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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Seven Last Words: “You Don’t Have to Die Alone”

A Sermon Series on the Last Words From the Cross
The First Word: "Father Forgive"  from Luke 23: 32-34
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
First Sunday of Lent, February 21, 2010

Our hearts were saddened by the Olympic tragedy on opening day, when a Luge rider from the country of Georgia was killed in a horrific accident.  It didn’t help matters when a couple of days later, even before the body was sent home, the Olympic organization claimed the tragedy was not because of the track, but due to rider error.   

If anybody needs consolation rather than explanation, it is the family that loses their loved one.   And if the death comes slowly, so does the dying person.   If anybody needs to hear words of care and comfort, needs to have the human touch, or to receive physical, emotional and spiritual support, it is the dying person.  

But Jesus had none of it.   He had no comforting words, only ridicule and mockery.   He had no touch of compassion, but only a sponge of sour vinegar stuck up to his mouth from the end of a spear.  Even though Scripture says his Mother and the disciple John were there, they were only allowed at the very last moment.  Jesus did not even feel God’s presence.   Both Mark and Matthew tell us the one overwhelming word from the cross was: “My God, why have your forsaken me!”

This is the word all of us can understand.   The greatest worry or dread any of us have is to be knocking on the door of death and discover no one is there.  I’ll never forget a nightmare I once had.   It was early on a Saturday morning.   Teresa and just gotten up to start breakfast and I drifted back to sleep.  Then I dreamed I was dying, unable to breathe, and I attempted to cry out to her, but I couldn’t.  Finally I woke out the dream, but had the worse feeling.   It wasn’t dying that frightened me, but it was dying alone not being able to tell anyone.  That was the nightmare.

Whatever was the great nightmare of the cross, whatever kind of pain Jesus endured, the greatest pain was not the nails, the beatings, the blows, nor the spear.   Even the graphic depictions of physical agony in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” does not compare to the pain of abandonment, rejection and the loneliness Jesus experienced.  Later, the last gospel put everything in perspective, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not…”   This was the pain behind the pain and brought out the great cry of “why” from the cross.

The “why” found in both Mark and Matthew makes Luke’s interpretation much more astounding.   Luke wants us to see something else.   Listen to how the great New Testament Scholar, Raymond Brown, explains Luke’s agenda:
“Only in Luke, does Jesus heal the ear of the servant who came to arrest him.  Only in Luke does Jesus reconcile Pilate and Herod.  Only in Luke does Jesus stop to express compassion for the daughters of Jerusalem.   Only in Luke will Jesus extend grace to the criminal crucified with him.  And it should not be surprising, that only in Luke does Jesus give his first word from the cross as, “Father Forgive them, for they know not what they do…”
But before we can see what Luke sees, and hear his first word from the cross, we need to see the cross as it was seen by the watching world.   Before we can see that Jesus was where God wanted him, we need to also see, right at the very first, that the devil also had Jesus right where HE wants him.

I know what we believe about the cross---that it was God’s will or that God brings our redemption through the cross---but for a few moments today, I want you to suspend your beliefs and see the cross not as tragedy before it was victory. 

At the cross, the devil finally has Jesus where he wanted him.   Think back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the temptation Jesus endured in the wilderness.   In Luke chapter 4, we read that Jesus was “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness and was “tempted by the devil” for forty days.   This was no picnic, because we are told Jesus became very hungry and the devil tempted him to turn stones in to bread (4:3).    However, Jesus refused, quoting Scripture saying “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3).   

After this, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world “in a moment of time.”   “I’ll give you this all this authority and the glory of them.  If you will worship me, it will all be yours,” the devil explains.   Again, to this second temptation, Jesus quotes Scripture: “You should worship the Lord and him only shall you serve.”  (4:8).    

Jesus tries to scold the devil into leaving, but there is one more trial.   The devil leads Jesus to Jerusalem, sets him on the top of the temple roof and says, “If you are the Son of God, jump off.”  The devil shows he can quote Scripture with the best of them and he quotes Psalm 91 saying “the angels will look after you” and you won’t even stump your toe.   Jesus responds for the third time from Deuteronomy: “Don’t tempt the Lord your God.”   

Three times the devil struck.  Three times Jesus resisted.  And after the three temptations were over, Luke gives us a word that no other gospel writer gives.   Luke tells us that when the devil completed the series of temptations he left Jesus “for a season”, or as the Greek says “achri kairos”: “until another time” (4:13).  Until what other time?   

In the gospel story we know what “until” means.  After Jesus rejected the devil’s offer and refused to bow down to him and receive the kingdoms of the world on Satan’s terms, after that moment the devil did everything in his power to make sure Jesus gains no kingdom, has loses all power, and gains not one tangible thing and has not one single true convert nor any person or disciple who will stand by him in the end.   “Until” means the devil will be back and he will have Jesus just where he wanted him.   And that is exactly how the tragedy of Jesus unfolds “until” the crowds finally all left, “until” the Jewish leaders all turned against him, and until even Jesus’ own disciples deny him.   Since Jesus would not bow, the devil vows to break Jesus.   On the earth it is the devil, with the upper hand.   Listen to how John 6: 66 (interesting chapter and verse) reports the devil’s returned.   “Because of this (his teaching) many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”   So then, Jesus turns to his twelve and asks,   “Aren’t you also going to go away?” (John 6:67).  They responded “Lord to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life?  …You are the Holy One of God” (6: 68-69).   Then listen to the revealing question Jesus asks next: “Did I not choose you, the twelve?  Yet one of you is a devil.” (6:70-71)  Of course, Jesus is speaking of Judas Iscariot who betrayed him, but what I want you to see is that here is the where the “until” really begins.   The devil has returned with a vengeance and the sheep are scattering.  Everyone will eventually go away.  Jesus will be completely forsaken and he will die alone.

This is just where the devil wanted him.   Though Jesus’ ministry started with all kinds of healing, preaching, and with big crowds following him, at the end there is no healing, no power, and everyone has forsaken him.   Since Jesus would not bow, he will have to break.  The devil will do whatever it takes to make sure Jesus dies a lonely, isolated, and cruel death.  So, when come to the cross, in all the gospels, everything looks like it’s going more according to the devil’s scheme, rather than God’s plan.   Jesus would not live according to the devil’s terms so Jesus’ will have to die on the devil’s terms.   It is the mockers around the cross who give us the best commentary on how everything looked.   Right in the middle of the very people Jesus came to save, it looks as if he will save no one and that he cannot even save himself.

But of course, this is a very hard, sad, tragic way to see the cross, isn’t it?   We’d much rather look away from such a terrible view.   We want to quickly drape the cross in white or gold or lift it up as victory rather than defeat.   But at first the cross was not victory.  At first the cross was the worse situation imaginable.   At first the cross was frustration, failure and fiasco.   This is how all the eyewitnesses first saw the cross.   We need to see this too.   We need to see and feel what the cross was before we can rightly hear the words from the cross.     

Why do we need to see the cross this way?   Why do we need to see this that Jesus’ cross of death and rejection is exactly where the devil wanted him?  

We need to see the cross this way because life can seem this way.   It can seem like evil has the upper hand.   It can seem that life is going more according to devil’s schemes, than according to God’s plans.  It can seem that no matter how hard we try, how much good we do, and how much we try to bring about positive change in our world, the most negative still can happen.

