The Gospel For An Age Of Uncertainty
It seems like just yesterday—but it was actually more than 25 years ago. I was at Granddaddy’s house—1305 Dauphin Street, Mobile, Alabama—a large, two-story, frame house—white, of course—with a long veranda and massive columns—nestled in among the safe, protective arms of two spreading oak trees, both ages old. In summer, the rooms of that house were always cool and fresh, as the ceiling fans click-clacked, click-clacked—and on winter evenings, they were warm with the delicious smells of logs burning in fireplaces, framed by ornately-carved mantle-pieces.
I would enter the house by the long front hallway, pass the stairs leading up to the second floor, pass the tall hand-crank Victrola whose tinny speaker spun out to me the likes of “Peter and the Wolf” and “Barnacle Bill the Sailor.” I would glance in at the formal living room on the left—a room filled with antique furniture and fascinating treasures; my favorite being a large, gold clock with a spinning pendulum—an eternity clock (what a fascinating name…time and eternity all rolled up into one!) It was enclosed in a huge, glass dome. I never see that wonderful object in my mind’s eye that I don’t also hear with my mind’s ear the warning words: “Look, but don’t touch.”
Straight ahead was the dining room with a table so long that four nuclear families could cluster about it as an extended family every holiday. Oh, how comfortable and protected we were in that great explosion of love and joy and food and unforgettable memories.
But all of these rooms served only as a passageway to the library—Granddaddy’s favorite room, and mine as well. It smelled of old books and heavy wood panelling and the lingering aroma of Granddaddy’s smoking tobacco. (He had suddenly stopped smoking a year before—at the time, I didn’t know why.) In the 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 awesome and he occasionally took to the pulpit as a lay preacher).
That night—I was thirteen at the time—at his invitation I joined him in the library and sat with him in his favorite chair. I had done that so many times when I was younger…I could do it still because he had gotten so small—almost as if he were shrinking while I was growing. I listened eagerly as he began to read to me. I can still see the book in his hands. Its cover was dark, something between deep red and maroon, and the front was etched with the outline of a great ocean liner. What he read to me was the story of that night in mid-April of 1912 when the Titanic, the greatest ship ever built up to that time, went down in the icy seas of the North Atlantic. Her hull having been ripped upon by an iceberg, the ship people believed could never sink, slipped quietly, almost gently, beneath the waves. I remember the words he then read: “People have never been sure of anything since.” The unending sequence of disillusionment that has followed cannot be blamed upon the Titanic, but she was the first jar. Before the Titanic, all was quiet. Afterward, all was tumult. That is why to anyone living at the time, of the Titanic disaster more than any other simple event marked the end of the old days and the beginning of a new, uneasy era.” Now, years later, I know the book and the author by name: A Night to Remember, by Walter Ford. But that night while I did not know title and author, I knew that those were impressive words being read into my thirteen-year-old ears. Granddaddy then set the book aside, put his arm about my shoulder and said: “Son you are growing up in an uneasy, uncertain world. But I want you to know that there is something we can be sure of. I want you to remember that when nothing else seems certain, Jesus is. Other things may change or disappear: Jesus never will.” That’s all he said…or that’s all I remember of what he said
But these words burrowed down into my young heart like seeds planted in spring in a plowed, fertile, Delta field. Other seeds would be sown later by the Spirit of God. It took a long time for them to grow, but grow they did. And the day came when I offered myself for the Gospel ministry, believing that I was called to preach “something we can be sure of.” That sense of call has changed over the years; I have even wavered at times; but it has never died. The fact is, maybe there’s greater urgency now than before. Back then the world seemed as calm and certain and eternal as that ticking clock in the great glass dome. That is true no longer. We might wish to debate Walter Ford’s thesis that the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic thrust us into the modern age, but no one would dare to argue with his contention that we are living in a most uneasy era. Change, not consisted, is the order of the day. War, not peace, is the reality of the age. Despair, not compliance, is the mood of the times. In fact, there are many people who believe that the earth is going down like the Titanic, that there aren’t enough life boats on board, and that there is just no hope—and what’s worse, no reason to hope. Why, they remind me of those disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a small boat. Jesus was not with them. A storm blew up—high, stiff, unrelenting. They were filled with fear. Their fear gave way to despair. In fact, they gave up hope—just as many are giving up hope today.
But I am not one of them—and I don’t think any Christian ought to be. For the Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks clearly to this “age of uncertainty.” Climb on board with me and I’ll show you what I mean…
First this: The Gospel declares to us that God is still in control.
There has never been a generation which has not had its cry of despair. Listen to these words: “The gentle man has perished; the earth is surrendered to criminals.” These words didn’t come from some pulpit last Sunday—they came from the walls of a pyramid and were written there nearly 4000 years ago. Or move up to the time of Bishop Polycarp, one of the heroes of the Early Christian Church. Yet on one occasion he was moved to pray: “O God, what a miserable age you have caused me to live in.” Centuries later, the French philosopher, called the world, “this mess of rottenness in which we live.” Or think of one of the great minds of this century, W. Somerset Maugham, who, near the end of his life, said: “Life is wretched and my life has been wretched.”
