Pentecost (C)
June 4, 1995
Living in a Fragmented World
(Genesis 11:1-9)
This story brings us to the place where God’s plan of redemption begins with the call of Abraham. It’s a beginning-again story. Genesis 1 and 2 tells of the beginning of everything. After the flood, we have a beginning-again of humankind. Now, we have a different kind of beginning, in the scattering.
On the surface, the story sounds as if it were an explanation of how we obtained languages. If you listen to it literally, it sounds as if God is the source of confusion in the world. But the truth is, the story attempts to deal with the theology of why the world is divided. Why are we so fragmented? Why is it so difficult for us to communicate with each other?
When you read the story like this where people can’t understand each other any more and they drift apart, we think how difficult it is to communicate in our world. When you are in another country, where English is not the language spoken, just getting along is difficult and frustrating. The truth is that even when everybody speaks English but cultures are different, communication is also hard.
In 1990 the New York Times bestseller list contained a book titled You Just Don’t Understand, written by Deborah Tannin. The basic tenet is that men and women communicate differently. Very often a man and a woman can be talking to each other but they come from such different perspectives that neither really understands the other. We didn’t need this book to tell us that often in the family, where there is the greatest amount of knowledge and love, communication is difficult between parents and children, children and children, between us and our parents, or between us and our spouses.
This story from Genesis seeks to answer what is the ultimate source of confusion and division in the world. On the surface it looks as though God caused the confusion but if you read chapter 10 there were already different languages. Obviously, the story wasn’t put there to say, “The reason we are so divided, and so fragmented, is God was jealous and He was afraid we would be God so He did this to us.” That’s not it. This is the story of what happens when a person or a people turn their backs on God and try in their own human efforts to achieve the building of a city, building of a life, or the building of a church. There are insights which could be helpful to you and me as we try to communicate and try to live in a fragmented world.
One of the interesting points is the fragmentation took place in the context of religion. We assume religion unifies or religion pulls us together. But this story is in a religious context.
We need some Babylonian background to understand the story. This event took place in what is today Iraq. Here were a people who wanted to make a name for themselves. They were interested in status, in security, and wanted an identity even if it didn’t relate to God. A lot of us are like that. They thought this could be accomplished by building a massive project. They were going to build a great city and a great tower that would go up to heaven.
The tower was a sacred building in the Mesopotamian religion — a huge multi-storied building which would dominate all other buildings. The missionaries who came up the Rio Grande Valley and evangelized the Pueblos did what the Mesopotamians did with their tower. They erected the church on the highest, most prominent place so as you came out the door you could look up and see the church. That’s the way the tower was. It was considered the foundation of heaven and earth. It was like Israel’s ark of the covenant — the place where God would reside.
What happened? The building was an enormous accomplishment which bred a spirit of pride, arrogance, and an independence from God. The results were disastrous. They had the attitude, “this shows what we can do.” But instead of finding status, they found separation. Instead of finding security, they found fear and anxiety. What they thought would unify them fragmented them. The Bible story plays an interesting word game — the Babylonian word sounds like a Hebrew word but the Babylonian word Babel means “the gate of heaven” and the Hebrew word means “place of confusion.”
Now the “gate of heaven” is the word used when Jacob ran away from home and dreamed of a ladder with people going up and down the ladder. He awoke and said, “This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” But the suggestion is: if your religion is self-centered, the Garden of Eden can become the tower of Babel. Religion that always seeks a name for itself, engenders materialistic pride, and has to be popular always creates barriers to communication — it fragments.
The language of disobedience always fragments. People who will not serve God will never know how to communicate with each other. The New Testament gives us the authentic model in our Lord Jesus Christ in Philippians in which Paul said, “He did not grasp equality with God but emptied himself and became a servant and God exalted him and gave him a name which is above every name.”
The story should remind us that our security and status are not found in self but in relationship with the living God through His son, Jesus Christ. Jacob’s scheming resulted in a fragmented family; and in a place where he didn’t even know God was, God came to the bottom of the ladder and brought him life. So faith creates a different security, a different status.
There is some confusion because in the story there’s a tension between the uses of the words scattering and unified. It seems as though the fear of being scattered was in conflict with God’s purpose at the beginning of the story — but God is a scattering God. His disciples were told to go out into the world, Adam and Eve were sent out of the Garden to inhabit the earth, Noah and his family were to move into the ark away from others, and He sent the church out. We are a people whom God intends to scatter like salt or like yeast. So when He said, “Go ye into all the world, make disciples” … He’s talking about us being ambassadors. Interestingly enough, there is always something in us which resents the scattering. We want to stay in a safe place.
The Jerusalem church didn’t want to be scattered — there are Gentiles out there. We don’t want to move out and get scattered across cultural, racial, educational, and social lines. We want to build a self-serving institution and we want status. Christians are intended to be scattered — yeast, salt, and light in the world. It seems we try to find unity on a different basis than God creates unity. The harmony God seeks is learning to speak the language of obedience. The confession, “Jesus is Lord,” is the only thing which unites us. To try to unite ourselves on any other basis is to build a Babel. The results are paradoxical: God creates a unity that scatters.
The story must be seen against a New Testament insight: Authentic religion creates a new language community.
One of the reasons we find it so difficult to communicate in our society and with each other is we are so self-centered. When you take God out of the center of your life and put self in the center, and when you take spiritual values out of the center of your life and put material values in the center, you are laying the foundation for not being able to listen and to communicate. The New Testament teaches us that the language of love brings us together.
In the second chapter of Acts is a story that is the opposite of the Babylon story — actually it’s a counterpart. This is the story of people coming from all over the world to Pentecost with different backgrounds, customs and languages. Yet when the Holy Spirit came on the church and baptized the church, each of them heard in their own language. Interesting isn’t it? In the passage from Genesis we start with one language and end up with everybody talking a different language. In Acts, we begin with everyone speaking his or her own language and end up with a language that unifies.
When we turn to Christ, the Holy Spirit of God comes and creates in us a fresh capacity to listen to God. The Spirit makes it possible for us to respect and believe God, makes us willing to be impacted by God, and makes us open to newness in our lives.
So when God called Abraham, He was starting over with one person to make a whole new people. When He came in Jesus Christ that plan was culminated, and in Christ is the basis for unity, harmony, listening, learning, and communicating with each other.
The story ought to remind us there is in each of us a desire to communicate with each other, to join together in harmony and to make contact. We do not like isolation. This is a need, and there are those who feel that need very intensely. Also there is the need for identity, status and security. None of the needs operative in Babel are illegitimate needs but the story ought to remind us that our efforts to meet these needs on our own, apart from God in our lives, will always bring the opposite results.
This is the warning of the gospel: if you take your life into your own hands and live it as though there were no God, you will not find everything you need. We are afraid to lay aside our pride, our self-centeredness, and open our ears to God, listen to God’s healing word and listen to God’s loving word, but these are the words of forgiveness, reconciliation, and harmony. In this response to God comes status and identity and security.
These people built a place and told God to meet them there. God doesn’t do it that way. He picks His own place to meet us and He has chosen to meet us in His son, Jesus Christ. (KLC)
Trinity Sunday (C)
June 11, 1995
What the Bible Says
About Suffering
(Romans 5:1-5)
Romans 5:1-5 zeroes in on this topic of suffering, acknowledging the reality of it and what can happen through it. It is possible to experience God’s presence in the very midst of the greatest of difficulties.
The whole thrust of this passage is that the Christian is a person whose life should be marked by peace with God. If you have committed yourself by faith to Jesus Christ, you can have a new relationship with God. Yours can be a life of harmony and peace, even in the face of suffering.
This peace of which we talk is a conscience which is at rest and a confidence that God is in charge of your life. The opposite of this peace is a spiritual anxiety, a disturbed conscience, a mistrust of God. The peace of God is not just an optimistic principle. You may remember back to the day when there were many who claimed that mankind was rapidly improving. There was the popular chant: “Every day, in every way, we’re getting better and better.”
This optimism was the spirit of the day. People thought they could find peace and contentment by repeating to themselves these positive principles. Suddenly this line of thinking was crushed by two world wars and a depression, with all the gruesome side effects brought by both.
According to the Scriptures, real peace is available only to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1 reads: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
On the one hand, some search for peace without ever looking toward Jesus. They cry, “Peace, peace,” but there is no peace. On the other hand, I know some Christians who have the promise of peace with God, given to them through the Scriptures, who are anything but men and women living lives at peace with themselves and with God. We are to enjoy the peace which is promised to us through Jesus Christ.
You may say, “What do you mean about peace? I am a Christian, but I’m loaded with suffering and difficulty. I have no peace! You want me to be a phony and pretend I am experiencing something I am not?”
Pointing out that suffering and peace are not mutually exclusive, our text goes on to say, “… we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so but we also rejoice in our sufferings ….”
The Christian life is not some idealistic way of life in which we close our eyes to the difficulties around us. Suffering is a part of the Christian life. It stands side by side with peace as one of the qualities of the Christian’s experience.
Suffering need not defeat you when you confront it correctly. I have a friend who now is an elderly woman. She is the victim of innocent suffering. A few years into her marriage her husband, a professional man, became infatuated with a younger woman. At first she was unaware of this. He did a good job covering it up. Finally, his infatuation got the better of him. The situation became intolerable. Her husband walked off, irresponsibly leaving her with the young family for whom to care. A divorce followed.
Our heart goes out to this woman in these difficult circumstances, which we see repeated so often today. She was the innocent party. She was left to suffer. The tragedy of this friend of mine is that now, decades after the event which brought so much real suffering, she still has not allowed herself to be victorious over what happened. She has no sense of the peace of God which is offered to her in her situation. She is still a miserable, unhappy, peaceless person. Every time I have visited her, she gives me a catalog of her valid complaints — complaints which, when uttered, only more deeply ingrain the suffering which is hers.
In contrast to her is another woman I know who is going through a similar situation. She, too, was left by her husband for another woman. She has been left at an economic disadvantage to raise the children while he shows little interest in them. His attention is now directed toward his new wife, her children, and theirs by this second marriage. This woman has chosen, with God’s help, to be a sensitive, forgiving woman, living according to God’s Word. Certainly she had to process her anger, and occasionally circumstances get the better of her. But she has grown through this suffering and demonstrates a Christian grace and peace that singles her out as very special to all of us who know her.
The Christian’s life does have suffering. Some of it we create for ourselves. Some of it comes independent of our own action. God tells us that we are privileged to enjoy peace even in spite of the suffering. The peace of God has a way of undergirding us, even in the most difficult hours, giving a serenity, balance, and purpose for what is going on.
How do we deal with tragedies such as airline crashes, terminal illnesses, divorces, and economic reversals? Are these God’s will?
We can only answer this question as we understand that God has three kinds of will. Leslie D. Weatherhead writes about this in his book The Will of God. One is His intentional will. No, God never intended for there to be sickness, death, and broken relationships. These have come as His creation rebelled and followed Satan. Two is His circumstantial will. God works in the very midst of our sufferings and can help us develop in positive ways both through the sufferings we bring upon ourselves by our own sin and by the innocent suffering which is ours due to the broken nature of the world in which we live. Three is His ultimate will, which will be accomplished through Christ’s victory when all human history shall be set straight at His Second Coming.
You and I are able to have God’s strength in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. He wants to help us no matter how complicated our lives may be by matters going far beyond our control.
We are not to “make peace” with God. Because we have been justified by faith, that peace is already ours. We are not called to obtain access to this grace. We already have obtained this access. We stand in this grace. Because of what Christ has done for us, we have the privilege to rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Jesus Christ has made provisions for us. It is His peace which is ours. His inner wholeness, His completeness, is His gift to us. This peace functions independent of the external pressures, pains, hurts, rejections. It is a spiritual quality. It is because of Christ’s provision that Paul encourages you and me to actually “rejoice in our sufferings.” It is one thing to submit to or endure tribulation without complaint; it is another to find ground for glorifying in the midst of them, as we are here exhorted to do.
You and I can actually rejoice in our sufferings. The apostle Paul points out that suffering, in addition to being painful, has some very positive functions in the life of the believer. Suffering can lend an invaluable difference to the person who opens himself to God’s working in his life.
Paul mentions three valuable contributions which can be yours as a result of suffering. Suffering is a fact of life. All of us have some of it. Here is how you can make the most out of it. Here is what it will produce if you let it.
I. Suffering produces endurance.
The King James Version uses the word “patience.” Endurance, as used in the Revised Standard Version, is a better translation. The New International Version uses the word perseverance. Suffering builds into you the capacity to cope with difficulty. This does not merely mean the ability to put up with suffering; it means the ability to see through the suffering to a meaning in Jesus Christ.
James puts it in agricultural terms. He talks about the farmer who “waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain” (James 5:7). He urges the believer to be patient, realizing that all of history is going somewhere. Jesus Christ is coming again. The farmer doesn’t panic about his seed just planted. He knows the cycles of agricultural life.
You and I can learn from suffering. It tells me how my heart is constituted. Many of us venerate the cross of Jesus Christ. We pray to the crucified One. We sing hymns in His Name, but we flee the cross in our own lives. Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Dozens of great hymns were written by Fanny Crosby — blind, but out of her blindness learning a patience of life that could produce these words:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
II. Suffering produces character.
Paul puts it in these words: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.”
As you build in your endurance you mature. You are tested. You are proved. You are disciplined. Rugged times prove the mettle in a person. They knock the whine out of you. They toughen you.
Suffering brings about a maturing of character — an experience which equips one for life’s long haul.
III. Suffering produces hope.
You and I have hope through faith in Jesus Christ. It is amazing how people turn to God the most when they are going through difficult times. During my past twenty-eight years of ordained ministry, I have observed individuals going through good times. Their lives are relatively free of sickness and problems. There is no suffering at hand. I have noticed on the part of some of them an enormous self-confidence. They are in control. Life is going their way. Why should they need anyone else?
It is interesting to me to note the change that comes over them when they have a reversal of fortune. It may be a romantic reversal. It may be a business reversal. It may be the reversal of health. The reversals of life which we call suffering have a way of knocking the props out from under a person. It often tumbles him to the point where he sees that everything is in God’s hands. Nothing he had, or aspires to in the future, is purely the result of his own effort. It is at this point that the Christian hope comes into the picture. You and I realize that we can’t handle things on our own. Our confidence is directed to the Christ who loves us and who has real purpose for our lives.
Benjamin M. Weir, the hostage for sixteen months of Moslem extremists in Lebanon and since then a moderator of our Presbyterian Church (USA), drives home this note of hope as he tells his story of suffering.
He describes those months in capitivity, the first fourteen of which he was locked in a barren room, not able to see another human being. When alone he could take off his blindfold, in his suffering he was driven back to the promise of the Bible. An electric cord dangled from the ceiling. The bulb had been stripped out, leaving three fragile filament wires exposed. For him they became symbols of the life-giving fingers of God reaching down toward Adam in the Sistine Chapel. The 120 slats of the closed shutters became reminders that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Those months of suffering and aloneness were sustained by hope.
I could tell you story after story of men and women I know who live with suffering on a daily basis. I could endeavor to describe for you how that suffering has produced endurance, and that endurance has produced character, and that character has brought about a hope that is based on the love of God which they have experienced. I could tell you about men and women who have survived divorce, not somehow but triumphantly. I could tell you of financial crises which have been sustained and even fortunes lost. But life goes on with a greater quality in the lean times than it had in the times of greatest affluence. I could tell you stories of intense emotional suffering and of God’s presence even as they walked through the darkest hours.
God only knows how many times I have gone back to Romans 5 and read that passage in my own heartbreak, in my own pain, in my own suffering. Then, in quiet, lonely places, I too, have sung these words: “And, Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight. The clouds be rolled back as a scroll. The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, ‘Even so’ — it is well with my soul.”
You will never avoid suffering. The God of all creation can walk through it with you, enabling you to sing these words. (JAH)
2nd Sunday after Pentecost (C)
June 18, 1995
The Power of Forgiveness
(Luke 7:36-8:3)
The story is told that three blind men were allowed to grab hold of an elephant, then each was asked to describe the animal. The one who held the tail said, “An elephant is like a rope.” The second, who grabbed hold of a leg, exclaimed, “An elephant is like a great tree.” The third, who held tight to the trunk, asserted, “An elephant is like a giant snake.”
Perspectives vary, don’t they? Five people can see the same accident occur, yet you may have five different descriptions of the same event, each varying depending on the perspective of the viewer. But suppose that your life depended on accurately relating an event or situation. Then your perspective would be enormously important.
Jesus had been invited to dinner by a Pharisee, a member of the strict religious group which took such an interest in His ministry and teaching. Many Pharisees attacked Him as a dangerous maverick, but there were others who were fascinated by Him and wanted to know more. Could it be that Jesus’ host this evening was a member of the latter group? He invited Jesus to dinner, perhaps to learn more about this strange and compelling preacher. Perhaps his motives were not so innocent.
We don’t know how many others may have been in attendance, but at least one non-invited guest was present. She was a woman whose evil reputation was known to this Pharisee — we don’t know how he was aware of the reputation, but he clearly recognized her as a woman not normally invited to proper homes and social functions. Her lack of invitation, however, didn’t seem to deter her from attending this unique gathering.
Courtesy of Luke, we are able to look in on this dinner and sum up the various characters in attendance. The two main characters — the Pharisee and the woman — represent two very different perspectives, or ways of looking at Jesus. And as the Lord will point out, only one perspective results in salvation.
From which perspective do you see Jesus?
I. We Can See Jesus From the Perspective of Judgment
Simon the Pharisee has invited Jesus to dinner, but we can immediately question his motives. It seems that the common courtesies expected of a host in that culture had not been observed. Perhaps Simon has invited Jesus to dinner less to get to know Him than as a matter of curiosity or even cynicism. Maybe he had invited some of his friends to join the dinner party, so they would take advantage of the opportunity to poke fun at this itinerant preacher.
The arrival of this woman of ill-repute is a surprise; such women are not invited to the homes of Pharisees. The greater shock is Jesus’ acceptance of this woman, who has begun anointing His feet with oil mixed with her own tears. He just sits there and lets this evil woman touch Him! If Jesus were a prophet, He would know what kind of woman she was and would condemn her — or at least insist she leave Him alone!
Whatever motive Simon had at the beginning of the dinner, he is now filled with indignation, with anger, with judgment. Doesn’t He know what kind of woman she is?
Jesus not only knows what kind of woman she is; He also knows what kind of man Simon is. Simon is self-righteous — the kind of person who insists on removing the speck from his brother’s eye while carrying a log in his own eye! Simon did not sense his own sinfulness, so he could not understand his own need for forgiveness.
When we view others through eyes of judgment, we place ourselves under judgment. How tragic that Simon had Jesus in his own home and, instead of seeking God’s love and forgiveness, concentrated on the unworthiness of another.
Could it be that you and I have done the same thing — neglecting God’s presence and will in our own lives while we concentrate on the sin and impurity of others? That is a perspective that leads to frustration and destruction, but not salvation.
II. We Can See Jesus From the Perspective of Thanksgiving
She is oblivious to Simon and everyone else in the room. For her, there is only Jesus there. Her acts of gratitude and adoration — anointing His feet with oil and her own tears, drying them with her own hair — reflect a transformed heart and life. Something had already happened in her life before that moment; she had heard Jesus teach and somehow God had broken through a heart made cold and hard by sin and brought the renewing warmth of divine love.
What do you do to someone who has saved your life? This woman, who had been so used and abused by other men, only knew that she had to express her thankfulness to the One whose love and truth had transformed her forever.
Jesus used a parable to help Simon understand the power of forgiveness. The one who has experienced God’s forgiveness in a powerful way will inevitably respond with overwhelming thankfulness. On the other hand, the one who has experienced little forgiveness — not because of little sin, but because of unwillingness to acknowledge sin — that person will not demonstrate a grateful heart.
Do we demonstrate grateful hearts? Are we allowing God to use our lives to show His love to others? Are we serving Christ by ministering to our brothers and sisters who are in need? As others observe our lives, do we appear overwhelmed with gratitude, or are we caught up in resentment and judgment?
Whatever our perspective on Jesus, one thing is certain:
III. Jesus Sees Us From the Perspective of Forgiveness
Jesus recognized that both Simon and the woman had something in common: both were sinners in need of God’s grace. She recognized that fact, while Simon apparently did not. Thus, Jesus was able to extend His forgiveness to her, while Simon’s attitude built a barrier through which forgiveness would not travel. But Jesus loved both of them, and wanted to forgive both.
From which perspective do you view Jesus today: the woman’s or Simon’s? No matter who you are or what you have done, the sin in your life can only be removed through the power of God’s forgiveness. Will you allow Jesus to enter your heart and life today? (JMD)
3rd Sunday after Pentecost (C)
June 25, 1995
Relighting the Fire
(1 Kings 19:1-15)
Do you find yourself busier than ever but accomplishing little? Have you had physical ailments that will not go away? Are you increasingly irritable and difficult to deal with? Have you been feeling detached even from the closest of friends? Has the joy of life given way to a disgruntled feeling? If the answer is “yes” or “perhaps” to some of these questions for you or someone you know, burnout may be in progress or just around the corner.
Burnout can happen to anyone because of the overwhelming demands of everyday living. There is too much work at the office, too many classes to study for, too many demands from parents and children who have activities ranging from Girl Scouts to 6:00 a.m. paper routes. To this list add family illnesses, financial demands, trips to the veterinarian, and weeds in the front lawn. Any of these, added to paying the bills and keeping the house, can absorb your energy.
The renowned preacher and chaplain of the United States Senate, Peter Marshall, pushed himself night and day until he suffered a major heart attack. After a time of recovery, he resumed the same pace until a second heart attack killed him. In Something More, his wife Catherine wrote: “In Peter’s case, I am certain it was not God’s ideal will that he die of a coronary occlusion at forty-six.” If great things were accomplished with burnout, how much greater could have been done without it?
Elijah — the Burned-Out Prophet
The Bible provides examples of people who for one reason or another overextended themselves. Elijah is one who in a Peter Marshall kind-of-way overdid it and began showing some of the distinct characteristics of burnout.
In traveling a day’s journey into the wilderness, Elijah shows the characteristic of detachment or distancing himself from others. You can’t blame him for getting out of Jezreel because Jezebel had vowed to kill him within twenty-four hours (v. 2). He even leaves his servant behind (vv. 3, 4). He not only wishes to run from the wicked queen but he wants to get away from everybody else. He says, “I want to be left alone, by myself, with me.”
As the prophet sits under a broom tree (v. 4), he evidences another characteristic of burnout: he is depressed. In his mind, there is no clear reason to keep living. He does not mince words about his feelings when he announces, “I want to die.”
In a subsequent dialogue with God on Mt. Horeb (v. 10), Elijah manifests a third characteristic of burnout in that he thinks he is the only one in the world who is doing anything worthwhile. He has the Messiah-complex. He is saying, “I am indispensible. If anything is going to get done, I’ll have to be the one to do it.” He is so convinced the work of God rests on his shoulders that he tells God the same thing once more in verse 14.
Fourth, there is paranoia. Elijah believes he is being hunted down by others. He claims in verse 10: “They are out to get me.” But who are “they?” He does not mean Jezebel because he does not say she. “They” are not the Israelites because Elijah has brought an end to the three and one-half year drought. Elijah doesn’t know who “they” are but he believes he isn’t safe any longer and he is suspicious of everyone.
Elijah is detached, depressed, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, and fearful. This is quite a turnaround! He did not feel this way at all only the day before. He had all kinds of bravado as he took on the priests of Baal at Mt. Carmel. But his resources are gone. He’s exhausted, drained. Elijah has fallen victim to burnout.
There are ever-increasing numbers of people in this condition, and many of them are in what has been popularly called mid-life. Having been brought up with plenty of idealism during post-World War II years, you have come face-to-face with the realism that some of your dreams will not come true. For example, you started your job years ago with plenty of enthusiasm. But little by little, that enthusiasm has gone up in smoke and you find yourself saying “a job is a job is a job.” You look forward to finding another occupation, living for weekends, or saying retirement can’t come soon enough.
Such feelings have a way of spilling over into other aspects of your life. There is apathy at home. There is distancing in relationships. You find yourself out of touch with old friends. You feel blah with God. There is an indifference toward ministry though you had been active. You avoid challenges. You pursue new diversions in the hope that they will bring you excitement. You find yourself saying, “Something isn’t quite right” but you are unable to identify anything in particular that should be done.
The good news is that burnout is not the last chapter. Out of the smoldering ashes, a fire can be re-lit as happened with Elijah. Let’s see how.
Lighting the Fire Again
Recognize the “time.” Begin with recognizing what “time” it is in your life. You can get in tune with your feelings. You can stop playing hide-and-seek and denying what is going on. You can become real honest with yourself. We see it in Elijah.
In verse 3, Elijah is running from Jezebel. Some interpreters understand his running away to mean he is scared to death of her. But why would the high-flying Elijah, fresh from a spectacular victory over the priests of Baal, suddenly become so absolutely terrified? It does not make sense that he is now running like a coward when he has experienced the awesome power of God in the destruction of 450 pagan priests on Mt. Carmel. It would seem more like a perfect opportunity for Elijah to take on Jezebel, to fight a new battle, and to be rid of that wicked woman once and for all. That’s how I would have responded after such a momentous encounter. “Next” would be my battle cry. That’s the way many of us have been conditioned. We naively believe we are invincible in every situation when we are actually very tired.
I don’t believe Elijah fled in fear of Jezebel’s threats. An alternate translation of verse 2 is “he rose and went for his soul.” Elijah recognized it was time to get away to recapture his soul which had begun to escape him in the midst of the pressure-packed circumstances he was living under.
Several years ago, burnout showed up at the University of Notre Dame in one of the most successful football coaches of all time, Ara Parseghian. In the course of one year, three close friends died, one daughter got married, and another was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Six players were dismissed from the college in a disciplinary action. What did Ara Parseghian do? He quit. Why? When asked, Parseghian reported: “I just need time to rejuvenate myself physically and emotionally. After twenty-five years as a head coach, I find myself physically and emotionally drained. This is certainly not an impulsive decision. I’ve been mulling this over in my head for some time now, and I finally decided at midseason that my health and the welfare of my family was more important than anything else.”
Parseghian recognized what time it was and he purposefully stepped away. So did Elijah. They both stepped away and went for their souls.
Rest. You and I too must recognize our time. When our body calendars tell us it is time to step away we must do it and then find rest.
In verses 5-8, we find Elijah resting. Exhausted and unable to go any further, Elijah sat down under a tree. Twice the bone-weary man fell asleep, only to be awakened by an angel. He desperately needed restoration and God demonstrated His love by providing food on two occasions. God never awakens you to disappoint you.
God said in Exodus 20:8-11 that we should work for six days and then take the seventh day off to rest. But do we? George Gallup did a poll and found it to be the most neglected and abused of the Ten Commandments. Someone said that Americans worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship. That collection of misplaced priorities can lead to the opposite of what is intended. Instead of restoration, the continued expenditure of energy creates an even greater weariness of spirit. The rhythms of life necessitate that we take the time to bring order to our inner worlds where God can speak and shape us.
This is one reason why worship is so valuable. The singing of hymns, the saying of prayers, the hearing of the Word, is what we need to rest our souls. God gave us the Sabbath primarily for rest, not for leisure, because it is only in Sabbath rest that our spirits are recalibrated with the Spirit of God.
But it is not enough for me to rest, to walk away from a busy schedule and the demands of others. Notice in verses 9-10 how Elijah rested and was able to travel for forty days to Horeb. However, he is still burned out. He is hiding in a cave when God confronts him with: “What are you doing here?” Elijah is feeling indispensible and paranoid. He is whining in self-pity. The rest God gave wasn’t enough to completely put this burned-out servant back on his feet. So what did God do? He spoke. But notice how.
Receive the Word. First God demonstrated His power through the wind, earthquakes and fires (vv. 11-12). You would think that these three outbreaks of power would be attention-grabbing enough ways for God to make sure He is being understood. But He doesn’t have to use these means. Rather, He may choose to speak quietly as He did with Elijah. Only as we are quiet long enough are we able to clearly hear what God is saying.
“Why bother?” you ask? Because I need to understand God’s purpose for my life. With so many conflicting voices calling for my attention, the voice of the one Elijah called “Lord God Almighty” needs to fall on my ears and enter into my heart. If I fail to hear that voice above all others, I will busy myself with many things and eventually wind up on the ash heap of life.
Early this morning I turned to the Psalms to hear the voice of the Lord Almighty. In Psalm 142, God spoke through King David:
I cry aloud to the Lord;
I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.
I pour out my complaint before him,
before him I tell my trouble.
When my spirit grows faint within me,
it is you who know my way.
There is such refreshment from the Word. Elijah received it as he stepped away from the action and he was revitalized. He was ready to go. But more than being ready, Elijah had been empowered to once again wage battle for Israel (vv. 15, 16).
This week, be attentive to the restorative, life-giving voice of heaven. May it give direction to your mind, provide warmth for your soul, and light for all who are traveling down life’s darker pathways. (JVT)
4th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 2, 1995
Discovering Joy
(Galatians 5:13-25, focus v. 22)
Billy Sunday used to tell his revival audiences, “If there’s not joy in your religion, there’s a leak in your Christianity somewhere.” Taken at face value, that statement would seem to indicate that if we were ships instead of Christians, many of us would sink!
Could any of us doubt that a shortage exists of this precious commodity: joy? But even if we admit that a shortage does exist, what can we do about it? I want to try to help us to realize what Christian joy is, and how to begin claiming it for our lives.
We need to remember that this Christian joy is not simple happiness or pleasure. Pleasure comes from things outside of ourselves, through our senses — from a cool drink on a hot afternoon to the sound of our favorite song. But there is nothing distinctively Christian about that. In fact, pleasures are often anything but Christian.
One of the marks of our own culture is that it’s made for pleasure. But how long do such pleasures last? I stood on my back porch last July 4th and watched the fireworks display downtown. Great colorful balloons of light etched the sky, but dwindled to nothing in seconds. The poet Robert Burns captured the fleeting nature of pleasures when he wrote:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white — then gone forever.
Is that the fruit of the Spirit of God? No, the fruit of the Spirit is joy, not mere pleasure. What, then, is joy?
I. Joy is an ever-deepening relationship with God.
Here is the crucial difference between pleasure and joy. The psalmist knew the difference when he wrote of God, “You have changed my sadness into joyful dance; you have taken away my sorrow and surrounded me with joy” (Ps. 30:11).
The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, “May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord. I say it again: rejoice!” (4:4).
Joseph Marmion said that “Joy is the echo of God’s life within us.” Sound is to an echo what our relationship to God is to our joy.
If we think of faith as unshakable trust in God, then we can easily see that faith is the foundation of joy. Paul wrote to the Roman Christians and said, “May God … fill you with all joy and peace by means of your faith in him …” (15:13). Really believing in God produces a wellspring of joy that cannot run dry.
II. Joy is related to other Christians.
The Greek word for joy comes from the same root as grace. They both carry the idea of generosity and love. For life to be joyful, it must be lived according to love. You see, this keeps joy from being just some pious concept or, worse, a grounds for spiritual conceit. Joy always results in an open relation to others.
Robert Browning said, “Desire joy, and thank God for it. Renounce it, if need be, for others’ sake. There’s joy beyond joy.” It’s the creative, celebrative element of life which gives itself away, in contagious thrusts. “All who joy would win, must share it — Happiness was born a twin.”
III. Joy is independent of outward circumstances.
I have always been perplexed by Paul’s statements that he rejoiced even though he was persecuted. Either he was crazy, or else there is some greater truth beyond our safe, rational way of looking at life. Paul says, “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
The opposite of joy isn’t sorrow, because sorrow is one of the built-ins of our faith. Jesus Himself was called “Man of Sorrows.” The opposite of joy is sin, failing to live up to the high calling of life itself.
Joy rises above circumstances because it is the condition of the mind in which our powers are absorbed in some creative task. Paul was completely immersed in doing God’s will. That is why even in prison he could speak of joy.
This fruit of the Spirit is like a handful of sand. The tighter we try to hold to it, the more it slips away from us. The only way to get it is to do God’s work, and accept the joy as a by-product. That is why joy is more than mere pleasure. It is the inner security and assurance which can take you into and through any crisis, and still come out victorious. Can you find even one cheap thrill which can do that?
IV. Joy is linked to the future.
The New Testament speaks of joy as being a window into the future; it is but a glimpse of what we are destined to experience. “Ask and you will receive,” said Jesus, “that your joy may be full” (John 16:34b). He foreshadowed life as it is to be in the Kingdom of God.
“This is all fine and good,” you may be saying, “but I don’t feel very joyful. How can I receive it?”
You can’t get joy by working at being joyful. Working at it is like working at going to sleep — you wake up instead. Someone has said that “Joy is a fruit that Americans eat green.” That is, we pluck it too early, before it ripens. To go clutching after it is to lose it. You must exercise your faith over adverse and trying circumstances. You must honor your commitment to God and His work and His people. You must quit being a loner, and join in with God’s church in doing His will. Then joy will find you.
A wise pastor of the past century said, “The joy of heaven will begin as soon as we attain the character of heaven, and do its duties” (Theodore Parker). That is how you get joy.
“The Christian life that is joyless is a discredit to God and a disgrace to itself,” said an unknown poet.
Let us accept this by-product of faith as a gift from God. It is the real fruit of the Spirit. Throw away your wax substitutes. (DMA)
5th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 9, 1995
Finding God’s Restoring Touch
(2 Kings 5:1-14)
This is one of those great Old Testament stories that lends itself to imaginative retelling. I particularly remember the title of one sermon on this text: “Seven Ducks in a Dirty Pond.” That doesn’t have much to do with the biblical text, but I’m sure it got the attention of those who read it!
Even without a flashy title, it’s a remarkable story. Here is a prominent military leader of a great power of his day, who has been stricken with leprosy. One of his wife’s servants was an Israelite girl who had been taken captive, and she tells about Elisha, the prophet who could cure Naaman.
As Naaman sets off to seek a cure, he discovers there is only one way to find God’s restoring touch.
I. Status Does Not Bring God’s Restoring Touch
Naaman was the “General Colin Powell” of his day. The military leader of one of the region’s most powerful nations, he was a definite candidate for Who’s Who in the World. He was among the elite of his day — but that did not protect him from the devastating disease of leprosy.
How many in our own day worship at the altar of status — seeking position, prestige, influence at all costs? Yet status is a fleeting thing, bringing momentary pleasure and then it is gone, without providing eternal satisfaction.
II. Wealth Does Not Bring God’s Restoring Touch
The cartoon character says, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can buy lots of other neat things!” In a materialistic culture like ours, where affluence is considered virtually synonymous with satisfaction, it’s easy to think that money and possessions are the prime goals of life.
Naaman certainly didn’t lack for material wealth. As he departed for Israel, he carried along quite a treasure (v. 5) — an amount worth tens of thousands of dollars, apparently to pay for his cure. The reference to ten changes of clothes had a similar purpose; it was common to use beautiful clothing as a gift to honor a guest or someone you wished to impress. So Naaman was prepared to buy his cure.
But Naaman went home with his money, because he learned that God’s restoring touch cannot be purchased.
How many in our own day have learned the same thing? Kurt Cobain was a young man of great wealth and influence — due to his success as a recording and concert star — but instead of leading to satisfaction, it led to drugs and ultimately suicide. Wealth and status do not bring God’s restoring touch.
III. Expectations Do Not Bring God’s Restoring Touch
One of the most interesting things about this story is that Naaman had no question in his mind that Elisha was capable of healing his leprosy. Of course, what he expected was for the prophet to produce a great spectacle — maybe he thought there should be lightning and thunder, or at least some fire and smoke! In fact, when Elisha didn’t perform to Naaman’s expectations, the Syrian was furious (v. 11)!
Have you ever been disappointed because God didn’t act in a way that fit your expectations? You thought He should do something, stop something, produce something in a certain way — and it didn’t happen. That can be terribly frustrating.
Naaman had come all this way — important man that he was — prepared to pay big money for this healing, and he expected something to show for his trouble. And what did this foolish prophet ask him to do? Go to the filthy Jordan River and dip himself in it seven times! How absurd! It did not fit his expectations at all.
Then Naaman’s servant offers a subtle rebuke: “Master, if Elisha had asked you to build a bridge over the Jordan or a castle next to it, you wouldn’t have hestitated for a minute. Why do you refuse, then, this simple command?”
Naaman thought about that, realized it was true, and acted on Elisha’s counsel. That was when he discovered
IV. Faithful Obedience Brings God’s Restoring Touch
It was a simple act of obedience, but what a result! The destructive presence of leprosy was washed away, and Naaman’s skin was just like that of a little child — fresh, clean and whole. His faithful obedience had produced God’s restoring touch, and it transformed his life.
It’s often not the big things that give us trouble, but the little things — the day by day acts of faithful obedience to Christ — that make such a transforming difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Are you ready to be obedient to Christ in those little things today? (JMD)
6th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 16, 1995
Praise and Prayer for the Church
(Colossians 1:1-14)
The apostle Paul ministered in the city of Ephesus for about three years. During that period, according to Acts 19:10, the good news of Jesus spread to all the cities and towns nearby. One of the cities near Ephesus was Colossae. Students of the New Testament usually surmise that it was during Paul’s Ephesian ministry that a man named Epaphras heard about Jesus and received Him as Lord and Savior. Then, so the story goes, he returned to his home town of Colossae. Paul lets us know that he had never been to Colossae (Col. 2:1). Later, perhaps around A.D. 60-65, Paul was put in prison in Rome, where the possibility of his execution was very real. While he was there his old friend from Colossae visited him in prison.
Epaphras brought Paul news of the progress of the churches in the area. When Epaphras gave Paul his report, he probably said something like, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the Christians in Colossae have experienced significant spiritual development since they first responded to the gospel of Jesus. The bad news is that some in the church are teaching false doctrine. They are telling people that in order to be enlightened spiritual people they should add the special knowledge of Greek philosophy, mystical and ascetical experiences, and legalism. Some people are believing them.”
When Paul heard words to that effect from Epaphras, he was both grateful and concerned — grateful for their progress in the faith, and concerned about the doctrinal deviations being taught by some. His response was to write a letter to the Christians in Colossae. Colossians is one of the letters in the New Testament that Paul wrote from jail.
Paul had never met these Christians to whom he wrote, but it is obvious from the letter that he loved them as brothers and sisters in Christ and he wanted to see them prosper. In this first section of the body of his letter he expressed praise and a prayer for them.
I. Paul praised the church (vv. 3-8).
Notice Paul’s choice of gratitude. By no means was the church at Colossae a perfect church; they had some serious problems. Yet Paul was grateful for these Christians. It was his practice to deal with the problems in the churches head-on and not to avoid them. On the other hand, he did not let what was wrong with something overshadow that which was right with it. His was a healthy, positive, realistic outlook. He found much for which he could express gratitude to God. He chose to be grateful.
In the church at Corinth, some were practicing immorality. Paul dealt with that, but it did not prevent him from giving thanks for the church in his letter to them. In Colossae there was the threat of heresy, and in Thessalonica some were not working, but just waiting for the Lord to return and letting others provide for them. Paul spoke out boldly on those issues, but still found some things for which he could thank God.
Paul’s practice of praise and gratitude to God provides a powerful and practical lesson for us. It is a lesson about attitude. Let me share two truths with you about developing the attitude of gratitude. First of all, you choose your attitude. If you put that idea to work consistently, it may just change your life. Some people live as if their attitude is determined by circumstances, not their own choice. If things are going well, their attitude is positive. If circumstances are bad, their attitude is negative. So whenever they have a bad attitude, they blame it on their circumstances or on something that someone else has done. But the truth is they have chosen their own attitude. Often we cannot control what happens to us, but we can control our reaction to what happens.