Think about those Baptist missionaries who wanted to do good by helping orphans in Haiti.   All, but two of them, have finally been released after a couple of harrowing weeks in a hot, sweltering, and dirty Haitian jail.  Perhaps they made some technical mistakes, but they thought they were doing what was right.   But how quickly, even the good we do can be turned against any of us.   How quickly evil can break out, grab hold and take our breath away.  

Also think about those people in the faculty meeting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville last week.    When the vote of faculty denied Biology teacher Amy Bishop tenure, she turned on her most innocent colleagues and shot them dead.  She even turned to fire upon one of her friends, who was trying to talk her out of it pleading for her to think of their children and grand children.  “Please don’t do this!”  The Woman pulled the trigger again.  But this time the gun misfired, but not until three people were dead.   

Or think about Winton-Salem police Sergeant Mickey Hutchens, recently fatally shot while on duty just before his retirement, or think about all the other innocents who are attacked by evil, especially the most vulnerable in our society---the very youngest children who are increasingly being abducted, abused or murdered each year.   How quickly, evil can invade and gain the upper hand in our own world.  Within an instant, it can seem that the devil can have any of us, exactly where he wants us.   Even for those who claim innocence, and especially for those who try to do what is right and good, evil keeps raising its head against us and has power to win.

Isn’t this the greatest dread any of might have in life?   That in spite of all that we’ve tried to do; in spite of what we done make our life successful, it isn’t.  In spite of all we’ve done to make our marriage or relationships work out right; they don’t. And in spite of all we’ve done to keep our family healthy, and raise our children, they turn out having their own mind and nothing goes according to plan.  No matter how good or right we try to be, things can still go wrong, and sometimes terribly so.  “Whatever can go wrong, does go wrong.”  We do our best, pray the hardest, and still things fall apart.   We pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” but it still keeps coming faster and in stronger ways.   The devil doesn’t let up, and sometimes he seems to be the only one getting the job done and the people he does his best number on are those trying to do the most good.

This is what happened to Jesus, isn’t it?  Who would doubt that he did everything right?  He lived perfectly by the Father’s will.   He loved those that needed love, and he worked to change those who needed to be more loving.   Jesus played life by the highest rules, if anyone did; but that was part of the problem.   Who wants to be around “Mr. Goody Two Shoes”---the one who is so good, he made the rest feel bad?   So, after Jesus crossed the devil one last time, the devil worked in every way he could to get Jesus exactly where he wanted him---on the cross, dying, lonely, defeated, and soon to be dead.  

How do you feel when life comes down on you, hard---real hard?    This is where the devil had Jesus and where he wants us, too.   He wants us to feel as if the good we do, the life we’ve lived is worthless, useless, and that when we get to the end, we will have nothing to show for everything we’ve done, the love we’ve shown, or life we’ve lived.   The devil has nothing, so in the end he wants us to have nothing.   He wants us to come to the point where we say, “What’s the use?”  “What good has it done?”  “What do we have but sorrow and defeat?”  “The Hell with it!”  This is the voice of devil in the ear of Jesus and he will whisper the same to us: What good are you?  What good can you be?  Give it up!

William B Spofford has a poem suggesting what should have been Jesus’ first word from the cross, especially after all they had done to him and as it all turned out: 
“From the Cross-Throne, 
He could see all the kingdoms of the world----
            And so, the last temptation came; Let them Go, God, they ain’t worth it!!

When life is the way it is, and people are the way they are, perhaps the most fitting word from his cross and from our all our own crosses, should be: “Let them go, God…they ain’t worth it!!  
I know people, you know people, even good people who have been hurt so bad in life that this is now the attitude of their own lives.   Two people are in a marriage and the wounds are so deep, that they say to the other….”they ain’t worth it?   Or a person is hurt is betrayed by someone and the pain is too great, “Let them go…they ain’t worth it!    I’ve see parents say this about their wayward children, and sometimes children say this about their own parents.  I’ve seen people say this to God, when a tragedy has entered into their lives----when they lost their health, lost their fortune, or they’ve lost their loved one.  When evil comes upon them or undue hardship, they have decided to let God go, saying “God ain’t worth it!    I’ve also heard people say this about the church, when the pain of staying together becomes too much to bear.  “Let them go, God…they ain’t worth it.  And excuse my English, but the truth is that sometimes this is exactly where we all are: “they ain’t and nor are we.  

Sometimes, the world comes crashing down and life doesn’t seem worth it.  “Let me go, God….I’m not worth it!!   This is exactly where the devil wants us.   This is where he wants our marriages, our relationships, our churches, and it is where he wants our world.  He is on a suicide mission of death and destruction.  The devil wants us to feel just like that man who flew his plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas last week.  “It ain’t worth it!  Satan wants us to feel like a suicide bomber who says, “they ain’t worth it” and neither am I, so we’ll both die.  This is what the devil came shouting at Jesus and he still comes whispering and sometimes shouting out in this world.   He wants us to ask ourselves, “what’s the use” and that life as it is for us  “ain’t worth it!”

Did you see the beer commercial from the Super Bowl, where a group of scientists are working and one of them peers into a telescope and sees a large meteor rushing toward the earth.  “We’re all going to die!”  So, what does everyone do?   They break out the beer and begin to party.  It’s the best they could think of doing in that moment.  Not praying… not making things right with each other, not doing whatever could or should be done, but when the end was near, they just wanted to party up to last second.  

Then, when the last second comes, it is only a little pebble that comes down to pop up against the lens of the telescope.  The scientist looks down on the floor at what was only a smoking pebble and with joy exclaims, “We’re going to live!”    Just another reason to keep the party going!   The message is clear: whatever life brings you, whether it is death or life, just face it with a party.  This is the certainly a conclusion possible in our age and many take it.   “Eat, drink, be merry, (and get rich), for tomorrow we die.”   Life is not worth anything, so let’s party.  Let’s live it up and grab what we can, until at last we die.   What gives life more value than that?   

Jesus lived for something else and died for something more.   I don’t know what Jesus saw when the devil took him up on the mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world.   Maybe Jesus saw beyond all the glitter and gold, all the power and prestige, and said in his heart, “That’s not worth it!”  Bowing down to the devil might have brought Jesus heaven on earth, but Jesus believed all the kingdoms of the world weren’t worth it bowing his heart to the devil and short term success.   But if the kingdoms of the world weren’t worth bowing his heart to the devil, was worth resisting the devil.   The kingdoms of the world weren’t worth it, compared to what?  What is worth it?  Isn’t this what we all come to cross to see?

What makes life worth our pain, worth our hurts and worth not surrendering our hearts to the evil in the world worth more than harboring hate and evil in our hearts, is what Jesus saw, even at the intersection of the worse place in the world.    What Jesus had saw and held onto even at the cross, was better than anything else the devil or the world had to offer.  It is what makes even the “hell” of our hurts and pains in life worth going through, and the peace and purpose of heaven worth waiting on, the dream and hope of God and working toward?   What Jesus held onto when there was nothing else to hold onto, made every blow the devil aimed at him bearable, until that moment Jesus found himself, as the song says, “safe in the arms of God.

