HE IS ABLE
Last summer, soon after I left Utah and got into Idaho, I came to a sign I'd never seen before. It said "Severe Storm Warning next 20 Miles."
Well I looked all around and saw no sign of severe storms, but then I was only into the first mile. I rode on and came to several more signs that said "Warning: migrating deer crossing area." I'd never seen that sign either. Then two more, "Caution: high wind area" and "Caution: occasional blinding dust storms."
Well I began to wonder about the state of Idaho! I said to myself, "Boy, if all that all gets going at once, it's really going to be something!" I mean, you get caught in one of those severe storms, and blinded by all that dust, and then run over by those migrating deer–think of that!
Life brings its uncertain moments. When we worry over what might happen. When we doubt the direction we're going. When we stand in need of assurance.
It was like that in the Upper Room. There were warning signs all around as they met there. This might strike, or that could. They were there hiding with a man who had a price on his head. And he kept saying there was a traitor in their midst.
Some have more need of assurance than others. Some people can be in desperate situations and not go to pieces. Some are strong when it's physical danger, but weak about their ego and self-esteem. And others are the other way.
Everyone has a weakness somewhere, and has need to borrow strength sometime. And the human sources of it have their limitations–listen: "My father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me up."(Psalm 27:10)
That speaks of our best and only real assurance. People may let us down, but the Lord won't. People change their minds, overnight or less, but he's the same, yesterday and today and forever. He's our refuge–a place to turn in time of distress. The one to go to when all else fails.
There's a refrain you hear over and over in the Bible, especially the New Testament. It's there to help us in our troubled times. It tells how God is our salvation, not just once, but again and again. In whom we can trust, and be confident.
The refrain goes, "He is able." And this morning I want to recite the ways it's applied.
What about our daily needs? Those immediate things we spend our lives in pursuit of. The category Jesus told about in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said seek first the kingdom of God and all "these things" will be provided you.
Listen: "God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work."(2 Cor. 9:8)
Where do we turn for assurance that the things which really matter are safe from harm? Listen: "For I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me."(2 Tim. 1:12)
How do we face the future to see it as a friend, not an enemy? Listen to this: "No distrust made (Abraham) waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised."(Romans 4:20-21)
There are lots of promises, aren't there? Some people make them easily, don't they? Sometimes as substitutes for doing what they promised! You have their word, but you wonder what you have when you have that. With God you don't have to wonder.
What bears you up when you stumble and fall, as surely you will? Is God watching from above, hoping to catch you in something and make you pay? No, listen: "Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand."(Romans 14:4)
And let me ask this: what faith do we need as we bring our prayers before the throne of God? Perhaps this: "Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations."(Ephesians 2:20-21) What could encourage our praying more than that?
Who'll be our friend when others excuse themselves because, well, there was something embarrassing, something that made them say, "I'll be going now–see you later." Who do we have in a time like that? Listen: "Because (Christ) himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted."(Hebrews 2:18)
And finally, what about the long-term hope of our faith? As we look ahead, beyond the span of earthly life, what then? Is there a word about then?
There's this: "Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them."(Hebrews 7:25)
And there's this: "I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified."(Acts 20:32)
And there's this: "Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing . . . be glory, majesty, dominion, and power . . .."(Jude 24)
Strong assurance. Let your faith be strong it it.
And let the bread and wine on the table here be an unfailing reminder that it was so, and is, and ever will be.
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS MONEY IN THE BANK?
In Granby, Colorado last summer, I was low on cash and tried to use a $50 traveler's check at a 7 Eleven early one morning.
Anyone here ever tried that? Good! none of you are dumb like I was!
She told me sorry, she could only get $10 out of the safe every 10 minutes. That figures about an hour to wait for $50, right? I did have enough change for coffee, though, and rode on out of town, and headed west.
After a couple of hours, I came to Kremmling, Colorado, and saw a small post office there. Surely this was a place I could get money for a traveler's check if I bought a few stamps. American Express, good as cash, good in all those foreign countries, good anywhere you travel. But I was told there that Post Office regulations say you have to use at least half of a cashed traveler's check for stamps or they can't take it. Sorry. That was twice in two hours I'd heard the word "sorry."
The post office suggested I try the bank, which happened to be next door.
Well, the good news is, they do cash traveler's checks at the Bank of Kremmling. The bad news is, they're very suspicious of strangers riding motorcycles who try to do that. They want a photo I.D. and two other proofs of who you are.
This lady actually held up my driver's license beside my face and compared the two. Have any of you ever tried to look like the picture on your driver's license? Not easy! And she made extensive notes on the back of my check. But when she finally satisfied herself, and the rules of the bank, and reached in that drawer, and handed me real money, bills I could spend at any U.S. Post Office or 7 Eleven store, I had a new lease on life!
Don't we all get jittery when there's some question about our security? When cash runs low, or we're lost in a strange place, or the job we hold looks shaky, or the doctor seems nervous over some report, or we see friends whispering and don't know why, or we can't remember if we turned off the stove when we left the house.
We like to know that if something does go wrong, there's a plan to take care of it. We buy insurance, we join AAA. We diversify our investments. We strap ourselves to the seats of the cars. "Save something for a rainy day," our parents taught us, and we've done it. We have money in the bank.
But my question is, what have we got when we've got all that? Are we ready then for anything that may come along? Have we bought ourselves real security, or just deceived ourselves with false security?
In the text this morning, Jesus uses expressions like "beware" and "take heed." Those seem to contradict his words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he tells us "do not be anxious."
But as you study further, you get the sense of what he means. That there are concerns in life we must learn to laugh at, and be untroubled by. But there are other concerns we must take with utmost seriousness. And the great problem is, we worry over those things that should be laughed at, and laugh at those things we should be worried about.
There was this man, and he was a farmer and a good one. And he worried. Always something to worry about when you're a farmer. So many things to go wrong, and so fast sometimes. But he managed well, and did well, and finally became so successful that his success became his main worry. His barns were too small for the harvest, his whole operation needed expanding, why stuff could be lost if he didn't move quickly.
That's the way with success sometimes. It's supposed to be a blessing but ends up a curse. It's supposed to make life easier, but ends up making it harder. A person becomes the victim of it, as that farmer did.
He worried and pondered over a lot of things, but not the right things. He tinkered with the trivial while mightier issues hung heavy in the balance. Issues of his soul. For his god, you see, was that farm and those crops. Those were what he lived for. But there was a god who was God, who had the final say on all that, and one night did say–"Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?"
Now it isn't that God sits back and hopes that'll happen, as someone's distorted view might assume. No, God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever will believe on him won't come to such a sad end, but have eternal life instead!
Eternal life. Have eternal life. Have it right now, according to the tense of the verb.
I have a billfold in my hip pocket–have. Unless I forgot it, yes it's there. It's not something I'll have later on, I have it now. And one reason I don't forget my billfold is, I feel secure when it's there and insecure when it isn't.
Why listen, I have a Gold Visa Card in my billfold. Has a bird on it that flutters when you wiggle the card back and forth. And if I got caught with no money and no traveler's checks, even in a place like Kremmling, Colorado, I could use that card and take care of myself pretty well.
For awhile, that is. For a month or two at least, even if that was all I had.
But a month or two, then what? That's the kind of security we have in our hip pockets. Nor can we even be sure of that. Nor can anything we have stored in a bank vault add much to it. For "what is your life?" asks James. "You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes."(James 4:14)
Nothing I put in a bank vault can prevent my injury, my illness, or my death. Nor can it insure my happiness, or buy me love or self-respect. Much less the favor of God, who alone is my security.
Who tells me not to lay up for myself treasure on this earth, for the moths and the rust and the ruin that's here will get it every time. But lay up for myself treasure in heaven, where things once settled stay settled. Where things stay safe.
But can I believe that? Maybe that's all a big lie, and our only life is this one, and to have fun while we're here is all we can do. There is no tomorrow, so make the most of today, while you have it. There's no right or wrong, no one to give account to, no reason to give anything away unless it gets you something back. He that saves his life, saves all he has.
But Jesus said whoever saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life shall save it. So that what we have here is an either/or situation. Either God is, and is what matters, or God is not, and nothing matters but what matters to each person.
And no one can prove which way this is. You only believe that it's this way or that way, and live accordingly. And some will be right about it, and others will be wrong. And no one can decide it for you. And this is called . . . FAITH.
You literally bet your life. You bet that things you can see and handle are no security. And that things you can't see and can't handle are.
You bet on God and the future. You bet he's able to keep that which you've committed unto him against that day.
I went out for an afternoon run at Lake Tansi in Tennessee. On the five mile route I marked the year before. A great day to run it was, except I hadn't been running much. I was out of shape. So I said to myself, be sensible now. Two miles is enough for you. Go one out and one back.
But as I neared the spot to turn around–warm sun, blue sky, good air, fall colors all around–I said to myself: "Really now Ed, what's the worst that could happen?" If you go for it and don't make it, what's the worst? Because I really wanted to run the whole route.
That question helped me decide to go on. I decided what I faced was sore feet and tired muscles. Or perhaps to poop out and have to quit, walk back home, or even thumb a ride. But I had the time. I could do that if I had to.
"What's the worst thing that could happen?"
That's a good question. For sometimes it helps us get rid of silly fears. And other times it makes us to face up to issues we don't want to deal with.
You said something you shouldn't have. You embarrassed yourself in front of a lot of people. Why, it pains you every time you think about it, which is every five minutes. Hey! tell me, what's the worst that could happen? Figure it out, and tell me is it worth all this you're putting yourself through?
You have a job where some changes are being made, and you could be one of them. Be out of a job, I mean, and without much notice. And you don't see how you could miss even one paycheck, and still keep up. This is the worst thing that could happen to you. Or is it?
You have a tumor and it's malignant, so? What's the worst that could happen?
You could die from this, you say. And you could. You may.
But think now, think soberly, reach deep in that part of you where the issues of life are settled, where hopes of heaven are believed in or rejected, and see if you can whisper along with Paul as he says,
"For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
I bet that's so. What do you bet?
A SECOND CHANCE
Today we hear one of those shorter parables Jesus told. Only a few lines, but illustrating a vital truth about God and life. What happens when you've messed up already and want to try again? Is that possible? Or what if it's been seven times, or seven times seventy, then what? Can we learn from our mistakes? Is there mercy with the Lord? We'll see.
The setting of this parable is something to take note of. It's one of those strange passages we seldom hear mentioned. But I think you can see how it connects. Let's look.
The subject is disasters. Why do they happen and what do they mean? That we know about. Every generation knows about that. There was a mad man in Germany who killed 6 million Jews. How long will it be till that's forgotten? A woman was abducted and raped and thrown off a bridge in Howard County. How long till she forgets. The space shuttle explosion–how long was that on the front page? And how long until it's never mentioned any more?
In a way, there's something in all of us like my friend in Tennessee who chased ambulances. He told about those car wrecks for weeks, in living color. But who doesn't look over there and see what he can see when he passes one? It's like we're afraid to but just can't help ourselves. We don't want to see but we have to see.
Luke 13:1 has people coming to Jesus and wanting to discuss the latest disaster, the latest atrocity. "They told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." There's no other record of this event–Josephus has none. Apparantly some Jews were suspected of treason and murdered by the Romans while offering sacrifice. It was the kind of news to make people hate Rome.
But why had it happened to those particular people? There were lots of Galileans who hated the Romans. Why them?
People said that God must have been paying them back for something. He was getting even. God is like people who wait to get back at the Romans, he waits to get back at us. You sin against him and he watches for just the right moment and then HASHHAHA! he settles the score. That was what they thought.
You find that idea in the book of Job. No one knows how to explain Job's sufferings, except to suggest that he must have some secret sin. His friend Eliphaz asks: "Who that was innocent ever perished?"(Job 4:7) His answer was nobody.
But Jesus said not so. He said there've always been disasters. Eighteen people had been killed when the tower of Siloam fell. Was God the cause of that? Did he wait till the eighteen worst sinners in Jerusalem got near that thing and then made it fall? Would he have put if off had a good man happened by? You think that sounds ridiculous, but then you hear people ask why did this happen to me, or why did that happen to him, and it's the very same thing.
This is where Jesus tells about the second chance. A man has a fig tree planted, and it's been a disappointment. Three years and nothing. So one day he decides to cut it down and use that space for something else. But one of those fellows who works for him, maybe the one who'd have to do the cutting, he said "give it more time, Sir." He'd make this a project of his. He'd dig around it and fertilize it. Might not work, but then it might. And the master said OK.
There you have two views of God. The God of popular opinion waits to catch us and make us pay. The God of Jesus Christ will give us another chance and hope we'll do better.
That's the point here, it seems to me. Jesus doesn't tell us why murders take place, or why towers fall down on their victims. Why life is given or taken is a mystery that belongs to God and not to us. All towers will fall down sooner or later. The point is for us to use life while we have it. We may be working on our second chance. There's fruit to be borne. God wills it.
With God a new start is always possible. People may not give you a second chance, but he will. People may write you off but he won't. People give you a name and say this is how you are and how you'll always be. But God can change that. Jacob the deceiver becomes Israel, the father of a nation. Saul the persecutor becomes Paul the apostle. Simon the profane fisherman becomes Peter the rock on which churches are built. "With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
So this is a message of hope, is it not? If you've been a mostly barren fig tree up till now. If you've had a barren marriage up till now. If your prayer life has been dead and barren even for a long time now. If you know you should be bearing fruit as a Christian, but you're not. If you're a young person and whatever you were meant to be in life has been blowing in the wind up till now.
Someone might walk by, take a couple of quick glances, and pronounce you dead. Cut this down, he says, and throw it away. Make way for progress. Get rid of the dead wood.
But then another voice speaks. Another voice says wait. Wait and work–notice that. Wait another year but work in the meantime.
Let's dig around this tree. Let's give it the best chance we can. Let's work some fertilizer in the soil, down near those roots, and see what that'll do.
You see, to wait and hope and do nothing is just postponing the inevitable. But to wait and hope and work is to cooperate with the divine intent. Work on that ill temper of yours. Work on your personal piety. Work on a low self-esteem. Work at getting your mind off yourself and loving your neighbor as yourself. Make a list and begin checking things off. Buy some fertilizer and sharpen the hoe. The waiting and the working go together.
I must tell you all of this, though. I must tell you there's a second chance with God, and a third, and a fourth, and so on. But . . .. But there's such a thing as a last chance too. God will hope for you to be fruitful, and wait, and hope, and wait some more. But not forever. Someday it may be said, "one more year and if there's nothing then, well, cut it down."
"Cut it down" is the last resort. "Cut it down" is what God never wants to have to do. God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to a knowledge of the truth. All.
But all may not. All may have a second chance, but there is a last chance. "He that being often reproved and hardeneth his heart shall suddenly be cut off, and that without remedy."
There was a young man in Tennessee I tried to help. He got in trouble with the law, bad trouble. He came from a home where there'd been a lot of trouble. I went to the jail, I talked with his lawyer, I talked with the judge. When he got out I tried to talk with him about his life. I thought there was hope. I had hope for a second chance. I got him in school.
For all of a summer, I went out in the mornings and drove him to class. One of the deacons drove him home in the afternoon. But he quit and got in more trouble, and more. Nothing seemed to stick. And I decided there was nothing more I could do. I gave up.
Leslie Dent had his last chance with me. And that deacon looked at me one day–I'll never forget it–and he said, "Preacher, do you think we've done any good?" And I knew it was no time for any pious talk. And I said, "I don't know, Eddie. I don't know. All I know is we tried."
I don't say I know about last chances with God. You could have your last chance with me and still have one with him. I could have my last chance with you and still have others left with him. This is what the Bible says: "He will not always chide, nor will he keep his wrath forever." So there is a last chance, even with him.
That isn't the main point, though. It's just something you have to keep in mind. Most of the time there is a second chance. Most of the time you do have time. Most of the time there'll be another time and you can learn from your mistakes.
One of the basic questions of life is this, "of what use were you in this world?" Barren fig trees extract from the earth its resources and bestow no fruits in return. So do some lives. And some philosophies of life try to tell us this is the smart thing. No one remembers those people fondly. We remember people like Lincoln who said "die when I may, I want it said of me that I plucked a weed and planted a flower wherever I thought a flower would grow."
I don't know how this story applies to you, but I hope you know. I hope if you've been frustrated and discouraged, it gives you hope in the God of second chances. And I hope if you've been waiting and procrasinating in some area of duty to him that it gives you fair warning of the danger in that.
Great peril and great opportunity often go together. And one prayer might make the difference. One bowing of your head right now and asking "God be merciful to me, a sinner." One more decision to try one more time and see what happens.
Come every soul by sin oppressed
There's mercy with the Lord
And he will surely save you now
By trusting in his word.
WHEN THINGS WERE A LITTLE CRAZY
I read that Lyndon Johnson was walking through in the White House one day and passed by the desk of one of his staff. The article didn't say who, so let's assume it was Bill Moyers, just to have a name. And the president looked down and said, "Moyers, if your head is a cluttered as that desk is, you're in a heap of trouble!" And he walked on.
Well, the man was really shook. He spent the next two days sorting and organizing his desk. He cleaned out his files, so he could move the stuff in the drawers into the files, so he could move the stuff off the top of the desk down into the drawers.
And sure enough, Johnson came back around. And he looked down at the desk again and said, "Moyers, if your mind is as empty as that desk, you're in a heap of trouble"! And walked right on.
Every year as we get near Palm Sunday, I question myself as to whether I really want to go through this again. Because every way I've ever tried it, it didn't seem quite right.
I don't have to preach on this. I could let the musicians sing and wave their palms, and then I could preach whatever I want. But every year for twelve years now, I've decided to give it a shot. If I could somehow manage to get one right, then I could just repeat it every year. Bad joke.
