August 6, 1989
Christ Changes Life
The Christian gospel is a story of changes. The cross is transformed from an emblem of shame to a symbol of glory. Easter Sunday is the reality of a change from a tomb for the dead to a locale for joy and life. The change is one from a life of fear about the rules of God to a life of love for the God who first loved us.
The Christian gospel is a story of changes — not simply of circumstances, but a story of the change in us. Paul’s words to the Colossians exemplify that personal change.
I. The first change is the new life in Christ.
Because Christ was raised, we have also been raised to newness of life. Just as Christ was made alive, so we are also truly alive. Hopeless cases do not exist. Incorrigible prospects are as easily transformed as the commonplace prospects.
Like Mary Magdalene, the immoral can be transformed. Like the Garasene demoniac, the tyranny of mental illness can be overcome. A despised Zacchaeus can even today be accepted and affirmed. Today’s blind Bartimaeus can be given sight.
The most desperate of human circumstances are never outside the circle of God’s power to influence and to change.
II. The second change is that life becomes Christlike.
In our text Paul lists a catalog of sins and vices. Some are sins of the flesh — passion, evil desire, immorality. The person who has been raised with Christ has risen above the power of these destructive forces.
Some are sins of the heart and spirit — slander, malice, lies, foul talk. The person who has been raised with Christ has risen above these all-too-human actions.
A New York City bus driver had always driven the same route — down the avenue, crosstown, up the avenue, back across town, then to the garage. Every day, the driver crossed the same streets, the same intersections, the same bumps, the same scenery. The passengers were alike even if their appearances changed. Some were kind, others discourteous. Some were pleasant, others were spewing out hate.
One day the driver didn’t make his turn, he just kept right on going. The authorities finally discovered him and the New York City bus in Florida. When he was brought back to the city for trial, the whole population was ready to defend him. They, too — like him and like you and I — had longed day after day to escape the routine, the monotony, the sameness of life.
A new beginning is possible in Christ. And from that new beginning, we become more and more Christlike.
III. The third change is that the more like Christ we become, the more we become like one another.
Paul lists the distinctions which have passed away through Christ. No longer Greek and Jew, no longer religious and irreligious. No longer is there slave and free man. Christ is all and in all.
The old hatred, the old animosities, the old distinctions are dispersed with Christ. We live in a world of too much hatred, too much spite, too much anger. Yet the more we become like Christ, the more we become like one another.
Bishop Graefe of the Lutheran Church tells of seeing a blind man in a New York subway. The man was waiting for a train, asking the indifferent and pushy crowd, “Is this Number Five?”
When the train finally came, the crowd stepped back, allowing the blind man to get on first. People made certain that he had a seat; someone asked where he wanted to get off, and made certain he knew when his station was coming up. That usually calloused and pushy crowd of subway travelers had been transformed into a caring community.
The changes that Christ brings into life are myriad. They are changes from death to life, from fear to faithfulness, from hopelessness to possibility. (HCP)
August 13, 1989
Where We Get Our Faith
(Hebrews 11:1-3, 6)
I went to see a friend I had known for many years. He knew that he did not have long to live, and he was troubled. As he faced the greatest test of his life, he said wistfully, “I wish I had the faith my mother had.”
I went to see him again, and this time he told me with a deep joy that he and his wife had knelt and had given themselves to God. Now he did not need his mother’s faith — he had his own faith. He was ready for whatever the future might bring.
We do need faith, not only for the final test, but also for the testing that comes all along the way. We need faith in the days of our youth, when temptation pressures us. We need faith during the years of increasing responsibility, when we are deciding about our life’s work or when we are choosing our life’s companion. We need faith in later years, when dreams often fade and sorrow and suffering come.
Where can we get this faith? It isn’t so easy to come by as the Queen thought, when she said to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” No, real faith is not something that we can pump up whenever we wish.
There are three great facts that bring out our faith.
I. The Power of God
We believe because God is a God of power. Genesis tells us: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Dig into that a bit and it will stagger your imagination. I’m sure that the people who lived in Bible times were often overwhelmed as they thought about the sun, the moon, and the stars; the mountains, the rivers, and the seas. And now modern science has pushed back all horizons. A new telescope will make it possible for us to look into space to a depth that is astonishing.
Our awe is, if possible, magnified beyond anything that those who lived long, long ago thought and felt. How truly the psalmist said,
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.
Of course, you can go overboard with this, and celebrate nature uncritically, even idolatrously. A man I knew was trying to justify quitting his churchgoing. He said, “I can go out to my farm on Sunday and everything is simple, but I go to church and it mixes me up.” When he told me that it reminded me of George Buttrick’s response to a similar comment: “I have yet to hear a cow that could moo devotionally.”