What makes it all worth it, even on the day when life seems worth nothing at all?   What can we hold on to, when there is nothing else?    This is the problem Russian writer Dostoevsky was writing about in what is probably the greatest book ever written, outside the Bible.   In “The Brothers Karamazov,” there are two main characters, Alyosha and his brother Ivan.  Ivan is the agnostic.  He doesn’t believe in anything anymore.  He is troubled by the problem of evil in the world.  He sees how quickly the world can go wrong.  He can't believe in God anymore.  His word over and over to Alyosha is, “Let it go, it ain’t worth it!”   Ivan has sees all the problems in his mind, so Ivan believes in nothing.   

Alyosha, on the other hand, is guided more by what is in his heart than what is on his mind.     Alyosha doesn’t have all the questions answered, not does he dwell on all the evil like Ivan does.   To Ivan Alyosha doesn’t see anything right, but even in all his ignorance about the world, Alyosha has something in his heart that Ivan has lost.   The one thing Ivan has lost and can’t make happen is what Alyosha still has.   Alyosha has love.   Alyosha loves God and he loves his brother, even his brother who doesn’t love God, nor loves anyone.   Ivan sees everything for what it is, but he has lost the ability to love.   But his brother, Alyosha, believes and loves to the very end and Alyosha wonderfully loves his brother Ivan deeply.   Finally, in this story, which is one of the greatest stories ever told, Ivan melts under Alyosha's love.  The only thing that makes life worth living is not what we know or figure out in our head, but the only thing that has any value at all is the love we have in our hearts.  Love is the only value that makes life worth living, even when all hell breaks loose. 

When you love, no matter how hard the devil tries, he can’t have you.   The devil can have everything you’ve got---your riches, your health, your body, and even your mind.  But the one thing the devil can’t have, unless you give it to him, is your heart.   Only you decide what will happen with your heart.  Only you will decide who to give it to. 

And this is how it was with Jesus.  This is what Luke wants us to hear as the first word from the cross.   When the devil has Jesus exactly where he wants him and has set everything against Jesus, he wants Jesus to die alone.   The devil takes everything from Jesus he can take, but there is one thing he can’t take.   Even when Jesus is dying all alone with the world against him, Jesus refuses to die with hate, hurt and pain as the main thing in his life.   

Now, though this first word from the cross, which is a word of love and forgiveness to those who are killing him, Jesus is no longer alone but he now brings the world close.   Even in this world that can be overtaken with so much hell and hate, Jesus is determined to open his heart, and to keep it open toward faith, hope and love.   There nothing all the demons in hell can do to stop the one who keeps their heart open to God’s love.  This is the same love that overcomes.  It overcomes any evil, and makes life, death and all the pain in between worth it too.   Amen.   

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Unlucky in Love?

A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13
By Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
4th Sunday after Epiphany
February 14, 2010

Actor Matthew Mcconaughey is often type-casted in romantic comedies as a good looking, deviant male who is more often than not “unlucky in love.”   In one of his most recent movies entitled “Ghosts of Grilfriends Past,” Mcconaughey stars as playboy Conner Mead, a self-centered womanizer who finds himself haunted by ghosts of the many girlfriends he has mistreated in his past.   They constantly haunt him until he is finally turned into a loving, caring human being after his discovery of Mrs. Right, who is played by actress Jennifer Garner.

This plot seems to be popular and profitable for Hollywood.  A man, and sometimes a woman, once “unlucky” in love, finally has their life transformed by the discovery of one who changes everything.  When this happens, the long awaited “perfect” relationship normally ends in the fairy-tale fashion.  Such is the dream---a dream of one day waking up and finding oneself, “lucky in love”.   But in reality, this kind of luck in love is not as common the Hollywood hopes.   The constant thread of rapid-fire marriage breakups in the media make you believe the opposite---that having luck in love is difficult, if not impossible to achieve.   Consider the national headlines about Tiger Woods problems with love, or John Edwards, or just pickup on the constant rumors circulating about the possible breakup of Hollywood’s so called “perfect couple”, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.   When you also consider the high level of divorce taking place in this country, as well as, the increasingly more skeptical attitude toward marriage around us, you’ll think that many people, not just prominent ones, are finding themselves, more often than not, “unlucky” in love.

I wonder what the scholars who divided the Bible into chapter and verses, where thinking when they gave the “love chapter” the unlucky number 13, not once but twice: 13th chapter and 13 verses.   Whatever was behind the choice, if anything, the passage dares to say something even worse than being “unlucky” without love.   Without love, Paul suggests, your life can become much worse than unlucky.  Without love, YOU can become nothing. 

Before we move ahead in this love chapter, we need clear out any misunderstanding.  This text has very little to do with the romantic notion of love that possesses so much of our popular culture.   In fact, if you looking for love the way the media defines and depicts it, you’ll certainly be, as the song says, “looking in all the wrong places.”   That’s part of the trouble so much love-talk.  Love is a big and very important topic and even a very profitable topic in our society.   It is the topic closest to many hearts, but sometimes the truth about love remains far, far away from the actual conversations that are taking place.  

In this “love chapter” Paul reminds us we need love more than anything.  We can’t really have life or be a fully realized or actualized human person without it.   Paul does not just say that without love you have nothing, or without love you gain nothing, but he puts it in the most simple, succinct and dramatic words possible:  Without love YOU (AND I) ARE NOTHING.   

Part of the trouble we have with love is that our feelings of love lie so close to our hearts that  we don’t always see it for what it is just like we can’t see the nose on our face.   Without a mirror, we don’t see ourselves fully and can be mislead about our appearance.   Love can be just as hard to see or understand, or communicate.  Ironically, part of what makes love so precious is also part of what makes it so difficult.   It’s kind of like the air we breathe.  Air gives us life, but if it gets polluted, watch out!  Bad air can kill you, just like bad love can.   Love comes with a risk, and it is a good risk, but still a great risk.  The good thing about love is that it can make you somebody you could never be without it.   But the bad thing about love is that without it, or with the wrong kind understanding of what love is, you become nothing.   There’s not much wiggle room here.   That’s why you need to pay attention to what Paul says about the nature of true love.

The core issue Paul elevates from the first line, is that love is more than words.  Our Bible declares than life began with Words, God’s words… “Let there be light!”   Words are important and it is very important that we also put our love into words.  But putting love into words, as beautiful and necessary as that is, love must go beyond words.  As God’s word had to become flesh, so must our words of love also.   Once when I asked my Father, what is the most beautiful verse of the Bible he took me to this love chapter and to this first verse of 1 Corinthians 13:  Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity (that is love), I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”   Perhaps you might simplfy it this way: Without deeds of love that goes beyond our words, life is just a bunch of noise.”

The church at Corinth must have been a very noisy church. Corinth was located on a canal where all kinds of ships came from around the world to load and unload their cargo.   The people getting off those ships came from many different cultures and spoke many different languages.   This provided a great opportunity for the young church at Corinth to share the gospel, but it also presented many challenges. 

Of all the New Testament churches, Corinth was one of the churches with the most potential, but also the one that was the most problematic.   The clash of cultures made establishing a loving community almost impossible.   If you read 1 and 2 Corinthians, you’ll read about all kinds of divisions and differences.   They were divided over the meaning of the gospel, over who was the best preacher, Apollos, Peter or Paul?   There were divided over spiritual wisdom, sexuality purity, church discipline, lawsuits among Christians, marriage, and they even divided over what should or shouldn’t eat, drink or shouldn’t drink.   They also had differences between each other, about how much to pay the preacher, or, God forbid, to pay him at all.  Of all things, they were even divided on how to observe communion---the Lord’s Supper.   Their biggest division arose out of their differing opinions about Spiritual gifts, especially, over the spiritual gift of “speaking in tongues”. 