The apostle Paul faced a lot of hardships, and a lot of people around him who should have known better did things that were wrong. Still, he chose to be grateful. If you have a critical, negative attitude, the only reason is that you have chosen it. Maybe you have a more melancholy personality; maybe you learned it from Momma or Daddy; but if you think that you cannot unchoose, or change, that negative attitude you are deluding yourself.
A woman was frantically trying to get her Christmas shopping finished. She had fought the crowds all day, and was exasperated. She bought something in one last store, had to wait in yet another long line, and was impatient with another desk clerk. As she and her little daughter were leaving the store, she said to her daughter, “Did you see the look that clerk gave me?” And the little girl innocently said, “Momma, he didn’t give you that look. You had it on your face when you went in.”
Another truth about developing this kind of attitude is that your attitude has the power to affect the quality of your relationships. Even though Paul had never met the Colossian Christians he was laying the foundation for a good relationship by telling them that he was grateful for them and regularly thanked God for them. No, they were not perfect and, yes, Paul was very concerned about the orthodoxy of their doctrine. But he did not overlook the fact that there were things for which he could be grateful, and he did not neglect to give thanks to God.
What a difference it makes in a marriage when husband and wife are grateful for one another in that way. It doesn’t mean that they are stupid, or that love has blinded them to the faults of the other person. It means that they have chosen gratitude as their attitude in spite of such faults. Furthermore, those faults will improve much more quickly in an atmosphere of thankfulness. If you don’t let your spouse know that you are grateful for his or her good qualities, you aren’t giving much incentive for him or her to develop more good qualities.
The same is true in churches. Sometimes the reason pastors and people don’t get along is that one of us has found out that the other is not perfect, and we neglect to be grateful for the things that are right. And how many employees today are frustrated with their jobs because it has been so long since the boss said “Thank you for a job well done”? Your attitude has the power to affect the quality of your relationships.
We have talked about Paul’s choice of gratitude. Let’s look at the cause of gratitude. Some good things were happening in the lives of the believers that caused Paul to be grateful. In verse 4 he mentions their “faith in Christ Jesus.” The church may have had its problems, but Epaphras told Paul that the Christians there had faith in Jesus. Paul was grateful for that. He recognized it as a gift from the Lord, so he told the Colossians, “I regularly thank the Lord for your faith in Christ Jesus.”
Faith is a wonderful thing but, when you think about it, faith is only as good as the object of our faith. In his letter to the Colossian Christians Paul argued that the only Person worthy of our complete faith and trust is Jesus the Messiah. This letter is Christocentric — Jesus is the focus. Today, people are putting their faith in all kinds of false ideas that offer no life or hope. That is all the more reason to be thankful when we see someone with faith in Jesus.
A second cause for Paul’s gratitude was “the love which you have for all the saints” (v. 4). Epaphras thought that the love he had observed among the Christians in Colossae was worthy of mention to Paul. Paul remembered what he heard about their love, and he thanked God for it. Notice also that this love was for all the saints. They were not only loving those who were continuing to grow in the faith, or those who were the most lovable. Apparently in that church the kind of fellowship existed in which every person was loved. In human organizations usually there are cliques that love some people, but not others. But in the church it is not to be so, and when in a church it can be accurately said that there is love “for all the saints,” it is a wonderful thing indeed. And, as Paul was, we ought to be grateful for it.
A third cause of Paul’s praise for this church is “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (v. 5). In other words these Christians believed in the promises of Christ concerning heaven. That gave them hope for their future beyond the grave, and Paul expressed thanks to God for that.
II. Paul prayed for the church.
Not only did Paul give thanks in prayer for the Christians in Colossae, his prayer included thanksgiving to God for these believers and petition on their behalf. In fact, he told them, “Since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you” (v. 9).
It is remarkable how often Paul mentioned in his letters that he was praying for fellow Christians. He may have had a written prayer list with the names of individuals and churches for which he was praying. Considering the conditions in which he lived and traveled, however, he may have kept the list only in his memory. Whatever the case, obviously Paul spent a lot of time in prayer and a large proportion of that prayer time was devoted to praying for fellow-believers, some of whom he had never even met.
No wonder Paul’s life and ministry was so blessed by God. No wonder the first churches grew so rapidly in number and in spiritual maturity. God was at work in the lives of people in answer to prayer. Many Christians do not realize that prayer is the fuel that moves the church forward. They think it is money, or people, or the pastor, because that’s what they see. What they do not see is the invisible but powerful hand of the Lord God Almighty and all His angelic hosts working in lives in answer to prayer. If we want to move forward as a church, every one of us ought to get on our knees and stay there.
You and I had better wake up to the fact that there is an unseen spiritual realm that affects us. The Bible makes it plain that in that realm warfare is being waged. The power of our adversary is no match for the power of Christ, but when we do not pray we do not even show up for the battle. Many battles are lost because of the lack of prayer, because in the strength of the flesh we are no match for the forces of wickedness in high places. We must realize that prayer gives us access to God’s unlimited power. When we rely on the pastor we get what he can do. When we look to deacons we get what they can do. But when we pray we get what God can do.
As you pray for fellow believers it will help you to know what to pray for and how to pray. I don’t think we can improve on Paul’s prayer for the Colossians. Sometimes when I pray for someone I pray through one of these scriptural prayers for the saints. Look at what Paul prayed for: deeper spiritual knowledge and wisdom, a life that is pleasing to the Lord, a fruit-bearing life, growth in the knowledge of God, spiritual Strength, greater endurance and patience, and a joyful attitude. Let us not fail to seek such characteristics in our own lives, and let us not fail to pray that fellow believers would seek them also. (NAM)
7th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 23, 1995
Being Left Out of the Parade
(Luke 10:38-42)
Ever since the first Easter Day, every day can have its parade. Everyday hassles and hurts can be overcome by the knowledge that we are ultimately saved from them all.
Sadly, some folks never join the parade. Their lives are ho-hums. They owe; they owe; it’s off to work they go. They’ve never smelled a rose, stood to watch a sunset, or taken the time to invite the Son to rise in their lives. Though hungry for happiness, they don’t take the time for life in Him.
They’re miserable. You may know someone like them.
Earl and Pearl quickly come to mind. They remain among the most down-in-the-mouth, sour-pussed, serious, sober, humorless, church-going-without-figuring-out-that- it’s-supposed-to-be-good-news people who I’ve ever known. I’m not exaggerating. I know you know the kind.
Earl was one of those guys who just don’t make your day. Hearing that Earl was on the way to see me made me feel like the next feature on Inside Edition or 60 Minutes. Earl had nothing better to do than bug me. His only hobby was telling me and everybody else who would listen that he — unlike me and everybody else — knew the answers to all of the questions. Whatever anybody else said or did, he could say or do it better.
I’ll never forget one especially difficult moment when he asked why in a sermon I had referred to shepherds as ne’er-do-wells. “Because,” I said, “they were on the bottom of the socioeconomic class system of Israel.” I went on to say the shepherds were among the first to see the baby Jesus, to show God’s love for everybody regardless of who, what, where, or when. Earl kept arguing with me about it. Then I said, “I can’t change the fact of the shepherd’s status in the first century.” Finally he made his point: “You should spend more time talking about how noble shepherds were.” He told me that his last name was a Scottish word for shepherd.
Sometimes we miss the forest because of the trees.
Except for being a girl, Pearl was a lot like Earl. When we first met, she said, “I don’t like your beard.” God knows why some people assume they can say anything to a pastor. (I suppose we’re paid to be abused, but I still don’t like it. I’ve learned it comes with the turf.) Because I really believe we’re supposed to treat others as we’d like to be treated, I don’t go around saying things like, “Are you sure you’re not related to Charles Manson?”
After a little probing I discovered that Pearl’s son had a beard. I also discovered that she and her son didn’t get along. Seeing my beard, she thought of her son; and whenever she thought of her son, she felt bad. She said my beard got in the way of her enjoyment of worship because she was always thinking about her son.
Trying to endear myself to her, I said I’d shave off my beard if that would help her to worship God. “If that’s what you want,” I kept repeating in what I thought was an excellent bit of rhetoric, “I’ll do it.” Of course I didn’t mean it. She did. So I shaved off my beard.
When she approached me the following Sunday after worship, I anticipated a warm greeting with a few gushes of syrupy thanks for shaving off my beard. Instead, she took my hand, tilted her head, squinted, and said, “Now about your mustache.”
I learned some very valuable lessons from Earl the pearl and Pearl who was a lot like Earl. First, I don’t ask people what they think of my beard. Second, you can’t make everybody happy no matter how hard you try. Third and most important, the best I can do as a pastor is point people to Somebody who can make them happy. The best I can do is to point people to Jesus.
Though it’s hard to tell with some folks, people are hungry for happiness. People don’t want to be left out of the parade. They want to be happy, whole, joyful, and secure. That hunger can be satisfied through a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus.
That’s what our Lord was trying to explain to Martha and Mary of Bethany. Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus were our Lord’s friends. Living in Bethany, which was just east of Jerusalem beyond the Kidron Valley and Mount of Olives, it was not uncommon for Martha and Mary to host Jesus.
During this particular visit, Jesus came in and “Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said.” Martha, on the other hand, “was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” I guess that means she was doing the hostess bit — cleaning, cooking, and all the rest. But it wasn’t too long before Martha blurted out, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
It was a natural reaction. Martha was stuck in the rut of her routine and wanted her sister to stick around too. Instead of doing important things like the dishes, Mary was sitting with Jesus and soaking up everything He said.
Doesn’t that last sentence sound a little absurd? It is absurd because being with Jesus is more important than anything else.
“Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Paraphrasing the text, our Lord was saying, “Chill out and concentrate on what’s really important.”
I. Chill Out
Jesus used a double address — Martha, Martha — to emphasize his lave for Martha and sorrow for her obsession with a routine that got in the way of her relationship with Him. “Jesus did not condemn Martha’s work,” wrote J. C. Connell (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1975), “but her excessive attention to material provision, which disturbed her peace of mind.” Or as Matthew Henry noted in his commentary on this text back in 1721: “She was troubled about many things, when she should have applied herself to one…. The many things she was troubled about were needless, while the one thing she neglected was needful.”
Jesus was saying: “Be still. Relax. Smell the roses. Watch a sunset. Chill out.”
II. Concentrate on Your Relationship with Jesus
“Chill out,” our Lord essentially said, “because only one thing is needed.” That one thing is a personal relationship with God through Him. Being with Jesus satisfies our hunger for happiness.
I have two friends who are terribly frustrated by the demands of their ministries. They have told me there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done. So I told them to forget about it! “If you can’t do it all,” I said, “don’t worry about it.” I suggested more time with the Lord, their wives, family, and playing.
That’s exactly what Jesus told Martha. He told her that happiness isn’t found in routines but in relationships — beginning with a personal relationship with God through Him. “You are worried and upset about many things,” our Lord told Martha, “but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” The better way — the only thing that is needed — is to join Mary at the feet of Jesus. Being with Jesus satisfies our hunger for happiness, wholeness, joy, and security.
“My frustrated, confused friend,” wrote J. Vernon McGee (Luke, 1991), “are you at that corner of life where you do not know which way to turn? Then, for goodness’ sake, sit down. Sit at Jesus’ feet. Look in His Word and see what He has to say. It will help you with your housework. It will make you a better dishwasher. It will help you sweep the floors cleaner. You will dig a better ditch, mow a better lawn, study your lesson better. Your work at the office will be easier, and you will be able to drive your car safer. Just take time to sit at the feet of Jesus. Mary chose the best part.”
One more thing. Earl passed away a few years ago. Not long after he died. I had a dream about him, a dream about Earl in heaven. He looked at me and smiled.
Whether it’s Earl, Pearl, Martha, Mary, the people along the parade route two thousand years ago, you or me, only one thing is needed: Jesus! (RRK)
8th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 30, 1995
Complete in Christ
(Colossians 2:6-15)
The religious heritage of Japan and some other Asian countries is not monotheistic. People may consider themselves Buddhists and attend Shinto temples to pray for their child, and many plan their weddings in accord with Christian traditions. Differing religions and conflicting gods are commingled as if one could be an adherent of several religions at the same time. In that setting, some people who are interested in becoming Christians also want to retain their allegiance to another god or religion.
That, of course, is impossible because of who Jesus is. He never claimed to be merely an outstanding teacher of morality or just an extraordinarily good man, or prophet. He claimed to be God Himself in human flesh, and that claim is reiterated throughout the New Testament, including the passage before us. The claim also has been verified by His resurrection from the dead and by the lives of millions of Christians who have received and had personal relationships with Him.
The fact that Jesus is God Himself calls for total allegiance to Him only, and it sets Christianity apart from the other religions of the world.
People in the twentieth century are not unique in not understanding the exclusivity of faith in Jesus Christ. From the words of Paul that we have read, it is clear that Colossian people in the first century had not fully come to terms with it either. Some people in Colossae wanted to have Christ in their lives but they felt He was not enough. They were trying to add some philosophies from the traditions of men to what God had done in Christ. They were attracted by these ideas, not realizing that they had all they needed in Christ. To these people Paul wrote, “In Him you have been made complete” (v. 10).
William Randolph Hearst, the famed newspaper publisher, was a very wealthy man. During his lifetime he invested a fortune in collecting great works of art. One day he read about some valuable pieces of art and decided he had to add them to his collection. He sent his agent abroad to locate and purchase them. Months went by before the agent returned and reported to Hearst that the items had at last been found — they were stored in Hearst’s own warehouse; he had purchased them years before.
A Christian on a search for spiritual fulfillment and spiritual resources is a person looking for something that he or she already has. When a person has Jesus Christ in his or her life, nothing of spiritual value is lacking — that is the message of these verses.
In his second letter, Peter wrote of Jesus, saying, “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (1 Pet. 1:3). Paul wrote that Jesus has become in us “wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). And in Ephesians Paul wrote that in Christ we are blessed “with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3).
In light of that, doesn’t it seem odd that 12 percent of churchgoers and 11 percent of those who read the Bible regularly say they believe in the accuracy of astrology forecasts? Doesn’t it seem unnecessary, and even bizarre, that so many who call themselves Christians are so attracted to the spiritual chicanery of the New Age movement? How ludicrous that someone who has everything in Christ Jesus could be tricked by the bogus claims of “channelers” or by the phony baloney of things like crystal power and astral projection. How sad and spiritually sick that someone who has abundance of life in Jesus would seek for the cheap thrills that materialistic greed can provide, or for the momentary rush of sexual sin.
Those who would do so simply have not taken inventory in their spiritual warehouse. If they have Christ, they have everything; to search for something more is to search for something they already have. In the words of verse 10: “In Him you have been made complete.”
What reasons did Paul give to support his claim that a person has everything when he or she has Christ?
I. Christianity offers the only way to be clean from past sin.
Look at verses 13 and 14 again. “And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate o debt consisting of decrees against us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” The Bible says that if we have not received Christ and His forgiveness, then we are in a condition of spiritual death. Why? Because we are separated from God, and only He can make our spirits alive. Without Him we are empty, incomplete, and full of sin. But when Christ comes into our lives at our invitation, He gives us life — abundant life and eternal life — and this life is a free gift. In order to make us new He forgives our sin.
Most religions of the world have some kind of moral code: some things are said to be wrong and some things are said to be right. But what if we try to live by that moral code and fail? The truth is that all of us have failed morally in some way. The Bible says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). When we fail, does it really matter? Do we just shrug it off and try to do better next time? Do we merely accept our imperfections and mistakes as the will of Allah? Do we conclude that such failures do not matter much in this life, but they will affect the form of our next reincarnation?
The word of God teaches that there is a God who is personal and perfectly holy. Our sin is an offense to His holiness. He loves us, but He hates our sin. Because He desires a pesonal relationship with every person, He has provided the means whereby our sin may be taken away or forgiven. God cannot overlook it or pretend it is not there. He cannot change His code of right or wrong. But He has provided a sacrifice for our sin. Sin must be punished by the one true holy God, and it was punished when Christ died on the cross for our sins. My sin and your sin was placed on Jesus when He died. He took the penalty for our sin. He died our death so that we could experience a relationship with the heavenly Father that is unhindered by sin.
When we invite Christ into our lives, He comes in and forgives our sin. Verse 14 says that He cancels the debt of our sin, takes it away, and nails it to the cross. If you have Jesus you can be as clean as if you had not sinned, because He has taken your sin away. If it’s on the cross, it’s not on you anymore. He has taken it away and nailed it there.
Christianity offers the only way to be clean from past sin. Wouldn’t you like to be clean before God?
II. Christianity has to do with facts, not theory.
Paul wrote about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (v. 12). Jesus was killed on the cross. There were many witnesses to His death. His body was placed in a tomb and the tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers. Yet, on a Sunday morning, He rose from the tomb alive and appeared before many witnesses. That is not merely a theory or a hope that Christians have; it is historical fact. The Jewish leaders of the first century would have loved to prove that Jesus did not rise from the dead. All they had to do was to present the dead body of Jesus as evidence. But they did not, and could not, because He had been resurrected.
Christianity is based on these facts. If Jesus really lived a sinless life, healed and taught miraculously, died for our sins on the cross, and rose from the dead, He is worthy to be worshiped and followed. There is no need to add another theory or philosophy. He is real, He is alive, He is personal, and He will fill our lives and guide us. What is keeping you from becoming a committed follower of Jesus today?
Christianity has to do with facts, not theory. Christianity offers the only way to be clean from past sin.
III. Christianity is Christ, who is Head over all things.
In verse 10 Paul wrote, “He is head over all rule and authority.” And in verse 9 he wrote that “In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” There is nothing of God that is missing in Jesus. When we have Jesus we have everything there is to have of God.
The central focus of Christianity is not an idea, not a list of rules, and not an organization. Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who is God the Son. No one can claim to be a Christian merely because they believe in or live by certain Christian ideals, or because they like Christians better than non-Christians, or even because they are members of a church. The only way to begin to be a Christian is to begin a relationship with the Person who is named Jesus.
Christianity is all about Him. Look at the number of times He is mentioned in this passage. “In Him you have been made complete” (v. 10). “In Him you were also circumcised” (p. 11). “Buried with Him in baptism (v. 12). “Raised up with Him” (v. 12). “He made you alive together with Him” (v. 13).
If you have studied the history of philosophy, you know that it is the history of one discarded theory after another. Every philosophy and every religion has been searching for that which can be found only in Jesus Christ. We must give up our independent search for something that is conjured up by the human mind, and submit to what Almighty God has revealed in Christ. If you have yet to do that for the first time, why not do it now? If you are a Christian, use this opportunity to renew your commitment to Christ above all, in whom you are complete. (NAM)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Kenneth L. Chafin, Retired Pastor, Walnut Street Baptist Church, Louisville, KY; John A. Huffman, Jr., Pastor, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA; John V. Tornfelt; Don M. Aycock, Editor, Special Projects, SBC Brotherhood Commission, Memphis, TN; N. Allen Moseley, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Durham, NC; Robert R. Kopp, Pastor, Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, PA; and Michael Duduit, Editor, Preaching.

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2nd Sunday of Advent (C)
December 4, 1994
The Attitude of Gratitude
(Philippians 1:3-11)
It has been said that gratitude is the memory of the heart, and that gratitude is the parent of all the other virtues. I think both statements are very true. I am convinced the attitude of gratitude is that important. Even so, again and again, I have to call myself back to the attitude of gratitude, and I suspect you often must do the same.
As we move through life day-by-day it is inevitable that so much of what so many would call “the real world” — yet these values are an illusion of the devil — rubs off on us. We develop an attitude of “us against them,” we tend to see only the bad and the weak in other folks. We focus on failure — theirs, ours, yours, and mine. We begin to feel sorry for ourselves. We tend to lose our focus on the good and the strong in others. We begin to think that the happiness and success we enjoy is our just due, and that we owe nothing to nobody. Am I just describing my life, or do you sometimes feel that way: in business, in church, at home? Well, our problem is often a simple case of amnesia of the heart.
This amnesia takes over when we have forgotten how fortunate we are. Let us all, right now, put a couple of fingers on our wrists and feel our pulses. Do you feel that pulsing, that throbbing, that wave of blood coursing through your arteries? When I feel my pulse I automatically think of English poet George Herbert’s beautiful poem which says that we ought to have an attitude of gratitude to God just as steady and unfailing as our pulse.
I. An Example of the Attitude
In our text today we see a remarkable example of an unfailing attitude of gratitude. It also shows us the power of this attitude of gratitude. Paul writes this letter from prison to the church at Philippi. Obviously prison life is not conducive to developing or maintaining an attitude of gratitude to God; and, while Paul is in prison, folks are out to discredit his calling and ministry. Yet listen to his unconquerable spirit of gratitude in this letter.
I think the most striking phrase in our text is the assertion that Paul thanks God every time he thinks of them (v. 3). Let’s explore this thought in the same context Paul uses: does a feeling of gratitude and thanksgiving to God well up in your heart every time of think of this church? I am not speaking of the buildings, but of the people who make up this church. There is a surface level on which we all know what Paul means; every time I go away for several days, I find myself feeling grateful for you.
There is a deeper level on which Paul is speaking, too. I can hear your churning questions: grateful to God every time I think of those folks who are a thorn in the flesh? Of those who have crushed my dream? Of those who have a different goal for church than I? Of those who have ignored me, or hurt my feelings? Of those who for various reasons did not meet my needs in a crisis time? Am I grateful for them just because they are members of this church? No way! But just how did Paul do it — selective memory? Or was he a member of a perfect church?
Paul was not writing to a perfect church when he wrote these words, as you can see by reading this letter and Acts 16 carefully. Philippi is the place where Paul healed a slave girl and gained the undying hatred of her owners; where he was thrown into jail on trumped-up charges, beaten, then asked to leave town quietly when it was discovered he was a Roman citizen. Even in this letter Paul warns them of the danger of strife, pride, divisions in the church, insincerity, muttering, and arguing. Indeed, Paul publicly calls on two women in the church, Euodias and Syntyche, to cease their arguing and bury the hatchet. No, the church at Philippi, while certainly Paul’s favorite church, was clearly not a perfect church. Nor did Paul think so. And he is not just blocking out the bad memories of some of the people in the church or of past incidents.
Paul is able to be grateful every time he thinks of the church because in the midst of, and in spite of, the bad times he realizes that both he and they have experienced grace upon grace. He was grateful that they were brought together by the grace of God, that God was working in them, and that they really were all striving toward the same goal of following Christ. That genuine gratitude which he had for them and they had for him (for in verse 7 the inspired Scripture has two Greek accusatives which can mean either I have you in my heart and/ or you have me in your heart) was a very powerful attitude. It still is today in any church and in society generally.
II. The Power of the Attitude
A true attitude of gratitude to God has the power, first of all, to overlook shortcomings and focus on the good in a person. I could focus on your faults and foibles, and you on mine — and it would be destructive. But when we walk daily in an attitude of gratitude to God for life, for salvation, for the privilege of being part of His saving work through the church, then we focus on what God can do in each life. And we see that the good in each person outweighs the bad.
A second power of gratitude in the church is the power to call forth our best, our willingness to work for God. When gratitude to God is at the foundation of our service for the Lord, we do not demand our way, we do not expect to be applauded, nor do we pay attention to slights. We are ready and willing to do whatever we can for the Lord.
A third power of gratitude is the power to deepen our prayer life. A grateful person prays. Paul says his remembrance of them leads him to pray, thanking God for them. We ought to make it a habit to pray often for each other. A good habit is to pray for each other just as soon as we hear of a need or a joy in each other’s lives. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and cannot quickly go back to sleep. I usually use this time to pray for folks who pop into my mind as having a crisis, a need, or joy, and to thank God for loving, forgiving friends.
There is another power of the attitude of gratitude I want to mention; it is the power which gratitude gives us to rejoice in the fact that God is not through with us (v. 6). Paul says three great things in this passage: he prays every time he thinks of them; he’s grateful for their partnership in the ministry; and he’s confident that God is going to keep on working in their lives. We can be grateful for each other even though we are not perfect, because God is not finished with any of us. We can realize what a marvelous grace each of us has received in Jesus; we can overlook each other’s faults; we can willingly and joyfully work together as partners in the greatest enterprise on earth. It is God who has begun the work of grace in us. It is God who will sustain us. It is God who will finish what He has started.
Those are grounds for gratitude. (ECD)
3rd Sunday of Advent (C)
December 11, 1994
Joy to the World!
(Philippians 4:4-7)
What thoughts run through your mind during the Christmas season — Do you remember Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas? The smell of pine trees permeating the house? Gift exchanges, or the return of gifts to the stores on the day after Christmas? Home-cooked meals lavishly spread on a table weighted down by all the excess food? Family? Friends? Christmas Eve services? Choirs singing such songs as Joy to the World?
There are some gifts and memories that we can receive and give at Christmas which will last longer than the Energizer Bunny! God’s gift list is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. It is our gift list, too.
I. The Gift List Includes Joy (v. 4)
A frustrated six-year-old girl expressed her total disappointment that she had to be “one of the kids in the manger scene” at her church’s Christmas program. Her mother asked her what she wanted to be. She replied, “I want to be an angel. They’re the ones who sing the song of rejoicing!” Then she summed up her feeling, “I can’t rejoice unless I’m an angel.”
King Duncan commented, “That little girl was suffering from a common misconception — that only angels rejoice. If so, it is only because the non-angelic do not know the good news. The coming of the Christ child is for those who know they haven’t been all they ought to have been — who have sincere regrets over time misspent, values misplaced, actions misguided.”
Take a few moments and list the people, places and things that bring joy to your heart. They are on the gift list from God.
II. The Gift List Includes Gentleness (v. 8)
Someone said that the definition of gentleness is a “magnanimous spirit.”
We live in a rude, harsh, impolite, discourteous, and ill-mannered society. Even children are afraid for their lives because weapons of destruction are being used by such a disquieted society. These children are cursed, abused, mocked and laughed at — and that’s at home! At times, their schools and playgrounds are war-zones.
The Christian can give an urgently-needed gift of gentleness to such a crude world.
Maxie Dunnam offers this suggestion: “The gentle are courteous and kind; exercise restraint; practice reticence in speech, knowing that words can wound and silence may be more affirming than chatter; do not intrude into another’s life but are available to and responsive to others’ needs.”
Is it any wonder that Paul names gentleness as a gift God gives to us and a gift that we ought to present to the world?
III. The Gift List Includes Prayer (v.6)
We wrap our gift of prayer in the paper of thanksgiving. This means that we have true appreciation for what is given to or done for us. Through prayer we thank God for His gifts of love, forgiveness, salvation, holiness and mercy.
We tie the bow of prayer with requests. There are so many needs in the world. Everyday a new crisis hits somewhere and we are requested to respond with our prayers, finances, programs, ourselves. The greatest need is for eternity which comes from the love of God in the form of His one and only Son. What requests do you have of God today? His answers are readily available.
The tape that secures our package of prayer together is love.
Karen Zautyk of the New York Daily News (“Remember, It Is Love,” Dec. 25, 1988) relates that in Edinburgh, Scotland, there is a Museum of Childhood. The museum overflows with childhood memories and treasures: teddy bears, tire trucks, model trains and planes, books and games, and dolls of all descriptions.
In that museum there is one doll that sits alone behind isolating glass panes. It’s an old, raggedy doll that has been literally hugged to shreds. But this doll began its existence raggedy; it’s creator made it of old socks, pins, buttons, and miscellaneous parts.
Zautyk writes, “That this doll was loved, there is no doubt. Nor that it was born of love. For all its shabbiness — and it was shabby the day it was made — it had, and has, a value untold. (A sign on it says) ‘A doll belonging to a London slum child, circa 1905.’ … The doll is unnamed. The child is unnamed.”
She continues, “Some might call it ugly. That would be wrong, very wrong … It is possible the slum child made it for herself … perhaps it was a gift created by a mother or father who was poor in possessions … all they could give was love beyond measure. Love beyond themselves.”
We might think of the doll as ugly, but to the owner it was an object of beauty.
We are like that doll — made ugly by sin, but God has made us beautiful by His love. Love came down at Christmas and binds our gift package together. Will you receive God’s gifts of love, gentleness and joy? (DGK)
4th Sunday of Advent (C)
December 18,1994
A Servant’s Song
(Luke 1:39-55)
A Jewish girl in her teen years anticipates her wedding day: arrangements to make, invitations to send, people to see. Excitement abounds!
One night an angel appears to this young bride-to-be with an announcement from God. The angel states that God looks upon her as a very special individual, one so special that God is going to entrust the birth of the Messiah to her. She is going to have a baby; and not just any baby, for He will be the Son of God!
“Incredible,” Mary says to Gabriel. “How can I become pregnant? I’ve never been with a man. What will people think? Joseph, what about Joseph? What would he think of me? He will see me as used. No, find someone else.”
“No, Mary, you have been picked by God. Trust me, everything will be fine.”
“I am the Lord’s servant. Let it then be as you have told me.”
After the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, she became pregnant. Afraid to say anything to her parents, Mary informs them that she will go visit their relative, Elizabeth. She needed someone to give her wise counsel, someone to whom she could confide her thoughts, someone to whom she could share her secret.
The first thing that happened as Mary entered the house of Elizabeth was that Elizabeth’s baby inside of her leaped. In a state of ecstatic joy, Elizabeth in a loud voice declares to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you bear” (Luke 1:42a, NIV)!
The word “blessed” describes happiness upon those whom God smiles. Here Elizabeth encourages Mary’s faith, and after this spontaneous blessing Mary begins a song of praise. Theologians call this song the Magnificat, dedicated to the adoration of Mary’s closest friend, Jehovah.
I. Mary’s Song Notes Happiness (vv. 39-45)
Comedian Dom DeLuise relates that there was a dark time in his life when nothing made him smile. He stated, “Everything was wrong — life was hopeless, and I was feeling useless.” As Christmas approached, DeLuise’s son asked his dad what he wanted for a Christmas present. DeLuise despondently replied, “Happiness — and you can’t give it to me.” When Christmas day came and the family opened their gifts, the boy handed his father a piece of cardboard with the word HAPPINESS scribbled on it. The boy said, “See, pop, I can give you happiness!” DeLuise’ depression shattered.
What brings happiness to your life? I hope it is the same as Mary’s –a God-approved life. Everyone else’s approval is secondary.
II. Mary’s Song Notes Glory to God (vv. 46-51)
God came first in Mary’s heart and life. The song of glory came from the depths of her spirit to her lips. The glory of God sings of redemption.
Charles Morrison wrote, “The love of God is no mere sentimental feeling. It is redemptive power.”
Redemption is the process by which I am bought with a price at Calvary, rescued from sin, brought back home, and restored to my potential.
G. A. Frantz sets the picture in an illustration from decades ago: A house is burning and inside is an expensive Stradivarius violin. Knowing that the violin is in the burning house, a music lover rushes in to save it, at great peril to himself. That is redemption. But the violin is damaged by the heat of the fire and has to be taken to a master craftsman in order for it to be restored. That also is redemption. Then a great violinist takes the violin, tunes it, draws the bow over it and makes it sing. That too is redemption. The total redemption of the violin includes its complete rescue, complete repair, and complete service potential.
Mary did not understand the total scope of the child she carried, but we do! Her baby would rescue humankind — including each and every individual who would accept His offer of redemption. He would restore the spiritual light and put back the potential for goodness.
Is it any wonder that Mary would sing of the glory of God?
III. Mary’s Song Notes a Heritage of Faith (vv. 54-56)
Reginald E. O. White pointedly stated, “Some generations are more aware of what they have achieved than of what they have inherited, forgetting that the heritage makes the achievement possible.”
I am the product of a group of “ordinary” Christians from a small congregation in Kansas City, Kansas. Those “ordinary” saints instilled in my heart the heritage of their faith. Their family names that mean nothing to others mean everything to me. When God called me to ministry, those people supported, loved, and encouraged me! Because of their help I believe they are a part of my ministry that has stretched out through almost a quarter-century of pastoral work, Christian writing assignments, speaking engagements, evangelistic campaigns, denominational work, preaching and teaching. Each time I lead someone to Christ I believe it is partly because of the great heritage I received back in the early years of my life.
Many people helped formulate your faith. Think about these people and take time to thank God for what they implanted into your heart and life. If possible, write or call them and say, “Thank you for giving part of your life to me. I am so glad you did.”
What note of praise can you raise, servant of God? (DGK)
Christmas Day (C)
December 25, 1994
The Paradox of Christmas
(John 1:1-5, 10-14)
There is a spirit of celebration everywhere. As we near Christmas, it becomes pure, unadulterated celebration. Yet there is a place for reflection, a little chewing on thoughts. This is what Mary did, “She kept all these things which she could not understand in her heart and pondered them.”
Think with me about the paradox of Christmas. A paradox is a statement which appears to hold two truths which seem to be in conflict or in contradiction with each other. Two things — each is true but seem to be in contradiction. No event the church celebrates is more a paradox than Christmas.
For instance, the idea of a creator becoming a creature seems to be a contradiction. How can the God who by His word and power called everything into being become a baby held in His mother’s arms? Both truths are taught by the Bible. The Bible is clear in insisting that Christ participated in creation; He did not come into being at His birth in Bethlehem. We read in Genesis 1 and 2 the story of God’s creating the world. This is a profound religious statement which insists that out of nothing everything was created without help, without opposition, and was created for God’s purpose. John says, “No single thing was created without Him.”
The apostle Paul, writing in Colossians, says “In Him everything in heaven and on earth was created, not only things visible but also the invisible orders of thrones, sovereignties, authorities and powers. The whole universe has been created through Him and for Him.” This means, as Paul writes, that Christ is the agent of creation; that He is the goal towards which creation moves; that He is the cohesive power that holds everything together. The Bible affirms Christ is divine: son of God, eternal in the heavens, all-knowing and all-powerful.
The Bible also insists that, in Christ, God became a human being. There is no clearer statement of this than the statement of incarnation in John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory.”
John Milton said in his beautiful poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity: “He forsook the courts of everlasting day and took with us a house of darksome clay.” Go to a hospital and visit the maternity ward and look at those gorgeous babies. Imagine God — who created the universe, the stars in the heavens, the great mountains, the rivers, and everything — as a little baby.
It seems to be a contradiction, doesn’t it? Yet, both are true; the eternal, omnipotent God comes as a finite, helpless baby. We celebrate this in the songs of Christmas. Hear how we celebrate His power: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king,” and how we celebrate His weakness: “Away in a manger, No crib for a bed, The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.” This is one paradox of Christmas.
The idea of an incognito God seems to hold a conflict: a hidden God who reveals Himself. All through the Bible this aspect of God’s nature is hidden as though God does not want anyone to see Him. In Exodus it is clear that no one could see the face of God and live. In the chapter before the commandments are given, God says to Moses: “Tell the people not to force their way up to see my face lest they perish.” This is not a reference to His nose or mouth or eyes, but is a reference to knowing God; none of us can know God in his fullness.
There was such an emphasis in the Old Testament about the holiness of God. He seemed an almost holy other: so different from us we could not know Him. Ordinary people could not come into His presence. Once each year one person, the high priest, went into the holy of holies and sprinkled blood on the altar for the sins of the people. Saying His name was an act of irreverence, so synonyms were developed. One of the hard things in biblical studies is dealing with the fact that sometimes there was just a pause. All through the Bible, it was a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of a living God. So there is this aspect of the God who does not want us to get too close to Him.
Yet the Bible also pictures God as constantly revealing Himself in creation. Paul said to the Romans, “The invisible things of God are clearly seen by the things that are made.” In the law of God, we begin to get something of the moral nature of God; in the lives of leaders, judges and prophets we get something of His will, and in the events of history we get something of His purpose. The church gathers today to celebrate the fact that God has revealed Himself most fully in the birth of His son, Jesus Christ. Yet, in this revelation, John suggests there was a hiddenness; He came to those who expected Him and they did not recognize Him.
Why did not people recognize Him? Did He disguise Himself like the king who would dress as a peasant and mingle with the people so they would not know who he was? Was God really trying to hide from us? No. Was it that the people had a picture of what they expected when He came and He was different that they could not accept Him? Probably. They wanted a new Moses, a new king David, or a new prophet Isaiah. Most of the passages in Isaiah that you and I read, and think are so clearly about Jesus, were not part of the Jewish messianic expectancy. Expecting something different, they did not associate the Suffering Servant poems with the Messiah.
Was it because so much of Christ’s teaching was enigmatic? His parables often seem intended to keep people from understanding rather than to help them understand. He said things which seem contradictory: the way to get is to give; the way to live is to die; the way to be great is to be a servant. Or is there something in you and me, in our fallenness, which makes it hard for us to see Christ in the world? Perhaps all of these.
Yet, in the music of Christmas, we celebrate both aspects of this paradox. The longing we have for God to show Himself is in the carol, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear.” And musically in the Christmas event we celebrate the hiddenness in the spiritual “Sweet little Jesus boy, We made you be born in a manger, Sweet little Jesus boy, We didn’t know who you was.” In each of our hearts there is this desire to know God and to be spoken to by God.
The largest contradiction of all is the idea that people like you and me can become children of God. John’s word is plain: “All who receive him He gave the right to become children of God.” John defines what it means to become children of God: “To those who have yielded Him their allegiance ….” There was a time in history when it was thought that we are basically good and capable of infinite progress. After Darwin, everyone got drunk on optimism; they thought that people by virtue of their innate nature would become like God. However, a careful look at the human situation makes it clear that in our nature we are not children of God. Our nature is warped, our values are corrupted, our goals are inadequate, our relationships are strained except for a thin veneer of respectability. We are all alike.
You don’t need a Bible to tell you that we are flawed; read the newspaper and you can figure that out. Yet the message of Christmas is that people like us can become the children of God. This is what God purposes. Paul expounds on this in his beautiful letter to the Ephesians when he writes, “In Christ He chose us before the world was founded, to be dedicated, to be without blemish in His sight, to be full of love; and he destined us — such was His will and pleasure — to be accepted as His sons through Jesus Christ.” It’s amazing: from eternity we have been loved, and in the coming of Christ there’s forgiveness which washes away our sins; there is power which can transform our lives; and there’s a promise for the future. So as we turn to Christ with our allegiance, we experience birth from above, we have a new spiritual parent and new family — the family of God — and we experience a new inheritance.
How can all these things be true? How can He be fully divine and fully human? How can God be hidden from us and yet reveal Himself to us? How can people who are sinners become children of God? You do not work these things out in your head. I once tried. I majored in philosophy of religion because I felt the need for a rational answer to all these things. I believed you accumulated evidence for God. I don’t believe this any more.
The contradictions are dealt with not in your mind but in your heart — and in the surrender of your heart, your allegiance, and your whole being to God as revealed in Jesus Christ. You will never work these things out in your head, but when you work them out in your heart, they go away. It’s all in one of the carols. What you need to say to God is, “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray, cast out our sins and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell, O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.” This is how the paradox of Christmas is reconciled. This is where divine and human join. This is where incognito and revealing God come together. This is where children of this world become the children of God. (KLC)
New Year’s Day (C)
January 1, 1995
God’s Purpose for 1995
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
Looking down the list of common life experiences for which our text says there are seasons, I can correlate many church members’ names with the seasons of last year. We, as a congregation, experienced birth, death, weeping, laughing — and most of the things listed. There were times to keep silent and someone spoke, and vice versa.
Surely 1995 will hold many of these universal experiences.
