What's Wrong with the Average Christian?
When I was younger and pastoring in the South, I used to preach a lot of scolding sermons. Sermons like a football coach berating his team at halftime when they weren't playing well. Where you said what was wrong, and what should be done about it, and made people feel guilty because they didn't plan to do anything about it.
The southern expression for that is "stepping on people's toes," and sometimes you were encouraged to. I've had people say they didn't feel like they'd been to church unless they had their toes stepped on. I've had people tell me I "really stepped on people's toes this morning" and knew it was the highest compliment.
Well by now life has stepped on my own toes enough that I see this differently. I see myself as one with you, not as one apart from you. I've become less accusing and more confessional.
I point that out because this sermon is more the other style. It seeks to analyze what things are wrong and stir us to others that are right. It hopes to step on toes.
However . . . I still am one of you as I give it. Make the title "What's wrong with the average Baptist pastor" and it fits me too. I'm your guilty brother here, whose own level of commitment falls short of what it should be. And only from that perspective do I tell you what's wrong with the average Christian.
Have you noticed how the best and worst of any group get the most attention?
Take athletes. We have halls of fame for the heroes, and a lot of bad publicity for the ones caught cheating or on drugs. Superstar surgeons now make the covers of magazines, and then we hear a lot about doctors caught in welfare fraud and doing unneeded operations. Business men the same. Iacocca has a book about his success and Deloreon one about his failure.
But the average man or woman in those or any pursuit is largely overlooked. Policemen, preachers, lawyers, federal officials–it's a funny situation. The best and worst we seem to care about, but the average we don't.
And yet the average are greater in number, and in the long run more significant. An army isn't saved by medal winners, or lost by a few deserters. It's what the average soldier is and does that counts most.
Same thing with the Kingdom of God. We have our Schweitzer's and our Peter Marshall's, and we have others who run off with bad money or bad women. But the crucial thing is the average, the layman, the woman in the pew. What sort of commitment do they have? How much impact do they make in the home, on the job, in the church, and in the world?
Those young people coming on, will they be filled with more Spirit than their parents were, or less? Will more of them tithe, or less? Will they "expect great things of God and attempt great things for Him," or think that's silly?
Lincoln said God must love the common people, because he made so many of them! At what level, though, do common people operate? Brooks Hays joked that the reason the Lord made so many Baptists was, he still hadn't got one to turn out right!
O.K., let's try this. What's wrong with the average Christian? Stand up there, man or woman, let us see you. Glad you made it out to church today–haven't seen you in awhile. Busy lately, huh? Sure, we understand–aren't we all? But what we'd like to know is, how good a Christian are you?
I say the average Christian is characterized by the mood of a spectator. Now you see him, now you don't. He keeps a certain distance so religion doesn't compete too much in the priorities of his life. He'll listen to a sermon like this, but not allow himself to take it seriously. He might even say he liked it, never once intending to do what it asked.
He doesn't like obligations. He wants freedom to do what he feels like. He wants the church to be there like movies and plays and football games are. When the notion strikes he'll participate, but don't count on it. When he does come, he likes to merge, be one of the crowd. Sit near the back and stay inconspicuous. He avoids small groups where people face each another and speak as if they're accountable for something.
I had a talk about our church with a person whose church had a power struggle and a split. And it was strange because the problem there was people fighting one another for control, and the problem here is, no one wants it! I mean, does Weaver Doyle worry about someone taking the Diaconate away from him? Does John Soto fret nights about his rivals for Sunday School director?
By and large, friends, we don't have problems in our fellowship, none among our staff, none with our building, none with money, none about our doctrines or practice, none with the community in which we're situated. What then is the problem here?
I'll tell you. It's that mood of the spectator. Apathy. Lack of vision and a forceful commitment to it. Harvest plenteous, but laborers few. That.
The average Christian is a dependent. And I don't mean on God, I mean on others' doing what he should be doing. Knowledge of the Bible, for example. He doesn't go to the source and dig it out himself, he wants to sit and listen. And he surely wants there to be prayer, but doesn't pray himself. He gets handed and mailed a lot of materials from the church, but they go in the trash after only a glance.
He wants a good pastor, available when he needs him. Expecting that person to be religious and not worldly, someone who doesn't care what his salary is, or if he has a home or retirement, or things like that. This somehow atones for the fact that the average Christian is himself thoroughly secular when you get down to the nitty gritty.
He may think about those pillars of the church who do give much. Always a few saints around, struggling and smiling and working hard. Don't they make him feel guilty? No. He blesses and brags on them–they make possible his freedom. They pull the wagon he takes a free ride on. Aren't they just wonderful? Sure!
When the offering plate wanders through his hands, the average Christian will dedicate to God between two and three percent of his earnings. That isn't my opinion, it's a fact. And it means the person spends a lot more money on his hobbies, his vacations, his investments, than he does as a Christian steward. If cash talks, what does that say?
With the average Christian, there just aren't enough points where the faith of the heart connects up with the everyday world. Religion stays closed off. It's what happens on Sunday. The world of business and work and home and moral decision is off to the side. In fact, the Sunday outing may be thought of as a rest from those. Sometimes the average Christian wants them left out of it entirely.
The tendency is for the average Christian to become less active, less involved, and less interested with each passing year.
The person I'm describing isn't bad, isn't lazy or immoral or dishonest. He or she may be pleasant, hard-working, intelligent, stable. The average Christian wouldn't want the church to close, and in a real bind would likely do more. But times are pretty good, the work gets done, so let things go on like they're going.
What's wrong with that, friends? Why isn't this average good enough?
Remember the text I read? What did it say? "Be ye therefore . . . average?" ". . . even as your Father in heaven is . . . average?" No, of course not.
"Be ye therefore perfect." That's a high calling, isn't it?
"You shall love the Lord your God with (how much of?) your heart and mind and soul and strength." Huh?
Jesus said "all," didn't he?
So the religion he calls us to is more than a philosophy or a Sunday habit. Love consumes. The love he spoke of won't be cautious or withholding or grudging or indifferent. It gets involved.
It makes people self-denying. It can't be complacent. It causes things to happen that make us distant kin, at least, with those who suffered the dungeon, fire, and sword.
The Redskins open their season tomorrow night against the Dallas Cowboys, in case you hadn't heard. Most of us will be in our comfortable chair with something to munch on while we watch. No physical effort, no risk of injury, no stake in the outcome. Spectators.
With ball games that's fine. But with church it isn't. With church we're supposed to be down on the field, not up in the grandstand. We're the team! We're supposed to train, and prepare, and give our all.
Like the coach once did.
Something must be at risk, something invested, something to be decided each time we meet.
Faith in Jesus must be an obsession at the center of our being, not a casual interest out there on the periphery. We've a mission, even a struggle, and we need one another, every one. We mustn't get comfortable, not now.
There is a grandstand, but it works like this:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated (now) at the right hand of the throne of God."(Hebrews 12:1-2)
Most of us are average Christians, let's claim no more. But we can change that, and let's do no less.
Bound for Jerusalem
Did you realize that Easter is only five Sundays away?
Now I don't tell that to have you go home this afternoon and get out all your summer clothes. Maybe you should even leave the snow shovel out a few more weeks. But in the realm of our faith in Jesus Christ, what should it mean to say that Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter–those days are coming up soon now?
It means, at the least, that we should develop a consciousness of it as we move ahead, and our scripture lesson for the morning shows Jesus gave thought to it as he moved ahead. And Luke's gospel, of all the four, has a special thing about that. Luke tells us: "When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem."(Luke 9:51)
Jerusalem was where it was to happen, of course. I think it's right to say the mind of Christ was pre-occupied with Jerusalem, and so was Dr. Luke. Jerusalem is mentioned 55 times in our four gospels, and 33 of those are in Luke.
But it wasn't the place itself, it was what the place stood for. This journey was a business trip, though not in the usual sense. Jesus was on a divine mission, which led to the foot of a wooden cross, then to an empty garden tomb on Easter morning.
Much will be packed into those days ahead. The crowds waving their palms, the last supper in that upper room, thirty pieces of silver and then Gethsemine, the arrest and trials and Peter's denial. Pilate washing blood from his hands as his wife dreamed nightmares.
Jesus knew things like that were coming up. But still he set his face steadfastly ahead. And in Luke you can follow the consequences step-by-step.
We're told that in Samaria some people didn't receive him because "his face was set toward Jerusalem."
Four chapters later, Luke says he went on his way through towns and villages, teaching. And as he goes he stops and says:
"Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!"
And soon afterward, he tries to explain it to his disciples. He says, "behold, we are going 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; and they will scourge him and kill him, and on the third day he will arise."
There now. But you know what the record says? It says "they understood none of these things."
Maybe that's been said after some of my sermons! "They understood none of these things"! You think you've made a thing plain, but it may not be. We all have eyes to see with but don't necessarily see, ears to hear with but don't necessarily hear. So Jesus went on his way, and those Twelve with him, and he was conscious of what lay ahead, but they weren't.
"He proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem."
"He went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem."
You sense there an unshakable commitment, which those who make the difference in this world always have in common. They may go about it various ways, they have their different styles. They have a variety of causes and drummers they follow. But they teach us that nothing much ever comes of the wishy-washy, up and down, maybe-sometime-if-I-feel-like-it approach to things.
George Whitefield–old, tired, dying. They tell him he mustn't try to preach tomorrow. Which was about like telling Dexter Manley he mustn't try to tackle quarterbacks, or Ronald Reagan he didn't want to run a second time, or me that I should sell my motorcycle with the weather getting warm. No way!
Whitefield gets on his knees and prays that night: "Lord Jesus, I am weary in Thy work, but not of it. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for Thee once more in the fields, seal Thy truth, and come home and die." And that's exactly what he did, like he was bound to do it.
Jesus was "bound for Jerusalem," not for himself, but for us. And if there were things he was bound to do for us, surely there are things we must feel bound to do for him, as Whitefield did.
Shouldn't we feel bound to pray more? Shouldn't we feel bound to worship in his house as faithfully as we're able? Bound to help the poor? Bound to be witnesses, personally and though our support of others?
Shouldn't we feel absolutely bound to grow in our love for one another, since the Lord plainly said, "by this shall all men know that you are my disciples"? Should not we feel bound to forgive others their tresspasses as we ourselves have been forgiven?
And I've only begun, of course. And I'm not suggesting a legalistic and burdening kind of faith, but one with a sense of call and of mission.
To be bound to the will of God is no burden. His yoke is easy and his burden light. And there's a freedom in that service, and a daily joy, because you know where you're going, and that it's for the Lord, and that he'll never leave you or forsake you as you go, hard as the way might be.
Jesus would go on to Jerusalem. He would give himself up to what he knew he must do because it was the Father's will. He would suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, dead, and buried. And he would rise again the third day from the dead. And then he would gather his tiny band of scattered followers and declare that "repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem."
"You wait here," he'd say, "because you're about to receive the power to do just that." And he'd lead them out on a hill, and bless them before he went away. And the last sentence in Luke's gospel then will tell us: "They returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God."
We're in the temple this morning. We're here in the right place, and it's the right time for blessing God, as we consider the journey of the weeks ahead. God help us as we do.
There was a man who had two sons, and this is the story of the oldest of those sons. We usually call him the "older brother," although the Bible calls him the "elder son." And he was both, and we don't know his name, so it doesn't matter a lot either way.
Now before I tell the story, I have to be honest about something. I don't like this guy! He makes me nervous! He's the last person I'd want to spend the day in a fishing boat with. And if I heard he was headed to join my church, I'd pray that he'd find another one on the way and join it.
Now I know I shouldn't have told you that, but you'd find it out sooner or later. And least now you understand.
Some people see this story as the main point of the parable, by the way. They say what Jesus is doing here is holding up a big mirror in the face of those Scribes and Pharisees. "Here fellows, see here. This is what all of you are like. How does it look when you see it in someone else?"
O.K., the story.
There was this man who had a kindly father, and one very confused and confusing kid brother. He didn't really need a kindly father himself. A stern and demanding father would have served him just as well. For he was that type himself–worked hard, saved his money, to bed early and up early, read his Torah, went often to the Temple, paid his debts if he ever had any, and thought highly of himself.
He had no big need for a kindly father, and he was surely troubled about the sort of brother he had. Especially when he heard he'd gone to the father and asked for his part of the money. Had plans to take a trip, he said. But everyone had a good idea what would come of that, with a lot of money in his pocket.
If his opinion were asked, I'm sure he urged his father not to do what his brother asked. And maybe he gave his opinion anyway. We can be sure that was his opinion.
But the father gave the money, and away the boy went. Perhaps those brothers said goodbye, maybe not. Needless to say, there was no love lost. And the older brother was sure he had the right attitude about the thing, and everyone else the wrong one. He was a man who always was sure he was right.
Well the scene moves on to where the young brother went. And sure enough, he got in trouble there. And lost his money. And disgraced himself and his family. And did a lot of things you wouldn't want me to talk about in church.
But back home all the time was that family of three, now reduced to
two. So now's a good time to speculate about how it was between that elder son and his poor mistaken father.
He was a loyal son, you can believe. Worked hard, did things right, handled money well, had a good eye for investments. He was honest and moral. He saw himself as earning his way in life, and he tried to do his best at that. In fact, that was his main concern. In fact, he was such a totally self-centered person, he had few friends. For who can love someone who loves only himself, whose only use for you is to get something he wants?
The father would have said he loved that son. And he did as much as anyone could. But there were limits. The younger son you could love more, because something came back. This son you respected, but that's not the same. There was always something between you and him. He loved himself so much it left little room for anything else. And the father had gone as far as he could, but there was an "unapproachableness"–if that's a word–he could never get past.
As time went by and no son came back, an attitude "I told you so" began to increase. Oh, it must have been delicious just to think it, even if he never said it. "Hey there, old man, now what do you think? He took your money and blew it, just like everyone knew he would–but you. We stay here on the farm and work while he runs around and lives it up. And he's never even bothered to write!"
"I told you so."
We have here a person who always felt sure in his opinions, but never sure in his relationships with others. Unsure with his father, at odds with his only brother, and with no real friends. He was there alone in his self-regard and critical attitude. And all his goodness never made up for that.
Now even if a person like that manages to be right 98% of the time, the public lives for that other 2% when his feet of clay stick out beneath his robes of righteousness.
Once down in Tennessee and we were building something, and two men and I went to a dry creek to get a truckload of rock. The man driving never liked me too much. He thought I was too liberal. Anyone who used anything besides the King James Version had to be liberal.
He was about as narrow a man as you find, especially about women. Particularly any contact between men and women. He and those like him were the reason Baptists of the opposite sex weren't allowed to swim in the same pool at Ridgecrest for many years, and maybe still.
Anyway, we'd loaded our rock, and were driving along down this creek bed to go back to the church. And it was July, and there was a woman there loading some rock in the trunk of her car. And she had on shorts. And she was young and attractive. Which this man driving our truck wasn't supposed to notice, of course. But he did. Because what he said was–and he said it with his jaws swelled up and shaking. "Woman like that ain't got no business out in a place like this."
Well you know me. I have a way of staying quiet when I don't have anything I want to say. So I did. And the brother in the seat between us, he kept quiet. We both said nothing, and could almost feel one another thinking that a man who preached you shouldn't notice women had just noticed one himself!
You read the New Testament and see how Jesus dealt with two very different kinds of people–Pharisees and Publicans. The righteous, and the sinners.
Now you might suppose that if Jesus Christ was to be called the friend of anybody, he'd have been called "Jesus–the friend of the righteous." But instead, he was called "Jesus–friend of sinners." He said he wasn't there to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. And I think it's true to say that he saw more hope for them, than for those so sure they needed no repentance.
Back to our story though.
When you've already said "I told you so," and then things change, it sort of leaves you holding the bag. Then someone else can say "Ah! but didn't I tell you so?"
Anyway, the younger brother came back home one day. Sure enough, the money was gone. But he was sorry, he said he was. He said in tears and on his knees to let him live with the servants from now on. He wasn't fit to be a son anymore, he said. And no one could doubt that he meant it.
The father was so happy! He hugged him, and kissed him. He gave him presents and acted like he'd come home from winning the Super Bowl. And his brother heard, and was angry, and refused to have anything to do with it.
Perhaps because of a secret wish that he could find out about the other side of life like that. Or resentment of his father's love, which he saw as given undeserved? Perhaps it was his lifelong observation that, crazy as it was, people liked that younger brother better.
Maybe because his greed was offended by all the money that got wasted, or his general disapproval of fun and merriment? Or maybe his tilt toward law and punishment, and away from love and grace?
His father went out and tried to talk with him. He said "this is your own brother, son. I thought he was dead, and now he's come home. And he's sorry for what he did, I think he's learned his lesson. Come on, let's go see him."
And he would not. Even for his father he would not. It might have been the first time in his life he failed to do what his father wanted.
All his bottled up anger came pouring out.
"I've served you all these years. I've done everything you said. When did you ever give me a party like this? Now your son has come–your son who threw away our money on harlots–and you want me to celebrate? Not on your life!"
Now I think Jesus wanted us to ask a question here. "What was the worst thing done in that story?" What was the very lowest moral point, the greatest offense to God, the most damaging and disgracing act?
If you're the "older brother type" you say it was that mess with the prostitutes and all that went on there. But if you're that father, you say it was this attitude of his one son toward the other one.
Is it possible that a self-righteous, unforgiving, and unloving attitude toward the sinners of this world is worse in the long run that the sin itself? Yes, it is. Is it possible that here we have identified the Unpardonable Sin? I think so.
"Forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive others theirs."
"If you forgive not men their tresspasses, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive your tresspasses."
Someone spilled his guts in the yard there, and this holy jerk said "I'm not impressed." Someone repented whose own father forgave him, and a brother presumed to still hold his blame?
For how long do you suppose the blame was held? The story doesn't say, because it ends there. But we have every reason to suspect that it stayed, and stayed, and never changed.
And what we're left with then, is very clear choice. You have the party in the house, or the anger in the yard.
Changes I've Seen
2 Timothy 3:1-17
Every now and then, a person with a few years behind him deserves to do what Paul did in 2 Timothy chapter 3. To comment on his surroundings in light of the way he's come. And he deserves to be listened to because of his age and experience.
I'm not here to say much about what Paul said, but rather to try to do what he was doing. You'll find as you read the chapter that he speaks to three main questions. First, "where is the world headed?" That's in the first 9 verses. Second, "what has been my role and experience in it?"–verses 10 through 13. And then third, "what recommendations can I make to those who'll carry on when I leave the scene?" Verses 14 through 17.
Now that's a good outline. Take it and use it yourself. Preach your own sermon–be my guest and Paul's. For the premise here is this: that God calls us to do more than live our lives being acted on by the forces around us. We're called to discover what those are, and try our best to use them to serve his will.
We are agents of change, not keepers of the status quo. Charged with discovering what is, then comparing it with what ought to be, and then giving our lives in efforts to bring that about.
I grew up Presbyterian in a small southern town. I became a Baptist and began studying for the ministry in 1954 at the age of 18. I spend four years in a Baptist college and seven in seminary, pastoring country churches most of that time. Since then I've had two churches, one for nine years, and this one for eleven. I've spent my life in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Maryland. I'll soon be 49. What have I seen?
I've seen ideas about right and wrong come and go like trading recipes.
One day recently the Washington Post published the official rules of conduct of Jerry Falwell's college down in Lynchburg. One of them allows no holding hands on campus, unless of course you want to hold your own. And my mind went back to Carson-Newman where they had the very same rule when I enrolled as a freshman. We called it the "undue familiarity" rule, because that's the way the student handbook put it. I once got caught violating that rule by the Dean of Students himself. Who said something like "young man, don't you know we have a rule here about undue familiarity?" And I laugh about that now, but apparently it isn't a laughing matter in Lynchburg.
My point is that those things come and go and seldom make as much difference as they seem to at the time. I've seen dress styles short and long, music slow and fast, ties wide and narrow, swimming mixed and unmixed, long hair and beards in favor and out. And views on matters like abortion, birth control, divorce, social drinking, Shakesphere's plays, theories of evolution, versions of the Bible, styles of worship–I've seen those swing around like wind-chimes in the wind. And after awhile, one develops a certain boredom about the jangling.
This is the first and great commandment: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. I've seen long-haired and short-haired people who did that, long and short-skirted, all the rest. And it prompts my advice that we hold up that law of love as the thing that matters most to the Lord. And resist the syphoning of our moral energies into pools of social custom that are filled one day and dry the next.
