How often do you stop to think seriously about the ultimates of your human existence? That’s a heavy question, isn’t it?
This week I have been pondering that question for myself. I have to conclude that although I am a very reflective person, I do not that often strip life down to its ultimate questions. Why not? I don’t because I’m usually caught up in the tyranny of the urgent. And when I am not caught up in the tyranny of the urgent, I am usually seeking diversion from those urgent matters that so preoccupy my thoughts.
This is not to minimize or trivialize the urgent. My urgent is important. So is yours. But how often do we slow our systems down long enough to prioritize by asking ourselves some tough questions? I invite you this morning to stop long enough to think seriously about the ultimates of your human existence.
A few moments ago you saw on the screens a vivid pictorial narrative of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The scenes are shocking to see in a Christian sanctuary. I shared them in an endeavor to capture your attention for just a few moments. For today is not about an Easter bunny, a hunt for brightly-colored eggs, and overdosing on chocolates. It’s about the triune God who created us in His image, sees that something has gone wrong, and breaks into our history in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. This is the God who cares for you and me and wants to address the ultimates in our lives.
Every so often you and I can benefit from a change in environment. Whether it’s a vacation, a personal crisis, or someone who simply shakes us to our core by a challenging message, it’s good for us to stop, remove ourselves temporarily from the tyranny or the urgent, and to think deeply about ourselves, God, and how we and God can come together.
Jesus demonstrates for us what it is to take advantage of a momentary change in environment. The night before He was crucified, He stripped matters down to essentials in a way we can all find helpful. If you knew you were going to die in the next few hours, you would do this too, wouldn’t you? You would think and talk seriously about the ultimates, both for your own sake, as to your own future, and for the sake of your loved ones as to theirs. So Jesus did this. He talked about His life and death and about that which is of most importance to others. He talked in terms of four priorities. He talked about the way to live and die. He talked about the truth concerning living and dying. He talked about life as it involves our existence here on earth and in the life to come. And He talked about how to have a healthy connect with God.
Would you agree that these are topics of ultimate significance? Don’t these embody the ultimates of your human existence? Jesus made this statement about all four. He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me'” (
First: I need and want to know the WAY.
I have discovered over the years that for me the best way is not always my way. There are times in which I could sing along with Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” The fact is the results were not always the best. I wish I could have interviewed Sinatra and discovered whether or not, in his most introspective moments, that way of life had really worked for him. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? A lot of people have done a royal job of messing up their lives by doing things their way. How about you?
Jesus said, “I am the way.” He didn’t say, I am “a way.” There was a finality with which He spoke. There was an absolute to His expression. I need to decide if it will be my way or if it will be His way. Jesus is the way away from sin and guilt. Jesus is the way toward restoration of all I was created to be.
Jesus is a narrow way. He made it quite clear that His way was not easy. With great candor, He declared, “‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it'” (
This week I’ve been browsing through that classic work by John Bunyan titled The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is the story of a man named Christian who determined that life in the City of Destruction was not the best existence. With the help and guidance of a man named the Evangelist, he headed out on a journey, fraught with many perils, to the Celestial City. It describes the struggles of the Christian life. The way is not easy. I commend this book to you as must reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the way, God’s way, through this life, to heaven. Take the time to think this through. You have only one opportunity. Don’t lose it. Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent strip you of your freedom to decide to go God’s way.
It’s been some time since I’ve talked about Cynthia Adkinson, the bright, vibrant, young woman who grew up in St. Andrew’s, went through our local school system, was active in our youth ministry, went on to the University of Colorado, and then to do graduate work at the University of Wisconsin. Back in the spring of 1988, Cyndy was traveling in Scotland with a friend. She had an aneurysm brought on by a malignant brain tumor. For three months she was in a coma at a hospital Aberdeen. During that time, I had the privilege of visiting her and her mother. Then she came back to the United States by way of San Diego and spent the last few months of her life leading up to her death at her parents home on the Balboa Peninsula. Her death was a heartbreak to not only her family but to all of us. Cyndy was such a vibrant presence in our lives.
Sometime before her illness, this very special young woman wrote a poem about the Christian life, which is a 1980’s version of The Pilgrim’s Progress. She titled it “Inner Struggle.” It reads:
How can someone be perfect?