For some of you, 1994 was a rough year, filled with more than your share of bad experiences. For others, 1994 was a good year, even a great year. For all of us, 1995 is a new year, a new season — full of hopes, possibility, and — yes — dangers. Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “These times of ours are serious and full of calamity, but all times are essentially alike. As soon as there is life there is danger.”
What can we do to minimize the dangers and make 1995 our best possible year?
I. Seek Heaven’s Purpose
Parents know the frustration when our children refuse to accept our “wise and experienced counsel” concerning such general responsibilities as learning to save money, prepare for the future, and work hard in school — even in those classes which presently seem so pointless. And yet we wonder why God seems so frustrated with us when we do the same thing.
The text says there is “a time for every purpose under heaven.” Heaven, or God, does have a purpose and a will for you and your life. I promise you, whatever else does or does not happen, your maximum benefit will be found if you live according to God’s will and purpose. Your Creator knows what is best for you. Seek that purpose and you wil find optimum happiness.
The Bible says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of Heaven ….”
II. Seek Heaven’s Time
The phrase, “A time for every purpose under heaven,” means all of these universal experiences, in general, are within God’s will and design for creation. We will all die, and there is an appropriate season or time for our death. The text does not mean that everything that occurs happens at its purposed time. Many young people will die this year because of drugs and gang violence. Yes, it is God’s purpose that we all eventually die, but the senseless slaying of a teenager is God’s not season.
Thus we need to seek God’s will and purpose, and we need to seek His time. Consider the young couple who are convinced that God has brought them together in a bond of love and it is His purpose for them to marry. But is it His time? It may be God’s time and purpose for them to first finish an education and get established in a job before it is God’s time for His purpose of their marriage. Remember, it was God’s will for Abraham and Sarah to have a son; but God’s time was not until much later than they expected.
Seek God’s leadership, His purpose, and His timing for all events in your life within your control. And when events happen out of season, we seek His help, His strength, and the ministry of His church to help pull us through these times.
III. Seek Heaven’s Help
First, let your New Year’s resolution be a recommitment of your life to seeking God’s purpose and timing for your life. Second, seek an understanding of God’s will and timing through continuing Bible reading. You may not find the answer to a specific question (should I marry Bill or Tom?), but the better you understand God’s general purposes, the better you will be able to discern His particular will in a situation.
Third, seek God’s will within the community of faith. Though participation in church activities is no lucky charm which will ward off back luck, participation in the worship and work of the church will help prepare you and give you a stronger foundation when things happen out of season. (BG)
Baptism of the Lord (C)
January 8, 1995
How God Blesses Us in a Shaken World
(Isaiah 43:1-7)
(Editor’s Note: This sermon was preached — in a more complete form — immediately following the Los Angeles earthquake.)
Does our faith make a difference when life is shattered and shaken? Do we have a faith strong enough and intelligent enough and genuine enough for tough times and hard climbs and deep, dark valleys? How does God bless us in a shaken time?
Arthur John Gossip was a greatly respected Scottish preacher whose dear wife died in her middle years and left him desolate and alone. When he was again able to climb the pulpit stairs and face his people, the sermon he preached was “But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” In that great sermon — some have called it the greatest sermon of the twentieth century — Gossip said, “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else.” Samuel Rutherford once said, “Grace grows best in the winter.” Yes, it is in the darkest night that the star shines brightest. O, how I want it to be like that for you this morning! I want you to look beyond the tragedy to see the blessing, and especially to see the face of our Savior looking upon us with His kind eyes and reaching out His strong arms. There are special blessings for those who can believe.
In my hands I hold our blessed Bible filled with the most audacious promises. Those glorious assertions of Scripture are not mere suppositions and guesses. They come to us out of the real experiences of life. Why is the prophet so sure that as a mother comforts her hurting child, so will God comfort all who hurt? “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” How did the psalmists know that those who are broken in their hearts and grieved in their minds God would heal? Because it had happened to them. In their dark days and heartbreaking experiences they had felt His unfailing helpfulness and tenderness and the touch of wonderfully gentle hands.
We hear the voice of our Lord calling out to us in the darkness: “I will not leave you comfortless — I will not leave you orphans.” He comes to us! There is a Presence with us, a Comforter, a Fortifier who does strengthen us, does uphold us, and will bring us through. Pusey wrote that when his wife died he felt “as if the rushing waters were up to his chin; but underneath the chin there is a hand, supporting it.”
Listen to that precious promise of protection given by Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy one of Israel, your Savior” (43:2-3). These are more than beautiful pictures, this is a promise worth holding onto. As the days go by, what grows upon one more and more is the amazing tenderness of God. That passage from Isaiah says that whatever perils may threaten God’s people, the Lord will be with them. God is not angry with us! God is not punishing us! God is not avenging our wickedness!
A marvelous painting of Christ brings this fact home to us with great force. In the painting, Christ hangs on the cross in dense darkness, and at first that is all one sees. But as the viewer peers into the background, gradually there emerges another form, God’s form; and other hands supporting Christ, God’s hands; and another face, God’s face, more full of agony even than the Savior’s. The presence, the sufficiency, the sympathy of God, all these things grow very real, very sure, and very wonderful.
I. Our Faith Assures Us of Certain Blessings for All of Life
God has not left us alone. As at Calvary, He shares this loss with us. The Holy Spirit is our comforter: our advocate, our helper. The Holy Spirit enables us to be brave, empowers us to cope with the chances and changes and struggles and battles of life, helps us pass the breaking point without breaking. We are not alone, God is with us through the Holy Spirit.
Our faith blesses us in the fellowship of the church. That means family, people who care. It means people who help. We are the people of God — we belong together. We have responsibilities to each other. Simple friendliness is a good place to begin. Helfulness is a part of being in a church family. We are family.
Our faith blesses us in worship. Just “going to church” can be of little significance; but the worship of God is never insignificant. A group of people confessing their sins, asking for their common necessities, thanking God for their blessings, lifting up their hearts in praise and adoration through prayers and hymns is wonderful company to be in. Worship is our response to God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. It is our chance to tell God that we love Him. It can never be dull and meaningless so long as we care and know what we are doing. God blesses us as we worship.
Our faith blesses us in prayer. We all pray sometimes, especially when we are in a jam. But that kind of self-centered, childish, gimmie-gimmie prayer never accomplishes much. But when a committed Christian cries out to God, that person can expect to be heard. We know that prayer is not so much concerned with what we want as it is about what God wants. Prayer is a mysterious share in creation and redemption. There seems to be some relationship between prayer and coincidence. William Temple said, “When I pray for people coincidences happen, and when I stop praying the coincidences stop.” God has many blessings and much encouragement for us in prayer. Prayer sets loose in our lives the flowing of the power and compassion of God.
II. Our Faith Assures Us of Blessings That Come Through Helping Each Other
Faith delivers us from selfishness and individualism. Faith helps us to see those around us and their needs. In times of stress, much good is done by our government and by agencies such as the Red Cross. But there are untold thousands of marvelous deeds done by caring neighbors for one another.
There is so much we can do for one another. The neighbor is whoever needs us. We can hurt each other and we can help each other. Christians are helpers. God blesses us in shaken times through our friends and neighbors. And God can bless others through us.
III. Our Faith Assures Us of Blessings That Come to Us Personally
From our faith in God, in Jesus Christ as the full expression of the Father’s love, in the Holy Spirit as God present and active in our midst, we gain great confidence, trust, courage and perseverance. We are the people of love, the people who care. We are the people of hope, the people with a future. In the midst of all our troubles we cling to our God, because we trust Him in all times and all circumstances.
We do not ask Him to play favorites with us, we only ask for the strength and the benediction of His presence. He will turn dark days into sunlight. Our tragedies will be stepping-stones instead of stumbling-blocks. Our sufficiency is in our God — He is able! He makes us adequate!
Do you remember T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral? Archbishop Thomas Becket is hiding in the cathedral and the knights are coming to arrest him. As the priests wonder what shall become of them if Thomas is killed, Thomas utters these great lines:
“Peace! be quiet! remember where you are, and what is happening;
No life here is sought for but mine,
And I am not in danger; only near to death.”
We can never take death lightly but there are lots of things worse than death. If God is God then death is never the final reality. Loss of life is tragic and regrettable but not final. Death is going home to God. Jesus said, “Because I live, you shall live also.” To know Christ is to know eternal life.
Let us gather around the Lord’s Table. Meet the Lord. Let Him make you adequate. How adequate is our faith to meet every need of our tired and shaken hearts? Come to the table and find all the resources you need to face whatever may hold for us. (MJT)
2nd Sunday after Epiphany (C)
January 15, 1995
Water into Wine
(John 2:1-11)
For a Christian, or for someone who is considering becoming a Christian, there is no more important issue than determining the identity of the nature of Jesus Christ. For if He is who He said He is, then not only is it easier to obey everything He told us to do, but also we are more motivated to share Him with others. John the apostle wrote his Gospel in order to lead us to believe that Jesus is who He said He is.
None of the Gospels make any claim to be an exhaustive source to the life of Jesus, and John explicitly says that there are other things which Jesus said and did that are not recorded in this little book, “But I have recorded these for the purpose of leading you to belief in Jesus Christ, and that believing in Him you may have life in His name.”
In order to show us that Jesus is who He said He is, John has artistically woven together seven signs that Jesus performed in His lifetime. We should say parenthetically that the greatest miracles in all the Bible are those that stand at the beginning and the end of the life of Jesus — the incarnation and the resurrection. In other words, if we can believe that Jesus Himself tabernacled, or dwelt, in the form of a human being and that human tissue that had no life was given life and Jesus the man rose from the grave, then we should have no trouble believing every miracle between those two events.
John plainly teaches both the incarnation and the resurrection, but in between those two he selects seven signs of Jesus “to manifest the glory of Christ.”
In the Gospel of John the word “sign” is reserved for these seven signs which are attestations of the character of Jesus. Outwardly, of course, they are miraculous, but they also have a deeper meaning beneath the surface that is seen only with the eyes of faith.
If you leave this morning and you think, “Well, so what? I don’t see the big deal about Jesus turning water into wine, or what that has to do with me today in 1995,” then you have said more about yourself than you have said about Jesus or the text. For these are signs of who Jesus is. If you have the eyes of faith you can look beyond the outward circumstances to the revelation of who Jesus is, for He is the same thing today that He was in the first century when He turned the water into wine.
I. The occasion for the sign.
The occasion for the sign was a marriage that was taking place in Cana of Galilee. In the first century there were no movie theaters, plays, or football stadiums. The most exciting thing that ever happened in a small town like Cana was a wedding. Everybody came out for it. We also should remember that after the wedding the bride and groom were not whisked away to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv and taken off to the Swiss Alps for a honeymoon as many do today.
In the first century, after the wedding was over the bride and groom were dressed up in regal, formal attire and were paraded ceremoniously through the streets from the place where the wedding took place to the place that would be their new home. Then for seven days they entertained family and friends as they came to share the joy of the marriage. How would you like to do that the day after you are married? Your husband’s or wife’s family and friends would traipse in and out of the house and you would clean up after them every night. Well, that is what this bride and groom were doing. People were coming and going. There were seven days of festivities going on in this little home in Cana.
Jesus was one of the ones invited to this party. Jesus accepted the invitation, and it is possible that His disciples’ attendance with Him was part of the overcrowding problem that resulted in the lack of wine. Though it is not reflected in the English text, the Greek of verse 2 makes it clear that only one person was invited. Jesus was invited with five grown men who may have been unexpected.
Have you ever cut a roast to size for three or four people and have eight show up instead? Or have you ever approximated the appetite of people who are going to be showing up at your house but one of them turns out to be someone who eats everything in sight? Perhaps that was the case with the disciples of Jesus. More came than were expected, and the result was that they ran out of wine. That was a very embarrassing situation for this young couple and the family that was helping them.
The occasion for the sign was a time of festivity and joy, but it was about to be turned into a time of embarrassment and pain for this family.
II. The demonstration of the sign.
The tragedy had occurred, and the mother of Jesus instantly turned to Him. Why did she do so? Perhaps you are aware that after the early years of Jesus, His earthly father Joseph is never mentioned. The assumption is that Joseph died early. If that were the case, Jesus as the oldest brother would have become the male leader in the home. Probably Mary had turned to Jesus for help many times.
Reading verse 4 in most English translations, one might conclude that Jesus was inconsiderate and even rude in His response to His mother’s request. “Woman” does not carry in the English language the complimentary or respectful connotations in direct address that it did in the first century. You could almost translate this word “Lady.” The New International Version does a better job by translating it “Dear Woman.” It is the same word Jesus used when He was on the cross speaking to Mary and John. When He said to her with words of love and care, “Woman, behold thy Son.” It was a term of endearment and respect. It was not disrepectful or curt for Jesus to say, “Woman, what do I have to do with you?”
“What do I have to do with you?” Sounds as if Jesus said, “Get out of the way. You don’t know what you are talking about. I’m the one in charge around here.” Again it sounds rude and disrespectful. But there is nothing of that in what Jesus said.
Jesus had lived at home and loved His mother as a good son would love his good mother. Yet, as the Son of God He knew that the heart of Mary was anxious in this embarrassing situation and she was thinking that it was an opportunity for Jesus to show who He is. Yet Jesus says, “Mother, you don’t understand exactly what you are expecting. I know what is happening and I know the hour when I will manifest My glory (on the cross) and it has not yet come. You may be a little over-anxious right now. Mother, don’t worry. Just leave everything to Me and I’ll take care of it.” That is the tone of verse 4 in our modern parlance.
In verse 5 we see her response. She says to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” That is a beautiful insight to the absolute trust and confidence that Mary had in her son Jesus. And we should note for those of you who have friends who pray to Mary or who ask her to intercede on their behalf, in this story Mary turns us away from her and points us to the Lord Jesus. “Whatever He says to do, do it.”
III. The revelation from the sign.
Verse 11 states that Jesus did this in Cana of Galilee and that He “manifested His glory and His disciples believed in Him.” The word “manifested” refers to unveiling or uncovering something that was present all the time but it was hidden from obvious view. The character of Jesus was manifested as a portrait or a sculpture would be unveiled. The fullness of God had always been dwelling in Jesus, but in this event He began to manifest Himself to the eyes of those who have faith to see.
Jesus never went around performing miracles just for the sake of gaining a following. He was not a magician or a miracle man doing razzle-dazzle tricks just to get people to say how wonderful He was. He was revealing something of who He was in performing this sign. What was He revealing? First of all, He was revealing His sanctification of the home and marriage. Jesus was invited to these wedding festivities, and He came. We can also infer from the text that He participated in what was going on. He shared in the joy of this family. Also, He performed His first miracle there, and thereby gave His blessing to the wedding and the marriage that was to follow. Your home can have His blessing as well if the Lord Jesus is invited into your marriage.
Another revelation from this sign is the demonstration of His ability to meet not only desperate need but also daily need. This is the first of the signs of Jesus. Does He raise someone from the dead? Does He go down to Jerusalem where all the religious establishment was and where everybody who is anybody would know who He was and what He could do? No, that was not the case. He performed His first sign in a little peasant home in an isolated village at a wedding of two people whose names we do not even know.
What you can be assured of is that Jesus is not merely concerned about your desperate and public need. Oh, He is concerned if you have a difficult illness, or you are facing major surgery, or a family member has died, or some tragedy has happened in your life. But He is also concerned about your daily need. He taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In a little Palestinian village He was concerned to prevent embarrassment and enhance the joy of one woman and one man.
Could you hear Him saying to you this morning, “I am interested in you if you are trying to change jobs. I know it is not a life or death issue, but I’m interested nonetheless and I would like to help you. I am interested in the major study you have declared at college, and I would like to lead you. I am interested in preventing embarrassment if there is a decision that you would like to make. If you are starting in a new school next year and you are scared about that, I am interested in that as well. If you are having trouble getting along with someone at work or someone in the family, call on Me and I will help.”
There is another revelation from this miracle, and it is His confirmation of His disciples’ faith. Just a few days earlier, five men had left everything and followed Christ. The result of this experience is that the veil was lifted from the person of Jesus and they were allowed to see part of who He was. After they saw it they could say, “He has power over nature. One substance was changed into another. This man whom we follow is God Himself in human flesh.” To be sure, He was to disclose more of Himself later, and the disciples had not come to the full realization of who He was, but from this sign they received what they needed then and what we need now, and that is faith enough to follow.
What we see in this sign is not just that Jesus can turn water into wine, for I doubt that will ever be a need in my home or yours. But if He can do that, He can make some other changes that need to be made.
In one barber shop debate the conversation turned to religion, and specifically to this even in the life of Jesus as He changed the water into wine. An unbeliever spoke up loudly and said, “Surely no one believes Jesus really changed the water into wine?” At first it seemed that no one would answer in defense of Christ or the biblical story. But then a man spoke up and said, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know that I was an alcoholic, spending my family’s money on that instead of what they needed. But not long ago I invited Jesus Christ into my life and asked Him to make me a new person. Jesus has changed an old selfish alcoholic into a man who is concerned about God, his family, and doing what is right more than anything else. If Jesus can do that, I believe He can change water into wine.”
If Jesus can turn the water into wine, He can do whatever is needed to be done in your life. (NAM)
3rd Sunday after Epiphany (C)
January 22, 1995
The Unity of the Body of Christ
(1 Corinthians 12:12-31)
Aesop wrote a fable about four bulls who were great friends. They always kept close to each other so that if any danger was near they faced it together. They grazed together, moved together, and lay down to rest together.
A lion who lived nearby was determined to eat one of the bulls but he could never find one alone. He would be able to kill them one at a time but he was no match for all four of them at once. The lion did not give up easily. He followed the bulls, watching them carefully. When he saw one lagging the least bit behind, he would slink up and whisper to him that the other bulls had been saying unkind things about him. This he did to each bull until all four finally felt uneasy around one another. Each of them thought the other three were plotting against him.
Finally there was no trust at all among them, and each bull went its separate way. Of course that was exactly what the lion wanted. One by one he killed them, and they made him four good meals.
The Bible says that those who belong to Christ belong to one another. They are one body, with individual members. The Bible also says that the church’s “adversary, the devil,’ prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Jesus described the devil as “the thief” who “comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). Like the lion in Aesop’s fable, his strategy is to divide and conquer. The devil knows he is no match for a group of Christians who are unified and who understand that they are the one body of Christ. But he also knows that if he can divide us, one by one he can defeat us. Ultimately and eternally, the church of Jesus Christ will be victorious. But in the meantime the witness and ministry of the church are being disabled to the extent that we are divided.
What is the source of the unity of the body of Christ?
The source of our unity is not the fact that we give to the same budget or that our names are on the roll of the same organization. It does not derive from our race, financial status, or even from our social action,, a few pet doctrines, or our denominational affiliation. Our unity is based on our relatedness to Jesus Christ, the Head of the body.
In 1 Corinthians 12 it is not explicitly stated that Christ is the Head of the body, but it is so stated in Colossians 1:18. Unfortunately, at times certain churches have forgotten that they are one body with one Head. The result has been that those churches were factionalized, with different groups emphasizing their relationship to some other person or principle rather than to Christ. The church at Corinth was such a church.
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul referred to the report he had received about the church. He said. “I’ve heard that there are quarrels among you. Some are saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ others are saying, ‘I’m a Cephas man myself,’ others are saying, ‘I like Apollos the best,’ and still others are saying, ‘We aren’t interested in anyone but Jesus’.” In other words, someone had told Paul that there were factions in the church — little cliques, or parties, with their own favorite leader.
Aren’t you glad that churches don’t have that kind of problem today?! Of course the truth is that we know all too well what that is like. A little group meets in the hallway or telephones each another, planning their little agenda, talking about the leaders they like best. All the while they do not understand that they have lowered their eyes from the Lord Christ in whom we are one and they focus on one part of the body to the exclusion of the rest of the body.
The Source of our unity is the Head of the church, Jesus Christ. And all of God — Father, Son, the Holy Spirit — is involved in establishing and maintaining our oneness.
The illustration comes from the one we read about in 1 Corinthians 12. The illustration is the body. Let’s identify three truths from this illustration that are taught in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere. First of all, the one body undermines our personality conflicts. We have already mentioned that the oneness of the body does not allow for competing factions based on favoring one person over another. Also, the oneness of the body undermines petty squabbles between different members of the body.
Paul illustrated that in two ways. First, he talked about the fact that one member of the body does not consider itself useless just because it is not another member. My feet have never said, “We are worthless down here in these tight shoes. If we were like the hands, we would stay here, but we are sick and tired of being feet, so we are going to move our membership to a body where every member is a hand.” How silly that would be! It just doesn’t happen in the body, and it is not to happen in the body of Christ. You have a function to perform in the body, and the body will be crippled without you. Don’t envy someone else’s position in the body; function to fulfill your ministry.
Another way Paul illustrated how the unity of the body undermines personality conflicts was to say that one member of the body never says to another member, “I don’t need you.” When someone is involved in an accident and loses a hand or foot, other members of the body don’t say, “Boy, I sure am glad he’s gone. He was about to drive me bonkers!” To the contrary, when one part of the body is hurting, the whole body hurts. And so it should be in the body of Christ. No member should ever look down on another member because he or she has different gifts and different ministry. Isn’t it wonderful that this allows for great differences among the members. Think about an eye and a hand. They don’t have much in common, do they? But they are part of the same body, and when one hurts the other one is not happy.
In fact, in the body, differences are not only allowed, they are a necessity. Our ears can’t see, so the body needs the eyes. Shoulders can’t walk, so the body needs the feet. Paul became humorous as he imagines a whole body made up of just one member. He says, “If they were all one member, where would the body be?” (12:19). Can you picture a body that was nothing but a bunch of hands connected together? Or, how about a body that was just one big hand? It wouldn’t work, would it? The obvious lesson is that just because we are different doesn’t mean that we are not one. If we will remember that, the illustration of one body will undermine our personality conflicts.
Second, the one way to enter the body undermines our prejudice. Paul wrote in verse 13, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of the Spirit.” In the body of Christ, Paul said that free people were not better than slaves, and Jews were not better than Gentiles. They all came into the body the same way: the Holy Spirit baptized them into the body of Christ when they received God’s Spirit into their bodies.
The same is true for us today. Rich or poor, black or white, tall or short, none of these is important in the body. We all got here the same way — by confessing that we were nothing and undeserving of a relationship to God but we were reaching out to receive the gift of Jesus and eternal life that God offered. If you haven’t done that, you are not of us; you are not part of the body of Christ. If you have done that, you are one with all others who have come to Christ in the same way.
The one Head of the body undermines our pride. It is possible for a person to become so proud that he thinks he ought to be head or that he really is the head. But the body of Christ has only one Head, and that position is already taken. Christ is the Head of the body, His church.
Because of pride, what we have done can become a source of unity. Some churches give sacrificially to build a new building, renovate an old one, or retire a debt. When their efforts are successful, the members feel a common sense of accomplishment and they are bound together by that feeling. That’s a good and wonderful experience. But if that type of unity becomes a substitute for unity in Christ the Head, then it will always be inadequate. It is not New Testament unity.
When another person becomes a part of the church after a great accomplishment, he or she may be treated as a second-class member because “you weren’t here when we did that.” God’s Word supplies the simple illustration of the church as one body with one Head. If we would just keep that in mind it would undermine our pride of self. And it would undermine our prejudices and personality conflicts until in truth we become one body.
All of our evangelistic methods are good and necessary: mass evangelism, visitation evangelism, and relational evangelism. But none of them are more powerful and electrifying in the world than a unified body of believers who have fellowship with God, the wisdom of God, and love for God. When a church fusses, when they have an argumentative business meeting, when there is a split and the world knows about it, what possible interest could the world have in the gospel of love and peace that we preach but do not experience?
So, the call to every believer and to every committee is to protect the fellowship. As Paul says in Ephesians 4:3, “being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit.” We must make every effort to keep division out and harmony in the church of Christ. (NAM)
4th Sunday after Epiphany (C)
January 29, 1995
The Greatest Christian Grace
(1 Corinthians 13:1-13)
Why do I do what I do religiously? That is sort of an awkward question. Think about it. You are a religious person. You engage in many religious practices. Why do you do them? You go to church. You pray. You read the Bible. You give offerings. You do good things for people. I could go on and on with an enormous list of all the religious practices you carry on. Why do you try to obey the Ten Commandments? I know you. You have high ideals. You work at being a good person.
I am talking to you, a Christian who has been born again by the Holy Spirit of God. Why do you do all the good things you do? I have been asking these questions of myself. Why do I do what I do religiously? Occasionally, we need to sit back and ask ourselves some basic questions. And we need to answer them honestly.
Is it because I was taught to?
Some of us are the beneficiaries of godly home backgrounds. We have parents who taught us the things of the Christian faith. We have learned the teachings of the Scriptures from our childhood. In-gained deeply into our lives is a sense of what is right and what is wrong.
Do I do the things I do out of fear?
A lot of religion is motivated by fear. We can be scared of God. We can know that He is a God of love. We also know that He is a God of judgment. He takes seriously what we do. As a result, we can perform for His benefit. Religious activity may just save us from His wrath. No matter how convinced we are that salvation is by grace, not by works, there lurks beneath the surface this residual terror of the Divine. Are our religous activities a life insurance policy?
Do I do what I do because of guilt?
Guilt motivates many a religious activity. Throbbing in the subconscious is that knowledge that you and I are so blessed we should do something for others. Going to church, making the right religious sounds can ease the guilt.
Do I do what I do for the reward?
There are rewards. In fact, there are pretty big payoffs for doing what is right. You get some of them in this life. You and I can be religious glory hounds. Many a great work has been motivated by reward. Jesus was frequently sickened by the proud religious people. He called them hypocrites. He said they had their reward already, there would be none in heaven. Have you ever fantasized your own martyrdom? Wouldn’t people be impressed if you actually paid for some good deed with your life?
There there is reward in the life to come. A young man was giving his testimony one evening. All he talked about was the fact that Jesus had given him a one-way ticket to heaven. He had the promise of life to come. Is that all there is?
It really boils down to this: What is my main motive for all the good that I do?
That is what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13. He twists himself out of character to make a point. Basically Paul was a zealot. He was a theologian. He was a hard-driving workaholic. He was a man of logic. He was a man of good works. He was a man who concentrated on the importance of faith. Paul had started out his Christian life with bloody hands. His was an instantaneous conversion in which he turned from being persecutor to being persecuted. You would expect Jesus to talk about love. Love would be prominent in the writings of the apostle John who was, after all, a beloved disciple. But Paul? It seems so alien to his temperament.
Why is it that Paul wrote this great love chapter? It is because he was led by the Holy Spirit to check out why you and I do our good works. He is doing some reality testing of our motives. This conceptualizer, who stresses grace, sees how concepts can be corrupted in practice. He is aware that we can be motivated to do the right thing or things for the wrong reasons. That is why he concentrates on love. He abruptly stops in the middle of solid doctrinal teaching to emphasize the importance of having the proper motivation.
What he is doing is pausing briefly as he underlines the importance of spiritual gifts to remind us that the gift is not an end in itself. He is reminding us that there is a difference between spiritual gifts and the fruits of the Spirit of God. The gifts are for this age. The “charismata” are transitory in nature. None of us has all of them. Those which we have we do not have forever. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are different. All of them are available to each of us. And they are qualities that endure. They are not gifts given to us. They are qualities that grow in our lives.
In 1 Corinthians 13 he singles out one of these spiritual fruits, noting its primary importance as a motivator of all our Christian conduct. The motivator is love. It was that quality which marked the life of Jesus as being different from status quo, religious living. It was what troubled the Pharisees and scribes who couldn’t understand Jesus having a friendly relationship with sinners, actually going into their homes and eating with them. They tried to discredit Him. After all, why should a religious person waste his or her time on bad people?
Love is what undergirded all of the life and ministry of Jesus. That is what He was trying to illustrate in His parables as He talked about the shepherd who went out of his way to find the lost sheep, a woman who sought diligently for a lost coin, the father who waited and waited for a lost prodigal son to come home.
Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels ….” There is a place in the church for people gifted in communication. Thank God for eloquent communicators of His Word. Thank God if you are a good speaker. Thank God if you have the gift of learning human languages. Speech is important.
He continues, “If I have the gift of prophecy ….” Prophecy refers to the proclamation of God’s Word. God blesses certain individuals with the capacity to proclaim His Word. Study the Scriptures and you will see that there are two kinds of prophecy. One is “foretelling.” This is predictive prophecy. An individual is gifted by God with the capacity to see into the future. The Old Testament prophets had this ability.
However, a much more common gift is “forthtelling.” We need an increasing emphasis on prophetic utterances. We live in a day in which people need to hear the Word of the Lord. The Scriptures must be preached. Lives must be changed. Some have these prophetic powers.
He continues, “… and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge ….” Some have special insights into spiritual secrets. They are students of the Word. The Holy Spirit opens to them a depth of spiritual knowledge not as readily available to others. They seem to understand more than some of us who are neither quite as intelligent nor spiritually tuned. If you have all knowledge, you are a person to whom no matter is too deep. You are a gifted person.
Paul goes on to isolate another special gift. He writes, “… and if I have faith that can move mountains ….” There is a gift of faith. Paul is not referring here to salvation faith. He is talking about those individuals who seem to have the special ability to trust God. Abraham was singled out as one who had such faith.
Do you catch what Paul is doing here? He is listing what any one of us would single out as one of the highest religious accomplishments. Then he swings right around and demands that you wait a moment. Even if it were possible for you to accomplish all these grand spiritual feats, Paul wants to know why you are doing them. He is checking out your motives.
Paul was not for a moment minimizing the importance of these wonderful spiritual gifts of which he writes in chapters 12 and 14. But he is showing that when love is missing as the motive, the positive action actually becomes, if not a negative, at least only a fraction of the good that it otherwise would be.
Paul states bluntly, “where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears” (13:8-10).
I have come to the realization that I see through a mirror dimly. They made beautiful mirrors in Corinth, but they hadn’t so perfectd the art as to remove distortion. Reflection was not perfect. It was only partial, as is our knowledge. There are absolute truths, but let’s be careful that we are not absolutists. For even the absolutes of God’s revelation to us are known by us in our humanness. Someday we will understand fully what we don’t know. So let us hold our convictions and carry ourselves with a more generative style of living, maturing into men and women who are not quite so brash, not quite so cocky, not quite so self-assured. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (13:12b).
So your spiritual gifts, as wonderful as they are, must be undergirded and energized by agape love if they are to be truly beneficial. It is the love of Christ which is to control us. It is His love which can motivate us. Faith, hope and love abide. But the greatest of these is love.
My father would often urge me to be “uncompromising always, but Christlike ever!” Why do I do what I do religiously? What is my motive for all the good I do? For God’s sake, for your sake, and for my sake, I pray that our motive is love — the greatest Christian grace! (JAH)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Earl C. Davis, Pastor, Trinity Baptist Church, Memphis, TN; Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers (Ml) Church of the Nazarene; Bill Groover, Pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Louisville, KY: Kenneth L. Chafin, retired Pastor, Walnut Street Baptist Church, Louisville, KY: Myron J. Taylor, Pastor, Westwood Hills Christian Church, Los Angeles, CA; N. Allen Moseley, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Durham, NC; and John A. Huffman, Pastor, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA.

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Proper 14 (B)
August 7, 1994
Three Antidotes for Parental Regrets
(2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33)
The story of David’s relationship to his son Absalom is one of the most intense and touching stories in the Old Testament. Few themes in literature evoke more emotion than the gradual disintegration and eventual death of a family relationship. At each stage the reader of the story hopes that something will be done to right wrongs and to heal wounds. In the case of David and Absalom, such reconciliation never occurred.
The story ends with a father full of regrets sobbing over his son, who had been killed in a battle caused by their own failed relationship. But the story begins years before. The roots of dissension in David’s family can be traced to a spring evening in Jerusalem. David was in the king’s palace on this evening, and that is significant. David had won the hearts of the people and had been accepted as king because of his great exploits in the battlefield. He had been a fearless soldier and an outstanding commander. He was a leader of men. Time after time he had led the Israelite army into victory.
But on this particular spring day David sent his troops into battle, delegated the command to Joab, and stayed home in the palace. David was a king now. He must have felt that he had earned the right to be in the palace while others fought his battles for him.
Walking out on the roof of the palace that night, David saw a beautiful woman bathing. The king’s messengers brought her to him, and that night he committed adultery with the woman named Bathsheba. Then David had her husband Uriah killed. Absalom was probably only a boy the night his father committed adultery. Perhaps he did not even know of the adultery and murder. But David knew and God knew, and that was to affect him in both subtle and dramatic ways for the rest of his life.
Absalom had grown to be a young man when another of David’s sons — Amnon — raped Absalom’s sister Tamar despite her pleas that he refrain from that disgraceful act. When Absalom heard of the rape of his sister, he was outraged. For two years he plotted revenge, and then he had Amnon killed.
David had heard of the rape, too. His son had raped his daughter, but he did nothing. Amnon was not disciplined in any way. Then David heard of Absalom’s murder of Amnon — one of his sons had killed another — but again he did nothing. What could he do without being told “Father, I have only done what you yourself have done? You, too, committed sexual sin and murder.” Thus began what became a pattern in David’s relationship to his family: preoccupation with his reign, impurity in his lifestyle, and passivity with his children.
King David was not the first nor the last father to be a success at work and a failure with his family. The daughter of Pete Rose was asked what kind of father this great baseball player had been. She said that he had always been more interested in baseball than his children. She denied that he had ever even loved them, saying that he never was around very much. When Pete was asked to respond to his daughter’s comments, he said, “I don’t know what her problem is. I just bought her a new Mercedes and had it sent to her.” Apparently, “Charlie Hustle” limited his hustle to the baseball diamond.
Preoccupation with work, impure lifestyle, and passivity with his children — those characteristics in fathers were not unique to King David. They can even be found in church on Sunday morning. When they are allowed to infect the home, they are deadly poisons that will lead to bitter regrets on the part of parents and children. But thank God there are antidotes to the poisons of passivity, impurity, and preoccupation.
I. The antidote for passivity is loving discipline.
When his son raped his daughter, David did nothing. The Bible says that he was angry, but he did not act (2 Sam. 13:21). When Absalom killed Amnon, David did not respond. When it came to responding to crises that involved great moral issues, David was passive.
God has given to parents the role of moral and spiritual leadership in the home. One of the ten commandments is “honor your father and mother.” Through Moses, God also told the Israelite adults to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons” (Deut. 6:5-7). The moral and spiritual training of children is the responsibility of parents. That principle is repeated in the New Testament, in Ephesians. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother … And, fathers do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:1-4).
Those verses and others lay God’s foundation stones for a happy, successful home and even for a prosperous society. Parents are to lead their children in the right way, which is to love God and to obey His word. Parents are to teach their children what it means to say “yes” to God and “no” to the world. Whether it is on television or in the neighborhood, when issues of right or wrong are acted out, parents respond by using those situations as opportunities to teach the child.
Did David love Absalom? Apparently he loved him enough to die for him. David said, “Would I had died instead of you” (2 Sam. 18:33). However, David did not adequately express that love in the form of loving discipline. The Lord could have said the same thing about David that He had said about Eli: “His sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not rebuke them” (1 Sam. 3:13). Loving discipline is the antidote for passivity.
II. The antidote for impurity is a godly example.
Often it is the case that an individual rises far above the spiritual example of his or her parents. Someone close to me in the ministry was raised by parents who were both chronic alcoholics. They contributed little to his character development and nothing to his relationship to God; they were drunk a large percentage of the time he was around them. But he met Christ in a revival service in a little Baptist church in my hometown. God called him to vocational Christian service and led him to a wonderful Christian woman to be his wife. He has faithfully served God and preached His Word through the years — but it was despite his parents, not because of them. Thank God for His grace and power; with Christ we do not have to repeat the behavior flaws we have seen modeled in our parents.
On the other hand, it is a reality in our world that many do not access the power of Christ to rise above parental example. Instead, they conform to what they have been exposed to in the home. That was the case with Absalom. In so many ways, he was like his father. Years before, David had been described as having beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance (1 Sam. 16:12). Later, when Absalom was a young man, it was written that “in all Israel no one was as handsome as Absalom” (2 Sam. 14:25). Physically, David and Absalom favored one another. David had become popular and had won the hearts of the people so that they wanted him to be king instead of Saul. Absalom also knew how to win friends and influence people. The Bible says that he “stole away the hearts of the men of Israel” so that they wanted him to be king instead of David. When Absalom was young, David had a man killed; when Absalom was older, he had a man killed. Absalom was, as we say, a chip off the old block.
David was a man who knew and loved God, but he became a man who increasingly lived an impure lifestyle. No doubt this affected his family. In more ways than one, Absalom chose to follow in his father’s footsteps. In Absalom’s death, David reaped the bitter fruit of seeds that had been sown in the home years before.
Values are better caught than taught. Our children see what our real values are by the way we live each day, not by what we say in Sunday schools. The best way I know to rear children who will stand for God against peer pressure is for parents to exemplify a lifestyle based on the Word of God and not on societal standards. The best way I know to rear children who share the gospel and their testimony is for them to see their parents do this. The best way I know to rear a generation of believers who handle their money according to God’s wisdom is for their parents to model godliness in the area of finances.
There were serious impurities in David’s lifestyle, and his son chose to follow his example. A father’s impurity is like a poison in the home, and the antidote for that impurity is a godly example.
III. The antidote for preoccupation is consistent involvement.
The story of David and Absalom is a tragic case of love that was never expressed by consistent involvement. When his sister was raped, Absalom was enraged and heartbroken — but he never talked to his father about his rage or his broken heart.
I suspect the reason Absalom did not express his feelings to his father was that David had never taken the time to develop a close relationship with his son. Absalom never knew that his feelings were welcome to his father. Often the reason young men don’t go to their fathers with a broken heart is because Dad didn’t listen to the hurt when the child went to him with a broken toy. Parents, if you want to be involved in the great decisions of your child’s life, you had better start by being involved in the seemingly small, everyday decisions.
Even after Absalom had had Amnon killed, David did nothing, just as he had done nothing when the rape occurred. Absalom, however, feared that his father would punish him, so he ran away and stayed in another country for three years. The writer of 2 Samuel wrote that “The heart of King David longed to go out to Absalom” (2 Sam. 13:39), but David did nothing to retrieve Absalom or to let him know that he was missed. Joab finally convinced David to bring Absalom back, and he did. However, for two years this father and son lived in the same city without even seeing one another. As far as we know, David never made any effort to heal old wounds. Perhaps it was not too late to mend the broken relationship, but David never tried — the lack of involvement pattern was perpetuated.
So, after two years in Jerusalem without seeing David, Absalom begged the king’s advisor for the opportunity to see his father. He said, “Let me see the king’s face; and if there is iniquity in me, let him put me to death” (2 Sam. 14:32). In other words, Absalom would have preferred to see his father and die rather than to continue to live with the estrangement from his father. Yet Absalom saw his father and the estrangement continued, and he was put to death by his father’s soldiers.
David loved his son but was never involved enough with him to help Absalom or to know what he needed. As far as we can tell, Absalom was kept at arm’s length all his life. Only at Absalom’s death did David cry out the words that his son probably had longed to hear for years: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you — O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Several years ago Ann Landers published a letter entitled “Dad Waited Too Late to Express Love to His Son.” It follows:
“Dear Ann Landers. I was moved to tears by a letter in your column from a mother who asked what age a father and his son should stop exchanging kisses and saying ‘I love you?’ Your reply was one word — ‘never.’ How right you were. A few weeks ago I kissed my son for the first time and told him for the first time I loved him. Unfortunately he did not know it, because he was dead. He had just shot himself. The greatest regret of my life is that I kept my son at arm’s length. I had believed it was un-manly for males to show affection for one another. I treated my son the way my father treated me, and I realize now what a terrible mistake it was. Please tell your male readers who were raised by macho dads that it is cruel to withhold affection from their sons. I will never recover from my ignorance and stupidity. (No name, not city or state).”