In the world of churches, I've seen size worshiped, and I've seen it scorned, and I've decided the reality is always what counts. The year I entered college Baptists had a slogan "A million more in '54." We were on our way to overtake the Methodists. Some churches had contests with one another to see who could bring in the most. Marney called it our "numbers neurosis."
And I got in on some of that. I recall Revival meetings with 30 professions of faith, Vacation Bible Schools bursting at the seams with kids, Sunday evenings with the house full. And I assure you I do keep watch on the numbers around here, and often with a deep sense of frustration. But I'm not sure just how much of that is of the Lord. I give you an example.
We had a prayer breakfast recently. You all knew about it, or should have. But only 16 signed up, and only 10 of those came. And inwardly I fumed about that as I sat there forking down my breakfast. I said to myself "well why should I go to all this effort if those so-and-so's don't appreciate it? This is the last one–the last."
But you know, those 10 people who did come hadn't come to worry about how many were there. And in spite of me and my sour attitude, we had a real prayer meeting that morning. One we likely wouldn't have had with 200 people. And that taught me something I seem to have to keep learning over and over. Where 2 or 3 are gathered in his name, he can be just as truly in their midst, and that's the thing that counts.
Over these years, I've seen Christian obedience practiced with rigor and ignored with ease. I'm not sure there's been a trend, it's been mixed. I do know years ago there were people who came to church whenever they were able, no matter what. I do know there were people who gave a tithe of their incomes no matter what. In things like that we seem to be more "laid-back" these days.
Some people today give money to their church like tipping in a restaurant. It depends on the service they get. If they're really unhapppy they revolt by giving nothing. I remember when you fussed but still supported your church because the Bible said the tithe is the Lord's. To spend it on yourself was to rob God. To lay out of church was to neglect your duty as a Christian. Maybe we could use a little more of that.
I've seen the time people got their feelings hurt because they weren't asked to do certain jobs in the church. Now we sometimes ask and ask until weariness sets in. There was a job last fall we needed 8 people for. We had to ask 23 people to get them. And I don't say there aren't reasons to say no. But maybe our priorities have shifted some.
Fellow was preaching and really getting into it. So was the congregation. He said "brothers and sisters, this church needs to get up and walk, and to do that we need to pray more." And there were amens all over the house. "And brothers and sisters, this church needs to move on and run, and to do that we need to study our Bibles more." "Amen, amen!" "And people, we need to get up and fly, and to do that we need to all bring our tithes and offerings into the storehouse." And there was silence, except for one brother in the back who muttered "let 'er walk"!
A lot of people decide like that when the time comes say yes or no. But "seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness . . ." First.
I've seen how tough the faith can be at times, and how terribly fragile others. People will keep going who have all the reasons to quit, and others will quit who have every reason to keep going. I've worked my hardest when it showed up the least. I've gotten more than my share of blame when things went wrong, and more than my share of credit when things went right. I've seen people who claimed every promise of heaven and wouldn't do a darn thing to help in heaven's work.
Back in Tennessee I was trying to help a young man who'd gotten in trouble and gone to jail. Several times already I'd taken his mother down to see him, which was no pleasant task, but only took a couple of hours. And one Sunday morning with Francisco there for a Bible Conference, I asked 300 people if someone would do that for me today. And no one would. So I did it myself while the lunch waited. And Francisco said to me after that, "You know, Ed, that's why preachers quit the ministry."
But I've seen the other side too. Yesterday I hauled some stuff in the blue van. I never take the seats out of that van or see it done without thinking of John Miller, who hauled no telling how much used furniture and clothing to poor families no telling how many times, asking no thanks and keeping no record. And I know it tore up the carpet on the floor, but nothing ever pleased God more.
I've seen a slow but gratifying progress toward the oneness of all believers in Jesus Christ.
Back in 1960, when I voted against John Kennedy because he was Catholic, if you'd told me I'd be performing weddings with Catholic priests, and talking preacher talk just like they were O.K., I'd have said your elevator didn't go all the way to the upper floors!
I can't remember ever having a racist attitude about the church, but I sure was around it a lot. And I tell you, having lived through the days when people were turned away from Christian churches because of the color of their skin, we have much to give thanks for today.
And it saddens my soul now to read things about places where women are still treated as lower class citizens in the kingdom of God. In him there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.(Galatians 3:28) And people who're trying to hold us back from moving on toward that ideal will make a lot of noise and have some effect, but not for long. It has changed, and is changing, and will change even more. Thank God!
(That gives you an idea how I'll vote on some things next month in Dallas!)
Paul had his worries about the future–all of us do. He said "in the last days there will come times of stress." Huh! And then he feared people would become "lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it."(2 Timothy 3:1-5)
Maybe some of that has happened. Maybe more of it is going to happen. People who love themselves, who love their money, who love pleasure more than God–that can be, but doesn't have to.
Fear the lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.(from Joshua 24:14-15)
Christ Our Brother
I admit to a double standard when it comes to bumper stickers. On the one hand, I won't have them on my car. But on the other hand, I always read and analyze the ones on other people's cars.
Driving in Virginia the other day, I passed a car with a sticker that read: "GOD IS IN CONTROL." And that gave me something to think about for the next half hour.
"God is in control"–what was the person saying who pasted that on the hind parts of his Chevy van? And what do people think who read it as they pass?
I know what I thought.
The world isn't in control, but out of control, is what I thought. Like a rebellious teen-ager, whose parents' control is gone.
Beruit, South Africa, Nicaragua. Drug traffic on 14th street. Starvation in Ethiopia. Nuclear weapons poised. Terrorists organized. Crime. Environmental peril. Teen-age suicides and pregnancies. Cancer, AIDS, drunk drivers on the roads. And someone wants to preach that God's in control of that??
If the good Brother were with us this morning, he'd be a little disturbed now. He might even have his hand up to say that's not what he meant. I'm a preacher, he'd say, I should know what he meant. And I do–sort of.
God is in control of the larger scheme of things. "Before him every knee shall bow"–I know that and believe it. But knee-bowing time isn't yet. And the time we live in is a time God chooses not to control, and obviously doesn't, because he's given freedom of choice to men who may use it for evil and not good.
My theology says God relinquished some of his sovereignty in creating us free. Everything doesn't happen because God made it happen. Some things happen because we humans make them happen, and the heart of God breaks, but he must not and will not intervene. That's what I believe.
Can anyone really think that God wants 10,000 new cases of cancer a day and each morning hands Gabriel a list of those he picked for it late last night? Huh? Or car accidents: "Well, let's get even with old Bradshaw today–let's have him hit by a truck at 23rd and L." I can't believe that, or see how anybody can.
Instead, I find in the Bible that God is love. That he loves us as dear children. And he sees the griefs we cause ourselves and suffers with us because of them.
God doesn't hurt us, we hurt ourselves. And then he hurts for us.
I've titled this message "Christ our Brother," using an idea the Bible barely allows itself to use. Most of the time it speaks of Christ as Lord, Savior, our Example, our Redeemer, our Eternal Hope. Most of the language sets him there in Heaven at the Father's right hand.
But once, at least, another thought comes out.
"Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God . . .."
"His brethren." We're his brethren. He then is our brother. And notice the context in which this language is used: "Because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted."
We're told he's able then to sympathize with our weaknesses, and because of that we can draw near with confidence to the throne of God's grace. We're told that Christ "learned obedience through what he suffered."
We may have to learn some things the same way. But he's our Brother as we do–our brother in suffering.
There's a Gospel Song which has that theme. The poetry isn't so great, but the message is–listen.
"Does Jesus care when my heart is pained Too deeply for mirth and song; As the burdens press and the cares distress, And the way grows weary and long?
Does Jesus care when my way is dark With a nameless dread and fear? As the daylight fades into deep night shades, Does he care enough to be near?
Does Jesus care when I've tried and failed To resist some temptation strong; When for my deep grief I find no relief, Though my tears flow all the night long?
Does Jesus care when I've said goodbye To the dearest on earth to me, And my sad heart aches till it nearly breaks– Is it aught to Him? Does He see?
O yes, He cares; I know He cares, His heart is touched with my grief; When the days are weary, the long nights dreary, I know my savior cares."
One of my professors, Dr. Wayne Oates, wrote that "the character of God was revealed sublimely in the suffering face of Jesus Christ. The light of the knowledge of God of our condition as sufferers was made manifest here. The identification of God with our plight as sinners was revealed here. The awareness of God of our inability to redeem ourselves, to find our own way, or to chart our own course was revealed in the suffering face of Jesus Christ."(from The Revelation of God in Human Suffering, p. 32.)
Paul spoke of Christ and our sharing what he called "the fellowship of his sufferings."(Philippians 3:10)
Do you know about the fellowship of suffering? Haven't you had a time with some friend who'd gone through what you were going through and who just sat somewhere and hurt with you? And it didn't change the circumstances, but it lightened the load.
This we have in Jesus.
We have a friend who "sticketh closer than a brother." We have someone who himself experienced human grief, and is touched with the feelings of our infirmity.
We have an ear to listen, and sometimes, though not always, a hand to help.
We have this word and its hope:
"After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you."
That God has control of.
Coming, Ready or Not
One of the games we played a lot as kids was "kick the can." The equipment was simple enough–one empty tin can. And any number could play. Someone was "it," and the rest hid out. The person who was it tried to find the people hiding and guard the can, both at the same time. As he found people they had to help him. Anyone who ran to the can and kicked it before being tagged was home free. Fast kids had the advantage. We could have a game in the parking lot after church if any of you are interested!
Kick the can always started with the person who was "it" hiding his eyes and counting to some number. He had to count out loud so everyone could hear while they ran off to hide. And when the count was finished, there was a ritual announcement that said: "Coming, ready or not!"
You hoped you were hidden when you heard that. You were frantic if you weren't. Even if you were, you held your breath and scrunched down lower, wishing you could somehow go invisible, and hoping the search would go in someone else's direction.
"Coming, ready or not!"–you'd been put on notice.
And that announcement bears a kinship, it seems to me, to this strange day we call Palm Sunday. Matthew's gospel: "Tell the daughter of Zion, behold your King is coming to you."
He came to them, and he comes to us, ready or not. He intrudes, you might say. He has to be dealt with. We have him on our hands.
The day itself was nothing so special. Just those palm branches waving and some passing excitement. In a sense, it was like one of those wrecks on the beltway people slow down and stare at because they're curious. It clogs up the travel, cars and people back up for miles. But then things clear and return to normal, and life goes on. Few ever remember it.
Palm Sunday marked a small arrival that contained the meaning of a bigger one. A solitary man and his borrowed donkey entered a modest-sized city of the ancient middle east.
But that was charged with greater meaning. For God himself was there intruding into the life of our world and changing its agenda for this and all the time to come.
Let's go back if we can. Back to where this really began. Back across the coming and going of past generations. Back to Alpha, the beginning.
What did God want with people in the first place? That's the question to ask. In a way, we were experimental. Man is a hybred. For everything else God made up to that moment had done exactly what he wanted. But that was good and bad both. It meant things ran right, but were rather boring. God loved the worlds he'd made, but nothing loved him back. So he made a new and dangerous thing–us.
Man has the ability of turning to God in love, or of turning from him in scorn. In his creating man, God made a living thing which could actually disobey him. And that happened, and happened early.
The idea had been to bring about a fellowship of people, made in God's image, who'd love him and one another. Love freely and unselfishly, as God himself does. But there were dangers and pitfalls in that plan, large ones.
Now, for the first time, there were beings in the universe with a will to choose in ultimate realms: for love or hate, for blessing or curse. And the very first pair, Adam and Eve, made themselves the measure of their own lives, breaking the fellowship of God in which they'd been created. They cared more for their bodies than for him. They put self where he deserved to be. And most who came after them did the same thing.
But the Lord is patient, right? Kind, longsuffering, and all those things. So he put up with this a long time. And there were priests who talked of better things, and prophets warning of doom, and here and there some worthy examples of the thing he had in mind.
So in due time, God gathered a lot of those together in what he called a "covenant." He set out to make them a model for the rest of the world. He even called them his "chosen people." But it finally came to no good end.
Those chosen people decided what that meant was to enjoy their special blessing, and they did. As far as they cared, the rest of the world could go to hell, which it was doing. So they repeated the original mistake of being self-concerned and self-regarding. They even put up barriers to preserve their separateness. They failed God's purpose miserably.
Now there was a long silence after that–several hundred years. As if the Lord was pondering what to do next. His plan hadn't worked out for mankind as a whole, through his effort with Israel, so what now? What salvation was possible in this world gone haywire?
That's where we come to the New Testament. It means "new covenant." It signals a new start, a new idea. And what happened is hard to imagine, and harder to explain, but it went something like this.
God decided to enter this world himself. He actually became a man–Jesus of Nazareth. Ready or not, he came to his own. Came to live the life of earth as intended from the start, and offer salvation to the lost of all the nations.
That sounds good, doesn't it? Sounds like something to make the headlines of any newspaper. But people divided bitterly over this man. A few followed, but most didn't. The majority resented and hated him. His love and goodness made them mad, for they had no intention of living the way he did. It was judgement on their souls, and no one likes judgment.
They felt this so strongly they finally put him to death. He died forsaken on a Roman cross. And there again, on that hill we call Calvary, it looked as if heaven's best laid plan had gone down in ruin.
But that seeming end was only the beginning. Jesus of Nazareth rose from his grave and spent time with his followers, preparing them for a new life together. They were filled with believing, with hope and strength. And before he left them, he promised them his presence–his Holy Spirit, he called it–and told them to keep on living as he'd shown them.
And that community, we call the Church, became the most amazing group the world had ever seen. Why, they gave their money away for the good of others. They wouldn't strike back when struck at themselves. They were constantly devoted to fellowship with God and one another. And most of all, they loved as the Master had loved them. The purpose of God, at last, with them, was working.
They went around the world telling others what they'd found. And those others told others. And others others. And so on down to us. And that cross, which had been a symbol of defeat, now became their emblem of victory.
"Tell the daughter of Zion, behold your King is coming to you." He did, and he does. Welcome or not, he comes. He has to force his way into our world to give us that new chance. But after doing that, he leaves it to us to decide. We still are free to say yes or no.
One place in the scripture, a man cried out in protest of his presence. He said "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man."(Luke 5:8) And he showed with those words how we want salvation, and yet don't. We tell him come in, and we tell him stay out. We alternate between welcome and rejection. Sometimes we say, as some did, "come, stay in our city," and other times, as others did, "depart from our coasts."(cf. John 4:40 and Matt. 8:34)
Call it spiritual schizophrenia. It comes from the depth of our need of help, in conflict with our will to stay free and independent. We shrink from obedience, we shrink from surrender.
Perhaps it's something like this: to survive in a world of advertising, we all have to have what's called "sales resistance." We can't buy everything offered, or we better not, so up go our barriers. They make us leery of people who come along offering all those good deals. We say to ourselves, if not to them, "what's the catch, what'll this cost me later on?
In a similar way, there's a God-resistance in our hearts. We choose accumstomed darkness to his blinding light. We have some wish to be healed, but we go on in set patterns for fear of the change. Why else do we find "he came to his own, and his own received him not"? Why else would people like the Rich Young Ruler turn and walk away?
We want better, but when decision time arrives, and he tells us to pick up our beds and walk, we get strangely afraid to try it.
Donald Baillie put this in a parable. Men, he says, were meant to join hands around a circle, facing inward toward God. We were meant to look one another in the face, as his light shined on us all. We were meant to dance around in the company of that circle, joined together, sharing its light in the rhythms of God's love.
But instead, Baillie says, it's like we all turned our backs. On God, and our fellow man as well. And so we can't see the light at the center of things, or the other faces either.
We do dance, but the light that falls on our backs casts its shadows down in front of us, and that's all we see. And those shadows are grotesque and distorted, threatening and unfriendly. And we try to make up for it by dancing more furiously, but the shadows mock us even more.
Jesus came to change that. He came to turn us around. Around toward him, and around toward one another. He intruded himself into our world, our time and our space, and indeed into our very lives.
He made a simple announcement: "I am the light of the world. He that follows me will not dwell in darkness, but will have the light of life."
"Have the light!" he said.
The great God who first spoke the words "let there be light" now says we can have it as our own. To people like us, so used to our darkness, his invitation comes:
"Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light!" (Ephesians 5:14)
There was a man who had two sons, and this is the story of that man. Although we usually call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, some experts tell us that misses the point. They say the point is this father. They say it ought to be called the Parable of the Loving Father, or something such as that.
Not everyone agrees. In fact, there's one view that our story is actually the parable of the "prodigal father." He was the problem here, they say. Another permissive parent who let his son down and caused his mistakes. As if he followed the writings of Dr. Benjamin Spock! He never should have given that boy money in the first place. Funny the ways you can look at a thing.
Our effort this morning is to look at it from that father's side. To see what he saw, face what he faced, and try to feel what he must have felt. Also, you can be thinking whether this is simply one family's story, or more than that. Is something taught here about the family of man as a whole? And about the Father who's the father of us all?
Well, let's look. This man had two sons, and one came and said he wanted to leave home.
That's nothing unheard of, is it? Some of you have heard it. It's all a kid has left sometimes. The parents frown and raise their voice say "you live in this house and you live by the rules of this house." So the kid says, "Well, then, if that's the way you want it, I'll be going." He thinks he was asked to, and sort of was.
The next line for parents is, "Well you can do that if you want to, but I'll tell you this: if you walk out of here now, don't you ever come back."
That's been said too, hasn't it? And meant some times. But whatever might have gone on between these two in our story, this father didn't say that. In fact, we can't even be sure how intense their problems were. Only that the boy left, and left with money.
He asked his dad for an early distribution of the inheritance. "Give me now what's coming to me later," he said. Unusual, but not unheard of. It was no right of his to demand, but a request he made. And it put his father in what we commonly call "a bind."
Maybe he said, "Well, son, I'll have to think about that," and went out for a walk in the garden. And as he walked, he said to himself:
"Well, if I do this the money's as good as gone. But on the other hand, maybe he'll learn his lesson, and if so then it's money well spent."
"But I can tell him no and try to keep him here. Then he'll be angry and leave anyway, I suppose. He'll say I care more about my money than I do about him."
"Goodness! my friends and his brother will say I'm crazy if I do this. And he may not appreciate it. But still, the thing I have to figure is: what will turn out the best for my son?"
"I don't want him here if he doesn't want to be here. But wherever he is, I want him to know he's wanted here. I want him to know he's more important than this house, this land, or anything else I own. And he's more important than what anyone thinks. I want him to know that."
"I'm going to say yes. I'm going to take the chance. I'm going to give him what he asks and tell him this will always be his home. Then I'll just pray that he'll be safe. What else can I do–what else?"
He does that, and not many days later, sure enough, the boy takes the money and leaves. And thus begins, for that father, a great space of silence. For we know how the story moves along from there, but he doesn't. He knows his son is gone, and his money is gone, and that's all. Except that just as he guessed, his friends are calling him a fool, and his other son has been real quiet lately.
An accusing finger seems pointed in his direction. Some days he feels like a prodigal father. All the "what if's" come around to call. If only he'd said this or done that, tried this or tried that. The days become weeks, and nothing happens.
He does have hope though. He watches every day. "He'll learn his lesson and come home soon, I know he will." And yet he knows he doesn't know, but he knows he still hopes. And the weeks become months, and still nothing happens.
What do you do when there's nothing to do but wait? When you're waiting offstage for your part, but the time never seems to come. That boy, wherever he was, had a lot of things to do. His fortunes rose and his fortunes fell, but he always had things to do. Never did he have the problem of sitting around and waiting for something to happen. But his father did.
Are there situations where the only possible thing is to hope and pray? Our President may have one of those on his hands right now. A man of action forced by circumstances to remain inactive. It's a lot easier to say "well, he should do something" than to say what he should do. Ask Jimmy Carter about that. There are times when no reasonable choices exist, when a thing is totally out of your hands, and anything you try is bound to fail.
Don't think, though, that nothing matters in such a time. What did I say were the only things to do?
"Hope and pray."
This father did that. True parents do that. "Faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love." That's what is shown when you hope and pray. And that can change things when nothing else can.
But oh! the hurting of it. The pain of a man's heart for his son who went away. The pain of rejection he felt. The pain of fears for a loved one's safety that nagged him. The pain of his loneliness and sorrow.
