After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying, "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants." Once more they cried, "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever." And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying, "Amen. Hallelujah!" And from the throne came a voice crying, "Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great." Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure" — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. (Revelation 19:1-8)
"After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven." After this. And you immediately ask, after what?
And the answer is, after eighteen chapters depicting the struggle of faithful saints against the hosts of wickedness. After eighteen chapters where darkness and doom prevail. After eighteen chapters of looking to a promised deliverance that seems to get further from you as you get closer to it.
"Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life." (Revelation 2:10) They knew a lot about the tribulation, but the crown of life had yet to appear. The crown of life was for afterward.
"He who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, I will give him power over the nations." (Revelation 2:26) A hopeful promise. But thus far the power still rested in the hands of those nations. Thus far those nations held power over the saints. And the saints were more concerned about being survivors than about being rulers!
An old friend from Tennessee wrote this on his Christmas card: "We are doing fine, and as parents as well as can be expected." I laughed till I almost doubled over!
This is a guy whose oldest daughter–back in the '60's–thought it was time for Daisy, Tennessee to get used to inter-racial marriage, and she was just the one to break the ice. And there were five of those girls, all from the same mold. And it almost seemed like everything that could have happened did. The question for Bill wasn't about winning honors as Parent of the Year, it was just to survive. Good thing he had a sense of humor.
Things are better now, of course. No one runs away from home anymore, because no one lives at home anymore. In fact, those five girls have now presented mom and dad with nine grandchildren. They even have some things to brag about now, and life goes on.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. A time for laughing your head off, and a time for crying your eyes out. A time for wishing the phone would ring, and a time for dreading to hear it ring. A time when things seem to fall in place, and a time when they seem to fall apart. A time for love and a time for hate. A time to embrace, and a time you don't feel like that anymore. A time to die–which we hope is still a ways down the road.
Revelation is a book of assurance, but it isn't easy assurance. It says God is going to win out in the end, but some other fellows are going to have their way first. It says heaven is a place of perfect peace, but getting there can be a struggle. First the cross, and then the crown.
Listen to this: "And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever." (1 Peter 5:10-11)
After you have suffered you get all that good stuff. After. The story of your life may go on for eighteen whole chapters before it finally says, "after this . . .."
Jesus and his disciples are in the Upper Room. He pours water in a basin, takes a towel, and begins to wash their feet. He comes to Simon Peter. Peter asks why he's doing this. And the answer? "You can't understand it now, but after this you will." (See John 13:5-7)
I often hear people say, "Well I just don't understand why this is happening." As if we were meant to understand. As if our poor, feeble minds are equipped to understand. As if we can comprehend the incomprehensible and unscrew the inscrutable. When we're in the very same shape Simon Peter was. We can't understand it now. We can't. We can only trust that after this we may be able to, by the Grace of God.
Paul says in Romans that "in everything God works for good with those who love him." (Romans 8:28) I believe that. But I also find that it sometimes takes a lot of chapters to get the thing worked out. So that he who shall endure to the end shall be saved, not the one who plans to get rich quick.
"Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them." (Matthew 25:19) After a long time. His ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts, and in the economy of God, you can never judge the outcome of things by how they stand at any given time.
"Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him . . .."
Is that it? Is that how it ends? Is that the final word to be said?
No! The verse continues, ". . . and after three days he will rise." (Mark 10:33-34) After three days. And you can never tell if it's going to be three days, or eighteen chapters, or fifty-three years, or a number of generations, or what.
Listen to this: "Then Jesus said to them, 'You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered." But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.'" (Matthew 26:31-32)
In his book of poetic sermons titled "God's Trombones," James Weldon Johnson has a passage about Gethsemine.
Oh, look at black-hearted Judas–
Sneaking throught the dark of the Garden–
Leading his crucifying mob.
O God! Strike him down!
Why don't you strike him down,
Before he plants his traitor's kiss
Upon my Jesus' cheek?
That's a profound theological question. Why doesn't God intervene for us, as we'd like him to? Why isn't he on call to help us at a moment's notice? Why do traitors run free while victims suffer? Why must we wait so long for the answer to some prayers?
Remember the movie "On Golden Pond?" Where Professor Henry Fonda was making trouble for himself and everyone around him, including his grandson who was visiting for the summer. And his wife, Katherine Hepburn, is trying to explain this behavior to the teen-ager. She says,
"He wasn't yelling at you. He was yelling at life. Sometimes you have to look hard at a person and remember he's doing the best he can . . . just trying to find his way, like you."
Harry Emerson Fosdick made a point about the New Testament which I think is accurate and important. He said:
"The New Testament itself is full of trouble. It begins with a massacre of innocent children; it is centered in the crucifixion; it ends with a vision in which the souls of the martyred saints under the altar cry, 'How long, O Master?' The book was written by men whose familiar experiences were excommunications, persecutions, martyrdoms. Their faith was not like a candle flame, easily blown out by a high wind, but like a great fire fanned into a more powerful conflagration. In consequence, while the New Testament is supremely a book of hardship and tragedy, it is far and away the most exultant and jubilant book in the literature of religion."
You only know that God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near. Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that will surely be. When the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as waters cover the sea!
James Autrey has a poem about an old grey house, and an old grey woman. It's titled "Shades of Gray." Hear it, would you?
Seeing the old gray houses along every back road
lose the fight with vines and weeds
I think of when the old place burned
and shotgun shells went off
as we watched from the big rocks
the fire too hot to get closer
and wondered what Uncle Vee would say
about the place he was born
and his preacher daddy died
Never shoulda rented it
now it's gone
But I think it was better for the old place to burn
full of stuff and not deserted
empty in the woods
good for a picnic pilgrimage and not much else
gray and bent like a crazy old woman
widowed and grandwidowed and great grandwidowed
until no one knows who she is
or how much she meant in those days
how she grunted out children on corn shuck mattresses
and nursed them and wiped them
all the time cooking and washing and hoeing
and weeding and gathering and canning
and waiting for the next baby
all of them gone and their babies gone
her eyes gray and vacant
looking through a screen door
in the old folks' home
still wearing a bonnet to a ragged garden
chopping grass with a hoe so many years sharpened it's now a sliver
living for those times when someone young comes
and surrounds her with life for a while
then goes again
leaving her wondering if there'll be a next time
her life fading grayer and grayer
like a house with vines and brush
with rusty roof and sagging porch
with snakes and rats and coons and birds
but none of the life that gave it a reason to be.
So I'm glad the old place burned when it did
still filled with life
still sheltering love and the coming of children
It ain't easy. But the word for us is this: "Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great."
And we say, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory."
BEARING HIS REPROACH
Now and then I seem to learn a lesson at the grocery store.
I was there once in a hurry and not in the best of moods. A quick stop to get a bag of broccoli. At least I hoped it would be quick. I needed it to be quick. But it wasn't quick.
I picked out the broccoli fast enough, but the checkout line was the problem. I always seem to get in the slowest one. And some jerk up ahead has gotten in the line with an unpriced item, and they have to send someone back to look up the price. And I'm thinking of where I need to be, and even of leaving the line and putting the broccoli back.
It gets to where there's just one woman ahead of me. Her order isn't so large, so it should go fast. And just as I begin to relax a little, I see the most dreaded sight you can see in that situation. The lady digs in her purse and pulls out a bunch of coupons.
She hasn't sorted them or anything. She begins going through them, trying to decide which one applies to what. And the cashier finds one that's expired and is reading the fine print on all the others. My blood pressure rises. My broccoli is getting angrier all the time.
And there in that moment I seriously look at the woman in front of me for the first time.
She is old, and looks poor. I look at her order. Not expensive. She has the cheapest and most basic things you can buy. Even stuff on sale because it's out of date. She will use her coupons, and will count her change, and may be taking the bus.
I feel the judgment of God in that moment. I feel a great pity for this woman. She is doing what she must. I become patient and respectful. I am chastened and sober. I will wait there quietly as long as it takes.
What happened there? I suffered a minor ill of life because of who I am–a Christian. I was finally able to see a person as Jesus would have. To feel the same feelings he would have felt. Standing there with bag in hand, I thought of him and something changed because of it.
Something must be different about us because we're Christians. Something must be different about us or something is wrong with us.
One of the tests of any religion is what suffering it can bear. What inconvenience, what hardship, what aggrivation, what disappointment? There are "fair-weather friends" who leave you when trouble comes. And there are "fair-weather Christians" who seek the crown but shun the cross. While Jesus said that whoever fails to bear his cross is no disciple.
In 1956, I was going to college and pastoring a country church near Loudon, Tennessee. People were beginning to find out about a Supreme Court decision regarding segregation in schools, which they still had. Up the river a ways was a town called Clinton. Black children in Clinton had always been bussed to Knoxville for their education, but now they were about to go to school at home.
Paul Turner was pastor of the Baptist church there. He was no trouble-maker, but he knew there might be some. And he somehow felt it his duty as a Christian to be involved in what was happening. He decided that if the pastor of First Baptist Church would walk with those black children to their first day at the new school it might help the situation.
So he did that. He put on his suit and tie and did that. And was attacked and beaten by some people who'd come from out of town to help Clinton with its problem. And there were some people in First Baptist Church who didn't think their pastor should be meddling in politics like this, and maybe they needed someone different. So Paul had a tough time of it there for awhile.
Charles Trentham was pastor in Knoxville at the time, and he spoke out in Turner's defense. But other Baptists in the state kept quiet. The state Baptist paper ignored the incident, although it attracted nation-wide attention. Down in Loudon I was 20 years old and asked a former pastor of my church what he thought about it. He told me Turner got what he asked for.
And in a sense he did. He got what he asked for. He did something as a follower of Jesus and paid the price. He bore his reproach–to use the phrase of our text this morning. And I'm pleased to remember that when it came time for the vote at Turner's church, the majority stood with him. They bore the reproach with him.
"Jesus . . . suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come."
That passage draws a parallel between the death of Christ and the sin offerings of the Old Testament. The blood of sacrificed animals was sprinkled on the mercy seat, but the flesh was burned outside the camp. It was dirty work, and you always get that away from you if you can. You won't find any prisons or trash dumps among the mansions in Potomac. You get those things off farther.
Did you ever notice the language when those crowds were hollering for the crucifixion of Christ? They said "away with this man." (Luke 23:18)
Away. Away is how we deal with those things, you see. Get them away from us. Which is why Golgotha–the "place of the skull"–was out there away from town. You wouldn't want a place like that in downtown Chevy Chase, now would you?
In a world of evil, the way you deal with goodness is to get it away. Outside the gate, at least. The place for misfits like Paul Turner. Upsetters of our comfortable norms. Who talk about justice and truth and love. They were turning the world upside down, it was said. Others of them went away from the courthouse "rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of Christ."
How can we be comfortable in a world that drives him out? How can we be so at home in a world where he is homeless? If he was a misfit–which he was–how can we be his followers and gain acceptance everywhere we go?
The Bible says to go outside the gate and share his shame? We thought we volunteered to share his glory! We though we'd get better than he got. He suffered and bled and died, and that was fine for him–but keep it away from us. We have here no continuing city, but we keep on trying to make one. And we call ourselves Christians?
Now we all bear our own reproach. I mean, we all bear the consequences of our own mess-ups. But this is talking about about the reproach of Christ. What do we bear because we follow him?
Is there anything Christ wants you to do that could get you beat up? If there were, would you even consider it? Is there anthing Christ wants you to do that could make you unpopular with some people? How would you decide about that?
When Jimmy Carter went back home to Georgia, he joined 75 people in a makeshift church. The church was organized as a place where anyone was welcome. The members came from one where people were turned away, and a pastor was run off who said it wasn't right.
A former president of the United States was making a statement as a Christian. Bearing someone's reproach. Where a thing is done in the name of Jesus that makes a difference.
Any act of forgiveness is in this category. In forgiving, we erase something we don't have to erase. We forfeit an advantage we might hold over another person. Why forgive when you can get even? Unless you do it because Jesus said to?
When you hurt the hurts of another person, you do this. When you bear one another's burdens, you fulfil the law of Christ. You bear his reproach.
He was wounded for someone else's transgressions, you see, not his own. He was bruised for iniquities that weren't his at all. For sheep that have gone astray. Turned each to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
And he'll be oppressed, and he'll be afflicted. Yet he'll open not his mouth. Like a lamb led to slaughter, like a sheep that before his shearers is dumb, he'll not open his mouth.
But listen to this from Isaiah, which I've been paraphrasing:
"The will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see the fruit of the travail of His soul and be satisfied. By him shall many be made righteous."
As if it's not by might, not by power, but by his spirit. Sayeth the Lord.
BEGGAR AT THE GATE
"There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Laz'arus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Laz'arus in his bosom. And he called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Laz'arus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.' But Abraham said, `Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Laz'arus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.' And he said, `Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' But Abraham said, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'" (Luke 16:19-31)
Jesus has a way of making us think of things we don't want to think about. Of making us uncomfortable about things we were comfortable with before. He hits us with the unexpected. Like this:
Prominent citizen dies and goes straight to hell. Local street person dies–and goes right to heaven. Huh!
The rich man and Lazarus–it's a powerful story. And it affects people in different ways. With some, it stirs concern about their eternal destiny. With others, there's the guilt of the hungry about them, and a feeling they must do something to help.
Such was Dr. Albert Schweitzer. He saw Africa as a beggar, lying on the doorstep of Europe. Europe where he himself
was prosperous and comfortable. And it was this parable, more than any other scripture, that drove him to Africa to give his life in the service of the poor.
The same story can have different meanings to different individuals. You ask the author, "What does it mean?" As if there's a simple answer. But he turns the question back and says, "Well, what does it mean to you?"
People read this story and get concerned about themselves. People also read it and get concerned about others. You be asking which is most appropriate.
We have a beggar named Lazarus and a no-name rich man. He not only has no name, we know little of him. It says he was richly dressed, richly fed, and richly housed. But the kind of man he was leaves us guessing.
He may have been honest, or he may have been dishonest. He could have been respected, or he could have been despised. He might have been religious, or then again not. Other than his wealth and lifestyle, all we know for sure is this: he was the kind of man at whose gate a beggar could lie hungry.
Hungry for the scraps that fell from a rich man's table. A pitiable man, just lying there, day after day. He didn't live well, and he didn't look well. In fact, he looked awful and disgusting. The dogs came and licked his sores. Yuk!
That's all we know about the rich man because that's all Jesus wanted us to know. Apparently that's all we need to know. So what's the lesson here?
The person who lives without compassion digs a great gulf between himself and others. Also a great gulf between himself and God.
I think every time the rich man passed Lazarus he dug that gulf a little wider. He hardened his heart a little more. Everytime he partied with his wealthy friends and celebrated his success, the thing became more fixed. His pride was the shovel that dug it.
Don't blame God for that. Don't blame God for the gulf that came to be fixed. It was a man-made thing, and always is.
That faces modern Christians with quite a problem. Few of us are beggars–no dogs come around to lick our sores. We're like that rich man a lot more than Lazarus. All you have to do is look at us–it's obvious.
Do we have a different attitude, or not? Hopefully we do. Hopefully. Hopefully we're not hardened to human need about us. We're much more generous when it comes to opening our hearts and our houses and our full purses. But are we?
How wide did we really open our purses here this morning? The count tomorrow may show several thousand dollars given, but what is that compared to our collective income? Does the Lord see it as crumbs dropped down on the floor? Is he not all that impressed with the used clothing upstairs, because it's stuff that didn't please us anymore or fit us anymore, and we get a tax deduction for it?
I have seen sacrifices made. I've seen real sacrifices made to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and those in prison. Done for no reward whatsoever. And if the Lord should ask about it and say it was him they helped, they'd be surprised. They hadn't thought of it like that at all. They were helping the least of them, his brethren.
Jesus says, "As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me." (Matthew 25:45) And he speaks of a personal duty, not a thing to hire out and have done for us.
The crux of the matter seems to be an attitude. An attitude of compassion and unselfishness. Where that comes naturally. Where the word "obligation" is never even mentioned.
Otherwise, you go away with a doctrine of salvation by good works. Just fulfil your reasonable quota of feeding hungry beggars and you're in good shape. Where a person like that rich man could adopt and carry this out with no problem whatsoever. Thinking that would get him into heaven?–why of course he would! But he'd still be doing what was best for him, just as he always did.
Hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:22-23: "On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works?'" And he says, "I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers."
Evildoers? How on earth could he call them evildoers? They were doing the very things he said a disciple ought to do. So what was the problem there, for heaven's sake?
Those are people who do religious deeds for personal profit. It's purely selfish and pragmatic. Everything is for credit.
They care nothing for the unfortunate people they help, it's themselves they're saving. Like those who announced their prayers with a trumpet blast, they have their reward–all they're going to get.
Now I know what this sounds like. It sounds like there's a narrow gate and a hard way that leads to life, and few there be that find it. We not only have to do the right things, we have to do them for the right reasons. And that do make it tough.
We're given life, but we get it in limited quantities. Time closes in on us, and opportunities disappear. Lazarus lived, and the rich man lived; Lazarus died, and the rich man died too. The night comes when no man can work.
Once in Kentucky, thousands of pastors got a book in the mail titled Understanding Womanhood. Funny thing that was. They hadn't ordered it. Someone paid to send it to them. Why on earth would someone send them that?
It was from a couple whose daughter died. They thought they were giving her everything she needed in life, but she put the barrel of a pistol in her mouth and pulled the trigger. At 13 years of age. And they found in her diary the reason. She was deeply disturbed about the changes of adolescence. The parents hadn't known.
They'd saved money for her college education. So they took the money and bought the books. It was too late for their child, but they hoped it might help others. They felt like trying.
When the soldiers were coming back from World War II, the phone rang in a wealthy home. It was their son, and he was on the way. Yes, he said he was fine. He'd be home day after tomorrow, he said. He was looking forward to seeing them and being home.
But he had one favor to ask. He had a buddy who was wounded in the war. Wounded bad. He was O.K. now, but didn't look so nice, and never would. He had one arm, one leg, and one eye. And he had no home like theirs to come back to. And would it be alright if he came and lived with us?
Those parents cringed. They thought of all the entertaining they did. They shrank from the thought of someone disfigured and handicapped around. And they suggested a few days as an alternative, but no, not to come there and live.
There was a pause on the line, and then goodby.
That same day in San Francisco, a soldier jumped off the top of a downtown building. The body was identified as the son of those parents, the one who'd called. A body with one arm, one leg, and one eye.
"Hey, Mom. Hey, Dad. Look at this, would you? You wouldn't want to have to look at this."
Tell us something, Jesus. What words are right for a time like that? And he tells us:
"Whatever you would that people should do to you, do so to them." Do so to them.
BELIEVING IN CHRIST
I saw a cartoon which had two scenes. The first was a man looking up at a sign which said, "Prepare to Meet Thy God." His face showed concern, as if he must do something in response. But what? How does a person prepare to meet God?
Well, the next frame showed the man in front of a mirror. He takes off his hat, smoothes his hair, and straightens his tie. That's it!
Do you think that's funny? Do you think that's not so funny? Anyway, it surely is realistic. There are people who've done less about meeting God than fixing their hair and tie. There are people who take it less seriously than that!
John Donne did not. He said: "I have a grave of sin . . .. Where Lazarus had been four days, I have been for fifty years. Why dost thou not call me, as Thou didst him? I need Thy thunder, O my God; Thy music will not serve me."
Or the young woman who enrolled in a philosophy class for something she never got, because she shouted at her professor one day: "All this is killing me, Great Man! It's far too long-winded, and I'm in a hurry to love God!"
The Bible tells us, believe! "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved." "Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." "The just shall live by faith."
Seems all too simple, doesn't it? Like the person who tells you that believing in success is the key to success. You wonder if there isn't more. You wonder how just believing in a thing can make such a difference.
But it can. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. Belief is a powerful thing. There are people who can and think they can't and don't. And there are people who can't and think they can and do. Believing makes the difference.
But you must notice how this belief is directed. You believe is something. You don't just believe in yourself and have a positive attitude. You believe in God and in his son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Believing isn't something you conjure up within yourself as your own idea. Believing is what you do in response to what God has done for you. "We love him because he first loved us."
He speaks, and we listen.
He offers, and we accept.
He knocks on the door, and we open the door.
He calls, and we obey.
Have you ever wondered about what those early Christians were called? They were called "believers." Far and away more often than anything else, it was that. In preference to a lot of other things they did as well.
They worshiped, but they weren't called "The Worshipers." They baptized, but they weren't known as baptizers. They feed the poor, but no one called them feeders. They greeted one another with a holy kiss, but they never became known as "greeters" or as "kissers."
They were the believers. They wanted the world to know too. They believed devoutly, supremely, stubbornly, steadfastly. And they call us to examine our own belief as to what sort is is. Have we covered Gospel under the bushel baskets of our reluctance so the light of the world shows only through the cracks?
Matthew's gospel has the story of Christ with an officer of the Roman army. Chapter eight.
The man had a very unusual reputation among the Jews. It wasn't easy for any foreigner to be well thought of, much less a soldier. But this man was. He'd even built a synagogue for them, and perhaps it was named in his honor. Highly unusual!
One day this man came to Jesus, telling him that a servant of his was sick. Very sick. And Jesus said he'd go there, and the soldier said no, he wasn't worthy, and just to say the words from where he was.
A man everyone else said was worthy was saying to Jesus that he wasn't. I guess he hadn't been listening to all the praise other people had for him. He hadn't been affected by it. And the man had a strange and steady light in his eyes as he gazed on Jesus Christ.
He believed. You just know it–he believed. His sense of unworthiness had found an object of worthiness he'd been looking for all his life. He was sure his servant would be healed, and so he was.
And it says that Jesus marveled at this. Jesus marveled. Study the things he marvels at, and wonder what his people are doing today that he would marvel at as well. He said: "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel."
This is what he wants in all of us, friends. That something in you that will say a yes to him. That will keep on saying yes as long as you live. Amid all the strains of life, and putting aside the praise or blame of others in this world, to see him only, to believe in him and trust in him alone.
God loved us. God gave us his only son to be our savior. We hear it with the ears, or see it in print with our eyes, but do we believe it down deep in our souls?
It has to do with our minds. Scripture says "he that cometh to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him." We seek him with our minds, limited as they are. But there's more.
"You shall seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." Faith is like learning a lesson, but it's also getting to know and love the teacher. A thing of the heart, in other words. As Paul said, "With the heart man believeth unto righrteousness, and with the lips confession is made unto salvation."
And yet there's one other thing. The mind and the heart by themselves are not enough. In fact, the Bible says "the heart is deceitful abouve all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?" So there has to be more involved in believing. There must be our will, our trust, and our surrender.
How much money did the Pennsylvania Lottery give away when that was in the news so much? 100 million dollars or something?–I don't know. Well, anyway, you imagine that amount of money and the things people will do to try to get it.
What if all you had to do was take a revolver and load it with just one bullet. One live cartridge and seven empty chambers. Then close it up and spin it around. Seven chances out of eight that it stopped on an empty one.
For all that money, would anyone take a chance? Aren't there people who would put that thing to their head and pull the trigger just one time? Give odds like that and a chance for that much money?
What would decide? Well, the heart is in a bind. The heart wants the money, but it also trembles at the thought of dying. The heart wants and then dreads, wants and then dreads, and can't decide. And the mind keeps analyzing the thing and concluding that those odds are pretty safe.
But the will has to settle it, right? The will can listen to the heart and listen to the mind, but it holds the key to act. The will is what settles things.
Now I know that's an extreme sort of illustration, but it does illustrate. The will holds the key to salvation. There are people with a feeling for Christ and a lot of facts about him in their minds, who've never acted to become his follower in daily life.
