5th Sunday after Epiphany (B)
The Elusive Christ
When I entered the ministry a common question asked by evangelists was: “Have you found Christ?” I always thought it a curious question. The proper response seemed to be: “I didn’t know He was lost!” In several sermons I have reiterated my faith that, according to the Bible, Christ isn’t lost — we are. And He is out on all of the roads, where we get ourselves lost, seeking us. I still stand by those statements. Yet in the Gospels we do have records of times when people went out looking for Jesus and had difficulty in finding Him.
One such event appears in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus had just performed a miracle in the home of Peter’s mother-in-law. The traditional site for this house is located just a few feet in front of the synagogue at Capernaum. It is what archaeologists call an “insulus,” a house with many separate rooms, where different family groupings might live together. We believe this was the first “house church” where first-century Christians gathered.
Peter’s mother-in-law was “sick with a fever.” Jesus came to her, took her by the hand and lifted her up” (a common characteristic of Jesus’ miraculous cures), and she was made well. I like the homeliness of the story: immediately she got them all a cup of tea (or whatever the first-century equivalent was). A nice touch, that!
In the Interpreter’s Bible, Halford Luccock says that this story suggests to us what Christ has done and done again across the centuries. “It is Jesus drawing the fever from life. When (people) have allowed Him to touch their minds and hearts, life’s violent fevers have been drawn. Fevers of anxiety and fear, of restless self-seeking, of grasping greed, of lust — all have left (people) as Jesus’ spirit has touched them … (p. 663, vol. 7). This symbolic interpretation of Jesus’ healing miracle is nothing new, for around the year 400 A.D. a great Christian scholar, by the name of Jerome who gave us the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, preached on this text in Bethlehem and said: “O that He would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by His command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come and touch our hand; for if He touches our hand, at once the fever flees” (Corpus Christianorum, LXXVIII, 468).
“(Jesus) came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her; and she served them” (1:31). Almost without thinking about it, the deed is done. Someone said that the difference between dogs and cats is that the dog comes when you call him but the cat says “I’ll take a message and get back to you.” Jesus never said, “I’ll take a message and get back to you.” When there was need, He responded to it. One gets the impression that in the case of this healing miracle, Jesus did it spontaneously, almost without thinking, and that may explain the next part of the story.
The news of Jesus’ miracle spread like wildfire throughout the land. So much so that by sundown the place was packed with the lame, the halt, and the blind — people with all sorts of diseases, and also people possessed by demons. Mark says, “The whole city was gathered together about the door” (1:33). I can imagine what must have gone through the mind of Peter’s mother-in-law when she saw those crowds of people coming. Tea for Jesus and His students was one thing; tea for the whole town was something else again! And Jesus “healed many,” Mark says. Not all, but “many.” We wish we knew why all were not healed, just as we wonder why all who pray in the name of Jesus are not healed today, but we do not know. There are mysteries that still remain.
Mark says that long before the sun came up the next morning Jesus “rose and went out to a lonely place, where He prayed” (v. 35). The “lonely place” is called the “deserted places of Bethsaida,” a stretch of land barren of anything except rocks and a few straggly little trees. It was Jesus’ favorite place of retreat. The clear implication is that Jesus, like the rest of us, needed a time of retreat and refreshment of spirit. Jesus exemplifies in His own life the rhythm of work, rest, and prayer. For some days previously He had been expending a great deal of power. Here, in this lonely place, He came to have His “spiritual batteries” recharged. He had been giving and giving; now was His chance to receive for awhile. This was the hidden source of that authority and power which Jesus had, which struck people with such astonishment. Jesus took time for prayer and communion with God. And if He felt that need, how much more do we have the need?
We must make a quiet place. Nothing that enriches our lives just “happens.” It is made. Jesus did not “happen” to find Himself alone. He had to make a quiet place and take a quiet time — perhaps to ponder the meaning of His ministry. Was He to open a clinic and spend His time healing folks? That would be a worthy use of one’s life.
But was that His mission in life? One gets the impression that Jesus concluded that that was not where His main energies were to be spent. What is significant in the story is, in the midst of overwhelming success, Jesus disappeared and the disciples had to go looking for Him. And when they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is searching for you” (v. 37).
There is a sense in which Christ is elusive. Often He isn’t where we want Him to be (and, conversely, sometimes He shows up where we don’t want Him to be). Just as soon as we think we’ve got God (or Christ) nailed down, He moves on. I love the story of the little boy who asked his mother if God were everywhere. “Yes,” she replied. Picking up a glass from the table, the boy asked again, “Is God in this glass?” “Yes,” his mother replied. Then swiftly slamming his hand over the top of the glass, the child exclaimed “I’ve got you, God!” That’s a pretty silly story, but it is reflected in some very serious attempts people make to confine God to their own particular church, denomination, or nation. There are still a good many people who believe they have the corner on Christ.
How often people have tried to locate Christ is some thing: a building, a book, a creed, a church, or a denomination. We have tried to lock Him up safely in our creeds, our churches, our traditions; but He won’t stay locked up! The Easter story of Jesus’ bursting out of the tomb has many parallels down through the centuries. A Presbyterian pastor took his children to visit the grave of their grandfather. All around the children were tombstones — some old, some new. One child, a six-year-old, looked up and said “Daddy, is Jesus buried under one of these stones?” The minister tried his best to explain about Easter to his six-year-old, but then it occurred to him that this was a common problem: people are forever burying Christ in some tomb.
Christ is Lord over our traditions. One of the most difficult taks Jesus had on this earth was getting people’s heads out of their traditions to see what new thing God was trying to do in their midst. The Cornish people have an old saying: “That’s the way we belong to do it.” There are few things more difficult than changing a Cornishman’s mind. Jesus had a similar problem.
George Willison, in his delightful book Saints and Sinners, tells how in 1832 it was discovered that the wrong day, December 20, was being celebrated for the landing of the pilgrims. After some years of debate, those opposed to changing the date admitted the new date was right but said, “We much prefer established error to novel truth.” A man on the other side of the 1832 debate said, “If these Pilgrims had harbored any such notion, there would have been no landing to celebrate!” At least they admitted it. Many of us prefer error to truth but would not be honest enough to admit it. Yet Christ is Lord over our traditions and they must be tested by Him and His spirit.
Christ is Lord over the church. While I believe the church is supernatural (it has to be in order to have survived all we have done to it and with it across the centuries), it is also very human. Nothing that we do in the church is infallible. At one time the church stood against Galileo and insisted that the sun revolves around the earth. At one time or another the church has opposed almost every new advancement in medicine, psychology, and the arts. That isn’t the whole story, of course, but it is a part of the story we’d just as soon forget. I remember the story of someone accosting the late Bishop James Pike and asking him how his church (the Anglican Church) could reverse its stand on birth control. In 1920 the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church said birth control was a sin; in 1960 it said that birth control, in some cases, may be a moral duty. “How could the church change its mind?” the bishop was asked. Pike’s reply always fascinated me; he said: “That’s the advantage of not being infallible.”