Have you considered the why of such pain? Why we hurt over others as we do? Why we can't just say "well I'm glad it isn't me" and go on our merry way? Why we're told by God himself to "weep with those who weep," and why that kinship of suffering is often our strongest bond?
Could this be what it means being made in the image of God? That he gave us means to feel the anguish of others we care for, as he does? "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Stoning the prophets and killing those who were sent to you, how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen does her brood, and you would not!"
In fact, God so loved this world that when he considered how lost and hopeless in sin it was, he sent and sacrificed his only son, that all who would might come and be saved. Not that he had to do that. Not that it came easy to. But he did. It's the risk you take when you love someone that someday you might have to do something just like that.
So the father of the prodigal son waited, and you might even guess that months became years. And nothing happened. Oh yes, things like that can go on for years, you know they can. The pain can last for years. And people can hope and pray for years, and it be as strong at the last as it was at the first. Oh yes.
Fortunate is the wayward son with a father like his. For love is, after all, the strongest power in the world. Why, you can send an army of soldiers and still not get that boy back, and if you did it wouldn't be worth it. And blame will fail. And a bribe will fail. And all harsh words will surely fail. But love is going to win!
The days turned to weeks, and the weeks months, and the months years. And all the while, wherever he was, that son's thoughts kept turning to his father's house, again and again. Until one day when things were at their worst, he said "enough–I'm going back home." He knew he still had one, you see. And back he came.
His father saw him first. Dim-sighted as he might have been, he saw him first. From a great distance he saw and knew him as his son. And old as he was, he went running out to meet him, calling and crying–"He was dead, and now he's alive!" "He was dead, and now he's alive!" "Rejoice with me!" "My son's come home!"
This, of course, is where the television crew would really get in the swing of things. Zoom in real close and show those expressions. Get a microphone up there and ask that old man how long he's been waiting for this. And the boy, "Hey son, could you step over here for a minute? We understand you've had quite a time where you've been. Could you tell us now son, how does it feel to be back home?"
We really don't have to stay for all that. And you see one party, you've seen them all. They had a feast. And they drank and dined and danced till late in the night. And maybe one time the son tried to talk about the past. And maybe that father put a finger to his lips and said "there's no need."
Someone missed out on that party–someone who should have been there. The man's other son refused to come. Too busy he said.
The father knew, of course, that his feelings were hurt. And he went to him and asked him in the kindest, gentlest way any person could. And all he got back was some nonsense talk about never giving as good a party for him.
And the father was patient as always, and he didn't try to force. But he didn't call off the party either. Even the best things that happen in this world, someone won't like. Anyway, forget about that for now. That's another story, for another time.
I imagine the father just shook his head at last, and went on back where the music was. People who let the bad things ruin all the good things won't have very many. And this one he'd earned.
Oh, the victories of love! The joy of a time like this for a father and his son. The relief he must have felt.
Here was a pure experience of life at its best. And it shows how our greatest joys aren't usually found in an absence of problems, but in problems faced and solved through love. To be lost, but then found; dead, but then alive again.
It's the business of parents. And the business of God.
We Had Hoped
Some people were walking along a road together, and a stranger joined them, and they began talking.
Now a lot of those who meet strangers out walking don't even speak, much less talk. Perhaps they grunt or mumble "hello."
Because we teach our children what? Not to talk with strangers. Watch out for someone you don't know, he may be there to take advantage of you. Don't accept it if he offers you something. Don't act interested if he tries to sell you something. In any case, we don't usually open up to strangers as these travelers did.
Something unusual, though, about this person they were walking with. Something told them he was someone they could talk with. As if they knew ahead of time he'd understand. Almost like they'd known him before. One of those funny feelings.
The times were unusual. It was a period of great stress in the lives of those walking that road. A new and aching void was there, because a friend and leader was lately dead. Dead of crucifixion. Dead from too many enemies and not enough friends. Dead with nothing clear as to what happened now.
Sometimes you tell a person something, and then get embarrassed afterward. You get out on a limb and wish you hadn't. "Why'd I have to go and do that?" you say to yourself. Sometimes when we're really under stress we talk easily, it comes pouring out, but then we think better of it later. Maybe that happened here.
Anyway, they sadly told the story of Christ as they walked along. Told it to that stranger. Told it as if he was one who would understand about it. And they said "they had hoped" that man who was put on the cross was really the one, the savior of the world.
They "had hoped." Meaning, of course, that now they no longer hoped.
They had hoped, but didn't anymore. The spark had been there, but wasn't anymore. They had hoped, had prayed, had expected once–but not now. They had believed what others around them claimed was ridiculous–but no longer. They had left jobs and homes to follow a man who had nothing of either. But that was past now. It hadn't worked out.
Ah! the things in life of which we "had hoped."
I had hoped to be a great and famous preacher! At my recent reception a member of the old pulpit committee asked me how long I'd planned on staying when I came to Luther Rice. And while I was trying to think of some good answer, she said ". . . just a few years and use us as a stepping stone to some big church, right?"
Maybe. Young preachers with a brand new degree do have thoughts like that.
I know I had hoped to publish eight or ten books by now. I had hoped to lecture at Vanderbilt or Harvard, or at least my alma mater Carson-Newman. I had hoped to see this sanctuary fill up with people every Sunday, maybe with an early service to handle the overflow. I'd just love to have television cameras here for my sermons. I had hoped.
We all have such hopes, don't we? We all had some that haven't worked out, didn't we?
I once knew a young man named Mark, and he had hoped to break every kicking record at the University of Tennessee–until what he broke was his foot in three places.
I once knew a woman named Sarah, and she had hoped to have the best family anywhere and seemed on the way to it–until her husband John came up with a different idea.
I once knew a couple named Russell, and they'd saved and saved their money, and had hoped to see the world when they retired–until she got cancer and spent the next two years watching the clock on the wall.
Really now, did you hope your children would turn out any different than they have? Did you hope your health would be better than it is? Did you hope those grades would be right up there at the top of the class? Or you hoped to stay married? Or you hoped to own a home instead of renting forever. You hoped, you hoped, you hoped.
But listen now, if you analyze those lists, you find they have something rather sinister in common. They show how our strongest hopes are often selfish ones. Ones that have to do with what we've decided we want, not necessarily what God wants. They express our ambitions, or our wish for ease, or our pride. They have to do with how we want to get along in this present life. They have little to do with that conversation on the road to Emmaus.
Those who gave us the expression I'm quoting this morning used it a different way. They "had hoped" about God and his work in the world. Of course there was something in that for them, but their focus was still outside of themselves, and not on themselves.
We are measured by our hopes.
We hope for what? And how fervently?
Have we hoped about the starving of the world? Have we hoped for an end to war? Have we hoped homes for the homeless, and the health of other children as much as our own?
Have we hoped justice for the world's oppressed? Have we hoped for the soon release of those in prisons? Things like that.
We are judged by the worth of our hopes, and also we are judged by the worthiness of our frustrations.
If your main hope is to be rich, then your main frustration is that you're not. If your main hope is to get somewhere fast, your main frustration is when you don't. Your hopes determine your frustrations.
That's why Jesus told us not to be so anxious about matters of our lives like what we eat, what we drink, and what we put on. Be not anxious about tomorrow, he said. But aren't we? Aren't a great many of our frustrations related to those things?
We must learn about the frustration of false hopes and unworthy hopes–hopes that would better be forgotten.
All earthly hope is failing hope. Doomed hope. Hope that has no hope.
In the words of the Old Testament:
"Some trust in horses, and some in chariots, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God."
Or to paraphrase:
Some trust in atomic warheads, and some in spy-gathered information. Some trust in generals and others in the politicians. Some even trust their church membership!
But . . . there's another kind of trust that will hold you up when those have let you down.
We "had hoped," they said. What happens to such hope?
Those there on that road had given up on theirs, or had they? Maybe they were just discouraged for the moment. Maybe they still kept the hope, but kept it from showing. Kept it ready to bring out at the first opportunity.
How many are the hopes of honest believing people that have simply been put on hold?
The resurrection of Jesus is a trumpet call for all such hopes. For those on the Emmaus road, for those on any road, it means that now things can be as was hoped. Now we can hope again, only better. Hope now becomes reality.
It's important not to give up on any Godly hope. It's important to test our hopes, and see whether they be of God or not. It's important always to have a store of hope, for those who hope for nothing receive nothing. You never know when you may walk such a road and encounter the good news of God.
This story does show that hope is a come and go affair. Some days we have it, others we seem to have lost it. And no loss of it is strong enough to say we'll never gain it back. But no gaining of it is strong enough to say we'll never lose it again.
Our question then is how to nourish hope, how to tend it so it stands the best chance. I have four ideas.
First, there's what those disciples found–there's fellowship with the Risen Christ. We walk our own roads of discouragement, but when we feel his presence our hearts begin to burn within us, and so does hope. In his presence, even sitting down for a meal takes on special meaning. It becomes sacramental. He is the vine and we are the branches–abide in him.
Second, there's prayer, and the presence of God's Spirit in our hearts.
"Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble any where? We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer."
So says the song. And the point is well made that in prayer our hope is renewed. Prayer recharges spiritual batteries that are weak and spent from worldly wear.
And third, there's a kind of solidarity with hopeful others that helps us too. Enthusiasm is contagious, and so is hope. We hope in what those we believe in hope in. So we need one another here. And the church, as much as anything, should be thought of as a fellowship of hope.
Finally, there's our access to the shared and hallowed hope of those who've gone before us. Didn't it move us all to learn the hopes of Luther Rice during our celebration of his bicentennial? By knowing that and appreciating it don't we make ourselves accountable to it though? The man now has claim on us, his hopes do.
John Miller had hopes for our church, and John and Martha Osborne did. Rufus Weaver, Amos Kendall. Call the roll of former pastors. Woody Forster, Dave Harrison, Betty Doyle, just a few examples. Are we not accountable to their hopes, and doesn't the sacrifice of others in the service of their hope inspire the same in us? Yes, of course.
"Faith, hope, and love"–the main things in life according to Paul. Love was the greatest, he said. But hope must have been right up there.
I once saw a movie about pre-historic man titled "Quest for Fire." It showed how fire meant survival in those times. Tribes who had it would do anything to defend it. And those who learned first to make fire had a great advantage over everyone else. Fire was almost worshipped. The attitude was, fire is good.
That's hard for us to understand, because we buy a box of matches for a few cents, or pick them up free at drugstore check-outs. Also, fire isn't looked on the same way now. Our attitude is that fire is bad. We have trucks whose business is to go around putting out fires. Hear someone yell "fire!" and we think the worst.
The same thing has happened to salt since the Bible was written. Salt is cheap today, and it has a bad name. We have salt substitutes, and experts say avoid salt. Food labels warn of its presence so we can.
So it's hard to appreciate the mind of Biblical times. They thought of salt as good. It was valuable. It was sometimes traded like money. And whatever you had of it, you took care of, for it was always subject to ruin. It lost its potency, its zip, its tang. And Jesus used that as his parable of what it means to be a disciple.
"You are the salt of the earth," he said. "You are a force, a vital power." You count for something, you Christians. You change things by making your presence felt. But you, like salt, can become spoiled and weak and useless.
"Insipid" is the word. No tang. No intensity.
Things with tang have effects on other things. Things with tang must be given their due. Things with tang go a long way, a little lasts a lot. And things with tang will be remembered, even for years, for they leave a taste.
Jesus sought people like that. He challenged them to do hard things. And he feared, as he moved toward the end, that those he'd called might lose it. Might get flat and uninteresting. Might come to stand for nothing in particular and have no distinctive flavor.
Why are we here, after all? According to Jesus, for the same reasons he was. As the Father sent him, so sends he us. We too have the job of announcing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the broken victims go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor"!
But how many of us feel the burden of that charge and take it seriously day by day?
It's pretty well known that any church can be divided into three groups of folk. You might imagine them as concentric circles. In the middle of things there's a nucleus of the faithful, giving time and money and leadership. They may be few, but they have tang.
Around but outside of them are those who attend meetings but mostly as spectators. They aren't deeply involved and don't wish to be. They count when a count is taken, but not for much more.
Then out on the periphery there are others who belong to the church in name only. Weddings and funerals and a few special days are their only contact. To them the church is "they" and not "we." Most church mail that comes to their door they throw away unopened. And "insipid" is an apt description of their spiritual state.
People do sometimes change from one of those levels to another. I've seen someone who'd been on the periphery for years jump right in the middle of things. Or someone who was there drop out for no apparent reason. How to expand that nucleus and shrink the periphery is the constant challenge of our fellowship. It's what church renewal is all about. But how hard it is to change.
A flock of geese lived in a barnyard with a high wooden fence. And they were happy there. But one day a goose no one had ever seen before came down out of the sky and landed right among them. He began to tell them about the great world outside their barnyard, and how they could fly away and explore it if they would. They could use their wings as well as their feet, he said. He told about other geese that flew, and about the gift of their creator in giving them wings to fly.
The story says this visitor was eloquent and the barnyard geese were impressed. They applauded his speech, in fact. But they never flew, never. They all went back to their waiting dinners, for the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure.
In one sense, every Lord's Supper is a call to fly. It was given to stir us up, to waken us from our bondage to the ordinary. Each time we come to it, we're asked to examine ourselves and see where we stand. We're called to repent of our sins and rededicate ourselves to the service of Christ.
That won't happen just because we show up, of course. It won't happen because of any magic in the bread or the wine. But it will if we dwell deeply enough on the meaning that's here.
And I think the Lord knew that and staked something on it. I think he believed the future use of his table would save the church from being insipid.
Thomas Shepherd's poem tells how:
"Alas, my God, that we should be
Such strangers to each other!
O that as friends we might agree,
And walk and talk together!
May I taste that communion, Lord,
Thy people have with thee?
Thy Spirit daily talks with them,
O let it talk with me!"
A World of Ills
February 24, 1985
You sometimes begin a story by saying "once upon a time there was a person named so-and-so." I suppose that makes a way to start, but in the case of Job no one's really sure if that's true or not. The book is more drama than history, more a story about all of us than a record of any one of us. So I don't know if "once upon a time there was a man named Job." This may be his story, or it may be the story. Or could be both.
Like many things in the Bible, people have distorted ideas about Job. They speak proverbially about the "patience of Job," and that's really a laugh when you read the book. Job was a profoundly impatient man. Impatient with the thinking of his day, with his lot in life, and yes, with God himself. There's no meek acceptance in his story. To read it is to walk a battlefield.
Disasters pile up. Questions get stacked on questions till they reach the sky. Anger is poured on anger like fuel on a fire. Things are discussed here that were never mentioned before, and hardly since. This is heavy stuff. I suppose you could tiptoe around, gather a few nice lines, and ignore the real thrust, but I don't intend to do that. I intend to play Job and tell it like it is.
Now when we first meet him, Job's a rich man, and a happy man, and a godly man. Who can ask for more? Job is what we all desire to be, a good illustration for anyone's commencement address. There it is, young people, go out there and work hard and this is what you can have too!
Ah, but how swiftly ruin may come. One distracted moment on a highway. One bad test result in a doctor's office. One downward turn in a son or daughter's life. One ring of the phone or stroke of the clock in the unsuspecting middle of any night.
Lightning flashed and the sheep all died. The Chaldeans rode in and the camels were gone. Sabeans got the rest of the livestock and killed the servants. And then came a whirlwind that hit the house, as only a whirlwind can do, and all seven sons and all three daughters are . . (pffh!) . dead.
Now the man isn't rich, and isn't happy, and whether he's still godly remains to be seen. But there in the aftermath of that first horrific wave of troubles, it sounds incredibly like he is. For hear him say: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."(1:21)
Can you say that when your own trouble comes? Death, divorce, bankruptcy; failing crops, failing grades, failing health. Who can hold lightly to the best of life's gifts because he holds more strongly to the one who gave them? And be able to bless where others curse?
"Blessed be the name of the Lord"–how easy to say it in church! But how hard when Satan throws you down and robs you of all you own.
Now the Bible tells us that in it all Job did not sin, nor charge God with being unjust. He even said, "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?"(2:10) As if he'd learned what Jesus taught, that the Father sends rain on the just and on the unjust. That he shows no partiality.
I failed to tell you the Lord and Satan were having a running dialogue about all this. And the Lord said, "Ha! Told you the man had it in him. Everything gone, and he still worships me. What do you say to that, old Devil?"
And the Devil said, "Well you've taken what's his, but you haven't touched him. Let me do that, and you'll see how things change." And the Lord says O.K., do anything but take his life.
So Job's trouble isn't over. Like the man who saw the light at the end of the tunnel and it was a train coming at him! Job was smitten with running sores from head to toe, and was in agony.
Is there pain so great, that a man will wish to die? Is there pain so great that a man should be permitted to die if he wishes? Richard Dreyfus made a movie about that. It was titled "Whose life it it, anyway?" And the question remains unanswered in our society. Something in us says a yes, and something else says no. But none of the speculation is much help for a person in Job's circumstances.
He sits in ashes and scrapes himself with a piece of broken pottery. His skin is on fire. There's no drug for his ease, and no remedy in sight. And now his words get more dark and more desperate.
"Have I the strength to wait? What end have I to expect, that I should be patient? Is my strength the strength of stone, or is my flesh bronze? Oh how shall I find help within myself? The power to aid myself is out of my reach."
Job curses the day of his birth, and wishes he'd never been born. He prays strange prayers like this: "Thy hands fashioned and made me; and now thou dost turn about and destroy me. Remember that thou hast made me of clay; and wilt thou turn me to dust again? Didst thou not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?"
He struggles with the ultimate question of life: "If a man die, shall he live again?" And most of his answers are answers of despair. Answers like this:
"But man dies, and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake, or be roused out of his sleep."
He spends time in sad remembrance. Reagan's question–"are you better off now than you were?"–burns in his brain. He isn't better off, and the gulf between then and now simply overwhelms. The magazines tell us how to go from rags to riches, but what about the man who goes from riches back to rags?
How does life seem to a man in Job's condition? Here's how. "Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower, and withers; he flees like a shadow, and continues not."
Flowers, shadows, troubles. And right after expressing that unpromising philosophy, Job calls on God to leave him alone, to "get off his case." He says, "Lord, this life you've given me isn't long, and it isn't much, so why complicate it with all your demands and expectations? Why can't you just let us be happy what little time there is?"(see 14:1-6)
You see how honest and plain he was about it. You think as you hear him that maybe a man shouldn't talk to Almighty God like he does. For he questions God, and struggles with God, and at times comes close to cursing God.
But remember Martin Luther, a struggler with God himself, said the curses of the damned may be more acceptable to God than the hallelujahs of the pious. They at least take him seriously, and not for granted–which is the worst of all blasphemies.
Job's wealth was gone, his children dead, his faith in jeopardy, and his body tortured. What has he left?
Well, he has a wife. And he has three friends.
His wife deserves something, I suppose. Being married to a man in trouble isn't easy. And those were her dead children too. But she keeps advising Job to curse God and die and get it over with. And he called her a "wicked fool of a woman." So there wasn't a great deal of mutual support there, to say the least.
And Job's friends, Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar, their common theme was that God prospers the righteous and punishes the wicked–a theme you hear preached on television, by the way. And Job surely must have sinned and needed to repent. They lacked any theology to explain unmerited suffering. They even preached to Job like this: "Happy is the man whom God reproves; therefore despise not the chastening of the Almighty"!(5:17)
Now I can tell you from experience their theology didn't die when they did. I still hear it most every week. "Why did this happen to me?" "Why did that happen to him?" As if suffering is a human abnormality, which it isn't. As if the Lord inflicts it for his own amusement, which he surely doesn't. As if whatever you get is what you deserved. And if that's what you really believe, friend, then I say you'll never make sense of the cross of Christ.
Let me say too that in all the Old Testament, nothing points toward the cross more than the story of Job. For he, a righteous and blameless man, was "despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and [they] esteemed him not."(Isaiah 53:3)
Job is a lonely man. Before his calamity there may have been crowds about him, as the rich are prone to have. But now he has one nagging wife and three accusing friends, and that's all. He learned about the leprous tendency of suffering. By which I mean that even your best friends begin avoiding you. The alcoholic, the delinquent, the divorced, heart attacked and cancered, the depressed, the diseased, they all find this. And sometimes it's the hardest thing to take.
