personal devotion." Why?
"The love of Christ constrains us." What is more constraining than love? For what will a person risk more, give more, endure more? People in love do foolish things–foolish to those not in love. No one not in love understands about someone who is. People in love have all their priorities up for review. They're not threatened as other people are. The hold of the practical is a loosened hold.
People in love with God ought to do some things that look foolish to those who aren't. I think that's what Paul was getting at when he called himself a "fool for Christ."
Your next-door neighbors have a beach house at Ocean City and go there every week end. You stay home and teach a Sunday School class at the church. They look at you and think what you're missing. You look at them and think what they're missing. Who's right about that?
"The love of Christ constrains us"–whose love is meant there?
That's a matter of interpretation. The language can mean two things. The love Christ has for us constrains us, or the love we have for him constrains us–take your pick. Maybe we're meant to see it both ways. It should be both ways.
The love of Christ for me constrains me. He loves me with an everlasting love, a love that won't let me go. And since he loves me that way, what must I do about it?
The love I have for Christ constrains me. I love him because he first loved me. "My Jesus I love thee, I know thou art mine. For thee all the follies of sin I resign. My gracious redeemer, my savior art thou. If ever I loved thee, my Jesus 'tis now." Is that someone's sentiment, or is that your sentiment?
"Constrained"?–what does "constrain" mean? I looked in my Random House unabridged dictionary. It said, "to bring about by compulsion."
Constrained means you have to. Constrained means you dream about this at nights, it nags you in your sleep. Constrained means that other calls get put on hold when this one comes. Constrained means that suffering is different now.
You might have glanced around while the scripture lesson was being read. You might have looked over on the next page into chapter six. Your eye might have fallen on verse four:
"But as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way; through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger . . ."
And you think, as that sinks in, "Hey, wait just a minute here. I don't know about anything like that. I don't know many people who do. I don't know what causes a person to give himself like that. But Paul explains, as he continues:
". . . by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God."
Anytime you say you love someone, the question applies: "Well, what did that constrain you to do?"
If you love someone, you do differently toward that person. You just do. Love is exclusive. You feel toward someone you love like you feel toward no one else. You make allowances you don't make for anyone else. Love puts things in a whole different category.
At the close of worship November 23rd, there's going to be a very special invitation here. You'll be invited to walk down the aisle and make a Grow by Caring commitment. You'll do that by placing your card on the communion table. What will that express?
Will it be your sense of duty? That this is a program your church is doing and like it or not you should go along with it? Will it be for appearance' sake–that it might look funny if other people do and you don't, and you a deacon? Or will it mean that this may help the church, and you want to help the church, so you do it?
None of those is the best of reasons. The best reason is that you love the Lord and what he's done for you, and this is your response. This is your love for him expressing itself in a tangible way.
CBS had a movie called "The Christmas Without Snow." It had a scene where a church choir was working on Handel's "Messiah," and a soprano who hadn't gotten the solo part she wanted pitched a fit. She threw her music at the director, marched toward the door, turned and shouted at the choir: "You're all a bunch of amateurs; I'm a professional."
Edrie Hough would have known how to handle that! And so did this lady's director. After she slammed the door, the director explained to the choir the meaning of the word "amateur." It comes from the latin "amare" which means "to love." An amateur is someone who participates because of love. And that's what any Christian ought to be doing, she said.
I hope you'll think like an amateur about what tasks to undertake. How much you want to try. Just say, "I love you Lord, and these are the things I'm going to do to show it.
The things on our list are mostly practical things. Doing them will get you into action. A lot of them will put you in contact with other people. Some will get you out of the house. Some will get you out of yourself. "Faith without works is dead," and Grow by Caring is a chance to show the aliveness of your faith.
In Irving Stone's novel The Agony and the Ecstasy there's a conversation between Michelangelo and his apprentice sculptor Soggi. Soggi isn't sure about sculpting. He's found there's not much money in it. He's decided his future is elsewhere, and suggests that his boss might want to consider that. But Michelangelo replies: "Sculpture is at the top of my list, Soggi. In fact, there is no list. I say 'sculpture,' and I'm finished."(New York: Doubleday and Co., 1961, p. 75.)
All people have a list. You do. If I should ask your help on the way out this morning, you'd check your list. You'd check it and say "Sure, Pastor, I'll do that" or "Sorry, I just can't fit that in right now." The list would determine your answer.
Michelangelo said "sculpture" and the list was out of items. The best Christians say "serving Christ," and that's it. But few of us are in the category of "best Christians." We have other things on our list. Some that take precedence. Sometimes all the Lord gets from us is the leftovers. The love of Christ does not constrain us, at least not enough.
We're like the little boy who gave his girl a valentine present. The note read: "With all my love and half of my allowance."
We've said "I love you, Lord." But the time is coming to spend some allowance money.
LONGER CORDS, STRONGER STAKES
I suppose taking any text from the Bible and trying to speak on it should be cause for humility. But there are some texts that bring added cause–like Isaiah 54:2. William Carey preached from that text on May 30th, 1792, in Nottingham, England. It was afterward known as his "deathless sermon." Mine may not be deathless, but I hope you'll listen anyway!
Carey was 31 at the time–Ken's age. He was brought up Anglican, but at 17 he found himself in a prayer meeting with some nonconformists, led by a shoemaker's apprentice named John Warr–spelled with two r's just like your former pastor. And he had a conversion experience there that led to becoming a Baptist. He also began preaching.
For him, that meant a lot of study. He followed a rigid system. On Mondays he worked in the classics. Tuesdays it was science and history. Other days he studied for the midweek and Sunday services. He learned Greek and Hebrew.
But William Carey wasn't content just to study hard and preach what he studied about. The man had a zeal, a zeal that was rare in his day. He believed that Christians should send missionaries to preach the Gospel in other lands.
We take that for granted now. The theory, I mean. But folk in Carey's day were strong on predestination. And they said if the Lord wanted to convert the heathen he'd do it himself. He'd do it with no help from any of them, they said.
Carey wrote a pamphlet titled The Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. And then he preached this sermon, which must have been quite an event. His theme was "expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God." The next day they were having a business meeting and trying to decide what to do. A lot of people wanted to study it some more, to think about it for awhile. Carey was sitting beside Andrew Fuller, the most influential man in the group. And he turned and gripped his arm and said "Is there nothing again going to be done, sir?"
Fuller was either convinced or afraid for his arm. Before the meeting adjourned he presented a resolution "that a plan be prepared against the next Ministers' Meeting at Kettering, for forming a Baptist Society for propagating the Gospel among the Heathens." (see Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, p. 103-106.) And that was the beginning of missionary work among Baptists.
Well, let's look at Carey's text this morning, and see if it might even stir us up a little. Here it is:
"Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out. Hold not back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes."
Enlarge . . . stretch out . . . lengthen . . . strengthen . . . hold not back. Those are challenging verbs, to say the least. They have the sound of a Chamber of Commerce about them. You see graphs and charts on the wall and someone with a pointer in his hand. Around a conference table, eyes are gleaming. Dollar signs are floating in the air above. People who think big are getting ready to enlarge.
But William James once wrote: "I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, underdogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top."
The man was never a Chamber of Commerce type, as you can see! But he has his point. Bigger doesn't always mean better. Big cars, big houses, big labor, big business, big government, big time operators–things can get out of hand. So that people end up having more to live with but less to live for.
So how are we to take this when it speaks of enlarging the place of our tent?
I don't think it's about religious empires. I do think it's about spreading the Gospel and improving the lives of as many people as possible. Spiritual things. God is a spirit, and those who work for him must work in spirit and in truth.
Enlarge the role of love in the world. Increase the caring of people for others in need or oppressed. Expand prayer, expand patience, expand humility and kindness. Work to make generosity bigger. Things like that.
Enlarging the place of our tent means enlarging the role of the will of God in our lives and the lives of others in this world. If you see it like that, then ambition is in order. His kingdom come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We should pray for that and work for that. And not hold back.
"But what do you mean by all this, Preacher? You're saying do more for God, but what does that mean? Where do we start? We come to church and get all pumped up, but we never know what for. What specifically do you want us to do?"
I'm glad you asked that! Some of us have been working all summer long on that very question. For starters, we have 79 answers to it! That's true! We have a program called Grow by Caring you'll be hear about this Wednesday evening. It majors on the practical. It does what Carey did to Andrew Fuller: it gets you by the arm and asks when are you going to do something? And what will it be? And when will you get started?
You say I've quit preaching now and gone to making an announcement. That's fine, you say that. But you be back here Wednesday evening and hear what these people have to say. If you're at all serious about living as a Christian in this world. If you're at all concerned about the outreach and ministry of our church. You have nothing to do that's more important. Nothing.
Well . . . let's take a closer look at that picture of Isaiah's. I don't know how long it's been since you slept in a tent, but I suspect awhile. I don't know if you've ever lived in a tent. I did for a few summers in my Boy Scout days. But I have no plans to do that again. So none of us knows much about tents anymore. We have to reconstruct.
"Enlarge the place of your tent," the prophet tells us. Which means to make a greater place for the kingdom of God in our midst. Create a larger space for him. Where others will hear and come to worship and serve him.
But as you enlarge a tent you enlarge your problems. The larger the tent the more critical it is that it be pitched right. A larger tent requires longer cords and stronger stakes, and it has to be both. A stronger stake with a small cord is a waste. A longer cord with a weak stake is a danger.
God's people need the longer cord of visionary planning, and the stronger stake of commitment and hard work. That's how I interpret that. If you work hard at piddling tasks, you're a stronger stake with a too-short cord. But if you dream and plan big, without following through on the work, you've pitched a dangerous tent that will soon collapse.
Ideas without effort are a frustration and a waste. Efforts without ideas to guide them are commendable but never effective. To enlarge the place of our tent and stretch forth the curtains of our habitation, we need both. We need to plan our work, and then work our plan. We need to have our work cut out for us and no one "cut out"!
232 American soldiers under Colonel William Travis had their work cut out for them, and no one cut out. They were defending the Alamo, with an army of 5,000 on its way to take it from them. Travis took his sword and scratched a long line across the dirt floor. Those who will stay and defend step across the line. Every man did. And not a man surrendered later. Their bravery became legend, and a rallying cry for others.
Our need isn't for soldiers. Our need is for Christians who believe that deeply in their cause, and in their leaders, and in one another, and in the God who called them to his service. Who will dedicate themselves to tasks requiring risk and personal sacrifice.
Hear the Prophet's message–don't hold back! Don't hold back.
DOES THE DEVIL MAKE US DO IT?
It was a nice day in the garden–a real nice day. And Eve was there, and she was so happy. She was happy to be alive on a day like this. She was happy with Adam, her husband, who was off hunting right now. And she was so happy with this garden where they lived.
She'd just picked the most luscious, scrumptious, picture-perfect piece of fruit you ever saw. (Illustrate–"Ummh! Ummh!") And she was enjoying the last of that one and almost ready to pick another one when she heard someone coming. She thought it must be Adam. But it was someone else.
"Oh, hello there Serpent! Have some fruit."
"Thanks Eve. Think I will. Ummh! Ummh! That's really good, Eve. Say, how you been?"
"Oh Serpent, just fine, thank you. And you?"
"Can't complain. Can't complain. And Adam, he been O.K. too?"
"Sure, Adam's fine. He loves to hunt, you know. He's out hunting now. I expect him back soon. Have another piece of fruit, Serpent–isn't it good?"
"It is good, Eve. It's really good. Say . . . how's the fruit on that tree over there?"
"Well . . . I don't know. We've never tried that one over there. God said we could eat from all the other trees, but we should leave that tree alone."
"Did he say that? Why, I bet he just wants to keep that one for himself. It sure looks good. Haven't you wondered what it tastes like?"
"Well sure I've wondered, Serpent. But the rest is all so good, we don't really need . . . I mean, what's so special about that tree. It doesn't look so different from any of the others. What are we missing if we never try it?"
"That's a very good question, Eve. It is a special tree. All the people who eat fruit from that tree will get to be wise like God himself. That's why he doesn't want anyone else messing with it. But if you want to, we could try just one little bite."
And she thought about that, as she'd already been thinking about it. And something inside said no. But a stronger urge said yes. What could it hurt? And she reached up, and pulled it, and tasted it right there. And it was good! And she turned to the Serpent, who was watching with a big grin of course, and said "Ummh! Ummh!"
Did the devil make her do it?
No. He did not. He does not. He can not.
Oh, he can do his number with the suggestions, or the cover-up, or even the big lie. He can make something rotten smell sweet. He can make something big look tiny as nothing. He can get you to believe what you ought to doubt, and doubt what you ought to believe. But he never plucks fruit. We do that ourselves. The devil doesn`t make us.
What does make us harbor grudges, or cheat on our taxes, or abuse our health, or participate in racial slurs? What makes us rude and impatient? What makes us love money more than God? Who can we blame and keep the blame away from us?
Isaiah told the people, "Your sins have separated between you and God, and your iniquity has made him hide his face from you." And the apostle Paul, after reciting the long, sorry record of human depravity, summarized it in four words–"They are without excuse." Without excuse.
The Bible begins with the story of man's choice, and ends with a call to choice. "The spirit and the bride say 'come,' and let him who is thirsty come. Let him who desires take the water of life without price."
Here is evil, you see, and we may do that evil, but the devil doesn't make us–he can't. And here is good, you see, and we may do that good, but the Lord doesn't make us–he won't.
Take the Prodigal Son. Did he have excuses for what he did? You might say no, but just listen:
"Dad, I don't want it to sound like a reflection on you or anything, but I think my problem was the way I was brought up. You were so strict on me, I just needed a little freedom. Do you understand?"
"Really Dad, if you could see those girls they have over there. I mean, I didn't plan to do all that. I just couldn't help myself. I don't know who could."
"It was just the circumstances, Dad. Everything was going O.K. until that famine came along. What did I have to do with that? That's where I lost all the money. It was just rotten luck, that's all."
People say a lot of things like that with far less reason. But the boy didn't. So listen again to what he did say.
"Father, I have sinned against Heaven and in thy sight and am no more worthy to be called thy son. Make me as one of thy hired servants."
You see he had no one to blame but himself, and he blamed no one but himself. He was able to face the painful truth about himself and express it honestly to those he loved. That takes guts.
The theme of personal responsibility is one you meet again and again in scripture. Jeremiah put it this way:
"Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom, and it is bitter."(Jeremiah 4:18)
"Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn, and live."(Ezekiel 18:20-32)
He's saying you have no one to blame but yourselves, your punishments are deserved and just, but you can still be saved if you'll use the freedom that took you from God to bring you back to God.
Now I maybe need to complicate this a little, because it sounds so simple. It is a fact that we live in a world with a lot of controls. We're not as free to act as some preacher makes it sound. All men may be created equal, but they sure do live in unequal circumstances. Little Tommy lives with his mother in a Silver Spring high rise–nice place, a pretty good life there. Little Ralph lives mainly on the street in a Southeast ghetto. He knows already about the drugs and the pimps. He knows about fear, and stranger's faces. Little James lives on a million dollar estate in Potomac. They have a pool in the back yard where he takes lessons on Saturdays. Modays he goes to horseback riding, and Wednesdays to tennis. Do those three boys have an equal chance in life?
Do people sometimes do things they don't want to but know they have to if they want to keep their job? Don't society and government increasingly control and dictate about matters in our private lives? Aren't we all manipulated by the media and by advertisers to some degree?–and we never know what that is.
B.F. Skinner argues there's no such thing as a personal decision in human behavior. It's all determined for us, and so there's no guilt and no responsibility. I say we may not all have an equal chance, but we all have a chance.
Even Ralph has a chance, you see. He could end up in a mansion, and James who started out in one could end up on the street. Stranger things have happened.
We all have more of a chance that we'll ever put to good use. Our choices may not be totally free–of course they're not–but the more we use our freedom the more of it we'll find. And if we ever forfeit it, or despair of it, or get talked out of it, something precious will have died.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
And thank you, Robert Frost, for describing that moment of choice where we determine our course. Where we do, at times, take the wrong road and live to regret it. Where we must pray, and pray hard, to choose what's right instead of what's appealing.
"Turn these stones into bread–you're hungry, just do it!" "Worship me and I'll give you all the nations of the earth." Jesus faced those temptations, made his choices, and after that the record says: "Then the devil left him."
Mary seemed to think it was her business to straighten everyone else out. She was always criticizing and complaining. She made everyone around her feel uncomfortable. She had no real friends, and actually was very lonely and insecure. In spite of appearing strong, she was really on the verge of collapse. Then one day she met someone who patiently helped her see what she was doing to herself and other people. And she began building up her friends instead of tearing them down. Then the devil left her.
He has to leave, you see. He can't stay where he isn't wanted. He can present evil in an attractive way, but he can't make us choose it.
You are in charge of you. You're free after all, if you're determined to be. And no principality or power, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can take that away from you.
All of us dwell in our Eden. We live among trees, some good and some bad, some given, some forbidden. We reach out in freedom to one tree or the other. We decide for ourselves. And even if we decide wrong, we can usually correct it.
