11th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
August 11, 1996
Faith That’s for Real
(Romans 10:5-15)
Not long ago, a night worker of a Kinko’s copy shop in Birmingham, Alabama, was arrested for producing tens of thousands of dollars in counterfeit money on the sophisticated color copiers in his shop. It’s not an isolated problem; with the improving quality of such equipment, treasury agents are facing a significant increase in such counterfeiting efforts. What used to take a skilled engraver and printing equipment now can be done on a color copy machine.
Yet no matter what the technology used for making the funny money, it is still counterfeit; it has no value except by deception and stealth.
There is such a thing as counterfeit faith as well. It is manufactured in different ways, but the end result is still the same — men and women who miss the fullness, the joy and satisfaction that comes from a real, authentic relationship with the living God.
In the beginning of this tenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle is expressing his urgent desire that his fellow Israelites would come to faith in Christ. Yet instead of turning to Christ, Paul says they have substituted a different faith, a counterfeit righteousness that falls short of God’s desire for them.
In order to help us judge the difference between counterfeit faith and authentic faith, Paul suggests several characteristics of faith that’s for real. How do we recognize real faith?
I. Real Faith is Rooted in an Internal Transformation
Paul quotes from the book of Leviticus (18:5), in which the Lord through Moses tells His people to obey His laws. That is one kind of righteousness, Paul says, but it is focused on external behavior. As the entire gospel makes clear, men and women have proven incapable of fully satisfying that kind of righteousness; “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The only righteousness that is authentic is one that is not only in your mouth — external behavior — but one that is in your heart — internal transformation. And that is precisely what Christ offers — to come into our hearts and transform us into new creations.
Paul says, “It is with your heart that you believe and are justified” (v. 10). He is talking about an act of the will — a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. And yet it is an act that is produced only by the Holy Spirit working inside us.
Imagine for a moment I come home one day with a pet pig. I dress that pig up in silk and satin; I dab some perfume behind his ear; I set him down in a library and declare, “Look what a lovely, sophisticated creature I have created!” But the minute the door opens and that pig spies a mud puddle, he’s out like a flash and wallowing in the mud. Because no matter how much I dress up that pig, make external changes, he’s still a pig; nothing has changed his essential character and nature.
No matter what you and I attempt to do in our own efforts, real faith can only be created by God’s grace working in our lives, producing an inner transformation.
There’s a further thing that characterizes real faith:
II. Real Faith is Demonstrated in a Public Profession
Once the inner transformation has taken place in our lives, the inevitable result is a desire to declare what God has done in us. Paul says, “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
Authentic faith is not secret faith. When Christ becomes Lord of our lives, there is an inevitable desire to share that good news with others. Indeed, for those earliest Christians, the very act of baptism was a public profession of their newfound faith in Christ. So with us; when God produces in us an internal transformation, we will inevitably seek to offer an external witness — to “confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord'” (v. 9).
III. Real Faith is Shared with a Missionary Spirit
An internal transformation takes place, followed by an external witness. But when Christ has become Lord of our lives, we want to see the gospel communicated to all — not just those with whom we have contact. That is why the early Christians had such a profound missionary spirit. And throughout the history of the church, Christian disciples have sent out others to preach the good news of Jesus.
“How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Paul asks. “And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (vv. 14b-15a). The love of Christ compels us to share His love with others, including those beyond our personal reach. That is why God calls some to special service in carrying the gospel as missionaries. Missions may involve sending Christ’s messengers around the globe or across the street. Missions is not distance so much as faithfulness to share and send.
Have you experienced real faith in your own life? Perhaps this is the day you have heard from one who has been sent. The promise of God is that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v. 13). Will you call on Him today? (Michael Duduit)
12th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
August 18, 1996
From Captivity to Freedom!
(Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32a)
At their 1996 annual convention, Southern Baptists adopted a resolution emphasizing the importance of evangelizing Jewish people. The response from many sources — including media, Jewish leaders, and even some mainline Protestant spokespersons — was antagonistic, even to the point of comparing the Southern Baptist action to the spirit of the Holocaust!
I was called by a TV reporter for a response, and he was surprised by my answer. I told him that if Southern Baptists believe that everyone must confess Christ in order to have eternal life — whether they are Jewish, Buddhist or Baptist — then what could be more anti-Semitic than for them to fail to share Christ with Jewish people? The most loving thing a Christian can do to a Jew — or to anyone else — is to share the good news of God’s love in Christ.
The Jews were the people through whom God had worked for centuries. They were the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the people of Moses and Joshua; the people of David and Solomon; the people of the prophets. They were the people through whom Jesus was brought into human history, and they were the people of the disciples and the apostles. They were the writers of the Old Testament and — with the exception of Luke — the New Testament. The Jews have played a strategic role in the saving work of God.
Now, however, the church faces a legitimate question about the place of the Jews. Although most of the earliest band of believers were Jews, as the Christian faith spread throughout the Empire it has become more and more a Gentile movement. Most of the Jewish people have rejected Christ as God’s Messiah. So Paul’s question in verse 1 is a pressing issue for that young church: Has God rejected His people? The rest of chapter 11 will deal with that issue, culminating in the truth of verse 32: God has allowed all to be bound by sin in order that we can ultimately be freed by grace.
There are two essential ideas here that unlock the door to divine truth:
I. Without Christ, We Are All Bound by Sin
One of the essential truths of this letter is that all of us — every one — is a captive of sin. Paul said in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And in Romans 6:23 he notes that “the wages of sin is death” or eternal separation from God.
Sin has an awesome power in human lives. In Romans 6:12, Paul talks about how sin “reigns” in our bodies, like a dictator. It masters us (6:14), like slaves held captive by a tyrannical ruler.
Our culture scoffs at the very idea of sin. What somebody does is their own business, and every day millions of people are “taking care of business” with the evil one, exulting in what they think is freedom, but which is actually a slow, steady corruption that leads to death and destruction. With each sin, we fashion the very chains that bind us.
Have you ever wondered how the circus elephants can be kept secure by those chains staked to the ground? The truth is, they can t. But as young elephants, they learned that the chain would hold them securely; they weren’t yet strong enough to pull free. Now that they have grown, the memories of captivity are so strong that they won’t attempt to free themselves from a chain that cannot hold them.
Before there is any hope of release, we must recognize that we are captive. And we must recognize that sin cannot hold us if we face it in the power of the risen Christ. That is why the second truth of this passage is so wonderful:
II. With Christ, We Can Be Free from Sin s Power
When we have recognized our captivity, we are ready to be freed by the power and mercy of Christ. Our recognition of sin’s presence prepares us to open our hearts to the life-giving grace of God through Jesus Christ.
Paul emphasized that his Jewish brethren must recognize their own disobedience. This was terribly hard for them to do, because they were proud of their status as the chosen people of God. They were people of Torah, the Law; they believed they earned God’s favor through keeping the Law. Yet much of what Paul does in this letter is to express the reality that their commitment to salvation through Law, through their own obedience, would separate them from God s grace, which must be accepted as a free gift. Grace cannot be earned; it must be accepted as something undeserved, unmerited. They could never be good enough on their own merit; through Christ, they could rest in His merit, His righteousness, and thus be saved.
Whether Jew or Gentile, only as we recognize our own ungodliness will we turn to seek Christ’s righteousness. (Michael Duduit)
13th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
August 25, 1996
Dorothy, Alice and Us
(Romans 12:1-8)
One of the best-known lines from the movie “The Wizard of Oz” comes from the mouth of Dorothy. As she looks around her at Munchkinville, she comments to her dog, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.” Of course, she was right. She had been transported via tornado to the land of Oz, and the land of Oz looked nothing like Kansas. At the end of her sojourn there she clicked her heels together, went back to Kansas, and found out that it was all just a dream.
