The guide leading his tour group on some narrow ledge of the Alp Mountains, or some other high place, will say every so often, “Do not look down.” At the same time, in a high place those of us who suffer from fear of heights find it the hardest thing in the world not to look down.
The movie-makers have many devices and ways in which they build suspense and instill terror in those who watch their pictures. One time-honored device is to appeal to our fear of heights which comes from looking down. They will picture someone perched on the narrow ledge of a skyscraper, seventy or a hundred stories from the ground. This does not frighten us as much, for in theory, if the ledge is wide enough to stand upon, there is no difference between a sidewalk on the ground and a platform a thousand feet in the air.
The movie-makers send chills down our spines by first picturing the person up on the ledge and then panning the camera down all the way to the street where traffic is moving. This makes some of us want to scream. It is the downward look which is so terrifying, so chilling, so unbearable.
Well, life can be pretty dreadful if we spend our time looking down. Now, I am not saying for a moment that there is not the strong temptation to look down, to look for the worst. And heaven knows there is enough, more than enough, that is low and distasteful and destructive and discouraging in this day and age in which you and I are called to live our lives.
A true and honest and Godly faith will not deny that there are dreadful and frightful realities in life. The faith of Christ truly stated is forever against those “lavender and lace,” “tea party” readings of life, even when they are speaking the name of Christ. Jesus never claimed that things cannot be bad, terribly, tragically bad. He rather made large and ample place for the things that are destructive and harmful, the devilish, demonic powers that are loose in the world. If you are going waltzing and prancing through the days making believe that life is one grand round of lovely parties with no gloom and no grief and no trouble, then go ahead, but in the name of God and in the name of truth do not do it in the name of Jesus.
I want you to hear the bad things, the frightening, chilling list, the devastating catalogue, the withering run-down of formidable, cruel, ruthless forces driving against our lives and playing havoc with our dreams and our hopes. In these words of Jesus, which I propose now to repeat, you can hear the roar and crash of a great storm with its screaming winds passing through life, leaving a fearful and empty silence in its wake.
Let the Lord speak. He says that, “we shall hear of wars and commotion, nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, great earthquakes shall be in diverse places.” On and on He goes about outside conditions, “signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars.” How accurate a description this seems for our own time. There seems to be so little decency left anywhere!
Jesus does not stop with His recitation of external calamity. He probes at the internal batterings and sieges to which the soul is liable. Jesus says how that under the pressure of outside forces a man’s spiritual defenses may crumble like the Maginot Line before the Nazi blitzkrieg. This is really the crunch and the greatest of the terrors. You and I can stand anything if our faith holds fast. If an anchor holds within the veil, then never mind how strong and contrary the winds might blow. If, on the other hand, our inner defenses fall and our spiritual fortress is breached and overrun, then all hope is lost.
Jesus spoke of it in these awesome words: “Men’s hearts failing them for fear.” Among so many of us there has been that worst loss — “a loss of nerve.” Things can go so awfully wrong that those central confidences upon which life is built begin to quiver and totter. The night of sorrow or pain can be so long and so lonely that it seems that all about us there is only insanity, and there is only ugliness.
The temptation is to look down. That is what we are getting all around us. We see such violations of honor in places of public trust and responsibility. Many people have decided that everybody is a crook in public life. The temptation is to look down. Those of us who love the church and the gospel and are in the role of the preacher see so much that is discouraging. So many of our churches are little more than social clubs or places for purposeless emotional orgy. Too many of us who preach seem to have little else in mind except how much we can get, how much money we can filch and scheme out of people for our own comfort and luxury.
It is easy to cry, “A plague on all your houses or worship.” I am ashamed of some things I see being done in the name of Jesus. I blush at some of the schemes and methods some of us practice who are supposed to be the shepherds of the people of God. I blush. With so much that we can do and so little that we do accomplish, is it any wonder that men and women say honestly: “To hell with your churches!”?
