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Catching The Tide At The Flood

Matthew 26:36-47

During the Second World War, the forces of Nazi Germany, as part of their military strategy, attempted to block the entrance to the harbor at Eritrea in North Africa. They filled huge barges with concrete and then sank them at the mouth of the harbor, closing the harbor to navigation. When at last the Allies managed to capture the area, they faced the very complex engineering problem of how to lift those immense, concrete-filled barges from the deep and sucking mud of the sea bottom. Here is how they solved the problem. They took giant oil storage tanks and sealed them airtight so they would float. Then when the tide was out, when it was at ebb, they floated the tanks above the barges and fastened huge chains and cables from the floating tanks to the barges below. When the tide came in, when it reached the flood, the buoyant tanks rose with the tide and the chains pulled the barges up out of the mud where they could be handled and removed. Do you see what they did? They chained the barges to the tanks. They chained the tanks to the tide. They chained the tide to the moon with its gravitational pull which causes the tides to ebb and flow. They chained the moon to the whole cosmic creation. Therefore, it was the power, that drive, that force of the universe itself that did the job!

It is that same awesome power of the tide that led William Shakespeare to write these lines in his play, “Julius Caesar”: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; but omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” Shakespeare is saying that there are mighty tides which move in the human experience. These tides of circumstance ebb and flow just as the tides do in the sea. If we can catch those tides at the flood, if we can catch them when they are rising, then they will carry us on to success and victory. But if we miss the tide when it is rushing toward the flood, then we shall be left “in, shallows and in miseries.” I believe that the lesson which our Scripture has to offer today is this: Learn to catch the tide at the flood—learn to capture the great moving opportunities which are a part of your life.

Come with me now to a lovely hillside grove of olive trees, just across the Kidron Valley from the ancient and sleeping city of Jerusalem. The grove is called “Gethsemane.” It is located fully 35 miles from the sea, yet on this particular night, great tides are flowing through the long, terraced rows of olive trees. Jesus is here. He is caught up in the raging torrent of the will of God. The cross is but hours away, and He knows it. He wants to ask His heavenly Father if there is any way in which His mission to earth can be accomplished without going through the unrelieved agony of crucifixion. In this intensely personal moment, in this moment when Jesus is most vulnerable, in this moment when we see right down into the deepest recesses of His heart, in this moment when all the tides of human history are flowing through the channel of His “one solitary life”—in this moment, He does not want to be alone.

Jesus takes eleven of His disciples—Judas had already gone to betray Him—and He enters Gethsemane. He leaves eight disciples near the gate and then, going into the heart of the glade, He takes with Him Peter, James and John. He says to them: “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Watch with me.” He goes a few steps farther and throws Himself into prayer asking God that the cup might pass from Him. Caught up in the tension of this prayer, He turns to seek encouragement from His disciples. To His obvious dismay, He finds them sleeping. Twice more in the midst of His struggle, He turns to them, and twice more He finds them sleeping. Then His praying is interrupted by the sound of barked commands and marching troops, their torches flickering like fireflies through the branches of the olive trees. Moments later, He is taken away and the disciples are left cowering “in shallows and in miseries.” They missed the tide. They didn’t catch it at the flood.

First of all, they missed the tide of growth in character.

Every one of us needs to grow in character. There is no person within the sound of my voice today who does not need to grow in character. We need to feed our Character, to strengthen our character, to nourish our character. But that is not as easy as it sounds. You see, there are times when we can grow in character and there are times when we cannot. There are moments, there are times, there are tides which encourage our growth in character, but there are other moments when such growth is virtually impossible.

In the production of seamless steel pipes, ribbons of metal are heated and rolled and cut. Then the rolls are spun at great speed and by centrifugal force they open from the center out, thus forming a perfect length of pipe without seam or flaw. Now the process will work only when the molten metal is at precisely the right temperature. If it is allowed to cool even a couple of degrees, the process will fail. There are molten moments in character development. There are times when we can be molded and changed, times when we can develop and climb higher. When those tides come, we must be ready to catch them.

There in Gethsemane that night Jesus was demonstrating extraordinary strength of character. He prayed again and again: “Not my will but thine be done.” He was showing that pain and despair can best be defeated not by resenting them but by accepting them and triumphing over them, What a lesson! What an example in character-building! But the disciples missed it. They slept. They didn’t catch the tide at the flood.

Roll this truth about in your consciousness for a bit. There are moments in our lives when we are open to growth in character—moments when we experience some suffering, moments when someone we love has died, moments when some mysterious urge rises up within us, moments when stern conscience points a warning finger at us, moments when some example is held up before us, perhaps a word of Scripture or a sermon or the words of some preacher or the words of this preacher or these very words—moments when the tides are at the flood. Henry Kissinger said: “Opportunities cannot be hoarded. Once past they are irretrievable.” Jesus said to the disciples: “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation.” But the disciples slept. They didn’t catch the tide at the flood. They missed it.

Next, the disciples missed the tide of growth in commitment.

Did you notice in the story that the second time Jesus came and found the disciples sleeping, He did not bother to awaken them. He offered no word of counsel or direction. I find that very chilling. It is as if He said to Himself: “I have awakened you once, but I shall not awaken you again. The spirit of God is swirling about this place, but you are going to miss it.”

