5th Sunday of Lent (C)
April 2, 1995
Assessing One’s Life
(Philippians 3:4-14)
There is a profound theology in this scripture — probably the highest Christology in the New Testament, and the ultimate themes of living, dying, and relating are there. There is even practical advice –how to get back together two church sisters who have fallen out. Philippians is rooted in reality –written for people like you and me by a person who has tasted life in all its fullness and composed, not in some ivory tower, but from a house in which he was incarcerated. Despite this, the main theme which permeates the book is joy.
My early association with the Christian religion, with Christians and with the church, somehow missed this theme of joy. The version to which I was exposed was not a happy, joyous Christianity. Yet, four and one-half decades of preaching the gospel have taught me that when God reveals Himself in Jesus Christ and we respond to His love in Jesus Christ by faith, there is the potential in life for a permeating, overflowing and real joy which gives us the capacity to celebrate.
When we begin assessing our lives, it’s good to think about the real differences Christ has made in our lives. This is what Paul did. If all you do when you come to church is to think how far you fall short of God’s ideals, you can become very discouraged and depressed. If I, like Amos, held up God’s plumbline for you to measure the crookedness of your life by the straightness of God’s plumbline, you would get depressed — none of us is perfect, each of us continues to fall short daily. There are probably some of you who came to church today who are wondering why you are here. Some of you are probably wondering about the kind of person you have become, the problems with which you are struggling, or the feelings you have while you are here. But if in worship, you think what your life would be like if it were stripped of all God’s work and influence, rather than making you despondent, your worship will make you joyous.
Paul reflects on his assets — he was in a bragging mood; but in the middle of counting up all the things he was, he realized that all these assets were “garbage.” Comparing what he had with what Christ had brought into his life, Paul considered his assets as manure, dung, refuse. Christ had made it possible for him to be oblivious even to his circumstances — he is old, ill, incarcerated, and he’s been abandoned by his friends — but he is writing about joy. Earlier he had been an angry, legalistic, violent, driven man; now he is in jail writing about God’s joy, love, and hope.
You are blessed people, too. It is good when we gather in worship to think about what your life has been made like in Jesus Christ and to envision all of this being suddenly stripped away from you. This is a good time to begin assessing our benefits with thanksgiving. As we assess our lives, it is also good to consider God’s continuing activity in our lives, to reflect on what God is up to now, and what God plans for the future.
It is easier to look back and see God at work in our past than it is to recognize Him at work in the experiences of life now. It is very difficult to live life and reflect on it at the same time. Sometimes, time and distance give us a little perspective. Also our relationship with Christ allows us to take experiences which could destroy us and deal with them redemptively and sometimes salvage good things out of them.
But the apostle Paul reminds us that in the Christian life there is a dynamic in our relationship with God. It’s a relationship which is alive, growing, and open-ended.
What does he mean when he says, “I want to know Christ in the power of his resurrection.” What does he mean when he said, “I want to have fellowship with Christ in his sufferings.” He had been beaten, stoned, ridiculed, rejected, and put in jail. All this suffering he had done for Christ. What does he mean? He said, “I would like to lay hold of the reason for which God has laid hold of me.” What does he mean?
Of all persons, this man ought to be able to say, “I’ve done it, I know it, and I have it.” But what he is saying is, “There’s more. I am a blessed person. I count everything I gave up for Jesus Christ as dung but there is more, so much more — more to know, to be, to become, to experience, and to do.” These are reflections of God at work in his life.
This is a question we need to ask: “Not only am I blessed but what is God up to in my life? What is God doing in my life now?” Each of us wishes we could come to the place where we could identify with Paul, whose life — even in the midst of celebrating past blessings — leaned to the future and leaned forward.
Paul looked like a hopeless case. He was to be tried and probably executed. Yet he was leaning forward — driven by unfinished business in his life and work, pulled by the adventure of tomorrow’s task. There is something a little narcotic about the kind of life he lives — always moving out on the edge of things. In the apostle Paul, I covet something for you and me: he was always turning and taking hold. The French psychiatrist, Paul Tournier, discussed this in one of his books and gave us an interesting metaphor for faith. He said, “Faith is like a trapeze artist who is swinging on one bar. He’s going to turn loose and grab another bar; but there is a moment after he has turned loose of the security of the first bar before he has reached out for the security of the second bar where he is hanging in the air with no net underneath.” He said, “The Christian life is like this — a lot of turning loose and taking hold in the living of life.”
We can experience the joy Paul demonstrated here when we are willing to turn loose — to turn loose of the concerns that hold us back; turn loose of the sins that enslave us; turn loose of the lack of vision that obscures God’s vision for our lives.
Will you join me today in turning loose and taking hold of a new vision — God’s vision? (KLC)
Palm/Passion Sunday (C)
April 9, 1995
Christ’s Gift and Our Gift
(Luke 22:14 – 23:56)
One of the spiritual enigmas of our time is Billy Graham. The reason I say he is a spiritual enigma is because so many people have tried to analyze him — psychologists, preachers, public relations experts — yet there seems to be no unanimity about why millions of people all over the world are so interested in what he has to say when he preaches the good news of Christ, and why people respond to him so readily.
Of all the people who have analyzed him and offered explanations I think Billy Graham’s mother may have the best answer. During an interview she was asked, “Why do you think God has used your son in such a way?” She said, “I don’t know. I can’t explain that. I know there are preachers who preach better than him. I know there are people who can organize better than him. I know there are many people who could do everything he does better than he can. But I know this: I know that when Billy gave himself to God, he gave all there was of him.”
God usually does not use a tool that has not been placed in His hand, and usually He only partially uses a tool that has been partially placed in His hand. But when we give to God all there is of us, He can use us fully. However, it just may be that the one thing that will allow God to use us fully may be the one thing that many people are most reluctant to do. Afraid of losing control, we sometimes shrink from giving everything to God.
No doubt some people would rather die than lose control of what they consider to be theirs. Did you ever see that old classic Jack Benny skit where the thief sticks his gun in Benny’s face and tells him, “Your money or your life!”? Then there is that typical Jack Benny pregnant pause and the thief finally says, “Well, come on, fork it over!” And Jack Benny says, “Don’t rush me. I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
Don’t rush me; maybe I would rather die than “fork it over.”
Several years ago construction workers were laying a foundation for a building outside the city of Pompeii. Many years earlier that city was destroyed by the eruption of the volcano on Mt. Vesuvius. These construction workers found the corpse of a woman who must have been fleeing from that eruption but had been caught in its rain of hot ashes. What was noteworthy about this situation was that the woman was clutching jewels in her hands, and the jewels had been preserved in excellent condition. She had saved her jewels, but lost her life in the process.
On the mount of Olives, and on the cross the next day, Jesus Christ did just the opposite. The Bible says that He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself … He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6, 10). Instead of trying to escape death, like the citizens of Pompeii, Jesus willingly gave His life. He had said, “I lay down my life for the sheep … No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative” (John 10:15, 18).
I. Jesus gave His life.
It was Christ’s consistent posture to place the will of God the Father over His own will. Even as a child He told His mother, “I must be about my Father’s business’ (Luke 2:49). As an adult He said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34). And He said, “I do not seek my own will, but the will of Him who sent me” (John 5:30). Then, in the garden, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). And finally, just before He died on the cross He verbalized what had been His life-long pattern: “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). He gave His life away. When Jesus gave Himself to God, He gave all there was of Him.
The story about Jesus giving Himself away not only tells us something about Him; it tells us something about us, because we are to be like Him. In fact, the Bible says that those of us who are His followers are predestined to be conformed to His image (Rom. 8:29). So we are to give ourselves away, like He did. And when we give ourselves to God we are to give all there is of us, not grasping for the things of this world but releasing them to God. That’s not easy to do, because we would like to be able to make our own decisions about what to do on Saturday night, or Monday morning, without any interference from the Almighty. We would like to be able to call our money “our money” without God meddling in our bank accounts. We would like to be able to choose the direction for our lives by determining what is most comfortable for us, not what is most pleasing to God. It is not easy.
