April 1, 1990
Something Worse Than Death
(John 11:1-45)
In November 1988, I was asked to preach a person’s funeral service who had never been involved in the church. He had, however, family members scattered throughout the churches in our town. As his terminal cancer progressed quickly, most of the preachers in town — at the request of this fellow’s family members — were charged with the task of converting him “before it was too late.” Whether a successful campaign was mounted or not was the subject of much speculation during the next ministerial alliance meeting.
During the funeral this long passage, John 11:1-45, was read in its entirety by another minister. I watched the family member’s faces while this story of John’s was read. Some of the faces relaxed as they heard these words as words of comfort; other faces were twisted in pain as they seemed to be confronted by the gospel truth. Some faces reflected anger that such a long passage would be read during intense grief. I simply marveled, hearing the profound beauty of John’s story.
Artistically, this narrative has many literary nuances which could be beneficially explored. I would rather, however, look at it as a story of Jesus’ ministry with one disturbing question attached: why does Jesus not come quickly to Bethany after He hears of Lazarus’ death? You remember, Jesus hears of Lazarus’ death and “He stayed two days longer in the place where He was” (verse 6). Why?
Several answers can be put forth. First, we might say that Jesus already knew what was to happen at Bethany. The delay was to heighten the faith of the disciples when the actual raising of Lazarus took place. “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (verses 14-15). Or we might point out Jesus’ saying, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I will go and wake him out of sleep” — this itself being an indication that Jesus has power over nature and over death.
A third explanation might be tied to the importance of the ministry Jesus was doing before going on to Bethany. After all, everything Jesus does in the Gospels has ultimate significance for those with whom He is engaged. Though the need at Bethany was great, who is to say what ministry is the most important. It is, in any event, a matter of perspective.
All these answers are plausible, but most of us know what kind of suffering people go through when a loved one has died. People are never ready for death. They have a wide variety of thoughts and feelings. They are anxious and troubled. They feel pain, separation, anger, and despair. Whatever reasons Jesus had in delaying his trip to Bethany, the feelings of the family do not seem to be taken into account. Their pain seems an awfully high price to pay to make a theological point.
Mary and Martha, grieving as they must have, make Jesus’ empathy in this story look anything but sensitive. Why did Jesus not drop what He was doing and go to them at once? This is a valid question and one which begs for an answer.
Hard as it may be to imagine, I think Jesus knew that there are things human beings face that are worse than death. This is a radical view, no doubt. But it accounts for His delay. From the human point of view it is hard to accept, but from the perspective of the gospel, it may be the truth. There are some things worse than death.
As my pastor friend read this passage at the funeral that dreary November day, it hit me. Funerals are rarely happy times. People are distraught and grieving. Funerals remind us of our finitude and inability to control death. We are each of us, people who like to control our destiny but death will not allow this.
All funerals are sad because, in the starkest fashion, funerals remind people that we are not all-powerful. It is a thought we would rather not think. We can illustrate forever the human avoidance of death. No one, however, needs the illustrations.
The saddest funeral service is not for one who has lived a full and useful life. The saddest funeral is not for a faithful servant of God who was taken before his or her time. The saddest funeral is for one who has never really lived. Jesus knew this. His life is a constant reminder that life is to be lived abundantly. Lazarus got a second chance. (DM)
April 8, 1990
The King Who Serves
(Philippians 2:5-11)
If there is a more liturgically confusing day in the church, I’m not sure I could identify it. On the one hand, the day is designated by the church as Passion Sunday. On this Sunday the church remembers Jesus’ suffering on the cross, as well as other aspects of Christ’s passion.
It is the beginning of Holy Week — the week in which we liturgically march with Jesus toward the crucifixion. Passion Sunday is a reminder, symbolically through worship, that this Messiah of God suffered as a human being and died as a human being. There is pain and trauma involved.
Many of us would rather not dwell on this week of Jesus’ life, but we know, all too well, it is an important day. Our culture’s primary vocation in life is avoidance of pain and suffering; for us, Passion Sunday may well be the most important day.
On the other hand, in some churches this day will be celebrated as Palm Sunday. The Gospel reading for the day, Matthew 21:1-11, tells the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Riding into Jerusalem on the back of not a warhorse but a colt at least gives the impression of a military parade. This is, however, no May Day in Red Square! The people are looking for a great military leader of valor; one saving them from centuries of foreign domination. They all yearn for a king like King David, whose great monarchy gave Israel a position of power and prestige as God’s chosen people.
In reading the Service of the Psalms for Palm Sunday, we would hear these words, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord” (Psalms 118:19). The psalm is not strictly a royal psalm, though this particular verse does have a royal thrust.
Paul’s passage from Philippians clears up what may seem to be this strange juxtaposition of Passion/Palm Sunday. For Paul speaks straight to the matter of how this one, Jesus, attains His peculiar claim to messiah kingship. Jesus is Messiah, not by virtue of being a warrior but rather in spite of this powerful image. The expectations of Israel run in a different direction. Jesus is the messiah they are not expecting. He is not even recognized by those who have been trained in religious discernment. His identity is hidden in a different type of majesty.
The people of Israel expect a messiah of strength, force of will, and the wisdom to lead them into battle. What they get, at least according to Paul, is one who is emptied, humble, and obedient — even unto death. Imagine looking for a fighter of enemies and seeing one loving them instead.
In a way, one could say that Jesus is exalted precisely because of these very unlikely attributes. He speaks about what it means to love one another. It is in service people find meaning.
Herman Hesse wrote a novel some years ago, Journey to the East was a fictional story about a group on religious pilgrimage. One of the characters was named Leo. He was part of the group because he was willing to do tasks beneath the dignity of the other travelers. Beyond this, though, Leo buoyed the group with his songs and winsome personality.
The journey was a great success — that is, until Leo disappeared. Eventually the solidarity of the group collapses, for without Leo the servant there was no adhesive to hold the sojourning community together. The sponsor of the pilgrimage had originally put Leo in charge, though in cognito. No one on the pilgrimage knew he was the designated leader. The one who had been their servant, they discovered too late, had, in reality, been their leader — because he was their servant.
Paul tells us in beautiful, singing language that Jesus is like this. He is king not because He looks or acts like a king. He is King because He loves people as God loves them. In Christ’s human passion is His royal procession. (DM)
April 15, 1990
Power for the Powerless
(John 20:1-18)
On an old tombstone in upstate New York, an epitaph is inscribed which reads:
In memory of
Ellen Shannon
Aged 26 years
Who was fatally burned
March 21, 1870
by the explosion of a lamp
filled with R.E. Danforth’s
Burning Fluid
Many of us know what it is like to have non-explosive things explode in our faces. Things are always happening to us that never were supposed to happen. Circumstances are always occurring which were never anticipated. There have been times — too many to count — when we simply felt powerless in the face of all that has happened.
