Trinity Sunday (A)
June 6, 1993
Three Ways of Knowing God
(Matthew 28:16-20)
These are the marching orders of the Christian Church: “Go into all the world — teach and baptize.” There is our Christian program. We have the means, the communications, and the opportunity to a greater extent than ever before in Christian history. But have we the conviction? Do we know what it is that we are sending into all the world? Can we teach all nations until we have taught ourselves?
Our first duty is to re-educate ourselves in Christian doctrine, to lay hold of the Christian faith for ourselves until it lays hold of us so that we are impelled to pass it on. That is why I have chosen to direct your attention to the end of this text: “Go into all the world, teach, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The doctrine of the Trinity has provided an excellent target for critics of the Christian faith. They say, “You Christians believe in three Gods, not one.” Thomas Jefferson sneered at what he called “the incomprehensible jargon of Trinitarian arithmetic.” Dorothy Sayers, in her fine book on the Trinity, The Mind of the Maker, says, “Of all Christian dogmas, the doctrine of the Trinity enjoys the greatest reputation for obscurity and remoteness from common experience.”
The doctrine is a mystery, but it is not a mystification. A mystery is a truth we can never fully understand. When you come to think of it, it is reasonable that the being of God should be mysterious to us. A God we could fully understand would not be the true God. As Evelyn Underhill puts it, “If the reality of God were small enough to be grasped, it would not be great enough to be adored.”
At every point the gospel transcends the intelligence of the preacher who is called to expound it. Like the peace of God, it passes all understanding. Someone once asked Daniel Webster, “Do you understand Jesus Christ?” He replied, “I would be ashamed to acknowledge Him as my Savior if I could understand Him. I need a superhuman Savior, one so great and glorious that I cannot comprehend Him.”
W. E. Sangster tells in one of his sermons of an incident that happened in the early years of his ministry. One Trinity Sunday he followed three children out of the morning worship from a country church in Sussex. The girl was 14 years old, and the boys were 12 and 10. The elder boy said to his sister, “I can’t understand all this ‘three-in-one and one-in-three’ business.” “I can’t understand it either,” she confessed, “but I look at it this way: Mother is a mommy to us. She is Mabel to Daddy. And she is Mrs. Douglas to most people.” Is this the answer? Sangster asks. Is it just a matter of names? No, it is deeper than that, adroit as the girl was in finding an analogy which could help her through childhood.
The word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible, though the doctrine is already there by implication. The doctrine gradually took form in the early centuries of the Church’s life and it was formulated by St. Augustine. It emerged as those early Christians thought about their experience of God and sought to give intellectual expression to that experience.
They knew God as the creator and sustainer of the universe and of humanity. They knew God as He expressed Himself in Jesus Christ. And they knew God as Holy Spirit, a living presence creating that fellowship which is the Church and as a living presence in their own hearts. They knew God in three ways, so it was inevitable that the doctrine of the Trinity should emerge as a summing up of the Christian Gospel for the life of worship.
John Calvin explains the doctrine as “a description not of what God is in Himself, but of what He is to us.” God makes Himself known to us in three ways. Not in three gods, as the scoffers contend, but as one God who was incarnate in Christ, who dwells in us through the Holy Spirit. That is the testimony of Scripture, one God above us, among us, and within us.
1. First, there is God the creator, the God above us.
The Bible opens with the words, “In the beginning, God ….” It was the glory of the Hebrew people that they taught there is but one living God of the whole world. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one.” As they came to perceive the nature of God as holy, just, merciful, loving, they gained an awareness of God which was later to be filled out and gloriously enriched: one God, the creator and sustainer of all that is.
How childish Greek and Roman mythology seems beside this, with their warring gods who were guilty of conduct a mortal conscience would condemn. This is the truth: God is one, holy, just, merciful and loving. In this faith the fishermen of Galilee were brought up and were holding this faith with resolute firmness when an amazing experience befell them.
2. There is God the Redeemer.
He came from Nazareth and was called Jesus. His words, His power, and the impress of His personality were almost beyond belief. Never man so spake. He held the crowds in the hollow of His hands and spoke with such authority that He compelled them to hear. He had supernatural powers, too. He could heal the sick with a touch or a word. When He said to some of those who earned their living in boats, “Follow me,” they could not resist Him. They forsook all and followed Him.
It was not until after the resurrection that there came fuller understanding. It was Thomas who first realized more than all the rest what this meant: Jesus was God incarnate on earth. “My Lord and God,” he cried. The disciples were Jews to a man and Jews had always been fanatical believers in one God only, even while the neighboring peoples worshipped many gods. Nothing was farther from the thoughts of the disciples than to give up belief in the one true and living God. But they became convinced that in the person of Jesus they had met the One who died for them, which only God could do. God had visited and redeemed His people. God was not only sovereign but Savior, not only creator but redeemer, not only above men but among them.
3. There is God the Sanctifier.
During the last solemn talks with His disciples, Jesus spoke much about a Comforter, an Advocate, a Spirit of Truth who would come when He was gone. He referred to Him as a person: “When he, the Spirit of Truth is come….” Jesus intimated that they would be better off when He had left them. “The works that I do you will do also and greater works than these.”
The Spirit came at Pentecost. Wonders attended His coming — tongues of fire and some strange gift of communication which over-leapt the barriers of human language — but the precious truth was that God was now in them. They could part with one another while God stayed with them all. The Holy Spirit was within them to make them holy too, to impart His own fruit, to convict the world of sin through them, and to guide them into all truth. They went out into all the world, teaching and baptizing. And wherever they went the Holy Spirit was in them, breaking the sin in their nature, pleading in prayer, exalting the Savior, and winning souls for the Church.
These men were devout Jews and never departed from the central belief of Judaism that God is one. But He is one-in-three and three-in-one: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier; the Father in majesty, the Son in suffering, the Spirit in striving; God above us, God among us, and God within us. It was from the Church’s experience that the doctrine of the Trinity arose.
It is a mystery. Let me give you three illustrations of this mystery, first from Ireland, then from Scotland, and finally from England.
To Ireland first. The shamrock is Ireland’s emblem. The thing that charmed St. Patrick as he gazed upon the shamrock was that it seemed to throw light on the mystery of the Trinity. “Here I have three leaves,” he stated to himself as he fondly fingered the dainty trefoil. “Or have I but one leaf?” he asked, “it is three in one.”
To Scotland next. Scotland owes much to the Erskines. Henry Erskine, the father of Ralph and Ebenezer, has left us few treasures more valuable than the parable of the honey. God the Father, he would say, is like honey in the flower-sweetness potential. God the Son is like honey in the bee-sweetness communicable. God the Holy Spirit is like honey in the mouth-sweetness applicable and enjoyable.
And on to England. Preaching in the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Canon Liddon said that nothing helped him to an understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity more than a glass prism. He held the tiny trinket in his hand and caught the pure white ray of sunlight. From these, there was straightway thrown upon the wall the three cardinal colors: red, blue, and yellow. The three were seen as one, yet the one possessed the three. You may see them in unity or in diversity.
This is the Christian name of God, the message to be spread through all the world: God the living and true, one God but three persons. Ours is no lonely God, living in splendid isolation, but a rich being containing in Himself not only unity but also fellowship, having a hidden glory in Himself, revealing Himself to humankind and present everywhere by His Spirit. Wherefore with the whole Church in heaven and on earth, we worship the one God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifer; God above us, among us, and within us. (JB)
Second Sunday after Pentecost (A)
June 13, 1993
The Power of Christ’s Death
(Romans 5:6-11)
In the new movie Falling Down, Michael Douglas portrays a middle-class man on whom the realities of contemporary life have come crashing down. He’s lost his family through divorce, lost his job, and feels as if he’s lost his whole world. He goes off the deep end, striking out at people and social structures he thinks have let him down.
The final, climactic scene is the one in which he imagines there is nothing left for him, and he takes his own life. It is a tragic death, a death without meaning and purpose.
What a contrast this is to the death of Jesus; His death is an event of power and purpose! He died that we might have new life. Paul says in verse 7, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
In His death, what did Jesus accomplish, and what does it mean in our lives?
I. Christ’s Death Protects Us from Destruction (v. 9)
As Paul will point out in the next chapter (6:23), the inevitable result of sin is death, destruction. Yet in His own death, Jesus took on Himself the penalty rightfully belonging to us. Through His sacrifice, we are able to escape the certain destruction resulting from our lives of rebellion against God.
II. Christ’s Death Provides Us with Reconciliation (vv. 10-11)
During the Civil War, one military engineer came up with a novel idea. Armies frequently needed to cross rivers, which required a bridge to connect the two banks so soldiers could march across. But this engineer suggested building tiny canoes which would be strapped on each soldier’s boots, thus allowing them to individually sail across rivers. Unfortunately, his idea didn’t float and bridges continued to be necessary!
Sin created a great chasm between humanity and God, as we separated ourselves from Him. In order to bridge that chasm, God sent His only Son to become a reconciler — providing us the way back into relationship with the Father.
Paul tells us that Jesus reconciled us through His death on our behalf, and also through His life (v. 10). Jesus’ earthly life helps to reconcile us by providing a model of Godliness and service. Beyond that, as Jesus even now sits at the right hand of the Father, He continues to reconcile us to God, keeping us in His love and care.
At Calvary, Jesus gave His life to protect us from destruction and to provide us reconciliation with the Father. Such great love demands a response. What will you do with Jesus? (JMD)
Third Sunday after Pentecost (A)
June 20, 1993
Alive to God!
(Romans 6:1-11)
One of the most remarkable and captivating elements of nature is its cycle of death and rebirth. In the spring, the flowers bloom into life, but come fall most will lose their blooms and their colors as they fade into winter and apparent death. But come spring again, the cycle is repeated and life is restored.