A lot of people don’t realize that actually Dorothy went back to Oz. Frank Baum, the American author, wrote 14 Oz books, and they contain many adventures Dorothy and her family had in the land that was called Oz. What is especially interesting to me and applicable to us is that some people have perceived the changes in our real world to be just as drastic as the change Dorothy experienced when she went from Kansas to Oz. Maybe you have seen the bumper sticker that says, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
Any adult here this morning can surely recognize that in the last 25 years our culture has undergone a radical transformation. Ideas about God and man that took root in liberal academic circles much earlier began to be accepted in the popular culture.
James Lincoln Collier has written an interesting book about our country entitled The Rise of Selfishness in America. In his historical analysis, he traces the rejection of the moral restraint of the self in favor of the unashamed obsession with self-gratification. This world view of self-satisfaction — what some have called the “psychology of entitlement” — now dominates the way people think.
The mind-set of self love has affected people in obvious and subtle ways. One obvious result is the number of television commercials that try to convince us to buy a product because “you deserve the best, or “you deserve a break today, so get up and get away.” “Sure it costs more, but you’re spending it on yourself and you re worth it.” They tell us that we should pamper ourselves with this product; it costs more than the other brand, but that’s because its better, and you should get it to be good to yourself. The only reason advertisers spend millions of dollars on that approach is because it works.
I think of how my grandmother’s generation would react to that kind of marketing strategy: “Pshaw! If the only reason to pay more for this brand is luxury, I’ll get the less expensive kind, or maybe I can do without altogether.” But within only a generation or two we shifted from the values of self-restraint and deferred gratification to the psychology of entitlement and self love.
Another way this mind-set has affected people is in the area of morality. What is right to do is right because it makes me happy, or self-fulfilled. It may not make you happy, and if it doesn’t it’s not right for you. Thus, morality becomes a matter of personal preference, not an objective, absolute standard that we must follow in order to be right and moral. That’s the reason people may hold widely divergent views on moral issues such as abortion and one may say to the other, “That’s okay; what’s right for you is different from what’s right for me.” But it’s not okay. God has given us an objective standard to follow in His word. To follow is to be right; to disobey it is to be wrong.
Think with me about how the emphasis of self-love affects the outreach of the church. These days, a lot of people visit the church to see how this Christianity and church thing can help me. “I want to be more successful in my family, my job, and my finances. Show me how this is going to help me.” Not as many people visit thinking, “I want to find the truth and live the way God wants me to live.” Instead, it’s “Show me what God can do for me.” In fact, one survey shows that of the 56% of Americans who attend church, 45% do so because “its good for you.”
How does the church respond to that? How do lovers of God reach lovers of self? Do we go light on the Gospel and the Bible and heavy on encounter groups and self-help classes? Do we give great emphasis to how God is going to help you to be healthy and wealthy? In the 1960’s, the “God is dead” movement was spawned, as was the sexual revolution, the drug culture, and the idea that the church was irrelevant and out-of-date. Those phenomena and others have had such a profound effect on our culture that when we walk out of this Christian, Bible-believing, God-loving environment in about 30 minutes, it will be as if we are stepping out of Kansas and into Oz.
That in itself is not the most serious problem. Certainly we want more people in our culture to come to Christ and follow Him. But we should also remember that the earliest Christians found themselves in a culture that was permeated with immorality and idolatry, and the only leverage they had to change that was the power of the Gospel. The greater problem is not that we are in a culture in which the Christian mind-set is foreign; it is that we, like Alice in Wonderland, forget who we are. It is not an unusual experience for that to happen to Christians, and before long they feel right at home in a land that is not their home. They adopt the thinking patterns and lifestyle choices of the people around them, and they lose touch with the fact that they have a different nature as Christ-followers. We don’t fit in this world because those in this world love the darkness and we walk in the light. If we feel comfortable in this world, we have forgotten who we are.
So I would like to spend these moments reminding us of who we are in relation to the world in which we live. For in order to love God with our minds, it is absolutely essential that we realize that there is a Christian mind-set, or world view, that is different from the mind-set, or world view, of those without Christ. By “world view” we do not mean a way of looking at certain things, such as religion, but a certain way of looking at everything. It involves our deepest convictions, the philosophy that we live by, our most basic values that create, or form, our opinions or beliefs about issues.
How is a Christian world view different from the world view that is dominant in our culture? First of all, we are different because our greatest love is love for God, not self. Jesus said the greatest commandment is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Granted, in reality Christians struggle with that. We do not always love God with all that we are. But hopefully the progress of our lives is toward greater love for God and less love for self, not vice versa.
However, the opposite is true with our culture. The emphasis on self has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. The idea that we are to be self-interested and self-loving is regarded as a fundamental, universal truth. So much is this the case that for many people God is not the object of devotion and service, but the means whereby we can get what we want. To the selfish He is a Tool — a supernatural, celestial Tool, but still a Tool. If we adopt this view, we ll have to play down sacrifice. We’ll have to go easy on words like “sin” and “repentance” too, because they are real downers. The result of that kind of approach (and many adopt it) is what J. I. Packer calls “hot tub religion” — it makes you feel good and asks nothing of you. Charles Colson calls it McChurch — millions are being served, but no one’s getting fed a balanced spiritual diet.
The church ought to tell people that following Christ and obeying His word will help them, because it will in the life to come and in this life. I enjoy opening the Bible to show how God’s Word gives us insight, direction, and help with modern problems. The church is going to have to do a good job of that if we are going to reach this generation. But at some point we have to tell them that we are intended to love God first, not self.
We who belong to Christ are not to be conformed to this world. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. One of the ways that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds is through a change in that which we love the most — no longer self but God. How about you? Have you made that change? Or was there a time when your greatest love was love for God, but now you have left your first love? If so, you have lost the difference between Christians and the world, and today you can find it again.
A second way in which we are different than the culture around us is that for Christians, the greater goal is truth, not tolerance. Don’t misunderstand. Tolerance is a virtue that ought to be developed by Christians, as long as it is defined as the ability to coexist with and love those who are different from you. But that is not the way tolerance is being defined today. To be tolerant these days means to be open-minded enough to accept any idea or philosophy as correct, as long as someone wants to believe it. That kind of tolerance flourishes in an environment of relativism, which is exactly the philosophy of our time. Everything is relative, and nothing is absolute, except for the absolute truth that everything is relative. Did you know that a recent survey indicates that 67% of Americans believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth? Among those who are members of evangelical churches, 52% said that there is no absolute truth.
There is no possible way that Christians can be consistent in their thinking and remain relativists. Christians are absolutists. What God has said is truth. As Isaiah said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8). Or as Jesus said, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Mat. 5:18).
Our culture has equated tolerance and relativism with freedom, and absolute truth with confining religious bondage. But just the opposite is true. God’s word teaches that to be independent from God and His truth is to be in slavery to the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” John 8:34). And He said, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (vv. 31-32). The freedom that is outside of Christ is a cheap, artificial freedom. It is freedom from Christ’s rule and love but bondage to the world, the flesh, and the devil. But Jesus said, “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed, (v. 36).
The freedom that Christians experience is not the kind of freedom that allows for anything and everything to be true, as long as it works for you and makes you happy. We know that if everything is true then nothing is really true. Christian freedom is based on truth, which is a greater goal than tolerance.
A third way in which Christians are different from the world around us is that our source of truth is different. Roger Williams, a Baptist of another generation, once wrote, “Every word, syllable, and title in that Scripture or writing is the word, or immediate revealed will of God.” The Bible, God’s word, is our source of truth.
More and more our culture has begun to consider the Bible to be the words of men, not God. The sad fact is that some in the church have capitulated to that kind of thinking. For example, several years ago when a committee produced the lectionary that portrayed God as male and female, the chairman, Burton Throckmorton, said, “The Bible is the church’s book. The church can do whatever it wants to with its book.”
At a conference at Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry in Ambridge, PA, orthodox Episcopalians met with the liberal wing of that denomination to discuss several issues. Not only was there disagreement, there was no point of contact. One observer of the event wrote, “Whether both parties had a common Lord was questionable that they had distinctly different faiths was beyond doubt. Trinity students came away from the conference convinced there are two religions in their denomination and that everything Episcopal is not necessarily Christian.” As one student said, “They worship a different God than we do, that was clear.”