We know what it is like to have sure-fire deals fall flat. We have tried our share of preventatives that do not prevent …. solutions that do not solve anything …. remedies that do not cure …. panaceas that do not pan out …. promises which are not kept …. and reforms which change nothing!
But the message of Easter morning is that we are not condemned to live a defeated life. God is willing to roll away all the stones which seemed to seal our fate.
Too good to be true, you say? That is such a typical response. The fact is that we are always more inclined to despair than hope. We frequently declare ourselves down and out and our undertakings over and done with before the final verdict is in. We are much more easily susceptible to believing the worst — even about ourselves — than to count on the best.
Do you recall how the news of the battle of Waterloo came to London? It was brought by sailing ship to the southern coast of England. Then it was signalled by lantern to the heart of the capital.
One of the signalers was on the roof of Winchester Cathedral at the edge of the city. Having received the message, he began to signal to the next station. He had only signalled the two words “Wellington defeated” when a thick fog closed in. The rest of the news could not be signalled.
When the partial message was all that was received, London was plunged into gloom. However, after several hours the fog lifted and the signal man on the Cathedral repeated his entire message which read: “Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.”
Mary Magdalene allowed the cloud of her despair to interpret the meaning of the empty tomb. His body was not there so she concluded: “They have taken Him out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:2). Apparently, no other possible explanation even entered her mind.
She responded in typically human fashion and spread the word of despair to Peter. It was only after coming back to the grave a second time that other possibilities began to surface.
There were His grave clothes (John 20:5b). In another place was the cloth which had been on His head. If someone had stolen the body, why would they bother with unwrapping the corpse?
Although they agreed that it made no sense at all, the disciples concluded that someone had moved His body (John 20:8). They went home, the mystery still unexplained.
Mary stayed a while longer, however, standing along outside the tomb, weeping. According to John, it was then that two angels appeared and asked: “Why are you weeping?” (John 20:13).
Luke’s account states that they inquired why she was looking among the dead for the living (24:5). In other words, “Mary, why are you so prone to imagining the worst? Don’t you remember how He told you that He would be given over to sinful men who would crucify Him but then on the third day He would rise? He is not here. He is risen!” (24:6-7).
John states that Mary did not even believe that word, although it came from heaven itself. For her, it took an appearance by the risen Jesus Himself before she was ever truly open to believe the resurrection.
She was not alone in her skepticism, however. Later that same day, Thomas heard that Jesus had been raised from the dead. He stubbornly refused to believe it until he saw Him with his own eyes. Not only that, Thomas insisted upon touching Jesus with his own hands (John 20:25).
Sadly, the world is more apt to believe in its heroes’ ability to snatch victory from defeat than Jesus’ followers are to believe the same about their Lord. “It’s not over ’til the fat lady sings” we say when our team is losing and hopes are fast fading that they might catch up. “Wait until next year,” we wistfully declare, refusing to give up on a coach or team we believe in.
Fortunately, His resurrection victory was not complete until His defeated disciples shared His triumph. And that explains why He made such deliberate attempts to show Himself to so many.
Only in that way could His resurrection become their personal triumph …. over fear! Apparently, there was nothing which Jesus felt compelled to challenge more than fear. This was a particular concern for His disciples in the final weeks of His ministry.
At the last supper, He said to them:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:27).
Even then, they fled the garden when He was arrested. Most apparently stayed away from His execution, fearing the same fate. After His burial, they were hiding out for fear of the Jews.
Responding to their fear, the first words the angels said each time they announced Jesus’ resurrection were “fear not.” Eugene O’Neill has written a profoundly beautiful play entitled Lazarus Laughed. The play describes what life was like for the brother of Mary and Martha after Jesus called him back from the grave.
As you might expect, there were many changes in his behavior. Yet, the most important change was that he was not afraid anymore. He had gone through the worst that could ever happen to any of us …. and it had not destroyed him or swept him out of God’s hands.
His message to everyone was: “Don’t be afraid. There is nothing to fear. There is only life. There is only God.”
And that was the message of the first Easter. Do not be afraid. He is not here. He is risen, just as He told you. There is no more reason to be afraid.
We, too, are consumed by fear. Our fear ranges from a vague uneasiness and anxiety about everything in general to nothing in particular. We fear specific things: disease, old age, loneliness, parenting, marriage, strangers, being hurt, causing hurt, failure, punishment, germs, nightmares, bankruptcy, responsibility, death, the dark.
I once heard a pastor tell about a time when his church was involved in building a new educational unit. He told of walking through the building, just to bask in a sense of accomplishment and pride. No one was around. The staff was gone. The construction crew was gone. It was getting dark.
He noticed a room he had never entered before. He walked in and let go of the door. Then, he realized there was no doorknob on the inside of the door.
Although it was almost completely dark inside, he did not panic. He just waited for his eyes to adjust. And that’s when he saw the other man in the room with him. The pastor could barely see him. So he said, “Can I help you?” It was a polite way of saying, “What are you doing in here?”
But the man didn’t answer. That’s when the pastor began to notice that the man was bigger than he and much uglier. So he prayed, “Lord, I need more light, lots more light.” And then he turned straight toward the man and said, “What are you doing in here?” The man still did not reply.
The pastor thought he was in serious trouble. He reached back for the door. When he did, he realized that he was not in the room with another man, but he was in a room with a mirror.
Most of our fears are caused by our own reflections and worries. The worst that could happen to us is death. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, however, there is no reason to be afraid.
Two hundred years ago, a diary was found floating on the open sea. The sailor had written on one of the pages:
If you should hear that our ship has been sunk and there are no survivors, do not cry. The sea in which my body sinks is only a puddle in the hollow of my Saviour’s hand. Nothing can snatch me from that hand.
If you are defeated by fear …. if you are cowering in the corners of your life …. if you are an emotional paralytic … then you do not have to be afraid anymore. You can be set free to seize opportunities to build new relationships and to discover and follow God’s purpose and plan for your life.
The resurrection of Jesus has overcome even the worst that can happen to us …. even death! Not even death can snatch us from the Savior’s hand.
During the War Between the States, a Union soldier from Ohio was shot in the arm during the battle of Shiloh.
His captain saw he was injured and barked an order: “Gimme your gun, Private, and get to the rear!”
The private handed over his rifle and ran toward the north, seeking safety. But after covering two or three hundred yards, he came upon another skirmish. Then he ran to the east and into another part of the battle. Then he ran west, but encountered more fighting there.
Finally he ran back to the front lines, shouting: “Gimme back my gun, Cap’n. There ain’t no rear to this battle!”
When it comes to the troubles of this world, there “ain’t no rear” to the battle! You just cannot run away and hide.
