Thursday, May 26, 2016

Resurrection of Hope - Romans 5:1-5

New Testament Lesson                                                                 Romans 5:1-5
 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access[b] to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

        When I was in high school, our football team was the worst in the state.  Game after game, year after year, we lost. 

        In my Freshman year, I would go to the football games and see signs that read, "Destroy Anderson High."  And we would lose the game.

        In my Sophomore year, I would go to the football games and I noticed the signs had softened just a bit so that I would see signs that read, "Hurt J.L.Mann High."  And we would lose the game.

        In my Junior year, I would go to the football games and I noticed the signs had softened up a little bit, and I would see signs that read, "Maintain Dignity Against Dixie High." And we would lose the game.

        In my Senior year, I would go to the football games and I noticed the signs had softened up a little bit more, and I would see signs that read, "Welcome Greenwood High."  And we would lose the game.

        My high school seemed to be a school without hope.  Then one day, when I was in college, I picked up the newspaper and there was a banner headline.  "Woodmont High School Breaks 72 Game Losing Streak."

        The reporter interviewed the coach and he was asked to explain how they finally won a game.  All he could say was, "It's about time."

        Amazingly enough, they won the next game.

        And then, incredibly enough, they won the game after that.

        This time when the reporter interviewed the coach, the coach explained their wins by saying, "All we needed was hope.  Somewhere around the 20th or 30th loss, our school started accepting the fact that we always lose.  We forgot that it is possible to win. I've been teaching tactics and strategies and working these boys out in practice, but that is not what helped us win.  I should have been teaching about hope."

        Several years ago, my son was playing on a baseball game, and like my high school football team, they simply couldn't find a way to win.  They'd lost every game that year.  Finally it was the day of their last game.  The dug out was like a funeral home.  Not a single kid was cheering the other kids as they went to bat.  They were just waiting for the game to be over so they could go home.

        I stuck my head in the dug out and told these 7 year olds, "Hey guys, you can win this game.  After all, you're only 25 runs behind."

        One of the kids heard me and said, "Hey, that's right.  We are only 25 runs behind.  We've never been this close to winning before."

        It was as if there was an electric jolt that went through the dug out.  When the next kid at bat hit the ball right so that it rolled through the legs of the first baseman, the entire dug out was celebrating and high fiving each other.   The excitement and confidence of our team must have totally confused the other team. 

        In the bottom of the last inning, one of our players scored the winning run. 

        I remember thinking that if I had known all they needed was hope, I would have visited the dug out long before that last game.

        We need hope in our lives. 

        But we all know what it is like to feel that all hope is gone.

        In our Old and New Testament readings we encounter the experience of a loss of hope.

        In the Old Testament, Ezekiel stands before a great battlefield. He sees before him a valley of dry bones.  The battle is long over with.  The vultures have been there and gone and all the flesh has disappeared.  Even the armor has been stolen by the grave robbers.  All that is left is a valley of dry bones.

        God asks Ezekiel, "Can these dry bones live?"

        And with despair in his voice, Ezekiel admits, "God only knows."

        The loss of hope is a terrible experience.

        A woman walks out of a doctor's office after hearing that she has cancer.  What hope is there?

        A father hangs up the telephone after receiving a telephone call from the police and learning that his rebellious son has been arrested.  What hope is there?

        A husband or wife can't speak to each other because of the depth of their anger toward one another.  What hope is there?

        Where does one go when there is no hope?

        To the grave.  Or as someone once said, “Get busy living, or get busy dieing.”

        When there is no hope, all is finished.

        People need hope for the future.  That woman walking out of that doctor's office after hearing her diagnosis needs hope for the facing of her cancer.

        The father receiving that phone call from the police needs hope for his son's future.

        We need hope.

        How many of you have seen the movie SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION? 
        Greatest movie in the world – one of the best of all time.  I could watch that movie every week – much to my wife’s dismay.

        It is a great movie about hope, and it starts in total hopelessness.

        Andy is sentenced to prison, even though he is innocent of his wife’s murder.  He is sentenced to life, and he spends 19 years in the Shawshank Prison until he finally escapes.  At one point, Andy is talking with his best friend in prison about hope, but his friend, Red says, “Hope is a dangerous thing, it makes a man go insane.”

        Red says that because he has lost all hope.

        How do we find hope, when our hope has died – or maybe our hope isn’t dead, but it’s – well, shall we say – hibernating?

        First, we need to know that God is present in our lives. 

