So Near, Yet So Far
A few years ago, a young Roman Catholic priest finished his seminary training and was appointed to serve a church in Loveland, Colorado. With a building sense of excitement on his first Sunday there, he looked out of the window of his study and was thrilled to see so many people pulling into the parking lot. “Wow!” he thought to himself, “We’re going to have a packed house today.” However, just a short while later when he walked into the sanctuary to begin the service, he was stunned to see only 15 or 20 people on the pews. He was disappointed…and mystified. Where are all those people from the cars pulling into the parking lot?
The next Sunday, the same thing happened. A lot of cars were pulling into the parking lot, a lot of people getting out of those cars and walking toward the church, but when the priest stepped into the sanctuary to start the service, only a handful of people were on the pews.
On the third Sunday the young priest decided to get to the bottom of this. So he positioned himself where he could discreetly observe the entrance to the church. Soon the mystery was solved. Sure enough, people were driving into the parking lot in large numbers. Sure enough they were getting out of their cars and entering the front door of the church. However, instead of coming all the way into the church and taking their place on the pews, these people were simply stepping in just far enough to receive the holy water and cross themselves and then they would scurry back into their cars and drive off to other priorities. They were coming into the church just far enough to get the holy water.
There’s a parable for all of us as Christians. While we as Presbyterians do not have holy water as such, we do have a similar dynamic. That is, we have people who come into the church just far enough to get a kind of sprinkling of spirituality—people who come near enough to the outer edges of the church to receive a blessing or to have their name on rolls, but not far enough to give themselves, heart and soul, to the cause of Jesus Christ in the world.
They want the church to be here. They want the church to serve human needs. They want the church to try to improve the quality of people’s lives. They want the church to have good programs, capable staff, fine facilities, plenty of parking. They may even be anxious for the church to stand with them when they encounter trouble in life. But for all that, they want to keep God at arms length. They don’t want to get too close, too involved, too interested, too committed. Just a little sprinkling of spirituality is all they want, and then it’s off to their cars and on to other pursuits. They are so near, yet so far.
Of course, that approach is not new. It’s as old as the Bible itself. Mark 10, the Rich Young Ruler is a classic example of what I would call “holy water religion”, “so near, yet so far faith”. He knew that the answer to both his hopes and his hurts in life was Jesus Christ, but he wasn’t willing to trust Christ completely. He walked up to the door, but he wouldn’t go in. He wanted to debate, but not to decide. He wanted to converse but not to commit. He wanted to “talk the talk” but not “walk the walk.” He wanted to play with the holy water, but not participate in a holy life. Consequently, when Jesus said to him: “Get your priorities straight and come and follow me”—the young man turned and headed for the parking lot. When Jesus says: “Give me your loyalty, your allegiance, your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service”—the young man declares by his actions: “I didn’t want to get into it that much. I didn’t want to be that serious about it.” When it came to following Christ, the Rich Young Ruler was so near, yet so far.
If at this moment, you find yourself thinking: “I’m a lot like the Rich Young Ruler”, then let me ask you something: What are you waiting for? Won’t you come all the way into the church, all the way into discipleship, all the way into the Christian faith? Why am I asking you to do that? Because, my friends, there is no life in this world which can begin to compare with living your life for Jesus Christ—and I don’t want you to miss out on that!
I don’t want you to miss out on the strength that comes from true Christian faith.
Too often, we are like the fellow who fell off a cliff. As he tumbled downward, he caught hold of a branch of a small tree. There, suspended between heaven above and the rocks below, he dangled, knowing that he could not hold on for long. In desperation, he looked toward heaven and cried: “Is there anybody up there?” If you are up there Lord, please save me. Spare me now and I’ll believe in you and serve you all my days.” Imagine the surprise when a booming voice responded from above: “O sure you will! That’s what they all say when they are in trouble.” The man cried out: “Not me, Lord. I’m different. Now that I know you are up there, I will obey you completely.” The Lord answered: “All right then, I’ll save you. Just trust me and let go of the branch.” To which the fellow said: “Is there anybody else up there?”
Isn’t that precisely what we do? We take a step toward the Lord, but then when He calls on us to trust Him and do something we don’t really want to do, we back away. It’s like the Rich Young Ruler. He couldn’t trust. He couldn’t obey. He couldn’t let go of the branch of his riches. He was looking for something more comfortable and less demanding. It’s as if he were saying: “Is there anybody else up there?”