That is just a likeness to what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. At the incarnation, God took on our humanity to overcome sin’s destructive hold upon our lives, and to reconcile us unto Himself. As we commit ourselves to Christ in faith, we share in His death and resurrection. We, too, become alive to God.
What does it mean to share in Christ’s death and resurrection? Verse 6 offers a unique focus on what it means for us.
I. Your Life is Made New
“For we know that our old self was crucified with him ….” Or as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
Paul uses baptism as a picture of dying to the old life and being raised to an entirely new life (v. 3-4). In Paul’s day, when a Gentile chose to convert to Judaism it required baptism as part of the experience. The convert would be completely immersed in the water, as if buried after a literal death. Following baptism, the convert was considered a brand new person — as if he or she was a newborn baby. Whatever had taken place in one’s life before that day was gone — as if it had never occurred. One’s life was brand new.
It’s no wonder then that when He talked to Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again. Faith in Christ produces a newness of life: a new walk, a new perspective, a new future.
II. Your Life is Made Clean
“So that the body of sin might be done away with ….” The process of being made new involves a cleansing of sin.
Contemporary society doesn’t like to use the term “sin.” We understand that there are certain illnesses that plague people, but that all of us are innately good — right? It’s no wonder that there’s so much hurt and hunger in the human soul. We properly feel guilt for our rebellious attitudes and actions toward God, but we can’t even use the word “sin” to properly state our problem.
A physician needs to know the underlying cause to a set of symptoms — the disease that produces the symptoms — before prescribing a cure. Paul is reminding us that there is a disease that plagues all humanity, and it’s called sin. Earlier in this letter to the Romans he noted, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
There is just one solution for sin, and that is divine forgiveness. In Christ, we are forgiven and cleansed — made clean.
III. Your Life is Made Free
“That we should no longer be slaves to sin ….” There is within each of us an inherent tendency toward sin, a rebelliousness at the root of each of our lives, which demands having our own way even if it means our own destruction. That’s why Paul refers to it as a bondage or slavery. On our own, there is no escape.
Yet as we come to Christ in faith and commitment, as we share in His death and resurrection, we are freed from that slavery to sin that formerly possessed us.
Imagine a prisoner, handcuffed at the wrists and shackled at the ankles, standing before a judge. The judge lifts a gavel into the air and brings it down with a resounding bang, exclaiming the words “Not guilty.” Quickly, the officers rush to the prisoner’s side and, slipping the keys into the locks, release the handcuffs and shackles. The accused turns and walks down the aisle, through the doors, and out onto the street — a free man or woman.
That’s exactly the image Paul offers here. Though we are, in fact, guilty as charged, the rightful penalty has been paid by Jesus through His death on our behalf. And the risen Lord stands before us in our bondage and says, “Release them. I have paid the price, and they are free!”
It is no wonder Paul was amazed at the suggestion that once freed from sin we would return to it (vv. 1-2). In Christ we have a new life, cleansed of sin and freed from its dominating power. We are freed to experience new life in Christ: life abundant, life in all its greatest meaning and purpose. (JMD)
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
June 27, 1993
Choosing the Right Master
(Romans 6:12-23)
The thing contemporary American culture seems to value most is personal freedom: to be able to do what I want, when I want, how I want. There’s a reason one side of the abortion debate adopted the term “Pro-Choice” — because none of us wants to be against choice. It’s downright unAmerican!
This text flies in the face of our glorification of personal freedom, for Paul forces us to face the reality that we all have a master — someone or something to whom our lives are yielded (v. 12). Our choice lies in determining which master will claim our allegiance: will you serve sin or God?
I. Yielding Your Life to Sin Leads to Death (v. 16)
Allowing sin to control your life is like letting a cancer spread unhindered throughout your body — consuming and destroying. And, like a body racked by cancer, a life yielded to sin is on a collision course with destruction.
We have just lived through an era of unprecedented sexual permissiveness, in which people demanded the removal of any restraint on their conduct; much of the Baby Boomer generation demanded the removal of what they considered the bondage of conventional morality. Unfortunately, what they discovered is that the removal of one set of bonds has produced a harsher and more destructive slavery — one that has resulted in AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases, the decimation of the American family, a striking increase in the number of children born to single mothers, and at the same time a million-and-a-half abortions every year. Paul’s words could not be more relevant when he said that “you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (v. 16).
What is the alternative to a life yielded to sin?
II. Yielding Your Life to God Results in True Freedom
In contrast to the destructive bondage with which sin enslaves us, Paul says that yielding our lives to Christ offers the only authentic freedom possible. What is that freedom like?
1. We are freed from sin (v. 18).
As we surrender our lives to God through faith in Christ, He intervenes to free us from the slavery of sin. Like a surgeon removing a cancer, God takes out the source of the disease and places a new nature within us — one which is no longer dominated by sin.
2. We are freed from death (v. 23). Wages are paid for work received. The Roman soldiers’ wages were often paid partially in food rations; perhaps Paul had observed this firsthand in his travels. Suppose the paymaster had poisoned those rations before distributing them. That is exactly what the Bible says sin has done to us — the wages we have earned are corrupted, poisoned, and ultimately lead to death.
On the other hand, when we yield our lives to Jesus Christ in faith and obedience, the result is the gift of eternal life — the opportunity to share in the very life of God. It is a gift, for eternal life is something far too precious to ever be earned. It is to enter into a new kind of life which begins in this earthly existence through fellowship with Christ, and then extends into all eternity.
Amazingly enough, God allows us to choose for ourselves which master we will serve. Which do you choose? (JMD)
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
July 4, 1993
What’s Wrong With the World?
(Romans 7:14-25)
Until I read years ago this portion of Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome, I thought I was the only person in the world who had high lofty ideals, but could not seem to implement them. I thought I was the only one who wanted to do good but found myself, on the whole, doing considerably less than that which I would call good. I was not able to live up to my goals in life and it was frustrating.
I wanted to love everyone, serve everyone, be kind to everyone, have everyone love me, heal the sick, clothe the naked, house the homeless, befriend the friendless — not only here, but around the world, and all at one time. I wanted to do so much for my Lord who had done so much for me on the Cross, but I was continually frustrated.
Paul wants to do good. He is, after all, a committed Christian who has put his life on the line many times. His intentions are good. He wills what is right, but he can’t do it. He wants to, but can’t. Not only can he not do the good, which would be frustrating enough, he says that he even does evil when he wants to do good. He does not understand his own behavior.
We all have this problem, not only on an individual basis but also on a larger basis of behavior. Peter Drucker was interviewed in the January 22, 1990, Time magazine, and in the process he said, “We are already deep in the new century, a century that is fundamentally different. Almost everyone has a sense of deep unease … Things somehow don’t fit ….” In our kind of world, things somehow don’t fit. We’re trying to put round pegs in square holes. What’s wrong with the world, anyway? We are experiencing on a worldwide basis what is first experienced on a personal basis.
Years ago, a British daily newspaper offered a prize for the best essay answering the question, “What is Wrong With the World?” I’m going to read you the winning essay. All of it. It said, “Dear Sir, I am!” and it was signed G. K. Chesterton. Think about that answer. Chesterton didn’t mean that he personally had caused all the difficulties in the world, but that he, a human being, was the cause of all the world’s difficulties. That’s the Bible’s answer also.
You can blame your parents, you can blame it on drugs, you can blame it on the educational institution or the churches, you can blame it on wars, you can blame it on the carcinogenic environment in which we live today, you can blame our behavior on the food we eat, the television we watch, the work we do, you can blame it on life in the big city, the stress we have to undergo, but all of these explanations are mere descriptions of what is happening. The real cause of the world going wrong, says Paul and Chesterton, is “me and you,” “humankind.”
Job, in the Old Testament, wrestled with the same human condition. He underwent the kind of sorrow and stress that no human being should have to undergo, and his friends and wife told him to “curse God and die!” And he said, “I won’t do that!” But then he becomes I so provoked that he does the very thing he said he wouldn’t do. “Oh, what a terrible predicament we are in.”
Peter, in the New Testament, does the same thing. “I will never deny you, Lord,” he said to Jesus. “Never, never, never. I am the rock upon whose faith you will build your church.” But then he did deny the Lord, three times. “Oh, what a terrible predicament I am in!” The rock became pebbles.
Paul shows us in this passage that one can be the greatest of Christians, even a saint, and still be full of contradictions. I think we can all rejoice that chapter 7 of Romans is in the Bible, for in it we read how Paul is an embarrassment to himself — a paradox, a contradiction in motion. He is not a “let’s pretend Christian” who never struggles with the human condition, and neither are we. There is no Christian life where everything is fine and all is smiles.
Then a lightbulb went on in Paul’s brain — I should say his soul — for he knew the answer to his question. Who will free him from this type of behavior? Someone has called this verse the “great escape.” “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
God looked at our human condition and said, “I will send Jesus, as the solution to your terrible predicament.”
Jesus is God’s answer to our predicament. Sin separates us from God but Jesus overcomes that separation and restores our relationship to God.
What is wrong with our world? I am!
Who can straighten me out? The sweetest name I know: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. (CTH)
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
July 11, 1993
Living a Resurrection Lifestyle
(Romans 8-11)
The resurrection is more than a doctrine to which we give intellectual assent. As important as it is as a doctrine which shapes our faith and as a foundational belief which we possess, it is much more.
The first ten verses of this chapter are a set of teachings by the Apostle Paul. It’s a straightforward description of how we are forgiven from our sins in Jesus Christ. Then he makes this startling suggestion: the meaning of the resurrection is the living out of God’s spirit in our lives.
But if the spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His spirit who indwells you. (If the spirit of God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead dwells in you). (NASV)
Resurrection is living this kind of lifestyle. Isn’t that amazing? The same God who raised up Jesus raises us up. The same God who entered into the tomb after Calvary enters into our lives and completes the same kind of transformation which occurred in the grave. If this is true, the Christian life is one of living like resurrected human beings, it is experiencing victory and the spring of freedom. What a life!