I've titled this sermon "When Things Were A Little Crazy." With some risk, I know. To call something crazy is to risk offending. The musicians have made it beautiful, and now the preacher comes along and calls it crazy. He wants to take away our day. Maybe he's crazy.
Maybe so, but let's talk first. Let's remember about this day we call Palm Sunday. Let's see why I'm confused, like Moyers was.
Three years before this, Jesus of Nazareth had come out of nowhere. He'd started preaching that the kingdom of God was at hand, and teaching what kind of life was expected of those who wanted to be part of it. He'd fed the hungry, healed the sick, cleansed lepers, cast out demons.
When all this started, the crowds were big. But that caused jealousy, because the Scribes and Pharisees weren't doing the things he did, or getting the crowds he got.
And Jesus was an outsider, perceived as a threat. He said things that were never said before. He seemed to think he had authority. But it wasn't the authority they recognized. It threatened their religious establishment.
Threatened people make plans. And the bigger the threat the more severe the plans. They made severe plans.
It didn't matter that later his appeal declined. He quit giving out free food and began preaching the demand of the kingdom. And a lot of folk said "no thanks, this isn't what we were after." But by then things had gone too far. By then he was seen as a time bomb ticking, a menace to be removed.
He knew this was going on. And he tried to warn his disciples, but they never seemed to hear. He said plainly that he must go to Jerusalem, and be killed there. But they were confused and afraid, and put it out of their minds. Here's how the Bible has it:
"Taking the twelve, he said to them, 'Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him, and on the third day he will rise.' But they understood none of these things; this saying was hid from them, and they did not grasp what was said."(Luke 18:31-34)
And that was the third time he'd tried to tell them that.
It happens. I tell Diane something very plainly. I do everything but write it down. And then later she looks all surprised and says "you didn't tell me that!" She thinks I didn't tell her that! And so very patiently I say, "Yes, honey, I did tell you that! You just forgot." You know how that goes, don't you?
By Palm Sunday, though, they did finally know. By Palm Sunday everyone knew. This was a man with a price on his head. The chief priests had finally decided he must be gotten rid of, at any cost. Just try to do it as quietly as possible.
People knew, because they tried to talk him out of going there. Go back home to Galilee, and he'd be safe. Spend some time in the wilderness again. Or in Samaria if he wished. Just stay out of Jerusalem, and especially at Passover time. And he listened to it and said,
"It's Passover time, and I'm going to Jerusalem. You can go, or stay. I'm going."
Jesus felt compelled. He said so. He said, "I must."
Must is a word we think we don't like. We work to rid our lives of musts. We don't want to be tied down. We see people with strings tied around every finger to remind them of something they have to do, and mustn't forget. And we laugh and say "no way!" We plan to stay free to have our good time.
But it's a funny thing. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but all play and no work makes him not worth a hoot!
At the last church I served, we built a new building. And I don't mean paid money for one–we built it. We had a contractor, but the members worked too. We worked over 6,000 hours. And I was right in the middle of that, and the committee was, and every willing member was.
Every Saturday and many week-nights we'd have 30 or 40 people working. Sometimes we'd work till nearly midnight, and people had to be at work next morning. And sure, people got tired, and some complained, and this went on for a year, and I wished for it to be over along with the rest of them, and finally it was.
But you know what? Wasn't long before people were missing those days. I'd hear them talk. They'd say "remember the day we did this or did that?" "Remember those lunches the women brought up?" "Yeah," they'd say, "those were good days. Let's look at those pictures sometime soon."
It's a crazy thing. What we think we don't want is the best thing for us. WE WANT NOT TO BE NEEDED, BUT WE NEED TO BE NEEDED. We need a task we know's worthwhile, and one that'll compel us to go first miles, and then second miles.
Someone asks for volunteers. You sit there and wait till enough others do, and then think how smart you were to do that. No, how dumb! Those who raised their hands are going to get something out of that, and you're not. "No pain, no gain," as they say. And Jesus was on his way to prove what that means.
Someone said that friends come and go, but enemies accumulate. And now he was headed for where the enemies were. And no one could talk him out of it.
You have to remember that the tide of popular opinion had already turned against him. His enemies could do as they wished because so many followers had given up. He was being despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. In just a few short days, these crowds would be calling for his death, and his disciples would run for cover.
So it's crazy, what happened on that road. Everyone turned out and welcomed him like a hero. News spread and more turned out. And they were throwing their coats down, and singing and shouting to the top of their voices, and stripping branches from the trees and waving them in the air.
It was like a game of "let's pretend." It was like they all knew better than this but decided to do it anyway. It was like they were intoxicated.
And Jesus let them do it. He went along with their craziness. In fact, he did some of his own.
He rode in on a donkey. He came like Don Quixote. They were shouting and calling him a king, but what king rides a donkey? He made himself a caricature of one. He seemed to mock their craziness, as if nothing could be done to stop it, so he might as well have fun with it.
The Pharisees told him he should stop this. "Rebuke your disciples," they said. But he said no. And it was the saddest excitement you ever saw. And if Jesus allowed himself to smile and wave, as he might have, I know he was sad inside. And could hear in their noise the undertone of unrest that would lead to his death.
You watch him ride along and wonder if soon now he's going to raise his hand and ask for quiet. Holler "shut up, you all! Stop all this and listen for a minute." Get down off his donkey and up on a roof top. Then tell them what was what. But he never tried to do that. He just rode on.
There are times to straighten people out if you can. But there are other times to go on, to give your witness, to be faithful to your task, and let what happens happen.
That's what Jesus did, and that's all I can make of this crazy day.
That's what we must do sometimes in our own crazy world. Where some will tell us to clean our desks, and others want them cluttered. Where any noise of praise we hear is not to be stood and listened to. Where the parade moves on from nonsense to nonsense, and seems unstoppable.
Stay with him, though. We must stay long enough to see the outcome. And we must listen to hear him say,
"Be of good cheer! I have overcome the world."
THE BOTTOM OF THE CUP
Gethsemane . . . Gethsemane. What do you suppose that word means? Well, it's the name of a piece of equipment, heavy equipment. A press for crushing olives and getting out the olive oil. Gethsemane.
Outside Jerusalem there was this place called the Mount of Olives. And you can figure why it was called that. And there was a garden there, and it was named "olive press." And you can imagine why.
Whoever owned it seemed to have given Jesus permission to use it, for he did often. Why else would Judas have guessed that there was the place to find him?
I admit to some attraction for the place. Some people are strugglers and some aren't. Some know about Gethsemanes and some don't. I've always been a struggler. Gethsemane is my kind of place.
I like issues. I take things seriously. I know about pressure and perils and the fear of what may happen. I know about prayer on your knees when everything else kind of fades away. And I know about nights, late nights, when you think you may not sleep at all.
Jesus agonized there. He struggled with questions of life and death, success and failure, friends and foes. There were choices about pain and comfort, obedience and disobedience, quitting or going on. And the meaning of suffering.
He was facing the cross. Soldiers would come and arrest him that evening. He'd be tried in the night and nailed to the cross next day. As if caught in a current that was pulling him down where he wasn't ready to go. And Gethsemane was a place he grabbed hold of something, and reflected on the inevitable. Where he made his peace.
The thing was the inner struggle. The focus was on self more than circumstance. That's one thing to be learned. There's no such thing as a big problem or a little problem. Some people handle a heart attack better than other people handle a broken fingernail. Some people lose their jobs and laugh about it, others get caught in a traffic jam and scream about it. Some say "look at that mountain," and others say "no, it's just a mole hill!"
I've called this the "relativity of problems." None of us knows the agony of others based on our judgment of the circumstances. The self plays such a role. We say she has a twenty pound problem on her hands there. But to her, it may seem like five hundred. To someone else, it might weigh only ounces.
You get nowhere by saying how heavy this would be to you. You've got to find out how heavy it is to her. We tend to ask "what's the problem?" instead of "how are you taking this?" If the how is weak, the what overwhelms. But if the how is strengthened by faith and nurtured by prayer, a person can deal with any what.
Nietzche put it this way: "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how." But even people with a why to live have their times of extremity. Jesus knew what was going on that night and what was set to happen next day, but the how of it was frightening.
It's hard to give an address to Gethsemane. It's hard to predict when a person may reach her limit. It's hard to know when someone else has reached that point. Those disciples were good men. They loved their Lord. But while he prayed in agony, they were all sound asleep.
Imagine that! But don't judge them. How much do we care about the suffering of the world? The hungry? The homeless? The mentally ill? The forgotten elderly? The alcoholic with her bottle? The prisoner locked in his cell? All that and more can be going on nearby, and us asleep.
Everyone needs sleep, of course. No one carries all the problems of the world on his back or in his briefcase. There are times to be with the suffering, and there are times the suffering must be alone.
Gethsemane's are lonely places. Where you want your friends, but have to leave them. You tell them to wait while you go on farther. You go where they can't follow, and hope they understand.
That's one of the lessons here, it seems to me. Jesus wanted company but needed solitude. He took disciples with him, but then separated himself. He took three of them a little further than the others. Which meant he kept them a little closer. But he left them too.
So that when he finally knelt down on the earth, there was something concentric about his world. His farther friends out yonder in their homes for the night. His nearer friends at the edge of this garden. His closest friends just a few olive bushes apart. And him all alone.
How close can we really be to others? How close to knowing one another and sharing trust? We know it's easier with some. But even with the closest friends we have, how many olive bushes must always remain between us?
The Bible says none lives to himself or dies to himself. And that's true in the way it's true. Everything we do affects other people; none of us is totally independent, hard as we might try. But that's one side of a paradox. And the other side is that everyone lives to himself, and everyone dies to himself. As the old song has it, "We are going down the valley one by one."
That's not to deny the social side. There are times to sing "Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love, the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above." But there are also times to sing, "O Lord, you know I have no friend but you. If Heaven's not my home, then Lord what will I do?"
Have all the friends you can–gather as many as you're able. And take your friends as far along the journey as you can. But know this–learn this from Gethsemane–that close as you may be, you never fully merge. Life offers partnerships, not mergers. Some space, however small, is bound to remain. And we never overcome that separation. And sometimes, when trouble comes, the width of those few bushes can seem like a thousand miles.
I remember feeling that in a sick man's room one afternoon. It was out in the country, and I was the pastor. Everyone knew his days were numbered in the low figures, and I may have wondered what I'd say at his funeral as I watched him in the bed.
One of his lifelong friends came in while I was there. Someone he'd grown up with. And they sat and talked, and I sat and mostly listened. Two men in their eighties, and me in my twenties.
In our times of need, we all want someone with us. Particularly someone who means something to us. Not so much to do anything, now even talking. Just their presence is enough.
My two friends both knew what lay ahead. It hung unspoken in the warm summer air. And my fellow visitor had feelings about leaving, I could see on his face when the time arrived. But in the end, we eased open a creaky screen door, and made soft steps across a sagging front porch, and went away. Gethsemane is a lonely place.
Let me read you something I disagree with.
"Jesus is the ideal martyr, and he goes to his death with soul prepared, his loins girt for the struggle, the athlete of God utterly obedient to the Father's will, wholly consecrated for his ordeal."
I don't like that, not that it's false, it's just so slick, so Hollywooden. It implies that we're watching a performance done for our benefit, not a real-life situation.
Jesus didn't want to die. He was in his thirties and only getting started. He had things to do, in a ministry just begun. But the end was in sight, and he was scared, and Gethsemane was where he had to force himself to go on. Where he almost quit.
What was his prayer? "Let this cup pass from me." He imagined a cup of bitters, held out for him to drink. He imagined how awful it would taste, and the pain in his belly if he did. And he wondered if he must really drink that, and drink it all–down to the bottom of the cup.
The answer was yes. There was no other way. And then is when we hear him say, "not my will but thine be done."
I think its O.K. to be scared, even desperate. I think "let this cup pass from me" is an acceptable Christian prayer. It'll naturally be our first prayer. "This is what I really want, Father–this, please." We'll pray that as long as we possibly can. But we'll know that if we have to, like Jesus, we can say "nevertheless."
"Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done."
What Jesus drew back from there, he became obedient to. He had something to support him, his fellowship with the Father. And that shows you don't want to wait till things get desperate to have a relationship with God.
Jesus didn't. He didn't pray as a stranger to prayer or to God. He'd fought temptation in the wilderness, fear on a hill above Nazareth, thirst by a wellside in Samaria, doubt on a sea at night, hunger in a field, disappointment in an upper room. Many times already he'd made his solitary way to the Father.
This is why, when the soldiers came, he didn't run away and hide. Running and hiding was for those who slept.
ON THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS
I'm sure a lot of you, along with me, watched Joe Theisman's leg break in slow motion the other night. How many times did you watch? They must have shown it a dozen. They kept saying don't look if you're squeamish. I think I watched it three times and then looked away after that.
People do get hurt, don't they? And other people want to see, but then have problems when they do. A wreck there beside the road–two cars smashed together. A driver thrown out of one that turned over is lying in a ditch. Lying like Theisman did, waiting for a stretcher. Everyone slows down. Everybody wants to see what he can. But watch out! You may not be unaffected.
I must take you to a similar scene. Where bones are broken and blood will flow. Where some will watch, while others turn their heads.
This is no accident, though. This is where men with strong notions have clashed into violence. Where those with lives invested in religion are faced with what they see as a threat to its existence.
They are Jews of Jerusalem, and he is Stephen, who believes in Jesus of Nazareth. They nailed him to a cross, but Stephen has preached that he rose from the dead and is alive for evermore. That he was Messiah, God's own Son in fact, and that to him we all will someday give account. He believes this enough to die for it, and does.
They stoned him for blasphemy. But not before they heard him cry out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And then more amazing, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
Now a young man was there that afternoon. He didn't throw any stones himself, but he held the coats of some who did. He was born at Tarsus in Cilicia, so he was a distance from home. His Jewish name was Saul, and his Gentile name was Paul. His father had gotten Roman citizenship, and was likely a man of wealth and standing.
Paul got a fine education in Tarsus, and later in Jerusalem. Tarsus had a name for culture. A contemporary scholar named Strabo says the people at Tarsus devoted themselves so eagerly, not only to philosophy, but also to general education, that they surpassed Athens, Alexandria, and any other place where philosophers taught.(see St. Paul, by Arthur Darby Nock, p. 22)
So what on earth is such a man doing in the middle of that mob?
He's being true to his heritage. He's playing out his role as a serious-minded young man, devout in the religion of his fathers. Thinking back on it later, he wrote:
"I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews,; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless."(Philippians 3:4-6)
Ah, the zeal of serious-minded young men, and young women. I remember it well from college days. Going out on week-ends to preach in jails and on street corners. Passing fiery resolutions in the Student Ministerial Association. And the records I used to keep trying to force my conformity to ideals I thought should be goals. And the time I tried to break a bad habit and swore on my knees that if I failed again I'd put a certain large amount of money in the offering plate at church, and ended up having to do it!
So anyway, there at Stephen's stoning is this young Jew from Tarsus. And now we begin to understand why he's there. And we can speculate on what lay ahead for a bright young man so zealous in his religion.
Let's imagine for a moment the ways it might have gone.
In the first place, he might have distinguished himself on his present course, later becoming a famous Rabbi of Judea, and finally, at age 54, the High Priest, where he served for 20 years until he died, leaving writings famous among the Jews until this day.
Or he could have became more and more fanatical, an embarrassment, something of a terrorist, until he was seen as out of control by his kinsmen, who disavowed him. He might have gone away then and do one thing after another and finally die fighting in a mercenary army sent to squelch a disturbance in Ethiopia.
Or he might have gone on from that stoning in pursuit of other Christian heretics, but come to a reassessment on the way, having some sort of vision, becoming converted and a Christian himself, one of their leaders in later years and to the end of his life.
That's what happened. And of course it takes something rather tremendous to turn around a man so driven and dead-set in the direction he's going. So let's see. By the way, this likely took place no more than five years after the crucifixion, with Paul about 30 years old at the time.
He is on his way to Damascus, and they may not be ready for him, but he's ready for them. He has authority from the powers that be to arrest any man or woman who says what Stephen said. He will arrest and bring them to trial.
It's hard to imagine the mind of the persecutor, for me at least. What causes someone to plant a bomb at an abortion clinic, risking the murder of people inside, and jail for himself if he's caught, all for the sake of his strong opinion on the matter, which he's given every right to express in a lawful way? And how often will such a person be changed to oppose what he once supported, and support what he once opposed?
But something just like that is about to happen with Paul, and I doubt it was the sudden thing it seemed. I suspect at least from the time he stood holding those coats, it had kept him in turmoil. And perhaps the harsh way he treated others was because of the harsh way his doubts treated him.
He'd seen a saintly man willing to die like Jesus had been, who prayed like Jesus did, who forced the choices Jesus forced.
He wasn't alone as he traveled, he'd brought help along. And they were about to wonder what on earth was happening. Nothing would be real to them like it was to Paul.
First there was a blinding light that surrounded and knocked him down. And as he lay with his face in the dirt to hide it from the glare, perhaps he thought he was blind for good. He was blind temporarily, for three days in fact. But during that time the eyes of his soul opened to see things he never saw before. He would always be sure it was by the will of God.
Sometimes it takes a lot to get a person's attention for more than the business of the day. Man doesn't live by bread alone, but bread is what we have our minds on most of the time. So an illness or tragedy may have its good side, because ultimate questions are faced that were shoved aside up till then.
A blind person listens. And whether the voice came at once, or after a silence, we have no way of knowing. But you know that when it came it hit him like the lightning bolt it was.
"Paul, Paul, why are you persecuting me? And isn't it hard on you? Aren't you just tormenting yourself?"
And the sightless young rabbi from Tarsus, half believing already, asks the only question that seemed to matter.
"Who are you, Lord?"