But then it wasn’t easy for Jesus either. On Palm Sunday, when He rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and was welcomed by the adoring and cheering crowd, He knew that their allegiance to Him was shallow and would be short-lived. He knew that some of the same people who cried “Hosanna” would shout “Crucify Him” only five days later. That night on the Mount of Olives when the final and cosmic exchange was made — the will of the man Jesus for the will of God — Luke recorded the painful tension that Jesus felt as He prayed. So great was the anxiety, the burden, that He began to sweat as He prayed. And His sweat became blood seeping through the pores of His brow until it dropped upon the ground beneath Him. Scientists today say that such a phenomenon is possible physiologically when one’s emotional pressure reaches the peak where it is able to affect the body this dramatically. Christ’s gift of Himself wasn’t easy, and neither is our gift of ourselves.
Have you given yourself to God? A pastor friend of mine says that the various perspectives about life on the part of Christians can be summed up with four questions. First, “What are you doing for me?” That’s obviously the perspective of the spiritual baby — the self-centered person. Second, “Why doesn’t somebody do something?” Those who ask this question are aware of a problem and they can tell you how it should be handled, but they don’t want to get involved themselves. When the Israelites saw Goliath on the other side of the valley that was their question: Why doesn’t somebody do something?
The third question is, “What shall this man do?” That was the question Peter asked about the apostle John. Peter knew he had committed himself, but he wanted to know what John was going to do to serve God? Jesus brushed Peter’s question aside by saying, “What is that to you? Follow Me.” The only question that really matters is, “Lord, what will you have me do?” That was the question Paul asked on the road to Damascus. Of the four questions, which one best represents your relationship to God?
II. Jesus gave His life for us.
As He prayed in the garden, Jesus referred to “this cup.” He was referring to the cup of suffering He was about to undergo for our sake. As Peter later wrote, “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). He gave His life for us. And if it were not for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sins, where would we be? Sin — even one sin — separates us from God. Sinners like us are estranged from God, our sin must be punished, and God will not compromise His perfect holiness and justice. Our only hope is for a substitute, someone who will take our sin and its penalty upon Himself so that we can be reconciled to God. That is exactly what Jesus did for us when He gave His life away, and without the forgiveness and new life that comes from Him we would be forever barred from the presence of God. Because of our sin we are incapable of righting ourselves with God. Thank God that He loves us so much that He sent His Son to be our Substitute and Savior.
When Michael Jordan was playing basketball instead of baseball, Newsweek magazine interviewed Stacy King, one of Jordan’s teammates. King was quoted as saying, “It was a night I will always remember as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined to score seventy points.” What Stacy King did not mention is that Michael Jordan had scored sixty-nine of those seventy points! King’s remarks were like that of the mosquito on the back of an elephant walking across a bridge. The mosquito said to the elephant, “We sure are making this thing shake, aren’t we?”
And that’s like a Christian claiming credit for his or her salvation. Christ did all that is necessary for a right relationship to God when He died on the cross and rose again. The one point that we are to score is to open ourselves by faith to His presence and His work in us and to ask Him to come into our lives. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). When He gave Himself away, it was for us, and the result was that a way was opened for people to know God.
III. When Jesus gave His life away for us, God gave it back to Him.
Jesus died and was buried in a tomb. Is that the end of giving self away to God? No, because three days later Jesus came out of the tomb alive, and the resurrection is God’s stamp of approval on the kind of sacrifice that Jesus made. Philippians 2 says that Jesus was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” And the next words are, “Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:8-9). Yes, Jesus gave Himself away sacrificially, but God exalted Him because of it. Yes, Billy Graham gives what there is of himself to God, but far from moaning about the sacrifices of surrendering his life to God, I think he would speak of the benefits of giving all of self to God.” God, too, is a giver.
The reason we are so reluctant to give self and substance to God, like Jesus did, is because we forget that God is a giver. When it comes to money, if our mathematics are carnal rather than spiritual, we think that what we give away we lose. But just the opposite is the case. Jesus said, “Give and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38). When we are obedient to God in the area of finances He blesses us in ways we have not even dreamed of.
We are also reluctant to give ourselves away — that is, our time, our talents, our future. Some people think that if they say to God, “I am Thine, O Lord. I’ll go anywhere or change anything” that God will send them as missionaries to Bongo Bongo so fast it will make their heads swim. And He may one day. But He’ll probably start by saying, “My precious child, I’ve been waiting to hear you say that. I want to bless you, and I want you to know me better. And as we walk together, with my life in yours and yours in mine, one step at a time we will go to the places that I have in mind for you, places where you will be the happiest and most fulfilled in my will.”
A girl saved her money for a long time to buy a particular necklace that struck her fancy. Finally she was able to buy it. It was just cheap plastic, but to her it was her most valuable possession. Her father asked her to give it to him, but she couldn’t understand why he would ask her to give up that which was most precious to her. Finally she obeyed her father, and as soon as he had the necklace in his hand he threw it into the fire that burned brightly in the fireplace. Naturally, the girl was heartbroken and confused, but then her father reached into his pocket and took out what he had bought for her — a beautiful string of pearls. He placed the necklace around her neck, and it was only then that she realized how inferior and worthless her prized possession had been.
How about you? Are you ready to release the cheap toys of this world so that God can place in your hands His priceless and eternal treasures? Thank God that Jesus gave Himself away for us so that we can know God today; but that blessing awaits our willingness to receive Christ. Thank God that He rewards those who give away self and substance for Him; but that blessing from God awaits our willingness to give ourselves to God. What will be your response? (NAM)
Easter Sunday (C)
April 16, 1995
Jesus Is Life
(John 20:1-18)
The crucifixion scene fades into the shadows. Jesus died a despicable death on the tree. Joseph and Nicodemus take on the task of removing the body of Jesus from the cross. One by one they remove the thorns lodged so deeply in His skull. They remove the driven nails from the lifeless hands and blood-drenched feet of the man from Nazareth. An ugly sight, and yet so important. John would later write the reason: “so that you may have life.”
Quickly cleaning the body of their friend Jesus, the two put Him into the death shroud along with about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes, preserving the body until the women could come early on Sunday to complete the task. They placed the body in a compartment of Joseph’s new tomb that had been purchased close to the hill of Golgotha. Both Joseph and Nicodemus are conservative Jews. They feel compelled to finish the task before the night brought on the Sabbath. As they leave the tomb, they push a large stone over the entrance so that no body snatcher could steal the body.
Sunday dawns on women sadly moving toward the cemetery where Jesus lay; Mary Magdalene leads the way accompanied by Mary, the mother of James, Salome (Mark 16:1-2), Joanne, the wife of Chuza, the steward of Herod and follower of Jesus (Luke 24:10), and other women. As the processional wends its way toward the tomb, their discussion centers on how to remove the large stone blocking the entrance to the interior of the stony grave. As they travel, an earthquake shakes the area and the large stone moves away from the entrance. The Bible states that “when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. The men said to them, ‘why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen’!”
What unbelievably good news! The truth is that life for Christ is life for humanity. Jesus’ resurrection breaks the bonds that held Him and will also break the bonds of death for all who will believe and repent.
I. Jesus’ Resurrection Breaks the Bonds of Death (v. 14)
As a pastor I stand at countless grave openings where caskets with human remains are lowered into the ground. If this were the end of life, how hollow would be the words I speak, the scriptures I read, the prayers I pray. Eternal life’s genesis has happened because the bonds of death were broken by Jesus on resurrection morning!
Robert Hughes tells of his father who was a coal miner in the northeastern hills of Pennsylvania. He had a precarious job to check the mine for methane gas before the rest of the men entered the bowels of the mine. Each morning he took his safety light and descended alone into the mine. Every tunnel and shaft would he check to make sure there was no deadly methane gas present. If the safety lamp’s light would flicker, he would run as fast as he could because an explosion might happen due to the presence of that gas. After checking the mine, he would walk up to the surface and the miners would gather around expectantly waiting for him to announce, “It’s ok, it’s safe, you can now go down into the mine.”