Paul suggests what it means to live a resurrection lifestyle. First, living a resurrection lifestyle is living with the power to forgive. He says this in verse 10:
If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.
Forgiveness is at the very heart of resurrection faith — our being forgiven by God but more than this is our learning how to live forgiving lifestyles. My pastor told a story of an east Texas town which decided to have an Easter pageant. All the townspeople came together and planned the full details of the Easter story. They needed someone who could carry the heavy cross through the town so they chose the biggest, burliest, redneck guy in town to play the part of Jesus because he was the only one strong enough to endure the long Via Dolorosa to the hillside where the crucifixion would take place.
The townspeople lined the street and began jeering at the redneck Jesus as he made his way through the center of town. One of his friends got a bit carried away. As he walked by, the onlooker began cursing him, spitting at him and crying, “Crucify him,” to which the redneck Jesus, in an audible voice heard above the noise of the crowd, said, “You just wait until after the resurrection and I’ll get you.”
Contrast this with the real Jesus — who dying on a cross with nails in His hands and feet, blood flowing from the side which had been pierced by Roman spears — saying to those beneath Him, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they’ve done.” The heart of resurrection faith is learning how to forgive.
Not only do we need to be forgiven but we also need to be forgiving. The Lord models for us that living in our families, in our places of work, in the world of which we are a part, calls for us to learn how to give with the kind of love Jesus Christ Himself demonstrated to us in His forgiving spirit.
I learned the power of unforgiveness at a very early age. My father owned an automobile dealership in a small community in north central Oklahoma. I would go to the garage to work and play a little in the afternoons before I began to go to school. There was a little girl who lived next door in whom I developed a rather strong interest. One winter day we were playing in the snow and — you know how people who are attracted to one another usually end up trying to demonstrate this by fighting — we started a snowball fight. Somehow she was able to sneak up behind me with a pile of snow which she dumped all over me. I decided I would fix her good. I went behind the garage, put together the hardest, most compact, perfectly round, carefully crafted snowball to be used as an instrument of my vengeance. I sneaked around to where I could see her a short distance away, threw it with pinpoint accuracy and hit her square in the face with a hard rock snowball. She ran into the house crying.
You know, she would not play, speak or interact with me anymore. Through eight grades of elementary school, she would not look at me or engage in conversation with me. Eight years later, when my family was moving from that community, she confessed she had been angry because she thought I had put a rock in the snowball. I hadn’t, but it probably felt like it. How tragic that children should live estranged, separated and torn apart from each other because of what they had done to each other and no forgiveness has taken place.
We have come here to celebrate the intimate love we have experienced within our hearts and lives through what His Son, Jesus Christ did by communicating love through death. We invite you to follow, confess, enter — like the prodigal — into His arms this day. We invite you to become part of a church family in which you will be nourished, embraced and encouraged.
A. J. Cronin tells an interesting story in The Candle in Vienna of a visitor in that beautiful city shortly after the close of World War II. The visitor was there to assess the damage done by the bombing and fighting within the city. As he walked through the streets and saw bombed-out churches, businesses and the opera house, he was burdened with the weight of grief at the destruction war had wrought. He found himself in a little eastern neighborhood of the city when it began to rain and sleet. The only place he could find shelter was in a little, unlocked church. He slipped into the church and sat in its warmth in a quiet somber moment.
He heard someone slip into the back of the church and saw a stooped, old man carry a paralyzed little girl to the front of the church, set her before the altar and helped fashion her hands into a prayer. For a few moments they prayed in the quietness of the church. Finally, the old man stood, took a tiny coin from his pocket, dropped it into the box, selected a candle, lit it and gave it to the girl. The light cast flickers of shadow over the chapel but he could see a face of serenity. The girl held the candle a few moments and then stuck it up on the candle stand. Her grandfather picked her up and carried her out.
Interested in what he had seen, the visitor followed them from the church. He saw the old man put the girl in a little, handmade chair on which he had fashioned wheels. He saw the tattered clothing and evidences of poverty, but he also saw an obviously aristocratic family — the man stood with straight bearing and carried the marks of great dignity. The visitor asked the man, “The war?” The man responded, “Yes. The same bomb which did this killed her mother and her father.” There was a long pause with no one saying anything. “You come here often?” “Yes, everyday to pray and also to let the good God know we’re not too angry with Him.” In response, the visitor went back into the quiet little chapel where the candle was still burning and thought, “One candle in a ruined city, but while it shown, there seemed hope for the world for they had overcome” and we can overcome.
This is the promise of resurrection. (LM)
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (A)
July 18, 1993
Children of God
(Romans 8:12-17)
I owe a lot to Jesus. Paul says in verse 12 that I have a sacred obligation, a holy debt to pay, if you will. It is my holy obligation as a child of God to put to death the misdeeds of the body and instead to live as a child of God.
I. Children of God are led by the Spirit of God (v. 14)
The moving force in my life that directs me and helps me make decisions is no longer my own selfish, sinful flesh, but rather the Holy Spirit. Jesus was led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness where He was tempted, won victory over the devil, and was eventually led by the Spirit of God to Jerusalem where He was executed for my sins.
With His help I, too, am led by that same Spirit of God. He leads me into the wilderness of life also. I, too, face temptation, but in Jesus I win victory and have the forgiveness of my sins.
II. Children of God are not slaves to fear (v. 15a)
As an American I rarely feel like a slave. I am free. I have the freedom to come and go as I please, to live where I want, eat what I want, watch what I want, say what I want, and so on. At least this is what I like to think is the case. The fact is there are many things that can enslave me and inhibit me from being able to live as a free person.
One of the big ones is fear. I can be afraid of conflict, afraid of failure, afraid of rejection, afraid of death and condemnation. But as a child of God I need not be afraid. I need not be a slave to fear. Though I was once a slave to sin and death (and to fear), Christ has released me and set me free to live as His child without fear. 1 John 4:18 says, “there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Or 2 Timothy 1:7, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”
That doesn’t mean I won’t feel afraid sometimes. But I need not be a slave to fear. My fears need not hold me back from serving God and living for Him.
III. Children of God cry “Abba, Father” (v. 15b)
As a child of God I like to talk to my daddy. That’s basically what “Abba” means. You take the Hebrew word for father, Ab, and you double it like da-da, and you get Abba. As a child of the devil and a slave to fear I had no right to even look God in the face, much less crawl into His lap and call Him daddy. But as a child of God I can do just that. I respect God but I need not be afraid of Him. I am confident that He loves me and forgives me and that He wants me to communicate freely with Him.
Paul reminds me that I have “received a spirit of sonship.” I did not earn the great privilege of being a child of God anymore than I earned the privilege of being a son of my parents. I had nothing to do with being born, and in a very real sense I had nothing to do with being born again. I “received a spirit of sonship” just like I might receive a birthday present — thankfully, gladly, and freely.
IV. Children of God are co-heirs with Christ (v. 17)
If I am a child of God then I am also an heir. When my earthly parents die, I would have some inheritance coming. It may not be much (my parents probably ought to have one of those bumper stickers on their car which reads, “I’m spending my children’s inheritance”) but Lord willing there will be something left over for me as an heir. As a child of the devil I certainly would not have wanted what I had coming, but as a child of God I am overjoyed with my inheritance. Unlike an earthly father, I need not worry that my heavenly Father will not have much to give me. In fact He has given me so much already.
Jesus is the child of God, par excellence. He alone deserves to be an heir. But in His love and grace the Father has made me an heir with Him.
A. We share in His suffering.
Paul tells me that as a co-heir with Jesus I share in His sufferings. In John 15, Jesus says to me and to all children of God by faith in Jesus Christ, “if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you; No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
B. We share in His glory.
As I share in His suferings — indeed as His sufferings, death and resurrection are applied to my life — I also have the great joy of sharing in His glory. As Paul reminds me, I have been crucified with Christ, I have been buried with Christ, but I have also been raised with Christ. I am even seated with Christ in the heavenly places.
Hebrews 12 tells me Jesus endured the cross and now is seated on the right hand of the throne of God. What an awesome privilege it is for us as children of God to be joint heirs with Christ and to share in the joy and glory of the only begotten Son of God.
The heavenly Father loves additions to His family! If you are His child, thank the Lord. Thank Him with a life of worship and praise. Thank Him with willing service. (PRN)
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
July 25, 1993
What the World Needs Now!
(Romans 8-31-39)
Life has a way of smashing our idealisms, doesn’t it? Recently, driving along in the car, I happened to tune into a rock radio station and hear these words sung by “STYX.” They are titled “Show Me the Way.”
Every night I say a prayer
In the hopes that there’s a heaven
But every day I’m more confused
All the saints turn into sinners
All the heroes and legends I knew as a child
Have fallen to idols of clay
And I feel this empty space inside
So afraid that I’ve lost my faith
Show me the way, show me the way
Take me tonight to the river and wash my illusions away
Please show me the way
What the world needs now is “good news” It needs something that points to a hope that goes beyond morning headlines. It needs something that touches faded, jaded hopes of youth singing this haunting prayer.
What the world needs now is good news and the gospel has good news for you.
Steve Brown tells a story about a man who had a sick mule. He called the veterinarian. After examining the mule in the barn, the vet said, “You give him one of these white pills. This is an amazing, miracle medication. When you give the mule this pill he will get well. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. But if that doesn’t work, and I’m almost positive it will, I have this little red pill. You give that to him, and that will cure anything.”
Two weeks later the vet saw the farmer and asked, “How’s your mule?”
The farmer said, “Doc, you wouldn’t believe it. I gave him that little white pill, and that mule jumped off the floor and knocked down the barn door. He jumped over three fences, knocked the fourth down, and just took off into the fields. Doc, if I hadn’t had the presence of mind to take that red pill myself, I never would have caught him.”
I’ve got four red pills for you, four pieces of good news that will get you up and get you going in a world in which there is so much bad news.