Well, what happens? Something always has to happen. I often say to people in a crisis something like this: "I don't know how you'll come out of this, but I know one thing: you'll not stay the same, especially with God. You'll either get closer to him, or farther from him, one or the other. And I pray it'll be the better of the two."
What happened with Job was, this went on for a while. And his wife and friends were no help, but his faith was in the end. The God against whom he kicked and screamed became more real the longer he did it. One by one his questions tired out. He began accepting what he had no choice but to accept. And to love God, who daily bore him up.
He said to God: "I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted . . .. I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . (and) I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee."(42:2-5)
His time of troubles passed. All he'd lost, he gained back in full measure. And "Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons' sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days."(42:16-17)
He was God's man at last. Drawn from the abyss and back to the mainstream of life.
He'd learned how suffering may fit us for the will of God.
And from his ash heap there in the Old Testament, we get a glimpse of that cross upcoming in the New, where God himself will play Job, to the saving of us all.
Our church has a treasurer. His first name is the same as mine–Ed. His wife, who also calls me Ed, has a way of calling Ed "my Ed" when she's talking with me. Ed's been our treasurer several years now, and done a fine job.
Sandy's Ed is also a nice guy. He's quiet, and he smiles easy. He's steady and dependable. His family members brag on him. Also he and I are friends.
Last Sunday I had to pick up a new washing machine from Sears and install it in the parsonage. You don't do that by yourself. Who do you get? You get a good friend who's healthy. Someone like Ed Sanchez. So we changed out of our Sunday clothes and he helped me and we got the house back in business.
Now can you imagine what a shock if I should get up here one Sunday morning and tell you Sanchez had turned out to be a crook? That he was having secret meetings with enemies of our church. That he was out to get rid of me, and some of you. That we must relieve him of his duties at once, before he did more harm than he had already.
If I told you a thing like that, and you thought it was real, can you imagine how quiet it would get in here? And how tense the air would become, especially if Ed was sitting right in our midst?
Now, the disciples of Jesus had a treasurer. And as far as anyone knew, he was a good one. You can bet on the fact they all considered him a fine man, because no group elects anyone its treasurer who isn't thought to be that way. It's a requirement of the job.
Judas Iscariot was the treasurer.
Now the name Judas was common enough. There are at least 8 other persons by that name in the Bible. But "Iscariot" is another thing. Some claim it means assassin. Some say "a false one, a liar, a hypocrite." And there's even a Greek word that suggests "carrier of the leather bag."
But others believe it's a reference to where the man was from. "Man from Sychar," "man from Issachar," "man from Jericho," "man from Kerioth"–those are some of the ideas scholars come up with. And the bottom line is, we just don't know, as we know so little about the man himself.
There's a tendency when you tell a hero's story to make him brighter than he was, and when you tell a villain's story to make him darker than he was. And Judas may have suffered from that, and in a way the Master would never have liked.
I recall when Lee Harvey Oswald, the killer of President Kennedy, was murdered himself, it was hard to find a Christian minister in Dallas who'd do the burial. After a number turned it down, I think a Lutheran police chaplain finally did the job.
I've always thought of that as a Christ-like act in the best sense of the word. It was the kind of thing Jesus would have done himself. And it points up the fact that his hardest example to follow may be earning the title "friend of sinners."
Jesus and Judas must have been friends, at least to some point, and perhaps to the very end. The first thing we know about Judas is, Christ choose him to be his follower.
Why? Why unless he saw potential in the man?
But what potential? That we can't know for sure. But it might have been charm, or intelligence, or a gift for leadership. He may have been charismatic and persuasive. Or maybe he was more the loner, but gifted and creative. Or what if he was the sensible conservative in the group to balance the enthusiasm of a man like Simon Peter?
There's some evidence for that, as a matter of fact. In John, chapter 12, Jesus is in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. After supper Mary did a really extravagant thing. She annointed the feet of Jesus with a whole pound of expensive perfume.
Now if you've bought any perfume lately you know you don't usually buy it by the pound! And if you use it, you don't use it by the pound either! But Mary did. And Judas protested that this waste could have done a lot more good in feeding the poor.
I've always observed that church treasurers not only write the checks, they also have opinions on how they ought to be written. And they lean toward keeping the money in the treasury, you see. The Bible does suggest Judas had an ulterior motive for doing that.
In any event, the love of Christ, the love that knows no bounds, reached out to Judas, claimed him and called him, and in the beginning, at least, he must have responded with excitement and devotion.
He may have preached sermons of witness that moved men's hearts. He may have taken children in his arms and laid his hands on them. It may have been Judas who asked the best questions when the twelve gathered in meetings. He might have prayed the best prayers they heard. He might have been the most devout among them, the antithesis of a hypocrite, and it was devoutness, not hypocrisy, that led to his ruin at last.
We do know for sure that after three years of ministry and close association, Judas betrayed his Lord. Or at least that's how it was looked on. He went to the folk in charge and gave information that led to his arrest.
Something had happened at supper earlier that evening that was far from clear. In Mark, they're sitting at the table and Jesus says one of
them will betray him. No one has an idea who it is, which tells you something, and each one asks if it's him. Jesus only says "it's one of you here," and that's all.
In Luke they question one another, who it might be. They dare not ask Jesus, and they never reach a conclusion. In Matthew, though, they do ask him. And he seems to tell them, as Judas speaks up and says "Is it I, Master?" and Jesus replies "you have said so." A strong hint at least.
But in John, when they ask him, he says it's the person he's going to give this piece of bread to, and then he hands it straight to Judas and tells him to do whatever it is he has to do, and Judas leaves. But John adds then that even this was misunderstood as some business about the treasury.
Anyway, as they head toward Gethsemine, Judas goes on other business. Judas goes and makes a deal. He meets with those chief priests, who've already decided they have to get rid of Christ, but aren't sure how to do it quietly. And now they have their answer. Judas tells them where he is, all alone and in the dark.
The accounts agree that Judas came personally with the group that made the arrest and took him away. There seems no doubt that he did it, what we don't know is why.
The casual reader might say it was money. But no, it wasn't that. He got 30 pieces of silver, the price of a common slave, almost small change, sort of a token payment. There had to be something else that was more than the money. Let me give some what-if's?
What if Judas believed, as so many did, that Jesus was meant to be an earthly ruler, restoring God's kingdom by force? What if he'd now given up on that hope, sadly concluding Jesus was a false messiah? What if he sincerely believed he was doing God a service?
Or–What if Judas believed Jesus was the Christ but should display his power so more would follow him? What if he'd been disappointed that Jesus hadn't allowed that up to now, and did this to force his hand? What if he knew the Father would send ten legions of angels before he'd let his Son be arrested? What if this was a believer's misguided effort to resolve doubts in the minds of men and cause the nation's turning to God?
You see, we don't know what were Judas' motives, they could be better than we supposed. I've seen a lot of efforts by misguided believers that were just as bad and brought them far less blame. Could it be that all Judas did that night was covered by the prayer said on that cross next day: "Father, forgive, for they know not what they do"?
We think we know he knew what he did, but maybe not. Maybe he meant better than we suppose. Maybe God in heaven has already accorded him a better place than we have.
Oh, but you say, "well why'd he kill himself then?"
You read about that, huh? Well, he did it all right. He went back to those priests and threw down their silver on the floor. Then he went out and hanged himself. He was surely disturbed, distressed, disappointed, disillusioned, depressed–all the classic moods of suicide. But we still had better be careful, lest we judge more harshly than God in heaven does.
I've had suicidal thoughts. More of you have than would raise up your hands if I asked you to. Does that mean we're not Christians? No. Did it mean Judas wasn't? No.
Life can get heavy on a person, unbearably heavy. Enough to want to say to the Great Schoolmaster, "I believe I'll just skip out on the rest of this course and get on to the next one." I remember being close enough to that edge to look over it a bit, before drawing back. And I cannot imagine that the God of steadfast love and tender mercy has any less of it for the soul who stands in such a moment of crisis.
We think of Judas as a tormentor, but he was more the tormented. An intense man, surely, for those who go casual never come to such moments. And as tragic as his suicide was, as any suicide is, it still makes an affirmative statement, it seems to me.
What if he'd taken the money and gone out to a bar to laugh and drink and live it up? What would that have said? That would have said we have a hopeless devil on our hands. But the suicide tells us we may have a misguided saint instead.
We've all been misguided saints, and will again. We should pray earnestly that we'll never come to such despair as Judas did. If I seem to have baptized his memory this morning, it's because I wanted you to see this other side.
For the bottom line of it all may be that "the love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell; it goes beyond the highest star, and reaches to the lowest hell."
The hell Judas made for himself in was low enough. But what if the love of God found him even there?
The Late Comer
I lately spoke with a friend I hadn't seen in quite a while, and, as always, we talked about our children. He has a son who's been slow to find his place in life. One of his college grade cards had an F in every course. And this is a bright child, father with a Ph.D in sociology, mother teaches school, stable family, good raising, everything. All F's.
But the other day, guess what I found out? His last report card, he had all A's. And he's been figuring about graduate school. And guess what field? Counselling! But his dad was saying to me, "you know it still takes a lot of A's to bring up a lot of F's, but I guess he'll make it."
Now that is what you call a "late comer." Someone who's on one track and seeming bound to stay there who switches all of a sudden. Someone who's given up on himself, someone others have given up on, who surprises everybody. A person who defies the law that all things continue as they begin, the assumption you can predict the destination of a life from the direction it's headed at a given time.
Change is the divine possibility in human life. It has to do with the image of God. In physics there may be a law that says bodies in motion remain in motion unless acted on by some outside force. But no such law applies to God, and by his design no such law applies to us. We'll always find it easier to go on as we've been going, but we'll never find it impossible to change direction if we're willing to pay the price.
This morning we gather to remember the body of Christ broken for us, his blood shed for us. And right where that happened a criminal and fellow-sufferer believed and was saved, a late comer to the kingdom. Unusual, unlikely, but it happened. A man with no future in this life gained a promise of the next. And we tend to doubt those things, but Jesus pronounced it authentic. "Today," he said, "you will be with me in Paradise."
All we know about the man is that. What his crime was we don't know. Whether he'd heard Jesus preach we don't know. Whether he'd been a criminal all his life we don't know. Who were his parents, what was his nationality, we don't know. We don't need to.
What we do know is that a person may come late to the kingdom and still be received. The unlikely may come–the unpromising, even the unwelcome–and be received by the Grace of God. One day is like a thousand years with him, so it's never too late.
The poet imagined this for a man killed by a fall from his horse: "Between the stirrup and the ground/mercy I asked and mercy I found." Could be.
The story has the other side too though. There were two criminals there, and only one responded to his opportunity. One prayed and showed love. The other cursed and showed his hatred.
Same thing in life. The same troubles come, and yet some people turn to cursing, while others turn to praying. Same thing.
It isn't a difference in situations, it's a difference in people and their reaction. Here's someone who has to care for an invalid parent and is bitter about it every day. And someone else does the very same thing with loving grace. Someone has kid problems and loses his friends and religion and everything else, another goes through just as much and still has his sense of humor.
An evangelist was giving his invitation one evening. He told people they should repent and turn to Christ before it was too late, which it might be soon. Someone in the back hollered out "What about the thief on the cross?" But the preacher replied, "Which thief?"
Uh huh! There were two. Two in the very same circumstances. Two with the same long shot. And the other died in bitterness with no bright promise from the Savior's lips. He never made it as a late comer; he never made it at all. Showing again how the response of each and every individual makes all the difference.
Last summer I spent some time by myself at a resort in Tennessee called Lake Tansi. I studied and wrote and ran and rested. Beautiful place, there on the Cumberland Plateau near Crossville.
One evening right at sunset, I went for a walk. I walked down toward a smaller lake named Hiawatha. I walked away from row on row of condominiums down to the lake shore, and it was pleasant.
The sunset was nice, and the silence was nice. It had rained that afternoon, then partly cleared, and the evening was alive. A pair of ducks fed on weeds near the shore. Every now and then a fish jumped, and a school of minnows ran for cover. A bat circled overhead. And the sky changed color by the minute.
I stayed long by the lake that evening. And when I finally did walk back up the hill to where the condominiums stood, I passed by them one by one, all in their numbered rows.
And what were those people doing, who'd come the long way to this mountain resort? Why, they were closed up inside, artificially lighted, air conditioned and dehumidified, watching television. There was something for all of them down by the lake that evening, but they never knew it. And it wasn't that they necessarily despised that, they just had their minds on other things.
But the question I asked about them as I trudged back home was this: "Why come here?" There's television and food and air conditioning at home, why come here?
And Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, came to his own world, and the world received him not. The world had its mind on other
things. And I suppose more than once on that long journey he must have asked himself: "Why come here?"
But he did. And he comes today and knocks at the door of hearts. And he comes early, and he comes late, and he never says "this is hopeless." And to as many as receive him, he gives power, power to become children of God.
You can believe it . . ..
The Victorious Loser
Well, today is Easter–the big day for churches. All up and down these roads, parking lots are full. Who knows how many churches there are? All sizes, shapes, colors, tongues, persuasions. Ours isn't the smallest, or the largest.
St. Bernadette's down at Four Corners has 12,000 members, Father Krastal tells me. Riverdale Baptist advertises 2,000 in Sunday School on ordinary Sundays. Crowds like that would have to come in shifts to Luther Rice, a problem we're not facing just now. But we do have about 500 members, some of rather high caliber it seems to me, and property worth several million dollars, and a staff, and a program, and a future.
Now I say that to show you something. Our church, our one church, modest as it is in size, is larger and more secure than the entire Christian movement on the Easter morning we celebrate today.
Think now. His sayings were but memories, nothing written down. He had no successor, no Jesus, Jr., to carry on his work. He'd failed to get the support of organized religion in his day. He owned no property and claimed no territory. His followers were confused, demoralized, scattered, and few–many of them beggars and outcasts. And most of all, he was dead.
So what lay ahead, pray tell? To imagine our own church in a situation like theirs, you'd have to think of the pastor gone and no other willing to take his place, the membership dwindled to a couple dozen, the building burned with no insurance, savings all spent and debts piled up, an air of gloom hanging over it. For them, it was really that bad.
What odds would anyone have given on their survival? Who could foresee that now, 2,000 years later, the name of Jesus is known around the earth. That everywhere you go you find places of worship in his honor. That every fragment of his teaching is saved and studied, memorized and taught as holy truth. And that hundreds of millions of his followers there are. Who could have dreamed that?
I'm fond of this quote from John Gossip in his commentary for the Interpreter's Bible–listen:
"It seems to be a sorry story of defeat and ignominy; of a life thrown away, and that for nothing . . .. And yet that Figure, beaten, bleeding, surrounded by guffaws of mockery, jostled, and dragged from court to court, denounced, derided, execrated, buffeted, spat upon, is not the plaything of his enemies, but remains somehow through it all majestic, imperial, even awesome. Always he is the center of each scene in his long agony; never belittled by anything they could do to him, but dwarfing everyone around him. Pilate and Herod sink into insignificance beside him. Always he seems to be master of every situation. This is not a life snatched away, but a life given."
The meaning of that Easter day, and ours, and all to come, is that Christ is the victor at last, much as it may have been in doubt, and much as the powers of evil tried to thwart it.
"Behold a glutton and a drunkard," some accused. "Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath," they demanded. "He is possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of demons," others claimed. Which shows, by the way, that his struggle was more with religion than the world. Scribes and Pharisees, Priests and Sadducees. So Luke will tell us: "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner."
But that look of a cornerstone came later. During his three-year ministry, the glow of a winner was hard to find. In fact, he seemed to blunt his victories, tarnish the highlights, and reject the glory he might have had.
Some demanded to make him king, and he turned it down flat. He often spoke in parables that concealed what he meant. He wandered among the unsuccessful, neglecting the influential who could have helped him most. He healed the sick and gave sight to the blind, but then urged them to keep it a secret. And how on earth can a person succeed in this life who plays the game like that?
He did say at times that his victory was coming, but always added the time wasn't yet.
At Nazareth, his home town, the Bible says "he could do no mighty work, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people . . . and he marveled because of their unbelief."(Luke 4:4-6) And later there they rose up and threw him out of town–the loser, you might say. And all the way to his cross you find such occasions.
How can anyone be a leader who shuns publicity? How can anyone be a winner when he gives his enemies what they want? Who can make a defense by saying nothing when he's accused? Who comes out ahead by getting himself killed? What on earth was he trying to do?
In light of this, I've done some thinking about winners and losers, and decided they fall into several categories. Some people talk in small terms and live that way too. They're the failures of this world, who concede defeat in most of their efforts. Losers now, losers later.
There are others who talk in large terms but live in small ones. They settle for some type of material success and end up spiritual failures. If life is a gift of God to use for his glory, they play around with the wrapping and never open the present. Some are admired, but they're really to be pitied. You never hear them talk like losers, but they are.
Then there are some, I suppose, who have what we all think we want. They talk in large terms and live that way too. The blessed and the saintly, the ones books are written about, the ones we look to as examples. It seems to come easy for them. But their number is few.
My last category is a very different one. Those who talk small, but live large. Who make few claims, who advertise no great success, but who are winners in waiting. Victorious losers, as Jesus was.
Remember what he said to James and John? They'd come asking a place of honor. And he said to them, "whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all."(Mark 10:43-45) And what principle is that, if not the one I've just stated? And the one Christ lived by throughout his life?
What did he promise his followers? "You will be hated by all men for my name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved."(Matthew 10:22) What does that mean? Doesn't it mean that few of us are appointed an easy success? That most of us are beckoned to the Way of the Cross?
You find that explicit in every one of those Beatitudes. For instance, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." See? Meek souls, people like Christ who seem to be the losers of this world, you'll someday see as the winners they are. Look at the rest of those sayings with that in mind. The persecuted now will own a kingdom later. The poor in spirit have a home in heaven. The peacemaker and the merciful and the pure in heart, all are winners in waiting.
Now apart from Easter, that would be just a lot of fanciful talk. But the resurrection showed it can and does work. His enemies called him a loser and tried their best to make him one. But he never lost faith. He went to his death looking lost but claiming victory. And as the morning light played at the mouth of Joseph's tomb, his claims had been vindicated.
Perhaps it takes something like that to be the winner in things that matter most. You have to sacrifice the comfort of the present, and be nurtured by hope. You have to play the loser awhile and leave winning for later. You have to trust the promises of God.
Then you can turn the other cheek. Then you can go the second mile–it's all right. You can pray for those who persecute you, or spend time among lilies of the field, that neither sow nor reap, as the world urges you to do. You can give away your coat, or your shoes if you need to. Someone there is who'll take care of you. You have no worry of coming out the loser.
"Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven." "The first of this earth will be last at the last, and the last first."
Here you have a rich man in his mansion, and there at his gate you have a poor beggar, name of Lazarus. Choose–which one will you trade places with? But be careful, things aren't what they seem.
Or go around the corner to the temple. Go inside and find a Pharisee praying his daily prayers. Well dressed, well educated, our kind of folk. Right there at the same time is this despised tax-collector, muttering his loser talk, low self-esteem and all, beating on his chest, miserable in his sins.
Pick! Who would you be if you had to be one? But be careful. Things aren't what they seem.
Remember the parable of the wedding feast Jesus told? All the self-proclaimed winners came and took the seats of honor, only to be kicked out of them later. Jesus said don't do it like that. "Every one who exalts himself will be humbled," he said, "and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
So it was that a poor loser widow-woman came to church with a crowd of rich-folk winners, watched what they put in the treasury, then quietly dropped in her two copper coins, and went away the winner of it all.
The New Testament shows how remarkably that principle was demonstrated in the life of the early church. A band of losers became a band of winners. Gloomy pessimism dissipated in a mood of bold and confident optimism. People stopped cowering in fear, and became aggressive witnesses to the power of Christ. All of a sudden, they got guts!
And that's at least a part of what Paul meant when he spoke of "the power of His resurrection".
Through the mercy and grace of God, the victor experience of Jesus can be ours too. It'll will never make us easy winners, but it can make sure ones. Like he did, we can know that even while the day is still clouded. We can smile and claim victory and know it's coming.
Jesus shows us that at Easter. We gain there the hope we need, and the energizing spirit of his resurrection.
He whispers in tired ears:
"Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world!"
And we believe him!