Take a guess, Paul! Try for Moses or Elijah. Hope for some dead relative sent as spokesman for the God you worship. Don't let it be thought that this might be the one Stephen called on at his dying. For then you'd be forced to hate what you once loved, and love what you once hated. "Who are you, Lord?"
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."
His companions picked him up, and led him by the hand, and brought him to Damascus. And it was three long days before the answer came. For the Lord had to speak to a disciple named Ananias, who knew the reputation of Paul, and convince him this was something he should get involved in.
Ananias has to argue. "I've heard about this man, Lord. I know why he's here. And you can say it's fine and not to worry, but I have to worry. If you're wrong and I'm right, then it's a long trip for me to somewhere I don't want to go."
But he went. He took God at his word and went. And must have decided on the way that he might as well do it right if he was going to do it. Be brave, he said, nervous won't change a thing. So he found the house, and went in, and began by laying his hands on the man he feared the most. And you know some kind of power has to be at work in a touch like that. And he said,
"Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit."
And the first thing Paul saw was the face of a Christian who'd called him Brother. And the first thing he did was to be baptized. And he ate, and they talked, for there was much to talk about. Everything in Paul's life was in for change. Like a spreadsheet on a computer, where the putting of one new figure in one place on one column causes the calculating and recalculating of figures in every other column.
The new formula in Paul's life was this, as the Lord explained it to Ananias: "He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name."
But Paul would finally say of that suffering: "Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him." (Philippians 3:7-9)
THE DESIRE OF ALL NATIONS
Words are like people–you find one now and then that has a bad reputation it never deserved. It's a perfectly good word, but we always hear it used in a negative way. Such a word is the word "desire."
Someone is filled with desire, burning with desire, and what do we assume that means? We suppose all sorts of things, but none very flattering. Lust is what it means, or greed, ambition, perversion, malice–those darker sides of our human nature. Those are what desire means.
Oh, but listen!
"With desire have I desired to eat this supper with you before I suffer."
Said Jesus in the upper room. "With desire." And we take it he meant "with strong desire," even "burning desire."
Notice how Paul used the same word in Romans: "Brethren, my hearts desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved."(Romans 10:1)
Notice how the Psalter–which might well be called a collection of desires–uses the word in an honorable way. "Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart."(Psalm 37:4) "The eyes of all look to thee, and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing."(Psalm 145:15-16)
But then reflect on the fact that such a hunger and thirst after righteousness isn't exactly the trademark of modern religion. We're much more casual, more "laid back" as they say. Listen to our talk: "I'll think about it," "maybe if we have the time," "sorry, I don't feel up to it right now."
We're his followers, sure, but we follow with no great desire, no compelling urgency.
With his kind of desire we haven't desired. And we don't desire to! Or we think we don't. We think we're better off not being very involved. But then maybe we don't know all there is to know about our own desires.
Christ is called "the Desire of all nations." But is he?
The answer, I believe, is both yes and no. Is he the conscious and expressed desire of all nations?–no. But is he their desire? That is, is what he is and has and can do for them the thing that means most? Yes! it is!
He has made us for himself, and our hearts stay restless till they find their rest in him. He's the only shape that can fill the void in our souls. Many stay restless, and wonder why, and never find out. Never knowing the finding was close at hand all the time. Christ was their desire, and they knew it not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
This is true personally, and nationally, and internationally. The scope of it can be as broad as you imagine. Listen: "There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. And it shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord, and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears. But with righteousness shall he judge the earth."
"The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. The calf and the young lion and the fatling together. And a little child shall lead them. . . . They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea."
Isn't that the real desire of nations? In this hate plagued, madness driven, fear stalked zoo of a world, isn't that what we need most?
We want peace. Peace in our hearts, and peace with one another. Peace because there are wolves about, and right now they don't lie down with lambs, they attack and ravage lambs. And our fears may be different than those used as images in the Bible, but they're no less real or threatening. Strange new diseases, landings in the fog, lawsuits in the mail, sounds at midnight, bombs aimed at cities, death on the highways, failures in the market place.
We see no end of our problems and their complexities. They keep crowding around, and if one leaves, seven others come to take its place. And our desire is to be free, free at last and at peace. For peace on earth, good will among men.
I saw two kids passing a football on the street. I was running. I heard one say to the other. "When's your dad going to get a car as fast as mine?"
He didn't really mean "mine," since he was only 10 or so. He meant his dad's. When's your dad going to get a car as fast as my dad's?
The other boy had no answer. Maybe he was trying hard to think of some way his dad was up on the other kid's dad, but couldn't. He was stumped! It was embarrassing!
So what may have happened that night at the dinner table? "Dad, when are we going to get a new car? Dad, everybody else around here has a new car. Dad, could we go look at one tonight?"
And to what end is all this? Notice how it's born of conflict, and tied to spending money. As if you can become something by buying something. So dollars are made agents of struggle instead of means of peace.
And isn't this exactly what the world is like, unless God help us? And isn't this exactly how we'll spend our lives, unless some change is made?
NOT BEING A DISAPPOINTMENT
"A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent."
It's been a long time, but wake me in the middle of any night and I can say the Boy Scout laws. I learned them well, if the saying is enough. Doing them wasn't as easy.
Our Scoutmaster was John P. Murphy, who loved boys and the great outdoors. Since the town was near the Smokies, we did a lot of hiking in the mountains.
I know most of us took Murphy for granted. But I do remember some thoughts about all the time he spent with us, and the trips in his car, and how much he put up with for no pay at all, and how he cared about each one of us, and was proud when we gave him reason.
A Scout is first ranked a "Tenderfoot," and who wants to be called that? So I earned my Second Class, and kept working on up to Eagle Scout. Got a letter from President Truman congratulating me, saying he was proud of me too.
Sometime after that we went on the hike to Deep Gap, which begins at Fontana Dam in North Carolina. About 12 of us set out from there with Murphy. I was hiking with Morton, my best friend.
There was nothing remarkable about hiking in, unless you consider that a ways up the trail we passed an old car. It showed signs of much use, but looked to be running. Maybe the owner was on ahead. Maybe he'd be camped where we camped. We'd see.
We spent our time at Deep Gap, seeing no one but us, then packed up and headed home. Morton and I brought up the rear. The old car was still where it was. And since we were alone, we took a look. Wasn't locked–huh! We opened it and got inside. We were thinking of things. No keys though. Wonder whose it is? Check under the hood? Sure. Be funny to cross up those wires, wouldn't it? Here, let me do it. Hey, I've got an idea: take off that distributor cap and throw it in the bushes. Yeah!
Right about then we heard him. We heard his sounds coming up the trail. But he hadn't heard us, we hoped not, and we ran off and hid.
He was a lean mountain man in his twenties. Looked like he might have worked in a sawmill. Fair-haired and narrow-eyed, wore overalls, chewed tobacco. We saw him through the woods, our hearts pounding like hammers, our throats dried up.
Then there was a new sound in the woods–a grinding, coughing sound–as the man discovered his car wouldn't start. He soon found why. He looked around for the missing piece, getting madder and madder, then took off down the trail the way he'd come. The way we had to go to get out of there. He figured it was that bunch of boys he passed on the way up. So he hurried to catch them before they got away.
They were still in the parking lot, of course, because they had to wait on Briggs and Morton. The mountain man lit into them and accused them of messing with his car, which they were innocent of. No, they hadn't done that. Yes, they did see the car. Was this all of them? Well actually . . . no. Briggs and Morton were still up there!
They told us later that Murphy swore we wouldn't have touched his car. He trusted us, he said. But the man in overalls was unimpressed. He called the police, and headed back up.
We met him halfway. I can still picture the way he swung his arms, walking fast, and how his forearms bulged, and how his knuckles showed white as he clenched his fists.
We thought we were goners. And knew that meekness and surrender were the only choices left. We went back there and found the part, and he started his car and put us in it, and drove down the trail to the parking lot.
A police car was waiting. The police and this man seemed to know one another. In full view of Troop 88 we were loaded in the police car and taken to the station. I saw the look on Murphy's face as we drove past.
Since no harm was done, the law took our offense as minor. We were lectured and warned and returned to the lot, where the group still waited. Not much was said. Not much was said all the way back home.
Morton and I would joke of this eventually, but not soon. We didn't mind about the troop, but we did about Murphy. He trusted us, and we let him down.
I got some relief when "Youth Sunday" came around at the church. I spoke. I did pretty well, they said. And Murphy was there, and I heard him tell someone afterward that he sure was proud of Briggs today.
30 years later, in a restaurant after tennis one morning, we were talking, just the two of us. I'd twisted my napkin several times. Then I said, "Murphy, you remember that hike to Deep Gap?" He looked up sort of quick, like you do when you hear something you weren't expecting. He paused and said, "Oh yeah, I remember that." But there was a twinkle in his eye. And I guess it was over.
Now what am I saying with that story? I'm saying this: we must consider the trust of people who matter to us, and try to live so as not to disappoint it. Our scripture lesson has this lovely prayer:
"Let not those who hope in thee be put to shame through me, O Lord of hosts; let not those who seek thee be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel."
Find someone who puts you on a pedestal and live up to it.
Could be your parents. Don't disappoint them, young people–you owe them. They sat up late and worried when you were in sick. Then they sat up late and worried when you were out well! If they've been overbearing it's because they've poured so much of their lives into yours. They're impossible at times, but so are you. And yet something inside you wants and needs their blessing. An unblessed child never outlives it.
Same thing for husbands loved and trusted by wives, for wives loved and trusted by husbands. For friends who love and trust each another. Employers who trust their employees, employees who trust their employers. Students who trust their teachers, teachers who trust their students. Coaches, doctors, news people, legal people–everywhere you turn there's this principle. The good in others can bring out the good in us. Or it can be frustrated by the bad in us.
The good in others. You may have noticed in the text that it's a certain kind of person we're not to disappoint. "Let not those who hope in thee be put to shame through me." Just those. There are other people with other agendas for our lives and we should disappoint them. They're mentioned in verse 12 of the Psalm: "I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me."
There you see the choice of life. Whether to please those who hope in God, or those who sit in the gate and make drunken songs. You can't do both.
At Princeton last December, I bought a recording of Robert Frost reading his poems. One was "Stopping by Woods On A Snowy Evening," which is about this.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Ah yes, the woods are lovely, aren't they? I used to love the woods. Full of the redbud and dogwood this time of year. Quiet and mystic and peaceful. You can get away from things. You can go in there and walk or sit or even stretch out, and be part of the woods.
And if it was snowing, if it was that time of year, they'd be lovelier still, wouldn't they? Watch it sift down through those limbs. Watch the grains of it sparkle. Listen to the little birds and animals in there. And when it stopped, you could follow rabbit tracks and see where they go. Maybe he has a hole in there somewhere, and you could find it.
How easy, in the woods, to just forget and let go. Village? What village? Horse? What horse? Promises? What promises?
What debts I have to pay?
What problems to straighten out?
What people who need my help?
What schedule I must keep?
Who needs all that, here in these woods that know nothing of that? Where it's easy to believe that all I ever wanted and needed is in here, and it isn't right that I should be so obligated to the world out there.
You let yourself think that for a while. You think that in the woods. But then your ears pick up a foreign sound, and it's a harness bell. Your horse is waiting. The world is waiting. And you sigh, and this is over. Because you have promises to keep, and miles to go before you sleep.
You have a mother and a father
who deserve to be proud of you;
and a hometown where the John Murphy's of your life
still live to wish you well;
and a church that struggles to be the people of God
and would have to harder without your effort;
and somewhere a school teacher who looks on you
as her contribution to this world;
and a wife or husband, and maybe children, who've
blessed your life more ways than you know,
to whom you owe much;
and a Lord Jesus Christ who shed for you his
own precious blood, and never turned back
in the face of that or any task . . ..
So you have promises to keep–keep them!
And miles to go–travel them!
Before you sleep, where at the last you'll hear a voice that says,
"Well done." "Well done!"
DO YOU LOVE HIM?
November 3, 1985
There are many questions in the world–aren't there? Some easy, some hard. What's the time? How much do you have? What did she say? What did she mean? Where're we goin'? Where are we going?
Some questions amuse us, some confuse us. Some probe us, others anger us. We prefer being the one to ask, not the one to answer. Which is why it's irritating to talk with someone who never gives a straight answer, who turns questions back at you. You you feel like a dog chasing his tail! You're afraid to bite, lest you bite yourself!
We feel the importance of our own questions, but we're slow to see the importance of someone else's. We have filters at the entrance to our minds that keep some questions out. "Thank you Sir, but I'm not interested in taking the Montgomery Journal. No, I don't want to talk about it–goodbye."
Some questions have to be treated like that. We don't have time or energy to answer them all. We give rank to questions. You can see us perk up when some are raised, and wilt down when others are raised. Many we zap in the instant of recognition.
Where is God in all this? What do we do with questions about him? And what are the main ones to ask and answer?
My thought today is that there's one Great Question. It has to do with what Jesus called the "first and great commandment." He asked it of Simon Peter by the lake shore once.
"Do you love me?"
And he meant to show that all other questions are incidental to that one. If the answer to it is right, no other answer can possibly be wrong. But if the answer to it is wrong, then no other answer can possibly be right.
"Do you love him?" "Do you love him?" "Do you love him?"
If so, then our Communion observance can have rich meaning. Otherwise it's the taste of a snack you try at the market one day. "Yes, thank you, it was nice. No, not now. Maybe I'll buy some later." You walk on, unaffected.
We all have our ways of evading questions we don't want to deal with. We get asked one thing, and we answer something else.
"Do you love him?"–"Yes, I believe in him. I believe he exists. You don't think I'm an atheist, do you?"
"Do you love him?"–"Well, I do my best, sure. I go to church when I can. And I contribute too. I even taught a Sunday School class!"
"Do you love him?"–"Sure do. A person better. We're all accountable to God, we all have to answer about how we act. I'd be afraid to live like a lot of people do."
No one heard the question. One thought it said "do you believe?" Another heard "do you do what he wants you to?" And the last imagined, "don't you fear his wrath?"
Beware expressions of love which are only echoes of our own need and situation. Where "love" is just an effort to manipulate what we want. A grasping and greedy thing.
And watch out when some folk say they love you. Hold onto your wallet. They're either after something, or have taken it already. Do you hear me, Vern? Do-ya-know-whadda-mean?
What brings us here to celebrate? What is expressed by white cloths and shiny metal trays? Are we here to get something God has for us, or to show something we have for him?
Did you know the Lord's Supper was sometimes called a "love feast" in the early church? A love feast! Which shows they had it right. They knew what it was for. They recognized the question of the hour–"Do you love him?"
Jesus said, "If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him."
"If a man loves me . . .." Notice how everything hinges on that, and derives from that. Things begin with that fundamental question, then move on to other questions. If we love him, then other matters can move into focus. If we don't, there's nothing to discuss. Love is the key.
Here this morning there are empty seats. What do they mean? Why don't more people come to worship? What would they say if we went out and asked?
Too busy? Too tired? Too involved in other things? Would anyone say honestly, "The reason is, I don't love God"? But isn't that the fundamental reason? Isn't that what the Master meant when he said, "If a man loves me, he will keep my word . . .."?
There was a member of my church in Tennessee named . . . well, maybe I should call him "Fred." When Fred was on he was fine, but when he was off he was trouble. And I mean about church. He could help you quick or hurt you quick. You never knew what Fred might do next. You had to treat him special. He had a chip on his shoulder, a big chip, several chips, several big chips.
I got along with Fred for awhile. You had to talk country and I can. Be a good ole boy, and all that. But the thing about Fred, whatever mood he's in won't last. So I wasn't going to get along with him forever, was I?
Sure enough, about a year before I left, Fred got mad at me and quit coming to church. At least he said it was me was why he quit.
Like I was supposed to, I went out to talk with Fred, but it didn't do any good. Maybe Fred needed a rest from church. Anyway, he sure was down on me. I'd hear from other people things he said. And the time came when I marked Fred off my list.
But now there's news. Fred was there to hear me when I preached at his church the other Sunday. First time he'd been out in a long time, they said. Doesn't like the preacher they have now. Been saying he sure does miss Ed Briggs. Briggs was the best they ever had!
Now we all know what Fred needs to know, don't we? Whether he loves or doesn't love some preacher is beside the point of the main question. The main question concerns his love for Jesus Christ. And that's what isn't settled. That's what he keeps evading.
Those who serve God acceptably always do it out of love. Those who don't serve him don't love him, and that's the real reason, regardless of others they may give. Love finds a way.
As Luther wrote: "Whatever a man loves, that is his god. For he carries it in his heart; he goes about with it night and day; he sleeps and wakes with it, be it what it may–wealth or self, pleasure or renown."
Bernard of Clairvaux was a Christian of the 12th Century who gave us that lovely hymn "Jesus the Very Thought of Thee." He summed things up when he said:
"The true measure of loving God is to love him without measure."
TELLING THE GOOD NEWS
Imagine things in heaven right after Easter. I mean the first Easter. There was a lot of interest and speculation about what went on. You have some angels huddled around in groups discussing it. They know he's back and safe now, but they also know what went on down there. As if he still had the print of those nails in his hands, and the spear in his side, and the half-healed marks where a crown of thorns pressed down on his brow.
One of the angels is bolder than the rest. She's going to ask him something the others would like to know, but won't ask. She says, "Do all those people down there know what you did for them? Have they all heard about it, and has it made a difference in their lives?"
Jesus shook his head. "No," he said, "not yet. Only a few people there in Palestine know about it so far. But the rest will. It's only a matter of time before they do."
"But how will they hear it?" she asked.
"Well," he said, "I asked Peter and James and John to make this their main concern. I told them to start in Jerusalem, then go into Judea, and afterward to Samaria, and then to the uttermost parts of the earth. And I told them to tell everyone who heard it from them to pass it on to others, till everyone hears."
