A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on October 14, 2012.
O God, our Father, we find comfort in the assurance that your kindness is loving and your mercy is tender. How else could we cast ourselves upon your care or trust you for our salvation? O God, our love knows little consistency, changes with our moods, and proves worthless in many of our trials but your love knows no change and no end or else we know you would not love us long. Be patient with us, your frail children, because prejudice blinds our judgments and narrows our mercy, pride hinders us, and we are dense to the simplest things. We are perplexed by our fears and things that never happen, yet through Christ you have made us heirs of salvation and of eternity. As you have delivered us for eternity, also deliver us in the living of these days. If praise will be our song in the ages, then guide us to be people of blessing now. If we will gather with those of every tribe when we are with you in heaven, then lead us to include graciously everyone within our love today. If we would claim you as our gracious Father forever, then who would we be if we would not extend grace to all today, if it is not our brother and our sister? Save us today from the sins that shall be no more when the harvest has come. May heaven begin today. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Salvation implies that there is something from which we need to be saved, that we are not doing as well as we presume, that we do not have the whole world in our hands and that the hope for us is not of our own devising.
—William Willimon in Who Will Be Saved?
The great themes of the Bible speak of the vocabulary of our faith and those foundational convictions that are the reason why we are Christians. They are the things we have heard all of our lives because they are the central message to scripture.
Two weeks ago, we looked at the idea of sin. I felt that sermon was about a half of a sermon. I think most sermons are half sermons. If you preach on sin, there is something yet to be spoken about the word of salvation. If you speak about salvation, there was a previous word that needed to be said about sin.
Today is perhaps a continuation and a completion of the sermon from two weeks ago. I will just remind you that we talked about how the world appears to be broken. If we take one of the great headline sins of a generation, we think those things will never happen again. If we could educate people enough and raise everybody socioeconomically enough, we think we should rise above those things that were once done and we would never sin any more. We tend to think if we could educate people, there would be no more prejudice, and where are we with that? Any theory of social betterment or moral progress, sooner or later runs headlong into the reality of disappointment, and it is always because of sin. We don’t understand the way the world is and we don’t understand life if we don’t understand that sin is in the world. A great line from Shakespeare is, “They just commit the oldest sins in the newest ways.” It just keeps coming back.
If it is true about the world, it is also true about us. It is not just headline sin, it is also our lives. If we could all be exceptionally honest in those moments at night when we are awake watching the digital clock turn over numbers and there is nothing to protect us from our thoughts, we might admit that there is something broken in us. If we would not use the word broken, then we might say that there is something missing in our souls. If we would not say something missing in our souls, then we might say that there is something in our hearts that seems impaired. If not impaired in our hearts, there is something dysfunctional about our will because how many times have we been unable to stop what we were doing, unable to change ourselves, unable to repair what was wrong, unable to overcome those things that we keep doing. That is the reason why we promise we are never going to say anything again, and then we can’t keep our mouths shut. Have you ever been with someone who said, “I said I wasn’t going to say anything,” then boom, here it comes. How many of us have been that person? We cannot change ourselves, and even though we have been saying for years that there is somebody we should forgive in our neighborhood or on our job, we still can’t forgive and we are still working to try to get certain relationships right. We are confronted in the corners of our hearts with a dozen different things. Even if no one else can see them, we know about our envy, about our greed, and about our pride that just won’t stop.
I am a big reader. I have loved to read all my life. I cannot tell you all the great lessons that I have learned from reading. Sometimes you will ask me, “Do you have a book on . . .”? If I do, I am always glad to share it and I find that helpful. But what I am talking about today is something that is so fundamentally impaired and missing that it is not going to be cured by reading one more book. It is something else. We find ourselves feeling fragmented and we find ourselves feeling separated from the people that we care about the most and from God.
The sense of the spiritual eludes us. The sense of the holy is something that we grasp at but we never feel like we can quite get. When this is overcome, it is what the Bible calls salvation. There are different expressions of salvation.