Jesus cannot be boxed in by our traditions or our churches. Nor can He be hemmed in by our creeds, which are but poor human efforts to try to fathom the unfathomable and “unscrew the inscrutable.” Sometimes the ancient creeds of the church seem to tell us more about God than they really know. E. Stanley Jones’ excellent little book, The Way, says about the traditional creeds of the church: “The creeds attempt to fix in statement what we see in Christ. We are grateful for these attempts — grateful, but not satisfied. For we cannot fully catch and confine the Word in our web of words. Hence our creeds must eternally be open on the side of revision — revision toward larger, fuller meanings. A fixed creed becomes a false creed. For Christ is forever beyond us, calling us to new meanings and new surrenders and new adventures” (E. S. Jones, The Way, p. 72; New York: Doubleday & Co., 1978).
We cannot really describe God. We can only tell what God does. And that is the biblical point of view: God is known through what God does. God’s greatest deed is Jesus, and Jesus cannot be boxed in, located in our creeds, churches, or traditions.
“Let us go on to the next towns,” Jesus said to His disciples. He was eager to preach not only in Capernaum but in all of the Galilee. He refused to be tied down to one place (Capernaum) or to one form of ministry (healing). As Luccock says, “The road to a larger world had an irresistble pull. (Jesus) had a keen sense of the horizon” (Ibid., p. 665). That’s the way it always is with genuine faith; one cannot stay in one place for long in one’s Christian experience. Paul spoke of Christians who were still dining on spiritual pablum when God was calling them to eat solid food. We are called to grow up in our faith and to expand our horizons.
In the turbulent 1960’s, the Presbyterian Church developed some public service television and radio spots. One such “spot” showed a wealthy, haughty, society-type matron walking down a busy city street, looking disdainfully at the people she meets on the street, treating with contempt the people whose business it is to serve her, and looking with disgust upon minority people she meets at the entrance of her church. Then she goes into the church to worship. the commentator said, pointedly, “If you don’t find Him here” (showing the outside of the church), “you probably won’t find Him there” (showing the inside). I’ve never forgotten that.
Sometimes Christ eludes us because he is busy ministering to the least, the last, and the lost. And if we want to find Him, then we must go where He is — out into all the new places, the towns and villages, where He is busy teaching and preaching and healing. Let us go, follow Him, and join Him there. (DBS)
Transfiguration Sunday (B)
February 13, 1994
On Not Knowing What to Say
It is said that a good secretary is one who often “covers” for the boss and makes the boss look good when the boss does something stupid. Hence, Mark — as a secretary to Peter — tells us that Peter’s dumb remarks on the occasion of Jesus’ transfiguration were caused by fear. But Mark’s report of this incident only reinforces Peter’s reputation for opening his mouth to change feet. As Halford Luccock says in the Interpreter’s Bible (p. 776, vol. 7): “This was not a particularly bright remark of Peter’s and Mark apologizes for him on the ground that being afraid he did not know what to say.”
Have you ever said the wrong thing at the wrong time? I have. I’ve said a lot of dumb things in my many years in the ministry. I’ve said things which I wanted to come out one way but in the pressure of the moment they came out another. Many years ago in a service of worship the following scenario transpired: I came to a high moment of commitment and dedication, and I wanted the congregation to make an altar within their hearts and kneel there for a time of commitment. And so I said to the congregation, “Let us all bow our heads in prayer, while the organ plays silently ….” Wondering what to do, the organist sat there with fingers poised over the keyboard! I have said some dumb things over the years, therefore I can sympathize with Peter on the occasion described in our Scripture. I can also sympathize with whoever it was who said, commenting on our text for the morning, “Blessed are they who, when they do not know what to say, refrain from saying it.”
I. Peter “did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid” (v. 6) says Mark. I can’t blame Peter much. I imagine if I had the same kind of vision he had, I, too, would be afraid. And after the vision faded, I might well want to return to the same place to see if I could recapture the rapture of it all.
Mark tells us that Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him to a “high mountain” to be apart from the crowds for a time of refreshment. If you visit the Holy Land, guides may point to Mount Tabor in the middle of the plain of Megiddo as the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Eastern Church actually calls the Festival of the Transfiguration the Taborion. It may be that the choice of Mount Tabor was based on the mention of it in Psalm 89:12; but the designation is probably wrong. Mark says that this happened close upon Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. Tabor is in the south of Galilee, and Caesarea Philippi is away to the north. Tabor is not a “high mountain” but only around 1,000 feet high, and in the time of Jesus there was a fortress on its top. It is much more likely that this event occurred on Mount Hermon to the north, over 9,000 feet high. There the solitude would be more complete.
Immediately following the unveiling of the idea of the Suffering Messiah by Jesus, follows the vision of the Transfiguration. Here we come face-to-face with an incident that is cloaked in deep mystery. We can only try to understand what happened. Who can tell exactly what Peter and the others experienced on the mountaintop that day? We are not competent to judge, any more than we are competent to judge the ways in which God manifests Himself to any of the others of us. We are not all cut out with the same cookie cutter and each of us will have a religious experience that is different from everyone else. We may not experience God in some magnificent manifestation on a mountaintop but as the “still, small voice” within, as others of God’s people have done. God has “different strokes for different folks,” as we like to say. The question is: what do we do about it?
Peter, in a sudden burst of inspiration, had hailed Jesus as God’s Messiah, the Christ, only to discover to his horror that Jesus’ notion of what Messiah meant ran counter to everything he had always believed. Rather than involving immediate glory, it meant suffering, rejection, and death — in a word, the cross. For a week or more Peter brooded on this improbable combination: Suffering/Messiah. How could that be? The whole thing sounded like a contradiction in terms. How could the crucified Jesus be God’s Messiah?
Then Jesus takes His three best students up into a mountain, where a religious experience reinforces Jesus’ ministry and mission. He is seen in a glorified state, involved in a three-way conversation with Moses and Elijah — two of the greatest personalities of His people: Moses, perhaps representing the lawgiver; and Elijah, the prophets. Does this demonstrate that Jesus is the final culmination of both the Law and the Prophets? Probably so.
Note the mention of the voice out of the clouds. In Jewish thought the presence of God is regularly connected with a cloud. The cloud, or “Shekinah,” was the age-old biblical symbol of the Divine Presence. It was in the cloud that Moses saw God; a cloud led God’s people through the wilderness; it was a cloud which filled the Temple when it was dedicated after Solomon built it. This helps us to understand the meaning of the “Ascension,” when Jesus was “received up into a cloud” (Acts 2:9).
