A TIME TO ACT
2 Kings 6:24-30, 7:3-20
A part of the wonder of the ways of God is how good may come out of evil. Great lessons are taught amid the suffering of dreadful circumstances. And those recorded in our scripture lesson today are surely among the worst. Israel's king Hehoahaz is fighting for his life in Samaria, and the strategy faced is starvation.
Starving people do desperate things. The head of an ass was sold for thirty dollars in those days, sold for food. A pint of pigeon droppings brought three. You say you wouldn't eat that, but you don't know what you'd do if you were starving. One of my seminary commencement speakers was a Japanese prisoner during World War II. He told right in our lovely chapel one day about sending his children out to search through cow manure for undigested grains of corn to eat. And you don't know, if you were starving and there was nothing else.
During those days the King was walking the city wall and overheard two women in an argument. It went something like this:
"Where's your son?"
"I can't tell you."
"It was your idea, you know."
"I know that, but I just can't do it."
"You've got to, we're starving. Why should all of us die when some can live? Go get your boy. He's little . . . he won't understand. We've got to eat, and he's all we have."
"How dare you say no? It was your idea. And we ate my son
The King rent his clothes, torn as he was. He had some blame for Elisha, the prophet of God, but blame was little help. Inside those walls the starving continued, and this drama of waiting went on.
Outside the city were four men whose situation was even worse. They were lepers. The city had cast them out, and the enemy hadn't even bothered to kill them. No one was about to feed them from either side. They were men in the middle.
Those four sat together and pondered what to do. They could go to their kinsmen in the city and beg for mercy, but they knew there was no food, so why bother? They could sit where they were and die. They could hope and even pray, but they'd been doing that to no avail. There wasn't a good choice in sight, but there was one other.
At least it was something to do. They could act at least. They could go to the camp of the enemy and take their chances. As well to be killed by Syrians as sit by the gate and starve. This became their fateful choice.
So at twilight, those four men arose and used their last strength in a desperate journey to the enemy camp. I doubt they spoke of hope as they went. They may have joked the jokes of the nervous. They may have sung, or just trudged in silence, each alone in his thoughts.
Now they could see the tents. Maybe they could smell food in the air, for the Syrians had food, everyone knew. Closer they came. Not much longer now.
They got closer to that camp than they ever dreamed they would. They walked right in, as a matter of fact, and saw not a soldier. They found the camp deserted, and everything left behind. Tents, horses, clothing, weapons, . . . and food!
"Here, give me some of that!"
"Take it all, there's plenty more."
"I can't eat any more, my stomach hurts."
"Let's hide this gold, we'll all be rich."
"Wait a minute–what about the people in the city?"
Ah yes, what about them? These beggars owed them no favors, did they now? They'd been cast out to die. Kinsmen they were, but rejected kinsmen. So what will they do?
Well, sometime in the middle of that night, with food stains fresh on their new-borrowed clothing, those four lepers came back to the city gate and told their story. The King took it for a Syrian trick, which made some sense. Still, he wondered if it could possibly be so, and being desperate and having nothing else to do, he decided it was worth a few soldiers to check and see.
"Let us send and see," he said, and off the party went. They found evidence of an army fled as if in fright, with all its belongings left behind. And the people ate, and the city was saved.
What can we say that means to us? At first glance, it seems to mean nothing at all, well fed as we are. But I wonder.
I wonder about our spiritual state. I wonder if it can't be said that we're all beggars in that realm. I wonder if our Syrian-like abundance of food, clothing, and shelter doesn't hide a very desperate state when it comes to faith, hope, and love.
They laughed at Jimmy Carter for that "crisis of the spirit" speech he did. I guess it wasn't very good politics. Maybe it's ill-advised for a President to tell his country it has a spiritual sickness. But I think he was right then, and is still right today.
All have sinned, the Bible says, every last one. And the wages of sin is death. Our material prosperity is a great deception. As the Lord sees us we're much like those people of Laodicea. They said they were rich and increased with goods, but he called them poor and blind and miserable and naked. So let's try thinking of that ancient story as a parable of our own condition.
See in it our helplessness to save ourselves. A state of things where we've done all we can to get out of the mess we're in, all to no avail. Where every choice left seems a hopeless choice. Where only an act of God himself will do the job.
Those four were trapped in a situation they had no control of.
And how much control do we have, in things that matter? We play our games of power as if something important were really in our hands, and God must laugh. Oh, you can write a check for so much? you can fire someone? you can take a trip? you can buy a house or car?
It seems things are in our power, you see, but they're only child's play. We go on with our little games for the briefest of an instant, then what becomes of them and us? What control do we have of that?
That's the dilemma I want us to stare at. And it won't be solved by our sitting around the city gate and hoping for a turn of fortune. Like those four lepers, there are mighty forces which may work on our behalf, but like them, too, we must get up and do something or we die.
People are spiritually lost until they take action to get saved. It isn't the other way around, as we could wish. Disaster is in the making for us all as the consequence of our self-chosen alienation from God.
Now we shrink from choices. We'd rather just wait and see, sit and hope for something to happen. Decide not to decide right now. Decide to think about it tomorrow. But what the story shows us clearly is that nothing of that sort will do. It courts disaster, as we say. A voice says "Choose ye this day."
A person must decide to take a new direction, then act on his decision. The discussion of change is no substitute for change itself. "I think we should go to the camp of the Syrians and take our chances"–what if all they'd done was raise that possibility and talk about it pro and con? A lot of the good of life gets missed by just that process.
We often sit around in church and solve all the problems of the world, don't we? Solve them if talking could. We say the world needs this or that, the needy lack this help or that, our mission calls us to do this or that–all without getting up off our behinds and taking one step toward doing it! We substitute intention for action. We neglect the saving essential–the decision to act.
Some of you may have done that with the call of Christ. You've heard it for years now. You may have read books and listened to sermons. And sometimes during the invitation hymn a voice whispered "why not?" but you turned it aside. How long will you turn it aside? How long can you?
It takes faith. It involves a risk. Just as those lepers, who acted with no guarantee whatever, for there was none to be had. Anyone who dreams he can hold onto his worldly security with one hand and reach out to God with the other, and not release his hold on the one until he's sure and confident of the other–that person is deceived. God honors no tentative decisions like that. It has to be all or nothing.
An airliner sits at the end of the runway, and clearance comes to begin its flight. It weighs hundreds of tons; it requires incredible thrust to get in the air. And the runway is only a couple of miles long. Throttles are moved forward and the plane begins to roll, very slowly at first. How much power do you give it if you're the pilot? What kind of commitment do you make? You know, of course. And you know that very shortly down that runway there comes a point of no return, where the only remaining choices are fly or crash. And every takeoff requires a faith assumption that it will fly.
The marvel is that in the realm of the spirit, God makes a way for those who act in faith. It's a gift, so receive it. It's a message, believe it. It's water, drink of it, that your soul may live.
What happens after that? Well see. The story illustrates that too. Think of the choice of persons newly saved themselves, but remembering how their kinsmen are still lost and dying.
Our primary concern is saving ourselves, but as soon as that's done we must ask how to share it with others who'll die unless we do.
Those four men did that. They recognized the stewardship of good news, the sin of failing to tell it. "This day is a day of good tidings," they said. "If we are silent and wait for the morning light, punishment will overtake us." Gifts are for sharing.
Take your wealth, and use it to help others. Take your education and teach someone who needs it. Take your lessons learned in life and give them as a gift to the young. Take the fellowship we enjoy as Christians and enlarge its boundaries to include the outcast and homeless. Be sure that if you try to keep one of God's blessings as your own private joy it will being evil upon you.
What sort of person will eat food in his tent of good fortune while others are starving in the city? Friends, we must think of that, and keep thinking, and then start doing.
We must remember, too, that when those lepers brought their gospel to the city, the city was slow about receiving it. It seems to be the nature of gospel that it gets no instant hearing. The teller must tell, and tell again.
It seems too good to be true! No Syrians in the camp, you say? All the food we can eat, you say? Oh come now, what's the joke?
Salvation for me, you say? Joy in my life? Forgiveness for all my sins? A home for me in heaven? Listen now, I'm a practical man–do you really believe all that?
You see? There must be persistence in the way we tell our gospel. We mustn't tell it once and go back to our eating. We must tell it as someone's only hope and try to understand when his reluctance appears. And we must tell, and keep telling, wherever man is found. The old hymn had it right:
Proclaim to every people, tongue, and nation
That God, in whom they live and move is love:
Tell how he stooped to save his lost creation,
And died on earth that man might live above.
Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace,
Tidings of Jesus, redemption and release.
THE LORD BLESS YOU
I want to get right to the point, and I think telling you what prompted this sermon might be the best way to do it. I have a daughter, Elizabeth, married and living in Oklahoma City. The last two summers I've taken a week and ridden my motorcycle out there to visit.
All parents worry over children. But perhaps I've done more than my share of that with Elizabeth. She's had a hard time finding her place in life. But marriage and Oklahoma seem to have been good for her. So my visits have been happy. But still, like most parents, I find some cause to keep on worrying.
We have a little ritual on the morning I leave. I say goodbye to Mike, and he goes off to work. And Elizabeth and I go to Hardie's Restaurant for breakfast. Hardie's has those sausage biscuits, and ham biscuits, and steak biscuits, and egg with them too, and the coffee isn't bad. And we talk. And she cries before I start home, and I cry afterward.
This year, as before, I remember feeling then an intense wish or prayer for my daughter's good. A wish to say something or do something or give something that would guarantee it. I remember in Patton's Cry, the Beloved Country, the novel about South Africa, how the custom on leaving a friend was to say "stay well, then" and the one staying replied "go well, then." And they said those things like a fervent prayer.
I don't remember what I said. I wish it were something memorable and profound I could report, but it wasn't. Likely it was "take care of yourself" or "have a real good year." It didn't express the most I felt. Though I thought maybe she knew. But why must we leave a thing like that to chance?
So riding through eastern Oklahoma I began to think. (There isn't that much to do in eastern Oklahoma anyway!) And I remembered Numbers 6:24-26. It was still on my mind from a recent wedding I'd done with a Jewish Rabbi. At the end of the service I'd said those words in English, and he'd said them in Hebrew.
"The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace."
And it came to me that this is what I wanted to say, and didn't. This is the blessing our friends and loved ones need. This is the blessing the whole world needs. And I don't mean the ritual, the saying of sentences, but the wish and the prayer that's there in those words. So why is this so hard, and so rare?
We use expressions like "you take care, now." "You be good." "Stay well, now." "You have a nice day." And I know those are often trite and perfunctory. But they can be deeply felt by people who intend more but lack the nerve, or the language, or the faith in God.
It came to me in Oklahoma that there's precious little blessing in the world. There's so much shouting and shooting and violence. There's so much hatred, and jealousy, and suspicion. And there's our busyness, our self-concern, and our failure to think about the needs of others.
The Bible says "bless, and curse not," but on an average day people curse, and bless not. Read the paper and see. Watch the television. Listen to the talk at beauty parlors and country club locker rooms. Competition is in, ruthlessness is in, winning by intimidation is in. Getting, not giving, is in. Blessing is out.
Except where it might do some good, of course. Except where it might be the smart move to make. But that misses the point, as Jesus himself told us. He said if we only bless those who bless us we deserve no reward. That's no godly trait. He told his followers: "Bless those who curse you!" And is anything harder or rarer than that? But what if there could be more?
Isn't there blame enough in the world? Criticism enough? Haven't there been controversies enough, investigations enough? Isn't there striving and competing enough, name-calling enough, bad news enough? Isn't the world weary of such things and needy of a blessing in their place? And don't most relationships among people have exactly the same need?
"The Lord bless you my brother, my sister, my son or daughter. My neighbor, my senator, my boss, my garbage collector." Isn't that a holy sacrament when done in spirit and in truth? And isn't it a thing that lies in anyone's realm? I tell you it does. Ordinary people can do it in ordinary situations.
Last week I got a letter from one of our church members. It had a little business in it, but then closed like this: "Ed, I want you to know that I think you're doing a marvelous job at the church. God bless you!"
Was I blessed that day? Of course. Are there others who might have thought of doing the same thing, but didn't? Of course. Are there people I might have given such a blessing, but didn't? Of course. Did such a blessing given to me incline me more to give one to someone else? Of course. Does the Lord in heaven approve of such blessings? Of course. And if on every day of our lives we could both give and receive one, wouldn't this world and Oklahoma be a far better place? Of course!
To give a heart-felt blessing is a holy thing. But it makes demands, it costs. For you have to love, and you have to care. You have to be honest and sincere. And for it to mean the most, you have to know God. For it's partly a prayer that he'll do all the things you'd like to, but know you can't.
It's triangular. I who stand here ask the Lord above to bless you over there. I pray for a transaction between the Lord and you. Instead of asking his blessing for me, I ask it for you. See how the blessing there in Numbers has two key words, repeated over and over:
"The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace."
There isn't a "me" or a "my" in there. The key words are "Lord" and "you." Lord repeated three times and you repeated six. So the definition of blessing I come up with is this: "An intense desire for another's good, expressed to him in love and in faith, asking God to do the thing he needs the most."
In the 20th chapter of Acts, Paul's preparing to go to Jerusalem. From there he'll go to Rome, and that will be his last journey. So he's about to leave old friends, and knows it. And from Miletus he sends to Ephesis and calls the elders of the church. He makes a long and emotional farewell speech that concludes with this blessing:
"And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified."
Then the account says: "And when he had spoken thus, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And they all wept and embraced Paul and kissed him, sorrowing most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they brought him to the ship."(Acts 20:32ff)
If he sailed sadly, his sadness was sweet. For he left behind his blessing, and he carried one away. And the joy of life, and the joy of the Lord, have to do with that.
I think the second chapter of Ephesians is possibly the greatest in the Bible. There's so much there. And it's written so splendidly. And it has to do with matters of such giant proportions.
"You he made alive, when you were dead," Paul begins. Then he goes on to explore what it means to be alive in Christ. He does it as one explores a new and wondrous land.
It's a land of grace, he says. "By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." It's a land of promise, he says, for in the coming ages God's going to keep on showing the "immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."
Also–and here's my focus this morning–being alive in Christ means having citizenship in a new country. Look at verse 19. "So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints."
Paul's word "stranger" literally means "a foreigner." It's the Greek word "xenoi." The foreigner's life was never easy. One of them said "it is better for you to be in your own homes, whatever they may be like, than to be in a strange land." Sooner or later any foreigner gets treated with suspicion and dislike. And has an uncomfortable, lonely feeling.
I see them sometimes at wedding rehearsals. You can tell they're foreigners to the house of God by the nervous way they glance around. Out there in the world they're right at home. They're tough in fact. But here they feel out of place. Except for being in this wedding, they'd never dream of coming to a church. And when I say "Now let us pray" they look so funny! They're strangers here, foreigners, xenoi.
It's like someone away from home, walking the street at evening time. He passes the window of a home as he walks. And he stops, because there's light inside, and people, and talking and laughter. There's a family sitting around a table or fire together. And the stranger feels shut out and lonely in that dark. A foreigner, a xenoi.
Paul says in Jesus Christ that changes. We join the family of God. We become "fellow citizens" with the saints, members of the household of heaven.
The word he uses is "sunpolites." The prefix "sun" means "together." "Polites" means "the inhabitants of a city or place." Our word "politics" comes from that word. So through Christ we gain a new citizenship, a new identity. We unite with one another so there's no stranger or foreigner. No one standing on the outside looking in. Everyone belongs.
The Olympic Games made us conscious how many countries there are on this earth. Why, I doubt anyone here can name even half. Some are tiny and remote, but they're someone's country. Someone sings that national anthem with the same feelings we have for ours. And who's to say one is better or worse than any other?
Only God's able to say that, and he hasn't said!
The world is all divided up. What do the people of one country have to do with the people in others? At best, we stay apart and have little to do with one another. At worst, we fight and make war and live in hatred and suspicion. But what does God want?
Paul tells is. God will have us be fellow citizens together of another and better country.
That doesn't mean we stop being citizens of our own countries. No. The Bible teaches respect for governors and those in authority. It obligates us to good citizenship. Still, Jesus Christ calls out of this world a new and different people, a "new nation," as Paul puts it.
In the Old Testament, the Lord spoke to Israel saying: "You are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his own possession."(Deuteronomy 14:2) And they said "Boy, that's great! God loves our country, and hates all those others." They made God their tribal deity. They forgot his words to Abraham which said, "in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed."
So in the New Testament, the Lord tries to set this right again. He describes a new nation, in which all believers join. Listen:
"You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy."
Meaning God unites all people in one citizenship through Jesus Christ. And that's the one that counts. That's the one to hold on to and honor above all others.
I own a U.S. Passport. When not in use, it's kept in my safe deposit box at the bank. They tell you when traveling to keep it on you at all times, and don't hand it to anyone except officials. I do that. I honor my passport, and I honor my country.
But listen, what the Bible says is this: I have an even better passport than that one. I'm the citizen of a greater country than any on this earth! I'm bound for the Promised Land! I have a king who's the King of all kings; a lord who's the Lord of all lords!
In Hebrews chapter 11 there's a calling of the roll of those who lived and died in the faith and favor of God. What does it say about their country? See!
"These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers."
GOD WITH US
Luke 2:11, Isaiah 9:6
"For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
What goes through our minds as we hear those words? We have heard them, and will. From now on, we'll hear them sung, hear them read, and see them printed everywhere. They'll be almost as if in the drinking water. The world will not lack for those words, but for what they mean.
Many will hear them as a sort of fairy tale. Something for the children. Baby Jesus, mother Mary, white lambs and brown calves cute in their stalls, Wise Men from somewhere, dressed up in bathrobes. Nothing to do with us today, but it's harmless, so let the kiddies enjoy it.
Many will use this as a kind of nostalgia trip. The words bring back a past that keeps slipping away. Mother's voice is in those words, and a church house that's not around anymore. Precious memories, how they linger! And so the words will be connected to the journey past, not to the journey ahead.
Many will hear but think not much about them because they've heard so often before. Their eyes hard of seeing, their ears hard of hearing, they'll hum a few bars, then go on with their lives. Even some who claim this as their personal faith will do that very thing.
The message of Christmas is that God himself has come to our world in the man Jesus Christ, and believing in him we can have eternal life. That's good news, right? That's great news! But it isn't taken as the news it is, it gets taken as just a story.
