Holding Jesus At Arm’s Length
A personal word before I preach.
The world-shaking tragedy of the crash of Swissair Flight 111 has become terribly personal for this congregation. Two of our most faithful members, Polly and Larry Hopcraft, perished in the crash. Their deaths have evoked an incredible response. I have spent the last several days visiting with all the local print and television media, with newspapers from other cities and with national magazines, all wanting to know more about these two extraordinary people from our church family. So many of the reporters to whom I have spoken, in the midst of all their other questions, have asked: “What are you going to say to your congregation on Sunday?” You see, they have heard what a wonderful congregation you are. I have told them that I would try to express the deep feeling of love I have for Polly and Larry. I have been blessed to be a part of their lives for so many years. Every Sunday they sat right out there in the center section in our 9:00 service. I remember with gratitude all of the personal encouragement they delivered to me and all of the significant things they did to make this church—their church—a great church. I have warmed inside so many times as I have watched the little boy whose life they, in essence, saved, all decked out in the clothes they bought him, come down to sit with the children on the steps to listen to “Miss Beth” or “Rev. Ted.” I could go on and on. I remember the two of them with deep love and I celebrate the impact they made by the sheer quality of their life and their love.
And I have told those reporters that I would remind us all of the faith which is ours in the face of such tragedy. C. S. Lewis wrote a set of children’s books called The Chronicles of Narnia (and, parents, if you want to help your children begin to build their lives on Christian truth and if you want to help them learn how to cope with the tragedies that come our way in life, then you must get The Chronicles of Narnia and read them over and over to your children). The seventh and final of those books is entitled The Last Battle. It deals with the reality of death and with our hope in Christ. In these stories, Aslan the Lion is the Christ figure. Here is how The Last Battle ends: ‘“There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over, the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.’ And as He spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen to them after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them … We can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after … All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Borrowing that powerful imagery from C. S. Lewis, I would say to you, my people: There was a real airplane crash. Polly and Larry Hopcraft are dead. But something has happened to them so great and so beautiful that I cannot describe it. We can most truly say that now they shall live happily ever after. All their life in this world has only been the cover and the title page. Now they have begun together Chapter One of The Great Story which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever, and in which every chapter is better than the one before. I thank my God for my every remembrance of Polly and Larry Hopcraft—and I thank my God for the faith which holds us close to Him and to them. Now pray with me please …
The world-famous evangelist, Billy Graham, tells of the time when he was on an airplane and the man in front of him drank too much. The man became loud, obnoxious and rude. He was ugly to the flight attendant. The more he drank the worse he got. His language descended into the gutter, embarrassing everyone around him. Finally, the flight attendant, trying her best to calm him down, said to him: “Sir, you need to control your behavior. Don’t you realize that Dr. Billy Graham is seated right behind you?” The man immediately turned around in his seat, stuck out his hand and said: “Well, Dr. Graham, I’m so glad to meet you! I was at one of your crusades not long ago and it changed my life!”
Yikes! What’s wrong with that picture? And Dr. Graham, with radiant good humor, actually tells that story himself. Of course, it’s quite obvious this fellow had made a vague nod in God’s direction but there was no true commitment to the Lord. That’s so sad. You see, Christianity is not just a way of believing, it is a way of behaving. Our faith is not just something we proclaim and celebrate in church. It’s something we live out and demonstrate in public and in private; at home, at the office, on the street, in the class, out on a date, around the bridge table, on the tennis court, and yes, even on an airplane.
Bishop Arthur Moore used to love to tell about the man who had just gotten out of jail. He came back to his home church that Sunday and when “testimony time” came he stood up to speak. In a very pious tone he said: “My friends, it’s true that I have mistreated my wife, neglected my children, robbed my neighbors, cheated my friends, participated in drunken brawls, broken the law repeatedly, and served several terms in jail, but I want you to know that in all that time I never once lost my religion!”
Well, the point is clear. Talking a good game is not enough. Unless we are living every day by the standards Jesus set down for us, then all of our talk about the faith doesn’t mean a thing. Unless we are willing to acknowledge that what the Bible calls sin is sin and then attempt to build our lives around that truth, then we are making a mockery of that faith. Unless we take our stand with Jesus Christ against the evil which exists in our world, then we miss out on the greatest joy we can know in this life. Right from the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry that’s a theme we encounter again and again.
Look at this passage from Mark 1. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. The people seemed to be impressed with what He had to say because they noted that “He taught them as One having authority and not as the Scribes.” Then, typical of Mark’s style of writing, he says: “Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit and he cried out: ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?’” It was not the man speaking, but the voice of an evil spirit inside of him. Jesus, sensing what was happening, with a voice of authority ordered that voice to be silent and the evil spirit came out of the man. The people were amazed, saying: “What is this? Even the demons of hell obey Him!” Now here’s what I want you to see. The people were amazed and the word about what happened began to spread, but there is no mention that anyone signed on to be a follower of Christ. While they seemed to like what they saw and heard, they didn’t like it enough to change the way they were living. That’s what I call
The problem with authority.