This doesn’t mean that Jesus was the first astronaut shooting off into the heavens, but that Jesus was taken up into the nearer presence of God. The cloud in today’s Scripture was a Hebraic way of saying that in Jesus the Messiah had come, and every first-century Jew would have understood it that way. On the mountaintop Peter experiences an overwhelming sense of what theologians call the Mysterium Tremendum. And the voice from the cloud reaffirms Jesus and forever solves Peter’s doubts.
II. Peter had a bright idea: “Let’s stay here and build.” It is a common reaction. One can think of a number of areas in which Peter’s idea has captured us. I think it is a tragedy when people stop and build upon one period in their religious thinking. There are those whose understanding of God has never progressed beyond the “now I lay me down to sleep” stage. Conversely, there are those who have rejected religion in their early years because of some unfortunate experience with a religious figure: pastor, priest, or Sunday School teacher. They put the freeze on their own personal spiritual history at that moment; their minds are closed to the possibility of an adult faith. We all like things “the way they were,” not realizing that God may be calling us upward and outward toward something newer and better. “Let’s stop and stay here awhile,” we say.
You’ve seen the ads on television: a group of friends sitting around a campfire — nearby rushes a clean, clear mountain stream; a skillet is filled with fish; and one friend says to the others: “Fellows, it doesn’t get any better than this!” We have all had those kinds of experiences — everything is “just right.” It seems as though it simply cannot get any better. We have a good experience in our religious life, and we want to hang onto it. The problem is: if we stop here, we won’t grow much, and we will be totally useless in meeting the problems of life.
It is tempting to try to make the church a safe haven where we might find seclusion from the storms of life. Yet we aren’t supposed to stay in the church. We come to worship to get our spiritual batteries recharged, but then we are called to return to the fray. The vision fades, the moment moves on — and so must we. We live on the move, and our faith tells us that God is on the move also.
Moments of high religious ecstasy are important, just as moments of intense emotion are important in a marriage, but you can’t build a marriage nor a faith upon them alone. Our Scripture would say to us: “Don’t forget those moments, but don’t freeze them either!” The desire of Peter — to nail down the moment, to put the freeze on history, to make a permanent structure to which he could return when his faith is tried — is natural. We all need that. I don’t deny it. But we cannot stop in our spiritual journey and erect a frozen momument to a fading vision or past glory. God calls us forward into the future. He calls us down from the mountain to meet the problems of the marketplace.
Ernest Hemingway’s posthumously published book, A Moveable Feast, (Scribner, 1964) is an autobiographical retracing of the author’s early days as a writer in Paris. The title of his manuscript, which had been finished for years awaiting the right moment for publication, was suggested by Hemingway himself in 1950. In a letter to a friend, Hemingway wrote, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Well, I don’t know about Paris, but the presence of God is a moveable feast. For a moment Peter forgot that. He forgot that by going down from the mountaintop he was not leaving God behind.
When we leave the sanctuary we are not leaving God behind and going out into a totally alien world — God goes with us. In fact, God is either being taken out or put into our schools, or government, or wherever; God cannot be pushed out of anywhere. Peter was to find that God awaited him on the downside of the mountain — in the persons in need, in the persons who needed him, in the persons who needed someone to share a vision and a hope. So does our world.
III. This is my beloved Son, listen to Him!” said the voice from the cloud (Mark 9:7). The Greek word “listen” here is a very strong word. It means, literally, “to obey and follow.” And that’s the way it is with any true encounter with God. Each encounter leaves us turned around and headed back down the mountain with a tablet under our arm (like Moses), or a call to discipleship (like Peter, James, and John). God does not give us spiritual trips away from the real world; God has a tendency to thrust us back into the thick of it. But we don’t go alone back into the frustrating fray of life. We have the vision to sustain us: “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.”
It is as though God were saying to Peter: “Heaven can wait …” but earth cannot. There are needs to be met at the foot of the mountain. We cannot stay on the mountaintop forever, for there are people who need us below in the marketplace. There is a world out there desperately in need of a vision of God, or the touch of someone who has had a vision of God and wants to share it. You see, our Christian service is not what we do here in the sanctuary but what we do in the world. Our word “liturgy” comes from a Greek word which means, literally, “the work of the people,” and does not merely refer to what we do here in church, but what we do out in the world. Sometimes that work is less than glamorous. However, we cannot stay in the church forever, safely protected from the world around us.
A few years ago, when the late Jituso Morikawa was installed as pastor of First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor, the local newspaper was supposed to announce “The Installation of Dr. Moridawa.” It appeared in print: “The Insulation of Dr. Morikawa.” Many of us desire “insulation” rather than “installation.” Nevertheless, God calls us into the real world outside the church — the world that is filled with squabbles, complaints, pettiness, and pain; but also grand and glorious opportunities to touch the lives of others with the love with which God has touched our lives in worship.
When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was doing research on her famous book on death and dying, she came across the story of a black woman who was a member of one hospital’s maintenance crew. The woman spent her day cleaning floors, emptying wastebaskets, tidying up. The hospital began to notice that each time she finished cleaning the room of a dying patient, that person was invariably more content, happier, and at peace. Kubler-Ross interviewed her to find out why. The woman said she had known a lot of fear and tragedy in her life, as well as good times when others helped her know of God’s love. She’d been up and she’d been down the mountain.
The worst time was when her three-year-old son was ill with pneumonia. She brought him to the public health clinic and he died in her arms while she waited her turn. All of this could have embittered her but she said to Kubler-Ross, “You see, doctor, the dying patients are just like old acquaintances to me, and I’m not afraid to touch them, to talk with them, or to offer them hope. They promoted her at the hospital. She became, and still is, “Special Counselor to the Dying.” Aren’t we all? We cannot stay on top of the mountain. There are lives to be touched down there in the valley. Go and touch them with the touch of Jesus. (DBS)
1st Sunday in Lent (B)
February 20, 1994
Riders of the Rainbow
Everybody knows Noah’s story. The Bible says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God” (see Genesis 5-9). But while “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord,” the Bible also tells us, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” So “The Lord was grieved that He had made man on the earth, and His heart was filled with pain.”
God had had it with the messing up of His plans by the people He had placed at the apex of His creation. So He tells Noah to build a big boat or ark to avoid what we could call God’s flood of tears.
Except for Noah, his family and the animals on board, God keeps His word and wipes out everybody else. You know the rest of the story — the waters finally recede and Noah gets to start the whole thing all over again. Of course the story isn’t really about Noah and the flood and the chance to start all over again. Even Noah’s family reverts to the kind of pre-flood behavior that really ticked off God in the first place — nor has there been that much improvement since then. The new start isn’t the point; the flood isn’t the point either — that was the bad news. And God doesn’t specialize in bad news.
The point of the story isn’t Noah and the flood but the rainbow of God. “I establish my covenant with you,” God told Noah — who really represents you and me and everybody else — “Never again will all life be cut off … This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature … Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures.” God loves us too much to destroy us — that’s the covenant. God wants us to be riders of the rainbow.
