I am not really an avid mystery reader, but I may take up the habit! I am presently in the middle of an exceptionally fine British mystery novel by P.D. James, A Taste For Death. I decided to read this mystery novel after seeing a review of it in a theological journal. Now that is an odd place to find a review of a British paperback mystery — but this mystery has at the heart of it the religious experience of the hero, the man who was murdered.
It seems he had some sort of mysterious religious experience, resigned his position as a member of parliament and minister of state, and was murdered while spending the night in the church in which he had earlier “met God.” All through the novel runs the question, What happened when he met God?
But it’s not just mystery writers who cannot understand religious experience; it’s everybody. Religion is being stared at these days like Lady Godiva. There’s a lot of finger-pointing and criticism; there’s a lot of division and confusion. But we must remember that along with the butchers and the Bakkers and the Swaggert-makers and whoever will be next, there are also the Billy Grahams, the Mother Teresas, the country pastors, the missionaries who will plant their lives in a foreign land for Jesus’ sake, and countless multitudes of folks with a simple, deep, radiant and transforming faith — people who won’t ever make it to the front pages of the paper or the ten o’clock newscast. All in all, it makes one wonder with the folks in the mystery novel, What does it mean to meet God?
Take, for example, Zaccheus. Here’s a man, obviously not religious — that we know from his occupation of tax-gatherer. He does have, however, a curiosity about religion, like most of us. That’s why he climbed that sycamore tree.
Lots of questions come to mind when I think of that tree; he must have been a fairly young man in order to climb a tree, he must not have had too much pride else he would not have run the risk of appearing ridiculous if caught. But there he is, perched in a tree with his sins and guilt and search for meaning in life perched in his heart.
And Jesus passes by. He sees Zaccheus, and far from either laughing at him or holding him up for ridicule he urges him to hurry down, for Jesus wishes to have lunch with him. Zaccheus climbed down faster than he went up, and in the face of the whispered gossip of the crowd he declares he will give half of his fortune to the poor and then give back four-fold to any man who thinks he’s been taken in his taxes!
A Matter of Perspective
It’s all a matter of perspective. The Bible and Christian experience tell us that when we meet God, when we confront Jesus honestly in conviction, confession, repentance, we are forgiven and given a new outlook on life. It’s the only way to explain what happened to Paul on the Damascus Road; here’s a man dedicated to the slaughter of the Christians, yet on the Damascus Road he confronts Jesus and his life is forever changed. Here’s the way Paul puts it:
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.
Now that’s not the attitude or philosophy or perspective of so many folks who hold membership in the church. Indeed, one observer said that churches nowadays seem to him to be much like an anthill somebody stepped on, and now the ants run in and out, to and fro, carrying their burdens outside and then inside and back out again. In other words, many Christians don’t take their burdens to the cross and leave them there. It ought not be so.
If your religious experience is to have meaning, if your meeting with Christ is real, it will result in a new perspective in four dimensions: a new view of self, a new view of God, a new view of other people, and a new view of life itself.
A New View of Self
The beginning of a new life in Christ, the basis of a religious experience with power, is a realization that God loves you and me. That is both a simple statement and a most profound truth.
I remember reading about the reporters who challenged theologian Karl Barth, one of the most brilliant minds of our time, to sum up his theology in a sentence. He paused only a moment, then began to quote the children’s hymn: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” That same truth of God’s love for each of us was put by Charlie Brown of “Peanuts” fame. He is talking with Lucy and says, “We were singing ‘Jesus loves me’ when all of a sudden it hit me … Jesus loves me … ME … completely worthless ol’ me!”
God loves each one of us, not for our money, our standing in the community, our influence. He loves us just because He made us; we belong to Him. And God loves each of us so much that He sent Jesus to die for our sins, and deliver us from the web of sin and destruction in which each of us is trapped. As Peter says, “Ye know that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” The great old Scottish theologian James Denny used to stand before his Presbyterian theological students and wave a crucifix, saying, “God loves like THAT!”