The Easter proclamation, however, is that you can win! In the power of God which raised Jesus Christ from the dead, you can win! The resurrection of Jesus can become your own personal triumph. (GCR)
April 22, 1990
Hope That Gives Cope
(1 Peter 1:3-9)
This generation has been given a lot of labels; few are complimentary. It has been called the “now” generation, emphasizing an appeal for the instantaneous; the “angry” generation, suggesting its impatience with inconvenience. We have seen enough to make us nervous for life. The jet age has been overrun by the computer age. We are afraid to buy a new video recorder because a better and cheaper model will be advertised by this afternoon.
We have high-teched ourselves out of a job. We have engaged in an international race for greater technology — and technology has won the race. Our nerves do not hold out as well as machines. Our computers give easier answers than we do.
Our bookshelves are loaded with “how to” books, proving that we do not know how to. Gerald Kennedy, a former bishop in the Methodist Church, wrote, “Whenever a generation talks long and anxiously about a philosophy of life, you may be sure it does not have one that works. We are not worried about our health until we are sick; we are not concerned about happiness except when we are bored; we are not anxious for the good life until we are overwhelmed with the evil of our present life…. We think that all of our problems can be reduced to an equation. If two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen equal water, then happiness ought to equal two parts of this and one part of that.”
We try to simplify life like the two Arabs Colonel Lawrence took with him to England. They were enamored with all the gadgets of modern civilization. When asked what they would like as a gift, they replied, “Two hot water faucets.” They figured that they could turn them on in the middle of the desert just as they did in the London hotel. Plumbing is not as easy as turning a handle!
We are a society in desperate search of answers, but they elude us. We must do something with the heart attacks, the cancer victims, the child abusers, the broken homes, the terrorists. Our age has succeeded in so many areas. We are en route to conquering outer space, but inner space lies in shambles for too many.
Our age needs to know how to cope. It is as confused as the farmer pulling a rope behind him as he walked across a field. When asked what he was doing he replied, “I don’t know if I lost my horse or found a rope.” He sounds like the businessman who was asked if he had trouble making decisions. He answered, “Well, yes and no.”
The apostle Peter addressed himself to some stressed out people in Asia Minor. He did not let them off the hook of responsibility nor give them any three-step solutions to their dilemmas. They were wondering if and when the increasingly hostile policy of the Roman government would reach them. He said that it probably would and soon.
There are those today who would like to make Christianity into a cross-less, painless journey. Not so, says Peter. No instant formulas or advice to swallow like a prescription. Instead, a monumental declaration of the mercy of God in bringing believers into a living hope that life’s pressures cannot distort, life’s corrosive poisons cannot rust, and life’s internal terrorists cannot destroy.
If you identify with some of the pressures of our fast-paced age, please identify now with Peter’s bold statements about our hope in the presence of pain. If you can hope, you can cope. If you know the future is going to be better, the present is better already.
Someone has said, “He who has no hope in the future has no hold on today.” You have seen the proverbial cat hanging for dear life by the skin of its paws. If you told that cat, “Three more minutes and help is on the way,” she could endure. If, however, you informed her that she would need to hang in there for another three hours, the feline would drop in ten seconds. Our generation has been losing its cope because it has been losing its hope. There’s little sign that the tension will let up.
Listen to Peter tell us the nature of our hope.
I. It has been initiated by a merciful Father. (1:3a)
God looked down through history and saw desperate people losing out. He saw stressed-out sinners fighting other stressed-out sinners. He saw capable, gifted people destroying themselves with bitterness. And He saw you and me. He fashioned an eternal plan of redemption that took into account our failure and frailty and by which His deep compassion for the human race could be justifiably expressed.
He chose us then. Before we could ever say, “I found it,” He said, “I found them.” He engineered the plan that gave us a destiny while we were still only in His mind. The Greek word Peter employs for foreknowledge (1:2) is “prognosis.” We use it to mean a forecast or prediction. It includes some guesswork. But it literally means “to know before.” God’s prognosis of you is shaped by what He knows, not by what He thinks. He sees every blood-bought sinner sharing in the destiny of His Son Jesus.
Our roots go back to the predetermined will of God in the backlog of eternity. We have a history because God made a choice, a decision that cannot be altered by a paranoid pontificate like Nero, who found pleasure in feeding Christians to lions or using them as human torches for his garden parties. The God who laid His eyes on you then has His hands upon you now.
A mother of two small children — tired of harsh treatment by her divorced husband — tried overdosing. A Christian friend walked in on her, then called her pastor. They got her to the hospital. Back at the pastor’s office later that day, the lady found it difficult to believe God loved her. All the men in her life had abused her. She was promised that if she just kept living they would convince her of God’s caring heart.
Now, two years later, she is a productive Christian who shares in the ministry of the congregation. Last Easter, this lady, a gifted artist, presented the church with a life-size oil painting of the resurrected Christ. She once lost her cope. Now hope fills her life. She has a new Father. Our hope finds its commencement in the Father-heart of God.
II. Our hope is based on history, not happenstance — fact, not fantasy.
“… We have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
Hope in good health, a raise, a mate, a change in the weather, a better economy, or a strong president, is not living hope because it is founded on variables, not absolutes. Peter affirmed that no provincial governor of Cappadocia could annul a hope based on an unchanging event of history — the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Our momentary time of trial is shaped by two destiny-making monuments of time: one at the crux of history, the other at curtain-close. He declares, “Your security is as sure as the resurrection and revelation of Christ.” Time is being shaped by the God of eternity Who has it in His grasp. It is not simply the arbitrary account of events; it is proceeding toward a grand climax, the revealing of the Desire of the nations. Such truth can give hope to the deserted and divorced, the jobless and the homeless, the oppressed and the dispossessed.
The whole congregation had waited expectantly for the joyful arrival of a dear family’s first child. Now we stood at the grave of a friend’s child who died shortly after birth. The father said, “I feel like half of me is in heaven. I’m glad I believe in the resurrection.” We say in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” We can declare that because we also affirm the resurrection of Christ’s body.
III. Our hope is guarded by the power of God.
“(You) are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (verse 5).
I know several men who have lost tens of thousands in risky investments. The higher the dividend, the greater the gamble — true with the stock market, but not true with the safe deposit box in heaven.
Peter uses a military term to describe the twenty-four hour surveillance of heaven over the inheritance belonging to every adopted child of the Almighty. It is garrisoned about by the watchful eye of our Father. Peter says that it is “kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith …” (verses 4, 5).
Salvation from all that defeats and destroys us is as vulnerable as the throne of heaven. Is it dependent more on our faith or on God’s strength? Japanese sign language pictures faith as God’s mighty arm reaching down and linking up with our weak arm. Heaven and earth have made a connection, but it is clear Who has the powerful arm in the relationship. “Wherefore,” writes the author of Hebrews, “He is able to save them to the uttermost …”
Anyone mighty enough to stage a coup on the government of God could disappoint our hope of an eternal inheritance. Salvation from all that defeats and destroys us is as vulnerable as the throne of heaven. What God in His mercy planned, God in His power keeps secure.
IV. Our hope grows stronger in trials.
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (verses 6, 7).