Everybody sees the rainbow
God doesn’t hide His love from us. God wants us to see His love. He puts the rainbow in the sky to show His love. Of course, He also puts food in our bellies and love in our hearts. And in the greatest expression of all, He went to the cross in Jesus with only one thought in mind: showing His love. We don’t have to guess about God’s love.
A physician liked to calm his young patients by kidding around with them. While pointing to one child’s ear, he asked, “Is this your nose?” The little fellow turned to his mother in alarm and said, “I think we’d better find a new doctor!” And then there is the story told by George F. Will about the time Sugar Ray Robinson landed a punch after the bell had ended a round. Looking for an excuse for Robinson, the ringside broadcaster explained, “It’s hard to hear the bell up there. There’s a tremendous amount of smoke here in Boston Gardens.” But God doesn’t fool around when it comes to loving us. He is the good doctor who heals heart, soul, mind, and even body. And through the smoke of life’s distractions, disappintments, and disillusionments, God’s signs of love keep shining upon us. Everybody sees the rainbow because God’s rainbow of love is for everybody.
Not everybody rides the rainbow
Adolf Eichmann quickly comes to mind. He was, with Hitler, a primary architect of the holocaust in which six million Jews were butchered. And when he was hung for his crimes — two minutes before mid-night on May 31, 1962 — the only one who cried was God. Indeed, there is a popular story in Israel about the time Hitler went to see an astrologer and was told he would die on a Jewish holiday. “Which holiday,” Hitler demanded. “I cannot be sure,” replied the astrologer, “but any day on which you die will be a Jewish holiday.”
As I read the June 1, 1962, edition of The Jerusalem Post, it became clear that Eichmann’s execution was a day of celebration. “It is certainly historic justice,” went the lead editorial that day, “that this task should have been taken up and completed by Israel, whose people were the chief sufferers of the Nazi aberration.” But God did cry for Eichmann because though that misguided soul saw the rainbow, he refused to ride.
Pastor William L. Hull tried to introduce Eichmann to the Lord right up to the moment when the trapdoor fell open. Eichmann told Hull that he did not believe in Jesus. Certainly his behavior confirmed that. But even as Hull pleaded with Eichmann to confess Christ and just say the name Jesus, Eichmann said, “Long live Germany, Austria, and the Argentine.” Cited the report, “The trapdoor opened and Eichmann fell some distance, remaining hanging a metre above the floor below.” Eichmann died as he lived — without Jesus. He refused to ride the rainbow.
In The Great Divorce (1945), C. S. Lewis described going to heaven in terms of a bus ride. “It is still,” wrote Lewis, “‘either-or.’ If we insist on keeping hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of hell.” God sends his bus to heaven but some folks refuse to board, others choose not to ride.
The only way to feel the love of God is to seize that love after seeing it. It is not enough to see the rainbow; you’ve got to ride it. You’ve got to acknowledge God’s saving Lordship in Jesus Christ and then affirm His place as the saving Lord of your life. That’s when you begin to ride the rainbow; and that’s when you begin to live.
Going with God is riding the rainbow.
When you look back on history, you discover that the great leaders of God’s people — from Noah to Abraham to Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and all the rest — went where God led. It wasn’t always easy but it was always rewarding — as it was right.
I’m reminded of the story of a young man who went out from Devon, England, to become a shipmate in the fleet of Francis Drake. Some years later he returned home for a brief visit. As he walked down the street he met an old classmate from school days who had grown fat and rich and lazy. The proud man saw the sailor and said, “Well, you haven’t made much of your life.” “No,” said the sailor, “I guess I haven’t. I have often been cold, hungry, shipwrecked, and dreadfully frightened — but I have been with the greatest captain who ever sailed the seas!” Riding God’s rainbow is moving through life with the greatest and most caring and most loving captain of all.
I was called to be the senior pastor of Kansas City’s Second Presbyterian Church when I was twenty-nine years old. It was a pretty heady time — even the youth directors were older. One day I asked a church member: “How many great preachers do you think there are in our denomination?” She replied, “One less than you think.” Then she said this: “Just remember that if you die today, there will be a funeral on Monday. And then on Tuesday, they will form a pulpit committee.” Another recently sent me this little clip: “Sometime between the ages of eight and ten I realized that, not someone, but the whole world did not care for me as much as I had hoped.”
If we are blessed, we do have one or two folks out there who really care and loves us. But the truth is, that even if no one else cares, God does. Even if nobody else loves us, God does. That’s what the rainbow is all about. It’s a symbol of God’s covenant of love. It’s God saying to you and me and everybody else, “I care about you. I love you. That’s the deal. And whether you acknowledge or affirm it, it’s still a deal. I care about you. I love you. You’re important to me. And I’ll raise a rainbow in the sky to remind you. I’ll even die for you.”
Do you see the rainbow of God? You cannot miss it. God wants everybody to see it. God’s rainbow is for everybody. God’s care is for everybody. God’s love is for everybody. Do you see it? Seize it! Ride God’s rainbow! (RRK)
2nd Sunday in Lent (B)
February 27, 1994
Faith is Transforming
Have you heard the often-quoted saying, “God helps those who help themselves”? My guess is that many of us think this saying is scriptural — it isn’t. It isn’t found in the Bible; it first appeared in the book of an Englishman, Algernon Sidney, in 1698.
While human responsibility is necessary, the fact is that God helps those who can’t help themselves and who by faith call on Him. Faith in God is far more important than your ability to help yourself. Most of us stop with human responsibility — “Well, it’s up to me!” — and miss the rest of the story: if you have faith, God helps you in ways you can never help yourself. But how? In what ways does God help?
I. If you have faith, God helps you by transforming your weakness into strength.
The world tells us that we can be self-made men and women, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Many, many people have bought this big lie. We’re supposed to be able to handle any problem that comes along — never admitting we’re weak, never showing the chinks in our armor.
The fact is, we can’t help ourselves. We’re weak; we need God. We need God to transform our weakness into strength. We need faith in God, believing He will help us. God is empowered with divine strength, authority, and dominion. The rest of the story isn’t of a weak Jesus hanging on a bloody cross, but of a strong Lord resurrected, leaving behind an empty tomb. That’s the kind of strength that can be ours if we have the faith, if we tap into the power of the Lord.
A woodcutter bought a power-driven chainsaw because he was promised he would be able to cut more wood with the new chainsaw than with his old handsaw. After a week of using the chainsaw, the woodcutter took it back to the store and complained that he couldn’t cut more wood with the chainsaw than he could with his handsaw; as a matter of fact, he was cutting less wood with the chainsaw. The salesperson took the chainsaw, pulled the cord, and the gasoline engine started. The surprised woodcutter asked: “What’s that?” Though the power was available all the time, the woodcutter hadn’t used it.
How can God help you? If you have faith, God helps you by transforming your weakness into strength.