Our example is Jesus, out there in that wilderness. Asking himself if he really had to do it the hard way, or were there short-cuts? He was tempted to settle cheap, take the easy way out. He was tempted in all points, like as we are.
But the devil didn't make him do it.
And he can't make us.
CAN WE DO MORE?
1 Thessalonians 3:6-4:12
How many of you know who Richard Bach is? Someone says didn't he write a lot of organ music?–no, that was another fellow. Richard Bach is a writer, and one you've heard of. Do you remember the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Richard Bach was the author.
He tells how he finished the manuscript and began sending it out to publishers. It kept coming back–no thanks, not interested. Very nice, but we don't think there's a market for this. And he literally ran out of publishers to send it to, and it was sitting at home on a shelf. And he learned later that a group of editors were sitting around a table one day discussing the market and what the public might be ready for. And one of them said, "By the way, there was a little piece about a seagull I sent back not long ago. That might be what we're looking for." And it was. It became a best seller overnight.
It was short, and had pictures, and was written in a simple, pleasing style. But I think people were attracted to it because it made them to think about the way they were spending their lives. Was it what they wanted? Was there something more they might be missing out on?
Jonathan's seagull friends were happy to sleep on the sand at night and eat scraps from the fishing boats during the day. Their gift for flying was only used to take them back and forth. Jonathan questioned this. He thought there could be more to life. What the others took for granted, he was thrilled by. He loved to fly, just for the sake of flying. So instead of flying in order to eat, he ate in order to fly.
And people sitting reading this at their desks on lazy afternoons were thinking, "My God, am I missing something? Am I living to eat when I could be eating to live?
And they thumbed those pages where Jonathan was pressing himself to the limits of flying, and learning to do what others could have learned but never bothered to, and how thrilling it was to him, and the freedom he found in it, and they thought of their own slaveries and were made very restless. They thought that they may have settled cheap in life. They imagined themselves without limits, and what they might do if they dared to break with the patterns of the past and explore their full potential. But then most of them just sighed a heavy sigh and said to themselves, "Oh well, it's just a book about a seagull."
This morning I'm asking the question, "Can we do more?" Can we do more as Christians and church members, as parents, as students. As citizens, as helpers of others, as planners, as anything that seems to be our gift and calling in life.
Paul had this on his mind as he wrote his letter to the church in Thessalonica. He wants to tell them they can do more than they're doing. But he has a problem. To tell someone he can do more than he's doing is to tell him he's doing less than he could. So Paul does the best he can to split the difference. He commends them for what they are doing, but says there's more beyond it. Listen:
"Finally, brethren, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, you do so more and more."
"Concerning love of the brethren you have no need to have any one write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brethren throughout Macedonia. But we exhort you, brethren, to do so more and more . . .."
I guess you call this psychology, right? Tell a man he's sure doing a good job. Then tell him the nicest way you can that he could be doing a better job, and how. That's not an easy task! Be sure you pray a lot before you undertake it!
The Bible tells us to do this, though. In Hebrews 10:24, for instance:
"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works . . .."
The King James version used the word "provoke." Which is a word that used to mean something good and came to mean something bad. If you went home and told someone "the pastor sure did provoke me this morning," they might fear for my safety. But in the best sense of the word, that's what I'm supposed to be going. That's what we're all supposed to be doing as fellow Christians. To "provoke" one another to love and to good works.
How much do any of us like being provoked? In the bad sense or in the good sense? And isn't it easy to try provoking someone in the good sense and she takes it in the bad sense? "To provoke unto love and to good works"–which is easier? I say good works. To provoke unto love is about the hardest thing there is. You can get someone to do something, but changing attitudes is hard, and love is the hardest.
Paul's point to the Thessalonians seems to be that they were doing the right things, they just weren't doing enough of them. He commends them for pleasing God as much as they were, but says they could increase it. He commends the love they had for one another, but says it could go farther.
I used to live among tobacco farmers in Kentucky. One of the measurements of success with a tobacco farmer is how many pounds of tobacco you produce per acre. The government will only let you plant so many acres, so you try to get the most out of what you're allowed. Sometimes they'd get over 2,000 pounds per acre. I'd hear the old farmers talk about the days when 200 pounds was pretty good. But with scientific farming the trend has been toward higher yields with every new year.
Pitchers work for more strikeouts, retailers for more sales, students for more A's, lawyers for more verdicts–everyone has this challenge of producing more. And what a shame, in a world where that goes on every day, if Christians come to church with an attitude of business as usual.
For instance, does it seem impossible that every Christian once every month could win another person to faith in Christ? Just one person, just once every 30 days? If that could happen we'd double our number in a month, and then the next month we'd double that. Six months later you'd have 25,000 new Christians around, and let that continue six more months and you'd have a million and a half. All from a group of people the size of our congregation.
Well, that's not realistic, is it? But what is realistic? What has been happening? You can take our book of reports and find that out. Last year it took 403 Luther Ricers to bring in 16 new members. That means it took 25 of us a year of doing church to account for one new member. That, by the way, isn't bad as churches go. The average is more like one to thirty.
I'm saying we can realistically do more than we're doing. I can do more than I'm doing. You can do more than you're doing. We can do more praying, more giving, more witnessing, more serving others, more loving each other, more saying yes and less saying no–we can. You know it.
Paul prayed a prayer for the Thessalonians that went like this: "May the Lord make your love for one another and for all people to grow more and more." Translate that to the first person plural and it becomes:
May the Lord make our love
for one another
and for all people
to grow more and more.
I know that sounds like more obligation, and it is. Like something that would take your time, and it would. But without some sense of owing, of being needed, of being obligated and depended on, how else will be ever increase our efforts?
I visited a young man not long ago, and I left wishing there was some way some of you could have the same experience. He lives just a few blocks from here. He's handicapped and practically homebound by a terrible disease that destroys his skin and fingers and toes. He lives bandaged. He lives with pain. But he's bright, and usually cheerful, and has a computer. That's how he spends a lot of his time.
He doesn't have regular hands, but he uses what he has to tap keys one by one. He has the time. He plays chess on his computer. He corresponds with friends. He's even made some money writing programs for other computers.
If someone looked at him and asked "what can he do?" they might be inclined to answer, "not much."
But he can do much. Amazingly, he can. And as I watch him hobble around, and reach here for this, and open up a book to show me that, the question that comes to me is, "What can I do?" I mean, if he can do what he does, what could Ed Briggs do with the same effort? As I shut the door and walk down the steps to leave, the answer is clear: "more than I'm doing."
That man who gave us these words I've used this morning, Paul of Tarsus. He was a short and unattractive man, they say. He had some physical ailment that made life painful too. And he started late as a Christian. And he had a good mind, but he turned a lot of people off, and ran some people off. And if they wondered early in his career, "What can he do?" I doubt that anyone could have guessed.
For he traveled, and preached, and traveled somewhere else, and preached some more. He preached to Jews, to Gentiles, to the poor, to the educated. He rode on beasts and on ships and walked on foot. He stayed in homes and inns and sometimes jails. He covered thousands of miles and started hundreds of churches. He did more than anyone would have believed, simply because he was determined.
What can you do? Let me tell you. You can do ALL THINGS through Christ who strengthens you! So??
HE THAT SHALL ENDURE TO THE END
There's a Greek word "hupomeno." It literally means "to remain under." Imagine a person carrying a heavy load. He's weighed down by it, he's almost crushed, and he'd like to throw it off and be free of it. But he doesn't. Because it's important to carry that load.
We built a new church house down in Tennessee. When the roofers came, they had an elderly man whose job was to carry the shingles. All day long he made trips up a ladder to the roof with those bales of shingles on his back. They were heavy. I remember he had some padding sewed on his jacket. He held the ladder with his left hand and the shingles with his right. You felt sorry for him, but you knew he was used to it. And he never complained.
Jesus tells us, he that shall "hupomeno" to the end shall be saved. Endure! He that shall "remain under his load," heavy though it may be, he shall be saved.
This is the same word Paul used in First Corinthians 13 where he said that love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and . . . endures all things."(1 Cor. 13:7) It's the same one used in the 12th chapter of Hebrews to say that Jesus "endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."(Hebrews 12:2)
Jesus used that word for telling prospects what they could expect. I find that pretty amazing, don't you? I mean, when I talk to prospects I emphasize the positive. I try to show how good this is going to be, if she'll just come on and join Luther Rice. But Jesus tells how tough it's going to be if you come and join him! Huh!
He was honest. He laid it right out there–no bright-colored ribbon, no flowers, no pat on the back. As if he was saying, "this is my task for you. And it's hard and could get harder. So do you want it or not?
That's what Garibaldi did. He said:
"Soldiers, all our efforts against superior forces have been unavailing. I have nothing to offer you but hunger and thirst, hardship and death; but I call on all who love their country to join with me."
That's what Churchill did. He promised "blood, sweat, and tears."
In that passage I read, Jesus spoke of many tasks. Preaching, healing, cleansing lepers, casting out demons. He spoke of long hours and small wages. He told of rejection, of doors slammed shut in your face.
You'll be like sheep among wolves, he said. You'll need to be wise like serpents and innocent as doves. And you could still get in a lot of trouble, even with members of your own family. But he who endures to the end shall be saved.
That has a faraway sound. We live in a different day. The worst hardship we might face is a Sunday the water fountain doesn't work! Tribulation is deciding what color the new carpet ought to be. We're not worried about doors slammed in our face because we don't go out and knock on doors. And the risk of cleansing lepers is something we give money for but wouldn't come in contact with.
But to say that those were hard times and these are easy times is too simple. We are tested by our ease, as much as anything else. The moan of pain is bad in its way, but so is the yawn. To yawn at God is an offense in his sight. It's one of the greatest offenses. And there's a lot of yawning by Christians today. There's a lot of indifference, a lot of laziness, a lot of assuming that the things of the Kingdom will somehow get done without our assistance.
Isaac Watts had that in mind when he wrote his hymn "Am I A Soldier of the Cross." Hymn's been around for 300 years, so I guess it has something going for it. Notice this question:
"Must I be carried to the skies on flow'ry beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize and sailed thro' bloody seas?"
Wouldn't seem very fair, would it? Others having to fight to get there, while you're carried on your flowery bed of ease? Them having to walk on sore feet while you ride in a limousine!
But you say Preacher, aren't things different today? It seems like a more congenial time. Why, we live in a Christian nation, don't we? Even our money has God on it. We can get preaching at home in the living room just by turning on the television. Our forefathers had it hard, but we have it made!
Oh no! Watts has another question, listen:
"Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God?"
We Christians act like we live in a foeless world, but we don't. We pretend this vile world we live in is a friend to God, but it isn't.
People are starving in this world,
children are missing,
destruction is threatening,
ignorance is abounding,
and godlessness is increasing.
No one called off the war, the soldiers just quit fighting. So the last verse of the hymn goes like this:
"Sure I must fight if I would reign; increase my courage Lord. I'll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by Thy word." Amen.
"He that shall endure to the end shall be saved." There is a message for us there.
We've started out, but will we endure?
Will we endure for awhile, but not to the end?
Had we better consider the other side of that thing, which is this:
He that does not endure to the end shall not be saved.
People fizzle out. They get religion and then forget it. They're like seed sown along a path. Those birds swoop down and gobble it up before it has a chance. Or maybe it survives the birds, but as soon as it sprouts the weeds choke it. Or maybe this year's weeds aren't so bad, but the seed falls in shallow soil. The roots go down and find nothing but rock. No moisture, no food, nothing. And when the sun gets hot overhead, the plant withers and dies. It did not endure to the end, and was not saved.
The decision of life is something like this: to let go of things that should be let go of, and to hold onto things that should be held on to.
"The world passes away, and the lusts thereof, but he who does the will of God abides forever."
People get that backward. They hold on to things that are bound to perish. And they let go of things that would have endured.
At the recent meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, I helped elect Lee Porter as registration secretary. Only time all week I voted with the majority! Lee Porter has been doing that job as long as I've been going to those meetings. This was his 40th straight. There were times in the early years he slept in his car because there wasn't money for expenses. But he saw this as his task, and kept at it.
We admire that, don't we? Someone who's committed to the job and sticks with it through good times and bad. Or to a marriage, or to raising children, or to caring for a parent who's grown old and helpless. Someone who's your friend and you know you can count on. Someone you miss when she's not there, because she always is. Someone who intends to make a difference.
As I listened to Billy Graham downtown a few months ago, I was reminded of a story I heard from one of his friends. After Billy graduated from Wheaton College he supposed that he should pastor a church. He tried to find one that would have him. Time passed and no luck. He knew the Lord had called him to preach, but where? He didn't know what to do, but he wasn't about to do nothing.
Billy Graham went downtown and preached on the street. There was a corner he went to, and preached his first sermons for anyone who would listen. His first pulpit, his first crusade. And my friend told me there was construction in that area later, and they were removing that sidewalk. And a layman who remembered that that's where Billy Graham got his start had the city give him the section of sidewalk, and he gave it to the college to put on display as a lesson to young preachers.
"He that shall endure to the end shall be saved."
The threats to our endurance are plain enough. Discouragement, weariness, loneliness, frustration. Sometimes our expectations are too high. Sometimes our motivation is too low. Sometimes we fail because we think we're called to be successful and don't see that working out like we think it should.
We must learn to leave that in the hands of God. What we're called to is faithfulness. Anyone who remains faithful to what God wants him to do has succeeded. He has, not will. He has already. He has regardless of how things turn out. And let me tell you there's a lot of success that men recognize but the Lord doesn't. Many are first who shall be last, and the last first, according to the words of Christ.
The letter of Hebrews tells us what's important here: Let us "run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus . . ."? "Patience" means "endurance." It means keeping on keeping on. And notice how you'll be able to do that. "Looking unto Jesus"!
That means if your attention is on success or failure it's on the wrong thing. If it's on other people and their efforts, it's on the wrong thing. If it's on yourself and your own reward, it's on the wrong thing. The only way to be sure you keep running the race is to keep looking unto Jesus!
Your feelings come and go–don't trust them. They ride you up and down like a roller coaster. Other people come and go–just let them. Some drop in, and some drop out–don't let that affect you. Success and failure are hard to measure when it comes to spiritual things–leave it in God's hands. The important questions are:
(1) What does God want me to do?
(2) And am I doing it to the best of my ability?
Paul begins the 15th chapter of First Corinthians like this. "Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast–unless you believed in vain."(1 Cor. 15:1-2)
What a sad thing, to have "believed in vain"! But some people have. Notice how Paul testifies, though, in verse 10: "By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain."
He goes on to proclaim what God has done in Christ, and the hope we have in him.
In an evil and uncertain world we have that hope. In a world where sin has power and death is at work. And some will say we are fools. And we trust in things no eye can see, and work for things that do not yet appear.
Here's how he concludes. "But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."(1 Cor. 15:57)
And "therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."
Not in vain! Not in vain!
2 Samuel 18:31-19:4
Absalom was the third son of a man named David. So am I. And so I have some insight about third sons who grow up in the shadow of their older brothers and would like nothing better than to get the best of them someday. Absalom thought about that as much as any third son does. And since his father was the king, it made it all the more interesting.
Absalom's oldest brother was named Amnon, and Amnon made a big mistake. He raped their sister Tamar. But somehow he survived the scandal and remained heir to the throne. So Absalom took things in his own hands–he had Amnon killed, and fled into exile. Now whether he killed him for love of his violated sister, or for love of his quest for power is something you can think about.
David was furious about all this, and it took him three years to calm down enough so Absalom could come back. Even then, he was permitted to live in the city but shut out of the royal palace.
He thought about the palace, though. He thought about it a lot. And being a man of ambition and cunning, he began undermining his father's position and improving his own. He spread rumors about the king that disturbed people. He cultivated the dissatisfied. And so while David was working and doing his job as king, his son was "stealing away the hearts of the people"–as the Bible puts it.
When he thought he was strong enough, Absalom led a revolt, and David had to flee for his life. But a lot of good people went with David. And a lot of others now saw Absalom in a different light. So there was a battle in the forest of Ephraim, which David's army won. And Absalom was killed.
How do you feel about that, if you're David? You have all your guilt about your failures as a father. You have your relief and satisfaction in the victory. You have your anger at a son who would try to stab you in the back. And you have your grief for the little boy you raised to be a man.
Grief is what David felt. "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
And the Bible says "the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people; for the people heard that day, "The king is grieving for his son." And the people stole into the city that day as people steal in who are ashamed . . .."(2 Samuel 19:2-3)
And this became an awkward situation, because when your army goes out and wins a victory there's supposed to be a celebration. The king is supposed to be grateful. He's supposed to make a speech there, after the bands have played and the flags have waved. A victory speech. But David couldn't do it, because of his grief.
Grief comes in all shapes and sizes. You hoped to see someone at a meeting there that day, and the person didn't come. You said nothing about it; you certainly didn't cry. But there was something about that you felt the loss of, if only for a moment.