Faith under fire is purified, just as gold is refined of impurities under heat. The ancient goldsmith put his crude gold ore in a crucible, subjected it to intense heat, and thus liquified the mass. The impurities would rise to the surface and could be skimmed off. Difficulties bring out the true nature of hope. If we throw in the towel when a financial crunch comes, health fails, a friend rejects us, or we lose our job, we are demonstrating where our hope rested. If, however, we love Jesus more, we show that in the face of darkness we are trusting in God to prove His promises true.
God allows trials to bring out the genuine stuff of our faith. It will make the disclosure of Christ at history’s climax all the more glorious. God is not looking for the gifted, the educated or the cultured — He is looking for the faithful.
Peter calls the duration of suffering “a little while” (1:5, 5:10). It does not stretch out endlessly. While maybe seeming endless to us, it is short in comparison with eternity. While he does not offer any shortcuts to avoid the trials, he puts them in the perspective of an inheritance that knows no time boundaries.
A lady whose husband left her and the children said she would have preferred death to divorce. Yet she cried out to the Lord in her desperation and is more spiritually healthy now than she ever was as a married woman.
“Hope, like the gleaming taper’s light
Adorns and cheers our way;
And still, as darker grows the night,
Emits a brighter ray.”
V. Our hope is fulfilled with the revelation of Christ at His return.
Peter uses the words “suffer” and “suffering” sixteen times in his first letter. Often they are linked with words like “grace,” “glory,” and “joy.” We are able to rejoice in the midst of our trials because we have a future tense in our faith. We look beyond faith’s test to faith’s triumph. We know the best is yet to come. We are not blind dreamers but eternal optimists.
We stand on the verge of Christ’s return and rejoice more in His revelation than in our situation. We know our names are written in the book of life. We have set our hope fully on the revelation of Jesus Christ, as Peter exhorts us (1:13). Our salvation is far more than a past event — it is a blessed hope. Paul says that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11).
Our faith is clearly directed to Jesus. “Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy” (verse 8). Some people with little content to their Christianity may say, “Oh, I believe.” Their faith, however, too often rests in dim uncertainties. The object of faith is not faith.
Peter had seen the risen Lord, but the recipients of his letter had not. They were, however, willing to direct their faith toward the Christ Who had won their allegiance. Faith’s object is not circumstances or anything material — it is the invisible Lord Who will one day appear for all the world to see. John the Beloved says, “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2, 3).
Our hope is initiated by a merciful Father, based on history, guarded by God, strengthened in adversity, and fulfilled in Christ’s return. With such a hope we can cope. We can hold out, knowing that our redemption is drawing near. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (PA).
April 29, 1990
Burning Hearts
(Luke 24:32)
According to Yale professor Roland H. Bainton in his biography of Martin Luther called Here I Stand (1950), Luther had three reasons for getting married: “to please his father, to spite the pope and the devil, and to seal his witness for martyrdom.” Luther understood what one man meant when he explained why he never got married: “No man can serve two masters.” I’m sorry. I’m just being serious.
Luther’s “courtship” of nun Katherine von Bora wasn’t especially romantic. During those Reformation days in the sixteenth century, priests and monks and nuns were leaving the Roman Catholic Church in droves. It got so bad that ecclesiastical and civil authorities teamed up to try to stop the flow of women and men out of the church. Hence, cloisters soon resembled prisons.
More than an easy-chair reformer, Luther conspired with a sixty-year-old burgher from Torgau to help twelve nuns escape from a neighboring convent. Anyway, Katherine von Bora was among the twelve. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. Luther later said, “I would not exchange Katie for France or for Venice, because God has given her to me and other women have worse faults.” After providing for the other eleven who had escaped, Luther took it upon himself to marry, if you will excuse the expression, the one who was left over. The truth is Luther grew to love her very much.
If someone were to ask us to describe Martin Luther, most of us would come up with some rather lionized images. We would talk of a man who threw caution to the wind and nailed those ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. We would talk of a man who had the courage at the threat of death to deny the infallibility of any person including the pope. We would talk of a man who defiantly burned the papal bull (i.e., document) which threatened his excommunication.
We would applaud the courage of this man who dared to say, “The Romanists want to be the only readers of Holy Scripture, although they never learn a thing from the Bible all their life long.” And if you think a statement like that didn’t win many friends for Luther, consider these gems: “… in Rome the devil himself is in charge…. The fact is that at Rome no one bothers about what is right or wrong, only about what is money and what is not…. The pope should restrain himself, take his fingers out of the pie.”
If someone were to ask us to describe Luther, most of us would talk of him as a roaring success. After all, he was the catalyst of the Reformation. He had a burning heart for the Lord.
But would it surprise you to know Luther was also known for his long periods of depression? And we would be too if we were in his shoes. Remember, our applause is almost a half-millenia after the fact. We tend only to see the successful sides of our heroes. But for many years, Luther was a marked man. He was hunted down like an animal. He was maligned and slandered. He was called a monster, devil, drunkard, antichrist, and so on. And people wanted him to burn for it — literally!
Luther knew he wasn’t perfect. He knew that’s why God in Jesus came into the world. Jesus did not come to congratulate the pure and perfect — as if there were any of them around — but to save everybody from the deadly consequences of sin.
Luther once confessed, “I am dust and ashes and full of sin.” There were times when the failures of his own ministry coupled with the disappointments of life and the unrelenting pressure of his detractors simply overwhelmed him. He was just like you and me. He loved the Lord but sometimes the disappointments and disillusionments caused by himself and others just got the best of him. He had many bouts with depression.
And that’s exactly how the two disciples walking to Emmaus felt in the immediate aftermath of Christ’s death on the cross. Luke said they were “looking sad.” Their faces — to use the words of The New English Bible — were “full of gloom.” They were men, as William Barclay said, “whose hopes were dead and buried” along with Jesus. And in a statement to the Savior — who, in their despondency, they did not recognize — they said, “But we had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel.”
Even the testimony of the women who had been told by angels that their Lord was still alive did not cheer them up. Even when the Savior who they thought to be a stranger reminded them that what had happened on the cross was part of the plan they had heard Him tell before, they continued walking on. The tragedy of the cross had blasted their hopes and shattered their dreams. But then something happened that changed everything. They experienced the risen Lord.
“Did not our hearts burn within us?” the disciples rhetorically asked. Or as Brother Taylor paraphrased it in his Living Bible, “They began telling each other how their hearts had felt strangely warm as He talked to them.” “Thus,” wrote Matthew Henry back in 1721, “do they not so much compare notes as compare hearts.” They had burning hearts. The word used for heart refers to everything we are emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually. To be burning is to be rekindled or renewed or alive. A burning heart refers to the renewing effect Jesus Christ has on the whole person. Burning hearts are women and men of faith who are emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually alive in Christ.