II. If you have faith, God helps you by transforming your sin into salvation.
Only through faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Son of God is sin vanquished. It was Jesus “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (v. 25). We can’t save ourselves from sin, try though we may. We can’t do enough “good deeds” to balance our other-world accounting ledger. If we possessed the power to save ourselves, then Jesus of Nazareth would be unnecessary, redundant, and irrelevant.
Yet the fact is, we can’t save ourselves from sin. Sin has a disastrous effect on our lives for it separates us from God, the One who can help us. Sin breaks down our faith, leaving total destruction in its path. Let me tell you what sin is like. I read recently about a type of jellyfish which lives in the Bay of Naples, Italy. In that same bay are snails. When these snails are little, a jellyfish may swallow one of them. However, the snail is protected by its shell so that the jellyfish can’t digest it. Then the snail fastens itself to the inside of the jellyfish and slowly begins to eat it. By the time the snail grows to maturity, it has consumed the entire jellyfish.
What snail of sin have you swallowed: Hate? Jealousy? Pride? Selfishness? Apathy? Greed? Be assured that your snail of sin is attached to your soul and is slowly eating you, separating you from God and divine help. But that’s not the rest of the story. The rest of the story isn’t the bloody cross but the empty tomb — not self-consuming sin but salvation. Jesus Christ can reach within you and pluck out whatever snail of sin you have swallowed.
How can God help you? If you have faith, God helps you by transforming your sin into salvation.
III. If you have faith, God helps you by transforming your death into life.
Consider Abraham. God tells him that he is to father many nations. Paul says Abraham was “as good as dead” and Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren in her womb. Yet because of his faith, Abraham was reckoned as righteous. Despite Abraham’s nearness to death and Sarah’s barrenness, God brought life out of them and the nation of Israel was born.
Consider Jesus. He was crucified, wrapped in burial cloths, placed in a tomb, and a massive stone rolled before its entrance. Jesus was dead! Yet God resurrected Him, raised Him from the dead. The burial cloths were limp, the tomb was empty, and the stone was rolled away so that we can have life — eternal life — instead of death.
The rest of the story isn’t the bloody cross but the empty tomb, not self-consuming sin but salvation, not death but life. Out of the numbness and coldness of your spiritual inactivity, God can resurrect abundant, satisfying, encouraging, hopeful and everlasting life. Your life can be full of meaning and purpose. If you have faith, God helps you by transforming your death into life.
How can God help you? If you have faith, God helps you by transforming your weakness into strength, your sin into salvation, and your death into life. (Jf)
3rd Sunday in Lent (B)
God Comes First!
Several years past a woman in New Mexico was frying tortillas for her family’s evening meal. Reportedly she noticed that the skillet burns on one of her tortillas resembled the face of Jesus. Excitedly she called her husband and a few of her neighbors; they all agreed there was a face etched on the tortilla and that it really did bear a resemblance to Jesus.
The woman took the tortilla to her priest to have it blessed. She testified that the tortilla had changed her life. Her husband agreed she had become a more peaceful, happy, and submissive wife since it arrived. Although the priest was not accustomed to blessing tortillas, he reluctantly agreed to bless this one.
The woman took the tortilla home. She put it in a glass case with piles of cotton to make it look like it was floating on clouds. She built a special altar for it and opened the little shrine to visitors. According to later reports in the Chicago Tribune, within a matter of a few months more than 8,000 people came to the shrine of the Jesus of the Tortilla — and everyone of them agreed that the face in the burn marks was the face of Jesus.
It seems incredible that in the twentieth century so many people would actually worship a tortilla. Surely, only the most primitive, uneducated, superstitious, and naive of us would ever fall for something so preposterous. And yet, this whole episode reminds us that not even contemporary society is ever very far from the sin of idolatry.
The truth is that an idol is not worshipped for its shape, but for its imagined power over a person’s life. We all tend to elevate to unreasonable levels of reverence the people, plans, things — even if they happen to be tortillas — which dramatically impact upon us. Anything or anyone whom we credit for turning our life around and giving us joy, or opportunity, or meaning and purpose, naturally evoke a fierce degree of loyalty from us. Anything or anyone whom we cannot bear the thought of losing, or living without, often are endowed with almost God-like status.
We have not eliminated idolatry simply because we have become more sophisticated. We have merely exchanged one kind of idolatry for another. We’ve progressed to a better grader of idolatry. You can see it in our attitudes. For instance, you may say, “My home is the most important thing in my life. I am completely devoted to it. I will make any sacrifice necessary to hold my marriage and family together, to make my home a place of love and happiness.”
But what happens if one of the children runs into trouble and destroys your dream? What happens if you and your spouse are unable to make your marriage work and it comes falling down like a house of cards? What happens when money gets tight and you get wound-up and peace and tranquility go out the window?
Or maybe your idol is something else entirely. You want to get away for a weekend or a few days of golf and fishing, to go to the mountains or the beach with the family. It’s your way of being good to yourself. After all, you work hard when you work; you deserve it. You will do almost anything for the sake of those few days off. You work overtime before and after just so you can pay for it all — the boat, the condo, the greens fees. And then there’s all that stress of getting ready to go and worrying about things back home while you are away.
Maybe you’re consumed with concern for your personal health, your body. You worry about it a lot. You pamper it and starve it, you feed it and exercise it, tone it and tan it, buff it and oil it, and massage it and bow down to it — often in pure disgust — a hundred times a day. Then you give it too much to eat and drink, trying to make it feel good again. Then you have to start all over again trying to regain control of it. Then you get frustrated when you see it all going, when you realize that your body is growing “old” faster than you can make it “young” again.
The point is that there is an emptiness in all of this — the business, the home, the weekends off, even our own precious bodies — unless God is given first place in our lives. We are well stocked with MBAs, VCRs, and even BMWs — but we are also very S-A-D. Many of the most successful of us are finding our jobs long on salary and short on happiness. Our beautiful homes are stuffed with high-tech gadgets but we feel empty inside ourselves.
Almost all of us are caught in the middle of this struggle between conflicting loyalties. It’s not that we do not believe in God at all, nor that we do not attempt to worship Him. Nor is it that we have entirely substituted other gods in His place and bow down solely at their altars. Our problem is more difficult: we have divided hearts.
We want to worship both God and family, both God and success, both God and country, both God and health. In doing so, we forget that the Word of God tells us that no person can serve two masters. We forget this first and most crucial commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me, or in addition to me.”
This is the most crucial commandment of them all. It has to be. It is set at the beginning of the others; all the others depend entirely upon whether we keep this one. If we have other gods, it may not matter to us whether we steal or commit adultery or bear false witness. If we have other gods, we may not be able to avoid violating the other commandments.
We know with our heads that gods cannot be reduced to wood and stone, bricks and mortar, stocks and securities, dollars and real estate. We know that — but only in our heads and not in our hearts. We only speak the disclaiming words with our lips, but day after day we surrender our hearts to a thousand other gods.