That angel was troubled then. She shook her head and looked ever so worried. For she knew what poor creatures those people on earth are. How easily they forget the concerns of angels in heaven. She remembered how hard they work when it's something for them, but how lazy they are when it's something for someone else.
So she asked: "But what if Peter and James and John forget? Or what if they get tired of telling this? Don't you have some plan for getting the message out another way? Some way you don't have to depend on them?"
Jesus was very serious then. He seemed to be thinking as if he'd thought of this before. As if he used to believe he'd done the right thing, but wasn't so sure now. As if he'd wondered about it more than once already.
"No," he said, "I don't have other plans. I'm counting on them, and I'm counting on the ones they tell."
"I'm depending on everyone who hears to tell whoever he can so that right away, down there on earth, every man and woman and boy and girl will know about it, and most of them will believe it and be saved. Otherwise, I went there for nothing."
After that, there was a silence in heaven. After his words, "Otherwise, I went there for nothing." They were all thinking that this is what it might come to. And he was thinking too.
Peter and James and John are gone now. They told some, and some of those told others, and others, and others, until finally someone told us. Some one or ones told you; that's why you're here.
So now we're it. We're Peter, James, and John. We're the people the Lord has to tell his story today. We're all he has. And millions there are today who've never heard it even once. In Silver Spring, and metropolitan Washington, and across America, and throughout the world.
Now, if that doesn't make you a little uncomfortable, then there's something wrong. Unless you just came in from telling a lot of people yourself. Peter and James and John are gone. We're the disciples he's counting on now, his "later day saints." We're who he has to win others to faith, teach them his way, and enlist them in his service. You may not think of yourself as an evangelist, but the Lord does. You may not feel responsible for people around you, but the Lord says you should.
Question number 29 on the recent survey asks: "What efforts of factors do you think are most important in efforts to reach new members for the church?" Huh? One of the choices was "organizing lay persons to visit potential members." Another was "efforts by the paid church staff."
I don't know yet, but I'll bet a lot of people checked "paid staff." The paid staff should do that kind of thing. Someone else should tell about Jesus, not us. Someone whose wage we pay to do our telling for us. Hundreds of Christians hiring a few professionals and saying "this is your job now, not ours."
We need to know if that's your expectation. But I need to tell you the Lord had something different in mind. I need to tell you that someday he's going to ask what you did yourself. And maybe you'll say you hired Ed and Charles and Ken to do your soul winning for you. But that won't be the right answer on the questionnaire that matters most.
The early church called it "gospel," which literally meant "good news." They went everywhere telling the good news.
When you have some news you believe is good news, you usually do tell it, don't you? Have you ever been in on some good news you weren't allowed to tell? That's hard! Good news loves being told. Why you almost see by the way a person walks that he has good news to tell!
Someone gave him two tickets to watch the Redskins play the Cowboys, and he's going to invite you to go along!
He just came from the hospital where they did a lot of tests and said his health was outstanding and whatever he was worried about he doesn't need to be worried about. And you can see by the look on his face that he's not worried about it any more.
Or he has a letter in his hand that waves up and down as he hurries along, and you know he's been waiting to hear if his proposal was approved, and you see it's good news even before you hear it's good news!
GOOD NEWS IS TOLD, AND TOLD NATURALLY AND SPONTANEOUSLY. Bad news we dread to tell, good news we love to tell. So why must heaven be concerned that Christians aren't telling the good news of Jesus Christ? Bad news you have to force yourself to tell, but good news just comes out. So why do modern Christians have to be coerced into telling about Jesus? The early Christians told it as the gospel it is, and it spread and spread and spread.
The eminent church historian Dr. Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote about it like this:
"One of the most amazing and significant facts of history is that within five centuries of its birth Christianity won the professed allegiance of the overwhelming majority of the population of the Roman Empire and even the support of the Roman state. Beginning as a seemingly obscure sect of Judaism . . . Christianity proved so far the victor that the Empire sought alliance with it and to be a Roman citizen became almost identical with being a Christian."
That was so because Christians went everywhere spreading the word. In shops and schools and offices and athletic stadiums. It was everyone's job. Elton Trueblood used to say you can know the health of Christianity in any period of history by finding out how involved are lay people in the ministry and outreach of the church.
I spent seven years of my life in seminary, and certainly would again. But don't think it takes a theological degree to share Christ with others. You can do it too. The thing is to know it as the good news it is.
GOOD NEWS ATTRACTS ITS OWN ATTENTION–IT SELLS ITSELF. Something was happening in the early church so that even before they went out to do their telling, people were coming to them and asking "what must we do to be saved?"
Imagine you have a product to sell. Doesn't it make a lot of difference if your customer has heard about it first? And already has an interest? Why, his neighbor got one just last week, and he's tried it out. Why, you don't have to sell it to that may, you just help him buy it. What a contrast to the person has no idea what you're talking about and couldn't care less.
There are things about the church that will make people want to hear the gospel. And there are things that will effectively close their ears to it.
People are attracted to a group whose members take it seriously. The early church continued to grow even when joining meant selling your property, leaving your home, meeting in fear of arrest, and suffering the scorn of family and friends.
Maybe there's a lesson there. Maybe we make things too easy. Maybe what people need is a challenge, not a bed of roses. We don't expect much of people, and maybe that's part of the problem.
The last point I want to make is this: THE GOOD NEWS WE HAVE TO SHARE IS THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS CHRIST. We aren't the good news, (he) is. Nothing wrong with being proud of the building or the choir or the program or even the preacher. But that's not our Gospel. Sometimes we seem to be asking, "What do you think of us?" when the question is, "What think ye of Christ?"
The building and the choir and the program and the preacher all have an importance to the gospel, but none of them is the gospel.
"God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, and has committed unto us the ministry of reconciliation."
"We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ, and him crucified."
All around us are people who need to hear and believe that gospel. And nothing needs our prayer and effort more than the task of helping them do that. As someone once wrote:
I looked for Christ in the hidden skies,
A flaming vision to blind my eyes–
While Christ walked by with stumbling feet
Along with the men of my own street.
IF YOU'RE SO FAST, WHY DID YOU LOSE THE RACE?
May 25, 1986
He was an old fisherman. All his life, he'd given himself to the toil of his profession. He got up before dawn and worked hard all day, sometimes into the night. Fisherman's luck. Sometimes it was good, and sometimes he worked for nothing.
There were few comforts for this old man. All he'd managed was to live. But he had a dream. He dreamed at night of catching a great fish, a fish bigger than any he'd ever seen, or anyone had seen. And he dreamed that dream over and over. But it was an old dream now, as he was old. His days of fishing were drawing to a close.
It seemed only fair that he should catch such a fish. It seemed like he deserved it. For he'd worked so hard, and for so little. And he was a strong and kindly man who never complained, who seemed to live with a trust that things worked out for the best.
One morning, as the fishing boats went out, the old man kept rowing on past them. He rowed out beyond anyone else. Some of them wondered why he went out so far, but he did. And he was tired when he got there, out of sight and all alone on the sea, and the sun was warm, and he dozed as the waves gently rocked his boat.
This was to be the day his dream came true. He'd catch his great fish today. His whole life would be fulfilled in this one day.
When it struck, he knew he'd never hooked a fish like this. And if you were watching, as no one was, you'd be happy for an old man who deserved something. Something before he went out his last time. The line tore at his hands as the monster ran. And a less determined man would have let it go. But the old man fought the fish all that afternoon, and into the night.
When he finally subdued it, he lashed it to the side of his boat. Why, it was bigger than the boat itself! He'd never seen or heard of such a fish. It was even bigger than his dreams had made it. And surely the biggest fish anyone in the village had ever seen. He was deathly tired from his long battle, but it made him happy to think of people gathering around to look at this great fish.
He was resting when the sharks came. They came knifing through the water and tearing at his fish. And he fought them with his oars and with his knife, but it was no use. They robbed him of his fish, all except the bones.
The night was nearly gone when he got back home. The pain of his ordeal was written in the slow way he took to his cot. It was to be his last day at sea, for he died in his sleep, exhausted and broken in spirit. It had promised to be a day of joy, and he came back with nothing.
How unfair. Other people get something for nothing, and he got nothing for something. Other people see their dreams come true, he saw his become a nightmare. And I'm telling you, he was a good and kindly man, who deserved none of this.
The story is Ernest Hemingway's, from his book The Old Man and the Sea. And it typifies a theme of Hemingway's, that man is a victim of forces beyond his control. And I use it this morning to raise the question of life's unfairness. You heard it clearly put in our scripture lesson where it said:
"Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, not the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, no favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish which are taken in an evil net, and like birds which are caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them."
You see it in there, don't you? The race gets won by a person who wasn't all that swift. The battle gets won by someone not so strong. The richest person might be a simpleton who happened to be in the right place at the right time. It makes no sense, it just is.
The best man or woman seldom wins. It's rarely a fair fight. There's a factor of evil in the world that can rob us of our labors. So the questions are:
"If I'm so strong, why did I get defeated?"
"If I'm so smart, how come I got outsmarted?"
"If I'm so fast, how come I lost the race?"
Confusing, isn't it? Unsettling. Because Americans have always believed otherwise. We have a work ethic that says you get out of a thing what you put into it. Any kid in the country can grow up and be president, we say. The race is to the swift. Things will get better and better because we work hard and earn it.
But we're not so sure about that now. So much seems out of our control. Ronald Reagan, who wanted most to balance the budget, has had the hardest time of anybody trying to do it. And he wanted to deal effectively with terrorism, but could end up with the worst record on that. It doesn't seem fair.
You worked hard at your job and really deserved that promotion, but it went to Mr. Personality. You wanted a romantic evening with your husband and he spent his time staring at another woman. You gave up things for your children and what thanks do you get?
How do you assure a decent return on the investment of your life? Notice this: "There was a little city with few men in it; and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man."(Ecclesiastes 9:14-15)
How did that poor man feel? And don't all of us feel that way when we're exhausted from efforts that ended in frustration? It was your idea, but someone else got the credit. You did everything you could and it wasn't enough–the sharks came and got it. Good seed was sown, but the birds gobbled most of it up, and what survived the weeds choked or the drought hit and killed, just when things were looking up.
Did Jesus of Nazareth know anything about this? Didn't he once preach from Isaiah right there in his hometown and have them try to kill him afterward? Didn't he make friends with those who had no friends only to learn that it was a topic of vicious gossip? Didn't he deserve the time he wanted alone, and the crowds wouldn't let him have it? Didn't he heal ten lepers and only one said thanks? Didn't one of his own disciples betray him? Did he deserve to die on a cross?
So few important issues ever get clearly resolved. Who was right, and who was wrong, and what really happened? No one ever knows. Sickness and accident are so undiscriminating. She lives a life of service to others and just when she might retire and enjoy it a little, she gets cancer and dies in misery. Time and chance seem to happen to us all.
There was a day I conducted services for two young men, both in their early twenties, very similar in every way I could tell. But one got married, and the other got buried. Do I stand there and call that the will of God? Or do I acknowledge that bad things happen to good people?
You see, there are those who try to believe that nothing is by chance. Everything that happens was destined and designed and determined by God.
And then there are others who think that everything is by chance and nothing serves any purpose or makes any sense. But why does it have to be all one way or the other? What if some things God takes a hand in and others he doesn't? What if some are ordained and other left to chance? And this was the price of human freedom? For you can't give people their freedom of choice and guarantee what choice they'll make. And any of us can suffer from other people's bad choices. They get themselves drunk, then get out on the road in their cars, where their paths may cross ours. Whose idea was that? Surely not God's.
But it leads us back to God in the end. You're led to ask who gave man his choices and freedoms in the first place? And to what end?
Life's unfairness derives from man's situation. You can't have a fair world unless you have a controlled world. And you can't have that and have human freedom. So God will even let a Hitler happen, though it grieves his heart. Or his only begotten son be nailed to a cross, though he might have rescued him. But he does promise that we can be saved to eternal life in the midst of this situation, though we may not be saved from it.
The same Bible that speaks about an evil world, speaks unfailingly about a good God. And after we have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called us to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen us. To him be the dominion for ever and ever.( See 1 Peter 5:10-11)
What then is our prayer as we go on in a world like ours? This says it about as well as it can be said:
"Precious Lord, take my hand,
lead me on, help me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Thru the storm, thru the night,
lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home."
FORGIVE OUR FOOLISH WAYS
I'll tell you what the world is like. It's like a large house where people live in many different rooms. People with their own ideas about how things should be in the house. Who've even been known to fight one another about who did what, or what was whose, or who should stay where in what part of the house.
But it's all one big house. The same roof is up there over everybody's head. And if it ever caves in, no one's going to have a place to live. There are no more houses around–no way for anyone to stomp out saying he's going to go live somewhere else. There is no "somewhere else"–so this place has to do.
Something peculiar, though, about the way this house was designed. It has two different systems, one for heating, and one for cooling. And one is controlled from one end of the house and the other at the other end.
Now you may say, "Well, that's a little odd, but what's the problem?" I'm going to tell you!
The people who live where the cooling is think the house is too hot (like some of you thought the church was a few times last summer). And they've turned down their thermostat to make it be cooler.
But those other people say it's cold (like some of you thought the church was a few Sundays lately), and they need some heat, and they've turned up their thermostat. And now both system run full blast, night and day, working against one another. And both have about the same capacity, so neither one makes much progress against the other.
And this has gone on now for a long, long time.
You think I mean days? No, longer than that. You think I mean weeks? Think again. You think I mean months then? No, longer than that. I mean years!
So long the young people can't even remember when it wasn't that way. So long you begin accepting it as the way life has to be.
The only thing that makes a difference inside the house is the weather outside the house. That may give a slight edge to one side or the other. So the heating people get ahead by a few degrees, but then some clouds blow in, and they lose it back.
What news there is about the state of things is reported on every day at both ends of the house. And whichever way it is, some get mad and feel threatened, while the others feel a little more secure. But its like the ebb and flow of the tide. It comes and goes. No one is really winning.
As you can well imagine, with power what it is today, this costs an enormous amount of money to keep up. But they do it. You should see the bills! Why, even the folk at the power company worry about it. They shake their heads in disbelief that intelligent people would go on that. They stare at those spinning dials and think "what fools!"
But the people who live inside the house see it as a battle to preserve their way of life, as a struggle for survival. And more than half the money they have to live on is squandered in this conflict. Money they can't afford, but think they have to afford.
Little children go hungry to bed at night. Some go barefoot and cold in the winter. Some have even died for medicine there was no money left to buy. Life is grim most places in this house, when it could be happy. The house was built to be a happy place. And it was once . . . long ago.
Parts of it are rotting and ready to fall in, but there's no money for repairs. Young couples starting their lives have less than their parents did, and know their children will be worse off yet, if this keeps going on.
Now and then some thinking person, usually someone younger, will suggest that if we at our end of the house would just cut this out, those folk at the other end would cut it out too. And then we could stop this awful fighting, and begin cooperating, and all live better.
Those other people love their children just like we do. They look up at night and see the same moon and stars we do. They pick the flowers from the yard under same sun. They have good sense. Let's give it a try!
But the person who suggests that is looked on in horror. She's accused of being disloyal to her end of the house. It sounds so . . . well, unpatriotic.
They want to know what proof there is that those people at the other end would really turn down the thermostat? They're not folk to be trusted, it's said. They take advantage of you every chance they get. We mustn't give them their chance.
So it's said at both ends of the house that if the other side would do it first, then we could talk about it. But until that happens, there's nothing to be done except make sure we don't fall behind.
We have our brightest minds working on it right now! They deserve our full support. Anyone who doesn't like it can just move to the other end of the house and see how he likes it there! Ha!
One day, something different did happen though. Something besides what had always happened.
One day, the power company sent a man to that house to see if he could work something out. This house was quite a burden for the power company, you see. They'd sent letters before, which some of the people read and thought about. But when it came down to doing something about it, nothing ever got done.
The man the power company sent was carefully chosen. They knew he had to be someone pretty special. And they discussed and debated about it for some time. Many called it a senseless effort. And others said, after the choice was made, that it shouldn't be him. Not him, for a bunch of fools like that.
But it was him. And he came to that house one day. And he was young and full of ideals.
And oh! he was the right man for it, if any man was right. For he came with a big smile on his face, and patting little children on the head. And they were all singing and smiling and dancing around. But that was the easy part.
He began to talk there–he talked passionately–about the need for peace and harmony in this house. It was strange, because he was an outsider from the power company, and yet he talked like this was his house. Like it was more than just his job he was doing. Like these were his own people he loved and cared about.
He was critical, though, of the way things were being run. He spoke with anger and grief about the poor and the children who were suffering the most. And he said later on that the power company had been patient for quite a long while. But there could be a change. Even this patience had its limits, he said.
He suggested–and here was the most radical thing of all–that if the people in this house could learn to love one another, that would solve the problem.
But that made everybody mad, because no one had love on his mind. Why, he was asking them to love their enemies!
So would you believe that the whole house turned against him? United in something for the first and only time. United against a nice young man who never hurt anybody, and never desired anything but to lead them out of their miserable situation.
He was laughed at, then shouted down, then struck in the face and thrown out of the house. Someone even spit on him, and another kicked him.
They hollered "go back to the power company where you belong. And don't you ever come back, do you hear?"
He went away. But he did tell a few friends that he wouldn't stay gone forever. He would come back someday.
And he left his blood right there in that house. And remember now, he wasn't even one of them. He was from the power company.
Some people in the house still remember that. Some say a bad thing was done. Some have even taken to preaching what the young man preached, saying it's the only hope there is. But they get treated the same way he got treated.
It's hard to take risks. It's hard when you're afraid. You listen to one person's speech, and it sounds good to you. And then you hear the other side, and that sounds even better. And you don't know what to believe.