On my trip out west this summer, when I got to Denver, I made what turned out to be good choice. I said goodbye to interstate highways and took a back route across the mountains and deserts between Denver and Salt Lake. I was often where I could see ten miles ahead and ten behind, and not a car or truck in sight. That was a nice change. And the country was nice.
But I found out along the way that what looked nice to me wasn't necessarily believed by the local residents. I discovered it when I stopped for gas and a drink in Dinosaur, Colorado, which is on route 40 at the Utah border.
I noticed as I rode into Dinosaur that there sure were a lot of liquor stores for such a small place. And I found the station owner was quite a character, and we got to kidding about things, and so I said "Boy, you sure have got a lot of liquor stores around here, don't you?"
And he said, "Well friend, if you had to live around here you'd need a lot of liquor stores! Ain't nothin'' to do at night but get drunk or watch TV!"
Those were his exact words. And I would've assumed, as a stranger in those parts, that the level of peace and tranquility was high in Dinosaur, Colorado. But here one of the natives was telling a different story, that the level of frustration was high instead.
Perhaps it's the case that the level of frustration is high wherever you travel this earth. That no place creates its own peace. That the heart has to do that itself, and can anywhere. Can make a heaven or a hell of any circumstances. So it's what goes on in us, not around us, that matters most.
That's what I want to talk about this morning. I've titled it "sound-minded religion" and I think it was prompted by two observations.
(1) That the frustration levels do get high among people like ourselves, and (2) that the Christian experience should make a contribution to a person's mental health.
My title, by the way, comes from the King James Version of Second Timothy 1:7. "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind." The RSV has "self control" instead of "sound mind," but that implies the same thing. And is there any better statement of what personal maturity ought to mean? The absence of fear, the presence of power and of love, resulting in a sound mind. Which means we control us, others don't.
You've noticed a lot of my sermon illustrations come out of supermarkets? That warns you to watch what you say if you see me there!
But anyway, I was in the Safeway line the other day and overheard two women talking. They were talking television. And what did the other one think some character would do now? And wasn't it just awful what happened to so-and-so? And if I were her I'd have told him this or told her that.
They spoke as if the world they discussed was real without a doubt. As if these were people that mattered in their lives. As if the outcome of life's hope hung in the balance of what happened on tomorrow's telecast. As if this was their world of reality, their lives lived out by proxy in a make-believe drama.
Students of the mind tell us that can and does take place. We escape to a better scene. Frustrated with the difficulties of coping in our own world, we choose a fantasy world instead. We live less in ourselves, less of ourselves, we live through imagined others.
That isn't self control, obviously. That isn't the mechanism of a sound mind. That isn't the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. That isn't the will of God for anyone made in his image.
And it isn't my sermon either, but an illustration of it. You can be addicted to television, but to countless other things too. There are movies, football, drinking, betting the numbers. There's working, running, and those electronic video games. Or even church, I suppose–though I haven't noticed many people overdoing that!
Self control is what I'm talking about. Self control and self fulfillment.
For there's a real You inside of you. A You that wants to come out and be seen. But often we're unsure about the person God made us. We're not sure if it's worth seeing or not. So we tell it, "you be quiet." You might embarrass me! And we live as someone else.
As I look back on my life thus far, I see that as my own mistake. Trying to be someone I wasn't. Too much concern for what people thought. Not letting the real Me come out enough. It's a common thing.
But remember what Paul advised? "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."(Romans 12:2) Which seems to be saying you can never prove what's the will of God for you if you live in conformity to the world about you–right? Right.
There's a dependency and an independency that matter here. And the problem is, most people get it backward. Most people live independent of God and dependent on the world. Where Paul said do the other. Live dependent on God and independent of that tyranny the world holds over you if you let it.
Galatians 5, verse 1: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."
First John 2, verse 15: "Do not love the world or the things of the
world. If any one loves the world, love of the Father is not in him . . .. The world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever."
The secular notion is that religion enslaves, and you'll be freer if you stay out of it or get rid of it. I sometimes detect that in people's reaction when I'm introduced as this Baptist minister here. Why, you can almost see them shrink. As if I might be about to grab them for God, a person not to turn your back on.
And I know some religion does enslave, and some preachers try to grab. Jesus talked of how the Scribes and Pharisees bound heavy burdens on men's backs with their rules and regulations. That may have been the background of his great invitation: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
I believe it is light. That his kind of religion is un-burdening, load-lightening, and freeing, not enslaving. It leads toward greater well-being for yourself and those around you. It moves you toward the ideal God had in mind when he made you the way he did. It does you good.
What good? That brings us to my text. Listen:
"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control . . .."
Now I don't have time to preach on all those, but I ask you–don't they tell of a sound mind? Isn't each one, in its own way, psychological? Aren't they descriptive of what people are trying to achieve by other means? Read the magazines and self-help books if you haven't noticed. This is practical stuff.
You can have more love, more joy, more peace, more patience–isn't that good?
There's a way you can be so personally secure and unthreatened you can afford to be kind to others, and good, and faithful. And even gentle, of all things!
And you can have self-control, self-respect, and self-assurance, so you won't be battered and bewildered by all the manipulation the world tries to get you with. You can smile and just say "no thanks, not me."
"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom"–Second Corinthians 3, verse 17.
But from where does that freedom come? How does it happen? How is it fed and nourished, this sound-mindedness? Several ideas occur.
(1) We develop better in fellowship with others who covenant to live life together. No man is an island, in other words, or woman. Where two or three gather in His name, he comes to their midst in a special way. And he binds their hearts in Christian love. And when one weeps, the others weep with him. And when one rejoices, the others rejoice with her. And from that common bond comes strength and stability.
That's one reason I keep trying to get you to come here on Wednesday nights. Money back guarantees and all that! Our worship is good, but only as far as it goes. How do you get to know the others in this room? One of them could mean more to you than anything a preacher ever said. But you don't develop that by sitting in rows facing me. One way is to come, sit around tables, and talk over a meal, which Jesus often practiced.
I know you think that was a commercial, but it really was a point of the sermon! And I know some of you think I'd like you to attend for me–the numbers could look better–but the greater need is yours.
(2) A person with a task to do, with a mission in life, is usually a happier person. Doing something is almost always better than doing nothing. And the more unselfish the task, the better. The best kept secret may be that people want to give themselves to a cause they know is worthwhile, and will.
If it's hard enough. It it's easy, they won't bother.
Someone asks for help and you say "Hey, gimmie a break! I don't need that." But then again, you may need it.
You may need something besides doing for yourself all the time. Need something to get your mind on besides your own list of complaints. Something to get more "we-ness" in your life. To be able to point and say "look there what we did" instead of asking folk to look at what you did, which they never do, they just make you think they do.
And (3), Forgiveness is a real and practical need in each of our lives, essential for peace of mind. People who say they don't believe in God still feel accountable to the god they don't believe in! People who laugh at the idea of sin in daytime often worry about their own at night. And need to say to someone "forgive me my trespasses."
Since God alone forgives sin, he's the one to know.
And in that knowing, day by day, with all the ups and downs that come, something begins to develop that makes living worthwhile.
I hope my friend in Dinosaur knows that. I should have told him.
Nails in the Cross
How many of you make lists? And what do you make lists of? Things to buy at the store? Things to do at work? People to write letters to? Things to pray for, perhaps?
Every pilot has a list. And no matter how long he's been flying, he's supposed to take that list in hand–even if he has it memorized–and go over it before every takeoff and every landing. It's called a check-list.
Every teacher has a list, one for each class. It has names, and it has grades. And the teacher guards that list, because on it much depends. Passing or failing, honor rolls, careers, graduate schools, elation or dejection–all depending on that record. And students will often come to plead and argue over marks that are made beside their names on that list.
In a perfect world, perhaps there'd be no need for a thing like that. Just come and learn for the joy of learning. No requirements, no exams, no grades. Everyone doing his best because he loves the subject, and the study, and even the teacher! Huh!
But it isn't a perfect world, and we aren't perfect people. We lie, we cheat, we procrastinate. We look for short-cuts. And often we do one another in if we get the chance. So the weak need protection and the strong need restraint. Even the most virtuous need some accountability, or temptations overwhelm.
God has a list. He has one something like the teacher does. It has your name on it–you, his son or daughter–and some notations. And if you've been living the Christian life long, I dare say there are marks on that record you have every reason to be proud of. But also some you wish could be erased.
That's what I want to talk about this morning. I want to talk about erasure. Because mark my words, God has a list of all your sins, not just the ones that come to mind, not just the ones your friends know about, not just the ones you're conscious of yourself–but all.
That list shows every time you were hurtful, or deceitful, or prideful, or vengeful, or even wasteful. And the times you judged others while excusing yourself. And every time you failed to be grateful. And it has records of all the fine opportunities you turned aside, chances to do good for others, to be kind, or give encouragement, to seek reconciliation.
Last Wednesday evening, as we studied Romans, I used the term "moral earnestness." Read what Paul writes in Romans 7 and you'll understand what the term means.
Well, there's the opposite of that in the world too, and I suppose you might call it "moral indifference." For example, take a best-selling book called "How I Found Freedom in An Unfree World."
The author, Harry Browne, is an investment man, and the book is about how you get the most out of the investment of your life. So far, so good. But the way to do that, according to the author, is to not worry about right and wrong, to decide what you do on the basis of its profit or loss to you.
He warns you of traps that would cheat you out of what's coming to you. For instance, the "identity trap." Wasting your life's energy trying to be someone you aren't. Trying to reach some ideal another person taught you. Forget all that and do what comes naturally, he says.
And watch out for the "unselfishness trap." Crazy notion you should put someone else's happiness before your own. Deplete your resources by giving money away to the poor. Join causes that spend time working for a better world. Be smart! he says. Stay clear of all that.
And keep away from all clubs, churches, organizations, parties, where they want you to give your best so the whole group can reap the benefit. No, no! You end up giving more than you receive and then you're the loser. Better to stay independent and on your own.
Which applies to citizenship, of course. Avoid anything you can possibly get out of, even if you break the law to do it. Never get caught up demanding rights for other people! What good will that do you? Look out for your own business, your own profit, and let the rest of the world take care of itself.
Now it isn't hard to guess what sort of moral values a philosophy like that espouses. Browne says feel no obligation to any moral code created by someone else. Make your own, he says. "Right" is what benefits you and the only "wrong" is what fails to make you happy. The only rules you need are those that guide you to what you want.
Now if a person buys into that–and many do–it means there's no such thing as sin, no right or wrong, no God, most likely, and no list like I spoke of awhile ago. There may be lists of things that bother you, hang-ups your parents and teachers left you with, but they exist to be put behind you. And it goes without saying there's never a need for anything called "forgiveness." What's to forgive?
Contrast that with Karl Menninger's book Whatever Became of Sin?. Which isn't by some evangelist, by the way. This is the psychiatrist who pioneered the science of the mind with his book The Human Mind, published in 1930.
Menninger contends the term for and idea of sin have been gradually disappearing from American life.
But sin itself hasn't gone away, he says. Let me quote:
"I believe there is a general sentiment that sin is still with us, by us, and in us–somewhere. We are made vaguely uneasy by this consciousness, this persistent sense of guilt, and we try to relieve it in various ways. We project blame on others, we ascribe the responsibility to a group, we offer up scapegoat sacrifices, we perform or partake in dumb-show rituals of penitence and atonement."
He writes about the problems caused by human pride, and lust, and gluttony, and anger, and greed, and waste, and stealing, and lying and cheating. And then he concludes:
"Hence sin is the only hopeful view. The present world miasma and depression are partly the result of our self-induced conviction that since sin has ceased to be, only the neurotics need to be treated and the criminals punished. The rest may stand around and read the newspapers. Or look at television. Do your thing and keep your eye on the road leading to the main chance."
"As it is, vague, amorphous evil appears all about us, and when this or that awful thing goes on and that wretched circumstance has developed, and yet, withal, when no one is responsible, no one is guilty, no moral questions are asked, when there is, in short, just nothing to do, we sink to despairing helplessness. We wait from day to day for improvement, expectantly but not hopefully."
"Therefore I say that the consequence of my proposal would not be more depression, but less. If the concept of personal responsibility and answerability for ourselves and for others were to return to common acceptance, hope would return to the world with it."
So . . .! There you have a clear choice between two points of view. We have problems with something called sin, or we don't. Significant change is needed in all, or it isn't. We're all accountable to someone other than ourselves, or we aren't.
I believe we are. I believe we're accountable to God who made us. I believe he takes our lives seriously, even if we don't. And I even believe he keeps records on us, just like the teacher does. But listen:
"You who were dead . . . God made alive with [Christ], having forgiven all your trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to his cross."
There's the real and final hope. God takes that list I spoke of, erases it, and nails it to the cross of Jesus. As far as east is from west, he removes our transgressions from us. They're cast into a sea of forgetfulness, never to be remembered against us any more. Though they be red like crimson, they become white as snow. A live coal is taken with tongs from off the altar; it touches our lips, and a voice says:
"Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged."
Isn't that what all of us need? And isn't that what all people want, if they could know what they wanted?
What are people seeking who join all those wierd cults? Why do kids and others take drugs to lift them out of the pain of life? Why are people so hostile toward one another, as if their own inner war spills over into their dealings with others?
Even times of stability in our lives, isn't there yet an emptiness, a hollowness, that shows up in a need for entertainment to fill the hours?
Why is man ever so fearful? Afraid of poisons, robbers, rape, cancer, communists, tax men, coronaries, anything that might be out get us. As if there's a guilt inside that says something ought to get us.
Historian Arnold Toynbee said this in 1971: "Science has shown no signs that it is going to be able to cope with man's most serious problems. It has not been able to do anything to cure man of his sinfulness and his sense of insecurity, or to avert the painfulness of failure and the dread of death. Above all, it has not helped him to break out of the prison of his inborn self-centeredness into communion or union with some reality that is greater, more important, more valuable, and more lasting than the individual himself."
Man is like that prodigal son in the far country he ran off to. Nothing he finds there is going to help him. Nothing till he comes to himself, and confesses his sin, and turns back to the father who's loved him all the while.
There's a story that Simon Peter would sometimes halt in the midst of a sermon, seem to look in the distance and be listening for something. And people would squirm and mutter, and wonder what the matter was. But others who knew the man would understand, and whisper to explain it.
You see, he'd think he heard a cock crow. It came back out of his past. And he'd listen a minute, then catch up with the present and go on. He'd realize it was all behind him now. And the pain that had crossed his face would turn to a smile then, and he'd start back into his sermon with new zeal.
The memory of that terrible night had stayed, but the sin, he knew, had been taken away and nailed to the cross.
Sin is a real and powerful thing. But so is forgiveness.
Sin is a real and powerful factor in your life. Somewhere there's even a list, and not a thing you can do about it. Except to trust the love and grace of God who made you, and believe the promise of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
You begin by praying this prayer:
"God be merciful to me, a sinner."
2 Samuel 12:1-15
"In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem."
"David remained at Jerusalem." David.
The Old Testament can't get its mind off David, nor can most students of it. He attracts you, then embarrasses you. He bewilders you, and then inspires you. No matter what you think or say about him there's always more to think or say. You never get done with a man like David.
So his story is troublesome, as he was. Although it gets told in Sunday School, it seems not quite to belong there, especially with the children. You can't tell the story of David and say "now let's all try to be like him"!
It's the kind of story losers tell one another to help them hang in there. The account of someone as rough and prone to error as we are who made it after all. Someone the Lord loved in spite of all his messing up. Someone who could probably write the 23rd Psalm, leave it lying on his desk, and hurry off to some shenanigan.
Just listen to him pray, though!
"Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that thou hast brought me thus far? . . . What more can David say to thee? For thou knowest thy servant, O Lord God! Because of thy promise, and according to thy own heart, thou hast wrought all this greatness, to make thy servant know it. Therefore thou art great, O Lord God; for there is none like thee . . .."(2 Sam 7:18-22)
He viewed his life in relationship to God–always. Even as King, he did. Sometimes his deeds were the glory of God, and sometimes the shame of God. They rose higher when they rose, and fell lower when they fell. And as we join his story, he clearly is about to fall.
"David remained at Jerusalem." Others went out to war, and he remained. How unlike the David of old. Whose men once formed a committee on his safety, because their leader had a habit of fighting, and laughed at having bodyguards. So they invented reasons he should stay back at headquarters instead of risking himself at the front.
This, after all, was the lad grown up who slew the giant Goliath. He carried the same need to prove himself, and that threatened to be his ruin.
There are, of course, many forms such proving can take. Men prove themselves against men. Men prove themselves with women. Women prove themselves with men, and against other women, I suppose. And now in our liberated, competitive world, we find a need of women to prove themselves against men, and men against women, so that much is always in the process of being proved and disproved.
Now "it happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof . . . that he saw . . . a woman bathing." It happened.
Things like that do happen, of course, have happened and will, with every normal man or woman, young or old, saint or otherwise, who happens to see something somewhere, and it looks good.
The woman David saw was Bathsheba, and she looked good, and so he sent. Kings send. Kings move people around by order. They have those who tend their needs and without question.
They go. They tell this woman to come with them to the King, and she comes. And he was happy with her, and if it mattered she was happy with him. But Bathsheba doesn't say much, doesn't have many lines to learn. When her cue comes she can put it in two words–"I'm pregnant."
Women had few choices then. No such thing as going in to a counselor, telling how she'd been involved with this important man whose career and reputation were at stake, and she had no desire for a baby right now, and what would he recommend?
No, David has the problem of what to do, and sets out to solve it. He sends where Bathsheba's husband is fighting and orders him home at once.
The king wants to talk, Uriah. Have a seat, make yourself at home. Say, how's good old Joab? and how are the soldiers out there? You deserve a break from this war, Uriah, we all do. So enjoy the time with that wife of yours.
The man leaves, but not for home. He sleeps on the floor with soldiers that night, while the king in his bed cannot. An innocent husband rests while a guilty adversary can't.
They tell David about Uriah's night, and he learns what a pain it can be to have an idealist around. For Uriah scorns sleeping with his wife because buddies are out there in tents.
Uggh! But you know you won't change a person's mind who thinks like that, unless . . ..
David will try one more time. Which means Uriah has one more chance. He's Babe Laufenburg now, or Tony Zendehas. The king will have him to dinner and see that he drinks. Perhaps then a loosened up Uriah will finally go home and have reason to think the baby his. But no, he doesn't.
So David sends Uriah back to the war. He sends with him a letter to Joab. Joab stations Uriah in a perilous place. Back comes word that Uriah has been killed.
And now it is over, or is it? David sends for Bathsheba, and she becomes his wife and bears him a son. But the Bible says, "the thing that David had done displeased the Lord."
Sins compound like interest does. One leads to another, and adds to another. To adultery has been added lying and deception. To lying and deception has been added treachery and murder. And you think surely no good can come from any of that, but wait and see.
We have here a man after God's own heart. We have here a man the Lord will never give up on, who will never give up on Him. We have here a prodigal son about to be driven home. We will see here why older brothers can't understand the father's love. We have here hope for sinners like ourselves, though not an easy hope.
David has been sending people to and fro, and now the Lord sends someone of his own. "The Lord sent Nathan to David."
Nathan who was a prophet. Nathan who has no power except faith, and what of it dwells in the heart of David. Nathan who was called by God to speak truth to power, in the chambers of power, and take all the risks that go with that.
Bishop Tutu of South Africa comes to mind, Brother Falwell notwithstanding. To speak from a guarded mansion in Virginia seems pretty safe. We pay attention to the man whose life is on the line.
Be careful, Nathan! you have dangerous business here. Uriah is dead already, and you may join him. Yours is that tricky business of trying to serve a calling of God while minding the needs of your own self-preservation. You must pray to be subtle. You must keep out of this yourself, and be only the voice by which God speaks.
Be careful, David! how you hear him. Much is to be decided here. Listen:
Two men live in a certain city. One is rich, like you. Always sending people here and there. Eating the best foods, entertained with amusements, clothed with the richest clothing. You know of that.
You know about the other man too. For he is poor, like the shepherd you used to be.
David, he had one lamb, and it was a pet. It lived in his house like one of the children. It ate from his table. It had a name.
And the rich man had many such lambs, more than he knew.
But still he was greedy.
The poor man slept well at night, but the rich man tossed and turned. Someone was coming to visit. What to put on the table?
The rich man had money to buy with, but he hated to spend. He had lambs to spare, but he wouldn't touch them.
You know what he did? This is what he did, David. This . . ..
He sent and took that poor man's lamb and killed it for his table!