We're like those shepherds in the field the night that news first came. We need something like an angel to get our attention. We need a multitude of them. We need joy of heaven to earth come down, something to overwhelm us, because we've heard this before and been underwhelmed with it. God wants to give his great news right here in our field, but are we able to hear it?
Unto you is born . . .. Something has arrived, someone has arrived. Someone special. Think of the arrival of someone special.
There you have a ship at the dock, and people are getting off, and a crowd is there to meet them. And everywhere in that crowd people are standing tiptoe, straining their eyes, looking for . . . who? Not for just anyone. Not all the same one. In fact, each one of those people is looking for someone special, one face in that sea of faces, as if none of the rest matter.
Flying to Korea last fall, Diane and I got acquainted with a young couple who had seats near ours. They turned out to be Christian musicians, so we had things in common. We became Ed and Diane and Frank and Mary to one another. But when that plane landed in Seoul and we came through Customs, a difference showed up.
We were expected. There in that lobby was a crowd of Koreans awaiting our arrival. They had flowers in their hands and a ten foot banner that said "WELCOME TO KOREA DR. AND MRS. BRIGGS." You should have seen the look on our friends' faces. We saw them later at the hotel and they said "Boy, that was something wasn't it?"
Remember mail time in the army or college or summer camp or somewhere else you may have been away from home. The question was always, "anything for me?" Anything with my name on it? And when there was, how good it was!
"Unto you is born this day a Savior"–is this anything for you? Sure is. It's like special delivery. God so loved you that he would've done all this just for you, if it hadn't been that so many others needed exactly the same thing. But it's for you no less.
In fact, if you compare the language of Luke with that of Isaiah, you find one uses the singular and one the plural, and neither contradicts the other. Luke says "unto you is born," and Isaiah says "unto us a child is born," and each is just a different side of the same coin.
"Unto you is born this day . . .." And what day is that, pray tell? As long as a Savior is born, what matter is it about the day?
About the particular day, it doesn't matter. In fact, we don't even know what day it was, or for sure what year it was. Still it matters that it was on some day, a day in history. It isn't just a story, it's the story of a happening.
". . . is born this day a Savior," it says. And what does that mean? Who needs a Savior, anyway? Do people who live in good homes and drive nice cars and have insurance coverage for almost everything? Do citizens of countries that spend trillions of dollars on weapons and defense? Do children? Do young people growing up?
And what if a Savior is born who could save us all and we pay no attention? That's the peril and the promise of every Christmas season. That it could mean so much, but likely will mean so little. Some money changing hands, some cards sent through the mail, some parties held, and all that. But no Savior, no salvation, and when it's over, back to business as usual.
But for salvation he was born. Jesus. Born to be Savior of the World. Born to be your Savior. And throughout this season we try to call His, we should pray for a revival of faith in him, expressed in acts of love and devotion, showing itself in peace on earth and good will among men.
Karl Barth left one such prayer, which I'd like to give with you in closing:
O Lord, our God! Thou art great, exalted and holy above us and above all men. This is thy glory that thou does not forget us, not abandon us, not reject us despite all that speaks against us. In thy dear Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, thou has given us nothing less than thyself and all that is thine. We praise thee that we are invited as guests at the table of thy mercy throughout our life and beyond.
We spread before thee all that troubles us, our mistakes, our errors and our transgressions, our sorrows and cares, also our rebellion and our bitterness–our whole heart, our whole life, better known to thee than it is to ourselves. We commit all this into the faithful hands which thou hast outstretched in our Saviour. Take us as we are; strengthen us when we are weak; grant us, the poor, the bounties of thy blessings. Amen.
HAPPY IN HIS WORK
He washed their dirty feet in that upper room, and spoke of what it meant. The message was one of his constant themes. You gain by giving, he'd say–by serving, by loving. You lose by holding back and thinking only of yourself. Now as part of their Last Supper he showed them about it, then told them about it, then said:
"If you know these things, happy are you if you do them."
How happy are you? Are you happy some of the time, or all the time, or none of the time? Would you say you're happier than most people think you are, or not as happy as they think you are? Things aren't always what they seem, you know. It's like the ad you see on TV about high blood pressure that shows these two men in their office, and one's all upset and blowing off steam while the other seems calm and in control. But that one has the high blood pressure and the other doesn't, the ad says. So it is with happiness, maybe.
"If you know these things, happy are you if you do them." Doesn't that mean this: that knowing what you ought to do is no substitute for doing it? You can know these things, read about them, meet and discuss them, teach and tell about them, even memorize them by heart or preach a sermon about them–but unless you do them no happiness is promised.
There's a subtle temptation to substitute knowing about things for getting in there and doing something about them. Talk is cheap. Telling others what to do is cheap too. The old saying about fewer chiefs and more indians comes to mind. "If so and so was your job you'd do this or that," you say. But how do you know if you haven't tried? And what job are you doing that shows this great zeal you expect of others?
I'm not saying there's no place for criticism. Criticism is good and helpful if it's done in the right way by the right person. By the person with credentials for it. But the one who sits to the side and observes the washing of feet, making comments pro or con, he lacks the status of someone who has a towel in his hand. It's easy to say he ought, or they ought, or even we ought, if you stay off the matter of what you ought personally.
After all, the great problem with things in human affairs isn't knowing what to do, it's getting people to do it. The great problem of the Kingdom of God is the very same. The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Laborers!
"If you know these things, happy are you if you do them." Doesn't that also mean this: that knowing what you ought to do and not doing it will make you miserable? In reverse it means "if you know these things and don't do them, unhappy are you." Or as the New Testament letter of James has it: "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" and "whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin."(James 2:17 and 4:17)
That means you can be as great and miserable a sinner by not doing
things that are right as by doing things that are wrong. The trouble with a lot of people's happiness in the Lord, I think, is that they've sat in church over and over and learned of hundreds of things they ought to be doing but haven't done one of them yet.
Now friends I know there can be too many oughts in life; I know you can't do everything someone says you ought to, even if it's the Preacher. But I know, too, that there are different kinds of oughts, and some are more Godly than others. And a lot of unhappy Christians are that way because they've sluffed off the better oughts and loaded themselves down with a lot of stuff Paul once called garbage. So they don't have any time for God, or money for God, or influence for God, because it's all invested elsewhere. That isn't right.
"Seek ye first the Kingdom of God," said Jesus. Which means having some oughts in your life, but selecting them wisely. You ought to have a prayer life. You ought to be a Christian witness. You ought to read and study the Bible and other Christian books like those in our church library. You ought to set aside at least 10% of all you earn and bring it gladly to the house of God. You ought to worship, in public and in private. And the list goes on, and could well become a dreadful burden, were it not for the point I make now.
"If you know these things, happy are you if you do them." Doesn't that mean this: that knowing what you ought to do and doing it will make you happy? It will.
In my last pastorate, we built a new church building. And I mean that somewhat literally, because although we had a contractor, we helped with the work, we members, those who would, and put in over 6,000 man and woman hours before the job was done. Others who couldn't work cooked meals for those who did. And others gave money. But of course we did have those who sat the whole thing out and did nothing at all. They observed what went on, but not a finger did they lift. Now who do you suppose had the greatest joy in his soul that day we moved in? Isn't it true that in things like that the more you put in the more you get back?
It's what you give. It's what you do with your basin and your towel that counts. And if you think standing back and letting someone else do it will put you ahead, you're wrong–it'll put you behind.
The U.S. general who led the invasion of Tarawa said in an interview that a man alone is a man afraid, but a man with a mission is not afraid.
And Jesus here is telling us that a person alone in his self-concern is a person not happy, but a person on a mission for God has a source of it in his soul.
"If you know these things, happy are you if you do them."
Let the Supper we share in now be a sign we intend to!
In the days when Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest of the Lord named Zechariah. He was a good priest, and a good man. His wife's name was Elizabeth, and they had a good life together, except for one thing. They had no children, and they were getting on in years.
They'd prayed about a child, but had no answer to their prayers. Until one day Zechariah was on duty in the temple, and a strange thing took place. An angel of God appeared to him there, said his wife would bear a son, and said he should call the boy's name John.
Well, old Zechariah could hardly believe his ears. In fact, let's say he couldn't. For he says to the angel, "now what's going to make me believe a crazy thing like that?" And there he learned that you don't ever want to say something like that to an angel. For this angel said "hey, I'm Gabriel, and the Lord himself sent me to tell you this. And the way you're going to know is, you won't be able to speak a word until the kid's born!"
Zechariah didn't say another word until the kid was born. And how that came out was funny, too, because right after he was born they were arguing about what to name him. And Zechariah had been told his name, you remember, but couldn't say it. Nine months and he hadn't said anything. But then all of a sudden they see his eyes light up and his mouth move and he says "his name is John."
Notice he didn't say, "I have a suggestion for a name"! He spoke with authority. After nine months of silence he seemed entitled to. John. Huh.
Now you'd think an only son named John, born to a priestly family, would have made a priest himself. But he didn't. This John was born to be a prophet. And in case you don't know the difference, let me tell you.
A priest is employed, a prophet isn't. A priest gets a housing allowance, a prophet doesn't. A priest is loved and respected, prophets are scorned and hated. A priest carries on traditions, while prophets overturn them. Priests do all the proper things, while a prophet does whatever he feels the Lord wants him to do.
He might leave town and live out in the wilderness. He might wear garments of camel hair, and feed on locusts and wild honey. He might dare preach to the best-dressed and cultured citizens in town that they need to repent and get right with God. He might point to doom ahead, which no one wants to hear, of course. He might even criticize the king and place his life in jeopardy.
Zechariah's son grew up to do all those things and more. He rejected a life of comfort to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He preached that the kingdom of God was at hand, preached it so powerfully that crowds began expecting it. Some said he must be the messiah. Others said no, but the time was surely close. Multitudes came streaming out of town to stand in the sun and listen, and those who believed he baptized in the river. They began to call him "John the Baptizer."
What was it like? Well, just listen: "The multitudes asked him, 'What then shall we do?' And he answered them, 'He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.' Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, 'Teacher, what shall we do?' And he said to them, 'Collect no more than is appointed you.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what shall we do?' And he said to them, 'Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.'"(Luke 3:10-14)
You can tell he was no crowd-pleaser. He seemed to set himself against the crowds, but still the crowds came. There's a certain fascination about a man who tells it so straight, who cuts no corners, who speaks as the Lord himself might speak. Some went away furious, then came back the next day, and next, and later came forward to be baptized.
Did you notice the social tone of that preaching? John preached about the poor and the rich, and the duty to share. He preached about economic justice, the fairness and unfairness of taxes. And about violence and oppression among men, especially those in authority, and about falsehood, and the fairness of wages. And I tell you, if the man were alive today, I think he'd have a lot to say on those same subjects. And if he said it, even in some churches, there'd be a lot of anger and trying to shut him up, as happened back then.
He never tried to take judgment into his own hands, but he preached that it was in God's hands. He preached the accountability of man. "Even now," he said, "the axe is laid to the root of the trees: every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."(Matt. 3:10)
He not only tried in his preaching to change men's present lives, he pointed toward the future too. He spoke of one who would come after him, one he was making ready for, one who would be greater, whose sandals he was unworthy to bend down and untie. "I baptize you with water," he said, "but this man will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." And they wondered what that might mean, and when it might take place.
One day, on a day when this had been going on for some time, a stranger came to be baptized. He came from Galilee, and John the Baptizer hesitated. He didn't know what made him hesitate, but he knew this was a different thing. He'd hesitated about baptizing others because their religion seemed so shallow. Now he hesitated because this man's seemed so deep.
They went together to the Jordan, just the two, and they must have talked as they went. And when the moment came, John said "This isn't right. You're the one who ought to baptize me." And the stranger said "Just do it," and John did. And all heaven seemed to open above that scene. And a voice seemed to say "That's my son there! Boy, I'm proud of him!"
Time passed, and John kept preaching. The Galileean began preaching too. Some of John's followers became his followers, which was O.K., for the two were friends.
But one day, soldiers came and arrested John. Herod the King was worried about his growing popularity. And also he'd heard about certain remarks John made that criticized his recent marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip's wife. Herodias wanted something done about it.
It's interesting that even in prison John continued to have influence and keep up on things. It sometimes works out that way, you know. One thinks of Ghandi in the British prisons of India, and the power he wielded there. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing his saintly letters and papers from Hitler's prisons. And Martin Luther King with his correspondence from a Birmingham jail. And not far from here, down in Culpepper, Virginia, Baptist John Ireland once preached to crowds through the bars of his cell in the struggle for religious liberty.
So John kept up on things as best he could, and longed for his release. Especially he kept up on the man from Galilee.
He knew now who he was, or thought he knew. Most days he seemed sure of it, but some days he doubted. Prison may have had something to do with that. And on one of those not-so-good days he sent a messenger to ask "are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"
Excuse the man his question. Christ surely did–he took no offense. And he answered it this way. "Look around, you messengers." "Look around, then go back and tell what you've seen." They went back to tell of blind people receiving sight, the lame walking, lepers healed, the poor helped, and many such things. It was the answer of good deeds.
After the messengers had gone, Jesus had some words about John. He called him a prophet and more. He said there was none greater. And he spoke of how strong and steadfast he was, no reed shaken in the wind, he said. But still Herod kept John in his prison.
The Jewish historian Josephus speaks of this, by the way, and tells which prison it was. And that he died there.
He died like this–it was strange. I told you Herod had a new wife who was angry at John for remarks he'd made about her. She apparently had tried to get her husband to do it before now, but he'd refused. But then there was this party, and Herodias had this daughter, and she did this dance, and afterward Herod motioned the girl over and said "is there anything at all I can do for you?"
Now a man should never say that to a woman, but especially one whose dancing he's just been watching! Herod did, though, he said it, and some others heard him. You can have whatever you want, young lady. And she went like a good little girl and asked her mother what she wanted.
And her mother said, "You want the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter." Herod was going to be sorry for this, but he did it. He was going to be haunted by it, but he went ahead.
Josephus tells us people later believed the defeat of Herod's army was an act of God's wrath for what he did to John the Baptist. And later on when Herod heard about the miracles of Jesus, you know what he said?
"John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him."
The disciples of John came and asked for his body, to give it a proper burial, and their request was granted. The Bible also says they went at once and told Jesus. Who knows if there might have been some hint of accusation in their eyes? After all, Jesus had done nothing to try to save John's life. Maybe some people thought he should have.
I believe the death of John had a lasting impact on the life of Christ. I believe in Gethsemine, as he faced his own death, he thought of John in that prison cell. I believe on his cross when he cried "My God, why have you forsaken me?" he remembered John's own terrible question and said to himself "why, I sound like him!" And I believe when they taunted him to come down from the cross and save himself, he was urged on by the fact that John found no way out.
Their lives intertwined, you see, in God's redemptive plan. They told us his truth, and taught us their lessons on the cost of discipleship.
The way is narrow, the way is hard. But it leads to life, and that abundant.
If you made a graph to show the highs and lows of the Old Testament, the Exodus would be right at the top. Those proud slaves with their conquering faith in the God of Abraham. Plagues descending on Pharoah's house. Signs and wonders performed by Moses. Escape through the Red Sea, with the chariots of Egypt drowned behind.
That was the same as the Cross of Jesus for us. Their salvation, their assurance God had acted and would act on their behalf.
But you have to watch those times–I've seen it over the years. The dangerous thing is the letdown that follows. The risk comes when we think we have it made. Temper your delight in good fortune with the knowledge there'll be something along to even the score.
This happened at the very threshold to the Promised Land. They got there and they paused. It was where they were going, but they paused. It was God's promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but still they paused.
Maybe it made sense to pause, maybe not. But they wanted to be sure about this place, to know what they were up against. God had promised them this land, but there were other people in it now. Which meant what?
Now I realize there are holier tasks than waging war, which they were about to do. The term "soldiers of Christ" can be used literally, and has. "Onward, Christian soldiers" has been played by the rattle of swords and the pawing of horse's hoofs.
But I don't get into that today. I'm using this story as a parable: of obedience and disobedience, of vision and the lack of it.
As I said, they paused. And there they sent out spies. Send a few good men to get the lay of the land, they said. What harm could that do?
Surely all of us have spied a little. Spied into a Christmas package, or someone's desk drawer, or a window at night, or something. And my! how spying has advanced since then, and what business it is now.
You can hire people to spy for you today–they're listed in the yellow pages. A man once showed me film of his wife and another man made by hired spies. And great corporations spend big money spying on one another, and guarding against it. And nations, of course.
Spy satellites up there circling the sky, cameras that work in the dark, electronic evesdropping, secret agents, and who knows what? We're still in their primitive state, you see, we've just improved the technology.
So off went that 12-man Hebrew CIA. And the rest wait. But what are you looking for when you're looking at a new land? What matters about a place to settle down?
I've been to Oklahoma in the last year, and Korea. Each place I'm sure it crossed my mind if I'd like to call this home. I wondered that in Greenville, and I'll always dream of Newfoundland. But what do you really know about a land from several days' visit there? If someone came to check out this place called Washington as to its habitability, what would the report show?
The concern of those spies was all about physical things. The size of the people, the richness of the soil, the supply of wood, the ease of travel. But what do we value that's all so different? What kind of schools? how high the taxes? how many the doctors? And the weather, the jobs. We're really no different. We have our mind on the land, not the Lord.
Well, the spies return. Imagine it. People gather to hear a report that's to determine their future.
Of course, it's going to happen with them like it always happens. Some will listen who have no voice at all. They'll know to keep their mouths shut while others decide. Government of the people, by and for the people, has always been man's dream, but seldom man's reality. There are always those who have a presence but no voice.
The report of the spies was another "good news, bad news" affair, as so much of life is. It's a good land, but . . .. We can get there easily, but . . .. See here these grapes we brought, but . . ..
But there are giants up ahead! Sons of Anak. The name Anak means literally "neck." There were people with long necks there.
There's a picture of me in Korea looking way up high with great surprise. We were in an airport lobby and someone said "I want to introduce you to someone." I turned to meet the person.
You expect to look down when meeting Koreans if you're six feet tall like I am. But where I looked was about the middle of this man. And I looked up and up and people laughed, and the man smiled. He was a giant, a son of Anak. He turned out to be a gentle Christian by the way, but a champion wrestler, and a feared man in the ring, they said.