Several years ago, West Virginia was devastated by rains and ensuing floods. The American Red Cross and other agencies sent to help victims of that tragedy learned something very interesting about people facing crisis. The gravest problem faced by West Virginians was not the loss of home or property; it was the loss of their sense that the world was a safe place. Long after they were settled in new homes with new furniture, many continued to have nightmares in which walls of water pursued them. It would take years before they were able to trust the world again.
“Why did the dam break and wipe out our homes?” many asked. At one level, a purely physical explanation could have be given, but that wasn’t really what they were asking. They didn’t want to know how many cubic feet of water the dam was built to contain. What they were really asking was, “Can I trust the world? Can I go to sleep at night and not have to worry about being swept away by a flood? Do I live in a safe world or a treacherous, threatening world which can turn on me at any moment and utterly destroy me?”
Those are the kinds of questions that only have answers in faith. Those are the kinds of issues that can only be addressed by God — a God who exists in reality and who makes a difference in our lives. Listen: a God who exists but does not matter — who does not make any difference in the ways you and I face life — might as well not exist. The issue is, what happens to us when we face the earth-shaking crises of life? You and I have been reminded again that this world is not necessarily a safe place, but we can feel secure in it when we focus upon our God.
Do you have that kind of inner resource? When life is under attack, do you have a fortress with inner provisions that can withstand the siege? Between the two world wars, the French built an 87-mile-long defensive wall called the Maginot Line — the great wall of France that defended its border with Germany.
Three lines of defense were incorporated into that wall. The first were strong houses — small fortified barracks designed to sound the alarm. The second line of defense was deep, reinforced bunkers to delay enemy attack. But the third line of defense was called ouvrage — deeply buried multi-storied forts every four to six miles. Below the deepest level of these barracks were storehouses of food and ammunition, and also a constant supply of water from deep wells.
When the Germans moved to invade France, they did not try to attack these final forts. Not one of the ouvrage was ever overcome and captured by the Germans. Why? The Germans knew the soldiers in those bunkers could resist and survive almost indefinitely because of the deep, endless supply of water.
All of us need fortifications for life. But every line of defense is inadequate unless deep within us there is a resource hidden, abundant, and untouchable. When the assault of life’s enemies come, we need not be afraid if that resource is within us. Absolute trust in God, unequivocal loyalty and dependence upon Him, and undivided hearts, mean that the Source of life can never be taken from us! (GCR)
4th Sunday in Lent (B)
March 13, 1994
Faith’s Old Fashioned Way
It was the beginning of a long holiday weekend and the service station was crowded with people filling up their gas tanks before leaving the city. Finally an attendant hustled up to the clergyman, who had been waiting in line for some time. “I’m sorry about the delay,” the attendant apologized. “Everybody waits until the last minute to get ready for a trip that they knew they were going to take.” The clergyman smiled and said, “I know what you mean; I have the same problem in my business.”
The Apostle Paul wanted to make sure the church at Ephesus was ready for the trip its members were going to take someday. He wanted to help them pack their spiritual bags and give them a map for their spiritual journey. This is why we read in this Ephesians text what some have called an early creed. It might be called a Reader’s Digest condensation of the Gospel. It is the very center of our faith and the foundation upon which the Christian church has been built since the birth of Christ.
I’ll read it to you again, not from the familiar Revised Standard Version, but from the Living Bible: “Because of (God’s) kindness you have been saved through trusting Christ. And even trusting is not of yourselves; it too is a gift from God” (v. 8). This “creed” is the core of our faith, and if we don’t take it on our trip, we might as well stay home.
Arthur M. Schlesinger’s book, The Vital Center, caused quite a stir in academic circles forty years ago. The closing words of the book were these: “The center is vital; the center must hold.” Unfortunately, the Harvard professor had only a humanistic faith to offer his readers; he thought the center consisted of “reuniting the individual and the community in a fruitful union” — whatever that means.
Paul thought there had to be more at the center. He thought we had to have a living God at the center; and when we did, the center would hold — everything else might fail, but the center would hold firm. Christianity’s object is not to restore the center, but to proclaim that we must all be restored to the center. We do not proclaim that the center must hold; we proclaim that the center does hold. This commitment to Christ – and not Schlesinger’s “togetherness” — is what reunites individuals and community in fruitful union.
At age ninety-nine, Aunt Sadie was the oldest resident in a small Pennsylvania town. It was her birthday, and her thirty-nine year old pastor was among the many celebrating guests. As he was preparing to leave he said to her, “Now Sadie, I hope that one year from this very day I will be able to come back and celebrate your one hundredth birthday with you.” Aunt Sadie looked at him for a moment and then said, “I don’t see why not, you look fairly healthy to me.” Old ideas die hard.
Our text offers us some simple but profound truths that we should place at the center of our lives.
It reminds us that we can be living, breathing people, who wake up every morning and go to bed every night, and still be dead — spiritually dead. When you are spiritually dead you are really dead. A spiritual death is forever; it is like a death for all eternity. A physical death only ends an existence of seventy or eighty years — maybe even one hundred years — but a spiritual death lasts, and lasts, and lasts. Paul reminds us that when we follow the ways of the world, the spirit of the day — when we follow our own passions and the desires of our own minds and bodies — we are in trouble. Life is a terminal existence that can only be extended through faith in Christ.
Having faith and growing in our commitment is not easy for us. It is so much easier to do otherwise, but when we have faith and grow in our commitment we are never more alive.
We are reminded that it is Christ who brings us alive. Two great words are to be found in verse 4 of our text. After describing what life is like when we are spiritually dead, the Bible says, “But God …” A whole sermon could be preached on these two words. Millions of people would have found themselves in spiritual death, “But God …” Millions of people would have dragged themselves and their families down, “But God …” Millions of people would have died, “But God …” Millions of things that would have been disastrous for the world would have happened, “But God had a better idea.”
There is a Hebrew legend about a disobedient angel who pleaded for mercy from God. God said, “I shall not punish you. However, in atonement, you must bring back from earth the most precious thing in the world.”
The angel began the search. He found a soldier dying of wounds he had received defending his country. The angel caught his last drop of blood and brought it back. God said, “The courage of one who gives his life is precious, but not the most precious thing in the world.”
The angel resumed his quest. Wearily he roamed the earth until he came upon a nurse who was dying of a disease she had caught while nursing a child back to health. God said, “The selfless devotion of one who saves the life of a child is very precious, but it is not the most precious thing on earth.”
The downcast angel continued to wander. One day he saw a farmer preparing to kill a man who had stolen his cattle. The farmer, his gun ready, stood at the window of the thief’s cottage and watched him tuck his children into bed and kiss them goodnight. At that moment the would-be murderer remembered his own children and lowered his gun. He shuddered to think that he had been on the verge of destroying the happiness of this home, and a tear rolled down his cheek. The angel caught the tear and brought it to the Throne of Glory. God accepted the tear with rejoicing. He smiled and said, “You are fully pardoned, for there is nothing more precious than a tear of repentance.”