“That’s what Christ has done for us,” adds Robert Hughes. “Coming up out of the depths of death, He has announced to all who are gathered here in this life on earth: ‘It’s ok; it’s safe. You can enter into death, into the darkness and the unknown. It’s safe because I have been there and checked it out. I have overcome it.”
II. Jesus Breaks the Bonds of Emptiness, Loneliness, and Frustration (v. 16)
The idea that the body of her dead friend was gone was all Mary could endure, so she breaks down and cries outside the tomb. Grief, frustration, emptiness, and loneliness envelope Mary in her own shroud of pain.
But Jesus spoke her name, and her hope returned. As long as there is life, there is hope for meaningful life. As long as there is life, it is possible for us to contribute to our world. As long as Jesus lives, life has fulfillment, companionship, and purpose — and as long as Jesus lives in our hearts, He brings all of that to us!
Today, stop to think about what brings pain and misery into your life. Choose to overcome the empty, lonely life by giving God your life. Put yourself “on the altar” of sacrifice and let God resurrect your useless life to usefulness. Resolve to be filled with His presence by prayer and reading His Word. Envision what God through His Spirit wants to do in your life. Life is difficult, but not insurmountable. Jesus will resurrect your fortitude by remaking, remolding, challenging and cleansing your life to make it new! Take in life and expel the darkness and gloom. Choose life by choosing Jesus.
III. Jesus Breaks the Bonds of Mortality (v. 20)
A physician was visiting a dying patient. As the doctor prepared to leave, the sick man inquired if he would get well. The Christian doctor hesitated. Taking his physician by the hand, the sick man stated, “I don’t want to die. Please tell me what lies on the other side.” The doctor quietly answered that he didn’t know.
They talked for a few moments about the mystery of it all, and then the doctor turned to leave. As he opened the door, a dog sprang into the room and leaped on him with delight. His dog had been waiting in the car, but it had somehow gotten out and awaited him at the door. Turning to the patient, the doctor said, “This is my dog. He has never been in your house. He did not know what was inside here. He only knew that his master was inside, and so he jumped in without fear.”
The doctor continued, “I cannot tell you what’s on the other side, but I know the Master is there — and that is enough! When He opens the door, I will pass without fear into His presence.”
Jesus has put on immortality — and He leads the way for us. Jesus is life. He is our life, if we accept His offer “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16b). (DGK)
2nd Sunday of Easter (C)
April 23, 1995
What Has Jesus Done
for You Lately?
(Revelation 1:4-8)
Holy Week is over. The big event is behind us. Palm Sunday’s branches have been thrown away; in some churches, they will become the ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday service. The bloody, broken body on the cross was removed and buried. The darkness of Good Friday and the painful silence of Holy Saturday became the triumphant shout of Easter morning.
It’s all behind us now. The lilies have been taken to the shut-ins. The banners are stored behind the choir loft. The extra chairs are stacked in the corner. Life is pretty much back to what we call “normal,” as if life could ever again be called “normal” after the resurrection.
But before the scent of the lilies and the echo of the “alleluias” drift too far into oblivion, I want to ask you a question: what has Jesus done for you lately? What real difference has the cross and resurrection made in your life?
Of course it’s a great story. They call it “the greatest story ever told.” But there are lots of great stories, stories which are historically accurate, but have only an indirect impact on my life: Socrates drinking the hemlock; Newton discovering gravity when an apple fell on his head; Napoleon at Waterloo; George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.
Good stories all, but this cross-and-resurrection story is different. Listen closely to the way people talk about it and you’ll discover they take it very personally. They talk as if they have become part of the story, as if what happened at Calvary and at Joseph’s tomb actually happened for them.
So I ask you: What has Jesus done for you lately? How has the word of the cross and resurrection changed your life?
In the text we read this morning, the introduction of John’s Revelation, the apostle offers three very clear answers to that question. See if you can claim them for yourself today.
I. He says, “Jesus loves us.”
I want you to notice the tense of that verb. “He loves us” — present tense, eternally now, always happening. Jesus loves us! And can you think of anything that anyone could do which would make more of a difference in your life than to let you know that you are loved?
One of the greatest plays of the American theatre is Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” In that play’s poignant closing scene there is an explosion of tension between Willy and his oldest son, Biff. When it is over, Biff turns away and walks up the stairs in tears. Willy, who has been totally incapable of understanding his family’s true feelings, turns to his wife Linda and says, “Isn’t that — isn’t that remarkable? Biff — he likes me!” The long-suffering wife replies, “He loves you, Willy!” Younger brother Happy laconically adds, “Always did, Pop.”
When Brendan Gill reviewed the play for The New Yorker, he wrote, “so many people were sobbing during the last few minutes of the play that they threatened to interrupt the action on stage.”
That’s what Jesus has done for us. Every time you look up at that empty cross, it is the unalterable sign, the unmistakable evidence that God loves you — eternally present tense. Always did, always will.
The first thing Jesus has done for us is to let us know we are loved. Then, John says,
II. “By his death he freed us from our sins.”
The daring affirmation of the Gospel, the great mystery of Christian faith, the astounding affirmation which can change and transform human life, is that somehow Jesus’ death on the cross has broken the power, the control, the bondage of evil and sin. By the power of the resurrection we are liberated, set free to live a new life as the people of God.
I can’t explain that. When I try to think my way through the theology of it I get all tangled up. I can’t think my way through it, but I can feel my way into the power of it. That’s exactly how it feels. When we experience the love of God in Christ, it feels as if we have been set free from old ways of thinking and being, liberated to live in a whole new way.
One of Charles Wesley’s lesser known hymns is also one of my favorites. See if you can identify with his feelings.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
It still happens, you know. Three years ago on Palm Sunday, a person came to worship here after a long period of separation from the church. He’s been here every Sunday since. I have kept in my file a letter he wrote after our first visit. Here’s what he wrote:
I consulted my notes on the question of why we are freed upon becoming slaves of Christ … In sin, we are doomed to ever-repeating instances from which less and less pleasure is derived and ever-increasing adverse side-effects experienced. In other words, sin is an ever-increasing burden or albatross.
In Christ, our burdens are lifted; our toil is shared. The little things give us more and more happiness and the side-effects arc positive and diverse. This is true freedom.
That’s exactly what John meant when he wrote, “by his death he freed us from sin.” Finally, John says, “he made us a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father.”
In the cross and resurrection, God has done more than just let us know we are loved. God does more than just set us free from the past.
III. God makes us something we could never become on our own.
We are now servants, priests, men and women who model the kingdom — the rule, the will, the way of God — coming in human experience. He made us His agents of reconciliation, sent to serve the world in the love of Christ.
On that night before He died, Jesus did the task of the lowest servant in the house: He washed His disciples’ feet. And when He was finished, He told them, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and that is what I am. I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you.”
Jesus demands no more of His disciples than He did of Himself, which was everything. He calls us to give as He gave, to love as He loved, to serve as He served. And His disciples, from that day to this, have dared to believe that if He could do it, they can do it too.
We have not really heard the Easter story until we hear the living Christ, the risen Lord, the faithful witness, the first-born son, the ruler of the kings of the earth, commissioning us, sending us out to be His agents of love, reconciliation, healing and peace in this world.
I’ll confess that I never much liked the hymn “In the Garden.” I always thought it was a slushy, syrupy sort of a thing. But when the new hymnal came out, I noticed they had placed it among the resurrection hymns. I looked it up in the hymnal commentary, and found it was there because the poet might have been describing Mary meeting Jesus in the garden on Easter morning. That helped, but it still seemed like an isolationist sort of picture to me; just Jesus and me, hiding out in a garden, smelling the roses. But I finally got around to reading that last verse. Listen to what the poet said:
I’d stay in the garden with him
though the night around me be falling,
Well, who wouldn’t? I mean, if we could hide away in the garden with Jesus, I guess we’d all choose that. But then listen to what the risen Christ says:
But he bids me go; though the voice of woe — all those voices of woe, all those voices of pain which cry out for hope and love, through the voice of woe out there in the world — his voice to me is calling.
