How often do you stop to think seriously about the ultimates of your human existence?
That’s a heavy question, isn’t it? This week I have been pondering that question for myself. I have to conclude that although I am a very reflective person, I do not that often strip life down to its ultimate questions.
Why not? I don’t because I am usually caught up in the tyranny of the urgent. And when I am not caught up in the tyranny of the urgent, I am usually seeking diversion from those urgent matters that so preoccupy my thoughts.
This is not to minimize or trivialize the urgent. My urgent is important! And so is yours! But how often do we shut our systems down long enough to set priorities by asking ourselves some tough questions?
One year my church gave me, as it did each of us on the program staff, a three-month sabbatical. That was a dangerous thing to do. Why? Because for the first time in 47 years of life I was freed from any externally imposed deadlines. I was in complete control of how I would use my time.
As I spent those weeks alone, commuting from the campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the northeast suburbs of Boston to my classes at Harvard University, there was plenty of aloneness, no tyranny of the urgent, and stimulation of ideas that were not utilitarian in nature. In that environment, life gets stripped down quickly to its essentials. Everything becomes re-examined. That’s the luxury and the danger of a sabbatical.
Another environment enables this to happen. It is the environment of death. Jesus consecrates it for us. The night before He was crucified, He stripped matters down to essentials in a way we can all find helpful. If you knew you were going to die in the next few hours, you would do this too, wouldn’t you? You would think and talk seriously about the ultimates, both for your own sake as to your own future, and for the sake of your loved ones as to their futures.
Jesus did this. He talked about His life and death and that which is of most importance to others. He talked in terms of four priorities. He talked about the way to live and die. He talked about the truth about living and dying. He talked about the way to live Life, spelled with a capital L. And He talked about how to have a healthy connect with God.
Would you agree that these are the most important topics? Don’t all four of these embody the ultimates of your human existence. He made this statement about all four; Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (
I. I need and want to know the WAY.
I have discovered over the years that, for me, the best way is not always my way. There are times in which I could sing along with Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” The results were not always the best. A lot of people have messed things up doing it their way. How about you?
Jesus said, “I am the way.” He didn’t say “a way.” There was a finality with which He spoke. There was an absolute to His expression. I need to decide if it will be my way or if it will be His way. His is the way away from sin and guilt. His is the way toward restoration of all I was created to be. His is a narrow way; it is not an easy way. Jesus made that clear when He stated, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (
This week I have been browsing through that classic work by John Bunyan titled The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is a story of a man named Christian who determined that life in the City of Destruction was not the best existence. With the help and guidance of the Evangelist, he headed out on a journey, fraught with many perils, to the Celestial City. It describes the struggles of the Christian life. The way is not easy.
I commend this book to you as must reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the way, God’s way, through this life to heaven. Take the time to think this through. You have only one opportunity. Don’t lose it. Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent strip you of your freedom to decide to go God’s way.
I need and want to know the way. I have decided irrevocably to take Jesus at His word and believe that He is the way. How about you? That’s one ultimate you and I can commit ourselves to now!
II. I need and want to know the TRUTH.
I have discovered the hard way that the truth is not derived from my own most creative thinking. My own creative thinking helps me assess the various competing claims for truth. But ultimately, if I rely on my own philosophical quest to bring me to ultimate truth, I will never cease that quest. For there is no end to knowing and the search for meaning. I am committed to a continuing dynamic, thoughtful, intellectual existence. But I must do that within the context of confronting what Jesus said. He put it on the line when He stated: “I am the truth.”
The options as I see them are quite clear.
Option one for me is that of coming to some set of philosophical truths, independent of biblical revelation, truths upon which I will build my life. There are many competing truth systems that want my allegiance. Each of them has something quite creative and helpful, as long as I do not absolutize them. It’s at the moment at which I absolutize that I fall prey to the error in those systems.
Capitalism provides an economic understanding of human endeavor. To neglect the truths of such creative thinkers as Adam Smith and others is to deny some very important economic and psychological facts of life. But to sell my soul to Capitalism is to miss another whole dimension of human existence.