In the Corinthian context, one can exactly why “gift of tongues” developed here, as this church constantly struggled to share the gospel of God’s love in many languages.   Of all places, the church in this multilingual town, needed to find some way to communicate God’s love so that they could transcend words.  A kind of special “prayer” language became part of the answer.    Still today, in places where languages are very limited and cultures clash, the Pentecostal hunger to share love, still creates its own spiritual speech.    I remember in particular, how I went to a meeting with a Lutheran Pastor in Germany and my Deacon Chairman went with me.  We were discussing having an ecumenical prayer service together and the Lutheran pastor, wondered out loud, “Who are Baptists?”   Immediately, my deacon chairman answered, “We are charismatics!”   I looked straight into the Lutheran pastor’s eyes and, as pastor to pastor, quickly contradicted, “…But I’m not.”    Some Baptists, many Baptists especially in Europe are charismatic, but I wanted to make it clear this was not me.

Speaking in tongues can be just controversial and confusing now as it was in Corinth.  Still, this rare spiritual “gift” specifically reflects part of our great human need to share love in ways that transcend all cultural and language barriers.   Paul writes directly to this need to transcend all languages and cultures,  whether they are earthly, spiritual, human or angelic.   The one language that can do this is the language that goes beyond words---the language of love.

It is most interesting that the word the King James Version uses for Love is the word “Charity.”   The translators of the 1611 Bible had the word love at their disposal, but they felt the need to choose a different word to express the nature of it.   By choosing the word “charity”, they choose a word that was more action than talk.   Charity is more than words, and it is more than preaching, and even more than dying for good cause.   If love speaks, if love gives or if love dies, it does this for someone.   Just as you and I are nothing, without love, love is nothing unless it goes beyond words.  

Going beyond words to find love, means that the most critical part of love is not in finding it, as much as it is in practicing it. 

One of the major surprises, for people who become lost amid the many myths and mysteries of love, is to discover that true love is something you do.    At the very center of this text, Paul says one thing over and over.   He gives us this unforgettable phrase, “Love is…..   You hear him fill that blank in with some very obvious loving, and relational activity.   He says things like: Love is….  “patient, kind, not envious, not puffed up… and so on.   Then he goes on to say things like,  “Love does this….  And love does not do this…..    Interestingly, his list of things to do for love, contain more things we shouldn’t do than we should.  You can sort of think of it like the listing of “thou shall nots” and the ten commandments.   It’s not that God is stuck on the negative, but that in all of life there are just a few things we shouldn’t do, and only a couple of things we have to do, and if we will let love grow, it will take care of itself.   More than anything else, what Paul describes as love is a verb.  Love is something we do.  

Right now, I cannot help but think of the disappointment many people feel in our state and across the country concerning former Senator John Edwards.   We certainly don’t know all the complications of that situation and we also know that broken love is often a two-way-street.  Still, you can’t help but reflect upon how empty and sad a situation becomes when a person only lives for power, or for money, or for prestige, and only for themselves.   There is so much pain and emptiness unfolding in the most public places these days.   Tiger Woods is another example.  Again, we shouldn’t judge Tiger, but we must pray for him and learn from him.   If experts are right, and Tiger is a troubled, addicted, and desperate person who is so stuck on himself it is destroying him, we ought to see how little and weak even the biggest and most powerful person can become when they don’t know how to give or receive love.   If you can’t do love; you become nothing.   Isn’t it most interesting that Elian, Tiger’s Swedish wife, has now visited Tiger in Therapy, and she still has some hope of salvaging some part of her marriage.  Why would she do such a thing?  She is reported to have said that the pain of having divorced parents remains so hurtful in her mind that she wants to do whatever she can keep her children from the same emptiness she has felt.   Elian knows you can have everything, but if you don’t have love, you feel like you have nothing.

Paul’s understanding of love runs counter to so much of people’s thinking.   While most think they can become whatever they want to become and achieve in life, Paul says, without love, no matter what you have, accomplish or achieve---you are nothing.   And the second lesson from Paul is just as important:  Love is more than words.  It is only as you give love that you receive it.   Even if you don’t receive directly back from the person you are loving, you become the love you give. 

NBC’s Doctor Nancy Snyderman, who just came back from working in Hati as both a medical reporter and as a doctor, said she had a tremendous spiritual experience in that terrible tragedy.   She said she learned again, what we humans need most.   When she returned to the US., she was amazed at what all we have, but don’t need.   She said, that all our stuff really gets in the way of what we need most.   When you live simply and when you have love, it’s amazing what you have, even when you don’t have much of anything else.   That’s what she brought home from Haiti.   It wasn’t what they didn’t have, that she brought home with her, but what they did.   And when she saw what those poor people did have, and she saw again what all we do have, but still don’t.  She saw not just how much need there was in Haiti, but how much need there is here in the U.S., even with all we have.   That is just part of what she brought home with her from Haiti  (As remembered from the Today Show segment, Thursday January 28th, 2010).   

You don’t have to go through an earthquake to learn the importance of love.   It might take an earthquake, or you might have another kind of “shake up” in your life and to come to the same conclusion.   The most important things we do in life are, as the songs says, “the things we do for love.”   By engaging in the practice of love, you become love and you become someone.  

There is a final great lesson about love.    Love is the greatest truth we can ever know in this world.

We humans are always in danger of becoming Gnostics and half truths are always the most dangerous truths of all.   Knowledge and belief is certainly important, but knowing something is not all there is to truth.   In fact, Paul wants us to know that in this world our knowledge is always limited; even our deepest beliefs can be reinterpreted and redefined.  “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.  10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.” 1 Corinthians 13:9-10.

To fully accept what Paul means when he says that “The perfect has not yet come” is to learn the true language of faith.  Elsewhere Paul even says about Scripture,  that ‘we have this treasure, in earthen vessels, or clay pots, and he means that clay pots have a bad habit of breaking up.   This shouldn’t worry us, though, because we don’t carry the greatest truths with us through life, but the greatest truths are what carry us.  This kind of talk may be hard for some to swallow, but Paul challenges us to grow up beyond our immature views:  When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  And what is the mature way to hold truth?:   For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”

Why is it so important that we look at truth this way?   Why is it so important, even when we think we are right, to be open to the possibility we could be wrong?  Why is it so important that we always remain humble, even when truth we hold on to is right at center of our faith or knowledge?   Paul wants us to look at truth this way because we have to trust God.  Our vision of truth is only our own version of truth until that day when we come face to face with God.  He is the only one who is the whole truth.   This kind of humility doesn’t make us stupid, it’s the kind of humility and maturity that makes us very smart.  It makes us smart enough to know how to love more than anything else.       

I don’t think we always keep this vision of love as the greatest knowledge, the greatest truth or the greatest deed, close enough to our hearts.   We still get so bent out of shape by what we think is right or wrong at a particular time, that instead of having a positive impact, we become negative.   That’s part of the reason some people, who are so smart is most everything else can end up so unlucky in love.   You can be right about everything, but if you don’t have love, and you don’t show love, you don’t have anything.   For you see, Paul reminds us that the greatest truth is not the knowledge we have in our heads, but it’s the love we have in our hearts.   When we realize this, we are on our way to finding the greatest knowledge of all.  