That is impossible — only God is perfect.
Striving to be Christ-like is so depressing
The hard part is winning the battle
Of knowing what is the right thing to do
And actually doing it.
Satan is working in there somewhere.
Giving it all up —
The reading, the prayers,
The Sunday sermons.
It would be so much easier.
But the happy times
The inner peace that comes from God,
The warmness throughout my body —
Is too much to give up.
The feeling always brings a smile
And makes me remember who is giving
Me this incredible life.
If it wasn’t a struggle
I wouldn’t be a Christian
I wouldn’t be a human.
My faith will not grow without a challenge.
And grow it must.
Cyndy captured it, didn’t she? I need and want to know the way. I have decided irrevocably to take Jesus at His word and believe that He is the way. How about you? That’s one ultimate you and I can commit ourselves to now!
Second: I need and want to know the TRUTH.
I have discovered the hard way that the truth is not derived from my own most creative thinking. My own creative thinking is good to a point. It helps me assess the various competing claims for truth. But, ultimately, if I rely on my own philosophical quest to bring me to ultimate truth, I will never cease that quest. For there is no end to knowing and the search for meaning. I am committed to a continuing dynamic, thoughtful, intellectual existence. But I must do that within the context of confronting what Jesus said. He put it on the line when He stated, “I am the truth.”
The options, as I see them, are quite clear. Option #1 for me is that of coming to some set of philosophical truths, independent of biblical revelation, truths upon which I will build my life.
There are many competing truth systems that want my allegiance. Each of them has something quite creative and helpful as long as I do not absolutize them. It’s at the moment at which I absolutize that I fall prey to the error of those systems.
Capitalism provides an economic understanding of human endeavor. To neglect the truths of such Creative thinkers as Adam Smith and others is to deny some of the very important economic and psychological facts of life. But to sell my soul to capitalism is to miss another whole dimension of human existence.
Karl Marx had some very important insights. He was not all wrong. So I can study Marxism and extract some truths about human existence. But to sell my soul to the whole system will commit me to error. Some of those who have made that commitment have now realized the horrendous errors of their system which had some good, creative contributions to make.
I’m vulnerable to falsehood. I’m susceptible to myths, some myths that are true and some that are false. Some of these myths have an ambiguous mix of both truthhood and falsehood that lead me in the wrong direction.
Option #2 for me is the option of relativism. This is such a temptation for so many today. We live in a relativistic age. Allan Bloom analyzed this in his controversial, yet perceptive, work, The Closing of the American Mind. For many, truth is a matter of opinion. Morality is a matter of personal choice.
Not all issues are clear-cut. I must learn to live with ambiguity. However, I am watching people I love self-destruct as they buy into this notion that truth is a mere matter of opinion and morality is a matter of personal choice. I see men and women leaving spouses and children, listening to false promises of a better life. They say, “I have the right to be me,” only to find themselves tossed about on the waves of relativism, headed toward final shipwreck. They are persons who are determined to have their one chance at life at the price of broken relationships. Career and pleasure become more important than their previous commitments. Only God knows what the ultimate result will be.
“What is truth?” the professor asked. His pregnant pause is followed by an answer to his own rhetorical question. “Truth is truth for me.” How subtly seductive is that statement that leads to intellectual and moral relativism.
Option #3 for me is that Jesus is the embodiment of truth. I must make a choice through my own reasoning. I have made some wrong assumptions in life based on my own notions about truth, and I no longer am prepared to narcissistically trust my own philosophical musings when it comes to ultimate truth.
I understand the relativity of some matters. Yet I am not about to be tossed to and fro by whatever notion happens to be popular at the time, only to find myself shipwrecked. I have made my choice. I will trust Jesus to be the Truth, my absolute Referent for life. He is the One who tells me where I came from, why I am here, where I am going, and how I can live the most creative existence in the now.
Jesus gives me His handbook for living, the Bible, to alert me to right and wrong, the best ways of handling situations, and relating to myself and others and to Him. I am privileged to live in a dynamic tension, enabled by the Holy Spirit on those matters in which there are no easy answers.
