04.17.16 Sermon (April 17, 2016) “Tell us Plainly”

posted Jul 12, 2016, 8:28 AM by David Hawkins   [ updated Jul 12, 2016, 8:28 AM ]
The Acts of an Easter People: Acts 9:36-43

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 

Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, "Please come to us without delay." 

So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. 

He turned to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up." Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 

This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

*New Testament Scripture: John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 

So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." 

Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."

Sermon: “Tell Us Plainly”             Rev. David Hawkins

I have to confess that I am a skeptic. I’m usually not able to accept at face value modern day miraculous stories. Especially not when these stories are being told by folks that have something to gain from me believing them. 

I’m not willing to simply suspend my critical disbelief, just because some claims to have healed someone, or prayed real hard for lots of money and got it, or believed in God, and then got a promotion at work. Especially when these stories are being sold in a book, or being used to pack football stadiums in poor countries, or being used as proof that positive thinking can fore God to reward you with good things.

For better or worse, I’m not able to give up that small part of my brain that immediately tunes these kinds of stories out, that immediately assumes that miracles aren’t real, that immediately thinks that modern day preachers who call regularly on the supernatural to get their point across are much more interested in getting their hands on your money. 

I’m just hardwired that way. 

I don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe in woo. I don’t believe in the curative power of ginko biloba or copper fabric, even if Brett Favre does swear by it. I don’t believe that buying a handkerchief dipped in the Jordan river will bring blessing. I don’t believe that sending a hundred dollars to a post office box in California in the name of Jesus Christ will result in me receiving a thousand dollars in return. 

I just don’t believe in that stuff.

But I do believe in God. 

But wait a minute! 

Aren’t they the same thing? Isn’t believing in God and believing in whatever story anybody tells you in the name of God the same thing? Doesn’t believing in God require you to forsake all critical thought, all rationality, all sense of what is real, and not real? Doesn’t believing in God mean that you have to stop questioning the pronouncement of divine intervention? 

How can you be a Christian, and be a skeptic at the same time? How do we reconcile our intellect with our faith? How do we love the Lord with all of our heart, and soul, and strength, but also love the Lord with our mind?

I hope that I’m not the only one who has these kinds of questions. I hope that I’m not the only one wonders sometimes about what it really means to have faith, to believe in something unseen, to trust in something that by definition is unprovable. 

It seems to be an impossible task, to talk rationally about something so completely irrational as faith. And maybe that’s why, through the years, Christians have tried to find ways to prove the existence of Christ, either through logical, step by step reasons to believe, or through an insistence on blind faith, or through an exhausting listing of proof texts from the Bible, or, as a last resort (or sometimes as a first resort), simply using the threat of hell to get people on board. 

The whole field of Christian Apologetics is about finding ways to intellectually prove the existence of God. 

The problem is, I’m not sure that it can be done. 

And our story from Acts this morning doesn’t help. The story of Peter bringing Tabitha back from the dead doesn’t help. At least, it doesn’t help me. It’s not that I’m saying that this miracle didn’t happen, I’m saying that this story doesn’t prove to me that God exists. 

And yet, the Bible says over and over that these stories of God’s amazing power are written down so that people will believe. 

What are we supposed to do with that? Is that how it works? That we see, or hear about a supernatural event, and then we believe in God? That we read about a miracle in the Bible, and are converted on the spot? Maybe it does work that way for some folks. And God bless them. 

But the truth is, it doesn’t work that way for me. Maybe I’m broken. 

In some ways, I sympathize with the questioners in our story from the Gospel of John. I understand that they remain unconvinced by all the stories they’ve heard about Jesus. Hearing about Jesus feeding the five thousand was not enough. Hearing about him walking on water was not enough. Hearing about him healing a blind man was not enough.  

The reality is, nothing was ever going to be enough. There was never going to be a miracle big enough for his critics to be persuaded by the truth of Jesus’ divinity. 

And I think that’s still true for us today. Jesus names the fact that regardless of what we might say about him, the reality is, unless we personally experience him, unless we actually hear for ourselves, in our own way, the voice of Jesus Christ, we are not going be persuaded by the accounts of other people. 

Faith is a deeply personal thing, and it’s something that is revealed to us, not something that we parse out for ourselves using our powers of intellect and logic. Faith is beyond logic. It can’t be contained by descriptive words or persuasive reasoning. And maybe that’s why Jesus so often used parables to talk about faith. They move us beyond the facts into the truth. 