In the Old Testament because of Israel’s experience of being set free from bondage in Egypt, it is often described as deliverance. In the New Testament, the same word that we would translate saved can also mean to be made whole, to be put back together, to take that fragmentation and somehow join it so that it is complete again. It is also the word that is used for someone being made well. If we think about saved and take it away from the religious cliché, it is the same thing as being rescued. It is the same thing as being in a sinking boat or getting a cramp while swimming in a lake, and somebody needing to come and reach out and grab us and pull us out. We are rescued. This is what the Bible speaks of when it talks about being saved. Something is wrong and we have not been able to do anything about it ourselves, and God reaches in, rescues us , delivers us, makes us whole, and makes us well. God saves us.
One other expression before this experience is lost and found. The expression about being lost is also such a cliché that it has turned us against much of its usage. If someone comes up to us and says, “Are you lost?” it always sounds like a condemnation. It really should sound like a great concern.
Have you ever really been lost? I don’t mean like trying to go Atlanta on the back roads and you found out you were on the wrong road. I am talking about really lost.
I remember several years ago I was at the beach, and it was one of those beaches where there were umbrellas everywhere. They all looked alike. There was a little girl under ten years of age, and she was hysterical. She was screaming and crying. I thought, She must be lost. I tried to approach her, and evidently her mother had warned her, “Scream if anybody comes near you,” because the closer I got, the louder she screamed. Finally, we worked out a plan where I would stand back and talk to her. We agreed that I would not come any closer. We could see a female lifeguard in the tower, and I told her, “Lifeguards help you. You stay that distance away from me and we will walk up there and I will tell the lifeguard,” and she did. That child was absolutely terrified.
Cherry had an uncle who is now deceased who had gone on a backpacking trip to California. He got separated from the group and was gone for days. He talked about what it was like to have every tree look the same and wonder if you were going to die alone out there in the wilderness.
If you are really lost, you are disoriented, alone, in danger, and you are helpless. Spiritually, we know we are misguided and misdirected, and everywhere we have turned has wound up being the wrong place. This is what it means to be lost. To be found when we have been in those circumstances is the answer to our prayers. It is salvation. Somebody found us.
When Jesus had dealt with Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus talked about how he was going to restore all the things he had defrauded, Jesus said, “Truly, salvation has come, for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
In the 15th chapter of Luke, there are parables that tell how God is looking for us. Here is a place where I depend on books because I know nothing about sheep, but those who do say that when a sheep of my flock or your flock is on the other side of the trees, it would know my voice and be almost catatonic with fear. The only way to find it is to go around and get it. Even when it is found, it is almost paralyzed and cannot do anything. The only way to save it is for the shepherd to pick it up, put it on his shoulders, and take it back to the other sheep. Jesus says this is the way God is. God would leave the 99 and come and look for us when we are in that lost situation. There is more joy in heaven when one is found than knowing that the 99 are safe.
It is a like a woman who has lost a coin. She will turn that house upside down and will not stop until she has found that silver coin. God is like that. God won’t stop looking. It is something that God does for us that we cannot do for ourselves.
A few years ago, Fred Craddock preached at First Baptist Church. Those of you who were here will remember he is a small man. He might be 5’4”. He has a small voice to go with his small body. I am not sure anybody expected much of a sermon, but Dr. Craddock is probably, in my mind, the best preacher of the last 50 years. I remember a story that he told in another context about playing hide and seek as a child. I think he was at a family reunion and all the kids were playing games in the afternoon. They were playing hide and seek, and he came up with the perfect hiding place. It was under the steps of the front porch, back in the shadows where nobody could see him. Somebody was counting (5, 10, 15, 20), and he went and got under the porch. He could look out and see the person who was “it” go around and find the different people. After a while, he thought, This is great. Nobody is ever going to find me. Then the person who was “it” would find two or three more. The game was wearing on, and all of a sudden he realized, Nobody is ever going to find me. Nobody knows where to look. Nobody is going to find me. So he stuck a portion of his arm out on one of the steps, just enough for the person who was “it” to see, and finally the person who was “it,” said “I see you. One, two, three. You are caught.” Dr. Craddock said, “Then I realized that all I ever wanted was to be found.”
To be found by God is to be saved. It is all of these other things—to be made whole, to be made well, to be delivered, and to be rescued. It is to be brought back to where things are supposed to be, and there is much more joy in heaven than there is even in us to know that God is looking. All it requires is to be found.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.