Sermon Text: John 11:17-27; Matthew 7:24-27
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The following is my original manuscript
I have a friend who grew up Methodist. When she was a child she attended a revival at her church with her family. And when the preacher invited people—Billy Graham-style—to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ and accept Christ as Savior and Lord, she did so. She walked down the aisle of the church and made a profession of faith. She was later baptized. When she was 12, she went through confirmation class. At the end of the class, she informed her distressed parents that she would not be confirmed and not be joining the church. She explained, as best she knew how as a young teenager, that she felt like confirmation wasn’t about being in a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ; it was mostly about becoming a part of a human institution; and that her pastor—who was himself still in seminary—made her feel like her earlier decision to follow Christ didn’t really count.
Well, she knew that was wrong! She understood, even as a young teenager, that confirmation class ought to be mostly about leading young people to make the same kind of decision that she had made a few years earlier—not simply reciting the right words or memorizing the right facts!
That friend was Stephanie Newton. And I’m still trying to get her to join the church! Just kidding… She did join the church when she was a young adult—and is a faithful United Methodist. But her story highlights an important problem with the way Christian churches of all denominational stripes often do church.
It’s a problem that the late Father Vincent Donovan, a Catholic missionary to East Africa in the ’60s and ’70s, describes in a book he wrote about his mission work among a large nomadic tribe known as the Masai.1 For a hundred years or so the Catholic Church had been trying to reach this remote group of people who had never before been exposed to the gospel.
But the Church decided to go about it very indirectly. They would educate the children in Western-style schools, give them Western-style medicine, teach them principles of Western-style agriculture. It was almost like a bribe: The Masai would be so appreciative they would naturally want to become Christians. But Father Donovan looked around the mission and noticed something: The Masai weren’t becoming Christians! All this hard work and only a handful of converts over the years! Something’s gotta change, he thought!
So Donovan had an idea: “What if I go to the Masai tribal leaders and simply talk to them about the God revealed in Jesus Christ? What if I go armed not with offers of Western medicine, education, and food, but only with the gospel of Jesus Christ? Maybe that would work?” And that’s what he did. And he experienced a lot of success—and some failure. He described the year he spent visiting with and talking to one group of Masai, and it was now decision time: would they or wouldn’t they accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and be baptized?
And they told him no.
He was devastated—at first. But out of this experience of rejection came what he called the most important thing he learned in his missionary work: “that Christianity,” he wrote, “by its very essence, is a message that can be accepted—or rejected; that somewhere close to the heart of Christianity lies that terrible and mysterious possibility of rejection; that no Christianity has any meaning or value, if there is not freedom to accept it or reject it. It is not an automatic thing, coming like a diploma after four or eight years of schooling and examinations, or after one year of instruction. It must be presented in such a way that rejection of it remains a distinct possibility.”2
Donovan’s words convict me. See, I want people to come to church and be involved and learn about the faith and be entertained and take advantage of good programs and find friends. But more than anything I want us to have a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Our parents can’t give us saving faith through heredity. The church can’t impose faith upon us—even through good Sunday school and confirmation classes. We can’t get it through osmosis by sitting in church pews week after week. Faithful people in church can teach us the faith and model it and live it out, but ultimately we have to accept it for ourselves. And that means that in one way or another we have to answer for ourselves the question that Jesus asks Martha in today’s scripture: “Do you believe this?” Otherwise, the frighteningly real possibility exists that we can go through the motions of doing church without ever entering into saving relationship with God through Christ.
If you do happen to be one of those people who’s going through the motions of church, aren’t you tired of it? Don’t you want something real?
We must answer the question, “Do you believe this?” Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that Jesus is Messiah, Son of God, and the “one who is to come”—the one who is the answer to the world’s deepest questions; the one who is the solution to the world’s deepest problems?
Do you believe, in other words, that in the fullness of time God came into the world through Jesus; that he lived a life of perfect obedience to his Father that we sinners are unable to live; that he was faithful to the mission that his Father gave him; that he taught us the meaning of love with words, but more importantly lived it out in the most dramatic way imaginable by willingly going to the cross and suffering death—in our place. And that’s not all. This same Jesus was raised from the dead. In Christ, God conquered death—and the sin and evil that go along with it. And we get to share in the victory that Christ won for us! When we believe in Jesus and are baptized, the Holy Spirit connects us to Jesus—makes us a part of him. Our sins are forgiven; we receive the gift of eternal life; and we become a part of God’s family. And we resolve through the power of Spirit of Christ to follow Jesus for the rest of our lives.