I. A burning heart doesn’t give up.
Though they felt beaten, there was still a flicker of hope within them that was immediately fanned into a flaming fire of faith in the Lord’s presence. A burning heart doesn’t give up because it trusts in the Lord. A burning heart trusts that God will eventually rescue the faithful. Or as God promised through Peter, “If you will humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, in His good time He will lift you up. Let him have all your worries and cares, for He is always thinking about you and watching everything that concerns you…. After you have suffered a little while, our God, who is full of kindness through Christ, will give you His eternal glory. He personally will come and pick you up, and set you firmly in place, and make you stronger than ever” (1 Peter 5:6ff).
Even during some of Luther’s most acute attacks of depression, there remained that flickering ember of faith that insured his eventual resurrection. It was not uncommon to find Luther lying face down upon the earthen floor during those bouts with depression. And yet it has been reported that he often wrote with his finger in the dirt while prostrate, “But I have been baptized.” That was Luther’s way of saying, “But I belong to the Lord. I am His. And He will save me. No one nor no thing can nullify that Father-child connection. I am His. I belong to the Lord.”
“Did not our hearts burn within us?” the disciples asked. Even a small ember of faith can burst into a full flame in the Lord’s presence. That’s why a burning heart doesn’t give up. A burning heart knows it will always run into and be resurrected by the Lord.
II. A burning heart doesn’t give up because it looks up.
“It is the nature of politicians to use people,” said Luis Palau, “as long as they need them and drop them like a dirty rag the moment they don’t.”
Sometimes we feel dropped by people. How many of us remember being “dropped” by a boyfriend or girlfriend? It felt awful. We felt abandoned. We felt used. We felt worthless. And how many of us still feel dropped on occasion? How many of us feel like we’ve jumped out of an airplane only to discover we have no parachute? How many of us can empathize with the Psalmist, “Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord!” (Psalm 130)
Who has not felt like Abraham Lincoln a few moments after being defeated for Senator in 1858 by Stephen A. Douglas when he said, “I feel like the boy who stubbed his toe; I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh.”
But the burning heart looks up and sees the hand of God ready to catch it from a fall. Looking up to Jesus ignites the heart. That’s what happened to the disciples. “It made things very plain and clear to them wrote Matthew Henry, “and … brought a divine heat with a divine light into their souls, such as put their hearts into a glow, and kindled a holy fire of pious and devout affections in them.” A burning heart doesn’t give up because it looks up.
III. A burning heart doesn’t give up on the world.
Joan Salmon-Campbell is a wonderful woman of God who served as moderator of our denomination. She said her visits to churches around the country have led her to one conclusion: our churches are “hungry for the Word.” She went on to say that “if we dare to wear the label of Christian,” we will take the Word to the emaciated churches of our country and world. It was her way of saying a burning heart doesn’t give up on the world. A burning heart knows Jesus and knows the world needs Jesus.
Mark Twain concluded a tirade against a former publisher who had swindled him like this, “He has been dead a quarter of a century now. I feel only compassion for him, and if I could send him a fan I would.” But a burning heart never gives up on the world. A burning heart knows our Lord wants the world redeemed. And a burning heart knows that no one is beyond redemption. So burning hearts go out into the world to light it up.
“We cannot stay on the mount of transfiguration,” said Oswald Chambers, “but we must obey the light we received there; we must act it out.”
When the hearts of the disciples were set ablaze by the risen Lord, “They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem.” They wanted to tell everybody about Jesus. Jesus was alive and they wanted to share the good news. They didn’t want to leave anybody out.
Writing in his journal in May 1738, John Wesley described his own Emmaus road experience: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Wesley felt the heat. He was alive because He is alive.
Sometime during his seven months of hiding in the Wartburg Castle, Martin Luther turned to Psalm 46 to assuage his depression. He read, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Over and over and over again he read these words until his heart burned with a fresh confidence in his communion with God through faith in Jesus Christ which caused him to sing, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, A Bulwark Never Failing.”
Luther felt the heat. He was alive because He is alive. It all began two thousand years ago when Jesus rose from the dead and rekindled the hearts of the faithful. We still feel the heat. (CTH)
May 6, 1990
Was That Your Phone?
(John 10:1-8)
David A. MacLennan had a wonderful sense of humor, and he told the story in one of his books about the minister who, arriving at a new location, was invited to join one of the civic luncheon clubs. In introducing him, the speaker facetiously said they were electing him to be the “chief hogcaller” for the club. In responding, the minister said: “Gentlemen, I certainly appreciate the very great honor you have conferred upon me. When I came to this community, I had expected to be shepherd of a flock; but, of course, you know your crowd better than I do.”
Our Scripture lesson from the Gospel of John reminds us that Jesus is the Shepherd of His flock. I like this model because shepherds are such busy people on behalf of the sheep. The shepherd is one who gently leads them, who provides food for them, who finds a safe lodging for them at night, who searches for them when they are lost, who tends their wounds when they are hurt, who fends off the enemy.
As a matter of fact, Jesus refers to Himself as the “Good Shepherd” in this passage and then He adds, “I know My own and My own know Me.” Shepherds hover over their sheep, doing all they can in their behalf, even laying down their lives for them, if need be.
Now, within this cocoon of concern is one function that I wish to highlight. Our text tells us that the Shepherd “calls His own sheep by name and leads them out” (10:3).
Day in and day out, every hour of every day, every minute of every hour, every second of every minute, Jesus is calling, trying to reach us and direct us and guide us. It is one of the functions of a hovering Shepherd.
“Calling today, calling today, Jesus is calling, is tenderly calling today,” wrote Fanny Crosby. “Calling the weary to rest … waiting … pleading ….”
I think there are at least three aspects to this call of God. First, God would like for all of us to respond to His love-call by mirroring His love. He wants us to reflect His concern and compassion for others. He wants us to respond by being the kind of person that He has made us to be. He wants each of us to turn our lives over to Him.
To each one of us God offers a hidden call. Some of us have responded and dedicated our lives to Him. Some of us are still considering this call, and that’s alright if we don’t spend our whole lives simply considering it. Some do that, you know. They spend their lives thinking about the call, observing the call, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the call of God. “What if I did respond, why then I would have to … On the other hand, if I did not I would not have to …”
They are like the woman who received the proposal for marriage and said that she would think about it — for a lifetime. Her decision not to decide was a decision not to act and, hence, a rejection of an invitation to marriage. Some are rejecting the call of God by spending their lives considering it, studying it, contemplating it.
There isn’t a person alive who God doesn’t want to enlist in His army. Through Jesus Christ He has sent us all a draft notice. Remember the old World War II poster that showed a bearded man pointing directly at you and it read, “Uncle Sam wants you.” God wants you in His service. Thank God, some are responding to the call. Others are responding and then going AWOL. They are “away without leave.” Some are simply ignoring the call, but there is no doubt that today Jesus is calling you.