For many serious-minded people, however, the creation is a big problem; no final revelation of God in nature for them! They hear discordant notes in the music of the spheres. For them, nature is “red in tooth and claw.”
Norman Vincent Peale was with a party traveling in Switzerland. They were, as you can imagine, awestruck by the beauty and majesty of God’s handiwork in His creation. As they drove along, they came upon the scene of an accident. Left in the wreckage was a baby doll, a poignant sign that a little girl had been a victim. The mighty Alps, the fertile valleys, and the crystal clear sky did not tell the entire story of God and His creation.
Creation seems to be two-faced — power and weakness, beauty and ugliness, righteousness and sin. God’s power in creation may start us on the road of faith, but it cannot take us all the way. We may find ourselves saying with a confused man described in the gospels, “I have faith …; help me where faith falls short” (NEB).
II. The Presence of God
We believe not only because we see the works of God’s power; we believe also because God comes to us and is present with us. The prologue to John’s gospel tells us,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by him …. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
Confucius is reported to have advised his followers: Respect the gods, but have as little to do with them as possible. It is not hard to understand that attitude. If all we know about God is some frightening show of His power — something that the insurance people call an act of God, such as a tornado, a flood, or an earthquake — then we might want to stay as far away from God as we can.
But we misjudge God if we think of Him, as one man put it, as a bundle of thunderstorms. God’s main business is grace. Of course, our sins as individuals and nations invite judgment. But God comes to save us from our folly and to be with us wherever life finds us — where the judgments fall, where accidents happen, where illness strikes, where disputes arise, where war rages, where injustice prevails, where death stalks. John tells us that this God who came in human flesh in Jesus Christ was full of grace and truth.
When I was a seminary student, John R. Sampey, former president of the seminary, came to speak in chapel. It was his eighty-third birthday, and he recounted to us the greatest event of his life, his conversion.
He was thirteen years old when he came to know Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. As he lay on his bed one night he prayed to the Lord Jesus. He said, “I do not know what to do except to turn it all over to you; and if I am lost, I will go down trusting you.”
Then, he said, something happened. A great Presence seemed to fill the room. He knew then that Christ Jesus was his personal Savior. Sampey said that across the years, in times of crisis and need, there had come to him again and again that sense of a great Presence, and he knew that all was well.
III. The Purpose of God
We have said that we have faith because God has shown His power in many ways and, in addition to that, because God has comforted us with His very presence. Yet faith perhaps reaches its highest point when we put ourselves completely into the hands of God. We believe where we cannot see or feel. We believe that God is doing something wonderful, something beyond all that we can ask or think.
We are all looking for meaning, for purpose. We want to feel that life — with all its ups and downs, its sorrows and joys — is adding up to something.
Right here is where faith comes into its own. We trust in God and what He will make of things. We have no absolute guarantee that God will do what we trust Him to do, but we trust Him anyway! “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
The cross has shown us what God can do with an impossible situation. The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead can do “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” Faith shines all the brighter because faith becomes “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (RSV). (JWC)
August 20, 1989
The Case of Jeremiah vs. God
One of my favorite pieces of graffiti appeared on a religious roadsign out West a few years back. The billboard contained but two words: “Try God.” The graffiti beneath it had but three words: “On What Charge?”
I. Jeremiah could think of several charges.
In New York some years ago, a man was being arraigned before a courtroom on some minor criminal charge. The bailiff announced, “The State of New York versus John Jones.” To which the defendant, John Jones, threw up his arms in despair and said, “I give up! I can’t beat them odds!”
Jeremiah, faced with conflict and difficulty, did not throw up his arms, overwhelmed, in the face of God, and say, “I give up!” Rather, he took God to task for sending him on such a dangerous mission, and giving him such a difficult task.
In our scripture lesson Jeremiah accuses God of having deceived him. Several times in the book of the prophet Jeremiah we find him having arguments with God. These arguments are known, traditionally, as the “Confessions of Jeremiah.” It is not a very good term, but it is hallowed by traditional usage. They are really arguments with God.
Jeremiah was a man torn by inner struggle and doubt — a struggle between obligation and inclination, his prophetic task and his natural human desires. He would have understood the words of E. B. White who observed: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem, but I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day” (International Herald Tribune, 13 June 1968, p. 16).