True belief involves the whole person. The minds with which we reason, the hearts with which we feel, and the wills with which we act. So that at any given time, with any given person, the problem of believing may be that you haven't known enough, or haven't felt enough, or haven't committed enough. You must act on what you think and feel, or it goes for nothing.
In Faulkner's book The Sound and the Fury, there's a moving sermon, preached by a black preacher. You aren't quite sure how the author feels about it. You have to decide how you feel about it.
This country preacher in his shabby alpaca coat, one arm resting on the pulpit, speaking so powerfully that hearts are "speaking to one another . . . beyond the need of words." He says at the end:
I see it, brethren, I see it. The blasting, blinding sight! I see Calvary, with the sacred trees, the thief and the murderer and the least of these. I hear the boasting and the bragging, the weeping, and the turned away face of God . . .. Then what is it I see? I see the resurrection and the light, and the meek Jesus saying, I died that they who believe might live again. Brethren, O Brethren!
God open our ears to hear with, and warm our hearts to feel with, and stir our wills to act in obedience.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
I don't know how many of you have come home to find the place broken into, but it's a sickening thing. You feel violated, betrayed, defeated. People have gone through all your things, helped themselves to what they wanted, and left all this mess. Your heart pounds and your blood boils.
Gerald Forshee had that feeling. He worked as an editor for the Christian Century magazine in Chicago. He lived in what we call a "bad" part of town. Most people who could afford to had moved from this part of town–moved out to the suburbs.
Forshee took the position that a bad part of town needs some good people living in it. A bad part of town needs that more than anywhere else. He felt called as a Christian to stay and be part of the community. And now this!
He was angry at first. He was ready to pack it all up and leave too. Try to do something good and now see what you get.
But then, he said, he began to think that doing the will of God doesn't always keep you out of trouble. In fact, it sometimes gets you into trouble. It got Jesus into trouble. He thought of a religious song that was popular at the time. He thought of it, not as it was written, but paraphrased like this:
"It is no secret
What God can do;
What He did to Jesus,
He'll do to you."
Communion is a celebration of what was done to Jesus. That because of who he was–a good man in an evil world–they broke his body and shed his blood. And we do this to remember him. We do this because we believe it was a sacrifice for all mankind–including us.
So it's a strange kind of celebration. I mean, we usually pick the good things to celebrate. Like getting out the color slides of the best vacation we ever had. All the good memories that brings back. We sit there transported into yesterday and feel all the feelings we felt then. We say, "Boy, didn't we have a time? Wasn't that a time?"
But when we come to this remembrance of the Lord's Supper, it isn't like that. It isn't like a day at Disney World or a trip through the Grand Canyon. The pictures aren't pretty, they're gruesome. A tortured, naked body hanging on a cross. Apparantly defeated. Nails through his hands and feet. Blood running down the pole. Not pretty.
And yet it somehow is inspiring, if we look at it with the eyes of faith. Hear him say, "I am the good shepherd, and I lay down my life for the sheep." He was doing that, and we're the sheep he did it for.
When someone does you good in hope of getting something back, that's one thing. When someone does something that took no personal sacrifice, that's one thing. But when someone does something that was paid for in blood, you take notice.
Jesus paid it all
All to Him I owe
Sin had left a crimson stain
He washed it white as snow.
While we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us. The just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.
We have Secret Service agents who've sworn to give their lives, if necessary, to protect the life of the president. Parents have given their lives for children, and children for parents. We read about those things, and we know they happen now and then. For the person you love most in life, you might make such a sacrifice.
But Jesus did it for the lowest of men. As he hung on his cross, he asked forgiveness for those who put him there. He died for a man like Judas, who said "I'm your friend" and then put a kiss of treachery on his cheek. He died for prostitutes and tax collectors. For the kid who makes straight A's, and the one who got sent to reform school.
I saw the cross of Jesus
When burdened with my sin;
I sought the cross of Jesus
To give me peace within;
I brought my soul to Jesus,
He cleansed it in His blood;
And in the cross of Jesus
I found my peace with God.
I love the cross of Jesus,
It tells me what I am–
A vile and guilty creature
Saved only through the Lamb;
No righteousness nor merit,
No beauty can I plead;
Yet in the cross I glory,
My title there I read.
Safe in the cross of Jesus!
There let my weary heart
Still rest in peace unshaken
Till with Him, ne'er to part;
And then in strains of glory
I'll sing His wondrous pow'r,
Where sin can never enter,
And death is known no more.
No End of Blame
"Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant." Luke 15:25-26
There was a man who had two sons, and this is the story of the oldest of those sons. We usually call him the "older brother," although Jesus calls him the "elder son." But he was both, and we don't know his name, so perhaps it doesn't matter.
Some people see his story as the point of the parable, by the way. What Jesus was doing here, they say, was holding up a mirror in front of the Scribes and Pharisees. "Here fellows, see right in here. This is what you're like. How do you like it when you see it in someone else? How would you like to spend the day in a fishing boat with this guy, huh?" Anyway, the story.
There was this man who had a kindly father, and one confused and confusing kid brother. He didn't really need a kindly father. A stern and demanding father would have served just as well. For he was that type himself. He worked hard, saved his money, went to bed early and got up early. He read his Torah, went often to the Temple, paid his debts if he ever had any, and thought highly of himself.
He had no need for a kindly father, and was surely troubled about the sort of brother he had. Especially when he learned his brother had gone to their father and asked for a share of the family inheritance. Had plans to take a trip, he said. But everyone had a good idea what would come of that, with so much money in his pocket.
If the brother's opinion was consulted, I'm sure he urged his father not to do it. And maybe he gave that opinion anyway. In any event, we can be sure that was his opinion. But the father gave the money, and away the youngest son went.
Perhaps the brothers said goodbye, perhaps not. Needless to say, there was no love lost. And the older brother was sure of his attitude about this thing, and that everyone else had the wrong one. He was a man who was always sure he was right.
The scene moves on to where the prodigal son went. And sure enough, he got in trouble there. And lost his money and disgraced himself and his family. And did a lot of things you don't hear much talk about in church.
But all the while, back home, was that family of three now reduced to two. So this is a good time to speculate about how things were between that elder son and his "poor mistaken father."
He was a loyal son, you can know for sure. Worked hard, did things right, handled money well, had a good eye for investments. He was honest and moral. He always earned his own way in life, and did his best at things. In fact, those were his main concern. In fact, he was such a totally self-centered person that he had few friends. For who can love someone who loves only himself, whose only use for you is to get something he wants?
The father would have said he loved that son. And he did as much as anyone could. But there were limits. The younger son you could love more, because something came back. This son you respected, but that's not the same as love. There was always something between you and him. He loved himself so much it left little room for anything else. The father had gone as far as he could, but there was an unapproachableness–if that's the word–he could never get past.
As time went by and no son came back, an attitude "I told you so" began to increase. It must have been delicious to think it, even if he never said it.
Hey there old man, now what do you think? He took your hard-earned money and blew it, just like everyone knew he would. Everyone but you. We stay here on the farm and work, while he runs around and lives it up. And he's never even bothered to write!
"I told you so."
We have here a person who always felt sure in his opinions, but never sure in his relationships with others. Ill at ease with his father, at odds with his only brother, and with no real friends. He was there alone in his self-regard and critical attitude. And none of his self-assumed goodness made up for that.
Now even if a person like that manages to be right 98% of the time, the public lives for the other 2% when his feet of clay stick out beneath his robes of righteousness.
Once in Tennessee we were building something at the church, and two men and I went to a dry creek bed to get a truckload of rock. The man driving never liked me too much. He thought I was liberal. Anyone who used a Bible other than the King James Version had to be liberal.
He was a narrow, straight-laced man, especially about women. Particularly about contact between men and women. Even eye contact! He and others like him were the reason Baptists of the opposite sex weren't allowed to swim in the same swimming pools for many years. Anyway, we'd loaded our rock, and were driving along down this creek bed to go back to the church.
It was July, and there was a woman there loading rock into the trunk of her car. And she had on shorts. And she was young and attractive. Which the man driving our truck wasn't supposed to notice, of course. But he did. Because what he said was–and he said it with his jaws swelled up and shaking–"Woman like that ain't got no business out in a place like this."
I was his pastor and have a way of keeping quiet when I don't have anything I want to say. So I kept quiet. And the brother in the seat between us, he kept quiet too. We both said nothing. But we could feel through our touching shirt sleeves the other one thinking that a man who preached you shouldn't notice women had just noticed one himself!
As you read the New Testament, you find how Jesus dealt with two very different groups of people–Pharisees and Publicans. The righteous and respectable folk, and the sinners who collected taxes for those miserable Romans.
And you might suppose that if Jesus Christ was to be called the friend of anybody, he'd have been called "Jesus–the friend of the righteous." But instead, he was called . . . "Jesus–friend of sinners."
He said he wasn't there to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He saw more hope for them than all who were so sure they needed no repentance. Back to our story though.
When you've already said "I told you so," and then things change, it leaves you holding the bag. Then someone else can say "Ah! but didn't I tell you so?"
The younger brother came back home one day. Sure enough, the money was gone, but he was sorry about it. He said he was. He said in tears and on his knees just to let him live with the servants from now on. He wasn't fit to be a son anymore, he said. And no one could doubt that he meant it.
His father was so happy about this turn of events! He hugged him, and kissed him. He gave him presents and acted like he'd come back a hero. And his brother heard, and was angry, and refused to have anything to do with it. Why?
Perhaps because of a well-kept wish that he could find out about the other side of life like his brother had. Or resentment of his father's love, which he thought was wasted on the undeserving. Perhaps it was his lifelong grudge that, crazy as it sounded, people liked that younger brother better than him!
Maybe his greed was offended by all the money wasted. Or was it his general disapproval of fun and merriment? Or maybe his inclination toward law and order, and away from love and grace?
His father went out and tried to talk with him. He said, "This is your own brother, son. I thought he was dead, and now he's come home. And he's sorry for what he did. I think he's learned his lesson. Come on, let's go see him."
But he would not. Even for his father he would not. It might have been the first time in his life he failed to do what his father wanted.
All his bottled-up anger came pouring out:
I've served you all these years. I've done everything you said to do. When did you ever give me a party like this? Now your son has come back home–your son who threw away our money on harlots–and you want me to celebrate? Not on your life!
I think Jesus wanted us to raise a question here. What was the worst thing done in that story? What was the lowest moral point, the greatest offense to God, the most damaging and disgracing act?
If you're the older brother type you say that affair with the prostitutes, and what went on in the far country. But if you're the father, you say it was this attitude of his one son toward the other.
Is it possible that a self-righteous, unforgiving, unloving attitude toward the sinners of this world is worse in the long run than the sin itself? Yes, it is. Is it possible that here we have demonstrated for us the "unpardonable sin"? Maybe.
"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others theirs." "If you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive your trespasses."(See Matthew 6:9-15)
Someone bared his soul out in the yard there, and this holier-than-thou said he wasn't impressed. Someone repented whose own father forgave him, and a brother found fault and said this shouldn't be?
For how long do you suppose the blame was held? The story doesn't say, because it ends there. But we have good reason to believe it stayed, and stayed, and never changed.
What you're left with then is very clear choice. You have the party in the house, or the anger in the yard. You have the father's love and grace, or the brother's unforgiveness. You have trust in what a person can do on his own, or faith in what can be done for him.
You have life at work, and death. Choose life.
REVERENCE CHRIST AS LORD
1 Peter 3:8-17
Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing. For "He that would love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile; let him turn away from evil and do right; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those that do evil." Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God's will, than for doing wrong. (1 Peter 3:8-17)
Do you know where your toothbrush is right now? I mean exactly where it is? Because there's a special place you keep your toothbrush. You always put it there, and you always expect to find it there. Partly because a person needs to be able to find his toothbrush without looking all over the house–right?
Are there some other things you have a special place for? When the bills come, is there someplace you put them? Do they just lie around mixed in with the junk mail and catalogs? No! You have a special place for those bills, because they must have attention–they're important.
What if someone came in your kitchen and moved all the stuff around? Nothing in its usual place. Would you be confused or not? How would you like it for someone to do that?
I saw a study once of how various well-known people keep their desks. They ranged all the way from neat-as-a-pin to cluttered-like-a-trashpile. But the study concluded there was no correlation between how the desk was kept and how effectively the person used it. They found that even with those cluttered desks, the person had a place for every thing, and knew exactly where it was.
In verse 15 of the morning text we're told to "reverence" Christ as Lord. The older word is "sanctify," and both mean literally to "set apart" for holy use. It's that law of a "special place." Where something or someone is given the highest priority.
The chairman of our building committee at my church in Tennessee was also the Personnel Supervisor at a plant with five thousand employees. A busy man. Someone a lot of people were always trying to get hold of.
But I could call him and talk with him most any time I wanted to. I was his pastor, and that was something he held in reverence. It was a matter of priority with him, and he made sure everyone around him knew that.
The Bible says that's the way it needs to be with Christ–only more so. Christ must be special in our affection–even dearer than parent or spouse or children. When his name is spoken, it ought to be as no other. It ought to be "the name above every other name."
When his call of service comes, it ought to be as with no other. If he says "go there," we should go. If he says "do this," we must do it. If he says to turn the other cheek or go the second mile, that should be like orders to a soldier. Be fishers of men, love one another, watch and pray, forgive as you have been forgiven–how can we take so lightly what Jesus takes so seriously?
With others we may haggle and negotiate. With others we may turn a deaf ear at time. But not with him. He is our Lord, and we are his servants.
"Are you a Christian?"
"Why, sure. I guess so."
"Why are you? What does it mean to you?"
"I don't know. I guess I never thought about it much."
Not good enough. Not at home, or at school, or at church. Not good enough in the office, or the shop, or the manufacturing plant. Not good enough for the day you have surgery, or lose your job, or have to go to court. Not good enough on Judgment Day.
"Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you." And someone else's reasons won't help you all that much. Christ has to be a first-hand experience, not a second-hand story. A living passion, not a dead assumption.
A German pastor was put in prison by the Nazis. The warden got a bright idea. He had there a bright and dedicated Communist. He put the two in ajoining cells and waited to see the Christian pastor have a hard time with that athiest. But in four days the man was asking to borrow a Bible. They quickly moved him to another part of the prison!
Two farmers were neighbors. One found the other man's horse on his land and took it to the city pound. He said, "If this happens again, I'll do the same thing again." And his neighbor said, "I found your cow on my land, and I put it back in your field. And if it happens again, I'll do the same thing again."
We are called to be exceptions to the general rule. "A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people . . . that we may declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness, and into his marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9)
Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan. This is the history of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a lad with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought an ill report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they only hated him the more. He said to them, "Hear this dream which I have dreamed: behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf arose and stood upright; and behold, your sheaves gathered round it, and bowed down to my sheaf." His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to have dominion over us?" So they hated him yet more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed another dream, and told it to his brothers, and said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream; and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me." But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, "What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?" And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind. (Genesis 37:1-46:7)
He was 17, and he was dreaming. It was a magnificent, unforgettable dream. He was looking up in the sky at night. A night the air was clear and cool, and the stars seemed to hang just above him.
There was one star that was his. He knew it was his. It was the biggest and brightest star in the sky. The whole world could surely see that star, his star. It made him feel so happy.
And then . . . then there were other stars around his. One, two, three, four, five. Six, seven, eight. Nine, ten, . . . eleven. Eleven stars. Not as bright as his, of course. In fact, it was nice of those stars to be around his star, because with them around you could see how bright his really was.
And the sun and the moon, and all those eleven stars, bowed down. They all bowed down to him.
Joseph told his brothers that dream. His eleven brothers. Him the youngest. He told them all excited. As if they'd be thrilled about it too. Thrilled for him. But he learned there a lesson that what thrills us may not be that great to someone else, especially when it's at his expense. When you're the star that others are bowing down to.
A couple I knew had more money than anyone else in town. One day they built the house of their dreams. It stood high on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River. And I can't begin to tell you how big it was, how many rooms it had, how richly it was furnished.
They were happy with their house, and they wanted their friends to be happy with them. Only most of their friends lived in very modest homes themselves. Some even lived in trailers and rented places.
They invited those people out to see this mansion on top of the hill. And people came because it was the thing to do. And they tried to be excited, excited as if the place were theirs. But it wasn't the same. It wasn't even close. And as as they drove home, most of them felt used. As if they'd been made to bow down to something, or someone.
It doesn't take a lot to see why Joseph's dreams were so grand. He was the youngest of twelve brothers, and the favorite of his father. Jacob's favorite son, the son of his old age. And what Jacob was doing was living his youth again through the life of that boy.
Which is why a lot of mothers who never made cheerleader are so anxious for their girls to. Why a lot of fathers who were never football stars themselves are so determined for their sons to be that.
Jacob gave his favorite son a coat that said to the world how he felt about him. And Joseph wore it proudly. It made him so proud, just walking around in that beautiful coat. But it said to eleven brothers that they were second-rate.
A father should know better. Especially Jacob, the son of Isaac, who had another son named Esau. And Esau was his dad's favorite because he was the rugged, outdoor type. He had hair on his arms, and his chest, I'm sure. Jacob had to settle for being Mamma's boy. The only way he could get his father's blessing was to trick him. So Jacob should have known better than to have a favorite himself, but he went right on and did it.
Joseph's brothers were out in the field. And no one was around, and they saw him coming, wearing that coat of his. And this was their chance. They said:
"Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild beast has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." (Genesis 37:19-20)
They took his coat and threw him in the pit, which was actually a cistern and shaped like a bottle. You couldn't get out unless someone helped you. And while he was there, a caravan of Ishmaelites came along on the way to Egypt. They decided to sell their brother as a slave to those traders, and did. For 20 shekels of silver.
Why get rid of a person yourself if someone will do the job for you, and even pay you money? But then, what do you tell his father?
That's easy. You kill a passing goat and put a bunch of his blood on brother's coat. You take it home and tell the old man you found it in a field. That's all. And while he trembles and sobs, and you try to look solemn, the thought comes easy that he asked for this. He asked for it.
Now, Joseph and his dreams are in a lot of trouble. He's far from home and his favorite coat. He's only 17 and living in a foreign land. He's been sold to an official named Potiphar, and that won't turn out so well either. But as we see what happened next, remember one thing.
"The Lord was with Joseph." (Genesis 39:3,21,23)
It didn't seem like it, of course. It seemed just the opposite. And yet the Bible makes that statement again and again in the darkest hours of this story. Which is to tell you that the Lord is with some people you don't think he's with. And if the Lord is with them, things are going to turn out well, no matter how many people have it in for them.
The Lord was with Joseph. But you see what a mess a man can sometimes get in, even when the Lord is with him.
Potiphar had a wife who found Joseph attractive. She may have found a lot of men attractive, anyway she did him. And he was a slave, so that gave Mrs. Potiphar an added advantage. But it wasn't enough. Joseph refused what she wanted. And her affection for him turned to hate.
Potiphar's wife accused Joseph of doing the thing to her that she had failed at getting him to do. Her rejection turned to moral indignation and accusation. Poor Joseph. An upright person is branded as a low-life, while this low-life woman pretends her virtue. Joseph is thrown in prison. Time passes.
Something is going to happen, though. One day, there are two new prisoners there who used to serve the king. And both have dreams which neither can understand. But Joseph does.
The first man dreamed about picking grapes and making wine for Pharaoh's cup. Joseph told him that was a very good dream. It meant he'd be restored to the king's service. And Joseph asked him:
"But remember me, when it is well with you, and do me the kindness, I pray you, to make mention of me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house." (Genesis 40:14)
The second man dreamed about having the king's bread in a basket on top of his head. Some birds saw that, and swooped down, and ate up the bread–every slice. And Joseph told him that was a very bad dream. It meant he would soon be dead.
Is it right to tell a man when his dreams are bad? Is it right to bring the worst of news? Yes, it is. A person about to die needs to know it if he can. The wounds of a friend are the best, after all. Hey! if I've had it, let someone who cares please tell me.
So Joseph helps two people with their dreams. One dies in prison, and the other lives in the house of the king. The other is in a position to pay back the favor. But will he remember? No. "The chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him."
Which recalls Mark Twain's saying that you can feed a stray dog and be nice to him and he'll never bite you. And that is the difference between a dog and a lot of people.
Joseph and his dreams remain in prison. And two more years pass, which must seem a long time if you're sitting in a cell and waiting.
One night, King Pharaoh had a dream. One he couldn't understand. It was a vivid and frightening dream. And he called in a lot of experts and asked them what it meant. But none could tell him. His Butler remembered Joseph then. This could help him with the king, he thought, so he told the king about the man he knew.
Joseph was able to tell what the king's dream meant. It was a good news/bad news dream. Good news that seven years of plenty were ahead. Bad news that seven years of famine were coming after that. The country needed to begin the storing of food to be ready for that famine. And Pharaoh looked at Joseph, then turned to the people and said, "Can we find such a man as this, in whom is the Spirit of God?" (Genesis 41:37)
First time in the Bible you have the Spirit of God described as dwelling in a man and giving him wisdom. First time you have that recognized by a secular ruler. Joseph is brought from prison to become head of the king's service.
He was 17 when his brothers sold him. Now he's 30. Nothing very good has happened in all those years, but it's about to. Joseph does his job and does it well. When the great famine comes, Egypt is ready. And that could be the end of the story, but of course it isn't.
One day some hungry travelers come for food, and Joseph sees them. He sees them and they see him.
They don't recognize him because the last time they saw him he was 17, and now he's nearly 40 and dressed like an Egyptian. There are ten of them. They're his brothers.
They bow down, just like his boyhood dream. In the days when he still had his coat. Only, there are ten brothers, not eleven. Why?
Because Jacob has a new favorite. He's repeated the same old mistake. So Benjamin, the next youngest son, was left back home for safety's sake. Joseph insists that all of them be present, so Benjamin is sent for.
I forgot to tell you how Joseph felt about all this. He didn't let his brothers see it, but he was crying a lot. He still didn't tell them who he was, for there was something he had to know. There was something he must find out. And he did it like this:
When the brothers started home with all those sacks of grain, Joseph hid his silver cup in Benjamin's sack. Benjamin, his father's favorite. And they were riding along, and looked back, and there came the Egyptian mounted police right behind them. They were stopped and searched, and the cup was found.
Joseph must discover if anything had changed. Would those ten now sacrifice their youngest to save themselves? That was the choice they had. And Judah, the eldest, would say to Joseph: "Now therefore, let your servant, I pray you, remain instead of the lad as a slave to my lord; and let the lad go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the lad is not with me?" (Genesis 44:33)
Eleven brothers, there on their knees, bowing down around Joseph.
God is so good, That now and then, amid all the evil, all the strain, all the unhappiness and bad news and conflict that goes on–to allow a scene like that. Where a once-wronged man can let go of the wrong. Where brothers who belong together can be united again. Can hug each another and shed tears of joy.
"I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And you meant this for evil, but God meant it for good. Don't be distressed, or angry with yourselves because you sold me here. It wasn't really you who did this, but God." (see Genesis 45:4-15)
God is so good. To see his hand in the suffering of another person is one thing, but to see it in your own suffering is something else. Joseph did that.
God is so good. He takes the evil that people intend and turns it to good.
I believe that. Don't you?
ON EARTH PEACE
The subject was New Hampshire Avenue. I was paying little attention, because this was certainly nothing new. Anyone who drives New Hampshire in the Colesville-White Oak area can give you the story. You have construction that ties up the traffic. You have steel plates that shake the fillings out of your teeth. And you have people who still drive New Hampshire like a race track in spite of everything.