So nothing changes the waste, and the suffering, and the craziness of it all. The wages of sin is what it is.
And unless we have eyes to see with and ears to hear with, unless we remember and do what the young man told us with that fire of hope in his eyes–unless we do that we will pay, and pay, and pay. And be bankrupt at last.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from
the beginning? Have you not understood
from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle
of the earth, and its inhabitants are like
grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens
like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to
dwell in; who brings princes to nought,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and
they wither, and the tempest caries them off like stubble.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
YOU ARE MY FRIENDS
The good news is this: Christ can be a friend of yours, and you can be a friend of his. It's true. He said so, there in the lesson we read this morning. And that could be the best news of your life, especially at certain times.
Because when you lose your job, or your health, or your wife or husband, or your self respect, or the best friend you had in this world, the Lord will bear you up. He's the friend of the friendless, the hope of the hopeless. He can become the faith of the faithless in just a short time.
He wants you happy. He wants his joy in you, for your joy to be made full. Like things you see growing this time of year that looked so dead till now. All at once there's a promise of life. Those warm rains fall, the sky clears and that bright yellow sun comes flooding down. And if you were out in a farmer's corn field you could almost put your ear to the ground and hear it grow. What rain and sunlight are to those plants, Christ can be to you. Abide in him and bear much fruit, so shall you be his disciples.
Sometimes there are choices. You can't be everyone's friend. To have real friends you have to devote yourself to the friendship. The Bible says "he that would have friends must show himself friendly." There's a sense in which you earn your friends. And some people who complain about not having any may not deserve any, the way they treat the ones they've got!
To cultivate one person's friendship takes something away from the possibilities of other friendships. Aren't I right? I mean, you can't be all things to all people. You have to choose.
Well listen to this: "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God."(James 4:4) So friends you have to choose about. And no significant friendship comes cheap. And to be a friend of God means a priority must be placed on the relationship.
Are there people who love their cars more than God? Do some love the beach more than any house of worship? Do some spend hours in worldly chatter and none at all in prayer? Can someone be called a friend when nothing of importance ever transpires?
I'm discounting any friendship that comes cheap, with God or anyone else. And then I mean to say how blessed are lives that are blessed with friends, and especially the friendship of God. How blessed! And how important to have the right ones. As Luther wrote, and some of us heard sung Friday evening, "were not that right man on our side, our striving would be losing." That right man.
Down in Tennessee where I used to live, some of us liked to ride motorcycles up the mountain, and follow the old roads and trails, climb the hills, and ride through the creeks, just for fun. Now you need a special motorcycle for that, one that isn't much good for anything else. You don't ride it on paved roads, except to get to where you get off the paved roads. But the silly law in Tennessee said you had to have a license plate anyway, which few of us had, and no one ever said anything about.
Until one day this new policeman who must have had nothing else to do saw me riding and followed me, and stopped me and gave me a ticket. There was a new police chief in town, and he had those boys really into doing their job. In fact the word was out in the area that you better not speed through Daisy. Those police up there would grab you if you did. The term "speed trap" was sometimes used.
But police chief Jim Baker had been looking for a church. And he'd come to ours and seemed to like it. He was at that stage where he wasn't visiting around anymore, but hadn't quite joined. And one day he was there at city hall and looked up and saw his prospective pastor come in with a checkbook and a ticket.
I saw him see me. But I went on and laid the ticket down on someone's desk. And she said how much it would be. And it crossed my mind then to turn and say "hi there, Jim" and let it be known to this clerk that I was the pastor of First Baptist Church where her boss attended. Might have helped. Even on a motorcycle offense! But I didn't do that. I paid the money, and then said "hi Jim." And someone told me later, after Jim joined the church, that he liked the way I did that. And we became friends.
I will admit though that once or twice in later years it did come handy to say to someone, "by the way, how's old Jim Baker?" And he'd say, "He a friend of yours?" And I'd say, "Yea. Yea, we're friends. I'm his pastor up there a First Baptist." It does pay to have friends. It does pay to have certain ones.
So what does it mean that Jesus tells us "you are my friends"? Does it mean that we could be in a tough spot sometime, and someone ask, "Is he a friend of yours?" And we could say yes. "Yes, I'm his friend." And because that was so–and only because that was so–everything would be OK.
Listen to this:
"My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ . . .."(1 John 2:1)
We have an advocate–a "paraklaton." It literally means one who's called to someone's aid. So the Latin fathers used their word "advocatus." Meaning someone who appears in another's behalf–a mediator, an intercessor, a helper, a friend. And this is the word Jesus used in assuring the disciples that they'd not be left helpless in the world. I'm going away, he said, but I'll give you another "paraklaton," who is the Holy Spirit.
And in a moment now, you'll have the chance to participate in a Christian celebration of our friendship with Christ. Let's be glad in that celebration. And use the occasion to ponder how to better know and express the friendship we have in him.
For to know him is to love him.
And to love him is to love others as he does.
And to love others is to tell them of his love.
And so it can go, and we must pray it will, until a weary and wishful and war-threatened world, is full of the knowledge of the Lord as waters cover the sea.
WHAT GOLIATH DIDN'T KNOW
1 Samuel 17
The story of David is interesting, exciting, captivating, sobering, embarrasing, inspiring, humiliating–in other words it breaths of life, and it's the kind of thing you never quite get finished with. I remember the story of David and Goliath from the days when mother used to wet the corner of her handkerchief and wipe dirt off my face. And here I am not through with it yet.
Let's imagine how it was that day. There was sunlight reflecting off of shiny swords and armor. There was the smell of meat being roasted on open fires. There was the grinding sound of rocks honing the edges of swords and spears. There were two armies, one over here on this mountain, and one over there on that one, with a valley between them.
That was "no man's land." The valley of Elah, it was called. Israelites on one side, Philistines on the other. But for 40 days there'd been this stalemate. No one tried to attack the other. But the Philistines had something going for them–they had Goliath. And he was a form of psychological warfare.
Every day he'd march down to that valley and do his intimidation routine. It went like this:
"Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. . . . I defy the ranks of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together."
The man had a bad mouth! And he not only talked mean, he looked mean. And he not only looked mean, he was mean. He was six cubits and a span tall. How tall is that? Well a cubit is from your elbow to the tip of your index finger, and a span is as far as you can spread your thumb and little finger. That means the man was about nine and a half feet. Dave Butz would look tiny!
So if you were a soldier of Israel, you had a lot to think about if you thought of giving it a try. And yet how those soldiers must have felt being challenged like that, and taunted, and cursed. They'd stand there and hear the name of God taken in vain. And no one knew what to do.
We're sometimes in the same position as modern-day believers of God. The world has a bad mouth. We face problems we don't know what to do with. We huddle around and wonder what might work, and every time someone suggests something there are ten reasons why that's not a good idea. But what is a good idea?
Sometimes it takes something like David. A young man who didn't know too much! Sometimes I think I know too much about the practicality of things. I seem like an expert on what won't work, because I've already tried it and it didn't. We can spend too much time counting pros and cons and not enough of it counting on God!
David just counted on God. And he wasn't even a soldier to begin with. He'd been sent to bring some cheese and bologna for those brothers of his. And then all of a sudden he thinks he can fight Goliath! His brothers thought he was crazy–too much hot sun on the long trip down. Everyone thought he was crazy. But the king found something about the look in his eye, and said OK.
So David goes out, and the giant comes out to meet him. And the voice was the voice of a boy, but his words were the words of a man.
"You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand . . . that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with the sword and spear . . .."
People still need to learn that "the Lord saves not with the sword and spear." A lot of people think he does. That he'll save them if they vote for enough tanks and bombs and submarines. A lot of fellow Americans have put their hope and trust in military might, as if it were a religion all its own.
We may still inscribe our coins "In God We Trust," but maybe it ought to say "In Our Weapons We Trust" because that's how it is, even for a lot of professing Christians. The Bible says "some trust in horses, and some in chariots, but we will trust in the Lord our God." Hopefully we will.
That's what David did. A lad with a shepherd's sling defeats a giant who's a man of war. The imposible happened. One chance in a million. And an army sure of victory was defeated, while an army sure of defeat found itself victorious.
What Goliath didn't know did hurt him! What he didn't know was that one committed person becomes a majority with God on his side.
GOD'S PEOPLE MAY SEEM WEAK AND HELPLESS, BUT IT STILL ISN'T SMART TO COUNT THEM OUT.
I grew up in East Tennessee, and about two ridges over from my home town was a little place no one ever heard of. Oliver Springs was down one way and Clinton was up the other way. The big towns in the vicinity. This place was called Oak Ridge.
The government bought up all the land over there and put a fence around it and hired people to come in there and work who had no idea what they were working on and weren't allowed to talk about it, even with one another. Now we know what it was, of course.
I used to drive through that area, because in college I pastored a country church just outside the boundary. Right across from the plant known as Y12 they'd left this little country church that was a church no more.
I don't know why they didn't tear it down, but they left it standing. It seemed mocked by the monstrous plant that glared at it from across the road. No more singing came out its windows, no more preaching, no more handshakes, no more dinners on the grounds. I always felt sad when I looked at that church, because it seemed like the other side had won. God had been put out of business.
But still I thought later on, if you knew the whole story, I'm sure those hard-headed folk found someplace else. I'll bet they took their Bibles and hymnals and bought or rented another one. I'll bet there are preachers preaching today that came out of that church, and they've started new ones, maybe even overseas. Churches have their problems, but churches are tough.
I sometimes cringe a little when I'm identified as a Baptist. I'm proud of my heritage but not of some of my brethren. Traveling in the midwest last summer I heard a Baptist preacher say over the radio that no one should try to find a cure for AIDS because no one who had it deserved to be cured of it. I wasn't proud of that. I can't believe that Christ who gave so much time to healing the sick would approve any such statement.
I can get depressed about the racism that still exists among Christians. And the trust in weapons I've already spoken of. And the materialism that makes it so hard to tell us from any other idolitar. And the slow progress of women's rights in some churches. And our often shallow styles of worship. And our worldly measurements of success. And our weak witness to the power of the Gospel in the world. To name just a few!
And yet, friends, to whom shall you go? This side of the hill may look weak and disorganized, but what does the other side look like? Anyone ever hear of an athiest hospital? The church may not be killing too many giants today, but I still wouldn't bet on the other side. Wonder what Goliath would have thought about the "God is Dead" philosophy? The day found him dead and God alive.
THIS STORY SHOWS HOW ONE PERSON WITH HIS FAITH MAY NOT SEEM LIKE MUCH, BUT WATCH OUT WHAT YOU TELL HIM HE CAN'T DO!
Have you ever noticed how much more often we say "can't do" than "can do"? I mean around the church.
"We can't afford that . . ."
"We can't risk hurting anyone's feelings."
"We can't do more than we're already doing."
"We can't change her mind–she's hopeless."
We can't, we can't, we can't! Am I not right?
But, you see, they told David that. They told him "you can't . . .." But God told him "you can." And he believed God instead of them. And that's what we have to do around our churches. Change those "we cants" to "we cans." And then change the "we cans" to "we wills." And then change the "we wills" to "we haves!"
We can't . . . we can! . . . we will . . . we have! That's the way that's supposed to go.
They say the ancient Goths had a strange habit about making plans for a battle. They'd do it twice, once sober, and once drunk. Sober was for care and thoroughness. Drunk was for courage and daring!
I don't know just how you implement this in the church planning process, but it does have a lesson! Caution tried to make David go back home and mind his business. We need caution at times, but not too much. We need a certain reckless abandon, especially when we can abandon ourselves to the will of God. That's what faith is all about.
THAT KIND OF FAITH IS WHAT PROVES TO THE WORLD THAT GOD IS STILL ALIVE IN OUR MIDST. As David said, "that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel." So how can we so live as Christians that the life of Jesus may be manifest in us? To love as he loved. To care as he cared. To believe as he believed, and be willing to labor and suffer like he was?
How can we have his calm? Have you noticed how he always seemed to have time? No matter how upset the situation was, he wasn't. But we're so busy and so nervous. The world's changing so fast and it's hard to keep up. It's like a car going fast at night with the headlights not working. It isn't so much the speed, it's that we can't see where we're headed.
David must have been scarred, surely he was. His heart must have pounded as he reached down for those rocks, as he walked out there alone and looked up at that giant. And there was shouting from at him from both sides, and Goliath shouting too. But in spite of all that, his hand was steady and his aim sure.
That's the best we can hope for. We'll be afraid, we'll be confused sometimes. We'll hear voices urging one thing, and some urging another. God doesn't spare us from that.
But he does do for us what he did for David. He gives us his strength, and a steady hand to do what must be done. Amen.
NO ROOM IN THE INN
I need to have you imagine something. Imagine we have a guest with us today. A man from the past, someone you've heard of. And I've asked him to take a seat up here so we can talk. Picture him there now.
He's not rich, but not a poor man either. He's a lot like most of us, a middle-class person. Ran a small town inn where travelers spent the night. Kind of business that really ties you down, but you do meet some interesting people.
I don't know the name his place had, but it was in Bethlehem, a small village six miles out of Jerusalem. And this was a long time ago, so you mustn't imagine a modern place. Don't imagine those places you stay when you travel.
Diane came back from a hotel in Chicago and told us it had color T.V. in the bathroom! Someone might say that's the most appropriate place! But even in the more ordinary inns today we're used to elevators and telephones and swimming pools and conference rooms and food always ready for the asking.
This man's inn had only one bathroom, and it was outside. You were put in one of several large rooms where people slept together. When the beds were taken, some slept on the floor. And all the service was self-service. But there was heat, and a good roof overhead, and that was all people expected then.
One thing that caused a lot of travel was the census. You had to go back to the place you were born and sign up. Which sounds like a plan some Roman government agency came up with. (Perhaps they also had under study an air pollution law for donkies!) They were exempt from such things themselves. It was their way to get soldiers for the army and money for the treasury.
Anyway, about 6 B.C. according to records, such a census was held. And to Bethlehem, where this man kept his inn, a young Jewish couple came. Joseph and Mary.
And she was expecting–I mean really expecting. And they got in late, and the town was crowded, and they came to this man's inn and asked for lodging. They were told there was no room. And that night, out back in the stable, Mary delivered her baby.
"No room," they said. And here's the man who told them that.
A young mother, exhausted and afraid. They'd come all the way from Nazareth in Galilee, which was 80 miles away. They'd been on the road four days, and her in her condition. So if any travelers needed a room and a bed for the night, surely these did.
What if this had been the Governor and his wife? Don't you think something would have been arranged. Or even a Centurian, or a wealthy business man, let's say–all problems have solutions.
The folk who ran those inns held back some places for the wealthy. There was no fixed price–they charged what the traffic would bear. So when business was slow, they took anyone they could. But when things were busy they turned away the lower class and waited for better customers.
Isn't that the way it's always been? People with money and power get treated with respect. The poor get kicked around. Money talks, and people in business learn to listen.
So there came a poor, nondescript young couple from far away. No friends, no servants, no power, not much money. And there was "no room" for them. They could try somewhere else. Sorry about the baby.
We realize now what an opportunity this man missed. The most amazing event in human history could have taken place under his very roof!
Instead, he shows how a person can be so busy in his own pursuits that he fails to see what God is doing in the world, even in his own back yard. He can be so bent on plans for making money that he misses out on the plan of the ages.
"You really blew it, fellow! You know that, don't you? You blew your chance to do something good for a change, something you could be proud of, something worth remembering."
"We don't know if you charged them for staying in your smelly barn, but it doesn't matter. The world will always remember you as the man who had no room for Jesus Christ. And you deserve it."
Was that fair? It really felt good to say it! We all enjoy dishing out the blame as long as none ends up in our dish. The people who mess up sooner or later have to face up. In Chicago the coach is a hero, but in Philadelphia one gets fired! People ought to get fired who don't do their best, don't get the job done.
On the other hand, maybe there's something to be said for this man.
Maybe his inn really was full. Maybe he'd already given his own room to another needy person. Maybe when Mary and Joseph came, he went out in the streets and tried to find them another place. Maybe, when he couldn't, he came back and went out to the barn and fixed the place himself, apologizing that he couldn't do better. Maybe . . ..
This might be the story of a man who did the best he could under the conditions he faced.
Life has a way of presenting those dilemmas. We seldom get to choose between the best and worst of ways. More often our choices fall in between, where pure black or pure white don't exist, but only shades of grey. That's when it's tough. That's why John Kennedy said the speeches are easy, it's the decisions that are hard.
So perhaps we have here a man with no pleasant choice in sight. With his desire to be of help, but no good way to do it.
Do you know that feeling? Have you seen a young person on the streets who needed help? Down on his luck, down on himself, down on parents and people and the world. But he has the ability, you see, to be so different. And he's walking past you right now. Do something!
But what? What could you possibly do? His parents don't know. The school and the courts don't. His decent friends don't. But surely there's something. If only there were something. You have on that street your sincere desire to help, but no way to do it that you know of.
You'd do something about airplane crashes if you could, wouldn't you? But you're not likely to, are you? You wish you could help the alcoholic down the street, but how? If it was up to you, perhaps you'd get rid of nuclear weapons, but it isn't up to you, is it? This man's dilemma may have been that kind of thing.
"I think we owe you an apology, friend. There's enough blame in the world without us adding more. If it hadn't been for you, things might not have turned out as well as they did. So, if no one else ever has, we thank you."
Now would any of us like to take a turn in a chair like his? Sit and be examined about our actions toward Jesus Christ?
This man knew him as the unborn child of a couple of strangers. Yet he did what he could. We know him as Prince of Peace, Savior of Men, Light of the World. Yet what do we do?
A lot of people who call themselves Christians, and call him by those titles, have to be begged, coaxed, and sometimes even tricked into doing his service!