The first good news message is that Jesus Christ is alive today.
It is so easy to take this fact for granted. How often have you heard the preacher from the pulpit say, “Jesus Christ is alive today”? As pastor and lay persons, we search compulsively for something unique, something different in religious expression, and we neglect the timeless truth that changes lives. This truth is that Jesus Christ is alive today.
One of our problems is that we get stuck in Bethlehem. We become so caught up with that nativity scene — the baby in a manger, a long-robed Joseph, Mary, shepherds and wise men, surrounded by bleating sheep and mooing cows — that we forget the rest of the story. That little baby was God in human form. The only significance of that manger scene is that it marked the incarnation. God took human form.
More important than that nativity scene is another scene around a cross on a hill called Golgotha outside the gates of Jerusalem. The baby is now a 33-year-old man. The little band of disciples is in disarray because their Master had been arrested. Everything had fallen apart for them. There He was on a cross, dying. One had betrayed Him. Another had denied Him. Shattered were the hopes of those who saw in Jesus a new day dawning for Israel and for humankind.
Three days later, some of the women followers went to the garden area to pay their respects to the dead Christ only to find the tomb opened and the stone rolled away. Within hours they were encountered by the Risen Christ. This dispirited, broken band of followers met their Risen Lord, touched His nail-scarred hands, and felt His wounded side. They had their doubts dispelled, and, in resurrection faith, they marched forward with a proclamation that Jesus Christ is alive. The tomb is empty.
Within 300 years, the powerful, pagan Roman empire bowed its knee before the claims of Jesus Christ. And even today, in a world fraught with so much uncertainty, millions of men and women stand up, calling themselves Christians in alive confidence that Jesus Christ is alive today. Even the diabolical specter of a world dominated by atheistic Marxist ideology has crumbled, is dead, while Jesus Christ lives. That’s good news!
The second good news message is at Jesus Christ loves you.
Karl Barth, one of the best-known German theologians of this century, once said that the greatest theological statement ever made was incorporated into the words of the Sunday school song, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”
The Bible says Jesus loves you so much that He now makes intercession for you with the Father. He is your access to God, your only contact with God. He is God Himself. That’s good news!
The third good news message is that all you need to do is respond in faith to God’s love.
The Bible says:
That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Hint from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9).
I know how difficult it is for some to accept this. You may be one of these. Perhaps you’ve been trained in a scientific way. You have to have proof for just about anything you do. At least you think you have to have proof.
Let’s get personal. It’s one thing to talk about Christian faith in the abstract. We can debate it philosophically by the hour. It is something else to take a look at lives changed by the power of Jesus Christ. Are you willing to review the evidence?
I think of a fellow by the name of Jim Roberts. When I knew him best he was the executive director of the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. Since then he has moved back to the Boston area. I will never forget him telling his story of how God touched his life in earlier years. Jim had made it to the top in this world. He headed the Chamber of Commerce in Boston. Jim belonged to all the best clubs and had all the proper associations. Little did many realize that underneath his smooth veneer there was bitterness and cynicism. His restlessness of life was evidenced by the fact that he knew he was drinking too much.
Finally, in 1965, Jim Roberts put up the white flag and surrendered to the claims of Jesus Christ. His life was changed. He sensed the flood of God’s forgiveness. He found new purpose. He became plugged in to a group of believers. Together, they grew in their common trust in Jesus Christ. Ten years later, Jim was teaching one of our adult education classes at the First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. Today, he is still walking with Jesus Christ.
I could line up hundreds of men and women out of this congregation to give several-minute testimonies to what God has done in their lives. Are you one of them? I hope you are. That’s good news!
The fourth good news message is that as far as God is concerned, nothing can separate you from His love.
Perhaps you are facing an impossible situation. Nothing is impossible with Him. Even your difficulties of life can pave the way to a deeper relationship with God.
The Bible text for today is Romans 8:31-39. Follow closely as I read verse 35:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
The Apostle Paul knew what he was talking about. He had gone through all of these things. Yet, through all of this, Jesus Christ had remained faithful to him. He wants to encourage you and me from his experience. He is not saying, “Come to Jesus, and all your problems will go away.” He is saying that God’s love is so encompassing that He will sustain you through the toughest of circumstances (8:37-39).
No power in the universe can permanently hurt a man or a woman who is in harmony with God through Jesus Christ. No matter how difficult your experiences of life may be, nothing can separate you from His love as you yield yourself to Him. Nothing else that ever was or ever will be, shall be able to separate you and me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. That’s good news! (JAH)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: John Bishop, retired Methodist minister, Philadelphia, PA: C. Thomas Hilton, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Pompano Beach, FL: Larry McSwain, Provost, Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, KY; Paul R. Naumann, Campus Pastor, Concordia University, Mequon, Wl: and Michael Duduit, Editor, Preaching.

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Palm/Passion Sunday (A)
April 4, 1992
How Odd of God
To Enter That Way
(Matthew 21:8-11)
Today is Palm Sunday, and all over Christendom in hundreds of thousands of churches, Christians are gathering to worship Jesus and reflect on His last entrance into Jerusalem. Palm Sunday gets its name from the branches the children laid in the path of Jesus as He came riding in on a donkey.
Now the donkey itself is an odd touch; if you or I had been directing we would have looked for a chariot, new if possible, old if necessary, or at least a horse! But in fact the donkey is only one of several odd aspects of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Today I want us to use these unusual aspects of the entry to sharpen our understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ coming into that Jerusalem and into the Jerusalem of our hearts. Let us consider the securing of the donkey, the paving of the path with palm branches and garments, and the question of the crowds — “Who is this?”
The Lord Has Need of Them” (v. 3)
The first of these curious incidents is the securing of the donkey. Some folks make a deep mystery of it, feeling that Jesus and His disciples were totally unknown to the donkey’s owner, and that the request was out of the blue. That’s not necessary at all. It is possible that the owner was a follower, perhaps secretly like Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus. He just may not have been expecting Jesus to come by at that time or to make such a request of him.
See the answer the disciples gave to the men who quickly gathered to check out this possible theft of a donkey — the equivalent of our car theft! “The Lord has need of them.” I suppose someone ran quickly and told the owner and, upon hearing, he knew Jesus had sent them. It was sufficient to know that Jesus had need of that lowly little farm animal. There is a profound message here for all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus. If Jesus needed that little animal, He needs you and me to carry out His work. If He has a plan and a will for that donkey — surely He has one for us. We may not always know the depth nor the end of that will, but we know it is a good will and a good plan.
Coats in the Dust (v. 8)
And so it was that the donkey was brought to Jesus at Bethphage. He mounted it and began the short ride over the Mount of Olives and down into Jerusalem. It was then that the crowds began to cut palm branches and cover the path ahead of the donkey; and those who could find no greenery slipped off their outer robes and flung them into the dust before this One who came riding in on a donkey. Why? These are certainly not the wealthy people of Jerusalem, and most people did not have a robe to spare!
If only you and I could have been among that multitude that day! The disciples could have told us why the people cheered and screamed praises to God until their throats were sore, and why they flung their robes in the dust. Over there, see him? It’s Bartimaeus, the blind man Jesus healed just last week at Jericho, only twenty miles down the road, on the way here. And yonder is Lazarus, tears of joy streaming down his face, and beside him Mary and Martha. And there is the man who was lame for thirty-eight years and lay by the Sheep Pool here in Jerusalem, waiting for an angel to heal him — then Jesus came. No wonder they cry and dance, shout and sing, and throw their branches in the path! This is a day for praise and joy and gratitude and love and hope and admiration and thanksgiving.
Have you and I any less reason to praise and rejoice in God our Saviour? Have we lost the element of praise? There is so much extremism, pessimism, complacency — is there still room for enthusiasm, for shouting, for “Amens,” for tears in our churches? Are there too many Pharisees in our crowds, as in that crowd that day?
Who Is This Man? (vv. 10-11)
The procession came on into Jerusalem, through the beautiful Golden Gate. As the crowd came on into the temple, drawing an even greater throng among the pilgrims gathered from all over Israel for the annual Passover, a question raced through the crowd like jagged lightning in a summer storm: “Who is this man?” And that is the question each of them — and each of us — has to answer.
The Moslems apparently have long thought they know who that man was, and is. For that Golden Gate through which Jesus entered has now been closed for centuries. It is said that it was closed by the Moslems when they overran Jerusalem in the sixth century, in order to keep Jesus from returning. The legends are that they will prevail until Jesus returns through that gate. So they walled it up, and planted a Moslem cemetery directly in front of it, hoping to stop Jesus’ return. In the time of the Crusades the gate was reopened once a year, on Palm Sunday, as the Christians celebrated the coming of Easter.
But who do you say this man is? The crowd said He was Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet. And He was. He was the carpenter, who came into this world and lived like us, among us, in order to understand and save us. But He is more than that. He is the Prophet, Priest, and King. He is the Suffering Servant, the Bringer of Salvation and Healing. He is the Conqueror of death. He is the Lord. (ECD)
Easter Sunday (A)
April 11, 1993
The Astounding Event at the Heart of Faith
(John 20-1-18)
In the Courtauld Gallery in London hangs the master painting by Michelangelo Caravaggio entitled “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.” It depicts the scene in the upper room when Christ appears from the dead to the disciples. Thomas, the one known as the Doubter, is stretching forth his hand to touch the wound in Christ’s side. He cannot believe his Lord is alive again.
And well he can’t! We would all have a similar problem.
I think of my father’s death: the call that came …. the long drive to get there …. the funeral home where his body lay. He looked better in death than he had in life. We shed some tears and stood there for hours as friends came to pay their respects. We went to his room in the nursing home where he had lived the last years of his life, and took his clothes from the drawers and the closet. The room seemed strangely empty without his presence.