It is easy to look down, but Jesus says that at such a time, “Look up. Lift up your head.” Do not look down where all is ugly and corrupt and mean. Yes, people all around us seem so low, so conniving and so selfish. On the other hand, do you not know some people whose hearts beat not just for themselves? Fix your mind and heart on them, not on the lowest and dirtiest. Look up!
The divorce rate seems forever to climb and many people seem not to care a snap of their fingers for the vow “till death do us part.” Sometimes I almost choke on those words in marriage ceremonies. Don’t look down! I know of couples here who have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversaries in joy and happiness. Don’t look down! Look up!
You and I must want to be one of those examples upon which others may look and from whom other pilgrims may take strength. There are such people. I have known, still know, some in this church whose example gives us courage, whose dauntless faith inspires our faith. Look up toward such examples. I have known people here who lived such giant lives in Christ that we can scarcely hope to have all of their gifts and grace. They are like a man I didn’t know but of whom I read and who fell asleep the other day. Someone who knew him wrote for all who were blessed by the brightness of his faith and the dedication of his life to Jesus Christ:
“His mantle was too great,” we said. Not one of us so tall and grown up in the ways of God could wear that great cloak of him now gone. Not one could pick it up and wear the whole. And so with one accord we thought to share it while we’re growing. “Mine the corner made up of love,” one cried — “His love for everyone he knew.” “Give to me the portion of his gentleness to soften my harshness,” begged another.
So on through the list we made our choices; his intellect, his humor, his compassion, generosity, awareness, understanding. Each one making claim according to his deep-felt need. It was not a dividing but the wrapping of his mantle of greatness around so many that had drawn us together in a closeness never quite achieved before.
Now as with bowed heads we close the grave of the one gone from us, and share the mantle he left. May we grow in stature beneath its folds until we all attain a measure of the godliness, compassion, love, gentleness, and all the other characteristics that made up the warp and woof of that beautiful garment. Worn so easily, yet so regally by our Elijah.
Look up! Lift up your heads! Your redemption dreweth nigh. Jesus still lives; the Holy Spirit is yet at work; God is still on the throne. Things may go so terribly wrong that the holiest center of life seems violated and defiled and spoiled. Look up. This is the worst and most sinister danger, that we, looking down, will be content to live in the lowlands of doubt and fear and defeat.
Some of you may have come to that really desperate and terrible place, to that awful night of the soul where you suspect that there is no God anywhere in all the thick and starless night through which you are passing. Some of you sitting out there may be at the place where you wonder if trying to be decent and honest is still worthwhile, that right and wrong are just words that people use. When that kind of terrible doubt grips you by the throat and starts choking you, scramble loose; look up! God lives and is on His way to relieve and rescue you right now.
Looking up you may well climb above the clouds and mists and rains which have now blinded your view. Once, years ago, I told here of an illustration I once heard my father use in the pulpit of a little church in Louisiana Bayou village. He repeated an incident which Charles Lindberg told of his lonely flight to Paris, the first man to cross the Atlantic alone in a plane.
I remember it as if it was yesterday, my father saying that Lindberg reported running into a blinding storm out of whose thick clouds lightening flashed. The flier looked to his right, but the clouds and the storm seemed to extend as far as he could see to the right. He looked to his left, but, again, the storm seemed as far as he could peer to his left. The clouds seemed to hover ever lower. The pilot said that he knew his little plane would never stand that buffeting wind and those sharp lightening bolts for long. There was just one thing to do. The pilot tilted the controls upward, and the little plane trembled and shivered and climbed until it shot through the clouds and out into the bright sunshine of a cloudless sky.
The clouds may be heavy where you are traveling. Look up, and by faith face skyward. Above the clouds the sun is shining, somewhere kind winds are blowing, and the skies are cloudless and clear. Up above the clouds of gossip and slander there is fellowship, a joy divine. Look up! God lives, and by faith, looking up and climbing up, you may see the blessed sunshine and move in the calm, pure atmosphere of the Holy Spirit. Look up!