That inn keeper had what to work with? Just a barn and some hay. But he did with them what he could.
Think what we have to work with!
Why, we can send messages across continents in seconds. There's a computer now that can send every word of the Bible across the country in two seconds. We're able to telephone people driving in their car or in airplanes flying over the ocean. We can travel almost anywhere, in almost no time.
We have printing presses, data centers, great libraries, terrific education. We have wealth and freedom, and buildings with every convenience. We have opportunities to do things for Jesus Christ that would astound our friend here. But we are judged by God to have done far too little, though equipped so mightily.
The great marvel of the early church was how so few did so much with so little. The great disgrace of the church today is how so many do so little with so much.
How much do you pray? How often do you share your faith with another person? What have you given up to help the poor? When did you visit a prisoner? Who studies the Bible like he should? How many people know they can depend on your help? If every church member was just like you, what kind of church would it be?
No room for Christ? How dare we accuse this man, when we've made so little place in the use of our time and talent and money? What does God think of our excuses?
"I didn't feel like it." "I didn't have time." "No one else seemed to want to." "Wouldn't do any good." "They should do that." "Last time, no one even thanked me."
No room in the inn! That's our version.
We all want the Lord to make a place for us in his home, but we don't make much place for him in ours.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. Beginning with any moment of time you choose, it can be different.
That child, born in a barn out back, grew up to do the most amazing things ever seen, and say the most amazing things ever heard.
"I'm the way, the truth, and the life," he said, "come learn of me."
"I'm the door–enter in and live."
"I'm the true vine–be joined with me."
"I'm living water–come drink and never thirst."
"I'm the good shepherd–be a sheep of my pasture."
"Come unto me, you laboring and heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
Your greatest need, and biggest chance, and highest joy, is to respond in faith to that invitation.
And the miracle of Christmas is how he's born, again and again, in every heart where welcome is.
DECISION AT MIDNIGHT
Have you ever thought about being in jail? I mean really in jail. Convicted and sentenced and sent there. Lay your wallet and watch and rings down on a table to be put in an envelope with a number on it. If you get out of the jail, they get out of the envelope. No need to think of that now though.
You get a hair style you don't want, and you wear those loose clothes with the stripes and all. And get locked in a 6 by 8 cell that stinks and has one window you can't even see out of. And you sit on your bed and think that even if you manage to survive the murderers and rapists and who knows what else in here, you have to do it for years.
Have you ever wondered what you'd most likely be put in jail for? I mean, what tallents do you have? Or maybe you'd be there by mistake, is that it? Or at least for some civilized thing, like being the president of a Savings and Loan and stealing 14 million or so. Nothing to hurt anybody!
I've been in jail. Been in more than one. Dandridge, Tennessee has a jail I was in. Dandridge is a little county seat town near Douglass Lake, if you know where that is. In the back of my old King James Bible, I still have the name of a prisoner I "won to the Lord" in that jail one Saturday afternoon. Came back to school that night and reported on it to the Ministerial Association.
I don't remember how impressed they were. But I know I was impressed. Those men staring out, locked up in cages like monkeys at the Knoxville Zoo.
I remember I got talked into going out to the drug store to buy cigarettes and candy for a man who implied it was my Christian duty to do that. The Lord called me to do good for my fellow man, and that was him, and he needed a smoke. I was big on Christian duty back then, so I did it.
And I remember the jailer going through that bag I brought back in. Like I might have gone to the hardware store for hacksaw blades. And I remember his amusement over an 18 year old boy doing that. And I remember he seemed about as different a kind of man as those prisoners upstairs. A tough customer, not a person you'd mess with. And I supposed most jailers were like that. And I suppose they are.
I have a story about a jailer today, one from the Bible. They had jails back then too. No ice cream or light bulbs or matches or zippers or magazines, but they had chains and locks and jails. There was one in Phillipi. And two preachers, sort of like myself, got put in there, only not to visit.
Phillipi was more than just a county seat town. Phillipi was a Roman military colony. It was a leading city of the district of Macedonia. Once it had been a town named Krenides, but Philip of Macedon came there and fortified it and humbly renamed it in his honor. After Brutus and Cassius were defeated in 42 B.C. it was enlarged and made a colony by Augustus. Its title was "Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensium."
But that wouldn't mean a lot to a jailer. He wouldn't be up on the local history. He wouldn't be very active in the literary society. And the visitors to Philippi he got to meet weren't ordinarily your better class of folk.
But it was a little strange about those two preachers he had in there now. What they were in for was sort of strange.
There was a young woman in town. The jailer knew about her. A lot of people knew about her. She was a slave girl, and the Bible says "she brought her owners much gain." Owners.
Bad enough to have one owner. She had more than one. But I guess if you can bring in "much gain" then that's the way it might go. She seemed to have almost been incorporated. Maybe that was on the door sign: "Soothsaying Incorporated." Soothsaying was like fortune-telling, and that was what she did.
Well of course that was 2000 years ago. They were primitive people. And yet, dear friends, let's go out in our imagination onto University Boulevard and turn left and drive down to that campus from which the street gets its name–the great University of Maryland. A place of excellence in psychology, and biology, and sociology, and anthropology, and history, and philosophy, if not theology. And right down there next to that citadel of sophistication is a soothsayer who's been in business at least the last 12 years.
I don't know how many academic matters have been decided in her place, but I know it's there. I've been thinking I may go ask where to find a good Minister of Education!
Well, to get back to the story, if I haven't lost it, Paul and Silas, these two preachers who were new in town, were on their way to a prayer meeting and met up with this young woman. And exactly what happened depends on who you ask.
The Bible says she began to follow them, crying out "these men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." And Paul didn't take that as a sincere compliment, because it annoyed him, and he turned and rebuked her. After that the soothsayer found that her sayer was all soothed out!
But I'm trying to think what that jailer would have been told. Perhaps that two religious fanatics had come from out of town, and took it upon themselves to start an argument with Madame Lois, right on the city street. And the police has to be called, because the crowd got involved. And now Madame Lois is in a state of shock, because she's a very sensitive person, you know. And her psychiatrist says it may be a long time before she can go back to work again.
Anyway, Paul and Silas were arrested, and questioned, and beaten, and put in jail. They were put in the most secure part of the jail. And their feet were put in stocks. Not socks, stocks! And the jailer was told he better not let them out.
I don't think they had to tell the jailer that. Jailers know that. Jailers back then knew it especially well, because the law made them personally responsible for their prisoners. If you lost one you not only lost your job and your retirement benefit, you lost your need of a retirement benefit!
Now what would you expect out of these two prisoners if you were the jailer? You knew they weren't violent men, you knew they were talkers–professional talkers. So you'd expect a lot of mouth, a lot of protest. "Did nothing wrong, no one had a right to hit them, somebody was going to pay for this and pay big"–that kind of thing.
But what the jailer heard, what other prisoners heard too, was singing. They were singing hymns of praise to God.
"Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee; Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee. Ponder anew What the Almighty can do, If with His love He befriend thee."
Something like that! And you don't hear that kind of thing in a jail very often. That got the jailer's attention. That got everyone's attention!
Distinctive Christian behavior. People who've been born again are supposed to be different, to do things that stand out and get attention. This is how the faith spreads. "When they saw the boldness of Peter and John they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus"–words from another story in Acts.
Well, the jailer was impressed, touched. He sat in his office listening. Maybe if someone else was there, he said "what do you make of that?" Maybe he was under conviction about it, even before the earthquake started.
Earthquake. In the middle of that night it started. And the ground was shaking, and things were splitting open and falling down, and people were screaming and running. And hard as it is to scare a jailer, this one was scared. If the earthquake didn't get him, the Romans would because people were loose and there was nothing to do.
The man had actually taken out his sword to kill himself when Paul and Silas rushed in. They told him no one was going to run away, and that he was still in charge.
But actually, by now, they were in charge, or the Lord was, because that jailer was determined to have some of whatever it was they had. He said, "Men, what must I do to be saved?" A few minutes ago you'd have thought that meant, "How can I get out of this mess?" But he was out of it already. So this was something else he was speaking of.
You know it's easy to go through life dealing day-to-day with the little situations that come along and ignoring the big situation. People save up this and that but aren't saved themselves. People hear of God's gift and play around with the ribbon and the wrapping, but never open the present.
What must he do to be saved? What must anyone do? Paul will put it simply. "Believe," he says. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ."
Why? Because he's the way, the truth, and the life. How? By trusting that that's so. When? Right now!
And that jailer did it, then and there. And afterward he was baptized with all his family, in the middle of the night. And he took Paul and Silas home, and tended their wounds. And next day the officials learned they were Roman citizens, and apologized and let them go.
So in less than 24 hours, this jailer became a Christian too. It seems a little quick and easy to us. It seems like he had determination but not much information.
True. But that's a better state than having a lot of information and no determination. Do you hear what I mean?
If you have determination, as he did, you'll get the other soon enough. But if you've loaded yourself with information and still have never gotten enough motivation to move one degree off dead center, then chances are you never will.
Unless something happens. Doesn't have to be an earthquake. But something to get your attention.
PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR FAITH IS
The difference between talking about a thing and doing it was illustrated to me early in life. My parents believed a child should spend time away from home at a young age. So at 7 or 8, I went for two weeks to Camp LeConte for boys in the Great Smoky Mountains. I was in the cabin for the youngest campers.
I brought to camp an expression I'd heard older boys use. "Do it and then talk about it." Tough talk. This was what you said to call someone's bluff. I'd never used it myself, but I thought it had a nice sound, and I had it ready.
The beds there were bunk beds, and I was in a lower bed with a larger boy above me. One evening at bedtime some commotion got started. Boys in the lower bunks got to bouncing the ones in the upper bunks by pushing up with their feet. And I did this too. It was great fun.
The large boy in the bunk above me said, though, that if I didn't stop he would come down and punch me in the nose. Even at that age, my nose was an inviting target! But this I thought was the perfect time for that line I knew. What we had here was an overgrown bully who needed exposing. So I said it, and everyone heard: "Do it and then talk about it."
Well friends, he did it! He did exactly what he said he would. He came down and punched me in the nose. And it hurt and bled and I think I may have cried. I never considered the possibility of such a thing. But it taught me one lesson of life. A lot of people don't mean what they say, but now and then you meet some who do.
I followed a car on Georgia Avenue the other day that had three bumper stickers. The one on the right said "Equal Rights for Women." In the center was "Vote for Mondale/Ferraro." And the other one said "The Poor have suffered enough."
Well as I thought my way across that back bumper, moving right to left, I knew I believe in women's rights, and I voted for Mr. Mondale too, and I have a concern for the poor. But still, I found myself wondering just what that statement really meant. "The poor have suffered enough"?
I glanced at the car itself for any clues it gave. Just an average car, not a junker, but nothing expensive. I thought there that you don't see many Cadillacs with bumper stickers about the suffering of the poor. Theirs tend to say "I fight poverty–I work!"
"The poor have suffered enough"?–I began to think of variations. "The elderly have suffered enough." "Inmates of over-crowded prisons have suffered enough." "Sexually abused children have suffered enough." Migrant farm workers. Slum landlord victims.
But my principle thought was, what does this person who speaks about the poor actually do about it? Is this just the political statement of a liberal Democrat, or does the woman actually share what she has with the poor?
Is a Good Samaritan driving the road up ahead of me there, or just a political activist? If a person in rags should tap on her window at the next red light and say "I'm poor and I'm suffering, will you help me?" what would she do? In other words, is this a person who puts her money where her mouth is?
That's a pretty good question, right? I remember some dismay in the last presidential election when it was discovered that none of the leading candidates from either party made more than token contributions to any church or charitable organization. Meaning they all had ideas about putting our tax money where their mouth was, but not their money.
For shame! How you vote on spending other people's money says something I know, but it doesn't say a heck of a lot unless you're willing to invest your own.
Listen: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . .."(Matt. 28:19-20)
Now listen–do you believe that should be done? Of course. Would you join in voting for it to be done? Of course. But will you dedicate to God at least a tenth of your earnings so that it can be done? That remains to be seen. More will be known next Sunday.
It's possible to talk religion but not live it. Talk prayer but not practice it. Talk about what churches ought to do in this or that without being willing to help. Talk about the needs of others and what should be done without committing a dollar toward the effort. Talk of church growth, but all in terms of what others ought to do.
Now are you beginning to get an inkling of what I'm preaching on this morning? Some slight hint or suggestion, ambiguous as it may be! Oh for the gift of plain talk, so you won't have to turn after the service and say "What do you think the pastor was suggesting this morning?"! Pray for me, Brothers and Sisters, I'm trying!
James tried also. Did you get the message from our scripture lesson this morning? In case not, let me try to paraphrase it.
If a person talks religious talk without doing religious deeds it doesn't amount to a hill of beans. Faith doesn't come cheap. You have to give up some things that cost you something, like the Lord did for you. You sometimes have to do things you don't want to, and part with things you'd rather not have to. But how else can the will of God begin to mean something in an evil, selfish world?
If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food and one of you says this is none of his business, how can he sing in church "all to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give"? If you're one of those who runs his mouth to tell what ought to be done with money he gave none of himself, what good is that?
You say you're a Christian? You say you have faith? But how does anyone know that, except by the deeds you do? How can you show anyone your faith, except by your works? The only proof of faith is what it causes you to do that other people won't do.
Like Abraham. Like any man or woman of faith. We remember them for what they did. For how they laid it on the line. For letting the beliefs of their hearts come out as commitments to action. Because faith apart from works is . . .?
What word shall I use? "Regrettable"? "Contradictory"? Faith without works is . . . a shame?–is that it? No! Faith without works is d-e-a-d, dead! And the Lord who called me as a preacher of his, wanted me to tell you that. (That was James talking now, not me!)
Riding across Nebraska last summer I saw a message on a billboard that said "advertising doesn't cost, it pays." You knew, of course, they were trying to rent a vacant billboard no one else wanted. But anyway, I found myself pondering the truth of that statement.
"Advertising doesn't cost, it pays." I decided there was something to that, but it wasn't so simple. For one thing, advertising does cost. It costs a lot, and it always costs before it begins to pay.
You go in to rent this guy's billboard, let's say. You ask, "well how much does it cost?" And he says, "just $200 a week" and begins telling how many cars pass along that road every day. But then you say, "$200 a week! Your sign said it doesn't cost, it pays." He looks at you kind of funny, and says you know better than that, which of course you do. So then you ask, "well if that's how much it costs, how much will it pay?" He can't answer that, but he'll try. He'll smile his salesman's smile and tell how your business will start booming and you'll never even miss the $200.
And you'll wonder. The man could be right. And one sure thing, you won't know unless you try. But if you try, it'll start out costing you, not paying you. And if you do it, you'll do it on faith that it will work for you, as it has for others, and that what you put in you'll receive back in some time and measure.
I think you see what I'm getting at, don't you? Let's put on our billboard the proposition, "Christianity doesn't cost, it pays." True or false? Think before you answer.
Let's say you pledge on your pledge card to give 10% of your income next year, what will you have? Well I'll tell you, the first thing you'll have is 10% less money to spend, that's what! It's going to cost you, just like furniture or boat payments or anything else.
But, am I suggesting tithing doesn't pay, it just costs?
No. I'm saying that like that sign beside the road, it will start out costing. And require an act of faith. And just when and how any payoff comes is impossible to predict. Especially if that's your motive to begin with. Ahh!
You see, I think the Lord knows these things, and has some sense of humor. And whenever a person comes along with a deal in mind, who thinks for every dollar put in the plate on Sunday he's going to get back ten the following week, the Lord takes the money and says "So long, sucker! See ya' around."
But when a person gives, gives out of love, gives because the poor have suffered enough and he wants to help, gives for the giving and not for any gain–that person will be blessed in his deed and somehow, somewhere receive back from it far more than he gave.
"Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back."(Luke 6:38)
"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."(Luke 12:32-34)
We put our treasure where our hearts are. Let's hope our hearts are in the right place.
THE NEXT TOWNS
There are people who always want to finish one thing before going on to something else. It's so neat and orderly that way. Like an accountant with his columns on the ledger. As if mother says again not to do things if you aren't going to do your best. As if the guidance counselor tells you, "don't spread yourself too thin, now."
I'm somewhat that way myself. All the sermons I preach are unfinished, though I work to finish each one. I keep putting things in and taking things out. And I know I'm getting close when I start changing things back to what I changed them from before! I didn't want you to know this, but I've done a new draft of a sermon as few as 15 minutes before 11:00! If it ever gets worse the call to worship might be delayed!
Some of you are like that about the things you do. You don't quit in the middle of something. I mean, would Sandy Sanchez leave dirty dishes to stink in the kitchen overnight? Would Kris Anderson just forget an English exam? Does Bob Hudson throw his pants on the floor at bedtime? Some people are like them, you see, they keep their lives tidy.
Most of the time that's good. Most of us can take a lesson.
But the thing is, while living efficient lives we must keep ourselves free. Habits need to work for us, not us for them. There must be in every God-filled life, a place for the spontaneous.
"The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound, but can't tell where it's coming from or where it's going–so is every one that is born of the spirit."
Even a man like the disciple Matthew. He was called Levi then, you remember. He had his life all in order. He was a tax man, and tax men keep things in order. But he was sitting at his desk one day and the Master walked by and said:
"Why don't you just get up from there and leave all that and come with me?"
And by golly he did! And we must all be ready when the will of the Lord means a change in our direction.
His disciples find him somewhere all alone, and they bring an urgent word. They say, "People want you. Things are really going great. Why, there must be a thousand back there waiting for you right now. So come on!"
And he says, "You come on. We're going someplace else."
"Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out."
Can you imagine how they glanced at one another? How they shook their heads when he wasn't looking?
What did this mean? And what does it mean for us?
