Some Things Of Which I Am Certain
II Timothy 1:1-12
There is a great passage in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress where the children of the pilgrim are following after him. They say to their guide, Greatheart: “Where is the place where our father battled with the Apollyon?” And Greatheart replies: “At a place yonder, in a narrow passage, just beyond Forgetful Green. It is the most dangerous place in these parts for those travelers suffer most when they forget what favors they have received and how unworthy they are of them.”
Greatheart was right. Forgetting is a dangerous thing. It is important for us all to remember the favors we have received along our life’s pilgrimage. That seems especially true for me today. You see, today marks the completion of my 35th year as a believing Christian and my 22nd year in the Gospel ministry. As I have contemplated the importance of remembering those years of my pilgrimage in the Lord, I was led to Paul’s words of remembrance in Philippians 1: “I thank my God for every remembrance of you.” Now when Paul wrote those words to the Philippians, what and whom was he remembering? It is, of course, impossible for us to know specifically, but there are some things I believe we can assume. You see in Acts 16, there is a record of Paul’s experiences in Philippi. Therefore, I think it is reasonable to assume that the people and events described in Acts 16, are at least in part what Paul had called up from his memory when he wrote: “I thank my God for my every remembrance of you.”
For example, I am sure that Paul remembered Lydia.
Lydia was his first convert in Europe. You remember that Paul had a vision of a man calling him to bring the Gospel to Macedonia, but when he got there he found not a man, but a woman—Lydia. As a result, Paul’s first convert in Philippi was Lydia, this very impressive and successful businesswoman. She opened her home to Paul. He stayed there and he started the church at Philippi there. Lydia underwrote the cost of that venture, and as a matter of fact, she gave financial support to Paul through all the years that he carried on the Lord’s work.
There have always been great Lydias in the history of the church. In the New Testament we read of women who were teachers and deacons and possibly even elders—the Greek is somewhat obscure at that point. And that has been true through most of the subsequent history of the church. Chauvinism—male chauvinism in the church is a relatively recent thing, but it is not of God, for the Holy Spirit has always managed to find and keep great Lydias at the center of the church’s experience.
And, of course, we all have had Lydias in our lives. I think of my mother who taught her son the joy of loving Christ and never missing worship. I think of some of my teachers in Sunday School who taught me to love the stories of Scripture and the songs of the faith. The first person ever to speak to me about going into the ministry was my fourth-grade teacher in school, Mrs. Villarubia. She had assigned us a speech to write and deliver in class. I was given the subject of the Good Samaritan. (I guess that wouldn’t happen these days in school.) After I gave my little speech, Mrs. Villarubia asked to see me after class. I thought I was in hot water. I had been before with her. Instead she said: “Have you ever thought that one day you might like to be a minister?” She was the first person ever to say that to me, and I’ve never forgotten her for it. She was a Lydia to me.
Another Lydia for me has been Margaret Dodson, my mother-in-law. She was, and she remains, a giant in the faith. A few days before I preached my first sermon on that September Sunday, 22 years ago, I got a letter from her. It’s a letter which I have carried with me ever since. This is what she wrote: :”Howard, I feel like the woman who pressed a paper into her minister’s hand as she left church one Sunday. On it was written, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus.’ Only the church has the unique message of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour of all, who can change the hearts of men and women. Paul and Peter took every opportunity to preach those truths. Now that opportunity is yours. Through you, we would see Jesus.” I carry that letter in my wallet and I carry its message in my heart.
Yes, I have had some great Lydias in my life and they have taught me things of which I am now and forever certain. And I thank my God for every remembrance of them.
And I think when Paul remembered Philippi, he thought of that young woman who was a pagan fortune teller.
In those days she would have been called a Pythoness, a seer, a diviner. She was trapped by fear into pagan, superstitious practices and she struck fear in the hearts of those around her. But Paul released her from her fear and fearsomeness and introduced her to the courageous love of Jesus Christ—and she was never the same again.
I remember the first time I had to look square at the reality of death, and icy chill of fear swept over me. It was the day my grandfather died. My grandfather had been one of the great heroes of my childhood. I loved being in his presence every chance I got. Especially did I love the time he would take me into his library and read to me. In that room, shelves lined the walls and books lined the shelves—law books (he was a judge), history books (he could recount events in ancient history as if he had been there), books of sermons and theology (his faith was sweeping and obvious and unashamed and he occasionally took to the pulpit as a lay preacher). It was there, from his lips that words he repeated over and over again to me were carved forever into my consciousness. He said: “I want you to remember that when nothing else seems certain in this life, Jesus is. Other things may change or disappear; Jesus never will.” When I was seventeen, my grandfather died. I could not conceive of life without him and I was afraid. Whatever little faith I had at that point was shattered. At the graveside, as I watched my granddaddy’s casket lowered into the ground, fear shook me to the core. Then a great big bear of a man, Dave Hemphill, put his huge strong arm around me and in just a few words, he brought home to me the suffering but courageous love of God.
