Be Careful What You Swallow
II Timothy 3:10-16
In September of 1992, death claimed one of the best known and most beloved writers of our time. His name was Theodore Geisel. That name doesn’t ring a bell? Perhaps because you would know him by his pen name, “Dr. Seuss”. The story of his life has just been published by Judsen and Neil Morgan under the title, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel. Among a number of fascinating anecdotes about Dr. Seuss, there is this one. Not long before his death, Dr. Seuss was invited to give the Commencement Address at a college in Illinois. It was quite an address. It stands as one of the shortest, yet one of the most profound commencement addresses of all time. Here is his address in its entirety:
“It seems behooven upon me to bring forth words of wisdom to this graduating class as you leave these cloistered halls to enter the outside world. However, my wisdom is in rather short supply, and so I have managed to condense everything I know into this epic poem consisting of just fourteen lines. I call it, “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers”. It goes like this:
“My uncle ordered popovers
From the restaurant’s bill of fare
And when they were served, he regarded them
With a penetrating stare.
Then he spoke great words of wisdom
And he set them on the chair.
‘To eat these things’ said my uncle,
‘You must exercise great care
You may swallow down what’s solid
But you must spit out the air!’
So as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
That’s darned good advice to follow,
Do a lot of spitting out of the hot air
And be careful what you swallow.”
With that, Dr. Seuss sat down. And yet, when you stop to ponder his wonderful little poem, it’s certainly good advice, isn’t it—not only for a group of graduating college seniors, but indeed for all of us. There’s a lot of hot air blowing out there in the world these days. There are strange notions, weird ideas, even dangerous religions and philosophies out there vying for our attention and calling for our allegiance. Dr. Seuss was right—we do need to be very careful about what we swallow.
He is not the first to tell us this. Way back in the New Testament we find a similar warning. Paul, writing to his young son-in-the-faith, Timothy, echoes the same theme. He reminds Timothy that it is a tough world out there, and that he is going to be persecuted and taunted and tempted. Then Paul says in essence, “But don’t give up. And don’t be taken in. Be very careful what you swallow.” But let me read the actual words: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient; equipped for every good work.”
In other words, let your Bible be your measuring stick for truth and your guiding light for living. When all of these opposing ideas and causes and programs and beliefs come exploding in upon you, pulling you in every direction, competing for your attention, your dollars, your loyalty, let the Bible be your measuring stick, your compass, your barometer—let the Bible be the means by which you assess what is true and right and valuable and good. Taking Paul’s words to heart, let me make two great affirmations in your hearing.
Affirmation One. The world is full of influences blurring the distinction between right and wrong. Be careful what you swallow. Let the Bible be your measuring stick for truth.
Back in the late 1960’s, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I had the privilege of studying under one of the great theological minds of our time, Professor Thomas F. Torrance. I remember one day he was lecturing to us about how we discover truth, how we determine what is genuine and authentic. Suddenly he paused and addressed the class: “How wide is my desk? Come on, take a guess.” Several of us responded. One said: “I think it is about 72 inches wide.” Another chimed in: “No, I believe it is more like 68 inches wide”. Yet another ventured: “Looks like 75 to me.” The class clown in the back of the room cracked: “71- 5/16!”—And everybody laughed. Professor Torrance then said: “Pretty good answers. But one of them is actually true. So how do we determine which answer is right and true?” Someone said: “Get a measuring stick and measure it.” Professor Torrance said: “That’s right.” And then he turned to the board, took a piece of chalk, and in silence he drew the outline of a cross. With that piece of chalk, he traced over and over and over the outline of the cross, letting it dramatically sink into our hearts and minds. Then he turned very slowly to face us and he said very softly: “There’s your measuring stick. There’s your measuring stick for truth in life.”
It’s a lesson I have never forgotten, and in our world today, it’s a lesson we all need to remember. You see, we are living in a world which goes to great lengths to eliminate the distinction between right and wrong. The current rage is relativism—what’s right is what’s right for you. What’s in now is to have no opinion. In fact, you’re considered peculiar if you have strong opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong. Chuck Colson spoke at Harvard University about the authority of Scripture and the necessity for developing absolute morals in life. He expected to get hostility and criticism from the students. Instead, he got something much worse. No comments. No one said anything. Later, one student captured the mood when he said: “It’s all right for Mr. Colson to think what he thinks, and I’ll just think what I want to think.” The mood of our time is that there is no absolute right or wrong, and we are bombarded by influences leading us to that kind of thinking.