It obviously means something about obedience. When we have our plans, but so does God, and the two aren't the same, what gives? And what if his plan sounds crazy? Like getting on a wooden ship and spending half a year sick on the ocean to preach to people in India who have religion already? Like Luther Rice did.
"The next towns." For Luther Rice there were a lot of "next towns." A lot of years that were really "new years" and not just 12 more months of the same old thing.
It's the leading of God's spirit I mean. I'm not commending flights of fancy. That's a problem of its own.
Last summer in Utah, I passed a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that said "Eat your heart out, I'm married." I didn't eat my heart out. But I did look in the truck as I rode by. And sure enough, this fellow had a pretty young wife snuggled up beside him on the seat. As if the door was bad over on the far side and she was afraid of falling out!
And I supposed that a single person in a certain mood and passing by might have some feelings about that. Someone might have done what the sticker suggested, and eaten his heart out.
But on the other hand, I thought, if there were a sticker, and I'm sure there is, that said "Eat your heart out, I'm single," an expensive convertible, let's say, with California plates and a man in sun glasses and linen jacket out with not just one but several attractive females, and a married couple comes driving along who just held one of those fights where you take no prisoners, whose lives are frustrated every day, and they see that sign and what's in the car, and feel pain from it because each one of them–and the doors must be good on their car because they're sure being leaned on!–each one thinks, "Yeah! That's where it's at. That's what I've missed."
The next towns. You have to be careful about heading out.
Sometimes you need to stay and do better where you are. Because heading out would just be town hopping, or friend hopping, or job hopping, or marriage hopping, or church hopping, or whatever else is hard to stick it out with.
Now I realize I've been giving you warning and encouragement both. That's the trouble with preachers. That's the trouble with life. It's rarely simple. You do things with no guarantee in advance. The next town may be a good thing. Or it may not.
So I leave you with that sober recognition, which surely underscores the need of prayer, the need of God's spirit, and the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
To those twelve it must of seemed that he often stayed when there was every reason to go. And he often went when there was every reason to stay. Which means his reasons weren't theirs.
His were to do the will of his Father in heaven.
And that's the journey we're here for. And who can say what towns it may take us to?
OLD PILOTS FLY THE CREEK
In my life so far, I've met a good number of "unforgettable characters." One was the old pilot who taught me to fly. His name was Guy Jones, and he ran a small county airport near Dayton, Tennessee.
Guy didn't give ground school. His teaching was to strap you in the seat, take you up in the sky, and make you learn by trial and error. Depending on what you did he might holler, stomp, swear like a sailor, whistle out loud, or clap you on the back. And he might grab the controls any time and show you a thing or two. He enjoyed his work!
You never knew what was coming. The day I soloed I had no warning. After several takeoffs and landings he just said, "Well I think I'll get out now. You take it around by yourself. Good luck."
Guy didn't give cross country either. He was glad to talk about places and tell how to go there, but he didn't go with you. I learned to navigate on my own. To airports close around, to the house and the church, and later to places more distant. Like Asheville, North Carolina.
By the time I flew to Asheville, I thought I was pretty good. So did Mr. Jones. I'd soloed after just 6 hours, and I'd been a lot of places and back with no problem. Guy never asked where I was going, but when I got back he'd say, "Well, where you been?" And sometimes he'd be surprised. "You mean you've been there?
As I checked the way to Asheville, I found two choices. I could follow the highway that runs along the French Broad River, or I could take a direct route across the mountains. The first offered safety, the second promised excitement and challenge.
When I got back, Guy ask where I'd been, and I told him. And he said, "How'd you go?" And I was hoping he'd ask that. I remember I spread out the map on the wing of a plane and showed him my route. I remember explaining how I flew up this gorgeous valley that climbed to the pass I flew across into North Carolina.
I remember he shook his head as if now he must slow Briggs down for his own good. He looked up from the map and said, "Well, the old pilots fly the creek. That's what the old pilots do."
He said it with some twinkle in his eye. As if he were proud and some amused that a student of his might go the hardest way. But with fear that a word of caution was due. That without it even a good pilot might never become an old pilot, like him.
And I heard what he said. And I thought of it times when the lure of adventure competes with the need of safety.
"Old pilots fly the creek." I knew in my heart I did want to survive, to be an old pilot. Though I did not always fly the creeks.
Now isn't that a parable of life? An illustration of two desires inside us all–for adventure on one hand and security on the other. A need to let go, and a need to hang on. A feeling sometimes that its better to fulfill yourself, and others that its better to preserve yourself. Quality versus quantity, being brave versus being sure.
Dr. Paul Tournier, the Swiss psychiatrist and Christian writer, tells us:
"The timidest pen-pushing clerk will disclose under psychoanalysis, and particularly in the analysis of his dreams, a secret nostalgia for the adventure which he has sacrificed to security. Without really understanding why, he will have a predilection for the most frightening of adventure films, mentally identifying himself with the hero so as to procure vicariously the joys he deprives himself of in real life."
"It seems to me that this instinct of adventure is one of the most obvious explanations for the characteristic behavior of man, one of the great driving forces behind his actions, as important as the instinct of self-preservation, which has so often been described as the mainspring of civilization."
So we have in our land this vast and lucrative entertainment business selling prefab adventures to those whose lives are boring, but wish they weren't.
There's a human need of fulfillment which is the stuff of life itself, a thing peculiar to man, a thirsting for the absolute, which is really an expression of our hunger for God–the final and ultimate adventure.
A prison chaplain was speaking before a group of well-bred ladies at a civic club. And during questions one of them raised her hand and asked: "Can you tell us what it is that drives these poor criminals to do the things they do?" And he, without hesitation, said: "It is the same force that drives you, madam, to distinguish yourself by your good works." That may be so.
Life is a game played only once. However we play it, we're conscious of the gamble it is, of what's at stake, of the risks we run on every move, and the hesitation when we're unsure. Some days caution rules, and we fly the creek. Other times a voice says "go for it!" and we wing our way across the high and rugged peaks.
To take any significant action means accepting significant risk. Anytime you write, or paint, or make something, you do. Whenever you say something, protest something, or lead something. Or buy something, or throw something away. And especially when you involve yourself with other people. Always the uncertainty, always the hesitation. And always the lure of ways that offer greater promise at the cost of greater peril.
Isn't this something that has to do with God in Jesus Christ? With Creation itself, as a matter of fact? Wasn't it through a spirit of adventure that God made man in his image? Didn't he pay for it the price of adding to his cares? Letting loose in a lovely world such crazy people and their problems? Why, right now a lot of them are working to blow the place up!
As soon as anyone makes a thing he hurries to compare it with what he had in mind. Often it's different, because things seldom turn out as planned. And God had some such thoughts, expressed there in the story of Noah's flood.
The Fall of man was the risk God accepted in deciding to create him. But he didn't give up. God was committed to the future of man. And ultimately embarked on his greatest adventure in the birth of Jesus Christ. He was there so loving the world as to give his only begotten son that whoever believed in him should not perish.
But who could say if that would work or not? Has it worked with you? With your children? With all your neighbors down the block? Or was it a gamble that never paid off, a risk run that never worked out? Yet you have the feeling that if he had it to do over again, he'd do the very same thing.
I know it's a little hard to catch what I'm talking about this morning. But some of it is this, that the chance of knowing God is in running risks like he ran. It means you can't always fly the creek. It means striking out on your own. It's the adventure of saying with Paul, "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward my goal!"
The term "goal" makes it a one-way affair. We move along a journey that had a beginning and will have an end. An end to be decided by God. Which makes life a divine adventure, lived out in a straight line. A missed chance never comes back. A lot of your cards you play only once.
Does that sound cold and austere? Perhaps so. But remember this all has to do with love. God so loved that he gave his son. The whole point of creation was his love of man. The point of our lives is our love of him. Love is the greatest human adventure.
There is, in us all, a need to give ourselves, to dedicate and surrender ourselves, to love and be fulfilled in love. There's no greater waste than to come to the end of life and the truth be that you loved no one, and no one loved you. But there's no greater risk for a god or a man.
There's no greater pain than the pain of failed love. So a lot of people fear to try. Safer to watch it on T.V. and just imagine. Safer to love football or baseball than to love real people. Like it's safer to sing in church about love for God than to go out do it.
There are people who seem to spend their lives preparing for life. They never feel ready, so they keep trying to get ready for what they never feel ready for. They string and unstring their instruments, but the song they came to sing remains unsung. So afraid they were.
People imagine that others are less afraid then they are, and that isn't so. No one is exempt from fear. Everyone worries. But some let it paralyze and others don't. There's a funny verse in Proverbs that goes like this: "The sluggard says, 'There is a lion outside! I shall be slain in the streets!'"(Proverbs 22:13) Which tells of a life that hides behind doors for fear of the risk outside. And the risk is there, but think what a dull existence.
Luther said "love God and sin bravely." And I think I know what he meant. The fear to act because you might fail may be the greatest sin of all. You will fail, again and again you will. We all make messes of our lives. But only by that do we ever learn our need of God, and about his love and grace. We learn our only real security is in him. We learn to trust.
So that something can speak in a person's soul one day. Something like a voice. And he can begin to believe he must do something, even as hard and threatening as leaving his job and home and friends, and going away toward the unknown.
"Where you goin', Abraham?"
He didn't know. He only knew he must. Or miss out on something he didn't want to miss out on.
So "by faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise."
He "looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God."
Seek, and you shall find.
THE STRONG SIDE OF IT
This is a season of discovery, or should be. A time to go in quest as those Wise Men did. A time to track down what evidence we have of the divine among the human. A time to seek God as revealed unto us.
Instead of that, though, we tend to create God in the image of our need. So the soldiers have a militant god, pacifists a kindly one, poets a god of beauty, legalists a god of justice, the prosperous a god of success, prisoners a god of liberation, and so on.
That gets things backward, though. We are made in his image, we can't make him in ours. We are his offspring, not the other way around.
If you believe religion is what people make up in their minds to explain the world and give them comfort, then that isn't a problem. Make your god any color and shape you like.
But if you believe God is, and is apart from our theorizing about him, and was long before we tried doing such things, and will be long afterward–then it becomes important to find what God has shown us of himself. Quite often it's different from what people assume.
Listen to this:
"He has shown strength in his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty."
That's what I call the "strong side of it." Right there in the Christmas story it is. There among the feminine images of motherhood, is this masculine image of strength and action. And here where the softness of candlelight lends its spell, I want us to think of it.
God sent his son to do something in the world. He was sent as a revolutionary.
It may not be what we had in mind, but it's what God did. So if you're a friend of God, you have a friend in Christ, but if you're an enemy of what God wants in his world, you have an enemy in Christ. As king Herod rightly perceived.
A revolutionary was born, whose true followers must be revolutionaries too. A savior was coming, but also a threat. A threat to the proud, and to pride. A threat to the mighty on their thrones. A threat to those whose trust is in riches.
Man tends to see it as his world, where he can do as he darn well pleases. But God says no, it's not. It's mine, and don't you forget it.
In Tennessee some years ago a Baptist leader had overstepped his bounds. He'd forced things and manipulated things one time to often, and got caught. I sat in a meeting where rebellion brewed. And the word in that room was: "We're not working for him, he's working for us! And since he seems to have forgotten it, we're about to show him!" And they did.
It's the same with us and God. We're his servants, not the other way around, and we mustn't forget it. If we do we may have to be reminded. And God sent his son into this world with some of that in mind.
Ray Kroc, who built the McDonald's Restaurant empire is quoted as saying: "I believe in God, family, and McDonald's. And in the office, the order is reversed."
Well the order is reversed for a lot of people. Business first, family next, God last. Look out for yourself, look out for number one.
As Max Webber noted, religion does often contribute to worldly success. A person learns to practice self-discipline, dedication to duty, honesty, truthfulness, conscientiousness, consideration of others, and a whole list of other things that also make him a better employee or employer. He may in the process make a lot of money. But if he turns from his worship of God and becomes the worshiper of that success, dire consequences like ahead.
The text is showing us how God takes sides. He calls us to join him in "exalting those of low degree" and "filling the hungry with good things."
Christians are supposed to side with people no one else will side with. But often we claim the powerful, and disclaim the powerless whom Jesus came to help.
One of the legends at my seminary was Dr. W.O. Carver, who taught missions. They remember his love for the Lord, and for students, and for the seminary. And they say the last time he preached in chapel, he closed with a prayer that said simply,
"Oh God, help these young people to find what thou art doing in this world, and to join thee in it.
I know part of Christmas means "O come let us adore him." I know that.
But I know it also means a call to join what God is doing in the world. And our adoration will be as sounding brass or tinkling symbol unless we heed that call too.
SEALED TOMBS AND GREAT EARTHQUAKES
I want you to imagine a conversation that might have gone like this:
"O.K. men, seems we have a problem here. I just got some orders–from the Old Man himself. Remember that one we took care of yesterday? One they made all the fuss about, with the robe and the crown of thorns? Well now they're worried about someone stealing his body. The Old Man says we better not let that happen or it'll be bad for us."
"No, I don't understand it either. Something superstitious he said about coming back from the dead. Huh! After yesterday I don't think there's much chance of that! But anyway, the main thing is to keep the public out. Someone might take the body and claim it happened."
"They put him in a tomb right at the bottom of the hill, so it won't be hard to find. There's already a stone to go in front. All we need is the stuff to seal it up, and then decide on shifts for the guard duty."
"No, stupid, not from now on. Just till this blows over. Maybe a week."
And so, like the good soldiers they were, they went out and did their job. And had no doubts they did it well. Until Easter came! UNTIL EASTER CAME!
Easter came and found two soldiers lying there in a daze who couldn't have counted three fingers you held up in front of them. And the stone was rolled away like it had hinges. An angel was sitting on it like a bench in the park. And the grave clothes were still inside, but the body wasn't. And this was no robbery, this was resurrection!
I like that picture of the angel sitting. Sitting on the stone he'd moved aside. I think that's neat. It reminds me of my wrestling days, when you might have a good match and whip your opponent, get him tired and beaten and laid out on the mat. Then sit on him! Like Dave Butz does running backs . . . and heat pumps on television!
Some women came there the night before. They came to do things that were the custom in those days. But they found that stone across the entrance, so big it took strong men with ropes and levers to put it in place. And they knew, as soon as they saw, that it was no use for them.
But the angel had no such problem. He moved it out of the way and then sat on it. If you can do that you deserve to sit on it. You deserve your show of victory.
Just don't go sitting around on unmoved stones! Don't climb up on one somebody else moved and say "look what I did." And don't think this comes by human effort. "Not by might or power but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts."
Consider the activity those soldiers were engaged in. Make the place secure, seal the stone, set a guard. Typical human behavior. So much effort is spent like that. Protecting, enclosing, preserving, barricading. Like the worthless servant who dug down and hid his money in the earth, afraid to put it to any use, so fearful he might lose it.
God had a new possibility that morning. What the world meant as the end, God was ready to make a beginning of. God was going to raise up Jesus from the dead.
The world said "keep him in there," and God said "let him out of there!" The world said, "We'll seal up the tomb and put soldiers on guard." And God said, "Won't do any good. My son's going to rise again!"
No wonder an earthquake came. No wonder an angel appeared. All this was to say that God means business! He means business with those who stand in his way. He means business in the dark recesses of gloom and despair. He means business where things were meant to stay open that men have sealed shut. He means business with any place where death reigns, because he'll bring life there if he can.
So the promise is this: Jesus is alive and you can be too. The seals they put on his tomb were broken, and yours can be too. God had an earthquake for him, and he has one for you. Believe it! he has one for you. You can be free. God's son can set you free!
Lots of times, we dig our own tombs. We trade away our freedom for a morsel of security. We swap our integrity for a sad pile of money. We lose sight of things we had to give to this world, because we're so occupied with what we're trying to get from it.
Anyone remember Billy Carter? He was Jimmy Carter's brother. Anyone remember Jimmy Carter?! My favorite Art Buchwald column was about Billy. It said:
"Dear Billy: I just read in the newspapers that you have signed up with a high-powered agent from Nashville, Tennessee to represent you in the area of personal appearances and the media. Your agent claims you're the hottest personality in America and he's going to package you and make you a potful of money."
The letter pleads with Billy not to sell himself that way. It warns what may happen if he does.
"You saw what they did to Joe Namath when they packaged him. They made him dress in women's nylon pantyhose. How are you going to face the boys back in Plains after you've done a pantyhose commercial?"
"What about O.J. Simpson? Suppose they sign you up to run through airports with your suitcase and jump over barriers so you can rent a Hertz car? You're not in condition for that sort of thing, Billy."
"You'll wind up putting Aqua Velva on yourself and some girl will slap your face and they'll make you say, 'Thank you, I needed that.'"
"Besides commercials, your agent ain't going to let you talk to newspapermen any more for free. He's going to charge you for every word you utter. You're going to wind up in Reader's Digest telling people how you learned to love the FBI and found God."
"They'll make you rich, but they'll break your heart. I'm pleading with you. Us working people have always looked up to you because you were your own man. I ask you, Billy, what profiteth a man if he gains the world's riches but loses his six-pack of beer?"
Now ridiculous as that is, there's a point there. We can sell our souls. We can choose slavery instead of freedom. We can imprison ourselves by our own personal choices. And once the world shuts you up in a tomb like that, it'll close and seal the door on you every time.
I talked with a man last Monday night who was all closed up. He told me how he'd made a mess of his life. He told how much liquor he'd drunk, and the jobs he'd lost, and the two marriages he'd ruined, and the health problems he has now. And I don't know if he will get out of the shape he's in, but I know he can.
He can be buried with Christ and raised to walk in newness of life. He can be a new creation, where the old has passed away and the new has come.
But not without some effort. Not without a new start. There are people who get used to their tombs and wouldn't walk out if the door blew open. Salvation is the Lord's doing, but nothing works without our cooperation.