Each one of us is a member of God’s flock. Everyone inside and outside of the church is loved by God equally. God does love the church and church members, but He also loves the whole world and non-church members. His flock is the whole world, whether they respond or not.
If you have some children and some have responded favorably to what you have taught them and some have not, that does not mean that those who have rejected your teaching are not your children anymore. God operates in the same manner. The ones who have rejected Him are still His children. He still loves them and grieves over them, and, yes, hovers over them and continually calls to them, even by name.
The call of God is a generic call to all people, but it is also a personal, direct call to you and me. He does not just say — like many churches have on their outside bulletin boards — “All Are Welcome.” He says, “Tom, follow Me. Martha, follow Me. Fred, follow Me. Delia, follow Me. Dick, follow Me,” because He knows you personally.
In reality, many people do believe in a God who knows them personally, but they acknowledge this only when something bad happens to them. A man named Kirk was having one of those bad days when everything seemed to go wrong — one thing after another until, at the close of the day, he lay in bed absolutely exhausted. As he thought over the day, he became more and more upset until he finally blurted out, “Why me, God? Why does everything always go wrong for me?” Suddenly the ceiling of his room was pulled back and a huge hand with an outstretched finger came down and poked him on the chest, and a loud, majestic voice thundered, “Because you bug Me, Kirk!”
For some people, that is about the only time that God is personal, when they think that God is bugging them. The Bible says otherwise. God personally, lovingly hovers over you now, seeking your response every moment of the day.
Finally, this call of God which is offered to all people, and that comes in a very personal way, impacts all of our lives.
We should seek God’s will in everything we do, because God wants us to glorify Him in everything we do. Should I buy this? Should I buy that? Should I move here? Should I move there? Should I sell this or that? Seek God’s will in all that you do, but especially in the job you have, because we spend so many hours of our lives doing it.
Too many of us are settling for second best in life, when we are being called to be our best. One of the large oil companies needed a public relations office for their work in the Orient. They asked a missionary to take over the post, offering a salary that was considerably larger than that which the church was able to pay, but he turned it down. The company officials met, and because they felt this missionary had unusual gifts in the field of public relations, they increased the salary offer to a point where it would be very difficult to say “No.” But again the missionary refused.
“What’s wrong?” the official asked. “Isn’t the salary big enough?” The reply was simple, yet direct: “The salary is big enough, but the job isn’t.”
God is calling us to more than just a larger salary. Sometimes people tell me about why they changed jobs, and it seems that the only reason people change jobs is for more money. It seems that the only reason most people work every day is for the money. Nobody seems to have taken a job because of the call of God to that work. Rather, they took the job for the number of dollars it provides.
God wants to have a say in what you do for a living. He wants to remind you that each one of us has a Christian ministry, and just as clergy are called into service, so are lay people. Just as clergy pray about moving from position to position, so should lay people. Just as clergy pray that God’s will will be done through their daily labor, so should lay people.
Each one of us has a ministry, and God ministers through each one of us. We are not here on earth to better our salaries, but to be better people and to better glorify God.
Listen! Was that your phone? (CTH)
May 13, 1990
The Trademark of Holiness
(Acts 7:55-60)
A number of years ago in Philadelphia there was a certain printer who had as his trademark a circle with his initial inside the circle. Under the circle were the words: “We Never Disappoint.”
At the end of Stephen’s existence we discover the imprint that evidenced his Christian life, for his trademark revealed holiness. He was full of God’s Spirit to the very end. We must desire that trademark as well — to be stamped with unremoveable ink upon our lives!
I. Holiness is the Trademark of a Radiant Spirit (verse 55)
The word “radiate” means “to send out rays of heat, light, etc.” and the definition of “radiator” is “anything that radiates.” Stephen was a “radiator” and his radiation was the message of God’s love.
What a radiant spirit! His life reflected that message as we discover him as one of the original deacons in Acts 6. His job was literally “to serve tables.” He had a servant’s heart, and he even enjoyed it! Stephen’s inner character had been made pure by the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
I read about a layman who once prayed: “O Lord, you know I am just like a sponge; and whatever I’m filled with, when I get squeezed, that’s just what comes out. O Lord, so fill me with the Spirit of Jesus today that when I get squeezed this week, Jesus will come out.”
That should become our prayer, for that’s truly a radiant holiness spirit.
II. Holiness is the Trademark of a Witnessing Spirit (verse 56)
A counterpart of the radiant spirit is a witnessing spirit. The message of the seventh chapter of Acts brings the testimony of Stephen before the members of the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:12). Stephen — with his angelic face (Ads 6:15) — began his penetrating testimony about Jesus.
Over fifty years ago, the Montreal Weekly Witness carried a story about a lighthouse keeper, his wife, and two male assistants living on Damien Island. One day the three men went out on the ice in order to fix something. They never returned. Before the woman’s eyes they were swept away by the breaking ice-floes. Months passed before, finally, the supply ship reached their island bringing its supplies for four. It was met by the woman.
“How did you get through the winter?” the skipper asked. The thought of those terrible months of isolation, loneliness and peril caught at the woman’s brave heart as she replied, “I don’t know. I only know that I have kept the light burning in the lighthouse.”
Stephen had kept the light burning for Jesus — even though it cost him his life! God grant that when our relief comes, we, too, may be able to say, “I have kept the light burning,” even when it seemed impossible.
III. Holiness is the Trademark of a Trusting Spirit (verses 57-59)
Fishermen of Brittany utter this simple prayer when they launch their boats upon the deep: “Keep me, my God; my boat is small and the ocean is wide.” How very beautiful the thought! That should be our prayer as we travel the journey on life’s sea. Someone else wrote: “Keep me, my God! My boat is small, I am so weak, so helpless, so forgetful of thy loving kindness. Tossed to and fro at the mercy of the world, except thou dost help me, I perish. Keep me, my God, for thy ocean is so wide — the journey so long — the days and years so many. ‘In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust.”
Where’s your trust today. Are you leaning on Jesus?
IV. Holiness is the Trademark of a Forgiving Spirit (verse 60)
There are many good definitions of forgiveness but I like what one little tyke said, after being asked what forgiveness was: “It is the scent that flowers give when they are trampled on!” Being filled with God’s Spirit helps us to smell the crushed flowers. Jesus models for us what forgiveness ought to be in our lives.
There was a great king who had suffered much from his rebellious subjects. But one day they surrendered their arms, threw themselves at his feet and begged for mercy. He pardoned them all. One of his friends said to him, “Did you not say that every rebel should die?” “Yes,” replied the king, “but I see no rebels there.”
What trademarks do you possess? (DGK)
May 20, 1990
Defending Your Faith
(1 Peter 3:13-22)
The telephone call came to the parsonage late in the evening. Most calls at that time are bad news. This was a call however, which in the view of the parents, was about something that was right.
They wanted to tell me that the church must be doing something right. Their teenager had stood firm, offering a defense of his faith when challenged by the emotional peer pressures of friends. It is such a defense that is the focus of 1 Peter 3:15.