Her reply: “Dear Friend, your letter will make a greater impact on those fathers out there than anything I might say. Life is peculiar. It waits until we flunk the course and then teaches us the lesson.”
That last statement is absolutely untrue. You don’t have to wait until you flunk out at being a Daddy, or Mother, or anything God desires for you before you say, “With God’s help, things are going to be different! Loving discipline, a godly example, and consistent involvement will characterize my parental leadership!” If your son or daughter is still alive, it’s not too late to make things right, and if your mom or dad is still alive, you can go and initiate reconciliation. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
One final word — strip away the parental faults of David, and in the scene of this father weeping over his son we have a picture of the father-love of God. David wished to die in the place of his son; what David wished to do, God has done. In spite of our sin, God loves us so much that He came to die on the cross for our sins. If you will reach out to Him now, He will forgive you of sin and make you His child. Don’t put that off either. (NAM)
Proper 15 (B)
August 14, 1994
Power Lunch
(John 6:51-58)
Power lunch. You’ve heard the term, I’m sure. Maybe you have used the term, and especially if you are, or were, that unique form of life known as a “Yuppie.” Maybe you have not only heard of one, and talked of one, but have actually eaten one — a power lunch — the kind of high-protein, low-fat meal that keeps you lean and trim and fit, light on your feet or seat and ready for some kind of action or the other; the kind of lunch that gives you energy enough to conquer, in most cases, the business world.
I’m more into burgers myself, but there is a truth, even in its recent “power lunch” variations, to that old diet dictum, “You are what you eat.” That older, simpler statement always seemed to me self-obvious and immediately verifiable. Eat fatty things, for example, and you become a fatty thing (I know this from experience). Eat a power lunch, as it is nowadays described, and, truth to tell, you gain a certain kind of power.
Just as verifiable is the affirmation that those who eat a Power Lunch as it is biblically described — true food, Jesus calls it — themselves gain a whole other kind of Power.
The synoptic gospels record that, at the Last Supper, Jesus said of the bread, “this is my body,” and of the wine, “this is my blood.” While John’s account does not record the upper room meal after the fashion of the synoptics, these logia are quite close, if revealing of a eucharistic stylizing of those last communal words:
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Jesus here calls on all who would follow Him to eat of Him, to drink Him down. You will remember that this summons takes place within a larger narrative that relates the feeding of the five thousand. With full bellies and expectant minds, people have continued to follow Jesus, if only to see what other morsels He will offer them.
What He offers, after the appetizer, is the main course: a theology course, a discourse on the deeper meaning of the bread they have had. The food He calls them to eat is spiritual food — true food — powerful spiritual food for eternal spiritual power — a real power lunch, in other words.
At an institutional level, Jesus’ words in this passage can be heard as a call to a dispensational observance of the Eucharist. So did the early church both understand and preach this text. But the meaning seems deeper, more mysterious than just that. When we partake of Holy Communion, it is not just a matter of ritual and passive reception, but more a matter of interacting and mystery.
When we take Christ into ourselves, we ourselves enter more deeply into Christ. The body and blood of Jesus become a means whereby we offer our bodies, our lives, completely to His service. Receiving, we also give; giving, we also receive. And when we commune in such a mysterious and powerful way, what is ours is eternal life.
John Wesley was known to partake of Holy Communion more than once a day. He called his followers to a continual observance of the Eucharist, but not passively as a matter of institutional observance. Rather, he called them to feast on Jesus and find themselves empowered.
One of Wesley’s favorite terms for Eucharist was a “converting ordinance.” He could just as easily have called it a “power lunch.” (TRS)
Proper 16 (B)
August 21, 1994
Full Armor for Fierce Battle
(Ephesians 6:10-20)
Asked to define patriotism, Arthur Schlesinger said patriotism is helping your nation to be the very best nation it can be. Patriotism is usually seen in terms of war, of military action. Indeed, the willingness to lay down your life in behalf of your country is an inspiring demonstration of patriotism. But it is also patriotism when a man or woman labors quietly in a classroom for forty years, developing young minds which will enrich this nation. Patriotism is also seen in the efforts to raise the moral level of our society.
To be engaged in combating the forces which would destroy the moral fiber of our society is to do battle with an enemy more threatening than an enemy army equipped with tanks, planes, missiles, and chemical weapons. Wars on the national, military level come and go; but there is a deeper, darker, more sinister war which continues. Every Christian is in ongoing spiritual war against one who wishes to destroy the nation from within — an ongoing spiritual battle fought not in the desert but in the lap of luxury, not with weapons of the latest technology but with spiritual weapons.
In this battle the stakes are even higher than in Desert Storm or Vietnam, or Korea, or WWII; in those wars the outcome could mean loss of democracy, perhaps physical slavery, even death. The battle in which every Christian patriot is daily engaged is a battle in which a nation’s soul, and the souls of her citizens, are at stake.
I. We Are to Be Strong!
“For the time that remains,” says Paul, “be strong!” He is writing to the first generation of Christians, but the admonition is valid whether it is for a generation or for thosands of years — be strong! Yet that’s part of our problem — we get an army and we feel strong; we get loaded with booze and we think we’re strong; we shoot up with drugs and we think we can lick the world. However, the person strong in his own strength is no match for the evil powers which would destroy our society.
“Be strong in the Lord.” That is, be strong in the spiritual life through prayer and devotion, by keeping an up-to-date witness. “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His strength.” Three different Greek words are used here for “power,” but the important thing is that we are to be strong in His strength. The strength of the Lord is seen in the power that created this world, the power of storms, the power of the lightning, and, above all these, in the power that raised a dead man from the grave and gave Him life again in the resurrection of Jesus. Paul says that same power is available in our lives to combat the evil forces against us. Hear this: “even when we are strong, we still face a battle.”
II. We Are to Recognize the Enemy and the Battle.
In verses 11-12 we see a vivid description of the struggle and the enemy we face. Paul is probably being closely guarded, perhaps even chained to a Roman soldier of the Praetorian guard. He says, “Put on the full armor of God,” Avail yourself of all the protection available! What soldier would have gone off to Desert Storm without his or her helmet, or gas mask, or rifle, or even boots? Yet notice that our armor is the armor of God, not of men.
Though it is spiritual armor unseen to the world, it is most effective; “that you may be able to stand,” that you may stand in the battle-line and take part in the struggle “against the wiles [methods] of the devil.” Methods, yes! The devil is cunning, methodical, organized, and powerful. Here we see that our adversary is more devious and cunning and powerful than any Hitler or Stalin or Saddam Hussein. The name for the devil here is diabolou, which means to “throw across.” As if casting a net or a lasso, the devil uses slander and lies.
“Our battle [hand-to-hand struggle] is not against blood and flesh.” The word here for battle means a fierce hand-to-hand struggle; some of you veterans have probably experienced what I think would be a most chilling command: to fix bayonets for hand-to-hand combat — no long distance bombing, this! The battle is not against flesh and blood but against cosmic powers, “governments” and “powers” and “world rulers of this darkness.” These seem to be levels of power in the dark hierarchy. That is to say, we struggle in this spiritual war with the overloards of this dark world, against spiritual hosts of evil.
Paul is saying that governments can be infiltrated and influenced by the devil. A good comparison can be made by thinking of the demons mentioned in the Gospels which attacked individuals; only here we see spiritual forces in the world which attack the structure of society: the home, the family, the church, the community values. And so it is because of these things mentioned in verses 11 and 12 — the methods of the devil, the realization that it is not a flesh and blood fight, and the realization that we face a tremendous network of evil throughout time and space — that we are urged to put on God’s armor and take our place in the battle line.
Verse 13 adds another reason to take up this spiritual armor: “so that you may be able to withstand in the evil time.” The “evil day or time” may refer to the lifelong struggle with the devil, or the judgment day, or the day of especially heavy temptation, or even the day of our death — as it was so often interpreted in the middle ages.
III. We Are to Wear the Armor.
The armor is “another way of describing the power of God.” There are six pieces of armor. The sword is the only aggressive weapon; the other pieces are defensive. These pieces of armor are God’s defensive weapons. At first they were given to only one person on the earth, the Messiah, according to Isaiah 11 and 59; now they are given to every Christian to do battle with the devil.
“Girded about the waist with truth” (v. 14). Roman soldiers wore three belts: the leather apron of the common soldier, the sword-belt which held up the sword, and the special sash denoting that one was an officer. Perhaps Paul refers to the officer’s sash here. The “belt is truth” — the truth that Jesus is Lord; the truth as a mark of the relationship of one Christian with another; the truth always spoken in love; the truth as opposed to the lies of the devil. Without truth, there is no belt on which to hang the sword of God; there is no honorable sash to mark the Christian as an officer of Jesus.
“Having put on the breastplate of righteousness” (v. 14). The righteousness of God protects our heart. Never, ever, go forth to fight the devil on the basis of your own righteousness and goodness. We see, even in the examination of Justice Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, how everything is sifted in order to compromise the candidate’s own righteousness. That is child’s play compared to how the devil will twist your goodness, and slander and use your good intentions if you dare fight him in your own moral strength.
“Having the Gospel of peace bound under your feet for steadfastness (v. 15). Standing on the Gospel, the good news, the firm foundation — with no danger of slipping — the soldier can do battle effectively. “In all of this, take up the shield of faith” (v. 16). The shield Paul speaks of here, seen so often by him, was probably a shield made of wood and layers of leather attached to an iron frame. The shield would be soaked in water before a battle in order to quench the “fiery darts of the evil one.” What is meant here by the burning arrows? Our doubts, our misunderstandings, our temptations — all are missiles hurled at us by the devil.
“Take the helmet of salvation” (v. 17). Here salvation is associated with the head, because full salvation includes the heart and the head wherein lie the emotions, the will, and the intellect.
“The sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God” (v. 17) is the only offensive weapon we Christians have. The Book of Hebrews says the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword. Although we should see this as a reference to the New Testament, in Paul’s thinking this Word of God was not the New Testament as we know it — which was not yet written when Paul wrote this letter. He had in mind God’s Word in the Old Testament promises: God’s Word embodied in the everlasting Yes of God to man through Jesus, God’s Word of conviction in the sinner’s heart, a spiritual sword in the hand of the Holy Spirit, leading us to see our sin and guilt.
Paul sums up this picture of the Christian soldier preparing to do battle by urging vigilance in prayer. In verse 18 Paul uses the word all four times: we ought to engage in “all kinds of prayer’ we ought to pray in “all seasons of life, good or bad”; we ought to pray with “all perseverance and determination”; and we ought to pray for “all the saints.”
Every human being is in the midst of a battlefield. Even when we are strong in the Lord, we need His righteous armor. Remember there is no armor for the back. Would you be a soldier of the cross? We receive this armor only at the cross of Christ. (ECD)
Proper 17 (B)
August 28, 1994
Deaf to Hear; Dumb to Speak
(James 1:17-27)
“Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak …” The gifts of hearing and speech are among the good gifts of God to us as human beings. Helen Keller, when asked whether she would want to see or to hear, said she would choose the gift of hearing. These gifts of hearing and speaking are major keys in our relationships with other people. When relationships go bad between people, a most-often comment is “He did not listen to me.” Parents yell at their children, “Listen to me.” Bosses fire employees who do not listen. Union and management get locked in a strike because one does not listen carefully enough to the other.
Every good gift is a gift from God, and listening and speaking are God’s good gifts, but James says, “make sure you are quick to listen and slow to speak.” The more you listen the more credibility you will have when you speak.
James begins by reminding us that around us there are good gifts. One of the things that marks Christians off from other people is that we believe God has created certain things good. They have been given to us, and the goodness of the gift is not dependent upon whether or not we use it for good or evil, nor is the good or evil of the gift affected by our changing definitions of good or evil. God created the heavens and the earth and God saw that it was good. Creation and life are good gifts of God whether we use them well or ill, and regardless of what we call good or evil.
There are good gifts from God, like the order of creation, which do us good even if we are not conscious of that goodness. There are good gifts of grace and mercy which minister to our lives even when we do not recognize them. Joseph, in the Old Testament, admits that what was done to him was intended for evil but God meant it for good. There is no way of ever knowing how much worse off the world might be if God had not come to us in Jesus Christ. All of us, whether we affirm or deny His coming, are vastly different because of the grace and the power He brought into our lives and into history through Jesus Christ.
But no one gets Jesus’ best gifts unconsciously. The richest and most exciting gifts are given to those who come to Him in wonder and tell Him what they wish He would do with them.
Not all of our enemies are outside of ourselves, and each of us knows our troubles; nobody else may know them, but we know — we know the temptations we face, the habits we have that make us hard to get along with, the limitations we have, and we know the failures that get in our way and inhibit our usefulness. We know what our problems are. We may try to label an impeding problem by some new-fangled name, a name drawn from the vocabulary of modern psychology, it is this or that complex or mechanism or anti-social mode of behavior. Nevertheless, we know it is just another form of the old names: pride, jealousy, lust, greed, laziness, or just plain old selfishness. Usually it comes pretty close to that old term, selfishness. Isn’t that why we are much more eager to speak and to tell our side of the situation, than to listen and to hear your side of the problem?
We may tell ourselves that we were conditioned in this way or that by our parents, or our upbringing, or our schooling, or by circumstances under which we have had to work. We may be honest and admit that giving in to ourselves has allowed something which once was a minor weakness to become a major malady, interfering shockingly with what we might be and do.
Yet here it is — our unfortunate failure — that something about us which compels those who characterize us, after they have said everything complimentary they can think of, to add, “but” and then to detail this limiting and nullifying factor. It is possible we may not realize fully what our besetting difficulty is; we have great powers of self-deception. Yet most of us have revealing moments when we can see that we are a pain to good folks who wish to work with us, and that we are hindered from doing much significant work by this fault.
We have seen so many people who have taken their pain, their sin, their failure, their limitation intentionally and privately to Jesus Christ, and He has enabled them to be more than conquerors. He has restored them to the joy of work; He has renewed their dignity; He has put their past as far as the east is from the west so that they might start anew. The wonderful fact is that Jesus can take our twists and these biases of ours and actually get rid of them. Jesus can touch our broken places and make them well. He can put His grace and love on our blind spots and give old men visions and young women dreams.
While we are blessed by the goodness of some of God’s gifts without being conscious of them, we cannot be fully blessed by the grace of God in Jesus without being conscious about our need and our request. In Mark’s story the deaf and dumb man went to Jesus and asked to be healed. The blind man by the side of the road cried out, “I want to see.” Paul took his thorn in the flesh and asked for it to be removed, and Jesus gave him grace to transform that thorn into a victory not a defeat.
Jesus asks us, even as he asked blind Bartimeus, “What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?” We have to look plainly at ourselves in the light of the kind of human loveliness we see in Jesus Christ — see our prejudice, or envy, or timidity, or temper, or self-centeredness — and ask Him to redeem us, to restore us, to make us whole. When we come to Him and ask Him for His gift of new life, new power, new grace, He can do far more abundantly than we can even imagine. He has done it before: “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.”
The poetic old hymn affirms, “It is no secret what God can do, what He has done for others Hell do for you.” We do not bring unto God the parts of other people we want God to fix. What part of you do you know needs to be redeemed, healed, restored? When we bring that to the grace of God in Jesus, He will astonish beyond measure. (RB)
Proper 18 (B)
September 4, 1994
The Marks of Sensitive Ministry
(Mark 7:24-37)
John Mark used seven verses (vv. 31-37) to capsule what one great scholar thinks was an eight-month journey by Jesus and His disciples. Whatever length of time it took, it was a strange, round-about journey. Bible students have questioned why Jesus would take that round-about route. Why would we not know more about what happened on it, however long it took? Perhaps Jesus wanted quality time with His disciples. After all, He was starting out with twelve men whose backgrounds were fairly nondescript. He was in the process of developing them into twelve persons who would ultimately shape history to its core.
So whatever happened during that fascinating itinerary, let’s look at a brief vignette (vv. 31-37). What theme emerges? It is a kind of summary theme for servant ministry. In this passage we see some specific marks of sensitive ministry.
This text is geared to all of us. It is not only for those who are ordained as elders, deacons, and pastors. It is for everyone who bears the name Christian, for we are called to be in sensitive, servant ministry. My job is that of player-coach, I am no better than you, although I am responsible to help coach you. I, too, am a player, just as you are. I, too, need to be sensitized in my ministry. And you are called to that same sensitivity.
I’d like to focus on five marks of sensitive ministry. Put yourself through this grid of five action verbs all beginning with the letter “C.”
I. Sensitive ministry Comprehends
Jesus demonstrates a comprehension, an understanding of the events in His life. Do you?
Jesus understood the big picture. He knew that the sum total of His earthly ministry would not be His itinerant movement throughout Galilee up into Phoenicia and on around through the cities of the Decapolis. The larger plan involved setting His face steadfast toward Jerusalem, His Holy Week teachings, His betrayal, His crucifixion, His resurrection, His post-resurrection teaching, His ascension into heaven, and His ministries on behalf of all of us at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. That’s the big picture. Part of the preparation of His disciples was this prolonged time with them in His itineration and allowing those daily, divine appointments that serendipitously slip onto the 24-hour desk calendar that don’t appear in advance on the “three-year-at-a-glance” calendar.
Sam Shoemaker, the man who touched the lives of many other persons with great spiritual impact, was not a perfect man. He struggled all of his life, as do you and I, with his besetting sins. He discovered the only way to live creatively was to live one day at a time. He was one of the men who helped write the Alcoholics Anonymous “Twelve Steps.” His wife, Helen Smith Shoemaker, wrote his biography. She titled it I Stand at the Door. That was precisely what Sam Shoemaker did for me. I met him briefly at the Nassau Club in Princeton, New Jersey, in November of 1962. Our conversation lasted less than ten minutes. He had never seen me before. Although we had plans to meet some months later, he died in the interval. But in those ten minutes, what some would call a chance encounter with a 22-year-old graduate student, exhausted by the career indecision, Sam Shoemaker was sensitive in ministry. He stopped. He asked two or three key questions. Then he sketched a strategy that was used by God to tip the scales of my life vocationally from being a full-time Christian in professional politics to being a full-time Christian in professional, ordained pastoral ministry.
Do you comprehend the importance of planning, understanding where you are going with your life? Sam Shoemaker did. He saw the big picture. He tried to model his life after Jesus.
Do you comprehend the importance of making yourself available in the immediate, scrapping your plans temporarily, for something God brings to the fore at any given moment? Sam Shoemaker did, and my life will never be the same.
Sensitive ministry does not define itself in such terms as “winning” and “losing.” Sensitive ministry comprehends the total picture, makes its long-term plans, and is willing to adapt those plans to the immediate needs with one undergirding motivation: that of “faithfulness” to Jesus Christ. Jesus had His itinerary through Tyre, Sidon, through the Decapolis, spending His time with His disciples, but He was ready when some people brought to him a man who was deaf.
II. Sensitive ministry Confronts.
Jesus was willing to confront all kinds of situations. He did not use an avoidance technique. Mark writes, “There some people brought to Him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Him to place His hand on the man” (Mark 7:32). Jesus didn’t respond “That’s not my specialty.” Jesus dealt in a confrontational, straight-forward way, with physical, emotional, spiritual needs, and those strange mixes of all three.
I urge you to think of yourself as a “general practitioner” when it comes to sensitive, servant ministry. Don’t get me wrong on this. I know there is a place for specialization. I am not about to go to one of my buddies who is in the insurance business to have my blood checked for cholesterol. I wouldn’t ask our family doctor to do delicate brain surgery.
What I am trying to say here is not that you and I are capable of handling those highly specialized technical needs of every man and woman with whom we come into contact. But don’t be afraid to confront the initial presentation of need on the part of anyone with whom you come in contact, however general or specific that need is. The facts are that you, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, are equipped to minister to that person in a way that will meet needs at just as deep a level as whatever the specialized need may be — physically, emotionally, or spiritually. You don’t have to have all the answers in any one of those three areas or in whatever mix of dynamics are brought together from all three of those areas. All you need to be is a person available to Jesus Christ and available to the person who entrusts to you their pain. Simply be who you are, a follower of Jesus Christ who loves that person and is willing to pray with that person for Christ’s touch upon his or her life.
Jesus wants us to confront the most difficult of situations.
III. Sensitive ministry Cares.
Do you really care? I ask that question of myself. Obviously I cannot care equally for everyone. But do I really care? Do I allow myself to be exposed, for all of my nerve endings to become open, to a reasonable number of situations where I, to the best of my ability, can feel the pain, the hurt, the struggle of another. Your simple willingness to care can be one of the greatest therapeutic agents toward a person’s healing.
The text shows us that there were some people who brought to Jesus the deaf man. Those people cared. That man never would have been healed if those people had not cared enough to bring him to Jesus. This was the care of a third-party beneficiary. Some people cared enough to being this man to Jesus. Otherwise this man would not have received what was available. You and I are privileged to care in that way. These people prayed. It says here “… they begged Him to place His hand on the man.” If we can’t do anything else for a person, we can care enough to pray.
One of the best ways to care for a person is to pray for that person. Jesus prayed for the deaf man. Mark writes, “He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means, ‘Be opened!’)” (Mark 7:34). Part of this prayer is revealed in the “deep sigh” which signifies a caring spirit.
The caring person is not only willing to pray undergirded by that sensitive sigh, but the caring person is also not willing to exploit. Jesus takes the man aside, sensitive to his embarrassment, and is willing to protect his privacy, even after the man is healed. Mark records that “Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone” (Mark 7:36). There were no big press releases. Beware of ministry done for television cameras. Caring ministry is designed to help persons. It is not designed to exploit persons.
Sensitive, caring ministry pledges itself to maintain confidentiality and quality of relationship. It does not grandstand or use demagoguery. It prays for another with a heart broken by the very things which break the heart of God.
IV. Sensitive ministry Communicates.
Communication takes work. Jesus models here what it is to communicate to another person. In this case, it is a person who is deaf. Jesus used nonverbal communication to get His message across to the man. After taking him aside, where he would not be embarrassed publicly, He put His hands on the man’s ears. That conveyed He knew what the problem was. Then He took spittle which, in the first century, people associated with a curative quality. He touched the man’s tongue with the saliva which conveyed that both his hearing and speech were of concern to the Savior. Then Jesus looked up to heaven to convey that it was from God that the help was to come. Then came the prayerful command, “‘Ephphatha!’ (which means, ‘Be opened!’).” And the man was healed.
Sensitive ministry learns to communicate in ways that people understand. Some of the poorest ministry is done with cliches, not taking the time to understand what comes across to the other person. If you study communication theory, you are familiar with words like “sender” and “receiver.” You run into words such as “coder” and “decoder.” An additional word is added to the mix, the word “static” or “interference.” The whole theme of highly-sophisticated communication studies is that there are various kinds of interferences and static that can get in the way of pure communication. In the case of the deaf man, it was a fact he could not hear. Therefore, Jesus had to act out nonverbally in order to communicate.
Communication takes an understanding heart, willing to make that cross-cultural transference, to listen to the language a person uses, so that when you speak you are speaking their language.
V. Sensitive ministry Continues.
That’s the final word we need to hear. It never ends. We simply keep on comprehending, keep on confronting, keep on caring, keep on communicating. We simply continue.
We can’t do everything. If we do, we simply buy into codependency. Ultimately, we refer to Jesus and keep on referring others to Jesus. Jesus himself kept on in faithful ministry here on earth. How many people did He serve? He is the only one who knows.
My college president, V. Raymond Edman at Wheaton College in Illinois, every year would give a chapel talk in which two phrases he used ultimately became etched in my memory. One was this phrase: “Knees down, chin up.” The other was: “Just keep on keeping on!” You and I are called to servant ministry that comprehends, confronts, cares, communicates, and continues. You and I are called to faithfully keep on keeping on! (JAH)
Proper 19 (B)
September 11, 1994
The Difference in Accents
(Mark 8:27-38)
The title of this sermon is “The Difference in Accents.” I am not talking about the strange sounds I make when I talk; I am not talking about regional or cultural accents of speech. I am talking about the possible differences in understanding that arise due to where you put the accent, the stress, in a sentence. There is this question in today’s story from Mark that is fascinating to me because it becomes so many different questions, depending on where the stress, the accent, is placed.
“But who do you say that I am?” With the stress on “who” the question focuses on identity. Who is this man Jesus? What is His nature? What does He reveal? What is His character? The whole question of the subject’s identity is raised when we stress the “who” part.
But look what happens if you stress the verb say. “But who do you say that I am?” We would immediately respond, “Well, you can’t prove it. It is just your opinion. You just say that to get your way. If we stress the verb “say” we are immediately caught in the great debate as to the nature of faith and witness. What we do has little meaning until we say what we are attempting to accomplish, but what we say is questioned until we see some action. Do you just say that, or do you really know that for a fact?
In the emphasis on the verb “say” there is the whole problem of the difference between perception and what I say about something, and reality and how it really is. The color-blind person says the room is grey, but it is really green. The question Jesus asks — “but who do you say that I am” — changes with the accent.
I did not know her. She sounded like a young woman and she was crying when I answered the phone. I never found out why she had called our church. Maybe she started down the yellow pages looking for any church phone which would answer. She asked simply to speak to the minister. I answered that she had reached him. She told me she was in desperate need of help, that she was in the middle of a spiritual crisis. So we started to talk.
The young woman had been raised in the Roman Catholic church and early in life had been a religious seeker. She said she remembered even as a young girl having lots of questions, but she was not much encouraged to explore the answers. As she got a little older she left her Catholic community of faith and went to some other congregations. She went to the emotionally-charged Assembly of God church and there was told what was the truth. As she had grown up in the Roman Catholic church, there she had been told many things as absolute truths: this is the way it is; outside of these rules there is damnation; within these structures there is salvation. Yet at the Assembly of God she was being told — with the same intensity, with the same conviction, with the same absolute assurance of truth — things that were contrary to what she had been told before. She was confused.
In addition, there was all of this excitement and publicity given to the New Age material of Shirley McLaine. Now she was being told that we were God, or that God was inside each of us; she was being told that we are the life-force that goes on and on amid reincarnations. She was fascinated and attracted, and more confused.
For the past three years she had been going to a reader, a psychic who read her future. This reader had made a major impression on the young woman because the psychic had “read” a couple of things right. Now the psychic was telling the young woman that her relationship with her boy friend would not last. Though they had been dating and engaged for a couple of years, it would be two more years before he got out of school and they could get married. The young woman was depressed and troubled.
Why should she keep dating the young man if he was going to dump her in two years like the psychic said? She loved the young man and wanted to marry him, but she might as well call their marriage off if it wasn’t going to last. The psychic’s prediction was creating all kinds of trouble between her and her boy friend. She was so confused and upset. It was almost more than she could take, she told me.
At that point, Jesus’ question — “but who do you say that I am” — came floating to my mind, and the accent was on the you.
Our Christian faith is quite clear that at some point each of us has to “say” what we believe. Each of us has to decide “who” Jesus is and live and love, trust and hope, by that decision. Moreover, Jesus Christ is Lord of the Conscience of each of us, so each of us has to answer the question, “but who do you say that I am?” The young woman had been told by all kinds of people with all kinds of different theologies what they believed, but she had not yet decided who she thought Jesus was.
If Jesus is the one in whom we say we see the full love and power of the Holy One, if we say we see in Jesus the nature and purpose of God for creation, if we say we see in Jesus the direction and the intention of life; then we can live knowing that not even the power of death can destroy our dreams and our love. Then we can live knowing that loving and caring and sharing are pathways to our joy and peace, even while knowing that no love between human beings is perfect or may last forever. She had heard “who” Jesus is from lots of different groups. She had heard whom they “say” he is, but like the early disciples the question she now needed to face was: “but who do you say that I am?”
Martin Luther did not worry about demons and devils all around him — even though he believed in them — because he was convinced that in Jesus Christ he had seen the power and might of God, and that the power and love of God was on his side. The Christian faith preaches for decisions, for responses, not to tally up the score, but to bring to those who are troubled the peace of living in the faith. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we have seen that God is on the side of creation, that God is for humanity, that God made us and still loves us enough to care and redeem us.
With different accents, we find different questions. Sometimes the question we most need to be asked is the one that requires our answer: “Who do you say that I am?” (RB)
Proper 20 (B)
September 18, 1994
God’s Concept of a Good Woman
(Proverbs 31:10-31)
I don’t know of any topic that stirs greater controversy than an endeavor to define womanhood. The generation that has struggled most with this topic is my generation, men and women who now are between the ages of forty and sixty years old. Our parents’ generation had a more traditional understanding of the roles of women. The younger generation was raised with expectations and opportunities of a quite different nature. Those of us in this transitional generation have had to feel our way along, realizing that many of us married with one set of values and expectations, only to find the ground rules shifted right in the middle of our child-rearing and adult lives. For some of us, this transitional period has not been easy.
I do not, for a moment, imply that the older generation had it any easier. Some women found the traditional roles highly confining. Their tentative endeavors to wrestle philosophically, biblically, and theologically with their confinements were not always understood or appreciated. Their confinements included finding themselves locked into marriage commitments in which husbands unilaterally made all the decisions. To question and strike out on their own, in any area other than in child-rearing and homemaking, was perceived as stepping outside of specific God-given rules. Yet, to other women, there was a kind of security involved in the traditional understanding of male and female roles. These women adapted quite readily to this understanding and today find themselves quite puzzled by the struggles of their daughters and daughters-in-law.
At the other end of the spectrum, children of my transitional generation seem to have it easier. Gender roles are not clearly defined. Women have much greater opportunities in business and the professions. However, it’s not as easy as it may appear to be. Many a young woman I have counseled who, on the one hand, was struggling with her desire to be a wife and mother, giving quality time and energy to these responsibilities and, at the same time, was desiring to fulfill her God-given gifts both intellectually and professionally. Young women today are very aware that there are trade-offs, and sometimes those trade-offs involve difficult decisions.
From the standpoint of biblical Christianity, the human rights of both men and women must be championed. I am afraid that for too long women have been put down. Too long, women have been used sexually and then discarded. Too long, women have been treated as slave labor both in the secular market-place and within some family structures. It is about time that we take a good, hard look at what the Bible really says about women.
God’s Word does have some things to say generically about what God dreams for a good woman to be, even as He created a man to be. What we are really talking about is God’s concept of humanity. Let us look at one specific vision the Bible sketches for a woman.
Characteristic One: A good woman is of noble character (v. 10).
God’s Word is describing a first-class human being. That’s what God dreams of every woman being. This vision is not one of a second-class citizen. The woman described here in Proverbs has a built-in worth that goes far beyond the greatest financial fortune one can imagine. She is a person with character. She carries herself with dignity. She does not see herself as an extension of her jewelry, her house, her car, her clothing. She takes these material things seriously but does not find her identity in them. She is worth more than these good things.
She is an eternal human being who temporarily is able to use the things of this world in a way that enhances who she is and who those are who come in contact with her. She refuses to be a commodity, sold on the market to the highest bidder, for she has a self-respect which comes from knowing that she is created in the very image of God. She has come to realize that she is not just an extension of a man, nor is she defined by either who she is or what she owns.
Characteristic Two: A good woman inspires confidence (vv. 11-12).
The woman described in this passage happens to be married. This significant other, called a husband, trusts her. He has confidence in her as a human being. He sees her as someone who is capable of life without him and, therefore, in the process, brings holistic integrity to the relationship.
To be this kind of a woman one does not have to be married. Single or married, she is a person who has integrity and is admired for the fact that her word is her bond. She is not a person who trivializes life. The people who know her are not going to be surprised by a slight-of-hand double cross, by clever manipulation, by exploitive behavior.
Characteristic Three: A good woman is industrious (vv. 13-19).
This comes perhaps as a shock to those who have been indoctrinated with the notion that Christianity calls for a somewhat weak, helpless, dependent woman who is attached to a strong, creative, dominant man. Nothing could be farther from the truth, although I will be the first to admit that at times we have distorted the biblical mandate in favor of a culturally defined woman held in the shackles of male chauvinism.
Proverbs 3:13-19 describes an industrious woman. Decode some of the culturally conditioned allusions given there and you will find the profile of an amazingly liberated woman who has the total freedom of the marketplace. Does this sound like the stereotype you sometimes hear of the Christian woman confined to the home, refused access to the world of business, ideas, and public service? Not for a moment!
You couldn’t ask for a more contemporary woman than our text envisions, could you? Replace the references to an agrarian society with the technological realities of the world in which you and I live, and she is a woman who understands computers. She studies the stock market. She knows real estate. She is physically fit. She is not a mousy little person hidden away from the realities of contemporary existence.
Characteristic Four: A good woman is compassionate (v. 20)
I found that my masculine response to the Los Angeles riots was to sit back and from dual perspectives to soberly reflect on what happened: what were the causes leading up to such catastrophic behavior, and what systemic changes could be enacted to improve the quality of our society? I knew it would take a few days before we would have all the information on what could be done in an action mode to give immediate help to our hurting brothers and sisters. I took great comfort in the fact that ministries we support — such as World Vision, Church World Service, World Impact, and other Presbyterian-supported, local servant ministries — were on the spot, dealing with the immediate problem.
As I sat musing on this complex situation, I was confronted by a number of women coming at me with great emotion and compassion. They urgently asked the question, “What are we doing to help right now?” Women throughout history have been catalysts of change, drawing to the attention of society specific cases of injustice, demanding that help be given to people in need. Thank God for compassionate women who urge us men to get up and get going.
Characteristic Five: A good woman is an encourager (vv. 23, 26-28).
If she is married, this good woman encourages her husband to be all that he can be. Hers is not a competitive relationship with her spouse and with her children. Her children see her as a human being who is genuinely interested in the best of other people. She brings out that higher self in others. As a result, her children and her husband call her blessed.
Characteristic Six: A good woman has strength (v. 25).
I find it fascinating to realize that the woman described here in the Book of Proverbs is not a person dependent upon her husband, her parents, or her children. She has autonomy. She has a good understanding of who she is. She sees life as it is, with all of its complexities. She is aware that in this world there will be trouble and difficulty. She doesn’t shy away from that. In fact, she has developed a sense of humor that has a kind of whimsical, lyrical perspective on life.
Too many of us men and women live in dependency modes. Our lives are enmeshed with our partners, our children, or our parents. We are not prepared for the curve balls that life throws at us. When one of the significant others in our lives messes up and lets us down, we are destroyed. God did not create you and me to be destroyed by the mistakes and the injustices of other persons. He did create us to be in relationships. The healthiest relationships are those that are built between two autonomous human beings who are able to give of themselves to each other — not in neurotic dependency but in healthy interdependency, from positions of humble strength.
Characteristic Seven: A good woman understands beauty (v. 30)
How sad it is to see women or men who are trying desperately to look young. Our society has given great rewards to virile, vital, beautiful people. One of the greatest curses in the world can be to be too beautiful. I have observed an occasional woman who simply doesn’t understand beauty. She receives a lot of attention. She is courted by many men. She finds it difficult to settle down with one man when the flattery of others continues to be so prevalent. She also doesn’t realize that youthful physical beauty has a way of mellowing through the years. In panic, she stresses out in fad diets, make-up routines, and cosmetic surgeries in an elusive quest for the fountain of youth. How sad it is to observe.
In contrast, what a joy it is to see a woman who keeps herself up, looking her best externally while concentrating on those deeper human values of a personal, relational, intellectual, and spiritual nature that brings charm and ripening beauty. She is a joy to behold.
I remember as a young man admiring the wife of one of my father’s dear friends. I told my father how beautiful I thought she was, and this startled him; he couldn’t believe we were talking about the same person. He had never viewed her as particularly beautiful, compared to other women he had known. But I had never really looked analytically at her aging physical appearance. I didn’t need to. I had been attracted by the radiance of her countenance, the kind things she did for people, the sensitive way in which she listened to me and treated me as a human being; as far as I was concerned, I argued then and would still argue today, she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met.
Characteristic Eight: A good woman trusts in the Lord (vv. 30-31).
Godliness marks the life of a good woman. She trusts in the Lord. She has a growing relationship with her Creator. She knows she is not perfect, and she puts her trust in Jesus Christ alone for the meaning, the forgiveness, for the strength to live one day at a time. Her model is not the superficial celebrity who lives one-dimensionally as a sexual object. This woman has life in perspective. She knows where she came from. She knows where she is going. She lives in the present, empowered by the Spirit of God. This woman has commited her life to the Lord. She loves Him and serves Him. Her healthy love spills into the lives of others. (JAH)
Proper 21 (B)
September 25, 1994
Radical Surgery
(Mark 9:42-50)
I wish that Ted Koppel would run for president. Sometimes he seems to make more sense than all of the politicians put together. You know him as the popular moderator of ABC’s “Nightline” program. In a speech at Duke University he said: “We have actually convinced ourselves that slogans will save us. Shoot up if you must, but use a clean needle. Enjoy sex whenever and with whomever you wish, but wear a condom. No! The answer is no. Not because it isn’t cool or smart or because you might end up in jail or dying in an AIDS ward, but because it’s wrong, because we have spent 5,000 years as a race of rational human beings, trying to drag ourselves out of the primeval slime by searching for truth and moral absolutes. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder. It is a howling reproach. What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions.”
Jesus, in our Scripture, is not giving us a tiny tap on the shoulder. He is giving us a howling reproach.
I. This is a very dangerous passage of Scripture.
The danger is that somebody might take it literally. There have been cases of persons whose minds were mentally unbalanced, who literally plucked out an eye or chopped off a hand or foot, believing that they were obeying this biblical injunction of Jesus.
But, of course, Jesus’ words were not intended to be taken literally. Jesus is indulging the Mid-East gift for hyperbole. My observation is that most Christians seem to take figuratively what Jesus meant literally; and what Jesus meant literally they take figuratively. How many times we miss the biblical message by not understanding the difference between the language of prose and the language of poetry. For example, when the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote that his love was “like a red, red rose,” he did not mean she had thorns growing out of her neck. And when Jesus said “I am the door,” (John 10:9) He did not mean He had hinges attached to His shoulders. It is so easy to miss the point of Scripture by approaching it with a wooden literalism.
Surely Jesus did not intend the words of today’s Scripture to be taken literally. What good would it do to cut off a hand or a foot, or pluck out an eye for our offenses? Real sin comes from the heart, as Jesus pointed out so often. Does the thief feel less like stealing if he must use his left hand rather than his right? Does the adulterer find his lust has disappeared if he has lost an eye? I imagine we can get into as much trouble with one foot as we can with two — if we have a mind to get into trouble. The hand or foot or eye is not the real offender; it is what is in the heart.
The analogy of an operating room, where radical surgery must be performed, is a most useful way to illustrate this Scripture. Most of us would accept the notion that the whole body is worth more than an individual part. Should we develop a cancerous tumor on eye, hand, or foot, we are willing to cast aside “the offending member” — with regret, of course — because we operate on the assumption that it is better to live life without the diseased organ than not to live at all. If a troublesome organ hampers our life or threatens our very existence, we eliminate that organ. If a gall bladder or appendix is so badly diseased that it gives us no peace, we cut it out. If a hand or foot is diseased beyond help, we amputate that appendage. We recognize the principle involved: it is better to live life without a diseased organ than not to live at all.