You hoped to get a letter in the mail, or a phone call that never came, or a word of thanks that got lost somewhere. And you might not call that grief, but it is grief.
What if your boss you really liked takes a new job and moves away? What if your barber retires and goes to Florida? What if the dog dies, or an old house you lived in gets torn down? Aren't their griefs of some kind every day?
Grief is a natural reaction that occurs when we lose something we were attached to. If we attach ourselves deeply to a cause, and that cause looses, we grieve. Others who opposed it may gloat, and for the majority who cared nothing either way, it makes no difference. But we grieve.
People are more serious, of course. If we attach ourselves deeply to another person, we must grieve if we lose that person.
There are different ways to lose people. They may die, or be killed. There may be an argument, or a divorce. Or someone moves, or takes a new job. Or a child grows up and "leaves father and mother" to join with a mate.
"Death" is the "wages of sin," but grief is the wages of life. Grief is a sign there once was something good and satisfying in your life, something or someone you cared about. You committed yourself, you lived at a deeper level than the superficial. Something took place that was more than selfish. So grief is something of a badge of honor.
When Jesus came to the home of Lazarus after he'd died, people saw him weep. The famous shortest verse of the Bible, "Jesus wept." And their comment was, "See how he loved him!" He's grieving, so he must have loved him.
And that's a valid observation, except in those cases where the tears mean something else. They can be the tears of someone who cared nothing for a person in his lifetime, and someone feels guilty and sorry now who never cared before.
I think it was Eric Fromm who made the distinction between "gift love" and "need love." With gift love you care about another person for that person's sake. With need love you care for your own sake.
With one, your focus is doing for the other person–gift. With the other, it's getting the other person to do for you–need. With one, "I love you" means, "I'm happy you're meeting my needs." With the other, "I love you" means, "I care about your needs as much as my own."
What happens then, when there's a loss?
If it was "need love" you grieve a selfish grief. You say "Well, darn it!" and feel frustrated that you'll have to replace a component of your life. But your grief is for yourself, you see. You cared for that other person only as he or she was useful to you. So your tears can only mean "I feel sorry for myself at having to get a replacement." Or, "I feel guilty because I never cared, and don't care now."
Over the years, I've seen a lot of grief expressed at funerals. And sometimes I've known exactly where it came from. I've seen family members bitter and estranged toward one another in life, and as one looked down at the other in a casket, the tears that fell could only be tears of self-pity, and of guilt, and of anger, and of shame.
I've felt very sad when I've seen those tears. I've seen how much a human being needs someone to love, and someone to be loved by. And how the failure of love is the greatest failure we can have.
But even there, even when grief is not what it tries to appear, the grief is good. Grief can be worthy or unworthy, but in every case it's necessary. In every case it marks that time we have to let the past be past, and turn toward the future. Grief is a midwife that lets the journey of life continue.
Grief is a way of saying the past was meaningful. It's a way of celebrating things that are worth celebrating. And after that, and only after that, there can be a slow-but-sure turning toward the future. Grief gives us permission to say yes to life again. And if we've felt guilty, to think we deserve it again.
The Bible says, "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." It says we "sorrow not as others who have no hope." It says we have a "comforter," the Holy Spirit, who helps us in our times of infirmity.
But none of that should be taken as denying the need or reality of grief in the life of a Christian. We sorrow "not as others," but we do sorrow. And anyone who comes along with an easy smile and tries to tell you that you shouldn't grieve if you're really strong in the Lord, is a deceiver. Jesus wept, and so must we.
My mother died in 1971. The funeral was in Maryville, but some members of my church in Chattanooga drove the hundred miles to be there. The thing I remember most was walking up to look in the casket, thinking I was by myself, then feeling someone's arm around me, and Doris Stulce whispered in my ear, "We love you, Preacher."
It was the loveliest thing to say. It made no effort to deny my loss. It didn't try to tell me I should "be strong" and not "take it so hard." It simply said that others loved me. And if you're losing someone whose love meant much, that's a pretty important thing to know.
That could be one reason "we sorrow not as others." Our faith gives us inner strength, but also, if we're Christians in a family of faith, there are those to put their arms around us and assure us of their love.
There's a kind of person who avoids those attachments. If you never get attached to things, you don't have problems when you lose them. Easy come, easy go. Is that smart or not?
I think not. I think you miss the best life has to offer if you do it that way. You trade away life's joy just to spare yourself its sorrow.
God is love. And everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The person who doesn't love is living in death, John tells us.(See 1 John 3:14)
So it's better to love. Love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.
Now and then you lose a neighbor. Some day ahead the neighbors will lose you.
Faith, hope, and love–those three are the things that last, that survive the hours of loss. And the greatest of the three is love. There can never be too much of it.
GROW BY CARING
The banner up there illustrates my sermon this morning in more than one way. It obviously contains the title and a picture of caring. But there's something else you wouldn't know unless I told you.
I called Hulon Noe at his office about two weeks ago and asked if he'd design this banner for us. I emphasized, I recall, that there were people in the church I could get to do the construction. What we needed was the idea and a pattern to go by. Hulon said he was busy and had to be out of town some, but he'd do his best.
Time passed and no pattern. I really wanted the banner for today, since today is the first of these sermons, and this week is the first of our Friday home meetings. But I hated to say anything–you know how that is, especially when it's a volunteer deal. Then Hulon said something to me. He said, "Oh yeah, you know that banner you wanted?" And I said "Uh, huh." And he said, "Well, don't worry about getting anyone to build it–Betty and I have it nearly finished."
Now I don't know how long it takes to make a banner like that, but I know it takes a lot of time. I don't know how long it takes to be an effective Sunday School teacher, but I know it takes a lot of time. I don't know how much time it would take for someone to run our used clothing ministry, but I know it would take a lot. I don't know how much time spent in prayer is enough, but I suspect it's more than most of us spend.
The Grow by Caring program is simply a step toward more people doing more of the things they could be doing for God. That's it in a nutshell. "More people doing more of the things they could be doing for God." Spending time, using talents, exercising gifts, investing resources–sometimes as individuals, but often with others who've made the same commitment they have.
For instance, what if five people met each week in the church library and spread out on that long table there all the week's newspapers from our local area. What if different ones had already gone through them and circled items about people whose lives we could reach out and touch. So that here is someone who's lost a loved one–no one any of us knows, but someone who lives in our community–and a note of sympathy comes from the congregation of Luther Rice Memorial Baptist Church. Or a wedding took place, and the couple gets a note of well-wishing from us. Or someone got promoted. Or a house burned down to the ground. Or a candidate got elected, and another one didn't. New babies born in hospitals. Students who made the honor roll.
All sorts of occasions for an expression of caring by Christians. What doors that could open up. And that's only one idea among 78 others.
Beginning this Friday evening, we're going to be meeting in homes to see that list and begin the process of deciding what to do about it. Each person decides for himself. The commitment cards have a place to circle 79 different tasks and then write in others you come up with on your own.
No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Chances are that no two cards will be filled in just alike. But some will express similar interests, and after they come in, we're going to organize to do what we say we will. And that will be the payoff.
The commitments we're asking you to make are for the year 1987. At the end of the year the program will be evaluated. If we find it worthwhile, we'll adapt it to the needs of the next year. It has the potential of being a long-term thing. I'm convinced that with your support it will be. We've been needing something like this to focus on as a church, to rally around, to bring us together in united effort. This can be it.
Commitment Sunday is six weeks from today. We plan to have a container here on the Communion table to receive the cards. You'll be asked to walk down the aisle and put yours in. Any member or friend of the church, of any age, can make a commitment. A list of those who do will be posted, and others added as they make them during the year.
I hope you sense that this is a major thing. It is. I plan to take it seriously. I plan to keep it before you during the year. I plan to work hard on the follow-up. The men and women who've served on our Grow by Caring committee have taken it seriously. In fact, this has been the hardest-working committee we've had at Luther Rice in a long time. And now it's time for everyone to get involved. I pray that you will.
What if? What if the commitment shown by this committee should spread to others? What if every member and friend of our church gets involved in these home meetings and gets enthused, as those who attend them will? And what if each one walks down the aisle of November 23rd with a card in his hand that's been thought over and prayed over and is really a step forward in personal discipleship? And what if those commitments are only the beginning, and like Hulon and Betty and the banner, people not only do what they say they will, but that and more? And what if the word goes out that here in this church named for missionary Luther Rice are a lot of people who care for this world like he cared? Would that be something or not??
Some of us saw a program on China here last Wednesday evening. If you saw the movie "Chariots of Fire" you almost had to think of Eric Liddell. He died in China after World War II. A man of fierce determination, who proved it in the 1924 Olympic Games as a runner and a Christian.
He had his talent, sure. He had his speed none of us could ever come close to. But that determination, that commitment, that will to do the best for God with what we have–that isn't talent, that's just guts! People with sixth grade educations have had that and made a difference in this world. While others with better chances in life lie around and take it easy.
"Oh, isn't the weather nice today?–I just love the leaves!" "Did you see her outfit–isn't it the most beautiful thing you ever saw?" "Their lawn is absolutely the best in the neighborhood–I think he must have a green thumb."
Booring! You call that living? God made you and called you his child and wanted you to amount to something for his name's sake, and you spend your life passing the time of day? Huh? Is that good enough?
Karl Menninger, the Christian psychiatrist, had given a lecture on mental health. And he asked, as speakers do, if there were any questions, and someone raised a hand. "Yes, you over there." And the man asked something about what you should do if you found yourself having a hard time functioning anymore, because you were just so depressed and lonely all the time, and even had some thought of suicide when things were at their worst."
People got quiet in the room. They felt sorry for the man because he felt sorry for himself, and didn't quite know that everyone knew he was talking about him. And they expected, when his question was finally over, that Dr. Menninger would advise him to get professional help at once. But instead, they heard him say:
"You should get out of your house and lock it up. Then you should go down across the tracks and find someone who desperately needs help. And you should spend your time helping that person. That's what you should do."
Jesus said something like that. "He that will save his life shall lose it. And he that will lose his life shall save it."
Meaning that what you give away you end up keeping. And what you keep you end up losing.
Sounds crazy, but it's true. The wise are really the foolish, and the foolish are the wise. It's like a joke the Lord has pulled off on us all, but you better take it into account, because it's a very real thing.
Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau once said: "For as long as we live, we will remember Terry Fox with profound admiration. We will remember how he responded to a personal crisis of his own misfortune by pouring out his energies on behalf of other people."
Terry Fox was a 22-year-old runner who found he had cancer. He first lost a leg and then his life. But in between he ran 3,300 one-legged miles across Canada and raised 24 million dollars for cancer research in what he called his "Marathon of Hope." He said, "If I'm going to die of cancer, some good is going to come out of it, too." And it did.
Now we're all going to die of something, aren't we? Sooner or later we are. So that all of us might say, "Since I'm going to die of something, some good is going to come out of my life."
Or better still, "Since Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins, and since I owe everything I am and have to him, some good is going to come out of my life."
That's what Grow by Caring is about: that more good may come out of more lives to the glory of God.
GREAT IS THE MYSTERY
1st Timothy 3:16-4:10
One of the items to check on your Grow by Caring card: "I will observe a daily time of prayer and personal devotion." So far, one out of every three cards has that checked.
What do you do when you have personal devotions? You pray, and you read the Bible. What else? Perhaps meditation? Anything else you might possibly do?
Well, I ran across this the other day. William Law wrote on the subject in the early eighteenth century, and he suggests something I'll bet you never do or would think of doing. Listen:
You are to consider this (singing) of a psalm as a necessary beginning of your devotions, as something that is to awaken all that is good and holy within you, that is to call your spirits to their proper duty, to set you in your best posture towards heaven, and tune all the powers of your soul to worship and adoration.
For there is nothing that so clears a way for your prayers, nothing that so disperses dulness of heart, nothing that so purifies the soul from poor and little passions, nothing that so opens heaven, or carries your heart so near it, as these songs of praise.
A man's singing of a psalm, though not in a very musical way, may yet sufficiently answer all the ends of rejoicing in, and praising God. Our blessed Savior and His Apostles sang a hymn; but it may reasonably be supposed that they rather rejoiced in God, than made fine music.
Now music can be enjoyed as an end in itself. But this speaks of how it becomes a means toward something else, which is the praise of God. And scattered through our New Testament there are reminders of the fact that the early church knew and practiced this. There are bits and pieces of the hymns they wrote and sang.
Scholars believe that 1 Timothy 3:16 is part of an early hymn sung in worship or in private devotions. It was written as poetry. It has a rhythm you can feel. And it has important meaning for the season we celebrate the coming of Christ.
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
I have no idea what the tune for a hymn like that might be, but I do have ideas about the words and their meaning.
The central faith of Christians is expressed there, that God himself was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. He was more than a man who taught about God–we have many of those–but a man in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Emmanuel–"God with us." Know him and you know God. Follow him, and you do what God wants.
Then there's the note of joy. You feel it in each of the verbs: manifested . . . vindicated . . . seen . . . preached . . . believed on . . . taken up.
The Christian faith has so much to do with verbs. We're more than just a discussion group, we're an action group. We're not like the professor who died and went on to his reward, got there and found a sign pointing left that said "Heaven," but another one pointing right that said "Discussions about heaven." And he went that way!
Now Jesus held discussions, of course. Jesus liked to discuss. But it always led to something. Something got done as a result. And the force of this hymn is to rejoice in what Christ has done, is doing, and will do.
You also find a sort of "world view." He is "preached among the nations," it says, and "believed on in the world." In him is no east or west or north or south. And all who believe are one family, with none above the rest.
Saying that truth is easy, but living it is hard. We pray our small prayers: Lord bless me and my wife, my son John and his wife, us four and no more. Amen!" And yet Jesus tells us, "As the Father sent me, so send I you." Wherever he was sent, we are sent. Whatever he was sent to do, we are sent to do. His song is our song.
Is anything more important than how we respond? In a sermon written in 1872, it was put like this:
We must wait for God, long, meekly, in the wind and wet, in the thunder and lightning, in the cold and the dark. Wait, and he will come. He never comes to those who do not wait. And when he comes, go with him. But go slowly, fall a little behind. And when he quickens his pace, be sure of it before you quicken yours. But when he slackens, slacken at once. And do not be slow only. But be silent, very silent, for He is God.
HEROES OF THE FAITH
It's one of the strangest and most interesting things. We have this undeniable instinct for self-preservation. We want money put away, insurance to cover us. We fasten our seat belts. We avoid bad neighborhoods at night. We protect ourselves.
But then, we sit around at home and daydream about people who do the very opposite. People who take risks. We watch it on TV. Men racing cars at 200 miles an hour. Football players pounded to the ground. Policemen chasing armed suspects down poorly lit alleys. And we project ourselves into those roles and get our vicarious kicks.
We like to feel what we think they must feel. It even gets our adrenelin flowing just like theirs flows. We say to ourselves, "Boy, I wish that was me!" But then we catch ourselves thinking that. We think about the pain, and the peril, and the price. And then we say, "Boy, I'm glad that's not me!" "I'm glad that's not me."
Most football watchers, though protected with all the pads they could put on, would never survive one charging NFL lineman on his worst day of the year. If they had to face the actual hit of one middle linebacker running full steam they would die on the spot! And yet they will munch their buttered popcorn from the large bowl on the table next to the sofa and complain about the pitiful lack of hitting in today's game!
Now what I'm saying is, we have our fascination with heroes, and our wish to be more like them. But we also have that other desire to run no risks and suffer no pain. And most of the time we choose that way, and settle for being spectators and cheerleaders.
This has a religious equivalent I'd like to discuss.
"By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharoah's daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God . . .."(Hebrews 11:24-25) Thatta' boy, Moses. Go get 'um. We're all for you.
"By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son . . .." (v.17) Now that man was something, wasn't he? He did whatever the Lord told him to–no questions asked. It's fun to read about people like that.
And "some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life."(v. 35) I think that's wonderful, don't you? We could show their color slides some Wednesday evening. And "others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment."(v. 36) Well, some of that does sound a little extreme. You do have to watch out for being too extreme.
Who are the Christians today who are really suffering for their faith? Who are the ones who go all out and hold nothing back? Or is the average level of Christian commitment good enough, so that all any of us needs to do is just be average?
Jesus once said, "Unless your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will in no wise enter the kingdom of Heaven." What if he should also say: "Unless your righteousness exceed that of the average, lukewarm Christian today, you will in no wise enter the kingdom of Heaven." What if he does say that?
If persecution should arise today–I mean, if people actually had to suffer or even die for being followers of Jesus Christ–how many practicing Christians do you think there'd be?
Did you notice what Paul said about Prisca and Aquila in our scripture lesson? ". . . my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks"? They "risked their necks."
And Mary, whatever Mary she was, "worked hard among you," he said. And Persis "worked hard in the Lord." And Phoebe, a deaconess it says, "has been a helper of many and of myself as well."
They were heroes. Heroes of faith. They lived out a stubborn obedience to Jesus Christ, and would not be silenced in preaching his saving Gospel. They made their presence felt. And the mightiest force in the world, the Roman Empire, set out to subdue them. But instead, they subdued it. Not with the weapons used against them, but with weapons of faith and love.