For the New Testament Christians, such a defense might have been a formal one. Those accused of being followers of the Christ might be taken before a magistrate and accused of being disloyal to the emperor and subversive to the Empire.
I. We can defend our faith through firm and unwavering beliefs.
Paul challenged the Corinthians, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). The Greek word translated “steadfast” meant to be “firmly seated.”
It reminds me of the rodeo rider climbing the fence, perching himself on the back of that penned and angry horse, squirming down into a firm seating, tightening his grip on the reins, and announcing that he is ready for the gate to be opened.
Martin Luther committed himself to the study of history and the Scripture. John Wesley claimed his beliefs early in his life and wrote near the end of his life that this faith served and sustained him through his more than fifty years of preaching and ministry. How essential it is for us to defend our faith today!
II. We can defend our faith through living it daily.
1 Peter 3:16 challenges us to a clear conscience, to a life as an example for others. A couple told me of how several years ago, in the midst of struggling with the purpose of their lives, they determined they needed the church. So, a few days later, they visited the church where I was pastor. In that experience, something touched their lives.
Barbara explained it when she said to me, “Oh, it wasn’t that people spoke to us; only one person did. But, it was the manner in which the members spoke to one another, the evidences of their love and compassion for each other, their friendliness which just overflowed. We knew that their experience was the one we sought. We never visited another church.” One of the most significant ways to witness to our faith is to live your faith.
III. We can defend our faith by standing up for right and morality.
We need to know our faith rationally and to support it with our deeds. But we also can defend the faith by standing firm against any effort to weaken the principles of moral living. A friend introduced me to the work of a group of persons seeking for morality in all areas of life through the use of laws already adopted. For years, I struggled with them against immorality, pornography, prostitution, and crime. We labored against the obscenities shouted from the stage of rock concerts and the illegal use of alcohol and drugs in those and other places.
Some years ago a religious film was released by a company of committed Christians. It received a PG13 rating, one used to warn parents that the film might contain nudity, violence, profanity, sexual misconduct. But, none of these were present. The rating committee had provided it this classification because “pre-teenage children should not be exposed to Christianity without their parents’ consent.”
Are we ready to give defense of our faith to the world? Will we defend our faith by reasoned expression of our beliefs? Will we defend our faith by living as examples of caring, loving disciples? Will we defend our faith by standing firm against evil in any form at all times? “Quietly trust yourself to Christ your Lord, and if anybody asks you why you believe as you do, be ready to tell him, and do it in a gentle and respectful way” (1 Peter 3:15, Living Bible). (HCP)
May 27, 1990
When God Says ‘Wait’
(Acts 1:1-11)
What is the most difficult lesson you have ever had to learn? Could it be … waiting?
It does seem that an unusual amount of our life is given to waiting. Children wait to grow up …. or for school to be out, or to start again. Teenagers wait for their sixteenth birthday …. and the right to drive …. their first job. Men wait for next year’s raise …. the new car models. Women wait for the new styles and fashions. Worshippers wait for the service to begin — and end.
Each twenty-four hour period also has its fair share of waiting. We wait for the mail …. the delivery truck …. the repair technician. We wait for the test results and the diagnosis …. for someone to return our telephone call …. for the hostess in the restaurant to call our name or number …. for the plane to arrive …. the train to pass.
Still, for all the waiting we do, we are not yet very good at it. We do not like to wait and we are not very patient with those who make us wait! In fact, we are really not very patient with those who take waiting so easily. What’s wrong with them? Don’t they have anything else to do other than wait?
One of the most marked characteristics of our time is impatience with patience. We’re always in a hurry and we want everyone else to hurry.
Several years ago a Navy jet fighter shot itself down over the Nevada desert while testing a new cannon mounted on its wing. The plane was flying at supersonic speed but the shells were subsonic. The jet actually ran into its own shells which had been fired several seconds earlier. It was traveling too fast for its own good.
In our passion for everything right now, many of us are on the verge of shooting ourselves down or meeting ourselves going and coming. It would be to our benefit to realize that when we have nothing more to wait for, that is death!
Perhaps the hardest assignment of all, however, is to wait for God. We pray for guidance and direction, but we are forced to wait! We pray for others to understand or change. We are made to wait. We ask for relief and the suffering continues. We pray for assurance but uncertainty abounds. We pray for the deliverance of alcohol — or drug dependent loved ones and the excruciating months turn into torturing years.
Why? What is God up to?
The text reminds us that Jesus wants His disciples to be people who can wait for God …. who will allow God to lead them …. who will allow God to be God and to act as He will in His own good time …. to leave the future in His hands, no matter how it may turn out in the end.
The disciples were eager to make things happen! Jesus was alive and victorious! The time had come at last to establish the kingdom of God in Israel! (1:6). They were convinced of that …. they were ready to move!
But Jesus told them that they must wait! (1:4, 9). But why? What could God possibly be up to now?
Their entire history had been punctuated by this word “wait.” They had waited four hundred years in Egypt for God to deliver them. They had camped out on the doorstep of Canaan for forty more years, waiting for God to make good His promise about the land flowing with milk and honey. Then there were all those other interminable years of waiting …. through war, oppression, exile …. even four centuries of silence from God’s own prophets.
Now, in Jesus, the old was gone! It was time for things to change, for the new to begin. But the word from God was the same old word: Wait!
The depth of their frustration with this new call to wait gets shortchanged in our reading of the biblical record. We can read the books of Genesis and Exodus in two hours or less, forgetting how long is four hundred years in Egyptian bondage or forty years in wilderness wanderings. We can read it and yet be blinded to the fact that for them, four hundred and forty years was lived one ordinary day at a time. We can read it and be oblivious to their struggle to simply hang on for dear life and yet remain faithful to the faithfulness of God.
Frankly, they were tired of waiting! And now, when everything seemed right and the waiting seemed to be over, Jesus told them: “Be patient. Just hang on a while longer!” (1:4).
But even when the Holy Spirit came, fulfilling an earlier promise, the waiting was still not over. The Apostle Paul described the Corinthian Christians as “… waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7) — obviously meaning to point toward His second coming.
But there were people who had trouble with that. In fact, some began to fall away from the faith, impatient with the slowness of God, and His apparent absence. He had made certain promises about the future and nothing had happened.
Scoffers were everywhere, mocking the Christian hope: “Where is the promise of His coming? Things are no better now than they were. Everything goes on, with no sign of God doing anything. The world is as full of evil as ever. What good does it do to believe that He’s coming back?” (see 1 Thessalonians 3-4; 2 Thessalonians 3; 2 Timothy 3-4; 1 Peter 4:7ff; 2 Peter 2-3).
That is precisely why this is such a necessary word for us. The waiting has still not ended. You and I are caught up in it now, still waiting to find out how it will turn out. As someone put it: “We are in the middle of the play…. The rounding off … is in some sense still to come.” So, we had best learn how to come to terms with this experience of waiting.