Each of us can change. Each of us can repent and do better in the future. And when we do, it is precious.
“Out of His great love for us” God provided a more acceptable way of establishing a relationship that we had broken. The most precious thing we can do in life is repent; and when we do God smiles. The Bible says, “We are His workmanship …” God has created us, worried about us, guided us, and watched over us — and when we become what He wants us to become, He rejoices. Do you want to make God smile? Put your life in His service.
Our salvation is not something that we grasp. It is not something that we earn — like a Boy Scout or a Girl Scout earns merit badges. God is not locked into forgiving us because we have done so many good deeds. God offers Himself to us when we repent, when we change.
If an intoxicated motorist runs over a child and kills him, the motorist is subject to arrest, trial, and sentence to prison. If found guilty, he could receive a fine of $10,000, fifteen years in prison, and a mandatory three-year revocation of his driver’s license. If he had a prior conviction of driving while intoxicated, his license is subject to be revoked forever. After he has paid the fine and served the imprisonment, however, the law has no further claim on him. As far as the law is concerned, the whole matter is over.
But it is very different situation to the mother whose child he has killed. He can never make things up to her. He can never put things right with her by serving a term in prison, by paying a fine, or by losing his driver’s license for three years, or forever. He has committed this crime against this mother’s love for her child, and the only thing which can restore his relationship to her is an act of her forgiveness.
This is the way we are to God. It is not God’s laws against which we have sinned. If it were, we could justify ourselves by serving time, paying money, or being punished. What we have sinned against is God’s heart. Sin is not breaking the laws of God; it is breaking the heart of God — and only an act of free forgiveness out of the kindness of God will put us back into right relationship with Him. It is a gift of God. Accept this gift and put it at the center of your life, and you will be fully prepared for the final trip that you will be taking one day. (CTH)
5th Sunday of Lent (B)
March 20, 1994
Turning Death Into Life
One of the wonderful things about spring is the emergence of new life, as gardens bloom into color. We look back on the harshness of winter, which cast a shroud over nature, and realize that it was necessary for that to happen in order for the new life of spring to begin. It is the cycle of nature that death is followed by new life.
That is also true of the spiritual realm, as Jesus points out in this passage. It is early in the week that would culminate in His trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. Jesus and His disciples have just experienced their triumphant entry into Jerusalem, greeted by an adoring crowd casting palm branches before Him. It must have been a heady experience for the disciples; perhaps they are already picking out office space in the Temple for use when Jesus takes over!
And now even the Gentiles are responding. On the eve of the climactic moment of His ministry, the Gospel is breaking through racial, cultural and geographic barriers to encompass all people. It symbolized all that Jesus was trying to do.
Yet it was at this moment that Jesus reminds His disciples that He has not come to Jerusalem for a coronation but a crucifixion. They must understand — as must we –that it is through Christ’s death that He attains ultimate victory, for God’s Kingdom and for us.
How is this victory to be attained?
I. Victory is Attained Through Giving Away Our Lives (v. 24-26)
The disciples may have been counting on a quick rise to power and penthouse suites, but Jesus knew better. He knew that only by giving up His life in death would He ultimately accomplish God’s purpose.
He uses the illustration of the seed, which in itself is limited; but in death, it multiplies and can eventually bring forth a great harvest. In His death, also, Jesus will produce a great harvest, as He takes on Himself our sin so that we might experience new life in God’s Kingdom.
Clarence Macartney told of an eighteenth-century German artist named Stenberg, who was walking through the marketplace of his town when he was attracted to a gypsy girl who was dancing there. He asked her to come to his studio and sit for him, and he used her as a model for the painting “Dancing Gypsy Girl.”
While she was in the studio, she was interested in all the tools of the artist’s trade, and she began looking at other paintings on which he was working. She took particular interest in a painting of the crucifixion. “He must have been a very bad man to have been nailed to the cross like that,” she said.
“No,” said Stenberg, “He was a very good man. In fact, He died for all men.”
The girl responded, “Did He die for you?”
It was a question the artist had never really faced, and in the days ahead he was confronted with the reality of God’s love for him. He gave his life to Christ, then returned to finish the painting of the crucifixion, this time not just with an artist’s eye but with a believer’s heart.
But that’s not the end of the story. The finished painting was displayed in a Dusseldorf gallery, where one day a young German aristocrat paused to study it. The painting moved him, and the words written under it spoke to him: “This I did for thee; what hast thou done for me?”
Those words created in the young German count a new-found urgency to do something for Christ. The young man’s name was Nicholas Zinzendorf, and he became the key leader in the Moravian movement, which helped reach many for the Gospel, including many in America.
But that’s not the end of the story. One of the Moravian missionary outposts was in Savannah, Georgia. A young Anglican minister visiting America came into contact with these deeply committed Christians and it caused him to recognize a spiritual inadequacy in his own life. He returned to England, where one evening he entered a little church on Aldersgate Street in London, and there he gave his life to Jesus Christ. That young man, John Wesley, became the founder of the Methodist movement which has reached millions for Christ.
A seed planted brings forth a great harvest. Jesus invested His life for us on the cross, and today tens of millions claim His name.
So it is with us; if we cling to our lives, we will ultimately lose them forever, but if we lose them in Him — dying to self and living anew through Christ — then we gain eternal life. Ultimate victory is attained through giving away our lives.
II. Ultimate Victory is Attained by Defeating the Forces of Evil (v. 30)
The cross represents the ultimate and final death blow against the forces of evil. It is the turning point in the war. At the cross, the armies of death and hell screeched with delight, thinking they had won, but Easter morning turned their pleasure into defeat as Christ overcame death and cast down the forces of evil forever.
That doesn’t mean we do not continue to battle with evil in our own lives, but we understand that the ultimate victory is determined. And we need not battle alone, for the same Christ who stood victorious over evil on Easter morning is ready to bring His strength and power into our lives as we allow Him to do so.
III. Ultimate Victory is Attained by Drawing People to Christ (v. 32)
What a remarkable statement this must have been to the disciples. For them, the cross represented a horrible, cruel means of execution. It was something the state did to its greatest enemies, as a vicious act of retribution. And Jesus talks as if He is going to experience the awesome evil of the cross! The disciples could not comprehend it — indeed, as late as Thursday night at their last supper together, they still failed to understand what was about to happen.
But Jesus was preparing them to see that in the very act of death on the cross, He was bringing about a victory that would draw people to Him. The power of the cross continues to bring people to Jesus.