It’s out there, outside the garden, in the very real darkness of a very real world, that the living Christ walks with us, talks with us, and tells us we are His own, as He makes us servants in His name, men and women who are living in ways which are consistent with Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God.
Let me ask you once again: What’s Jesus done for you lately? John’s answer is clear: He loves us, eternally present — always has, always will; He freed us by His death from the power of sin; He made us a kingdom of priests to serve in His name.
Do you know that love? Can you feel that freedom? Are you ready to serve? (JAH)
3rd Sunday of Easter (C)
April 30, 1995
Fishing, Feeding, and Following
(John 21:1-19)
One of the great blessings of life in the kingdom is knowing and experiencing unity through a common faith in Jesus Christ. Because of our common faith in Jesus Christ, we worship and work and witness with people from every corner of our community, county, country, and world regardless of class, culture, or color. Through faith in Jesus Christ, the relational gaps between us are bridged. To positively paraphrase The Imperials (“There will never be any peace until God is seated at the conference table”), “There is peace when Jesus is seated at the conference table.”
Because of our common faith in Jesus Christ we are, as Paul wrote, “no longer foreigners or aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to j become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.” Emphasizing our unity through Jesus Christ, Paul went on, “There is one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 2:19-21; 4:4-6).
In a world so fractured by what makes us different from each other, we thank God for giving us Himself in Jesus Christ through whom we can come together in productively positive peace. Through Jesus Christ, Yankees and Southerners and even Californians can join folks around the globe to become one great family of faith. For as Paul wrote, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus … There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-29). Or as one old hillbilly preacher put it, “If you one with Jesus, you one with all kinds of people. If you ain’t, you ain’t.”
To be more offensive, when people are separated from each other, it symbolizes their separation from Jesus. You cannot be in Him apart from others who are in Him. When folks are not reconciled to each other, it’s because they are not reconciled to Jesus. That’s why I’ve always liked the title of one hymnbook: Hymns for the Family of God. If we are kin to Christ, we are kin to all who claim Christ as Lord and Savior. We are one big family in Him. And He wants His family to grow.
Jesus wants His family to grow. That’s why He told us to go fishing: “Come, follow me, … and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:14ff). He told us to hook ’em for Him. Terry Fenwick, a vivacious and spirit-filled saint, told me how she reminds herself of the reason God has called her to teach Bible studies. On the inside of the pulpit or lectern, she posts little placards that read “Proclaim Christ!” And as we examine the parting words of Jesus, that was His first concern. He wanted, expected, and clearly commanded us to tell people about Him.
John’s account of our Lord’s parting words does not deviate from the saving plan. It begins with another fish story. The disciples don’t catch a thing until Jesus tells them what to do. It’s good to keep in mind that Jesus is God and God knows who we are and what we should be doing. If we pay attention to Jesus, we’ll have a good catch. If we don’t we’ll come up empty every time.
“When they had finished eating,” wrote John, Jesus asked Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” “Yes, Lord,” replied Peter, “You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus asked, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter answered again, “You know that I love you.” “Take care of my sheep,” Jesus said. Then Jesus asked for a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” At this point, some may say Jesus wasn’t too sure about Peter’s love. He had fudged on the name of Jesus when the chips were down. But remember, Jesus is God — He knows everything. And He knew what Peter had in mind, heart, and soul.
Though Peter was getting a bit exasperated by it all — “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you” — Jesus was simply though strongly emphasizing His desire, expectation, and command for a growing family. By asking it three times, Jesus was making sure Peter understood that the first concern of the kingdom is growth. God wants the Church to grow because God wants to live with His family forever.
Jesus wants His people to hook ’em and heal ’em. We fish, then we feed. We talk, then we teach. “We’ve a story to tell to the nations,” goes the old Gospel song, “a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light.” And we love to tell the story, as another hymn goes, “For those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.” Once we reel folks into the kingdom, it’s our responsibility to teach them how to live as citizens of the kingdom. We call it discipleship. We teach people how to live like believers. Our model is Jesus. Our text is the Bible. And our classroom is the communion of saints. We hook ’em for Jesus, then heal ’em. We fish, then we feed. We talk, then we teach. The fishing is for salvation. The feeding is to enable the saved to live like believers.
Jesus certainly cares about the belly. One reading of Matthew 25 will clear up any confusion on that. But our Lord’s greatest concern is the soul. He is infinitely concerned about the soul. That’s His lasting, let’s say everlasting, concern.
But before we can fish and feed, we must follow. We cannot hook ’em or heal ’em until we heed Him. That’s why Jesus told the Church as He told Peter, “Follow me.” Jesus is the pattern for life and ministry. And our handbook is the Bible which bears witness to Him. Again, the disciples didn’t catch a thing until Jesus told them what to do. “Throw your net on the right side,” said Jesus. “When they did,” wrote John, “they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.”
When we talk about Jesus and teach what He taught, we make a big catch for the kingdom. We help to save people. And we all want to save people. The point is we will hook ’em and heal ’em when we heed Him. Fishing, feeding, and following go together. And faithful following always bears fruit. We are blessed as we bless Him by blessing others with the good news about Him.
The only way we can be fishing and feeding failures is by not following Him. We cannot hook ’em or heal ’em if we don’t heed Him. Jesus told Nicodemus how it happens: “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light” (see John 3). When Twain or MacLaine or anyone else — even ourselves — rivals Jesus as the Lord of our lives, it is a prescription for failed ministry and a fractured family of faith. “The greatest dissipator of our relationship to God,” observed Oswald Chambers, “is personal sympathy and personal prejudice.”
It’s like the person who addresses the great issues of the day this way: “I know that’s what Jesus and the Bible say, but I think …” As if it really matters what we think about what God has revealed. Our responsibility is to attend to, rather than contend with, His Word. That’s what discipleship is all about. That’s what it means to live like a believer. We are called to obey, not to object. We may like to paddle our own canoes but we better remember who is Captain. As Christians, we speak after we have been spoken to by the Lord.
The little boy was instructed to construct a sentence using the word “I.” “I is,” began the little boy. “No, no,” the teacher quickly interrupted. “Not ‘I is.’ Always say, ‘I am’.” The boy replied, “O.K., ‘I’ am the ninth letter of the alphabet.”
In the same way, we aren’t ready to speak for our Lord until we’ve heard from Him. We’ve got to know the whole story before we can share it. That’s why following Jesus precedes fishing and feeding; we must heed Him before we can hook ’em or heal ’em. “Throw your net on the right side of the boat,” said Jesus. “When they did,” wrote John, “they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.”
We need to be loved. We want to be loved. And we don’t or can’t really appreciate love when it’s cryptic or concealed. We want it loud and clear, as in “Daddy! When are you coming home? I miss you!” We want the kind of love that sings with the lovers in The Phantom of the Opera, “Anywhere you go let me go too … Love me — that’s all I ask of you.”
I believe the Lord is like that too. Why do you think Jesus told us to love the Lord with heart and soul and mind (Matt. 22:34ff)? Why do you think Jesus told us as He told Peter, “Follow me!” And can there be any doubt the Lord wants us to sing to Him, “anywhere you go let me go too … Love me — that’s all I ask of you.” He wants us to follow Him. He wants us to love Him. Then He can take us fishing. (RRK)
4th Sunday of Easter (C)
May 7, 1995
Hearing Voices
(John 10:22-30)
It was not a famous film. It was called Saving Grace. I had never heard of it, yet it captured my attention almost immediately. I was suffering from a bad cold and needed a break from coughing and sneezing; I clicked on the TV and there was Tom Conti portraying a fictional Pope Leo XIV, a new pope who was being overwhelmed with the stress of his job.