We had his graveside service on a sunny morning that turned suddenly cold and blustery as we said the words of the prayers. In the afternoon, I returned to the cemetery and stood by the freshly filled grave. Nothing would have surprised me more than if he had come back that evening and stood in the room where we gathered to talk. Nothing would have effected a greater change in the way I look at life or the way I live from day to day. I would have been as incredulous as Thomas.
Jesus was really dead. The Gospels went to great length to make this clear. He was not in a swoon, later to revive in the tomb. He suffered and bled and died on the cross. When the soldiers came to make sure, one of them pierced His side with a sword. Two of His followers took the body down from the cross, prepared it for burial, and placed it in a tomb, where a stone was rolled to secure the body. The body lay there from Friday evening until Sunday morning — three days by Jewish reckoning. And then suddenly He was alive again!
That is what is so amazing about His resurrection. Suddenly this very dead body, this decomposing body, was alive and appearing to disciples everywhere!
It is our problem today that we don’t really believe it.
We say we believe it.
“I believe … in Jesus Christ … born … suffered … was crucified … The third day He rose again from the dead.”
But we don’t really believe it. We can’t. We don’t know how to believe it. We only half-believe it.
We are simply stuck with a gigantic absurdity at the heart of our faith — an act so audacious and incredible that believing it would stand all our other belief systems on their heads. So we come to church and pretend to believe that Jesus rose up from the dead and then go out to our jobs and homes and everyday lives and remain unconvinced in our hearts.
When we are confronted by the resurrection, this enormous absurdity, we must opt for one of three possibilities:
One, it didn’t happen. It was merely a fiction invented by the early church.
Two, it did happen, and therefore we don’t understand the world we live in as well as we thought we did.
Three, it did happen, but only because there is a Power so great that it can contravene the laws of the world as we know it.
Now, from the viewpoint of those who were closest to Jesus, it did happen. There can be no doubt about that. There are three major pieces of evidence.
First, there was the empty tomb. No fewer than four of the followers saw the empty tomb and reported it.
Second, there were all the appearances of the risen Christ — to Mary in the garden, to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, to ten of the disciples in the upper room, to the ten again plus Thomas, to several disciples by the Sea of Galilee, to more than five hundred followers at once, and finally to the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul, it seems to me, would be one of the most incontrovertible witnesses, as he had been a sworn enemy of the Christians until Christ appeared to him.
Third, there was the incredible change in the attitudes and behavior of the followers. Before the crucifixion, they acted from cowardice and confusion. After the resurrection, they were transformed into pillars of courage and decisiveness, ready to die for their faith. It was no mere shifting of mood for them to change so dramatically. Something had happened that altered the very nature of their beings.
I said we must opt for one of three possibilities: that it didn’t happen; that it did happen, and therefore the world is different from the world we thought we knew; or that it did happen because a great Power contravened the laws of nature as we know them. Perhaps I was wrong, and we can opt for both the second and the third possibilities. That is, it is probably true that we don’t fully understand the nature of the world we live in and God intervened in an unusual way to rescue His beloved Son from the grave.
Let me unpack that a bit.
It is true that we don’t always understand the world as well as we think we do. Today, we tend to be a lot more skeptical of faith than we are of science, with the result that we are sometimes deluded by science and so-called “scientific evidence.” The truth is that much of science is still a lot of unproven and perhaps even unprovable conjecture — systems of hypotheses that hold together very well within themselves but admit of no real verification from the outside. The most outstanding physicists of our time confess that one little piece of new information, one daring bit of mathematical breakthrough, may totally alter the way we presently understand matter and space.
If we wish to be strictly scientific, we shall never accept a worldview that excludes the evidence that does not fit. Real science, on the contrary, pays closest attention to the information that cannot be fitted neatly into its patterns and theories. So we must beware of being scientific bigots, just as we must beware of being religious bigots.
But suppose our environment is basically submissive to rational patterns, and that we are beginning at last to discern what they are. Does this mean that God cannot behave as God wants to, despite the laws of nature — that God cannot throw away the script and improvise in a totally divine way? After all, the very name “God” implies the freedom to do what God wants, doesn’t it? Is God bound by anything? If so, then God is not God.
The followers of Jesus knew that people do not normally revive after they have died — especially after they have been dead for three days. This is why they were so surprised, so galvanized, by the resurrection. If they had expected it, it would have been otherwise. They would not have run to the tomb on the report of its being empty. They would not have been transformed into pillars of courage and decisiveness. And, when it happened, when they learned that Jesus had risen from the grave, they declared immediately that God had done it.
“This Jesus, whom you crucified,” says the substance of Peter’s speech to the Jews at Pentecost, “Him has God raised up and made to become the Lord and Savior of us all.” There was no doubt in their minds: God had acted in an extraordinary way to restore Christ to the world of the living.
God is God, and, whatever the nature of the world, can do anything the divine will chooses to do. What it all comes down to is that when you say God you say miracle. It’s as simple as that.
I am thinking of a friend of mine and what happened to her several years ago when she was operated on for cancer. The doctors said she was riddled by the disease and would never be well again. She lay in her room at the hospital, half alive and half dead, wanting to get it over with. A woman appeared by her bed and said she was sent to give her a massage. The woman was dressed in foreign dress and wore a turban, unlike the nurses who regularly came into the room. As her hands moved over my friend’s body, my friend began to feel well again. She could not believe how well she felt.
When a nurse came into the room, my friend asked her about the woman in foreign clothing who had given her the wonderful massage. The nurse replied that there was no such person on the staff.
Later, when my friend was speaking at a large gathering of people, she saw the woman in the turban slip into the back of the room and smile at her. But after the meeting she was gone again, and my friend never saw her after that.
I saw my friend only a few months ago. She was beautiful. It had been more than ten years since the strange woman gave her the massage. She has been convinced ever since that the woman was an angel from God.
Maybe it is a fault of ours that we become impervious to miracles in the modern world. Maybe we see so few of them because we don’t expect to see them at all. As it is, they must crash in upon us and convince us against our wills.
The resurrection of Jesus, says poet Chad Walsh, is “a mind-breaker.” “The cross is a heartbreaker; the empty tomb is a mind-breaker.” And both our hearts and our minds need to be broken, especially if we are under any illusion that they can get along without God.
What happens when our hearts and minds are broken by God? Then we have a chance to be joyous.
Not in any little, momentary way, but in a cosmic sense. The people of the resurrection are happy people. They know that God is in charge of the universe, that God will not be put off by history, that eventually all the promises of the prophets shall come to pass and there will be “a new heaven and a new earth.”
Oh, they have their sorrows. They are no more immune to suffering than other people. They may even suffer more. But deep down they are happy, for they have seen the ending of the story and know it is a comedy, not a tragedy. They know that in the end the Lord Jesus will reign over everything. (JRK)
Second Sunday of Easter (A)
April 18, 1993
The Polls Were Wrong
(Acts 2:24)
I refuse to say Christians die. Transferred. Meet their Maker. Passed. Gone home. These words make a lot more sense to me because, like all Christians, “I believe in … the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting” (The Apostles’ Creed).
Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t take death to this life lightly. I enjoy this life. And I enjoy people who enjoy this life. And while some are always trying to taint it, God said this life is good. So while I’m not afraid to pass from this life to the next through Jesus, I’m not in any hurry either. I’ve got more things to write. I’ve got more people to tell about Jesus. I’ve got more love to share with my wife, children, family, friends, and you. And I still haven’t had a hole-in-one.
I’m not afraid of being transferred. Because of Jesus, I can say with David Redding, “Anyone who feels sorry for a dead Christian, as though the poor chap were missing something, is himself missing the transfiguring promotion involved” (Getting Through the Night, 1972).
Christians never die. And people never live until they invite Jesus into their hearts. Again, please don’t get me wrong. I don’t take death to this life lightly. And let’s not forget how Jesus reacted when one of His friends passed from this life (John 11). He cried. Though He knew of the eternal reunion His life and resurrection would insure, Jesus still valued and enjoyed this life and the life of his friend so much that He didn’t want to part company even if it would be only a relatively short separation through the eyes of eternity. That’s why it’s appropriate, even expected by our Lord, for our tears to flow when we say a temporary farewell to a friend who goes home. When we cry at a memorial service, it’s our way of affirming the goodness of a life our Lord shared with us in this life. And though we know we will share life again after this life, we miss our resurrected friends. We’ll get together there but we still miss them here.
Death used to be a bigger deal than it is now. If we could have taken a poll before Jesus rose from the dead, there wouldn’t have been too many folks who saw anything beyond the grave. It would have been like those polls in 1948 which said Harry Truman had no chance of being re-elected president. But Truman knew polls can be wrong.
Tom Evans, an old friend of Truman’s, called late on November 21, 1948. “I called him about midnight,” he recollected. “He had just lost New York State to Thomas Dewey, and I knew he had to carry Ohio, Illinois, and California. And when I called him to tell him that, he said, ‘Tom, I’m going back to sleep. Now don’t call me any more. I’m going to carry all three of those states.’ Which he did.” The polls were wrong. And ever since Jesus, Christians have scorned death with Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:51ff).
When the clergy conspired to kill Jesus, and Pilate went along for the ride, the polls predicted defeat for our Lord. One pollster even caught two of His closest campaign workers headed out of town and saying, “But we had hoped that He was the One who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:13ff). The disciples scattered and cowered in the darkest corners of Jerusalem. They denied communion or even acquaintance with Jesus. Their dreams were dashed. Their hero was hung. The campaign was over. And they thought they had lost the election.
The polls were wrong. Jesus rose from the dead. And ever since that unique day of resurrection so long ago, Christians know polls can be wrong. People don’t know everything and people control nothing. When things look bad, Christians know our Lord changes things. When spirits fall, Christians know God’s Holy Spirit brings revival. When things look like they’re dying, Christians know God provides resurrection. Christians know “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1).
A few months ago, chess champion Bobby Fischer made a couple of million dollars on the board in Yugoslavia. He beat Boris Spassky again. And he appeared as weird as ever.