Now why do I speak of that record on this last Sunday of October, 1986? Three weeks into an effort called Grow by Caring at a small Baptist church in Silver Spring, Maryland? What business is that of ours?
I have hope that we'll make it our business, or some at least. I have hope that as you decide on your commitment to Grow by Caring you'll have some of that spirit about you. Bite off more than you can chew and then chew it! Get down from of the grandstand and out on the playing field. Be more reckless, and less cautious.
We had a Grow by Caring meeting in our living room Friday evening, and I did the presentation. Maybe it was this sermon on my mind, but I found myself being apologetic about some of those tasks. They seem so slight, so easy, so meager.
I mean, how do you sing "All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give" and then express it by promising to join a serving team for Wednesday night dinners?! "Each month, I will visit a member in the hospital"? Each month?
So I found myself explaining that some of these tasks were designed to be easy because we have members whose health isn't good and we need some things on the list that anyone can do and feel good about.
But I want to say this morning that none of that constrains you in the least. There's ample space on the card for you to write in your own commitments. You could, for instance, write down that you'll call or visit every member whose name appears on our prayer list every week! If that's what you'll do.
You could turn that card over and write: "I'll call the pastor every Monday morning and ask what I can do to help him this week." You could. Or you could say, "I will spend two weeks of vacation doing mission work next summer." Or "I'll try to raise $10,000 for hunger relief in 1987."
The thing about this program is, it's your program. You make it what you want to make it. So don't feel limited by the things you find suggested. Use your faith and imagination. It will be interesting to see what some people come up with.
They asked Bobby Bethard how he keeps finding these players who do better than anyone thought they would. He said he watches what they did in college games when their team was loosing. The people he wants are the ones who kept playing just as hard as if they were winning. They had an inner motivation to be their best in spite of any circumstances. Even when the effort seemed of no avail.
In the summer of '85, I rode my motorcycle to the west coast and back. Other than a sunburned nose, the closest I came to a problem was crossing Nebraska on the way home. I've never encountered wind like they had there that day. It was coming out of the south, blowing directly across the road from right to left. You had to lean a lot, and hold on a lot.
But the main problem, I found, was with the big trucks. When you passed a truck you got on his downwind side, and he sheltered you. It was really funny, because one minute the wind was like a hurricane, and the next minute you were riding in a calm. You could sit up straight, and even relax.
But watch out! There's a turbulence that goes with passing a truck in still air, and you're used to that. But now you have added all that sealed-off wind that hits you again with full force. I mean it was fierce! I finally had to decide that slow as one might go, I would pass not another truck until that wind calmed down.
Shelter and ease aren't always good. We get used to shelter and ease. They make us lazy and complacent. And even the least adversity seems overwhelming then. We get caught unprepared. And so the things that challenge and buffet us may actually do us good in the long ride of life.
"Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria. . . . Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David invent for themselves instruments of music; who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.(Amos 6:1,4-6)
It isn't that the ease itself is bad, it's what it does to you. Nothing wrong with stretching out and getting comfortable, enjoying some nice music, some good food, some wine if you like it. But how easily that becomes a shelter from which you never emerge. And in it you forget. You forget about the ruin of Joseph.
Meaning that you say to yourself: "My problems are my problems, and thank God I don't have many. The world's problems are the world's problems–I like it here!" And Joseph can be in ruin, or a family, or a neighborhood, and you don't care.
God wants us to care. God calls us to leave our shelter and expose ourselves to whatever hazards that may mean.
"By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go."
"He looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God."
We're glad you did that Abraham. You're our hero.
We'd do the same thing if there was something God wanted of us. Don't guess there is. At least not much.
HOLY, HOLY, HOLY
Over the years, I've seen a lot of things in worship. Not all of them connected with worship. I see some things you might be surprised at.
It's an opportune situation when a church is arranged like this one. The pulpit up high and in the center of things. When I'm up here, you can see me better than anyone else, and I can see you better than anyone else. So one thing that happens on Sundays is–you watch me, and I watch you.
A person once called me after church to object to the color of shirt I had on. Another person told me going out the door that my hair was too long. I've seen people get angry at something I said and walk out. I've seen people see someone they didn't want to see in church and walk out because of that. I've seen naps taken, notes passed, things whispered, hands held, flies swatted, kids smacked, gum chewed–I've see it all.
I've also seen intentness and eagerness. I've seen tears. I've seen joy and gladness that made my own soul glad. I've seen insight happening, heads nodding. I've watched burdens being borne, and sorrows carried. I've seen paths of remembrance traced on people's faces. I've seen heaven come down and glory fill a soul.
But what is supposed to be happening when we meet here? That's our question this morning.
Someone is there at the door as you enter, and he hands you this thing. Every Sunday he hands you one. Program, bulletin, menu–something. And I doubt that you study the entire thing every week. Part of it never seems to change. But that might be the most important part. There on the cover, in the biggest letters of all, it tells what this is all about. "The worship of God at the Luther Rice Memorial Baptist Church."
The worship of God. This isn't entertainment, though it can be entertaining. This isn't education, though it can be educational. This isn't something that's done for you, or to you, it's something you do. If it's done at all.
You see, no matter how good I am, or the choir is, or the ushers, or the organ, or the lighting or anything–we can't make you worship. We can help, but we can't make you. You have to do that yourself.
And no matter how bad we are, we can't keep you from worshipping. We can hinder you, but we can't keep you.
You are the person God holds responsible for your worship. You alone can humble your heart before him. You alone can take the words of the hymn and make them your praise to him. You alone have the power to confess your sins and ask forgiveness. Your attitude determines whether saying the Lord's Prayer is useful or useless.
I'd guess that on the day Isaiah came to the temple, there were others there too. I'd guess the very day he had this most splendid of worship experiences in all of scripture, there were others with blank expressions on their faces.
Let's not dwell on them though. Let's discover how a person in worship can experience the presence and power of God.
"In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord."
Strange way to mark a year. But we do that. We do it when someone special dies. Mention 1971 and immediately it flashes through my mind–"That's the year Mother died." I may not say it, but I can't help but think it.
Something like that may have been the case with Isaiah. When someone dies that you loved and admired and were close to, you begin to re-assess. A person who always went to church before may quit. Another who never went at all may start. In the year that somebody died.
Uzziah was the king, though–not a relative. Uzziah was a king that Isaiah was attached to. He may have been shattered by this loss. He may have wondered how things could go on without this leader. So how significant that his vision begins, "In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord . . ."
Isaiah had been looking to the king as his source of strength. Now, with the king gone, he was able to look beyond, to see the power behind the throne, to see a vision of the King of Kings.
We can't help but be influenced by events in national life. And the health or sickness of our country is something we must pray about. But here in Isaiah's vision we find another truth. Kings come and go. One is killed, another resigns. One leaves in disgrace, another rises to take his place. We are affected, but not determined, by all such politics.
We see the Lord! And he is over all. And to him all people from the smallest to the greatest must someday give account. And he shall reign forever and forever.
It is possible, that before Uzziah died, Isaiah the Prophet had placed more trust in him than he should have placed. To be close to a man in power is a drug-like experience, to which many get addicted.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Now listen: one of power's corruptions is to exalt the personality of men so they become God-like in the eyes of followers. And may become objects of worship and adoration, surpassing the Lord God himself. That, friends, is the real scandal of power-greedy television evangelists. In my opinion.
Isaiah sees God on his throne, and there's beauty and mystery. He sees creatures with six wings, flying about and singing loudly. Their song was this:
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory."
And the place began to shake. And then . . . it filled with smoke.
I've always been intrigued by that smoke. Of all the things you'd expect in a vision of God, who would look for smoke? Clouds maybe, or blinding light, or birds and beasts and robes and crowns. But smoke?
We had smoke in here one Sunday. I remember it well. Up high above the balcony there was smoke coming from an electrical fixture. And men were leaving their seats and rushing around. They set up ladders. And I kept trying to preach. And they began turning out most of the lights, and heads were turning around to watch. Believe me, it did not contribute to our worship that day. And it was only a little smoke.
The text says the Temple was filled with it. So that the throne of God was obscured. Everything was obscured. And with nothing left visible around him, the prophet begins to look within him.
"Woe is me," he cries out, "for I am lost."
Sometimes it takes the smoke. Sometimes we're too fixed on the world around us. The world within us needs our attention. Sometimes we've said too many "Woe-are-they's" (for they are lost), and what's needed is this "Woe is me, for I am lost.
Now you might think that a person crying "Woe is me" is a person in bad shape. Well, save your pity. The person who needs pity is the one who's spiritually apathetic. Inspired by nothing, ashamed of nothing, committed to nothing. Of all the temptations, plagues, and curses in this world, the worst of all may be spiritual apathy.
Isaiah was not apathetic. He was troubled, troubled about his life. His vision of God made him examine himself. Every vision like his does. But out of that would come his help. He was like the Publican who prayed "God be merciful to me, a sinner." A woe-is-me sort of prayer. But it led to his salvation.
Out of the smoke, Isaiah heard a voice. He heard the voice of God. And the voice said, "Whom shall I send?" And the young prophet answered, "Here am I; send me."
God loves to gather people for worship. But then he loves to send them out. He wants them to know and feel his presence, but then he has work to be done, and it's time to do it.
True worship brings us in, and then sends us out. As you leave the church on Sundays, you should ask yourself this question: "What am I going out to do that I didn't know about when I came in?"
I believe Isaiah's whole life was changed by this experience. I think he was never the same again. And I don't say that can happen every time you come to the temple. It doesn't need to.
What can happen, though, is this. You can find yourself in the presence of God here. And you can praise his holy name, just as saints and angels do.
You can discover something about yourself in such a place. Something that needs fixing, or tending, or beginning in your life. God will help you with that.
And you can go away with the business of heaven on that worldly mind of yours.
What a difference. What a difference!
I suppose it's true that most people are rather comfortable in their religion. They may find fault with other varieties, but theirs seems about right. They may not be so active, but they have their reasons for that. At least they're not into any of those far-out groups. They believe what their parents believed. And it was good enough for father, it was good enough for mother, it was good enough for sister, and it's good enough for them!
But is it? Is it good enough to be so comfortable and complacent? So take-it-for-granted? So un-distressed by any contradiction? So sure that matters decided easily have been decided right?
You see, if religion never gets in our way it can't amount to much. If it doesn't jerk us around some, make us say no when we'd like to say yes, make us say yes when we'd like to say no. If we never lie in bed at night and pray hard to know the right decision, and still not be sure. If we can let ourselves hate, with no struggle to love. If no doubts ever come.
The scripture lesson this morning is a record of religious conflict. And it isn't just Jesus and disciples versus scribes and Pharisees, like two teams squared off against one another. It's about a clash of viewpoints, where the adequacy of religion hangs in the balance.
Both sides can't be right. The actions Jesus took were either right or wrong. There's no such thing as splitting your vote here. Make a donation to each campaign, so you'll be on the good side of the winner either way. No, you must choose for Christ or against him here. That's the kind of day it was.
It seems silly to us: grown men debating the morality of eating on certain days. Arguing about a sick man getting treatment on a holy day. "No, you can't eat that grain on the Sabbath." "No, you can't heal that man on the Sabbath." And if someone says "why not?" they say "just because you can't."
But maybe this silliness is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe we look silly too. We say "you can't join our church unless you get baptized like us." And the stranger says "why not?" And we have no good answer for that. We say "just because you can't." It's our custom; it's always been that way. So don't ask any more.
All religions tend to create situations where the answer is, "there's no reason for it, it's just our policy"! And the needs of those policies can take precedence over the needs of people. Which is the point that concerned Jesus in Matthew 12.
There are quite a number of divorced ministers working with the Home Mission Board of the SBC. There are also some ordained women there who couldn't find jobs in local churches. But now a group has taken over in Atlanta that says it's going to put a stop to such abuse. Get those women and divorcees out of there because it's our new policy. And when that happens a lot of people will get hurt, who have been already.
Now I think I know which side of that issue the Lord is on. But then, of course, the new policy makers think they know too. So here's a conflict situation that has some parallels to our story. What takes precedence, people or policies?
Simon Peter was there in the house of Simon the Tanner. And some fellows knocked on the door and said come with us, our boss wants to see you. And Peter saw right away what kind of fellows these were, and knew what kind their boss was. They were Gentiles, and he was Jewish. And the policy he followed was that you don't mix the two. He thought God was in favor of that.
"Well now, fellows, I'm sure your boss is a nice man and all but really I just can't do that today." And they say "why not?"
Why not heal on the Sabbath? Why not gather grain if you're hungry and need it?
It's hard to answer "why not?" if your answer isn't much good. So you have to come up with something that sounds really imposing, and religious, and settled once-and-for-all like it was carved in tablets of rock and brought down from a mountain by a man with grey hair and a long, flowing beard. You say something like, "It isn't lawful."
It isn't lawful! It isn't lawful to respond to someone who's asking for your help? Who's been reading his Bible and praying every day that someone like you will come and explain it to him? And because the customs of your religion say he's a person you should have nothing to do with, you'd let that stop you? Huh?
There's the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. And Jesus was more of a spirit person than a letter person. Did you notice that scripture he quoted when they were discussing about plucking grain on the sabbath?
"I desire mercy, and not sacrifice."
Meaning that the result of your religious practice is the most important thing, not the practice itself. Especially its result in the lives of people.
You find that in the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not bear false witness . . .." Is that all? No! "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." The concern is what the good of people requires. "You shall love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself." That kind of thing is throughout the Bible, but it gets ignored because being like the Pharisees is so much easier.
Jesus says he desires mercy instead of sacrifice, but sacrificing comes easier. Sacrifice is about the letter of the law. It can be spelled out step-by-step, and when you've done it you can know you've done it right.
But mercy is less exact. Mercy costs you more. Mercy can put you in the way of harm. Sacrifice you get done with and feel good about, but you worry about mercy.
I'm one of the people in the church who deals with requests for assistance. I take battered women and children to shelters. I give out used clothing. I help people find jobs. I sometimes go to court; I give counsel and advice. And sometimes I give money to those in need.
All that has to do with mercy. But as I told you, mercy isn't easy. It's hard to know what to do sometimes. There are people out there who take advantage of mercy. And recently I got taken advantage of, to the tune of a large sum of money and a considerable investment of my time and energy.
What do you do then? Do you quit? When the next family knocks on the door saying they need help, how do you look at them? Do you harden your heart and say "Yeah, well I've been down that road before–not long ago, in fact"?
You better not. You better be wise and careful–maybe wiser and more careful–but you better not say that. Because if you do He might someday tell you, "I was hungry and you gave me no food, a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me." And I'd try to say, "Lord, when did I ever see you like that?" And he'd tell me it was then.
He desires mercy and not sacrifice. He desires a religion where things aren't done for the sake of religion, but for the good of the people who live in this world. "Blessed are the peacemakers." "Blessed are the meek." "Blessed are the merciful." And so you are blessed for coming to church every Sunday only if it helps you to be that kind of person during the week.
I think it can, and I think it does. But the passage we've looked at today should help us see where the priorities lie. Just being good isn't enough. Jesus insists that we be good for something, for someone, to some end that's more than going through the motions of religious ritual.
We need no more Pharisees. We need more of the human touch. More concern for the legitimate needs of others. More love for our neighbor as ourself.
This little boy ran crying to the house. His pet turtle had rolled over and died, he said. It was awful, he said–the end of his world. No promises from his mother about replacement turtles seemed to work. The boy was inconsolable.
So the mother called Daddy, and he came home early to deal with this crisis. He came running from the car and threw his arms around the boy. He carried him all the way across the front yard in his arms. He sat down and held him on his lap in front of the dead turtle.
It was the first time in a long time the boy had been held in his daddy's arms.
And Daddy said that maybe they could have a funeral for the turtle. And he promised he'd be there when they did. And they could take the tin box the candy was kept in and use it for a casket. They could even paint the turtle's name on the side of it if he wanted to.
The boy had stopped crying and was listening to every word.
And mother said they could have a party afterward. She'd bake her chocolate chip cookies like he loved. And maybe they could all go out to the movies, and then have dinner together.
The little boy was smiling now. Oh, this was all so good. And the father mentioned that if he wanted to, he could invite some friends over. And gave him another big hug.
When suddenly, to the surprise of all, the turtle on his back rolled over on his feet and began walking around. And the boy looked distressed at that. And he said: "Oh daddy–let's kill it!"
Which gives you one more lesson about the things that matter most.
JESUS CHRIST IS LORD
What do you do to become a Christian? You accept Christ as your "lord and savior," right? Now "savior" means he does what you want him to do for you. "Lord" means you do what he wants you to do for him. I guess it's easy to see which of those would be the most popular.
So a lot of people accept him as savior, but never as Lord. Or they try to. Actually that can't be done. It has to be both.
You say, "Lord, I want what you have, but I don't want what you want." And he says, "No thanks, no deal on that."