When I think of that, I think of that space vehicle which we sent out to photograph, “up close,” the planet Jupiter. The spacecraft traveled for months and months and then took and sent back the most remarkable pictures of Jupiter ever seen. But very quickly, that spacecraft moved beyond Jupiter and it continues on even to now, every day getting farther and farther away from Jupiter. We are like that. We draw closer and closer to Jesus, day by day, week by week. Then there comes a time when we are in closer approximation to Him than at any other moment. But unless we reach out and take hold of Christ at that moment, then the moment passes, and from that point on the distance between Him and us becomes wider and wider.

David Brainerd, the great missionary to the American Indians, once witnessed to an Indian chief and sought to bring him to Christ. The Chief listened very carefully, but he wouldn’t make a decision. He wouldn’t resolve the issue. Finally in a sense of urgency, Brainerd took a stick, and, in the soft earth, drew a circle about where the chief was standing and then said: “Decide before you cross the line.” Why the urgency? Because Brainerd realized that at that moment the spirit of God was blowing through the life of the chief. The tides were at the flood. And if he missed that opportunity to cement his commitment to Jesus Christ, He might never have the opportunity again.

Oh, I tell you if the walls of this building could speak, if these towering columns had lips, they could tell of many times seeing people sitting on the seats where you sit now with the spirit of God all about them. They were not far from the Kingdom of God. But they turned aside. They slept. They missed the tide and never again were they so close.

In Gethsemane that night, the disciples had the opportunity to grow in their commitment of faith. They had the chance to so intertwine their lives with the life of Jesus that they could have tapped permanently into His awesome power. But they didn’t catch the tide at the flood. They missed it because they were asleep.

Then the disciples missed the tide of growth in companionship.

It is always good to have friends, but never better than when you are in trouble. The hammer of adversity has a way of welding friends together. And make no mistake, Jesus was in deep trouble here in Gethsemane. He needed His friends. But they were asleep. When He came with His clothing stained with the chalky dust of that place—it says in the reading that “He fell on His face and prayed”—there was no friend to brush off the dust or to put an encouraging arm about His shoulder. They were asleep. When He came with His brow moist with sweat like blood, there was no one to wipe it away or to whisper words of support. They were asleep. When He was caught in the vise-grip of hurt and loneliness, there was no one ready to stand with Him. They were asleep.

Peter would go on to become the Prince of Apostles. James would become a leader in the Church at Jerusalem. John would write a Gospel and some letters and the Book which brings our Bible to such a glorious close. Great honors would come their way. But you know, never in all of their lives were they able to say: “When Jesus needed us the most, we were there.” Never again did the tide of that opportunity come for them.

Today, I begin my twentieth year in the pastorate. And if I haven’t learned anything else in these last nineteen years, I’ve learned something of the urgency of life. I say to you that today there are friends who need you, loved ones who want your word and gestures of support and affection, people crying out to you either aloud or in silence. I also say to you that when we gather in this place on the second Sunday of September next year, some of those who call to you now will call to you no more. Don’t miss the tide while it is at the flood.

Several years ago Trisha and I traveled halfway across the country to see a man I was privileged to call “friend.” We knew he was sick, but we didn’t know how sick. It wasn’t a convenient time for a trip, but the family loaded up and we went anyway. How glad I am we did. As soon as we arrived in town, I went to visit him. I was shocked to see how disease had ravaged him, to see how close to death he really was. As I sat at his bedside, he talked for a long while. He talked about the significant part he had played in my life…talked about his wife and what wonderful support she had been…talked about some of the things he wished he still had time to do…talked about many things, all of them precious to my remembering. When time came for me to leave, we prayed together. Then he reached up and took hold of me and said: “God bless you for coming. I love you more than you know.” I never saw him again. Hours later, the tides came and took him away. His wife said something afterward I have never forgotten. She said: “I think he was clinging to life just long enough to see you once more.” No matter what, no matter where, no matter when, I will always have this memory: at the moment when the tide came flooding in and he needed me, I was there.

That’s why my heart breaks when I think of those disciples in Gethsemane. They missed the tide when it came. They were asleep.

A preacher cannot come into the pulpit with any greater motivation than this: A concern for the souls of those to whom he preaches. I have spoken to you about character, which is the armor of the soul—and about commitment, which is the salvation of the soul—and about companionship, which is the function of the soul. I have urged you to catch the tide of these things while the tide is at flood. There is an urgency in what I say.

Satan once stood in the center of hell and called forth all the agents of evil. He said: “Which one of you will go to the earth and aid people in the ruin of their souls?” One slithered forth and said: “I’ll go.” Satan asked: “What will you say to those you encounter?” He replied: “I’ll tell them that there is no heaven.” Satan said: “They will not believe you for there is written into the heart of everyone the hope of heaven. You may not go.” Another came forward and Satan asked: “What will you say to those you encounter?” He replied: “I will tell them there is no hell.” Satan said: “They will not believe you for written into the heart of everyone is the inevitability of judgment. You may not go.” Then one last agent came from the darkest corner of that dark, dark place. Satan asked: “What will you tell those you encounter?” He said: “I will tell them there is no hurry.” And Satan said: “Go!”

That agent still moves on the face of this earth. But I tell you, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to victory, but omitted, all the voyage of life is bound in shallows and in misery.” It is time to wake up. It is time to hurry. We do not know if the tide will ever come again. So come to Jesus Christ today. Grow in Jesus Christ today. Serve Jesus Christ in His church today. Catch the tide while it is at the flood…today…

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