This land is full of those, said the spies. And it's a land that "devours" its inhabitants.
This summer in Oklahoma I met a laborer named Pappy. He lives in a shack he rents for $50 a month. And he paid $50 for his car. And I was there with my son-in-law, his boss, to tell him the contractor's check for their week's wages bounced, and he had a week-end at least ahead with nine kids to feed and no money. Is it any wonder those kids get in trouble. The land still devours inhabitants, you see.
But, back to the spies and their news about the giants. People who'd been so quiet a minute before are now in an uproar. They're in a good news-bad news uproar, and it's the bad they're mainly thinking of. And a man named Caleb, one of those 12, is trying to get them quiet to say something.
That's hard when fear has taken over. Caleb needs our prayers. It's hard to get things quiet when they've already gotten so noisy. It's hard to try to tell the other side when people have already made up their minds about the one side they've heard.
Caleb was a man with a "different spirit," it says. He'd had the very same experience as the other spies, but not the same response. You see, it's not what life brings us, but what we bring to life that matters most. The Calebs make their way, others let the way make them.
So let's listen in on Caleb's quiet. "We are well able," he says, "let's go at once!"
The other spies had said "we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight." You see how faith tends to get reduced by the size of the threat arrayed against it. But Caleb didn't see himself as a grasshopper. Faith added to his confidence and strengthened his resolve. Theirs said "we can't," but his said "we can."
Now whatever we are in our own sight, we think we are in others' sight, and sooner or later we become. Grasshopper thinking! The smallness of our will to believe becomes the smallness of our will to act.
Caleb does get some help. It's Joshua, another of the spies. And Joshua, bless his soul, raises a theological question. He says "if the Lord delights in us . . .." Which meant "if God's really on our side, what do we have to worry about?"
But they could stand none of that. Theology was in the way. Joshua's truth is about to be trampled underfoot as by a herd of stampeded cattle.
I've seen theology set aside. I've heard people didn't want undesirables messing up "their" church. And I've tried to quote the words of Jesus about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. I've tried bravely to put it on a will-of-the Lord basis and heard the crowd say "don't give us that preacher talk; you get 'em out of here."
You worry then about the leader who's in the way of the crowd. And sure enough, those Israelites begin hollering for a new man to take them back where they came from. Back to Egypt! Back to slavery! Back to their old securities.
Should we feel sympathy for the choice they faced? I suppose some. After all, they were called by God to a future they feared. And the uproar continued, and now they're saying stone Caleb and Joshua.
That's some remedy, isn't it? Not exactly a staff appreciation party! And they might have done it. . . but something happened.
The Glory of the Lord appeared at the Tent of Meeting. And Moses goes inside, and he and the Lord have a talk. The Lord says, "Moses, I've had it with these folk. I'll just wipe 'em out and make a new start." And Moses says "but Lord, haven't you always been slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? Be patient with them. They're weak, but they're not bad." And the Lord says: "Well, I guess you're right. But I'll tell you this, we're going to wait for a new generation before they set foot in my promised land.
So the outcome was ambiguous. They didn't go back to Egypt, nor were they stricken dead by the wrath of God. Instead they wandered, wandered, wandered. For 40 years they wandered.
Robert Redford plays a baseball player with a past to hide in a movie called "The Natural." He has a haunting line about his wasted years. He says: "Some mistakes you never get through paying for." So with those Israelites. One by one, they died in the wilderness.
How sobering that God's promise often has to wait for some funerals to take place. It's a risky thing to stand in the way of the will of God. And it's a tragic thing to be so close to the land he's called you to, then turn around and go in the other direction.
It gives added urgency to our prayer about a lamp for our feet, and a light for our path.
WHAT GOD IS LIKE
This is the story of a prophet of God who was married to a whore.
I assume you know the term, and what it means. I assume, too, that some of you may not like hearing the word in church.
So I counted the number of times that word is used in the Bible itself, and it comes to 92. That compares with "physician" used 10 times, "carpenter" used 13 times, "soldier" 32 times, and even "shepherd"–23rd Psalm and all, would you like to guess?–78 times. (There you have our Bible trivia lesson for the week!)
Now I'm not suggesting my count reflects the proportion of people pursuing those various occupations–one would surely hope not! But I am showing you how honest the Bible is about such matters. You may remember that one of the people in that "Hall of Fame" which is the 11th chapter of Hebrews was a woman named Rahab, who once was one.
Remember, now, the state of women in that time. They were the property of men. Doubtless there were some marriages just as loving and respectful as you could want. Doubtless there were some women who beat the system and got the upper hand. But legally and normally it was still a matter of ownership. The man had his right to divorce an unsatisfactory woman, but a woman had no right to divorce the worst kind of man. A man's infidelities were taken lightly, a woman's very seriously. And sometimes when a woman changed hands, some money changed hands.
So it was that a woman named Gomer was up for sale. And her husband from the past, her husband she'd left to follow the ways of a prostitute, her husband who'd tried to give up on her but couldn't, her husband who still was trying his best to raise their three children, bought her. Bought her back. Bought her, he tells us, for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley.
It was no top price. A shekel of silver was about the weight of a half-dollar. The homer was five bushels of grain. The lethech was only half a homer. Her value on the market must have been declining as the years piled up. Men no longer sought her as they once had. She'd been used, and now used up. And to say that was all her own fault does nothing to take away the pain of her situation.
It was no top price, but for a poor man raising three children it was high enough. It may have taken whatever savings Hosea had. And what a strange and incredible sight that day in the market. Imagine it! There stands this shamed and aging woman, up for sale to the highest bidder. And there stand men, looking her over, making crude jokes.
"I had her once," a soldier brags. "She wasn't bad." "I'll give my wife and half a shekel," someone else calls out, and the crowd roars. And a calculating businessman bids fifteen, which was half the price of a slave in good health. And then a stranger bids. Fifteen plus some barley.
No one knows who he is. This isn't his place. Nor are his places those of the people who do business in this market. They move in different worlds.
The man beside him turns with a puzzled look. "Why bid on her?" he says. "The best ones come later." And Hosea whispers, as to himself: "She's my wife." And they see tears in his eyes.
He calls her his wife now, but earlier, in his rage, he'd said "she is not my wife, and I am not her husband." And he'd said:
"I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned incense to them and decked herself with her rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, and forgot me . . .."(Hosea 2:2,13)
So the question becomes then, why is Hosea here? Why hasn't he given up? Why didn't he say "enough" long ago and wash his hands of the whole sorry mess? We can't answer that question now. It has to wait.
They had three children. And the names of those children show clearly how troubled the marriage was, and how it got worse and not better as time passed. And it seems Hosea gave the names, and that other distress was on his mind too.
I said he was a prophet of God. His double burden was, things weren't right at home, nor were they right in the labor of God he served. And the two sort of mixed in his mind.
The unfaithfulness of his wife seemed close in kind to the turning from God he saw everywhere in the land. The things that lured her seemed much like those that emptied the places of worship he served. It seemed all one great adultery, and the names of his children tell it.
The first child he named Jezreel. Jezreel was a valley where many a bloody battle had been fought. Moreover it was a place where treachery had been often carried out. There Jehu had slain Jehoram, slain Ahaziah, slain Jezebel. And in Hosea's day Tiglath-pileser come to slay Jehu and his friends. And Hosea names his first-born son for this place of treachery. Like a German Jew naming his child for Auschwitz.
The second child was a girl, and she was named "Lo-ruhamah," which means not pitied. As if the common bonds of human sympathy that ought to be in force were not. As if the will to serve one's pleasure had won out over the most basic of responsibilities.
The third child was, again, a boy. His name became "Lo-ammi" which means "not my people." Some think this shows suspicion on Hosea's part that the son might not be his. It surely reflects his growing despair as a prophet of God. He thought he'd heard the Lord say "call his name Not my people, for you are not my people and I am not your God."
In Alan Paton's novel Too Late the Phalarope, a police captain in South Africa comes to tell a father how his son has committed a grave and disgraceful crime. And the old man hears it, sits silent for a minute, then calls for the family Bible. He opens to the page where the names of children have been written down for a hundred and fifty years. And not once, but many times, he crosses out the name of his son.
Then he takes that Bible, which he knew well, and turns to that terrible Psalm numbered 109. He reads:
". . . let him be condemned; and let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out . . .."
He closed the book, stood up, then went to his room. No one knew what to say, except that police captain who said:
"If a man takes unto himself God's right to punish, then he must also take upon himself God's promise to restore."
Sometime along his way that fact broke in on Hosea the prophet. His moods had been a constant swing from rage to pity, from despairing to hope, from hatred to love. He'd seen himself as a fool, and said so. But he'd filled some of his hours of loneliness with writing words like these:
"Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth."(Hosea 2:14-15)
Mercy is winning out, but how painful it must have been. Seldom is a revealing of God shown through such depths of personal agony. Perhaps in all the Bible, only the suffering of Jesus Christ surpasses it.
He and Hosea shared a common name, by the way. Both names meant "salvation." Both knew heartache and alienation. Both walked a valley of tears.
Hosea the prophet, and Gomer his wayward wife. He loved her, yet hated her. He loved the person, but hated the ways she followed and the pain she gave him. Yet love was going to win.
The Lord and us. He loves us, and yet he hates us. He loves our selves, but hates the ways we follow, and the pain we give him. Yet love is going to win.
That's what the story means, you see. It shows what God is like. It shows with him there's always reason for hope. It shows a love that's steadfast even soaked by tears. It shows how suffering can be redemptive. And in it we begin to see the outline of a cross.
For Hosea learned that the price of love is involvement in someone else's pain. Love means exposing yourself to rejection and betrayal. As God did when he sent his Son to show his love for us. He came to his own, and his own received him not. But he was faithful unto death, even death on a cross.
Long before that, God chose Hosea to show how the achievement of love bears its own mark of victory. The story doesn't even bother to tell how things worked out. You think surely Gomer learned her lesson, but it isn't said. You think it must have had a happy ending, but we don't know.
What we do know is this: that as for prophecies, Hosea's or anyone else's, they will pass away; as for tongues, even mine, even yours, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will vanish away.
But love is of God, and love lasts. Nothing in this world is more important than love.
THE NARROW GATE
For most people, good sense means doing things the "easy way" whenever you can. Watch the ads this Christmas, and you'll find several kinds. Some say "buy me, and you'll have fun." Others claim to make you beautiful. Some let you show off your success. And then there are those that promise to make life easier.
Work saving, time saving, mess saving. "Why this here thing's completely automatic. You just push the button and it does all the work"! Sounds good doesn't it? A thing to do all your work just by pushing a button? Save you the effort.
I was at a resort in Tennessee this summer, lifting weights in their exercise room. And in came one of the salesmen with prospective customers for property in the resort. They were retirement age and didn't seem to be weight lifters, so I was interested to hear this salesman's pitch.
After he used words like "scientific" and "latest equipment" he promised those folk and their checkbooks that a little time in this room each week would do wonders for their health. But they kept looking around and weren't imagining pumping iron and sweating very well. And he, being the salesman he was, picked that up, and went on to point out this electric stationary bicycle and explain that with that machine you get your workout and it does all the work!
Which was nonsense. But it's the kind of nonsense a lot of people are on the lookout for. "Why walk when you can ride?" "Why work if you don't have to?" "Why worry about the rest of the world as long as you take care of yourself?"
We even have a statement of that philosophy we use for goodbys. "You take it easy now," we say. "Yea, you take it easy too." The way of least resistance.
We let others do our thinking for us, it's easier. We do what we're told instead of rocking the boat–it's safer. We vote for the person who promises the greatest prosperity at the least cost to us. Even the lives of children are arranged to be the least bother to parents. We join comfortable majorities and avoid the ways of prophets and martyrs.
"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few."(Matthew 7:13-14)
Who said that? Jesus did. And lived it. Whatever anyone says about his life, you know he never took short cuts, never settled cheap, never shunned a conflict, never hid his light. Crowds followed him in his early ministry–fine–but it never went to his head. He kept talking the hardness of the life of the Kingdom. It's the way of a servant, he said. Something always seemed to be against him he was struggling to overcome.
One day at the beach this summer I went out for a short run. I started south, ran a mile and a half, then came back. As I started, it really felt good. My stride seemed longer, my step springier. The Olympics had been on and I began to think fast. Like yelling out to those people I passed: "Hey there, think you could catch me?!"
But all that changed when I got halfway and turned around. I hadn't realized how strong a wind was behind me as I ran south, and now I had to go back north. I'd failed to notice it as it helped me. But now it was in my face, and I noticed. Every step seemed held back. Each stride, I seemed blown back to the spot I'd left. And I cursed that wind for making my life so miserable. Until I began to think.
Wind is wind. Wind is no respecter of persons. It wasn't fair to bless it when it helped me, then curse it when it hurt me. The wind is a given if you run on the roads, something to accept. It's something to expect some of, to put up with your share of.
So in life, it seems to me. When the wind's at our backs, we say "look at me. Look how good I am." But when it's in our faces, we curse our bad luck and say this isn't our fault. But it's all the same wind, and the difference in people is how they handle it.
Jesus is saying there are times to go against the wind, and to do it by choice. There are times to choose the way of hardship and shun the way of comfort. There are times to walk away from popular majorities and join up with hated minorities. There are times to go the second mile, tired as you are from going the first one. Christian discipleship is often a matter of miles.
At the D.C. Baptist convention I heard Glenn Hinson give a different kind of tithing testimony. He said he'd heard people tell how they started tithing and all of a sudden the money began rolling in and in no time at all they were millionaires. But he said all he'd ever been able to notice about his tithing was that he had 10% less money to spend after he gave it!
And why not? When did Jesus promise anyone that following him was the road to sure success? He spoke of rewards, but never the earthly kind. He spoke of hardship and persecution in this life, with life eternal at the end, not the beginning.
He said a servant isn't greater than his lord, and if they persecuted him they'll also persecute us.
So friends, if we're not facing any of the hard things Jesus faced, it's likely because we don't stand for any of the hard things Jesus stood for. We're not befriending the people he befriended. We're not addressing the evils he addressed. Instead, we've chosen that broad road and re-named it in his honor. Do you see the nice green sign? It says, the Jesus Christ Memorial Parkway." Huh!
The majority of people who live on this earth are content to be acted on by the forces around them, and just make the best of it, whatever that is. But a Christian is by definition one who acts. One who changes things. Remember that sentence in the book of Acts where people said: "These that have turned the world upside down have come thither"?
There are worlds that need turning upside down. The world of military spending needs turning upside down. To a great extent, the world of television and entertainment needs turning upside down. The government of nations needs turning upside down. The world of high society. The world of medical practice. The world of scientific research. And yes, the world of religion and the organized church.
The early Christians were a force for change in their society. Did you realize the early church was so pacifist it was a long time before a soldier could even join? Did you know the human rights movement has roots in that time? Did you know the liberation of women owes much to Jesus Christ? Did you know the early Christians were mostly the poor and powerless, not the wealthy and established?
I know this has a '60's sound. And I do remember the pains and problems of the '60's. But as I think about the attitudes of students and people in general today, I wonder if there'll ever be another time when concern for change runs so strong. When people take up causes that hold no promise of gain for them, and work in them just because they believe it's right. When the hope of changing this world for the better is not a scorned or forgotten hope, as it seems to be now.
The point is simple. A true discipleship is bound to cost us something. The gate is narrow, and the way is hard. And those who try it will always be few, and feared, and misunderstood, and tempted by cheap solutions.
Jesus is saying it's easy to be lost, and it's hard to be saved. Something has to overcome us. Something has to bend and break us, that we may at last be straightened.
"O Christ, thou art within me like a sea,
Filling me as a slowly rising tide.
No rock or stone or sandbar may abide
Safe from thy coming and undrowned in thee.
Thou dost not break me by the might of storm,
But with a calm upsurging from the deep
Thou shuttest me in thy eternal keep
Where is no ebb, for fullness is thy norm.
And never is thy flood of life withdrawn;
Thou holdest me till I am all thy own.
This gradual overcoming is foreknown.
Thou art within me like a sea at dawn."
BRING THE PARCHMENTS
2 Timothy 4:6-13
I have the fault or the virtue–I'm not sure which it is–of sometimes being my own adversary. For instance, I've asked myself the question "Why do I study?" Down the hall in that room where I keep shop there are a lot of books. Why do I have those books? Is it just because I need them for preaching and teaching and other things I do, or are there other reasons too? How many of those books would I have if I were Deacon of the Week Ed Briggs who works for IBM and teaches a Sunday School class and tries to sing in the choir whether they want him or not?!
Well, how many books do you have then? I mean religious books, or better to say books about religion. How many? Or how many have you borrowed and read, would you say? And how much of your time each week is spent like that?–in "studying to show yourself approved unto God a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." And based on that well-worn memory verse, how many Christians need to be ashamed because they haven't studied, haven't given themselves as workmen to the word of truth, and haven't shown themselves approved unto God in this holy pursuit?
Did I give it a proper name when I called it a "holy pursuit"? We all would think of praying that way, or worship, or missions, or deeds of love. Those are holy pursuits. But so is the task of Christian education, both formal and informal. Add to your faith, writes Peter, add to it virtue, and the second in his list is add to it knowledge.
I'd like to think that if I were a layman, I'd be no less dedicated to that pursuit. That I'd give myself to a regular discipline of study. That I'd love to read and discuss and sometimes teach, and eventually become the sort of informed lay person whose knowledge was a resource for others, maybe even my pastor at times. Do you see what I'm getting at?
Now I know I likely couldn't have a whole roomfull of books. They take up space, and believe me they're expensive these days. I'd likely need to borrow and read, instead of buying, which is just as good, really. So I'd need a library. Like a church library. And today marks a day I hope you'll see this door of opportunity set before you, and resolve to make the fullest use of it, to the glory of God and your own spiritual growth.
Paul is there in Rome in prison. He's writing to young Timothy. He's had some words of advice for him, and then a time of reflection on his own condition. "I'm about finished," he says, "but I have no regrets. I've fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. The Lord who called me into this ministry will take care of me now, as he always has."
Then right after that his mind darts back to the present and to the practical. "I need a coat," he says. "And I could use some help here–could you come soon, and bring Mark with you. And if you can, please bring my books, especially the parchments."