Initially, the Word of God had been to Jeremiah a fount of gladness, a source of strength. “Thy words were found, and I ate them, and thy words became to me a joy and delight of my heart” (15:16). Yet that Word, sweet as honey, also burned like fire; along with the joy of inner communion with God came the uncomfortable compulsion to proclaim God’s judgment upon the nation. That judgment, however, was tardy in its arrival, with the result that Jeremiah was scorned and ridiculed, and became a laughingstock of his people. In almost blasphemous words, Jeremiah accuses God of overpowering and misleading him. “O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed” (20:7). Both the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version translate the verb “deceived.” It literally means “seduced.”
Jeremiah acknowledges that God called him to be a prophet, and admits that he agreed to that call. But now he proclaims that God has failed to keep His side of the bargain. He says that he is like a thirsty traveler who finds that the brook, wherein he had hoped to quench his thirst, had dried up. In other words, God has failed him. (15:18).
In a rebellious mood he considers giving up the ministry altogether. (Any minister worth his/her salt has the same feelings from time to time.) Yet Jeremiah finds it impossible to keep quiet. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (20:9).
In a bitter lament, he even curses the day on which he was born! Would that his mother’s womb had been his tomb! “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (20:14-18).
Jeremiah is tired of the whole prophet business. He says to God, in effect: “Why me? Send somebody else!” The comparison with Shakespeare’s Hamlet immediately comes to mind:
“The time is out of joint: /O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!” (Act 1, scene 5).
In anguish of heart, Jeremiah prays for vengeance. We can understand that, but it makes us uncomfortable. We tend to be repelled by people who openly ask that their enemies by put away, particularly by those who ask God to do it. We tend to repress such feelings, and those of us who are shaped by the teachings of Jesus are particularly put off by such outbursts. (That is why Wesley insisted that Psalm 137 should never be used in a Christian congregation.)
Yet biblical scholar William Holladay says we misunderstand Jeremiah’s outburst. He is not asking God’s actions upon his (Jeremiah’s) personal enemies, as if we were to ask God’s action upon neighbors who let their dogs run unleashed through our rose garden … or, my pet peeve: neighbors who allow their dogs to bark all day long, effectively preventing anyone in the neighborhood from sleeping in after an exhausting late night. Rather, Jeremiah is asking God’s action upon God’s enemies. The Hebrew word “vengeance” here does not mean a vendetta, but God’s legitimate power or sovereignty. Jeremiah is asking God to show the people who is God and who is not; who is who and what is what. So Jeremiah argues with God.
II. Down through the centuries, the tradition has gone on.
Surprisingly, as Holladay reminds us, the people who gave us the Bible did not say, “Mercy me, and then censor this material out of the logbook. They said: This, too, is part of the story; This, too, belongs in the testimony; This, too, we must teach our children. And since they did listen and learn and absorb these cries of Jeremiah, more timid folk since then who have leaned in the direction of such thoughts have been emboldened to speak out, since Jeremiah blazed the trail” (Holladay, Jeremiah: Spokesman Out of Time, p. 105).
“Shalom Aleichem” in Hebrew means “Peace be with you.” It is also the pen name of Solomon J. Rabinowitz (1859-1916), a Russian-born Yiddish humorist, whose stories formed the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” His writings are filled with the pathos of Jeremiah, but also a fine sense of humor, which is one way of handling pathos and tragedy.
He says: “… As you know, I’m a great believer. I never have any complaints against the Almighty. Whatever he does is good. As Scripture says, ‘Trust in the Lord’ — put your faith in God and he’ll see to it that you lie six feet under, bake bagels and still thank him. … I say that we have a great God and a good God but, nevertheless, I say, I would like a blessing for every time God does something the likes of which should happen to our enemies.”
One of the most memorable parts of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” is the dialogues with God carried on by Tevye the Dairyman. Remember the one which begins: “Today I am a horse. Dear God, did you have to make my poor old horse lose his shoe just before the Sabbath? That wasn’t nice. It’s enough you pick on me Tevye, bless me with five daughters, a life of poverty. What have you got against my horse? Sometimes I think that when things are too quiet up there, You say to Yourself, ‘Let’s see, what kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevye’?” (Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein and music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Pocket Books, 1965, p. 23).
Humor is one way of handling pain, and it is a very effective way. Early in my ministry I was shocked to hear jokes being told by pallbearers — laughter while riding in a hearse! In my youthful naivete, I was offended that people could find anything to laugh at on the way to the cemetery. Then I went to college and studied psychology and learned better. One laughs in order to keep from crying.
Jeremiah did not laugh, but he did get angry with God. He took God to task for his predicament.