Now let me tell you something with all the feeling I have in my heart: There isn’t anybody else up there! Christ is the one and only Lord of life and He says to us what He says to the Rich Young Ruler: “Get your priorities straight. Get your loyalties aligned. Get your life in order and under control. Let go of whatever branch is holding you back. For then you will discover that your life makes sense, the pieces fit, the difficulties are conquerable, and the joys are multiplied. My friends, don’t be so near, yet so far. Don’t play around the edges of faith. Leap right in! For then you will find a strength for living you never knew you had. I don’t want you to miss that!
And I don’t want you to miss out on the fulfillment of true Christian commitment.
He was a man nobody wanted. His family didn’t want him. The church didn’t want him. The defenders of things as they were didn’t want him. The rich slandered him. The poor threw rocks at him. The police clapped his followers in jail. But God wanted him. And God sent him to people who were wanted by no one else but God. And before he and God were finished, a remarkable Christian ministry was born. I refer, of course, to William Booth and the Salvation Army.
I have always had an enormous respect and admiration for the Salvation Army. Grant Wells is our new youth minister here at First Presbyterian and I am especially pleased that he is a member of the Salvation Army. You see, the Salvation Army is now a worldwide organization with mission stations all over the globe. There are hostels for the homeless, employment bureaus, maternity hospitals for unwed mothers, refuges for paroled prisoners and recovering alcoholics, medical clinics, leprosariums, institutes for the blind, rescue homes for runaways, orphanages for homeless children, fresh-air camps, boys’ clubs, rest and recuperation centers for service men and women. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. That’s the social dimension of it. Beyond that, the dead in spirit are raised up and the poor hear the Gospel preached and see it lived. The Army wins to Christ people the churches could never reach- more than 150,000 people a year meet the king through the Salvation Army. And all of it has flowed out of the mind and heart and life of William Booth. Someone once asked him the secret of it all. He answered: “I’ll tell you the secret. God has had all there is of me. There have been people with greater brains and even with greater opportunities. But from the day I got the poor of the city of London on my heart and caught a vision of what Christ could do with me and them- from that day Jesus Christ has had all of William Booth that there is.” Thus he found his ultimate fulfillment in life.
That’s what Christian commitment is—giving our all to God. Dear friends, don’t play around on the edges of life. Commit your heart, soul, mind and strength to Christ. For then you will know what your life is all about. I don’t want you to miss out on that!
And I don’t want you to miss out on the joy of true Christian love.
Do you remember the story about the fellow who landed a job with the highway department painting the yellow line down the center of the road? This he had to do by hand. After three days, the foreman called him in and said: “Your first day out you did great—painted three miles. The second day you slipped to two miles. And today you only painted one mile. I hate to do it, but your work has slacked off so much that I have had to let you go.” The man protested: “It wasn’t my fault. Every day I got further and further away from the paint can!” One thing is sure in the Christian faith: the further we get away from love the further we get away from Christ—and the further we get away from Christ the further we get away from love. Jesus Himself put it like this: “A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this shall all know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”
Just recently I ran across a wonderful little essay written by a man named Robert Test. Robert Test had limited education, spent his adult life as an hourly-wage laborer. But he felt so strongly about something that one day during his lunch break he sat down and wrote some powerful words. The essay is entitled, “To Remember Me.” It has had some circulation, but not enough. It deserves more. Listen:
“At a certain moment, a doctor will determine that my brain has ceased to function and that, for all intents and purposes, my life has stopped.
When that happens, do not attempt to instill artificial life into my body by the use of machines. And don’t call this my deathbed; call it my bed of life… and let my body be taken from it to help other lead fuller lives.
Give my sight to someone who has never seen a sunrise, a baby’s face or love in the eyes of another.
Give my heart to a person whose own heart has caused nothing but endless days of pain.
Give my blood to the teenager who has been pulled from the wreckage of his car…so that he might live to see his grandchildren play.
Give my kidneys to one who depends on a machine to exist from week to week.
Take my bones, every muscle, every fiber and nerve so that someday a speechless boy will shout at the crack of a bat… and a deaf girl will hear the sound of rain against her windows.
Then scatter my ashes to the winds to help the flowers grow.
If you must bury something, let it be my faults, my weaknesses and all my prejudices against any other human.
Give my sins to the devil. Give my soul to God.
If by chance you wish to remember me, do it with a loving deed or kind word to someone who needs you. If you do all I have asked, I will live forever.”
Whatever Robert Test may have lacked in his life, he did not lack the joy that comes from deep, profound, caring love. Dear friends, don’t just play around on the edges of life. Love those whom God has given you to love. For then you will know a joy which nothing in this life or in this world can ever shake. I don’t want you to miss out on that joy. So…
Come to Jesus Christ today!