A man who says he doesn't have long is asking for his library. It may have been one of his last requests. What ought that to tell us?
John Miller's family and our members who've invested their time in in this project have a feeling, like Paul, of the value of books. Books as a means of growth in the word of God. Books as our link with the lives of saints. Books as a stimulus for getting us into action, and showing us the how of things we'd never know otherwise.
Books like Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelly, A Quest for Vitality in Religion by Findley Edge, The Holy Spirit by Billy Graham, A Diary of Private Prayer by John Ballie, Loving God by Charles Colson, Being A Christian When the Chips Are Down by Helmut Thielicke, How to Talk to God When You Aren't Feeling Religious by Charles Merrill Smith, Dialogue at Calvary by John A. Holt.
We have those, friends. Those and hundreds of others. And they're yours to borrow and use absolutely free. And I'd like for you to seriously ponder if that might not be a better investment of some of your God-given time than sitting around playing cards or watching nonsense on television.
Books–good books. Let me mention just a few others: Helping Your Child Discover Faith by Delia Halverson, Long-term Marriage by David Mace, 20 New Ways of Teaching the Bible, Intergenerational Learning Experiences, Finding Your Way Through the Bible, Morality and Youth: A Guide for Christian Parents, An Illustrated Life of Jesus: From the National Gallery of Art Collection, A Guide to Caring For and Coping with Aging Parents, Activating the Passive Church by Lyle Schaller.
Those books we don't have–those you'll find on the list of suggested donations, along with many others. And to invest some dollars like that, so that someone else may benefit from it for years to come–that's a worthy thing to do, and I hope you will.
We often seem to feel that to have an experience of God you have to be in prayer, or you have to be with a big crowd of people in a great worship service. But today I want to tell you you can and will have an experience of God reading the right book in the right frame of mind.
There lived in the third century a great Christian scholar named Origen, and one of his students left this as a testimony: "No subject was forbidden us, nothing hidden or inaccessible. We were allowed to become acquainted with every doctrine, barbarian or Greek, with things spiritual and secular, divine and human, traversing with all confidence and investigating the whole circuit of knowledge and satisfying ourselves with full enjoyment of the pleasures of the soul."
How important that is! We're told in the Bible to love the Lord "with all our mind"–did you remember? We usually think of loving with the heart, and it says that too, of course, but the mind has its need as well. And actually when things go right there's often a blending of the two. You take down John Donne's little classic titled Devotions and you read:
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Now that informs the mind, but it also touches the heart.
It also confronts, as good writing will. It shakes us and stirs us, which we often need. In one of Longfellow's narriative poems he tells how Robert of Sicily, the brother of a pope and emperor of a kingdom, sat listening to vespers one evening, royally attired.
And as he listened, o'er and o'er again Repeated, like a burden or refrain, He caught the words, "Deposuit potentes De sede, et exaltavit humiles;" And slowly lifting up his kingly head He to a learned clerk beside him said, "What mean these words?" The clerk made answer meet, "He has put down the mighty from their seat, And has exalted them of low degree." Thereat King Robert muttered scornfully, "Tis well that such seditious words are sung Only by priests and in the Latin tongue; For unto priests and people be it known, There is no power can push me from my throne!" And leaning back, he yawned and fell asleep, Lulled by the chant monotonous and deep.(from "Tales of a Wayside Inn")
Where did I find that? In a book!
Remember how the Lord said "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness"? "They shall be filled," he promised. They shall be blessed in their effort, rewarded in their search, smiled on by God in their holy task.
Gerald Kennedy tells of pastoring a church which a farmer attended. The man had no formal education, he said, but a lot of sense, and a strong desire to know and learn.
"Once in a while when he came to town to buy supplies during the week, he would call at my office somewhat hesitantly and in the beginning I would see him somewhat reluctantly. But I got over my hesitation because he never stayed very long and there was always some point in last Sunday's sermon that he wanted me to expand a little or clarify. Sometimes he would say to me he had been pondering this point I had made as he rode the tractor up and down the field, and he wondered if maybe a further implication of the idea might be such and such. Always his words revealed a very careful consideration of the subject, and more times than not he uncovered something I had not seen. When I stood in my pulpit on Sunday morning, I would see that family and I would pray within, 'O Lord, do not let me say anything today that will sound shallow or foolish to Davis when he is riding his tractor this week.'"
And I in my days of pastoring have seen some who thirsted like that–but not enough. Too many have too much else to do, and so much to do with, and so little sense of personal need.
A letter is preserved which John Steinbeck wrote to Adlai Stevenson in which he said: "We can stand anything God and Nature can throw at us save only plenty . . .. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick." He went on to say "I am troubled by the cynical immorality of my country. I do not think it can survive on this basis. . . . What we have beaten in nature, we cannot conquer in ourselves."
There's a disturbing question raised in Luke 18:8. It was asked by Christ himself, and it says:
"When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
He may find buildings magnificent, and cars and houses such as we can only dream about now–but will he find faith?
He may find satelites and computers and lasered thises and thats–but will he find faith?
He may find deserts irrigated by icebergs and oceans farmed like fields in Iowa–but will he find faith?
He may find hymns to his name and church buildings with the steeples still raised to heaven–but will he find faith? The kind that saves and blesses and issues in holy living. The kind that gives itself to deeds of love, even to the point of sacrifice.
The kind that excites and inspires and might even cause a tired old preacher sitting in a jail to say "bring me my books!"
REAPING WHAT WE SOW
There was this member of my church in Tennessee who was always pulling tricks. Back then people were always going to one another's houses to eat and talk and carry on. And I was at one of those, and went to get more food–because they liked for the preacher to do that. And back then I never did gain weight.
Sometime later I took a drink of my coke and wow! Lloyd Chambers had poured half the salt shaker in it. And I do like salt, but not that much!
So I said, "O.K., if that's what you want, you just wait."
Well, every time we had one of those, I'd see Chambers guard his plate and his glass and everything else when I was around. And he'd even joke about it. "What's that Preacher gonna try to do," he'd say? And I didn't do anything–just waited.
Time passed, and a whole year passed. And Chambers forgot, but I didn't. And one night he got up to go back for food. And I poured half a bottle of tabasco sauce in his iced tea. Made it so hot it burned his lips before they even touched it. And he took off to the kitchen for water, and you could hear him holler: "That Preacher!" It was.
Now I know that's a good story, but I'm not so sure it's a good illustration. I'm struggling with the verse that tells us we reap what we sow, which Chambers surely did. But does that mean the Lord above spends time just waiting his chance to get even with us? Does it mean he's like a policeman? Does it mean it's best to keep out of his way? Or to hide from his sight like Adam and Eve in their garden of Eden?
I know that's what a lot of people think. They think of God as their adversary, not their friend. They live in fear. They wish he'd go away and leave them alone.
But I don't believe that's like the God revealed by Jesus Christ. Such an idea speaks of law, not of grace. It tells of justice, but nothing of love.
Try doing this sometime. Take a hymnal and look at songs about the love and grace of God. Then substitute the word "justice" wherever you find those words.
"Justice lifted me"! "Amazing justice, how sweet the sound"? "Justice divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down"? "Jesus, justice of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly"!
Ridiculous, isn't it? But I'll tell you this, those may not be the hymns people sing, but that's the theology some people have. It's Old Testament, it's what Jesus came to change. But still it gets preached in his name, and our text today is one that's used.
What does the text mean, then? Read it to me, and let's try to see. Just verse 7, read that . . ..
Now my idea is, that verse means exactly what it says, only God's role in the matter is mis-understood. The principle of sowing and reaping is a principle of life, but the question is, where does the Lord come in? Is he the enforcer of this verse, or is he our friend and ally as we try to cope with what it means?
When I was a boy I was active in the Scouts, and never missed a hike or a camping trip. Those usually went well, but as the saying goes "boys will be boys." So one night after the scoutmaster was asleep, some of us got into a fight with BB guns. There were three tents here, and three more over there, and it was us against them. And I was lying down behind my rolled up sleeping bag, with just the right side of my face exposed, aiming a Daisy pump gun toward the other camp, when a BB hit me right in the eye.
Then and there the war ended for that night, because I was hurt. It scarred them, and scarred me. There was blood running warm down my cheek; I was stunned so I could hardly walk. I remember crawling to the creek and bathing my eye in the water. Next morning, and for several days, I couldn't open it. But then I could, and it got better, and I could see just fine, and no harm was done–I thought.
30 years after that I was sitting in an eye doctor's chair. I'd come to find out why I wasn't seeing too well. And he said "when did you hurt this eye?" And I said, "Why, I haven't hurt my eye." And he said, "Yes you have, I can see it. It could have been a long time ago."
"Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Does it also mean, "whatsoever a little boy soweth, that shall he also reap"?
Sure does, I can tell you. I'd give a lot today not to have had that BB gun fight. Dr. Ladis says there's still "trauma" in my right eye because of it, and I can sure tell the difference when I close one eye and then the other.
So I don't dispute the principle of sowing and reaping. There are consequences to pay in life. But I do raise the question what the Lord has to do with this.
Do you think the Lord looked down from heaven that night, turned in a rage to Gabriel, and said "would you look at that! It's that Briggs boy misbehaving again. I'm going to teach him a lesson! You get down there quick and aim one of those BB's to hit him right in the eye. That'll show him!"
I don't think it happens that way. I do think I reaped what I sowed, and still am reaping. I do think actions have consequences you often suffer. I think we pay for our mistakes, and our sins will find us out. We live in that kind of world. But the Lord plays a different role in this than what many people think.
The Lord did look down on that camp, I'm sure. But in love, not in wrath. God is love, the Bible says. And if he spoke to Gabriel that night, I think it was to say something like this: "I'm afraid if those boys keep on, someone's going to get hit in the eye."
But he didn't stop the fight, because it's the nature of human freedom that boys can fight if they want to, and so can grown men, and wives and husbands, and races and tribes and nations. None of which changes the harm that comes as a result.
So I believe that when I got hit he didn't laugh, he didn't gloat, he sadly shook his head and might have whispered . . . "too bad."
It's not his will that any should perish, or be killed in war, or be dispossessed, or starve in the streets, or be run over by trucks. Those things do happen, and you can say the Lord permits them. But I'll never believe he intends them. The Bible says he doesn't.
The Lord is on our side. He suffers with us in our sufferings, just as he suffered every step his own Son took who carried his Cross up that hill of Golgotha.
He's even on our side in efforts to avoid that law of sowing and reaping. He listens to prayers that ask "God be merciful to me a sinner," and delights in showing the mercy that restores us whole. Paul uses the term "justified" which simply means he makes me "just-as-if-I'd" never sinned to begin with.
Of course, the law of sowing and reaping is always there, and if you mock it you're mocking the Creator himself. He wants to be your friend, but you can make him an adversary if you choose.
"God is not mocked." The word comes from the word for nose. You could paraphrase it: "God is no one you want to thumb your nose at."
Now it seems to me this has two sides. One you can call the natural and the other the supernatural. It's easy to see there are natural ways you reap what you sow.
If you drive fast and reckless and sometimes drunk, what will happen? No one even needs to say. And when it does happen, as the ambulance turns on its siren and pulls away, people who know say what? "Well, he got what was coming to him."
It's fill-in-the-blanks-time now. Smoking cigarettes causes . . .? Neglecting your marriage causes . . .? Living with unrelieved stress causes . . .? Leaving keys in your car while going shopping causes . . .? Kicking a vicious dog who's sleeping in the road causes . . .?
Some things cause other things, that's the point. Maybe not every time, but sooner or later. Or at least more likely. And no heavenly judge has to keep records on those things, no scribe writes orders or pushes buttons–it's automatic. It's cause and effect. But still those transgressions go on. In spite of all warnings, they go on every day.
But I said there was something else, something less easy to explain.
Sometimes an awful thing is done and nothing bad happens. And sometimes a noble thing is done, and nothing good happens. Seed get sown, but nothing comes up. So what about that?
That's where heaven and hell come in. We live in a world of moral consequences, but the system isn't perfect. Some deeds fall through the cracks. Some people get more than their share of consequences, while others get less. There's usually a further word to be said about the outcome of any person's life. The Lord reserves all those words for himself.
But here again I warn you not to think in terms of legalities. No one earns the favor of God–no one. He gives it as a gift to those who accept his Grace, and the word "grace" means "unmerited favor."
Paul said "the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is Eternal Life through Jesus Christ our Lord."(Romans 6:23) And God wants to give that gift to all. He offers it freely to everyone who believes.
When you accept that, it changes the threat of sowing and reaping. For you can lose a job, or a house, or an eye, or even your life, and the final outcome remains assured.
One can win the battles of life and yet lose the war. He can go on saving money, and buying insurance, and wearing his seatbelts, then die and go to hell. God doesn't want that, but it happens.
The thing is, don't focus on the little consequences; focus on the Great Consequence. There's a text for that: "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Which means "what shall it profit a man to come out ahead in the little consequences, but come out behind in the Great Consequence?"
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoesoever believes in him shall not . . . what? It really means "shall not have to pay the consequences." Shall not have to reap as he's sown!
Instead, the Father says "have life! have it abundantly!"
Some may miss it, but all can receive it. Even now it's offered freely by the God of Love.
REMEMBER THE LORD
What goes on when someone speaks and people listen and things are changed as a result? Some say those days are gone. No more great preachers. No oratory like we used to have. Even coaches are less fiery and more the technician now, the locker-room speech a thing of the past. When did anyone hear a stirring poem read, or a moving eulogy, or a courtroom lawyer like William Jennings Bryan?
Today we seem tuned to the electronic. E.T. or Indiana Jones or Dallas or super-slomo replays. And the power and magic of the word spoken from platform to listener seems pre-empted or spoiled. For some of us who still work at those ways, it's very sad.
My text this morning comes from that other time. The speaker was Moses, and the occasion was historic. Now some debate whether great occasions cause great speakers, or whether great speakers cause great occasions. It's some of both. I'm sure if I'd been asked to speak at John Kennedy's funeral, something I said would have been memorable. It wouldn't have been different from things I say other times, but the occasion would make it seem so. Great occasions do that.
So if a group of people have been trying 40 years to get somewhere, if they've suffered and struggled in the process, if now the day is at hand, and if you've been their leader all that time but now are old and not going to make it yourself, and if this is your farewell speech to that nation–you know that's momentous.
So what will Moses say? He said many things, but this was at the heart of it all and sums it up. Listen: "You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power . . .."
"It is he." From someone or something we all came to live and breathe–it is he! To someone we all feel accountable in things right and things wrong–it is he! And no matter what we gain in this world, we plainly see ahead that we have to leave it, and we wonder who says what happens then?–it is he!
"It is he who gives you power!" You don't give it to yourself, you receive it from him. But how easily we believe a devil's lie that we're smart on our own, or rich on our own, or happy on our own, or funny, or fertile, or famous–whatever. No. God gives us those powers.
And if we fail to learn and remember that, our savings count for nothing, our suffering is meaningless, and our dreams are illusions.
I'm not just saying words here, I'm telling you the truth. And it's the truth of life, the truth of Moses, and the truth of God. God is our hope, our only hope. On him all things depend.
But you can miss that–so easily you can miss it.
I was in Annapolis one Friday this summer, sitting on the dock in blue jeans and a tee shirt, eating pizza, watching the boats and the birds and the people. Along came an interesting group–evidently an outing from a nursing home. There were 15 wheelchairs all in one line, each with a pusher. They were coming to the end of the dock, right where I was sitting, to see the view. This became the most interesting thing around to watch.
Now the view that day was great. Lots of activity by the birds and the boats. But I saw one lady who wasn't so impressed. She had her eye on one of the other ladies. And as it came her time to round the corner where I was, I heard her pusher say in a very professional voice, "now Mrs. Jones, you should look at this, it may be a long time before you get to see it again."
She really meant "you may never get to see this again, Mrs. Jones," but no matter. Mrs. Jones cared not. Not for boats, or seagulls, or sailors from the Naval Academy, or preachers sitting eating pizza. Nor for clouds above, nor any wonder of the great Chesapeake Bay. She would not look, her jaw was set–she kept watching the lady in front of her. She may or may not be back, but this day she missed her opportunity.
Now notice again the language of this text. "You shall remember the Lord your God." There's something close and personal sounding there. God knows our name, and we can know his. He's like a father or mother. He can and should be dear.
Do you say "the boss" or "my boss"? Do you call him "the coach" or "my coach," "the pastor" or "my pastor"? And most of all do you think of God as "the Lord" or as "my Lord"? Remember Thomas the disciple when he saw the risen Christ? "My Lord and my God." he said.
"It is he who gives you power." And for what do you need his power?
You need it to help you love. You need it for patience, and to be forgiving. You need it to keep you from being vain and foolish. You need it when you're young, and you need it growing old. You need it to have peace.
And you can't supply that power yourself. Without it you're forever the Prodigal Son in the far country of rebellious ways. Without it you wallow in a mire of oughts and musts you never live up to, always out of place, always despised by some older brother.
How is this power given, then? As Moses' people had to learn, it's given one day at a time. It's given to those who know their weakness, to those at wits end. God never gives the whole load at one time. Which is why you have to remember, and keep remembering, to trust, and keep trusting.
Drive that one nail in your wall and hang everything on it! "Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power."
When all's said and done, that's what the Church is for, isn't it? That's what a sermon is for, and singing is for. That's why we read the Bible. That's what an organ is for, and offering plates are for. That's why we pray.
And it's why Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed, took bread and wine. And why we have this table, with tokens of his love to handle and taste. And I tell you, we all need that.
We're not unlike that crowd Moses led. We've done our desert wandering. We're sore-footed, and not as young as we once were. But we've survived. We've come through the worst of what life's thrown at us, but only by the Grace of God. And here and now we must remember that, and Him.
The wilderness is behind us. We rest on a threshold of promise. The Lord himself is with us. And we need him–now, and for the journey ahead.
WHAT JESUS SAID ABOUT SABBATHS AND SUCH
Today's lesson begins: "At that time Jesus went through the grainfields . . .." Any passage beginning like that calls forth a question. "At that time"–what time? Let's look and see.
You'll find the entire 12th chapter of Matthew is a history of crucial events in the life of Jesus. Things move from one crisis to another, all with a common denominator. The Jewish leaders are coming to their final decision about him. They're moving to reject him, not just in the sense of having nothing to do with him, but in terms of concluding he must be eliminated from the scene for the good of their religion.