Karl Marx had some very important insights. He was not all wrong. So I can study Marxism and extract some truths about human existence. But to sell my soul to the whole system will commit me to error. Some of those who have made that commitment are only now beginning to realize the horrendous errors of their system.
I am vulnerable to falsehood. I am susceptible to myths, some myths that are true and some that are false. Some myths have that ambiguous mix of both truthhood and falsehood that lead me in the wrong direction.
Option two for me is the option of relativism. This is such a temptation for so many today. We live in a relativistic age. Allan Bloom analyzes this in his controversial, yet perceptive, work, The Closing of the American Mind. For many, truth is a matter of opinion. Morality is a matter of personal choice. Not all issues are clear-cut. I must learn to live with ambiguity.
However, I am watching people I love self-destruct as they buy into this notion that truth is a matter of opinion and morality a matter of personal choice. I see men and women leaving spouses and children, listening to the siren song that promises a better life. They say, “I have a right to be me,” only to find themselves tossed about in the waves of relativism to final shipwreck. They are persons who are determined to have their one chance at life at the price of nurturing. Career and pleasure become more important than commitments made. And God only knows what the ultimate result will be.
What is truth, the professor asks. His pregnant pause is followed by an answer to his own rhetorical question. Truth is truth for me. How subtly seductive is that statement.
Option three is that Jesus is the embodiment of truth. I must make a choice through my own reasoning. I have made some wrong assumptions in life based on my own notions about truth, and I no longer am prepared to trust my own philosophical musings when it comes to ultimate truth. I understand the relativity of some matters. Yet I am not about to be tossed to and fro by whatever notion happens to be popular at the time, only to find myself shipwrecked.
I have made my choice. I’ll trust Jesus to be the truth, my absolute referent for life. He is the One who tells me where I came from, why I am here, where I am going, and how I can live the most creative existence in the now. He gives me His Handbook for living, the Bible, to alert me to right and wrong, the best ways of handling situations, and relating to myself and others and to Him. I am privileged to live in a dynamic tension, enabled by the Holy Spirit, on those matters in which there are no easy answers.
Either Jesus Christ is the Keystone that holds the arch of all human existence together or He is not. If He is and I do not worship Him as such, everything then crumbles, either with me in error or into ethical and personal relativity. If His scenario is correct, then I am privileged to be part of a positive, creative existence in a cosmic scheme much larger than myself but of which I am a very important part.
I need and want to know the truth. I have decided irrevocably to take Jesus at His word and believe He is the truth. How about you? That’s one ultimate you and I can commit ourselves to now.
III. I need and want to experience LIFE with a capital L.
I have discovered that doing my own thing, fleshing out an animal existence based on pleasure, doesn’t bring ultimate fulfillment. Certainly Michael Vick, Amy Winehouse, and O.J. Simpson are finding this out.
I get things beautifully structured for myself. I hedge all my bets by careful, calculated living. Then some catastrophe hits, or more subtly things start leaking around the edges. My best plans for life can’t guarantee the health and the safety of the people I love. Haven’t you found it to be the same? Those of us who are the most organized often end up the most frustrated because we can only organize a part of our lives. Our best-written scenarios don’t turn out the way we’d always like.
A friend of mine, Charles L. Bartow, professor of preaching at San Francisco Theological Seminary, observed the pain of his own daughter when one of her best friends was killed in the bombing of that airplane over Scotland. A man of faith, a Christian minister, a professor, a classmate of mine, he penned these words in what he called a “Sonnet in Remembrance of Pan American Flight 103”:
Flight 103 went off the radar screen
A silent signal of soon, certain doom
For those she carried, and, for others, gloom
To overwhelm the season, calm, serene
In which she fell. The happy Christmas green,
The festive, red poinsettias in full bloom,
The fire-warmed cheer that filled the living room
All failed. Yet does not this grief-stricken scene,
Its scattered bones of innocents and cries
Of mourning, give us a pause, a solemn chance
To hear the Christmas requiem, fleshed Word
Divine now crashed to earth with tears and sighs
Too deep for words, that mournful prayers might dance
Before their God and there, by grace, be heard?