III. We Christians can learn from this aspect of biblical faith.
To those of us in the Christian tradition, this may be an unfamiliar notion. We feel that we have to put on our best front for God. As the slogan says: “Be sincere … even if you have to fake it.” We feel that we must put on our “Sunday-go-to-meetin'” faces and use only our stained glass voices when speaking to God. But the people of the Bible were not afraid to argue with God, nor should we be. God can take it. That is why biblical writers were unafraid to pass on to us the arguments with God which Jeremiah had. They knew that God had no need to be protected. There is an honesty about the Bible which is lacking in many other religous writings.
In a concentration camp in Flossenburg, Germany, towards the end of World War II, there died Dietrich Bonhoeffer, lead of the German Confessing Church, a pastor and theologian, who had written about and who knew well the cost of discipleship. From out of the hell of the concentration camp came his famous Letters and Papers from Prison which deserves to take its place alongside other great Christian classics. Much in Jeremiah’s confessions finds its echo in Bonhoeffer’s experience. There is a prayer of Bonhoeffer’s to which Jeremiah would surely have said a heartfelt “Amen!” It goes like this:
In me there is darkness,
But with Thee there is light.
I am lonely, but Thou leavest me not.
I am restless; but with Thee there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with Thee there is patience;
Thy ways are past understanding, but Thou knowest the way for me.
(Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 32)
And there, for the time being, we must leave Jeremiah, holding on to faith amid the blackest despair — but the important thing is, holding on. Or, even better, allowing God to hold on to him. Amen. (DBS)
August 27, 1989
A Contrast of the Old and the New
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews was a masterful student of the Scriptures. As one reads through this most unusual book, there are subtle references to many Old Testament passages, in almost every verse, and certainly in every section. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews seems to be so familiar with the Old Testament that the images of the Old Covenant flow from mind to word continuously.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a lengthy comparison of the Old Covenant as revealed through Moses, and the New Covenant as inaugurated by Jesus Christ. Our text is the concluding verses in that detailed presentation of the new, effective, powerful covenant. There are two contrasts presented.
One contrast is between the Old Covenant presented through Moses on Sinai and the New Covenant given by Jesus Christ.
What a contrast it is. Hebrews details the giving of the Law in somber and darkened tones: darkness, gloom, tempest. It is the picture of a setting of terror. And the response of the people is a response of terror. They ask that no further revelation be given to them. They were burdened with the orders already given.
The aura of the mountain is one of power. There is such power that to touch the mountain is to die. Even the beast that accidentally touches the mount of God’s revelation is destroyed. All the images of the Letter to the Hebrews are broad strokes that recall the revelation of God to Moses at Sinai. Even Moses calls out about his fear.
Then the focus of the New Covenant is presented in lighter tones: the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, angels in festal gathering. Here is a picture of joy, peace, and love. There is an assembly of the first-born in heaven, and the spirits of just men made perfect. Each word picture reminds us of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Every thought contrasts the New Covenant with the Old Covenant.
The second contrast gives a picture of our responsibility to respond to the Old and to the New.
The partial revelation at Sinai results in a partial obedience. The consequences of partial obedience or disobedience to the partial revelation are dire.
In Christ there is an unshaken and unshakable kingdom; those who live in obedience to the ways of the New Covenant find strength, power, and completeness. The judgment of the living God does not need to be dreaded. The reality of God revealed in Jesus Christ can be enjoyed.
As a pastor, when I began my years of service I served a smaller congregation. Important as my ministry was, it was truly a beginning one. The church members did not have great expectations of me as a young, inexperienced pastor. Later, when assigned to a larger church, my ministry was more effective, with more diverse consequences. The church members had greater expectations of me, even as I had of myself. Failure in the beginning years was bad enough, but failure to be effective in the larger congregation had consequences affecting more and more persons.
The text ends with a call to effective and devout worship. The contrast is so clear, and the responsibility is so great in the New Covenant, that one can best prepare and live in the unshakable Kingdom of Christ through communion with the Living God. (HCP)
September 3, 1989
Were You Invited?
(Luke 14:1, 7-14)
You’ve heard of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This is the sermon on the amount.
You knew this sermon was coming. Jesus often preached “sermons on the amount,” for thirty percent of His preaching had to do with stewardship. If I used Jesus’ subject matter as a model in my preaching, three out of ten sermons would be on this subject. We probably could use more sermons like this: as Martin Luther said, the last part of us to be converted will be our wallets.
It’s interesting to note that as a part of His stewardship of time, Jesus went to parties. Jesus attended weddings and other happy events. The beginning of Luke 14 tells us that “one sabbath when Jesus went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees, they were watching Him.”
He wasn’t the first religious figure who was closely watched in public at some party in order to see how He behaved. Maybe they would get something on Him, and then, what a scandal! He’d better watch His step because others certainly were.