        In the Old Testament, Ezekiel looks over the battle field. He feels the hopelessness of a battle that has been lost, and a war that has failed.  But God is with him.  In Ezekiel we read, (Ezek 37:1-2), "The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry."

        Without God in our lives, we do not have a complete and sturdy hope for the facing of our lives.

        Think about why many of us have lost hope – it is because we feel that God has left us.  That God has deserted us. 

        But God is still present. 

        In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, we read, “Be strong and courageous… God will never leave you nor forsake you ." Deut 31:6

        The second thing we need is to know that we can experience the presence of God, through the Word of God. 

        In the Old Testament, Ezekiel looks out at the hopeless valley of dry bones.  Can they live again?  Of course not.  But God commands Ezekiel to preach to the dead – to speak to them the Word of God.  So Ezekiel does, and in this story, the dry bones come to life as the Word of God is spoken.

        Without the Word of God being spoken to the dry bones, the dry bones would have remained lifeless.

        The Psalmist wrote, (Ps 130:5), "I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope."

        You want hope to come alive in you again – let the Word of God dwell in you.  Listen to the Word of God.  Read the Word of God.

        Thirdly, we need to trust in God above all else.

        Hope as the world knows it is in thinking, "Give me what I want, give me what I want, give me what I want."

        Hope as the Christian knows it is in praying, "Not my will, but your will be done."

        In Ezekiel, the prophet is asked by God, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know." And there is a trust in God.  Not a bitterness, but a leaning onto the Lord and trusting in God.

        Real hope is found in God.

        Lasting hope is found in trusting Him.

        Thinking back to the film, the Shawshank Redemption,  Andy never quite loses hope.  He holds onto it.  Even though he is an innocent man who spends 19 years in prison, he hangs onto hope.  And at one point he tells his prison buddy, Red, “Hope is a good thing.  Maybe the best of all things.  And no good thing ever dies.”
        Or put it another way, as St. Paul did in the New Testament book of Romans, “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

Copyright 2016. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Blessed Assurance, Is Jesus Mine? Acts 16:16-34

New Testament Lesson                                                                 Acts 16:16-34

16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer  called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Has anyone here ever been to Stone Mountain in Georgia?

It is a giant granite mountain, made famous by the fact that on the face of the mountain is a giant carving of the three horsemen of the Confederate apocalypse – General Lee, General Jackson and President Davis.

Years ago I lived in the Atlanta area and very often my wife and I would walk up that mountain about once every other month or so.  It was good exercise and the hiking trails were safe and clean.

If you ever visit Stone Mountain you will notice that people have taken the liberty of making their own carving into the granite hiking trails.  There are all sorts of messages.

Some are very interesting!

There were phrases like – “Betty Lou was here, 1955.”

Or “Bob loves Ann, 1909”

And “Alice loves Robert.”

But along that trail there was one particular bit of graffiti that stands out among the rest.  On a rock higher than the others, so high that you know whoever carved it went to a great deal of trouble to make it visible to anyone on the trail, words carved so deep that you can put your fingers into the letters...all the way up to your knuckles.  The letters are carefully and artistically designed. 

They are the words... “Jesus Saves.”

This bit of graffiti has captured my imagination, and of many others who have hiked that trail. It is easy to imagine someone bundled up and making his way up the trail at night, taking out a hammer and chisel and beating out the letters, night after night for weeks, until the work was finished.
And it is also easy to wonder ... Why?
Why would someone go to all that trouble to carve the words  JESUS SAVES into the side of a mountain.

Let your imagination run wild and it is possible to conceive of a sinner who had led such an immoral life who thought that a carving out the words JESUS SAVES on the face of a granite rock was some form of repentance.

        In my imagination, I have often wondered who this man was trying to convince.

And I finally decided that it possible that he was simply trying to convince himself.

Perhaps it was not with the commitment of Faith that this man carved the words JESUS SAVES.

Perhaps instead it was with the HOPE that Jesus Saves.  And maybe he carved those words to convince himself, as well as others, that those words were true.

Subconsciously, there is within many of us, a stirring of doubt, a twinge of fear – “Jesus Saves, doesn't he?  Or does He?  What if he doesn't?  What if?”

A recent article in a Christian magazine reported on some findings about a church growth program in a metropolitan area church.  Part of the program was to interview and survey those who were already members.

Only half of those interviewed were sure of their salvation. 

The rest were trying to convince themselves that there was truth in the words...JESUS SAVES.

At the conclusion of our worship service today, we will sing a stanza from the familiar hymn, BLESSED ASSURANCE, JESUS IS MINE.  But for far too many of us; that statement becomes a haunting question....BLESSED ASSURANCE???   IS JESUS MINE?