Throughout the chapter, things move from bad to worse. The first 8 verses tell about the disciples plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath, and we'll focus on that in a minute. The Pharisees react with suspicion about a man who lets his followers do such things. Then in verses 9-14 he heals a man on the Sabbath, right in their synagogue. And from that time on, it says, they begin to watch him. They become self-appointed private detectives.
In verses 22-32 you find them claiming he works his miracles in league with the Devil. He could do no good in their eyes. They were at a point of no return in their thinking. So at verse 14 you find them in council, and deciding to get rid of him.
How did Jesus react to all this? In several ways.
He did defy them, no doubt about that. You could debate whether plucking the grain was deliberate, but the healing in verses 9-14 surely was. It defied their Sabbath right in church! Their church, as they thought of it. Done as a crowd looked on! He was willing now for issues to be joined, and they were.
In the second place, he responded with warning. In fact, one of the most terrible warnings in all the Bible begins in verse 22. They're in danger of hardening their hearts so as to shut themselves off from the grace of God forever. He seems on the defensive there, but really he's on the attack. It's not to make a point of debate, but to tell them of their peril. And there is a peril of rejecting God which needs to be told of.
He also responded with a series of claims. If you've studied the life of Christ, you know there was a time he made few claims. But now as they begin to deal more harshly, he decides to let them know who they're dealing with. They'll shake their heads and disbelieve, just as many do today. But they will have have been told. And that's important.
As you travel the journey of this chapter, you find him showing his teaching is essential. It does what law never can. The law sweeps out a house and gets it clean-looking for awhile. But if it stands an empty house, there's more trouble ahead. Only the positive presence of goodness fills our lasting need.
The chapter ends with an invitation to join the family of God–a brotherhood and sisterhood in the Lord. And all of this was in the making as Jesus moved through the cornfield with those Twelve on that Sabbath day.
Now it says they were hungry and began to pluck and eat. And the Pharisees were watching and saw it. I've always wondered if there might have been more to it than that. I wonder if it might have been deliberate.
They approach the field, and Jesus sees those Pharisees off to one side. And he says to his men: "Are you all hungry?" And they say "Sure, Lord, we are–we're always hungry! But you know it's still the Sabbath, don't you?" And he smiles and says: "I know it, but let's help ourselves anyway. It'll do these folk some good!" And so they did.
They weren't stealing, mind you. The Old Testament was clear about that. It said "When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbor, then thou mayest pluck the ears of corn with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle into thy neighbors standing corn."(Deut. 23:25) A sensible rule. You can help yourself to some, but don't be greedy. Borrow some coal, but don't empty the bin! Have a sip of my drink, but don't drink it all!
But that wasn't for the Sabbath, of course. The Jews of those days had 39 kinds of work forbidden on their Sabbath. You must carry no burden, and a "burden" was anything heavier than two dried figs. And you couldn't plan your work for the next day either! Nor could you travel. Nor could you buy or sell, or make plans to buy or sell. Or draw water. Or light a fire. Or ride an animal. Or make love with your wife!
Why that one I'm not sure, and certainly won't try to explain. But I will point out that this is humorous to us, but it was very serious with them. They said no fighting on the Sabbath, and some died under attack rather than lift their sword. Others saw that part more liberally, saying you could defend yourself, you just couldn't attack. I think I'd have been in the liberal camp on that! But it shows how deeply these matters were held.
The disciples broke four rules all at once. They were reaping by plucking the ears. They were threshing by rubbing them in their hands. They were guilty of winnowing by separating the grain and chaff. And they broke the rule against fixing a meal on the Sabbath by the whole process.
The Pharisees are entirely right, then, when they say in verse 2: "Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do." The issue then became whose law is this? what good does it serve? to whom does it apply? and under what circumstances should it be ignored entirely?
Jesus makes three points in defense. The first is rather mild and peaceable. In verse 3 he's simply saying "there's precedent for this." That's always a good point with church folk, you know. For some reason, if anyone can say "we've never done this before" it seems to argue against the thing. But if you can say "well that's exactly what we did back so-and-so" everyone nods his head and says "well, O.K. then"!
Jesus recalls a story found in 1 Samuel 21:1-6, which I won't take time to read, but you might want to look up later. King David and a band of tired soldiers came in hungry and ate the sacred bread of the Temple which only the Priests were allowed to touch. "See there! Right in your own scripture is proof that the claims of human need take priority over all rituals."
In verse 5, Jesus argues that the priests in their work break the Sabbath all the time. They lift things, prepare things, light things, collect things, and even kill things. And that's considered all right, because a higher principle overrules it. He means for us to think about issues of life even higher than those: what really does God want? what duties come first in his service?
The quotation of verse 7 is from Hosea 6:6. "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, says the Lord." There you see how claims of human need takes precedence over all other claims. Even claims of worship, claims of custom, claims of order and consistency, claims of tradition and the teachings of elders. Those have their place, but there are higher places than theirs.
It's so deadly tempting to make the easier and trivial habits of your religion substitute for its weightier demands. Come to church now and then, give a little money, say a little prayer. A little lesson, a little committee work maybe, and that's it.
But it isn't it. The temple is important, but as the beginning of things that concern God, not the end. The more crucial thing is what happens after we leave the Temple and go out into the world.
Did you realize we have no sure evidence Jesus ever conducted a church service? The closest thing was a scripture reading in a synagogue. He may have led some services–I don't say he didn't–but it wasn't his main thing. What was his main thing?
He went about in the world feeding the hungry, calming the disturbed, helping the poor and lonely, and other such things as that. He preached the love of God and the good news of the kingdom. He blessed little children. He gave himself to the service of human need, and was the foe of any man or law that got in the way. And as for Sabbaths and such, his message was: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath."(Mark 2:27)
For sure, we must have some rules. Imagine driving a Beltway with no rules for the cars and trucks to go by! And moral rules are needed on the great beltway of life. Ones that wisely say "this thing is wrong, and there's hell to pay if you transgress it; this thing is right, and there's joy to be had if you live by it."
But Jesus is warning we can never reduce the will of the Father to the keeping of such rules. We can never say "I pleased God today, because I broke none of his rules today"! The Father's will is dynamic, not static; and love, not law, is its focus. "You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets come under that."
The less we love God and people, the more we need rules. The more we love God and people, the less we need rules.
The more we love God and people, the more rules may get in the way, as they did for Christ this day in question. Man ought not be the slave of rules, but their master, to use them for the good of earth. So Paul's plea to the Galatians: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."(Galatians 5:1)
For a New Testament Christian, there's never a day to say: "I know all God wants me to know about this day; it's all been written down." Instead, the promise is more like this: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth . . . whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come."(John 16:13-14)
You see, it's always easier to stand on dead tradition than trust a living spirit. Easier to recite the rules of the past than pray about the shape of the future. Easier to enforce a list of of does and don'ts than reason what they're for. It's easier to have people be objects of your scrutiny than to make them subjects of your love!
There's a hymn in our hymnal that, for me, catches the spirit of this passage as no other. We don't seem to be able to sing it, but at least I can read it as a lesson. The words are by John Greenleaf Whittier:
"O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother!
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.
For he whom Jesus loved hath truly spoken;
the holier worship which he deigns to bless
Restores the lost, and binds the spirit broken,
And feeds the widow and the fatherless.
Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of Him whose holy work was doing good;
So shall the wide earth seem our Father's temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude."
WHAT JESUS SAID ABOUT THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
Last fall as we flew to Korea, as we descended over Japan, we were treated to a view of Mount Fuji in a lovely evening light. The clouds and mist which often cover it had taken time off that day, and the sun reflected brilliant off the snow of the summit. Lyle Alzado says he never met a man he didn't want to fight, but I say I never saw a mountain I didn't want to climb! Just seeing it like this, though, was something special said the stewardess.
As I made what picture you can out of an airplane window, I remembered reading about Japanese photographers who make a lifetime hobby out of Mount Fuji. And I can appreciate that, for it's the way of mountains and pictures of them. All the changes of light, and seasons, and weather, and endless new perspectives. Someone says "But it's still the same old mountain." It isn't. It's new every morning. There's more to tell about it every day.
So it is with the Kingdom of Heaven, friends. It defies a quick and simple definition. One picture never tells it all. Which is why Jesus, in our scripture lesson today, and in other similar lessons, gives what we might think of as a series of photographs, each from varied angles, none claiming to tell the whole, but together making a sort of album.
"The Kingdom of Heaven is like this . . . " snap! "I'll tell you this about it . . ." snap! "It can be likened unto . . . snap! "Hear, now, this parable of the Kingdom . . . " snap!
Now before we look at some of those pictures, let me tell you this: whenever you see the term "Kingdom of Heaven" you can read "Kingdom of God." And vice versa. The terms are interchangeable, and anyone who tells you there's a distinction between them has made something out of nothing. So "Kingdom of Heaven" doesn't mean the Kingdom in Heaven, at least not now, it means "heaven's kingdom," wherever that may be at the time. "God's kingdom," wherever that may be at the time. Trust me on that.
Now as you look broadly at all Jesus said about the Kingdom–which was much because it was his constant theme–you find that often he used the term to speak of the future, and often he used it to speak of the present. And some times he spoke of both together, and others it's hard to tell which he had in mind. So there's that about the Kingdom of Heaven which is right now among us, and there's that about it which is yet to come. It begins in time, and continues into eternity. And here again I warn you of the person who tries to tell you it's all now, and nothing future, or all future, and nothing now. It's both.
Jesus taught his followers to pray "Thy kingdom come," but he also said "if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." (Luke 11:20) At the last supper he said "I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." (Mark 14:25) But he also said "behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you." (Luke 17:21) So again I say, it's both.
Let's go to the Bible now and see what Jesus said. You'll find in the passage I've selected there are six glimpses of the Kingdom, each different. The first begins in verse 24. Look: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away."
Thus arises a great problem for the owner of this field. The weeds and the wheat look very much alike until the time of fruit and harvest comes. Better to leave them alone and let them grow together until then. Try to have a clean field now and you'll mess everything up.
This is the counsel of patience. We see it illustrated in the way Christ dealt with Judas. He knew early the man was trouble, but he let things take their course. He had faith in the ultimate outcome of his mission. He refused to be sidetracked, even by the presence of a traitor in his midst. He knew there are times in life when the best advice is "let it alone."
It's the nature of the Kingdom that it has to endure the presence of evil, for this earthly time at least. And the fact is that none of us is a weedless field, pure and wholly dedicated unto God. The sacred and profane get all mixed up. Each turns out to be the other. And unless you have the perfect wisdom of God, you'd better not try to pronounce his judgments. It'll be a great day for the Kingdom when we can learn it isn't our business to stamp right or wrong on every new thing that pops up. Our business is growing; the weeding should be left to God.
I don't think the Moral Majority agrees with me on that, but then it's not my business to try to weed them out either. Those matters are in other and better hands.
Well, the idea of something growing takes us easily to the next picture, which begins at verse 31. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a seed that's tiny now, but plant it in the ground and it grows to become a mighty, towering thing. Like a tree, planted by rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, its leaf also not withering and whatsoever it doeth prospering.
It's the way of things in the Kingdom of God that hope is invested in small and inconspicuous things. Like a baby born in a manger. Like a teacher on a hillside. Like a tiny band of eleven men who gathered around him.
Man tends to put his confidence in the size of things, but the Lord doesn't. He brings something out of Bethlehem to conquer Rome and Athens.
Here's a message of assurance for every one who follows Christ. We may seem few and tiny and scattered, we may seem like seeds cast upon the vast field of earth, but of such does the Kingdom come. We of ourselves can do very little, but God with us can do very much. Hear then the parable of the mustard seed.
The parable of the leaven is kin to it, and that begins with verse
33. It's one of a number of "kitchen parables" Jesus used. I've wondered sometimes how and where he learned about kitchens and women's work, perhaps in the home of Mary and Martha? Anyway, the thing here is how God's Kingdom works. It works like yeast mixed together in dough to make it rise. A small amount has an effect out of all proportion to its size, you see. And it does its work by penetration, by contact. And it does it quietly and inconspicuously.
I know some people like that, don't you? They aren't the noisy gong or the clanging symbol, but their presence matters. Have them around very long and something's bound to change. The power that works in them is the power of love and the power of God. They're a yeasty ferment. Of such is the Kingdom.
Look on to verse 44. The kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field. Ah, who doesn't dream of striking it rich! Do you get those things in the mail that come bulk rate but say how you may have won a hundred thousand dollars? Do you open them or throw them away? Does anyone really win those things? If so, then why do you throw them away? Isn't this business of treasure on the mind of every person standing in line to buy a lottery ticket? Or calling to buy stock in some new company?
Treasure hidden in a field–it lies there buried, and a man finds it. "Look at this," he says. "Doggone, this'll make me rich. This is my lucky day!"
And what does he do? It's someone else's field, remember? He may be the hired man doing some plowing. Does he go to the owner and say "Listen, Sir, I found something in your field I think you'd like to know about"?
He thinks of that as he stands there looking at it. But, no, this is too good to pass up. This is his chance of a lifetime. All other considerations are overruled in this case. He goes to the owner and says "By the way, you know that old field where I've been working today? What would you take for that?" And whatever that owner says he has a deal, for whatever it is is worth it.
Now here's something to get straight when you're dealing with the parables. You don't ask too many questions. There's always one great lesson, and you get in trouble if you make a lesson out of everything. This man's business ethic, for instance. The Lord isn't saying this is the right way to do, he's telling it the way people often do it. His point is, the Kingdom is like treasure. And it's worth your time, your savings, and your life. And it's a cause for great joy. So whatever you do, don't miss out on it.
Now the next one is almost a twin to that one–look at verse 45. Although one difference is, in 44 we have a poor man as the finder and in 45 we have a rich man. The Kingdom has to do with both. Also in 44 the finding seemed accidental, and in 45 it's the end of a search. I've seen people come to God both ways. Some do it impulsively, and others very deliberately. Both can be legitimate.
We have a pearl merchant who's dealt with them all his life, but finds one he's willing to give up all the rest for. Every other he thought was best now has to be set aside. His lifelong dream has come to pass. And as he liquidates his assets to buy that Great Pearl, don't call it sacrifice, for he does it with joy and eagerness. He says "Boy, this is great! No, this is the greatest!"
Said Augustine of that experience in his own life: "What I feared to be parted from, was now a joy to part with. For Thou didst cast them forth from me. . . . Thou castedst them forth, and for them enteredst in Thyself, sweeter than all pleasure."
The last of this series, verse 47, would have us see a great net dragged through the water and gathering in a lot of fish. Some are fit for something, and others aren't. Some belong, and some don't. And just as it was with the wheat and weeds, a day of reckoning comes when such questions will be decided.
Surely no one wants to be cast aside. Indeed the Bible tells us the Lord has that in mind for not one person who lives or will ever live. It's "not his will that any perish, but that all come to the knowledge of the truth."
But I tell you this: to have your place in that Kingdom by-and-by, you should take your place in the Kingdom here and now.
Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you shall find it. Knock, and the very door of the Kingdom will be opened unto you.
E.A. Robinson wrote a poem he called "The Valley of the Shadow." In a sense, as I interpret it, it's about people finding and missing the Kingdom of God. It has a theme like the words of Christ that the first shall be last, and the last first. It has the gentlemen of leisure and others like them doing rather poorly, while others find welcome. It concludes like this:
So they were, and so they are; and as they came are coming others,
And among them are the fearless and the meek and the unborn;
And a question that has held us heretofore without an answer
May abide without an answer until all have ceased to mourn.
For the children of the dark are more to name than are the wretched,
Or the broken, or the weary, or the baffled, or the shamed;
They are builders of new mansions in the Valley of the Shadow,
And among them are the dying and the blinded and the maimed.
"Builders of new mansions in the Valley of the Shadow"! Of such is the Kingdom.
WHAT JESUS SAID ABOUT WORLDLY GOODS
I know from experience that some things a person preaches are more dear to his heart than others. In a way, my favorite sermon is always the last one I preached. But that isn't really so. You believe a lot of things, but some more strongly. Some you feel more confident about. Some you tell with greater urgency.
Now I think this lesson for today was something Jesus held close to his heart. He preached it, and lived it, and cried over those who ignored it. He knew it as one of life's hardest lessons, but one of the most essential. He was haunted by visions of people turning from God, spending their lives in pursuit of fortune. He pitied the Rich Young Ruler, and how it must have hurt to watch him turn and walk away, unwilling to part with his wealth for the sake of Christ.
Of course, there's a certain discomfort hearing these words. Well there should be. All of us here are in the camp of the rich. I mean it. Almost any American is rich by the measure of poverty in the world today. Even a person on welfare in our country can be considered rich if compared to the starving of many countries.
You don't think of yourself as rich, but really you are. You take what you have for granted, and that's part of the problem.
Another thing to be honest about is the fact that most of us are so materialistic. Few take vows of poverty! The size of your salary matters to you, and mine matters to me. Houses matter, cars matter, investments matter, clothes and travel matter.
We love what money buys, and we love the money itself. Our banks are a kind of temple, a holy place. Advertisements we pay heed to are like prayers, and they're many–very many–because whatever we have already, we're always wanting more.
But along comes Jesus Christ and he's saying "don't lay up for yourselves treasures on earth. Moths will eat, rust destroy, thieves will steal. Instead, lay up treasure in heaven where none of those things can happen. And be sure of this, that wherever your treasure is, that's where your heart is." Humm!
How many people really believe that? How many who call themselves Christians, even? The common thing is to give it lip service, then go right on living as if money's the main thing and religion is a sideline. But Jesus says religion is the main thing, and money is the sideline. And unless you keep them in that perspective, you'll never enter the kingdom of heaven.
We've all had the experience of buying something cheap, and it turning out to be no good. Worked for a while, then gave up the ghost. And we said to ourselves then that we'd never do that again. It pays to buy quality, we said. Spend the money and get something that'll last. Buy a good suit, buy good carpet, buy furniture made solid.
Now Jesus agrees with that principle. But he thinks we don't understand much about things lasting. We buy the best carpet so it'll last, but how long will it last? We put our treasure the safest place we can, but how safe is it there? One man said he was rich and increased with goods and was going to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. And he was fixed up, he said, for on and on and on. But that same evening, as he thought those thoughts, a voice came saying "Thou fool! This night thy soul is required of thee, and then whose will these things be?"