And what is true in the physical realm translates into the spiritual realm. If there is something in our lives — some habit, some action, some attitude — that gets between us and God, we must “cut it out.” In the first church I served, there were two persons who literally were at one another’s throats. If one attended a worship service or a meeting, the other was sure not to attend. Their feud had been going on for some time, and I inherited it when the bishop appointed me to serve the church. Being young and somewhat naive, I visited each of them separately — you couldn’t get them into the same room together! — and said something like this: “Is this thing you’ve had going for these past few years worth losing your soul over?” I guess it had some impact, for they were reconciled, I am happy to say, and later on became good friends. But it was a close call.
Nothing is worth losing one’s soul over. That’s the message of Jesus’ words. These are dangerous words. They can be misunderstood. Jesus took the risk of speaking in such a strong fashion because He knew there is a far more serious danger.
II. There is the danger that we might not take sin seriously.
If sin is serious enough to warrant such strong language about it, then it must be a whole lot more serious and destructive than we have imagined it to be. We don’t have that serious feeling about sin, do we? We are more like the fellow who was telling a friend of his experience of nearly drowning. “As I was going down for the third time,” he said, “all the sins of my past life flashed before my mind.” “What did you do?” asked the friend. “Well,” replied the speaker, “after they rescued me, I jumped in again to see the show for a second time!” Let’s be serious; that doesn’t square with the human experience I know any- thing about. Sin is not fun; sin is hell. Sin is separation from God, from others, and from one’s own best self. Sin is a very serious matter.
The New Testament word for hell is “Gehenna” (in the Valley of Hinnom, just outside the southwest walls of the Old City of Jerusalem). It can be likened to a town dump, a garbage heap. Hell is the place which God has reserved, in His infinite mercy, for those who wish to ignore Him, so they can go right on ignoring Him for all eternity. “The wages of sin is death,” says Paul in Romans 6. Sin may not lead to the physical death of the body, but it will lead to the spiritual death of the soul. Sin is very serious business. It can separate us from God. Sin, like war, is hell. And Christ came to save us from them.
The message of today’s Scripture is: some things are more important than other things in life, and we have to make decisions. We have to get our priorities straight. Every day that we live, the road of life forks right and left and we must choose. If I read this book, I cannot read that other one. If I see this movie, I cannot see that other one. If I marry this spouse, I cannot marry that other one. If I give my time to this cause, I cannot give it to that other one. But our choices may not only be between good and evil, but between better and best; and we have to make our decisions every day. Jesus is saying, when you have to make a choice, choose the more important and choose the best. A rabbi friend put it: “You only live once; but if you do it right, once is enough!”
III. What is the goal for which everything else is to be sacrificed?
Twice Mark says it is “life” and then, at the end of this difficult passage, he says it is “the kingdom of God.” Maybe these are not two different things. It seems that the two are interchangeable in Jesus’ mind. “Life” is only truly “life” when it is lived in the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God? We may take our definition from the Lord’s Prayer. In that prayer two petitions are set beside one another: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jewish writings are often characterized by parallelism — that is, the same thing is said in two different ways. It seems to be so here. “The kingdom of God” is that state in which God’s “will is done on earth as it is in heaven.” Is the kingdom here and now or yet to come? Both. It is here in quality, but not yet in quantity. However, we may enter it here and now. It is the “great treasure” for which any of us ought to be willing to make any sacrifice, give up anything that gets in the way, to enter.
Whenever John Wesley was confronted with a passage of Scripture difficult to interpret, he had a rule: “Compare Scripture with Scripture.” Our Lord gave us a perfect parable to help us understand this difficult passage: the story of a treasure hid in a field. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up, then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt. 13:44). Never mind the ethics of the story, the excitement is Jesus’ point. Jesus is saying that there are some treasures in life worth sacrificing everything to obtain.
Frederick Buechner defines the kingdom of God in this way: “It’s like finding a million dollars in a field, or a jewel worth a king’s ransom. It’s like finding something you hated to lose and thought you’d (never find again — an old keepsake, a stray sheep, a missing child. When the kingdom really comes, it’s as if the thing you lost and thought you’d never find again is you” (Wishful Thinking, Harper and Row, 1973, p. 50).
The kingdom of God is the treasure worth giving all to get. That’s Jesus’ message in these difficult words. Whatever else you may miss in life, don’t miss the kingdom! You may miss out winning the lottery. You may miss out on having fame and fortune and friends. You may miss out in achieving that goal you always wanted. You may miss out on having good health. You may miss out on so much, but you need not miss out on God’s kingdom! It’s yours for the asking. Neglect all else rather than this! We should feel about the kingdom the way a football player feels about the ball: fall on it, hang onto it at all costs to legs, arms, and head. Don’t let go of it!
George Arthur Buttrick said it this way: “Its value is so far beyond all reckoning that at any cost of purchase it is still a gift. The ‘buying’ is indescribable good fortune, the ‘sacrifice’ is joy, the ‘duty’ is sheer exhilaration; for the kingdom has driven irksomeness from the world” (Parables of Jesus, Harper and Brothers, 1928, p. 32).
The disciples “left all and followed” eagerly. Paul yielded up without regret his pride of Pharasaic birth and learning. He said: “… what things were gain to me these I counted loss for Christ …” (Phil. 3:7). Augustine parted with his favorite sins, saying: “… what I feared to be parted from me was now a joy to surrender. For Thou didst cast them forth, and in their place didst enter in Thyself, sweeter than all pleasure” (Confessions, ix, I). For such treasure who would not willingly abandon every lesser good?
E. Stanley Jones was a missionary-evangelist who traveled around the world for many, many years, especially in India, proclaiming the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Stanley Jones lived a life of joy and peace which came from his faith. In the ninth decade of his life he set pen to paper and wrote his autobiography, A Song of Ascents (Abingdon Press, 1968). In his introduction he says, “How did it all happen? I asked myself that question as I sat in a hotel room in Alaska writing. I looked up and saw myself in a looking glass and said to myself, ‘Stanley Jones, you’re a very happy man, aren’t you?’ I replied, ‘Yes, I am.’ And then the vital question: ‘How did you get this way?’ And my reply: ‘I don’t know. It is all a surprise to me, a growing surprise. I walked across a field one day, and I stubbed my toe against the edge of a treasure chest, jutting out of the earth. ‘It’s treasure,’ I cried. Ran off and sold all that I had, including myself, and bought that field; and I’ve been hugging myself ever since that I had sense enough to do it!” Go thou and do likewise. (DBS)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: N. Allen Moseley, Pastor, first Baptist Church, Durham, NC; Thomas R. Steagald, Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Marion, NC: Earl C. Davis, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Memphis, TN: Rick Brand, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Henderson, NC; John A. Huffman, Jr., Minister, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA: and Donald B. Strobe, Professor of New Testament and Homiletics, Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies.

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Proper 5 (B)
June 5, 1994
The One Sin God Can’t Forgive
(Mark 3:20-35)
Without a doubt, this is one of the most unsettling, perplexing, disturbing passages in all of Scripture. In fact, much emotional and spiritual distress is rooted in the various interpretations given to this portion of God’s Word.
The verses unapologetically insist that there is an unforgivable sin. You cannot wish it away or tear it out. Look for yourself: it is there, in red and black.
But what does it really mean? If it really teaches there is an unforgivable sin, does that not contradict everything we believe about grace? Furthermore, what is the sin that is referred to? And most importantly, how do we know if we committed the unforgivable sin?
A whole cadre of vital issues and concerns are raised by these verses. Yet, in order to address them responsibly so as to answer each concern, it is imperative to consider the text and its context as a single unit.
According to Mark, Jesus had gone to the house where He often stayed in Capernaum. Yet the press of the crowds allowed Him no reprieve. In fact, there were so many people making demands upon Him that He could not even find time to eat.
Mark indicates that Jesus’ family became so concerned about Him they determined to go to Capernaum, get Him, and bring Him home (v. 21). They feared that He was so absorbed in His work that He was endangering His health and mind. Some of their friends had already suggested His exuberance was dangerous, perhaps even bordering on insanity (v. 21b).
His enemies, however, were not so concerned and compassionate as His friends. They leveled two malicious charges against Him. “He’s not crazy!” they said, though not in His defense. “It’s quite obvious that He’s possessed by the devil himself!” (vs. 22, 30). Secondly, they claimed that His miracles were being accomplished by the power of the Prince of Demons (v. 22b).
Notice they did not attempt to deny Jesus’ power. They could not refute the miracles He had performed. All they could do was to question the power behind the miracles and, thereby, seek to discredit Him. “It was black magic, pure and simple,” they asserted.
Did you notice that the Scribes did not ask Jesus any question or attempt in any way to understand His powers before they pronounced judgment against Him? Clearly, their minds were already made up before they reached Him. They never even entertained the thought that He might have power over demons because He was the Son of God. As far as they were concerned, there was only one explanation which was really quite simple: He was full of the devil!
Until this time Jesus has attempted to reason with His opposition. Now, His tone abruptly changed. In His response, which is remarkable both for its intellectual depth and spiritual perception, Jesus solemnly warned the Scribes. “You do not even believe your own argument,” He said. “You know as well as I do how absurd it is!” (vv. 23-27).
Why would the Prince of Demons cast out demons? Such a course of action would be self-defeating. Obviously, the opposite conclusion is required: only a power greater than Satan’s could divide the kingdom of Satan.
Far from being proof of Satan’s dominion, instead the miracles of Jesus were prophecies of Satan’s certain doom! Already the devil’s realm was being broken down and a glorious kingdom, which in reality had existed for eons, was arising! Thus the power behind Jesus’ ministry was the spirit of God Himself. The Scribes had resisted that same spirit and declared that Jesus was possessed by the devil. In doing so, they not only rejected Jesus but God Himself.
Perhaps it was in thinking back on this experience of his Lord that the apostle Paul was moved by the Holy Spirit to write to the Corinthians: “… I want you to understand that no one speaking about the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
This explanation should clear the way for an understanding of this teaching about the unforgivable sin. Clearly, resistance to the Holy Spirit is the unforgivable sin. In no way does the teaching represent a statement of God’s refusal or inability to forgive. Instead, it sets forth the consequence of a person’s utter disregard for the witness of the Holy Spirit in their life.
Think of it this way. The Scribes did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and Lord. If they continued to resist the prompting of the Holy Spirit, they would thereby seal their own eternal doom. The same is true today. The Holy Spirit is actively seeking to bring all persons to an acknowledgement and acceptance of Jesus as Lord. To make up your mind not to pay any attention to His pleading and warning voice is to close the door on any chance of eternal life.
When viewed against the back-drop of the original setting, Jesus’ strange teaching regarding the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” becomes plain enough. The Scribes were blaspheming against the Holy Spirit by attributing to Satan the miracles which Jesus had worked and denying the power of the Holy Spirit.
Yet Jesus was concerned with far more than the words they had uttered. Their words betrayed an attitude of essential wickedness. Their sin was not due to ignorance; it was one which they had committed deliberately, with full knowledge and understanding. Their souls were so influenced by the power of darkness that their spiritual perception was utterly destroyed. They could no longer discern the difference between righteousness and evil, light and dark, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan. That which was good, they perceived as evil; that which was evil, they accepted as righteousness.
Many persons today are still resisting the power of the Holy Spirit and disregarding His witness in their lives. Some refuse the Spirit’s inspiration to acknowledge and confess their spiritual emptiness. Like the Scribes, they are in danger of sealing their eternal doom. They absolutely refuse to admit their need. Talk with them of sin and separation from God, to them the need for reconciliation and forgiveness is utter nonsense. In word and attitude, there is no pressing need for God. Yet, without confession there is no forgiveness.
Others who may be in danger of disregarding the witness of the Holy Spirit in their lives are those who claim to be Christians but who resist the Lordship of Jesus in their relationships and problems. We are called to love difficult people; to forgive when forgiveness isn’t deserved; to become involved with those who desperately need hope and encouragement. To say “no” when forgiveness is needed, when hope and encouragement and love should be given, is to resist the Holy Spirit.
The first time we say “no” to the Lord is traumatic, usually accompanied by overwhelming guilt and regret. Then it becomes easier. Eventually our whole life becomes closed to an intimate fellowship with God. Prayer becomes routine, then infrequent. Bible study is neglected; dependence on the Lord is inconsistent, then utterly disappears.
On a daily, practical level, we say “no” so often and so long that it becomes impossible for us to say “yes.” We become insensitive to the living presence within us of the Holy Spirit who would help us to mature into Christlikeness. We become too easily satisfied with self, and mediocrity sets in.
The apostle Paul spoke of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in very personal terms: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,” he said (Eph. 4:30). His challenge to the Thessalonians was: “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19). Paul means, “don’t let the fire go out!” In time it will, if it isn’t fueled with a fresh willingness to do the Lord’s will.
That brings us to another group who may be moving dangerously close to the attitude typical of those who commit the unforgivable sin. They are the persons who refuse to claim Jesus as the source of their strength for the challenges of life. They, too, claim to be Christians but depend upon their own self-will and self-determination to handle their failures and inadequacies.
Usually they blame others, or life, or circumstances, for all their difficulties. Or they cover their sins by trying harder to be adequate. Some resort to hard work, overwork, self-improvement schemes, or even the sharp edge of self-criticism or self-condemnation to atone for their failures. To them, anything is better than the honest confession: “Lord, I failed and really made a mess of things. Forgive me and enable me to do your will and be the person you mean for me to be.” Without confession, there can be no forgiveness.
Finally, there is another group of people who could benefit from the warning given by Jesus in this passage. They believe more in the power of Satan than in the power of God. That’s what happened to the Scribes, isn’t it? They were more convinced of Beelzebub’s power than they were perceptive to recognize the power of the Holy Spirit working through Jesus. The resistance to the Holy Spirit created within them an inner vacuum which was filled by Satan’s influence.
By being constantly negative — through twisting the facts, perverting the truth, casting doubts, spreading skepticism, creating suspicion, by being more willing to accept falsehood than truth — we actually become agents of evil, because we resist the good. We become vulnerable to what cripples the plan of God for us. We hurt and weaken others. After a while, we don’t even know that we are working against the Lord. We think we have nothing to confess because we have been lulled by our false sense of self-righteousness.
God doesn’t refuse to forgive even that attitude, but we often refuse the impulse of the Spirit to acknowledge our need and ask for forgiveness.
Someone once said, “the really unforgivable sin is the denial of sin because, by its very nature, there is now nothing to be forgiven.” If there is no recognition of the need for forgiveness, or no desire for forgiveness, there can be no pardon.
John describes the condition in vivid terms: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (1 John 8:10).
No matter how horrible and hideous our sin may have been, there is pardon available for all sins confessed: adultery, dishonesty, murder, irresponsibility. Remember: there was pardon for the prodigal’s wasteful living; pardon for Peter’s triple denial of his Lord; and pardon for Paul’s pre-conversion persecution and murder of the Christians. However, there is no pardon available for those who will not acknowledge their need for forgiveness and confess their sin.
Have you committed the unpardonable sin? If you are now convicted of your own sinfulness and your need to confess your sin, the answer is “no, you have not committed the unpardonable sin.” God’s pardon is available to all those who are aware of their need. However, there is a level of disregard and resistance to the Holy Spirit which makes it impossible for us to ask to be forgiven.
The warning is clear — that our hearts not become so hardened or our attitudes not become so entrenched that Jesus can never be Lord of our lives. In other words, the only unforgivable sin is the unconfessed sin. (GCR)
Proper 6 (B)
June 12, 1994
A Tale of Two Parables
(Mark 4:21-34)
Jesus used common, recognizable pictures and fictional stories to make a point. He took the ordinary and lifted it up beside the truth so the truth could be more easily understood. The parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
Often these stories were communicated at two levels. One was a level that was easy to understand. Jesus would take a profound spiritual truth and highlight it in a picturesque way, simplifying it for the masses. However, there was often that deeper level of meaning in which Jesus took advantage of the intimacy He had with His disciples to share with them deeper levels of truth hidden in the public, parabolic utterance. Secrets of the Kingdom of God, in their ultimate form, are only intelligible to citizens of that Kingdom. It is family talk. That’s why at the end of today’s passage we read these words: (Mark 4:33-34).
With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when He was alone with his own disciples, He explained everything.
Today we view two parables, each being a parable of the Kingdom of God.
First, let’s look at the parable of the growing seed (vv. 26-29). If we were to coin a phrase to describe this, it could be, “Although, in terms of the Kingdom of God, growth is mysterious, one thing we can be sure about is that God is proactive in a quiet, steady process of growing His Kingdom both here on earth and ultimately in heaven.” This parable of the growing seed is mentioned exclusively by Mark. You’ll not find it in Matthew or Luke.
The greatest discouragement to me and many of my colleagues in the ministry is to see people, who accept Jesus Christ as Savior, resist an active life of spiritual growth. We see them in a crisis come to faith in Jesus Christ. When the crisis is over, they are back to life as usual. We see them join the church with great enthusiasm, professing their faith in Jesus Christ. Then, within a few months, they just disappear, never to be seen again. We observe them as they become enthusiastic about the role of our children and youth ministries in the lives of their children, only to see their children raised and leave home. Then these parents sort of back off and return to church with a touch of nostalgia at Christmas and Easter and when their grandchildren are baptized. That’s what is most discouraging. Nothing gets me more discouraged than to see a person with all the resources available for growth in Christ completely refuse to grow.
That’s why Jesus gave this parable, to help me feel a little bit better about my role as pastor. And that’s why Jesus gave this parable to the church as we yearn to see more happen in people’s lives. Right now I can sense the Holy Spirit of God picking me up by the scruff of the neck and shaking me, saying, “Now, John, listen to what you are going to say. If you do, you won’t get so discouraged. You can’t quantify constantly the process of spiritual growth in the lives of individuals and in the life of Christ’s church.”
There are five statements this parable makes about spiritual growth.
Statement one: Growth is indiscernible. Your physical ear cannot hear a seed growing. I have seen children plant seeds and a few days later dig them up because they haven’t seen anything happen. Does the fact that you can’t see or hear mean that nothing is happening?
There are seasons in a person’s life. I remember when we lived in Pittsburgh. Every autumn I would rake away the last of the leaves, give the lawn its final mowing, watch the grass turn brown, the earth freeze, and the snow begin to pile up. December, January and February would come and go. Then, sometime toward the middle or end of March, a fresh, green shaft would shoot out of the previously frozen ground. Then another and another. In a matter of days I would see the colorful crocus and the bright yellow daffodil.
God is at work right now in the lives of those who seem spiritually dormant. I want to dig down and see if anything is happening and uproot them from the membership rolls. God says, “Don’t get discouraged. I am at work.”
Statement two: Growth is inevitable. When you put the seed in the ground it will grow. The apostle Paul refers to this in one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It is Philippians 1:3-6. It reads:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
If you genuinely begin with Jesus Christ, you will end with Jesus Christ. I have stumbled around enough myself to know that my stumbling doesn’t mean that I don’t love the Savior. Nothing is going to stop the Kingdom of God. We Calvinists have the doctrine called the “Perseverance of the Saints.” This doesn’t really mean that we are the ones who persevere. What it really means is the perseverance of the Sovereign God. He is the One who guarantees the inevitability of growth.
Statement three: Growth is incomprehensible. The farmer goes to bed and sleeps. Before he gets up the seed sprouts and grows. The farmer doesn’t know how it grows. God knows how. Although the farmer has worked hard with the planting, the plowing, the cultivating, he isn’t the one who is responsible for the miracle of germination. The farmer could have done all the same work, in fact twice as much, but if he had planted marbles he would see no results.
As hard as we humans work at it we haven’t yet created life. We have a greater and greater understanding of it. Still, ultimately, how life happens, in physical and spiritual nature, goes beyond our human comprehension.
Statement four: Growth is gradual. Jesus says, “All by itself the soil produces grain — first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.” Growth is a process that takes time. Jesus warns against irrational expectations.
Back in 1972 I played in a Pro-Am golf tournament when we opened the new public golf course on Key Biscayne, Florida. My partner was Bob Rosburg. Halfway through the day I asked him to analyze my game. At the time I was an 18 handicap, and I had dreams of getting a lot better by just a comment or two from a great pro. He disabused me of that notion. He said, “You really want to play in the mid- to low-seventies?” I said, “Yes.” He responded, “Alright then, you give me ten months of your life, and I will restructure your swing with daily lessons, after which you’ll hit 200 practice balls five nights a week and play four rounds a week. By ten months from now, I will have you in the mid-seventies. Frankly, though, I don’t think it is worth your effort or the time.”
Some of us want a quick spiritual fix. We want the growth all at once within our lives and the lives of others. It is a long-haul, gradual process. There are no easy steps to Christian maturity any more than one can earn a PhD from Harvard or Stanford in a six-week cram course.
Statement five: Growth is completable. I know that’s not a real word, but it is a fact of life. The day will come when God will reap the harvest. Jesus says, “As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” I have to be frank to admit the growth process is taking longer in me than I would like it to take. Some of that is my fault. If you feel the same way, perhaps some of it is your fault also.
Before we get too down on ourselves, let us remember we have never been promised perfection, self-righteousness, in this life. For those of us who have been redeemed by God’s grace, justified by His atoning work on the cross, we are growing toward wholeness in that growth process of sanctification which will only be ultimately complete in the day of our Lord. It will be complete. But the only completeness we will know in this life is that positional completeness in which we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness based on His activity, not our own.
Second, let’s look briefly at the parable of the mustard seed (vv. 30- 32). If we were to coin a phrase to describe this, it could be, “With God, little is much.”
According to William Barclay there are two pictures which every first-century Palestinian Jew would readily recognize. First is a grain of mustard seed. This proverbially stood for the smallest thing. When Jesus talked about “faith as a grain of mustard seed,” He was talking about “the smallest conceivable amount of faith.” In Palestine this little mustard seed did grow into something very much like a tree. This plant would grow to ten or twelve feet in height. It spread out over a large area.
This brings us to the second picture that was so familar to the first-century Jew. The Old Testament often refers to a great empire as a tree and the tributary nations which are within it are said to be like birds finding shelter within the shadow of its branches. Jesus is saying that a very small seed can grow into something quite large.
I have a little bottle three inches in height, an inch and a half in width, and three-quarters of an inch in depth. It is half-full of mustard seeds. This bottle of seeds was given to me by my grandfather, J. A. Huffman, a biblical scholar and archaeologist, prior to his death in the early 1970s. Grandfather sifted these seeds from the pods of a mustard tree in the garden of the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem in June, 1930. He wrote on the label of this bottle that by laboratory count, when full, there were 180,000 seeds in this little bottle. That’s an astounding fact. It is incomprehensible to me that one of these little seeds can produce a great bush.
Jesus is making three specific statements about the Kingdom of God.
First, He is saying, “Don’t despair a small beginning.” God builds His Kingdom from the very smallest of building blocks, person by person, throughout the centuries of human existence.
Just imagine how shocked His disciples would be today if they were to take a glimpse over the portals of heaven and see the size of Christ’s visible Church in the year of our Lord 1994. Certainly they would be discouraged by some of the negative things they would see. But do you think in their fondest imaginations they would ever dream that their efforts would be passed on, person to person, during almost 2000 years and number, in addition to the millions already in heaven with our Lord, to the tens of millions right now alive on planet earth who declare Jesus Christ to be their Savior and Lord?
Don’t despise small beginnings as you begin your servant ministry. You may be teaching in the Sunday school. You may be making sandwiches for the hungry. You may be involved in intercessory prayer. You may be teaching English in the name of Jesus Christ to a recent immigrant. You may be witnessing to a business colleague, and you think it is falling on deaf ears. Don’t despair small beginnings.
Second, Jesus is saying, “Don’t be fooled by the outward appearance.” This little mustard seed may not look like much. When it sprouts it may not be that impressive. But, ultimately, you will be impressed.
Third, Jesus is saying, “Don’t be surprised by the ultimate conclusion.” Even as a little mustard seed grows into a great bush, expanding, giving a place for birds to nest and shade in the sun-parched land, even so the Kingdom of God is becoming, in this life and will ultimately be in the life beyond, everything God dreams of it being. The joy is that you and I are part of that process.
Jesus Christ is Victor. You and I are part of His Kingdom. The day will come when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. In the meantime, our responsibility is to simply occupy faithfully until He comes again, fulfilling our own particular small role in His Kingdom, knowing that someday, if we simply do what He has asked us to do, He will look us in the eyes and say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into your eternal rest.” (JAH)
Proper 7 (B)
June 19,1994
Jesus Calms the Storm
(Mark 4:35-41)
You and I live in a post-Enlightenment age. Some philosophers and even theologians have found themselves so troubled by miracles mentioned in the Bible that they have tried to “demythologize” them, extracting some spiritual principle or truth while denying factuality of the miraculous.
Those who demythologize Scripture are basically noting that we modern men and women do not live comfortably with the notion of miracles. They do not see Jesus as God. They tend to see Jesus as one of the finest, most-ethical persons to ever walk the face of this earth. Some of them would say that John Mark included some miracle stories, myths, to help illustrate the teachings of Jesus. They take the position that he and his colleagues, Matthew and Luke, did this intentionally.
One commentator stated that we shouldn’t try to take these miracle stories literally. It is the principle, the concept, that counts. That writer is implying that John Mark may have knowingly or unknowingly lied. If we read in the Bible miracle stories that didn’t happen, we are confronting untruth, no matter how true the concept underlying the untruth may be. If John Mark, Luke or Matthew lied about miracles, could they also not have lied about the teachings of Jesus? What about the greatest miracle of all — the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead?
The apostle Paul was much more contemporary than some of us may realize. He understood clearly the seriousness of some first-century objections to the possibility of the resurrection. He states: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 16:17-20).
Let me warn you about our contemporary tendency to take scissors to the Bible to remove those passages which offend our contemporary sensibilities and yet maintain those passages that speak great principles that we think survive the ages. If the Bible is not reliable in part of what it teaches, how are we to trust in the rest of what it teaches? If the miracles of Scripture are taken as figments of the imagination to be demythologized, stripped of their supernatural elements, what is left in terms of a life-changing Gospel? If Jesus Christ never said the things the Bible says He said, and these are only the witness of the early church to what they thought He said or would like Him to have said, why should we waste our time in even studying the Bible? Or take this even a step further: if Jesus Christ was not who He said He was — God in human form — why should we even trust Him as an ethical teacher?
Watch out for persons who call themselves ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who do not believe the teachings of the Bible. Watch out for a person who tries to explain away the supernatural, extracting a principle for living but denying the context in which that principle is articulated. If there is a God who created all there is, this God is the Creator of the natural order. By the very definition of what it takes to create from nothing at all to that which is, this God, therefore, is above nature. If this God has given some degree of freedom of choice to the highest of His creation, humankind, and if this God sees us make mistakes that need correction and really loves us and wants to do something about it, is that not His prerogative? Could not the God of all creation break into His creation in a way that is supernatural?
That’s what the Bible says God did in becoming human in the form of Jesus Christ. And if Jesus Christ is God in human form, this Jesus Christ had the power in the first century, as He walked on the face of this earth, to do the miraculous. You and I better sit up and take notice — He still has that power today!
Jesus had just completed a full day of teaching. He had tried to be sensitive to the needs of each listener to the parables He had expressed. Then He joined His disciples in an intimate setting where He dealt patiently with each of their questions. Evening had come. Tired, drained of physical, emotional and spiritual energy, Jesus sought freedom from the crowd and some solitude for His soul. He asked for the boat that had been put at His command and proposed that He and His disciples sail to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee to get away from the masses.
So we see a tired Jesus setting sail with His disciples across the Sea of Galilee. He had apparently no sooner gotten into the boat but that He settled down in the stern, curled up on a cushion, and fell sound asleep. I get the impression He was almost asleep before His disciples hoisted the sail and began the five-mile trip across the lake. I can picture the scene right now as they moved slowly across the calm sea, as the shadows lengthened, and darkness closed in. Suddenly, Matthew tells us, “without warning” (Matt. 8:24), they were blasted with a tremendous storm.
The Sea of Galilee is approximately 630 feet below sea level. It is surrounded by mountains gouged with deep ravines. These ravines serve as huge funnels to focus swirling winds down onto the lake. This interaction of the thermal buildup below with the cold air from above produced what Mark describes in the following words: “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped” (Mark 4:3 7). Matthew uses a Greek word that literally means “earthquake” to describe the storm. It was as though the whole lake was being shaken. A tremendous fear rose up within the hearts of the disciples.
These were experienced fishermen. When they were afraid, they had reason to be afraid. There is a difference between imagined fears, phobias that paralyze us, and the real realities of human existence.
I deal every day with men, women and children in impossibly difficult situations. There may be situations in which the greatest thing we have to fear is the fear itself, but in most of the situations I observe, the fears are legitimate. Disaster is pending. The sooner we face it for what it is the better off we will be. Then we can do something about it.
What is that point in your life which terrifies you? Identify it now. Look that fear square in the eyes for what it is. Don’t pretend it isn’t there. If it proves to be a phobia, that’s okay. Some of our fears are neurotic in origin. Some of them are real. Identify them now. In what time remains, let’s deal with the toughest of them. It may be your loss of a job and your inability to find a new one. It may be your addiction to alcohol, drugs or sex. It may be the unfaithfulness of your partner. It may be a terminal illness. It may be the mistakes of your child with all the attendant, tragic consequences.
Let’s take a look at your fears in the context of how the disciples functioned. Their fears were well-founded. But in the midst of those fears, they failed to recognize four facts of life.
First, they failed to recognize the peace of Jesus (Mark 4:37-38).
One of the disciplines of dealing with fear is to know when to be afraid. There is such a thing as the peace of God which is capable of functioning in the midst of the most horrendous circumstances. The apostle Paul describes it in these words: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6-7).
How often I have prayed that prayer in a hospital room, holding the hand of a person deeply troubled. I have sensed the grip relax and a supernatural calm cover over that person in the midst of the most frightening of circumstances.
It’s to the altar of peace that I am forced to retreat many times in life. It is there, at the center of the storm, that I so often find the quiet reassurance of the God of peace whose name is Jesus Christ.
Second, the disciples failed to note the presence of Jesus.
They were so busy fearing the storm that they forgot who was with them in the midst of the storm. It is impossible for me to emphasize this enough. Claim the promises of Scripture that assure you of the presence of God in the most difficult of circumstances.
Third, the disciples failed to note the power of Jesus.
It was one thing to watch Him as He did His miracles and see them touch the lives of other people. It was another thing to existentially trust Him and His power to have viable affect on their lives.
Every so often I have to stop, when I become caught up in fear in the present and the future, to review God’s faithfulness in the past. Forgive me for referring to my recently-gained vantage point of fifty years. To me it is a significant point in life. And it is nothing to be regretted. I am enjoying getting older because I have more to look back on to verify the faithfulness of the Lord.
I periodically need to remind myself of His power and His faithful use of that power, even as I now look head-on into fears that could paralyze me if I allowed them.
How did Jesus handle that pending natural disaster in which the boat was nearly swamped? “He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm” (Mark 4:39). That’s the kind of power Jesus has, power over all nature.
Fourth, the disciples failed to recognize the personality of Jesus.
You and I should be smart enough to know who He is. It was too early for them to fully comprehend it. Mark states, “They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him?” (Mark 4:41).
Don’t let your God be too small. Don’t whittle Jesus down to a mere extension of yourself. Don’t get so buddy-buddy with Him that you lose the grandeur of His personhood. He is the God of all creation. On the other hand, don’t get so awed by Him in that grandeur that you forget the greatest theological statement ever made is simply, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Does my Father know when I am afraid? He certainly does! The reality is not just in the waves but in the One who controls the waves. When you become aware of His peace, presence, power, and personhood, you are able to claim His promises on your behalf.
The Bible is not saying that there will never be trouble, that our lives will be free of difficulty, pain and suffering. The Bible is saying that the God of all creation is sovereign at this very moment. The peace, the presence, the power, the personhood and the promises of Jesus Christ are available to you and me at this very moment. The One who stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee is as alive and operative in your life as you let Him. I am confident that if you look back you could share some stories of His faithfulness to you in times past which validate His present faithfulness in times when you don’t feel it.
Jesus enables you and me to live empowered by Him in this life no matter what our difficulties may be and to maintain that unquenchable trust that life does not end with death; that the Father who made us will care for us beyond the bounds of vision, even as He has cared for us in this earthly world. (JAH)
Proper 8 (B)
June 26, 1994
Hope for Life!
(Mark 5:21-43)
The air hung heavily in the room where Jairus’ daughter was near death. Scripture relates that she was twelve years of age, and Jewish custom determined a girl became a woman at twelve years and a day. This young girl was on the threshold of life at its fullest, but it was about to be crushed. As Jairus sat at the bedside of his little girl, listening to her shallow breathing, he heard the soft sobs and felt the wet tears of his loving wife — sheer hopelessness invaded his heart.
He knew Jesus was close by, but as a ruler of the synagogue he had been warned about this man who dazzled the people with his “hocus-pocus” miracles. Others had told Jairus that no respectable leader would allow Jesus into his synagogue, and to totally ignore Him while he was in the area.
Hopelessness does strange things to a person. It breaks down barriers of prejudice, pride or dignity and thrusts an individual into a state of humiliation.
As Jairus contemplated the situation, he began thinking that maybe the critics of Christ were wrong. Maybe Jesus was not a Jewish magician out to fleece the people. Maybe this Jesus was really a prophet — a healer — sent by God. Why not take advantage of the situation? Quickly he swallowed his pride and ran to Jesus to beg for his daughter’s life, for Jesus was her only hope for life.
Jesus is our only hope for life, and this story demonstrates that Jesus can meet our every need.
I. Jesus is our Help Through Life (v. 24)
Jairus says to Jesus, “My daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so she will be healed and will live” (v. 23, New Century Bible). He was saying, “Help! I need you, Jesus.”
This call for help is not cowardly, but it speaks of desperation. Jesus is the hope and help of the desperate! God’s arm is not short. He will help in times of need.
II. Jesus is our Confidence in Life (v. 24)
Jesus started the journey back to Jairus’ house without delay, bringing an air of confidence which Jairus adopted. He sensed that something positive would happen to his daughter because Jesus was coming.
Norman Vincent Peale said that he always carried a card in his pocket that had four lines on it. It read:
The light of God surrounds me
The love of God enfolds me
The power of God protects me
Wherever I am God is!
Peale carried that card for so many years because it reminded him of a God of love and care. God is the perfect antidote to fear, to worry, to anxiety, to every problem known to humankind. The words were a reminder to him of an all-powerful Being in the universe who loved him and was only a prayer away (The Answer Bible, Dallas: Word Bibles, 1993, p. 23).
III. Jesus is our Power for Life (v. 41-42)
The Lord did not disappoint Jairus. In spite of the hopelessness of the situation, Jesus brought life back from death.
In his commentary on Mark, William Barclay penned, “The great fact of the Christian life is that which looks completely impossible with men is possible with God. That which on merely human grounds is far too good to be true, becomes blessedly true when God is there.”
The conquest of death occurs by the mighty hand of God when it is conquered through Christ the Lord. What “death” do you face today? Loneliness, heartache, disappointment, dysfunctional family, illness, or spiritual apathy can all be turned to God who can bring new life back from the shadow of death. He can bring companionship, change attitudes, transform our hearts as we allow God entrance into the depths of our spirits.
Jesus is our hope for life! (DGK)
Proper 9 (B)
July 3, 1994
Only a Carpenter
(Mark 6:1-8)
William Muehl of Yale Divinity School tells of visiting a fine old ancestral house in Virginia. The aged owner was the last of a distinguished colonial family, and she was proudly showing him through the home. Over the fireplace he noticed an ancient rifle which intrigued him. He asked if he might take it down and examine it.
She replied, “Oh, I am afraid that wouldn’t be safe. You see, it is all loaded and primed to fire. My great-grandfather kept it there in constant readiness against the moment when he might strike a blow for the freedom of the colonies.” Muehl said, “Then he died before the Revolution came?” “No,” she answered, “he lived to a ripe old age and died in 1802, but he never had confidence in George Washington. You see, he knew him as a boy and didn’t believe he could ever lead an army!”
I. Jesus Had the Same Problem
Those who had known Him as a boy could not believe that He could be the Messiah. The story about Jesus’ rejection at the hands of His own townspeople gives us a disturbing reminder that it is perfectly possible to have something standing right there before you, and not recognize it or its importance.
Remember the story of the first casting session of Fred Astaire, and the comment written by the director at the time: “Can’t act; can’t sing; dances a little.” In 1902, the Atlantic Monthly’s poetry editor returned a batch of poems to a 28-year-old poet with a bitter note: “Our magazine has no room for your vigorous verse.” The poet was Robert Frost. In 1905, the University of Bern flunked a PhD dissertation because it was fanciful and irrelevant. The young PhD student who received the bad news was Albert Einstein. In 1894, the rhetoric teacher at Harrow in England wrote on a 16-year-old’s grade card: “A conspicuous lack of success.” The name on the top of the card was that of young Winston Church.” (Parables, Aug. 1986)
There is such a thing as being too close to something to appreciate it. There are people in New York City who have never visited the Statue of Liberty. People come from all around the world to visit Disneyland, yet there are residents in Anaheim, California, who have never gone the few blocks to visit “the happiest place on earth.” There are those in the church who know Jesus the same way that an apartment dweller in New York City may know about a neighbor living in the apartment above, but has never spoken to that neighbor in the twenty-five years they have shared the same roof. One can be too close to something. It may come as a surprise to you, but ministers have a difficult time worshipping. They are too close to the action. They know all of the things which can (and sometimes do) go wrong. They are too close to the trees to experience the forest. So were Jesus’ townspeople.
Rejection by one’s own people is a human experience which evokes sharp emotions: anger, bitterness, disappointment. The consistent witness of the New Testament is that Jesus was rejected by His own people: first His family, then His friends, then His race and nation. John 1:11 says: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” In chapters 9-11 of Romans, Paul wrestles with the thorny problem of Jesus’ rejection by His own people, the Jews. In Mark 6 there is the same theme. But in this passage, Jesus’ own people are not the Jews as a whole but His own friends and relatives, people in His hometown — even His own family. Now His whole hometown takes “offense” at Him. Literally, they “stumbled,” or were “scandalized” — that’s what the Greek word means.
I have a hunch that there is much about Jesus which scandalizes us, too. Unfortunately, most of us put up a good front, and listen to His words in church. But, how often do we think of them after we leave the sanctuary? I am afraid that far too many of us live in not only “split-level homes” but split-level lives. There is Sunday morning, and then there is the rest of the week. There is what we do in church, then what we do at work, at home, or at play. Somehow the two realms never quite connect. As the cynic said, “They’re praising God on Sunday, they’ll forget about it Monday, it’s just a little habit they’ve acquired.” Jesus’ family and friends were too close to the forest to see the trees. They did not recognize Him for who He was.
It might be instructive to couple this Scripture with the one in chapter 3 which suggests that we who claim to be Jesus’ followers are His “brothers and sisters and mother.” We are His family. The question is: do we understand Him any more than they did? Mark’s solemn words ought not to cause us to ask “Why did not Jesus’ own family, own people, listen to Him?” but rather, “Why don’t we? We identify ourselves as His brothers and sisters, together in the family of God called the Church. But do we recognize Him and follow Him any more than they? Jewish philosopher Martin Buber asked: “If Messiah has come, where are Messiah’s people?” That’s a good question.
“Where did this man get all this?” they asked. “Is not this carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him” (6:3). “Is not this Mary’s son?” the townspeople asked. Yes, of course, but He was also the Son of God, and that great mission took precedence over all other family relationships. That is what caused Jesus and His family so much pain. He was more than Mary’s son, and more than “only a carpenter.”