Why is there such wide and unprecedented diversity in the church? Because somewhere along the way we lost the importance of having a Christian world view. Rather than loving God with our minds, some used their minds to love themselves, to exalt tolerance over truth, and personal preference over the Bible.
Which will it be for you? Have you come to the place at which your mind is submissive to the word of God? Is it your goal to abide in His word so that you will be His disciple, so that you will know the truth, and so that you will be free? Really, be honest. Which is it that you love the most — yourself or God?
Dorothy woke up from her dream and immediately she was home. But this is not a dream — it’s reality, and we will have to make up our minds how we will live in this world where fantasy is passed off as truth, until one day we wake up in His presence and we will be judged according to what we thought of Him and His Word. (N. Allan Moseley)
14th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 1, 1996
What is Real Love?
(Romans 12:9-21)
Could there be any more overused or abused word in the English language than the word love? We love everything — spouses, children, parents, pets, new carpet, a sailboat, hair coloring, and milk chocolate.
Despite this excessive use of the word, most of us realize that real love is not that common. We live in an age of broken marriages and disposable children, an age when relationships are only sustained as long as they make us feel good. In that kind of world, how can we know what real love is like?
In writing to the church at Rome, Paul dealt with precisely that issue in these verses. Earlier in chapter 12 he has challenged these new Christians to present themselves as “living sacrifices” to God (v. 1), which would result in a transformation of their lives (v. 2). Once your life has been transformed by the power of Christ, you are ready — for the first time — to learn what real love is all about.
I. Real Love is Active (vv. 9-15)
Unlike the kind of “warm and fuzzy,” passive picture of love held by so many in our culture, real love is an active emotion. Love is something you do. And it has both positive and negative elements. There are more than a dozen different emphases here about love; notice just three of them.
Love avoids evil and is attracted to good (v. 9). One translation (NASB) puts it: “Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.” Real love doesn t flirt with the darkness, but seeks to stay always in the light.
Have you heard of the crooked country road that had a perilous turn overlooking a 100-foot drop? So many drivers ran off the cliff that the local hospital kept an ambulance at the bottom. Some even suggested building a clinic there to treat the injured. Finally, a newcomer to the community asked, “Why not just build a fence at the top of the cliff instead of a hospital at the bottom?”
Love builds a fence at the top, seeking to avoid evil rather than to clean up after it. If you love others, you want God’s best for them. You want them to be in God’s will and to avoid sin that will corrupt and destroy.
Love reaches out to help others (v. 13). Love is giving, not greedy. Love seeks to help others in meeting their needs, even at personal cost. Love is a lifestyle of reaching out to others — not just at Christmas or Thanksgiving, but throughout the year.
That word “sharing” or “contributing” comes from a root Greek word which means “generous.” It is the same root from which we get the word koinonia — the generous sharing of the early church that made them such a distinctive fellowship.
Love is encouraging and comforting (v. 15). Real love shares the joys and sorrows of others rather than focusing all of our energies on our own needs.
An ancient Chinese story told of a woman whose only son died. She went to the priest and asked if there was any magical potion which could remove the pain from her heart. He told her to bring back a feather from a home that had known no sorrow, and this feather would help eliminate her own sadness. She began going from home to home, seeking such a place, but at each home she learned that great sorrow had been experienced. In each place, she found an opportunity to sympathize and minister to the family. Gradually, her own pain began to soften and then disappear as she gave herself to helping others.
Real love is active. But beyond that,
II. Real Love is Humble (v. 16)
In a recent issue of US News & World Report (June 17, 1996), columnist John Leo discusses the popular educational movement to foster self-esteem. Educational authorities are convinced there is a link between academic success and a student’s self-confidence and self-regard. But as Leo points out, 25 years of research has provided virtually no evidence that such a link exists. In fact, recent evidence suggests a much stronger link between high self-esteem and violence among young people; researchers are discovering that violence is often “the work of people with unrealistically high self-esteem attacking others who challenge their self-image. Under this umbrella come bullies, rapists, psychopaths and members of street gangs and organized crime.”
Even without all that government-funded research, the apostle Paul knew that few things can be as devastating as pride. That’s why he emphasizes that real love lives in harmony and cooperation; it is not proud or conceited.
Pride and harmony don’t live in the same heart, because pride is too busy seeking its own advantage and satisfaction rather than seeking the best for others.
The latter part of the verse tells us to “get off your high horse” and don’t act as if you’re too good to deal with people you think are below you. Christian love isn’t concerned with protecting status; it is committed to providing service.
III. Real Love is Forgiving (vv. 17-21)
Somebody has done something to offend you — perhaps they’ve criticized you unfairly, or taken something that belonged to you — and now you have the opportunity to get even. What do you do?
Our human nature tends to say, “Get even! Get revenge! Do to them before they do to you again!” It’s the way of the world, isn’t it — a way that leads to violence, hatred, bigotry, war.
Real love, however, doesn t try to pay back evil for evil (v. 17). Punishment for sin is God’s business, not yours and mine. When we become consumed by a desire for revenge, we soon become what we hated in the first place. Instead, real love responds to evil with forgiveness; instead of revenge, we seek to offer grace.
Real love is a remarkable thing which seems beyond our human capabilities — because it is. Real love is only possible when we allow the One who loves us most, and who gave His life for us, to transform us into new creations remade in His image. Will you allow Christ to love you, and to love through you? (Michael Duduit)
15th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 8, 1996
Do You Know What Time It Is?
(Romans 13:8-14)
I’d seen that look before. I saw it again last week. I was visiting a church member in the cardiac ward at St. Joe’s. He introduced me to the nurse and told her I had been in there last fall. She asked what brought me in. I told her, “Cardiomyopathy.” That’s when I got “the look.” I get it every time the subject comes up with anyone who knows anything about heart disease. That look let’s me know that they are thinking either, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” or, “Why are you still here?”
This time the nurse said just that. Most people with cardiomyopathy die, unless they become candidates for a heart transplant.
Obviously wondering why I was visiting the hospital instead of staying in it, she asked how I am doing now. When I told her about the echo-stress test this summer which had shown the heart function to be normal, she gave me a disbelieving stare and asked, “Do you mind if I listen to your heart?” I unbuttoned my shirt, she listened to my heart, and then with an amazed look on her face she said, “That’s miraculous.”
And it is. I’m very grateful. But it reminded me again just how short life can be. How suddenly it can come to an end.
So did a phone call Thursday night. It was one of our senior high kids. When I asked how he was doing he said, “Not very well. Did you hear about the car accident on Davis Blvd.?” In fact, we had just returned from a walk past the corner where a Volkswagen had crashed into a tree. I went to his house. We sat on the front step and talked. One of the guys in the car was his friend. The driver sat beside him in class. Suddenly, unexpected, untimely death had barged into his life.
Life is short. Sometimes when we least expect it, the game is over. The time is up. That’s something like the feeling beneath Paul’s words: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
He was writing specifically about the “parousia”, the final coming, the ultimate day of the Lord. Like all the first generation Christians, he expected Jesus to return any day, next Tuesday at the latest. One of the fascinating things to see in the New Testament is how the early Christians responded to the lengthening of the time before Jesus’ return.
There’s a clear movement from the expectation of an immediate return, to a life of faith which looks forward to a final coming, sure enough, but in which every moment can be a kairos moment, every hour has divine importance, every day is lived with the awareness that the time is now, the day is at hand.
There’s spiritual urgency in Paul’s voice: “You know what time it is.” Now is the time to wake up! Now is the moment to respond to God’s salvation. Now is the time to put away the works of darkness. Now is the time to put on Christ and live in the light. The night is far gone and the day is at hand.”
We all need that kind of wake up call now and then. I read a fascinating article in which the writer quoted a conversation between Alice and the queen in Alice in Wonderland. Alice begins,
“I don’t care for jam.”
“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.
“Well, I don’t want any jam today, at any rate.”
“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.”
“It must come sometimes to jam today,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day; today isn t any other day, you know.”