But one of the things that a lot of people don’t know about Fischer is that his favorite hobby is visiting art galleries and museums. A few years ago while on vacation in Europe, he became captivated by one particular painting called Checkmate. For six hours, he stood staring at it.
It was the picture of a chess game. On one side of the board was Satan with a smug and sinister smile on his face. On the other side of the board was a young man with tears running down his face and sweat pouring from his forehead. He was biting his fingernails. Satan was reaching out to make the last move. The young man looked terrified. Apparently, he thought he had lost the game to Satan. Again, the painting was called Checkmate. Satan smiled. The young man was panicked. And as Satan reached out to make the last move, things seemed hopeless for the young man.
After six hours of staring at the painting, Bobby Fischer said, “Bring me a chess board.” He set up the board exactly as it was depicted in the painting. After a few moments, he began to smile. “Young man,” he said, “I wish you could hear me because I have some good news for you. Things aren’t as dark and bleak as they seem to be. I have studied this game for more than six hours, and I have discovered that it’s alright to allow the devil to make his move. Because after he makes his move, I’ve found that there is one more move on the board! Let him make his move. You will be the one who says, ‘Checkmate!’ There is one more move on the board.”
No matter what the polls say or how things appear to be, we always have one more move. Jesus. We have Jesus. And it’s impossible to lose with Jesus on our side.
Hank Aaron was asked if he held his bat with the label up or down. He said, “I never check. I don’t go up to the plate to read. I go up to hit!” After Babe Ruth’s dramatic home run, which came after he pointed his bat to the place where he intended to hit the ball, a reporter asked, “How would you have felt if you hadn’t hit a home run? What if you had made an out?” The Babe replied, “That never even entered my mind.”
As Thomas More stood before the executioner for being more committed to Christ than any king, he said “I remain the king’s good servant but God’s first.” As he reached the gallows as his penalty for serving the Savior instead of Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer turned to a young English lieutenant and said, “The is the end. For me the beginning of life.”
It’s never over for a Christian. Christians never say die. Death doesn’t have the last move. That’s reserved for Jesus. (RRK)
Third Sunday of Easter (A)
April 25, 1993
He’s Alive: So What?
(Luke 24:28-35)
Our family was going on vacation and I was listening to a minister on the car radio. Throughout his sermon he repeated this line, “Jesus is a celestial being with a celestial body.” At the end of the service, he said, “I will be back tomorrow — same time, same place. I want to talk about Jesus is a celestial being with a celestial body’.” Maybe you get the significance. I didn’t get it. I turned to my family and said, “So what?”
Two Sundays ago, we celebrated Easter and sang hymns such as, Up From the Grave He Arose” and He Lives. On this Sunday, I want to ask the question, “So what difference does that make in the living of my life and your life?” It is one thing to affirm something which happened in history but it is another thing to say, “this is the living, moving and having-its-being in the history of my own life.” “Up from the grave He arose.” We believe that but “so what difference does it make to the way you and I live?”
What difference does it make that He came out of the tomb and up from the grave He arose? The story begins with Luke picturing two disciples who are going from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a little village about seven miles from Jerusalem. It is Easter Sunday afternoon. These disciples had heard the rumors that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb but they couldn’t believe He was risen from the dead. They simply did not believe He had come back from the dead. His body may be missing but they thought it was simply the hysteria of a few women. They could not believe for themselves that Jesus was alive.
What is important is not where they were going but what they were trying to get away from in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the dream had died. They had a dream about Jesus. They had given themselves to Jesus. He was the leader of their lives. They believed in Him. Suddenly everything was dead and they might as well have been dead.
You and I know what it is to exist in life but not to live. Some of us do this at times. We keep on keeping on but life has been drained and squeezed out of us because the dream has died. This is what had happened to these two shuffling along from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They had a dream but the dream had died.
Suddenly a stranger joins them on the journey. We know it’s Jesus. Luke says, “He was Jesus,” but Luke also says, “They didn’t know who it was.” Their eyes were closed to who it was. Isn’t it interesting they didn’t recognize Jesus? I’ve seen people whose dreams have died. Haven’t you? They stare vacantly at life. Their eyes are open but they are not really open. Don’t you know people such as this — they see but they don’t see. Somewhere the dream died in their lives and all of life has been drained out of them.
I saw it one Sunday morning after I had preached. It was Mother’s Day and we had the new parents come with their babies. It was always an exciting time for the congregation. At the conclusion of the service, I went to the back of the church. People were coming by and I noticed a woman who was at the edge of the crowd. When everybody else had gone, she came by, took my hand, and I will never forget what she said: “Pastor, more than anything else I wish I could be a mother.” Since that day, I never preached a Mother’s Day sermon or had a Mother’s Day service when I didn’t remember the eyes of that woman and pray or say something about those who sit in the congregation on Mother’s Day for whom that is the most painful Sunday in all of the year. More than anything else, they would like somebody to call them “mother” but the dream has died.
Do you know those times in your life? There are times of grief, anger and sometimes of frustration. There are times of fear when you move out of a door and know you’ll never be able to come back through that door again to things just as they were. Things have changed. A dream has died.
The travellers asked the stranger to come with them to supper. The stranger takes the bread in His hands, gives thanks and breaks the bread. At that moment they recognized, “This is Jesus.” What was happening? Suddenly the bread in His hands was a reminder to them that life is in His hands.
The dream dies for us when there is no purpose in life, when life makes no sense, when there is nothing beyond ourselves — no one beyond ourselves — on whom we can call. We walk through life seeing but not seeing, staring but not understanding, looking but not really looking into the heart of life. In that moment, it dawned on them — life is in His hands.
Robert McCracken, who was pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, was once asked, “Why do people keep coming to church?” He said, “They keep coming because they hope to hear some word beyond themselves.”
Do you see what was happening here? The dream had died for the two disciples and they could not see. They were staring but not seeing. They were listening but not hearing. Suddenly He took the bread in His hands and they knew in that moment that life was in His hands.
Do you know what the disciples did? They didn’t stay in Emmaus. Luke says, “They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem.” Do you find that intriguing? The disciples go back to where the disappointment had happened, back to where the dream had become a nightmare. They had just come from there, empty, but they go back. It is still Jerusalem but there is a difference.
What difference does it make that He’s risen? They got up, they went back to life as it was but they went back with a faith which changed them.
When Charles de Gaulle was president of France, he and his wife, Yvonne, had a daughter who was severely mentally handicapped. Late in the afternoon, regardless of the affairs of state, Charles de Gaulle would always come home and he and his wife would get on the floor and play with their daughter. Every night, as they went to bed, Yvonne would say to Charles, “I so much wish that she was like the others.” The daughter died. The day of the funeral, everybody had left the graveside except for Yvonne. The grief was so bitter. She sat there by herself. Finally, de Gaulle went to her and put his arm on her arm and said, “Yvonne, did you hear what the minister said today? ‘She is now like the others’.”
This is the kind of world in which you and I live. It is a world where sometimes dreams get broken, nightmares come we never expected. Suddenly in the midst of life, there are those things we never expected to happen.
They got up and they went back to Jerusalem. Things on the outside were the same but something was wonderfully different. “He’s alive. So what?” You and I can leave this place today and live in His presence and His power. (CB)
Fourth Sunday of Easter (A)
May 2, 1993
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
(Acts 2:44)
Jesus expected believers to get along with each other. Jesus expected believers to be bonded together through common faith in Him. He expected the unity of believers to be among the most persuasive witnesses to His saving Lordship. Jesus expected the world to look at His Church and exclaim, “See how they love each other!” Jesus expected the reality of life in the Church to reflect the refrain, “We are one in the Spirit. We are one in the Lord …. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love … Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” That’s what Jesus expected.
Obviously, Jesus never went to a session meeting. Obviously, Jesus never went to a presbytery, synod, or General Assembly meeting. Obviously, Jesus didn’t understand the need for the number of churches to rival the number of saloons in most towns. Obviously, Jesus didn’t realize people could love Him and hate each other at the same time.
“It is the tragic fact,” lamented Barclay, “that it is just that united front that the Church has never shown to men. Faced by the disunity of Christians, the world cannot see the supreme value of the Christian faith.”
It’s a shame how Jesus gets blamed for Christians. It’s a shame how people move in directions away from Jesus because they are so repulsed by the behavior of people who claim Him as Lord. It would be good for us to remind people who are turned off to Jesus because they are turned off by Christians that what is true does not become false because of false witnesses to the truth. But remembering that the only Gospel or word about Jesus some folks will ever hear or see is the Gospel according to you and me, the disunity and divisions and disaffections of His disciples do not assist the growth of the Kingdom.
Unfortunately, the connection between Jesus and today’s church is often just coincidental. I am reminded of the movie version of William H. Armstrong’s Sounder. A black man and his son are strolling by a segregated church. The boy says to his daddy. “I never been in that church.” His daddy replies, That’s O.K., honey. Jesus never been in there neither.” The truth is, as John wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother … cannot love God … Whoever loves God must love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). And so Luke was right when he wrote about the early Church and the everlasting Church which loves Jesus: “All the believers were together.” If we believe in Jesus, we are bonded together through common faith in Him.
The dedication page of The Master Christian came to mind: “Dedicated to all of those who quarrel in the Name of Christ.” In an address to the World Vision International Council in September 1989, Roberta Hestemes sadly said, “The church of which we are a part is deeply divided. It is a broken church. Like our country and world, the church is divided.
