My Sacred Journey
July 7, 2013 | Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church | Romans 1:8-17
I wish now to read for you these words from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the first chapter. This is the Word of God:
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of His Son, is my witness how I constantly remember you in my prayers at all times, and I pray that now, at last, by God’s will, the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong; that is that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you, but have been prevented from doing so until now, in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God, for the salvation of everyone who believes.”
Pray with me, please.
Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest, just give me Jesus. Amen.
Frederick Buechner describes our life experience in the faith as a sacred journey. That is a beautiful and descriptive phrase which has come to mean much to me. See, I’ve now completed more than 45 years in my preaching ministry. And just recently, as I prepared to come to MDPC, I found myself thinking a lot about those years and about the years leading up to those years. And so, today, in this, my second sermon with you, I wish to share with you something of my own sacred journey. I would like to base these rather personal reflections on a single verse from Romans chapter 1. And as we move through this time together, looking at this great word from God’s word, I would ask you to remember all the way through both the poverty of the preacher and the splendor of the text. And oh my, is it a splendid text. Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” Here then is my sacred journey.
There was a time in my life when I was not ashamed of the gospel. It was when I was a child. My dad was a preacher, and so I grew up in a home where, quite literally, the air I breathed was filled with the faith and where I was surrounded constantly by the powerful, palpable presence of Jesus Christ. In those growing-up years, there was no part of my life which was lived apart from Christ and the church. In fact, I could actually—from very early childhood, could sing Jesus Loves Me at the drop of a suggestion, though I couldn’t sing any better then than I can now.
And I would have to tell you, frankly, that everything I ever needed to know in life I actually learned in Sunday school. Those growing up years, I spent an enormous amount of time in and around the church. Loved everything about it, everything in it, everything associated with it. There were so many times in my childhood when my dad, on Sunday afternoons, would travel out to preach in little, rural churches on Sunday afternoon and then again on Sunday evening, and I would go along to accompany him so that my mother could stay behind with my two younger brothers. And I would have to tell you it was then as nowhere else that I truly learned to appreciate the powerful impact that the preaching of God’s word can have on people’s lives. I came to love preaching, and I came to love preachers. So many of the great preachers in this country would come to my dad’s church to preach, and they would almost always stay at our home, and they would spend time there. I admired the extraordinary gifts they possessed. I was drawn by the spiritual power. I was warmed by their radiant joy. I was inspired by the reality of Jesus Christ I saw in their lives.
That’s the kind of home in which I grew up. And because of that, Christ and the things of Christ and the thoughts of Christ came as naturally to me as eating or sleeping or breathing. And I never knew anything else. And that is why, at that time in my life, I was not ashamed of the gospel. Oh, I didn’t understand all that was going to come to me later on in my life, but what I knew even then was that I was never, in any way, ashamed of it. That’s the way a child thinks, and that’s the way I thought as a child. Come to think of it, surely, that’s one of the reasons that Jesus so loved children and sought every opportunity possible to be around them. You know how it is when you are on an extended journey far from home and suddenly, you encounter or see or hear something that reminds you of home. It’s a tender moment for you. Well, when Jesus was on this Earth, He was on an extended journey far from His heavenly home, and I believe that every time He was around children, with their marvelous trusting, their blissful innocence, their unashamed believing, I believe it reminded Him of home. You do remember what He said, don’t you? He said, “Unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” What Jesus was saying, He was calling us, calling us to a trusting faith, a childlike—not childish, no, no—a childlike trusting and faith. That’s the kind of faith I had as a child. I was not ashamed of the gospel.
But there did come a time in my life when I was ashamed of the gospel. It was during my adolescent years. At that point in my life, I would have to say that I pushed the faith way onto the back burner in my life. I do not mean to suggest that I vigorously attacked Christ and the gospel and the church. I didn’t do that. It’s just that I never mentioned Christ and the gospel and the church at all. You see, the most important thing for me at that point in my life was that I would be considered, as we said it back then, just one of the guys. I wanted to be absolutely sure that no Christian faith and no Christian principles would ever set me apart from the crowd. And I was so hungry to be accepted by others that I did what was expected by others. I was ashamed of the gospel. I think that may have been especially true in my early years in college. On the campus where I was, I was surrounded by young people who were headlong in pursuit of something you could depend on in life, something concrete, like money or social prestige or professional expertise. You could actually insert in there any other standard of worldly success you wish, but we were all engaged in this pursuit of what I like to call little gods. Oh, mind you, it wasn’t then as it is now. We didn’t have self-appointed gurus snorting cocaine and spewing out all kinds of evil thoughts and ideas all over the place. No, we didn’t have that. But we were all engaged in what I would choose to call the worshiping of these little pipsqueak gods in life, and I knew all the while, in my own soul, that those pitiful gods couldn’t begin to stay in the ballpark with my great, big God, but I never once said anything about it. As I look back, it is perfectly apparent that my actions together with my inactions delivered the unmistakable message that I was ashamed of the gospel.