Behind those doubts and fears is a question....what must I do to be saved?

The jailer in our New Testament lesson faced that question when he found himself in a bind.

Like so many of us, this all important question had taken a place on the back burner of his mind until circumstances forced him to face the question.

As Luke tells the event, he and Timothy and Silas and Paul were going to the place of prayer one day, when this demented slave girl began following the group, shouting over and over,  THESE MEN ARE SERVANTS OF THE MOST HIGH GOD.  THEY ANNOUNCE TO YOU HOW TO BE SAVED.”

This went on for days and days.   Finally Paul, fed up with this, suddenly turned and miraculously healed her in the name of Jesus.

In that miracle, the slave girl, who had made money for her masters by telling fortunes, suddenly lost that ability.  And having lost that, was no longer of any value to her owners.

The owners, angered by this, had Paul and Silas jailed. 

Timothy and Luke, being GENTILES were not arrested, but the mob, the crowd, arrested the two Jews, Paul and Silas, and charged them with the honest offense...

        It was, in many ways, a racist situation.

        But – God uses it for good.

That night, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns, while the other prisoners listened.  Then, there was an earthquake.  Doors were thrown open, and chains fell from the hands and feet of those in the prison.

It was then that the jailer woke up and for a moment thought that the prisoners had escaped.  Realizing that his superiors would have him put to death for sleeping on duty and allowing the WHOLE prison to escape, the jailer drew his sword and decided to kill himself.

It was at this point that Paul stepped in and stopped the jailer by up pointing out:  WE ARE STILL HERE.

So the jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved,” --- saved from what?

For the jailer, the question was – who will save me from execution for falling asleep on the job – because that was going to be his punishment.
For Paul, and the writer of Acts, they take that question one step further and think theologically, and they lead the jailer to think theologically as well. 
It becomes more than a simple question of how do I save my hide, it is how do I save my soul.  And more than just a question of how to save my soul – it is how to give meaning and value to my life.

It is a haunting question.  And once asked it may haunt even those who think that they are saved.   Because it resurrects those ancient doubts and fears -- Am I really saved?

How can I be certain?

People have differing opinions about the answer to that question of certainty about salvation.

For many people, the secret is to live the good life.
After all, everyone knows that good people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell----or do they???

In George Bernard Shaw's play, MAN AND SUPERMAN, an old woman dies.  At first, she is not quite sure what has happened to her, or where she is.  So she approaches another soul and asks.

To her greater despair, the answer is that she is in hell.

"Hell,” she exclaims.  "How can I possibly be in hell?  I was a faithful member of the church.   I was a solid pillar of the community.  How dare they send me to hell....I was a GOOD person"

To that, the other condemned soul replies... “There are a lot of good people in Hell.”

The truth illustrated by this imaginative play is that if we try to life the good life as a means of salvation, then we will find that we can never be quite good enough.

Paul in one of his New Testament letters --- the one to the Roman Church, said that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

Well, that takes as back to our question.   And the question of the Philippian jailer....what must I do to be saved?

If we are all sinners, maybe the way to be saved is by confessing each and EVERY sin.  Martin Luther, the great 16th century reformer believed this -- at least in the EARLY PART of his life, that this was the way of confessing.   Roland H. Bainton, in his biography of Luther, wrote that Luther confessed "Frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours at a time.  Every sin, in order to be absolved, was to be confessed.  Therefore, the soul had to be searched and the memory ransacked, and the motives probed.  Luther would repeat a confession and to be sure of including EVERYTHING, would then review his entire life, until the priest who had to listen to the confession grew quite tired of all this.”[1]

I suspect that none of us confess like Luther did, searching and examining every action and motive and spending hours confessing.

And even if we did, it would not save us.  Luther himself came to realize that he could never be absolutely sure and certain that EVERY sin had indeed been confessed.

So---as important as confession is...that is not the way of our salvation.  We are thus brought back to that question that the Philippian Jailer addressed to Paul and Silas.



It is as simple as that.

The act of baptism did not save the Jailer.  He was baptized later, as a sign that he HAD BEEN an outward expression that a he did indeed believe.

The achievements of good deeds did not save him.    The kindness and concern he expressed to Paul and Silas were the RESULTS of his salvation and were done AFTER he came to believe in Christ.

And so it is with us.


Copyright 2016. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

[1] Roland H. Bainton, A Life Of Martin Luther:  Here I Stand.  Nashville:  Abingdon.  1950.  Page 41.