Having someone you call "Lord" is a strange thing in modern life. We speak of our doctor, our lawyer, our mechanic, our postman, our president. And we don't mean the person as much as we mean the role that person plays in our lives. One doctor retires and we get another. We keep filling these roles we need to get us by, and we respect what's done for us in the process.
"Who are you?" "I'm his dentist."
"Who are you?" "I'm his secretary."
"Who are you?" "I'm his lord."
Sound's funny doesn't it? Who has a lord these days? Who wants one? People used to have lords, but they didn't like it so well. They rose up and demanded freedom. Sometimes they fought for it. So who would want now to have a lord again?
If you have a lord you often must do what your lord wants instead of what you want. A lord comes first. A lord has the right to tell you where to go and what to do and how to act and what to say. Of course there are good lords and bad lords, wise lords and foolish lords. If one has a lord, one prays to have a wise and good lord. How miserable is a person with a lord who isn't wise and good.
The person who says "no lord for me" is a person who thinks he's in control. He thinks he can manage well enough on his own. He might even plan to be a lord himself. And he may not think of it that way, but he's acting like God. The last posture he would think of is the posture of bowing down to someone else.
Now it's not enough just to talk about the lordship of Christ in terms of the Bible and theology. Let the preacher raise his voice, say "Jesus is Lord," and you say "amen!" Amen, he is. Your amen means yes he's who the preacher and the Bible say he is. But that's not the end of it.
At Caesarea Phillipi Jesus asked the Twelve a question, you remember. "Who do men say I am?" Was that a hard or an easy question? Easy. Take a little poll, do some reading, sign up for a course in contemporary religion. Oh, listen, you can do that just as a matter of interest, and it means nothing as a personal commitment.
Jesus knew that, of course, which is why he asked the next question: "But who do you say I am?" You. You Thomas, you James. That's where the water hits the wheel. That's where people hesitate and faces turn red. Where the question moves from what-means-what-with-people-in-general to what-means-what-with-you.
You say Jesus is Lord, but the next question is, is he your lord? Is he lord to you? Is he the one who makes the big difference in your life? Are you obedient to what he wants you to do? For, you see, its deadly simple to proclaim him lord of the universe or of history or of nations or any of that. But it's another thing to bow daily at his feet and ask what he wants you to do because he's your Lord.
Lord of your time. Lord of your money. Lord of your God-given talents, whatever they may be. Lord of your dreams, and your doubts. Lord of your ability to influence other people. Lord of your habits. Lord of what you say. Lord of everything, as a matter of settled fact.
I think it was Augustine who said that Christ is not valued at all unless he is valued above all.
But "come on now, Preacher! You really believe that?
Well, yes I do–sort of. I don't believe I know anyone completely like that. I know I'm not. But I do believe I should be. I believe I'd be better if I were. I believe my hope, and yours, and the world's, is in bowing on our knees to Jesus Christ. I believe that's the best we can do with the life God gives us.
"Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall be free;
Force me to render up my sword,
And I shall conqueror be.
I sink in life's alarms
When by myself I stand;
Imprison me within Thine arms,
And strong shall be my Hand."
(Hymn by Geo. Matheson)
Now what does all this have to do with Grow by Caring? You could answer that, couldn't you? Grow by Caring is an effort to get all of us to take the Lordship of Christ more seriously. It's a plan to translate a doctrine into practical action.
He's your Lord Jesus? Great! Now what does he want you to do because of that? We have 79 suggestions, and you may have ideas of your own. The main idea is to do more as servants of Christ in the year ahead.
This isn't the most famous prayer of St. Francis, but it's one of his prayers, and a good one for the occasion. Would you bow before God as we pray together?
"God Almighty, Eternal, Righteous, and Merciful, give to us poor sinners to do for thy sake all that we know of thy will, and to will always what pleases thee, so that inwardly purified, enlightened, and kindled by the fire of the Holy Spirit, we may follow in the footprints of thy well-beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ."
THE JOY OF COMMON MEN
People can have one attitude about a thing, and another attitude about those connected with it. For example, doctors are high on the list of respected persons, but who wants to go see one? We admire the brilliant surgeon, but then we're not anxious to lie down on his table and let him cut us open. Right?
Or it can work the other way. People who love their car but despise that bunch of crooks they bought it from. People who give strong support to law and order but have no policeman friends. There are jobs we all want done but have no desire to be connected with, even by associating with the people who do them.
So it was with sheep and shepherds in the time of Christ.
The sheep was an honorable animal. People loved to see the sheep out there on the hills and watch them graze. They'd think of all those passages of scripture that mention sheep–over 500. "He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young." And they'd feel the comfort of lying down like sheep in green pastures and being led beside the still waters. All so lovely.
But the actual people whose job was to tend the actual sheep were not high in people's favor like those verses were. Shepherds were the cab drivers of their day, the slaughter house workers with blood on their aprons, the stable hands whose job is to clean horse manure out of the stalls so none will get on the owner's new boots who comes out occasionally to ride.
And I'm sure that Luke was very conscious of this as he wrote the part of his account that says, "And in that region there were shepherds out in the field . . . and an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them . . .."
That's something to look out for in the third gospel. Luke is the champion of those who have no champion. Women, gentiles, soldiers, Samaritans, lepers, prostitutes, shepherds. He speaks of God scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts, putting down the mighty from their thrones, and exalting those of low degree.(Luke 1:53)
Matthew's Christmas story has an announcement to wise men far away in the East, who saw a mysterious star and brought rich gifts. But Luke tells of common workmen off in a field with the sheep, who heard the angels sing.
It's as if the President of the country has something important to announce–lets say the most important matter in his whole term of office–and instead of calling the leaders of congress together, he goes to Joe's Garage in Southeast and tells it to some mechanics down under a car putting in a transmission.
After he left, they'd wonder if this was for real or not, just like those shepherds did. And then they'd begin asking the obvious and inevitable question–"Why us?"
Why us? We know who we are here at Joe's Garage, and we know absolutely for sure that when Presidents have something to announce, they never come here to do it. We wouldn't know what to do with a limousine if we had one on the rack. If we had a rack that would hold one. Or any new car, for that matter. We keep the clunkers running. But we do work hard at it.
Baby Jesus would grow up in a setting very much like that. Would live in no mansion, attend no remarkable schools. He worked. He worked with his father, who was a carpenter. And he seemed all his life to have an affinity with the people of the land, the common people.
The Apostle Paul learned through the life of Christ that trust in the things of earth is a devil's lie believed. Educated, brilliant, cultured–he wrote these words to a church in Corinth:
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the word to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore as it is written, "Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord." (1 Cor. 1:26-31)
We all want our sophistication, our knowledge, our reputations, our position in this world. We want our security, our income, our retirement benefits, and all that. But the fact is that the more those things come to dominate our lives, the greater threat they pose to our relationship with God. The more we're tempted to live for the things of earth instead of the things of heaven.
How many people manage their souls like they manage their money? How many will study the law of God as the new tax law is being studied? How many use worship as an occasional dessert, not as daily bread? How many have filled their schedules so full of worldly cares that any claim the Lord might make finds an excuse there waiting–"Sorry, I just don't have the time."
It may be that people who live the more simple and unentangled lives are more able to experience the joys. That may be why the news of Christ first came to shepherds.
There's a movie I'm fond of called "That Championship Season." It's about a high school basketball team from Scranton, Pennsylvania that won the state championship 24 years ago. They're now middle aged, their lives all complicated–one rich, one the mayor, one a writer, that sort of thing. But still they have the bond of that long-ago moment of joy. When from 20 points down at the half, they came back to win it with a shot at the buzzer.
And one of them, the one with the Cadillac convertible and the money to go with it, says to his friend very late one night: "You know, that's the only thing I can feel anymore. Nothing seems to matter in my life these days. There's nothing I really care about like I did that."
Now the hope of Christmas is for people to begin caring about the things that really matter. To feel good about things we should feel good about. To feel bad about things we ought to feel bad about. But to feel something, at least something, good or bad.
There are people in America today who have every reason to count themselves the fortunate of earth. But they're sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. They can't seem to be happy and don't know why. But the reason is they care nothing about anything except themselves. Their goal in life has been their own happiness, and they've failed, even in that. They've failed because of that.
Christmas is God's message of hope to all of those. He sent his son that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. And he told us this happens as we get free of our self-concern, and get concerned about others.
Christian writer Henry Nouwen asks this question: "Who will be the St. Francis of our Age? . . .Who will lift up the world of today to God and plead for His mercy? . . . When the Lord looks down on us what does He see worth saving? He sees his son Jesus, in the faces of the few who continue to cry out in the valley of tears . . ."(quoted by Bausch, Storytelling, p. 208)
There was a small community that could only be reached by a road that had a bad curve right at the edge of town. All the townspeople knew about the curve, of course, and unless one was drunk or drinking and forgot, it caused them no problems. But travelers often met trouble on that curve.
And the preacher had preached that they should be like the Good Samaritan and help people when that happened. And often they did. They even took up a collection and bought an ambulance.
Then one day a new councilman suggested that the town should widen the road and take out that dangerous curve. But the mayor of the town, who was a member of the church, was opposed. He owned the farm market right where people slowed down because of the curve. The curve was good for business.
The new councilman urged the preacher to say something to the mayor and to his congregation. But the preacher and most of the people thought he was better advised to stay out of politics. And so they continued their work of picking up the victims.
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind;
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper rev'rence, praise.
O Savior of the World, be born in us, we pray. Be born, in us.
KNOWING AND DOING THE WILL OF GOD
I don't believe I've told you what I preached about the first time I ever preached. Have I? If anyone here can tell me, I'll give you a dollar! Hey, make it twenty dollars! O.K., nobody. Well it was from a verse in Proverbs that says "the eye of the Lord is in every place, beholding the evil and the good." (Proverbs ?)
I said in my sermon that God sees everything we do, because he's watching all the time. So he sees bad people do bad things, and he sees good people do good things. I said this should make us do good things like the good people do. You can see I was into accountability. By the way, I was eighteen at the time.
Today's sermon is also an "accountability sermon." It presumes that God knows and cares about how we live. That some things are pleasing to him and others are displeasing. That he provides us means of knowing what those things are. So that we can say if we do this God's not going to like it. Or if we do that God is going to like it.
Now, having the will of another person determine what you do in life isn't very popular. Most people don't like being told what to do. For example, let's imagine you have a whole day off. How do you decide what to do with it? Other people may have ideas about your day, but after all, it is your day, not theirs. So you don't intend to do what others want you to do, you intend to do what you want to do! Right?
Well . . . maybe. Maybe you will and maybe you won't. Maybe you'll have to do exactly what someone wants you to do, whether you like it or not. But if you do you won't like it, will you? What you like is to be your own person, do your own thing.
So then the Preacher comes along and says there's someone else who wants a piece of this action. There's someone you should check with about those decisions. He says God has a will for your life and if a day is coming up that you have free, you should be asking "now tell me, Lord, what do you want me to do with this day?
How many people do that? How many of us really set our priorities according to a concept of the will of God? Oh, we may say in general that we want to do his will, but what does that mean specifically? Do we even get specific?
The specifics are what we avoid. It's no great problem to be religious in general, it's when you get specific about investing time and money and energy that you come to a parting of the ways.
Every year about this time you get a letter from the church. And you see it's more than just a sheet of paper, it's a fairly heavy letter, and you know from past experience it has pledge cards inside. And you know you'll take one of those cards and write something on it and turn it in like good church members do. But how will you do that?
You might not even read the letter. You might ignore the writing on the card. Just scribble in whatever you gave last year and the year before and sign your name and have it over with. You don't even relate this to the will of God, it's almost like paying dues.
But what if? What if every person who got a letter like that opened it and read it and then got down on his knees and asked God to tell him what to do? Really asked. And then waited for an answer, and kept waiting till he got one. What would happen?
What if every decision we make got the same attention? I don't guess I mean every decision. I don't think you need to pray about whether to buy from Giant or Safeway. But every matter where moral and spiritual concerns are at stake. Where the lives of people are touched. Where the health of your soul may suffer or improve. Where the kingdom of God is enhanced or diminished. Things like that. Every thing like that.
Jesus had a lot to say about the will of God. He said he came down from heaven, not to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him. Numerous times he said he was in this world to do the will of his Father in heaven. In John 4:34 he even put it this way:
"My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work."
"My food"? What does he mean, "my food"?
Well food is what nourishes and gives you strength, right? And food is something you look forward to. How often do you think about food? How long can you go on without food? How often do you study about food and discuss food with other people?
So can we say with Jesus that our food is to do the will of God? Can we join him in his prayer "thy will be done"? Can we be included in those he describes in Matthew 12:50: "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother."
Now there are basically just two problems about the will of God in our lives. One is knowing what to do, and the other is doing what we know.
Obviously you can think you know the will of God and be wrong about it. Down where I came from there were people who believed if you had faith you didn't need a doctor. They believed it was the will of God not to call one, even when a child was sick and dying. And sometimes a judge had to tell them "that's not the will of God, that's nonsense."
Would that every matter were as clear as that one, though. There are times the greatest saint is uncertain about the will of God. There are times you have to go ahead and decide things with no clear direction. There are times your only prayer is "Lord, help me to know your will." And you get no answer, even to that.
But more often our situation is the other. More often than not we do know the will of God or could know the will of God but stubbornly and steadfastly ignore it. We don't know all we might about what the Lord wants, but if we'd just be obedient to what we do know, we'd be ten times better off!
Prayer can help with that. After you pray "help me to know your will" you pray "help me to do your will." That's important. Sometimes we assume that once we know the right thing to do we have it made. Not so. The moment of knowing the will of God is a moment of grave risk.
I can show that with James 4:17, which says "whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." Which means it's a risky thing to know the will of God. The risk is that now we'll substitute our intentions for action.
It's so subtle. You're sitting around with some others and start talking about the homeless, let's say. And people really get concerned. And a lot of good ideas are mentioned. And at the end of the class you have a word of prayer and remember the homeless. And everyone goes out of the room feeling better because they did something about that problem today, right?
Wrong. All you did was talk. And maybe the next meeting it'll be time to talk about missions. People love to talk about missions. And then you can have a word of prayer, and go out of there having done something about missions, right?
Wrong. Wrong unless something comes of it. Wrong unless some action is taken, or an effort is organized, or a movement begins, or some price is paid. Faith without works is d-e-a-d. So is talking about the will of God and never committing yourself to do it.
The heart of Grow by Caring is how it tries to get us committed to do something. Something specific, useful, measurable. And my question this morning is, "What is the will of God for you in Grow by Caring?" What would he have you to do? Do you know it yet, and will you do it?
You basically have three choices. One, you can sit the whole thing out, ignore it, and hope it goes away soon (which it might if enough people do that, for we can grow by caring or we can diminish by not caring). Two, you can make a token response that costs nothing and changes nothing. Or three, you can use Grow by Caring as a major instrument of fulfilling the will of God in your life.
The man had bought himself a new car and had nothing but trouble with it. He became a familiar sight at the car dealer's. They kept telling him it was fixed, and then it wasn't. The part was ordered, but hadn't come yet. He should try it awhile and see what happened. And the man was getting more and more frustrated.
One day at the car dealer's, someone looked out and saw this man drive in. Nothing unusual. But then they saw him drive over the curb and onto the front lawn. And he was turning that unfixed car, heading right for the showroom, like he was lining it up in his sights, and the back wheels began making smoke. Salesmen and customers started running inside the showroom. And then the car crashed through the plate glass and into two other new ones. And according to the newspaper article the man got out and shouted: "Now that I have your attention, what are you going to do about my car?"
What are you going to do? I hope that if he hasn't already, the Lord will find some means to get your attention on Grow by Caring. And you'll hear him ask, or even shout:
"What are you going to do?"
MAN OF GOD
1 Kings 13:1-10
I had a teacher in seminary named Wayne Oates. He taught pastoral counselling–a pioneer in that field, author of twenty-some books. He told us a story about himself. He was serving as a student chaplain in a mental hospital. He went to a stranger's room to visit. And before he could say a word the man fastened a stare on him and said: "So, are you the Man of God here?"
Oates said he felt a slight panic. His first urge was to disavow. To call himself a "man of God" made him nervous, he said. He was there to be the man's friend and counsellor–those were the terms he was comfortable with. He was trained to relate on a level with people, not from up above them.
And yet he was a Christian minister, a God-called man. And it went through his mind that what this stranger wanted and maybe needed was a Man of God. And out of this battle within himself, Oates finally said yes. "Yes, I'm the Man of God here."
Now part of Wayne Oates' problem was his being a Baptist. His friend the Catholic priest had no such hesitation. A Catholic priest knows he's a Man of God, and so does every member of his parish. He became one when he underwent the sacrament of ordination. When hands were laid on his head that were holy hands, because other hands had been laid on them, and all the way back to the time of Christ you can trace that succession, he believes.
But a Baptist denies any such sacrament. He believes that every child of God is a priest. He believes the Lord calls some of us to this, and some to that, and no calls are above the rest. He says the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and we are brothers and sisters together in the Lord.