Bruce Larson says we have to "lean into our pain." I like that. We usually lean away from it, don't we? We all have an urge to get away from our hurt instead of dealing with it.
Jesus didn't do that. Everyone else went around Samaria–he went through it. Everyone else avoided lepers–he laid his hands on them. Everyone else shunned the publicans and sinners, the prostitutes and outcasts–he sat down and ate with them. Everyone else said don't go to Jerusalem–he got on a donkey and rode there in broad daylight.
Nothing worthwhile comes easy.
In The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan it says "they all went on till they came to the foot of the Hill Difficulty, at the bottom of which was a spring. There was also in the same place two other ways, besides that which came straight from the gate; one turned to the left hand, and the other to the right, at the bottom of the hill; but the narrow way lay right up the hill, and the name of that going up the side of the hill is called Difficulty. Christian now went to the spring, and drank thereof to refresh himself, and then began to go up the hill, saying:
"The hill, though high, I covet to ascend; The difficulty will not me offend, For I perceive the way of life lies here. Come, pluck up, heart, let's neither faint nor fear. Better, though difficult, the right way to go, Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe."
The man went on from there to other difficulties, each more trying than the last, but he did go on. And finally came to Mount Zion, and asked:
"'What must we do in the holy place?' To whom it was answered, 'You must there receive the comfort of all your toil, and have joy for all your sorrow; you must reap what you have sown, even the fruit of all your prayers, and tears, and sufferings for the King by the way."
"In that place you must wear crowns of gold, and enjoy the perpetual sight and visions of the Holy One; for there you shall see Him as He is. There also you shall serve Him continually with praise, with shouting and thanksgiving, whom you desired to serve in the world, though with much difficulty . . .."
"There you shall enjoy your friends again that are gone thither before you; and there you shall with joy receive even everyone that follows into the holy place after you."
"When he shall come with sound of trumpet in the clouds, as upon the wings of the wind, you shall come with Him. . . ."
"Also, when He shall again return to the City, you shall go, too, with sound of trumpet, and be ever with him.'"
Ever with him! Ever with him! Ever with him!
Friday morning. Early morning, it would seem. And after a night with no sleep for Jesus, and Judas, and Simon Peter, and Pilate the governor, and a lot of soldiers and Jewish leaders. Pilate's wife had slept some, but not well. Listen:
"While (Pilate) was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, 'Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.'"(Matthew 27:19)
What does it mean when you're a governor and sitting out in public busy and your wife sends word to you? Well, my wife has sent word to me like that. You may not have seen it but she has. A little slip of paper, folded in half for privacy, passed along by choir members wondering what it is but afraid to look.
Boy, I dread those things! Never has been one that said, "You're doing great, Honey! Keep it up!" Or, "You look so good in that suit, I can't keep my eyes off you." No! It's always "you forgot to say Mrs. Jones helped too!" "That meeting isn't this week stupid, it's next week!" "You have a big long thread hanging from your pocket."
That's what it usually means when a wife sends word. But now and then it means something else.
A friend of mine, Harold Meers, was preaching a revival in Ohio. He'd started his sermon. An usher tiptoed down the aisle and whispered to the pastor's wife. Her husband was sitting behind the preacher, so she said "I'll take it." And she went out.
When she came back in, the sermon was half started, or half over, whichever way you'd say it. And she had a slip of paper too, which she handed up to her husband. His wife sent word to him, right in front of everybody.
But my friend who was preaching had already seen her face when she came in, and the way she looked at him. A look the blood was all drained out of. And he knew this had something to do with him.
He knew it was something bad, but didn't know what. And wouldn't know till he got the sermon over with and stood there to be told. And it was bad. His wife Betty, driving home on the Watterson Expressway, hit head on and dead.
So wives can bring serious words. And you know Pilate's wife thought hers was serious.
What Pilate thought we can't be sure. Maybe he thought it was funny. "Crazy woman and her dreams. Why, she's always dreaming crazy things. Doesn't have a thing to do with this. I sure don't need her advice about how to do my job."
He might have thought that. Or it might have been more threatening to him. He might have been rattled already, and this rattled him more. Maybe it went through his bones like a shock, and the sweat started, and his hands got the shakes. It might have been that way, but we don't know.
Pilate is like Judas, a man you can see two ways. There's much to blame him for, but still some reason for sympathy. And it's hard to know which is right–you keep changing your mind.
He was on the spot. He might have a riot on his hands. A crowd of people were out there screaming at him and waving their fists, and it's hard to think with that going on. But then I suppose that's what governors are paid for.
Pilate was no favorite of people. He'd carried Caesar's image through the streets. He'd taken Temple money to pay for a water system. He'd shown contempt for Jews and Jewish religion.
Things weren't done right in this trial. Laws were bent and broken in the name of law. And Pilate knew it, and must have thought he ought to do something. But he feared that crowd. He knew what should be done, but ended up doing what must be done.
Time was running out for his prisoner. He'd had his last supper, preached his last sermon, spent his last night in the home of Mary and Martha. No more children on his lap, no more healings. Soon now the last shouts would die away in that hall of judgment. He'd walk his last steps up the hill to the cross. There'd be the last nail, last prayer, last sight of those around him, last words, last breath.
All this was ahead as Pilate's wife lay tossing in her sleep. To go on with nothing to stop it. Like that point in the takeoff roll of a heavy aircraft when too much is in motion to be stopped, and the only options are to fly or crash. A point of no return.
Being the politician he was, Pilate must have known this. But he tried giving the crowd a way out. He said he could turn someone loose today, because of the holiday, and why not this man Jesus? But they'd been prompted on that. They said "no, you have a man named Barabbas–we want him. Let him out, and take this man to the cross."
Pilate tried questions then. "Why, what evil has he done?" But the crowd was in no mood for questions. They shouted all the louder, "crucify him, crucify him!" And the question of why got lost. When people have no answer to a question, they sometimes shout at you. For Pilate, that was enough.
He washed his hands of it all. And not in a figure of speech. He actually took a bowl of water and did it.
Well, let him wash. It makes no difference whether he washes or doesn't wash. No ritual of words or water nullifies our actions. Though we all try. We say "he hit me first" or "I was just doing my job" or "no one told me it would lead to this." Do that if you want, it changes nothing. Let him wash.
This is no fiction, remember–no parable, this is history. This is real, it actually happened. But how different from other violence we read about. For out of that Friday gloom, a light of hope would soon appear. Our redemption was drawing nigh.
Griefs were being borne, sorrows carried. Someone was being wounded for someone's transgressions, and his stripes would be their healing. For people like us who've all gone astray, the Lord was laying on him the iniquity of us all.(see Isaiah 53)
Pilate asked, "What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" And he wanted it to be their question, but he knew it was really his. What would he do with Jesus?
And we want it to be his question–what did he do with Jesus?–but it's ours too. What will we do with Jesus? It becomes everyone's question. No one can turn it aside.
Why were there troubled dreams in Pilate's house? Because someone was about to be crucified? Oh no. They knew about crosses like Washington knows about political speeches. Crosses stood so thick in Roman arenas that the arms had to overlap. And when an army revolted there'd be crosses along a Roman road for miles.
So why would Romans be afraid of one more cross? Unless somehow they knew or had reason to believe that the man they were about to hang there was unlike others who'd gone before him?
You see, if salvation came from any cross, it would have come long before that Friday. If there was saving power in crosses themselves, there'd have been enough to save the world a thousand times over. But none of the others counted, you see. Only this one was to count.
Carlyle Marney wrote: "Salvation cannot come from crosses only. Salvation can only come from a cross whose incumbent hanging there has some future. Salvation has to come from someone a cross cannot hold. Salvation has to come from someone of whom a cross cannot dispose. Salvation has to come from a cross we cannot forget, a cross from which we cannot walk away. Salvation cannot come from crosses that end something. Salvation has to come from that rare cross that is the beginning of something."
But here, here at last, was a proper candidate–a pure and blameless man. And now, after Gethsemine, a willing and ready man. God's own Son.
"Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream." Suffered much.
And how much have we suffered? How much has he troubled our dreams? How long since he troubled yours?
Just two chapters back in Matthew's gospel you find him saying: "I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me."(Matthew 25:42-43)
Are those troubling words or not? Are they words that might bother your sleep if you let them?
It must be troubling to look a starving person in the face, especially if you have food and your main problem is to keep from eating too much of it. And the right kind of person might dream of that. Because dreams can attack and accuse you and wrestle you like Jacob with his stranger in the night.
Maybe some of us sleep too well. Maybe Jesus of Nazareth would disturb us more in our dreams if only we listened to his words and took them more seriously. Not only about the lack of food and shelter and clothing in the world, but also about the lack of love in people's hearts, and hope on their faces, and peace with God who made them.
All too easily we get comfortable in our religion. We sing "Bound for the promised land" and forget about those who aren't. And need to ask what it says about us that we could forget a thing like that.
Pilate had politics on his mind. The Jewish leaders had too much hate and jealousy to understand. The crowds thought little about it, and did as they were prompted. The disciples fled in fear. And as for the soldiers, this was just another job to get done with.
But after they'd done it with Roman efficiency, their leader, a Centurian, began to see something. He saw that this was no ordinary man, and no ordinary cross. And there at the foot of it, the man cried out:
"He really was the Son of God."
He really was. He really was.
THE SAVING WASTE
It was something warm in a chilly world. It was a soft kind of thing where hardness was the rule. It was innocent, and true, and almost the last act of kindness shown to Jesus of Nazareth. He was in Bethany, his haven of rest, and they were eating.
People reclined to eat in those days. And someone would often place a drop of perfume on a guest at dinner time. But a woman, whose name isn't given, came up and poured a jar of it on Jesus. Worth a whole year's wages. And there was astonishment, because it seemed so crazy. And then muttering as people tried to make some sense. They began saying this was a terrible waste.
But Jesus called it "a lovely thing." Jesus defended it. He'd accepted so little for himself, all his life, but he accepted this. It may have been the most money ever spent on him, and he said it was nice. If you're on your way to a cross, perhaps you have some right.
The Greek language has two words for good. "Agathos" means something morally good, something correct. But "kalos" means that plus something else–something good and lovely too. For a thing can be agathos but not kalos–correct but nothing more. This deed was kalos, and Jesus was touched by it.
How many times have you settled for the correct thing when you might have done a lovely thing instead? You settled on a handshake when a hug or a kiss was what you felt like. You spent ten minutes when you thought about taking the day. You gave the $10 in your billfold but wished you'd written a check for $500. You might look awkward, though. You mustn't get carried away. How many "lovely things" get squelched like that?
There are deeds that the chance to do comes once and then is gone. So we have to be careful how we curb our impulses. Some of them need it. We can't be totally impulsive. But the other extreme is to be totally calculating, and that means doing no "lovely things" at all.
Gifts ungiven, thanks unsaid, tears uncried, love unshown, prayers unprayed, roads unwalked. Whoever that woman was who gave her gift in Bethany, she knew it was then or never.
Perhaps she was always doing things like that, but somehow I doubt it. I'll bet people who knew her shook their heads. "Why, that's not like her!" And it wasn't, or hadn't been. This had been inside her for years, but all locked up. Now, all of a sudden, she'd let her feelings show. And the precious thing wasn't what she had in her jar, but what she had in her heart.
We tend to measure out our lives by drops. We tend to think about the least we can do, not the most. We think we're smart that way, we think we're saving something. We'd hate to believe it's more blessed to give than to receive.
The onlookers told that woman she'd done a wasteful thing. Their words made her feel bad about herself. But Jesus said she'd done a lovely thing. His words made her feel good about herself. And which kind of words does the world need more of? Isn't there enough blame? Don't we need to affirm the good people do, instead of finding fault?
Where was the guarantee in what she did? As she approached with her jar in hand, what assurance did she have that this would turn out right? I say not much. I say she ran a risk of playing the fool that day.
But to rise to the level of lovely things you have to run risks. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" is a spiritual law. The Master doesn't praise those who dig in the earth and hide his money. He calls them worthless servants. The ones who gain are willing to run risks.
What about her critics? Why were they so anxious to discount what she did? Wasn't it their own guilt? That they'd done no "lovely things"? That her deed became a judgment on their lack of deeds?
It's clear how important this was to Jesus. Perhaps because it came at such a stressful time. He was facing and fearing what lay ahead. When you're at a low ebb already, things intensify. Those who kick you when you're down you don't forget. And those who help you when you're down you don't forget.
So Jesus was moved. Moved to high praise, which was no habit with him. And it's interesting to recall what other things affected him like this. Like that widow who put all she had in the temple treasury. That rich young ruler as he turned and went away. That Roman centurian who showed such faith.
What moves us tells a lot about us. Some people are only moved by personal gain or personal glory. Life is like a game show contest. They jump up and down when their prizes are announced. "Your expense-paid vacation to Acapulco!" Yea! "Your very own red convertible!" Oh boy! "Your new wardrobe from Neiman Marcus!" Fantastic! This is the best thing that ever happened to me!
Is it now? If it is, poor you. If it is, you've missed out on the best of life. For the best is to give, not to get. The best is to do some lovely thing. Whoever saves things up will lose them, but to lose something for the sake of Jesus is to save it.
We hold in our hands the costly jar of life. We hold it tightly. And we hate to think of breaking that jar and pouring out what's inside. It might be wasted if we do. It might.
But that's exactly what Jesus of Nazareth was about as he tarried in Bethany.
He will do it for us. And he will call us to follow. And he will be there beside us as we make up our minds.
JESUS IS ALL THE WORLD TO ME
We've all known people whose lives seemed to center around one thing. It wasn't all they did, of course. But it was what they would have been doing if they didn't have to be doing what they were doing. You see it on those bumper stickers–"I'd rather be sailing" or "I'd rather be skiing" or "I'd rather be horseback riding." Right now I'm on my way to work in an office downtown, but I sure would rather be doing what I really love to do.
I did see someone driving the other day, though, with a bumper sticker that said "I'd rather be driving." Maybe there are some contented people after all!
I knew a man who loved to hunt and fish. His tough choice was which one to do on any given day. He went out with people, he went out by himself. He went out in good weather and bad weather. And subscribed to all the magazines, and read them from cover to cover. And was always buying something new, or working to repair something old. And you knew, if you were talking with him, that hunting or fishing is what he'd really rather be talking about. And it was like his inner circuits all changed frequency when he did.
Now what if a person is that way about his faith in Christ? Or what if a person isn't that way about his faith in Christ? What happens to your inner circuits when the name of Jesus gets mentioned? What happens when you're on your way to do one thing and you hear his call to go do something else?
In our lesson this morning, Paul speaks of this in the strongest terms. He speaks of putting to death what is earthly in us. Of setting our minds on the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. He speaks of putting off our old nature and putting on a new nature in which "Christ is all."
So that the bumper stickers of our lives would say "I'd rather be praying," "I'd rather be studying the Bible," "I'd rather be helping others." See this bumper sticker that says "I'd rather be listening to Ed Briggs preach." I think I'll have some of those made and get Charles Worthy to slip out in the parking lot and fix you all up!
I'm not judging, now. I know Christ is important to you. I'm sure it might be said for some of our inactive members, too. In time of need, this is where we turn. We have our hope there, and it means a lot to us.
But let me ask: "Is it as important, what he wants you to do for him, as what you want him to do for you?" In other words, are you in it for what you get out of it, or can you be counted on to put something in it too?
A lot of people sing "Jesus is all the world to me" and feel happy about their religion, and that's all.
But if Jesus is really all the world to you it re-orders your priorities. It affects how you spend your time and spend your money. And what you say yes to, and what you say no to. Because the Jesus who's all the world to you is out there hungry in the world, and needing clothes, and sick, and even in prison. And this is why he said to that crowd,
"Why are you always calling me 'Lord, Lord' and never doing the things I told you to?"
This is a shame to tell, but there was a family I knew and they were the joke of the church, although they didn't know it. They thought they were getting by with something, and they weren't. It was a big family, all big eaters. They mostly came to church when there was a dinner. They'd show up and eat big. Even take some home in their pockets, it was said. But what they brought was maybe one small bowl with a can of pork and beans heated up. Or maybe not heated up–just cold out of the refrigerator. And word got around. And some people got mad and said something ought to be done. They even suggested the pastor should be the one to do it. But most people just laughed and shook their heads.
Well, what's the comparison between the size of the bowl we ask God to fill for us, and the one we hold out to others? When we sing "Fill my cup, Lord–my cup–fill it up and make me whole"–me–is there some awareness that we're in the business of filling cups too? That even a cup of water, given in the master's name, can be an act of obedience? That we're in this world to serve, not to be served? That the way of Christ is the way of self-denial, not self-indulgence?
One of the loudest and loftiest chapters of Paul's writing is surely the 15th of First Corinthians. As it nears its conclusion the word "all" begins to be heard, almost like a drum beat. "In Adam all die," "in Christ shall all be made alive." "He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet." "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." And
". . . when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one."
I don't know of a more tremendous thought than that. "That God may be everything to every one."
That's the plan of the ages. That's the prayer of saints. That's the hope of the world. Because if God becomes everything to every one then things are back like they were at creation, before man fell away. And no one needs a weapon, and no one goes hungry, and love is everywhere, because God is love. And people do actually live for things like praying and preaching and singing unto him.
Did you think about the words you prayed awhile ago? "Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven"? This is what that prayer is directed toward. That God may be everything to every one.
Is he everything to you? Not in theory, but in practice. Is he half of everything to you? Or even ten percent?
What percent of your decisions is he a part of, would you say? What percent of your money does he have claim on? How often does he cause you to give up something you wanted to do because there was something else you knew you ought to do?
The Lord's Supper is here before us. Paul said we should all examine ourselves as we come to it. I hope this has helped.