We hear a lot about stress these days, but seldom do we think of a pope or prelate, a bishop or priest as being under stress. Yet they are, as are we all — pastors and people. An item in National and International Religion Report says “a majority of American pastors are suffering from spiritual burnout.”1 The article goes on to say, “Local church ministry carries with it an ‘unhealthy’ level of stress.” We can imagine the stress endured by popes and bishops, by pastors and priests.
In the fictional film, Pope Leo XIV was no longer able to hear the voice of God; that was his stress. He was considering resignation, throwing in the towel, giving up. Though resignation was unheard of, he thought of it and wanted to act on it. Perhaps he could hear that still small voice again if he relinquished his power and prestige and did something else for a while (1 Kings 19:12).
One day while he was working in the Vatican gardens, the wind blew a piece of paper across the wall into the street beyond. On the paper was the plan for the planting of garden flowers, and he needed it. Dressed in ordinary working clothes, Pope Leo XIV stepped into the street to retrieve the plan; the garden gate locked behind him. This gave him the opportunity he needed, the opportunity to discover the real world, to find out what real people were thinking, and to unearth the real problems they were facing.
Hitchhiking, he went to an old mountaintop town named Montepetra, which translates into either Stone Mountain or Peter’s Mountain. which duality is probably what the author intended. There, the heir of Peter, the man who wore the Shoes of the Fisherman, the so-called Vicar of Christ, would discover the miraculous way to move mountains.
It was a simple story; it received no awards. But to me it summed up the problem this aching world and our struggling society is enduring: we’re not hearing God’s voice! We’re not hearing His voice because we’re not listening. Oh yes, we want to listen, but there are other voices to be heard.
There is the wild voice that urges the powerful to exercise their might at the expense of the innocent, and the vicious voice that entices the weak to explode in unfounded rage, inflicting chaos and disaster upon anyone in their way. There are the voices that tempt people to use illicit drugs or to consent to improper sex or to dip into the employer’s till. But these are not the voices of God.
Jesus said “My sheep hear My voice.” His voice is not heard because it is being ignored; not because it has become still, nor because it is too soft or too feeble, but because it is being ignored. To hear Jesus is to follow Jesus. Hearing Jesus is listening to love, not loathing. Following Jesus leads to triumph, not tragedy.
Are you hearing His voice? How are you responding to it? Tuning out the multiplicity of voices around us is not easy. But Jesus says His sheep hear His voice; is that the voice to which you are giving your attention?
I. Hearing means believing.
Jesus was walking in the court of the Temple in Jerusalem. Its marble grandeur undoubtedly evoked a sense of awe, but the Jews present were more awed with Jesus. It was Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. The chill air of winter surrounded the Nazarene Rabbi and His listeners.
“How long will you keep us in suspense?” they asked. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
“I have told you,” answered Jesus, “and you do not believe.”
It is not enough to hear the voice of God, one must act on it the way Paul Revere stirred the Minutemen to action as he cried: “The British are coming; the British are coming.” We are to respond as did the Israelites in their hasty departure from the Land of Bondage enroute to the Promised Land. It requires immediacy, not wait-and-see. It demands faith and rapid action. We are to believe Jesus without faltering.
If you hear Jesus’ voice, you must heed it. You cannot equivocate. You must believe Him. You cannot keep one ear cocked for a more interesting voice while the other ear listens to Jesus. He wants your undivided attention. Jesus makes it a very simple matter: if you hear Him, there will be no hedging, no sidestepping, no defecting. You will believe Him — eagerly, gladly — and you will rejoice in having done so. You will erupt with gladness.
II. Hearing means believing, but it also means living in another dimension.
Jesus says of the sheep that believe in Him, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” That’s living in a greater dimension than the one-dimensional existence that this world offers. It is living here and now, before death, and living with the full knowledge that life thrives in that eternal dimension that only Jesus provides. To live in that future dimension means to dwell in hope now.
A child is baptized today. She was born in a time when Communism’s failure strengthened world peace, yet neighborhood squabbles have resulted in Yugoslavia and the southern provinces of the former Soviet Union being catapulted into civil strife. World peace is bettered, but neighbors can’t live with neighbors! Civil strife erupted into such vicious violence in Los Angeles that 10,000 workplaces were put out of business; fifty-seven lives were silenced, and several thousands of people were injured. The dollar damages quickly zoomed beyond a billion. What hope can this child have?
Fortunately, she is baptized into another dimension than the one of this world. She is rinsed with water, but in the splash of that liquid is the promise of eternal life. In baptism she is washed in hope, a hope and promise that Jesus assures us will enable us to master life’s turmoil. Certainly that means racial tensions and urban struggles as well as all the other problems of life. And we are baptized in more than waters of hope; we are baptized in the Name of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’re baptized in hope, and in that hope is power!
Hearing the voice of Jesus means living in another dimension, an unending promise, an eternity that is limited only by faithlessness. We are strengthened by that baptismal covenant daily as it renews us in hope — not only of life eternal, but life right now that may be lived with empowering hope.
III. Hearing must always mean following.
Faith and hope are mere ideologies until they are realized by following Jesus in this very real world. Jesus said it unapologetically. Immediately after telling the crowd surrounding Him that His sheep hear His voice, He said, “I know them, and they follow Me.”
There is something cockeyed in this beautiful land we call America. If our forefathers were followers of Jesus, all too few modern Americans take Him seriously. They may hear His voice, but only a few follow — and those who do not are unaware of what they’re missing, for in following Jesus we are engulfed in a love that forgives.
Time magazine essayed about the rioters in southcentral Los Angeles, saying “Love is a zero-sum game in America, and the children riot over it. Or rather, they riot in the absence of it; it is usually the want of love that makes children vicious and sends them out of control.”2 Even a secular magazine knows the need for love. The world aches for Mother Love and Father Love and Family Love. Are you following Jesus, God’s great gift of love?
To follow Jesus is to follow love; it is to find a better way to effect necessary change than rampage and rage. It is to discover a power so magnificent that it distills forgiveness from loathing, and the will to win out of the evidence of defeat. Love is the answer to the manifold questions bombarding our world: love in the broad brush strokes of life, as well as the fine pinstripes of living. It is philosophy and practicality.
Missionary Herb Schaefer tells about a thirteen-year-old Chinese girl who continued with her family to worship Christ in their home during the Cultural Revolution, which had nationalized religion and banned private worship.
One evening the Red Guards burst into their small house and upbraided them for worshiping Jesus. Their little altar with a crude cross stood in the center of the room. Determined to channel their energies into following the dictates of Chairman Mao, the Red Guard leader demanded that they spit on the cross. They refused. The Red Guard lieutenant became indignant. He bellowed at them and told them that unless they spat on the cross death would be their punishment.
Finally, the elder in the group came forward, spat on the cross, and walked out. One by one the rest of the little congregation followed, doing the same disgusting thing, spitting on the cross. Finally the thirteen-year-old girl was alone. She refused to do what the others did.
“I cannot and I won’t,” she said. Then she told of her depth of faith in Jesus Christ. She would follow Him always. The lieutenant seemed pleased. “This is the kind of faith we want to see in the new China; people who commit themselves so totally they are willing to die for their faith.” But he wanted her to apply that faith to Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. He gave her high marks and let her go; her life was spared. As for the others, they were never seen again.
Schaefer told this story and then, as if to underscore how completely this young girl followed Christ, he told us that shortly thereafter she made her way to Hong Kong. It was a difficult journey, but she was following Jesus. She enrolled in the Lutheran Seminary there. Today, she is a pastor serving the needs of countless souls. She wants to return to her village to minister to her remaining friends and to help them in their journey by showing them how to follow Christ. Perhaps one day she will minister to the Red Guard lieutenant who spared her life but murdered her family.
Are you following Jesus? Tune out the noisy detractors that jam the airwaves with gush and guffaws and listen to Jesus. “My sheep hear My voice,” says the wondrous Lord. “I know them, and they follow Me.”