Now the conscience of David had listened well. And there rose in him what should rise in any of us who see unjustice by those in power. He saw another person's greed reared up in all its swollen ugliness, and he shook in rage.
Be careful, David! For the sin that seems most hideous in someone else is often one that has a claim on you itself. And the blame you shovel is an effort to cover something about yourself. What seems clear as you look around gets fogged as you look within. But Nathan is about to change that.
David says "the man who would do such a thing deserves to die."
He is righteous and innocent in that moment. He has God's approval while it lasts. But now he must learn what else is in the story to deal with his soul.
"You are this man," Nathan says. If his courage ran high, perhaps he pointed with a finger that shook as he said it.
"You, my King, to whom the Lord gave much, were greedy still for more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what was evil in his sight? You killed Uriah as with your own sword. You took his wife to be your wife. And now, behold, says the Lord, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house."
There are choices now for David. He can be angry at Nathan, or be angry with the Lord. Or call for his singers and forget the whole thing. He can sink into black despair, as Saul before him would have done. Or he can stand tall in this crisis and let us see the kind of man he is.
David says: "I have sinned against the Lord."
And Nathan says, with no hesitation: "The Lord also has put away your sin. You shall not die."
But the child that was born of this trauma did die. Yet Bathsheba remained the wife of David. And the next son she bore they named Solomon, and the Bible says the Lord loved him. And life went on, though perhaps more sadly.
After the shooting of President Kennedy, someone asked Patrick Moynahan what this would mean in the lives of friends, and he said:
"We all shall laugh again, but we shall never be young again."
And I would suppose the same of David. Except that in the Lord the old do become young again, the tired find strength, the weary rest, the guilty peace, the lonely comfort.
"He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength."
Trust in him with all your might, and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path.
However twisted the way it takes.
Come to the Party
Ever since I read the "Little Flowers," I've been a fan of St. Francis'. I recommend a movie about his life titled "Brother Sun, Sister Moon." And I recommend this statement he made:
"Study always to have joy, for it befits not the servant of God to show before his brother or another sadness or a troubled face."
Having done my share of showing a troubled face to brethren and sisters, that strikes me as a worthy goal. There's far too much grimness in our lives. Not enough wonder and excitement, beauty and amazement, gladness and celebration. Those are the mood of real religion, and we must all strive to gain them.
Today's lesson from the Bible is a place to start. It's in the middle of a chapter all about parties and feasts. Those are there, I think, to show us something about the ways of God. To anyone steeped in the influence of Puritanism, it's a big pill to swallow, but we need to try.
You'll notice they arranged parties differently in those days. They gave invitations with no date or time. You said you'd come, or wouldn't, without knowing when. And whenever the host was ready, he'd send out servants to get the guests. Which would never work with us and our schedules, but did for them.
At least some of the time. The story Jesus tells shows how it failed to work once. People were busy and couldn't come. The meal was ready, the chairs all set, the musicians hired, and the master pacing the floor. But the servants come back empty handed. So he tells them to go out again and find others, anyone, to come fill his house.
We see what this is getting at. The first folk are the Jews Jesus came to as Messiah. He came to his own, and his own received him not. So then the word went out to others, to the strangers, the unexpected, anyone who'd accept. To us Gentiles, that means. The late-comers. And the invitation was:
"Come to the party!"
Now that's about the happiest kind of invitation you can imagine. So what if our calls to Christ sound more like a pressured meeting the person dreads to face?
John Wesley made a mistake once. He started a school for young boys and said no games, no sports, no entertainment, and no holidays! His reason: "He who plays when he is a child will play when he is a man."
Actually a psychologist will tell you just the opposite. Deny a boy his childhood, and he'll be bound to live it later on. "Middle-age crazy" and all that. You've heard the only difference between men and boys is the price of the toys they play with? Something to that.
Well the point is, the call to be a Christian isn't to make life a terrible bore for yourself and those around you. It's a call to live, your ticket to a feast at God's expense. Who could turn that down? Let's see.
In the story Jesus told, people found excuses not to come. Some had business claims, some had new possessions, some spoke of family obligations. No excuse was wrong or wicked, but they were still a way of saying no. Often it isn't the bad things that keep men from God, it's the better things. Fine and decent things can be used as idols too. An earthly good can rob the heavenly best.
Remember that first and most curious miracle Jesus did? At a marriage in Cana, the wine ran low and he made more. But what on earth was he doing there in the first place? Where there was laughing and jokes and people hugging and drinking wine? The Savior of the World was there?
I've been a few places where a crowd got quiet when I came in because I was The Preacher, and whatever had been going on didn't seem appropriate! The term "kill-joy" comes to mind. And that's exactly how some people think of Christ, even today. A man suspicious of joy and gladness. Must be something wrong if people are having so much fun!
The wine ran low at that wedding, and Mary, his mother, told the servants, "do what he tells you." They did, and bore to the master of the feast the best wine he'd ever tasted. He was amazed, and John, who records this, tells us the disciples then believed in the power of Christ as never before. Huh!
When you begin to look, there are many times in scripture you see this celebrative aspect of the Christian faith breaking out. And the image of Jesus as mournful, austere, and reclusive is shown to be wrong. Instead, his picture of the Father shows us even the Almighty has a lighter side, has fun sometimes, and a sense of humor even.
Jesus told that story of a wayward son coming home to his dad. And the father first thing does what? Throws a party. He hires musicians and says let's dance! Go find my other boy and tell him come join us!
They go find the other son and tell him. But he's out working. He says sorry but he can't come–too much work to do. So that father goes out himself and practically begs, but he still won't come. His only brother, and he still won't.
He can't, you see–he really can't. His pride or religion, or his selfishness, or stubbornness–something won't let him celebrate. So he misses the party.
Now what if your Heavenly Father gave a party, and invited you, and you said you couldn't come, you had work to do, and missed it? What if he made a habit of inviting, and you made a habit of refusing? And what if you lived life sour when it could have been sweet, dull when it could have been a joy every morning, noon, and night? What if?
That's more or less my point this morning. Because I believe that if we're children of God and don't find joy in every day he lets us live there's something wrong. We've too often said to ourselves, "hold back, hold back," when he meant for us to say "let go, just let go."
Remember this? "When Jesus was at Bethany, in the house of Simon the Leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying: 'Why this waste? This ointment might have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.' But Jesus, aware of this, said to them: 'Why trouble you the woman, for she had done a beautiful thing for me. For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In putting this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.'"(Matthew 26:6-13)
Now that shows us something, what? That love is extravagant, not stingy, and maybe at times even a little foolhardy. How do you measure what you do for people you love? And what about the God you love? Give the cheapest you can buy? Damaged goods and blue light specials? No! You care enough to give the very best!
That's what was done for us. God so loved the world that he gave . . . you know, don't you? "Though he was rich, for our sakes he became poor, that we might be made rich through him."
God gave his only begotten Son. No cheap wine, the best we ever tasted. No ordinary pearl, the pearl of great price, more brilliant than any jeweler ever saw. No mere prophet, he's the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Believe him as the one who is himself the best, and who deserves our best.
During the Watergate Hearings, there was a question Lowell Weicker asked Attorney General John Mitchell. Mitchell didn't understand at first. He looked puzzled, said "I beg your pardon, Senator." The question was: "Mr. Mitchell, is there anything that puts you in awe?"
That, friends, is a good question. Answer it yourself.
What are you in awe of? Money? If there was a million dollars stacked up on the communion table here this morning, would you pay more attention to the worship, or it? Would I pay more attention to my sermon or it?! Which are we more in awe of? Or if some famous person were among us today, would that distract our minds from the God whose praises we sing?
I wondered after Weicker's question if a Christian may not be defined as one who lives in awe of things that deserve it. And perhaps with a measure of contempt for some that don't.
Do the Ten Commandments put you in awe? Does the thought of Judgment? What about the Great Commission? The power of prayer? Your duty toward the poor? The awesomeness of one day God gives you to live?
Or do we take those things for granted, our senses dulled, our minds drugged on selfish, worldly thought, so life is nothing like a party, a feast, a celebration of the holy–but something else?
In his diary of a concentration camp, Victor Frankel tells about an evening when a thunderstorm passed. Afterward the sun came out, and colors of red and gold and silver sparkled from a thousand tiny puddles in the courtyard mud. And the men rushed out to stand and watch. It seemed a priceless gift of God to their daily misery.
There is in this world much ugliness. But there's beauty too. Beauty we can find and celebrate. What God has done, is doing, and still plans to do for those who love him. We count our blessings and give thanks.
The invitation he sends is to come to his party, and who will miss that? Who says "I have other things to do"?
Who can say "no" when the Father says "come!"?
There was a man who had two sons, and this is the story of the youngest of those sons. We sometimes call him "the prodigal" which means "wasteful" or "wayward" and shows how we feel better about a situation when we have a label for the person involved. It saves us from having to think, we can just assume.
But now I mustn't start out defensive about this younger son. He had a problem, and was a problem.
Funny thing when a man has two sons, how different they can be. Why, his brother had always been so settled, so sure of what he wanted, so willing to conform. He seemed grown up long before he was. Never gave any trouble.
But the other boy was the kind who never seemed quite grown up as long as he lived. Always trying something new, and sometimes foolish, and you'd tell him but it wouldn't do a bit of good.
This was a Jewish home. And the Jewish scripture had words about prodigal sons. Listen:
"If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear."(Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Now that's one way the story could have gone.
"A certain man had two sons. The older of those sons served and pleased him every day, but the younger was stubborn and rebellious. And it came to pass that as this continued the father rose up and said: 'No more shall you be called my son, and no more shall you enjoy the shelter of my roof and the nourishments of my table. Try the jails instead. And never come near me again. I have one son now, and it isn't you."
But it didn't go like that, it went like this.
That younger son came in one day and said "Dad, I've got an idea." If you knew him, and you were his father, you put yourself on guard when you heard that! You felt to make sure you still had your billfold! This boy didn't mess around with small ideas. You knew he wasn't about to propose some change in the breakfast cereal! ("Have you read about Branola, Dad, I hear it's good for constipation"!) No, that's what his brother would have had on his mind, not him.
He says "Dad, I'd like for you to give me my inheritance now, and I'm going to take it and go away for awhile."
Huh! Now I don't think anyone would believe that was a good idea. So it left the father with three options. He could say "that's stupid, no!" or he could say "that's stupid, sit down and let's talk about it" or he could say "that's stupid, yes."
And that's what the father did. His other son and friends of the family must have thrown up their hands in horror. How can a father who loves his son say yes when he's about to be stupid? Let's hold that question for right now. Anyway, he gave him the money, and the boy got ready to go.
Where would you like to move if you could? California? Florida? Denver? Boston? Or what about Hawaii or Scotland or an island in the Pacific? Just take your money, pick a spot, say goodbye, and go!
Well we don't know where the young son went, but we do know some of his choices. Egypt, Babylonia, Italy, Greece, North Africa. To somewhere like that he went, and we have no reason to believe he went with bad motives. He may have gone dreaming he'd make his fortune there. Come driving home in a Rolls Royce convertible one day, dressed in a white suit, silk tie, designer sunglasses, matching leather luggage. And they'd all say, "Well he sure surprised us!"
But no, where he went, wherever it was, life was good for a while but not for long.
There's a saying money can't buy happiness, which is true. But it can buy some things that help for awhile. It can buy booze, and some money went for that. It can buy the thrill of the gambling table, and he tried that too. It can buy the company of people who'll do what you want them to do and say what you want them to say, and that can be pleasurable and flattering, even though it's hired. And the boy did some of that.
During that time, there must have been a voice inside that sometimes accused him. "I shouldn't be doing this," he'd say. "I'm going to be out of money soon." But there's a certain euphoria about the state he was in, a denial of reality that holds the upper hand, and so he went on. He was in that predicament of life where things have to get worse before they can possibly get better. And the person who might wish to help has nothing to do but watch.
So watch. Watch as the money runs down like a gas gauge till it sits on empty. Watch as a famine comes and life turns dreadful in that land of his dreams. Watch as now for the first time this rich man's son is forced to look for a job. Watch him get turned down place after place, till at last he takes the only thing left, the most humiliating work a Jewish son could do. He's feeding the hogs, and they're eating better than he is.
The Talmud had a saying "Cursed is the man who tends swine, and the man who teaches his son Greek wisdom." And it had another: "When a son has to walk barefooted, he remembers how well he had been treated in his father's house."
Now what he doesn't need right now is someone to tell him what a mess he's made of his life–he knows that. What he doesn't need is pious talk about getting what he deserves–he knows about that too. He has a problem with his self-esteem right now. He hates himself.
Have you ever hated yourself? Have you had a loved one who did? If so, you know it's a hell of its own. And it has in it danger, but also opportunity. For there's this about it, and you can write it down, he couldn't have hated himself unless there'd been a good man in him to do the hating.
Depressed persons may take life too seriously, but at least they take it seriously enough. It's bad to hit bottom but it sure has a way of getting your attention. It's good to pull people out of their trouble, but sometimes they need to sit there awhile and think about things.
This boy did. He thought about his father, and his home. It made him cry and hate himself even more, so he'd bring himself back to the present and try to figure something out, which of course he couldn't. And this went on for awhile before he reached a decision and started for home.
His decision was that the father who loved him enough to let him go would love him enough to let him come back. And that if he could get himself into this mess by his actions, he could get himself out the same way. And that looking foolish to other people isn't the worst thing in life unless the fear of it keeps us from doing what we need to.
He said: "I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants."
Those were hard fought words. Plenty of folk there are who'll point a finger at others and say "he has sinned" or "she has sinned." Some people just love doing that–it makes them feel so holy and superior. But the Bible says "God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble." And the one with the real guts is the one who can point at himself and say "I have sinned." That's when it counts.
And according to the Bible we all have cause and need to do that. All have sinned and come short of the father's plans. None is righteous, no not one. Except you repent, you shall all likewise perish.
Now the turning point of the story has just occurred. That he came to his father is only a continuation of the fact that he first of all came to himself. The rest of the story would depend on what other people did, but the first depended on what he did.
As he went, the road almost seemed to carry him along. Even the hunger of his belly was forgotten now. The branches of the trees and the grasses of the fields were all waving just for him. If you'd been a policeman on that road you'd have wanted to turn on all the lights and start up the siren.
But I'm not saying everyone at home necessarily felt that. I'm not even saying the boy himself felt that. Maybe what I want to say is, that's how heaven felt, because in heaven there's more joy over one sinner who repents than over 99 self-righteous snobs who think they need no repentance.
Now I know you know how the story did end. Think for a minute though, while we give him time to get there, how is might have ended.
What if his brother had seen him coming first? What if he'd gone out to meet him with hatred in his heart? What if he'd said his father had suffered enough and had no wish to even speak with such a son? And what if the prodigal had taken the blame of an older brother as the true attitude of his father, and turned away?
There are other possible endings, of course, but that's the one that haunts me most. The prodigals of this world have a precarious way to the father. They often encounter us older brothers first. And if we despise them, they may think he does. If we get rid of them, they may think there's no welcome with him either.
But it isn't so, and how the story really ended tells it all.
The father saw and knew his son a great way in the distance. He ran to meet him. He hugged him and kissed him while he was still trying to make that speech about being a hired servant from now on. He gave him gifts and planned a party. He kept saying the music of that word "son"–"my son was dead, and now is alive," "my son."
Now–"how can a father who loves his son say yes when he's about to be stupid?"
Not easily, but it's the way of fathers to do that. Your Father in heaven has done it with you more times than can be counted. Right this minute he loves you, and you know what? You may go out of here and do something stupid yourself, but he'll love you still.
And later when you come to yourself, the thing that will draw you back is to remember that's the kind of Father you are blessed to have.
A Desolate Woman
2 Samuel 13
We're back in ancient Israel. Uriah the Hittite is dead, and Bathsheba, who was his wife, is the wife of David, as he wanted. Their first child died, but Solomon has come and is doing well. The king is doing well. The war against the Ammonites goes well. But a new and dreadful thing is about to happen in this royal family.
Besides baby Solomon, David has three children. The oldest is Amnon, the youngest Absalom, and in between an only daughter–Tamar.
By all accounts, she was lovely. Lovely to look at, and lovely in her manner of life. The sort of woman men dream of, but in their better dreams. The sort that if they lusted for, they might catch themselves and be ashamed.
But Absalom's brother Amnon did lust. Absalom's brother, who was, of course, Tamar's brother too. And he "was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar; for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her."
Here was a powerful man, the first born son of the king, who could usually get what he wanted, impotent in his desire. He'd watched the ways of the powerful. He'd seen how his father took Bathsheba. But this was no stranger's wife, seen from a rooftop. This was his own sister. It made him ill just thinking.
Something will happen, but what? Something bad will happen. Think the worst you can imagine, and it might be that. Let's see.
Amnon "had a friend," it says. Nothing wrong with that. Anyone here have a friend? It's usually good to have friends. But there are other times. When friends make suggestions that lead to something. When friends know things about you they shouldn't.
Amnon's friend was named Jonadab, and he was a cousin, and the Bible says he was "a very crafty man."
Tamar is "very beautiful" and Jonadab is "very crafty," and you can ponder which it's better to be. We're going to find that craftiness held the advantage.
Jonadab wants to help Amnon, sure. Jonadab doesn't help just anyone, of course, but a royal son he does. So he comes to Amnon and says: "O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?"
No son of a king should be weak and thin. No heir apparent should want something and fail to get it. All problems have solutions. So tell me, Amnon, what is this?
Amnon's reply is a sentence with just six Hebrew words.
"Tamar, sister-of Absalom, my-brother, I desire."
The object of the verb comes first–Tamar. Each remaining word begins with the same letter, aleph, giving the impression of sighing when you say it. With breath left over to go ahhah! at the end.
Notice how he designates the object of his desire. "Sister of Absalom." As if his brother is the big problem here. If only he could be removed, this female would become accessible. As if this vulnerable woman is about to be caught up in a rivalry of men in power.
His friend's questions lead to plans. Amnon will lie down on his bed and pretend illness. His father will come and ask if there's anything he can do. And the son will say, "not really Dad, unless you could ask my sister Tamar to come over and give me some bread to eat, and prepare food in my sight, that I may see it, and eat it from her hand."
Is that what women are for? To be nurses for the sick, and cooks for the hungry? "That I may see," Amnon says. And David thinks he means see her cook, but he means see her. Amnon calls Tamar his sister here, for the father's benefit, and things move on.
David sends and asks Tamar "Go to your brother Amnon's house and prepare food for him." She goes, and finds Amnon lying down. And she takes dough and begins to knead it, and he watches. And she shapes it and bakes it, as he watches, and then takes it to him. But he refuses to eat right then.
He sends all the servants out of the house. Potential witnesses out of the way. And now the king's oldest son and his sister are alone.
Amnon says to Tamar, "Bring the food to my bedroom that I may eat it there." And she obeys, as women were used to doing in those days.
And whether she did it with alarm, or suspicion, or simply in trusting innocence, we don't know. But this is what happened, and I quote:
"When she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, 'Come, lie with me, my sister.' She answered him, 'No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this wanton folly. As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the wanton fools in Israel."
"But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her, and lay with her."
"Her . . . she." Right there in the moment of this crime the narrator hints at Tamar's powerlessness by speaking in pronouns. The male characters have names and are called by names, even when a "he" would do. But Tamar is no longer Tamar, only "she."
Amnon's act, in the plan of the creator, was meant to be an expression of love and trust. His is one of violence and hate. The next sentence:
"Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her."
And you look there and find hatred four times, and love twice, and see easily what the situation was.
Now the man who'd said "come lie with me, my sister" is saying "get up and go, you woman." And the word "go" he uses now is the same his father used when he said, "Go to your brother Amnon's house."
In sending her away, Amnon adds insult to injury. Listen now to Tamar as her useless words pour out:
"No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other which you did to me."
But he would not listen to her, it says. He called the young man who served him and said, "Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her."
Just awhile ago, Amnon had wanted Tamar in and the servants out. Now he wants the servants in and her out. She's become a disposable object, a throw-away. And where most translations give the words "put this woman out of my presence," the Hebrew literally has "put this out of my presence." Not my sister, not even this person, but this object, this thing.
That's a crime of its own. Using people as things. We were meant by God to love people and use things, but we do it backward. We love things and use people to get them.