And these two men were going over that one more time. And one of them said something to the effect of wondering what the world would be like if it lasted another fifty years? And the other man just shook his head. So the guy followed up. He said, "Do you think it'll last another fifty years?
His friend in conversation was not prepared for such a question. He said, "Oh, I don't know." And the reply he got was, "Well all it takes is just one nuclear war."
They had my attention now, and some others there in the locker room. In a few seconds we'd moved from traffic tie-ups on New Hampshire to global destruction. From ten minute delays, we'd gone to being burned up or blown to pieces. The earth uninhabitable–the human race extinct like dinosaurs.
"All it takes is just one nuclear war."
And he was right, of course, but we hadn't exactly wanted to hear about all that on a nice day like this!
It was a nice evening for some shepherds. They were out in the field taking care of the flock. And it wasn't much of a job because the flock was bedded down for the night. They had a fire going, and were sitting around it.
Maybe they'd been discussing the recent drop in the price of wool. Or maybe someone worried that the lambs were less numerous this year. All this in a far corner of the world, out from nowhere. When all of a sudden, world peace was on the agenda. The sky was filled with angels announcing "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men."
This, you see, is God's purpose for the human family. Peace on earth. Not some distant planet, or in heaven, but here on earth, within our history. The will of God is for the destruction of war, and the construction of peace–here.
"It shall come to pass . . . that they shall beat their
swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (Isaiah 2:2,4)
But we never seem close to an age like that. As someone said, the lamb and the lion may lie down together, but the lamb won't sleep very well! What peace we seem to gain is always uneasy.
But the coming of Jesus had to do with peace. He said "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you." (John 14:27) And he called his followers to join in that. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." (Matt 5:9)
Albert Schweitzer preached a sermon on "The Future of Mankind." It was given on Sunday, October 13, 1918–not the best of years to be preaching on that subject. The sermon concluded:
"We have buried our loved ones and our hopes. More has been asked of us than of any other generation. But out of the destruction we have suffered, we must preserve as the most precious ideal for the new age our faith in the future of mankind. Ours is the responsibility of transferring this faith to the coming generation. The sun of hope is not shining upon our paths. Night is still here, and our generation will not live to see the dawn of the new dayl. But if we have perserved our faith in that which must come, then stars will lighten our way and bring Light. Peace of God, fill our hearts, help us."
GOD OF ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart." Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, "Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord." (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)
We live in a world where you never know for sure what may happen.
While I lived in Chattanooga, there was an effort to stop people from having gasoline in the trunk of their cars in containers that were judged unsafe. So one day the police department and the fire department decided to put on a demonstration. The television stations came with their cameras to film it for the news.
They got an old car that wasn't worth anything and put some gasoline in an unapproved container in the trunk. They pulled the car up a hill a little ways and let it roll down the hill and crash into a concrete wall trunk first. But nothing happened, and there was some chuckling on the part of the news media. So they pulled the old car a little
further up the hill, and let it loose again. Still no explosion.
Well, the pressure was really on. So they pulled the old car to the top of the hill and let it loose again. But on the way down it somehow swerved from its path, hit a parked police car, and exploded–demolishing both cars. So it did prove a point–sort of.
There once was a ship that was said to be unvulnerable. It's name was the Titanic. But the wisdom of shipbuilders is foolishness with God. And the wisdom of navigators too. There are things called icebergs, and about this Thomas Hardy wrote a poem. Listen:
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
Prepared a sinister mate
For her–so gaily great–
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue.
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history.
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
Now that might seem to speak of the mischief of God, but I think not. It speaks instead of the foolishness of man's wisdom. And of a God who's the God of endless possibilities. More than the mind of man can ever comprehend. So we deal with a God of great surprises.
Paul is preaching about this in the text I read. He says we're saved by nonsense. That the wisdom of man is foolishness with God. That the weakness of God is stronger that man's strength. That the unlikely is likely with him. That the despised of earth become its chosen–the last first, and the first last.
He removes from us the ground of our boasting. He takes from us what we might boast of. That "whoever wants to boast must boast of what the Lord has done." Not what he has done, you see.
And what does that mean, but that the person of lowest estate has cause for hope. And the person on top has cause for fear? "Let him who thinketh he standeth take heed, lest he fall." I think I read that in the Bible.
Who knows what any new day may bring forth? What changes may take place? As if God in heaven means to keep us all dependent on him. As if he allows no sure success, nor any certain failure. As if he's the God of the improbable, and we must prepare and conduct ourselves accordingly.
One phone call in the night. One flash of truth in the mirror of the soul. One slightest turn of the steering wheel of life, and everything may go to better or to worse. Everything.
But we tend to ignore that. We tend to say, "Today or tomorrow we will travel to a certain city, where we will stay a year, and go into business and make a lot of money." But as James reminds us, we don't know what our lives tomorrow will be. We're often a mist, appearing a short while and then vanishing away. We'd better say, "If the Lord is willing, we will live and do this or that." (see James 4:13-17)
There once was a rich man who lived splendedly. He fared sumptuously ever day. He was a winner–a winner in the game of life. Impeccably dressed and precisely mannered. If he lived today, he'd drive a luxury car and always be talking important business on his cellular car phone.
Nearby him lived a beggar named Lazarus–one of life's loosers. He lay around sick all the time, lived off of welfare, and was disgusting to look at. A person many people felt sorry for, but no one could be a friend of. A sad case.
But that's from our perspective, of course. The way people judge these things. But it did seem clear. Something you'd never think to be uncertain about. The rich man was someone you'd like to change places with. Lazarus wasn't!
But God had a word to say about those things. God who knows a lot that doesn't meet the eye. The rich man died and ended up a beggar for water to cool his tongue. Lazarus died and was carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The first came out last and the last first–with no real explanation. And God is not God if he has to give one.
God is the God of endless possibilities. With whom no one is ever hopeless. Who can surprise us at every turn. "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." So we must learn to live with a God who thumbs his nose at all our wisdom.
Paul spoke of "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation." As if the two are connected, you see? One comes on the heels of the other. So even if hope appears, we better stay ready for tribulation. And even in the midst of that, we watch for the coming of hope.
"With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." The words of Jesus, by the way. Which say nothing is hopeless when you live by faith. When you know the possibilities of a divine breakthrough.
Of course it's hard–when you've tried to quit smoking about a hundred times already–to keep believing it's really possible for you to do so. Or if you've prayed the same prayer for the same person over and over again. How to keep on believing there can be an answer to such a prayer.
It's hard, when you've trusted someone and been let down, ever to believe and trust that person again. Ever to believe and trust any person again. "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him–till seven times?" How many exhaust the possibilities of hope and grace?
Jesus had a word for that, remember? He said to keep on keeping on. Keep on forgiving. Go beyond the likely or the probable. Keep on because God is a God of endless possibilities. Not just to seven times, but to seventy times seven.
It didn't seem likely that a hard-headed construction worker like Troy Bell would ever change his mind about about the race issue. Why, he said he'd get up and walk out of church if certain people ever came in. And you wouldn't have bet a last year's Sunday School quarterly he'd have ever changed his mind.
But he did. And when he did, he argued as hard on the right side of that question as he used to on the wrong side. You'd never have thought it. With men it was impossible, but with the Lord it almost looked easy.
Paul says to us: "Remember what you were, Brothers, when God called you. Few of you were wise, or powerful, or of high social standing, from the human point of view. God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to put wise men to shame, and what the world considers weak in order to put powerful men to shame. He chose what the world looks down on, and despises, and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important. This means that no one can boast in God's presence." (1 Cor. 1:26-29 TEV)
Some respond to God, and others don't. And those who do will often fool you. The wind blows here, and the wind blows there, and no one knows why. So is every one who is born of the Spirit.
As the Bible puts it: "God has brought you into union with Christ Jesus, and God has made Christ to be our wisdom; by him we are put right with God, we become God's Holy People, and are set free."
Just an average miracle of the Grace of God.
David assembled at Jerusalem all the officials of Israel, the officials of the tribes, the officers of the divisions that served the king, the commanders of thousands, the commanders of hundreds, the stewards of all the property and cattle of the king and his sons, together with the palace officials, the mighty men, and all the seasoned warriors. Then King David rose to his feet and said: "Hear me, my brethren and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building. But God said to me, `You may not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood.' Yet the Lord God of Israel chose me from all my father's house to be king over Israel for ever; for he chose Judah as leader, and in the house of Judah my father's house, and among my father's sons he took pleasure in me to make me king over all Israel. And of all my sons the Lord has given me many sons) he has chosen Solomon my son to sit upon the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel. He said to me, `It is Solomon your son who shall build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father. I will establish his kingdom for ever if he continues resolute in keeping my commandments and my ordinances, as he is today.' Now therefore in the sight of all Israel, the assembly of the Lord, and in the hearing of our God, observe and seek out all the commandments of the Lord your God; that you may possess this good land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children after you for ever. "And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father, and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will cast you off for ever. Take heed now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a house for the sanctuary; be strong, and do it." (1 Chronicles 28:1-10)
What a man was David! A "man after God's own heart," the Bible says. The only person that was ever said about.
David who sat on the hillside and wrote the loveliest of poetry. Who played his harp in the palace of kings. And yet was a man of war, who killed Goliath while still a lad. Who later commanded armies, and had to be restrained from getting into the battles himself.
A man's man, who had his problems with women, but loved them still. Who had a holy reverence for the Ark of the Covenant. He moved it around from place to place, and once did a wild dance as it entered the city. Who planned to build a permanent temple where that ark would have a home.
That was David's dream. It may have been the chiefest of his dreams. His lifelong dream–to be the one to do that. Notice how he says:
I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord.
"I had it in my heart." The things we have in our hearts to do are the sum and substance of our dreams. David's was to be the architect of the Temple of the Lord. He prayed for it, longed for it, worked for it, and must have sorrowed when he was denied it.
The Lord said he wasn't the right man for that job. The Lord had someone else in mind. Solomon, his son, would be the one. David must die with his dream unfulfilled. He must die in hope that it would be fulfilled. He must face the shambles of his own failed dream.
So we see that even "a man after God's own heart" must deal with failed dreams.
The birth of our dreams is a theological moment. As Joel said, sons and daughters prophecy while older people dream dreams and see visions. Nothing is holier than the dreaming of a holy dream.
But the facing of our failed dreams is a theological moment as well. As David had to do. He thought the Lord had him in mind, but it was someone else instead. The dream might live on, but not as his dream.
Sooner or later, we must come to terms with our failed dreams. Perhaps our dream for a child we used to hold on our laps, who hasn't turned out as planned Perhaps our dream of financial ease, that was not to be. Perhaps our dream of an outstanding career. Or of marriage.
I'm with so many of them there in the moment of their dreams. I stand by the candles and watch them. "I Mary, take you John . . . for better or worse, in sickness and in health, to have and to hold till death do us part."
Maybe. But we never say the maybe. Why disturb good dreams? The thing of it is, we all must be ready to deal with those that don't work out.
Have you ever asked yourself, "Where am I right now in relation to where I hoped to be, planned to be, and expected to be?" With the Lord, with your health, in your career, with your parents or children. With friends and personal development. In all that goes to make up your life, are you fulfilled in all your dreams, or are you not?
I have to admit it, I like Dexter Manley. I like his spirit, his enthusiasm, his honesty. And I judge that Dexter is a man who dreamed of much in his football career. What does he do now? What now? And that really is a bigger test than anything in football.
I never voted for Ronald Reagan, but I believe he was an honest man who had honest dreams. One was to balance the budget of the United States. He promised he would do that. And then the thing he wanted most to succeed at was the very thing he failed at most conspicuously.
Richard Nixon had his dreams. Jimmy Carter had his. Sometimes a man of peace gets forced into conflict, and a man of conflict gets forced into peace. All our presidents have had their dreams, and most seem to be leaving office with a lot of failed ones.
As you look around these pews, you see some of them have funny looking grey boxes on the backs. The fine print says you can plug in an earphone and get the sermon in Vietnamese. Only you can't do that anymore, of course. Those boxes are one of my own failed dreams.
The pastor I followed in Tennessee was a man named Lee Griggs. There were a lot of jokes at the time about Briggs following Griggs. Lee had a dream to build a new building there. He got the church to buy the land. He got them to hire an architect and develop a plan. But the building was not to be. He left with things at a standstill. He was David with his plan for the temple, but I was to be the Solomon.
One of my holiest privileges is to be with the dying. And one of my observations is that it isn't just the dying that people find hard. It's coping with their failed dreams. They lie in the bed and stare at the walls and know that the effort is over. And ask: "Why do I have to die now with so much left that I planned to do?"
Terrell and Juanita Noffsinger–they had a dream of retiring comfortably and doing a lot of traveling together. They seemed to be right on schedule. But Juanita developed cancer and Terrell became a nurse. Just another failed dream.
You haven't heard much about Grow by Caring lately, have you. Several years ago Weaver Doyle brought me some literature on that program and asked me to tell him what I thought. I thought it sounded great. We both had a dream of what the program could mean for Luther Rice Church. Others came to share that dream.
It wasn't a failure, but it wasn't the success we hoped and prayed for. Must we feel bad about that? How do you deal with things like that.
Robert Peary was a man with a dream. It was very simple. He wanted to be the first man to reach the North Pole. He made seven failed attempts to do that, before trying it for the last time at age fifty-two. He wrote:
"For more than a score of years, that point on the earth's surface has been the object of my every effort . . .. This was my final chance to realize the one dream of my life."
Peary acheved much. He got farther north and back without motorized assistance than anyone else had done before or since. He was a genius and a visionary at arctic exploration. It is unlikely that anyone will ever come close to matching the records he set in the way he set them.
In the twenty years from 1886 to 1909, Peary spent half of his time in the Arctic, and the other half in the U.S. raising money for the next effort. He mortgaged himself to the point of bankruptcy. He lost eight of his ten toes to frostbite, and kept going. He broke a leg and kept going.
A child he fathered died while he was gone, and his wife wrote: "Our little darling whom you never knew was taken from me on August 7th, 1899, just seven months after she came. . . . Oh, my husband I wanted you, how much you will never know. I shall never feel quite the same again, part of me is in the little grave. . . . Oh, Sweetheart, husband, together we could have shared it but alone it was almost too much."
His nine year old daughter wrote: "I read that the Peary Arctic Club are trying to get your consent to go north again. I think it is a dogs shame and wish every member of the Club were dead then you would not have to go in the first place. I know you will do what pleases Mother and me and that is to stay with us at home. I have been looking at your pictures and it seems ten years and I am sick of looking at them. I want to see my father. I don't want people to think of me as an orphan. Please think this over. Your loving Marie."
Peary thought it over, and went north again. His dream drove him to.
On April 6, 1909, Peary thought he was nearly there. Then he made another measurement and found he was still fifty miles away. There was no way to go another fifty miles and have food to get back. For the next several days, he left his diary blank as he traveled south and to safety.
He knew this was his last expedition–his last hope of reaching the dream. Two months later–on June 12th–he announced he had reached the goal he hadn't really reached.
He received twenty-two gold medals, dined with kings, was promoted to rear admiral, and restored his finances to a respectable level. But he died a short time later. Knowing he'd failed in the one significant dream of his life.
But in failing to reach the goal he set for himself, he still accomplished much. The words of Churchill seem to apply: "Let him rest in peace, and let us all be thankful we have never had to face his trials. . . . Those who have endured a similar ordeal may judge him."
Some failure is good. If no dreams fail, it likely means we never had any. The problem with most lives isn't that they aimed too high and failed to acheive it, the problem is they aimed so low and never did do much.
I heard a recent interview with the head of an American corporation. He said they invest time and money into three new projects to get one success. Which means there are two failures in the process. He said they monitor this ratio carefully. He said the way to success is to have a lot of failures.
The Lord created man. Adam and Eve. He made a Garden of Eden for them to live in–a place of perfection. He made them in his image and gave them everything they needed. God had a dream for his new creation.
What happened? The Garden of Eden is no more. The Garden of Eden was a failed dream. The Garden of Eden is a symbol of divine disappointment. Mankind became lost in sin and tresspasses.
But the failure of one dream doesn't have to mean the failure of others. That's the point, I suppose. God sent his only begotten son to be the Savior of the world. It wasn't the original plan, but it was the next best thing. And today it's our best and brightest hope. So the thing about dreams is that when one doesn't work, you find another to put in its place.
After all, if the Lord says you can't you can't build his temple, what could be better than to have you own son do it? The main thing is being true to God. That's the main thing.
A FAMOUS TEXT
"Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD. Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; hold not back, lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. "Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be put to shame; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer. "For this is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:1-10)
Baptists have always divided on issues, but the issues come and go.
When I began my ministry the issue was race. If you were liberal, you favored integration. If you were conservative, you were a segregationist. It was that simple.
Today we have other issues. Like abortion, women's rights, church and state, and Biblical inerrancy.
For Baptists 200 years ago at the close of the 18th Century, the issue was a strange one to us. If you were conservative, you were a strong Calvinist. You believed in predestination. That meant that if God wanted to save the heathen, he'd do it himself, without any help from you or anyone else.
But if you were liberal, you believed he uses people and means to spread the Gospel. You believed they hear the message of salvation through a preacher who goes out with a burden on his heart. You believed we have an obligation to do that.
But you had a hard time getting those Calvinists to go along with you on that. And for that reason, Baptists in England and America had no missionaries–none.
William Carey was born to an Anglican home in England in 1761. He became a lay preacher. In his 22nd year he heard a sermon on infant baptism and decided to study the issue. His study led him to become a Baptist. He was baptized in 1783 and became a Baptist preacher.
Carey believed the Great Commission was a challenge to win the heathen to faith in Christ. He began pleading with fellow ministers to begin a foreign mission enterprise. He found he could get people to listen to the idea, but not to act on it. And Carey was a man of action.
On May 30th, 1792, at a Baptist meeting in Nottingham, Carey preached the sermon of his life. It was from the text in Isaiah I read this morning. Out of that sermon and that meeting, the first mission society among Baptists was formed. The ministers themselves opened their purses and took up an offering. Less than a year later, the first Baptist missionary was appointed. The second was Carey himself. Both went to India.
In the first twenty years of that effort, they published tracts and scriptures in eighteen languages and baptized more than 700 converts. Twelve of those felt a call to the ministry. Baptists in America showed interest and began sending contributions. Then came missionaries from America, including one named Luther Rice.
The heart of William Carey's text was this:
"Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out. Hold not back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes." (Isaiah 54:2)
It's a verse full of verbs. "Enlarge" "stretch" "lengthen" "strengthen." A call to action if there ever was one. Something for those who get comfortably settled down and need stirring out of their complacancy.
I have a neighbor across the street who used to run the roads like I did. I'd see him out, and we'd always speak, and sometimes we'd stand in the street and compare notes. I remember when he was running 5 miles a day at an 8 minute pace, which isn't bad.
But lately, like me, he hasn't been running much. He's been eating instead of running–you can tell. The truth about it is, he's gotten himself sloppy fat.
I've seen him out a few times lately, and it's almost sad to see. He used to stride along, and now he waddles. A time or two I've thought to myself that if I looked like that, I'd stay inside and use one of those machines.
Well, the other day, I went out for a run. I who've also gained some weight. And I looked up ahead and there was my neighbor. And I thought, well I'll pass him soon and say hello. Only I never passed him. I couldn't pass him, or even gain on him. So I followed along behind him at the same slow pace.
And as I ran, and watched him, I knew I was running just like him. I looked just as out of shape as he did. I thought I was running better than that, but now I knew I wasn't. I was seeing myself as if in a mirror.
And that was sobering, because I still think of myself running like I used to run. When I ran ten kilometers around Lake Braddock in 49 minutes. But now I'm that man up ahead of me there.
It isn't often in life that we get to see ourselves like that. See ourselves as we really are. See the kind of parents we are. The kinds of friends we are to others. What kind of church members. How Christlike, or how un-Christlike. The true level of our efforts.
But what a good thing when we can do that. Get a look at ourselves in the mirror of truth. Then maybe we'd be ready to hear a call like the one Isaiah gave. "Enlarge . . . stretch out . . . lengthen . . . strengthen." A call to action, in other words. A call to be done with the habits of the past, and to shape our future by the will of God.
When Carey preached his famous sermon, he challenged his hearers to do two things: expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.
The question for us is whether we do either one. We don't expect much and we don't attempt much. We expect but little from God, and we attempt but little for him. As Dwight L. Moody was fond of saying, the world still waits to see what may come from a life that's fully surrendered to the will of God.
The picture Isaiah used is that of pitching a tent. A larger tent than what you've had before. If you're to have a larger tent, you must have longer ropes to hold it up. But if you're to have longer ropes, you must have stronger stakes in the ground. Put up a larger tent and anchor it with the same small pegs, and you'll have a collapse on your hands.
There's a profound spiritual lesson there. You don't enlarge the supersturcture without strengthening the foundation. And there's no sense strengthening the foundation unless you really mean business about enlarging. "Lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes."
It's like a person who decides to be a soul-winner. The Lord wants him to go out and witness about his faith, and he does. But he doesn't pray, he doesn't prepare, he doesn't know what he's doing–he only knows that he wants to do it. And like a big new tent with the same short stakes, it's going to collapse.
But then there's the other person who decides to be a soul-winner. And he knows he needs to prepare to do that. So he reads and studies. He prays about soul-winning. He sits around in a room and discusses soul-winning with others. But that's all he ever does. He never feels adequate to go out and try it. He strengthened the stakes but never enlarged the tent.
You have to ask two questions. First you ask, "What do you want me to do, Lord?" And next you ask, "How do I go about doing that?" You discern the will of God, and then you discern the steps that are necessary to bring it to completion.
For a lot of efforts, you need a base of support. Some go out as missionaries, but others stay home and provide the means. Some teach the classes, while others show interest and give encouragement. The time of making a church budget is a time of showing support. You decide what the Lord wants done, and you pledge your support of the effort.
A certain boldness is required. Isaiah tells us, "hold not back." Christians fail to do the will of God because of holding back. Churches fail to do the will of God because of holding back. It seems safer just to play it safe.
Just hold on to what we've got. Don't take a chance on loosing it. Here, give me that shovel and let me dig a hole in the ground. Put it down there and cover it up. Then when the Master comes, I'll dig it up and give it to him safe and sound. You don't try to win the game, you just try not to lose it.
But that rests on a false assumption. We think if we do nothing, things will stay like they are, at least. But the one who does that is the one who loses everything.
As Titus Livy said: "In great straits and when hope is small, the boldest counsels are the safest." But the church is slow to believe that. "Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God. Brothers we are treading where we've always trod."
Carey's text is a call to action. What action it means for you I can't say. But you should pray and consider it.
When we were building our new church down in Tennessee, we'd sometimes come to a standstill. We'd be gathered around and debating whether to do it this way or that way, and nobody seemed sure. And after a while, Don Williams would speak up and say: "Well, let's do somethin', even if it's wrong."
They had no missionaries–not a one. And William Carey said, "Let's do something." And they did. And it wasn't wrong–we now know–it was right. And the world is better for it. Thank God for those who call us to boldness.
In June of 1988, in San Antonio, when the Southern Baptist Convention went on record against the priesthood of believers, Randall Lolly called a press conference. He called it at the Alamo. There on the steps of the Alamo he tore up the resolution.
On the site where Colonel William Travis and 232 American soldiers had orders to hold the fort at all cost. With an army of 5,000 on the way to take it from them.
Travis took his sword and drew a line in the dirt. He said anyone who wanted to escape was free to. He should leave now, before it was too late. All who'd stay and fight should step across that line.
