The great baseball player Satchel Paige once gave this advice to someone–don’t look back, they might be gaining on you. Now there is some wisdom in that statement. An unhealthy focus on the past could keep us from going forward with confidence into the future. And while we can find God in the events of the past as well as in the events of the present, He is also to be found in the future. God isn’t bound by time, which is just a human construct.
Still, there is value in our past, especially insofar as it warns us of the failures and dangers our ancestors faced. As George Santayana wrote, if we fail to study the past we are doomed to repeat it.
That’s been true in my life also. I was raised in the church and taught its importance. But then I drifted away and, as a song puts, walked where demons dwell. But God had determined that I was to be one of His and so He led me back from the brambles onto the narrow pathway. Still, I did many things that I am now ashamed of, and I need to focus occasionally on those sins to remind myself of the glory of the Gospel–Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for me.
The congregation I now serve has a long past–191 years this coming Sunday. There have been times of success and times of failure. Times of growth and times of decline. There have been pastors who stayed for a quarter of a century and pastors who barely got unpacked before leaving. The Gospel has been purely proclaimed and sometimes not so purely. A lot of things can happen in 191 years.
I will be focusing on some of this history for the next month in my sermons. My goal will be to remind us of our first love as a congregation–the spread of the Evangelical Lutheran faith. We need to go forward with God’s message in the world of the 21st century. We need to proclaim His Gospel in a world full of sin and misery. Looking back will teach us something. It will teach us that while we were also sinners, even in our churches, Christ is always faithful and we are always being empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish that for which we have been called.
In my reading this past week I came across a rather long quotation from the 19th century English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I won’t give it to you in its entirety, but I think it’s worth pondering, especially for those of us who are called to preach the Word in God’s Church.
Spurgeon noted that even in the 1880’s people were writing books and articles defending the Gospel against those who would bring it into disrepute. He allowed as how that was probably a good and needed thing, but he also noted that when the Gospel needed defending it was because the Gospel was not being preached as it should.
Then he drew this analogy–it would be as if you had a lion in a cage and you were worried about the fate of the lion against its enemies so you were calling in soldiers to defend the lion. Spurgeon noted that it was likely that the best way to defend the lion was to allow it to defend itself. In other words, let the lion out of its cage. And so he said the best way to defend the Gospel is to let the lion out.
In far too many churches the lion is kept in a cage with a sign above it that says “Assumed”. Too many preachers believe that the people in front of them know and believe the Gospel so they spend their time in the pulpit talking about things like how to have a good marriage, or how to avoid sin, or how to raise faithful children. They preach about everything except Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you. They ignore the fact that St. Paul, after his relative failure in Athens where he proclaimed Christ in a rather philosophical way, came to Corinth determined, he says, to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
No one should ever assume that people know the Gospel and believe it, nor should we assume that they don’t long to hear it proclaimed every time someone is in the pulpit.
Just let the lion out–He’ll take care of Himself.
I have a granddaughter. Her name is Katelyn and she is my only grandchild, so I dote on her quite a bit. It’s my responsibility, don’t you know. Parents discipline and instruct, grandparent’s dote. It’s the way of things.
Now I’m going to brag just a bit about Katelyn–she got straight A’s at school during the first marking period of her freshman year in high school. So I’m really proud of her. On the other hand, if she had received a bunch of D’s I would have still been proud of her–not because of what she had done, but because of who she is. You see I don’t love my granddaughter because she is the best high school freshman–I love her because she is my granddaughter.
It’s similar to the way God loves His chosen people. He doesn’t love us because we’re good or smart or because we achieve great things. He loves us because we are, because we exist, and He has chosen to love us, even though we’re not very lovable when you weigh us on the scales of righteousness or obedience.
St. John says that God is love. And that is true, even if we often misunderstand what John meant when he wrote those words. God created us so that He might love us. We exist to be the object of His divine affection. We are created so He can love us the way the Trinity has experienced love within Himself. The Father has always loved the Son who has always loved the Father who has always loved the Spirit who has always loved the Son who has always loved the Spirit who has always loved the Father. [I came by this understanding by reading Tim Keller, a Presbyterian pastor]. So God has chosen to share this love outside the Trinity and we receive it as a gift–an undeserved gift.
The next time you look at someone you love, just because you love them, I hope you’re reminded that the God of the universe loves you too–just because you are you.
I’m sitting here in my office right now waiting–waiting for a concert we’re going to have at church tonight. I’ve been looking forward to it for a couple of months. It’s by a group called the Haining Family out of Branson, MO. We first heard them at our AFLC national conference this year. At the moment I’m praying for good attendance and spiritual benefits for the people who come tonight.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not real good with waiting. Once I’ve decided on something or once I’ve been told that something will happen, well, I want to get on with it. Patience is a virtue, but it is occasionally illusive for me. From a lifetime of watching people, I know that I’m not the only impatient person in the world–it’s a widely shared trait.
Lots of people are that way about waiting for the Jesus’ return too. If you’re one of those folks who would be really happy if He came tomorrow morning–well I’m with you. In the first years after the Lord’s Ascension there were evidently many people who believed His coming would happen any day. They looked for it every morning when they woke up. Some were so eager that they actually stopped working and just, as we say today, hung around, causing the Apostle Paul to say that if they didn’t want to work–well, they didn’t get to eat.
I can’t say I’ve seen that today, but we do get a lot of folks who seemed entranced with “signs” that portend the Lord’s immanent return. The latest one seems to be something about a “black moon” coming in about 20 years. (I had never heard of it either). But Jesus told us that it was not ours to know when the day of the time would be. We just have to live our lives as His faithful people and trust that when it is just the right time God will act. Lots of people awaited a Messiah for generations, looking here and there. But Jesus didn’t come until just the right time.
So the question becomes–do we trust God enough to just wait? Or will we waste our time with schedules and signs and calculations that confuse the faithful and embarrass the Church before the world?
I’m not real good with waiting–but I’m going to trust that God will do what He wants when the time is complete. In the meantime, we all have lives to live and work to do–after all the Gospel is always going to be Good News.
I am fond of bluegrass music. We are very lucky in this part of the country to have the premier bluegrass radio station, WAMU, just down the road in Washington DC. Now their signal is not strong enough to carry the 75-80 miles across 2 mountains to my home. So they have a system which are called boosters and repeaters. In other words, there are electronic that pick up the signal they send out of Washington, boost the signal and send it on to those of us who live in the country. Were it not for the boosters and repeaters we could not pick up that station.
Now I’m sure it’s not the best analogy I could come up with, but I think it fits–you and I are the boosters and repeaters for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago Christ did His work on this earth, He bore upon His holy shoulders the penalty for the sins we commit. His followers, the Apostles and their associates spread that news throughout the Mediterranean world. They told what they had seen and heard with their own senses. But all of them died and what we have left are their written witness.
Not everyone reads the written witness of these men on their own. In fact, St. Paul goes so far as to tell us that we come to believe because of what we hear. It is the living witness of living people to other living people that spread the Gospel throughout the world today. And we should do that, not by giving our opinions or our takes on things, but by repeating what the Apostles themselves told us .
As witnesses to the Good News of Christ’s sacrifice for us we have nothing new to tell anyone. What we have is the tried and true message that, as Jude says, was handed down once for all. So rather than trying to find new ways to pass on what we know, changing or omitting or adding things to make them “relevant” we would do much better to stick to the ways that we have inherited from the giants upon whose shoulders we now perch.