Either Jesus Christ is the Keystone that holds the arch of all human existence together or He is not. If He is and I do not worship Him as such, everything then crumbles, either with me living in error or in ethical and personal relativism. If His scenario is correct, then I am privileged to be part of a positive, creative existence in a cosmic scheme much larger than myself but of which I am a very important part.
I need and want to know the truth. I have decided irrevocably to take Jesus at His word and believe He is the Truth. How about you? That’s one ultimate you and I can commit ourselves to now.
Third: I need and want to experience the LIFE.
I’ve discovered that doing my own thing, fleshing out an animal existence based on pleasure, doesn’t bring ultimate fulfillment.
I get things beautifully structured for myself. I hedge all my bets carefully, calculating my living. Then some catastrophe hits. Or more subtly, things start leaking around the edges.
I’ve discovered that my best plans for life cannot guarantee the health and the safety of the people I love. Haven’t you found it to be the same?
Those of us who are the most organized often end up the most frustrated because we can only organize a part of life. We control-freaks have a tough time handling the fact that our best-written scenarios don’t always turn out the way we’d like.
You see, there’s no way I can hedge my bets, guaranteeing for my loved ones and for myself the kind of life I would plan. At the moment I least expect it, the ball takes a crazy bounce. My best plans are no guarantee of my own existence here. Symbolic of this is the number of my friends, good friends, friends I love so much, whose lives were so full, so energetic, who now depend on chemotherapy to prolong their life on earth. Some of them are in this room right now.
Carol Barrett shares this poem titled “The Falling of Hair for Andrea.”
We sit at your bedside, handfuls
passing from brush to hand
and hand to basket, this ritual
born of the medicine that chokes cancer, kills off
fast-growing cells, Your hair
gives up in snarled blooms
stroked from your temples, reluctant
swirls you gather and pass,
brush, gather, pass.
You feared this undoing
would take weeks. Instead
we make an evening of it, touching
the new frame of your face,
hair looped round our fingers,
insistent rings. What you give me:
a part of yourself, the fine rays
having risen and set with you
forty-odd years. I take
into my hands what petals
reveal of the world, the vulnerable
patch on your scalp growing,
my hands the witness: the fear
that in the end, there will be
no new self strong enough
to walk the wind, to meet
faces lining the street.
The basket receives its strands,
carries them away. And even
as we pat this firm new hair,
color-keyed to your own,
in place, we are made ready
for Easter morning, the promise
of a new body bold in a single
stroke — that sunburst
day a handful
closer, when you will look
out from a spilled lattice
work of thickly rooted locks
to behold the Savior,
face to face.
You see the picture, don’t you? Jesus said, “I am the life.” He is the absolute embodiment of life with a capital L. You see, His life puts purpose behind the inexplicable.
I can’t make any sense of a child being abducted, raped, and murdered. I can’t make any sense of a beautiful mother being killed by a drunken driver. I can’t make any sense of a plane filled with people blown to pieces. I can’t make any sense out of malignant cells stripping life from the people I love. I don’t understand how some marriages seem to work out with minimal effort while others give their very best and their marriage ends in divorce.
But Jesus sees the overall pattern. He didn’t create evil. He doesn’t like disease. But He has a way of taking the worst tragedies and enabling us to survive and to be more than survivors. We can trust Him with the lives of our loved ones. We can trust Him with our own lives, because He has made provision for us.
His life turns our insignificance into significance. Jesus says that you have worth, that you are not an accident. The greatest of difficulties need not conquer you. He gives you His creative energy to handle whatever comes your way.
Her name is Ruth Campbell. She lives in Pittsburgh. A few years ago she wrote to me, describing the anguish of her early married life when she discovered that she and her husband could not have children. She wrote about how her one love in life has always been babies and children. Early in her marriage she had to have surgery that made childbearing an impossibility. “I was devastated. All my friends were having babies. My arms ached to hold a baby of my own. Night after night I cried ….”
This was back in the 1930s. World War II came. Her husband went to war. She saw an ad in the newspaper for someone to take care of a baby while the mother went to the hospital. Somehow that mother was never able to raise her own child. Ruth raised her. And that baby went on to become a registered nurse and the assistant director in a cardiac rehabilitation center.