Do you see the problem here? We have a ready-made conflict between the idea of a universal calling to all, and a particular calling to some.
I was ordained to the ministry on March 25, 1956, on request of Prospect Baptist Church of Loudon to the West Maryville Baptist Church, where I was a member. Whoever should have remembered, forgot about an ordination certificate (which I have not forgotten, Ken!), but they promised to take care of it later. They never did. I finally had to buy one myself, fill it out myself, and take it to the church clerk to have him sign. So things may not have been done right, but it was done! I was a sophomore in college at the time.
What a contrast to my friend Bill Burks, the Episcopal priest. All the standards he had to meet first–college, seminary, some years as an intern, a number of reviews and examinations. Then finally that day with a service lasting two hours, all those dignitaries, special robes, long processions, and time-honored rituals. I sat in my borrowed robe feeling a measure of dis-ease at the seeming shallowness of my tradition.
I suppose it may be good that we must live with the contradiction. We have no priest but Christ, and yet we do have priests. We all have our calling from God, but some have a special call. In a sense, any one can be a man or woman of God. But still, God does call out from among us his ministers whose calling, if not higher, is at least distinctive.
Men and women like Ken Barnett.
We know many of Ken's gifts. His love of people and his caring for people's needs. His strong conviction about justice in society. His concern for the oppressed and downtrodden, for the poor and helpless of earth. His intelligence and the ability to take ideas and sharpen them so that others of lesser skills can use them more readily. His sensitivity to the meaning of worship, and the way people feel in his leadership the presence of God.
And who knows what other gifts he may possess as well, that are lying there like treasure in a field, ready to be unearthed and put to use?
Will Ken be any different after today? After some hands are laid on his head, and a certificate hangs on his wall?
I say no, and I say yes. No if you mean there's anything magical about ordination. That the ceremony itself conveys something by a process of transfer–no.
But I also say yes, that Ken may be different after today, simply because of what's already there within him, because of his own relationship with God, and because today we are affirming him as a Man of God. So what he has been all along, he may now be more of because of what we do and say here. This we can pray for.
We can pray that something about this day will be strong sustenance in the days ahead when Ken will need some.
The ministry is no easy calling. There've been days when I loved my calling, and there've been days when I hated my calling. But there were few that I doubted it. Even when I hated it, I didn't doubt it.
God called Jonah to preach in Nineveh. Jonah didn't doubt the call, but he didn't want to go to Nineveh, either. Nineveh was a tough spot for a Man of God. So Jonah got on a ship that was heading in the other direction. Maybe he thought the Lord would forget about it. Maybe he supposed that a new and easier call would take its place.
But the wrath of God fell on Jonah for that. And he had to learn that it may be hard to do what God wants, but it's also hard not doing what he wants. It's hard being caught in a storm at sea, and thrown overboard by superstitious sailors, and swallowed by a whale, and vomited out on dry land all stinking.
Even in the service of God there are days that stink! And days when you will stink! But I have found that sometimes when I seem that way to myself, for others, by some grace of God, there's the smell of roses in the air.
So I tell you this, Ken, that a Man of God is always his harshest critic. And God has a way of doing some things in spite of you and not because of you, so that the glory remains his and not yours. This too is the hardness of the calling.
I was present when Ken was examined for ordination. One question was this: "What's the hardest thing you have to do as a minister?" Ken said that the hardest thing for him is the walk down the hall to tell a family that their loved one has died. But he made a distinction between the walking and the telling. He said that walking in the hall he feels inadequate and afraid. But a few moments later, in the act of telling, he feels the strength and presence of God.
Maybe our strength is the awareness of our weakness.
There's a story about a young minister all set to preach his first sermon. He was a bright and self-confident young man, and he was looking forward to this. He knew he could preach better than most of the preachers he'd ever heard, and now was his time to prove it. So he had his head up high, and a big smile, and a spring in his step as he mounted the pulpit.
But he got up there, and looked out at all those faces, and immediately forgot everything he planned to say. And stumbled around, and tried to say something. And finally just quit and walked back down, a much more humble soul. And the comment made was this: "Well, if he'd gone up like he came down, he might have come down like he went up." Could be.
Jeroboam was a very wicked king. If the word God sent him sounds harsh, remember the times were harsh. When a Man of God gets his chance to speak truth in the place of power, he'd better be clear about it. And when you tell a wicked ruler that his regime will go down in ruin, you don't expect him to like it very much.
Jeroboam didn't. He motioned to his soldiers to arrest this man, but the arm he waved with was stricken and withered in an instant. Even kings had better watch out how they treat a Man of God who has spoken his truth.
The king had a change of heart then. The loss of an arm would tend to encourage that. He becomes desperate, desperate for help and relief. But who does he turn to for help and relief?
To his doctors?–no. To those idols he set up?–not hardly. To the priests of Baal?–he never even though of it. He turned immediately to the Man of God and said "help me."
A person thought weak enough to arrest and punish is now thought strong enough to work a miracle. And the man who spoke earlier of judgment and destruction, now speaks the word of healing and health.
A Man of God may have either of those tasks on any day. There is evil in this world that must never be acquiesced to, and there are calls to oppose it. But there must ever be the readiness to hold out a hand of help, even to an enemy.
With man it is impossible. But with God, and with Men of God, all things are possible. All things.
THE NAZARETH COMPLEX
I was in my hometown recently. Not a very big place. Two high schools, two or three banks. One new shopping mall, and one old shopping center. Not much of anything downtown anymore. A lot of gas stations and coin operated car washes around town. And a lot of Baptist churches.
There are more Baptists in my town than there are Christians! A lot of small churches there that got started because of splits, otherwise known as fights! But Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander came from our town. So did Texas governor Sam Houston. We still have the one-room school house where he taught before heading off to Texas.
I could tell some things I know and make my town sound awfully good. And I could tell some other things and make it sound awfully bad. But still you wouldn't know either way, because it's my town, and not yours.
The Bible has this record of Jesus visiting his hometown after being gone for some while. And it was the Sabbath, and he went to the synagogue. People had heard he was something special, but it was hard for them to believe that, because they'd known him all his life, and never noticed.
It was the custom for someone to read the scripture and maybe say a few words. They handed him the book, and everyone got quiet. He choose to read a passage about the Messiah, and something was said about his "gracious words," meaning they were pleased.
He knew, though, that they'd heard about the miracles he'd done in other places. And he knew they were sitting back and waiting to see one. He knew what they were ready to say if they didn't see one.
But a prophet has trouble as he gets nearer home. Familiarity breeds all sorts of things. It breeds skepticism, and apathy, and boredom, and even contempt.
There's a sort of blindness we have about things that are close at hand. You always have to drive some distance away to have fun–had you noticed? You have to get into new and exciting territory. There you can take the place of someone who left out to have some fun and is going to find it where you just left. Huh!
It happens. Other churches sound so much better than the one where you go. Other schools don't have the problems yours does. Other women's husbands–other husbands' wives–they look better than yours. Other people's children are so much less trouble. Any job would be better than the one you're stuck with.
Something about nearness does that to us, if we don't watch out. We get like the people in Nazareth. And then the savior of the world could be right in our midst and we'd yawn and say "well that's nice."
The first time I was ever in Washington, D.C. was when I came up to visit Luther Rice Church. I remember being embarrassed about it. And I can well remember, for those first months after we moved here, how thrilling it was just to be downtown driving and gosh! right there's where President Nixon lives, and there's the supreme court, and just look at all those monuments to the great leaders of our nation.
Now I see someone doing that and I say "pull over and park you tourist!"
What the people of Nazareth said was this: "Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here also in your own country."
They wanted him to do something fantastic. And to get him to, they quoted a cruel proverb–"Doctor, heal yourself." "You tell us you're somebody, you claim to have power, then perform for our amusement. We don't think you can." But who can perform for an audience like that?
We have our Capernaums, where the power of God falls and mighty works are done. And then we have our Nazareths, where nothing helps and nothing changes.
Jesus told about Elijah, who was able to help only one person during three long years of famine. And he told about Elisha, whose healing power left him, except for one leper. And that was where their admiration turned to rage, and they ran him out of town and would have killed him if they could. Some homecoming!
So Jesus left. He left, and it says that he could do no mighty work there, because of their unbelief. He came to do things there, but could not. He tried them, but failed. And so he went on to find a place where his power would work, and work it there.
Your power may not work everywhere. His didn't. He said all power was given unto him in heaven and on earth–but that failed to work in Nazareth. There were people he wanted to help, but couldn't. Things he longed to accomplish, but could not, much as he prayed. A place he wanted so much to be the savior of, but couldn't because they wouldn't let him.
We must find those Capernaums where our gifts have a chance. We must often sacrifice what we are today for what we may become tomorrow.
There's no heaven here, no free ride. There are times to stick things out, and there are times to admit defeat and cut your losses. In a world of pain, it sometimes helps to rotate your pain. You may not get the rock out of your shoe, but at least you can shift it around.
Now you may have detected two contradictory lessons in this story. The task for those townspeople was to see wonder in the familiar and appreciate it. The task for Jesus was to accept defeat and move on. One needed to embrace the past, the other to embrace the future.
Life has a way of handing you the same set of options. Should you make the best of what you have, of have the best there may be if you turn in a new direction?
I can't advise you on that, because the answer may be either way. I've seen people make fools of themselves trying it both ways. Some who messed up by moving around to much, and some by never moving at all.
When I came to the church in Daisy, Tennessee, Jim Woodall was up at Pilgrim's Rest Church in Soddy. But he fell out with them and joined us. Then he fell out with me and moved his letter to Oak Street Church. You see, the best church for Jim was always the one he hadn't joined yet. Now I hear he's left Oak Street and come back to Daisy. I'm glad he waited!
There are many times we need to appreciate our present situations and do better in them. We take our families for granted, our friends for granted, our freedoms for granted, our health for granted, our marriage, our jobs, even our salvation for granted.
Life is a stream it's risky to change horses in the middle of. Paul said that having food and clothing we should pretty much be content. He said he'd learned in whatever state he was, therewith to be content.
On the other hand, he did travel around a lot! And he could be pretty restless with others, and restless with himself. So there you have it.
I know I've missed some of you today. When you do life situation preaching, you always miss some people's situation. You may like all your relatives. You may get along fine with all your neighbors. You may feel admired and appreciated on the job, be happy at home, and generally fit in fine in every situation you belong to. No one would ever treat you like those townspeople treated him.
But don't be surprised if you come to a day when all that changes. When the same neighbors who bragged about your "gracious words" want to kick you out of town. When you begin to ask what's wrong with you.
Doctors who aren't able to doctor themselves. Who have Bibles, and know how to pray, and have Christian friends, and the Holy Spirit. But they get sick, and can't recover. Discouraged, and can't find hope. Tempted and can't get loose. Proud and can't get humble. Angry and can't get calm.
We Christians are physicians. We do the world good. We're often able to bring help to others. But in the process, we're seldom examples of perfect health ourselves. And our own ills are usually the last ones we recognize and treat.
Just think how he must have felt. If you want to succeed anywhere, it's in your own town. And he could do no mighty work there. He couldn't even stay there. And now he was leaving, for who knows what? Ah, Capernaum!
But dim as it seemed that day, it did come back. The glory did come back.
That woman who touched his garment hem,
Another one who believed beside a well,
Making wine in Cana,
Transfigured on a mountain,
Loaves and fishes in a desert,
Zacchaeus in a tree believing.
The glory did come back.
And so, most often, the word in patience.
"Be not weary in well-doing. For in due season you shall reap. If you faint not."
The title of my sermon is the title of a song by Stevie Wonder. "Ordinary pain." The song is about a lover's quarrel, where two people have broken up, but not quite. Their romance is over, but the pain isn't. And in the first part of the song, the guy gives his version of things. He complains about the way he's been treated. He says that this is more than just an ordinary pain.
But when the girl replies, she sings a different tune. She says that "in this lovie-dovie game with all its joy there must be pain." She says "you're dumb to think I'd let you be scott free without some pain from me." And the chorus she sings is that his pain is nothing more than normal, expected, ordinary.
The other night someone got in one of our cars and ripped the radio right out. Maybe I should have had one of those clergy stickers on the bumper. Surely they wouldn't have done it if they'd known it belonged to a preacher! Ha! Don't we get indignant when something like that happens? Why us? we say. As if it's abnormal for something like that to happen. But is it really? Haven't people been getting ripped off ever since Jacob and Esau? I just happened to be next, so calm down there Ed!
I wonder if we Christians have an adequate doctrine of "ordinary pain." We're good complainers but not good sufferers. There's an idea around that every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before. There's an idea that the closer you are to God the less pain you'll have in life. So there's a tendency to look on any pain as foul play. As if God has fallen down on the job.
But look at that psalm we read! There someone who believes in God is "utterly bowed down and prostrate," he says, "utterly spent and crushed," to use his very words. His testimony is in verse 17 and it's this: "My pain is ever with me." But in spite of that, right down to the end, you see the man's faith at work. His last words are:
Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!
Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation! (Psalm 38:21-22)
There's nothing in the psalm that spells out what the problem was. We imagine all sorts of things, and it could have been any one. But the specifics don't really matter. We don't need to know about his problem to feel how he felt. And we, in our own lives, either have felt that very same way, or will, and it's to be expected.
We suffer to live, and we live to suffer. The victory of our faith is not a clean record that says "nothing bad ever happened to me," but a testimony that "yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."
C.S. Lewis has a little book called The Problem of Pain and in it he says:
Creatures cause pain by being born, and live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die. In the most complex of all the creatures, Man, yet another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is enabled to foresee his own pain which henceforth is preceded with acute mental suffering, and to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence. It also enables men by a hundred ingenious contrivances to inflict a great deal more pain than they otherwise could have done on one another and on the irrational creatures. This power they have exploited to the full. Their history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonized apprehension of losing it, and, when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering.
Notice his point that much of our pain is what we inflict on one another. There surely are germs in the air no one placed there. Banana peelings do lie on the ground that nobody intended you should slip and fall on. But our greatest sufferings aren't the diseases we catch or the falls we take, they're the mental torture of anger, and fear, and greed, and jealousy, and self-doubt, and loneliness, and guilt, and all the rest.
Those are man's doing, not God's. It was us who invented whips and prisons, guns and slavery, wars and weapons. There isn't much suffering that can't be traced to us. And some of it is done to us, and some we do to ourselves. And there's always more of it going on than meets the eye.
It's nice in here, isn't it? It's clean and comfortable and attractive. And we're all so dressed up and presentable looking. You wouldn't suppose that any of us had trouble sleeping last night, would you? Or an argument this morning? Or a habit we wouldn't want to speak of? Or a child we don't know what to do with? Or an illness we suspect but are afraid to go to the doctor about? Or someone we despise so much we might spit on the carpet if we forgot where we were? None of us know anything about things like that!
There's some nice country up around Gettysburg. Pretty farms, rolling hills, everything so green and clean. Neat gardens out back behind the farmhouses. Clothes hanging on the clotheslines in the bright yellow sun. Hey listen, life is just better in a place like that, isn't it? Away from the crowds and cars and the cities. Out close to nature.
I was up there one time and found out about that. I had car trouble and stopped at a farmhouse for help. Mr. and Mrs. Spangler lived there, had all their lives. The old house sort of reminded you of the Waltons. You could imagine the lights going off at bedtime and people telling one another goodnight. Peaceful place.
But I talked with the Spangler's about life up there, and it wasn't what you'd think. They said you couldn't leave anything lying around there anymore without it being stolen. They said the kids raced up and down those roads at night throwing beer cans at all hours. They said it was hard to get people to do farm work anymore, and there were people around there living on welfare instead. And the business closest to their farm was run by a crook, they said.
They were bitter people, you could tell. Bitter about things they had no control over. Bitter because the past was better than any future they could see ahead. They didn't use the word "suffer" but that's what they thought they were doing.
Had they considered moving? Oh, not really. Place had been in the family for generations. Wouldn't do that. Just stay and stick it out. And the interesting thing was how the Spangler's seemed to think of their situation as unique. Go north or south or east or west, and there were plenty of places where things weren't like this. They thought.
But we know it was "ordinary pain." We know where there's all that and a whole lot more.
What is a high crime rate? What's the crime rate supposed to be! What's a normal rate of suicide, would you say? How many are to be expected? How much alcoholism and drug addiction are nothing to get excited about? How many fights at a football game are just par for the course?
No one knows the answer to those questions. What we do know is that we live in a world of sin, a world where conflict is inevitable, a world where pain is the price of going on from one week to the next.
He worked himself to death, finally and precisely at 3 a.m. Sunday morning. The obituary didn't say that, of course. It said that he died of a coronary thrombosis–I think that was it–but every one of his friends and acquaintances knew it instantly. He was a perfect Type A, a workaholic, a classic, they said to each other and shook their heads–and thought for five or ten minutes about the way they lived.
He was 52 years old, and he was a vice president . . . one of six vice presidents, and one of three who might . . . have moved to the top spot. Phil knew that. He worked six days a week, five of them until 8 or 9 at night, during the time when his own company had begun the four-day week for everyone but the executives . . .."