I was reading not long ago a book by Elie Wiesel, the leading Jewish author of our day. He told of a time when he was imprisoned in Auschwitz and the prisoners were made to watch a triple execution—two men and, unbelievably, a little boy. As the helpless prisoners watched in horror, the three were hanged. The two men died instantly. But the little boy because he was light in weight did not die instantly. For long minutes he swung there on the rope, struggling for death. Stunned by the awfulness of that, one of the other prisoners began to cry: “Where is God? Where is God?” Elie Wiesel turned and said to him essentially what Dave Hemphill said to me on that October afternoon of 1959. “Where is God? Why He is right here dying on that gallows.”
You see, the testimony of our faith is that God comes into the fearsome horrors of the human experience and loves us through them. When you catch hold of that, though the pain is still there, there is also a sense of His presence and His power. That’s why I can’t forget Dave Hemphill who walked with me one day through the valley of the shadow of death and taught me some things of which I am now and forever certain. He helped me to conquer the fear of death—and I was never the same again. I thank my God for every remembrance of him.
And, of course, Paul would have remembered that when he was in Philippi he was locked in jail.
Whenever Paul preached the Gospel some people were turned on and others were turned off. Philippi was no exception. And those who were opposed to him sought to silence him by putting him behind bars. I remember in my own experience being locked in a different kind of prison. It was a prison of the mind. There was a point in my adolescent years when I felt that I knew all there was to know, I wasn’t interested in great thought or new ideas. Two men helped set me free from that prison.
One was Dean Charles Diehl, the Dean of Men at my college. He was also my professor in what was called “the Bonehead English Class” for freshmen. I started out in trouble with Dean Diehl. You see within the first two weeks of being at college, I had inadvertently soaked down the college’s head basketball coach with what balloons. I have no intention of ever letting you know the full story behind that! In any case, Dean Diehl had me placed on disciplinary probation, and then he had me in class as well. He assigned me a research paper on John Donne. At that point I could have cared less about John Donne, so I asked for another subject. He said: “Mr. Edington, you need to learn about John Donne.” So reluctantly, I started the project. I learned that John Donne spent his early years in the pursuit of sensual things, but later on became a great servant of Christ. He wrote marvelous poetry and powerful sermons. His most famous line, of course, is “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” As I studied about John Donne, under pressure from Dean Diehl, I came to admire this great poet-preacher of long ago. So much so, that I concluded my research paper with the epitaph from John Donne’s grave. The epitaph was written by Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer, and it reads:
Readers, I would have thee know
Donne’s body only lies below
For if the grave his soul comprised,
Earth would be fairer than the skies.
Dean Diehl wrote down at the bottom of my paper: “See! I told you so.” He broke my mind open to new thoughts and ideas. I thank God for him.
And I think of James Stewart of Scotland. He was my professor at the University of Edinburgh. His teaching transformed my life. He was a small, almost shy man with a warm face and a gentle voice. At first glance, you wondered how he could be one of this century’s greatest preachers. But then when he opened his mouth and his language lifted you and his spirituality enveloped you, you sensed that you were in the presence of a man uniquely anointed by God. I remember him sitting on his desk one day reading to us the king’s great prayer speech from “Hamlet.” “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thought never to heaven go.” Then he paused and said: “If you are not living Christ in your life, then what you are saying about Christ in the pulpit will not lift your people into the presence of the angels.” He taught me the power of the preached word when it flows out of the fountain of a true faith and a committed life.
I alluded earlier to Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Greatheart says in that same passage: “Yes, and if his sons see the place where their old father has lain or even a print of his feet, it brings joy to their hearts to lie down where he has been or to put their foot where his foot has been.” As I look back and remember James Stewart, I want to put my feet in the prints of this great man who would not allow me to be imprisoned by my own feelings of inadequacy for the ministry, but who inspired me and challenged me and forced me to think. I thank my God for every remembrance of him.
In Brooklyn, New York, there is a man who comes every day to the City Hall, same time, every day. He is mentally ill, not dangerously so, but pathetically so. Years ago, he was a successful businessman, but he lost it all. A friend of his told him that he would meet him at the City Hall and give him a great sum of money to help him get back on his feet again. He went to the City Hall, but the friend never showed up. It cracked him. It broke him. It shattered him. And as a result, everyday, rain or shine, he goes to City Hall and stands waiting for his friend. It’s been going on for forty years now.
Today I have recalled for you some friends who never left me standing. And they gave me a favor I never deserved—they gave me the love of Jesus Christ. And He has made all the difference in my life. So this really hasn’t been a sermon, just a collection of memories. But I make no apology for that, because I am twenty-two years into my ministry now, and those years have been made sweet with joy and power by such memories.
I thank my God for these remembrances of those who have brought Christ’s love to me that I might preach Christ’s Gospel to you…