And so, in the spirit of Jesus, let me tell a story that I recently read as I was preparing for today’s sermon. It’s a parable written by a Jesuit priest, named Anthony DeMello.

It’s the story of an adventurer who leaves his village in the desert to explore the Amazon. He sees and does things that he could never have imagined in his home town. He paddles down rivers, he sees waterfalls, he is chased through the jungle by animals he’s never heard of before. During his time in the jungle, he experiences a completely different life than the one he left behind. 

After a few years, he returns to his village, and tells his friends and family what he saw and did. And, of course, they are amazed. They want to hear all about it. But how does he put into words what he felt when he first saw the expanse of green trees that seemed to go on forever? How does he tell them what if felt like to experience rain that lasted 24 hours a day, for weeks on end? What was it like to stand still at night, and hear the symphony of noises all around him? 

How could he possibly put those feelings into words? How can he show them what it was like to be in the Amazon, to describe his experiences to those who had only ever known life in the desert?

And so, he drew them maps, and he drew them pictures, and they talked about the maps, and they talked about the pictures. They even made copies of the maps and pictures, and they put them in their own homes. They had discussions about them. They argued about them. They told their children the stories that the explorer had told them about what he had done and seen. 

But the reality is, none them ever really knew what he was talking about. Only those who actually got out of their armchairs, who left the comfort of their homes and went to look for themselves could ever truly understand what the explorer had experienced.

The critics surrounding Jesus want him to tell them plainly who he is. Is he the Messiah, or not? Is he the Word of God, or not? Jesus reminds them not only has he told them, he has showed them. But it doesn’t really make any difference. It’s not a matter of what he says, or what he does. It’s a matter of what they themselves experience. He can talk himself blue in the face, and until they experience his love for themselves, the reality is they will never hear him. 

Our most eloquent arguments for the divinity of Jesus Christ are for nothing if the love of Jesus is not felt. We can talk ourselves blue in the face, but if we don’t model the forgiveness, the grace, the mercy of God, if the world does not hear in us the voice of a shepherd who gave his life for us, then our best arguments, well, these eloquent words mean absolutely nothing. 

It is only when the world hears in us the sort of love that reconciles, the sort of love that welcomes, that heals, the brings life, that the world can trust the actual words about Jesus that we speak. Logic won’t do it. Rationality won’t do it. Intellect won’t do it. We can’t speak to the truth of the Jesus from a position of authority. We can only speak it from a position of broken-ness and self-offering. Jesus did not preach the gospel from a throne, or the cathedral. He preached it from a cross.

Now, the reality is, we are a rational people. Well, except for politics. And there is no problem with rationality. One of my favorite sayings come from the WARP’d youth retreat, that, “God gives us brains and he expects us to use them.”

But there is something about the personal experience of the love of Jesus that transcends our understanding, that is beyond rationality. We can’t draw maps for this kind of love. We can’t paint pictures of it. 

But we can show it. We can reach out, and invite others to go with us, and experience it for themselves. We can offer this kind of love, because it has already been given to us. Not because we sat down and figured it all out. Not because we were able to crack to the code. 

We can offer this kind of love because God decided, for his own reasons, to offer himself as a guide. He knew that in order for to truly know him, we needed to experience him, and so he came to us in Jesus Christ, to share our lives, to share the burden of pain and death, to demonstrate that even when all seems lost, God is still with us, and that love conquers everything, even the grave. In Jesus Christ, we know who God is, what he wants, and the depths of his love for all of us.

And this is not something that can be proven. 

But is something you can know. It is something that you can experience. You know it when you see the look of gratitude from those to whom you bring Meals on Wheels. You know it when you participate in one of those snackpack for kids backpack packing parties to provide food for hungry school children. You know it when you forgive someone who hurt you deeply. You know it when you yourself are forgiven. You know it when you sing the words to Amazing Grace, or say the 23 Psalm, and realize, maybe for the first time, that these words are describing you and your relationship with God. 

These are things that we know, not because we are convinced by the evidence, but because we have been brought to that place, seen it for ourselves. 

And that’s an adventure that all the plain talk in the world could never even begin to replace.

Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might be to our God
forever and ever. Amen. 

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