You see, there is no way I can hedge my bet, guaranteeing for my loved ones, for myself the kind of life I would plan. At the moment I least expect it, the ball takes a crazy bounce. My best plans are no guarantee of my own existence here.
Jesus said, “I am the life.” He is the absolute embodiment of life with a capital L.
You see, His life puts purpose behind the inexplicable. I can’t make any sense of a child being abducted, raped and murdered. I can’t make any sense of a beautiful mother being killed by a drunken driver. I can’t make any sense of innocent lives taken by a terrorist’s actions. I can’t make any sense out of malignant cells stripping life from the people I love.
But Jesus sees the overall pattern. He didn’t create evil. He doesn’t like disease. But He has a way of taking the worst tragedies and enabling us to survive, and to be more than survivors. We can trust Him with the lives of our loved ones. We can trust Him with our own lives because He has made provision for us.
His life turns our insignificance into significance. Jesus says that you have worth, that you are not an accident. The greatest of difficulties need not conquer you. He gives you His creative energy to handle whatever comes your way.
I received a letter from a woman in Pittsburgh who receives our weekly printed sermons. She was responding to a sermon I preached, titled “When You Feel Forsaken.” She described the anguish of her early married life when she discovered that she and her husband could not have children. She wrote about how her one love in life has always been babies and children. Yet, early in her marriage, she had to have surgery that made childbearing an impossibility.
“I was devastated. All my friends were having babies. My arms ached to hold a baby of my own. Night after night I cried.” This was back in the 1930s.
The war came. Her husband went to war. She saw an ad in the newspaper for someone to take care of a baby while the mother went to the hospital. Somehow that mother was never able to raise her own child; the letter writer raised her. And today that baby is a registered nurse and the assistant director in a cardiac rehabilitation center.
Taking in that one little baby led to another, and another. Sometimes it was bringing a child home for a weekend. Sometimes it was having a child just for a day. But over all these years, over a hundred children came under her care. Some have stolen, lied, causing enormous pain for others and for themselves. Some have turned out well. She writes describing the privilege of being ministered to by the Lord when she felt most forsaken, only to know life, the special life given by God.
His life equips you for life beyond this human existence.
That’s what makes a memorial service for one who died in Christ a joyous occasion. Yes, there are tears for ourselves, those of us who remain. It’s at this point that the resurrection message impacts us in all of its creative promise for we realize life does not end with death. The Apostle Paul wrote:
For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (
He has equipped us for eternity. He has prepared a place for us. He will take us to be with Himself. Life in heaven with Jesus is the perfect existence. This is the promise of God’s Word.
I need and want to experience the life with a capital L. I have decided irrevocably to take Jesus at His word and believe that He is the life. How about you? That’s one ultimate you and I can commit ourselves to now!
IV. I need and want to know how to have a CONNECT with God.
I have discovered that I cannot produce that for myself. It only comes through Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (
I realize what I am saying here is an offensive notion to some living in this relativistic world. Most of us, myself included, would like the very best for everyone. That altruistic motivation, as healthful and good as it is, can lead us to the relativistic concept that all roads are leading in the same direction.
Jesus loves us enough to tell it like it is. He articulates claims that are exclusive. It is impossible for anyone to be at peace with God, it is impossible for anyone to have right relationship with the Father, unless it is through Jesus Christ. His atoning work on the cross was designed for all humankind. There is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ.
This sounds like the stuff of the Saddam Hussein, doesn’t it? It does until you stop to realize that this Jesus is not some kind of megalomaniac who is demanding the power and is determined to crush those who don’t fall in line with His militaristic declarations. Far from it. This Jesus is the ultimate Peacemaker. This Jesus is the One who has borne upon Himself our brokenness, our sin, our alienation. This Jesus is the One through whose death and resurrection you and I are set free to be restored to right relationship with God, right relationship with ourselves, and right relationship with each other.