"Things." Jesus is telling us there's a problem with things. To live for things is to live in vain. To live for things is soon to lose whatever we lived for. To live for things is to frustrate the very plan of God for our lives.
A person should never give his heart to joys the years will take away. Instead, he should find delight in that which time is powerless to erode. "Now abideth faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love."
Pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white–then melts for ever.
What if deeds of kindness and love done in this life become a person's treasure in the next? What if wealth, fame, and power gained in this world mean absolutely nothing in the world to come? What if many who are now the first among us are destined to become last, and many called last to be the first when Judgment comes? What if the truth about money is this: that to save it up you have to give it away, and if you try to keep it you're always bound to lose it?
Think some more of what Jesus meant by verse 21. Your heart and your treasure are always in the same place, he said. And I suppose we all know that. If you want to get a person vitally interested in a thing, get him to put some money in it.
That's why I skip over those pages with the stock market report. I've never owned a share of stock in my life, so what does any of that mean to me? But now if . . . if I had some treasure there, I'd have some interest, wouldn't I? And I'd have it specifically where my treasure was. If I owned IBM, but not Eastern Airlines, which one would I look at?
Jesus here is probing us about our interest in the things of God. There are a lot of empty seats in churches today, why? Isn't the basic reason that people have their treasure somewhere else? They don't think about God, much less about prayer, or sermons, or songs of praise and thanks. Their eggs are in other baskets, as we say. They aren't concerned with the by-and-by, but with the here-and-now.
And my! won't it be hard for them when the time comes to leave this world, as it will so soon. If everything a person holds valuable is here on this earth, then he'll leave it grudgingly, and bitterly, and hopelessly.
In verse 24, Jesus pictures the choice. "No one can serve two masters," he says. "You cannot serve God and mammon," he says. Now the verb for "serve" literally means "to be a slave to," and the word for "master" is "kurios," which is often translated "lord." It defines a state of absolute ownership.
So the teaching is this: we end up the slave of worldly goods, or the slave of God, one or the other. No other choice, no route down the middle. Mastered by money, or mastered by God.
A man's god is whatever power he trusts. Trust things and they become your god. And in the end you don't possess them, they possess you. If a person succeeds at getting this world's goods we sometimes congratulate him. But Jesus teaches what we need to do is pray for him! He may not be lost, but he's surely in danger. And since we're all in that category of the blessed, we all live surrounded by that danger.
The Bible teaches all things belong ultimately to God. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein."(Psalm 24:1) There's nothing in this world about which we can say, "This is mine and I'll do with it as I darn well please." Of everything that is, even our own bodies, we should say: "This is the Lord's, and I must use it as he would have it used."
God must be master of our lives. Before him we must claim no rights of our own. We never demand what we want to do, but ask what he wants us to do.
Even time isn't ours. We mustn't say "This time is mine, and I'll do with it what I want." There's no time off from being a Christian, no off-duty.
Now I know how all this sounds. It sounds like something we'd rather avoid if we possibly could.
Not so! It's actually the only thing any person in his right mind should want to do! It is slavery to a master, but it's slavery to a better master. A wise and kind and loving master. And in that slavery there's a freedom that comes.
You see it starting in verse 25 and going on to the end of the chapter. All that about the lillies and the birds of the air, what's it saying? It's saying that being committed to God sets you free from worry. Since your real treasure is kept for you in a safe place, you don't have to fret so about the losses and misfortunes of life.
What is any worry but a distrust of God? The sparrows don't do it, says Jesus. Nor the lillies. And if you, like them, do your best and trust him to do the rest, then you won't have to worry either.
You can live free! Seek first the kingdom, and other things work out. And Jesus is saying, "if you don't believe it, just try it and see!"
We find something is this passage that's both threatening and promising. We find a narrowing of choices.
The question of life boils down. You begin to see your choice isn't one or the other of a hundred masters, there are only two. The choice narrows to a choice between God and mammon.
Before he died himself, L.D. Johnson wrote a book on the death of his daughter. He tells there the story of a nineteenth-century Congregational minister of New England named John Todd. Todd was left an orphan at age six and raised by an aunt. Much later in life, he got a letter from that aunt. She was dying then, and asking what it meant.
Todd wrote back: "It is now thirty-five years since I, a little boy of six, was left quite alone in the world. You sent me word you would give me a home and be a kind mother to me. I have never forgotten the day when I made the long journey of ten miles from my home in Killingworth to your home in North Killingworth. I can still recall my disappointment when I learned that instead of coming for me yourself you had sent your colored man Caesar to fetch me. I can still remember my tears and anxiety as, perched on your horse and clinging tight to Caesar, I started for my new home."
He goes on to tell more about his fears on that journey, and then his relief as he saw the house and a candle in the window, and his aunt waiting for him at the door. He remembers her arms around him, and the first supper she fed him. And then he concludes: "You are probably wondering why I am now recalling all these things to your mind. Some day soon God will send for you, to take you to a new home. Don't fear the summons, the strange journey, the messenger of death. At the end of the road you will find love and a welcome; you will be safe in God's care and keeping. God can be trusted–trusted to be as kind to you as you were to me so many years ago."
That, friends, is about the best word we have.
"God can be trusted."
It may not answer all our questions, but it will calm all our fears. It gives us something solid to hold on to.
God is trustworthy. He is Lord of earth and heaven. Put your life's trust in nothing else.
WHAT JESUS SAID ABOUT THE SOVEREIGN WILL OF GOD
This fella owned a Chevrolet place. Sold a lot of cars, and did pretty well. Had no partners, no stockholders, the place was his. And it was paid for. So he ran it like he wanted.
One morning bright and early, a young gentleman came by to look at him a Camaro. But that owner didn't take to him much. He had the look of dad's money about him, like he'd never worked a day in his life yet, and maybe never would. And he tried for a discount on the car, but the owner said "sorry, boy, the price is on the window–take it or leave it." The young man had the money, of course, and he took it.
About noon that day another young man came in to look at a Camaro. (In case you weren't aware, young men of all kinds like Camaros.) This guy had on a uniform from the auto parts store, and was there on his lunch break. He talked awhile, then got around to asking the price of the car. And that owner made him a deal. Sold it to him for what he had in it plus $50. And the young man sure was happy.
Now late that afternoon, guess what? Another young man came by. But any car salesman could see he was just looking. No way he could buy a car, or a new one anyway. Send him out on the lot and see if they have any of those $50 junkers left. No money, no credit, and him looking at brand new Camaros!
But you know what? This was that young man's lucky day. Because that owner saw him, and talked with him. And he'd been into remembering lately how he used to be a young man with no money who did love cars. And it was crazy, it didn't make sense, but you know what? That owner said "how much do you have, son?" And the boy looked embarrassed and said about $50. And the man said "I'll take it."
Of course I made that story up, but could it happen? If you're the owner of a place, can't you tell someone "no discount"? Can't you give someone else a better deal right after he leaves, or before if you decide to? And if you're the owner, can't you sell someone else a car for any price you want? Sure you can.
Now the parables of Jesus always have one main point to get across. To me, his point in the one today is the sovereign will of God. It doesn't mean God's arbitrary or unfair. It doesn't tell us he plays favorites. It doesn't mean he picks some people for rags and others for riches, just for his own amusement. No.
But the story is to teach us that God is God. He's who he is, and that's The Owner. He's in charge. And we deal with him on his terms, not on ours.
There are terms in this life. We must "come to terms" with God's terms. Maybe not right now, but sooner or later, and sooner than most people think. And God's terms are unlike anyone else's terms. His you don't question, his you can't negotiate.
Not all of them do, but some of the Parables Jesus told have what's called an "occasion." He told it in response to some question, some event, some comment, or something. An example is the Good Samaritan. He'd just been asked what was the greatest commandment, then "who is my neighbor?" And so he told that story.
There's no obvious "occasion" for our parable today, but some think there is one. Look back in the chapter just previous to verse 27. There Peter just happens to be mentioning some things he and others have given up for Christ, and he asks "what then shall we have?" Which means "what will we get out of this, Lord?" He was asking to re-negotiate his contract, you see! Just like Theisman does every year! Well some see the parable that follows as the Lord's reply to Peter. Let's look.
I'm told there was a place in those days–something like a market–where men went who wanted jobs. They went early in the morning, and all day long, if a man needed help, he'd go there to get it. The unemployed who came there all needed work. Some stayed all day long and never got a job. It was like a union hall.
Now let's follow that story as Jesus tells it. Early one morning, a landowner sends for some men to work in his vineyard, then later more, then later more, then right at the end of the day, one last bunch. They came in right at "Miller time"! Did just a little work, then lined up for their beer like everyone else. (No, that part isn't in the Bible, but I'm glad you looked to see!) What you do see, though, is that everyone got the same day's wages–everyone.
Then come to verse 10: "Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. (A denarius was the standard day's wage for this kind of labor.) And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying 'these last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us . . .'"
Now those men weren't cheated. They got a just wage, everything they'd been promised. Only the comparison caused them a problem. They wouldn't have said a word otherwise. But seeing what the latecomers got they decided they deserved more, or the others less, or something.
Here we meet what might be called "the sin of comparison." We cast our jealous eyes on others. And we never seem to compare ourselves with those who have less, but with those who have more. And when we see what they have we're angry. And bitter, and sullen. And feel mistreated by God.
The wage of those others was none of their business, of course, but they made it their business. Oh, the arguments to be spared if people could stick to their own business, and stay out of others' business!
And most of the time, what really do our proud comparisons amount to in the sight of God? I give you a small illustration. I was standing in the grocery checkout the other day. I was reading the fronts of those magazines like the National Inquirer that are always there around you.
Now if you're a fan of those magazines, would you do me a small favor? Just put a finger from your right hand in your right ear, and one from your left hand in your left ear, because those magazines are brainless trash!(In my humble opinion!) And that's what I was thinking, standing there, and wondering who pays money to take those home. Not me! I read Time Magazine and The Washington Post and used to take the Saturday Review of Literature. I sometimes even read The Wall Street Journal, for heaven's sake!
Comparisons! I was doing it, sure enough. But then a better thought came. I said to myself standing there in the Safeway, "Now really, Briggs, what have we here?" I asked myself by what small degree is my sophistication greater than those I was looking down on? And by what small degree is anyone else's greater who might look down on mine, as many have cause to do? Isn't this all a big laugh to God? By comparison with all there is to know, how much do any of us know?
Don't waste your life feeling good or bad about any such comparisons. How much was his pay check? How much is that house worth? Did they like her dress better than mine? My kid makes better grades than yours, ha ha. Such worthless pursuits only set us at odds, with one another and the Master too.
No one can praise the Lord's goodness toward him while casting around a jealous eye to see if someone else is getting more. We have to be glad in what he's given us and never begrudge what comes to others. Who can judge another's fortune or misfortune? We never really know. The grass that looks greener in our neighbor's yard, he may have drenched with his tears last night while we slept.
In the parable, the owner replies to the protests with these words: "Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?"
The story was meant for telling where people speak as if God must act according to their prescription. It shows who's boss. It shows no one takes God's place. It says God is God, and his will is supreme. He will be accountable to no one but himself. He always has the final word.
Our concern is often the same as Peter's–"what's in this for me?" Some pray just for that reason. It's why they study the Bible, and why they come to church. Their concern is solely how those things can benefit them. And to whatever extent that's our only interest in the matter, we are pagan, unregenerate, and sinful in the eyes of God.
What was that first commandment, the first in God's priorities for how he wants us to live? "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and mind and soul and strength, and thy neighbor as thyself." God first, others next, ourselves last, he says. But turn that around, put your own needs first, and you have what Peter had. It needs to be seen for what it is.
From my perspective, I see this as one of our greatest problems. I see not enough people who will labor for the Lord and others. It has to be for them and theirs. Then maybe they might.
As a pastor, I sometimes feel like the manager of a private club where the privileged gather. They pay their dues and expect good service. I listen to their complaints and cater to their whims, because it's my job.
No one puts more into the club than he's getting out of it. If someone tries to make him, he takes his membership and goes somewhere else. And that's proper, I suppose, in that kind of arrangement. Only the Church is meant to be another arrangement.
The Church of Jesus is no private club whose purpose is the pleasure of its members. Instead, it's a place you invest your life. We are servants, not masters.
Even Jesus was himself a servant. And he once told us that a servant isn't greater than his lord. He said all of us are called to serving, not to being served, to washing the feet of others, not holding out our own. And the way we're called to follow could even be the way of a Cross.
But it's worth your life. And in it there is life. And you can join early, or you can join late.
But the sooner the better. The work is waiting.
MORE OF THE SAME . . . OR?
Let's look ahead, and let's be honest. Sometime this year, you will hurt someone for no good reason. Maybe a friend, or someone you work with, or a child, or even a stranger. And you may know you did it, or you may not, but you'll do it.
Sometime this year you'll sin and need forgiveness. You have already, as a matter of fact. You'll be selfish or prideful or deceitful or lustful. Or you'll fail to do something you should, something God expects. You'll need to pray, "Lord, forgive me."
Sometime this year you'll miss a chance to help someone know God. You'll have an urge and an opening to say something, and you won't do it. You'll change the subject. And someone whose soul is in distress will stay that way, when you could have helped.
Sometime this year you'll fail your church. You'll stay home when you could have come, or be stingy instead of generous, or be quiet when you should have spoken up, or spoken up when you should have kept quiet! You'll say no to something you should have said yes to.
And if all of this and more just like it is true, then why call it a "new year"–it's just more of what's been already. Life going on as usual. The same things over and over: turn, turn, turn.
Sometime this year you'll be afraid for your life. A moment of panic, a sudden realization this could be it. And sometime this year a person who means a lot to you will die. And you'll be very tired sometime this year, and very angry another time. You'll be disappointed, happy, sick, curious, elated, discouraged, anxious, guilty. And so it was last year.
We call it a New Year, but in most ways it won't be. It's to be another 12 months of the same old thing. So are we playing the game, or is it being played with us? Are we controlling things, or being controlled? Is there anything we can do to change our lot, or are we programmed to a determined existence?
As Ecclesiastes tells us, generations come and go, the sun rises and sets, the wind blows round and round, and the streams run to the seas and then come back to do it again. On and on it goes. "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."(1:9) But is that an observation on how things usually work, or an ironclad law that says how they must work?
I, for one, don't believe it's an ironclad law. I wouldn't be a minister if I did. But I do believe it expresses the problem we all face–the problem of inertia that works against change. The outlook is, there'll be no New Year unless you sieze it by the throat.
That's what Jesus and Nicodemus were talking about. "How can a man
be born when he's old?" How can real change come about? What choices do we have? And Jesus insisted things can change. We can even be born again, he said!
There's a cat in our house named Dufus. Dufus may have noticed people were up later on New Year's Eve, but it meant very little to him. Someone may have patted Dufus on the head and wished him a "Happy New Year," but that was a loss too. Dufus will be the same cat next year, just a year older and maybe a tad slower. His life is determined between narrow limits. But with persons made in the Image of God, it's different, or can be. And we should think in larger terms than just re-running the past.
The calls of God are usually calls to change. The business of God is the business of turning points. "O sing unto the Lord a new song!" "A new heart I will give you," he says, "and a new spirit I will put within you." One of Paul's favorite terms for a Christian is "the new man." His term for a sinner is "the old man." He says of us: "the old has passed away, behold the new has come."(2 Cor 5:17)
The last book of the Bible closes, "Behold, I make all things new." So to be partners with God in the new year, we must open our minds to what newness it can bring. For in all too many situations, with all too many lives, almost any change would be a change for the better.
Most lives have too few turning points. We get going in one direction and keep at it out of habit. Which is why Trueblood spoke of "living life in chapters." Unless we make an effort, all that happens is we get through chapter one and then replay it over and over. Yet the Lord gives us all the means to grow and make changes. And unless we remind ourselves of that as one year turns to another, when will we be reminded?
A new year is ahead–a new page, a clean sheet, ready for new thoughts, new words. Enough of chapter one, let chapter two begin! And along the way, be planning toward chapter three.
It can be a new year. Make some new friends, read some new books, learn to do something you always wanted to but said you didn't have time for, spend some money, go somewhere!
It was Fosdick who told about a sign by an old wagon road that read: "Choose carefully which rut you take. You'll be in it the next 20 miles." It's hard to get out of life's ruts, but you can with the help of God. First you have to want too.
Idleness, boredom, lack of interest in life–those are our main enemies. Pity those who find nothing that excites, nothing to do. No need to talk with them about a new year.
A young man was talking with an old man, and he was wishing. He was wishing school was out. He was wishing hunting season would hurry up and come. And for his next birthday. And to be old enough to have a job. And the old man listened and smiled and then said, not unkindly: "Son, when you've used up as much of your life as I have, you won't wish it away like that."
Life isn't the long run we think it is. It's just a short dash. It's a vapor appearing a little while and then gone. It's the morning dew when the sun gets hot.
But while we have it, we have the God-given chance to live it well and make it matter. The year ahead can matter to you, and you can matter to the year.
We should measure that well, and ask the Lord to lead us as we move ahead.
HOW SERIOUS IS NOT PRAYING?
1 Samuel 12:19-24
I realize my sermon title is put in the negative, and they teach you not to do that. Yes I could have called it something like "The Joys of Faithful Praying," and maybe that would have been better. Maybe I have a mean streak. Maybe the title makes no difference. Anyway, I'm asking: "How serious is not praying?"
There may be a lot of praying among Christians today, I'm sure there is. But I'm convinced there's a lot of not-praying too. And half-praying. And proxy-praying, which is people letting someone do it for them while they just listen. I think we have a need here. I even think we have a crisis of sorts.
If there's such a thing as a money crisis when money runs low, what about a "prayer crisis" when that runs low too? If there's not enough rain we call it a drought and say that's a crisis. If there's not enough praying it leads just a surely to a spiritual crisis. And this is true for one person, it's true for a church, it's true for a family, and it's true for a nation or any other social unit.
The Bible says we "have not because we ask not." So not praying means not having the things prayer does. Things like love and joy and peace. Those ties that bind our hearts. The forgiveness of our sins, and God's guidance on our way.
James tells us if we know the good and don't do it it's a sin. Which means not praying is a sin. Not just a problem, a sin. Not just a regrettable oversight, but a sin.