Taking in that one little baby led to another, and led to taking in another. Sometimes it was bringing a child home for a weekend. Sometimes it was having a child just for a day. Over all these years, over a hundred children came under her care. Some have stolen, lied, causing enormous pain for others, her, and for themselves. Some have turned out well. Ruth Campbell writes on, describing the privilege of being ministered to by the Lord when she felt most forsaken, only to know life, the special life given by God.
His life equips you and me for life beyond this human existence. That’s what makes a memorial service for one who died in Christ a joyous occasion. Yes, there are tears. Tears for ourselves, those of us who remain. It is at this point that the resurrection message impacts us in all of its creative promise. For we realize that life does not end with death. The Apostle Paul wrote: “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”(
Jesus has equipped us for eternity. He has prepared a place for us. He will take us to be with Himself. Life in heaven with Jesus is the perfect existence. This is the promise of God’s Word.
Recently I mentioned to you having visited with one of our members who was under hospice care. I told of the equanimity with which he was handling his terminal cancer. The reason he could handle it that way was he knew that it actually wasn’t terminal at all. He knew that soon he would be in the presence of Jesus Christ. In that context, I had the courage to ask him to do me a favor I’ve never asked of anyone else in their dying days. I said, “Merle, when you get to heaven would you do me a favor? Would you look up my daughter Suzanne and tell her I love her and miss her and I look forward to someday seeing her again.” Merle smiled, nodded, and said, “I will.”
After Merle died, his memorial service was held here in the sanctuary. I received this letter from his son-in-law Monte Pries who is married to Merle’s daughter Lynn. He wrote:
“The day after your visit with Merle he had a conversation with Lynn that I wish to share with you. It was later in the afternoon and out of the blue he said that one of the first things that he was going to do when he got to heaven was to ‘look up Suzanne.’ He said that he wanted to get together with her to combine their efforts together to give you a special blessing. He said, ‘we’ll get together to combine our efforts to give a special blessing to John.’ So be on the look-out.”
I need and want to experience the life with a capital L. I’ve decided to irrevocably take Jesus at His word and believe that He is the Life. How about you? That’s one ultimate you and I can commit ourselves to now.
Fourth: I need and want to know how to have a CONNECT with God.
I’ve discovered that I cannot produce that for myself. It only comes through Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'” (
I realize that what I’m saying here is an offensive notion to some living in this relativistic world. Most of us, myself included, would like the very best for everyone. That altruistic motivation, as healthful and good as it is, can lead us to the relativistic concept that all roads are leading in the same direction.
Jesus loves us enough to tell it like it is. He articulates claims that are exclusive. It is impossible for anyone to be at peace with God, it is impossible for anyone to have right relationship with the Father, unless it is through Jesus Christ. His atoning work on the cross was designed for all humankind. There is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ.
This Jesus is not some kind of megalomaniac who is demanding the power and is determined to crush those who don’t fall in line with His militaristic declarations. Far from it. This Jesus is the ultimate Peacemaker. This Jesus is the One who has borne upon Himself our brokenness, our sin, our alienation. This Jesus is the One through whose death and resurrection you and I are set free to be restored to right relationship with God, right relationship with ourselves, and right relationship with each other.
This is not a God of hate. This is a God of love. Jesus is the God of grace, not vengeance. This Jesus rose from the dead. Ours is a resurrection faith. And the message of the church through two thousand years is that declared by the Apostle Peter in
C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, states this spiritual reality of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in these most graphic terms:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
The glorious fact of the gospel is that the triune God, the Father, saw us in our human predicament. He had to make the choice to let us plunge headlong into disaster as a human race and as individuals. He chose to take human form, in the very person of His Son. Through His death on the cross and His resurrection, you and I are offered meaning, forgiveness, and the strength to live for both this life and the life to come. No one who is saved, however much or little they know about the cost of that salvation, is saved by anyone other than Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior and Lord.
I need and want to know this salvation and how to have this connect, this peace with God. I have decided, irrevocably, to take Jesus at His word and believe that no one comes to the Father except through Him. How about you? That’s one ultimate you and I can commit ourselves to now!
I invite you to commit yourself, for the first time or anew, to the Jesus Christ who declares, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'”