This Jesus rose from the dead. Ours is a resurrection faith. And the message of the church through 2000 years is that declared by the Apostle Peter in
John Griffith grew up in Oklahoma with the dream of traveling to faraway places to see exotic sights. That dream crashed with the stock market in 1929, the Great Depression, and the Oklahoma “dust bowl.” He packed up his wife and tiny baby boy and their few meager belongings in an old car and drove to the edge of the Mississippi River where he got a job caring for one of those great railway bridges that crossed the Mighty Mississippi. According to the late D. James Kennedy, it was in 1937 that this true story took place.
For the first time, John Griffith brought his then 8-year-old son, Greg, to work with him to see what Daddy did. The boy was wide-eyed with excitement to see how the huge bridge went up at the beck and call of his mighty father. He watched with wonderment as the huge boats steamed down the Mississippi.
At 12 o’clock his father put up the bridge. There were no trains due for a while. Then they went out together a couple of hundred feet on the catwalk to the observation deck and sat down. They opened the brown bag and began to eat their lunch. The father told his boy about some of the strange, faraway lands that some of these ships were going to visit. The boy was entranced. The time whirled by.
Suddenly they were drawn back instantly into reality by the shrieking of a distant train whistle. John Griffith quickly looked at his watch. He saw that it was time for the 107, the Memphis Express with 400 passengers, to be rushing across that bridge in just a couple of minutes. He knew he just had time. So without panic but with alacrity he told his son to stay where he was. He leapt to his feet, jumped to the catwalk, ran back, climbed the ladder to the control room, went in, put his hand on the huge lever that controlled the bridge. He looked up the river and down to see if any boats were coming, then to see if there were any beneath the bridge.
Suddenly he saw a sight which froze his blood. His boy had tried to follow him to the control room and had fallen into the huge box that housed the monstrous gears that operated the massive drawbridge. His son’s left leg was caught between the two main gears. The father knew that if he pushed that lever his son would be ground in the midst of tons of winding, grinding steel. His eyes filled with tears of panic. His mind whirled. What could he do?
He saw a rope there in the control room. He could rush down the ladder to the catwalk, tie off the rope, lower himself down, extricate his son, climb back up the rope, run back into the control room, and lower the bridge. No sooner had his mind done that exercise than he knew there wasn’t time. He would never make it. There were 400 people on that train. He heard the whistle again. This time it was startlingly closer. He could hear the clicking of the locomotive wheels on the track.
What could he do? There were 400 people on the train. But this was his son. This was his only son. He was a father. He knew what he had to do. So he buried his head in his arms and pushed the gear forward. The great bridge slowly lowered into place just as the express train roared across.
He lifted his tear-smeared face and looked straight into the flashing windows of that train as it flashed by. He saw men reading the afternoon paper, a conductor in uniform looking at a large vest pocketwatch, ladies sipping tea out of tea cups, and little children pushing long spoons through scoops of ice cream. Nobody looked into the control room. Nobody looked at his tears. Nobody looked into the great gear box.
In heart-wrenching agony, he beat against the window of the control room and said, “What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you care? I gave my son, I sacrificed my son for you!” But nobody looked. Nobody heard. Nobody heeded. And the train disappeared across the river.
The Triune God, the Father, saw our human predicament. He had to make the choice to let us plunge headlong into disaster as a human race, as individuals. He chose to take human form in the very person of His Son and to be crushed by the grinding gears of our sin, our hurts, our rebellion. Through His death on the cross and His resurrection, you and I are offered meaning, forgiveness, strength for both this life and the next. No one who is saved, however much or little they know about the cost of that salvation, is saved by anyone other than Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen Savior and Lord.
I need and want to know this salvation and how to have this connect, peace with God. I have decided irrevocably to take Jesus at His Word and believe that no one comes to the Father except through Him. How about you? That’s one ultimate you and I can commit ourselves to now!
I invite you to commit yourself for the first time or anew to the Jesus Christ who declares, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
How often do you stop to think seriously about the ultimates of your human existence?