The writer said that for too many of us there is resurrection yesterday, when Jesus rose from the dead. And there is resurrection tomorrow in the final coming of the Lord. But many of us live as if there is no resurrection today. The great good news of the Gospel is that today, here and now, the Spirit of Christ is alive with us and can be alive in us. Now is the time. This is the day of salvation.
Well, what would it look like for that salvation to become a present, practical reality in our lives? For one thing, it means entering a new relationship with Jesus Christ. Paul tells us to, “Put on Christ.” The Christian life is a conscious choice, like choosing to put on the clothing you wore to church this morning.
There are a lot of Biblical images to describe it. For Nicodemus it was like being born again.
For the woman at the well it was a drink of living water.
For Peter and Andrew it was a call to become fishers of men.
For Paul it was a radical reorientation of his life on the Damascus Road.
For Timothy it meant stirring up the gift of God which he had received from his mother and grandmother.
For John on Patmos it was a vision of Jesus standing at the door, knocking and saying, “Behold I stand at the door and knock and if anyone opens the door, I will come in and eat with them.”
Whatever image you use, it means saying “Yes” to the pervading love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It means that along the path of our lives we acknowledge who we are — sinners who stand in need of God’s grace and as a conscious choice we receive, by faith, the forgiveness and grace of God. And that can happen any day.
And I can’t help but believe that for someone here this morning, now is time to wake up. Now is the time for you to “put on Christ,” at some new level of your being, to say “Yes” to him.
You know what time it is. Now is the time for a new relationship with Christ. Now is also the time for a new way of relating to other people.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Art Buchwald, the Washington humorist, delivered the commencement address at USC. If you’ve heard Buchwald speak, you can hear that unique voice saying: “I don’t know if this is the best of times or the worst of times. But I can assure you of this — it’s the only time you’ve got. So you can either stay in bed or go out and pick a daisy.”
Paul would have liked it. This is the only time we’ve got. If we know what time it really is, if we realize how short life can be, if we actually believe that salvation is near, then we know that this is the time to love the people around us. Because “love is the fulfillment of the law.”
The sister of the teenager who was killed in that car accident Thursday evening is in my wife’s third grade class. One of the other classes wrote their own sympathy cards to her and I sneaked a peek at them before they were delivered to her. The art work is fascinating. The spelling is atrocious. But catch the feeling in these words:
“I am sorry your Brother died. P.S. You can tell me anything.”
“I am very sorry for you…I know a little how you feel because my mother has a kidney problem and she mite die.”
“I’m sorry about what happened. [Signed] A friend you can trust.”
Paul said, “Owe no one anything but love, for one who loves has fulfilled the law.
William Willimon is one of the most insightful preachers I know. He said that early in his ministry, fresh out of seminary, he and his wife attended a funeral in a small, hot, crowded church in rural Georgia. He described the way the obviously uneducated, country preacher shouted, fumed and flailed his arms around over the casket.
“It’s too late for Joe,” he screamed. “He’s dead. It’s all over for him. He might have wanted to straighten his life out, but he can’t now. It’s over.”
Will said he was thinking, “What a comfort this must be to that poor family!” Then the preacher pointed his finger at the congregation and shouted,
“But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day. So why wait? Now is the day for decision. Now is the time to make your life count for something. Now is the time to give your life to Jesus!”
Willimon left thinking it was the worst funeral sermon he had ever heard and told his wife so on the way home. She listened. She agreed that it was tacky, manipulative and callous. But then she said, “Of course, the worst part is that it’s all true.”
Oh God, we thank you that around your table it is always jam today. Your resurrection power is not just for yesterday, not just for tomorrow, but is available for us today. Around this table, as we share this bread and cup, may we discover the living present of your Spirit and know that now is the moment to wake from sleep, because our salvation is nearer than ever before. Amen.
16th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 15, 1996
Weak or Strong?
(Romans 14:1-12)
The cartoon characters were two young children in that wonderful age of discovery. A boy and a girl. They were standing in a small wading pool and they had both stripped off their bathing suits and one of the characters looked at the other and asks, “Are you the opposite sex or am I?”
The question that comes in response to Paul’s description of those who are weak in the faith and those who are strong in the faith is “Are you the weak or the strong?” There are those who have so been caught up in the revelation of what God has done for us that they become convinced that nothing that they do makes much difference in the mathematics of salvation.
There are the others, those who are called the weak, who somehow feel that redemption is more tenuous and that there are certain things that they might do to keep the connection alive. In Paul’s day they did not eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. They had certain days of obligation in which they felt compelled to do certain things. The weak are those who do not yet feel comfortable with the great gift of the Grace, the Freedom of God, and they still claim a value for certain rules and rituals as necessary for the nurturing of their souls.
The Strong live in the confidence that the “Kingdom of God cannot be inaugurated by busy movements of reforms; that men are not justified by the practice of asceticism, that the Christian is not concerned with rules, regulations, with programs and policies, with absolute commands and prohibitions, to make any principle of conduct an absolute requirement is to betray the conviction that our redemption has already been accomplished by the grace, power and love of God and is our by a gift.”
Are you the weak or the strong? And which of us is right? They are both part of the church at Rome and they want Paul to tell them which is correct. They are still part of every church and we still want Paul to tell us which is correct.
Paul has just poured out his deepest and most profound understanding of the love of God, of the God who brought forth creation, who because He so loved creation began immediately to work for its redemption when things went wrong, who called to Himself a peculiar people, made promises of faithfulness to his chosen leaders, acted in special and providential ways to bring about a faithful and holy people, who acted in a particular and redemptive way in Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection, and gave that to us. Paul has just shared that amazing story of amazing grace that “while we were yet sinners, God died for us in Christ Jesus.” That God has acted in Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to Himself and has made that event known to Jews and gentiles by the preaching of the good news. It is ours as a gift. It is ours by faith. We don’t have to do anything to earn it.
Suddenly we now are alive in the Freedom of God to live in the joy of that redemption. Karl Barth puts that freedom this way, “Oppressed on all sides by God and wholly dissolved by Him; reminded constantly of death and as constantly directed towards life; scared out of the petty trivialities of human relationships in which men are normally imprisoned and therefore free to apprehend what is certain and living and eternal, depending only upon the forgiveness of sins and therefore able to direct our conduct with real clarity of insight; our reverence for all relative values and factors so completely shattered that we are enabled to make genuine and proper use of them, so securely bound and chained to God that we can preserve a calm independence with regard to those many problems and requirements and duties of life which are not imposed upon us directly by God himself and by Him only, loosed from the whole compulsion of authority and regimentation, form the whole multiplicity of god-like powers and authorities which make up our world — that is to live in the Freedom of God.”
Paul has put that Freedom of God into that great passage earlier where he declares that our redemption is dependent on the power of God and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. So now, no sooner does he conclude that magnificent affirmation of the Grace and Mercy of God than this universal question comes up: Who is right: the weak or the strong?
One has the feeling that if Paul had ever had the chance to see the T.V. program M*A*S*H, he would have had a great deal of sympathy and compassion for Colonel Blake and Potter. The church is a theological M.A.S.H. unit. The church is supposed to be the place where those who are wounded by the pain and suffering and evil in the world are patched, treated, heal and loved. And there are Major Burns and Major Hoolihan, who keep insisting on the necessity to feed the patient by the regulations. Margaret and Frank want regulation food and regulation uniforms. Margaret and Frank think that doing it by the book insures that all patients will be given the necessary treatment. The majors we call the weak. Meanwhile Captains Pierce and Honeycutt want to serve whatever food they can get. They want to ignore all the little rules in the service of the greater obligation to care for, nurture and heal. The captains we call the strong. Are you the weak or the strong?
Colonel Paul understands the question. He just refuses to give the expected answer, for he knows that as soon as he has picked one side or the other, he has denied the Freedom of God in which he has been called to live. As soon as he says that eating or not eating matters, he will have reduced the greatness of the grace of God to a horrible little question of whether or not to eat a hamburger. The magnificent grandeur of God’s grace is reduced to a matter of meat. Paul knows that as soon as he says whether or not playing cards, working on the Sabbath, tithing, reading your Bible regularly, or daily devotions matter, he has reduced the amazing love that was willing to die on the cross to a matter of trivial insignificance. And he will not do that.