You may have seen Imo Phillips tell this story on his comedy special a few years ago: “I was walking in San Francisco along the Golden Gate Bridge when I saw a man about to jump off. I tried to dissuade him from committing suicide and told him simply that God loved him. A tear came to his eye. I then asked him, ‘Are you a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu, or what?’ He said, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I said, ‘Me, too, small world. Protestant or Catholic?’ He said, ‘Protestant.’ I said. ‘Me, too, what franchise?’ He said, ‘Northern Baptist.’ I said, ‘Well, me too. Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?’ He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist.’ I said, ‘Well, call Ripley! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?’ He said, ‘Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist.’ I said, ‘Remarkable! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?’ He said, ‘Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region.’ I said, ‘A miracle! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region of 1879 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region of 1912?’ He said, ‘Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region of 1912.’ I said, ‘Die, Heretic!’ And I pushed him over.”
It’s like the dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist who was approached by her nephew and asked, “What will you do if when you go to heaven, you meet Jesus and He says He’s a Presbyterian?” The old woman replied, “Listen, honey, if I’m in heaven and somebody tells me he’s a Presbyterian, I’ll know it ain’t Jesus.”
I won’t even mention the things that separate us in the local church like carpet color, hymnbook selection, Sunday School materials, what to do with old buildings which have not been used for over a decade, real or fake candles and flowers, where to hang the cradle roll, robed and collared or tabbed or suited priests, the volume of the organ, length of the service, preacher’s kids, calendar, classroom assignments, kitchen, and all of the other things so critical to the rise or fall of the Kingdom. I won’t even mention those things.
But what a witness to the world! If the church can’t get its act together, how will the world ever get its act together? How can a divided church heal a divided world? And what’s the cost of our broken church?
“Gee,” the Beaver asked his dad, “there’s something wrong with just about everything, isn’t there, Dad?” And Ward replied, “Just about, Beav.” The world’s divided. Our country is divided. The church is divided. But it is not our Lord’s fault. He had a better idea: unity through common faith in Him.
I’ve always liked the way e. e. cummings put it, “I am blue. You are yellow. Together we make green. And green is my favorite color.” That may sound a little corny but it’s true because, as Luke wrote about the church then and now, “All the believers were together.” (RRK)
Fifth Sunday of Easter (A)
May 9, 1993
Stephen’s Sermon
(Acts 7:51-60)
When the church appointed the seven, it had far-reaching consequences. It opens the last crisis of the Jerusalem church, it signals the beginning of the great struggle to free the Gospel from the chains of tradition, pride, and prejudice. The early Christians felt themselves to be Jews — Jews who had found the Messiah and all that it meant. And what it meant was beginning to run against the grain of what the average, “off the shelf” Jew thought.
The Jews felt chosen, but in the wrong way. They never grasped, throughout the Old Testament, that they were chosen to serve, to bring all nations to the true God. They felt God had no use for any people but them. They felt, in their worst moments, that the Gentiles were created merely as fuel for the fires of hell; they felt, in their best moments, that the Gentiles were created to be servants of the Jews in the Messianic Age.
Here in Acts 6 we see the early Church selecting as its first deacons seven men who are obviously Greek-speaking Jews, and one is a Gentile convert to Christianity! Of these seven, Stephen sees farther than the rest. He has a vision of the whole world following Christ; he saw the universal nature of the Gospel long before the leaders of the church saw it. And for that vision he will pay with his life; yet as he dies he still sees farther than anybody else around him. In verses 55-56, surrounded by tooth-grinding enemies, he sees the heavens opened and Jesus at the right hand of the Father. That vision stayed with him and sustained him in the hail of stones. Nobody else in the crowd saw his vision — not the murderers with the rocks, not Saul guarding the coats.
Stephen and Jesus
Stephen had a far-reaching vision because he was filled with the Spirit of Jesus (6:5). Luke intends for us to see Stephen as echoing the character of Jesus; both are described as “full of grace and power,” both did “wonders and signs,” both were persecuted, hated, confronted with false witnesses, put on trial, and put to death. Both Jesus and Stephen, in the hour of death, make similar statements about receiving their spirit, and forgiving those who persecute them. Both are granted a sense of triumph: Jesus in His cry, “It is finished”; Stephen in his vision of Jesus. May the life and death of every deacon reflect such a closeness to Jesus!
What the Deacon Preached
Stephen’s sermon — for that is what we have in 7:2-53, rather than a defense — is the beginning of the break of Christianity with Judaism. Stephen uses the history of God’s dealings with the Jews to show how they have rejected both God’s message and God’s messengers. We could entitle his sermon, The Way God Works, and the Way Man Rejects God’s Plan. There are four main divisions to his sermon: God’s plan with Abraham (7:2-8), God’s plan with Joseph (7:9-19), God’s plan with Moses (7:20-42), and the significance of the tabernacle, the tent of testimony of God’s presence with His people (7:43-59).
The section on Abraham shows that God’s plan is greater than any human mind can fathom, for to Abraham was the land promised, yet he never owned more than a graveyard. To Abraham God predicted the bondage in Egypt, and made the promises when Abraham had no son. Abraham tells us that man cannot seek to judge the plan of God; man’s part is to obey.
The section on Joseph is intended to show him as a type of Jesus: betrayed, sold into slavery yet raised up by God. The section on Moses, the patron saint of the Pharisees, shows how this messenger of God was disowned by those he was sent to rescue (v. 35), how he prophesied the rising of a prophet like him (v. 37), and how the children of Israel constantly disobeyed him (v. 39). The section on the tabernacle emphasizes that it was a symbol of the presence of God with His people, and that it was a better symbol than the fixed temple of Solomon. No temple can hold the Lord God who is out leading His people.
Stephen makes three points about the way God works: (1) God calls out His people to follow Him wherever He leads; (2) God has a plan we may not be able to see; and (3) our God is a God of progress and change whose best symbol was the tent of testimony, a portable meeting place of God and His people.
The Response to his Sermon
The response of the Sanhedrin to Stephen’s sermon was strong and negative! Most folks give most preachers at best a bored yawn at the end of the sermon; Stephen had his congregation grinding their teeth and under conviction in their hearts (v. 54). Stephen had apparently already counted the cost, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit Stephen was given a vision of the glory of God, and saw Jesus at the right hand of God. It is worth noting that most references to Jesus in the presence of the Father speak of Him seated at the Father’s right hand (see Romans 8:34; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 20:23; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). Here Jesus is seen standing to welcome Stephen.
The Witness of Stephen
In the account of this preaching deacon’s death (vv. 57-60), we see what a powerful witness he was in both life and death. In Luke 12:4, Jesus speaks of the days when men like Stephen will “proclaim from the housetop” what Jesus has been saying. And in light of that, Jesus says, “My friends, do not be afraid of those who can kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.”
The ultimate fear of mankind is physical death, as Hebrews 2:14 says when it speaks of those who are held hostage all their lives to the devil in fear of death, but are now set free in Jesus. Stephen truly was not afraid of death, and in his faith he bears testimony to the supremacy of the spirital in this world. He died saying, like his Master, “Lord, receive my spirit.”
He bears testimony to the reality of the unseen. Stephen saw the heavens opened, and the glory of the unseen appeared. Stephen and his sense of the unseen was a goad, a prod pushing Paul to Jesus.
And Stephen died bearing witness to the fact that the glory of God is essentially grace. For Stephen, again like his Master, died asking the Father to forgive his enemies. Stephen’s prayer shows his deepest desire for those who hated him, and the depth of his confidence that God both could and would pardon such folks.
May all the deacons you know follow in Stephen’s train. For such are living testimonies to God’s grace and a vessel fit for service for the King. (ECD)
Sixth Sunday of Easter (A)
May 16, 1993
When God Moves In
(John 14:15-23)
Jesus has good news and bad news for the disciples. The bad news is that Jesus is leaving. He’s moving on down the road which leads irrevocably to the cross.
The good news is that the Holy Spirit is on the way. God is moving into their world and their lives in a new, far more intimate way than they have known before. Jesus said that “he [the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Helper] abides with you …”, as an external, objective reality. But now Jesus promised that the Spirit “will be in you.” Subjective, personal experience; the power of God alive within their hearts, and souls, and minds.
He uses this beautiful image in the 23rd verse: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (14:23 NRSV). God is moving in. And that’s good news — I think.
I’d better warn you that when God moves in, something has to give; things begin to change. Paul said: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17 NRSV).
Rolling across the cable channels the other night — it’s a male genetic flaw which makes us want to see what is on all the other channels during the commercials — I paused at a rerun of “The Waltons.” In this particular episode, Mama’s cousin Cora Beth came to visit and took over the whole place. John Boy had to move in with the other kids so she could have his bedroom. In the moment I caught, he was complaining to Grandma, “Have you seen what she did to my bedroom? I can barely recognize my own face in the mirror!”
That’s how it is when the Spirit of God moves in. The evidence of the Gospel, the witness of Christian people throughout history, is that when God moves in, things begin to change. We begin to think, to act, to relate to other people in a whole new way — a way which looks like the way of Jesus. We begin to see the world around us from a whole new perspective; we begin seeing it through the eyes of Jesus. We begin to see ourselves reflected in the mirror of the love of God, and sometimes we can hardly recognize the person we’re comparing to the person we are becoming. When the Spirit of God moves in, things begin to change.
There’s another thing you need to know: when God moves in, God brings the whole family with Him.
Recent events in our nation have uncorked the cauldron of racism which boils just beneath the surface of our society. It’s probably a good time to pull an old movie off the video shelf. I think it won the Academy Award when it first came out. Do you remember “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”?
Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play an intelligent, affluent, sophisticated couple — folks a lot like us — who are surprised to discover that the well-educated, articulate doctor their daughter brings home to dinner and intends to marry is Black. The point of the movie was, in effect, the daughter saying, “You love me, you get him in the bargain.”
And that’s how it is when God moves in: He brings along all the other people He loves. How many times have I said it? To be “born again” means that we are born into a family, with brothers and sisters in Christ whom we did not choose, but who are given to us in the love of God. I didn’t choose to be born with a twin brother. There were times when I wished he wasn’t there. But he was given to me with the gift of life. When you are born into the family of God, you cannot choose your relatives. They all come in the bargain, all of those folks for whom Christ died.