The first was a Tennessean named David Crockett. All 232 stepped across the line except sick David Bowie, and at his request they carried him across. It took three assaults of the Mexican army to overwhelm that band. Not a man surrendered. Their bravery and commitment became a rallying cry for others.
To do the will of God is our greatest challenge. It calls us from the dullness of our lives. It calls out the best in every one of us.
Expect great things from God, and attempt great things for him. Do it.
FOLLOWING THE EXAMPLE OF CHRIST
Charles Monroe Sheldon–do you know the name? He was born in 1857 and became a Congregational minister. At the age of 40 he wrote and published a book titled In His Steps. The book became a best seller and made Sheldon famous.
It sold 25 million copies. For a time it was outselling the Bible itself. It pictured what dramatic changes might take place if people began asking the question, "What would Jesus do?"
This morning I have the same theme. What do we do with the life of Christ besides admire and praise it. It's easy to admire and praise and think that's all it was for. Well, it isn't. Consider this:
Jesus was a friend of sinners. He helped the poor and oppressed. He played with little children. He preached the kingdom of God. He broke down barriers between ethnic and social groups. He went about doing good.
But so what? What do we do with that? If we admire and honor him for it, have we done all that should be done?
No. By no means no. For Jesus has this to say to those who admire him. "I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you." (John 13:14)
He didn't say, "I have given you an example, that you should study and discuss it, and then decide how wonderful it is, have a word of prayer, and go home to your Sunday dinners."
He didn't say that, but that's what often happens. We serve in word, not in deed. But notice again what Jesus said there: "I have given you an example, that you should DO . . .." He wants us doers of his example. That's what it means to be a Christian.
Charles Sheldon's book had that impact. Of course there were people who read it and did nothing about it. But there were others who read it and began making the question of the book the question of their lives–"What would Jesus do?" And measurable social reform took place in the country as a result.
Paul had an interesting way of putting it. He said for us to have the mind of Christ. Meaning if we think as Jesus thought, we'll do as Jesus did.
"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him . . .." (Philippians 2:5-9)
You see, if your goal is love, joy, or peace. If it's patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control. How do you achieve those things in your life? Do you buy and read books? Do you pray real hard? Do you set goals and keep records, or what?
What if you could actually have the mind of Christ in you? That would solve the problem, wouldn't it? Because then it would come from within. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." The dilemma of a lot of Christians is that they're worldly-minded and yet trying to behave as Christ-minded. And you have a built in conflict there. You have what James called "a double-minded man."
Christ is our great example. We're called to think like he thought, speak as he spoke, love like he loved, serve like he served. He's the pattern from which the cloth of our lives should be cut. We must dare as he dared, submit as he submitted, toil as he toiled, and–if need be–die as he died.
It sounds impossible, I know. Because he himself was what the world calls "an impossible idealist." But there's never been a more powerful motive than the example of his life.
Think–whose, of all the lives you know, is the closest to His life?
Think–what if he really became your great example, in an all-consuming way, what changes it would make?
Think–what if a group of his children, say three hundred or so, got filled with that spirit and enthused about living out its consequences, what would happen?
Why, they might go into all the world and preach the gospel to every nation. They might bear one another's burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ. They might love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. They might attract a lot of attention. Listen:
"Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus." (Acts 4:13)
"They had been with Jesus"! Something about a Christian ought to give that impression. That Jesus lives on in the lives of his followers. That he does his deeds through their deeds. That his attitudes are expressed in theirs. That they suffer his suffering for the sins of the world.
That's a radical thing, but that's exactly what the Bible teaches. Listen to First Peter:
"To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness." (1 Peter 2:21-24)
Notice there how following the steps of Christ isn't left as some vague kind of deal. It's easy to affirm the principle and then ignore the applications. You say you believe in soul-winning, but you don't win any souls. You believe in feeding the hungry, but you leave that up to others. You believe people should be committed, but you make yourself an exception.
What you have to do is this. Before you say something, you ask if this is something Jesus would say. Before you do something, you ask if this is something Jesus would do. Before you go somewhere, you ask if this is somewhere Jesus would be going.
And you examine your attitudes. Here's this homeless person on the street–do you have the same attitude Jesus would have about that person? Or you face some frustrating situation–are you able to be loving and patient as Jesus always was? Is your attitude toward prayer the same as his? Or about people of different races and cultures?
Christ-likeness is hard. He set a high standard. But it does you good. You find yourself way behind him, but you're also way ahead of where you used to be. That's the power of a worthy example.
To get better in sports, you always need competiton. If you play with weaker players, you get weaker yourself. If you play with stronger players, you always get stronger. You need to be challenged and tested and pushed to the limit. It isn't easy, but that's what you need.
A lot of people just settle for the average. A lot of Christians are perfectly content to do about what everyone else does. They compare their lives and efforts with the standards of Bill or Joe or Mary.
But that's not our standard. Jesus is our standard. We aren't supposed to ask what others would do, we ask what he would do. And that's hard because others aren't usually doing what he would do, and we find ourselves going against the flow of traffic. The way is broad that leads to destruction–the way of life is a narrow way.
How did Paul put it to the Christians at Ephesis?
"Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ." (Ephesians 4:13)
How did Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Mount?
"Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect."
Down at Furman they had a time we could swim in the college pool after the evening session. Swimming is my exercise. I usually swim a mile a day, which takes 30 minutes for me. I know people who can do it in 20 minutes. The world record is about 15.
But down there at Furman with all those overweight pastors in 20 year old bathing suits, my swimming looked pretty good. In fact, I was something of a hit. People stood around the pool to watch me swim. Men about to race to the other end to impress their wives thought better of it. I got all these questions and all this admiration–which was nice.
But I better not let that go to my head. Because I have to come back to the Martin Luther King Memorial Swim Center, which is my home turf. And there are men there, and women there, and boys and girls there, who make me look like a beginner.
And if you put them in the lane with a world champion, they'd look slow too. So it's a matter of comparison. Comparison.
It helps you, in life, to know what the standard is. So you can put your own effort in perspective. You benefit by observing someone who's the best there can possibly be.
And that's to say this. Jesus Christ lived life the best it could possibly be lived. He was perfection itself. In fact, you can find out what God is like by finding out what Jesus was like. You can find out how God wants you to live by finding out how Jesus lived.
If you want to see love, you look at him. You want to see commitment, look at him. See grace under extreme pressure, just follow him around. Hear wisdom, feel power, know compassion, observe the most remarkable insight–you see it in Jesus Christ. And with all of this, humility as well.
There's the ideal, the standard, the goal toward which we strive. Aim for that. There's nothing higher.
OUR GREAT HIGH PRIEST
Hebrews 2:14-18, 4:14-16
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. . . . Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 2:14-18, 4:14-16)
The man named Jesus of Nazareth, who lived two thousand years ago and was crucified in the days of Herod the King–that man, though in every way a man like us, was ever so much more than a man. In him the Eternal God became one of us. In him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell. And because of this we call him Son of God.
What happened in those days? He was born, grew, taught, traveled, blessed, healed, struggled, and was tempted. He got arrested, tried, condemned, and crucified. But he rose from the dead, appeared to friends, promised to come back, and ascended into heaven.
What now? Now is he dead or living, finished or waiting, involved with our lives or oblivious to them? Is he concerned with us, and are we concerned with him?
I say yes. I say he's more than a figure of history. Like Abe Lincoln or Will Rogers or Vince Lombardi. And he's more than all the history of his life and teachings–fine as that is.
I say he's our contemporary! I say he's God forever, living and involved with us in redemptive ways. I say he's our
Great High Priest.
It says that in our text for this morning. It says a lot of things about him. It says he became like us.
"Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature."
What a pity we make him so stuffy and unreal. As if God employed an actor to come and play the part. Someone who could fool us with his performance. Make us think he was one of us when he really wasn't.
No, it wasn't that way. Let him be what he was.
He had a body like yours and a heart that suffered. He loved to take children on his lap. He'd come to a wedding, drink their wine, and dance with the bride. He was outraged and angry at times. He stood at the tomb of a friend and wept. He confessed that his soul was downcast and weary. He lived with stubborn tenacity, but not without a mixture of feelings, and the urge to draw back.
In John's Gospel, chapter seven and verse eight, he was telling his men: "Go to the feast yourselves; I am not going up to this feast." And two verses later it says: "But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up."
He said "I'm not" and then changed his mind. And what does that show but that he was just like you and me? Pulled between his wishes and pushed between his fears. Struggling always to know the best way.
And he was tempted. "In every respect he was tempted as we are, yet without sinning." The Bible says that. He felt like quitting, or like cheating. He felt like hating, and sometimes like bragging. He felt like cursing and scorning and destroying. Jesus felt like lying, like taking a short cut if he could.
"I know you're hungry. Here, just turn these stones into bread. You can do it. Why starve yourself when there's an easy way out?"
"You see that crowd down there? Jump off! God won't let you die. He'll have his angels catch you and bear you up, and they'll all see it. Then you'll be famous. You'll have an instant following. Do it!"
"We belong together–you and I. Look out there! See those cities, all those farms. All that can be yours if you worship me."
Well, the Christ who faced that kind of thing himself can sympathize with us when we face ours. His temptations are in our past, but his sympathy and support can be in our present.
The text invites us to a throne of grace. So named because a throne is a forbidding thing to approach. A normal throne is where a snap of the fingers can get you dragged away to torture. But here we have a throne whose name is mercy and help. And it's that kind of throne because Jesus is there.
At the name of Jesus every knee whall bow,
Every tongue confess Him King of Glory now;
'Tis the Father's pleasure we should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning was the mighty Word.
At His voice creation sprang at once to sight,
All the angel faces, all the hosts of light,
Thrones and dominations, stars upon their way,
All the heav'nly orders in their great array.
Humbled for a season, to receive a name
From the lips of sinners, unto whom He came,
Faithfully He bore it spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious, when from death He passed.
In your hearts enthrone Him; there let him subdue
All that is not holy, all that is not true:
Crown Him as your Captain in temptation's hour;
Let His will enfold you in its light and power.
Brothers, this Lord Jesus shall return again,
With His Father's glory O'er the earth to reign;
For all wreaths of empire meet upon His brow,
And our hearts confess Him King of Glory now.
ON HEALTH OF SOUL
The elder to the beloved Ga'ius, whom I love in the truth. Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in health; I know that it is well with your soul. For I greatly rejoiced when some of the brethren arrived and testified to the truth of your life, as indeed you do follow the truth. No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth. Beloved, it is a loyal thing you do when you render any service to the brethren, especially to strangers, who have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey as befits God's service. For they have set out for his sake and have accepted nothing from the heathen. So we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow workers in the truth. (3 John 1:1-8)
Researching sermons can take you lots of places. This week it took me to a well-known local bookstore. There I found the following titles–all in paperback.
The Fit or Fat Target Diet
How to Prevent Your Next Heart Attack
The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure Cookbook
Thin Thighs in 30 Days
(Most people don't know that it only takes half as long to get thin thighs as it does to cure cholesterol)
A Guide to Ending Compulsive Eating
(This next one was a favorite of mine)
Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired
How to Lower Your Blood Pressure and Live Longer
And slightly off the subject, but still in the same section:
How to Keep Your Man Monogamous
The subject is health. People are interested in the subject, but more than that they're concerned. Concerned about their own well-being. Afraid there may be something they're doing they ought to quit. Afraid there may be something they aren't doing they ought to start. People are always starting things or quitting things for the sake of their health.
We not only have health books, we have health foods, health equipment, health plans, health spas, health stores, health experts and advice–Americans are big into health.
But what sort? For the most part, it has to do with calories and cholesterol, exercise and fitness, disease prevention, regular check-ups, relaxation, looking and
feeling young, longevity.
Well, the Bible does call our bodies the "temple of the Holy Spirit," so the repair and appearance of that "temple" is a holy task. But it isn't the only task of life, and the text I read this morning would remind us that there's another side to health. Listen:
"I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in health; I know that it is well with your soul." That's the Revised Standard Version. The Good News Bible has it this way: "My dear friend, I pray that everthing may go well with you and that you may be in good health–as I know you are well in spirit." In the King James Version: "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as they soul prospereth."
The person being written about was frail of body but strong of soul. Poor physical health but vigorous spiritual health. Someone whose bodily health was a burden to life, but whose spiritual vitality was an inspiration to others. People who live in pain all their days but whose spirits soar. Haven't some of the greatest testimonies for God been given from sickbeds and wheelchairs?
Greedy as we are, we want it all, of course. We want healthy bodies and healthy souls. But what if we can't have both? Where does our priority lie? Is there a rush to learn the Bible as there is to read the latest book on staying young? Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness like we hunger and thirst for other things? How sick or well would our bodies be if they took on the health of our souls?
There'd be a lot of sick folk around, wouldn't there? Why, hospitals would be full, and graveyards too! People are spiritually sick and don't know it, or don't care. Sick on greed, sick on ambition, sick on indifference to the needs of others, sick on worries over nothing. Spiritually sick.
We lack perspective. We're sometimes like the man I shared a hospital room with. Waking up from the anesthetic and moaning about the pain in his right leg. Only he didn't have a right leg anymore. His was gone. But he still had in his mind that he did. We're not so good at diagnosing our own problems, you see.
What about "soul health?" What does it take to get soul-healthy and stay that way? Isn't the scripture implying some parallels between spiritual health and physical health? I think so, and I'd like to explore that.
In the first place, there's our diet. What we feed our souls is important like what we feed our bodies. There's a saying that you become what you eat. You also become what you read and ponder and pray about. There's spiritual malnutrition, just as there is the other.
And a lot of Christians don't have much appetite, as they need to have. That you can tell.
For example, I was in the store one day and heard a lady explaining why she'd quit her church. She said she hadn't been there in six months and no one had contacted her. She seemed to imply that she'd love to be going to church, but needed to be "contacted" first. Why contacted?
Well, let me ask you something. There's a new Redskin season coming up, right? How many Redskin ticket holders will quit their seats this year because no other fans have "contacted" them about the new season? Because no letter of appreciation has come from Coach Joe Gibbs in praise of their loyalty and in hope of seeing them in their seats on Sundays again this year! They'd love to attend those games at RFK, but the other fans have to make them feel wanted!
Well, that's ridiculous, you say, and it is. But it's also ridiculous for people with no spiritual appetite to blame it on someone else. People who love the Lord will love and serve him in spite of what the other ticket holders may do or say. Right? Right!
There's a verse that says, "O taste and see that the Lord is good!" When you do that–when you taste that and see that–you don't forget it easily. You develop a taste, and then a hunger and thirst. You say "Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly. While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is nigh. Hide me, O my Savior, hide. Till the storm of life is past. Safe into the harbor guide. O receive my soul at last."
That's food. Food for your soul. Food to keep you nourished and strong and feeling spiritually healthy. You need it daily.
You also need exercise. Talking and listening and contemplating–those are good. But the health of our souls requires us to be doers of the word and not hearers only. And how tempting it is to be a hearer only. Let someone else do the work, I'll just sit and listen.
The service of God and neighbor is the exercise of the soul, and you need that to stay healthy. Time spent, hands held, food given, prayers prayed, money used, lessons taught, tears wept, anger soothed, shelter made, wounds washed, smiles smiled, debts paid, miles walked–even second miles.
No soul that ignores those things can be strong in the Lord. It grows weak and useless. To work right and prosper we need straining and stretching, forcing ourselves to the limit, hardening by adversity, toil that indicates a submission of the heart. There may be spiritual laziness, but it isn't spiritual.
Remember how Paul said if a person won't work, neither let him eat? Indicating what we already know–that people are a lot more fond of eating than they are of working. But Paul said you better do both, and if you won't work you don't deserve to eat. So what there was a rule like this: if you won't do the work of the Lord, neither shall you eat at his table?
Having worked, of course, a soul does need some rest. Even Jesus needed rest, and took time off to get it. In his great invitation, he didn't say "come unto me and I will give you work" (although he does, of course). Instead, he promised rest. His yoke was easy and his burden light and we shall find rest for our souls, he said.
Work and rest are not contradictory. Each has its time and place. Christians who work all the time need to learn about rest. And those who rest all the time need to learn about work. The example of Jesus is the best you can find.
This subject began with a man named Gaius whose soul was healthy, although his body wasn't. There are several persons by that name in scripture, but this man we know nothing of, except the brief description. A soul-healthy man–what do you suppose that meant?
That he was no complainer, no cynic, no pessimist. That he could accept a compliment, and give one. That he smiled a lot and loved life. That he was eager to help other people, and never the kind to lay on guilt. That he could face the truth, even if it hurt. That he could tell you what he thought, and you could do the same with him. That you felt comfortable in his presence. A man with God's love in his heart.
There are souls around who work every day in the Father's field, but are joyless, grudging, older brothers all their days. And will never dance. And will always be protesting this or that. The heaviness of everyone around them.
Ah, for more like Gaius. Soul-healthful Gaius. Who welcomed strangers and made them feel at home. Whose life on earth may well have been shorter than most.
But it mattered more. As all lives can.
HIDDEN IN A SHELTER
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me, uttering slanders against me, my adversaries and foes, they shall stumble and fall. Though a host encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent, he will set me high upon a rock. And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies round about me; and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord. Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! Thou hast said, "Seek ye my face." My heart says to thee, "Thy face, Lord, do I seek." Hide not thy face from me. Turn not thy servant away in anger, thou who hast been my help. Cast me not off, forsake me not, O God of my salvation! For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me up. Teach me thy way, O Lord; and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence. I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord! (Psalms 27:1-14)
I really enjoyed our recent tour of the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge. We had a guide named Jennie who grew up there and seemed to know everything about anything regarding the refuge. We saw wild ponies, we saw Sika Deer, we saw Canadian Geese and Snow Geese. We saw Great Blue Herrons and Great Egrets. We saw Delmarva Fox Squirrels at close range. And we saw ducks of all kinds.
Jennie can show you many different varieties of ducks at Chincoteague. But I also learned that all ducks fall into one of two categories. There are ducks that swim and feed on the surface, and there are ducks that dive down under the water to feed. If that ceiling up there was the surface of the water, there are ducks that can dive all the way down to where your feet are. Which is pretty amazing.
Now you can have a good life as a surface duck. You'll spend most of your time around the shallow water where you can stick your head down and pull up stuff off the bottom. But if you're a surface duck, you'll always be limited to what's on or near the surface.
As it is with ducks, so it is with Christians. There are surface Christians who spend their whole lives in the shallows of faith. Unconcerned that they may be missing out on something. Content with the food they find there, and happy enough just paddling around and quacking now and then. Surface ducks are often good at quacking!
There are others, though, who will leave the surface and dive down deeper. Who seek earnestly to know more of God and his will for their lives. Who seek a greater knowledge of his word, and a greater depth to their spiritual lives. Who wrestle with the dilemma that sometimes they know the joy of God's presence, and other times they feel the pain of his absence. Like the author of Psalm 27.
Sometimes in the greatest of confidence he says, "The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" And sometimes with great concern he prays, "Turn not thy servant away in anger, thou who hast been my help. Cast me not off, forsake me not, O God of my salvation."
Georgia poet James Dickey was a pilot in World War II. A lot of his poems reflect that experience, including one where he and some buddies crash landed in a swamp. They survived the crash of the plane, but the swamp almost got them.
The plane began sinking. Settling down in that mire and ooze. The plane became filled and they had to get out on the wings. They stretched out flat to distribute their weight. And "when one of us got to one knee to spear a frog to catch a snake to eat, we lost another inch. Oh that water."
But then they were rescued. They were taken to a solid place where you could stand or sit or walk around. And the poem tells about their "unsinkable feast" where they ate real food that wasn't frogs and lizzards. And how good that was. And what the poem is really about is the contrast between those times when the ground beneath us feels solid and steady, and those times when it doesn't.
You have before you here a man who's had his times in the swamp. Who's had to flee to the wings and lie down on his belly. Who's sometimes been pressed to fill it with any snake or lizzard that came along. But the Lord has never failed him in the end. He may not have been saved from trouble, but has always been saved through it. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow him all the days of his life, and he shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.
That's a personal testimony. Psalm 27 is a personal testimony.
You notice, as you read it, how the focus is on God. It reflects the stuggle of an individual, but the focus is still on God. It isn't "look what I did," but "look how he helped me."
Evildoers had assailed him, but there's no list of names or even what they said. A host encamped against him, but there's nothing about when or where. The details were beside the point, because this is no litany of gripes, this is a hymn of praise to God. It comes from one who'd been delivered from anxious thoughts of himself and was able to tell about the goodness of God.
"He will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble."
What kind of person needs hiding in a shelter? If you don't feel the need, it sounds like a pretty boring thing to do. You wouldn't want to hide in a shelter if you didn't really need to.
What would you find to do in a shelter? And how do you know how long to stay there? And when you first get out, how far away from the shelter do you go?
Well notice that the shelter is a way of talking about the care and protection of God. And anyone who thinks he doesn't need that is fooling himself. The time we think we need it least is the time we need it most. Everyone needs a "sheltered life."
I was taught to fly a plane by an old pilot named Guy Jones. He was one of the most unforgetable characters I've ever met. He ran a country airport that was never locked and often unattended. If you needed gas you just helped yourself and left a note or the money. Guy loved the Aronica Champ, and that's what he gave me my lessons in.
It was made in the '40's, two seats, fabric covered, 65 horsepower, no lights or radio, and you had to spin the prop to get it started. Mr. Jones always sat in the back. His teaching philosophy was to get you at the controls and have you learn on the job. No books or lectures or ground school–just take off and fly.
When you didn't do things right he hollered at you and sometimes cussed. When you did good he got all excited and pounded you on the back. Mr. Jones loved his work. He was such a master of the airplane that he could get you out of any trouble. But you didn't know that, of course. So it was exhausting to learn, but you learned fast.
After five and a half hours with Mr. Jones in the back seat, he said I didn't need him anymore. He stood on the ground and watched my first solo flight. Then he told me I should practice, practice, practice. And I did.
I learned every tree, every pond, every farmhouse, every road and power line in the vicinity of that airport. I learned about the wind and the habits of other pilots. I became comfortable with that place. It was home–it was shelter.
But, of course, you don't learn to fly a plane just to hang around one airport. So I began to think of flying away. Away out of sight of this home, this shelter, and landing in a place I'd never been before. Like Athens, Tennessee. It was only a few ridges away, but it seemed so far. To be up in the sky alone with no airport is sight was such a scarry thing. And coming back, the sight of my home airport was so good. It was shelter.
The Lord is a shelter you can always come back to. The Lord is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of need. The Lord is the stronghold of our lives–of whom shall we be afraid?
The Psalm closes with these words: "Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord!" In his commentary on that verse, Charles Spurgeon said:
Wait at his door with prayer; wait at his foot with humility; wait at his table with service; wait at his window with expectancy.
In his novel, "The Blood of the Lamb," Peter De Vries has the story of a man whose daughter was dying of leukemia. He comes to the hospital one day and finds her all excited about a Laurel and Hardy movie on T.V. She said the best part was when a little man threw a pie in face of a big man. She was scared for the little man, but the big man just wiped it off and did nothing.
A few days later was her birthday. He orders a cake and is taking it to the hospital. He stops at a church to pray for his daughter. But a nurse hurries in and taps him on the shoulder. She says come to the hospital right away.
And when he gets there, his girl is dead.
Walking home later, he passes that church where he often stopped to pray. He remembers the cake he left inside. He goes and finds it on the pew, opens the box, and there it is–all pretty and colorful with his daughter's name on it. And it seems to symbolize all the sufferings of an innocent child.