His "dearly beloved" eldest of the "dearly beloved" children is a hard-working executive in a manufacturing firm down South. In the day-and-a-half before the funeral, he went around the neighborhood researching his father, asking the neighbors what he was like. They were embarrassed.
At the funeral, the 60-year-old company president told the 48-year-old widow that the 51-year-old deceased had meant much to the company and would be missed and would be hard to replace. The widow didn't look him in the eye. She was afraid he would read her bitterness and, after all, she would need him to straighten out the finances.
By 5 p.m. the afternoon of the funeral, the company president had begun, discreetly of course, with care and taste, to make inquiries about his replacement. One of three men. He asked around: "Who's been working the hardest?" (From a column by Ellen Goodman)
There are built-in conflicts, you see. We have to run to keep up, but we can run ourselves to death. We want to love and be loved, but the more we do, the more vulnerable we become, the more pain we may someday face. We'd like some adventure in our lives, but we want our security too. Everywhere you turn, there's pain if your do and pain if you don't.
Some people learn a lot about hospitals. Some get cheated. Some are always behind on the bills. Some always seem to be the person the joke is on. Some never get comfortable with strangers. Some try all their lives to lose weight and never lose any. But what if all of that, or something else like it, is just the ordinary, expected thing.
God whispers to us in our pleasure, but in our pain he shouts. And yet most people think of God like a pilot thinks of his parachute. Something he hopes he never has to use, and never will unless he must.
Pain has a way of changing that, though. It does seem a shame to go running to God because we have trouble. If he were proud, he might slam the door and send us on our way. But he doesn't.
God will receive us, even when we use him as the last resort.
The world is harsh, but the Lord is good. Those who come to him he will in no wise cast out. As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pities those who call on him.
He will not allow them to be tempted above that which they are able, but will with the temptation make a way of escape, that they may be able to bear it.
"And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be dominion for ever and ever. Amen." (1 Peter 5:10-11)
THE POINT OF LIFE
I don't think I've ever told you about our cat. Cat's name is Dufus, which tips you off to the fact that he's not a highly intelligent cat. In fact, I don't think I've ever met a highly intelligent cat. Some dogs, maybe, but no cats.
Anyway, Dufus has only a few basic questions in life. "When do I get my food?" "Why hasn't my box been cleaned?" "Would you please be a little quieter so I can sleep?" Things like that, what else is there for a cat?
Dufus was on the window sill in the kitchen the other day and a squirrel climbed down on the patio and spent some time out there just exploring around. And Dufus got all tensed up and crouched down as if he might attack. But he knows there are two panes of glass between them there and he isn't allowed out of the house, so it was all for fun.
He's watched squirrels before, of course. He loves to watch squirrels. So do I. I could watch squirrels for hours. I can study squirrels and ask questions about squirrels. You give me the time and money and I could write a book about squirrels. I could.
Not Dufus, though. At no time does Dufus ever ask himself, "What is a squirrel?" Nor, for that matter, does he stand and stare at his image in the mirror and ask, "What is a cat?" Those things Dufus takes for granted. Most things he takes for granted. All such questions lie beyond the limits that define a cat's existence.
But did you notice that very question, not about cats or squirrels but about us, there in the 8th Psalm? The question only we of all God's creatures are capable of asking–"What is man?" "What is man?"
Now you can get along without that question, and others like it. You can get along like Dufus does. A lot of people do. They go from cradle to grave with no thought about the meaning of things. As long as there's something in the bowl they're content. Just let them live from day to day and they have all they need. They give not a "yes" or a "no." Their answer to the question of life is "no opinion."
Who are we? "I don't know." What are we here for? "I can't say?" What is our destination? "Well, right now mine's home to watch the football game."
Down at the bottom line of things, there are two basic attitudes toward that question the psalmist raises. You answer it theologically, or you answer it atheistically.
To answer theologically is to say that we are creatures of God who made us, that we're the highest of his creatures, and we were created for fellowship with him and obedience to his will.
To answer atheistically is to say that we are unexplainably whatever we are. A higher form of life, but only that. And you can do no better than live life as it happens to suit you best, and in the end it makes no difference one way or the other.
Now a lot of people answer theologically but live atheistically. They say God's the most important thing, but live as if they're the most important thing. They claim he exists but live as if he doesn't exist. For all the difference he makes in their lives, he might as well not exist. They'd be surprised to be called atheists, but their friends would be surprised to find them living any other way.
I'm saying this: that we must reckon our lives in relation to God, and try to discover and do what he intended for them. We must value what he values, and scorn what he scorns. We must love what he loves, and hate what he hates. We must want for this world the things he wants, and help make them come to pass.
That's the ideal. That's what I'm aiming for in the sermon this morning. But what's the actual? What are most people doing with their lives? What are they trying to accomplish?
What are you trying to accomplish? What would you like to succeed at more than anything else? What are you the proudest of? What would you like to be remembered for? What would be the best thing that could happen to you?
There's a way of helping to answer those questions that's been useful to me, and I want to share it with you this morning. So follow my line of thought.
I want to suggest three ways of dealing with life. I'm convinced that we choose from among these three in some combination. And to recognize what that is and compare it with the will of God is a useful thing.
The first is the person who says "LOOK WHAT I HAVE." His life consists in the abundance of things he possesses. Things. And this is the purpose of life for him or her–to acquire, possess, accumulate.
Land, houses, money. Items of manufacture, items you collect. Clothes, cars–and always as much of it as possible, the best of it if possible.
This is partly because the person loves having those things. Also because she loves having more of them than others.
The things themselves say that. "Look here at my car. Why, it cost $36,000! You'll never even sit in a car like this!" "And my dress–would you like to guess where it came from and what I paid for it?" "We have a boat up on the bay. Forty-two feet long, with everything you could want."
And he shakes his head and says, "Boy, it must be nice." It must be nice. And maybe he agrees that this is the point of things. He just hasn't succeeded at it yet. But he's gotten a taste, as television is always giving us a taste, and he'll work on it. And someday maybe he'll be able to say to someone, "look what I have."
Now in the second place, you have another person who says "LOOK WHAT I DID." He isn't a materialist like the first. It isn't what you have but what you do that matters to him. And it may be writing a book, or having a book written about him. It may be adventure, or travel, or research, or setting records. Or even helping people.
I did a wedding up in Rockville once. It was in some kind of clubhouse, the Elks or something. And there all around the wall were pictures of the past presidents of that club, looking down. And if you were one of those, and still living, you'd come there to a meeting and look up every single time to make sure yours was in place. And you'd say to yourself, as if to the whole world, "Hey, look there! Look at me. Look what I did." And you'd sometimes think to yourself that even after you die those pictures will still be there, and younger people will look up at yours and say "Oh yeah, I remember him. I remember what he did."
Now I'm sure that "look what I did" is a better value than "look what I have." The desire to make our mark is a worthy desire, if it's a good mark we have in mind. But still this falls in a category which the Apostle Paul described as "hoping in the flesh." Hoping in good works. And Paul said that isn't enough. There's more to it, he said.
So that brings me to my third category. You can say "look what I have" or "look what I did" or "LOOK WHO I AM." I call this a faith orientation. It means that what you become in the sight of God is all-important to you. More so that anything you acquire, more than any deeds you may do. Traits that mark our lives. Traits like:
Those qualities, according to the Bible (Galatians 5:22) are the best evidence of the will of God at work in our lives. And the life that values what God values, values those above all else. And those define, not a thing you possess or even an action you take–although actions are involved. They describe what sort of person you become.
Actions are important, but as the result, as the outcome. If you are a kind person you will do kind things. If you are a loving person, you will do acts of love. Of course. But it's not a chicken-and-the-egg kind of thing. One clearly comes first. And that's a quality of goodness whereby the image of God is seen in you.
Let's take an example. How important is truthfulness to you? That's a simple, clear-cut thing. If you're the person who says "look what I have," you may not value it very highly. It can get in your way. And if you're the person who says "look what I did," it may or may not be important. But if you believe that what you are is far more important that what you have or do, then truthfulness becomes a thing you might even sacrifice other things to preserve.
You'd rather lose the sale than tell a lie. You live by a principle of honesty and fairness. You don't say this car is something is isn't, even though it might benefit you to do that. You tell the truth even when it hurts. Not because it makes sense, but because it's right. You have a sense of what's right and what's wrong that's taken from your belief in God and why he put you in this world.
How important is kindness to you? How much do you value love? What would you trade or not trade for serenity? When did you think about humility? Who would call you a gentle person? Are you one of the pure in heart? Is there anything that could get you persecuted for righteousness' sake? When you do confess your sins to God, what on earth do you confess??
There are three prayers about life:
"Lord, what would you have me to have."
"Lord, what would you have me to do?"
"Lord, what would you have me to be?
And the mistake we make is that we usually go about that backward. We think first about what we shall have and what we shall do.
But Jesus put it the other way. He said "seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you."
It's never too late to start.
WHO HAVE I BUT THEE?
Now just listen to those words again, and hear how good they sound:
"Thou dost guide me with thy counsel, and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee." (Psalm 73:24-25)
They sound as if that came so easy! The words of a saint whose faith is sure and certain. Who rejoices every day in the glory of God. Whose trust in the Almighty has been victorious in every situation.
If you took the words out of their context you might conclude that. But leave them in context and you get a different story. The words are the outcome of a person's painful struggle. Psalm 73 is a drama of spiritual life and death. Someone goes from bad to worse, then to worse than worse, then to better than worse, then to better than ever.
A soul is poured out here–we must be reverent. The words are tear-stained and sweat-soaked. Whoever writes this came to the verge, where we might come one day. The verge of despair, of giving up on God, of pain too great to bear, of problems that utterly overwhelm.
We listen to the testimony of verges. They possess their own integrity. We listen to those who've been to the edge of the bottomless pit and looked down inside. We want to know what they saw down there.
After all, we learn the most from troubled lives, not the easy ones. What can you learn from someone sitting in the shade and all dressed up? You learn more from a person like this psalmist who's had to crawl through the mud of life, and can tell you how he made it.
One of the anxieties here is over worldly success. He was envious when he saw the prosperity of the wicked. He can't understand why they have it easy and he has it hard. Why everything they touch begins turning to gold. Why they can strut their success around and the Lord do nothing about it.
It's easy to find fault with his attitude. What business has a righteous man keeping lists and making those comparisons. If we really set our affection on things above, how can we be bothered by the distribution of things below?
But we are. We're teased every day by the prosperity of others. Others who seem no different than us. Why them and not us?
There's a faculty member at Furman who has a hobby of keeping up on television evangelists. He has quite a sense of humor about it. One evening after our lecture he gave a slide show for the group that was something of a hit. And a person who toils for the Lord in the ordinary world was bound to make some comparisons.
Boy, I said, what if my preaching could get me a house like that? What if just one of my books could sell that many copies? Wouldn't Luther Rice folk be impressed if I drove up every Sunday in my limousine and parked out there in the portico? My chauffeur could even help out with the ushering. And think of the money if Diane had her own line of makeup and dresses and no-run pantyhose, and sold them in the foyer after services on Sunday?
Men of God aren't supposed to think about such things, of course. But some have, and done quite well at it.
I once noticed two advertisements that got placed next to one another in the Washington Post. One was from a college that wanted a professor with a master's degree and was offering $6,700 annually. The other was from a family that wanted to rent their house for $18,000 a year. And I know those figures are behind the scale today, but the fact remains that there are a lot of people doing honest work who would have to do years of it just to pay rent on the house that others live in.
We must find fault with this brooding about it, though. Envy is understandable, but not commendable. It's a poison. The psalmist envied the lives of others, felt sorry for himself, and steamed in his bitterness day after day. But what good is that? It's like spinning your wheels in the sand–you only dig yourself into a deeper hole.
We must learn to be more content. Papa Bear rolled out of bed and came downstairs. He looked at the table and said "someone's been into my porridge!" And then Mama Bear came down. And she looked at the table and said "someone's been into my porridge!" And then Baby Bear came down, and you know what he said. But then Grandma Bear came in from the kitchen with a big bowl and she was saying "Fuss, fuss, fuss–I haven't even poured the porridge yet!" And most of our fussing is no better than that!
One of Shaw's plays has a lady, Mrs. Dudgeon, talking with her minister, Rev. Anderson. She's talking about a person she dislikes and says, "He will be punished for it." And Rev. Anderson says, "That is not in our hands, Mrs. Dudgeon." And she says: "We are told that the wicked shall be punished. Why should we do our duty and keep God's law if there is to be no difference made between us and those who follow their own likings?"
That's very close to what the psalmist cried out in verse 13: "All in vain have I kept my heart clean . . . for all the day long I have been stricken."
Which means "I've been serving you, Lord. I've been doing what you told me. But it doesn't seem to be getting me anywhere. I'm no better off than anyone else. I should take all my effort of doing what you want and use it to get what I want!"
His faith is in grave jeopardy there. He's losing it. He may hang on, or he may not, but it looks like he won't. Someone who came in the front door of the temple is about to slip out the back door and be gone.
"You can always count on God," you hear it said. Yes, but what do you mean by that? Count on him for what? Can you count on him to make everything turn out like you'd like for it to? No! In that sense God is undependable. Undependable at guaranteeing you'll never have a car wreck, never have a pain, never have anything stolen. God is undependable at keeping you from being misunderstood by others, and a multitude of other things that are out of his hands.
We live in a world where wide-ranging freedoms operate. A lot of people are bumping around and running into one another. The world doesn't turn around you, and God won't make it turn around you. He'll help you, sure, but you still better keep your eyes open–you can get run over out there.
Well, the man who wrote this psalm had been run over. He lived in daily distress. He had thoughts you hope you never have. But something kept him from taking the one last step. As if a line was scratched on the floor, and a sign said "no return from this point on."
Listen: "But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God."(vv. 16-17)
Listen again: "When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant. I was like a beast toward thee. Nevertheless I am continually with thee; thou dost guide me with thy counsel, and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides thee."(vv. 21-25)
The first step back to God is a trip to the sanctuary.
The second step is an admission of stupidity and ignorance.
And the third is this testimony: "Who have I but thee?"
"My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever."(v. 26)
Notice how you begin to see these things in the sanctuary. That's where his return of faith began. That's where most issues of life can best be decided. For you see things differently in the sanctuary, and it isn't just the light, it's the presence of God you feel there.
So take your business deals to the sanctuary, and have a look. Take your marriage, your ambitions, your frustrations. Take the problem you're having with a friend or neighbor. Take that desire you have to make a mark, and what mark it ought to be.
"Who have I but thee?" Here speaks a man who believes again. He became empty of God, but now has become full of God. He may not understand life, but he has a connection with the resources to help him live it. His mysteries remain mysterious but their torment is gone. And thus he moves ahead, and even death can place no limit on his hope.
The man is saved. Saved although he's just a poor as ever, just as unpopular with his critics, and just as insecure from every worldly standpoint.
But something fundamental has changed. Self-pity is out and confidence is in. God's presence is real. The man lives, and will make it.
Whatever happens, he'll make it.
A THEOLOGY OF JOURNEY
There are two ways to do about life. One is to just live it and try not to think about it. How it came about? What happens next? Who's responsible, or was it all accidental? What's right about this and what's wrong about that and all that kind of nonsense–just enjoy what you have and leave that for the people who write books for the people who read books to read and say they've read something on the subject. No one really knows. Why bother?
In my own discouraged hours, I can wish I could be that way. I know some who are, and seem to do quite well. Perhaps you do too.
The other way is the person who must struggle to know, to ask, to seek through prayer and listening and pondering and reading, to try to make some sense, to get hold of something with some assurance in it. And that's the effort of my sermon this morning, to raise with you these ultimate questions of what life means.
I mean, it is a little funny, isn't it? It's funny how things worked out if all they were was accidental. How your eyes can focus 100,000 times every day, your heart pump blood 100,000 times every day. That if you were to take all the arteries, veins, and capillaries of one human body and put them in a single string they'd reach around the world and more. How we breathe 20,000 times every day and 515 million times in 70 years, exhaling enough air to fill 64 Goodyear blimps. It does say there's something there to think about, right? (My thanks to a sermon by Bill Sherman for those figures.)
Lewis Sherrill, in his book, The Struggle of the Soul, says there are three ways people feel about their lives. The first he calls THE TREADMILL. A dreary feeling that there's no meaning to it. It's like hamsters running round on their wheels, shut inside their cages. Something may be happening, but none of it matters. And if you stand on any street corner and watch the faces passing by, you wonder how many feel just like that.
Sherrill says other people look on life as A SAGA. It may not be taking you anywhere, but you can have a good time on the way. There are exploits to be had, some heroic, some glamorous. The only sad thing is to come to the end and die.
The other possibility he calls THE PILGRIMAGE. This person sees life theologically. She sees it as a gift of God, as a journey to God. Life moves through stages toward an objective. And it has an element of transcendency–that is it's more than it appears to be. It begins here but will end up somewhere else.