It’s as simple and as difficult as this: when the love of God, the God who gave His Son because He loved the whole world, becomes a reality in your life, you’d better be ready to start loving that world, too.
At the end of the New Testament, in the closing paragraphs of the Revelation, the living Christ, the ever-present Lord, the always-present-tense Jesus, offers an invitation to us which fulfills the promise He made at the Last Supper. Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. And if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and live with them.”
Jesus promised it to His first disciples, and He promises it to you: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (14:23 NRSV). (JAH)
Ascension (A)
May 23, 1993
Batteries Not Included
(Ephesians 1:15-23)
Is the power on? I can still preach without it. We can still worship without the power. We can still get around without it, but we will get along better with it. We will function as we should function if it is on. You will hear as you are supposed to hear and you will be able to read the hymns in the hymnbook, if it is on.
We could have functioned without it. I suppose I could have shouted louder, or maybe brought in a portable pulpit and placed it in the center aisle. Without the power, the organ would not work, so we could have brought in a piano. We would have been in the dark, so we would try to sing some hymn that you know, for you would sing it in the dark. Things would have happened without the power, but they would not have happened as they should have. We would have to make adjustments and compromises, and in the final analysis, it would have been less than the best. We need the power.
Life is like that. Many people are living without power. They are going through life the best they can with no power. They are alive and functioning, but not as alive as they could be, and not functioning as well as they should be. They might even say, “I’m doing fine. Leave me alone. Life was meant to be like this.” If they have never been turned on to power, they don’t know anything else and, hence, they may even feel satisfied.
Did you ever buy one of those toys that moves by itself, because it is powered by a battery? You push a button and it moves, or runs, or cries. Very often you get it home, assume that it is ready to go, and then you read the small print, “batteries not included.” Now, if you gave it to a child as a present, it could still be played with. You could cuddle it, or play house, or push it. It is still able to be used as a toy, and some children may think that is enough. But if you pointed out that by inserting the batteries you could still do all that you now are doing with the toy, plus it would walk and talk and cry like a real baby, there would be an additional degree of zest in playing with the toy. Life is like that. Sam Shoemaker wrote years ago that “I am perfectly sure that spiritual power is as available to us as electricity. It is about us all the time, waiting to be appropriated. The air is filled with it.”
The gift of life does not come with batteries. That’s the small print on the package. You have to decide to add power. You can live life without power — many millions are — or you can decide to connect your life to power and become all that you were meant to become. Paul talks about the power that is available to us in our Scripture lesson and especially in our text from Ephesians. “How very great is His power at work in us who believe.”
I like the use of superlatives in relation to the Christian faith. Paul doesn’t just say, “How great is His power …” He says, “How very great is His power …” Other translators say, “How tremendous,” “How surpassingly great” and “What transcendent greatness.” In this day of “Super Bowls” and “Super Savers,” Paul is saying that it is super great. There can be more to life than first meets the eye.
This is the good news of the gospel. Life does not have to be boring. It does not have to be routine and humdrum. It can be exciting, for we never know what the Spirit of God is up to. He is surprising us all the time. God has given you not just life, but life abundant! Life in superlatives!
For some people, power and people with power are always bad guys. Not so in the Bible. Luke tells us that people “were astonished at Jesus’ doctrine, for His word was with power” (4:32). Acts tells us that Jesus said to His disciples (to you and me) that “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you …” (1:8). The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that “the kingdom of God is not in word but in power” (4:19). Again, he wrote to Timothy that “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power …” (2 Timothy 1:7). The presence of biblical power is a very desirable thing, a good thing, for it makes us function the way we are supposed to operate. It authenticates our existence and adds zest to our lives.
Not everybody has biblical power — only those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. This source is available to His followers, not to those who follow another. This is power to those who believe, spiritual power.
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase;
To added affliction He addeth His mercy
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed and the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
His love has no limit, His grace has no measure;
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth and giveth and giveth again.
(Annie Johnson Flint)
We can have that kind of power now in our Christian living. Power to God’s people who believe in Him. The power of the Holy Spirit is there for the believing. “He giveth and giveth and giveth again.”
William Borden grew up in a highly privileged family, graduated from Yale University and then went out to serve God and his fellow man in Egypt. While still young, he fell ill and died. On his gravestone in Cairo are these words, “Apart from Christ there is no explanation of such a life.”
Batteries are not included in life. You have to take the initiative and accept what God has already given you in Jesus Christ. You can do all things through Christ, who empowers you. (CTH)
Pentecost (A)
May 30, 1993
The Spirit and Power of Faith
(Acts 2:2-4)
A cameo picture of the early church’s vitality is found in the Book of Acts, where Luke describes what happened to Jesus’ followers shortly after His ascension. They were gathered in one place, apparently to observe a major event of the Jewish liturgical calendar, the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost. What happened is best told in Luke’s own words (Acts 2:2-4).
It was a dramatic experience, one that galvanized them and changed their lives.
What is the background of this strange and powerful Spirit? Is it God Himself at work? Is it the Spirit of Jesus, which He promised to send among the disciples when He left them?
We cannot pretend to have all the answers, as if we were reading the contents label on a box of cereal. But the Bible gives us certain hints.
To begin with, the Spirit is mentioned in the opening verses of the Scriptures, about the creation of the earth (Gen. 1:1-2).
The Spirit is identified as the creative power of God. I have always liked the way the King James Version of the Bible translates this: the Spirit “brooded upon the face of the deep.” Brooding suggests something seminal and gestative, such as the reflective time through which an artist passes on the way to the act of creation.
In male/female terminology, it is possible to identify this creative side of God with what Carl Jung called the anima, the female principle inside every male that is his reproductive and nurturing aspect.
The early Christians interpreted what happened to them at Pentecost — the tongues of fire and speaking in tongues — as a sign that God’s Spirit had been poured out, and that theirs was the age of the coming of the kingdom prophesied by Joel. As people will do, we have fastened upon the particular forms of manifestation, especially the tongues-speaking, and continue to look for the Spirit in this guise. But these were probably only temporary forms the Spirit assumed. The important thing was the irruption of divine Spirit in the midst of their observance of Pentecost.
There are many evidences, throughout the New Testament, of the early Christian understanding that God’s Spirit was then among them. Mark says that when Jesus was baptized, “He saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove” (Mark 1:10). Luke reports that when Jesus addressed the elders in the synagogue in Nazareth, he announced, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Paul writes frequently of being “in the Spirit” or “led by the Spirit.” They were all convinced that the Spirit promised by Joel had come — that God was in their midst, creating a new heaven and a new earth.
Eduard Thurneysen, a friend of Karl Barth, has described the Spirit this way:
The Holy Spirit is indeed no other than God himself approaching us and grasping us; he is our God, the God acting with us and in us through his Word and choosing us to be his children. God is the Creator and Father over us; in his Son he is also with us, and in the Holy Spirit he is in us, in order to open our eyes and ears so that we learn to recognize, love, and fear him as our Father in his being with us in the Son. (A Theology of Pastoral Care, pp. 185-186).
All of this is to say that Christians who have not learned to experience God as the Spirit are still in a preliminary state of faith. They do not yet know the confidence of faith, for they lack the sense that God is truly with them at all times. They are little acquainted with the true fellowship of faith, for they have not felt the Spirit’s binding them together with others in the faith, both those they know and those who belong to the wider, ecumenical fellowship of believers. And they are missing the power of faith, for they have not experienced God’s moving in and through them to correct human situations, heal the sick, or improve the world.
My favorite recollection of the power of faith is of a story I read many years ago as a boy, in S. D. Gordon’s book, Quiet Talks on Prayer. It was about D. L. Moody, the shoe clerk who became a great evangelist for Christ, and the time he visited a small church in Great Britain.
When he got up to speak in the morning service, Moody said, he faced the coldest, most apathetic congregation he had ever seen, and he was glad when the experience was over. He dreaded going back to speak again that evening; but unfortunately his presence had been advertised and he kept his word. That evening, though, was a totally different experience. As he preached, he noticed a little warmth in the crowd. Then there was more warmth. Finally, there was so much warmth that a revival broke out, and, though Moody was engaged to be somewhere else the next day, he promised to come back in a few days and continue to preach there, so that the promise of that wonderful evening could be fulfilled.
When he returned to the church, Moody learned what had really happened on that unusual Sunday. There was an elderly woman in the congregation who could no longer attend church but spent her days in a wheelchair. When she had first read about D. L. Moody and his great gifts as an evangelist, she began to pray that he would one day come to visit her little church. Then, when a relative came home from church that Sunday morning and told her that the preacher had been D. L. Moody from America, she had foregone her lunch to go into her bedroom and pray all afternoon. She had besought God to send His Spirit upon the congregation and fill it with a desire for repentance and new life in Christ.
What happened that remarkable evening, said Moody, was not his doing. It was the work of that little woman in her wheelchair, and of the powerful Spirit of God that swept over the congregation, changing hearts and calling the entire church to new spiritual adventures.
Maybe it is this power that average Christians are afraid of, so that we are reluctant to pray for the Spirit’s presence. Everybody feels uneasy about taking hold of a firehose when a powerful blast of water is about to be sent through it. But it is our failure to pray for the Spirit, and to live in the Spirit, that accounts for the terrible blight upon our churches today.
It isn’t any wonder that people don’t know what “I believe in the Holy Spirit” means, or that they can talk about it from only an intellectual or philosophical point of view. The Spirit is God among us, and only the person who has experienced God among us truly comprehends what this means. (JRK)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Earl C. Davis, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Memphis, TN; John R. Killinger, Distinguished Professor of Religion & Culture, Samford University, Birmingham, AL; Robert R. Kopp, Pastor, Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, PA; Chuck Bugg, Bates Professor of Christian Preaching, Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, KY; John A. Huffman, Pastor, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA; C. Thomas Hilton, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Pompano Beach, FL.

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