While he was at this party He got into a good party mood, which for Jesus meant that He felt a parable coming on. As a matter of fact, He told two parables in our Scripture lesson.
The first parable is for those who were invited to the party, for you and me, for we have been invited to the party of life. The bumper sticker that says “Life is a beach” is wrong. “Life is a party,” and Jesus is giving it, and we are invited. Once we are there, how should we behave?
Would it be appropriate to put a lampshade on my head? Should I dance with my wife? Should I dance with your wife? More to the point, can I dance?
In this parable Jesus says that the party is a marriage feast, in order to underline that it is not a wake. It is not one of those gatherings of family and friends after someone has died. No, this is a wedding! A happy occasion!
Life is a gathering for celebration. Life is meant to be a celebration, given by God for us to come and party. Still, the question is, how should we behave at this party called life? We are being watched by others and by God.
The Bible that Jesus used was the Old Testament, so it is not surprising that we find in Proverbs this counsel. You may want to look it up. It is Proverbs 25, beginning at verse 6: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of the prince.”
Jesus knew his Bible. Certainly this verse from Proverbs was in His mind when He said in our Scripture reading, “When you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” That’s how we ought to act at the party of life. We ought to be humble.
Here is the stewardship message for us to consider in the weeks ahead. Humility is the flip side of gratitude. Nothing that we have has been obtained by us. It has all been given to us in order to see if we will glorify God with it.
I have heard people say, “I wonder why God has been so good to me and blessed me with so much.” The Bible’s answer is, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” You have what you have in order for God to see what you will do with it. It is a spiritual exam.
I remember Masterpiece Theatre’s television presentation of “To Serve Them All My Days.” Each episode began with a daily assembly in the chapel of Bamfylde School where these words were sung:
Look ahead to a life worth living
Full of hope, full of faith, full of cheer,
To a life that is made for giving
Without stint, without shame, without fear …
A life of giving and humble gratitude is the kind of behavior that is appropriate at this party — given by God — called life.
Second, Jesus tells us who ought to be the recipients of this humble, grateful attitude of giving.
It is not just our friends, or our brothers, or our kinsmen, or our rich neighbors, lest they also invite us in return, and we be repaid. Giving is not to be “tit for tat.”
We should show special concern in our giving for “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” and when we do, what will happen? The Bible says we “will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” The most generous act of giving is giving anonymously to someone who will never be in a position to repay you. All they know is that they are recipients of generous gifts from Christians who want to say that God loves them, and so do we. We gladly give, we humbly give with gratitude for all that God has given us. What a thrill giving away our money really is!
John Wesley discovered this. In 1731, Wesley began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was thirty pounds and his living expenses twenty-eight pounds, so he had two pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on twenty-eight pounds, so he had thirty-two pounds to give to the poor.
In the third year, his income jumped to ninety pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to twenty-eight pounds and gave away sixty-two pounds to the needy. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were twenty-eight pounds so his giving rose to ninety-two pounds. Wesley believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living, but the standard of giving.
Jesus invites you to celebrate life through grateful, humble living and giving for in “that way lies real happiness for you” (Luke 14:13, Phillips). (CTH)
September 10, 1989
Putting First Things First
A successful industrialist addressed a group of executives at a leadership seminar. His topic concerned employee motivation: how to get the job done while maintaining the enthusiasm and commitment of your personnel.
He offered a lot of helpful advice, but one concept in particular was especially insightful. “There are two things that are the most difficult to get people to do,” he said. “To think … and to do things in the order of their importance.”
That concept touches the nerve center of life for many of us. Sometimes it is difficult to think first — and then act! Most of us do exactly the opposite.
Equally difficult is maintaining proper priorities — putting first things first.
Jesus was certainly sensitive to these twin issues of thinking ahead and planning. There comes a time to prayerfully think ahead and to carefully plan for the future — even with regard to the Lord’s work.
As you recall, Nehemiah was one of three leaders who helped reestablish the people of God in Israel following the Babylonian exile.
Nehemiah’s specific assignment was to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. However, he did not bring a group of people into the city and immediately start them stacking bricks. He spent the first four months in uninterrupted thought. He came to live with the vision before he ever shared it with anyone else. He pored over it in thought before God. Only then did he come into the city and begin to build the wall.
Serious thought is hard work. Yet serious thought always precedes any significant change or progress. You rarely change areas of your life that have not been given serious thought.
When you see a person who has changed significantly from what he or she was a year ago, you usually ask: “Hey! What’s been happening? What’s with you? How did you lose so much weight? You seem to be so much more confident. You appear so much more at ease, or at peace with yourself. How did this change happen?”