In his letter to the Romans Paul says that even while we were yet in our sinful ways, weak and running away from God, God saw us in a new light, and sent Jesus to die for us (
I never muse upon this great truth without remembering the true incident that happened along the route of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train after his assassination in 1865. As the coffin passed slowly by the crowd, a black mother held her child upon her shoulder, above the crowd, and urged him, “Take a good look, honey, he set you free!” That is what God has done for us in Christ: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation.”
A New View of God
Look at our text again;
The New Testament never says that God is a mean God who must be appeased by the death of the good God Jesus. Listen to how Paul says it here: “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” Measure all your ideas of God by Jesus. And so the person who has come to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour will see God the Father in a new light, too. “Cast all your care upon Him, for He careth for you.”
A New View of Other People
Look at the closing of
I rather like the little story about two angels looking over the ramparts of heaven and watching the redemption drama unfold. As they watched the resurrection and the forty days of appearances and then saw Jesus ascend, one angel said to the other, “You mean He’s leaving the spread of the Gospel to that little band of believers?” “Yes.” “But what if they fail?” “He has no other plans.” And that, friends, is why you need to take personal evangelism seriously. And what is true of individuals is also true of churches. “As a candle has no reason for being apart from its burning, so the church has no reason for being apart from its reconciling ministry.”
A few years ago the press carried a story telling of a young father who shot himself in a tavern telephone booth. James Lee had called a Chicago newspaper and told a reporter he had sent the paper a manila envelope outlining his story. The reporter frantically tried to trace the call but was too late. When the police arrived the young man was slumped in the booth with a bullet through his head.
In one of his pockets they found a child’s crayon drawing, much folded and worn. On it was written, “Please leave in my coat pocket. I want to have it buried with me.” The drawing was signed in childish print by his blonde daughter, Shirley, who had perished in a fire just five months before. Lee was so grief-stricken that he had asked total strangers to attend his daughter’s funeral so she would have a nice service. He said there was no family to attend, as Shirley’s mother had been dead since the child was two years old.
Speaking to the reporter before his death, the heartbroken father said that all he had in life was gone, and he felt so alone. He gave his modest fortune to the church Shirley attended and said, “Maybe in ten or twenty years someone will see one of the plaques and wonder who Shirley Ellen Lee was, and say, “Someone must have loved her very, very much.”
The grieving father could not stand the loneliness or the loss, so he took his own life. He felt it better to be dead than to live in an impersonal world. Our hearts are moved by such incidents and we readily respond, “I would have shown love and tenderness to this man.” The tragic truth is that these lonely people do not wear signs. They are disguised as ordinary folks.
This church is in the crucible just now. We have committed ourselves to reaching out to our community, and there are all kinds of folks who need us — black folks, white folks, poor folks, traveling folks who never stay at one address more than a few months, rich folks, old folks. Do we really care?
I saw something twenty-five years ago which has stuck with me. When our son Deryl was born at the Rex Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, I spent some hours pacing hallways in that hospital. I remember so vividly the statue of Christ in the lobby, Christ reaching out to the hurting — but what struck me so was that the fingers were broken off the reaching hands of Christ.
Out in the highways and by-ways of life, Many are weary and sad — carry the sunshine where darkness is rife, making the sorrowing glad.
A New View of Life
Brethren, the unbeliever is caught up in material things, all of which he will leave when he dies. The Christian is storing up treasure in heaven, according to the command of Jesus. The unbeliever swears you “only go round once,” so get all you can from life — by which he means indulge every sensual appetite to the fullest. The Christian knows that this world is not all, by a long shot.
I see too many people live long and aimless lives, and I see too many people die as children or teenagers, to think that the meaning in life is in its length. The meaning in life on the earth, whether it is fifteen or twenty years or eighty-five or ninety years, lies in the spiritual decisions we make. I decided to follow Jesus years ago, and I have never regretted it. Are you not ready to follow Him, too?