Well… that’s a lot to believe in, isn’t it? We will spend the rest of our lives working out the details of what I just said, but the main point is simple enough for a child to grasp: God, who created us, loves us with a love that goes beyond our imagination. And God wants you and me to have a lasting relationship with him that will survive even our own death. And if we want to know who God is, look at Jesus because he reveals God to us. If we want to truly live and find joy and happiness, we find it in Jesus.
It’s a lot to believe… except this kind of believing isn’t like like believing someone when they say it’s raining outside—so bring an umbrella. It’s more like this: It’s now officially college football season, my favorite time of year. It’s a time of year when I let my mood and disposition and outlook on life be far too easily influenced by the fortunes of my football team. What I’m about to say will be true for whatever team in whatever sport you follow and love—I hope—but it’s certainly true for us Georgia Tech fans. We love our coach, Paul Johnson. We may not understand exactly how his triple-option offense works—we may not know an A-back from a B-back—we may not understand why we don’t pass the ball like other teams—but when we see the guy running down the sidelines for an 80-yard touchdown, we say, “It works!” We believe in our coach; we trust him to find a way to win; and we believe that if only his players do what he says, the team will win.
This is an imperfect analogy; and I’m certainly not suggesting that Paul Johnson is Jesus! It’s not like he’s Nick Saban or Urban Meyer! But in a small way, this is what it’s like to believe in Jesus. Believing is not mostly about believing in a system or a set of facts or doctrines or propositions—although that’s a small part of it. It’s mostly believing and trusting in a person—a person who is also God.
I wasn’t Methodist when I was a kid. We didn’t have confirmation class in my church. There was no structured way of helping kids understand what it meant to be Christian. Instead, when a person was ready to accept Christ they would usually walk down the aisle at the end of a service, make a profession of faith, and get baptized. It was more like what Stephanie experienced at that revival when she was a kid. By the time I was 13 years old, I was the only kid in my Sunday school class who hadn’t made a profession of faith. I didn’t really understand what it meant to follow Jesus—and I also noticed that when people walked down the aisle to join the church, it was often a very emotional experience. And people often cried. I didn’t want to cry—especially in front of Betty Jean Beck, on whom I had a mad crush.
On the weekend of my 14th birthday, in 1984, I went on a weekend youth group retreat in a place called Black Mountain, North Carolina—not far from Asheville. We sang songs; a youth pastor shared the gospel; we heard testimonies of faith from lots of people; and more than anything else, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of love; love from my fellow teenagers, from my youth minister, and from these very caring adults who chaperoned the trip. And I sensed strongly that God loved me and accepted me and forgave me of my sin—and I knew I had eternal life and that death wouldn’t separate me from God. And I even said so—out loud—to the youth group and adults sitting around a campfire after we had Communion. And, yes, I even cried a little. But that was O.K.
That was my humble beginning in the Christian faith—and it was only the beginning. But getting started is important and necessary. And God knows so many things have changed in my life since then, but one thing hasn’t: I still believe in Jesus! What happened 26 years ago is that God set my life on a firm foundation—the rock who is Jesus Christ. My life is founded on the rock, thanks be to God! And as Jesus says, the rain can fall, the floods can come, the winds can blow and beat on my house, but guess what? It will not fall down! Why? It’s founded on the rock!
Let me ask you… When the storms of self-doubt and loneliness and fear rage around us, will our house fall down? No! Why? It’s founded on the rock! When the floods of unemployment and financial stress rise around us, but will our house fall down? No! Why? It’s founded on the rock! When the winds of job-related pressure blow and beat against us, will our house fall down? No! Why? It’s founded on the rock! The winds of school-related pressure may be blowing and beating against us, but will our house fall down? No! Why? It’s founded on the rock! The rains of grief and sorrow may fall, but will our house fall down? No! Why? It’s founded on the rock! The storms of relationship problems and family problems may rage around us, but will our house fall down? No! Why? It’s founded on the rock!
And even as we face the scariest thing of all, the prospect of our own death—and those winds blow and beat against us, will our house fall down? No! Why? It’s founded on the rock!
Is your life founded on the rock? Is your life founded on the rock?
Who is the rock? Jesus! Who is the resurrection and the life? Jesus. Who loves you more than you can imagine? Jesus! Who gave his life for you? Jesus! Who offers you eternal life? Jesus! Amen! Hallelujah!
And if your house isn’t founded on that rock, you can get started today. Say “yes” to Jesus. Say “yes” to Jesus.
1. Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th ann. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1978).
2. Ibid., 82.