So beautiful Tamar goes out toward her future. Today is the first day of the rest of her life, ha! ha! She rends her robes as she goes and piles ashes on her head. And she cries out loud her misery down the long road.
But where to go? Where can she go? Where will she?
She goes to her brother Absalom, and listen:
"Absalom her brother said to her, 'Was Amnon your brother with you? Now, my sister, be quiet; your brother is he. Do not take to your heart this deed.'"
He seems to say, just forget it, my sister. It seems a plea for silence in the name of family loyalty. It seems to excuse his brother's crime. But something is underneath all this. Absalom has a plan. Absalom is Tamar's friend.
He will someday get revenge. But the thing about revenge is, it won't help Tamar. It'll be just another of those games the men play, while she sits at home in silence.
Perhaps friends stop by now and then, and their effort is to say "just shake it off." It's over now; it wasn't the deal you've made it. Cheer up, count your blessings and get on with your life. And they mean well, but they help nothing.
And now comes the most heart-rending line in the story:
"So Tamar dwelt, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom's house."
What does "desolate" mean?
"Barren, laid waste, devastated." "Having the feeling of being abandoned by friends or by hope." "Solitary, lonely, forlorn." The list goes on: "ravaged, lost, wretched, inconsolable." The desolate person may be aware of others' efforts to give comfort, but cannot be comforted.
The Hebrew word "desolate" is used other times in the Bible of a person destroyed by enemies, or torn to pieces by wild animals.
Why must we live in a world where such harms may come to innocent people on any unsuspecting day? Why?
The better question is likely how. For the why lies out of reach, behind the mystery of our making. But the how we can know something of, and do something with. We can trust in God and strive always to know and do his will.
What is our prayer for Tamar? And for all the butchered, and betrayed, and martyred children of this earth? And for ourselves, in our own most desperate hours?
"O Jesus, grant me hope and comfort;
O let me ne'er in sorrow pine,
My heart and soul, yea, all my being,
O Jesus, trust alone in Thee.
Thou Prince of Peace, Thou Pearl from heaven,
True God, true Man, My Morning Star!
O Jesus, with Thy advent quiet
My restless soul and anxious mind.
In true humility I welcome Thee,
Jesus Christ, my Joy divine.
My thoughts, desires, and all my longings
I dedicate, O Christ, to Thee.
O come Thou precious Sun most radiant,
Thy beams illumine my heart and soul.
O come Thou precious Sun most radiant,
Thy beams illumine my heart and soul."
(Words from a 17th century composition by Johann Wolfgang Franck)
People can reach that place sometimes. But sometimes they can't. Tamar never could. Things happened, but none to help or change her desolate condition. She'd lived a beautiful virgin in the house of a king. Now she lived as a violated thing in a house of pity.
Oh, David was angry when he heard this news. But he never rebuked Amnon. Male had joined male.
Time passed. Absalom still waited his moment.
Two years later it came. And Amnon paid then with his life while drunk on wine, and the crafty Jonadab explained it to David: "By the command of Absalom this has been determined from the day he forced his sister Tamar." Absalom fled and David mourned.
Three more years passed before Absalom returned. And the Bible says "there were born to Absalom three sons and one daughter; her name was Tamar." And she became "a woman beautiful to behold."
Absalom had named a living memorial to his sister, and to the kindness and love he showed her.
Let the story end with that, for it's about the only thing good to be remembered.
The Evangelistic Task of the Church
2 Cor. 5:11-21
Imagine it's night, and you're camping, and you're in the desert. You have the tent up, and a fire made, and some coffee warm. It's a good night, quiet and peaceful, which is why you came here. Then off in the distance you become aware of the sound of something running, and then you see headlights, and it becomes an old pickup truck which gets closer and then stops. A local man gets out and puts his hands to his mouth and hollers at you. He says "Stranger, are you lost?"
And you say no, but come down here and have some coffee if you would. And so he does. And there by your fire he tells you this. "I've lived here all my life. And I know it's nice, but I also know how bad this place can be, especially for a stranger. And so I never meet a man out here but what I ask him if he's lost, and if he needs me to help show him the way."
Now friends, I use that as a parable of what the church is supposed to be doing. And also for what you're supposed to be doing.
This is a world where a person can lose his way. Lose it so he'll never find it on his own. Lose it so he'll perish, without someone's help. And we need to feel it our job in life to look out for those. We mustn't rest easy when fellow travelers are lost and alone. The church must be that friendly voice that calls across the darkness of life, "Stranger, are you lost?"
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o'er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
That's the task of the church as a body, and of all of us individually. And the scripture lesson has a powerful message about what it means, especially verses 17 through 20. Listen:
"If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us."
You find there this revolutionary possibility of new life in Jesus Christ. You can become a "new creation" in him, it says. Meaning a Christian isn't just an improved thing, a modified thing. He isn't just reformed, altered, or updated. He's been remade, transformed, born again.
Now having that experience becomes a kind of stewardship. Those who've had it need to share it. And the experience becomes a vital part itself of what is shared. A Christian witness is one who is himself part of the evidence for what he's witnessing about.
I was telling someone the other day how conservative my seminary used to be about the form of doctoral dissertations. For years they said no zerox copies, each one had to be a typed carbon. And for years they required a stuffy academic style of writing where you can't refer to yourself in any personal way. I was one of the first to do that and get by with it. This is how.
My project was on experimental preaching, and it was a project, not just research in what other people were doing. I had a group of 30 people who evaluated my sermons, but I also had my own feelings and views. So I argued with the powers that were the powers then that I, Ed Briggs, was a part of the evidence in this project, that my thoughts were part of the data that needed presenting, and I must be allowed to say "I" and "my" and "me" and "mine." And they let me.
I'm saying Christians do more than just present objective research to people. "Verse 10 says thus-and-so." "This book I read has a point for you to consider." We do more than that. We say "this is what Jesus means to me." "This is how he's changed my life." So we, ourselves, are part of the data, part of the message.
Of course, you can't witness like that unless you have something to witness about. The person who's been greatly moved himself is the one who can usually move others. The one whose own life seems hardly touched isn't likely to be a witness to his neighbor or fellow worker. So this is where it all comes from.
Notice how Paul puts it: "This is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation." He "reconciled us" and then "gave us" the same duty toward others.
Jesus told the disciples, "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses." Notice: "you shall receive" and "you shall be witnesses." Receive and be. First the personal inward experience, then its extension outward to others.
Acts 4, verse 20: Peter and John are saying "we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard." There are things in life you don't have to speak of, secrets you can hold for years. But some news just has to be told. The news of salvation is that sort of news.
Over and over in the Gospels, there's a refrain of "come and see," then "go and tell." So there's always something first hand about real religion. That's why the songwriter can ask: "Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Where you there when they laid him in the tomb? Were you there when he rose up from the dead? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble."
The trembling become the telling. They have, as Paul puts it, "a ministry of reconciliation." He even calls them ambassadors, a term we know a lot about in the Washington area. But how often do we think of ourselves that way?
Christ said he came to seek and save the lost.(Luke 19:10) Then later he said to the people who followed him: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you."(John 20:21) Meaning now the task of seeking and saving the lost belongs to us. As Wesley said in 1739: "I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation."
And what an opportunity we have to do that right here where we live. The world literally beats a path to our doors. We live at a great crossroads of culture where all peoples of this earth mingle. And the church was commissioned to be a house of prayer for all nations, so what better place than here? The worst thing that could come of us is to be private and exclusive, and I thank God we're not.
I have just a little bit of my southern accent left. Not much, but a little! And it marks me, I know, which is fine. Everyone comes from somewhere. I like where I came from, as most people do.
But we're all bound for another place than where we came from, aren't we? Maybe when I'm done they'll take my ashes back to East Tennessee and leave them there, but that's not my destination. I'm bound for the Promised Land.
And it's important for me to let people know that. I'm no ambassador for the state of Tennessee , but for the Kingdom of God, you see. All of us are.
Now what do you think about that? And do you think about it? You better. It needs to be on our minds like it was for Paul as he said "woe is me if I preach not the Gospel."(1 Corinthians 9:16) Woe is us if we preach it not.
There's never been an easy time for doing that task. But we have a lot going for us today. We have tools. We have printing, and tape recorders, and cars, and radio. We have the U.S. Postal Service. We have a fine building here, spacious and well located. We have a fair-sized budget. We have religious and political freedom. And with all that to draw on, I think it's right to say that the Lord is really counting on us to make a difference in this world.
In the book of Acts, Christians paid dearly for their efforts to spread the faith. Some were beaten, some jailed, and some even killed. But you know what they said? One of them said this: "And now, Lord, behold their threatenings; and grant unto Thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word."(Acts 4:29)
There's a story about a man in a prison, waiting out his execution. It was morning, and he was scheduled to die at sundown. But during that day, the King decided to pardon the man, and he sent a messenger to have the man set free.
The messenger knew what wonderful news he had, and on the way he decided to stop off and buy some clothing for this man. After all, you wouldn't want to go home in your prison clothes. And that was a nice thing to do. So he got the clothes and went on.
And a little further, he thought about food as well, and stopped for that. He selected a whole basket of things. And then later some new shoes and other things. But then as he got on the road again, he realized he must hurry, because the sun was getting low in the sky. And he did, but not enough. He arrived with his hands full of gifts, but too late. Without the message he brought, there could be no pardon. The sentence had been carried out.
Now don't misunderstand. The task of the church has to do with food and clothing. And with worship and study. And with fellowship and even recreation. And with music and celebration.
But we must always remember that in our possession is a pardon from the King which others need desperately. And our first priority must be delivering that to those who are lost without it.
No Turning Back
Of all the things you own, which are the ones you'd least want to part with?
Dad gave me a .22 rifle that was mine as a boy. It isn't for sale. I've seen women so attached to their wedding ring they wouldn't give it up to go to the operating room, so the nurse stuck adhesive tape around it instead. And don't you have a cardboard box of old snapshots somewhere in a closet? What would you take for it?
You've seen children with a toy they hold onto when things aren't going well. Try grabbing that away and see what happens. Try trading something for it, and you'll find nothing trades. That toy is non-negotiable, as we say.
What are your non-negotiables? What isn't for sale? What doesn't have a price you'd hand it over for?
Example. What would you take for half of your little finger? Either hand. But you'd have to lay it down on a block and let someone chop it off with a hatchet! Is there any price worth that to you? What about a million dollars in cash? Tax deductable? Are there people who'd do that if you wouldn't? And have there been Christians who endured that and worse for no personal gain at all?
Listen: "Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated . . .."(Hebrews 11:35-37)
Why? They lived in the days of Roman persecution, and their profession of faith was non-negotiable.
I speak of a point where limits are reached, where loyalties are tested, where what means most is called into question. I speak of situations where you put up or shut up. Where you're forced by circumstances to go on in difficulty or turn back toward ease, one or the other.
"After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, 'Will you also go away?' Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.'"(John 6:66-69)
People willing to go so far but no further. Willing to be a little serious about their faith but not too serious. Starting out to be good Christians, but drawing back at the first sign of hardship.
William Penn, kicked out of the Church of England, took his father's wealth and bought the territory of Pennsylvania as an experiment in religious liberty. Wasn't easy. But he said "disappointments that come not by our own folly, they are the trials and corrections of Heaven; and it is our own fault if they prove not to our advantage."
Jesus seized this occasion to test the loyalty of those Twelve. "Will you also go away?" I doubt not that each one considered it. But all stayed. The going got tough but they kept going.
And that raises for us the same question this Communion Sunday. What's the capacity of our faith for enduring hardship, embarrassment, pain, and toil?
If you were doing a job in church–really working hard–and if no one at all seemed to notice or care, would you go on, or would you quit?
What if every obedience got painful and discouraging, and no one, not even God, seemed to appreciate what you were doing–would you also go away?
What if the government said no more tax deductions, no more freedom, no more public meetings. Give it up or face the consequences. What then with Christians in America?
Or what if people who used to serve your church started dropping out one by one, and you looked around one day and it was only you and a few others left, and them discouraged, what then? What's your point of turning back?
There's a cave on Homer Chaney's land near Cub Run, Kentucky. It goes way back in the side of a mountain. You start by wading through ice-cold water. Then you crawl in a stream for half an hour, before you can finally walk bent over. After that comes the payoff–miles of high ceiling and nice formations, curious ornaments, beautiful colors. You can go for hours. But you think how far you are from daylight. You'd like to get out of there without having to go back that narrow way you came, but there's no such option in Homer Chaney's cave. You begin to pass the names of people who came that far and turned back. You think about it.
The going gets tougher. You're crawling again. And then later twisting, squeezing, and squirming to make it on a little further. You lie on your belly with that mountain on top of you, listening to your breathing, and wonder if anyone ever got that far or not. And as a witness that you did, you leave your mark.
Mine is way in the back of Homer Chaney's cave–Ed Briggs, 1963–and no man or woman will ever get there without a lot of determination and some loss of skin. (And I wouldn't go back to it again if your paid me!)
Now in the scripture, you'll notice the crowd was going away from Jesus, and that made it hard for those twelve. Because he'd been so popular, and usually the crowds were coming, not going.
What do you do when the sweet taste of success turns sour, when progress stalls, when the high ceilings lower down and you have to crawl on your belly?
Simon Peter knew the right question and the answer. "To whom shall we go? You have the words of Eternal Life."
Strange way to put it. "You have the words . . .."
Who needs more words in this day we live? Why, we're buried under words. Thousands of books, reports, hearings, conferences. Words by commentators, preachers, editors, critics. Words in offices, classrooms, homes, halls. Words everywhere. Who needs more?
Ah, but notice! Christ has the words of what? Eternal Life!
Which means life with beginning but no end. Life where you never have to turn back. Where there's always a way to keep going forward. Until one day after a lot of pain and struggle, squirming and twisting and squeezing, we'll pass wondering through an exit, into light no one ever described, to a land no one ever explored.
God so loved the world, that he gave his Son so whoever believes should not perish on the way but have Eternal Life.
Given the promise of a journey like that, who would turn back for anything else?
The Wisdom of Two
Since I grew up a college professor's boy, I was around things on the campus a lot. Maryville College, where Dad taught, had a lot of traditions. One of them was the freshman foot race at the homecoming football game.
All the freshman had to line up on the goal line, then race to the other end of the field and back. They were made to take off their shoes. While they ran upperclassmen would mix all the shoes up in one big pile, and everyone would laugh. But you did watch the race to see who'd win.
It's every man for himself in a thing like that. Many enter, but only one comes out ahead. No one does others any favor, because each is trying to outdo the rest.
Is that what life is like? Is it me against you, and you against me? If we stop along the way to help someone in need, is that stupid? If we give more than we get back, have we played the fool? A lot of people think so.
Competitive isolation. You run alone, and you run to beat other people. Soft-hearted is out, hard-hearted is in. Don't decide anything by what people want and need, consider only what you want and need. Watch out for someone who tries to get close to you, he's up to something. Beware that talk of love, beware the tenderness trap. It's just you, baby–you're all you've got!
Maybe they're right. Maybe that's the smart way to be.
Have you heard about the Luther Rice pigeon launcher? No, it isn't something the youth are selling to raise money! He's a man from Baltimore whose hobby is racing pigeons. He comes to our parking lot with his crates of pigeons and turns them loose to fly back home. He's training them to race, sometimes hundreds of miles.
The man lets only one pigeon loose at a time. He doesn't want them to fly in a group, he says. If they fly in a group they fly at the speed of the slowest pigeon.
I don't know who the slowest pigeon here would be, but there's bound to be one, and you'd slow all the rest of us down if we stuck with you!
So he takes one pigeon out, and launches it, and watches till it's gone out of sight. That takes awhile, because the man says a launched pigeon will circle once at least with his eye on the Luther Rice parking lot, hoping some buddy may be let loose to fly to Baltimore with him. If you had to fly all the way to Baltimore you might like company too. But the pigeon launcher never lets them do that.
It may work well in pigeon racing. I'm sure it does. But what of human life and how God our Creator meant it to be lived?
Ecclesiastes says, "Woe to him who is alone." It says:
"Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him."
That's a very vivid passage, it seems to me. And it makes its point through four images that each raises a question. First, there's THE ECONOMIC QUESTION. "Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil."
We do better as shareholders with one another. We accomplish more as laborers together. For people joined creatively in the effort of life, the payoff increases by multiples, not just by addition. One plus one can make more than two. Two plus two can amount to more than four. You might call this "Christianomics." Here's how it used to work:
"The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need."
All through the Acts of the Apostles, you find examples of that corporate principle. People helping one another, working together, praying together, living as brothers and sisters one of another. Like a family. Like those who dream common dreams, united in a cause greater than any one individual's effort.
That cause mattered most. And the individual found his greatest fulfillment in it, not in himself. And the world was turned upside down as a result.
They were no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. They were built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the cornerstone. And it was like a building being built, with lives joined one to another, and the whole structure growing into a holy temple of the Lord.
Now when you have the chance to be part of something like that, isn't it sad that anyone decides the smart thing is to be a loner and go his own way?
Let's look at the second image. "Two are better than one, for if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls, and has not another to lift him up." That raises, you see, THE CRISIS QUESTION. What happens when trouble comes if you're alone?
I had a call from Bill Hensley this week, and it reminded me again of the night Bill fell. Three of us had been riding motorcycles in a deserted field, and unwisely kept at it after dark. I said "riding," I guess I should have said racing.
Although it's been 15 or 20 years, I can still see that place and remember how it rode. It had hills and jumps and places where you slid around corners with your leg stuck out to balance. And there was a straightaway, and a lot of tight little turns. And there was one dangerous place off the back of a hill where the path was only a couple of feet wide and had some big, mean, gulleys off to either side.
You better not miss the trail and land in one of them.
Like Bill did.
Out there away from nowhere in the dark. No one saw him, but he went down, over the handlebars, and his leg got caught and broke between the ankle and the knee. The engine died, the lights went out, there he lay in pain alone.
Now my illustration is, what if he'd really been alone? What if I hadn't been 20 seconds behind him to stop and run down there? To go get an ambulance? To help lift him up?
No person would ever have heard him that dark night. No way to move, start the motor, do anything but lie in the dirt and suffer. Hoping that tomorrow someone might come.
"Woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up."
As we did Bill that night. As Bill did me some times I needed it the nine years we were together. As people do who join lives in love and live as brothers and sisters.
When you do that, you have a friend by your side in time of need. And none of us is so smart, or so safe, or so happy, or so insured, or so lucky, that there won't be times in life when we desperately need someone's help to lift us up.
What if you're alone when death visits? I don't mean physically alone. What if you lose a parent or child or friend and there's no one close to help bear it? Or what if you lose your job and don't know of a soul who cares one way or another? What if you're so depressed you think about suicide, and aren't aware of a soul in this world who cares one way or another? You see?
Look at the third image of that text. "Two are better than one . . . (for) if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone?" Life is like a cold bed in an unheated house. And if you lie in it alone, the cold and damp will chill and ache your bones. But if two lie together, they both can be warm.
Some of the force of that metaphor is lost on us, I suppose. We have heated houses now, and warm electric blankets. We're far removed from tents and dirt floors and tar paper shacks where the winter wind blows through.
But we're not exempt from the need for some hand to hold, some body close, some warmth, some intimacy. Read any magazine, watch any play, overhear any conversation for long and you'll sense it. Listen to the songs: "What the world needs now is love, sweet love; it's the only thing that there's far too little of."
The last image is this: "Two are better than one. . . (for) though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him." Which raises what we might call THE ENEMY QUESTION.
There's danger in this world–people get hurt every day. Lives get ruined every day. And the perils are bad enough when we face them with others, but what if we face them alone? That's why the policemen go out in twos at night. It's why the rangers tell you don't hike alone. Whatever strength we have is multiplied in unity with others.
After one of his victories at sea, Lord Nelson wrote: "I had the happiness to command a band of brothers." And when the church of Jesus knows that same wisdom, the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
St. John of the Cross wrote: "He that desires to be alone without the support of a master and guide will be like the tree that is alone in the field and has no owner. However much fruit it bears, passers-by will pluck it all, and it will not mature. The tree that is cultivated and kept with the favour of its owner gives in due season the fruit that is expected of it."
He also said: "The soul that is alone and without a master is like the burning coal that is alone. It will grow colder rather than hotter. He that falls alone remains on the ground alone and holds his soul of small account, since he trusts it to himself alone. If thou fearest not to fall alone, how dost thou presume to rise alone? See how much more can be done by two together than by one alone!"(quotations from Baillie, A Diary of Readings, p. 247)
I guess I'd just to say, to close, that as we all know, it's hard sometimes to get along with one another. It's hard with, but it's impossible without.