Peter the fisherman and Paul the tentmaker heard the still small voice of God. They believed. They embraced eternal hope. They followed Jesus and loved their way through a dark time in a cruel world to change this planet into something better.
Jesus calls us to follow Him to change our world now. For your faith, He enables us to act. For eternity, He gives hope now. For following Him, He infuses us with love, and love becomes the means to build a new world.
Are you hearing voices? Are you hearing His voice. And what is your answer? (RA)
1. National and International Religion Report, Vol. 6, No. 9; April 20, 1992; page 1.
2. Morrow, Lance; Essay entitled “Video Warriors in Los Angeles,” Time magazine, Vol. 139, No. 19; May 11, 1992; page 68.
5th Sunday of Easter (C)
May 14, 1995
The Case of the Credible Client
(Acts 11:1-18)
I confess! It’s true! I love a good mystery, new or old. Murder, She Wrote; Diagnosis Murder; Matlock; Columbo; Peter Gunn — they all fascinate me. But none of them hold my attention as much as the greatest mystery solver — Perry Mason! Sure, he had able secretary Delia Street and efficient gum-shoe Paul Drake, but neither of them solved the case. It was Perry who knew the who, what, when, where and why. The defense of each client dominated his every waking hour. Worry never crossed the minds of any of his clients. Only once did Perry Mason lose a case, but he was able to rectify that one. At the beginning of every program the mystery read: “The Case of __________.”
The scripture lesson for today might have the mystery title, “The Case of the Credible Client,” starring Peter the fisherman.
I. The Credible Client Accused (vv. 1-3)
Peter did something that seems of little consequence to us today — he ate with a Gentile. To the Jew there were only two camps, Jews and Gentiles. A strict Jew had as little to do with Gentiles as possible. It was barely conceivable that a Jew would enter a Gentile home. Peter not only entered Cornelius’ house, he even stayed and ate with him. In so doing, Peter defied the ancestral law and tradition of his Jewish heritage.
Peter’s accusers viewed this as anything but what God intended. Their understanding of Christianity was myopic. They argued that Jesus had not opened the good news to the Gentiles; it was for Jews only. Exclusiveness, when it came to religion, still dominated their outlook even on Christianity.
Luke gives this historical struggle prominence because he knew that for the church to become a worldwide movement, as God intended, it would have to proclaim an all-inclusive salvation. The entrance to Christianity was not, and is not, bound by who or what we are but depends on whose we are in life.
A quick sidebar: Before condemning the Jews for excluding the Gentiles, look around the church. Ask yourself why certain racial, social, and economic groups don’t attend the church. Have we become as hypocritical as Peter’s accusers?
II. The Credible Client Enters Evidence (vv. 4-10)
Peter began his case in an orderly and factual manner (v. 4) by giving all the salient details:
Fact: I was in the city of Joppa.
Fact: I was praying.
Fact: I received a vision from our God. That vision included: (1) a great sheet lowered in front of me; (2) on the sheet were animals that I as a Jew could not eat; (3) God told me to kill them and eat them; (4) I protested because of my heritage; (5) Three times he commanded and three times I refused; (8) The voice said, “What God has cleansed, no longer can be considered unclean.”
Fact: Immediately following the vision three Gentiles came to the door, “and the Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings.”
Peter was saying to his accusers, “I did exactly what God wanted.”
Just as it was to Peter’s credit to give a straight-forward recitation of the facts, so it should be to us. The world is sick of the hyprocrisy and lies that some people give in the name of God. What non-Christians need are honest believers giving credible testimony to Jesus.
III. The Credible Client Had Supporting Evidence (vv. 11-14)
Peter was smart. Tracing the events of both himself and Cornelius, Peter reminded his accusers that he had supporting evidence. Six other Jewish believers went with him to Caesarea to verify the facts.
William Barclay writes that in verse 12 a significant fact should be noted in Peter’s defense. “Peter says that he took six brethren with him. Together with himself that made seven persons present. In Egyptian law, which the Jews would know well, seven witnesses were necessary to prove a case. In Roman law, which they would also know well, seven seals were necessary to authenticate a really important document like a will. So Peter is in effect saying, ‘I am not arguing with you. I am telling the facts and of these facts there are seven witnesses. The case is proved’.” (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles. The Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), pages 91-92).
The supporting evidence that Christians demonstrate include a repentant heart, restitution (when needed), confession, faith, a changed lifestyle, a new attitude, and the Holy Spirit. To these God gives His witness, as does the company of believers called the Church.
IV. The Credible Client Was Exonerated (vv. 15-18)
Peter’s sincere words and the Holy Spirit’s witness worked! His accusers melted because they, too, wanted God’s will. They believed his testimony and declared, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (v. 18, RSV).
Our testimony won’t always fall on receptive ears, but our task still remains — to give witness to God’s truth. We need to be like the little lad who came home after his first Sunday School class with a new teacher. His mother asked, “Who was your teacher?” Her son responded, “I don’t know her name, but she must have been with Jesus because she didn’t talk about anyone else but Him.”
Would you be a credible witness for Christ? (DGK)
6th Sunday of Easter (C)
May 21, 1995
Piecing Peace Together
(John 14:23-29)
How do you achieve peace — inner peace, as well as peace among men, and women, and families, and neighbors, and nations, and races? It is a puzzle, isn’t it?
I bought my wife a couple of large New Zealand impatiens for her birthday. They were lush and lovely, filled with a variety of colorful blooms. I suspended them on macrame hangers in front of our house, where they would catch the morning sun and enjoy the cool afternoon shade. I watered them well on Saturday, but gave them no water on Sunday. By Monday noon, they looked as though they had died. They completely collapsed, looked spent, and hopeless. I was astonished, puzzled by their appearance and fearful of my neglect. I thought I had killed them. Quickly I watered them, and within a half hour they looked as good as they did when I brought them home from the store. There was no puzzle; there was simply a need.
Jesus seems to suggest that this is the way we can piece peace together. Fill the need, rather than lament a death that hasn’t happened.
Jesus was celebrating His final Passover with the twelve disciples in Jerusalem’s Upper Room. He had performed the host’s task of cordiality: He washed their feet. Then He foretold a disciple’s inhospitality; He confided that a disciple would soon betray Him. The disciples and their Lord were engaged in the Seder, the ceremonial banquet of Pesach, Passover.
Jesus gave His beloved followers a new commandment. It was to love one another as He loves us. He foretold Peter’s denial and then, afterward, He began a lengthy discourse that the apostle John recorded in detail in his Gospel. In the part that is our text today, Jesus seemed to answer three unasked but important questions, questions that weighed on the hearts of the disciples — and continue to trouble us.
First of all, “How does faith work?” It works when Jesus moves in, assured the Lord.
The second question asked, “How can I grow in fath?” It’s the Holy Spirit who teaches and reminds us of all we need to know, explained the Savior.
Finally, Jesus provided an answer to a third puzzling internal question we all are asking: “How can I have peace?” He said, don’t be troubled or afraid, just rejoice and believe.
It sounds as simple as watering withered plants, doesn’t it? It almost sounds too simple. There has to be a catch somewhere, mumble the doubters. There must be a trick to it, grumble the disbelieving. Yet if you follow Jesus’ argument carefully, you see that all that is really required is the openness to receive the life-giving water of love that Jesus provides; God does the rest. That puzzles those who want to do it themselves. It troubles those who want to agonize and suffer, who like to languish in sorrow as do unwatered impatiens, but the answers remain as simple as I’ve given. There is no puzzle; there is simply the need for Jesus’ followers to believe Him — and rejoice.
Let’s look once more at that first question the text suggests: How does faith work? “Those who love Me,” said the Lord slowly, patiently — so that Judas could catch His message — “will keep My word, and My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make our home with them.”
Faith is openness. It is throwing open shut windows and pushing outward closed doors, so that faith may swoop in. But this faith is not a thing; it is a person. It is God. It is Jesus Christ and the Father moving into empty hearts to fill them with assurance. Their presence within engenders faith. It is Christ dwelling within the heart of the believer that makes faith possible.