II. “He Could Do No Mighty Work There”
Mark says this about Jesus in His own hometown. Those are blunt words. Too blunt for Matthew, who softens them into “he did not do many mighty works there (Matt. 13:58). But Mark is probably right. Even he shrinks back from such a blanket, sweeping statement, and adds an “except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them” (6:5). It is almost a footnote, no big deal, an after-thought, but I imagine that for the folks who were sick and were healed it was a big deal!
“He could do no mighty works there,” Mark says. Are there things Christ cannot do? Yes, of course. He cannot be other than love. He cannot act out of character. But there are some things Christ cannot or will not do. For instance, He will not force Himself upon us. He calls, but He will not coerce. He called to His own townsfolk, but they refused to listen.
It is possible for us to hear and refuse to listen, also. Sometimes we know everything there is to know about our Christian faith except to experience it for ourselves. We’ve got it all neatly arranged up here in our heads, but it hasn’t gotten deep down into our hearts. A group of secular newspaper religion editors were meeting in a hotel. Some were in the elevator on their way down to dinner. Their badges identified the convention as a “Religious Editors’ Convention.” A man stepped into the elevator swearing and carrying on. When he noticed the badge on his elevator neighbor, he apologized profusely to him. “Don’t worry about it,” said the editor, “I am not religious, I am just a religious editor.”
Some people are like that; they go through life being “religous editors.” They report on what God is up to in everybody’s life but their own. They are “sermon samplers,” wandering from church to church, quick to pick up a grammatical error in a bulletin, more concerned about syntax in a sermon than about sin in society. These are the people with whom Jesus has a hard time, and for whom He can do no mighty work. He wants to do so much for them, and they will let Him do so little. They are “religion editors,” not religion experiencers.
III. “He Marveled Because of Their Unbelief” (6:6)
I marvel at what people do believe today. All sorts of things are coming back into fashion: astrology, ouija boards, tarot cards, lucky talismans. “Forward to the 15th century” seems to be our motto. We believe in all sorts of weird things, from astrology to “channeling.” We are sort of like the high school student who had an astrology book on her coffee table; she was asked whether she believed in astrology. She replied: “I believe in everything a little bit.” That sounds like a lot of us.
A campus chaplain named Chad Walsh wrote a book some years back titled Superstitions of the Irreligious. His message was that simply because people did not attend any particular church, or follow any formal religion, that did not make them less gullible. Many folks have an almost blind faith in science, for instance. Or in progress. Or in “the American way of life.” Or in their political party. And they become very nervous whenever someone challenges their firmly-held faith.
The clear implication of this Gospel record is that if Jesus’ townspeople had believed in Him more, Jesus could have done a lot more with them. That is still true. The spiritual climate of a congregation, its sense of expectancy, its openness to the power of God at work in its midst through the Holy Spirit, will have a great deal to do with just how much Jesus Christ is able to accomplish here and now — through us. Our unbelief does not render God impotent, but it can have a dampening effect.
I have a hunch that God could do a lot more in and through this congregation, if we would let Him do so. But our theme song seems to be: “Take my life and let it be–Period.” Sometimes we appear to be like the church where the pastor listed the hymns and after each one noted whether it was to be sung standing or seated. One of his hymns came out: “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me — seated.” Most of us are quite content to let Jesus pilot us — providing we can remain seated. As long as it doesn’t cost us too much, or inconvenience us too much, then we are quite willing to be His followers, His family. But the minute a cross rears its ugly head, and we are asked to make a sacrifice for our faith, like Jesus’ friends and family of old we become scandalized. Would it not be tragic if the record were to say that Jesus was not able to do a great work here because of our unbelief?
In the old hospital there was a carpenter’s workroom located deep in the bowels of the basement. I know, because that is the route I had to take to find my way through a maze of corridors and eventually to the elevator which would take me to the patient’s floors. One Christmas season I was walking through the basement corridor opposite the carpentry shop and I noticed that someone had tacked up a whimsical little sign on the door. It read simply: “Kiss a Carpenter, $1.00.” I thought: that’s a good idea for a sermon. Little did the comedian who posted the sign know that some years later it would appear in a sermon, but here it is. Does that not sum up the message of Mark, the message of the Gospel? We are all invited to “Kiss a Carpenter” — one carpenter in particular: Jesus of Nazareth.
In a sense, that is what we do every time we commune. We embrace Christ, and He embraces us. “Only a Carpenter”? No, Jesus is much more than that. But He wasn’t a bad carpenter. After all, He made a Communion table which has lasted for nearly two thousand years! (DBS)
Proper 10 (B)
July 10, 1994
A Prison of Fear
(Mark 6:14-29)
When we read this passage our focus is drawn to John the Baptist, the innocent prisoner and victim. But John is not the only prisoner and victim in the story. Herod was a prisoner of fear and a victim of sin — both his own sin and that of his wife. Because of fear and sin, Herod was not free to do what he wanted to do. We can learn about our own prisons, our problems, and the things in life which limit our choices if we look at Herod, the other victim.
I. The Prison of Fear
Herod thought he was free but freedom was an illusion. Several times in the story Herod was unable to do what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to arrest John, but he did “for the sake of Herodias” (Mark 6:17). Herodias wanted John killed, but Herod was afraid of John (vs. 20). Finally, Herod didn’t want to excute John, but was afraid to break his word (v. 26).
Mark tells us Herod actually heard John gladly and did many of the things John called him to do (v. 20). But Herod was afraid to do all John called him to do. Herod had sinned by taking his brother’s wife, and his sin took control of him as one sin led to another. He found himself in a position where fear dictated his every choice.
Herod is not unlike the business-person who tells a client one lie to make a sale. Then the first lie has to be covered by a second, and fear of being found out becomes a prison. You can see in Herod the same dilemma of a teen-age girl who gets pregnant. She is afraid of hurting her parents, afraid of any anger they may feel, and afraid of changing the life plans of her boyfriend. Her fears are as solid as any prison wall and leave only one way out: an abortion she doesn’t want.
Herod is like the woman in an abusive marriage. Because of her sin she thinks she deserves to be beaten. She is afraid of what will happen to her if she divorces her abuser. Her prison is as real as John’s, or Herod’s. I could compare Herod with the racist whose prejudice and hatred have built prison walls that keep out other people — people God created — thus making the freedom of enjoying life with others an impossibility.
The apostle Paul almost sounds like Herod himself when he wrote of his own struggles with sin. “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Rom. 7:19, NKJV). Paul refers to sin as slavery, an analogy comparable with prison. We think we are exercising freedom when we choose to sin, but in reality we are becoming slaves to sin. When I was a teenager, I thought I was proving my freedom when I started smoking, but I only became addicted to cigarettes.
The comparisons are unlimited. The poet was right when he said, “Stone walls do not a prison make, or iron bars a cage.” Fear and sin, compounded and multiplied, can take control of any person’s life.
Having spoken of the prison of fear in general, let me begin to show you the key to freedom.
II. The Key to Freedom
Ironically, Herod had the key to freedom in his hand. He had heard John the Baptist preach repentance of sin. No doubt he had also heard John preach on his other favorite theme, the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is the only place true freedom can be found on earth. Jesus Christ offers the freedom of serving Him. He alone can cut through the chains that bind us and break down the walls that surround us.
The tragedy of this story is that Herod had the key in his hand. He could repent, turn from his sin, ask to be forgiven, and seek after the Kingdom of God. But Herod was afraid.
If today you find yourself unable to make some of the choices you would like to make — choices you know you should make — then perhaps you, too, need a key to get you out of the prison dictating your life. Some of these prisons are rather simple and you can turn to Jesus right now and walk out free. Some of these prisons are rather complex and have been solidly constructed over the years. You may need to meet with me privately. If I cannot help you, I will know someone who can.
Don’t let fear keep you in a prison of fear and sin. Take this step toward freedom in Christ. (BG)
Proper 11 (B)
July 17, 1994
Stormy Weather
(Mark 6:45-52)
This is quite a story. The disciples had returned from their first missionary journey. Jesus had sent them out two by two, and together they had come back worn out. They had been so busy with their coming and going, Mark records, that they didn’t even have time to eat. Jesus, seeing their need, endeavored to sail with them across the Sea of Galilee to a quiet place for solitude and rest. What happened? The crowds, so desirous to feel the healing touch of Jesus, followed on foot after Him and once again crowded around. There were some 5,000 men plus women and children. Jesus treated them with compassion. He gave them words of instruction. And observing their physical hunger needs, He multiplied five little loaves and two little fish.
The apostle John tells us the crowd was so impressed with this miracle that they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). John goes on to tell us that Jesus knew that they were intending to make Him king. This was not His plan. So He sent His disciples ahead by boat to Bethsaida while He dismissed the crowd. He went up on a mountainside to pray. Some Bible scholars feel that Jesus sent the disciples off because they were not prepared to deal with that kind of adultation. He was not going to allow them to confront the temptation of power unprepared. How easily they might have adjusted themselves to a human agenda that would bring about the overthrow of the Roman yoke and an earthly kingdom built on political and military strength.
The disciples had more to learn, as do we. I guess we could say that this story as it unfolds has contemporary significance for you and me as we look at world events in the macrocosm, and personal events in the microcosm. Perhaps the best application of this story to our lives is to show us how we tend to make our problems worse in ways similar to those of the disciples.
Just what did these men do that stormy night to unnecessarily complicate their lives? How are we like them?
First, the disciples thought that Jesus was unaware of their circumstances.
Do you ever think that about Him? Mark records:
When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. (Mark 6:47-48)
Jesus is always aware and watching! Never forget that fact. I know what it is to feel alone. Don’t you? There is a part of me that could very well adapt itself to a secular nihilism. There are those moments when I live unaware of the presence of Jesus. I forget the promises of His Word. I am so lonely. I forget the words of the Psalmist: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps. 139:7-10).
Second, the disciples thought their problems were worse than they were.
Do you ever panic? I do. I have a way of imagining the worst. In fact, as one who worked with Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, I thought I might someday write a book on The Power of Negative Thinking. My thought was this: if one expects the very worst to happen, one ends up being happily surprised. I know people who have emphasized positive or possibility thinking to the point that they are always expecting the best and, as a result, are not prepared for bad things. That would not be a bad approach if there were no God and if Jesus Christ were not available to us. It would be a magnificent defensive posture to protect us against our proclivity toward denial of tough times.
Jesus wasn’t particularly panicked about the disciples’ situation. He saw them straining at the oars, with the heavy winds against them. It states here that in the middle of the night He went out to them, walking on the lake and was “about to pass by them …” Apparently, their situation was not as dangerous as they thought. They had overreacted.
Steve Brown tells a little story about a man who in the middle of the night was walking along the railroad track across a bridge. He had been feeling his way along in the darkness only to suddenly hear a train whistle. In great panic, he crawled over the side of the bridge and, lowering himself down very carefully, held on to the trestle. He remained suspended there in mid-air as the train passed over him. Then he tried to raise himself up, but his arms were too tired. To conserve his strength, he hung there, dangling in space, hundreds of feet from the land below — only to discover, as dawn began to break, that during the time he had been hanging on for dear life his feet were only six inches from the ground.
What do we do? We have a stomach ache, and we think it’s cancer. We become physically hypochondriacal. We lose a job or pending financial opportunity and we expect bankruptcy. A conflict comes into our marriage, and we assume that it will inevitably lead to divorce. A child experiments with alcohol or drugs, and we picture it as an irredeemable disaster for our child and for us. There are times in which we think our problem is worse than it actually is.
Third, the disciples confused their solution with the problem.
Did you catch that when I read the text? They saw Jesus walking on the lake, and “they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.”
What did Jesus say to them? “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
Jesus has been saying that to you and me all through our lives. I understand that there are over 3,000 promises of God’s Word to those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ. I guess I just happen to be a slow learner. I could spend the next two or three hours reading to you passages from God’s Word that give assurance of God’s presence, and yet I often fail to see Him and take Him at His Word.
He tells us that He will never leave us or forsake us. Shouldn’t that give us tremendous encouragement as we endeavor to live lives with all the complicated tensions that mark them here on planet earth? He has told us that He has gone to prepare a place for us with God the Father in heaven. Shouldn’t that take away some of our fear from death. No. I want to fight it. I would rather not take God at His Word. I would rather rig my existence on my terms, not His terms. In the process, I certainly make a mess out of my life.
Over ten years ago, I had a very serious ski accident at Mammoth in the Sierras. Skiing very fast over some moguls, I suddenly came on a burnout with dirt and rocks. I had the option of jumping or of trying to make a quick turn and stop. I chose the latter. I couldn’t pull it off and flipped head over heels, tumbling down the mountain. My left ski released; my right ski didn’t.
I can still picture the mountains, snow, sky, my arms, my legs, torso and one ski in that crazy jumble of photographic pictures. Suddenly, I felt the pressure on my lower right leg and then the snap of the boot-top, compound fracture.
You want to know what the first thought was that came into my mind? It was the text that I had preached on the previous Sunday which was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It was this: “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:5 KJV). My immediate reaction was to recoil from the Scripture passage upon which I had preached with such fervency the previous Sunday. My next reaction was what a phony I would be. So in the shock, the pain, the continual tumbling of that split second in time, in sheer discipline, I prayed, “Thank you, God. I trust you. Do what you want with this.”
It wasn’t easy. During the months that followed, it was difficult — five hospitalizations and a moment with a massive pulmonary embolism in which the whole right lung and a third of the left was nonfunctioning. This brought me close to death. Yet Jesus Christ was there. I look back now and realize that some of the best lessons I have ever learned in my life came during that difficult time. I also was able to accomplish things I couldn’t accomplish before.
The second thought that came through my mind as I tumbled down that mountain was almost the inner voice of God saying, “Now you have the time to finish your doctoral dissertation.” And I did. I preached all but six Sundays during those next seven months, although I was in a toe-to-groin cast. I was limited in my activities and had plenty of time to read, reflect and write.
Fourth, the disciples failed to realize that Jesus had all power and was capable of calming that storm.
Mark records: “then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (vv. 51-52).
It is difficult to understand how these disciples who had seen Jesus perform miracle after miracle after miracle could, in a moment when they were in a personal jam themselves, fail to trust Jesus when they had seen Jesus meet the needs of others who had trusted Him.
How often in the past has Jesus let you down? I don’t want to be naive about this and try to manipulate you into declaring experience of His constancy that does not square with your reality. I know that in a group this size there are some here who are very bitter. You trusted God for that marriage to work, and it didn’t. You trusted God to heal that child, and he or she wasn’t healed. You trusted God to make that business a success, and it didn’t work out that way. I grant you your right to be angry.
At the same time, I ask you in your anger to push the issue all the way. Was it God who let you down? Or is it possible that God was actually quite available to you and very helpful during the difficult time? I am convinced that some of the messes I blamed on God are my responsibility. And I am increasingly aware that some of the times I thought God had failed me, that wasn’t quite the case. He was with me through it all. All things did work together for good, as tough as was my innocent suffering at that time.
When I am really honest with myself, I have to come to the realization that God has never let me down. There have been times that I have let Him down. There have been times that I have taken my eyes off Him.
Mark does not record one aspect to this story that Matthew records. You may want to check it out in Matthew 14:28-31. Peter, when he checked out what he thought was a ghost and found out it was Jesus, wanted a final confirmation. He asked, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus responded, “Come.” Peter was able to walk on the water toward Jesus. Then, suddenly, he became aware of the wind and was afraid. At that moment, he began to sink. What did he do? He took his trust and focus off Jesus and put it back on himself and the impossibility of his circumstances. It was only when, aware of the catastrophe about to happen, he focused again on the Savior, and was rescued.
I could tell you a lot of stories of my own half-century of walking with the Lord. I can describe occasions on which I took my eyes off Him and created some real messes for myself. More significantly, I can describe to you situation after situation when, at the time, I thought I was alone, or that God had neglected me, or that I was left without power. Retrospectively, I can see the steadying hand of the Lord. Even so, my memory does tend to be short. Doesn’t yours? I have to remind myself of the marvelous ways in which God has worked in the past, as I claim His promises for the present and for the future. (JAH)
Proper 12 (B)
July 24, 1994
The Child at the Master’s Feet
(John 6:1-15)
On the basis of the evidence in the New Testament, Christianity at its beginning seems to have been primarily an adult movement. Aside from occasional references to Jesus’ love for children and references in the Book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul to whole families that were converted to Christ, there is little mention of small children or young people.
Very likely this was because Israel was a patriarchy. The important decisions were almost always made by men. When a man became a believer, he and his whole family were baptized and became members of the church. Wives and children’s names were seldom mentioned, especially if the children were under the age of adulthood.
It is remarkable, therefore, that our text today focuses even for a moment on the small lad who surrendered his loaves and fishes to the Master. In the miracle feeding stories in the other Gospels, he is not mentioned at all. But here he is instrumental in providing food for a great crowd of Christ’s followers.
Here was a young fellow who was very deep for his years. He was attracted to the powerful young rabbi who often preached by the Sea of Galilee, where the apostle John’s father was a fisherman. Sometimes the lad would beg off helping his father on the boat in order to walk to wherever Jesus was teaching and to be in the crowd and to hear the wisdom of the Master. Whenever he would go off to do this, his mother would pack him a lunch to carry along, because he sometimes walked for miles and was gone for hours.
On one of these occasions, Jesus decided to feed the crowds, for they had been with him a long time and were hungry. Eager to help his revered teacher, the boy quickly held out his little dinner bag. With a smile on his face, Jesus accepted it. Maybe He said, “Look, see what this youngster has brought us! What a willing spirit he has!” And then Jesus said the blessing and the disciples began to pass out the loaves and fishes. Nobody could describe exactly how it happened, but somehow the food kept multiplying until there was more than enough for everybody.
The other Gospel writers wrote about the feeding miracles as evidences of Christ’s great power. But the Gospel of John sees something else. It sees the power locked up in a youthful imagination — in the mind and heart of this boy who recognized the lordship of Christ and was willing to give him not only his lunch but his entire life.
There is great power in our young people, isn’t there? They are a treasure we must be careful never to squander or neglect. I think about the fine young man in our church in Virginia who became sensitive to the needs of the handicapped and spent his own money and several weekends of his time outfitting our restrooms for handicapped persons near the sanctuary. I read about some young people in a church in Illinois who organized a food pantry for the hungry of their community, and young people in a church in Mississippi who started a drug program in their town to help people who had become addicted and wanted to break the habit.
There is power and promise in young people. Not all young people are roaming the city at night, stealing cars, and getting into trouble. Many of them are among the finest servants Christ has, and they are the church of tomorrow.
Toyohiko Kagawa was only a boy when some Presbyterian missionaries in Japan took him into their home to befriend him. They taught him English and gave him a Bible to read. He read and reread the words of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. He memorized the Sermon on the Mount and other parts of the New Testament. His child’s heart ready to burst with happiness, he cried, “O God, make me like Christ!”
And God did!
At twenty-one, Kagawa moved into an apartment in the slums of Kobe and began caring for the sick and the poor. His experiences there became the foundation for an extensive ministry throughout Japan and the world. At one point, the Japanese government employed Kagawa to direct its efforts at caring for the poor of the great industrial cities. The heart that had fallen in love with Christ was shared with an entire nation!
God must have a special regard for the young and service of the very young.
I am reminded of Willie, the little Mexican-American boy in Thomas Klise’s novel The Last Western. Willie was only four years old when his mother took him to Catholic worship in the little adobe church in his hometown in New Mexico. Willie stared at the crucifix, blackened by incense through the years. “Mama,” he asked, “who is that?” His mother told him to be quiet, there was a service going on; but he kept asking. Finally she said it was “Jesus the Lord.” Willie wanted to know what Jesus was doing. She said He was suffering for the sins of the world.
Later that day, when everybody had left the church, Willie came back. He was dragging a ladder. He put it up against the front of the chancel, next to the crucifix. Then he brought a cup of water and climbed the ladder. He reached toward the Christ-figure’s mouth, which had partly fallen away and left a dingy white hole in the plaster, and poured water into the mouth. Willie’s tender heart could not bear to see the sufferings of Jesus the Lord; he had to do something for Him!
Can you remember what it was like to be very young and to be in love with God, and yet to feel you had nothing to give Him? I can. When I was twelve or thirteen, I began spending a lot of time wandering the fields and creeks where I grew up, thinking about God and trying to love Him with my small heart. I was often frustrated because there was so little I seemed to be able to do for Him. I had almost no money. I didn’t have a very good education. I had no influence of any kind. I wasn’t even an athlete, so that I could bear witness in that way. I was just a poor boy who loved God.
Years later, when I was a pastor and had a lot of influence in the community, and had written a number of books, I was praying about my life and what I should do with it. I tried to empty my mind and then to set it out like a bowl to receive the impressions God’s Spirit wanted me to have. And you know what I heard God say? I heard God say, “I want my little boy back again.”
Not the man who had been a teacher.
Not the man who was pastor of a big church.
Not the man who had friends and influence across the country.
Not the man who had written all those books.
God’s little boy, who had walked the fields and loved Him.
That’s who God really wants in each of us. Not the person of power and prestige. Not the person with a lot of money and influence. The child, with the child’s heart for loving. (JK)
Proper 13 (B)
July 31, 1994
What in the World Should the Church Do?
(Ephesians 4:1-16)
A family began a vacation to a destination that would take several days of driving to reach. On the third day of the trip, the eight-year- old daughter, weary from the travel, asked, “Daddy, when we get to where we are going, will we be there?” That’s not a bad question for any of us to ask. Where do we want to be? And are we presently headed in the right direction to get there?
No single factor so determines the direction and destiny of our lives as the goals that we set for ourselves. What is our destination? Goals are important for families, for individuals, and for the body of Christ. If a person belongs to Christ, then he or she is in the body of Christ, the church. The church is in the world, and the question is, “What in the world should the church do?” What are we here for? What are our goals? And are we doing the things that will lead us to reach those goals?
What is the trail that the church should be following? What in the world should the church do?
The first answer is that the church should receive life and power from Christ.
Before one can give Christ to the world, one must receive Christ. Before Paul wrote in Ephesians 4 about being gifted for ministry, he wrote in Ephesians 2 about being gifted with new life in Christ. He wrote to the Ephesian Christians, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins … but God being rich in mercy … made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (vv. 1, 4-5).
God’s grace is also mentioned in Ephesians 4:7. It is His grace (His giving nature) that allows us to have new life, and it is His grace that affords us His power to minister in His name. If we are to do what we should be doing in the world, we must first let God do in us what He wants to do. If we are to offer to others new life in Christ, then we must first receive that new life.
If you have never opened your heart to Christ and received Him, you need to know that you will never be what you were intended by God to be. You will never do what you should be doing in the world. Receive Christ — His life and His power — and you will be ready to serve Him as you ought.
I believe that there are many people today on the church rolls who have never been born again, and that is the reason they do not serve Christ as they ought to do. The reason the church is not a greater force for evangelism is that it is a field for evangelism. If we are to do in the world what we are intended to do, then first we must receive life and power from Christ. He is the Source of our life and direction.
Second, we must remain obedient to the commission of Christ.
What is His commission, or charge, to His body the church? He commanded us (Matt. 28:19-20), “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” We call those words “the Great Commission.”
Just before He ascended to the Father He told His disciples, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The commission of Jesus to His church is to be witnesses to Him in every part of the earth. In the same way that the Father sent the Son to seek and to save that which was lost, the Son has sent us. And He has sent us to make disciples and to teach them to observe all that He commanded.
In Ephesians 4, it is Paul’s assumption that every member of the body of Christ will be involved in that commission, and that the church will grow thereby. In verse 11 he states that God has given different saints (that’s us) different abilities, or gifts. The purpose of those abilities is in verse 12: “For the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” Some are apostles, some are prophets, some are evangelists, pastors, and teachers in order to train believers to do the ministry of the church, or to be ministers.
You are a minister. You don’t need an ordination certificate; Christ Himself has commissioned you. And God has given to some individuals the gifts necessary to train you to do the work of the ministry.
What in the world should the church do? We are to remain obedient to the commission of Christ. How about you? Are you a serving Christian, sharing the good news of Jesus, or are you a sitting Christian? Have you been obedient to the Great Commission, or is it the Great Omission? If you have not been serving and sharing, you have not been contributing to the church’s purpose for being here. Maybe you started out in the right direction, but somewhere along the way you followed a side road and now you find yourself sitting and watching a mouse hole.
Why is it that more people are not coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? Christians have ceased to see themselves as ministers, thus they do not involve themselves in daily witness. Therefore the Gospel remains within the four walls of the church and within the minds of Christians.
Christ has sent us into the world to make disciples, and He has sent all of us. The result is, as Paul states in Ephesians 4:16: “The whole body … causes the growth of the body.” But someone may say, “I serve on a committee.” That’s wonderful. I serve on them too. But one of the tragedies of the modern church is that we have limited our service for Christ to service for the church organization, when Christ has commissioned us to go to the world where there are people in need of the gospel.
Jesus said, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be My witnesses … to the remotest part of the earth.” God supplies the power that we may do the witnessing in the world. When we go to the gas station and fill our cars with gas, they will run for 250 miles or more on that tank of gas. How ridiculous it would be for someone to drive all of that 250 miles by driving in circles around the gas pumps at the gas station. Yet that is what some Christians do. God gives them the power of the Holy Spirit to go into the world but they limit their service to the church organization.
Sometimes I feel like that Britisher who came to the United States for a visit. He was accustomed to watching the fast-paced, almost non-stop action of rugby, but when he came here someone took him to a football game. Afterward he was asked what he thought about football. He said that he enjoyed it, “But,” he said, “they do seem to schedule an excessive number of committee meetings.”
The church can easily do the same thing. There is nothing wrong with getting in a huddle to plan, but people don’t pay $20 a ticket to watch people stand around in a huddle. They want to see the ball move toward the goal line. And sometimes I think the world thinks about the church, “It’s fine for them to meet together and get in their holy huddle. But when are they going to do something? What is the church supposed to be doing in the world anyway?” We know the answer to that. The question is, “Are we doing it?”
The church, first, is to receive life and power from Christ. Second, we are to remain obedient to the commission of Christ.
Third, we should resist any opposition to the growth of the body of Christ.
In Ephesians 4, Paul wrote about some winds of doctrine and some tricks of men that would undermine the spiritual health of the church. We don’t know the exact nature of the heresies about which Paul was writing. But apparently someone, using some kind of theological sleight of hand, made it seem alright to remain immature in the faith.
To the contrary, Paul wrote that we are to “grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body … causes the growth of the body” (vv. 15-16). The context in Ephesians 4 and other teachings on the church in the New Testament dictate that we interpret “the growth of the body” in two ways. It refers to spiritual growth and numerical growth (as additional people come to know Christ and become members of His body).
We do not know the kind of subtle opposition to that growth that the Christians in Ephesus faced. But it’s not too difficult for us to identify the substitutes for growth that we face. Some people substitute activity for growth. It doesn’t matter where we are going,, just so we are going. An active church is a healthy church. But activity is not the measure of success, or health, for the church. The most active chicken in the chicken yard is the one with its head cut off.
Another subtle substitute for growth is unity. The unity of the church is indispensable. But the question is “Unified for what?” Our unity in the body of Christ is not in order to sit in a circle close to one another so that we can become warm, feel good, and gaze into one another’s eyes. Our unity is like the unity of a team. It is necessary in order for us to work together, not against one another, as we fulfill the commission of Christ for the church.
A third subtle substitute for growth is orthodoxy. Orthodox doctrine is absolutely vital to the ministry and the survival of the church. Furthermore, right belief is the basis for right living. But orthodoxy by itself is not enough. We are called to be world-changers, and that calls for not only right thinking but right direction in ministry.
What will it take for us to feel no attractions toward these subtle substitutes for ministry and witness? It will take nothing less than an all-consuming passion to fulfill Christ’s calling for our lives. Do you have a deep desire to be obedient to the commission of Christ? What do you feel when you think of the many around us without Christ? I’ll tell you what Paul felt when he considered his fellow Jews who did not know Jesus. He wrote in Romans 10:1, “My heart’s desire and my prayer to God and them is for their salvation.”
Sometimes I wish I could drive through the streets of our city without feeling this way about people, but I cannot. I cannot just look at homes as I drive by without wondering whether the people in those homes have life in Christ and will be in Heaven when they die. And I would be the first to say that I am not doing all I can to see them saved, and we are not doing all we can. But that deep burden in my soul, that passion to be obedient to Christ’s commission, drives me to do so much more than I would ever do in the strength of the flesh.
If you pray for that kind of burden, it will drive you to do what in the world the church should be doing — resisting opposition to the growth of the body of Christ in order to remain obedient to the commission of Christ. But in order to do that, one must first receive life and power from Christ. Have you done that? (NAM)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Gary C. Redding, Pastor, First Baptist Church, North Augusta, SC: John A. Huffman, Jr., Minister, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA; Derl G. Keefer, Three Rivers (MI) Church of the Nazarene; Bill Groover, Pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Louisville, KY; Donald B. Strobe, Prof. of NT & Homiletics, Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies; John Killinger, Distinguished Professor of Theology & Culture, Samford University; and N. Allen Moseley, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Durham, NC.

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Easter (B)
April 3, 1994
When Easter Becomes Real
(John 20:1-18)
They were interviewing one of the sweepstakes winners — you know the ones: Ed McMahon sends you a letter, you buy a magazine, and soon the “Prize Patrol” is on your doorstep with a check for $10 million! As she described the experience, she commented, “It still doesn’t seem like it was real!”
Have you ever felt that way about an event? It is so remarkable, perhaps even life-changing, that you just shake your head in wonder. It hardly seems real!
Easter morning was one of those events for Jesus’ followers. The events of Good Friday had crushed their hopes; they were still stunned from the rapid turn of events. The cheers of Palm Sunday had turned to the jeers of the crowd outside Pilate’s tribunal. Their master, teacher and friend had been hung on a cross, died, and buried. Three years of learning and miracles was over.
So when the Easter event began to unfold for them, it was almost too much to comprehend. Several things had to happen before Easter became real in their lives.
Today, Easter can become real for you also. It can be a life-changing experience; you can leave this place a different person than the one who arrived just minutes ago. But some things have to happen to you as well.
I. Easter Becomes Real as We Consider the Empty Tomb
It all began when Mary arrived at the tomb and saw the stone rolled back. Clearly something was wrong — she immediately suspected grave robbers — and she ran to bring Peter and John. As they arrived, they inspected the scene and found the burial clothes laid neatly on the now-empty stone slab where Jesus’ body had been laid just two days before. That was not the procedure grave robbers would have used.
And an amazing thing happened. As John entered the tomb and saw what had happened, he believed (v. 8). Something inside of him “clicked” and he suddenly knew that Jesus was alive! The evidence of the empty tomb convinced John that God had done something unique.
Frank Morrison was an attorney and a skeptic about Christianity. He decided to do a study of the events reported in Scripture so that he might once and for all disprove the resurrection account. But as he pored over the documents and evaluated the evidence, something unexpected happened: he was convinced that Jesus had, indeed, been raised from the dead! Skepticism became faith, and he even wrote a book about his intellectual journey, called, Who Moved the Stone?
When you understand the implication of the empty tomb, Easter can become real for you. But it takes more:
II. Easter Becomes Real as We Encounter Jesus Face to Face
For Mary, there were still more questions than answers. But rather than depart with the disciples, she lingered at the tomb. Sometimes we don’t allow God time to work in our lives; instead, we hurry on. What a difference it made for Mary that she waited at the tomb, for it was there that she encountered Jesus face to face, and thus believed.
The documentary evidence of Christ’s resurrection is overwhelming; it is far more substantiated as a historical event than many other things we accept without question. But Easter must move beyond the evidence of the empty tomb, for Easter only becomes completely real in our lives as we meet Jesus personally.
Have you encountered Jesus face to face? Easter comes alive only through a commitment of our lives to Him as Lord and Savior. And then it takes one more step:
III. Easter Becomes Real as We Share the Good News
The Easter story wasn’t complete for Mary until she had run to the rest of the disciples with the good news: “I have seen the Lord!”
We always tell good news, don’t we. Can you imagine winning the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes and not calling everybody you know with the news! You get a great new job, or you get engaged, or you have a new child — and you tell the world! Good news is for telling.
The news of Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest news of all time, for it assures us of victory over death as we trust in Him. It demonstrates that God really is in Christ, reconciling the world until Himself. It means that you and I can truly have life in all its abundance. That’s good news, and it only achieves its fullest meaning in our lives as we begin to tell others as well.
Let Easter become real in your life today. (JMD)
2nd Sunday of Easter (B)
April 10, 1994
How to Change the World
(Acts 4:32-35)
It’s a remarkable story, isn’t it? As we look at the way a small band of Jesus’ followers began to grow and ultimately shook the entire world with the gospel, we are astounded at the impact they made.
They were not the movers and shakers of their world. For the most part, they were uneducated, common people. Not a corporate president or military general among them, yet within a single generation the name of Christ was being proclaimed throughout the known world. What made it all possible?
This text points to three things that characterized those earliest believers and made the difference in their ability to change the world. As Christ’s followers in the 20th — and soon the 21st — century, those same characteristics will make the difference for us — and has there ever been a time when our world more vitally needed transformation? How do we change our world?
I. Be United in Purpose (v. 32a)
They were “one in heart and mind.” There was a remarkable unity that was evident. They were not constantly fussing over priorities and projects; unity characterized this earliest church.
Do you know what an oxymoron is? It’s a phrase that is inherently contradictory, like “jumbo shrimp.” Some friends of mine in the armed forces insist that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron! You can think of your own list. I think another oxymoron is “church fight.” Can there be anything more contradictory to the nature and purpose of Christ’s church than a fight? When churches fight and fuss, they cease being the church.
Yet unity alone isn’t enough, because we can be unified about the wrong thing. Those earliest believers were united in purpose, and that purpose was serving Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior. His presence and power transformed their unity into an amazing influence on their world.
If we want to change our world, we must unify around that same purpose of living for Christ, serving Him.
II. Be Generous in Possessions (v. 32b, 34-35)
Those early believers had a generosity of spirit that fueled the young church and helped it both reach in and help one another, and reach out to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
Luke tells us that a spirit of sharing characterized these early believers. Rather than cling to material possessions, they willingly shared with one another as their fellow believers had need. Those who had been blessed materially were willing to share out of their own abundance with those who had needs. What a wonderful picture of the church in action!
Ralph W. Beeson was a successful insurance executive in Birmingham, Alabama, who invested heavily in the company he served, then watched that stock grow tremendously. Throughout his life he gave generously to his church and to other Christian causes, and at his death he left virtually his entire estate — more than $100 million — to Christian causes, including more than $50 million each to Asbury Seminary and Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. Asked once about his giving, Beeson said, “God has given me everything I have. My responsibility is to manage it wisely during my lifetime and give it back to Him when I’m gone.” That’s the kind of spirit of generosity that makes a transforming difference in lives and institutions for the cause of Christ.
Are we characterized by a generosity of spirit that shares with others out of our own blessings? Are we willing to give that the gospel can be preached both here and around the world?
III. Be Bold in Proclamation (v. 33)
They were united in their purpose to serve Christ. They were generous in their possessions, giving out of their own abundance to those with needs. And they were bold in proclaiming the good news.
They proclaimed Christ publicly. They preached the resurrection of Christ, the power of God. It was a strong, undiluted message, and it changed lives. Let’s always remember that the church is not called to preach the latest self-help trend or therapeutic ideas, but to proclaim Christ, crucified, resurrected, and reigning.
They also proclaimed Christ personally. Some call it “relationship evangelism,” which is sharing what Christ has done in your life with friends, family members — those with whom you are already in relationship. That was invented in first-century Jerusalem! They willingly and actively shared Jesus with others.
What a difference it will make in changing our community, our area, our world, if we will share the commitment of those first believers in our own day. And what a difference it will make in your life and mine! (JMD)
3rd Sunday of Easter (B)
April 17,1994
The Power of Christ
(Acts 3:12-19)
Peter and John — journeying to the Temple for the three o’clock prayer time — were eyed by a paralytic beggar. Since this was their regularly observed prayer time, the lame man must have often seen their joyous faces and wished he could experience their happiness. His only means of income came from begging for alms. The approaching apostles should be easy prey.
In compassion and with power, Peter told the man they had no money but in the same breath offered him health. Without waiting for a response, Peter spoke the healing words of God. In Christ’s power the man responded with an excited leap of joy. In The Communicator’s Commentary, Lloyd Ogilvie tells us that the Greek word Exallomenos is an ancient medical term for the socketing of the heel and ankle. The process normally would take corrective surgery and months of prolonged, agonizing recuperation, followed by a relearning to walk. This healing took a split second, which reminds us that God’s timing is not ours.
People watching the unfolding of this dramatic occurrence began running toward the trio. Peter, the preacher, does not miss the opportunity to talk about his Lord.
I. The Power of Christ Includes Servanthood (v. 13)
Peter understood that Christ was first of all a servant. Jesus yielded Himself to the will and way of the Father. The apostle knew Old Testament prophecy, for this passage derives directly from Isaiah 52:13, which describes the servant as “sin-bearing servant.”
Christ the servant becomes our role model. Though we cannot bear others’ sin, we can help bear their burdens, cares, pains, hurts, and sufferings.
Calvin Phillips tells the story of a man who dreamed he visited a celestial museum. No crown or scepter was there, no kings, no thrones, and no papal ring. There he found a handful of thorns, a seamless robe, and a cup of cold water. The man asked, “Have you a towel and a basin?” “No,” said the guardian angel, “you see, they are in perpetual use.” The man realized at that moment he was in the Holy City of God.
The basin and towel are the symbols of every Christian — for every Christian is a servant.
II. The Power of Christ Includes Life (v. 15)
Peter calls the Christ, “the Prince of life” (v. 15). Ogilvie writes, “This glorious name is also translated as Author of life, Pioneer of life, and Guide of life. Jesus is the creative power of God, the divine logos, the Word of life.”
When Christ is invited into our lives, He transforms our unfulfilled lifestyle to an accomplished lifestyle.
Schopenhauer, a pessimistic European philosopher of the nineteenth century, was sitting on a park bench at two a.m. one morning with chin in hands and elbows on knees when a policeman came along. The policeman did not recognize the famous philosopher; after a few interrogating questions he asked, “Sir, who are you, and what are you doing here?”
After a moment of silence, Schopenhauer replied, “I wish I knew.”
Millions of people express the same feelings. They aren’t sure who they are or what they are doing. Christ has come to give direction to life and the living out of our lives. Paul wrote, “To live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21).
III. The Power of Christ Includes Redemption (v. 19)
The bottom line reason that Christ came in God’s power was for redemption of all people. His forgiveness, acceptance, and love is what we need. Faith in this wonderful Christ makes us alive, confident, and focused on eternity.
The living Christ heals the inner person, causing that individual to leap for joy. In a split second, by faith, Christ wipes our sins away and makes us new creations.
Have you experienced the redemption Christ offers you? Do it now — why wait? Jesus desires the best for you to instill His power in your life. (DGK)
4th Sunday of Easter (B)
April 24,1994
Witnesses for Christ
(Acts 4:5-12))
Anyone who says it is easy witnessing for Christ is wrong! Most Christians find witnessing a difficult assignment. It is not that they are ashamed of Christ, or do not have the desire to tell the good news of Jesus and the kingdom. There is a real inner motivation to keep friends and loved ones from Hell and to get them to Heaven. But the outer circumstances that challenge witnessing can be overwhelming. A “Hindrance List” could include:
– Inability to express verbal thoughts
– Fear of being laughed at, or mocked
– Inexperience at witnessing
– Terror of being asked theological questions for which they do not know the answer
– Lack of Bible knowledge
– Foggy concept of real witnessing
– Unable to memorize “a plan of salvation”
Witnessing simply means sharing with someone that Jesus loves them, died for them, and has come to forgive them from sin through their dual action of repentance and faith.