Yet how do they learn of that cross and what it has accomplished for us; how do they learn of the victory that has been made available for each of us through Christ? They learn as we tell, as we share what Jesus Christ has done in our lives. We tell how Christ’s cross has given victory to us, and in that sharing the cross continues to draw new lives unto Him.
Have you experienced the power of the cross in your life? Is He drawing you today to experience that new life, that ultimate victory, in your own life today? (JMD)
Palm Sunday (B)
March 27, 1994
The Lord Has Need
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, His parents had to borrow a shepherd’s cave because there was no room at the inn. When Jesus rode in triumph into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, He rode a borrowed donkey. Both of these ideas came together for me in a poem I came across some time ago:
They borrowed a bed to lay His head
When Christ the Lord came down;
They borrowed the ass in the mountain
pass/For Him to ride to town;
But the crown that He wore and the
Cross that He bore/Were His own …
I. The Christian faith is unique in its insistence that there are things which the Lord does need.
Perhaps the most brilliant man of the eighteenth century, John Wesley read eight languages, wrote some 440 books and pamphlets, and had an intellectual curiosity far beyond any of his peers. But not everyone was impressed. One woman wrote to him: “Mr. Wesley, I have been instructed by the Lord to tell you that He has no need of your learning.” To which Wesley replied, “Madame, while I have no direct word from the Lord on this matter, I feel constrained to tell you that the Lord has no need of your ignorance, either!” But there are things which the Lord does need; on Palm Sunday He needed a donkey.
I wonder why. Here is this big, burly carpenter who had walked all the way from Galilee in the north, down along the east bank of the Jordan through Perea, yet who now stops within sight of the Holy City to borrow a donkey for the remaining two-mile journey. Why — because riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was a Messianic statement. Nowhere does Jesus say out and out “I am the Messiah.” He did not use the title because people had so many different notions — most of them wrong — of what the Messiah would be like. Most saw the Messiah as a conquering hero. In the words of George MacDonald’s famous poem: “They were all looking for a king/To slay their foes and raise them high:/Thou camest a little baby thing/That make a woman cry.”
In the book of Mark, Jesus never comes right out and says “I am the Messiah.” But He does Messiah-like things — like riding a donkey into town. Mark, being the first and shortest Gospel, doesn’t elaborate the point. Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels, picks up on the symbolism right away. Matthew remembers the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 — “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.”
Only here in Mark is Jesus referred to as “Lord” — the usual name for God. By saying “The Lord has need,” Jesus is telling the disciples that the colt is needed for a sacred purpose. And Mark is saying that it is Jesus who needs the colt.
Here a high Christology shines through — the mystery which lies at the heart of the Christian faith: “The One who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
II. Years ago I heard a preacher say “The Lord needs us, everyone, but not much.”
He had a point. From time to time theologians get together and debate the age-old question: “Does God know the future?” If God does know the future, then what kind of freedom do we have? How could God know the future and the future not be predetermined? Over the centuries the question — “Does God know the future?” — has sprained brains greater than my own. Yet there is an image which I have found helpful in dealing with it. I think of rain falling on a mountain-top — like Mount Hermon on the border of Israel and Lebanon, where they get a forty-inch average rainfall per year. Whether the water falls in the form of rain or snow, eventually that water finds its way down the mountain and becomes part of the Jordan River (see Psalm 133).
When that rain falls on the mountain, we know one thing for sure: eventually it will get to the bottom of the mountain. Who knows how many detours it will take in getting there? It might have to zig and zag all over the place, going around this or that obstacle, but sooner or later it gets there. I look upon that rainfall as a symbol of God’s will. Sooner or later God’s will “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God would prefer it sooner rather than later, He has given us free will. We can frustrate God’s purposes, if we wish. We are God’s primary obstacle in achieving God’s purposes. But eventually God’s will is going to get done — with us or without us.
God would prefer it to be with us, but God will not force us into obedience; that must be freely given. And so, while we may slow down the coming of God’s kingdom, we cannot stop it. “Does God know the future?” I would reply’ God is the future. And to place one’s life in God is the only “sure thing” on this planet.
Have you ever stopped to think that there are some things that God is never going to get done in this world, unless He gets them done through you? You may only be a small instrument in a big parade but, as high-school band instructors often tell their reluctant musicians, “If you have a part to play, and you don’t play it, you will be missed.” That’s true. None of us is indispensable, but each of us is irreplaceable. When God made you He broke the mold. You are unique; and you are called to perform a unique function: to be you. A famous rabbi named Zuschia said centuries ago: “On Judgment Day, God will not say to me, ‘Zuschia, why were you not Moses’? God will say to me, ‘Zuschia, why were you not Zuschia’?”
God is the future, and He wants us to be in the future with Him. But if God can’t work with us, He will work around us. Sometimes the biggest obstacle to God’s getting His will done in the world is us. If we should pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done — in me!” — that would change things a bit. Most of us are quite willing to have God’s will be done — as long as it does not cost us anything.
In George Eliot’s novel Middle-march, a character named Dorothea sums up her faith: “That by desiring what is perfectly good even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.” Is that not the task of every Christian, every church on every street in every town — to “widen the skirts of light and make the struggle with darkness narrower”? The Lord has need of faithful disciples doing just that. “The Lord has need.”
III. What kind of response would we have given?
In The Interpreter’s Bible, Halford Luccock says “There are skills that can be put to the use of the kingdom, personality that can be the instrument of His truth, feet that can go on His errands, hands that can lift burdens. If this man in Jerusalem who owned the colt had treated the disciples who came for it the same way we often treat God’s calls for help, the conversation might have been: ‘Here, what are you doing with that colt?’ ‘The Lord has need of it.’ ‘What do I care? I need it myself. Go on and let it alone’.”
Maybe we wouldn’t be that blunt about it, but we do it just the same. God needs our time: “Sorry, but my time is limited. Besides, it is mine.” God needs our strength: “Sorry, I can’t take on a single thing more. I’m almost exhausted from Christmas shopping as it is. I’ve got troubles of my own.” God needs our money: “Sorry, but I have given all I can. There are so many demands these days, don’t you know?” “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” And so it goes. What kind of priority does God get with us?
The Lord has need of our time, talent, and treasure. Civil War General George McClellan was a genius at finding a million ways to keep from doing what had to be done. So President Lincoln sent this message to him: “If you haven’t any plans for the Army of the Potomac, would you mind lending it to me for awhile?” God says the same thing about our lives: “If you aren’t going to do anything with them, will you loan them to me for awhile?” “The Lord has need.” (DBS)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Donald B. Strobe, Professor of New Testament and Homiletics at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies; Robert R. Kopp, Pastor of Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, PA; Joey Faucette, Pastor of Rileys Creek Baptist Church, Rocky Point, NC; Gary C. Redding, Pastor of First Baptist Church, North Augusta, SC; C. Thomas Hilton, Interim Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Wayne, PA; and Michael Duduit, Editor of Preaching.
5th Sunday after Epiphany (B)