How does faith work? The door is left ajar in willingness. The Lord does the rest. Jesus moves in. He brings His Father with Him. The empty heart is filled to bursting with something more than the noise of the prior emptiness; the empty heart is filled right now.
Garrison Keillor, the humorist Christianity Today calls “Lake Wobegon’s Prodigal Son,” knows about the dark emptiness of a vacant heart. Keillor grew up in a Christian home, but there was a stark, staring God involved in their fundamentalism. “The God of my childhood is a God who sees all, and in my life as a child, He’s always looking,” says Keillor.
A wedge was driven between that fearsome God with the “pitiless gaze” — as he called Him — and Keillor as a young man.” Against that pitiless gaze is the vision of Christ the Shepherd with which we also grew up. And there’s the miraculousness of the gospel, which you learn more and more about as you get older … after a long lapse, after a long absence, you come back,” says Keillor. “I came back. And the pitiless gaze is gone somehow,” says the star of American Radio Theater.1 Keillor speaks as one who has opened himself up to faith. Despite his hesitancy and doubt, Jesus moved in, and along with Him came the caring Father, who was no longer the austere God of childhood, but the loving Father even an adult could embrace and eagerly house.
If you are puzzling over peace within, or peace in this world, begin here: open up to faith, and Christ will move in to quicken its beat, and the Father will come along to set your heart to singing.
But there was a second question implied in Jesus’ discourse in the Upper Room. An unseen questioner seemed to be asking: “How can I grow in faith?” There was no hesitancy to the Lord’s answer. It came faster than a speeding bullet; quicker than someone wearing roller blades being chased by snarling Doberman pinschers. Said Jesus, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
Jesus didn’t say the Holy Spirit was moving in with Him and the Father, because the Spirit got there ahead of Him. Just as a soul begins to open up to faith, the Holy Spirit rushes in and helps to push the door as wide as is necessary.
The Holy Spirit comes to teach and to remind. Read God’s Word, and the Spirit makes truths jump off the page. Listen attentively to a Christian sermon, and the Advocate makes key words pulsate with vibrations that cannot be ignored. Move out into the world, and the Holy Spirit instantly calls to mind remembrances of Jesus, and memories of His parables and miracles. Instead of your faith curling up and playing dead like an impatient impatiens plant, it thrives, exploding with growth, and bursting with fruit.
The Holy Trinity moves in and your life starts to move! First step is openness, the rest is up to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You will grow, not groan. You will bloom, not blow it. You will bear fruit, not folly.
If peace wanes, let the Holy Spirit restart your memory bank. If marital wars erupt and family battles are engaged, is it because the Holy Spirit is failing to teach and remind, or are we failing to learn and remember?
Here is another piece to the puzzle. We can piece peace together if we will heed the Holy Spirit’s lessons and willingly recall their application.
If Jesus teaches us how faith works, and assures us the method by which faith grows, how then can you and I have peace, real and lasting?
There is a simple answer provided by Jesus. He says: don’t be troubled, don’t be afraid. It is all a matter of rejoicing confidently in faith, and trusting happily in believing.
No peace comes when we doubt its possibility. The frequent ceasefires in the Serbian-Croatian civil war fall apart because no one believes they will hold.
I read recently of a seventeen-year-old cat named Tuppence. He had one tooth and no more, yet he was eager to show his skill to his master. He managed to pounce on a little sparrow and brought it to the door as an offering to his owner. Fortunately, the aging cat with one tooth was not agile enough to kill the bird. Carefully, the owner picked up the sparrow, smoothed out its ruffled feathers, and proceeded to set it free by placing it in the middle of his yard. A wary eye was kept on the little creature lest another younger and abler cat come along. But the bird would not move. Minutes flew by. Finally an hour passed. Concerned that something might be wrong, Tuppence’s owner tried nudging the bird, but it would not budge. In desperation, he picked up the bird and threw it into the air. That gesture reminded the sparrow of how to fly, reminded it to soar out of harm’s way, to speedily flee the troubles of that yard.
The traumatized little creature had forgotten how to fly. Until thrown in the air, it had failed to remember. You and I are little different than that sparrow. We become so troubled and afraid that we, too, fear flying through the supposed dangers of the air. Jesus teaches us to believe and rejoice. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to remember and celebrate.
Remember this sparrow the next time you are assaulted by toothless critics or toothy opponents. You can have peace within, and share peace without if you let the Holy Spirit’s reminders stir your resolve and encourage your jubilation. Depressed sparrows — human or winged — will only find themselves in the jaws of a dilemma if they’re unwilling to fly with faith in the face of trouble.
That’s when peace comes. It comes with the assurance that you’re not alone, that God is with you, providing the strong currents underneath your wings to give you lift above earth-bound problems.
That’s the work and witness of the Holy Spirit.
In that Upper Room, Jesus provided the apostles with marvelous insights — insights of eternal dimensions, yet they may be lived right now.
Marshal Ferdinand Foch was a great French military leader of World War I. He worked with American General John Joseph Pershing to bring about the end of that “war to end all wars.” Marshal Foch’s chauffeur was constantly bombarded by the press who wanted to know when the war was going to end. “What do you hear the Marshal say?” they would ask.
The chauffeur assured the reporters that as soon as Marshal Foch said a word he would let them know. One day he kept his promise. “The Marshal spoke today,” he said.
“Well,” the reporters demanded, “Just what did he say?”
“He said, ‘Well, Pierre, what do you think? When is the war going to end?'”
The battle against evil is a never-ending one, yet you and I may still have peace within. Apply the principles of Jesus and discover more than an armistice. The Prince of Peace will take up residence within your heart to quell the internal conflicts and bring about genuine peace. (RA)
1. Gordon McDonald, “Lake Wobegon’s Prodigal Son”; Christianity Today, Vol. 36, No. 6; May 18, 1992; pages 33-34.
Ascension Sunday (C)
May 28, 1995
Unfinished Agenda
(Acts 1:1-11)
Yogi Berra, one of baseball’s most colorful wits once said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
Some of us know what he meant. We can point to some athletic event that was won or lost when everyone thought the outcome was set. I saw that happen in Kansas City. The Royals were playing the Yankees. New York was leading by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning. Kansas City had runners on first and second, with two outs. The batter was the number eight hitter, a man with a batting average slightly higher than his blood pressure. He was behind in the count. The relief pitcher had the power and the speed of a Goose Gossage.
The pitcher delivered his pitch and the batter, almost in desperation, swung and connected with the ball — as much to his surprise as to everyone else’s. The ball went soaring into right centerfield, far short of the outfield, and easily catchable.
Yankee centerfielder Mickey Rivers ran to his left and gloved the ball. Rightfielder Reggie Jackson ran to his right and plowed into Rivers. Jackson was winded; Rivers was dazed; Rivers dropped the ball, and two Royals scored. Royals’ victory! In a milli-second, the game was won by the Yankees, lost by the Royals, and then won by the Royals. “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
That happens in other areas of life. We have sometimes counted people “out” in the contest of life only to see them re-emerge and succeed beyond our wildest expectations. Yes, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Those persons and occasions warn against premature conclusions. They remind us that “the end” doesn’t always come when we expect it.
Such was the case with Jesus. During the closing days of His ministry, Jesus had been counted out by His enemies and His friends. Arrested on trumped-up charges; hauled into court before judicial quislings; tried by men more concerned with personal interests than Roman or Jewish justice; executed to satisfy the appetities of greed and hatred; death had come for Jesus and “it was over.”
At sunrise on what we now call Easter morning, the women discovred that God was not through with Jesus. The story wasn’t over yet!
During the days between Easter and Ascension, Jesus invested heavily again in His followers. Then, Jesus was gone! Those days evaporated like haze at daybreak and His followers felt their disquieting loneliness a second time.