No one has ever said in response: “Oh, it just happened. It’s amazing. You think you’re surprised! I just woke up one morning and there was this new me staring out of the mirror!”
Instead, that friend or business associate will tell you, “I’m glad you asked.” Then he or she will go on to describe what happened, usually in step 1, step 2, step 3 fashion.
Change only comes on the heels of deep, honest thinking about ourselves and our lives. Norman Vincent Peale summarized the idea. He said: “Have a made-up mind and move on up.” Fran Tarkenton was once asked how to become a successful quarterback in professional football. He responded: “Carry the image of victory in your head at all times.”
The point, however, can be easily missed. We are talking about progress, positive change, challenging purpose. The world is filled with people who expect difficulty in every area of life. One little boy complained to his dad: “I’ll never understand these math problems. They are so confusing. I can’t make any sense out of them at all. I think I’m going to fail my test tomorrow.”
Seeking to encourage his son, the father counseled him: “Son, you’ve got to be positive.”
“O.K.,” said the boy, “I’m positive I’m going to fail this test tomorrow.”
What I am saying to you is this. The church has been spurred on from the very beginning by a vision. One of those visions has been of a unique Christian witness. It’s one thing to talk about uniqueness. It’s quite another to achieve it.
In his current bestseller, entitled Thriving On Chaos, Tom Peters talks about creating uniqueness. His challenge to business and community service is this: “Don’t just stand there, be something.”
He goes on to say:
Sometimes a firm loses its uniqueness. Sears lived by the slogan ‘Quality at a good price’ for decades. In the seventies its retailing strategy became confused. Customers wondered, was it the old Sears? Or, as some of the company’s activities suggested, was it becoming an upscale outfit? The customers gave Sears an unequivocal answer. As one retail executive put it: ‘Those who saw Sears as K Mart shopped at K Mart. Those who thought it was Macy’s shopped at Macy’s.1
While the church is certainly vastly different from the world marketplace, our Lord did commend the children of the marketplace “… for the children of this world are (often) in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).
What is our church’s uniqueness? What sets us apart from every other church? Are we more caring … more attentive to the needs of our members? Is our membership made up of a particularly unique segment of the city’s population? Do we stand out from the rest because of our friendliness … our programming … our worship?
I recall reading about a colorful old Cajun who always wore a necklace of alligator teeth. A visitor spotted the Cajun and asked him about his necklace. “These are alligator teeth,” the Cajun explained. The stranger responded, “Oh, I understand. That’s like a string of pearls people wear in other parts of the country.” The Cajun countered, “Difference is, anybody can open an oyster.”
Nehemiah knew and understood the uniqueness of his calling. He spent time with it. He became possessed by it. He was committed to getting it done — no matter what! It became the most important thing in his life. Nehemiah had been captured by the dream.
Picture this scene. Alabama and Auburn were playing in one of the most crucial games of the year. Alabama was leading by five points. Two minutes were left in the game. Alabama had the ball twenty yards away from the goal line. On first down, the number one quarterback was injured. Coach Bear Bryant sent in his number two man. Before sending him in, Bryant gave him strict instructions. He was not — under any circumstances — to throw the ball. He was to run the ball three downs, even if they did not gain a yard. By that time, the game would be almost over, and the defense would hold them.
On second down, Alabama was stopped dead. On third down, they gained a yard. Fourth down. The quarterback turned to hand off the ball but missed the hand off. He began to run, and when he did, he spotted a receiver open in the end zone. What a chance to lock the game up.
He could not resist the chance to become a hero, so he lofted a pass to his open receiver. What he did not notice was the Auburn safety was only a few yards away. And he happened to be the fastest man on the team.
As soon as the ball was in the air, the safety cut in front of the receiver, pulled the ball in, and headed for the other end zone. All of a sudden, like a flash of lightning, the quarterback caught up with the swift safety and tackled him on the two yard line just as the clock ran out. Alabama won.
After the game, Pat Dye asked Bear Bryant, “I’ve read the scouting reports. That quarterback is supposed to be slow. How is it that he caught up with the fastest man on the field?” Bear Bryant replied, “It’s simple. Your man was running for the goal line and a touchdown. My man was running for his life!”
Motivated by the desire to stay alive, that slow quarterback focused all his energies on one object. He was able to concentrate.
We have been called to achieve a vision. It begins with a vision of God’s love, proceeds to a vision of a world apart from God, and then includes ourselves as a part of the process to bring God and His world together.
The animals in the jungle decided to have a football game. The problem was that no one could tackle Ronnie the Rhinoceros. Once he got a full head of steam, he was unstoppable.