Whether one is weak in the faith or strong in the faith, Paul says the matter is whether or not what you are doing is “in faith.” All of us are invited by the Freedom of God to live in the response of faith to the love of God that has redeemed us. For some it may be important and helpful to have certain kinds of routines, certain kinds of rituals, certain kinds of obligations in order to keep one’s heart and mind upon the grace and power of God. For others those aids and means of grace may not be important.
The question God will ask is not whether or not you read your Bible daily, whether or not you observed the sabbath, whether you played cards, whether you tithed or not, but “How did you live and honor me in what you said and how you lived with your fellow human beings whom I loved and died for? How did you use your gifts and talents to bear witness and give evidence of the wonderful mercy and goodness of life that I made possible for all?”
Whether weak or strong in the faith, the test is whether what you are doing is being done in response to the grace and mercy of God already made possible for you by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Is the observing of the holy days being done to honor God? Is the not eating meat being done to honor God or to impress the neighbors? If the one who eats meats is doing it to bear witness to the Freedom of God and the one who abstains is also doing it to bear witness to God, God will know and rejoice. The weak and the strong are both servants of God and God is the one who must judge how each is accomplishing the tasks and missions God has given to each. Neither the weak nor the strong has been given the job by God to judge the other.
Are you the weak or the strong? Perhaps the truth is that most of us are somewhere between the two. Sometimes strong and other times weak. Weak or strong? For Paul the only test that mattered was “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, so then whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” If we are united in our commitment to God’s mercy and grace as we have seen that revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the weak and the strong look the same.
“Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness, or peril of sword? For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rick Brand)
17th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 22, 1996
No-Lose Living
Philippians 1:21-30
Have you ever heard of a no-win situation — no matter what direction you take, it’s a losing proposition. The opposite of a no-win situation is a no-lose situation — where any alternative you take will have a positive result. Frankly, that has a lot more attraction for me!
Paul understood that the Christian life is a no-lose situation (v. 21). Paul could say, “If I live, great! I get to be with Jesus!” He could also say, “If I die, no problem! I’m going to be with Jesus!” If we have given our lives to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then every area of our lives, every circumstance in which we find ourselves, can glorify Christ. How does that happen?
I. We Glorify Christ in Our Work
When Paul talks about “fruitful labor” (v. 22), he is talking about purposeful activity; done with a goal in mind.
We live in a culture that glorifies leisure and pleasure — after all, “weekends are made for Michelob” aren’t they? Drive through the park on Saturday and you can see folks working hard at resting. (I’m still waiting to see my first smiling jogger, however.)
Yet the reality is that those people who are most satisfied are those with meaningful work to do — a task to accomplish. We need some goal, some purpose, to give meaning to our days. And all the work we do for Christ is meaningful.
Do you teach a class of four-year-olds? You give glory to God! Do you cook church suppers? You give glory to God! Do you sing in the choir? You give glory to God! Do you help keep up the physical facilities of the church, so that we have a nice place to worship? You give glory to God!
Everything we do for Christ plants seeds that will blossom in eternity. What will your garden look like on the other side?
II. We Glorify Christ in Our Struggles (vv. 24-26)
Even in our struggles and difficulties, God enables us to bring glory to Him as we influence others. As we model Christian faithfulness in the midst of struggle, God uses us to bring joy to others.
God can also use us to encourage others in their own struggles (vv. 27-30). They can know they aren’t alone in their own difficulties as they see us walk with Christ through the storms of our own lives.
III. We Glorify Christ in Our Death (vv. 21, 23)
What is the greatest day of your life? Was it the day you got that first car? The day you graduated from college? The day you were married? The day your child was born? What would it be?
The apostle Paul knew that the greatest day of his life would be the day he would die! That’s because it is the day he would be able to meet his Savior face to face. And Paul would want us to understand that the greatest day of our existence will be the day you and I depart this temporal sphere and enter into the very presence of the living God. To be ushered into the presence of God, to see the Lord Jesus who gave His life for us, to experience in a profoundly new way the presence of the Holy Spirit who has comforted and directed us — no wonder Paul dreamed of that day!
Did you watch the Olympics on TV this summer? I particularly admire the marathon runners, because of the strength, endurance and patience they must have to be successful. For a marathon runner, the most glorious moment must be when they turn the final corner, reenter the stadium, and see the finish line before them. All the struggles and efforts are forgotten in the joy of arriving at that ultimate goal.
Someday you and I will have that great privilege, to finish the race, to reach the goal, to stand before the Christ who loved us and gave His life for us. May we give glory to Christ in our lives, that we might truly bring glory to Him at the end of the race. (Michael Duduit)
18th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 29, 1996
Servants, Like Christ
(Philippians 2:1-13)
The hot-shot young executives gathered in the conference room to meet the new Chief Executive Officer for the first time. The young “movers and shakers” jockeyed with each other for position to be closest to the CEO’s chair. They regaled each other with examples of their exploits that would impress the new CEO. After they’d waited quite awhile, one of them finally exclaimed, “When is he going to get here?”
“He’s already here,” said the man who had been walking around the room pouring coffee. And with that, he sat the coffee pot on the table, took his place at the head of the table, saying, “And he’s learned a great deal already.”
Humility is so uncommon that it can take us by surprise, can’t it? We re not surprised when someone claims a higher position or argues for their own advancement, but we’re taken aback when we encounter genuine humility. It just doesn t come naturally.
Maybe that’s why the New Testament deals with humility so many times. It’s often presented in the idea of servanthood — a concept which would have been quite familiar to the people of that culture, where slaves and servants were so common. Jesus is our model of humility and servanthood, and until we learn to walk in His steps in this area, we will have failed to really learn His best for us.
Paul wanted us to see that Jesus adopted the nature of a servant, and that is Christ’s call to us as well: a call to servanthood. But what does Christian servanthood mean for you and me?
I. The Focus of Servanthood is Service
A servant is more interested in serving than seizing (vv. 6-7). A servant doesn’t try to claim a higher position that will bring greater status or power. The focus of a servant is serving — using one’s talents and gifts on behalf of others. A servant is more interested in helping others than in claiming his or her own personal interests (v. 4).
II. The Methodology of Servanthood is Obedience (v. 8)
As servants of God, we are called to faithful obedience to the Father. We are “one in spirit and purpose” (v. 2), and that purpose is focused on God’s will and not our own.
Can you imagine an army in which every private was given time to consider the orders and decide whether or not he would obey? Orders are issued, and discussion groups are formed in each tent to discuss possible alternatives! While the soldiers evaluated their orders, the enemy would roll over them without a fight! Soldiers are taught obedience because an army must be able to react immediately, often without knowing the whole picture of the battle.
As servants of Christ, we will not always know the whole story, but we know Who we serve, and that is enough.
III. The Result of Servanthood is God s Reward (vv. 9-13)
God has His own good purpose for you (v. 13). While you and I may not know what that will be, the God who created us and who loves us has our future in His hands.
The little boy begged his dad to stop at the ice cream truck down the street, and began to fuss and cry when dad drove right by. What he didn’t realize was that his father was driving him to another house where a giant birthday party was waiting for him, and where ice cream and cake would be flowing like milk and honey!
Our Father wants the best for us. As we humble ourselves and take on the role of servants in His kingdom — as we allow Him to shape us into the image of Christ — we will be able to experience God’s very best for us, both now and in the future. (Michael Duduit)
19th Sunday after Pentecost (a)
October 6, 1996
Putting God First
(Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20)
Isn’t it interesting that the Ten Commandments, God’s positive laws for purposeful living, begins with God? That’s where one should always begin. The Bible opens like that. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Good way to start a world, good way to start a life. Put God first in your life. The Ten Commandments open with a statement of the primacy of God being number one.