I’ll never forget a discussion I had during with another Baptist during the early days of Baptist battles over the Bible.  It was 1990 and I was in the Swimming pool with a very rigid fundamentalist who wanted to argue his point with me.   We were discussing whether a person could be a pastor or deacon in a church, once they’d been divorced.   What I felt then is much more important than what I said.   I remember getting the feeling that our real difference was not just what we were talking about, but it was in how we saw everything in the world.   I got this sense that he believed with all his heart that the most important thing in the Bible was the truth God expects us to live by and if we can’t, we’re disqualified from certain things.   On the other hand, I remember thinking the opposite: that we are all disqualified already and that none of us are able to meet God’s perfect standard.   The perfect has not yet come.  Even though I agreed that we should try to live by God’s truth standards, I felt that the greatest standard is faith, hope and love…..and since the greatest is love, we must forgive anyone anything and we must and give people second changes.   The only standard, rule or absolute that could be held onto after what Jesus did on the cross, is the rule of love.      

Of course the tricky part is how do we interpret love?   To be fair to that preacher in the pool, he felt he was showing love by demanding that people live the truth only as he read it.    I didn’t see the truth much different than he did, but I didn’t share his conclusion of exclusion.   The message of good news is not who will God keep out, but it is about all wants to let in.  If you miss this small difference, you miss everything the gospel is about.

What are your conclusions?  Is love in it?   Paul’s conclusion is that, in the end, the only thing that will last are the things we do for love.  Only three things will make it through this world, says Paul: Faith, Hope and Love.  And the greatest is love!  You don’t have take Paul’s word for it, though.   Look at Jesus.  How did Jesus get through that cross and all that that was done to him?   And how did Jesus get through to you even after all you’ve done to him?   Didn’t he get through to you with that same love? 

If you are here today, you are a testimony to the eternal nature of God’s love: love got through to you.  But of course, the question that still remains is this: will your love get back through to him?  If it is love, it will.  Love that is more than words will turn you into somebody rather than a nobody.   Love will make you look smart, even when you haven’t a clue what you are talking about.  Love will get you through this world and it will last beyond anything else that will last. And if you and I get through this world and still have love in our hearts, we are more than lucky.  We are saved.  We are saved by love because God is love.  If you have love you have God, and if you have God you have love.   I didn’t dream this up.   1 John 4:16 says:  6 And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”  Whatever you else get right or wrong in this world won’t matter much at all, if you get love right.   And even if you’ve been wrong in love or been wrong by someone, there is still a love you can cling to that never fails.   Sermons fail.  Words fail.  Knowledge fails.  People fail.  We all have failed, even at love.  But there is one, whose love never fails. 

Back in 1971 in London, Brian Bryars was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around some very difficult areas around Elephant, Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some vagrants and tramps broke into drunken song - sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads - and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet".  It went something like this: “Jesus blood never failed me yet… never failed me yet.  This was thing I know, for his love tells me so, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.” 

This clip was not ultimately used in the film, so Brian took the unused tape of this home with him and started playing with it.   He soon discovered that this guy’s singing was in tune his piano, and so he improvised a simple accompaniment.   He also noticed it formed a nice loop which was catchy and repeated itself through out.   He took the tape to the Fine Arts Department in a nearby town and was recording it, when he went to get a cup of coffee and forgot and left the door opened to the other room which was a large painting studio.   When he returned,  he found the large room unnaturally subdued.  People were moving about more slowly, a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping. 

This is when Bryars realized the tape was still playing and all the people had been overcome by the old man's singing, “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet….never failed me yet.  This I know, for for his love tells me so.  Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.”    Convinced of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp's nobility and simple faith,  Bryars used it to create a hit recording, even in a secular place like England.  “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”   Unfortunately, the tramp died before he could hear what was done with his singing.  ( ).

Fortunately, for him and for us, because Jesus’ love never fails,  we can live and we can die with this song on our lips and in our hearts.   When we do, we are much more than lucky.  Amen.

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Revelation on The Revelation

Bob Hill and his new wife Betty were vacationing in Europe, as it happens, near Transylvania . They were driving in a rental car along a  rather deserted highway.  It was late and raining very hard.   Bob could barely see the road in front of the car.  Suddenly the car skids out of control!  Bob attempts to control the car, but to no avail!  The car swerves and smashes into a tree.  

 Moments  later, Bob shakes his head to clear the fog. Dazed, he looks over at the  passenger seat and sees his wife unconscious... With her head  bleeding!  Despite the rain and unfamiliar countryside, Bob knows  he has to get her medical assistance. Bob carefully picks his wife up and begins trudging down the road. After a short while, he sees a light.  He heads towards the light, which is coming from a large, old house.  He approaches the door and  knocks.

A  minute passes.  A small, hunched man opens the door.  Bob immediately blurts, "Hello, my name is Bob Hill, and this is my wife, Betty.  We've been in a terrible accident, and my wife and I have been seriously hurt.  Can I please use your phone?"

 "I'm sorry," replied the hunchback, "but we don't have a phone.  My master is a doctor; come in and I will get him!"

Bob brings his wife in.  An elegant man comes down the stairs.   "I'm afraid my assistant may have misled you.  I am not a medical doctor; I am a scientist.  However, it is many miles to the nearest clinic, and I have had basic medical training.  I will see what I can do.  Igor, bring them down to the laboratory."

With that, Igor picks up Betty and carries her downstairs, with Bob following closely.  Igor places Betty on a table in the lab.  Bob collapses from exhaustion and his own injuries, so Igor places Bob on an adjoining table.  After a brief examination, Igor's master looks worried.  "Things are serious, Igor.  Prepare a transfusion."  Igor and his master work feverishly, but to no avail.  Bob and Betty Hill are no more.

 The Hills' deaths upset Igor's master greatly.  Wearily, he climbs the steps to his conservatory, which houses his grand piano.  For it is here that he has always found solace.  He begins to play, and a  stirring, almost haunting melody fills the house.

Meanwhile, Igor is still in the lab tidying up.  His eyes catch movement, and he notices the fingers on Betty's hand twitch, keeping time to the  haunting piano music.  Stunned, he watches as Bob's arm begins to  rise, marking the beat!  He is further amazed as Betty and Bob both  sit up straight!  Unable to contain himself, he dashes up the stairs to the conservatory.

He bursts in and shouts to his master:  "Master,  Master! ...  The Hills are alive with the sound of  music!"   (Unknown source).

Isn’t it funny, what you can do with words, especially when you put them together in certain ways and they have a certain history that comes with them?

In Lewis Carroll’s wonderful book, Through the Looking-Glass, the fictional characters of Alice in Wonderland and Humpty Dumpty are in a conversation discussing semantics and the practical meaning of words.  Let’s pick up on the conversation:
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'" Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't – till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master – that's all."
(page 72, Hayes Barton Press, 1872):

When we use the word “apocalypse” what comes to mind?   It’s certainly not funny.

When terrorists attacked New York on September 11, 2001, the headlines of one British newspaper on the following day was one word:  Apocalypse.     

For us today, apocalypse is a popular word used to describe the most powerful and painful images we have of human death and earthly destruction.  Particularly coming into our minds might be such world-shaking disasters of “biblical” proportions like the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, or hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or the most recent  massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti.   Those of us who are older might also remember a ground-breaking movie about the Vietnam War entitled, “Apocalypse Now.”    In each of these images, when we think of something being “apocalyptic”, we can’t help but think of massive disaster, destruction and death.