The man stumbles out of the sanctuary and passes a statue of Christ hanging on the cross. In a rage, he throws that cake in the face of Jesus. Then he realizes in horrow what he's done, and begins to be afraid. As if a little man struck a blow at a big man. The movie his daughter saw comes to mind. He stands there and imagines the hands of Jesus loosened from those nails. He imagines them wiping the cake from his face.
He's still afraid. Even more afraid of what may happen now. And then he imagines–as he sees the face again–that on it there are tears of sorrow. Sorrow not for the mess of the cake, but for his daughter dead.
Jesus is not against him. Jesus is on his side. Jesus is touched with the things that are tearing at his soul. He isn't alone. And the fear he'd felt turns to comfort. He now has a friend who'll stick closer than a brother.
Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed. For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid. I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand. Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
A HOMETOWN BOY
And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?" And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house." And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. (Matthew 13:53-58)
As we prepare for communion this morning, it's about the same as it always is. Same time, same place, same preacher. The same table there, and the same utensils on it. The same words about to be said. My little green book here, just like it always is. The usual order of things, refined over the years. Nothing out of the ordinary is about to happen–right?
So what makes this more than just a meaningless ritual? What insures that it will do more than just skim the surface of our consciousness? Like a fleeting thought that makes so little impression it's gone the next minute and we never have it again.
Jesus was in Nazareth, his hometown. The people there had seen him grow up. They knew him well. We know nothing about those years, but they did. To us the're years of silence, but to them they were years of familiarity.
Jesus went away to begin his ministry. Most young preachers do. And in those places away from home, he began attracting attention. You can sometimes have a preacher who's taken for granted in one place, and somewhere else they think he's a gift from heaven.
So it was with Jesus. They began to say he must be a prophet. Some speculated even more. Crowds began to follow wherever he went, gathering to hear him whenever he spoke.
Capernaum, Bethsaida, Syria, Galilee, Judea. He traveled, preaching and teaching, healing people, gathering momentum. It got so the news he was coming would go ahead of him–like advance publicity–and there'd be a crowd already when he got there.
So what will happen when they learn in Nazareth that he's coming back there? Back where he was raised. Back where people know him best?
Ah! it was different. They said "so what?" They called it no big deal. There in a land of no surprises. The response was "ho hum."
There was a painter who wanted to paint a picture of the sea. And not just the sea, but the wonder of the sea in the face of a boy. A boy beside the sea and full of wonder at it.
Where does a painter go to find such a boy? There along the seacoast? One who walks along it every day and plays in it anytime he wants to? No. You find a boy for whom the sea is no familiar sight.
The painter went to a slum in London and found his boy there. A boy who'd never been out of the city, never seen the ocean before. And he took that boy, and showed him, and painted, and it worked.
Familiarity breeds contempt, and also some other things. It makes more difficult the task of keeping alive a sense of wonder. There can be faith in Nazareth, just as there can be unbelieving anywhere else. But there's this tendency, you see, to discount the familiar.
A new face, a new voice, a new approach. What is it with the word "new"? Where would the advertisers be without it?
It's the same toothpaste as always, but color it different, put it in a new tube, give it a fancy name, and get a pretty girl with nice teeth to tell us it's their "new improved formula." Would she lie to us? People buy that.
There are places like Nazareth where there's nothing to be said about Jesus that hasn't been said before, over and over. The people there must watch out, or they get hardened to any gospel. Their eyes are closed and their ears shut. The offense of the familiar.
We have tomatoes in the refrigerator at home. Our neighbors give us tomatoes. Some of you give us tomatoes. This time of year, everyone has tomatoes they want to give away. And you've had so many already, you may not exactly be thrilled to see a new bag of tomatoes show up at the door.
Ah, but think of December and January. February, March, and April. When the only tomatoes you can get are shipped in from Texas where they grow them on chemicals. They color them red and try to fool you with them, but you know in your heart those aren't real tomatoes! What you'd give then for what you have in your refrigerator right now and don't care that much about!
People take God for granted just like they take tomatoes for granted. Just like in Nazareth they took Jesus for granted. Just like you could, this morning, take the Lord's Supper for granted.
A familiar time has come again. The organ will play, the deacons will come up and serve, and plates will be passed. What will it mean to you?
The Living Christ is here in our midst today. He's here, but may not be recognized.
His glory is here, but it could be missed. It's in the bread, which is his body, in the wine, which is his blood. Forgiveness is offered. Grace is offered. But you could fail to hear and heed the offer.
Surely we must pray . . ..
REKINDLING THE GIFT OF GOD
2 Timothy 1:1-12
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life which is in Christ Jesus, To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. I thank God whom I serve with a clear conscience, as did my fathers, when I remember you constantly in my prayers. As I remember your tears, I long night and day to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lo'is and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you. Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control. Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. (2 Timothy 1:1-12)
Somewhere in the back of a closet at home there's a cardboard box with my Boy Scout stuff in it. Books, maps, certificates, a compass, some Indian beadwork, a lot of carved things and other craft work. And somewhere in all that stuff, there's a single wooden match. I would never throw away that match.
When I was a teen-age boy at Camp Pellissippi on Norris Lake, I was given that match. On a soggy wet morning in the woods. I had a pocket knife and an axe. And there I was given two dry matches, wrapped in waxed paper, and told to start a fire. I started the fire with one match and kept the other one ever since. Building a fire is something I can do, even in wet woods.
Sometimes when you've built a fire, you want to save it. We used to call that "banking" the fire. The last thing before
bed, when the fire had burned down low, you'd bank it. Give it slow-burning wood and cover it over with dirt and ashes. Enough to slow it down, but not enough to smother it–that was the trick.
Next morning–if you did it right–there'd be enough fire left to start a new one with. Just dig inside, give it some air, some kindling, and pooff! Off it would go. You'd be warming your hands and frying bacon in no time at all.
There are two things to have a fire. You kindle one, or you re-kindle one.
Paul, in our text today, speaks of "re-kindling the gift of God" that is in us. Which means to agitate it, stir it up, fan it into flame. He tells young Timothy how he'd seen that flame of faith in his grandmother, and in his mother. And how he knows it burns in him as well.
But it may need re-kindling, he says. It may have burned down some. It's a tired fire, or a damp one, or smothered. It needs more wood, or maybe just a poke or two in the right place. "Hence I remind you to re-kindle the gift of God that is within you."
Does that describe the need of modern Christians? Who have a faith in Jesus that isn't as bright and blazing as it could be? The fire is there, but it's burned so low that it hardly gives off heat at all. Neither cold nor hot, only lukewarm. In need of a revival.
In his 1963 book titled Strength to Love, Martin Luther King wrote this: "If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justioce and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace."
Well, churches have made progress in the areas King was most concerned with. But the principle is still the same. We let down. We get behind. We go to sleep and become tame. We think the Lord ought to be satisfied with what we used to be instead of what we now are. Time is passing, but nothing's happening. We're alive in terms of biology, but dead in terms of spirit.
A psychologist named Maslow writes about his heart attack. He says it woke him up to things he'd grown dead to. And so he spoke of his life afterward as his "post-mortem" life. As if the present was a "life after death." Listen to what he said:
"One very important aspect of the post-mortem life is that everything gets doubly precious, gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things–just the act of living, of walking, of breathing and eating and having friends chatting . . .. I am living an end-life where everything ought to be an end in itself, where I shouldn't waste any time preparing for the future."
I have a good friend who was much the same. He was healthy and strong, he thought. But one afternoon he had pain in his chest. It led to by-pass surgery and changes in his life that any close friend could easily observe. He's nowhere as near full of foolishness as he used to be. He makes decisions quickly. He seems done with trivial things and determined to make every day count.
So what if we could all get to living like that without having to stare through death's door? Wouldn't that be better? What if the low-burning fire of our zeal could be fanned by the spirit of God and burst into holy flame?
Notice in Paul's words to Timothy his emphasis on vigor. "God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and of love." In other words, why hold back? Why know what you want to say and hesitate to say it? Why know what you ought to do and hesitate to do it?
God didn't give us a spirit of timidity. If we have one, we got it somewhere else.
Timid. Isn't that an appropriate description of some faith? Timid in prayer, timid in giving, timid in witnessing, timid in believing what's possible and what isn't? Timid in the face of evil, timid even in the weather we're willing to come to church in?
If you'd known this morning that the air conditioning was broken and the church would be hot and unpleasant, would you have come anyway? What's your "discomfort level" when it comes to living out your faith in Jesus? Must you be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease while others fought to win the prize or sailed through bloody seas? Timidity.
Who needs a thing that's supposed to work but doesn't? A car that won't run, a radio that won't play, a mower that won't start, or a peeler that won't peel.
We Christians are supposed to work. We're supposed to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. We're supposed to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the prisoners. We're supposed to preach the gospel to all the nations.
But do we act like that seven days a week? Does our fire burn low and need to be re-kindled? So we say to ourselves, "I'll not be satisfied just to call myself a Christian, I've got to act like one. I've got to pray like one, and love others as Jesus did, and be bold in my faith like I should. Somebody's got to know that I mean business! That I'm not just playing church!"
We get in a "gimmie–thank you" syndrome with God. We say "gimmie" and then "thank you." "Gimmie" "thank you," "gimmie" "thank you," "gimmie" "thank you"–over and over again. "Gimmie some more, Lord, and I'll thank you again!" As if that's what it's about!
Friday evening I asked the group that read through the New Testament what stood out in their minds. And one of the first comments was about the trials and tribulations of those early Christians. How much they went through. How hard and sometimes torturous was the road they travelled.
In fact, you might say of them that never was so much done with so little. And in fact, you might say of us that never was so little done with so much!
Robert Kennedy once said in a speech to students: "The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and fellowmen alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason, and courage in a personal commitment."
Your name is Timothy. You have gifts within you and years ahead. But the fire of faith has burned low in your heart. You aren't sure why, but it happened.
You hold in your hand a letter. A letter from a friend who knows you. Who knows you have those gifts, but who also knows how you lack the fire to use them. His letter is about that.
He tells you to "re-kindle" your gift. And you could say you don't know what that means, but actually you do. You know quite well. But how to go about it?
You just go back to a spot where it all began and begin again there. You say a yes where you've been saying a no. Or a no where you've been saying a yes.
It may not take so much. Just uncover what there used to be. Give it air and new wood. Stand back, and watch it burn.
LIBERTY IN THE SPIRIT
Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, `You will be made free'?" Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:31-36)
I used to have this tree. When I was a boy, my family lived in the middle of some woods. Acres and acres of woods. And I roamed those woods, and hunted, and waded the creek, and caught things to bring home in jars, and generally enjoyed life, as a young boy should.
My tree was a tulip poplar, and it was tall. No one climbed it but me. You had to pull yourself up a vine–hand-over-hand for a long way–to get to the lower limbs. Then up and up, way up to the spot where I always sat. Looking out over the tops of other trees, way off in the distance.
I used to sit there for hours, all alone with my thoughts. It was a place for figuring things out. For getting away, like being in another world. My Mount of Transfiguration, where anything was possible. Where you always got ready to leave with some misgivings and a wishing to remain. A place of freedom, in other words.
I remember a song from those days. It was hard to sing and had no meaning for me then. But the message is along those same lines. "Let me ride to the ridge where the West commences, gaze at the moon until I lose my senses. Can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences. Don't fence me in."
That used to be the American spirit. One state even has the motto, "Live free or die." Where you could disagree strongly with someone's notion, but you also defended his right to express it. And that right of expression was more important than the difference of opinion.
Freedom. Freedom. How sweet it is.
I had an experience of it once while hiking in the Smokies. A group of us were hiking over a hundred miles, and we were about halfway.
Hiking with a group like that, there were two places I preferred. One was up ahead of everyone, and the other was back behind everyone. I never liked the middle of the pack.
And the day I recall, I can't remember if I was out in front or bringing up the rear, but I know I was hiking alone. And some long, hard hours had been spent climbing to the top of Mt. Cameron. It was one of those rare days when everything seemed just right. The air clear and cool, and the views breathtaking. There was an exhileration of reaching the top of this mountain.
I took of my pack and lay down on the grass. I lay on my back in the sun and looked up at the trees overhead. Moved gently by the breeze. The sky was so blue, and I felt so good. Such a feeling of freedom and well-being. The feeling was so strong I still feel some of it every time I think back on that.
So . . . have you been to the mountain, or not? Oh, I don't mean my mountain, or any mountain, for that matter. I mean when and where have you known that freedom?
I have sat in my car at the intersection of Colesville Road and University Boulevard. I've sat there at five-thirty and watched the faces going past. Such utterly blank expressions. Or maybe anxious, or irritated. You just watch sometime. I saw no freedom at all. Just slavery.
They might protest that, of course. Like those Jews in John 8, they might disavow their bondage. If you haven't had a taste of freedom, your appetite for it can't be all that keen. You think you're free, and yet . . .
You worry about all sorts of things, and if it's not one of those, you worry that there's something else you should be worried about.
You guard everything you say for how it's going to sound, and so you never do say what you really feel like saying.
You feel like people are watching you, and they never do like what they see.
And the Lord is watching too, of course, and keeping records. And he's never satisfied–never.
If only you could change those mistakes you made. If only you were free of the worry they still cause you.
If only you weren't getting old so fast, and had more time left to do what you were meant to do . . ..
Do you see how unfree we are? That's what Jesus knew is going on with people. That's what prompted him to say, "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." That's how we need his help.
Sometimes you need a change of circumstances.
As South Vietnam fell to the Communists, some people decided the circumstances would be intolerable. They'd heard of freedom in America, and there were ways to escape if you were brave and had the money to pay.
$3,600 in gold was the price of a boat to Thailand for one family. They paid a man the money, but no boat came. They'd been cheated, but they tried again. Again the same thing happened. And again. On the fourth attempt, a boat did come. It was a small boat to take them out to the big boat offshore.
So out they rowed. Only there was no other boat. But rather than go back, they sailed that tiny boat all the way around the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia to get to Thailand. From there they came to the U.S. and were helped by our church. Today they are doing well.
But, of course, living in a land of freedom doesn't mean you'll live freely. You need to get the best circumstances you can, but you must also do the best you can within your circumstances. You sometimes have to find your freedom in an unfree place.
Even in America, freedom is always a struggle. We have folk who want to censor your ideas and burn your books, even here. Some favor state-sponsored prayers imposed on children in the public schools. Many deny a woman's right to choose an abortion, or even women's rights in general. Some Baptists want a creed and a pope. I believe someone said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance?
So to live free, you need to do two things. You need to work to create the best possible climate for freedom. And then you need to make the most of what climate there is. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in an oppressive state and was jailed at the end of his life. But just read the things he wrote from there. His spirit was free through the saving power of Jesus Christ.
Read the Beatitudes with that in mind. That the faith within us can overcome the circumstances about us. People in mourning, overcoming it. The meek, ending up conquerers. People who were reviled and persecuted by others, tranquil and confident because of the peace they have within them.
Religion by itself won't do that for you. In fact, religion can actually be confining and enslaving. Jesus said so. He said the Pharisees "bind heavy burdens on people's backs." And to those who were struggling with those burdens he made his appeal: "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
We can use that rest. Rest from our guiltiness. Rest from the way ambition drives you. Rest from anxiousness about what we shall eat, what we shall drink, what we shall put on. Rest from harsh judgments. Rest from the fear of death and dying. Rest.
If the son, God's Son, shall make you free, you'll begin here and now to be free of all those things.
Begin, I say.
Until we meet him face to face. Until he is all in all for us. Until dust returns to dust and the free spirit to God who gave it.
Free at last. Free at last! Praise God Almighty–free at last!
WHEN LIFE GETS TOUGH ON YOU
2 Cor 6:1-10, 11:24-28
The person who invented the steamboat was a man named . . . Robert Fulton. Although actually he didn't invent the first one–just the first one that worked. One was built in France about four years before his, but it sank the first time out. They said the engine was too heavy.
The name of Fulton's steamboat was . . . the Clermont. Although actually that wasn't what he originally named it. He first called it "The North River Steamboat" but changed his mind later.
The Clermont made its first run on August 7th, 1807 on the Hudson River. A lot of people were gathered there to watch and see what happened. Many were skeptical, as people normally are when something new is being tried. The engine was started, and there was a lot smoke and noise and vibration. And some people were all tense and hoping it could get going. And others were perfectly relaxed and sure it wasn't going to do that.
Someone shouted, "It'll never start." And a lot of heads nodded, and others began saying the same thing. And the children took it up and soon a lot of people were hollering "it'll never start"–like a cheer at a ball game.
But then it did start. It started slowly and built up speed. A huge wash of water began churning behind it as it headed across the river. And the loud people began to get quiet, and the quiet people began to get loud because their boat was really moving now. And someone said, "It'll never stop!"
And the people looked out at the boat, and back at one another, and began to nod their heads. They began saying the same thing. And the children took it up and soon a lot of people were hollering "it'll never stop" just like they'd hollered "it'll never start." I think that's a true story.
We are like those people. We tend to worry about things either way they go. If things are going well, we worry that they may be about to turn bad. If things are going bad, we worry it'll never change. And sometimes we even worry about our worrying. Or if we're not worried, we worry that maybe we ought to be.
Listen to what one person said:
"Be not far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is none to help.
Many bulls encompass me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion."
Pretty worried, right? And it goes on–listen:
"I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax,
it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
Thou dost lay me in the dust of death."
Now that's from the Bible, in case you were wondering. That's how a writer of holy scripture felt one day. He wasn't on top of his troubles, they were on top of him! He could have used one of those buttons that says "Don't let the turkeys get you down." Because they really had him down, right?
A penny at a distance is a small thing. Look down there at that big parking lot, and what's one penny? But pick it up and put it close to your eye and what happens? Why, it can block out the sun and moon and all the stars. Just that penny.
And the problems we face–whatever they are–may be small like a penny in perspective. Only a speck on the parking lot of life. But worry brings them close. Stress puts them right in front of our face. And proportions are lost, and sizes get distorted. Thinking suffers, and mistakes are made.
Jesus called this sin. He called worry a sin. Don't be anxious, he said. Look at the birds and the lillies and the grass of the field. O people of little faith, won't God take care of you like he takes care of them? Don't be anxious about tomorrow, let tomorrow be anxious for itself. Let each day's trouble be enough for that day. Don't borrow any more to add to it!
That must have been hard wisdom for a man like Paul. A man who lived with a lot of stress. Beatings, shipwreck, robbery, controversy, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst. And notice how he adds, "and apart from other things . . . the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches."
Huh! Me, I know about that daily pressure too. I know about church anxiety. I know about worrying about things all day and then at night too. I've been up and I've been down, and I know about feeling like you've been down a lot more than you've been up! So I know how Paul felt.
But I also remember how he wrote to the Philippians and told them to "have no anxiety about anything." When he himself had his. We preachers know about preaching what we wish we could practice better!
There's a devotional classic called The Practice of the Presence of God, written by a cook in a monastary kitchen. His name was Brother Lawrence and he wrote: "The time of business does not differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament."
He was said to be a man of great tranquility, and the secret was his practice of the presence of God. God who loves us with an everlasting love, who knows and understands us, who promises that we'll not be tested above what we're able to bear.
Now, of course, there is God and there are gods. Just any god won't do. In fact, many gods only add to your anxiety. They frown at you and growl at you and make it perfectly clear that they mean to catch you on any technicality and send you straight to hell. They'll test you far above what you're able to bear and give you no relief at all. The God you want is the one who gives peace that passes all understanding.
With him you can say, "In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for Thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety."
That peace isn't automatic, though. And even the God of Peace still needs our cooperation if life is going to be filled with it. So in closing I do have a few suggestions.
One, BE ACTIVE. The Bible tells us "the sleep of a laboring man is sweet." A laboring man. There's a relationship between the physical health of our bodies and the spiritual health of our souls. I'm sure one of the secrets of my father's 93 years was that he did some hard work or exercise every day of his life he was able–which was most of them. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and a temple of God ought not to be neglected.
Two, BE FORGIVING TOWARD YOURSELF. "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things"–words of Jesus to a frustrated, perfectionist friend. "You can go to sleep now, I'll watch things the rest of the night"–words the Lord might say to us as we toss and turn. So ease up and let the world turn without you once or twice. It will, you know.
Three, BE LOVED AND LOVING. The Bible says "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." So the opposite of love isn't hate, as we suppose, it's fear. And love can help us with our daily anxieties. The level of anxiety and frustration increases as love decreases. Those who love and are loved live healthier and happier.
Four, TAKE A BREAK. Jesus did. Again and again, in times of unusual stress, he withdrew from the crowds and even his disciples. He quit worrying about the lepers or the temple or the troubles of the world. He went out alone to get back in touch, to rest, to be re-charged. If Jesus needed that, don't you?
Five, BE MODEST IN YOUR EXPECTATIONS. Listen to something from The Imitation of Christ: "Be desirous to do the will of another rather than thine own. Choose always to have less rather than more. Seek always the lowest place, and to be inferior to everyone. Wish always, and pray, that the will of God may be wholly fulfilled in Thee."
Sounds funny doesn't it? "Choose always to have less rather than more"? But you know, a lot of the stress people have in our modern world is induced by ambition. We think we're better than others if we have more money than they do. We think that's what it's all about. So people try to gain the whole world and lose their souls in the process.
Six (and this is the last one), REMEMBER THAT LIFE IS SHORT AND ETERNITY IS VERY LONG. Most of the things we worry about won't matter much a thousand years from now. But some of the things we don't worry about will. So we need to see things in that perspective to decide what matters.
A man came home to find his house gone up in flames. Everything. And he was standing helpless in the yard as they hosed it down for the last time. Standing there and trying to get a hold on himself, and his new situation.
He did that. Because he said to a neighbor: "Well, at least it makes dying easier. There'll be less to part with."
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust." For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation. (Psalms 91:1-16)
Of all the preachers I've ever heard preach, the one I'd most like to hear every Sunday was Carlyle Marney. It was always a profound and moving experience. I felt like I'd been in the presence of greatness, and of grace, and of God. The man had a mind, and a heart, and a voice to match.
I've heard some well-known and successful preachers in my time. And I've wondered about the success of some, for it seemed to me they had so little to say. I couldn't imagine why such a crowd would come to hear that. But not Marney.
Except I didn't always think that. When I was a college sophomore, Marney came to our campus to preach for a week, and I hardly went. I'd heard you couldn't understand him, and if you did he'd get you confused. So I stayed away, along with other intelligent students.
Marney had just published his book titled "These Things Remain." At the end of the week all of us preacher boys were given a free copy. I glanced at mine and put it away.
Years later, I found that book one evening and began reading it. I couldn't put it down. I stayed up all night and read it from cover to cover. All that time I'd had it in my possession, and only now was I ready to appreciate it. Something I took for granted became a pearl of great price.
I had the same experience with Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. I read it as an assignment in college or seminary and found it long and boring. But years later I took it up again and was greatly moved. I began to understand how the King James Bible and Pilgrim's Progress were sometimes bound together in 17th century England. Why preachers preached from it like it was holy scripture.
Well, this sermon was inspired by a passage in Pilgrim's Progress. By the lesson Christian learned as he journeyed toward Place Beautiful. "He made haste," it says, "and went forward, that, if possible, he might get lodging there." But as he approached, there was a narrow passage, "and looking very narrowly before him as he went, he espied two lions in the way." Two lions.
Now two lions in a narrow passage can pose a problem, right? Two lions in a great big field can pose a problem! Two lions escaped from the zoo can get the attention of an entire city, as a matter of fact. But these two are right in his path, and it's a narrow path. The City of Destruction is behind, and the City of Zion is ahead, but two lions are there in the way. What to do?