We see that worked out in the life of Abraham. What madness it must have seemed to his friends–that sudden move to leave home and go off wandering. His urge to make a change in his life. His almost cockiness that this was the will of God. And off he went. But we study this story to learn the meaning of faith.
Abraham left home and journeyed to a promised land. He came to it as an old man, and before he did anything else he bought a place to be buried. The Bible says "he sojourned, as in a foreign land, living in tents. He was in a promised land, but a stranger and near the end of his days. Why had he come here? How would it turn out?
I think he must have wondered. Life is something we never finish, something we always leave in the middle of. Victor Hugo wrote this on the day of his 70th birthday:
"For half a century I have been outpouring my volumes of thought in prose and in verse, in history, philosophy, drama, romance, ode, and ballad. Yet I appear to myself not to have said a thousandth part of what is within me; and when I am laid in the tomb I shall not reckon that my life is finished."
The poet Tagore had a similar testimony. He said "I have spent my life stringing and un-stringing my instrument, and the song I came to write remains unsung."
How sad! How unfair it seems! In one of Garrison Keillor's stories his character laments the fact that the people on his block don't know what a clever, eccentric genius he is. But then he reflects that he doesn't know what clever, eccentric geniuses they may be either!
Charles Worthy gave me a book of poems he wrote in Jerusalem for my birthday. I've been reading them. I tell you there's a lot to be seen there that you don't necessarily see when Charles drives up in his brown Ford with the Georgia license plates! But when is there time for any of us to see all there is to see? Not in this life.
Abraham was condemned by his faith to accept his destiny in a more distant future. He lived for things that did not yet appear. And so he learned to live with the pain of life's departures, with the menace of exhaustion, with the frustrations of a wanderer. He learned to be comfortable with what the psychologist calls "postponed gratification."
Abraham left a place of security to become a wanderer, all because he believed in God, and in God's future. Don't think it was easy. Don't think there weren't times he looked back and wondered. And cherished any experience that seemed a sign of divine favor.
I remember one time. It was long ago, in the late 50's I think. I was hunting in the mountains on the North Carolina line. We'd come to an old homestead called the "Crowder Place." There was a spring there that became Little Crowder Creek, which flowed into Crowder Creek, which flowed into Citico Creek, which flowed into the Little Tennessee River, and then into the Tennessee about 20 miles from where I was raised.
The day was wild and gorgeous and mystic. Down there was Chilhowee Lake and the Nantahala Gorge. And there was Slickrock Creek, where a man I knew came from. And you could see the Snowbird Mountains, and over there on the right was Rattlesnake Rock. And I ate my lunch alone in an old orchard where the bears had been leaving claw marks on those old trees. Each one trying to put his up a little higher than the rest.
And I had there the most satisfying feeling of oneness with God and his world, of gladness that I was who I was and where I was, of the rightness of things, of peace. And for some years after that I was able to close my eyes and project myself back to that day and that mountain top, and feel like I felt there. And after I could no longer do that, I used to wonder if I could just go back and be there again if it would all return.
The answer is no, of course. You can't go back. You can only go on. The place wouldn't be the same, and I wouldn't either. I can only go on and hope there's another one up ahead. As well there may be.
Years ago we had a speaker here on a Wednesday evening, Dr. Loren Noren, an American Baptist missionary. He'd spent 21 months as a prisoner in communist China. He told us how he lived in a cell eight steps long, but he walked five miles in that cell every day to keep himself going. He told us there were three things that sustained him there: his faith in God, his sense of humor, and his knowledge that he was cared for by other Christians.
So he made it. With enough to live for, you can make it.
I heard a father tell about a conversation with his son. He tried to talk with him about his grades. He pointed out how low they were. Boy said "Oh Dad, that's nothing." Then later he tried to talk with him about his friends. He pointed out how low they were! Same answer, "that's nothing." He tried another subject and got the same thing. And so he said, "Well Son, tell me this. If those are nothing, what is something?
But journeys and outcomes take time. I heard Ernest Campbell put it this way. He said we're always asking God for fruit–give us fruit, Lord! And we want it large and sweet and plentiful. We come with our baskets and our hands outstretched. But instead of fruit he gives us seed. Seed we must plant and tend and watch over and be patient with. But believe in all the while.
We must see ourselves as more than aimless wanderers.
I used to do some sermons in the form of conversations. I did one where a dying young man was talking to his best friend, and in it he said: "But after that bitterness subsided, I began to think about God and to realize that God created me, that I am a part of his creation, and somewhere in all the things God made, and all the people, and all that goes into this world, there is some place I fit. He made me to fit in that place. I began to believe that God had some purpose in it–that I wasn't just being wasted for nothing."
"God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year; God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near. Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be. When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea."
The perils of our journey can be good for us if they lead to conclusions like that. If we can see that change and transition are divine measures for our betterment.
Ease and comfort aren't always so good. "Woe to those who are at ease in Zion," said God through his prophet. The flame shall not hurt us, he only designs our dross to consume and our gold to refine. There's a book by Alan Watts titled The Wisdom of Insecurity. His idea being that if we were totally secure in this world it would be the worst thing possible. We'd be good for nothing. The struggle is hard, but it's better.
There's one thing you need to learn, though, and that's to travel light. Abraham wasn't so attached to his property, his belongings, all those tangible things, as he was attached to that dream he had, and his call from God. He could trade away the certainty of earthly gain for the greater hope of heavenly gain. He looked for a city that had foundations, whose builder and maker was God.
Paul said to Timothy, "No soldier going off to war gets himself entangled with civilian pursuits." You travel light if you're a soldier. So it is with pilgrims. With those whose lives are marked by this strange blend of blessing and burden.
They get tired and weary, and sometimes blistered and hungry.
They remember the sadness of leaving things, and people, and places. And sometimes wonder if it was worth it or not.
They're a curious sight, those pilgrims. Other people whose every thought is about security look at them so strangely as they go by.
But they have a goal, a destination. They have a look in their eyes. They seem to see something no one else sees.
And they somehow learn to live with the loneliness, the fear, and the uncertainty. Something carries them through it.
WOMBS WE CAN'T GO BACK TO
Please try to stay awake, Dad. I only get down a few times a year, and it's a thousand mile trip, and I have to go back tomorrow. And you don't get out in a car much anymore. Oh well, sleep then. We'll go for a drive anyway.
Look, there's where we used to live. I remember when you laid the marble for that porch. And there's the fish pond in the side yard we used to clean out in the spring when the weather got warm. Oh, I see they've filled it in now and made a flower bed out of it.
Maybe you'd like to drive out toward the mountains. We'll go past the high school on the way. I hear they've done a lot to the football field. Yeah, right down there it is. Gosh, it looks like a college! I bet they've got air conditioning in the locker room now!
Doesn't seem so long ago. Briggs, left guard, number 39: bad-footed and slow, better on defense, good at getting fumbles sometimes, not a bad tackler, lettered his senior year, nothing in the record book.
Mother wasn't much of a sports fan was she, Dad? I don't remember her coming out to the games at all. She kept the house. Always there, always doing something, always happy and smiling. The house and the church, and a few things at the college. And her book club. And that was about it.
Look there, Dad. I went rabbit hunting there one day when every pile of brush seemed to have two or three in it. You just kick it and they'd go running. Didn't need any dog. Just jump 'em up and shoot. But there's sure no place for rabbits out there now with all those new houses.
We're coming to Montvale, Dad, if you could wake up and see. I haven't been out here in I-don't-know-how-long. Montvale Baptist Church there. Huh! Look at that! Pastor Clifford Deputy. I knew him when I was in college. He was out in the country near Madisonville then. He must be pretty old now. Or maybe he's dead and that's his son there.
See the fire tower up on top of the mountain. It's a new one, of course. The old one is the one I climbed so many times. I remember squirrel hunting up there one time. There's where the old hotel was. Or maybe further down. And the lake, I wonder if it's still there. Morton and I went swimming in February once. And we got lost in the woods out here once, and had to spend the night.
I saw a man and woman come out of these woods one day and drive off in separate cars, dressed up like you don't usually dress to go walking in the woods. Sometimes I'd come here and practice my preaching right out loud. And back then I could take off and be to the top of the mountain in 30 minutes. Couldn't do that now.
But I could still climb it, you know that.
You could too until three or four years ago. But not any more. Not any more.
We've all taken trips like that. If not in a car on a Friday afternoon, at least in our minds. The old days. The distant past. We live in the present, and we live for the future, but every so often the past tries to have its say.
"How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
After our first birth, the way seems so open. All things seem possible as you look down the years ahead of you. There's a feeling of endless opportunity opening up. You dream of mastering whatever you decide to do, and have no reason to doubt your dream.
But as the years add up, as they had for Nicodemus who asked Jesus those questions, the range of possibilities begins to shrink and diminish. Time becomes an enemy, not a friend. It seems to move more swiftly. Instead of opportunities, what a person starts seeing are the things he will never learn, never do, never become.
There in your left hand is a list of things you thought you might accomplish in life. And there in your right hand is a list of things you know you won't accomplish. The list in your left hand started out long, and got shorter. The list in your right hand started out short, and got longer. That's what Jesus and Nicodemus were talking about.
What is possible, and what is not? How can a drug abuser be born again to a free and sober life? How can someone who's taken a solid position at the bottom of the class become an achieving student? How can parents be born again to a new start with half-raised children? Where's the way back for two people with ten years of bitter words between them?
Do you see what I mean? The longer you live the more you feel that. That you're determined, helpless, given a script you have to live by and can't change.
You've tried not to be so procrastinating. You've made efforts to be more patient. There's someone you know you should lead to Christ, but will you ever do it? You've made resolutions about your spiritual life, time and again. You've sat and dreamed about changes of direction you know you'll never have the courage to make.
Jesus has a word for you, as he did for Nicodemus. Jesus says there's such a thing as new birth, even after a person gets old. All things are possible to those who believe, he says. You can be born again. You must if you're to enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus dares us to believe that nothing is impossible, that we're freer than we know, that with the help of God we can overcome.
A person can get so greedy it just comes natural in any situation. Or hateful. Or jealous. Or critical. Or bound to dominate and control to his own advantage. Long-entrenched evil is hard to change. It seems that it controls you, and you don't control it. But Jesus is telling us it doesn't have to control, that where there's a will there's a way with God.
Now do you believe this first, and then try it? Or do you try it first, and see if you can believe it? Maybe that's what you do. Maybe it's like a coke machine where you've come with your change on a very hot day. You look at it suspiciously, though. The box has marks on it were angry customers have beaten with their fists because it took their money and gave them nothing. But how will you know, unless you drop in your quarters and take the risk?
Jesus said you must be born again if you're to see the kingdom. Why the must?
Because his viewpoint was away from the past and toward the future. The past we've been over–we can travel back there on our own. But to get on to the future, to get on to the opening up of new life and new possibilities, that takes an encounter with the Living God.
No wonder Nicodemus said, "How can these things be?" We all say that. When we're really down, we say to ourselves "those things aren't really possible." But Jesus says they are. He says "with men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
We learn in physics that objects at rest remain that way unless acted on by some outside force. The law of inertia. It's the same with lives. Lives in a rut stay in a rut till some force intervenes. It could be a sermon, or someone's example, or the words of a prayer, or a feeling that came over you watching the sky one evening. An outside force. And then things changed.
When Dad went to the nursing home a year ago, I had the job of packing up his things to put in storage. I ran across the scrapbook my brothers kept during the war. The pages all brown and brittle. "German Soldiers Ride into Bulgaria," "Bataan Defenders Overcome by Japs," "Rommel Escapes British Trap," "Crew of U.S. bomber shot down in Pacific reach tropical isle after 7 days on raft," "Gas quota five gallons a week."
Somewhere at home you have a box of things like that. Letters, clippings, the program for a play you were in, old pictures, post cards, match books, decorated napkins from wedding receptions. We feel good looking through that stuff, but we feel sad too. It has the smell of death about it. It speaks of things that are no more, that will never, ever be again.
Can a man be born when he's old? How can he?
To find that out, and do it, is a lot more important than rehearsing the past we may have lived in. And it's also more important than the day-to-day demands of the present we're passing through.
Stand off from things. Take the long look. You know where you came from. But where are you going? Today is the first day of the rest of your life, but what will that be like? What do you want it to be like? And what treasure will you have in Heaven when it's done?
Someone did you dirty and you've never gotten over it? Is that so? You had a bad home, a bad start in life? Well, what a shame! You've made some big plans, you just haven't gotten around to them yet? Well, maybe you will someday. You could do as well as the next person, you just don't see any sense? Sounds reasonable to me!
Do you see how we need re-birth? Do you see how the past can become our tomb? An excuse for things. A collection of them. A retreat from life lived daily in accountability to the will of God.
As the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, they were fed each day on manna from heaven. It was there in the morning, and they collected it, and ate it. But they found they couldn't store it. It wouldn't keep. If they tried to keep it and eat it later, it made them sick. And the lesson they learned was dependence on God who makes every morning a new one.
Robert Penn Warren has a painful autobiographical poem called "Amazing Grace in the Back Country." He tells of being a boy in an old-fashioned revival meeting and under conviction. And it got to be too much. And he ran out of the tent, and down to the creek, and lay there throwing up as the meeting ended.
"Voices sang of amazing grace, singing as they
Straggled back to the village, where voice after voice died away,
As singer by singer, in some dark house,
Found bed and lay down,
And tomorrow would rise and do all the old things to do,
Until that morning they would not rise, not ever.
And now, when all voices were stilled and the lamps
Long out in the tent, and stars
Had changed place in the sky, I yet lay
By the spring with one hand in cold black water
That showed one star in reflection, alone–and lay
Wondering and wondering how many
A morning would I rise up to greet,
And what grace find." (New and Selected Poems 1923-1985, p.142)
Come unto Him, all who labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him, for he is meek and lowly of heart. And his yoke is easy, and his burden light. And you will find rest for your soul.
THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
Today about noon a homeless man came by the church. Like many homeless people, he had mental problems you could almost tell by looking at him. He asked about used clothing, and I took him to the Miller Room where he selected a pair of pants. Then he said he still had some money, and checked to see how much. He had only $6, so I gave him $10 more. Then he asked how far to where he could buy some lunch. He was walking, and you know what the weather was like today, so I drove him to Wheaton Plaza.
This interrupted work on my message for this evening, or did it? There at the plaza I glanced at USA TODAY. The front page headline story was titled "Spirit of Christmas '86 Lives." Since my message was going to be titled "The Spirit of Christmas" I invested 50 cents in a copy. What would "The Nation's Newspaper" have to say about the spirit of Christmas?
Well, they had an item about a child from Sri Lanka who's getting a free heart transplant. And there was one with a picture about a family from Ohio who've adopted 6 handicapped children and are getting a 7th. And there was a piece about what the President and Mrs. Reagan will be doing this year. And a report from Nashville that the Red Cross had released Santa Claus as a result of angry protests. They were keeping him hostage until people gave blood. And that was about it.
No mention of Jesus Christ, or Bethlehem, or the love of God, or salvation by faith–not that we would expect that. We've grown accustomed to takeover of Christmas. Or maybe it was a surrender.
The "Christmas spirit" seems to have come to mean three things: living it up, spending a lot of money, and tossing a few coins toward some charitable cause.
"Have some of this–it'll make you feel good." "Buy one of these–you deserve to reward yourself." "Give to this or that, and you'll feel better for having done it." The "true" spirit of Christmas, we're told.
We can have a nice secular holiday like that, but we shouldn't call it Christmas. If that's all we have in mind we should dedicate it to the jolly old fellow in the big red suit. Just let him have it all, he has most of it anyway.
Something called Christmas ought to be a celebration of the love of God in sending his Son Jesus to the world to save us from our sins. Christmas needs theology. God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself. And whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish but have everlasting life.
Simply to have this vague feeling so-called the "Christmas spirit" is harmless enough. It makes people happy, and it's good for business. But it does not save or make a lasting difference. And it may give people the idea that something religious has taken place in their lives, when of course it hasn't.
The things of the world can seem so great and so conspicuous. The things of heaven can seem so small and inconspicuous. God doesn't force himself. The world may shout, but he only whispers in a small, still voice.
Poor Harry Truman. On August 6, 1945, when they told him about the bomb blast at Hiroshima, he took a breath and said: "This is the greatest thing in history."
But we who believe come here on a night like this. And we read the record, and sing the hymns, and think of what it meant, and what it means, and we take that journey to Bethlehem in our imaginations once again. And we stand out there somewhere on a hill and look down at the town and say "This is the greatest thing in history." And it is.
No one should miss the greatest thing in history. There are ever so many things in history that aren't the greatest thing–and you can miss those.
No football game was ever the greatest thing in history. No battle fought. No disease overcome–fine as that may be. Ho election won, no deed of kindness, no matter how noble. No act or word or thought of man can be the greatest thing.
The greatest thing in history is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. O come, let us adore him. O come, let us adore him. O come, let us adore him–Christ, the Lord!