Interestingly, the word “apocalypse” itself does not mean this at all.    As with many words, since its adoption from ancient Greek, this word has had a mind of its own.  It is one of those words, which seems to mean whatever we want it to mean.  The word apocalypse is actually based upon the Greek “apokalupsis” and has been rightly translated in our Bible as “Revelation”.   It means “revelation” as it refers to the unveiling of a mystery or the disclosure of once hidden truth.   But if we placed the popular meaning of apocalypse into this text we could get into trouble.  The opening of this book would then literally read, “The disaster of Jesus Christ…..”   Unfortunately, this is exactly what this book can become in the hands of its many “would-be” interpreters.

What I hope this little exercise in semantics reminds us is that we must be very careful not to take a word, or a book that is so ancient and has had a particular meaning in the past for a people who once heard it, and then automatically think we can decoded it nicely and neatly into a secret road map that leads us into a particular future in some very specific way.   Even though we might like to take comfort in believing God has given his people a “crystal ball” or “secret code” so we can peer into exactly what will happen next, this not the true to the specific intention nor the general meaning or even the right application of this book.  As Revelation should remind us right from the start, the revelation is “about” and “of” Jesus Christ in the world, not specifically a revelation that is intended to give us a photo shot of the end of the world.   

According to John’s own words, the “future” Revelation unveils is a supposed to be read as a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” “to the seven churches scattered in Asia” and in regards to the future, it is intended to be a revelation about “what is shortly to take place”.   There is no way under heaven or on earth, nor by any stretch of any informed imagination that one can rightly take John’s “shortly” to mean 2000 years of history up to, or beyond our own day.  While we can and should apply the message of the Revelation to all time, and even to find specific hope for the future we face and, can have with hope in Jesus Christ, we are not suppose to read into the Revelation what we simply want it to mean.  That can lead to disastrous misinterpretations.

The ending or beginning which is found in Revelation, whichever way one might interpret it, is a time John describes as the fulfillment and consummation of all things in Jesus Christ.  You actually find a lot more “overcoming” of everything instead of the “ending” of anything in this book.  That’s really the main point.  There is no final ending of God's good world, except that it is finally transformed into what God always intended it to be.  The only things which end are those things which are evil, oppressive and stand aggressively against God’s rule and reign over the earth.

 Any ‘cocked sure’ attempt to bring the meaning of John’s Revelation to bear on our current situation in history, without significant qualifications, historical filters and interpretive restraint can lead to very real theological and political “disaster” in and of itself.  Some have even suggested that wayward and wrong interpretations of the book of Revelation could, and in fact have, lead to self-fulfilling prophecies which were never intended by the original author (I’m specifically thinking of David Koresh here and other “End Time sects).   I think it was G.K. Chesterton who wrote, “I have never met a creature so hideous in this book, as one of its own interpreters.”  

 If you are going to read and understand Revelation, how you read it and however you come to understand it, please be careful.  Your interpretation might become hazardous to your health.  For your own safety and sanity, make sure you are always open to more revelation on The Revelation.   

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

P.S.  I'm currently writing a study guide for the Book of Revelation for a Bible study that is in the works, entitled "Who Is Worthy to Open the Book?"  I am using the image of the "lamb" as the interpretive key to the book of Revelation to help simplify the very complex structure of the book.   I hope to have this completed before Winter 2012 and will then supplement this study guide with a Power-point slide presentation to help you grasp the many symbols and images John uses throughout.   I plan to give a few more samples of this work in progress. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fish Story

A Sermon based upon Luke 5: 1—11
By Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
5th Sunday after Epiphany
February 7th, 2010

Most every fisherman loves to tell a “fish story.”   Fish stories are filled with the unexpected, with adventure and sometimes, great exaggeration.  Sometimes the stories are even about the fish.

One fish story tells of a couple of young boys who were fishing at their special pond off the beaten track.  All of a sudden, the Game Warden jumped out of the bushes.    Immediately, one of the boys threw his rod down and started running through the woods like a bat out of Hades.  The Game Warden was hot on his heels.   After about a half mile, the young man stopped and stooped over with his hands on his thighs to catch his breath, so the Game Warden finally caught up to him.
"Let's see yer fishin' license, Boy!"  the Warden gasped.
With that, the boy pulled out his wallet and gave the Game Warden a valid fishing license.
"Well, son,"  said the Game Warden.  "You must be about as dumb as a box of rocks!  You don't have to run from me if you have a valid license!"
"Yes, sir," replied the young guy.  "But my friend back there, well, he don't have one."  (From  . )

Today’s Scripture text is also a fish story.  Jesus invites Peter and his expert fishing crew to relaunch their boats immediately after a very unsuccessful night of fishing.  With protest, Simon Peter hesitantly follows Jesus’ command to launch out into deep water.   When reach the right spot, Jesus instructs them to let down their fishing nets.   The result of the catch is so large that not only are the fishing nets near to breaking, both boats very near to sinking.  

Fish story, right?   But there’s something else going on here.  If you read on, the story ends up having little, if anything to do with fish.  Peter and some of the other fishermen colleagues get so excited, they even forget about the fish.   They are ready to put down their nets and give up their fishing trade altogether.   That’s not normally where most fish stories go.  

So, where is this fish going?   To understand this, we need to begin where the story began.   Our text begins with Jesus standing near the Lake, in the middle of a crowd, with the people “listening to him preach the word of God “ (5:1).   At the close of Luke for we are given more details.  Jesus has been from Synagogue to Synagogue “preaching the God news of the kingdom” (4:43-44).  So, this fish story begins with preaching, and it’s a particular kind of preaching about God, about good news and about the coming of God’s rule into people’s lives. 

In our Baptist tradition preaching has been at the center from our historical beginnings 400 years ago in England.   We have been so serious about “preaching” most of us didn’t grow up calling the service we are participating in right now “worship”, but we called simply it “preaching.”   “Aren’t you going to stay for preaching today?  You’ve heard that.   Whether or not Preaching means as much today, many Baptists still see “preaching” as the main event.   We come to church to worship, but the center of the worship event has been the message from the Word.   During the Reformation in the 16th century, most Protestant churches moved the altar under the pulpit and placed the pulpit in the center of everything, both visually and ritually.  Our forefathers felt it critical, for the sake of the gospel, to refrain from the dead religion of the Latin Mass, which few understood, and to focus mostly upon the preached Word which could be understood,  taken to heart, and would bring people into a right “faith” experience and relationship with the living, true God of the Bible.   Paul’s own words paved the way for the great reformers, who worked to renew the church through “preaching.”  Quoting the great prophet Isaiah, Paul wrote to the Romans:   How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?   15 And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!.... 17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.  (Rom 10:14-17 KJV)

This where it all gets started, with preaching; but it’s not supposed to end here.  If Jesus had just gone  from synagogue to synagogue preaching only, everyone would have heard the message, either accepted or rejected it in their minds and then probably went home unchallenged, and for the most part, unchanged.   Sound familiar?   If this would have been all that happens, then preaching, even the preaching of Jesus would have just been another “fish” story: interesting perhaps, hopefully sincere, sometimes embellished, but having actually having little to do with what happens next in our lives. 