Well, it says "he was afraid, and thought also himself to go back . . . for he thought nothing but death was before him."
A person on his way to the City of Zion can feel as if there's nothing but death ahead of him. That's how poor Christian felt. As if he had no way out. As if it was quits, and that was that.
I walked in a hospital room one day, and the first thing the person said was, "They tell me I'm dying." They tell me I'm dying. Which was saying, "I see lions up ahead. Two of them, and no way in the world to get by."
What do you say to someone who tells you he's dying? "Well, I'm sure sorry to hear that"? "Well, maybe they made a mistake"? "Well, trust the Lord and everything will be alright"? What?
Everything you think of to say doesn't seem to be the thing to say.
Christian was in that kind of situation in Bunyan's story. Destruction was behind him, and destruction was ahead of him. He was trapped where he was with no choices to pick from. He kept looking at the lions and hearing them roar, knowing they'd tear him to pieces if he got near them.
But there was something about this Christian didn't know. The lions were there, but they were chained. Chained so they couldn't hurt him. But he couldn't see the chains, you see. He saw only the lions.
Enter a character called Watchful. Watchful is up ahead where the lions are, and he sees all of this. He calls out, "Fear not the lions, for they are chained, and are placed there for the trial of faith . . . and for the discovery of those that have none. Keep in the midst of the path, and no hurt shall come unto thee."
Do you believe a thing like that or not? Someone who tells you not to worry, that everything will turn out fine. You think that's easy enough for him to say. You're the one who has to pass those lions. You're the one they have their eyes on. Why, they're licking their chops right now!
The book says Christian "went on trembling for fear of the lions" and that "he heard them roar" but "they did him no harm." And when he was past them, he clapped his hands.
Do you see what that means?
There are two ways of seeing. There's the way that sees the problem ahead and fills us with fear. And there's the way that sees more. That sees the problem as manageable. That sees we have resources to meet our problems, even when the way can't be seen as yet.
I'm talking about the alternatives of fear and faith. Which will you live by? What will help us, when we see lions up ahead, to see also the chains that will be our salvation as we pass them by?
The 91st Psalm was written for that purpose. It's like the voice of Watchful in Bunyan's story. It calls out to tell us, "he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone."
There are many stones to dash your foot against. The psalm knows that. It speaks of snares and of deadly pestilence.
Even in these days of medical science, we still hear tell of "deadly pestilence" don't we? Some little whatcha-ma-calletts that get in your blood and mess you up. And you have no idea you have it until it has you. Deadly pestilence.
Or if that's not it, there's more. There's the terror of the night, and the arrow that flies by day. Those sudden things that strike us from without. Someone doesn't like it because you got his parking space, so he pulls out a gun and shoots you right in front of the Safeway. We hear about those things. The arrows that fly in the day, and the terrors that strike at night.
The Psalm recognizes those threats, but sees something else about them. They're like chained lions. "A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked."
Vision. A person who trusts in God sees things that others miss. If it's true, as Paul said, that "we sorrow not as others who have no hope," it's also true that "we fear not as others who have no faith." We do have our fears, but not as they do.
Even with our solemn insurance policies and our nervous health check-ups, even in those recognitions of our finiteness and our mortality, we reach out to God. We who shall never fail to exhaust our own strength reach out to his. And he covers us with his pinions, and under his wings we find refuge.
Jesus used that illustration of a hen and her brood, you'll remember. God as a mother hen. God pictured as our heavenly Mother there. Taking us under her strong and sheltering wings. There are times we all can use the mothering of God.
Jesus says, "In the world you shall have tribulation. But be of good cheer. I have overcome the world."
Ah, what an amazing thing! That someone having tribulation can be of good cheer! We may not win every battle–we won't win every battle–but we know we'll win the war!
God says, "Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him. I will protect him, because he knows my name." So we must know his name, and cleave to him in love. And then he'll save us, guide us, deliver and protect us.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
I'll strengthen thee, help thee
and cause thee to stand
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
FEAR NOT, LITTLE FLOCK
Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. "Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. (Luke 12:27-36)
This six year old kid is up on the diving board his very first time. He waited till no one else was around before he'd even climb up. And he walked out there as if every step he was more inclined to turn around and go back.
And his daddy is down there in the water waiting. Daddy who's anxious for this to go well, of course, because it was mostly his idea. It's only four feet down for the kid to jump or dive, but it looks like forty. Like the view from on top of a building. He stands there hesitating on the end of the board. Needing something he doesn't seem to have.
It may be time for Daddy to say something. He thinks it's time. And what he says is, "Now don't be afraid, Son"!
He says that because afraid is what the kid is, right? And if the boy does jump and doesn't hit the water right, he may just learn to watch out when fathers tell you not to be afraid. What if Daddy was in the hospital having serious tests and the doctor walked in the room and said, "Now I don't want you to be afraid but . . ."? He'd be afraid there was reason to be afraid, right? That's what you assume when someone tells you not to be afraid.
Jesus has been talking with his disciples. He's been talking about things they're worried about. He's mentioned
how the lilies grow without seeming to worry or struggle and fret. How the grass is clothed and always peaceful. He tells them not to be so anxious–not to worry up there on the diving board of life–because God takes care of his own.
And then, this marvelous word: "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
"Fear not, little flock." Who know not what tomorrow will bring. As churches, as families, as motorists, investors, employees, parents, students, or whatever. As readers of the daily news, including the latest trouble spot, or invention of destruction, or disease that should have us worried. Who can tell about any of that?
But notice in the Lord's words that he's speaking to our fears as a flock of God. Not as individuals with our fears, but in our life together. Not as Simon or Andrew or John or Judas, but as ecclesia, a called-out group, as church.
We all have our individual fears, but do we fear together as a flock of God? Or, for that matter, do we hope as a flock, or sorrow as a flock, or take pity as a flock, or repent as a flock?
Modern Christians tend to function as individual, scattered sheep. We have songs that say "we are one in the bond of love," but we aren't. We bless the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love, but the thing comes untied real easy. Like a shoelace that won't stay. You tie it back, and right away it's loose and flopping again.
But flocks were meant to stick together. When sheep roam around by themselves, they find that wolves are roaming too. Sheep in a fold are safe from wolves, but not alone.
Whose is the problem when hardship strikes a sheep alone? A member of the flock, but what does membership amount to? We say that's his problem, or hers. It isn't ours. The relatives should take care of it, or the insurance, or some government agency. "All for none and none for all."
We keep telling one another that God will take care of things, and God keeps telling us to take care of one another. Huh! Someone is missing something there.
The Lord is our shepherd, but ours are the lips that speak his peace, ours are the hands that offer his help, ours are the hearts that must feel for others as he feels for them.
We can trust in him, but can we also trust in one another? He'll never leave or forsake us, but will those around us do that? If the flock is to have no fear, those are the questions to be answered. A sheep alone is a sheep afraid.
Charlie Morton and I planned to climb Montvale Mountain and camp out overnight–just the two of us. But then Morton couldn't go, and it was just the one of me. My pack was all packed. I wasn't afraid to go alone, so off I went.
But late on that dark night, as the campfire burned low, my high school courage got tested.
Those woods were darker than a stack of black cats. Some old dogs were howling in the valley down below. And a screech owl began screeching in a wierd sort of way.
I got down in my sleeping bag and covered up. Then then there was the rumble of thunder, and lightning in the distance. And I was there with my ears covered up when the wind blew a branch from the tree overhead and it fell down right on me. Yaaeee! I did not sleep well that night!
What does fear do to us? It unnerves our faith and clouds our reason. A person afraid hears things that are strange, and says things that are strange. Fear saps our enegies and divides our alliances. Persons afraid look out for themselves, not for one another. Fear is a fearsome thing.
Jesus says, "Fear not, litle flock." And those are tender words–the words of a friend. How much more authority they have because he says them. Let it come from Peter, James, or John and it wouldn't be quite the same. These are the words of the Living Christ.
How did the disciples interpret those words? Were they fearing for their flock, or were they fearing for themselves? Did they ask what their flock could do for them, or what they could do for the flock? Were they mesmerized with their selfish concerns, or had they learned the lessons Jesus tried to teach them?
Fear not, little flock. Rest easy, all you with anxious minds that worry and fret and add even more to the trouble each day brings. Acting as if you'll master the world and make it your servant. Acting like you have no master of your own.
Have you thought about the flowers? Growing there beside the road–warmed by the sun and moved by breezes. Sought by the bees and plucked by the careless. Here today and gone tomorrow. But do they worry? Do those flowers worry??
No, they're peacefully part of a grander scheme of things. A scheme of things we're unpeacefully a part of.
Fear not, little flock. Your father knows. He knows what you want, and he knows what you need. And the two aren't necessarily the same, now are they?
Trust him. Trust and don't doubt that he'll do you good and not harm. He'll lead you by some route that takes you to his home, and you can walk by faith, not by sight.
You can live with a certain abandon if you see things that way. You can be like Abraham. He went out from a place of comfort and never looked back. A pioneer of faith.
You can give and not regret. You can lose and not despair. You can put life's treasure in a place where thieves will never steal it.
Fear not, little flock. Must you also worry that your number is small? As if safety comes with size. As if all the people in little flocks ought to join the big flocks so they can be one of the crowd and take it easy?
Little flock–only twelve of them. Each one had to count. Each one was missed if he wasn't there. Each one might be called on at any time.
Jesus had twelve, while modern Christians think they need twelve hundred or twelve thousand to be something great. But Jesus never said so.
He said fear not, little flock–fear not.
Trust and obey. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be make known to God. And the peace of God that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ.
To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
WHO WANTS TO BE A LIVING SACRIFICE?
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:1-8)
The following is a true story. This fellow lived right on highway 31E in Kentucky, where traffic passed back and forth on the way to Louisville. His name was Billy. And most people liked Billy–he was friendly enough–but you also kept your eyes open. Billy was a wheeler-dealer.
He never missed a free meal. Ne never cut wood very much ahead of time. He was the last to get his tobacco planted in the spring and the last to get it in in the fall. Every old car he ever owned sat rusting in his yard. And the dogs and cats that lived with Billy made rounds to other people's farms because no one fed them much at home.
One day a city woman was passing Billy's house on her way back to Louisville. And one of Billy's dogs decided to cross the road. Unwisely, because the dog got hit and killed.
He'd probably started out to try to find some food for himself. Billy saw this from the rocking chair on his front porch, and went running down there faster than anyone had ever seen him run. Because a city woman with money in her purse was there in an upset condition for having hit this dog, and Billy saw it as an opportunity–which it was.
He began telling her in a loud and grief-stricken voice what a fine dog that was, and how much he was worth, and how attached to him they all were. And how she owed him $300 which wouldn't begin to pay for it, but was the least she could do. And she gave him the money and drove off grateful. It was a lucky day for Billy, if not for his dog.
There's a lesson there, I think. Billy's attitude toward life is like a lot of people's attitude toward God. They acknowledge no debt or obligation, but they'll be first in line when time comes to collect something! They want all the benefits with none of the responsibility.
Give the least you can get by with, and get the most you can out of it. After all, the Lord is rich, isn't he! Like that woman in the Buick. Will he miss it if you get a little more than your share?
But in contrast to that attitude, there's the urging of Paul for us to be "living sacrifices." To think first of what we can give, not what we can get. Living sacrifices.
His Jewish audience knew about dead sacrifices. One time, there on an altar, an animal gives its life. And Paul is making a deliberate contrast. It isn't the sacrifice of our dying, but the sacrifice of our living God needs the most. To take up our cross daily. To "die daily" as Paul put it once. It's really a staggering thought, but there are those who actually do it.
Now, the integrity of such an appeal is in proportion to the person's own commitment. And Paul, who was in the thick of things for Christ, is calling on others to join him.
I heard about an embarrassed pastor once. He'd challenged his people to go out visiting on Sunday afternoon. One of the teams got the wrong address and showed up at the pastor's home. The found him stretched out on the sofa watching football! Ohh!
The integrity of such appeals is in proportion to the person's own commitment. So what kind of appeal could you make? What sort of dedication to Christ is inspired by your personal example?
Jesus once said, "My meat is to do the will of him who sent me." Which says doing the will of God is what kept him going. As if it was food–his daily nourishment. How true is that for us?
Isn't it true that before we'll do much in the way of service, things have to be just right? It has to be convenient, and well planned and publicized. And we need a charismatic leader to pump us up. To supply the inspiration we have none of. To use a little psychology, or even a little guilt, to get us going.
Is that true or not? I mean, what would it take to get you out visiting on Sunday afternoon instead of watching football? Something pretty powerful, right?
But what if your meat was to do the will of him who sent you? What if you hungered and thirsted for righteousness? What if you presented your body as a living sacrifice to God?
There was a wreck off the coast one dark, stormy night. And the rescue team assembled and was considering what to do. They were there around their boat with the rain and wind pounding the sea so it sounded like thunder. And one of them was saying, "If we go out in this, we'll never come back."
And for a long moment there, the sound of the wind was the only answer. They were thinking. Until another man spoke up and said: "We have to go out. We don't have to come back." Commitment.
The God we serve deserves no less.
MATURITY IN CHRIST
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men? For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apol'los," are you not merely men? What then is Apol'los? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apol'los watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. (1Corinthians 3:1-9)
"I have to talk baby talk with you Corinthians. I have to feed you with baby food! As far as spiritual things go, you all are still in diapers. You don't act like Christians are supposed to act, you don't talk like Christians are supposed to talk. No one would even guess you are Christians–you're so much like the world. Always fighting over something, making fools of yourselves and the church. Hey! when are you all going to grow up?"
Now that's a free translation, but that's what Paul was saying. Throughout his ministry, Paul had a two-fold concern. First, that so many people have never accepted Christ. And second, that so many who have don't act like it.
What's the biggest problem to the spread of the gospel? Is it money? Is it effort? No. The biggest problem to the spread of the gospel is the way most Christians live. They way they treat one another, or don't. The way they worship, or don't. The things they stand for, or don't.
How do we take the measure of our spiritual condition? It's so easy to say how many came to a meeting, how many dollars were collected, how many studies were held, how many plans were carried out. But what about Christ-likeness? Deeper faith? The practice of love?
Small souls need big claims and a lot of talk. Real saints can be more modest. They don't have to advertise their goodness. Their security is in God, not themselves.
Someone else can get the credit, and it makes no difference to them. They have nothing that needs defending. They aren't running for anything.
One day Jesus said to the Twelve, "What were you all talking about on the road back there?" He'd heard them arguing among themselves about who was the most Prominent Christian in the bunch. Huh! While the scripture says, "in lowliness of mind let each esteem the other better than himself."
You see, we're always trying to raise ourselves above one another. But the Lord is never going to call you to account for how good or bad was anyone except one person. You. As Paul said, "so then each one of us shall give account of himself to God."
The spiritual infancy at Corinth made for unceasing strife and conflict. Paul writes, "It has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, 'I belong to Paul,' or 'I belong to Apollas,' or 'I belong to Christ.'"
Paul knew, as Jesus did, that most of these strivings are based on human pride. Someone wants to get ahead of someone else. Someone has territory to defend. Someone is playing the role of God.
Most Christians will sit around in the room and expect to be served. But Jesus will get up and begin to wash their feet. As if he has nothing better to do. Him, kneeling down there on that hard floor. Showing that the greatest of all is the servant of all.
You have to be turned right. You have to be turned outward, to think first of others and last of self.
There in the church at Corinth, they had what they called a "Love Feast." They did it when they had the Lord's Supper, and it simply meant that everyone brought food and enjoyed it together.
But there were rich people at Corinth who could bring expensive food. And there were poor people in the church who could bring very little. And those rich people were bringing their gourmet delicacies and keeping to themselves, while the poor went hungry.
Paul was so upset he told them they should call the whole thing off and eat at home. "What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not." (1 Cor 11:22)
Are we that uncaring? Are we that selfish and immature? Think about it. The mature person seeks out his faults and tries to overcome them. The immature person doesn't know his faults, doesn't want to, and wouldn't admit them if he did. The mature person is strict with himself and lenient with others. The immature person is strict with others while being lenient with himself.
The principles of Christian maturity are illustrated in the life of George Washington Carver. He wrote:
"I discover nothing in my laboratory. If I come here of myself I am lost. But I can do all things through Christ. I am God's servant, his agent, for here God and I are alone. I am just the instrument through which He speaks, and I would be able to do more if I were to stay in closer touch with him. With my prayers I mix my labors, and sometimes God is pleased to bless the results."
They put on his tombstone this:
"He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world."
You never lose by that–you gain.
It only seems to cost.
WITH A MOTHER LIKE HANNAH
1 Samuel 1:1-8
Mother's Day isn't in the Bible, of course, and neither are many texts to use for a sermon. The one that's used so much is Proverbs 31, part of which goes like this:
A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.
Now notice about this woman. Her lamp does not go out at night because she stays up so late working. And at the same time she rises up while it is yet night and provides food for her household. When does this woman sleep, pray tell?!
And the passage goes on to describe how she dresses herself immaculately, and how she does benevolent work on the side, and how she makes clothing for her husband so he's known as the best-dressed man in town. And everywhere she goes she shares her charm and her wisdom, and her children rise up and call her blessed.
Unlike the bumper sticker I saw on a woman's car the other day which said "Children–by the time they're fit to live with they're living with someone else." But the lady of Proverbs 31 has avoided that, you see. Her children appreciate her, and so does her husband. Everyone appreciates her. They say, "Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all."
Now we'd like to have a show of hands of all you women who think you live up to that! Or perhaps some testimonies by the husbands! I hear laughing but see no hands! What we have here, I'm afraid, is a storybook picture. One with a halo. One to make us feel guilty because we know we're so far short of this ideal.
I think the opening words are something of a tip-off. A good wife who can find? The writer of Proverbs wasn't really sure you can find any. If fact, if you look up all the references to women in Proverbs–which I did–you find that most of them aren't flattering.
A few examples:
"It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious woman."
"A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious woman are alike." A continual dripping on a rainy day.
"Give not your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings." Or my personal favorite:
"Like a gold ring in a swine's snout is a beautiful woman without discretion."
So I turned instead to Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Hannah who suffered as a woman in a society where having no children was thought to be a punishment of God. Who prayed fervently to become a mother, and did at last. Who dedicated her son to the service of God at an early age and had him raised in the temple by Eli the Priest.
It wasn't exactly your traditional thing, but it served well the kingdom of God. And you find it so believable that the contribution made by Samuel owed much to the faith and piety of his mother. Hannah could have wished to keep her son home and devoted to herself, but she didn't. She made her contribution amid the tension of conflicting demands.
Reminds me of Keith Miller's story about a speaking engagement. He came home from work one day and his daughter asked if he'd do something with her that evening. She really seemed to want him to. But he had to say no because he was scheduled to speak to a group that evening. The topic they'd asked him to speak on was, "What it takes to be a good father." So out the door he went, leaving behind a disappointed child, to go speak on that!
You see? That's the bind we get in. We get pulled in different directions all at once, like Hannah did. We have to pray a lot, and sometimes not know if we're doing the right thing or not. That's more like the world I know. Like the one you mothers live in.
A parent sat by a hearthside place
Reading a book, with a pleasant face,
Till a child came up, with a childish groan,
And pushed the book, saying, "Put it down."
Then the mother, slapping his curly head,
Said, "Troublesome child, go off to bed;
A great many things there are to know
To train you up as a child should go."
And the child went off to bed to cry,
And denounce religion–by and by.
Another parent bent over a book,
With a plan to read and an intent look,
Till a child came up and jogged her knee
And said of the book, "Put it down–take me."
And the mother signed as she stroked his head,
Saying how she'd never get it read;
But she'd do it as something about God's will,
And his love in the heart of her child instil."
That child went to bed without a sigh,
And will love the Father–by and by.
Eric Fromm has written that "the deepest need of man is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness. The full answer to the problem of existence lies in . . . love."
In her book Ship of Fools, Katherine Ann Porter has one of her characters say,
"Love me. Love me in spite of all! Whether or not I love you, whether I am fit to love, whether you are able to love, even if there is no such thing as love, love me."
I first experienced love from my mother. I think most people do. If that sounds sexist, then let it sound that way. Men are better at fighting wars, and mothers are better at teaching us love. You can decide which of those the world needs more of.
A little boy in Sunday School was told that it was God who made people good. He thought about that a minute and said he knew it was God, but mothers helped out a lot!
Thomas Edison wrote: "I did not have my mother long, but she cast over me an influence that has lasted all my life. The good effects of her early training I can never lose. If it had not been for her appreciation and her faith in me at a critical time in my experience, I should never have become an inventor. I was always a careless boy, and with a mother of different mental calibre, I should have turned out badly. But her firmness, her goodness, were potent powers to keep me in the right path. My mother was the making of me. The memory of her will always be a blessing."
Augustine is said to have prayed, "If I am thy child, O God, it is because thou didst give me such a mother."
And to add one other, from the great American preacher, Henry Ward Beecher. He said, "Now you may put all the skeptical men that ever lived on the face of the earth on one side, and they may plead in my ears. And all the scientists may stand with them, and marshal all the facts of the universe to disprove the truth of Immanuel, God with us; and yet, let me see my mother, walking in a great sorrow, but from the surface of which sorrow reflecting the light of cheer and heavenly hope, patient, sweet, gentle, full of comfort for others–yea, and showing by her life as well as her lips that with the consolation wherewith she has been comforted, she is comforting others–and that single instance of suffering is more to me, as an evidence of the truth of Christianity, than all the arguments that the wisest men can possibly bring against it."
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-19)
Friday, November 22nd, 1963. A young American president lies murdered, and Cardinal Cushing is muttering into a microphone: "I doubt we shall ever see his like again." And under the spell of the drama of that moment, I'm sure a lot of people thought he was right.
But he wasn't right, of course. The world will see his like again, and mine when I'm gone, and yours when you are. Even the most necessary-seeming people can be replaced. I remember Carlyle Marney telling about leaving his church in Austin to go to Myers Park Church in Charlotte. He said he thought they'd never replace him in Austin, and they had someone in less than three months!
Any of us can be replaced. No one is indispensible. No one who ever lived is indispensible, except . . .. Ah!
The Greek language has a word for this–"monogenes." From "mono" meaning one and "genes" meaning born or created. Monogenes means the only one made–a one-of-a-kind. Like our expression that when they made him or her they threw away the mold.
And John's gospel tells us God so loved the world that he gave his "monogenes" son to be our savior. His one-of-a-kind son. He gave what he had no other of. He gave what there is no other like.
So we haven't said enough when we call him fairest of the fair, or truest of the true, or bravest of the brave, or purest of the pure. To say those things is just to write him larger than ourselves. But the scripture says he's different than ourselves, and wherever you search in time or space you'll never meet another like him.
James Stewart told about a young Christian artist who was drafted as a soldier and sent to fight in France. He found himself in a tent with a score of other men. Most of them had pictures pinned up behind their beds. The young artist thought they were coarse and vulgar.
But he didn't say anything. He just began a picture of his own. He painted the face of Jesus Christ. And within a week, every other picture came down. No one said they had to come down, they just did. And the face of Christ remained. The one no others can live beside.
Jesus is unique in a world of God-created uniqueness. Where no two snowflakes are alike, or the people who watch them fall, or the patterns they make as the wind moves them around in their piles. No two dogs are even alike, are they? If you can't tell them apart, the other dogs sure can. And think of all the different sounds we can hear, and smells we can smell, and tastes we can taste. An incredible variety.
But still, there's this–that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." We all have that in common. That there's none righteous, no not one.
But Jesus was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin. And that can't be said of anyone except him. Compare him with anyone else you want to, but the conclusion is the same–he is not like him. There is no comparison–none.