Peter and John demonstrate the “naturalness” of witnessing.
I. Our Witness Centers on the Unbelieving Skeptic (v. 5-7)
Peter and John’s task was complicated because of the rudeness of the Sanhedrin, who had thrown the apostles in jail! These men had no love for the disciples or Jesus. However, Peter and John knew they were the very ones for whom Jesus had died on Calvary. John would write, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send Him into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17, NAS). Peter and John spoke with an agape (godly) love to those who had mistreated them.
It is not easy to be laughed at, mocked, or rejected by those with whom we share Jesus. Indifference to the gospel is probably the greatest distraction to Christian witness. That fear sends most Christians into a shell, never to speak a word on the Lord’s behalf. But as Elton Trueblood said, “It is not enough to give a cup of cold water; it is necessary also to tell why.” Peter and John are great examples.
People today — as in past generations — need to know that God loves them. We are the only ones left to witness to them.
Randall Denny wrote, “To build God’s church, we must be available to Him on the streets of humanity! How else shall our world witness the resurrection of Jesus in the hearts of men and women?”
II. Our Witness Is Inspired by the Holy Spirit (v. 8-9)
“Peter and John’s boldness before the Sanhedrin gives us the assurance that we will be given the wisdom, discernment, knowledge, and power to be faithful and obedient in any circumstance or relationship. The anointing of the Holy Spirit will more than match the danger or opportunity.” (Lloyd Ogilvie)
Peter and John used the dynamic of the Spirit to witness to the cynical, skeptical, unbelieving men of the Sanhedrin.
We have the unlimited power and resource that these apostles had — the Holy Spirit. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever!
III. Our Witness Focuses upon Jesus (v. 10-12)
A story related by author Randall Denny tells about a pilot during World War II who was surrounded in the air by several enemy planes whose pilots were shooting at him. His plane was hit and burst into a fireball. At aviation school he had been instructed in the use of a parachute, but actually had never used one. Relating the incident to a friend, he said, “I knew I had to jump. I could not pull the string at once because I was surrounded by the enemy and I had to fall, waiting until I disappeared into the clouds before pulling my rip cord.”
His friend expressed amazement, “I don’t see how you could do it, never having done it before!”
He answered, “I could do it only because I knew it was my only opportunity.”
Jesus is the only hope for heaven. Our witnessing must not center upon us, our church, our philosophy, or our unique theology, but on Jesus, the Redeemer. (DGK)
5th Sunday of Easter (B)
May 1, 1994
Philip: Sharing the Gospel
(Acts 8:26-40)
The Wall Street Journal reported on a survey of occupations that were the most and least trusted. One man, speaking on behalf of car-sales people, pointed out that “if it wasn’t for televangelists we’d be at the bottom” of the credibility scale.
What a tragedy that the scandals surrounding a handful of television preachers should so tarnish the credibility of many more honest ministers! The very word evangelism is looked on with suspicion by a society which somehow assumes that evangelists are out to line their own pockets.
Perhaps even a greater tragedy, however, is the status of evangelism within the church. Few churches could be identified as evangelistic. Most church growth isn’t really growth at all; it is transplantation from other churches.
Why are churches making so little impact in evangelism? Because individual Christians give little or no thought to their role as evangelists — as sharers of the good news of Jesus Christ. They are happy to attend worship, give, perhaps even teach a class or serve in some other role. But be an evangelist? No, that’s for the pastor to handle.
How foreign that would sound to first-century Christians! They had been touched by the power of God and transformed by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. They knew that if they didn’t share the good news of Jesus with other people, there would be no one else to do it in their stead.
Luke tells us (8:4) that “those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Remember that the apostles remained in Jerusalem. Most of those who were scattered were laymen and laywomen; they were the believers who made up that early church.
Perhaps the translation of that word in verse 4 as preach is what detours us from evangelism. As John Stott points out, “The statement that they ‘preached the word’ is misleading; the Greek expression does not necessarily mean more than ‘shared the good news’.” In other words, these weren’t preachers who were preaching the word wherever they went; these were fishermen and farmers, lawyers and merchants, teachers and craftsmen who were sharing the gospel. They were people very much like the ones in this church today.
One of them was named Philip. We don’t know what kind of profession he’d been in before coming to Christ, but from Acts 6 we know that he was one of the Greek-speaking Christians set apart to serve as deacons. When the persecution of the church began in earnest, following the killing of Stephen, Philip was one of those who left Jerusalem and began sharing the gospel in new areas.
We’ve come to identify him as Philip the Evangelist, because each time we see him he is busy sharing the gospel and bringing people to Jesus. That’s why Philip is such a wonderful model for each of us — we have all been called, like Philip, to share the good news with others, to introduce them to Jesus.
One of the first things Philip teaches us is that:
I. We Share the Gospel Wherever We Are
Philip found his way to Samaria. Hostility between Jews and Samaritans stretched back more than a thousand years. A Jew wanted nothing to do with what he considered a mongrel, heretic people; a Jew would take extra days to travel around Samaria rather than to set foot in that hated territory.
Prejudice has a way of distorting our vision — even when we aren’t aware of it. Did you hear about the book that was entitled An Unbiased Account of the Civil War from the Southern Viewpoint? It would have been easy for Philip to let his past perceptions and prejudices keep him away from Samaria — and away from the amazing things that God would do through him there.
Philip understood that wherever he was, God could use him to share Christ. It might be on a street corner in Jerusalem, or at the marketplace in that hated territory of Samaria. Yet, God had a reason for taking him there — and Philip had to be open to let God use him wherever he was.
Where has God put you these days? What professional settings, what social settings, what personal relationships are you presently in? How does God want you to be His witness right where you are?
You see, an evangelist isn’t simply someone who steps into the pulpit and preaches to a crowd. The most effective evangelist may be the one who sits across a coffee cup from a friend or co-worker who is feeling life press in. The most effective evangelist may be the one who shares with a neighbor what Christ has done to bring personal strength to his or her own life. The most effective evangelist may be the one who stands at a friend’s locker in school and explains how Christ has brought a sense of purpose and direction in life. The most effective evangelist may be you — if you are willing to let God use you wherever you are.
Which leads us to a second lesson that Philip teaches:
II. We Share the Gospel Wherever People Are
It’s a shame that many Christians’ perception of personal evangelism is slamming some unsuspecting souls up against the wall and reading the “Four Spiritual Laws” aloud to them as they whimper in silent submission. Or maybe we hold the perception that personal evangelism involves going door-to-door, encountering vicious secular humanists who seek to devour unsuspecting Christians.
What a healthy model Philip provides for us! The story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian is a reminder that God goes before us and prepares the way for us before we ever seek to share our witness.
The man to whom Philip speaks is an official of the Queen Mother in the African kingdom of Ethiopia. The king of Ethiopia was considered too sacred to carry out secular royal duties, so the nation placed those responsibilities in the hands of the Queen Mother, who was identified as Candace. This man was an official in Candace’s government — perhaps the chief treasurer of the kingdom.
Philip encounters this man of prominence and position reading aloud from the book of Isaiah — it was the normal practice to read aloud from ancient manuscripts. Here was a man who was searching for God’s truth!
And Philip met the man right where he was — at the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. Notice that Philip doesn’t announce himself by saying, “Hey, you, Ethiopian! God sent me here to straighten you out about the Messiah! So listen up!”
Philip begins his encounter with a question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” It was an excellent question, for this passage — about the suffering servant — was one that the Jews had never associated with the Messiah. It was Jesus who had applied Isaiah 53 to Himself, and it was from Him that the early Christians had come to understand Isaiah’s suffering servant as an image of Jesus the Messiah.
The Ethiopian invites Philip to step into his chariot and talk with him about the passage. Then Philip was able to explain how Jesus had fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy in His own death on the cross. Philip sits there beside the Ethiopian and discusses the Scriptures with him; he shows how they point toward Jesus as Messiah. And the man gives his own heart to Christ.
Yet, before Philip ever saw the Ethiopian, the Holy Spirit had already been preparing the man’s heart to be responsive to a word of witness. The Spirit had already created an interest and led him to examine Isaiah’s prophecy. The Holy Spirit had created an openness in the man’s heart so that Philip’s words would be like seed planted in fertile ground.
Richard Cunningham tells of a Nigerian student, Palmer Ofuoku, who is now a distinguished preacher in his native country. Ofuoku told the seminary professor how his family had come to know Christ.
Though the family was not Christian, they had placed Ofuoku in a mission to receive an education. During the early years of his schooling, Ofuoku encountered many missionaries — some of whom acted as if they were superior to their African colleagues.
“Then one year a new missionary came to the school and began to wrap up his life with the lives of the Nigerians,” Cunningham relates. “He brought a new quality of relationship — at least to Palmer. That missionary led Palmer to Jesus Christ … I will never forget the unself-conscious eloquent symbolism that Palmer used, when he said of that missionary, ‘He built a bridge of friendship to me, and Jesus walked across’.”
That is what evangelism is all about — building bridges that Jesus can walk across. What kind of bridges can you build — bridges of friendship, of concern, of compassion?
Philip built a bridge of understanding that met the Ethiopian right where he was and which allowed Jesus to walk across. God has given you the opportunity to build some bridges as well — to someone at work, someone in your club or neighborhood, someone at school, someone in your family, or maybe even someone at church.
Wherever you are, are you willing to meet that person where they are, to build a bridge that will allow Jesus to walk across? (JMD)
6th Sunday of Easter (B)
May 8, 1994
Love is Something You Do
(John 15:9-17)
Manuel Garcia is a cancer patient who learned what friends are willing to do for each other. He wondered if everyone would stare at him when all his hair fell out following his chemotherapy. But he didn’t have to worry. The afternoon before he was released from the hospital, he woke up to find four of his friends and family standing at the foot of his bed — all with shaven heads. “We did it,” they told him, “so you wouldn’t be afraid and you wouldn’t feel all alone.”
When he went home the next day, his house and entire neighborhood were teeming with bald heads — all in the name of love and friendship for Manuel Garcia in his fight against cancer. One friend said, “It helped me understand how he felt. It made me feel good inside.” Garcia’s own son said, “Daddy, I did it because I love you.”
Jesus placed great significance upon friendship. He chose to devote most of His time to deepening His connections with a few close friends rather than addressing the crowds. He gave His disciples careful and practical instructions on how to make and keep friends. He even issued a new commandment (John 13:34-35) — the one He repeats and elaborates upon in the text.
Studies by the Carnegie Institute of Technology reveal that, even in fields such as engineering, only about 15% of a person’s success is due to his or her technical knowledge and competence; the other 85% is due to the skill of human engineering — that is, to one’s personality and the ability to work in harmony with other people. William Menninger found that, when people are terminated from their jobs, inability to get along accounts for approximately 60-80% of the failures; only 20-40% of terminations are due to lack of required skill or to technical incompetence.
Another recent study shows that people who live alone and have few or no close friends have an early mortality rate comparable to cigarette smokers. People without loving support in times of illness take longer to recover. During serious illness, those without the caring support of family and friends die sooner than patients who know their lives have value to others. One Johns Hopkins research physician calls loneliness the number one killer. “Some other illness goes on the death certificate,” he says, “but the prime cause was loneliness.” Clearly, we need to know more about the biblical teachings of making and keeping friends.
Let us focus upon three verses (12-14) which express the insights of Jesus into building and nurturing friendly, loving relationships. The two lessons from this passage which we will focus on are the command to be loving and friendly, and the covenants that friends make and keep with each other.
I. Christians are Commanded to be Loving and Friendly.
The command to be loving and friendly is an obligation to be obeyed, not an option to be merely considered. Some of you might be thinking, “What kind of person would have to be told to make friends? On the other hand, what kind of a friend would a person be who was only motivated by obligation?”
We need to understand that many people often find friendships difficult to obtain. Although most of us are willing to make friends, others may hesitate and miss some wonderful opportunities to build relationships. For instance, some have tried to make friends at other places and in other times but were rejected — or worse, simply ignored. It always hurts when you open yourself to someone else and then it turns out that they are just not interested. It’s hard to muster the courage to try to build friendships again if you’ve been wounded deeply.
So, what’s wrong with the motivation of duty, anyhow? It’s what gets you to work and school on most mornings — and to church on some Sundays. It’s what makes you file your income tax return every year. It’s lurking nearby when you write a check to the mortgage company every month. And sometimes, sometimes, the obligation is all that motivates you.
The commandment that Jesus gave was new — but not because it had never been tried before. Indeed, there was a law in the Old Testament very similar to the one that Jesus taught: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). The motivation to fulfill that command, however, was sheer duty — pure and simple, nothing more. On the other hand, the commandment Jesus gave was new because it included the power to accomplish it. “… I have loved you,” He said. “That’s all the reason you need to love one another.”
It does take a conscious effort to nurture an authentic interest in other people. Let me suggest three practical ways in which you can become a friendlier person — even in church.
First, slow down and look for opportunities to make new friends. You don’t have to be in a mad rush all the time.
Second, learn the gestures of friendship. In the parking lot, look around for someone to greet and to walk with. When you enter the building, hold the door open for any who are following you. Make a deliberate effort to look people in the eye. Ask for their names, give them yours. Ask them to repeat their names and write them down so you won’t forget. Invite them to sit in church with you, or to attend your Sunday School class. Introduce them to your other friends.
Third, start looking for the good in people. Poor first impressions can keep us from ever expanding our network of friendships. We have a tendency to find a comfortable group of people similar to ourselves and to reject the intrusion of someone different. I am convinced, however, that we often make our life experiences poorer because of our judgmental attitudes. Some of us are simply hard on everyone. We see only their liabilities and never their assets. We assess their differences in taste and style as somehow inferior to our own senses of good taste and style.
How do we break the habit, or correct the negative attitude? The best place to start is at home. There, instead of bearing down so hard on everyone all the time, become liberal with praise and affection. Don’t nag; encourage. Find something in the people you love that you can honestly tell them you like. Say it with enthusiasm. Once you’ve mastered the technique at home, then you’re ready to try out your new habits and positive attitude with your neighbors, at work and at school.
II. Friends Make and Keep Covenants With Each Other.
One of the most celebrated friendships in the Bible is that between Jonathan, the son of King Saul, and David, who was the king’s eventual successor. “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David,” is the way the Bible describes their relationship (1 Sam. 18:2). Covenant is the same word that was used in Genesis to express Jacob’s love for his youngest son, Benjamin (Gen. 41:30). It’s another way of saying that their hearts and souls were bound together and they were as one.
As a demonstration of his commitment to their friendship, Jonathan gave David his royal robe, his tunic, his sword, his bow, and belt. David was unable to return similar gifts since he was merely a peasant. Nonetheless, he did give Jonathan his undying loyalty and respect.
Jim Brady had been White House press secretary for only two months when he was shot in the head during the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. Brady has made a remarkable comeback though he still has the crippling, enduring damage caused by John Hinckley’s stray bullet.
During the months following Jim Brady’s shooting, Bob Dahlgren maintained the long vigil with Sarah Brady, Jim’s wife; he and his wife took the Brady’s young son, Scott, into their home during the early days of the ordeal. Dahlgren helped Jim toward recovery by arranging frequent, convivial “happy hours” with Brady’s friends at his hospital bed. When Brady was able, in a wheelchair, to return to a semi-normal life, Bob Dahlgren scouted out the advance arrangements — and helped load and unload his friend into and out of the specially-equipped van in which he did most of his traveling.
It was Dahlgren who helped Sarah answer endless questions about Jim’s health and who spent innumerable hours keeping friends posted on Jim’s condition, Dahlgren was the one who dealt with the doctors, lawyers, exploiters, and bandwagon-climbers. Dahlgren also helped organize a foundation to assure financial support for the Brady family.
For more than four and one-half years after Jim Brady was shot, Bob Dahlgren’s heart was knitted to his friend’s needs. There was no recognition in it for him, no hint of ever getting anything in return. Never once did Dahlgren complain. Never did he hesitate when he was needed. Never did he stop looking for the needs or the response of love.
Bob Dahlgren died quietly in his sleep at fifty-two years of age; it didn’t even make the morning news. But Jim Brady’s surgeon, who lived through that long ordeal, said, “Everyone should have a friend like Bob Dahlgren.”
And everyone does. Unfortunately, many of us never realize it. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (v. 13). That was exactly what Jesus did for us. It’s what He expects us to do for one another.
You’ve heard the phrase, “It’s the thought that counts!” Do you know what — it’s not the thought that counts. Love is something you do — and it’s very specific. It’s not merely a matter of words or talk. It’s not only tolerating or being polite to one another. It’s more than a one-time gift; it’s even more than a one-time prayer — it’s the kind of personal gift that Bob Dahlgren gave to Jim and Sarah Brady. It’s the kind of thoughtful thing that Manuel Garcia’s family and friends did for him. Real love and friendship ignores the sacrifice of giving your most treasured possession — yourself.
In fact, giving real love and friendship is to imitate the love modeled by Christ. His disciples watched Him lay down His garments to wash their feet. They witnessed Him voluntarily lay down His life for His friends. They heard Him call them to lay down their lives for one another. It doesn’t always — or necessarily — require death; but it does require a caring openness for one another that genuinely reveals Jesus.
Jesus is the best friend you will ever have. He’s a permanent, unchanging friend in a world that is forever changing. “Even while we were yet sinners, He died for us” (Rom. 5:8). His covenant is written and sealed by His own blood.
Right now He wants to help you turn your troubles into triumphs, your failures into faith, and your emotional and spiritual paralysis into limitless possibilities for good. He wants you to be His hands and feet, His heart and voice to men and women, boys and girls who don’t have a friend in the world. It’s one of the most simple, and yet most profound, challenges you will ever receive in your life.
Will you come to Jesus and let Him be your friend? Will you come to Jesus and let Him be your Savior? He promises to never leave you or forsake you. (GCR)
7th Sunday of Easter (B)
May 15, 1994
Semper Fidelis!
(Acts 1:15-26)
Nevil Shute’s novel, On The Beach, is the story of life in Australia after the rest of the world has been obliterated by nuclear war. Massive clouds of radiation, moved by prevailing winds, are slowly circling the earth, moving toward the last continent containing unradiated human life.
The Aussies know that within a few brief months they will all be dead! Human life will then have perished from the earth!
What do you do when you know the end is imminent? Do you turn to God? Out of the need to make some statement which will outlive you, do you urgently erect some monument to personal or human dignity, nobility, or even foolishness?
In Shute’s fictional account, the Australians turn to pleasure! They unfurl the banner of hedonism and hoist it high into the very sky and air which is bringing their certain death on its breezes. The watch-word under which they live out their days is “Eat! Drink! Be Merry! For tomorrow we will die!”
What do you do when the end is imminent?
On the other hand, what do you do when the end has been postponed — when your time has been extended? According to the first chapter of Acts, that appears to be one of the first issues with which the New Testament church wrestled.
Re-grouping during a forty-day retreat with Jesus following His resurrection (1-3), the disciples became convinced that “the end” was near and that the beginning of God’s earthly reign was at hand (1:6). Jesus, however, told them that was not necessarily so! Although He would certainly return, that return was not inevitably impending (1:7).
So, what do you do when the end has been postponed — when your time has been extended? It is certainly an appropriate question for those who have been given “a second chance” at life by defying “the odds” and surviving a catastrophic illness or accident. It is also an appropriate concern for those who have come to the end of a career and are confronted with retirement. What do you do when you have been given more time?
Jesus told His disciples that, during the interim, they were to go to every corner of the earth telling of their personal knowledge of His resurrection (1:8). When the Holy Spirit empowered them, they were to begin where they were: in Jerusalem. Then they were to move into the countryside and villages of Judea, cross the border into non-Jewish regions like Samaria, and eventually reach even the most remote parts of the world with the gospel.
Chapter 1 is the prelude to the entire adventure. It is not, however, unrelated — but, in fact, is essential — to all that follows it. Even the strange series of events described in the text — surrounding the choice of a replacement for Judas — are essential to the church’s preparation for its mission, particularly to the Jews.
Admittedly, many questions arise out of the text:
1. Why was it necessary to replace Judas? The apostolate was not a permanent institution. Not every apostle was replaced, only this one. Why?
2. Was there significance to the number twelve?
3. Why was the choice of Matthias left to the casting of lots?
4. What happened to Matthias? He is never mentioned again in Scripture.
5. What does any of this have to do with us?
At the beginning of this section, Luke describes a group of several persons — not all of whom are identified — devoting themselves with one accord to prayer (1:14). Apparently, Luke meant to imply two things.
First, what had drawn them to prayer was a mutual burden. And, second, it was a matter about which they had prayed over a period of time — not merely for one brief, nor even an extended prayer session. They had recently received from the Lord the mandate to take the gospel to the entire world. They could not begin until the Holy Spirit empowered them. No doubt, that was foremost on their mind. Certainly, they were praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit to inaugurate their mission.
But there was also the practical issue of manpower. There were so few of them. Even the small number of apostles had been depleted by the defection of Judas. While the Holy Spirit was essential to the mission, the matter of adequate personnel could not simply be ignored.
During His ministry, Jesus had told His disciples to pray for laborers for a harvest which was already ripe, waiting only to be gathered (Luke 10:2). Surely this too was a part of the burden over which the believers prayed.
At some point during those days of prayer, Peter recalled a portion of Psalm 109 which, only in the Greek translation, reads: “Let another take his office” (Psalm 109:8; Acts 1:20). On the basis of that text, he then urged the believers to ask God to appoint a replacement for Judas.
But why replace this one? Would one more apostle make a significant difference in the ability of the Christians to accomplish this worldwide mission? Would the addition of one more apostle instill confidence sufficient enough in the larger group of believers to ensure the success of their mission? Or, was there a particular importance associated with the number twelve?
The biblical evidence seems to stress the significance of twelve. Jesus had initially chosen twelve to be with Him. The early church was acutely sensitive to maintaining a continuity between what the Lord had initiated and that which they regularly practiced. This accounts for the continued observance of the ordnances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper which are maintained even today. So, for the early church, the selection of a replacement for Judas re-constituted the original twelve apostles.
But why had Jesus chosen twelve in the beginning, and not eight or twenty? From the outset of his ministry, it is clear that Jesus was intentionally calling out a “new Israel.” To this new Israel was being given the mission of the original twelve tribes. They were to be “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). The twelve disciples were intended to represent the twelve tribes of Israel.
Perhaps more than that, however, in the Gospel of Luke the twelve apostles had a specific function with regard to the Jews. Their first in-service training mission had been to the Jews (Luke 1:8). The apostles could then look forward at the end of the present age to sitting on thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:28-30). Filling out their number to twelve apostles, then, was likely meant to underscore that the church had assumed responsibility for the assignment defaulted by Israel.
There is yet another indication that the primary reason for replacing Judas was related to the mission to the Jews. Typically, the parenthetical phrase at Acts 1:15 is read as merely a historical reference with little actual significance. It reads: “… the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty.”
According to Jewish law, the smallest number of Jews which could be recognized as being a bona fide congregation was one hundred and twenty. When a congregation reached that size, it was authorized to elect a leadership council equal to one-tenth the size of the membership. A congregation of one hundred and twenty, then, was allowed a complement of twelve leaders.
To state that the Christians numbered one hundred and twenty gave them a certain validity with the Jews to whom they must first witness. They constituted an entire Jewish congregation which had seen in Jesus the long-awaited Messiah. They were not renegades nor troublemakers; they were an authentic Jewish congregation. Such a claim would give convincing weight to their testimony about Jesus and silence much initial opposition!
This also indicates why it was unnecessary to replace the other disciples. After the Jews rejected the gospel, the apostolic mission turned to the Gentiles among whom the facts of the Jewish law were neither known nor important.
There were three requirements which candidates for this apostolic position had to fulfill (1:21-22). A candidate had to have been numbered among the disciples since Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. He had to have been a personal witness of the resurrection, meaning that he had first-hand knowledge that Jesus had, in fact, been raised from the dead. Finally, he must be chosen by God Himself to fill that office.
There were at least two apostles who fulfilled the first two requirements: one named Judas Barsabbas and the other called Matthias (1:23). Some have charged that the church “ran ahead of God” in choosing Matthias. The suggestion is that they should have waited for the man of God’s own choice instead of giving God a choice between two others who were never heard from again. Yet, apart from Peter, James, and John, none of the other twelve apostles are ever heard from again in Scripture.
The names of those from whom the choice was being made were inscribed on small pieces of stone or wood. Then the church prayed that God would make His choice by virtue of His knowledge of both men’s heart (1:24-25; 15:8; 1 Sam. 16:7). The “lots” were placed in a container which was then shaken vigorously. The lot which fell out was deemed to be the clear indication of the person God had chosen.
While you and I would never rely on such practices in making such important decisions, it was a proper method for the time prior to the Holy Spirit. After Pentecost, however, the church never again cast lots to determine God’s will.
So what does any of this have to do with us?
First, it is apparent that God hears and responds to the prayers of His people.
What the early Christians were doing in Acts 1 — i.e., devoting themselves to prayer — was characteristic of the later church in Acts. In the Acts of the Apostles, God is not silent as we often accuse Him of being. He repeatedly responds to the prayers of His people. If you and I would know God’s will and follow His guidance, if our church and our own spirits are to experience renewal, then it is clear that we must be a people who pray. God is silent only if His people have grown silent.
Second, we must be concerned about validating the gospel in our own lives.
The early church was clearly anxious about the integrity of its witness and its credibility with those to whom they had been directed. Even details were important. If a twelfth apostle would assure a better hearing among their Jewish audiences, then a replacement for Judas had to be found!
Details — credibility — validation of our witness is important! How can we speak of resurrection power if we are spiritually, emotionally, or relationally dead? How can we spread a gospel of hope if we are despondent, or hopeless? What kind of hearing can we expect for the preaching of a gospel of love if we are hateful, indifferent, unkind, or withdrawn? We must be anxious about validating the gospel we proclaim in our own lives!
Finally, we must realize that the quality God looks for most often in His people is faithfulness.
It is striking that Luke did not speculate about why Judas had betrayed Jesus. However, Judas’ defection does remind us that disciples can and have betrayed the Lord. Christians need to remember that the possibility of total failure is real!
In some areas of endless levees, a man could have his dead body thrown into the breach to become a part of the dam if he refused to maintain his section of the dike. There was even a law known as “dyke and depart” which said that a man who stuck his shovel in an eroding levee and left his part of the levee to the mercies of the seas gave up his claim to that land. The first man to come along and pull out the shovel and defend the land by closing the breach in the dike gained the land as his own.
They knew that all of life is a gift of discipline — a gift to those who spend their lives dedicated to the proposition that their present and their future toil are married to each other. Jesus said much the same thing in His parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30). The man who refused to do anything at all with that which had been given to him found that even that was taken from him and given to another!
Judas did not last! His responsibility was given to Matthias, who had been there all along. His name had never been mentioned; he was always in the background, a face blended in with the crowd. Matthias had been faithful, and his day of recognition eventually came.
Too many of us drop out, lose interest, never last the distance unless we can be guaranteed the limelight. But Matthias was faithful! He was there when times were tough. He was loyal when others turned back. That’s the kind of inner strength that makes a church great!
Semper Fidelis — Always Faithful! It’s the official, etched-in-stone motto of the United States Marine Corps. But it’s also the challenge to every Christian.
If the church is failing, the Sunday School is dull, the program unchallenging, your time is a premium, or you have time on your hands, the watchword is still Semper Fidelis — Always Faithful! We continue in following because Jesus is still there!
Can He count on you to be always faithful, always available? One of the most fundamental responsibilities of a Christian is keeping his promise to follow his Lord!
Can He count on you? (GCR)
Pentecost (B)
May 22, 1994
The Day the World Shook
(Acts 2:1-21)
The news of the devastating earthquake that shook the Los Angeles area riveted most Americans to their television sets on Monday, January 17, 1994. The day will long be remembered by those who watched the camera crews and reporters give “at the scene” descriptions of dramatic rescues, buildings toppling, fires erupting, and lives being totally disrupted.
In another era, Luke wrote as a news reporter covering a major event that shook the world. The aftershocks that he reported did not last a few hours or days, but continue to this day all over the world. The event that shook the world occurred on the Jewish holy day of Pentecost, the day which celebrated the harvesting of the crops and was held exactly fifty days after the Feast of the Unleavened Bread.
God ordained this day to pour out His Spirit upon all humankind regardless of gender, age, social status, or nationality. That momentous occasion was the birthday of the church and the empowering of God’s people. How has Pentecost impacted our world?
I. Pentecost Shook the Disunified to Unity (v. 1-3)
Gene Autry, the famous movie cowboy of the 1930s and 1940s and now owner of the California Angels baseball team, spoke of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ president Walter O’Malley: “There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for O’Malley. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for me. That’s the way it is. We go through life doing nothing for each other!” Their competition prevents cooperation.
Prior to Pentecost one disciple seemed to nudge close to Jesus and the others rippled with jealousy. The “who is the greatest” mentality pulled apart any genuine unity. When the disciples returned with the seventy from casting out demons (Luke 10:1-17), there was a sense of arrogance and pride as to their accomplishments.
But on the day of Pentecost — with the coming of the fullness of the Holy Spirit — things changed! Their petty differences melted in the warmth of God’s Spirit. They had been moved to unity in the Spirit. Their unity was of purpose, truth, grace, mercy, love, and loyalty to God. Nothing else mattered.
What about your church or the Christians you know? Have you such unity? If not, there must be a searching, a longing, an open spirit to the Holy Spirit of God, and a request for such unity from Him.
II. Pentecost Shook the Powerless to Powerfulness (v. 4-13)
Before Pentecost, the disciples exhibited little leadership, no power and no authority. They quaked at the sounds and sights of the Sanhedrin or the soldiers who roamed the streets of Jerusalem. They huddled in their upper room to vegetate and meditate, fearful of what might happen if they ventured out into the streets. They stood powerless before man and God.
However, God had not given up on them. As they sought His presence, suddenly Jehovah filled their hearts with power and authority and thrust them into the highways and byways to proclaim Jesus. Christians shed their carnal natures to put on the new nature of the transforming Christ and His Spirit. Now they had received spiritual power to overcome sin, Satan, and Hell.
Lloyd Ogilvie writes in The Communicator’s Commentary, “It is impossible to live the Christian life without the indwelling Spirit. Courageous discipleship in the crisis of society cannot be accomplished without the guidance and enabling energy of supernatural power.”
God’s Spirit is waiting to empower hearts that are yielded and available to Him. Will you allow Him to enter your heart today?
III. Pentecost Shook the Religious to the Spiritual (v. 14-21)
Creeds are important; theology a must. But if we reduce our Christian faith to an idea on paper, it is not an experience with the living God. The Christian needs head-knowledge coupled with heart-experience with the Spirit who cleanses and empowers the believer.
Lloyd Ogilvie poignantly points out that “The greatest need in the church today is for a contemporary Pentecost.”
It is possible! Will you experience your own Pentecost? (DGK)
Trinity Sunday (B)
May 29, 1994
Finding Out What God is Really Like
(Isaiah 6:1-8)
Winston Churchill was seldom at a loss for words. Whether making a brief comment to the press or delivering a lengthy address before the British Parliament, Churchill distinguished himself as a master of the English language. He seemed never to be at a loss for words — except when it came to an explanation of Russian actions.
Neither the French nor the Americans baffled this Britisher — but Russia’s unpredictable and illogical actions frequently confused him. On one occasion, Churchill found himself particularly mystified by a surprising Soviet decision. In absolute frustration, he appraised the situation like this: “It’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That’s about as complicated as something can get!
But it is also an apt description of many things in life, including today’s sermon text. How did you process all those images of thrones, and seraphim with six wings, and foundations shaking, burning coals, and a smoke-filled room? Was it all too outlandish and otherworldly for you? Do the images seem so far removed from your world — even the world of the contemporary church — that you see no possible relevance of this passage to your personal needs or to life in general here on the brink of the twenty-first century?
Not many of us have ever had an experience of God even remotely resembling Isaiah’s. That’s why we need to look more carefully at what happened. Perhaps we can find out something more about what God is really like.
Uzziah had been king of Judah for more than fifty years. During the first forty years of his reign, he was recognized as the most effective leader since Solomon. He guided the affairs of state with wisdom and stability. Prosperity had come to the people because of him. Naturally, he was admired — even idolized — by many of his constituents.
But toward the end of his reign, Uzziah did a stupid, impulsive thing. One day in the Temple, he grew impatient with the way a worship service was proceeding. Arrogantly, he got up, pushed the priest aside, and finished the ceremony himself. It was one of the most inappropriate, sacrilegious things a person could do. Even for a king, such an act was the epitome of irreverence.
Before Uzziah left the Temple that day, white blotches began to appear on his face and hands — the first signs of leprosy. The people of the land interpreted the sudden onset of this debilitating illness as God’s judgment upon Uzziah’s arrogance. At once the king, who had been so dearly loved, was exiled to a leper house where he died not long afterwards.
The nation had been shaken. The people began to examine their own attitudes and realized that perhaps they had become too careless in worship and too cozy with God. After all, they had frequently boasted to themselves and others that they were God’s chosen, special people. Perhaps they, too, were guilty of arrogance. Maybe they had begun to presume on Him and treat Him too lightly.
Suddenly everyone became aware that God was no plaything and that worship was not just kids’ stuff. In fact, God was more like fire or lightning — a mysterious force that demanded to be treated with respect. People began to think about God with a fresh sense of fear and trembling. “Who is this God anyway?” they asked. “What kind of power are we up against?” they openly wondered.
It was during that period of personal and national self-examination when Isaiah had the experience that changed his life forever. In a word, God happened to him, overwhelmed him, encountered him as only the Almighty can encounter someone. One day in the Temple, Isaiah saw as he had never seen before; he had a vision of what God was really like. He realized that, on the one hand, there is a sense in which God is always unapproachable, mysterious, and uncontrollable. Yet, on the other hand, this same unapproachable and mysterious God draws near to and touches His people.
Isaiah reported that during his close encounter of a spiritual kind there was a repetitive, other-worldly chant being sung by the seraphim. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” they continually echoed. You can imagine the sound of that chant any way you want. The significance of the experience was not in what it sounded like but in what it conveyed about the holy nature of God.
Someone once said that discussing holiness is something like washing an elephant. You never really know where to start. The primary difficulty for us is that both the word and the concept it represents have fallen on some very hard times. You never hear holiness mentioned outside the church and only rarely inside the church — when you sing certain hymns or read certain passages from the Bible. How do you find categories that the modern mind will understand which will also adequately explain the idea of holiness?
The whole issue is somewhat ironic. We often speak of God with great ease and occasional irreverence. We make jokes and funny movies about the power of God. We market God in books and magazines, and on television networks, as if He were some sort of cosmic cosmetic or divine detergent. We plaster His name on billboards and bumper stickers. The irony is that we have little sense of the holy.
Some would say: “So what? What have we lost if we lose the capacity for holiness and reverence?” Not long ago there was a news report of vandalism in a cemetery. A group of motorcycle riders had entered the cemetery, kicked over headstones, did drugs, and partied on the graves. One elderly man trying to repair his wife’s grave was overheard asking, “Is nothing sacred anymore?” It’s a fair question, and it points us to the real problem — nothing is sacred when there is no understanding of what is holy.
Originally “holy” meant to be different and distinct from everything else. It referred to the uniqueness or the one-of-a-kindness of a person or an object. To call God “holy” meant and means that God is totally different from anything else. In one sense, only God is holy, just as only people are humans. When we call something else “holy,” we mean that it has the mark of God on it. Thus, even people can be holy. When they are, it’s usually not hard to recognize their holiness.
When God is honored, all life is sacred; when God is dishonored, nothing else is holy. I suspect that the failure to reverence God is at the root of all the spiritual and moral problems of our day. Rodney Dangerfield laments, “I don’t get no respect.” Well, neither does anyone else in a world where there is no real respect for God. Respect for God is like the centerpole of a tent — it upholds everything else.
We may talk about the sacredness of the family, the sanctity of a man’s word, and the dignity of human life — but those are empty phrases in a world where there is no respect for God. We cannot have a little bit of holiness in the world. We will either have the holiness of God or have no holiness at all.
I suspect that the church bears some responsibility for the loss of the sense of the the holy in our world. For one thing, our churches are not always conducive to worship. They don’t look much like sanctuaries; we build churches that look like broadly carpeted living-rooms, or bedrooms, where every hard edge is cushioned.
We aren’t moved in worship like Isaiah was moved. The emphasis is not upon an experience of awe and wonder and mystery and glory. Instead, the experience of church is supposed to make us feel good and comfortable. Churches advertise and churchgoers look for an experience of friendliness. As a result, we come out of church no different from when we entered. We meet a lot of people just like ourselves but we fail to meet God, who is completely different from us.
If we entirely lose this sense of the holiness of God, what do you suppose will happen to us? What will become of us and our world? Who will teach us to blush? Who will teach us to shudder? If we lose our sense of the holy, will we ever get goose bumps again when God is so real as during a time of prayer, or during the singing of a stirring hymn, or while listening to a inspiring anthem? If we put out all the sacred fires, what will light our way in the darkness? Without light, how shall we ever find God; how shall we ever recognize Him?
Isaiah not only experienced the mysterious, otherworldliness of God, he also felt the nearness of God. When the prophet became most acutely aware of the vast differences between himself and God, this holy God reached out and touched the prophet. This unapproachable and mysterious God drew near and gave to Isaiah — not all the answers to all his questions, not all the solutions to all his problems — but God gave Himself.
That’s the way God is. That’s what He’s like. Because God is so holy and has so much strength and power, He provides us the strength we need when we come face to face with our own limitations. That’s why there are so few atheists in hospitals and even fewer in foxholes. It’s not because people are hypocrites, ignoring God when things are going well and suddenly turning to Him when they are in trouble.
There are no atheists in foxholes because war brings us face to face with our limitations. We who are usually so self-confident, so secure in our ability to control things, suddenly learn that the things which matter most in our lives are beyond our control. At the limit of our own power, we turn to a Power greater than ourselves.
In many ways, God will always be a riddle, wrapped up in a mystery, inside an enigma. But the Gospel is the ultimate reminder of the lessons Isaiah learned in the Temple about the other side of God’s nature. Jesus is the ultimate touch of God. He is the holy, mysterious, unapproachable God who became flesh in order to reach out and really touch us. Through His touch we experience God’s irresistible love; by His touch we are cleansed from our sin and unworthiness; with His touch He lays claim to us — and we are never the same again. (GCR)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI; Gary C. Redding, Pastor, First Baptist Church, North Augusta, SC; and Michael Duduit, Editor, Preaching.

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18th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
October 3, 1993
God Save Us!
(Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20)
The cover of Time magazine on August 12, 1991, sported the title “Busybodies and Crybabies.” At first glance and depending upon your perspective, it was possible to think that issue of Time was devoted to churches, a few church staffs I have known, school administrations and faculty unions, newspapers and television, booster clubs, most social organizations, the out-of-power political party, or the local PTA. But the cover’s subtitle — “What’s Happened to the American Character?” — and feature article by Lance Morrow called “A Nation of Finger Pointers” helped clear up those suspicions. It was devoted to churches, a few church staffs I have known, school administrations and faculty unions, newspapers and television, booster clubs, most social organizations, the out-of-power political party, and the local PTA! It was, at least, devoted to describing the kind of people who often succeed in making our world so mean, maddening, and miserable.