Just recently, I was staying at the Doubletree Hotel in Garden Grove, California. I thought that just for fun I would try to note all of the influences that surrounded me just in that hotel room. Over on the T.V. was a placard inviting me to watch a movie for $6.95. Three of the movies were X-rated. No one would ever know. Right there in my own room. Influence #1. Over on the desk was a little magazine. I thumbed through it to see the list, with pictures, of the bars and nightclubs located within walking distance of the hotel. Influence #2. In the drawer was a telephone book. Yellow pages. Escort services. There it was, just one phone call and credit card number away. Influence #3. On the nightstand was the Los Angeles Times. I didn’t have to turn many pages of the paper to come to the section entitled “Personal Ads.” Influence #4. I picked up the key to the mini-bar, opened it, and there I was confronted with an alluring array of alcoholic beverages. Just pop the cap and it goes on the room tab—so easy. Influence #5. I was surrounded by all of that, and I hadn’t taken more than four steps in any direction. After pondering how vulnerable I was, I opened the drawer of the nightstand, and there it was—that ever-present Gideon-placed, hard-cover, King James Bible full of God’s truth and God’s promises. It occurred to me that that hotel room experience is a microcosm of what we have to face everyday.
In the midst of all that, where do we turn? I like John Wesley’s answer. He said: “I want to know only one thing in life, the way to heaven. God Himself has condescended to teach us that way. He has written it down in a Book. Oh give me that Book. At any price, give me the Book of God. Let me be a man of one Book.”
That’s what we are saying today as we present Bibles to our third-graders. We’re saying: “Here’s your measuring stick for what’s right and wrong in life. Study the Bible. Memorize its key verses. Get the Scriptures inside of you. Write them on your heart. Learn the key themes to be found on these pages. Be careful what you swallow in life. Let the Bible be your measuring stick to show you what is right and good and true.” That’s good advice for third-graders. That’s good advice for us all.
Affirmation Two. The world is full of those who seek to lead us astray in life. Be careful what you swallow. Let the Bible be your guiding light through life.
In our day we are seeing large numbers of people lured away into things like astrology, harmonic convergence, Ouiji boards, New Age Movements, and the like. The church, more than ever, needs a people who, as Paul puts it, know “the Sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
There was a time in this country when we were “a people of the Book.” No more. I haven’t travelled in every nation on earth, but I have been to quite a few. And I will tell you that when you go into a nation or a culture where the Bible is not known and read, not honored and obeyed, you will find the worst disease, the worst poverty, the worst debauchery, and the worst moral depravity that you find anywhere on the face of the.earth. That is why we as a people must get back to this Book and back to its Good News.
There have been times in history when it has been against the law to read the Bible. Henry VIII, for example, allowed people to read the Bible in private, but they couldn’t read it in groups or when they were in church because it might incite them to challenge his power. Slave owners here in America would not allow their slaves to read their Bibles because they didn’t want them to hear so much about freedom and dignity. But as far as I know, the only place where it is illegal to read and study Scripture today is in our schools. And doesn’t that explain much that is wrong in our society? We offer se- education classes to teach our young people the mechanics of sex, but we offer no moral guidelines for the conducting of their sexual lives. Little wonder that we are experiencing a bumper crop of teen-age pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, rapes, and suicides. I agree with the great Scottish preacher, James Black, who said: “If the church puts the Bible on the shelf, then the church will not be far behind, and the society will not be far behind that.”
Babe Didrickson Zaharias was a “woman of the Book.” She was also the greatest female athlete of this century. She set two world’s records in the 1932 Olympic Games in the hurdles and the javelin throw. She was named to the All-American women’s basketball team in 1930 and 1931. She set records in swimming. She also played baseball, football, and tennis. She even did some boxing. In the 40’s and 50’s, she turned to golf and became the greatest woman golfer of all time. She won every important title for women, and at one point, set a record which still stands for winning 17 major women’s golf tournaments in a row. I cherish to this day the time from my childhood when I had the chance to meet her, and to watch her play golf. But maybe one incident from her golfing career will tell you all you really need to know about her. She was playing in a major tournament, and she was leading. Then by accident, she hit the wrong ball in the rough. She came upon a ball, thought it was hers, and hit it. When she got up to the green, she realized that it wasn’t her ball. She immediately disqualified herself from the tournament. Later, a reporter asked her, “Why did you do that? No one would ever have known that wasn’t your ball.” Babe Didrickson Zaharias said: “Yes, but I would have known.” She was a woman of the Book. The Bible was her guiding light in life. How does the Psalmist put it? “Thy word O Lord, is like a lamp for my feet, and a light for my path.” That’s a good teaching for third-graders.
That’s a good teaching for all of us.
Today we have given Bibles to our third-graders. Inside the front cover of each Bible, Ted Pierce has written II Timothy 3:16. “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
What a great word for third-graders!
What a great word for us all!