An Earth Filled with Violence
I suppose you expected I'd say something about my trip this morning. I've crossed the country twice on a motorcycle, almost 7,000 miles, a lot of it in territory I'd never seen.
And I was thinking on the way home how I should respond when people meet me in the hall and ask "how was your trip?" You don't want a speech when you ask that, which I could give you, so I condensed it to this sentence. My trip was surely an effort, but never a misery, and it was always a delight, and sometimes an ecstasy.
Ecstasy? Briggs ecstatic? You think of me as quiet and low-key. But friends, behind that calm facade, there rages a creature of feeling and passion, and something of a poet and explorer.
Now, you see more things the way I traveled, and I saw many so beautiful that I cried, and some so exciting that I shouted. And I talked to new animals I never met before, and to myself, and to God. And I preached sermons, and sang out loud, and made remarks to local the inhabitants. (He is crazy, just like we thought!)
So I had quite a journey, and I made notes like a diary. Only you can't write in a notebook as you ride along, so I took my little tape recorder I can hold in one hand and dictated stuff as I rode along. Some of it you'll hear about.
What I'm saying is, I traveled theologically and sermonically and introspectively. I observed things, and thought about things, and got reminded of things, and related that to my faith in God and what I see as his mission in the world.
So . . . I want to give one of those as an introduction to my sermon this morning. I was in Wyoming where my first day of travel home ended, and the second one began. I'd hoped to make Laramie for the night, but ended up in a town called Rawlins, elevation about 11,000 feet, up near the Continental Divide.
I saw deer standing in herds on my ride to Rawlins. Sometimes 15 or 20 at a time. And I saw in the far distance the high peaks of Colorado, some of which I've climbed. And I saw sky, and color, and land, and vastness. I saw much to make a person feel good about God, and his life, and his country. It seemed a fair and peaceful land.
Darkness had come when I got my room for the night. I'd ridden 650 miles that day. I decided I deserved to sleep at least till 7:00 next morning. I set my watch. And I did sleep good in Wyoming, but roused up at 5:00, and felt ready for the day, and something said "go for it," and I did. Packed my stuff and headed out as the barest hint of light showed in the sky.
The air was cool and crystal clear. The bright stars overhead would be fading one by one as the dawn neared. The clouds at first were solid black shapes against the grey. And I rode, and listened to Aaron Copeland's music, and watched as light began to mark where the dawn would come and begin turning clouds to color one by one.
The land was waking. Animals that saw me pass I now began to see, and the snow on distant slopes, and Elk Mountain on my right, and the Medicine Bow River on my left. It was well with the tires, and with the motor, and with me. I was Adam and Eve in their garden, Columbus finding land, an astranaut hanging in space above the earth, or any other explorer in his stage of discovery.
So I rode along in a thrill of this feeling of oneness with God and the earth until an interruption came, and it was this.
Way off in the distance, I saw another of those funny antennas sticking out of the ground. And I can't say if that was really a missile launching site or not, and it doesn't matter. I was reminded. I was shaken from my peace with the realization that Wyoming is one of those places we've dug our silos and stationed nuclear weapons.
So that from this very garden of beauty, this seemingly hallowed place, destruction would first go, and to it destruction would first come. And then I began then to picture cities shattered, children screaming, fires raging, rivers ruined, pestilence spreading, and all those horrors that will be let loose if anyone pushes the button.
I looked down then at my instruments, for no particular reason, and saw at my thumbs two buttons, one yellow, and one red. The horn on the left, the starter on the right.
And I imagined, "what if?" I imagined, what if this–that I, Ed Briggs, could push one of those buttons and launch all those weapons, all at once, all in Wyoming and in our country, and in every country, all the earth stores, and send them to deep outer space to explode their wrath harmlessly, and there be no more to threaten our world, ever again.
I would do it in an instant, I knew. I imagined how the earth would shake and the skies roar, and how people would fear at first and then later rejoice. And once in my fantasy, I pondered an actual prayer to God that I be given the power to do this as a miracle of his, and that here in Wyoming I would really push my button and see if it worked.
But I lacked the sort of faith for that. Yet I carried for many miles an acute sorrow of a world so blessed by the works of God to be cursed by the deeds of men.
My text this morning contains a story of the first recorded violence on the earth. Someone was angry at someone for something and took up a weapon and killed him. And the Lord, it says, was greatly displeased, and even sorry that he had made man on the earth, and in summary the Bible says:
"Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence."
What is violence? It's the use of force to cause harm. As with Cain in his murder of Abel, anger may be its motive. But it can also be greed, or pride, or jealousy, or lust, or envy–any of that list of sins the Bible calls worst. All those things that mitigate against love, which are the poison and contradiction of love.
"God is love," the scripture says. The force of God is the power of love, and not the power of force. The constant example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was to embody that, to demonstrate it, to preach and teach it, and finally to die for it, rejecting steadfastly every temptation of the Devil to do otherwise.
You or I would have done otherwise.
"Send me those angels, Father. Get even with those men who pierced me with these nails and hung me here. My cause is surely just, they're to be blamed. Do it!"
But he wouldn't ask that. He would die first.
Now the world looks on such a man as a fool, of course. The world judges, and even some Christians judge, that force works and love doesn't. We trust our power and might.
But Jesus taught that those who take the sword shall die by the sword, that violence consumes instead of saving. As the scripture puts it: "Some trust in horses, and some in chariots, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God." Most of us are still a lot more comfortable with the horses and chariots.
Now I don't intend at all to dwell just on world and national violence. But I start with that to suggest that individual acts of violence owe something to the climate of the times. When violence is preached and practiced in the larger realms it tends to justify its use by individuals. Times of lyching and mob violence, times of racial violence, political assassinations, labor violence, civil uprisings–those encourage other violent expressions.
I agree with concerns about violence on television. From an early age our children are treated to hundreds of thousands of murders and other violent acts just by tuning in. What ought to be learned as abnormal gets seen as normal. John Wayne lives on. You don't take nothin' offa' nobody. You get your gun and go get 'um. No wonder John could never play a love scene. It wasn't manly, or even American!
The current issue of National Enquirer, which I read the cover of in checkout lines when no one's looking, has an article titled something about "Dynasty Fights Spinoff With Shocking Programs." Notice the verb. Even people in the business of entertainment are "fighting" one another, according to that. Did you notice Bill Cosby lately refused to have his T.V. show in competition against others? One voice in a wilderness, of course, but he's expressing what I'm talking about. The world needs more love and less warfare.
Rape crisis lines are taking record numbers of calls. Wife beating is on the rise. Cruel landlords inflict suffering on helpless tenants. Street crime rises. Churches call off night services because of fear. States are busy executing criminals again. Missing children number over a million a year, and physical and sexual abuse of children gains in frequency. Our national budget for inflicting violence expands while that for helping improve the lives of people shrinks. Armed conflicts rage in more than 40 countries, and the list goes on and on.
I propose that all this is interrelated, especially with the rise of worldwide communication. After all, it used to take a letter months to cross the country, so it was hard for folk in one place to get upset over what went on somewhere else, at least as fast. Now they do.
A white man shoots a black man in Memphis and fires burn in Chicago and Los Angeles. An American president goes on television with a provoking incident that took place around the world and gets instant approval for retaliation. Women look funny at their husbands because they saw something on a soap opera that afternoon. See what I'm saying? The media have potential to educate for good, but are often used to inflame for bad.
I know there's debate about whether T.V. makes us what we are or simply shows us as we are. Either way we're in a heap of trouble. And I think the answer to that is, both of the above.
The picture of God's intention for this earth is found in Isaiah, Chapter 11. It shows a world which is one community, a peaceable kingdom, where God rules with justice. Where wolves and sheep lie down in peace, and little babies play with snakes and are not harmed. Where fear is gone and love has come as the common way. Where swords have been made into farming tools, like crops of corn growing on abandoned missile silos in Wyoming.
And, friends, we are called, each of us, to work with God, first to be that kind of people ourselves, and next to bring about a world like that.
A place to begin is the example of Jesus, who renounced all use of personal violence, and taught others to do the same. He said:
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you to take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you."
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven."
Is that easy? No.
Do many people really try to live that way? I fear not.
I'm reminded of a saying that "the teaching of Jesus has not been tried and found wanting, it's been found hard and so has not has been tried.
Toward a Meaningful Worship
"Praise God from whom all blessings flow . . ." (Hey, listen, have you got any chewing gum. I wish I'd remembered to get a drink before we came in here. What about mints–you got any mints?)
"Praise Him all creatures here below . . ." (Would you look at this? They spelled evening e-v-n-i-n-g right here in this bulletin! Whatcha wanta bet I can find some more mistakes?)
"Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts . . ." (Same old songs, over and over again–gimmie a break! Why do we have to sing at church? That's what we pay the choir for!)
"Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." (What's next Sunday? School's out, you know? Why don't we go somewhere and do something? Too much of this could get you down!)
Is that worship? Is it enough to be bodily present in a room where nice things are said about God? If the nice things are said especially well, does that mean those present have worshiped better? What practical difference would true worship make in the life of a busy, modern person?
I say much. I say Emerson was onto something when he asked: "What greater calamity can fall upon a nation than the loss of worship?" I say the worship of God is a need within us and we'll be sick in our souls if we do nothing about it.
Every now and then you read stories about some adopted child who's made a tremendous effort to seek out his natural parents. Time and money and phone calls and letters and plane tickets and ads in the paper, all of that. And if you caught him in the middle of it and asked "why?" you'd get an answer something like this: "Because I want to, I need to, and I almost have to." And you might say to him, "why, this is silly, this doesn't matter, this changes nothing." But that won't change him.
Now friends, I say we all have a parent we've never met. We have a heavenly father, or heavenly mother, a Creator whose child we are. And we have a need within us to know what we can about that Parent who made us, and what he or she is like, and what was intended in it for our lives.
If that isn't so, why do you find, wherever you go on the face of this wide earth, temples, mosques, cathedrals, monasteries, totem poles, brush arbors, store front meeting houses, pyramids, sacred shrines, synagogues and churches of every size and shape? Doesn't their very presence tell something about us?
There are hospitals, aren't there? Places with beds and medicines and laboratories and operating rooms–what does that say? That we get sick! That our bodies need repair, have accidents, and also we have an urge to keep them going when they do, to live and survive. That's what it says.
We have those places for our cars, don't we. Where they keep spare parts and do surgery! "Looks like the fuel pump to me–put a new one in. And new spark plugs while we're at it." Hospitals for our cars, which tells that they get sick too, and have to be helped, or they die before their time.
Are there eating places? Man, are there eating places! You look in the yellow pages sometime under "pizza." And there are high priced and low priced restaurants, and fast food and slow food restaurants, and foods of all countries, and what does this tell about us? That we need nourishment, need it regularly, and find in a rather satisfying activity.
So in the same manner, isn't something demonstrated by all the real estate man devotes to religious activity? Look in the yellow pages under "churches" sometime. Driving, you can count almost 40 just on 16th street between Silver Spring and the White House. And you can find them out in the country at every little cross roads town. What does that mean?
It must mean that man is religious by nature. We're like the machine that gets out of whack and needs to be taken somewhere. It's like the hunger and thirst that bring us to a restaurant. It's like pain that makes us go somewhere for relief. No one can dispute that, but the question then becomes: is what we're doing the best that can be done?
One problem I see is what you might call the "shrine complex." We're big on building things to honor God, but not always as big on honoring him ourselves. We spend a bundle on architecture, carpet, soft lighting, great music. And yet, unless souls who love God come there gladly to honor him, I doubt that he's all that impressed with the place. After all, he made the Himalayas, and the oceans, and the stars over head, and . . . well, just because you put his name on the cornerstone doesn't mean he'll come around–unless you do.
And I really mean more than just "come around," don't I? They that worship him must worship him . . . how? "In spirit and in truth." And where that's happening, he comes around. But where it isn't, he never bothers.
The Bible says you can't house God in a temple made with hands. There's no way to get him inside and lock the door so he can't run away. We are his possessions, not the other way around. Instead of an idol to be possessed, we have on our hands a Spirit to worship. And in spite of the fact that we'd love to control that process–as man always tries to control–this is the process that controls us. So we'll never, never do it.
Worship lies in the realm of faith. It falls in the category of things like love and joy and hope. Things you can't just grasp and hold. Things you don't manufacture, buy, or sell, or store. Things that come and go. Things that often arrive as gifts and unmerited. Things you pray for.
There's mystery in the worship of God, mystery we'll never explain or settle. And if we ever think we've explained and settled it, that's a sure sign we've actually missed it.
Isaiah "saw the Lord high and lifted up" not because he was in a certain place at a certain time, but because his heart was right, and the Lord chose to reveal himself. He saw strange and wonderful things in that experience, things we may never see. But then, we might see things he never saw. None of this is in our control.
Isaiah cried out "Woe is me!" because of what happened there. Because he felt personally involved and committed to the process that was happening. Real worship is no concert where you pay your money at the door, enjoy what goes on, then leave with all debts squared away. Real worship is an experience in which the claim of God on your life becomes concrete and personal.
Worship changes things. What you bring in may be radically altered before you take it away. It ought to be. For without the aid of this God you worship, you too are lost, you too are of unclean lips, dwelling in the midst of a people of unclean lips. So you come to ponder how things must change.
Isaiah heard a voice inviting his service. And he responded: "Here am I! Send me." Which shows how in true worship there's always some call, some open door, some opportunity to join up with something and get on a different track than the one you were on before.
We realize we owe something. And little as it might be, we bring something in our hands. That's why the offering is so often misunderstood. Some people think of it as a money-raising deal. It's what we have to do to pay the bills, they suppose. But it's far more than that. It's a rendering of gratitude to the Lord who made us. It's a holy thing, where we say "here's something that cost me something" and offer it as a token of our love for God." No one should do that lightly.
And about myself. I am not here to perform for you, in the usual sense of a performer. You make the biggest difference here, not me. Why, you can take the poorest job I've ever done and use it for worship to the Glory of God. And you can take the best job I've ever done and make it like sounding brass and a tinkling symbol. We have shared privileges here, and a shared responsibility.
Having ears to hear with, some people hear nothing. Having eyes to see with, they see nothing. Having minds that ought to think God's thoughts, and hearts that ought to feel his presence, they think nothing and feel nothing. This ought not to be.
The best done worship may seem dull if you come without expectations, and with no preparation. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness–hunger and thirst! There's an effort involved. Something needs to be at stake. Risks need to be run. Accustomed patterns often need to be broken.
Try spending some time in prayer before the service. Or reading in that Bible there in front of you. Or moving your usual seat. Or leaving your watch in your purse or coat pocket. Or taking notes like the Koreans do. Or singing out instead of mumbling along.
What if I could look out and see more smiles or tears or puzzlement or amazement or anger or remorse–anything except those blank expressions. You don't believe me? Hey, I offer you my seat, right here. Blank expressions, that's what you see the most.
What if we all sang together like a choir, and felt it like Edrie does? What would it sound like? And what if we all worked weekly at inviting other people to come fill those empty seats and the balcony too? What if we did those things?
I'm not saying it's all in our hands. I'm not suggesting there's anything humanly controlled about God's presence in our midst. But if we want that "sweet, sweet Spirit" in the house, we must do those things that make for a welcome.
In his Leaves From A Spiritual Notebook, Dwight Bradley spoke of it this way:
"Worship is a thirsty land crying out for rain, It is a candle in the act of being kindled, It is a drop in quest of the ocean, It is a voice in the night calling for help, It is a soul standing in awe before the mystery of the universe, It is time flowing into eternity . . . a man climbing the altar stairs to God."
I'd like to rededicate myself to that effort. I'd like to see our worship mean more–to you, to your family and friends, and to the host of those about us whose need this is, but haven't found it out yet. I'd like for more of you to have something to say now and then. And I'd like for our children and youth to grow with us too.
Let's pray for that to happen . . ..
Worthy is the Lamb
This morning I want us to open one of the "picture books" of our Bible and just imagine. As Augustine said: "God is more truly imagined than expressed."
Let's try to feel God as a poet feels his poems, which he often finds great difficulty explaining. For God has made us more to love him and less to understand him.
Some people begin by trying to understand, hoping someday to love. But perhaps it's better to try to love, hoping someday to understand.
Now I've read you the "punch line" already, but it won't hurt. It comes at the end of a tremendous scene in chapters 4 and 5 of the Revelation. As I said, it's a picture, meant to express feelings about God and his son Jesus Christ.
So look! Look and see an open door, and through it, heaven itself. What an opportunity! Doors mean opportunity, don't they? The Lord said to one church, "I have set before you an open door." Another time he said, "Behold I stand at the door and knock."
As you see that door from a distance, you hear a voice like a trumpet telling you to come closer and look. And you'll see a lot of things through that door, but first of all a throne, and someone on it, and the awe and majesty of the place will tell you this is where the Lord God himself is seated.
And you can't look long, but look! See the brightness, the colors of jasper and carnelian, and around that throne a rainbow.
This is your creator, be in wonder. This is your judge, be afraid. This is God who lets you see through that door and feel what's to be felt, be grateful.
When Handel wrote the "Messiah" he said "I saw the heavens opened, and God upon his great white throne," and now you can see it.
Around that throne you begin to see other thrones. Each has on it someone important. Count. There are 24, but why? Under the old covenant there were 12 tribes, with the new there were 12 apostles. Add that up and you might have it, or maybe it's just to remind us about the size of the family of God.
Look again, there are others there around that throne. You see to its right and left four creatures. A lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle. Each has many wings, and many eyes, and they never cease to give God praise. Man and nature joined together in a song of the whole creation.
You feel, as you see this, that any creature in the world fulfilling its intended purpose is good in the sight of God. And that such praise could well be the chief reason we exist. And if we never join it we've failed in our purpose, no matter what else we accomplish.
There's much more to see, but think for a moment what some of this means. The throne of God is central. You don't hunt it up, it's right there in the middle. In fact, you can't avoid it. He isn't just the concern of the curious and the historian, he's the one with whom we all must deal.
Paul Tillich said:
"God is inescapable. He is God only because he is inescapable. And only that which is inescapable is God . . .. A man who has never tried to flee God has never experienced the god who is really God . . . . A god whom we can easily bear, a god from whom we do not have to hide, a god whom we do not hate in moments, a god whose destruction we never desire, is not God at all . . .."
Do you see it now? God on his throne, and all that brightness, all that color. 24 thrones in a circle below, and those four strange creatures singing his praise. Add a flash of lightning now and then. Put a sea of glass in front, and seven burning torches.
Listen to the song they sing–"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come." And the 24 elders from those 24 thrones take off their 24 crowns and cast them down before the throne of God. And you are meant to feel exactly the same way.
Now up to this point, all seems to be well here. But you must see there's a problem. Look closely at the throne. Shield you eyes, but look. See that there's something in his hand, and it's a scroll, sealed up.
That scroll is your hope of salvation. Without the message it contains, you are lost, and lost eternally. Listen to an angel asking who can open it? And now they are moaning, moaning around the throne, that no one can.
There's absolutely nothing you can do about this, feel it. Nothing but stand and watch and hope and pray. Your fate is not in your hands, not now. The scroll of your hope is sealed shut.
Ah! but look! There's something you haven't seen, there beside the throne. One other creature-looking thing. And one of the elders is trying to tell you not to weep or worry, because this is able to break open what was shut, and deliver from death your soul and his.
Prepare to be amazed. For a lamb is standing there, a lamb that looks slain. 33 times the book of Revelation gives this picture. "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
A lamb–how unexpected to find on a throne of the universe! And a slain lamb at that.
Later on in this drama, you meet a beast, savage like a leopard or a bear. And there's a struggle between the two, this lamb and that beast, and you might fear for the lamb. But don't despair.
The great choice is here–between love of power, and the power of love. Between the beast in us, and the lamb. Between taking of life, and the giving of it.
And this lamb, this sacrificial lamb whose body was broken, whose blood was shed, steps up, as you watch, and takes and opens that scroll no one could touch. And all heaven breaks loose!
There are angels and harps and incense and more singing. But a new song now that goes:
"Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing."
"Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign . . .."
With that, those there around the throne cry out "Amen!"
And if you don't, you'll wish you had.