Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sir, we wish to see Jesus

This is a sermon that I preached several years ago.

One summer night a young man in Scotland decided to take a shortcut across the moors on his way to the town where he had a job. The countryside was noted for its limestone quarries. That night he knew he would be passing near one of these quarries, but the young man thought he could avoid it. Though the night was starless and inky-black, he set out through the rock and heather. Suddenly he heard a voice call out with great urgency, "Peter!"

A bit unnerved, he stopped and called back into the dark, "Yes, who is it? What do you want?" No response. Just a bit of wind over the deserted moorland.

The lad concluded he'd been mistaken and walked on a few more steps. He heard the voice again, more urgent than before: "Peter!" He stopped in his tracks, bent forward to peer through the dense black, and stumbled to his knees. Reaching out a hand to the ground before him, he clutched thin air. The quarry! Sure enough, as Peter carefully felt around in a semicircle he discovered that he had stopped at the edge of the abandoned limestone quarry, one step before a fatal plunge into the deep. Out there in the desolate moor, someone knew him and someone cared. Peter Marshall never forgot that. Dedicating his life to the One who'd called him by name, he became one of America's greatest ministers.[1] Peter Marshall's faith was no dusty relic inherited from his parents. It was vibrant, real, and utterly compelling. Peter Marshall knew God.

I want to make two points. First, most Churches are at best only half-full on a Sunday morning. Yet all people have an innate spiritual hunger.[2] Many today search for genuine spirituality. The media frequently reports about new spiritual movements but most churches remain half-full or even nearly empty. People hunger for truth about a higher power. Christianity is discredited in their eyes because its adherents – you and I – lack spiritual fervor and integrity. That is, we are not excited about our faith and we do not practice what we say we believe. So these spiritually hungry people look elsewhere.

Various new age movements are full of converts passionate about their newfound faith. They are alert to the spiritually hungry and quick to talk about a religion where the attraction lies in its esotericism and promise of power.

Others convert to these groups from a Christianity that is rigid and narrow. Their conversion is in fact a rebellion against parents and authority that is part of the process of growing up and forming one’s own identity. Too often, our response to young people going through that process is passive. We figure that in time they will return to the faith of their birth. We may not know how to guide them along the way. Unfortunately, today many young people lack the solid grounding in Christianity that makes a return likely. Many wander off into Wicca, Scientology, or other such groups, never to return and perhaps, eventually, to abandon all faith, choosing to live with an unsatisfied, gnawing spiritual hunger.

I recently received an e-mail with this story. A young man who had been raised as an atheist was training to be an Olympic diver. The only religious influence in his life came from an outspoken Christian friend. The young diver never really paid much attention to his friend's sermons, but he heard them often. One night the diver went to the indoor pool at the college he attended. The lights were all off, but as the pool had big skylights and the moon was bright, there was plenty of light to practice by. The young man climbed up to the highest diving board and as he turned his back to the pool on the edge of the board and extended his arms out, he saw his shadow on the wall. The shadow of his body was in the shape of a cross. Instead of diving, he knelt down and finally asked God to come into his life. As the young man stood, a maintenance man walked in and turned the lights on. The pool had been drained for repairs!

Do you believe in the God who saves? Do you believe enough to share that conviction with others through your words and actions? The prophet Jeremiah taught that one-day God would establish a new covenant with people, a covenant not taught by humans but written by God directly on human hearts. God calls us to live as though that covenant were already in place. However, we should also remember that Jeremiah points towards the consummation of history, not to the present. Thus, we live in the tension of believing God's kingdom is here and now, yet knowing its fulfillment lies in the future.

My second point is that sharing one’s faith with others can be costly. The diver’s friend, the one who continually preached to him about Jesus, was not only a witness, but also a friend who jeopardized that friendship with his constant preaching. Conversely, being a true friend gave credibility to the friend’s words about Jesus. In John’s gospel, Jesus taught that we are to be like a grain of wheat, a seed that must die, must be consumed, in order for wheat to grow and to yield grain. This is both a spiritual and ethical truth. If we would be faithful to Jesus, we must both be where he is and live as he did.

In 1939, nine hundred Jewish people, mostly women and children, got on a ship called the ST. LOUIS, headed for America. They were fleeing Hitler's concentration camps. They got within sight of Miami Beach, where they were turned away. There was surely room in our country for nine hundred Jews, but there was no room in our hearts, and so we turned our backs on them. Some tried to swim to Cuba and drowned; others went back to Germany and were killed.[3] The ST. LOUIS was turned away, intending to do no harm. Doing good, loving one’s neighbor, requires more than simply doing no harm.

Doing good is costly. Doing good cost Jesus his life. In our doing good, we are re-shaped into the image of Jesus, dying to the world, and rising to new life in the image of the Christ. Too many of us wish to avoid the true cost of discipleship. We seek a faith that is convenient and comfortable, not realizing that such a faith lacks the power of Christ to transform us from death unto life and that such a faith lacks the power to attract others to Jesus Christ.

The two Greeks who spoke to Philip said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”[4] That is the unspoken request, perhaps even mentally unformed request, of those who are spiritually hungry. Jesus said that one day he will draw all people to himself and that the ruler of this world will be driven out. We know the eventual outcome of history. We are on the winning side.

[1] Steven R. Mosley, Glimpses Of God (Sisters, Oregon: Questar Publishers, Inc., 1990), pp. 149-150.
[2] This is a consequence of the imago dei, our being created in the image of God.
[3] Dreams On Fire (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1992), pp. 49-50.
[4] John 12:20-21.

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