So, how different it is for us?  Preaching is at the center, but is it just an ornamental decoration of what looks good, or is it, as it should be, the starting point of what comes next?   Do we have a Jesus religion that just goes around from Sunday to Sunday preaching, making us feel good, think good thoughts, and go home with the blessing to keep on doing the same thing, or could there be more?   Of course, preaching the “word of God” is a needed, necessary and a very important part of worship, but it’s not supposed to all there is.  There is, indeed more to the story.   In fact, we’ve missed the miracle of the story if we don’t go beyond hearing and listening to the sermon.    This is the “more” Jesus would take us to in this text.  He wants to take Peter and these fishermen beyond the sermon and beyond even the nicest words about God.  

To take Peter beyond the sermon, the first thing Jesus does is to get in Peter’s boat.  This is an arresting development in the story.   We might even say, as the expression goes, that this is the part of the story where Jesus moves from “just preaching to meddling.”   While Peter and the fishermen are out of their boats cleaning their nets, Jesus invites himself to get on board.  It is not Peter and the fishermen who invite him, but Jesus invites himself.   And that’s not all.   The next thing Jesus does is to invite other people to join him onboard and after a giving them a few more spiritual lessons, then Jesus asks Peter, who appears up to this point to be a perfect stranger to him, to take the ship a little ways out on the water.   Jesus sure has become quite is a pushy little preacher, hasn’t he?  He’s moved from talking to making demands and requiring response. In the same way, for us spiritually and religiously, you don’t get beyond the sermon until you let Jesus get into your boat and when you let him in your boat, he doesn’t just want to ride, he wants the wheel.        

Let me stop and ask you what kind of Jesus you’ve gotten used to in the preaching.  Do you know a Jesus who likes to talk, tell you a lot of nice stories, fill your heart with all kinds of good feelings and maybe even confirm what you were already thinking or who you think you are already, or do you know a Jesus who makes has some new, arresting demands to put on your life?  If we know anything about the Jesus of the gospels, he wasn’t all talk.  If we know anything about the Jesus of the Bible, he wasn’t one who told “fish” stories, simply to tell us nice stories to guide us through life.   The biblical Jesus is a Jesus who makes the words, ideas, and thoughts of God come alive.  And he does this, not on our terms, but on his own terms.     

To reveal the full intentions Jesus has for each of us, did you hear how Peter responds to Jesus in this text?   After getting on Peter’s boat, after teaching the people, and then after asking Peter to take up anchor and launch his  boat back “out into the deep” so he could let his nets down once again, listen to how Peter answers in his first word of response to Jesus:  “Master”.   This is no casual, feel-good, friendly relationship getting started, where Peter gets to call the shots and make the rules as he goes.  No, this a relationship where Jesus “takes the wheel” and is called recognized first and foremost as “Master” and “Commander” of life.   From now on, Jesus will be both the “commander of the ship he has boarded and will determine the direction the boat will sail.

What I am wondering as we move beyond preaching to considering the full implications of this story for our own stories, we need to ask ourselves:  Is our journey with Jesus just another “fish story” or is there some substance to his presence that makes real, lasting and even dangerous demands upon our lives?    As the great German Dietrich Bonhoeffer said when he was encouraging his own people to move beyond the preaching of the word, to standing on the word,  and stand to with Jesus and not with Hitler; he gave us these unforgettable words, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die….to move beyond “cheap grace, to costly grace….”  Bonhoeffer went on to describe cheap grace as the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, the practice of baptism without the practice of church discipline, the celebration of Communion without commitment to personal confession….. Cheap grace,”  he said, “is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living, incarnate,” and real in our lives."  (As quoted from ).   

So, taking this demand of the Jesus seriously, this Jesus who wants to get into our boats, you’ve got to consider not only what Jesus says, but how you have and will actually respond to what you are supposed to do next.    And like Peter, if you are going to let Jesus set your life’s direction, you’ve got to launch out away from the shallow splashing pools along the safety of the shore and move out toward the deeper waters and resources of God’s full possibility for your life.   

Where do you see yourself?   Are you sitting in the boat all nice and comfortable, still listening to the sermons, but actually going nowhere?   Are you out there very busy with your life, taking pains and care to maintain all you have, yet knowing full well that what lays before you is nothing more than the same kind of empty nets which laid before Peter, all exposed before the Lord of Life, lying on the shore?  Or can you, could you, truly visualize yourself, really responding to the call of Christ and to the demands of the gospel which will take you of the discipleship voyage with Jesus?   

Where do you see yourself going, what about this church?   Do you see us going on maintaining empty nets, or can we hear him calling us to pick up anchor, walk on board under his command, and launch out into the deeper waters and follows God’s call for our lives?  Do you picture yourself and our churches as made up of shore-huggers, or a ship launchers?  Which image best describes our current spiritual relationship with Jesus?  Is Jesus just another “fish story” or is he the captain who sends us on the voyage of our lives, lived in obedience and faith?   Or are you now, so much the “master of your fate” and the “captain of your soul”, that when the voice of God’s call comes, you have skillfully learned how to bounce the words right off the edges of your heart?

Jesus commands Peter and he is still commanding those who hear him: If we want to make the catch of our lives, living on a level that goes beyond  the everyday grind for survival, which only leaves our souls feeling empty----if you want a life that brings your more,  you’ve got to “launch out into the deep.”
How do we do that?   Can we see how it could look?   What would it mean for you and me, today move beyond listening to preaching, to launching out into the deep waters of discipleship with Jesus?   

This can certainly mean lots of things to different people at different times.    Everything in our lives that has value also places demands upon us asking something important from us.   Think about it this way: What would a home be, if someone didn’t stay home long enough to build it?  What would our country look like, if people didn’t pay the price of freedom or take part in the requirements of civility and the responsibilities of morality?   And what will this church look like, if those who belong to this community of faith, don’t have deep and dedicated commitment to it, but are content to stay in the shallow waters watching and listening to what only a few others do?  With everything that gives us the blessings of fullness and the richness, “the catch” comes in our willinginess and readiness to answer Christ’s demand with the payment of our own sacrifice and obedience.   If we don’t launch into the deep waters of obedient faith, we don’t get the abundant catch that feeds the emptiness and hunger of our souls.   

So what are the demands of the good news and the responsibilities of our discipleship with Jesus?   What does it look like for you and for me, in this time and in this place where we live and serve God together in the church that is a boat that belongs not to us, but to Jesus Christ?   What is the direction of our sailing toward the deeper waters Jesus wants for us, so we will can find abundant and limitless spiritual resources of God?
What I can see with Peter, is also true for us:  We won’t launch out into God’s deep, until we face and feel the pain and emptiness we have without it.  When Jesus called Peter to accept the challenge “to launch, he protested.   But his honest protest also brought him face to face with the emptiness of his own futile efforts.   “Master we have toiled all night, and have taken nothing”  (vs. 5).  This was Peter’s own confrontation with where he was in that moment.   Do you hear what he was saying, when he said,   “Master WE HAVE TOILED ALL NIGHT….AND HAVE TAKEN NOTHING?”   Until we have to face our own “nothing” without God’s abundance, we’ll probably will never even consider the riches of a life lived further and deeper with him. 

