A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on August 22, 2010.
We thank you, Father, for this world and the many places that we see your presence. We thank you for eyes of faith that allow us to see your handiwork in all of nature and the miracle of your life and birth. We thank you for how we see your work and your spirit in the compassion and courage of those among us who live closest to your heart. We pray today for those places in the world where your presence is hidden. We pray for Christians in countries where persecution is the norm and where faith truly is a matter of life and death each day. We pray for those who are imprisoned and for those who are denied rights simply because they have trusted you. We pray also for communities in the world that are dominated by fear, dominated by those who use power to extort their living from the innocent and the weak. We pray for deliverance to come in those places. We also pray for those who have handed their lives over to addiction and see no hope. We pray that you would give them both the miracle of release and a circle of friends to support them in the most difficult times. We pray for those who have given their lives over to anger, to hate, to jealousy, to pride, and to selfishness—those who now live in the prisons of their own choosing. We pray that you would grant them new sight that they might see your goodness and your everlasting blessing. Break into all these places with hope and with power. Grant that each heart would grasp a vision of what is possible for their lives because of your salvation. We pray, indeed, for ourselves that you would save us all from our sins. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
The word “salvation” has largely gone out of fashion in our time. This does not mean that the desire to be saved has vanished; for, apart from any religious meaning, the hope of salvation is as wide as the sweep of human desire. Every advertisement appeals to it. This new kitchen equipment will save you from drudgery, this brand of fruit juice from vitamin deficiency, this deodorant from social embarrassment …. Ranging all the way from “success” books to tell how to be saved from unpopularity to books on the present world situation, our literature is full of attempts to point the way to salvation. Why, then, are we so squeamish about it in religion?
—Georgia Harkness in Understanding the Christian Faith
In the movies, it always looks like a piece of cake. It looks so easy. In The Great Escape, Steve McQueen only needs a mitt and a baseball to do his time, and it looks easy. In Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman comes out a little rough around the edges, but it is not very long until he is back to his old antics. There are dozens of other movies and TV shows where a person seems to be rather nonchalant and comes out unscathed. Of course, we are talking about solitary confinement. We are talking about 30 days in the hole.
There was a story in the news a few months ago, and at the time it was so disturbing to me, I did not save the reference to it. I went to look for it this week in preparation for the sermon and I could not find it. My facts may be slightly off, but the essence is correct.
There was a U.S. serviceman either in Iraq or Afghanistan who was captured. In his imprisonment, he was kept underground in a space about the size of a large coffin for months. Once every 24 hours, his captors would open the coffin, exchange food for waste, and then shut it back up. For some reason, that story did a number on my mind and on my heart. I began to think about what that would mean. You would ask yourself, “Have I been asleep for 20 minutes or for two hours?” What things would you try to do to make yourself pass time? Do math problems, relive sporting events play-by-play that you could remember from a particular game, try to reconstruct what scripture you had memorized or sing every stanza from songs you could remember.
It is not only imprisonment, but it is totally disorienting and dehumanizing. Think about the world in which we live where we require so much mental stimulation. We cannot watch TV without getting on the laptop. We cannot do anything without playing a game or texting while we are doing it. Everybody wears ear buds wherever they go. There is not a moment where we do not have music or something like that in our lives. Imagine what it must be like for month after month after month where the only way to mark time is the one time a day where they open up the box, make the exchange, and close the box. How on earth would you go without losing your mind?
If you are not familiar with the story, it was precipitated by the fact that the service man was indeed rescued by Special Forces.
That has given me a new appreciation for the story of Paul and Silas in jail in Philippi. They had been arrested. They were placed underground and they were with the other prisoners. The Bible says they were praying and singing songs. Then, there was an earthquake. The chains fell off, and the doors opened up.
You have to understand that whatever was sentenced to the people in the prison would be required of the jailer if anybody escaped. If there were ten people in the prison assigned to a one-year term and they all escaped, the jailer would have to do ten years. No wonder the story says that the jailer looked for his sword because he was going to kill himself. Better to go ahead and get it over with than to endure consecutively all the things that would be required of him if those prisoners had escaped.
Paul cried out, “Don’t hurt yourself. We are all here.” The jailer went to get a torch. He went in, shined the light, and saw them all there. He then asked them the question, “What must I do to be saved?”
There are two things here that I think remind us of how dark and desperate this situation was. One, it says that all the prisoners were listening. Of course, if you were underground and you could not tell if it had been 20 minutes or two hours, you would do anything to mark time. You would be listening to these two men who were praying, testifying, and singing songs. Of course, you would cling to it like it was a 100-watt bulb. You would want to know everything that was going on because it would be your only connection to what seemed like reality in the world up there that you had left behind.
It also says that when the jailer heard Paul cry out, he went to get a torch. It was so dark in there that he “couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.” He had no idea who was calling to him. He went to get a light so he could go in and see. Now we realize just how desperate, disorienting, and terribly punishing being in this place would be.