Morrow defined a busybody as someone who is a “gauleiter of correctness, who barges around telling others they cannot smoke, be fat, drink booze, wear furs, eat meat or otherwise nonconform to the new tribal rules now taking place.” They are “overbearing wardens.” They remind me of the preacher who led his congregation in prayer: “And now, O God, our hearts go out to all those pure and perfect newsmen searching for sin in others.” Certainly, busybodies may have a gem or two to share every now and then. But like that guy who feels compelled to get up and correct everybody on every issue that comes before the presbytery, most folks start the old in-one-ear-and-out- the-other when busybodies get busy. It’s like the boy who cried “Wolf!” Pretty soon, folks tune them out. Busybodies just don’t seem to know how to choose their battles wisely. That’s why they always lose the war.
Crybabies are described as “all blubbering need and a virtually infantile irresponsibility.” The cry- baby is your classic victim. Crybabies always blame somebody else for their pain and problems and rarely assume any responsibility for contributing to the pain and problems of others. They incarnate the title of James W. Moore’s book called Yes Lord I Have Sinned, But I Have Several Excellent Excuses (1991).
Busybodies and crybabies need a truth serum. And they can find it in our Lord’s third commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the Name of the Lord your God.” Or to use the more familiar rendering of this commandment, “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.” One of the ways to get close to God is to use our Lord’s Name correctly or to tell the truth about Him, ourselves, and others.
This commandment teaches us that the correct or precise use of God’s Name is one of the ways we can honor Him and, therefore, get close to Him. It means to respect our Lord’s holiness by ascribing to our Lord’s Name only what is true about Him. It means that whatever we think or say or do about our Lord must be consistent with how God has revealed Himself in Jesus and the Bible. If we think or say or do anything that contradicts our Lord as revealed in Jesus and the Bible, we violate this commandment and, therefore, distance ourselves from Him. To get close to God includes telling the truth about Him. And telling the truth about Him includes telling the truth about ourselves and others.
Telling the truth about our Lord includes the good news of what our Lord has done for us through His saving enfleshment in Jesus. Telling the truth about our Lord always includes pointing people to Jesus. Telling the truth about our Lord always includes telling people that anyone can get close to Him through faith in Jesus. Does that mean Jesus is the only way to eternal life and confident living? Yes! And as Jesus told Nicodemus, “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen” (see John 3).
Telling the truth about our Lord always includes telling the truth about ourselves. I remember playing in a tennis doubles match in which our opponents were cheating. Whenever my partner Jim and I would serve an ace or hit a clear but close winner, they’d yell “Out!” Finally, after I served another ace which prompted their predictably pejorative response, Jim turned his back to them and whispered to me, “God knows.” And God knows we need a Savior. That’s why He came in Jesus. Telling the truth about our Lord always includes telling the truth about our need for His saving grace in Jesus.
While crybabies will always search for somebody else to blame for their sins, Christians confess them. Christians understand their need for Somebody — Jesus — to save them. Christians understand what Paul meant when he wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:14ff). Christians understand that no matter how good they are or become, they’re never good enough to make it without the Savior Jesus who fills in the blanks, bridges the gaps, and washes away the stains.
Telling the truth about our Lord always includes telling the truth about others. And the most basic truth about others is our Lord loves them no more and no less than He loves you and me. Let’s put it even more obnoxiously: the person you dislike the most is loved no more and no less than you by our Lord. As Jesus said, “God so loved the world” (John 3). That includes you, me, and them. Jesus is no more and no less the saving Lord for you and me and them.
A young fellow went to the local drugstore to check out the Valentine Day cards. He wanted something really special to express how he felt, so he asked the clerk for some help. The clerk immediately picked out a card and said it was the most popular Valentine’s Day card of all. It read, “To the only girl I ever loved.” “Great!” the buyer exclaimed. “Give me seven of them.”
We know that’s humanly impossible. We don’t like or even love everybody equally — it’s only human. But being God, our Lord can love all of us equally. And He does. As Paul said, our Lord doesn’t play favorites (Rom. 2:11). And so part of telling the truth about our Lord is telling how He loves you and me and them no more and no less than anybody else.
God loves everybody. God wants the best for everybody. And that’s why He came in Jesus for everybody. And God expects you and me and them to treat each other as if we had the same Father. We do! I think that’s a part of what Jesus meant when He said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25). Telling the truth about our Lord always includes telling the truth about others.
Most folks learned somewhere along the way that this commandment was our Lord’s way of telling us not to couple His Name with bad words. God doesn’t want His Name involved in the damning or condemning to hell of anyone or anything. As Jesus said, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3). Besides, we’re a little too human to make those kinds of suggestions. God wants us to point people to heaven through Jesus. He doesn’t want us to point people to hell or pretend we’re hip enough to tell people where to go when we don’t like them.
Telling the truth about our Lord always includes joyfully telling the world our Lord wants everybody saved from death and desperate living. Telling the truth about ourselves always includes confessing our need for God through Jesus to save us from death and desperate living. Telling the truth about others always includes the sometimes difficult admittance that our Lord loves all of them, and came in Jesus to save all of them from death and desperate living.
This is not so much a commandment about not saying bad words as much as it is a commandment about saying good words about what our Lord has done for us and them through Jesus. God commands us to tell the truth about Jesus. And He is always good news. (RRK)
19th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
October 10, 1993
In Everything?
(Philippians 4:1-9)
It is customary in letters and public speeches to summarize at the end. The laws of a good speech are to tell them what you are going to say, say it, then in a snappy conclusion tell them what you said. A recent example is by Ernest Mario, chief executive officer for Glaxo Pharmacy Company, to the graduates of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business: “So if you come away from this brief commentary with anything at all, let it be this: Don’t measure yourself by what you accomplish. We all care about money, and the fact is, it is tough to help others without first helping yourself and those close to you. I hope you all succeed; I hope you all become very rich if that’s what you want. But as hard as it may be to believe now, there will come a point for many of you when the money you have will be little more than a kind of scorecard, a series of numbers on a statement someone mails to you each month, money that your children or their children will someday spend.” Finally brethren, do not measure your life by your successes.
Paul has something to say like that at the end of his letter to the church at Philippi. The nature and quality of our lives is shaped by the kinds of things that we hold most dear, and Paul says we hold most minds and hearts at all times with the pictures of “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is anything worthy of praise, if there is any excellence, think about these things.” Do not measure your life by what you accomplish but by the qualities and values for which you stood. The one with the most toys is not the winner so much as the one who gave the most to others. The winner is the one who sought the truth and tried to affirm it.
These are Paul’s concluding remarks — the remarks he wants his hearers to remember if they remember nothing else: “Therefore stand firm in the Lord.” Those who have quarrels are asked to agree in the Lord and to appreciate that each has done much for the good of God’s people. Then Paul gives the advice about “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all people know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.” And the results of such a lifestyle will be “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This is Paul’s formula for measuring your life. Mario says do not let your successes be the standard by which you measure your own life. Do not let the size of your portfolio, the size of your home, the size of your office, the position you have in the company, the rewards you get at work, or the prizes you win for your hobbies — do not let them be your standard for judging your own life. Paul gives us the standard by which we ought to measure our lives — whatever is true, whatever is honorable — and he gives us the steps by which we can open ourselves to the peace and serenity of God.
My natural response to an exhortation “to Rejoice” is immediately to jump to the situations which would make such Pollyannish language ridiculous. How can you rejoice when the world may be at the brink of war? How can you rejoice and give thanks when you go to your locker at school and find your shirt has been stolen? How do you rejoice in the Lord when the medical report is the news that you did not want to hear? How do you rejoice and in everything give thanks when you have just received a pink slip from work? How “in everything” can you go to prayer with thanksgiving and make your petition to God in gratitude and joy for all that has happened to you?
But Paul places this call to rejoice in the context of the very reality which enables us to rejoice. Paul grounds our rejoicing in the power and love of God. Rejoice in the Lord. There is this reminder that we can awake every morning in joy and gladness if we remember that we are a part of God’s good creation. The foundation of our joy and excitement about life is that God has made us and we are His people. We are no accident. We are intentional creations and made for the purpose of glorifying and enjoying God and His creation.
If there is one central concept in all enrichment programs, it is this concept of self-esteem. Self-confidence. There is the need for people to feel good about themselves. And yet if I am to feel good about myself there must be some reason. What reasons do I have to feel good about myself? It is the Christian affirmation that we can rejoice at all times and in all places in the Lord, because God has made us. We are somebody because we are God’s children. That is the foundation of our rejoicing.
Hear these words of Paul as a reminder to bring to God our prayers of thanksgiving on a regular and faithful basis. There will be days which look like all other days. There are good days and bad days and “flying half-mast days” and we are so often tempted to forget to give thanks because there has been nothing special happening. We do not pray with thanksgiving for the routine blessings we have received. We take the sun for granted and worry about the hole in the ozone. We visit with a friend over a cup of coffee and all we do is talk about problems and never give thanks for the friend who will listen. We go to work and complain about the traffic and the problems at work and do not stop to give thanks for the fact we are healthy enough to go to work or talented enough to solve those problems.
Paul reminds us that we need to bring unto God our prayers of thanksgiving for the blessings we have and enjoy all the time. Surely our peace and our joy in life would be deeper if we reminded ourselves more often of all that we have that is good and gracious. Even as we ask God to be active in our lives to change what we do not like, we can give thanks to God that things are not as bad as they might be.
Yet there is still the last question, of how to give thanks for those things that are a part of our lives that are just plain evil. If there is one thing the Bible never avoids is the acknowledgement of our human suffering. One scholar says there are two central affirmations in Scripture: the reality of human pain and suffering and the affirmation of the eternal reality of God’s love. That is what the incarnation and the cross are all about: that God comes and knows our human suffering and shares it with us. He assures us that God can and will see us through to a life more abundant and everlasting. (RB)
20th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
October 17, 1993
Render to Caesar
(Matthew 22:15-22)
Those poor Pharisees! They were people of strong religious fervor, committed to carefully obeying God’s law. Today, they’d be the chairman of deacons and members of the church board, or maybe even preachers! Yet they were constantly frustrated by Jesus, this itinerant evangelist from Nazareth who was too much of a maverick, refusing to get with the program so properly designed by the Pharisees.
This story is yet another example of how Jesus frustrated their efforts to package Him in a religious box they could understand and manage. You see, the Pharisees wanted man- ageable, rational religion; they wanted a faith that consisted of carefully-designed rules and regulations, lists of things to do and not do. They were organized people, and they wanted an organized religion.
But Jesus just didn’t go along. They were talking about rules and He kept talking about repentance; they were busy defining laws and He kept diverting the conversation to defining love; they were busy protecting their religion and Jesus kept talking about entering a Kingdom, one that operates on a different level than the kingdoms of this world.
That’s what this encounter was all about, after all. They were trying to trap Jesus into a corner; if He agreed the Jews should pay taxes, the collaborators would report Him to the Romans as an insurrectionist, and then He’d be in a fix! It was a beautiful plan.
The only problem is that they kept forgetting that Jesus didn’t think about things the way they did, and the Kingdom He preached was unlike the religion they taught.
Jesus asked for a coin. Isn’t it interesting that He didn’t have a single coin of His own, and had to ask someone else for one? Obviously Jesus didn’t have a proper appreciation for the value of money! Or maybe He did.
He asked whose face was on the coin; they said Caesar’s. Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” And they went away amazed. And we preachers have used the story ever after to demonstrate the validity of responsibilities of citizenship for Christians.
Of course, He never answered their question. Jesus never said whether they should pay taxes or not; He treated the question as irrelevant. He shows that Caesar’s imprint on the coin demonstrates Caesar’s authority over money, but there’s something deeper going on here.
Whose image is impressed upon the created order, and in whose image have we been created? It is God who placed His image upon us, and it is to Him that our ultimate allegiance and loyalty must go. The Kingdom that Jesus is talking about is one that takes in and transforms every aspect of life. The Pharisees were talking about small change; Jesus calls us to a Kingdom that involves a life investment.
“Render to God what is God’s.” You and I belong to God, and He calls us to claim Him as Lord. (JMD)
21st Sunday after Pentecost (A)
October 24, 1993
The Great Commandment
(Matthew 22:34-36)
Did they come to continue the battle or did they come because they had been impressed with the way that Jesus handled the questions of the Sadducees? Did they come thinking that the minor league scribes had embarrassed themselves and it was time for the major leaguers, the Pharisees, to come and deal with Jesus? Or did the Pharisees come because they had heard the way that Jesus dealt with the questions of the Sadducees and they recognized that here was a man, a voice, a person with whom they might engage in real conversation and real dialogue?
We can appreciate that the Pharisees wanted to know how to make the law simpler. They came to Jesus and asked Him if the law of God can be prioritized. They are convinced that all their laws are from God, and therefore holy. “Jesus, is it possible that some Law is more important than others? Is there a summary of the Law that can be followed without learning all the others?” The commentaries have claimed that by the time of Jesus there were some 365 negative laws and some 245 positive commands. “Which is the greatest commandment?” Simplify our religious tradition by reducing all of our laws to one great commandment.
The story of this question sounds natural to us. The bank has a program on the computer that does the bookkeeping in 100 steps but the bank hires a programmer to try to reduce the steps to 10 so that it will be easier and quicker. Reduce this down to the bottom line for me. We pay lawyers to reduce down the law for us as to what we should sign. We pay doctors to reduce down our pain to what we have to do. Take two of these and call me in the morning. We keep asking for a simplified life. The Pharisees ask Jesus about simplifying their law.
Jesus says the law can be reduced to these two statements: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The first is a summation from Deuteronomy 6:5; the second is given in Leviticus 19:18. Matthew does not tell us what reaction there was to this answer but one can imagine that there was a sense of relief and pleasure in hearing these words of Jesus. The Pharisees had what they thought they wanted.
Yet one wonders how long the feeling of relief and comfort lasted. For like a computer virus that waits in the software until it is time to go off, this simplification of the Law must have begun to nibble at them. At first the commandment sounded so good; but “to love God with all of my heart, my soul and my mind” — I wonder if it is possible?
Like a mirror the first law begins to reveal to us the wrinkles in our character. Love God with all my heart — to worship the living and dynamic God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob; to have at the very center of my passion and being the will and purpose of God — is that really what is at the center of my heart?
So the new commandment which at first had made things seem so much easier, now begins to erode our confidence in our ability to fulfill the Law. With all our soul — we are not sure what part of us is really our soul. Into what part of our lives would we look to see what our soul was doing? The hymn writer suggests that “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire unuttered or expressed.” Yet if prayer is the window to our soul, then it is painful to see that only about a third of us Presbyterians will confess to praying daily. And when we look at our prayers and at what we pray, the content of those prayers is most often what we want rather than our wanting only to be in faithful relationship with God.
“With all your mind.” The demand is for us to center our mind and our thinking and our intellectual gifts on the things of God, to ponder the mysteries of life, and, as far as we can, to seek to understand the relationship between what we know and what we hope, what we see and what we dream, and to be able and ready to present a defense of the faith that is in us to those who ask.
By reducing the vast domain of the law to two such absolute, radical and total laws, Jesus’ commandments convict us even more openly of our failure and our guilt. Who of us can love the living and dynamic God — who will not be subject to our wishes and our wants – with all of our hearts, soul and mind? If God will not be useful to our wants, then we may love and worship, but not completely. And who of us are not convicted by the law which says we are to love our neighbors as ourselves? Isn’t it a logical contradiction to think that I could love another as much as myself? If I am obligated to seek my survival in this dog-eat-dog world, then to wish another well is to endanger my own survival and to thus reveal that I do not love myself well.
The truth is, I do not really like myself very much either. The hair is falling out, the stomach is too large, I wish I were smarter, better, different. So the simplification of the law, instead of enabling me to feel that I can fulfill the Law, in fact convinces me that there is no way I can find my joy and peace by fulfillment of the Law.
Perhaps that is why Jesus moves directly on to this question about who the Messiah really is. Who is this God-anointed one who comes as God’s agent to bring the Kingdom of God into reality? Who is this one who comes as the act of God’s love for the redemption of the world? Is the Messiah, is the Christ, one who is the result of the covenant and heir of David; is the Messiah the normal and natural result of the fulfillment of history from David? Or is the Messiah, the Christ, something more at whose feet even David falls in worship? They can’t or will not answer.
But we have read the rest of the text. We have heard how Jesus may have been expressing the demands of the Law in these two great commandments so that all who heard that answer might eventually come to the recognition that they could not fulfill the law. We have to concede that we are not going to make it by our own righteousness, our own correctness, by our own achieved goodness. As we are overwhelmed by the implications of these simplified laws, we find ourselves repeating what the disciples had asked earlier, “Who then can be saved?” and Jesus’ answer: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
The Law, even simplified, is always beyond our ability to fulfill, and when we discover that we cannot keep God’s law, we are left with the only option: the option to open ourselves to the mercy and love of God. Then we discover that He gives us in love, in forgiveness and mercy, what we cannot accomplish by our own efforts. (RB)
22nd Sunday after Pentecost (A)
October 31, 1993
Service or Status?
(Matthew 23:1-12)
Have you ever had a status symbol? That’s something that makes other people think you’ve arrived. It might be an imported luxury car, or a wonderful new boat, or some other toy that demonstrates your success (or the size of your loans!).
In Jesus’ day, status symbols were often religious. In that culture, your place in the nation’s religious life could determine your social status; even the word “rabbi” literally means “great one.” And many of the religious leaders were proud and protective of their esteemed places in Israeli society.
That’s why in this passage — containing some of the strongest language you’ll ever see coming from Jesus — He is making it clear that authentic faith involves service, not status. He helps us understand authentic faith by contrasting it with the false faith of so many of the religious leaders of His day.
I. False Faith Puts the Load on Others
Jesus honors the position held by such teachers of the law, but he castigates them for their failure to uphold in their own lives the high standard they teach; they fail to practice what they preach. How much damage has been done to the cause of Christ in recent years by those who claimed God’s presence and power in their lives, but whose moral failures cast suspicion and ridicule on the church and on all ministers!
Jesus points out their pleasure in loading up religious burdens on the backs of the people, while refusing to help carry the load. Sometimes a teacher must share the reality of a challenging truth, but an authentic teacher will also demonstrate mercy and compassion. These false teachers were too busy playing God, assuming authority that was not rightfully theirs.
II. False Faith Seeks Honor for Self, not Christ
That phrase “to be seen” (v. 5) literally means “to make theater.” It’s as if their lives are miniature stage productions, meant to be observed and admired by others, but without any real substance or reality. Their righteousness is not designed to honor God but to win the esteem of others; indeed, that adulation (and the quest for it) has become their god.
Even among the disciples, there was often a struggle with the demon of ego. Who would be first in the Kingdom? Who would sit on His right hand and His left? How foolish, isn’t it? It’s as if they were battling over who would be chairman of the church committee, or have the place of honor in the church program, or wanting to be recognized for every task, big or small.
In contrast to such false faith, Jesus stresses that:
III. Authentic Faith is Centered in Service
Service, not status, is at the heart of the authentic Christian life. The man or woman constantly caught up in seeking the adulation and admiration of others will altogether miss the truth that God’s presence surrounds and lifts up those who are more concerned with others than with themselves.
As Frederick Dale Bruner observes, “Jesus’ law is that the way up is down.” How hard that is for us to see if we are busy clawing our way up the ladder — or at least we thought it was up!
If we want to experience the abundant life Christ promised, we’ll only do so as we give our lives in service to others, in Christ’s name. (JMD)
23rd Sunday after Pentecost (A)
November 7, 1993
The Only Thing That Speaks Louder Than Actions
(Matthew 5:8)
About ten years ago I was driving John Mulder, president of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, from Kansas City International Airport to Kansas City’s Second Presbyterian Church. He was to preach at Second Church that Sunday.
I would guess John is less than five years older than me. When I was in seminary I was in the first class that he ever taught. Since then, John had become a distinguished author and editor, and he has become rather noted for his tenaciousness in getting things done.
As we rode to the church I asked John why he pushed so hard to produce so much. He replied that he had almost died in an automobile accident. The accident reminded him that he didn’t have forever to fulfill his earthly mission. Surviving the accident prompted him to decide to do the best he could with what our Lord had given to him, in the time which our Lord had allotted for him.
That conversation came to mind immediately after I almost died in an automobile accident on July 12, 1993.
My son David and I had just bought some fishhooks at a general store near Harvey’s Lake in northeastern Pennsylvania. As we came to a complete stop at a stop sign, I saw a truck barrelling down a hill towards its stop sign on the other side of the road. I would later learn that the driver was a volunteer fireman responding to a call and his brakes had completely failed. He lost control of the truck, went through his stop sign at excessive speed, tried to turn to avoid going into the lake or hitting us, hit a curb, started tumbling toward us, and landed on the hood of our car about a foot from our heads.
Both vehicles were totaled. One policeman said to me, “When I turned the corner, I just said, ‘Well, how many bodies are we going to be pulling out today?’ It’s a miracle that nobody was killed.”
David and I were one foot away from being crushed to death. The windshield was shattered, yet only my arms showed any traces of flying glass. It was a miracle. And it helped me to understand my conversation with John Mulder so many years ago. I only have so much allotted time to do the best I can with what our Lord has given to me.
It’s just a matter of time. How much time is nobody’s guess. God has already established the time. Our responsibility is to make the most of the time which He has allotted for us. We don’t have forever to take care of family, friends, faith, facts, and feelings. That’s what the Psalmist meant when he said, “The length of our days is seventy years — or eighty, if we have the strength … Teach us to number our days aright” (Psalm 90).
I am reminded of the time when Phil Mickelson, a young golf professional, was asked what he thought about being compared to Jack Nicklaus. Mickleson commented, “To legitimize that would take a lot of time and good play, and even then I don’t know if it would be possible. Ask me again in twenty to thirty years.”
Pray and try as I will over the next half of my life, I know there will be some disappointments, detours, delinquencies, and defaults. Everybody knows that because everybody has had their own lists. And everybody knows human perfection is beyond human grasp.
God knows that too. That’s why He came in Jesus. He came to bridge the gap between human imperfectability and perfectly holy community with Him. We cross that bridge through faith in Jesus. It’s the good news of Christianity.
That’s what the sixth beatitude is all about. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” It’s the only thing that speaks louder than actions. God knows we can never be actually perfect. But we can be attitudinally perfect. It’s a matter of the heart. As the prophet said, “The Lord has sought out a person after His own heart … for the Lord does not see as people see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (see 1 Samuel 13-16).
To have a heart for God means we want to be perfectly His in life and ministry. It doesn’t mean we will be perfectly His, but it does mean we want to be perfectly His. To have a heart for God is to be attitudinally perfect; praying and wanting to honor Him perfectly through all of our thoughts, words, and actions. That’s what it means to have a heart for God. That’s what it means to give our hearts to God.
I like the way Soren Kierkegaard explained it: “Purity of the heart is to will one thing.” And that one thing the pure in heart will and want and pray is to be right with God.
The promise from our Lord is that the pure-hearted see God. When we pray and want to be perfectly His, we know the truth of the old gospel song, “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own; and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” That’s what it means to see God. Or as John Wesley preached in August 1739, “And blessed are they who are thus pure in heart; for they shall see God. He will manifest Himself to them … He will bless them with the closest communication of His Spirit, the most intimate fellowship with the Father and with the Son. He will cause His presence to go continually before them and the light of His countenance to shine upon them … The pure in heart see all things full of God. They see Him”(cf. Psalm 91).
What I really remembered when I almost died on July 12 is that the most important thing in life and eternity is to know God. And I remembered that when we know or see God, we live confidently and eternally.
That’s how to be happy. That’s the miracle of our faith. (RRK)
24th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
November 14, 1993
Thief in the Night
(1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
Eugene Ionesco has a play entitled The Chairs in which an elderly couple make plans for a large gathering in their house. The purpose of this party is to hear the report of the messenger, who is gifted with speech and will say what the elderly couple has always wanted to say but has been unable to say. The couple keeps filling the stage with chairs and more chairs. The imagined guests arrive and are shown to their seats. They await the coming of the messenger. Finally the messenger arrives and all he is able to do is grunt, stutter, shout and make noises. The play-goer is left to ponder whether Ionesco is suggesting that there is no message that makes sense, or that there is a meaning but it is not possible to say it, or that there may be a message but the messenger cannot remember it.
In many ways that is the condition of the church today. Christians have always had a message about the love, grace, mercy and providence of God that needs to be told to the world; they have this revelation in Christ that brings further instructions to reality, yet much of our struggle is given over to “trying to remember the meaning of the message with which we have been entrusted.”
Speaking that message is not easy. For, somehow, like the messenger in the play, we have trouble with the words. To communicate meaning we use words, yet words are always changing in meaning or losing their vitality. Some words get worn out. Patriotism, motherhood, and apple pie, were once proud words, but now they are words many hesitate to say. Some words get used too often and just become tired; they have no energy. Madison Avenue knows also that certain portions of society respond to certain words. Some people drool at “luxurious” or “elegant,” while others respond to words like “dependable, solid, old-fashion craftsmanship.”
As Christian messengers we have discovered that the words conveying the message of the Christian faith have become exhausted; words like love, grace, mercy, justification, redemption get repeated so often that they become hypnotic and produce more sleep than enthusiasm. From time to time the precious words of the Christian faith, after use and reuse, lose their power to point towards the mystery and the providence, the power and the wonder they are supposed to show us.
But there is a wonderful things about words: they can be restored; they can be recharged; they can be revalidated. In a world where we are concerned about “doing our own thing,” the word duty may suffer, but suddenly we are confronted with doing what is required of us and “duty” becomes an honorable word. Events suddenly light up and energize old familiar words, just as the birth of a child will make the word “miracle” the only applicable term.
Isn’t there something like that happening in the church at Thessalonica when Paul starts talking about “The Day of the Lord.” The church had heard of the day of judgment from the Old Testament prophets. Paul revives this phrase. He suggests that they already know that the day of the Lord, the day of judgment, always come secretly, like a thief in the night. The moment of judgment will be suddenly upon you. Just when you start to hear people say “there is peace and security, suddenly destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape.” Just when you hear the wonderful prospect of peace throughout the world — the wall is down, communism is collapsing, the “peace dividend” will pay for so much of our needed social programs — suddenly there is destruction looming and war is being talked about. Paul says that the Day of the Lord is the day when we are confronted with the judgment we have been letting slip up on us. The Day of the Lord is the day when we see the consequences of our actions and must make choices. These are the moments in history when God brings us to face ourselves.
Paul even suggests that in such moments as these days of judgment it is possible to respond in sleep to the frightening prospects before us. There are those who would try to sleep through the darkness — to close one’s eyes and to sleep it off; to hide from a sense of a failure at work by sleeping it off with a bottle; to dream away the fear of failure and the loneliness of being excluded from the “in crowd” at school in a chemical sleep. Paul’s word to the Christians in Thessalonica is that Christians with hope do not respond to the anguish of the day of judgment as those who would sleep through it.
Sleeping at the time of the Day of the Lord takes many forms. There are those who will look to anything and everything which will take away our responsibility for what we do. What kind of sleeping is it that accepts the argument that a man who had fourteen beers in a local cafe and a car wreck had no responsibility for his actions — yet allowed him to sue the bar for his own pain? We turn to anything we can to avoid the consequences of the day of judgment. Some read their horoscopes in the belief that the powers of the universe control our lives; we don’t have to take blame for our actions — the stars make us do it.
We are still asleep in believing in the power of our technology. Whether it be in military defense where science can save us or whether we believe that some new hair product will make us handsome, we keep looking to science to make a product that will solve our mess. We keep looking to doctors to give us life — when all they will ever be able to do is to prolong death — yet we know that we find our lives only in losing them in love and service of another.
Paul urges these new Christians at Thessalonica not to be children of sleep. “But you are not in darkness, for the day to surprise you like a thief.” You knew it was coming. God moves in His own way to bring events to the point where we must face ourselves and our history, and you knew it was coming.
“You are all sons and daughters of light and of the day.” We know that judgment comes. We know why judgment comes. And we also know that the day of the Lord is a day of possibility as well as a day of destruction. God brings us to the days of destruction so that we might be awake to the opportunities of redemption and salvation. There are those words again, but now they are words we have been hoping to hear.
We who are sons and daughters of the light will find these days of judgment a time of great preparation and effort. These are times of great struggle. Of course it is a little crazy by some opinions. There are those who look at the problems and say it is all too late. There are those who will say that such a small band can’t make a difference.
Yet that is part of what makes this Christian message exciting. It is part of the vitality and energy of the faith. The story of the Day of the Lord is to look back and see that where Jonah went, and finally preached, a whole town was redeemed. The story of the Day of the Lord is most often told not to destroy but to save, and where there has been a response by the children of light God has done marvelous things.
So we go out this morning with these words from Paul, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing …” To encourage one another that on the day of the Lord, the response is not to sleep through it, but to go forward in the madness of loving and serving God and each other, tackling the problems they say can’t be done, in the crazy conviction that as we tackle them God will do through us things beyond our wildest imagination.
When the Day of the Lord comes, we may hide in the dark or try to sleep ourselves through it in fear and despair; or we may live in the light and serve in joy and trust that the one who brought us this day of judgment brought it for our blessing. (RB)
Christ the King (A)
November 21, 1993
Corrective Vision for the Heart
(Ephesians 1:15-23)
Some years ago, I read an article about a blind teacher who was exceedingly successful in the classroom of a major high school. The students never took advantage of her sightlessness because, as a student explained it, “she sees very well with her heart.” It is more than intuition or even sensitivity that enables a person to see via that pulsating organ called the heart. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, both the wisdom and the revelation are needed. They are the gifts that enlighten blind hearts and relieve the diminished vision that ignorance and deceptive veiling cause. The gifts lead to discovering the hope toward which Christ calls us all.
In his novel Wait Until Spring, Bandini, John Fante tells a story of the young son of an Italian immigrant. It’s during the Great Depression and the family lives in Rocklin, Colorado. The boy frequently steals dimes from his mother’s purse. Remorse catches up with him and “he fell on his knees and clung to her in fright and … guilt.”
“Mamma,” he says, “I did something.”
“It’s alright … I knew.” Her answer was brief, but definite. Young Bandini was utterly surprised. How could she know? He had taken the money with “consummate perfection,” says the author. The lad was sure he had fooled everyone.
How had she found out; how did she know? “Did you look? Did you peek? I thought you always closed your eyes when you said the rosary,” said the contrite but curious boy.
“‘Why shouldn’t I know?’ she smiled. ‘You’re always taking dimes out of my pocketbook. You’re the only one who ever does. I know it every time. Why, I can tell by the sound of your feet!'”1
There was something more than auditory responsiveness in her demeanor. She, too, saw clearly with her heart. It was imbued with immense forgiveness, with such overwhelming love that before her son made his confession she had absolved him of his crime. She did not excuse him; she forgave him. She was calling him toward a hope that only love could ensure.
Paul prays for the Ephesians. He wants them to have corrective vision for the impaired sight suffered by the eyes of their hearts. Thus he prays for two things: 1) That God will give them a “spirit of wisdom,” and 2) That He will provide them a spirit of “revelation as [they] come to know” Jesus as Lord. Equipped with this kind of vision, they will have the hope toward which Jesus calls them. In addition, with corrected vision they will discern “the riches of His glorious inheritance among the saints.” That’s the payoff in satisfaction and happiness. They can have joy! We can have joy! It’s a matter of holding on to hope.
If there is one thing we need, it is hope. Having come through a difficult and extended recessionary period, and a time when evil was on the brink of triumph in Somalia and still threatens Yugoslavia and elsewhere, we need hope. It is the need of the individual as well as the group; the requirement of the secular community as well as the Church; the necessity of industry as well as government; the requisite of the affluent as well as the poor. Race does not negate the need, nor ethnicity — not even denomination. We all need hope. The Christ –“the Word [who] became flesh and lived among us” — has entered our world to dispel darkness and bring His true light so that we may see hope as promise and promise as the gift of God. He calls us to hope — and to hope in Him.
The secret to discovering this glorious gift is prayer. That’s why Paul prayed. The secret to a vibrant and thriving hope is in prayer. Nothing other than true Christian prayer will do, for it is in this kind of prayer that we discover the spirit of wisdom and revelation. It is this kind of prayer that clings to Jesus — no matter what!
Atheistic communists slapped Czech Lutheran Pastor Pavel Uhorskai into prison. He prayed aloud in his jail cell. He sang hymns at the top of his voice. Other prisoners asked him to pray for them as well. “They expected and needed spiritual comfort, but they did not know how to comfort themselves, and even less to offer spiritual consolation and encouragement to others,” writes the pastor. “They were typical consumers of spiritual values, but not at all producers and suppliers of them,” he says in his biography, Uncompromising Faith2 Uhorskai held on to Christ’s call to hope in prayer and met the abuse of the communists and others with unexpected grace. It provided hope. In prayer, he discovered a wisdom that went beyond himself, and an ongoing revelation of Christ that enabled him to meet unafraid the trials of prison life. Today, he is the bishop of the Slovak Lutheran Church — and a model for us when we face overwhelming opposition.
Others entered prison and succumbed to its depressing state, to the bitterness it caused, and to the unwarranted pain prompted by the injustice of it all. They lost hope. Oscar Wilde put it this way:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer
Or give our anguish scope.
Something was dead in all of us
And what was dead was hope.3
Whatever the coming days hold in store for you, pray. No matter the ups and downs of the economy, the rise and fall of the stock market, the peaks and valleys of the employment statistics, your lack of vision will improve mightily if you apply the power of Christian prayer to life. You have marital problems? Pray! You have frightening symptoms that make you think the “C” word, cancer? Pray! You have a child undergoing a difficult phase? Pray! You have enemies at work who are out to get you? Pray! No matter the issue, pray! No matter the size of the matter — gigantic and impossible, or trivial and inconsequential — God can handle it. Pray!
Corrective vision for those spiritual eyes is found in prayer — Christian prayer and nothing less.
To persevere in Christian prayer is to find more than a target at which to shoot, but a goal worthy of completion. That requires spiritual eyes that see clearly, eyes of the heart without impaired internal vision. Paul calls for spiritual surgery: “real circumcision is a matter of the heart,” he says, “it is spiritual and not literal” (Rom. 2:29). Have you need for this kind of surgery to cure your internal blindness?
Max Lucado tells about a friend who was blind for fifty-one years. “His world was a black hall of sounds and smells. He felt his way through five decades of darkness,” says the writer in God Came Near. Bob Edens underwent surgery in a complicated operation, and for the first time, he was able to see.
“I never would have dreamed that yellow is so …. yellow,” exclaimed the astonished patient.4 His dark world was amazingly transformed into an arena of light. This is what happens when we seek corrective vision of the heart from God Himself. Suddenly we see, more than things, Christ in the midst of them. It is in seeing Jesus more clearly that hope ceases being a fuzzy, incomprehensible thing, but turns into an indescribable reality — a genuine call from God. Insight becomes wisdom.
If you require corrective surgery to improve your spiritual vision, take Paul’s advice to heart. Follow his example. Pray.
Bruce Larson tells a remarkable story about Cardinal Sin, the Filipino archbishop, who as a bishop needed to check out a young woman’s claim that she had seen a vision of Jesus.
“My dear,” said the prelate, “I hear that you see and talk to Jesus. Next time you see Him, would you please ask Him what sin your bishop committed when he was a young theologian?”
When she visited Bishop Sin again, he asked her, “Did you ask Him about the sin I committed as a young man?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What was His reply?” inquired the Bishop.
“His reply was, ‘I don’t remember’.”5
Here is the ultimate corrective vision, the vision that sees beyond the troubles and the disappointments to the potential God invests in us all. It is motivated by love. It is then that hope becomes more than an intangible quality, it also becomes an internal reality. For this marvelous 20-20 vision for the eyes of your heart, pray — and discover a new heart filled with promise insured by God Himself. (RA)
1. John Fante, Wait Until Spring, Bandini (Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; 1989), pp. 82-83.
2. Pavel Uhorskai, translated by Jaroslav Vajda, Uncompromising Faith (Concordia, St. Louis; 1992), p. 162.
3. Oscar Wilde, The Works of Oscar Wilde: The Ballad of Reading Gaol III, 31 (Black’s Readers Service Co., New York; 1927), p. 6.
4. Max Lucado, God Came Near (Multnomah Press, Portland; 1987), p. 13.
5. Bruce Larson, Faith for the Journey (Fleming H. Revell Co., Old Tappan, NJ; 1986), p. 9.
First Sunday of Advent (B)
November 28, 1993
Watch and Wait
(Mark 13:32-37)
The Christmas countdown has begun! Thanksgiving is now behind us; the last holdouts among the merchants have put up their holiday decorations; and the children are being exceptionally good in anticipation of their inclusion on the “nice” rather than the “naughty” list this year. Now it’s a countdown to the big day.
Two thousand years ago — even before He would go to the cross — Jesus began another countdown, one that continues to run even in our own day. He wanted all His disciples — then and now — to understand that a day is coming when God will take His powerful hand and again reach into human history through His Son, this time not as Suffering Servant but as Sovereign Lord.
Even as we go about our daily lives, history is hurtling forward toward that day of Christ’s second advent. If you knew for certain that Christ’s return was about to happen in a few days, what would you do? Jesus tells us we don’t know when it might be, and that there are certain things we can do to be ready for His return.
I. You Can Do Your Job
That sounds rather crass, doesn’t it? What about some new and grand spiritual adventures in anticipation of His imminent return? No, in the parable Jesus says that each of the servants carries out his own “assigned task” (v. 34). That’s how they prepared for the master’s return.
What is your “assigned task”? What gifts has God given you to use, and what opportunities and circumstances has He placed you in to allow you to serve?
In a hospital, the surgeon certainly has an important job, but what value would the surgeon’s work be without the people in charge of sterilizing the surgical instruments? Without that person, the surgeon might be administering death instead of life! Each task in the Kingdom is vital; don’t covet another person’s job and neglect your own assigned task; it may well be that, unknown to you, your task is a critical element in the preparations the Father is making in anticipation of our Lord’s return.
II. You Can Be Spiritually Alert
Jesus says if the master returns suddenly, you must not let him “find you sleeping” (v. 36). James A. Brooks (“Mark,” New American Commentary) points out that sleeping “is a symbol of spiritual lethargy.”
How do you combat physical lethargy? By using your muscles. Likewise, spiritual lethargy is dealt with through exercising your spiritual muscles: through prayer, reading Scripture, sharing your faith.
III. You Can Watch for His Return
Jesus’ closing word in this discourse is filled with urgency: “Watch!” Anticipate My return! Be ready when I come again!
We are commanded to be on guard; to be spiritually alert. In the Roman army, a sentry was expected to remain alert when on guard duty; a sentry who fell asleep while on watch was subject to the death penalty. That’s because the security of his comrades depended on his watch, on his being alert to any danger. If that soldier failed to do his duty, others might well suffer also.
So it is with us. We are the sentries, and we are to watch not only for ourselves but for the protection of our brothers and sisters. The church is a community of faith, and we look to one another for spiritual strength and preparation. Together, we live in anticipation of His coming, modeling the words of that gospel hymn, “What If It Were Today?” (JMD).
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Robert R. Kopp, Pastor, Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, PA; Rick Brand, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Henderson, NC; Richard Anderson, Senior Pastor, St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church, San Jose, CA; and Michael Duduit, Editor of Preaching.

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