That's also the language of my text this morning. It comes from another of those stormy times in Israel's history, when the people demanded a king like other nations. Samuel had reservations about that, but he bowed to pressure and annointed Saul. At the same time, he gave dire warnings for the future if people put him or any king in the place of God.
After those warnings, the people say "well, you pray for us then." And Samuel says he will. He says "far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you." And he goes on urging them to fear the Lord and serve him with all their hearts. Or, as he put it, "you shall be swept away, both you and your king."
"Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray . . .." There, friends, you see how serious is not praying. And by contrast how valuable it is when we do.
Who can tell the worth of a prayer such as this?
"O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last. Amen."
Prayer is so demanding. It calls up all the main questions of our existence. Is there a god? Is God this god? Is he involved with our world? Does he know and care about us? Can he help our situation? Will he?
On one night in 1943, General Eisenhower sent three thousand ships from Malta to invade Sicily. He watched them go, then bowed his head and was seen in prayer. When he finished, he said to a friend who later write it down:
"There comes a time when you've used your brains, your training, your technical skill, and the die is cast and the events are in the hands of God, and there you have to leave them." (Chas. Allen, Prayer Changes Things, p.14)
Real prayer is like wrestling. It begins with what Lofton Hudson calls a "sincere discontent." It's a struggle, a kind of work.
Prayer is one will grappling with another will. It's Jacob there beside the Jabbok as a desperate dawn begins to break. It's Christ in Gethsemine. It's Paul in Romans 7, where he bemoans the hold of sin on his life. It's Moses saying "blot me out of your Book, O Lord, if I can't save this nation."
Prayer is for souls what food is for bodies, gasoline for cars, money for retirements, film in our cameras. In other words, it makes life work, and without it things grind to a halt.
Prayer isn't tame. Anything that's tame or loose or half-hearted shouldn't be called prayer. Prayer sweats.
And it crys, it curses, it shouts, but never yawns. Nothing that yawns can be called a prayer. That strange and wonderful Baptist, John Bunyan, had it right. He said "when thou prayest, rather let they heart be without words, than thy words without heart"!
How serious is not praying? Well, how serious is not eating? Or not breathing? How serious is living life and never loving? Or knowing joy?
How serious is not speaking to the best friend you have? How serious is being the branch of a vine and getting cut off? As Fosdick said: "Only a theoretical deity is left to any man who has ceased to commune with God, and a theoretical deity saves no man from sin and disheartenment."
Prayer is either the most practical and sensible of all human acts, or the most wasteful and ridiculous. It's one or the other, but can't be both. And the important matter isn't what you say it is but how you act like it is.
So what might be different for your being here this morning? Will it mean anything at all that you came out and heard a sermon on prayer? Is it enough if you say to yourself "well there's something to that, and I'll try to do better from now on."
Sorry, but no. Nothing really changes because of feelings you have that come and then go away. For let me tell you something about yourself. You have those feelings often. You forget them and do nothing about them. Like looking in a mirror and seeing something, but then going away to be no different.
We're frail. We need reminders. We're creatures of habit. We need to make lists and take training and tie strings around our fingers, or nothing takes. We have to have structures to build on, habits to hold us up.
Maybe what you need is a notebook to keep records on your praying. Maybe you need to read some books, there are many in our church library. Maybe you need a partner in prayer. Maybe you need an electronic something that beeps to remind you. Maybe you need lessons like learning to play the piano. I don't know what you need, but I know you need something.
I found an illustration in the newly published journal and letters of Luther Rice. There in Kentucky in the winter of 1816 he wrote:
"Mrs. P gives me an interesting account of the manner of life of her brother-in-law, John Quincy Adams–that he is a very pious man–always reads a chapter in the bible just before going to bed, & immediately on rising–retires at eleven, & rises at 4 o clock, regularly–& loses no time during the day–keeps a journal of every occurrence–marks particularly his own advancement in either piety or knowledge–at the close of each month sets down a number of appropriate reflexions–In hearing this account of that great man, I felt convinced of a criminal waste of time, & indolence of habit in relation to real improvement, both in religion & knowledge, which I hope I may have grace in some degree hereafter to correct."
Now this is from a man who was extremely disciplined in his own spiritual exercise. So when I read it I thought, well if he feels lacking, how should most of us feel? Would we even agree with the man that neglecting our time with the Lord each day is "a criminal waste of time," as he devoutly put it? (Dispensations of Providence, p. 98)
Let me tell you this: prayer is power. For Luther Rice, for you, for me. The Greek word for power is "dunamis," from which we get our word dynamite. Prayer is dynamite! It's an explosion of divine energy. It moves things, even mountains! And a prayerless Christian is a powerless one.
We have much to consider here. Henry Adams put it this way: "after all, man knows mighty little, and may some day learn enough of his own ignorance to fall down and pray."
Jesus said we "ought always to pray and not lose heart." (Luke 18:1)
Do you get the thrust of that? See how practical it is? You pray or you lose heart, one or the other. And you make the choice which way it will be. So prayer does you good. Or better, through prayer God does for you the good he wants to all along, but can't because you haven't let him.
This week I led a noontime Bible group at the Department of Transportation building downtown. I used Philippians 4:6 where Paul says "have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." And one of the men there who pastors a church part-time gave me a sermon title for that text. "Why pray when you can worry?"
That's good! It makes a point. For the usual thing is to worry more and pray less, but the Lord says pray more and worry less.
How serious is not praying? As serious as a drug addiction, but how many see it that way? As serious as an IRS audit, or a lawsuit that could ruin you. As serious as any surgery you can name. As serious as a rumor about your wife. It's a thing to get serious about.
Not praying is a sin, and what if it's the basic sin? What if it's the one that leads to all the others? Ask yourself, if people really prayed, would they fall victim to sin as they do? Would they be hurtful and selfish as they are? What if it all boils down to this, that sin keeps us from praying, or prayer keeps us from sinning, one or the other?
This sermon has a commercial at the end of it, and that's where we are now. I think you need help with prayer, and I have help to offer. It begins this Wednesday, and some also on Saturday. You should be there.
I claim to be no expert, but I do claim this–I'm better than nothing! And I've learned from some experts. And I can help you if you'll let me.
That's the commercial.
Now as with all commercials, you take it or leave it. But I fancy this: that it's not just my commercial, it's a word from our sponsor. Our Sponsor.
SIFTED LIKE WHEAT
The story begins in that upper room where Jesus met his disciples for their last supper. The words were said to one of those twelve, but the rest heard too.
"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren."
"Simon, Simon . . ."–you can tell this is more than casual conversation by the way it starts out. The man had two names, one his father gave, and one Jesus gave. Jesus called him "Peter," a sort of nickname that meant "rock." Rock as in Rock of Gibralter.
But Jesus isn't using that name now. He's using the man's formal name, and did you notice he said it twice?
Diane sometimes calls me "honey"–sometimes. That's a sort of nickname. Then sometimes it's "Ed." But other times it's "Edward." And a few times I have heard "Edward, Edward"! What does "Edward, Edward" mean? You don't want to know! But you do know.
What does it mean if you say to me "Pastor, Pastor"? Or if I say "Jennifyr, Jennifyr"? So there's no mystery when the Lord says "Simon, Simon."
"Simon . . . Satan." We don't often say a good friend's name and Satan's name all in the same breath. That, too, is a tip-off about what's to come. "Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat."
We forget, as we peacefully do our Lord's Supper, the chaos that surrounded its beginning. They met in a secret place, the curtains drawn as those with a price on their heads, hiding from the law. They learned that night of a traitor in their midst. They heard it said more plainly than ever that their leader was to die. And afterward some of them got into an argument. And then came this startling word to Peter. And on it went from there.
Simon Peter–the man was a saint rough-cut. A man of extremes, he could rise higher than most, or fall flatter than most. He could say the best thing in the meeting, or the worst, and you never knew which was coming. He could be faithful one minute, and faithless the next.
He lacked no self-confidence, he never needed assertiveness training. Anytime you gave him the barest chance, Peter spoke up.
If Jesus tells him he's in for a fall, what will he say? "You'll deny me, Simon. Three times. Three times before this night is over. You're going to turn your back on me."
"No, Lord. Why, I'd go to prison for you, or to death for you. I wouldn't in this world deny you. Some of those others might, but not me. Never, never."
He said "never, never" like Jesus said "Simon, Simon." He was loud and bold, but his loudness and his boldness hid what he was right then–a saint about to fall.
Even saints fall. People don't like to speak of it, but they do. Sometimes they fall far. Sometimes they fall hard.
It's heart-rending when a true saint falls. The fall of a phony saint is a thing to make heaven laugh, it seems to me. But not this. The fall of a true saint makes heaven cry. So as those twelve make their winding way toward Gethsemine, we know there's about to be crying.
Heaven will cry, and the saint will cry. And if we but cared as saints do, we might cry too.
I have a friend who's a saint for sure, but lately a sifted saint. Sifted like wheat, sifted as by the devil himself. My friend always did speak of how near the Lord was. But last week, in a prayer, I heard her tell the Lord she wasn't sure if he even heard her prayers.
The Lord understood that. The Lord holds that sort of thing against no one. Hard times come to saints like anyone else, and the Lord is there with them in those hard times, whether they know it or not, feel it or not.
Peter won't know it. Until the end he won't know it.
Saints in their falling seem seldom to know that the Lord is there the whole time, until the thing's over. Saints in their falling feel far from God until they face him again, and then they know.
Peter is a saint about to fall, but remember his fall will be an exception. Give the man his due. He's followed, and served, and struggled, and suffered long. When Jesus watched those multitudes turn their backs and go away, as he spoke discouraged to the twelve, he said "are you going too?" It was Peter who answered: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of Eternal Life."
So they walked to that garden where Jesus liked to pray. He seemed, as they went, to know exactly what lay ahead this night, but the others didn't.
They all went, all except one. One went somewhere else. One went to some men who paid money for what he knew. And he was no saint, he was a traitor.
So others will come to this garden too. Not to pray, but on business. Nasty business. Officials, some soldiers. They'll be there to make arrests. And Peter now will have his chance to go to prison or to death. We'll see if he's willing as he said he was.
It's a precarious thing to say what you'll do in a situation you're not actually in. What Peter said he'd do in the upper room may not be what he'll do in this garden when the time arrives.
Watch out for too much loose talk about what you'll do or not do if so-and-so happens or doesn't happen. Watch out about telling what you'd do if you were me. You're not me, are you? Never will be, will you? That means you can't say.
Peter and the Lord have a simple disagreement. Peter says he'll do one thing, and Jesus says he'll do another. Peter says "I'll stick with you," and Jesus says "no, you'll deny me." So would anyone like to a bet?
Jesus prayed earnestly in that garden. This was where he prayed "not my will but thine be done" and his sweat rolled down like blood.
Jesus prayed, but Peter slept. He'd been told to pray, but he slept. He may have still been sleeping when the soldiers came.
Now the thing about soldiers is, they're a welcome sight if they're yours. But if not, if they're the enemy, then it's fight, or run, or surrender–one of the three.
Jesus didn't run, and Jesus didn't fight. He went with them, under arrest.
The others ran. At least they slipped away and weren't seen for days. And Peter . . .? He slipped away too, but then began following at a safe distance. He had one urge to go, and one urge to stay, and he tried to split the difference. He aimed for everything, and would end up with nothing. Which is easy to do.
Peter tried to blend in with the crowd. And he wouldn't be the last Christian to do that. It's one of our biggest problems, that our light doesn't shine. We hide it under bushels, except now and then when we uncover it at church. The world doesn't know who the Christians are because they don't want it known. We're timid in our faith; we follow afar off.
Jesus is being led to court, and Peter's back there in the crowd following incognito. They get where they're going, and he stands around waiting with others who're doing the same thing.
Time passes. Someone builds a fire, and Peter eases up to warm the seat of his pants, or I should say back of his robe. And all of a sudden, someone from nowhere says "Weren't you with that man Jesus?"
It wasn't an official. It was no soldier. It wasn't even a man, just a servant girl. But it scared Peter like a sword drawn and pressed against his throat. And the Bible says this saint swore and denied it. I know you don't want me to swear in sermons, so imagine some bleeped out words!
Now no one's more afraid of a thing than someone who's been running from it already. So Peter was terrified. And all his words of strength and bravery were gone like last year's leaves. And not just once, but three times through that long night of his soul this same thing happened. And the third time, Jesus heard it.
What does it mean when Jesus hears something? Something of yours, perhaps? Hears you say you tried your best when that's a bunch of stuff. Hears you make a deal that isn't quite right. Hears you insult your neighbor or lie about something you did. Hears you talk some nonsense pious talk that means nothing at all to him.
Jesus heard, and Jesus said nothing. But he looked right at Peter, and Peter saw him look.
I don't know what kind of look it was. It might have been a sad look. It might have been angry. It might have said "I told you so." It might have been a smile, or even a wink. But now, like a person who's been walking in a fog of sleep, Peter is awake and has a nightmare on his hands.
He can't imagine a worse thing than what he's just done. And while he stands there trying, Jesus is on the way to his cross. Peter begins to wish all those wishes that can do no earthly good. And when this is over, all that's left to do will be to cry.
So he crys. And somewhere else, about that same time, another of those twelve is caught in the very same distress. And he'll put a rope around his neck and throw himself off a cliff. Peter may be thinking the same. I can seriously imagine him starting out to go do it. Why didn't he?
In better days, he'd asked a question once. "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him–seven times." The answer he got back was seventy times seven. And Peter learned there that the way God wanted him to be toward others was the way God was toward him. He learned about forgiveness, and the grace of God. And that's what made the difference.
God doesn't "deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust." (Psalm 103:10-14)
Peter had his cry, and more when he learned what was done that awful Friday. But still, as we say, he hung in there, down but not out, all the old cliches. And I suppose the best place to end this chapter of his story is on Easter morning, three days later.
Some women came early to the tomb. Some women found Jesus was risen and alive again. They saw him with their own eyes. And almost at once he told them, "go tell my disciples–and Peter."
UNTO ME, A SINNER
Rabbi Simeon ben Jockai is supposed to have said, "If there are only two righteous men in the world, I and my son are these two; and if there is only one, I am he!"
Another Rabbi who lived in the first century wrote a prayer as follows: "I thank thee, O Lord, my God, that thou hast given me a place among those who sit in the House of Study, and not among those who sit at the street corners; for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early to study the words of the Law, and they rise early to engage in vain things; I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward, and they labor and receive no reward; I live and they live, but I live for the life of the future world, and they live for the pit of destruction."
Now with such words before us, it takes no stretch of the imagination to picture this story Jesus told of two men and their prayers. It's a simple story, very short and vivid. But it isn't so simple when you get to dealing with what it means to our lives.
Hypocrisy sneaks around. Remember the teacher who gave her class this same lesson, then said at the end "let's bow our heads now, and thank God none of us is like that awful Pharisee"!
There's some of that Pharisee in all of us, I'm afraid. And some of the Publican too. Honesty and hypocrisy get mixed in the formula of our lives. Telling one from the other is no easy task. Yet any person who cares for his life before God must deal with that problem.
When you look around in church, you might suppose everyone's there for the same reason. No. You might suppose the Lord's pleased with everyone he sees there because they've honored him with their presence in his holy place.
No again. In the story Jesus told that ratio was 50/50. I don't know if that's typical or not, I don't know if anyone but God knows much about such ratios. But I know this–there's a difference in churchgoers, and that story proves it.
Have you noticed lately how people use the word "enjoy"? You buy something in the store, and the last thing they say is "enjoy!" Some use it more than "have a nice day."
Well one of those men in the temple was plainly there to enjoy. To enjoy his Temple, his friends if any had shown up, his relationship with God which he knew was in marvelous shape, his way of life which pleased him greatly, and, yes, his personal superiority over the ungodly scum of earth.
But the other man, his prodigal brother, found the least conspicuous place he could, the farthest from any sacred object, any burning candle. He wanted to be near God, that's why he'd come, but he got no nearer than he had to. He wasn't there to "enjoy." He was there for something else.
To say "I'm sorry, Lord." To say "I've made such a mess of things, can I be forgiven?" He was there as the hurt for healing, as the weary and heavy laden come for rest. He was there as the choked, to get unchoked. And his prayer was more like a sob or cry:
"God, be merciful to me, a sinner."
Now, friends, each of these men described himself, and neither one lied. The Pharisee called himself righteous, and by common measures, he was. He tithed, prayed, fasted, gave alms, and other such things. The tax collector called himself a sinner, and by common measures, he was. He likely had cheated, lied, abused, hoarded.
The Pharisee had everything in his favor except the one thing. And the tax collector had nothing in his favor except the one thing. And what the one had and the other lacked are one and the same, and I must try to tell you what.
The center of the Pharisee's world was himself, righteous though he seemed to be. The center of the tax collector's world was God, unrighteous though he no doubt was.
The Pharisee's keynote is the capital "I." You hear it over and over like the thumping of a bad tire. He thanks God for this and that, but his thoughts are all of himself. He speaks the words of worship, but his only true worship is the worship of himself.
Each man reveals his thought about God. For the Pharisee, God's like an investment where he's earned a big share of stock. Any moment now he may get a call to be one of the directors. His service to the company has been just that outstanding. God owes him much.
That attitude about heavenly debt is one you meet rather often. Someone's children give problems, let's say, and you hear moaning "why did this happen to me?" As if God owed them better and didn't live up to it. Or the car breaks down, or their health does. "Why, Lord, why'd all this have to happen to me?"
Well, why shouldn't it? What are the guarantees of life, after all? What are we owed? And is our service of God nothing more than a bargain we make for our own advantage?
What did the tax collector think about God? There's the key.
He saw God as the Holy One he could never be worthy of, but also as the Loving One who forgives a sinner like him. "God be merciful to me, a sinner." That was his plea, and his only plea.
It's our only plea too. So the song has it right to make it a prayer that says:
Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd'st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
But I warn you one thing about that song. I warn you of supposing you can come to him that way at first, then play the Pharisee the rest of your life.
No! We're pleaders unto God as long as we're sinners before God. And that's as long as we live on this earth.
So our gathering at the Lord's table now, if it means what it should, is another such plea for his mercy on our sins.
October 7, 1984
I doubt if the date January 9, 1967 means anything to you, but it does to me. On that day, about mid morning, at a small airport near Dayton, Tennessee, I flew an airplane all by myself for the first time. Pilots call that soloing.