I remember once hearing a story about Professor Muehl of Yale, who was visiting in a New England home, and he happened to see, hanging above the fireplace, an antique musket. He asked the lady of the house if he might take it down and examine it. She said, “No, no, no, I can’t let you do that. You see, it’s loaded and primed. It actually belonged to my great-grandfather. He always kept it loaded and primed, ready to strike a blow of freedom for the colonies, but it’s never been fired. You see, my great-great-grandfather never took sides in the Revolutionary War because he had no confidence in the leadership of General Washington.” Holy smoke! Imagine that; living in the midst of the great American Revolution and he never took sides because he had no confidence in his leader. Well, as I look back, I have to say I never took sides in the great Christian revolution at work in our world. Yes, there was a time; there was a time when I never took sides, and I suppose I would have to say it was because I had no confidence in my commander-in-chief, Jesus. And I confess, and it shames me to say it—it pains to say it—there was a time in my life when I was ashamed of the gospel. But thank God, thank God, I am no longer ashamed of the gospel.
I discovered in my life that I was quite literally being held hostage by peer pressure and society’s values, and all the while, Jesus Christ was saying to me, “Come to me. There is no one else and there’s nothing else that ought to have power over you in your life. You do not need to be ashamed. You do not need to be afraid. Just come to me.” And at long last, I did. That chapter in my sacred journey began on a specific date, February the 28th, 1964. On that date, I had my first date with a beautiful, blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl. Needless to say, I fell hopelessly in love. Eventually, she would become my wife. But at that point, she was the person God used to confront me all over again with the reality and the truth of Jesus Christ. She had a great faith of her own, and she began peppering me with questions about my faith, questions that I found difficult to answer. And gradually, over time, she helped me to realize that I had simply layered over that magnificent faith of my childhood with a veneer of pseudo-sophistication and intellectual arrogance. She encouraged me to strip away the veneer and embrace the Christ, and I did. I surrendered to Jesus Christ. I surrendered all to Jesus Christ. I embraced Him totally and completely, and I embraced all over again that marvelous, trusting, innocent, unashamed believing of my childhood. And it is that faith, so simple, so beautiful, so simply beautiful, that I have now nurtured and cherished for all of the years of my adult life. And that is why I so love to preach His gospel, because, you see, along with everything else, I actually discovered that I no longer needed to be ashamed, even about the fact that, once, I was ashamed of the gospel. You see, all of it, all of it, was erased by the grace of Jesus Christ.
The best illustration of that I’ve ever found outside of scripture is Abraham Lincoln’s response to the question, “Sir, what will you do with these brutal rebels after the war is over?” And Lincoln responded, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” That’s what Jesus did for me. He treated me as if I had never been away. And I resolved then that I would spend the rest of my life preaching His gospel, that I would spend the rest of my life pouring myself and all the energy and effort I have into addressing the great issues of the world and the great challenges of individual lives, but always from the perspective of the Bible and the truth of the Christian faith. I resolved that I would preach His gospel because I’m not ashamed of that gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.
Take this home with you today. Since I surrendered all to Jesus, I have never found anything in Jesus of which to be ashamed. I have now lived in, with, and through Jesus for many, many years, and I have learned that you can never tire Him out, you can never wear Him down, you can never do anything that will lead Him to give you up or to give up on you. That’s why I love to preach His gospel, and I love to preach that gospel more than anything else in all the world. It frightens me. It disciplines me. It pains me. It drains me. But I love to preach that gospel, and the object of that preaching is always nothing less than the salvation of people’s lives and souls. You see, I happen to believe that lost people matter to the Lord. You remember Jesus’ one-line job description, don’t you? He said, “I have come to seek and to save the lost.” Lost people matter to the Lord. That’s not just a clever cliche. That is the driving passion of my life. I happen to believe that there is a real Heaven, a place of eternal union with God, and I happen to believe that there is a real Hell, a place of real eternal separation from God, and I happen to believe that all of us, every single one of us, are bound to one place or the other. And so if you ever wonder why there is always an urgency and an intensity to my preaching, it is because I believe that I have been called the Spirit of God to try to be a channel through which God can reach the non-believer and the casual believer.
I so identify with John Welsh, the great Scottish preacher of another day. He used to kneel down by his bed at night and pray for his people, and his wife would say to him, “John, it’s too cold. Come to bed.” And he would say, “No, dear, I have the souls of 3,000 to answer for, and I do not know how it is with many of them.” I echo his words. You see, now, I have the souls of 4,500 to answer for, and I do not know how it is with many of you. But what I do know is this; I am determined that no one in this parish shall perish. That’s why I continue to preach the gospel of Christ for all I’m worth, and I will keep on preaching as long as God gives me the breath and the grace to live, because I’m not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.
You see, whenever I stand to preach, I always have before me, drawn from the memory bank of my mind, a single face. It is that face which holds my life together and lifts my eyes to the hills. It is that faith which gives my life its meaning and sets my heart to singing. That face is the face of my Jesus, and because I have Jesus in my memory, I have Jesus today. And because I have Jesus today, I will have Jesus forever. And what I want you to understand, as now, my sacred journey intersects with yours, what I want you to understand is that what drives me in my life, what compels me every single day that I live, what keeps me preaching Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, is simply my desire that my Jesus shall become your Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.