This fundamental commandment is first in importance as well as in order, and basic to every other commandment. The order of the commandments is not haphazard or random. The first commandment is given a place of prominence because God wants prominence in our life. Each of the other nine commandments rest upon the first one. The principle holds true for all times, for if God is not first in a person’s life, that person is not likely to pay attention to what He says.
Why does God deserve to be first?
I. God deserves to be first because of His person.
The phrase, “I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:2a, NIV), speaks of God’s person. God is a person; He is real. He wants to be involved and a part of your life. He wants to give of Himself to you.
The truth is everybody has a god. a god could be defined as anything that will have first place in your life. The question you must ask of yourself is, will your god satisfy the needs and yearning of your heart? Bowing down before any god but the true and living God of Scripture is like hugging a mannequin. It can’t respond. It can’t produce. It can’t offer anything to anyone. Why? Because it is impersonal, a non-being.
On the other hand, the living and true God wants to respond to your needs and your cries for help. He wants to help because that is His nature. Psalm 115 notes the sovereignty and person of Israel’s God, then contrasts His character and nature with the impotence of the foreign gods. The true God of Scripture is a living, responsive, dynamic, creative, feeling, hearing, touching, moving, and loving God — the kind of God we want and need.
If I am going to give my life to a person, make him first in my life, I want to know something about that person. Knowing these characteristics of God’s person makes it easier to make God first in my life.
II. God desires to be first because of His power.
God reminded the people of Israel of “is power by saying that He is the one “Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2b, NIV). The Ten Commandments were given to the children of Israel three months after their Exodus from Egypt. During the preceding three months, God reminded them of what He had done. He had rescued them from slavery and bondage. He had miraculously saved them from the Egyptian army by parting the Red Sea. He led them through the wilderness with a fire by night and a cloud by day. He fed them with manna and quail. He provided them with water from the rock. God was saying to these people, “Look what I have done.”
Many people today would have us think that while God is not dead, God is growing old and getting tired. The fact remains that God is not even out of breath. God abounds in power today as in the days of the Exodus.
Let me remind you of what God has done for you. You got up this morning from a warm and comfortable bed in a beautiful home that has provided you with a degree of status. You work in a company that provides you with a comfortable salary and exciting benefits. Except for maybe a few misplaced pounds, you are in good health and so are your children and your spouse. Your future looks bright and hope-filled. Let me ask: did you do all that yourself? I think not. The great and powerful God of this universe has provided all of that for you.
That is the purely physical side of life. Let’s look at the spiritual side of your life. Spiritually you were dead and hopelessly lost. Your soul was destined to an eternity apart from God. There was no way out of your predicament until God, in His love and power, sent Jesus into this world to die on a cross for you so that you might have redemption and salvation. Three days later He rose from the dead triumphant over sin, death, and hell. That’s a gift that has been given to you that no amount of your own ingenuity and power could ever muster. That is why the Apostle Paul would say, “(Christ) was raised from death in order that he alone might have first place in all things” (Col. 1:18, TEV).
III. God demands to be first because that is His place.
The first commandment says it succinctly, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3, NIV). You see, God not only deserves and desires first place, He demands it. God will not play second fiddle to anyone. He will have no rivals. He will not share His place with anyone or anything. The word before me means “in preference to me.” The central thrust of this commandment can be summed up in one word: priority. God wants to be the priority, not one among many. God wants to be first, not a close second. God wants to be president, not just resident in your life.
In her book My Memories of Ike, Mamie Eisenhower tells that one of the reasons why General Dwight D. Eisenhower was such a great leader and had such ability to inspire others was partly due to his deep love and loyalty for his country. She said, “I learned early in our married life about his single-minded devotion to America.”
In their first home, an apartment near Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, he kept his gear packed and ready for action at all times. After they had been married only a month, Ike was given a new assignment and announced to Mamie that he must leave her for the time being.
She said to him, “Ike, you are not going to leave me this soon after our wedding day, are you?” He put his arms around her and said gently, “Mamie, there is one thing you must understand. My country comes first and always will; you come second.” Mamie said it was quite a shocker for a nineteen-year-old bride who had been married only one month to hear, “You come second.”
But that’s the way it is for one who obeys the first of the Ten Commandments. God must come first. There is a throne room in your heart with only one throne. God’s place is on the throne. Does God really have first place in your life? (William Richard Ezell)
20th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
October 13, 1996
The Reputation of God
(Exodus 32:1-14)
The great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once suggested that there was no laughter in the Holy of Holies. And our personal pietism of American Christianity sees faith as such a “sweetness and light” relationship that it has no place for a God who gets angry; it has no place for an argument with God. Yet those things are a part of this fascinating story from the Old Testament.
Moses is back here at the “foot of the mountain.” So many important things in Moses’ life happened here at the foot of this mountain. It was here that Moses first came with Jethro’s flock and here it was that the flaming Word of God burned into his life out of the bush. It was to this same moutain that Moses brought the people of Israel and they had acknowledged as Lord and as their Covenant God the one who had brought them up out of Egypt. They had agreed to be His people and He would be their God. They had accepted His commitment to them and promised their own faithfulness to Him. Now, just a few days later, they brazenly deny the reality of that Covenant, they repudiate their leader Moses, and want God to be made visible to them in some tangible form.
The story begins with the unexpected delay of Moses. The crowd becomes agitated because the one they had become dependent upon was gone too long. The one who told them what God wanted was not there. The one who had made things happen was absent. They began to want their security blanket. It is not necessarily that they wanted to change gods; they would call this image of the bull the one who had brought them up out of Egypt. They just wanted to make sure they had God where they could put a hand on him, or get in touch with him when they needed him. They wanted a God they could see, and they are willing to pay. For you don’t get a God you can touch and hold, carry around and talk with, without it costing you something, and they sacrificed their jewelry. Their ear rings.
Can you imagine the size of the statue of God we would get if we took the jewelry this morning from those at worship? Not very big. They give their jewelry and they make a statue of a bull, but the writer of Exodus is having a great joke right here in the middle of this story. Aaron is going to make a statue of a great powerful bull, but it turns out not to be much bigger than a charm on a charm bracelet. So the writer of Exodus calls it a little bull, a calf.
G. K. Chesterton says that poets talk of “little” lambs because we make things little when we want to make much of it. And the story in great sarcastic humor is making much of this little statue of a bull — how can even a magnificent statue of a bull be anything but puny when it is compared with the power and majesty of the God who has brought you up out of the land of Egypt with signs and wonders and mighty deeds? The roar of laughter is great as the story is told that here this little statue of a bull, looking more like a little calf than a mighty bull, is said to be the visual representation of the God who parted the sea, who brought death to the first born sons of Egypt. You’ve got to be kidding me.
God’s power is so great and beyond the measures of man’s mind that God will not be tied to any kind of embodiment in pictorial or representational form. The worst sins in Israel are to acknowledge other gods before Yahweh and to make an image, a likeness, and call it God. Aaron simply gives in to their desire to have a likeness of God and the laughter of ridicule is all over the place as the story talks about “the little calf.”
Note God’s reaction to the celebration and the party around the little calf. God in His anger repudiates the covenant. God renounces His ownership. They are not my people, and God turns to Moses and says, “Look at what your people have done. You brought them up out of Egypt, now get out of my way as I am going to squash them like ants.” God was going to remove them from the sphere of His protection. God, because of their worship of the little calf, was going to break the covenant they had just made. He was going to act as if the promise He made to be their God was no longer valid. But don’t worry, Moses — I am going to take care of you. I’ll make you a great nation.
Elie Wiesel records the Jewish tradition that when God said to Moses, “Your people are down there sinning,” Moses replied with a sudden display of humor: “When they observe the Law they are God’s people, but when they violate the covenant, they are mine?” But do you see what Moses saw immediately? What good was God’s promise to him to make him a great nation if God could not be trusted to keep the promise He just made to Israel? Moses could not look out for number one without looking out for the children of Israel. How could Moses go on living on the basis of the promise of God, if God was not the kind of God who kept His promises?