There's a funny ritual connected with soloing. When you get back to the hanger they cut off your shirt tail. And where I learned to fly they wrote your name and the date on it and hung it up on the wall. I haven't checked, but "Briggs 1-9-67" may still be there! I do know that after that morning everytime I came to that hanger I'd glance up and see if my blue shirt tail was still in place. And sometimes I'd stand there more than a few seconds feeling how it felt that first time.
Something in us wants to do that. We want to keep some grip on times when things were right. We know we have to let them go, but we put up reminders to help bring them back now and then. And that's important.
Joshua thought so. As he finally got that traveling nation ready to cross the Jordan, he appointed a man from each tribe and said: "Now you do this: get the biggest rock you can from the middle of that river bed and carry it over to the other side. Then I'll tell you what to do."
Joshua took those twelve large stones and made them into a monument. "This is for us," he said, "and for our children who come after us." Then he added: "And this is for the whole world, that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty." All because of twelve large stones in a pile at Gilgal.
People who live where we do should appreciate that. We have the Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial is here. Down by the river those Marines still raise their flag on Iwo Jima. Everywhere you go you find such reminders. They link us to our past, they stir us to reflection. And they teach lessons to those who consider.
Why, we even have a monument in the front yard of our church! And if you haven't gone there lately, perhaps you should.
All this says people want to remember. All this says people want to be remembered.
Dave Butz carves wooden ducks and sells them in McLean. He says it's fun. He says it's nice to do and relax. Then he says he likes to know he's made something that'll still be around after he's gone.
That's partly why people write books. It's why my bricklayer friend in Tennessee always scribed his initials somewhere in the mortar. It's why my name is chalked on the ceiling in the back end of Homer Chaney's cave in Kentucky. It's why we have tombstones.
We hope to live forever in another world, but we also try to live on as long as possible in this one. We'd all leave Great Pyramids behind us if we could. But since we can't, we try for something at least. Something that says we were here. Something with our name on it.
And this is understandable, and nothing to begrudge. But with it there's another word to say. Honoring ourselves and each another is one thing, honoring God is something else.
The important reminders are those that speak of what the Lord hath wrought.
"Hitherto Thy love has blest me;
Thou hast bro't me to this place;
And I know Thy hand will bring me
Safely home by Thy good grace."
"Here I raise my Ebeneezer;
Hither by Thy help I've come;
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home."
There's nothing wrong with trophies that say "here, look at what I've done," which is what a trophy does. But the greater thing is to point men to God and say "there, look at what He's done." Even then it's good at times to have some trophy, some object, some physical reminder. Joshua knew that.
And so did Jesus. On the night he was betrayed, he took something in his hands. He held up a substance they could see. He left a memorial.
With his, as with Joshua's, there are lessons to be learned, and lessons to teach. Strangers come along, and children. They see the thing and ask what it means. Or those who've been to the hanger a hundred times look up again and think more about it than they ever thought before. Every time this supper is held, there's a chance someone in the room may think more about it than he ever thought before.
Here on the table are bread and wine–what do they mean? They mean to tell what God hath wrought. He loved us so much he gave his only Son, that we, being lost and dead in tresspasses and sin, might believe and have eternal life.
That's all right here. It's in the bread, and in the cup. And we're here to eat it, and drink it, and ponder its meaning. (Let's bow together as we do.)
God of all power, King of the world, you alone are worthy of our glory and praise. Glory to you, now and forever.
At your command, all things came to be. The great expanse of space, the suns and moons, the planets in their course, and this frail earth, our home.
You brought forth the race of man, and blessed us with skill and reason. You let us be rulers of your creation. But we turned from you, Lord, and betrayed your trust. We even turned against one another.
Again and again, you called us to return, but we would not. And then, in the fullness of time, you sent your Son to save us from our sins. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.
And so, Father, we who have been redeemed by him come now to remember him, to worship and honor him. Here is our table. Bless it with your presence, we pray in his name. Amen.
A STRUGGLING BAPTIST CHURCH
Quite often in my work I deal in bad news. I listen to it, tell it, discuss it. Nine times out of ten when someone comes in to talk about his life, it's about a problem. Nine times out of ten when someone calls about something regarding the church it's about a problem. I mean, when does anyone call up just to tell me how great things are going and how pleased she is with things in general?
I'm not complaining. I chose the life of a troubleshooter. But when you do that a lot, you do relish having some super good news to deal in when it comes along.
Thus it was that a few months ago, I called Lloyd Smith and said I needed to tell him something as Trustee chairman of our church. Lloyd likely thought it was about a roof leak or a commode that wouldn't flush. But he came in and sat down, and then I got to tell him we were about to be given a quarter million dollars. But as I told him that, I noticed he wasn't smiling as he usually does, and like I was. I may have told it twice to make sure he heard me right, and still he didn't smile. He had something on his mind.
And when he said it, it was something like this. He said he'd read once about a person who won a million dollars in the D.C. Lottery and it ruined his life. He said he wasn't sure we knew how to handle that kind of money in the treasury. He said he'd rather just be "a struggling Baptist Church," that it means more that way, that people are closer that way.
And I said "Huh?" What is it with this guy! (You notice he's not the Trustee chairman anymore–just a joke!)
But as we talked and I thought more about that angle, I realized he was onto something. I realized right then that I needed to talk with you this morning about the point he raised. So there this sermon had its start. Lloyd, I thank you. Now . . ..
I'm not going to beat around the bush. I'm going to go ahead and make my point, which is this: "a struggling Baptist Church" is what we're always supposed to be and shame on us if a generous man's money makes us less of one. Or to put it another way, a struggling Baptist Christian is what you're always supposed to be and shame on you if a generous man's money makes you less of one.
The Osborne gift must inspire all of us to do more, and tempt none of us to do less. We must resist every urge to rest on our oars, to coast with the current. If things get easier around here, then we need to take on some harder tasks. There are many to be done.
Our commission is to go out into all the world and make disciples. Until we can say we've done that, there's plenty to struggle for. Any person who supposes the work of the church can ever be finished or even caught up doesn't understand what the work of the church is supposed to be.
Listen: win the lost, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, be the light of the world and the salt of the earth–who can see any possible end to tasks like those? As long as those remain to be done, we Christians are the people charged with doing them.
If because of the Osborne gift we're now a stronger church, and we are, it simply means the Lord has bigger tasks in mind for us, and he does. And he wants me to tell you that, and tell it plainly, and keep telling it until all of us believe it and begin to act like it.
When it came to money, John and Martha Osborne were two things for sure. They were savers, and they were tithers. They had more than many because they spent less than most. But they also, during their lifetimes, gave money away, and gave it generously. And in that, the church had a high priority. Now we see that from a marvelous perspective. As the letter of Hebrews puts it so well, "they, being dead, are still speaking."
But speaking what? "You all can take it easy now, we've come to your rescue"? "Keep your money in your pockets, folks. Go out after church and live it up"? No.
Their "still speaking" is in the form of a challenge–a challenge to us to make the same sort of commitment. Experts say the rule of thumb for giving in most churches is that 20 percent of the members give 80 percent of the money.
If so, that's a disgrace. We all have the same calling, and every person's effort is needed in the world-wide task we face. Even if our treasury were filled to running over, the Lord expects us to keep on giving as a matter of stewardship and our worship of him. "Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse"–all. And if it gets too full, then the storehouse needs to take on more to do.
Let me put the matter another way. Someone thought the ministry of Luther Rice Memorial Baptist Church was worth giving $275,000 to. Let that sink in for a minute. Then ask what you think it's worth. Someone put almost his whole life's savings in the collection plate! What do you put in it? Well, if your habit is to put a few token dollars there and think you've done God some kind of favor, then you and John Osborne have quite a disagreement.
People who know tell us the members of an average church like ours give about 3 percent of their incomes in contributions. I think the Lord expects us to give at least 10, probably more, and of course some do, but obviously not many. If all of us did, we'd have three times the size budget we now have–three times. That means if all Luther Ricers had tithed in 1984 we'd have given a quarter million dollars more than $140,000 we did give–just about the amount of this estate we're receiving. So now seems like a good time to count up what we all could do for God if we would.
And I believe many of us will. I'm optimistic today. I think this is going to have spiritual consequences among us. I think more are going to give their money, and more are going to give themselves and their time. I think we have a revival in the making, where people serve the Lord and obey his Great Commission. And that, friends, would be the finest thing the Osborne gift could possibly accomplish.
Our Stewardship Committee met till 10:30 the other evening, and sometime around 10:00 they came up with what I think was an inspired idea. They said, let's recommend to the church that we give away up to 10 percent of this estate during 1985, to missionary and benevolent causes, on a matching basis with contributions by our members.
I plan to vote for that. What it means is, we give some of John's money away, but we give our own too. Give to foreign missions, or home missions, or state missions. Give to the new building fund of the D.C. Baptist Convention. Give to Ethiopia, or the Children's Home–or any other program or agency of our denomination. And every dollar you give will be doubled by matching money from the estate, all year long. That ought to be something to watch!
Let's keep being a struggling Baptist Church. Let's be more of one than we ever have. Struggling to do better, reach higher, extend further. There's a text for that idea, which I read awhile ago, so it's one you've heard, but hear it again.
". . . one thing we do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, we press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
"Straining forward" to an "upward call." "Pressing onward" toward a goal. If that isn't a text I've never seen one. And if it doesn't tell us there's to be no ease, no letting up, I fail to see what on earth it means.
The man who wrote that was a struggler. A struggler with opponents, with his own self-doubts, with physical ailments that hindered him, with weather and hardship and distance. He struggled with the meaning of obedience. He struggled with a past that haunted and embarrassed him. He struggled with the unfaithfulness of people he worked with, people who claimed to be Christians but didn't live like it.
He struggled all his days with the burden of lost souls and the mission of the Church he felt called to serve.
Things went well at times. But other times he was tired and tempted to quit.
But he never did. He kept at it. And we honor Paul today, but that isn't enough. We're called with the same calling he was. Not necessarily to the same tasks, but to the same struggle. So . . .
"Must I be carried to the skies
on flowery beds of ease,
while other fought to win the prize,
and sailed through bloody seas?
Sure I must fight if I would win.
Increase my courage, Lord.
I'll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by thy word."
When I was in high school, I had a friend named Robert Traylor. Actually, Robert was a friend to a lot of us, because he was a good old boy, and he was smart. Especially in math and science. He later became a nuclear physicist or something like that.
Now sometimes when there was a test coming up a group of us would meet at someone's home and try to do the studying we should have been doing all along. Traylor was always the guest of honor.
You know, "have some more coke there man!" "Hey, need a ride anywhere?" "Say, what did you get for number 10?" "Here, I can just look, and let me check some of these other ones too."
"Thank God for Traylor!" I can still hear Morton say that. But now was this good or not? For then we thought so, but what about now? What about the long run?
A friend who helps you do what you're unable to do is a friend to be kept. But a friend you use to get out of work you should do yourself is an enemy in disguise.
You see my point, don't you? John Broadus Osborne was our good friend. Let's let him help us to do more for Christ. But let's all be sure to do more ourselves.
We can. And I believe we will.
THE SOBER SIDE OF CHRISTMAS
Scripture tells us Jesus was born "in the days of Herod the king." What sort of king was Herod, and what sort of man?
You can say in many ways he was a good king. They called him Herod the Great for a number of reasons. He reigned some 40 years and was the only ruler of Palestine ever to succeed in keeping the peace. He was a builder, and sometimes generous. He built the Jews a temple in Jerusalem, built a great water system for the city, build roads, build palaces. He even gave people back their taxes once when a famine came.
However. . . the man was murderous and insanely jealous. He suspected anyone who might be a rival of his, and one-by-one he eliminated them all. He murdered his wife Mariamne and his mother-in-law Alexandra. He murdered his oldest son, Antipater, and two other sons. And as he neared the end of his life he made a curious and fanatical arrangement. He made a hit list of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem and said "now when I die, you kill all these immediately." He did that to be sure there'd be mourning at the time.
So can you imagine such a man's response when rumor comes to his palace that a future king is born in Bethlehem of Judea? He did what? He ordered all the babies there under two years of age slaughtered just to make sure. But Joseph had a dream just before that and fled on his way to safety in Egypt. Egypt was where a lot of Jews had fled over the years. And he and Mary and their son lived there till after Herod died.
Now friends, that's a part of the story, a very big part of it for Mary and Joseph, but we somewhat ignore it this time of year. The Wise Men and their splendid gifts are a lot more fun. We like to hear the bright side. Give us peace, good will. Give us rough places made smooth and highways in the deserts.
But there's a sober side of Christmas, one we mustn't forget or try to escape. Handel's "Messiah" rings with joy for the government being on his shoulders, but we find later that some is on our shoulders too. Things catch up. Like some overspending you may have done in recent weeks, all those charges on Mastercard and Visa. You don't even want to add them up, do you? Deal with that in January, you say. And you can, of course, but one thing's sure–you will deal with it. It isn't free for nothing; a bill will come due.
That poor Jewish couple must have been overwhelmed with those gifts and all that attention. People bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. Generations rising up to call them blessed. Their very own baby being called the savior of the world.
But suddenly they must take him and flee. And then wait. And as he grew up, they found it so hard to understand. And his brothers and sisters made fun and claimed he was mad. And as he began his public ministry there was so much abuse. And finally the cross. And what of all those bright promises when that dark day arrived?
Do we risk spoiling the day by looking at all of this together? Can a "merry Christmas" be as merry if we tell someone it has its price? The ultimate symbols here may not be Santa Claus with his bag of goodies, but a table with broken bread and spilt wine, tokens of suffering and sacrifice.
One problem with the world is that folk expect more and more out of it while putting less and less into it. Great expectations, small commitments.
What happens if people want more and more from government while refusing the responsibilities of their citizenship? What happens if people expect more and more services from the church while shunning the calls of their membership? What happens in jobs and industry if everyone wants to work less and get paid more?
Strange how you don't hear the term "cheap Japanese goods" very much any more. Right after the war, that was true enough, but then it began to change. Some people over there made commitments. Now in Japanese factories there's a high level of pride and craftsmanship which shows up in the product. And we may talk about quality being "job one" in our factories, but it isn't generally. And you wonder how long it might be before the term "cheap American goods" becomes the current expression.
People who belong to churches, what do they expect? Don't some expect a lot while giving little themselves? Come around now and then and want to find things running strong. Drop by with company some Sunday. Don't some folk want praying done who don't practice it themselves? Want fellowship extended to them while showing none of it to anyone else? Expect visits to them, cards to them, expect things well-run and staffed, but without their help.
Expect, expect, expect. So much expecting, so little contributing. There's scarcely an area of human life where that doesn't take its toll. We stay with the Christ-child while rich men bring their gifts, but will we go with him into Egypt?
Christmas needs to be kept honest. We often use it as an escape. We use it to avoid thinking of the world's miseries. But I'm showing you this morning there were miseries enough right there in its beginning. And to take only the glad and avoid the sober is doing violence to this story as the Bible tells it.
It's easy to focus on the one who came and forget about why he came. He came because of the world's sin, and he came to call those who'd do something about it. God in Christ was making a commitment there, and calling us to do the same. But it's easy to speak all about what God did and nothing of what he calls us to do in response.
Give us promises, wrapped up pretty in a box. Fill it full. But don't make us look at that beggar lying on the grate, covered with his awful rags and begging like we owe him something. That would spoil our celebration. Quick, change the channel to something light and funny.
We can do it that way, you see. We can be like that priest and levite on the road to Jericho. We can say God's business with us is to hurry along to his temple, not mess with someone by the road. Which means religion can get in the way of being religious.
Remember that great hymn in Paul's letter to the Philippians? He humbled himself, it says, became a man, made himself of no reputation, became a servant, became obedient, and went on to a cross. And all that was starting to take place in the Nativity itself. There are clear signs of it there, but we usually ignore them.
When he grew up and started his ministry, people kept saying to spend his time with the righteous. And he kept teling them that wasn't what he came to do. He said he'd come to call the sinners. That's what Christmas means to God, and should mean to us.
A few years ago we had our Christmas tree here, just like it is now, and it looked bright and lovely, just like this one does. But afterward we did something else with it. We saved the trunk, and let it dry, and at Easter time we made a cross out of it. That illustrates my point this morning–the sober side of Christmas. The day leads on toward a cross. For Him, and us as well.
God has a sneaky way about him. We see stars and hear angels singing. We listen to promises we think are unconditional. But when we get at the heart of it, we find there are conditions, crosses, and none of them easy.
There at that point of finding out is where Jesus asks his question. "Will you also go away?" He says "also" because many have, and many are, and many will. "But will you," he asks?
"Go away?" Go on hunting for church where they don't say it's more blessed to give than receive. Find one that doesn't even mention giving. Find one that makes promises and no demands.
If you hurry, you might even catch up with the crowd. They haven't been gone long. The last one out muttered something about having other things to do. He might be back, he said, but wasn't sure.
Will you also go away? It can happen without being sudden or dramatic. It can take place in tiny increments of dwindling interest and vitality.
"Sorry, I'd really like too; ask me again sometime."
"I think I've done my share, and it's time someone else took over for a change."
"I used to belong to that church; maybe I still do, I'm not sure if they have my name now or not."
"Well, I'm a Christian too, but I don't think you have to do all those things to be one."
A person can have attitudes like those and still believe every promise of God belongs to him. And if the urge should strike one day, he'd be running right back, elbowing his way to the front of the line to get his Christmas treat. Surely it means more than that. So what does it mean?
It doesn't mean we can just relax and leave everything to God. The world is too relaxed as it is, and leaving things to others. It does mean that every effort we put forth can be blessed and empowered by the Spirit of God, and his Son can be born in our hearts and live his life through us.
It doesn't mean we can make evil vanish from the earth. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and will. But it does mean God has acted to help us. He's come to this earth in Jesus Christ, lived among us, shared our human nature, and offered hope and salvation to all who believe.
It doesn't mean we possess God like the deed to a house. Those who think they do misunderstand the scale of things. But it does mean we can be his, like sheep, like helpless creatures needing a guide, like children looking up to a father.
Those are the true promises of Christmas. And God who gave them is faithful and just and holy.
He demands much, but offers much. And he claims us, and calls us to himself.