In 325 A.D. there was a great church council at Nicaea. For days they debated and discussed their views. At the end of the council they adopted this statement:
We believe in one God and Father, all-sovereign, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Lights, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and cometh again with glory to judge living and dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end.
That's a job description no one ever filled except one. One who's singular, unique, and without comparison. If you miss him, you'll never find another, in time or all eternity. It's that simple.
Paul calls him "the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation." He says he's "the head of the body, the church," and that "in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell."
Say someone is tall or short, dumb or smart, kind or cruel–and you could be talking about any one of thousands of people. But speak of someone in whom all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell and the choice narrows down to how many? One.
And for us, for sinners like us, was this gift given. For you in fact.
God so loved the would-be believer in you that he gave this gift. He gives it, and keeps on giving. It's offered now.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (John 3:16-21)
THE SAVING GOSPEL
When people think of Chattanooga, they think of a place called Rock City. Rock City is a so-called tourist attraction situated on Lookout Mountain. There used to be more signs advertising Rock City than you can imagine. Especially barn roofs. "See Rock City"–so many miles.
Well, I lived in Chattanooga for nine years, and I never saw Rock City. I never wanted to see Rock City. Rock City is a mess of tourist nonsense. The people who live in Chattanooga never go there, they just watch the crowds from out-of-town go there. I'm as likely to go to Rock City as I am to stop at a place called South-of-the-Border down on I-95.
I may read the signs, but I'm not about to stop. Do you get the idea my mind is pretty well closed on this subject?
Well that's our problem with John 3:16. It's a popular place where a crowd always gathers. Why, right now in churches big and churches small there are preachers taking this same text. And others are going to quote it this morning. And choirs are going to sing it. And children in Sunday School will memorize it. And people will mark it in their New Testaments so they can witness with it. Because it may just be the best-known verse in the whole Bible.
Look out when you have that situation. Where you've been there before and heard it before. You mind gets closed. You drift into neutral. You think it's for the newcomers but not for you. And you may miss out on a blessing that could be yours.
So let's imagine hearing it fresh. Hearing it as news. Hearing it like a letter we've been waiting for, that we can't wait to tear open and read. Good news! Good news!
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Does the world believe it's loved by God? No. If the world believes in God at all, it thinks of him in terms of judgment.
God is someone you can never please. Who's up there just waiting to catch you at something. Who has all these terrible things he can do to people, and will at the slightest provocation.
Does the world feel loved by God? Not much of the time. And yet God loves the world all the time.
Last Thursday night I was at a meeting where a daughter of mine was honored for something she achieved. They gave me a chance to say something, and I did. I told a story of her childhood days and said how proud I was. We hugged and cried right there in a public meeting. My daughter felt loved.
But there were days back there when she doubted that, I know. She didn't need to, but she did. Children can be loved and not feel it because they aren't feeling or acting very loveable. You are loved by God right now, but you may not feel a thing. "Ho hum," you say, "and where was he when I needed him with the taxes? And why do I have this pain? And if he cares, why can't he give me some grateful people to live with?"
How do we know God loves? How do we know anyone loves?
We know it when they give. Love gives. Love loves to give.
You see love that seeks to get what it can, and you know that isn't love. You see love that seeks to give what it can, and you know that is love.
God so loved the world that he gave his son to be its savior. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for our sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. All we like sheep have gone astray. We've turned every one to his own way. And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
The Cross shows how serious our condition is. It shows how God takes it seriously, whether we do or not. Extreme problems call for extreme solutions. If our sins were of small account we'd need no such remedy.
There at a high school reunion, Bobby Gilbert reminded me of my days as The Phantom. I was alone in the boy's rest room one day, and it occurred to me to take a bar of soap and write something on the big mirror there. I wrote "the Phantom was here." That night they cleaned it off, and the next day I put it there again. And that went on for awhile.
And then on the glass door of the trophy case in the main hallway, these words appeared: "The Phantom strikes again." And other places where there was glass that a bar of soap could reach, the Phantom also struck. Even some challenging places like the big mirror in the girl's rest room. And there were dire warnings that whoever was doing this had better stop it, but he didn't. How serious was that?
Well the Phantom learned one day. He got called to the principal's office. And the principal was there, and the vice-principal. The Phantom's parents were there too. And all these people had solemn faces, and word "expel" was heard in the room. And sensing the gravity of this situation, that Phantom became the meekest and most apologetic Phantom you can imagine. And he never struck again!
You judge the seriousness of your situation from the measures taken by the person in charge. You see? If the teacher sort of smiles and says she thinks you should cut that out, you know you don't have to cut it out. But a trip to the principal's office is another thing.
In John 3:16 we find good news and bad news. The good news is how God loves us and will do anything he can to help us out. The bad news is how serious is the trouble we're in if we don't get his help. For God gives his only son to die on a cross for our salvation. And there we see how critical is our state and how urgent is our need for remedy.
So . . . what do you do? You begin by realizing that all this applies personally to you and your situation. "God so loved the world," and you're a part of that world. This applies to you as much as anyone who ever lived. Don't think that because the world's so big, God doesn't love you as much as anyone in it. He does. Why, he knows you better than you know yourself.
So the gospel is this: God loves you and wants you to have eternal life through believing in Jesus Christ. That's it in a nutshell.
Believing is a voluntary thing. No one can make you believe–you choose to do it. God made us free. He gives us our choice. My friend L.D. Johnson put it this way:
"God who came in Jesus Christ is not a wrangler or a shouter. He does not override other persons' rights. He does not come on like "gangbusters," knocking down doors, and forcing himself on us."
"There is a certain fineness about God's love. He is not reticent about giving us his love, but is careful not to destroy our capacity to say whether or not we want it. He deals with us ever so carefully, as would one who does not wish to break the slender stalk of a bruised reed, as one who does not blow too hard upon a smoking wick lest he extinguish its struggling flame."
"This is the divine restraint with which God shows his profound respect and love for us. There are times when we wish he would be bolder, times when he seems to disappear totally, his being swallowed by movements in history or experiences in personal life. The best and most loyal of his people have known such desolation."
"But the tentativeness . . . is the price we pay for the right freely to believe and to love God."
It's up to us, in other words. God does all he can possibly do without violating the freedom he gave us in the first place. He sets before us death and life, and urges us to life. But he doesn't force.
It could be time to act on that. It could be the need for studying and pondering is over, and it's time to make a commitment. You find that expressed in a prayer which Kierkegaard left us:
O Lord Jesus Christ, thou didst not come into the world for the sake of being ministered to, nor surely to be worshipped in the sense of being admired. Thou thyself wast the way and the truth. Thou didst demand followers, not admirers. So, wake us up if we have dozed off into delusion; save us from going astray by wishing merely to admire thee, when the thing that is needful is to want to follow thee, and be made like unto thee.
Now as we close, would you repeat after me–all of you–these words:
"God so loved the world" . . .
"that he gave his only Son, that" . . .
(say your name) . . .
(say it again) . . .
"who believes in him" . . .
"should not perish" . . .
"but have eternal life" . . .
That's the good news! And it has been that for you, or will be, or could even be right now.
SAVED BY GRACE
And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10)
On a Sunday morning like this, have you ever imagined how many pulpits there are? Some in places much bigger than this, others in places much smaller than this. And just about this time of the morning, those whose business is preaching walk up there to those pulpits and do their thing.
Some have no idea what they're going to say. Some have an outline on the back of an envelope. Some have manuscripts they worked on for hours or even days. And all will mention Jesus Christ. And most will mention the Apostle Paul.
Since he wrote so much of our New Testament, and since his ministry sort of dominated the life of the early church, you can't do much preaching without running into him.
"You're really something, Paul! You're a Prominent Christian. Why, some people call you a saint. All those churches you started. All those wonderful books you wrote. All those trials you endured. We really admire you–tell us how you did it."
But you see in his face that you haven't made the hit you thought you would. He doesn't respond to your praise like most people do. He tells you he's just a sinner saved by grace. He's the chiefest of sinners, as a matter of fact. He is what he is by the grace of God, and you should praise
the Lord, not him.
Grace. We need to come to terms with grace. According to Paul we're saved by grace. Unmerited kindness. Unearned favor. Where you get what you don't deserve. Just think about that. It might not harmonize with what you've always thought.
Do people get what they deserve in life? If you do good to others, will they do good to you? If you do bad deeds, are you always punished? "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap"–is that to say we always get what we deserve?
Do the famous really deserve their fame more than others do? Weren't a lot just lucky? Do the rich deserve their riches? Didn't some have it dropped in their laps? Are the people who live in slums there because they deserve to be there? Did all the people whose homes were robbed last night deserve to have them robbed?
How come old Job had all that trouble? Sores all over his body, head to toe. His children killed. And yet the Bible says he was "upright and blameless." He got what he didn't deserve, you see.
So there's such a thing in the world as undeserved trouble. Sometimes the cookie crumbles funny. There are dreams in peoples hearts that never work out. They should have, but didn't. They never had a chance.
What I'm saying is, this is the reality we observe in the world about us.
Up there on the hill lives a rich man in his fine home. He dresses good, he eats good and looks good, he seems prosperous in every way. While down at his gate there sits a homeless beggar–Lazarus. Who literally eats the garbage from that rich man's house.
There's precious little grace in this world. Everyone wants a break himself, but who gives one away? We see beggars on the streets–beggars like Lazarus–and we turn our eyes and avert our thoughts.
How often would someone go up to one of those beggars and offer to loan him the car for the weekend? Or ask him if he'd like to use the beach house for a week or two?
How often in our congress is anything done about someone's problem who hasn't brought political pressure to bear? Wheels that squeek the loudest get the most grease, and those whose squeek isn't heard get none at all–right? So the game is push and shove in this world. Everyone's in it for himself–right?
If it is right, then the idea of grace will need some explanation. Because we don't see it practiced very often. Not many people will understand what you mean.
If salvation was based on good works, that would be simple to explain. Everyone knows about earning things. It's the system we use every day. So if you tell people that earning their way to heaven is how it's done, that makes perfect sense.
Go to church, give your money, help the crippled children–anything. Just like buying a car. You find the best price write a check. Then it's paid for and it's yours. So find out the price of salvation and do what you have to.
Paul says a loud NO! to that idea. Anyone who thinks he can earn salvation has another think coming. The price is more than anyone can pay.
"All have sinned and come short of the glory of God"–all.
"There is none righteous, no not one."
People persist in ignoring that, however. They can always seem to improve themselves by comparison. You look around, find someone worse than you, and it makes you look better. Then you go to the temple and thank God that you're not as other men. You fast twice a week, and give tithes of all you possess. You're not like that tax collector there.
But what about the tax collector?
He claims no goodness whatsoever. He doesn't even try to. He prays, "God be merciful to me, a sinner." He understands what the Pharisee doesn't. He knows he has to trust God, and God has to do for him what he can never do for himself.
Do you know that? Do you know that trusting your own righteousness will lead you straight to hell? That the sinner's prayer is the only way?
"Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling."
"Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips."
Only by understanding our undoneness can we make sense of grace. For grace means two things at least. It means God doing for us what we can never do. And his doing for us what we can never deserve.
Is there someone here who doesn't like favors? You like to pay your own way, and be in debt to no one? You take care of yourself and won't be obligated?
Well then, you can never be saved. Because grace means accepting the undeserved favor of God.
You have to cling to the cross. Believing God loved you enough to send his son to die on one. And only your trust in his mercy will do you good with him. By grace is anyone saved who is saved–through believing faith–and even that is a gift of God.
There's a lot of freedom in such a doctrine. If you have to earn your salvation, then you live in bondage. If you accept it by faith, you live in gratitude and praise.
If it's by grace, then it's God who does the holding on. We don't hold on to him, he holds on to us! We serve him because we love him, not because we fear the consequences if we don't. We live knowing that whatever our sins, God has forgiveness for them.
Grace is the good news that he doesn't deal with us as our sins deserve. But as heaven is high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward us who fear him. As far as the east is from the west he removes our transgressions from us.
It's like you're coming down this road. A road you used to know well, but haven't been on for a long time now.
You were somewhere else. You were taking charge of your own life and running it like you wanted. It seemed like the thing to do.
Things went bad, though. You lost your money and your job and all your friends. People you trusted let you down. There was a famine where you were. Your will to live got less and less.
And there at a time you had no other hope to turn to, you turned back toward what you left.
There it lies at the end of this road. People are happy there. Life is good there. There's no famine there.
But you know you don't deserve to be there. Not after all you've done. You know you won't be welcome if deserving is the thing. But you also know that the person in charge of the place is your father.
So you'll go on down the road and say to him:
"Father, I've sinned. I'm undeserving of anything. But could I possibly just stay here and work as one of the servants?"
But what the father will say is this: "My son! My son's come home. Today we have a celebration."
That's grace, and nothing else. Nothing else will do that.
It's what all men seek. And what all can have.
FAITHFUL TO THE END
2 Timothy 4:1-18
I studied under some really great seminary professors. I realize that even more as the distance from those years increases. My list would have to include Dr. Dale Moody.
There were students so anxious to be in Moody's classes they'd get in line for registration after supper the night before it opened at 8:00 the next morning. They'd stay up all night, just to be sure.
Moody did more than just inform you, he inspired you. He had fire in his eyes. You thought he could walk on water if he wanted to. And sometimes when you left his class you felt like you could too! Dale Moody.
He had this saying that became famous. "If a fella fizzles 'fore the finish, there's a flaw in his faith from the first." Which says faith is no come and go affair. Those who are new in Christ Jesus don't go changing their minds next day. They stick.
So what does this mean for those who don't stick? According to Moody's saying, there was a flaw in their faith from the first. They never really understood to begin with. It wasn't that they had it and lost it–they never really had it in the first place.
For whatever reason, people do fizzle. People who once said yes to God turn right around and say no. Even in the ministry of Jesus himself, that happened. Listen:
"From that time many of his followers went back and walked no more with him. And he said to the twelve: 'Will you also go away?'"
Jesus saw the loyalty of crowds evaporate. And he wondered about his own disciples. There for an awful moment, he faced the possibility of being forsaken by everyone. That every yes had now become a no. "No, Jesus. Not anymore. Sorry."
People do turn back and walk no more with him–they do. You've seen it, haven't you? You've even considered it as a possibility. Isn't there something that would make you to quit?
Someone hurt her feelings, and she quit. He heard some criticism of himself, and never came back. Someone's health isn't as good as it used to be, and he dropped out. Someone's pastor didn't give the expected attention, and she dropped everything. Someone didn't agree with a vote, or with buying some ajoining property, or with naming a room in someone's honor–so they quit.
Of course, it isn't always that dramatic. Some enter the faith in a stormy way, and leave it exactly the same. But some enter quietly, and if they ever leave, it's quietly too.
They don't fall from grace, they just float. They float slowly away, like a leaf on a slow moving stream. The last word is no curse, it's just a yawn. They'd never leave by the front door, slamming it shut for all to hear. They slip out the back way and hope no one notices.
You find a description in Hebrews, chapter two. "Therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it." (Hebrews 2:1)
"Drift away." That's how it often goes. Unintentionally, imperceptably, effortlessly. Just drifting–drifting away.
Has that happened to you? Could it happen? Is it happening?
Do you think you'd know if it were? Could it happen like it did with Simon Peter. He said he was solid as a rock.
"Lord, I'm ready to go to prison with you, or to death. I don't know about these other fellows, but you can count on me."
And Jesus shook his head and told him that before the morning rooster crowed he'd deny him three times. And in spite of the warning, that's what happened.
The subject is faithfulness. Fighting the good fight and finishing the race. Keeping the faith as long as you live. Having laid up for you a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to you because you stayed faithful.
Jesus said, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples." (John 8:31) If you continue.
Does the if bother you in that verse? Would you rather ignore what doubt there may be about your intentions? Would you claim as much as Simon Peter did?
Beginning is easy, you see. It's after where the hard part comes. "He that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved"–Matthew 24:13. "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life"–Revelation 2:10.
Jesus gave an illustration. "Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soul, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away." (Mark 4:5-6) Now that's not about farming. That's about people and their shallow faith.
He said to his followers, "Abide in me." Abide, which means remain, continue, stay. And then he said, "If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." (John 15:4,6)
So it sounds like this "abiding" is pretty important, right? I mean, you don't want to be one of those branches that gets cut off and burned up. You want to stay connected, and be green and growing. You want to have leaves and some fruit.
But you have to "abide."
I still have friends from my old church in Tennessee. And now and then I'll ask about Jim Woodall. Jim came to our church while I was there because he was mad at the preacher where he was. Then before I left he got mad at me and was going somewhere else. After I left he came back, but now he's gone again. Jim has a long and distinguished history of getting mad and going somewhere else. There used to be circuit-riding preachers–Jim's a circuit-riding member!
In his letter to the Phillipians, Paul has a great and wonderful prayer that begins: "I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now." And here's the part I want you to see:
"And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
Something started, something finished. People who commit themselves to God, whose lives and faithfulness are no come-and-go affair. Whose loyalty you can count on.
There was a group of soldiers in one of Caesar's armies–forty of them. They were all Christians, and they were wrestlers. But one day an order was given that every man must renounce any religion that interferred with the worship of the emperor.
The army was camped in winter beside a frozen lake. And these Christians were given a choice. They could turn away from Christ or they could die of exposure on the frozen lake. All forty remained steadfast in their faith.
At evening, they were stripped of their armor and clothing and sent barefooted out on the ice. They went as a group. The rest of the army huddled around their fires and knew it wouldn't take long.
They began to hear singing. "Forty wrestlers, wresting for Thee, O Christ, win for Thee the victory, and gain from Thee the prize." Over and over.
But then it grew weaker. And suddenly there appeared at the edge of the camp a shivering man who'd come to renounce the faith and save himself. And just as suddenly, a guard who was standing there threw off his armor and clothing and went out to take his place.
And for awhile, their singing was stronger.
Forty wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, win for Thee the victory, and gain from Thee the prize.
Faithfulness. There's no substitute.
WHERE A TREE FALLS
"In the place where the tree falls, there it will lie."
As you've heard–enough times by now–I grew up near the Great Smoky Mountains. I saw a lot of fallen trees. Some huge trees that stood on the tops of ridges. That caught the full force of every storm. And of course, the delight of any storm is to blow down the biggest tree it can.
When that happens, you get to see what a tree looks like from underneath. Those trees leave a crater behind and take their roots with them. You get to see what you never saw before. The fall of a tree is an awesome thing.
The Biblical writer felt that fascination. Down she comes to lie where she will. Where she'll lie and not be moved. "If a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie."
Is this a lesson in forestry? No. It's not about trees, it's about life. How great is our freedom to change the way things are? How possible is change? When you get in the habit of something, can you ever get out of it? Do things happen for a purpose, or do they happen by chance?
Bodies set in motion tend to remain in motion unless acted on by some outside force. So said my high school physics book, and I assume that's still taught.
It also applies to human behavior. Persons who lie and gossip tend to remain liars and gossipers. Persons with a smile tend to keep it, as do those who frown all the time. People who get dependent on the help of others tend to remain that way. Those who learn to pray and worship God tend to continue.
It's a lot easier for an A student to get another A than for a C student to come up with one. Success breeds success, and failure breeds failure. It's like momentum. Something works to keep you on the track you're on, whether you like it or not, whether it's good or bad.
A lady complained to the department store manager. She said the attendant in the ladies' lounge stared coldly at her because she left no tip. This was interesting to the manager because they had no attendant in the ladies' lounge!
When he got to the bottom of the thing, this is what he found. Some months back a lady went in there to rest. She sat down at a table near the door and took out her knitting.
Someone took her for an attendant and left a tip on the table. Other people saw the tip and followed suit.
Well, the lady decided to come back the next day and rest in the lounge some more. The tips kept coming. The customers accepted it, and the lady accepted it. You see how that could happen.
A student at our seminary was tired all the time and often slept in class. One morning the professor turned around to write some things on the board. A fellow reached over and shook him awake.
"Class is over and Doc wants you to lead the closing prayer."
Hearing nothing but quiet in the room, he jumped to his feet and with half the class to go said: "Dear Lord, we thank you for this class today and all we've learned. Make us thankful for what we've heard and take us to the next class wiser. Amen." From a dead sleep he did that.
A man's wife was cooking dinner in their new home. She was baking ham. He noticed how she sliced off each end of the ham before putting it in the large, new oven. He asked why she did that and was told that's the way her mother always did it. He asked the mother about it and got the same answer. That's the way her mother did it. And when the man asked the grandmother why, she said because the pan she had to use was always too short.
Circumstances change, but people don't always. People hang on to accumstomed ways.
It can work for you or against you. Most of what we do each day, we do by conditioned response. And that can serve us well or ill as we try to be obedient to the will of God. Holy habits are a sword of the Spirit; unholy habits are a tool of the Devil.
There's a subversive ease with which we get used to things. The first break is hard–the first shock violent. But in amazingly short time, the revolutionary becomes routine, the spectacular ordinary. The hated is made room for, and our surprise becomes the wooden stare of the commuter on his usual way home.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Who have that as the direction that moves them along. They seek God from an inward motive. No one has to make them.
We have prayer service here at 9:20 every Sunday. About 15 people usually. And they're the ones you expect to see, because you normally do. You wouldn't expect to come in and see none of those people there. Or find 15 others who never came before.
We get set in certain directions and tend to keep going, whatever the direction is.
The writer of Ecclesiastes saw how this applies to the young. "Remember your creator in the days of your youth," he said. Those are the days when patterns are set. Of course you can start out bad and end up good, or you can do the other. But odds are on the side of a good start.
Train up a child in the way he should go and chances are better he won't depart from it later on. And if he does, chances are good that he'll return to it by and by.
Sinclair Lewis had a character named Babbit. Babbit "stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to everyone he met. He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking."
Of course, it's hard to stop smoking. It's hard to stop criticizing. It's hard to stop your prejudice or your greed or your constant ill-temper. It's hard to stop cheating on tests once you have the habit. It's hard to slow down if you're used to driving fast.
It's hard to start tithing if you've been spending the money on yourself. It's hard to make time for the church when you have it filled with other things. It's hard to sit down and talk with God when you haven't tried in years.
Of the stories Jesus told, one of the strangest is about a demon who lived alone in a house. One day the owner of the house decided to throw the demon out. And he did. Then he decided to rennovate. He swept and mopped and fixed things up. He was proud of his new house.
Ah, but this was like Babbit's smoking. That demon came back around one day. He looked in the window and was delighted. So delighted he went running off and brought back a whole bunch of his buddies. And they all moved in and had a ball.
Now what does that mean? I think it means this–that our demons are hard to get rid of. And the longer we've had them, the harder it is. We do it for awhile, but they come back around. And the worst thing to do is leave the place empty.
You don't say yes to God by saying no to the Devil. You can't be good by not being bad. If the demons have you, it isn't enough just to run them off. You have to let the Spirit of God come in and fill you so there's no place left for a demon to occupy.
Notice how Paul said, "Do not get drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit." (Ephesians 5:18) You replace a bad thing with something better in its place. It isn't enough to tell people "don't do this" or "don't do that" unless you give them something stronger, more real, and more satisfying.
There's a short prayer by Soren Kierkegaard which has that theme:
"O Lord Jesus Christ, there is so much to drag us back: empty pursuit, trivial pleasures, unworthy cares. There is so much to frighten us away: a pride too cowardly to submit to being helped, cowardly apprehensiveness which evades danger to its own destruction, anguish for sin which shuns holy cleansing as disease shuns medicine. But Thou art stronger than these, so draw Thou us now more strongly to Thee. We call Thee our Savior and Redeemer, since Thou didst come to earth to redeem us from the servitude under which we were bound or had bound ourselves. This is Thy work, which Thou didst complete, and which Thou wilt continue to complete unto the end of the world: for since Thou Thyself has said it, therefore Thou wilt do it–lifted up from the earth Thou wilt draw all unto Thee."