This past week, I was watching the morning news, as I normally do, to gain some overview for the demands of my day.   In this news spot, Meredith Vieira was interviewing the cast of MTV’s new controversial hit show,” Jersey Shore.”   From the very graphic description, it’s the kind of show that both rocks and shocks so that people who tune in, will either love it, or hate it.  Many have already been offended by its demeaning and degrading depiction of Italian Americans.   After reporting on the low-life characters and the sleaze content of the show, which displays youth in the most animalistic and base forms of hedonism,  bigotry and sexuality,  Meredith made this comment, which has been made by others elsewhere: “Even my teenage kids watch your show and they found no redeeming value in it at all.”   At this point, the cast just smiled, as if is was exactly this “nothing” which they were all taking to the bank of their own television success.

When we pay nothing, when we care nothing, when we live nothing, and when we promote lives that are base and nothing of lasting value, except the feeding of our own selfish desire and lowest pleasure, when the way we live our lives ends up having “has no redeeming value at all”, do you think there can be any redemption left for anyone at all?   If “Jersey Shore” is the future of Cable Television, or even a realisitic look into American culture and our moral shallowness, and when Jerry Springer and all the other outrageous reality shows become the “settled-for” shallow, carefree or careless reality of our lives…and when we are content to live for no other demands, than we want and demand for ourselves, seeing no higher value, no higher calling and no deeper catch to our lives---where will this take us?   How will it feel to have lived your whole life, but in the end, to have “toiled all night” and finally caught and lived for “nothing?”   Isn’t it when we begin to feel pain and loss of our “nothing” that we find some inner desire to launch into the greater moral and spiritual “deep” God has for us?

But there’s something more to the launching of true discipleship with Jesus.   We not only have to see what we are losing or have lost without him, but we also have to know what it means to trust God enough that we can actually follow and go where he is leading.   However you visualize what it means to “launch” your life into God’s deeper waters of commitment and faith, there is real no movement off the shore of your own emptiness until you trust him and his directing your life, even when you can’t see exactly where he is leading in the moment.   

Most of the reasons we hold back on God is because we can’t trust.   Just as there are so many reasons for the emptiness we can feel in life, there are also all kinds of reasons lose the ability to trust and give ourselves to God’s call.   But whatever the reason for our doubts, but there is only one way we can regain trust.   Trust can only be built by trusting.  Only when we are ready to entrust ourselves to Christ and are willing to both ‘trust and obey’ his words in daring ways, can we see that trust grow and develop.    With discipleship with Jesus there is no possibility in the attitude one who only “waits to see” what might happen.   You don’t gain trust nor go deeper until you start trusting.   You have to listen and find his words “trustable.”   Isn’t this what capture Peter’s trust, when he answered, even with his own personal doubts about it all, “Nevertheless, at thy word, I will let down the net.”

How do we know to trust God’s word to when there are so many charlatans’ and even sharks in the waters?  How do we know that Jesus will be true to what he teaches and demands in his call to us?    How do we know that when we go in to the deep with him, there will be a bountiful catch that fills our deepest longings and satisfies our hungriest souls?   How will we know?   How did Peter know?   He didn’t, except that there he was, already knee deep in water and listening to the voice of one who “spoke like never a man had ever spoken,” but at the same time, spoke as if he was the fulfillment of everything God has been saying and he had been in hope for all along.   The only way Peter knew to trust was to start obeying and giving Jesus his heart in ways that would “test the waters.”    Only trust builds trust, and there is no trust until we begin to entrust ourselves and start building it.  

Finally, just as there is no following Jesus into the deep waters of faith without realizing the nothing of our lives without him, and as there is no building trust without placing it in the hands of the Christ who commands and demands our heart first of all, there is one important move we can make toward the deep God has for our lives.   We must, at last, answer his command to “let down our net” for the catch of our lives.    We can begin to let down our nets when start to ask ourselves, right now, what are we really fishing for?    What is it that you feel you need to catch in your net, for your life to be abundant and full?

Could you think of anything that could cause you to change what you have normally focused your life upon?   I can think of something.   I could see how tomorrow, or even next week, or maybe a day in the not too distant future, you go to the doctor for a routine physical and he comes back into the room and suddenly says, you need to come back for more tests.  Then you go for some more tests and they come out positive, or negative, whichever way you want to express it, and suddenly your whole life will change.   Or perhaps, you’re like a young na├»ve solider who goes off to Iraq or Afghanistan, and if you do make it back home, nothing is ever the same---all your priorities have changed and how you see the world is so different.   Or maybe an opportunity comes to you never expected, right out of the blue, or there was a moment, you took a risk or you followed your heart, and it had dividends that have enriched your life, forever, so that you are never the same.    

Don’t tell me this kind of miraculous “catch” can’t happen to you!  The miracle of making the catch you never expected happens every day to people.  Someday it will happen to you.  You will see the deep God has for you, in a way you’ve never seen it.  And you will be called to entrust yourself to God in way you’ve never trusted him.  You will see life, not just through the stuff you can have or the things you can do for yourself, but you will see your life through the great resources God has, and through, not what you can claim for yourself, but see a greater calling and you can lose yourself in the needs of the all people who have needs around you.  You will see this, but the question is when?  Will it be now, while you still can, or will it come on the day you realize it is too late?

What we might consider is making that launch into the deep today.  It could bring in the miracle catch your soul has been longing for.   The miracle of the great catch can still happen.   In fact, I saw this kind of miracle last week, on the WXII special, “The Counter”,  when they were commemorating the Greensboro “sit-ins” from 50 years ago, February 1, 1960.   Four guys decided to trust God and to trust what was right enough launch out into the deep of immoral segregation in the south.   They decided to walk up to the counter and ask for service at the “white’s only” Woolworth diner, had no real clue what the catch that was going to happen.   All they knew to do was to trust their hearts to where they knew faith had to lead them into the deep of fear, injustice and prejudice.  What that simple act of faith did, however, was bring in an unbelievable catch.   It lead to sit-ins all over the south and brought  together an entire people who had been far too long oppressed and condemned as “have nots” in a country that had enough.    Ironically, it was an older white woman also at the counter, who was the first witness to what was happening, when she saw what those four young black students were doing.    She saw it even before they could.   She saw the miracle taking place and walked over to them and said, “I wish you’d come in here and done this weeks ago.  This has been going on far too long.”  (As told on the WXII Special Aired on Monday, February 1, 10:00 pm.)  

Those of us, who have never felt the pains and indignity of oppression and prejudice, can’t fully appreciate the miracle in Greensboro, but if you’ve ever been released from any kind of weight of sin or evil,  or if you’ve ever trusted God enough to make your own launch out into the deep before you, you might at least get a glimpse feeling Peter had when he looked at all those fish and cried out, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”   Perhaps we’ve all been here, full of doubt, but arrestingly amazed at what God does, with or without us, but this is not where Jesus would leave us---any of us.  He wants to take us to the greater miracle---to the miracle that leads us beyond where we were, who we were, to who we can we and where we can go from here.

The last reflection I have on the miracle----the real miracle in this text---which is not the catching of all the fish, but is of who God wants to catch in the net of his love.   The point to ponder is not will it happen, but when, “how” and “where” will it happen?   Of all things, I hope this miracle of God’s abundance comes to you before you have only a few days left to see it.  And I hope you don’t have to go through a sea of regret and failure before you learn what is out there before you.   I hope that even right now, today, you can decide in your heart to see where the emptiness is, to entrust your life to the Jesus who still calls us to become new people, and who still dares us to launch out to the deep of what God can do right before our own eyes.    This is not just another fish story.  It is God’s story and I hope you can put yourself in it, somewhere, somehow, right now, and today.   Amen. 

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.