Moses expects God to be God. Moses believes that God will keep promises. Moses expects that the compassion of God for His people is deeper and more abiding than His anger and so Moses has faith enough in God to demand that God act like God.
Moses does not whimper off into a closet. He does not say “well, if that is the way you feel.” Moses comes right back at God. One of the remarkably consistent traits in the Old Testament faith in God is the willingness of God’s prophets and witnesses to expect God to be God.
Wiesel writes Moses just chides God: why do you waste your time getting angry, you know it is useless. Were you to destroy all of heaven and earth, You would still protect your people, for that is what you promised and pledged to them, remember?
Moses confronts God with the ramifications of His anger and the consequences of God’s wrath. If you abandon these people, the Egyptians will be able to say that you deceived and tricked these people. To destroy these people will not be a very smart thing for you to do. To consume them with your anger would be to make you look ridiculous. People would look at all those mighty acts of deliverance, the plagues in Egypt, your providence in the life of Joseph, the pillar of fire and the cloud by day, the parting of the Red Sea, all of that would suddenly look pretty silly if the only thing it led to was the slaughter of the people out here in the wilderness.
Can you just imagine what all those other nations and all those other priests and all those other gods will be saying about Yahweh? Look what happens when you trust His promises? Any time in the future when you start to try to find a following of people and you give them your word, who would believe it?
God, you made a personal commitment with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, over and over, and yet if you wipe them out you will be betraying the very center of your being and will.
And the story says that in order to be faithful to His promises, God swallowed His anger and His wrath. Like Moses, our future and our hope are tied to the promises of God as they are given to us in Jesus Christ. It is source of great laughter and great joy for us to be reminded by this story that God knows His own reputation is as much at stake in these promises as our future. Our self interest and God’s reputation are united in the promises of God. Because of this story we go out in great confidence knowing just how committed God is to keeping those promises. (Rick Brand)
21st Sunday after Pentecost (A)
October 20, 1996
The Grand Perhaps
(Exodus 33:12-23)
You and I often comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that we live in a “special” time. We would like very much to believe that this age is totally unlike any other in the history of the world. In many ways it is.
We would like to salve our wounded spirits by telling ourselves that it is only the results and circumstances of this age which make us feel the absence of God more than His presence. We need not kid ourselves by pretending that we are always as aware of the presence of God as we are aware of our desire for His presence. In those ruthlessly honest moments of life when we hold nothing back, we realize how cold and vacant this world can be. We listen for the soothing voice of the heavenly Father, and hear instead the chilly silence of the heavens which seem filled with nothing.
We would like to say, “Well, ours is such a radically different age. That is why we cannot hear God. We have too many distractions and gadgets and brain-numbing devices that we simply have forgotten how to listen for that still, small voice.”
That is what we would like to say. And much of it would be true. But consider the fact that in a land and a time when there were no distractions or gadgets or brain-numbing devices, people there could often see God only very vaguely. Consider this incident from Exodus. We are told of Moses asking for the “dazzling lights” of God’s presence.
“Give us a sign God,” he asked, “a sign everyone can see and which no one can deny.” Could it be that Moses a great man of faith, also was concerned about not being able to see God as clearly as he might have wished? Maybe our inability to focus in on God is not a result of this unique age. Perhaps it is more of a result of the way in which God deals with men. Who could stand to look at God face-to-face? Like staring into a thousand suns, it hurts to see God too clearly. So He permits us to see, not His face, but His back.
You notice the symbolic language here immediately. We read of God’s “face” and “hands” and “back.” Certainly God has no “hands” or “back” as you and I think of them. The writers of Scripture had to use symbolic language to try to express the inexpressible.
To speak of God’s “face” is to refer to his entire being. The Hebrews believed that no one could see God’s face and live. But the Hebrews were not the only people who were afraid to see God too clearly. Those who study different religions tell us that common to most of them is the fact that people seem attracted and repelled by their idea of God, at the same time. They fear God, but they love Him, too. They are fascinated, yet they fear the tremendous mystery involved in the divine.
This incident in Scripture is a good example of the fear/love relationship. Moses wanted to see the fullness of God, but was afraid to do so. In that same way, we find ourselves standing close to Moses in our desires. We seek God’s presence among us, but are embarrassed if we get too much of it. It is no trifling thing to stand in the presence of the God of the universe. Isaiah the prophet spoke about an encounter with God in which he felt only like a man who was not fit to see God. That sounds familiar doesn’t it?
Even in those times when we would see God clearly, we often cannot. God seems to us as one man described Him — “a vague oblong blur.” Despite all of our talk about God, and our actions in His name, many times we just cannot see Him all that well.
Do you know what it is like to be outside just before daybreak? There are a few minutes when there is just enough light to allow you to see that an object exists in the distance, but not enough light to allow you to see exactly what it is. Our knowledge of God is like that sometimes. We know that He is, but our notions about Him are fuzzy and unclear. It was that condition which lead the poet Robert Browning to refer to God as “the grand Perhaps!” He always tells us enough about Himself to make us think that perhaps there is indeed a heavenly Father, as Jesus called Him.
The fact that we see the back of God rather than His face should not cause us great worry. We see enough of Him to know what the rest of Him is like. I stood on the beach in Galveston, Texas looking out over the Gulf of Mexico. Water spanned out for as far as I could see, and yet I knew that what I could see was only a speck compared with the rest of the Gulf. Even so, I had a pretty good idea what the rest of the Gulf was like because of what I could see.
We can know God because we see part of Him, and that part gives us a hint as to what the rest of Him is like.
There are several things in this world which point to God and give us a quick glimpse. I will mention two.
I. There is the created order.
Thinking about the universe is a mind-boggling experience. To try to imagine the immense size is impossible. For one thing, scientists tell us that the universe is constantly expanding. Even if it were not, it is much too large for us to comprehend. We know that this universe is governed by certain laws, or patterns of behavior. The fact that ours is an ordered universe, I think, points to the strong possibility that there is some form of intelligence behind it all. This evidence points to “the grand Perhaps.”
II. There are the accumulated experiences of others.
It is always a mistake to try to cut ourselves off from the past. We certainly want to be open to any lessons which we might learn from the experiences of those who came before us.
Remember the imagery used in our text for today — the “back” of God as opposed to His “face.” We cannot see His “face” because we cannot see Him coming. We see God’s “back” because we see where He has been, and what He had done in the past. We do not anticipate, or second guess God. It is only after long reflection that we are finally struck with what God has been doing all along. This is why it is important for us to take note of those accumulated experiences which people have had with God.
Theologians speak of “salvation history,” and by that they mean the way in which God has dealt with humanity in a saving, redemptive fashion. We come to know this “salvation history” as we allow the experiences with the divine to affect us. That becomes a second thing which allows us to have a glimpse of God.
“The grand Perhaps” which the poet spoke of is, for the Christian, more than an out-moded idea to resurrect flagging faith. God is the very center of our existence. As such, He becomes the grand certainty. Will you believe it? (Don M. Aycock)
22nd Sunday after Pentecost (A)
October 27, 1996
Keep Climbing!
(Deuteronomy 34:1-7)
When educational philosopher John Dewey was 89 years old, a young medical doctor expressed to him his low opinion of philosophy. “What’s the good of such claptrap?” he asked. “Where does it lead you?” Dewey answered by saying, “The good of it is that you climb mountains.”
The young man scoffed, “Climb mountains! And what’s the use of doing that?” The professor answered, “When you climb mountains, you see other mountains to climb. You come down, climb the next mountain, and you see still others to climb.” Then he added, “When you are no longer interested in climbing mountains to see other mountains to climb, life is over.”
The man had a point. Whereas Dewey himself spent a lot of time climbing the wrong mountains (I think that we all might be better off if he had just stayed in the valley), he was right that the challenges ahead of us give life meaning and energy, and if there are no challenges, or mountains, then we may have a pulse but we are not really living.