This, That, and the Other
This, that, and the other–perspectives on the church. In the first place, THIS. Scripture: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
Church is that invisible bond that brings children of God together. A spirit of closeness and acceptance, a tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. Anywhere that exists you have church. Even with two or three. And wherever that fails to exist, you don't have church–no matter how churchly the surroundings may look.
Gordon Cosby, who founded the Church of the Savior here in Washington, has a story from the winter of '58. He'd gone to speak at a church in New England. He found it cold in spirit, lifeless, and dismal. He says:
"As I looked on those granite figures, I had to repress in myself the urge to tear my robe off and to walk out of that church into the night where the air would be clean and I could feel clean. They had supposedly come together to commemorate a high point in the church year, but the only evidence of life was the tinkling of coins falling into the collection plates." (p. 109, Call to Commitment, O'Connor)
After the service, Gordon drove to a small hotel, which happened to be above a tavern. And the tavern was noisy that night. The jukebox was going, and people were singing. Others were laughing and telling stories. And Gordon says:
"I realized that there was more warmth and fellowship in that tavern than there was in the church. If Jesus of Nazareth had His choice He would probably have come to the tavern rather than to the church."
No edifice can make a church a church. Nor can robes or rituals or clergy or doctrine. Nor can history or tradition, however noble. Nor can any human effort.
In his book Loving God, Charles Colson writes:
"The true church is not held together by any structure man creates; it is not an organization. It is alive, its life breathed into it by a sovereign God. . . . The life function of this living organism is to love the God who created it–to care for others out of obedience to Christ, to heal those who hurt, to take away fear, to restore community, to belong to one another, to proclaim the Good News while living it out. The church is the invisible made visible." (p. 196)
You begin with this. With that invisible something which makes us brothers and sisters together. You begin with this–you make sure it's right–and then you can move to that.
This, that, and the other–perspectives on the church. In the second place, THAT. Scripture: "I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it."
Believers collect. I mean they collect together. Jesus intended this. In fact the Greek word for church–ecclesia–means "called out ones." Called apart and collected together to make a larger gathering.
The church is that. The only organization Jesus ever founded. His people on a mission in the world.
The church is called the bride of Christ. And that's one reason you don't want to mess with the church. The church is the bride of Christ and you don't want to mess with someone's bride. You mess with someone's bride and you have him to answer to. If you're his friend, you love and respect his bride.
If you love the Bride of Christ, you love things like this–listen:
He waded into the cold water up to his knees
then across a sandbar and into the current
and turned and called to us
and suddenly the swimming hole was different.
We'd been there for a thousand swims
but it was different
surrounded not by boys and girls in swim suits
but by Sunday dressed ladies and coat and tied men
Shall we gather at the river
the beautiful the beautiful
And we moved in a line
barefoot and in white shirts and wash pants
the girls in dark colored dresses
which would not show through when they got wet
Across the shallows onto the sandbar
and from there went one at a time
in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost
to be put under the water
his arm behind our shoulders
and his hand over our mouth and nose
and our hand on his hand
For only a few seconds but it seemed longer
longer than any time when we had jumped or dropped from a vine
longer than when we swam underwater to scare the girls
longer than we thought we could ever stand
but he pulled us up
and said amen and the people said hallelujah
and our mothers hugged us as we went wet onto the bank.
Then he came out of the water
and we sang On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand
and he lifted his arms over us
all shivering there
the water draining from our pants cuffs
dresses clinging to the girls' legs
And said some words
about our sins washed away
and cleansed in the blood
and born again
And told us we were saved
and would go to heaven
and have life everlasting
and many other important things
we remembered for a long time. ("Baptism" from Nights under a Tin Roof, Autry, p. 80)
Now is that thrilling, or not? Is that the kind of thing you love and live for?
The Bible says, "Christ loved the church and gave himself for it." Those who follow Christ are expected to do the same. What does it mean to "love the church"?
There's a working description of love in First Corinthians 13. You think of weddings, but you need to remember that Paul wrote it to a church. A brawling, divided, preacher-eating, competitive, worldly-minded church. He wrote it for them to show how love works in their midst. Let's notice how.
Love is patient and kind, he says. This speaks of how things were meant to work in the organized church. Which a little girl knew when she prayed at bedtime that God would make all the bad people be good, and all the good people be nice.
Love is not jealous or conceited. The lady asked did he see that fur coat Mrs. Myers wore to church? And he said no. And she asked did he see that new car the Morrison's were driving? And he said no, he didn't notice. And she said, "Well, it doesn't do you much good to go to church then, does it?"
Love is not ill-mannered, Paul says. Like it was in Louisville, Kentucky when eighteen city policemen were called to a Baptist church to restore order at a business meeting.
Love is not selfish, he goes on. You go for what you can give to the church, not what you get from it. Trueblood had an illustration that went like this. Most people think you pay your money and then sit back and watch the performance. Like going to hear an orchestra. And you say it was good today, or not so good, or so terrible you aren't coming back. You judge the performance of others.
But the church of Jesus–Trueblood says–is like an orchestra itself. Each person has an instrument and plays a part. You contribute as part of the whole, with no place for spectators. The question is always, "What, through love, am I giving?"
The next says, love is not irritable. Where you don't have to be on edge, afraid of giving offense because of chips people carry on their shoulders. Where you have to guard what you say with certain people around, like a youngster learning to cuss but having to watch who hears him!
And love keeps no record of wrongs, as some people are fond of doing. Why, give them a name and they can recite a whole list. "Oh, him? Why yah, yah, yah!" "Oh her? Well let me tell you yah, yah, yah!" They keep records, you see, of the bad things, not the good..
Love rejoices not in evil, but rejoices in the truth. And it never gives up. It isn't a quitter. And all this is to say that the most important thing to go on in any local church is the practice of love. The most important task of any church leader is to promote love in the fellowship. By this shall all men know that we're his disciples, if we practice love.
This, that, and the other–perspectives on the church. In the third place, THE OTHER. Scripture: "Other sheep have I which are not of this fold. Them also I must bring. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd."
"Other sheep." We sometimes forget that there are other sheep. We sometimes forget the size of the thing we're a part of. We sit around and think there's no one left but us, while God has thousands who've not bowed down to Baal. Other sheep.
They shall come from the north and from the south, from the east and from the west, and sit down together in the kingdom of God. Other sheep.
You better get ready for those other sheep. For the Lord has "made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth." (Acts 17:26) And "truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." (Acts 10:33) Other sheep.
I love the book of Revelation. It shows about the outcome of things. It shows to hard-pressed and struggling saints that God will be triumphant in and through his church. And from its pages you hear a refrain repeated:
"After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands." (Revelation 7:9)
"They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, "Great and wonderful are thy deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! . . . All nations shall come and worship thee." (Revelation 15:3-4)
The church is like that vision of Ezekiel in chapter 47. He found water flowing from the temple of God. Water than was ankle-deep. And he asked himself was this a stream of ankle-deep water on and on, or what?
So he began to follow the flow of that water, and soon it was knee-deep. And farther on it was up to the loins. And then it became a mighty river, of waters that no one could measure.
I've been in temple water ankle-deep. Where two or three were gathered in his name. How good that was. Thank God for the blessing of that! And I've been where it was knee-deep, a few times at least. I've been with a crowd who worshipped God in Spirit and in Truth.
But, Friends, I've never been downstream from there. Where all those other sheep are gathered together. From every kindred, tribe, and nation. Other sheep.
If you should get to see them before I do, tell them I'll be along. Tell them–I wouldn't miss it.
THE URGE FOR GOD
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day." The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, "I am the bread which came down from heaven." They said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, `I have come down from heaven'?" Jesus answered them, "Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:35-44)
So what if you're an engaged but unsettled young man named Tommy, and you're hunting with a buddy in Scotland. And the two of you get lost and stumble onto this magical town that isn't even on the map. It's named Brigadoon. And you fall in love with the place, and especially with a girl named Fiona. And she's in love with you, but there's this problem.
For one thing, you're already engaged to someone back home. And for another, it takes a total commitment to live in Brigadoon. You have to give up the rest of the world and make it your only home.
Tommy doesn't think he can do that. So he leaves and goes back home. And his fiance is moving right along with those wedding plans. But every time she begins to talk, Tommy begins to hear Fiona sing. And remember how lovely she looked.
And you don't have to have seen the play to know what he'll do. He'll get on a plane and fly to Scotland to find Fiona and live happily ever after–in Brigadoon.
And that moves us–perhaps even to tears–because we were moved like that once, or wish we had been, or wish we could be. And you don't explain it, you just feel it. You don't
capture it by logical analysis. No more than you discover what gives a man a poem or a song or a picture in his paintbrush. Or why rain falls or smoke rises or where the morning mist goes to. The world is full of unpredictables and strange attractions.
So it is with the urge for God. Two people sit in the very same room. They hear the very same sermon, from the very same preacher, on the very same day, from the very same text. One yawns and fidgets and keeps looking at his watch. The other is moved and blessed–"strangely warmed," to use John Wesley's phrase. One is taken and the other left.
Marney told a story about riding to a meeting with the president of a banking chain. The man began telling about his recent interest in helping retarded children. And he said, "You know, Preacher, when you spend time with those retarded children, the banker meetings seem pretty thin." So why does a successful businessman get bored with banking and excited about helping kids?
Why did tax man Zacchaeus climb up that tree beside a road in hope of seeing Jesus? What got into a Sanhedrin member named Nicodemus, who sneaked out one night to find him and discuss religion? What happened to turn Saul of Tarsus from arch-enemy to ardent supporter? People set firmly in one direction, all of a sudden doing an about-face. Because of what?
An urge for God, wouldn't you say?
There's a word about that in John's Gospel, chapter six. Jesus had fed the multitudes there beside a lake. And some were so excited about it they wanted to make him a king. Others were still skeptical. And the next day they asked him for a sign–for proof that he was the Messiah.
They weren't so impressed, in other words. Maybe they remembered that Moses had fed the people too, and done it for years. So what was one good meal compared to that! They wanted something really big. Come on there, Jesus, do us a super-duper miracle, and then we'll believe!
He declined to get into that, but he did say something that spoke to the situation. Listen: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him." (John 6:44)
You don't get argued into heaven. You don't get there like finding the last piece of a puzzle, and all of a sudden the thing just fits in place and you have it. It isn't your human effort. It's an urge for God that gets in your soul and takes you there.
Interesting word, the one that's used in that verse. "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him." Jeremiah used it to say how the Lord had dealt with with Israel: "With lovingkindness have I drawn thee." (Jeremiah 31:3) It's used in Acts where Paul and Silas were dragged before the magistrates. It's used to describe the act of pulling fishing nets toward shore.
The word implies resistance. There's that which draws us and there's that which would keep us where we are. Just like Brigadoon. The Lord draws us but he doesn't overwhelm us. It takes his effort, but it also takes our willingness and cooperation.
God takes the initiative, though. We don't choose him, he chooses us. (John 15:16) In the very first encounter of God with man, what was it that happened? Man had disobeyed and eaten the forbidden fruit. And God went walking in the garden looking for him!
"Adam, where are you?" "Who told you you were naked?" "What have you done?"
There was a man who took a liking to me once. A man who never went to church, and was known as something of a skeptic. And he said, in effect, "Now I want us to be friends, but there's one thing we need to have straight. I'm not about to change the way I live or the way I think, and I don't want to talk about religion." And I said, "That's fine with me."
But you know what? Almost every time we did talk this man who didn't want to talk about religion would bring up the subject. I didn't, he did. I didn't need to, but he did need to. So that's mostly what we talked about. The thing he said he didn't want to talk about was the thing he really wanted to talk about the most!
You never know what may happen at a church on any Sunday.
There was a young couple down in Tennessee. I knew who they were. And I also knew they weren't interested in more than a nominal connection with the church. They came by every year or so on Easter, and that was it. They'd made it plain that was it.
One Sunday they showed up, though. And it wasn't even Easter. And the next Sunday, they were back. I didn't cause that. Some people think I should be able to cause that, but I can't. I think it's the Lord that caused it. Because that couple changed from forgotten dropouts to mainstays in the ministry of that church almost overnight.
By the time I left, their efforts probably added up to more than all the deacons we had put together. More than staff members you might have hired.
How does that happen? Can you make it happen? If you can, then I'll give you a list of some real good candidates! I'll give you names and addresses and telephone numbers at home and at work. But just remember: "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it. And you don't know where it comes from or where it's going. So is every one who's born of the Spirit." (John 3:8) According to Jesus.
I don't mean to say there's nothing to be done. I don't mean to say you just sit down and wait for God to either move you or pass you by. Why am I preaching this sermon, if not in hope there might be someone hearing it with an urge for God already and this could be the start of something?
What to do then? Three very simple, basic things.
You read the Bible, because "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." Martin Luther was reading Romans and found a verse that said "the just shall live by faith." And that turned his life around. It met his need like a prescription does. As if the verse had his name on it.
The second thing you do is be around some people in whom the Spirit of God already dwells. The faith is sometimes taught, but sometimes also it's caught. Caught by being close to those who have it already. As if it's infectuous, which is really is. A lot of people are good Christians today because they admired some saint and wanted whatever he or she had.
And finally, let me mention prayer. I think the Lord may honor an honest prayer that says, "Now whether you're out there or not, I'm not sure. But I'd like to be sure. And since I don't know right now, I'm just going to talk with you, Lord, as if you are there. And please let me know it if you are."
Ask, and there's a chance of getting. Seek and there's a way of finding. Knock, and there may not be an instant opening of the door, but it shows you're available. You're waiting there, and ready to come inside.
WORTHY IS THE LAMB
After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, "Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this." At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads. From the throne issue flashes of lightning, and voices and peals of thunder, and before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God; and before the throne there is as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!" And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, "Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created."
And I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?" And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to into into it. Then one of the elders said to me, "Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals." And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth." Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, "To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!" And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Revelation 4-5)
If you're going to think about heaven, you must use you imagination. Because none of you has ever been there, right? Nor had those who wrote the Bible. What they saw, they saw in visions. Visions like the one that opens the Revelation of John. Imagine!
You're in the Spirit on the Lord's Day, and you hear a voice that tells you to come and see, and you do. You see into heaven. You see God on his throne in heaven. And around that throne the most beautiful rainbow.
At first you only see God, and the shining throne, and those colors of the rainbow. But then . . . but then you see that others are there too. Around that Great Throne there are twenty four other thrones, and twenty four elders, clad in white robes, with crowns of gold on their heads.
And as you're seeing this, all of a sudden there's the clap of thunder and the flash of lightning. And your heart skips about three beats and takes off running!
You're close to all this, and yet not so close. Because in front of the throne there's a sea of glass, sparkling like crystal. And all those colors are reflecting off that sea of glass, and it takes your breath.
You see other creatures there. One like a lion, one like an ox, one like a man, and one like an eagle. And they can fly, and do fly. And they can sing, and do sing. They never cease to sing. And this is their song:
"Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty."
What a song! And you see that when that song is sung, those twenty-four elders take off their golden crowns and cast them before the throne. And they sing too.
How does it make you feel to see this, and hear this? To be part of the worship of God in his actual presence? You are blessed, you are privileged. But why you?
Wait . . . someone is saying something. Asking a question. "Who . . . who is worthy . . . who is worthy to open the scroll?"
That's what he said. And you see in the right hand of God there is a scroll. And you somehow understand that this scroll must be a thing of great importance. You strangely feel there's something there that has to do with your eternal destiny. And if no one can open up that scroll, you'll be lost forever.
No one is answering. Not one of all those elders is stepping forward. No angel, or strange flying creature. No one.
You start to cry.
What can be sadder than to be on the verge of a thing that never works out? To see only the outside of what you longed to see the inside of? To have been lifted up so high, and now to sink down so low.
You don't know what may happen next. And as you stand there now, you stand totally helpless. There's nothing you can do about this yourself. If an elder or an angel isn't able, you know you aren't.
Why can't things be better than they are? Why can't people do better than they do?
One lousy little scroll, and no one can open it? This does not seem fair. Your tears turn angry.
Then someone behind you whispers in your ear. An elder whispers and tells you to stop crying and not be afraid. And then you see a thing you hadn't seen before.
You see a Lamb. Standing as though it had been slain. A slain lamb.
"Despised and rejected by men. A thing of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." But
"Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows . . . smitten by God, and afflicted . . . he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, and with his stripes we are healed."
"Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world."
You see that. And so do they. You see your salvation, and they see theirs. The feeling of relief is immense, and turns to praise. Why, the very ground begins to shake. You hear a thousand voices all saying,
"Worthy is the Lamb who was slain. Worthy is the lamb."
His body was broken for us. His blood for us was shed.
We need that Lamb. Nothing else will do.
YOU AND YOUR BIBLE
2 Timothy 3:10-17
Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my sufferings, what befell me at Antioch, at Ico'nium, and at Lystra, what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
This is a sermon about the Bible. A book that gets praised a lot more often than it gets read and understood.
A certain preacher had a habit of going around to Sunday School classes. One morning he walked in on class of boys and decided to ask a question. He said, "Who broke down the walls of Jericho." Immediately this kid stood up and said, "I didn't do it, I swear."
The preacher looked at the teacher as if for an explanation. And she said, "He's an honest boy, Pastor. I don't think he did it." Well the pastor shook his head, said no more, and left the class. Going down the hall he met a deacon, and explained what had happened. And the deacon said, "Now listen, I've known the teacher and the boy for years, and I know neither one of them would do such a thing."
Well, this preacher was feeling really discouraged about the level of Bible knowledge there. He thought everyone knew about the battle of Jericho. And he was sitting in his study, and the Minister of Education came in. So the preacher told him what had happened. And the Minister of Education said "Well Pastor, try not to take it so hard. Let's just pay the bill for damage to the wall and charge it to building maintenance"!
This morning I want you to imagine with me. Imagine you're somewhere with a lot of people. Somewhere like a party where people are talking in groups, and some are walking around, and lots of different things are going on.
You happen to be walking around. And you pass a group of people who're talking. You're not particularly interested, but you can't help overhearing just a little, and . . . and you hear your name!
Those people are huddled together talking about you. There's no mistake about it, you heard it very clearly. Your name. What on earth?
You glance quickly to see who this is. And whatever boredom you had is gone. You may act as if your attention is elsewhere, but you strain to hear what's being said. Because it's about you.
And if you hear something good, well good. But as the saying goes, "evesdroppers hear no good about themselves." And if the talk you hear is not so good, you could get real upset, right there.
But whatever the outcome, this has your attention. Anyone else you hear them talking about, and you hardly listen. But this you pay attention to.
I'm illustrating something about you and your Bible. The Bible might seem to be about a lot of people like Joshua. Some with funny-sounding names. People you may not be that interested in. But oftener than not, if you pay attention, you hear your name called. You find yourself the subject of discussion.
The Bible is about you. Sometimes it's against you, and sometimes it's for you. It brings grave and serious charges, and warns you often. And yet it holds out amazing promises, things real and ready to be claimed, and as personal as if they came in an envelope with your name on it.
You can miss it, of course. You can write if off as just another conversation in the party of life. Things for teachers to teach about and preachers to preach about. Things of historical interest, but not much else. People feel that way about the Bible who haven't gotten close enough to hear their names called. It's been there, but they've missed it.
God seeks us out. In many different ways he seeks us out. And one of those ways is through the scripture. He wants to bless us, or perhaps warn us. He wants to give us hope or assurance. He wants us to confess something. Or he has a task in mind he wants us to do.
Those doing the Spiritual Growth Plan had a meeting last Sunday evening. We sat around an hour and a half sharing experiences of God through the Bible. One told us she read the scripture for the day and had to go deliver an apology before the day could go on.
You see? In a real and personal sense, the Bible conveys the word of God to you.
That's what Paul is saying in the text from Second Timothy–right? That scripture is inspired by God to be "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man or woman of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
It's one thing to believe the Bible is inspired in general. It's another thing to have it speak to you personally. You have to find in all those words, his word to you. The inspiration of scripture that matters most is how it inspires you.
There's a poem that puts it rather well:
What if I say–
"The Bible is God's Holy Word,
Complete, inspired, without a flaw"–
But let its pages stay
Unread from day to day,
And fail to learn therefrom God's law;
What if I go not there to seek
The truth of which I glibly speak,
For guidance on this earthly way–
Does it matter what I say?
What if I say–
That Jesus Christ is Lord divine–
Yet fellow-pilgrim can behold
Naught of the Master's love in me,
No grace of kindly sympathy?
If I am of the Shepherd's fold,
Then shall I know the Shepherd's voice
And gladly make His way my choice.
We are saved by faith, yet faith is one
With life, like daylight and the sun.
Unless they flower in our deeds,
Dead, empty husks are all the creeds.
To call Christ Lord, but strive not to obey–
Belies the homage that with words I pay.
Karl Barth once said: "Have I experienced anything more important, incisive, serious, contemporary than this, that I have been personally present and have shared in the crossing of Israel through the Red Sea, but also in the adoration of the golden calf; in the baptism of Jesus but also in the denial of Peter and the treachery of Judas–that all this has happened to me here and now?"
There was a time they thought average Christians didn't need the Bible. They should listen to their clergy, who were better educated and able to explain it. But Erasmus, who wrote in 1516, had another view. He said:
I totally disagree with those who are unwilling that the Holy Scriptures, translated into the common tongue, should be read by the unlearned. Christ desires His mysteries to be published abroad as widely as possible. I could wish that even all women should read the Gospel and St Paul's Epistles, and I would that they were translated into all the languages of all Christian people, that they might be read and known not merely by the Scots and the Irish but even by the Turks and the Saracens. I wish that the farm worker might sing parts of them at the plough, that the weaver might hum them at the shuttle, and that the traveller might beguile the weariness of the way by reciting them.
Now it's hard for us to appreciate what a revolutionary idea that was. How firm was the notion that God speaks to the clergy, and the lay people learn about it second-hand. An idea, by the way, that modern Baptist fundamentalists have returned to in full force.
The day has come in Baptist churches when you can get kicked out for disagreeing with the pastor. I doubt that we're on the verge of that here! But you read last summer's SBC resolution against the Priesthood of Believers, and that's the direction things are headed.
There's an interesting scene in the book of Acts. Simon Peter has a person down on his knees in front of him. And it's no apology or begging for favors–it's worship. Imagine being a church leader and having people worship you instead of God. Imagine how tempting that would be. Not to speak of profitable!
But Peter begins immediately to get the man up. He says, "Stand on your feet, for I also am a man."
I think there's a lesson there, and a bit of parable. There are folk who kneel down to the Bible as if it were an object of worship. But the Bible is like Peter. The Bible witnesses to things beyond it, just as he did. It wasn't intended to be worshiped, any more than he was.
It's what? "A lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path." A lamp is for shining on something other than itself. A light for a path is so you can see the way and get where you're going. The Bible isn't where we're going, the Bible was given to help take us there.
It's to answer questions. Questions like these:
"If a man die, shall he live again?" (Job 14:14)
"Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9)
"Why are you cast down, O my soul?" (Psalm 42:5)
"Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" (Jeremiah 12:1)
"Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?" (Jeremiah 8:22)
"What think ye of Christ?" (Matthew 22:42)
"Lord, what would you have your servant do?" (Acts 22:10)
And if we listen well–if we trust and obey–we can say with Paul that "God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."