For some it again looked like the story was over and the dream was ended. But Acts makes it clear: Jesus’ ministry was not over, His presence was not gone forever. And Jesus was not through with His followers either. For the writer of Acts, there can be no finish to the gospel in the world. Launched when Jesus climbed out of the waters of the River Jordan, the ministry of Jesus took shape in His first followers and goes on through today’s church.
God has an agenda for the church, an agenda unfinished even in the twentieth century. The unfinished agenda can be summarized in a single, familiar word of seven letters: MINISTRY.
This unfinished agenda is no small matter, for it calls the church to assist in transforming people’s lives toward Christ-likeness. By the authority of His resurrection, Jesus continues His ministry through the church by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I. The authority behind our ministry is the resurrected Christ.
Read the record. When the Book of Acts opens, a few Jews are named among the followers of Jesus. When the book closes with Paul in a prison in Rome, Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles are numbered on the rolls in the thousands. The church has become a world movement with a message for everyone within the sound of its voices.
Those first followers criss-cross the Roman empire with missionary fervor and religious zeal. They preach and teach. They challenge and they coax. They perform mighty works and they demonstrate disciplined living. They point to the miraculous grace of God, warn of the peril of saying “no” to God, and plead with people to live the life of God.
The One who walked willingly into the front door of death and marched out its victor had called them. The One who brought life and immortality to light commissioned them. The One who arm-wrestled Satan and pinned his wrist to the table in final victory gave them their message and their marching orders, and deployed them behind enemy lines.
The Resurrection transformed those followers of Jesus. The Resurrection laid the foundation of their faith. The Resurrection was the power behind their action. The Resurrection was the chief ingredient of their message.
There you have it. The church doesn’t concoct its message. The church doesn’t manufacture its mission. The church doesn’t receive its assignment or credentials from government agency or religious convention, from ad hoc group of like-minded people or blue-ribbon panel, from findings of a sociological study or results of a public relations poll. The authority behind the church’s ministry is that of Jesus, freshly risen from the grave — the One before whom every knee shall bow and the One of whom every tongue shall confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
We do not call people to break with the standards of the society about us and the spirit of our age because we are rebels or iconoclasts or misfits, but because the One who refused to capitulate to the powers-that-be came forth alive from a grave sealed and guarded by “the few and the proud” of Rome’s army and has declared that the kingdoms of this world shall give way to the Kingdom of the Lord. We do not dig deeply into our pockets and give our money to finance the work of the church, to care for the sick, to feed the hungry, and to house the homeless because we are by nature kind-hearted and compassionate people. Rather, we do that because the One who was raised from the dead has urged us.
The church is composed of human beings, but they are brought together by God’s grace, are held together by God’s power, work together because of God’s calling, and move forward together in God’s strength.
II. The nature of our ministry is seen in the ministry of Jesus.
The church in America in the 1990s is suffering an identity crisis. It is scrambling about: using surveys here, passing out questionnaires there, asking focus groups to tell it what it ought to do. Or it is turning to marketing experts and public relations firms to discover its mission and purpose. Or it is aping highly successful business enterprises or entertainment ventures or popular public figures to shape its ministry.
We need read no further than Acts 1:1 to discover the nature of our ministry. Luke means that the earthly ministry of Jesus is but the beginning of action that is without termination. What Jesus began, the church continues. What Jesus did during the days of His flesh, he does through the life of His church. What Jesus started doing and teaching, He continues to do and to teach. It is not finished.
The whole lesson of the Book of Acts is that the life of Jesus goes on in the life of His church. The events recorded in the story between Acts 1:1 and Acts 28:31 are, in reality, the continuation of Jesus’ work. We might call this book, not the “Acts of the Apostles,” but “The Book of the Continued Doing and Teaching of the Living Christ through His Body the Church.”
In 1995, many inside the church and some outside the church urge the church to do that which it isn’t called to do. Some want a religious country club that offers a safe, comfortable gathering place for like- minded people who share a common social class. Some want a handyman, fix-it shop that specializes in mending all the broken parts and malfunctioning pieces of the social order, and at cut-rate fees. Some want a boys-and-girls club, with a churchy name hanging over its doors but no religious discipline in it, one that offers everything from aerobics to zither lessons with no strings attached. Some want a low-demand organization that offers palatable and appealing presentations on how-to-make it successfully in an acquisitive society. Some want a fast-paced, contemporary electronic light-and-sound show that entertains and energizes and anesthetizes for a brief period of escape but requires no follow-up or application in the world of greed and blind ambition where they live and work.
Listen to Luke and the words of Acts. The church that finds itself does so in the life and ministry of Jesus. The church’s mission is the mission of the One who said, “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” The church exists to give itself away, not to serve its own vested interests, not to pride itself on its worldly and secular accomplishments, not to protect itself, but to carry out in its time the ministry of our Lord.
III. The elements of our ministry are active energy and propagating faith.
The work of Jesus includes doing and teaching. When true, Christianity always has these two elements, deed and creed, active energy and propagating faith.
Read any one of the four gospels and watch its leading man, Jesus. His action is threefold: preaching, teaching, doing mighty works. He calls people to Himself as followers and sends them out as emissaries. He wants them to be worshipers but He also expects them to be workers. He never permits His followers to settle for one emphasis or another; rather He wants them to be both “hearers” and “doers” of the Word.
We tilt toward one and away from the other. The old Brooklyn Dodgers had an outfielder and first baseman, the late Babe Herman. He was an excellent hitter but his erratic fielding and base running made him one of the more beloved players on that team. Herman once fell victim to a fly ball that hit him squarely on the head. Another time he wound up at third base with not one but two other Dodger teammates at the same time. Nonetheless, in 1930, he batted .393, hit 35 home runs, and drove in 130 runs. But Babe Herman never made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The reason was best summed up by a New York sportswriter who said Herman was “a partial Hall of Famer: good bat but poor glove.”
We are to be hearers and doers of the Word. We are called to help people become more like Christ in worship, shared Bible study, and the practice of the spiritual disciplines. We are called to bring good news to those who have heard but not yet responded with the “yes” of faith and to those who have not yet heard. We are called to care for those within the fellowship of the church who hurt, and to minister to those beyond the bounds of the church who struggle with the loads of life.
IV. The energy for our ministry is the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus understood clearly that the work stretching before His followers was so heavy in its demands that nothing short of His power could equip them for it. Jesus understood clearly that the task before His followers was not a task that could be tackled in weakness or fear; rather, it called for living in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
All their previous experience was insufficient for the work they had to do. They had been baptized with water, but they would need to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. In physical baptism, they had been totally covered with water. In the same way, the Holy Spirit would engulf them; they would be deluged in the Spirit’s grace; His power would be infused throughout their whole personality. The church was empowered to do its work by the work of the Holy Spirit.
We often call the Holy Spirit the Comforter. That word goes back to John Wycliff, but in Wycliff’s day it had a different meaning. It comes from the Latin word fortis, which means brave. The Comforter is the One who fills believers with courage and strength.
A seven-year-old girl was sitting on the steps of a large, newly-built cathedral. Passing by, a man paused for a moment to admire the beautiful architecture. He was surprised to hear the little girl speak up: “Do you like it?” “Yes, I think it is very beautiful,” the man responded. “I’m glad you like it,” replied the little girl, “because I helped build it.” The man smiled and said, “You are awfully small to have had a part in the construction of such a large building. Tell me, what did you do?” The little girl proudly announced, “My father worked on this church; and every day he worked, I brought him his lunch.”
In this great body of Christ, all of us share the mission of the church. There is a place, a role, a responsibility for each of us. No one can occupy someone else’s place.
“It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” And, if you believe Jesus, it ain’t over yet! (NLB)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by Kenneth L. Chatin, Retired Pastor, Walnut Street Baptist Church, Louisville, KY: N. Allen Moseley, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Durham, NC; James A. Harnish, Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Tampa, FL: Richard Anderson, Pastor. St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church, San Jose, CA; Robert R. Kopp. Pastor, Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, PA: Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers (MI) Church of the Nazarene; and N. Larry Baker, Pastor, First Baptist Church. Pineville. LA.

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