The earthquake came, the doors were opened, and the prisoners’ chains fell off. I don’t know about you, but I would head for the hills. I would be out of there, but they stayed because they wanted to stay near the message of salvation. It is very interesting, but the Word had not yet been introduced. When the jailer came in and saw that all the prisoners were still there and that he would not have to endure their punishment and take his own life, he said, “What must I do to be saved?” Up until this point, no one had mentioned saved at all. However, I think the message was absolutely clear.
Last Sunday, we embarked on a worship emphasis journey through the end of May entitled “Now That I Believe.” What is expected of me? What has changed as God has worked in my life? What can I expect my life to be like? What are God’s expectations of me? In order to look at this, we are spending four weeks on just the basic things that we say we believe. Last week, we talked about the fact that God is. If we believe that God is real and that this world is a product of God’s word (he spoke and it was created), that is totally and radically different than just thinking the world exists. If God is, it changes everything. That leads us to the second conviction of the most basic belief possible and that is that we are confident that there is such a thing as salvation. Confident in salvation is not that we lack confidence in our own, but it is about the fact that salvation is possible. We believe that God is at work and does indeed redeem and change lives. What does it mean to be saved?
Even though we live in the Bible Belt, we have to confess that when we think about salvation, we are much more prone to think about the polite joining of the church than we are to think about something that is life changing. What is it that we say we mean when we believe in salvation?
Let me get at it by asking this question: If God is real, which we do believe, then what would the lives of the people of God look like? If God is real and above all and in all, sustains us, and loves us and if I have given my life to God, then what would the life of the people of God look like? How do God’s people live? Does the life of the people of God look like the backbiting on Desperate Housewives? Does it look like the insanity of The Real Housewives of . . . wherever they may be? Does it involve the cynicism and the absolute disrespect of Family Guy? Does it involve the manipulation and the lies to get what you want if you are on Big Brother or some other reality TV show where anything goes to win the money? Do the lives of the people of God look like that?
Those are the things that are held up as normal in our lives. Turn on the television and everything is disrespectful, everything is promiscuous, everything is hateful, and anything goes to get what you want. Is that the way the lives of the people of God look? Is that normal? Is that what God intended in this world or is something broken in this world? Have we lost the spiritual imagination to understand how desperate and how poverty stricken a life without God would be? Have we lost the understanding that there really is a need to be saved? What does saved mean?
Preachers are fond of going back and talking about the Greek or the Hebrew, but it is helpful sometimes. The word saved in the New Testament means to be made whole. It means to somehow be put back together and to be restored. At its basic meaning, it means to be rescued.
I am not a very good swimmer. If I fall out of a boat and I am in the water for a long time, I need someone to rescue me, to save me. If I have been imprisoned in some underground bunker for months with the only change in my life being two or three minutes every day when the box is opened and closed, I need somebody to rescue me. I need somebody to come and get me out of that. That is what we mean when we say salvation or saved. God in his infinite love and purpose, in his mission from beginning to end in scripture, is about rescuing his children. God is about coming down and reaching into our lives that we have distorted with all of these things that don’t matter and that kill the spirit. He is lifting us up and he is rescuing us from the obvious sins that even we can see in our own lives. He also rescues us from the pride that creates a barrier in our lives that everybody else can see but we can’t see. He rescues us from the addictions that cause us to lose family, home, job, and everything else. He rescues us from the bitterness that is poisoning our soul day by day. He rescues us from the meaningless of our lives where we go around like zombies in the movies, the living dead, where we just function and move but it has no purpose whatsoever.
When we think of hell, we always think of fire and burning, but there is that place where Jesus says, “and they are cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Perhaps we also need to conceive of hell as absolute separation from God as much as if we were put in one of those underground cells, and instead of 30 days in the hole, it is an eternity in the hole, separated from God, God’s love, and the light of God. If we could imagine that, would we understand what we have gotten ourselves into? Have we become enamored with the world in which we live, with our prestige, popularity or whatever it may be, that we think there is nothing else that God has to offer?
We are confident. When we say we believe, we are confident that God is at work in this world. This brokenness that wants to invade our lives, this brokenness that we have willfully given ourselves over to, this brokenness that separates us from the people who are nearest and dearest to us certainly separates us from God. God wants to reach past that and lift us up out of it and rescue us to bring us into God’s light and love so that we might be a part of God’s purpose and work in this world. O to be rescued! “What must I do to be saved?” We are confident that is a question that needs to be asked and can be answered. We are not left to ourselves.
Next week, the sermon is about Christ, but let me say here now that we believe God rescues us through Jesus. That is the means. It is not an accident that we stumble into. It is not just believing anything. It is through Christ that God would rescue us.
Why would we choose a way of life or things that put us in darkness? Why would we choose to turn our backs on what God wants to do for us in Christ? I am confident. I am confident that God saves. I am confident that God would not wish on any of us the things we have turned to in our lives. God’s only desire is to wrap his arms around his children and to welcome them back into his love and into his light, to restore us, and to make us whole.
I am confident that God saves, in general, and he would save each one of us if we would let him.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.