On the opening kickoff, he rambled for a touchdown. The score was 7 to 0. Three more touchdowns during the remainder of the first quarter made the outcome seem dismal indeed. In the second quarter, the Terrors of Timbuktu finally got a field goal. The score: The Commandos of Capetown – 28: The Terrors of Timbuktu – 3. Despite Larry the Lion’s warning, Zeke the Zebra kicked the ball straight to Ronnie the Rhinoceros.
Sure enough, Ronnie caught the ball and went racing for another touchdown. Suddenly, the field shook as Ronnie the Rhino was brought down with a vicious tackle.
When the animals unpiled, Larry the Lion discovered that it was Claude the Centipede that had made the tackle. “That was fantastic, absolutely fantastic!” said Larry the Lion. “But where were you on the opening kickoff and during the first quarter?” Claude the Centipede replied: “I was still putting on my shoes.”
The God whom we serve is depending upon every one of us to get in the game. Yet, it is not a game at all. It’s our business to serve our God … to proclaim His gospel … to reach out to a community … to bring men and women, boys and girls to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
It’s no time to be putting on our shoes just now. It’s time to make up our mind and move on up! It’s the only way to victory! (GCR)
September 17, 1989
Back to the Basics
A minister’s hotel room overlooked the boardwalk at Ocean City, New Jersey, by the Atlantic Ocean. That’s where thousands of people go for a stroll, ride bikes, and frequent taffy shops or amusement parks situated along the way.
While the man was involved in sermon preparation, he heard a piercing voice on the loudspeaker outside announce that a five-year-old girl named Wendy had been lost. She was wearing a yellow dress and carrying a teddy bear. She had brown eyes and auburn-colored hair. Anyone knowing her whereabouts should report to the music pier. Two anxious parents were waiting.
The minister observed that none of the people on the boardwalk seemed to hear, respond or care. He felt for this young child, lost in a forest of legs. He wrote, “How did she feel without the clasp of her father’s strong hand?” She probably was “clutching her faithful teddy bear, tears streaming down her face, her heart bursting with fright and loneliness.”
Can you imagine the parents’ feelings those awful moments!
As he looked out his window again at the streams of humanity along the boardwalk, questions flooded his mind. How many of them were lost and did not know it? How many felt a deep lostness inside and wished an announcement would be made in order to summon help? Did anyone care? How many of them knew that they needed a heavenly Father as much as Wendy needed her daddy?
If evangelism is God’s paramount concern, shouldn’t it be ours? Let’s get back to basics!
I. Evangelism is Concern for the Lost (v. 1-4)
Put bluntly and simply, evangelism is caring. The leaders of Israel were considered “undershepherds” of the great shepherd, Jehovah. Their task was to show concern for the lost of Israel.
Somewhere in their history, the focal concern shifted from people to ritual and ceremony. Barclay states the parable demonstrates that the return of “sinners” to God should be cause for great joy to the religious leaders, as it was to God. Tragic as it is, there was no joy — only disgust!
While at a ministerial meeting recently in Kansas City, two men of my denomination came into my room at separate times, from two geographically different locations, and stated that their people told them they did not want their churches to grow any more. The congregational leaders said they liked their cozy little church and that too many people were coming and exploding that feeling. How contrary to the gospel of Jesus!
If we have forfeited our concern for the lost as an individual or as a church, we have destroyed our reason for existence. Let’s get back to the basics.
II. Evangelism is Showing the Way (v. 5)
The quality shepherds searched for their straying sheep. They didn’t send a surrogate shepherd, they went themselves! They put that lost sheep upon their broad back and carried it home.
Jesus points the way to righteous living. He talks to us through His Word and through conviction of sin. He deals with us about the sin in our lives — all of it. Christ carried it all on His broad shoulders — all the way to the cross. He showed the way. Can His disciples do any less?
III. Evangelism is Vitality in Joy (v. 6-7, 9-10)
How vitally dynamic and joyful is your church? I’ve got a secret … it’s only as dynamic and joyful to its community as you are!
I have a wind-up clock in my parsonage; there are times I have to take the key and wind it up. If I don’t, it loses time or stops completely.
The church needs to be wound up occasionally and and that comes by way of the Holy Spirit. He brings the joy into life with the focus on winning the lost. Nothing brings a joyful outlook to a church like new people experiencing Jesus in a saving faith.
Evangelism is getting back to the basics. (DGK)
September 24, 1989
A Capital Investment
Bruce Larson related a story from a friend in Montana. He told about a sheepherder who discovered oil on his land and became enormously rich. One of the first things this sheepherder did was to buy a Rolls Royce limousine — the style that is usually driven by a chauffeur who sits in front of a glass partition.