In its biblical usage, this word “wait” has a dual dimension. One is related to its root meaning, “to stretch,” which conjures up an image of eager expectation, as if stretching to see a farther horizon because you can’t wait for what is there to arrive.
Psalm 130:6 captures the mood:
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in His word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
It is the image of a tower guard waiting for the sunrise, eager for the night to be past and his long vigil to be done.
Some of the early Christians demonstrated this kind of waiting in their praying: “Thy kingdom come,” and “Maranatha” — “O, our Lord, come!” And, as if they could not bear it any longer, some sold all their possessions in the abandonment of their expectation and gave away the proceeds to the needy (Acts 4:3 1).
It was their conviction that something was about to happen — the future was about to become present. They were restless and impatient with the way things were. They wanted something new! They expected something new to happen now!
If the church is to be renewed, then something like that passionate expectancy …. something like that longing for the future to become present …. something like that restless and impatience with the way things are …. something like that genuine prayer for the kingdom of God to come …. something like the lively hope that it was about to happen …. must become characteristic of our faith.
You and I, like the disciples, are at the middle of the story. Some have grown discouraged …. given up …. fallen away …. grown impatient with God’s slowness …. become frustrated at His apparent absence …. given up at praying because so many previous prayers have not yet been answered. But you and I must be like the watchman on the tower: “My soul waits for the Lord, more than they that watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:6).
There is also another dimension of this biblical word “wait.” It describes a quiet, meditative, passive, sometimes disillusioned attitude. It is experienced in those times when God seems to be absent, or at least silent. The psalmist knew it when he wrote: “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (62:5; see also Psalm 88:14). The prophet knew it when he despaired of God’s presence and power: “I will wait for the Lord who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob” (Isaiah 8:17).
Often we conclude that the heroic personalities of biblical faith were always on top of things, always full of faith, always convinced that everything was working out according to plan and schedule.
That just is not so! Even the faithful sometimes grow disillusioned. Indeed, this is the peril of the eager, passionate expectancy. When God does not appear on schedule, faith is sometimes severely tested.
The children of Israel had no sooner gotten out of Egypt than they began to have second thoughts and longed to go back to the brick ovens of oppression. The promised land proved to be no land of milk and honey at all, but a hard land where a man had to work and sweat and weep and often fight for a living. Isaiah’s vision of Jerusalem restored and all mankind streaming to the Holy City to give thanks and praise turned out to be just that — a dream! After the Israelites trekked back across the desert all they found was an abandoned city and a temple in ruins to be rebuilt only with sweat, blood, and tears.
And Jesus’ promises of joy, peace, and abundant life turned out to be a Roman prison for Paul, a crucifixion for Peter, a stoning for Stephen, and persecution for countless others who dared voice their longing in prayers of maranatha or “thy kingdom come.”
But this dimension of waiting requires not cynicism or despair but faith: a faith that God is simply patient, not absent. It’s that patience of His which is sometimes so utterly maddening. Often God acts as if He has all eternity to work out His purposes and does not realize that your time and mine is so short!
The church of Jesus Christ could only experience renewal when this awareness of God’s sovereignty was realized. God will not allow us to grab Him and contain Him in our theological and doctrinal experiences, in our communities of fellowship, nor even in our meaningful experiences of worship. He will not even allow us to schedule Him on our calendars …. nor propose a formula that will guarantee His blessed Presence in response to our coaxing.
There are two dimensions to our waiting for God. One is the passionate conviction that His promises will all be fulfilled — and that very soon. It is that confidence which sends us out into our world on mission to tell the good news.
The other dimension involves the willingness to admit that we do not yet have nor do we know all there is to have or know. It lets us be satisfied to leave the end of the story — whether it comes today, or tomorrow morning, next year, or at the end of time — His hands. And it’s not one kind of waiting today and another tomorrow. It’s both together …. at the same time!
So, what does all of this say about the periods of waiting for God which we must inevitably endure? It reminds us most importantly that God does not measure time according to our clocks and calendars. He has all eternity to work out His purposes.
There are two words in Scripture for time. One is chronos and indicates time which can be measured by the clock. Each second of chronos is exactly like the one that went before it. Chronos time is the prisoner in the cell, marking off the days and months on the calendar. Chronos time is the person with insomnia, listening to the relentless ticking of the clock, pounding each second in his ears. Chronos time is the worker who hates her job, wishing five o’clock would hurry and come just so she could get out of that office. Chronos time is the man caught in traffic, looking frantically at his watch, knowing he will miss the appointment and probably the sale.
And then there’s kairos time. Kairos represents those extra-special, significant, dramatic moments that are packed with meaning. They are moments which stand out and stay with you for a lifetime …. special moments that break into the humdrum and change your life …. moments when everything falls into place …. moments when God seems to be speaking to you loud and clear.
Kairos is the key word in the New Testament. When Jesus came preaching, He said: “The time is fulfilled!” That was kairos. It was special time, dramatic time, meaningful time.
Jesus’ life was packed with kairos moments. But what about yours? How long has it been since you experienced a kairos moment?
A part of our problem is that we live by chronos time and God operates the kairos clock. Someone once said that a man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never sure.
Each summer, most of our nation is on daylight savings time. However, several counties in Indiana do not comply. Though one town’s post office advances its clock, its only mail carrier sticks with standard time. The local radio station observes savings time while the local newspaper refuses to budge from “slow” time. One of the two drugstores moves the clock ahead, and the other leaves it back. The county sheriff is on daylight time; the county courthouse is on standard.
Perhaps the greatest problem with waiting for God is that we never really know what time it is. Still, faith believes that while God may have to slow you down, or stop you still, or place you on hold, or even put you in reverse, He will get you where He wants you in His time — kairos time.
An old man and his grandson were sitting on a dock one late afternoon fishing. They talked about many things — everything it seemed: why sunsets are red, why rain falls, why the seasons change, what life is like. Finally, the boy looked up at his grandfather and said, “Grandad, does anybody ever see God?” “Son,” said the old man, looking across the still waters of the lake, “it’s getting so I hardly see anything else.”
That’s what our waiting ought to be like. We ought to be learning to pray better …. to practice the Presence. For the most important thing of all about waiting is that it’s …. well, it’s getting ready for God’s kairos moment — that special moment when His will is accomplished!
Perhaps what you need to do is to set your clock to the right time …. God’s kairos time. (GCR)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: David Mosser, Pastor of First United Methodist Church, Georgetown, TX; Gary C. Redding, Pastor of North Augusta Baptist Church, North Augusta, SC; Paul Anderson, Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, San Pedro, CA; C. Thomas Hilton, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Pompano Beach, FL; Derl G. Keefer, Pastor of Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI; and Harold C. Perdue, Development Officer with the Texas Methodist Foundation.

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