Have you ever noticed that the pivotal moments in the life of Moses took place on mountains? When God called him to return to Egypt to be His deliverer, it was on a mountain in the Midian desert named Horeb; it was also called “the mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1). After God miraculously led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the Sinai wilderness, He gave His commandments to Moses on a mountain — Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:18-20:18). Then, at the end of his life, there was a final mountain from which God allowed him to see the promised land.
First, there was the mountain of God’s call. Then came the mountain of God’s commandments. Finally, he progressed to Mt. Nebo, which I call the mountain of commencement. From this final mountain he saw the results of his life’s work — the promised land. From that mountain he also entered the heavenly promised land, graduating from this life and entering the next. For Moses, there was always another mountain, until he was called to heaven from the final mountain.
The words that come to my mind as I read about the death, or commencement, of Moses are “What a way to go!” Dying as he gazed into the promised land was like an artist dying as he made the last stroke on his greatest masterpiece, or like a preacher dying as he watched the aisles fill with people coming to follow Christ.
Moses died on a mountaintop, not in a valley. Don’t you want to step into heaven from some mountain of achievement rather than from the plain of the mundane? Physically, we don’t have the option of choosing whether our health will slowly decline until we are invalids or whether we will die like Moses, whose “eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated” (v. 7). But spiritually we do have the option of choosing whether we will lift our eyes at every stage of life to find another mountain, or whether we will adopt as our philosophy the words penned by the writer of Ecclesiastes in one of his cynical moments: “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. (Ecc. 1:9), choosing to live out our existence committing the sin of being satisfied with sameness.
If we have a choice in such matters, how do we go about choosing the former? As children and teenagers, singles and young married people, median and senior adults, how can we make sure that when it is time for our commencement, our lives will end on a mountaintop and not in the valley? With the life of Moses as an example, consider with me three imperatives.
I. Focus on your spiritual legacy.
What legacy did Moses strive to leave behind him? His goal for a generation had been to lead God’s people to the land that God had promised to give them. The legacy he left behind to generations after him was that he accomplished that goal for the people of God. It had not been easy. The people had rebelled against God and Moses. They had complained, and had cowered in fear when they should have gone forward in faith. But Moses stayed with these people. He didn’t give up, and the result was that he left a legacy of faithfulness in the midst of unfaithfulness, of persistence when surrounded by those who wanted to give up, and of belief in an environment of unbelief.
When younger people were saying, “It can’t be done,” Moses said, “God promised that it will be done.” He also left a legacy of intimacy with God. Look at verse 10: “Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”
Perhaps what makes that legacy all the more impressive is that it was built during the 40 years between the time Moses was 80 and 120. Maybe that’s not all that remarkable, but it just seems that way to people like us, who live in a culture that assumes we should be put out to pasture at age 65. Most people today exaggerate the limitations of the later years. Or maybe it seems surprising to us that Moses would want to continue to face the frustrating challenges of leadership instead of retiring. Who could have blamed him if he had just hung up the rod and had it bronzed at, say, 110 years old? If anyone had asked, “Moses, why are you retiring?” he could have said, “I’m 110, for goodness sake!” Who could have argued with that?
But because he kept climbing for the next mountain peak, he not only left a legacy of faithfulness, persistence, and belief; he showed that those character traits can be molded during what we would call the senior adult years. Unfortunately, our generation is infatuated with youth, so that we think that the only years of accomplishment — materially or spiritually — are before age 65. That’s why some senior adults go to great lengths to appear younger than they really are — they aren’t ready for everyone to put them on the shelf of uselessness.
I heard about one such older gentleman who dyed his hair to hide the gray, bought stylish clothes, wore several gold necklaces, had his ear pierced, wore sunglasses, married a woman 40 years younger than him, and drove a late model sports car. One day a bolt of lightning struck him and killed him. He stood before the Lord and complained that it was not time for him to die yet. And the Lord said, “Oh, John is that you? I didn’t recognize you. I thought you were someone else!”
That, of course, is the point — to look like and become someone else, someone who is not as old. We need a lot of modern-day Moses’ who show us that a legacy of faithfulness, persistence, belief, and intimacy with God can be built in the later years. Instead of giving up, drying up, and rusting out, ask, “What kind of spiritual legacy am I leaving to those who will follow me?” What will they remember about you? Grandma or Grandpa complained a lot and tried to tell everybody what to do? Or Grandma or Grandpa believed that God would do great things and they knew God face to face?
If we are to keep climbing mountains it is imperative that we focus on our spiritual legacy.
II. We must find a purpose for living.
Dewey said that we should always keep climbing mountains to see other mountains to climb, and when we stop doing that we die. That’s another way of saying what Proverbs 29:18 says: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
If you are a senior adult, what purpose are you living for during these years? Is your purpose just to hang on as long as you can? Like that bumper sticker I saw: “I just want to live long enough to be a burden to my children.” I suppose that’s a purpose for living, and it may indeed prolong your life. In preparation for this message I also read that chronic complainers live longer than people who are always sweet and serene. This medical survey claims that their cantankerous spirit gives them a purpose for living. Each morning is a fresh challenge to see how many things they can find to grumble about. Personally, I question whether complainers actually live longer; it probably just seems that way to everybody around them.
Obviously, we should find a purpose that is bigger than such things. What was Moses’ purpose? On the surface it was to take God’s people to the promised land, but on a deeper level the only reason he was determined to do that was that God had told him to do it. Maybe the purpose of Moses’s later years could be summed up with two words: obedience and leadership. His goals were to obey God and to lead God’s people to do the same. Those were the things that kept Moses going.
What keeps you going? What is your purpose on planet earth? Even more importantly, is that purpose given by God? If you have a purpose like that, you can be young at 80. If you don’t, you’re old at 40. You’re old when you feel that tomorrow holds no meaningful challenge. You’re old when you say, “I’m too old for that.” You’re old when you think that you have learned all that you are going to learn about life and God. You’re old when you talk to people younger than you but you don’t listen and learn from them. You’re old when you talk about purpose in the past tense but not in the future tense.
But if you have a purpose from God that is driving you, if you are still learning and growing, you are young no matter how many candles are on your birthday cake.
Keep climbing. In order to do so we must focus on our spiritual legacy, find a purpose for living, and
III. Follow God’s guidance.
If you carefully review the life of Moses, you find that there were moments when he did not follow God’s guidance; he was not perfect. Nevertheless, for the most part he was who he was and where he was because that was where God had guided him. He reluctantly went back to Egypt, but he went. He was frustrated with the stiff-necked people of God, but he stayed with them because that was God’s revealed plan for his life. There were giants in the land of Canaan, but he was willing to go up and take it because God told them to do so. He followed God’s guidance.
What is God leading you to do at this stage of your life? He has a wonderful plan for you, and that plan is not intended to be admired, but followed. The question is whether you are doing the things God has for you to do, not merely whether you believe the right things.
Dr. David Stonecypher has written a book entitled Getting Older and Staying Young. In it he presents what he calls the “law of aging”: “Those functions (physical or mental) which are exercised tend to persist. Those which are not exercised tend to disappear.” I would add spiritual functions to Dr. Stonecypher’s law. If we do not practice obedience and faith we tend to become even less likely to practice them in the future; we become spiritually flabby and atrophic.
How long do you have to live? Fifty years? Ten years? One year? Who can know how long we have to live? Suppose you had just 24 hours to live. What would you do with that time? The truth is that we all have 24 hours to live. We cannot relive the past, and try as we may we cannot live the future yet. All we have is today. What will we do with it? If, for today, we focus on our spiritual legacy, find a purpose for living, and follow God’s guidance, then every day we will climb to a new mountain peak, from which we may see tomorrow’s mountain, and then the next day’s mountain, until we graduate to the promised land. What a way to go. (N. Allan Moseley)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: N. Allen Moseley, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Durham, NC; James A. Harnish, Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Tampa, FL; Rick Brand, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Henderson, NC; William Richard Ezell, Pastor, Naperville (IL) Baptist Church; Don M. Aycock, Men s Ministries Consultant, SBC Brotherhood Commission, Memphis, TN; and Michael Duduit, Editor, Preaching.

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