The point is that our age is not the first to know tragedy and despair, and yet we seem to be going down like the Titanic in a sea of our own tears of hopelessness. Understand me, please. I am not belittling the seriousness of these times. But while we may live in an age of uncertainty, there is a great cardinal truth of the Scriptures we need to remember. Here it is. We serve a God to whom a thousand ages are like an evening gone. He is a God with a long, long view of history and our history is in His hands. This is still our Father’s world. And we can rest ourselves in the thought that He is still in charge. He is still in control. He still governs, He still rules. And He will not let us go.
It was John Calvin who said: “What would become of us if we did not take our stand upon hope…if we did not move through the darkness of the world on that path which is illumined by the Word and the Spirit of God?” Oh, my friends, this is no time for what I would call “Titanic Christianity”—no time for prophecies of gloom and doom, death and destruction. NO! Rather it is a time for Christians to start living what we say: “Christ is our hope! Christ in us, the hope of glory!
Secondly this: The Gospel declares that One person can make a difference in our world.
There are so many Christians on board the Church today who are paralyzed by their own individuality. They say, “What good can one person do in a world like this?” They are victims of what Ernest T. Campbell called “the ‘I can’t do anything, so I won’t do anything’ syndrome.”
You remember when Jesus preached to the 5000. The disciples were concerned about how so many people were going to be fed. Philip, who must have had a good head for figures, quickly calculated that $200 worth of bread wouldn’t begin to feed them all. Andrew managed to find a little boy with 5 loaves and 2 fish but he wasn’t impressed. “What good are they?” he said. Just another way of saying what I know so many Christians are saying today: “We can’t do anything. We can’t begin to solve the myriad problems of the world. And if we can’t do everything, then why bother with doing anything?
But anyone who says something like that has forgotten the difference that one nurse can make on a hospital ward, what one teacher can make in a school, what one player can make on a basketball team. One vote elected Thomas Jefferson as President of the United States. One vote admitted Texas, Washington, Oregon and California to the Union. One vote made English, and not German, the official language of America.
One person can make all the difference. I think here of John Woolman. He was a Quaker Christian who lived in the 18th Century. It disturbed him that so many of his fellow Quakers owned slaves. So he set himself, alone, to the task of changing things. He did no picketing. He conducted no rallies. He incited no rioting. He simply visited those Quakers who owned slaves and asked how as Christians they could own someone created in the image of God, someone for whom Christ died. He kept that up until 100 years before the Civil War was even fought not a single Quaker in America owned a slave. One man at work for the Lord Jesus Christ—and it made the difference.
So, in this age of uncertainty, the Gospel of Jesus Christ ought to move us to pray: “Lord, I can’t do everything, but I can do something. Help me, in the name of Christ, to do it.” So many times, one person at work for the Lord can make all the difference in the world.
And thirdly this: The Gospel declares that God has a purpose for our living.
Too many Christians in the world today seem to be afraid of the obstacles, afraid of the icebergs. Christians need to say, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Now they say: “Nothing risked, nothing lost.” Too many Christians today long for a discipleship which guarantees them smooth sailing through life. They long for a Garden of Eden type of world in which to serve forgetting that the Bible teaches us that there are two angels with flaming swords who guard the gates of Eden, reminding us that we cannot go back, but can only go ahead. Too many Christians would have us believe that it is wrong to run any risks for the Lord. I don’t believe that for a moment. Rather, I believe that as a child of God, I will never become what God intends for me to be until I am willing to trust Him enough to risk some new beginnings in His service.
The Bible declares that God has given us dominion over the world., That means that you and I are working in partnership with God. He doesn’t do it all. He calls us to join Him in the Kingdom enterprise. That is the purpose for our living. That is why we are here. We are made for the adventure of Christian living in the world. He has called us to live His Gospel in the world, cost what it may. He wants us out in the white water, out where it’s rough in the world, and there He will come to us just as His Son came to those disciples in the storm.
Here is the Gospel for an age of uncertainty. We are children of the living God. And we are called to live in Him and for Him in the world. And the Good News is that Jesus Christ Himself stands ready to labor with us for a world that is so worth the winning.
Granddaddy was right that night when he told me that things will change or disappear! Four years later, he was dead after a long, losing battle with cancer. The family, now spread from Texas to Florida to New York, no longer manages to be together in one place at one time. The house at 1305 Dauphin Street is gone; just a vacant, overgrown lot there to mark the place where so many memories were born.
Even those stately oaks long since gave way to the stormy blasts of Hurricane Camille.
“Yes,” he said, “things will change or disappear, but Jesus never will.” And I’ve sensed he was right about that too. Jesus we can be sure of. He is all the certainty we ever need. So with the truth of this world’s strong fury I have these words of everlasting power and hope: “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation shall ever be able to separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Here, then, is the challenge I set before us this day—that we set before us this day—that we come to Jesus Christ in the commitment of our lives to Him and that we join Him in carrying His message of redeeming grace to a world that is so desperately afraid. And let us always remember that God will be with us…even in the storm…