The car’s normal maintenance time came due so he took this splendid car in for service. The mechanic was properly impressed. “What a marvelous machine,” he said. “What do you like best about it?” “Well,” said the sheepherder, “I can take my sheep to market now without having them lick my neck.”
The sheepherder thoroughly enjoyed his money. Christians also ought to enjoy money, whether there is lots or little, because it belongs to God! Tragic as it may be, there are too many Christians who aren’t having fun with their money. Instead of them possessing their money, they are possessed by their money.
Let’s look at some of the capital investments we can make for God.
I. Our Investment Purpose is God and His Work.
All we do is for Him. We give to support missionaries, pay for the printing and distribution of Bibles, help to build church buildings and hospitals, provide scholarships for young preachers, etc. But why? Our purpose propels us because it is for God and His work.
It’s not what we get out of it; rather, what He and the work accomplishes for eternity. I can give money, time and talent to a variety of philanthropic community ventures, but nothing has eternal dividends as my giving for and to God and His work.
II. Our Investment is an Act of Grateful Worship.
Gratitude is an imperative. God loves a cheerful giver! Bishop Whipple told the story of an Indian who came to get him to exchange a two-dollar note for two one-dollar bills.
“Why?” asked the bishop. The Indian replied: “One dollar for me to give to Jesus, and one dollar for my wife to give.”
The bishop asked him if it was all the money he had. He said/’Yes.” the bishop was about to tell him, “It is too much,” when an Indian clergyman who was standing by whispered,” It might be too much for a white man to give, but not too much for an Indian who has this year heard for the first time of the love of Jesus.”
As, year by year, God’s love has doubled itself upon us, have we kept pace with the Indian’s principle of gratitude?
Next time the offering plate passes, offer a silent prayer of thanks to God when you place your envelope on the plate. Thank Him for this moment of great privilege. Thank Him for saving you, for giving you the income which makes giving possible. Pause and count the blessings which are available to you through giving. Keep the romance of giving fresh. Make it a continuing spiritual adventure into new and rich challenges for Christ and the Kingdom. Grateful worship stems from this type of attitude.
III. Our Investment is an Act of Obedience.
Years ago a young medical student in London, England, went to a revival to hear Dwight L. Moody preach. He wasn’t particularly interested in the gospel message — he just wanted to get a peek at an American evangelist.
At one point Moody repeatedly stated, “Let God have your life … Let God have your life … Let God have your life ….”
His words hit the heart of that young medical student as the Holy Spirit applied the conviction. Today he is remembered as Sir Wilfred Grenfell, missionary doctor to the people of Labrador. People in that area of the world to whom he ministered are still being fruitful today. He saw God’s plan for his life and dared to obey! Can we do any less?
Pastor Kenneth Dodge, in a sermon entitled “The Genesis of Stewardship,” wrote that years ago he clipped out a piece of prose that he discovered in a church magazine. It had originally been printed in a Berlin newspaper in 1939 at the height of the Nazis’ power. It said: “We have captured all positions of this government and on the heights we have planted the banners.
‘You had imagined
that was all
WE WANT MORE!
WE WANT ALL!
Your hearts are our goal.
It is your souls we want’.”
God wants our all. That’s our investment in Him.
The king was dying and he called for applicants to whom he could bequeath his kingdom.
The first applicant, boasting of his running speed, pledged to visit every home in the kingdom and thereby acquire the knowledge of what the people needed so that he could govern them well.
The second applicant boasted of his talents — more than anyone else in the entire kingdom. He felt himself to be best qualified to be king because he had the talent for it.
Another boasted of his riches, more than anyone else in the kingdom. He pledged to give all his riches if he could be king!
Finally, a crippled, twisted, misshapen dwarf came to the bedside of the dying king. “My feet are crippled; I have no talents, and I am a very poor man, indeed. So,” he continued, “all that I have to give is myself. I will gladly give that to the kingdom whether king or no.”
The dying king was a very wise man. The poor little dwarf inherited the kingdom.
What a capital investment! Will you give all of yourself as an eternal investment in the Kingdom of God? (DGK)
Outlines in this issue of Preaching are provided by Harold C. Perdue, Development Officer with the Texas Methodist Foundation; James W. Cox, Professor of Christian Preaching, Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, KY; Donald B. Strode, Pastor of First United Methodist Church, Ann Arbor, MI; C. Thomas Hilton, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Pompano Beach, FL; Gary C. Redding, Pastor of North Augusta Baptist Church, North Augusta, SC; and Derl G. Keefer, Pastor of Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI.
Sermon briefs offer helpful ideas
August 6, 1989