We are impressed with authority when we see it exercised, and we even look for persons of and with authority who can settle things. In the comic strip “For Better or For Worse” by Lynn Johnston, the husband’s back goes out and he is laid up in bed. As his wife, Ellie, is trying to make him comfortable in his bed of pain, he says: “You know Ellie, I’ve been in bed for days now and it’s amazing how you become deeply philosophical when you become incapacitated.” Then he continues: “Why, just for example, I have been pondering some deep questions like ‘What is life?’ and ‘What’s it like to die?’ and ‘What is our role in this infinite cosmos?’ and ‘What’s for lunch?”’ Startled, Ellie looks up and says: “What’s for lunch?” He responds: “Well, I like some of my questions to have answers!” Don’t we all! Like the people in that synagogue listening to Jesus, we want answers to the deep questions of life from someone who knows what they’re talking about, someone with real authority.
Yet, ironically enough, while we may say that we admire people in authority, we are not so quick to yield our lives to their authority. Even the authority of Jesus was challenged. Another truth lifted from the comic strip world. Charlie Brown is running as fast as he can and Lucy is in hot pursuit, shouting at him: “I’ll get you, Charlie Brown. I’ll catch you and when I do I’m going to knock your block off!” Suddenly, Charlie Brown screeches to a halt, turns around, and with the ring of authority says: “Wait a minute, Lucy. If you and I as relatively small children with relatively small problems cannot sit down and talk through our problems in a mature way, how can we expect the nations of the world to … ” POW! Lucy slugs him and then she says: “I had to hit him quick. He was beginning to make sense!”
That’s exactly what they did to Jesus. They “hit him quick” with a cross because He was beginning to make sense. He was attacking the evil which lurks within systems and persons and He was doing it with authority. And yet, more and more people held Him at arm’s length. They may have admired what He was saying but they weren’t going to commit to following Him in life. They may have been amazed at His authority, but they weren’t going to yield to it in their lives. That’s the problem with authority. But this passage also shows us what I call
The promise of authority.
When the man with the evil spirit did yield to the authority of Jesus, his life was changed. I know. You may be tempted to say to yourself: “That’s fine, but I’m not like that fellow. I don’t hear voices from within. I don’t shout out incoherent phrases.” Well, you can say that if you want to, but the fact is that more of us are like that man with the evil spirit than we realize. Too many of us are held slave to the evil spirits of unworthy commitments and moral failures and attitudes such as racism and hatred. Too many of us struggle with the evil spirits of greed and status and success. Today, evil spirits still make life miserable for us as we struggle with issues like pornography, perversion, drugs, child abuse, incest, alcohol addiction, spouse abuse, sexual promiscuity, murders and violence, just to name a few of the demons which inhabit our society. But it is Christ who, with authority, can order such demons to be silent and come out.
Brian Bauknight tells a story about two farmers who lived near each other. One farmer showed up at his neighbor’s door one day and said: “Could you please come help me quickly? My son fell into a mud hole and has stuck.” The neighbor asked: “How deep is he in?” The farmer answered: “He’s up to his ankles.” The neighbor said: “Well, that’s not so bad. Let’s get a cup of coffee before we go to help him.” “”No!” the farmer cried. “You don’t understand. He’s in head first!” Our world is like that today, isn’t it? We are stuck in the mud and the muck and the mire up to our ankles—and we’re in head first! We need someone to save us. We need someone to deliver us from the dirt and the evil. We need someone to light a candle and lead us out of the darkness. And that’s what’s so great about the church. We have the One who can save us. We have Jesus Christ.
Please, dear friends, don’t hold this Jesus as arm’s length in your life. Too many people today who know who Christ is, who fully realize that Christ is the Holy One of God, who understand that He holds the key to life here and life hereafter—and yet they refuse to give Him their full allegiance. Therefore, I call us today to submit to the authority of Jesus Christ, to be willing to change, to be willing to surrender, to be willing to no longer hold Him at arm’s length, but to embrace Him as Savior and Lord.
I am certain you know the name “Geronimo,” the name of the Apache warrior chief who played such a violent role in the shaping of the American west. But I wonder if you know the whole story of Geronimo. When the U.S. government ordered the Apaches off their ancient lands, Geronimo, this famous Native American, refused to go. Finally, he was driven off the land, and so he led his people across the border into the Sierra Madre Mountains Mexico. From there, he would ride back across the border to fight for repossession of his cherished lands. For ten years he fought this way, until 1886, when General Nelson Miles finally captured him. Geronimo was placed in a cell in a military prison. The cell was six feet by eight feet. The door was lined with wood, reinforced with sheets of steel, and the only light came from a single small window at the top of the cell. Visitors to that cell today are shown a depression in the stone floor. It is said that the depression was caused by Geronimo running in place, hour after hour, day after day, to keep fit for the day when he would escape. He did escape, three times in fact, but each time he was recaptured and returned to that tiny cell. Finally, Geronimo was released by the United States Army and declared a free man. In retrospect, it would appear that Geronimo had always been a free man inside that prison cell. Why? Because what you may not know is that Geronimo became a Christian and ultimately he joined the Reformed Church, a sister denomination to us as Presbyterians. There are some who are surprised by that, but I am not, nor should any of us be who know something about what can happen to a person who stops keeping Christ at arm’s length and finally embraces Him.
I do not know precisely how Geronimo’s conversion took place. Maybe it came about because of some missionary who read Mark’s Gospel to him about the authority of Jesus and how Jesus can change a human life. Maybe Geronimo listened and Jesus began to make sense to him and in the right moment he said: “Yes.” I don’t know what happened precisely, but what I do know is that Geronimo embraced Jesus Christ as his very own, and in that moment his life was changed forever.
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear