Evangelical - Unification Dialogue
Sermon given by Dr. Donald L. Deffner, on October 29, 1978, at Sunday morning worship service during the Evangelical-Unification Dialogue at the Unification Theological Seminary, Barrytown, New York.
Have you ever felt like running? Running to get away from it all. Running to escape some of the pressures and tensions in your life. Running to try to find some meaning and purpose in life.
Well, the Scriptures are filled with examples of people who tried to run away -- from God. Take the first case of a runaway in the Old Testament: "And Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden."
This is a vivid and true picture of what mankind has been trying to do from the beginning of time. We have tried to make our selves, our will, our interests, our desires first and foremost and final.
And that's what the "original sin" really is: the deification of self, with, as its inevitable consequence, a tragic separation from God. And the trend is as "old as the hills." Take the case of Jonah: "Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.' But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord."
It was the Genesis story all over again. Jonah made his own interests first and final. Or take the case of Augustine, the famous church father. As told in his Confessions, his is a most moving story -- the story of a man running away from God, using every trick in the book to put distance between himself and God. He turned to passion, then to rhetoric, then to philosophy, then back to passion again. And finally, with every escape route cut off, Augustine surrendered to what he had so long feared, and out of his experience came that unforgettable saying: "Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee."
Or take the case of Francis Thompson, the famous poet. Few people realize that his poem "The Hound of Heaven" was a transcript of his own religious experience. For years he tried to escape God. He turned to nature, to his friends, to love, but all in vain. "I fled Him," he wrote, "down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter... From these strong feet, that followed, followed after..."
I was a campus pastor at the University of California in Berkeley for twelve years; I was there in the fifties. And one day a cherry-blonde graduate student in chemistry walked into our University Lutheran Chapel on College Avenue and said to one of the students: "I'm an atheist. Argue with me." To which the student replied: "We don't argue with anyone around here. Come on in." She did. And she stayed for three years. Even sang in the chapel choir -- but she never became a Christian. And yet, before she left, she told me: "You know, Pastor Don, the Hound of Heaven may get me yet!" She could not accept Christ as her personal Lord and Savior, and yet she had to admit that she could feel the warm, loving breath of the Almighty on the back of her neck -- brooding over her, wooing her, chasing her, saying in effect: "Angry young woman, I love you!"
And it was in that same spirit the Psalmist said the words of Scripture: "Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?... If I make my bed in sheol, behold thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me." (Psalm 139:7-10; KJV)
But we have been talking about other people so far this morning. How about you? Have you been running away from God?
The story I have been telling is really the story of "Everyman" -- as they used to say in the old British morality plays. And may I suggest that "Everyman" and "Everywoman" is right here today. What are the ways in which you -- even while being in a church for many years -- can run away from God?
Well, one of the most common ways is to "fall in love with the things of this world." Now don't turn me off yet... I know the feeling... How many times I have sat in a pew and gotten sick and tired of a preacher storming away at "the material things of this world" with the implication that we are not to enjoy, in a balanced way, the blessings which God has given us here on the earth. I am quite aware that the church has "come of age" in baptizing the secular, in seeing this as God's good world, a world which we are to properly enjoy in our life "under the sun."
And yet is there no danger at all in falling in love with this "island colony" called the earth, and forgetting who we are, and whose we are, and forgetting about the home palace above "...from which also we look for [the return of] the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ"? (Philippians 3:20 KJV)
Even for the Christ-man and the Christ-woman there is always the temptation to feel -- whether it's a mighty new bridge, a towering skyscraper, or another satellite: "These things will last forever!" "What hath man wrought!"
But the angels from their thrones on high
Look down on us with wond'ring eye
That though we are but passing guests
We build such strong and sturdy nests.
And in our daily lives we can "run away from God" by putting our trust and our zest into the wrong things... There is the worker who lives to get, rather than to give. There is the teacher who really likes his or her job -- but frankly, hasn't liked students for a long time. There is the Midas in each of us in a thousand different ways, by which we place self first, others second, and God third.
True, it is God's world, and we are to enjoy it. But has our blessed Lord's parable no application today? And the man said to himself: "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry! But God said unto him, 'Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee; then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?' So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." (Luke 12:19-21 KJV)
Yes, the Christ-man and the Christ-woman can still "run away from God" by an inordinate love for "the things of this world." John's words still speak to you and to me: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world... For all that is in the world," (and now note the qualification) "the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust of it; but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever." (I John 2:15-17 KJV)
There's another way to "run away from God" however. And that's in doubts and disenchantments about our God and His relationship with us. Oh, I don't mean those old chestnuts they used to talk about on college campuses: "Who was Cain's wife?...How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?... Can God create something so big He can't lift it?" etc. No, I'm speaking of those ongoing, nagging doubts that can come into the heart of the most faithful Christian...about whether God really loves us, whether He really cares...or if He does care, then why doesn't He show and reveal Himself more to us in our lives?
It's like the instance of the teacher in Sunday School who had just very carefully explained that God never "tempts" us in our lives (that word has two different meanings in the New Testament).We are "tempted" by our own sinful nature. But God does "tempt" -- that is, test us -- to make us realize our need for Him, our dependence on Him. "Any questions?" asked the teacher. "Yes," said an eighth-grade boy. "I know God only tests us to strengthen our faith, but you know, I still think that sometimes He overdoes it!"
And so we can "run away from God" in doubt and despair and disenchantment with our Heavenly Father. But God does care, and He does reveal Himself to us in Word and Sacrament if we but let Him come to us through His Means of Grace, and use them with an open mind and a penitent heart.
May I suggest that this often is right where the greatest difficulty in our Christian lives rests? The problem is not that God does not care, or will not reveal Himself to us, or help us in our time of need. The problem is that we don't really believe the mighty promises of God\ As James put it: "Ye have not, because ye ask not." (James 4:2 KJV) For this is the God who has promised: "As thy days, so shall thy strength be." (Deuteronomy 33:25 KJV) This is the God who says: "Be not dismayed; for I am thy God. I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness." (Isaiah 41:10 KJV)
A coed walked into a campus pastor's office and said: "I'm an atheist." To which the pastor replied: "Well, tell me what kind of a God you don't believe in." And for an hour she told him. And when the hour was over, the pastor said: "Well, that's very interesting. But you know, I must be an atheist, too, because I don't believe in that God, either." And then he proceeded to share with her the kind of a God we have: a loving God, a forgiving God, a contemporary God, who does reveal Himself to us when we but use the Means of Grace -- His Word and the Sacraments. And even then, after we have used the Means of Grace, and may still not be hearing God's response, and we are saying: "Why, God?" "Where are you, God?" there will be times we will have to say with the Apostle Paul: "Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counselor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen." (Romans 11:33-36 KJV)
There is a third way in which we can "run away from God" and that's in religion itself. "The greatest peril of the church is always from within," said Presbyterian theologian James Smart.
One of my favorite stories has always been about the man who was going to a masquerade party just at this time of the year -- October. And he decided to dress up in a devil's costume. It was a rainy, stormy night, and he was driving on a lonely country road when his car went off the road into a ditch. He couldn't get the car started again, so he got out of the car, and walked across a corn field until he came to a small country church.
Some people were in that church having their evening prayer meeting -- singing hymns and praying. And just as this man got to the door of the country church, and opened the door -- dressed in this devil's costume, mind you -- well, there was a bolt of lightning and a clap of thunder. And all the people turned around and
saw this man in the devil's costume standing there. And they went out of the doors and windows right and left. Except for one little old lady, standing in the center aisle, scared stiff. And she said: "Mr. Devil, I don't know what you want here, but I've got only one thing to say. I've been a member of this church for forty years, but I've really been on your side all the time.
Some time ago there was a graduate student at the University of Michigan who flunked his exams. He was embarrassed to go back home overseas and face his family, so he hid in the bell-tower of the local Methodist church. Well, there were some strange goings-on in that church for a while. The spaghetti disappeared from the refrigerator after the Ladies Aid dinner. There were some strange creakings and groaning sounds in the building at times, and no one could figure out what was happening until it was discovered that there had been a man hiding in the church.
Are you the man -- the woman -- "hiding in the church"? You know, there's a big difference between saying a creed, and doing a Christian deed. There's a big difference between "going to church" and being in the church.
And there's a big difference between being a part of a loving, sincere group of religious people... and being a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
A businessman was speaking to 1200 other businessmen, and he said: "Give me all your criticisms of Christianity." And for an hour they did... and he wrote them down. When it was all over, the man said: "All of your criticisms have been against the church as an organization. And I admit that the church has its faults. But none of you has said anything against Jesus Christ. Now let me tell you about Him."
And let me tell you about Him.
You may not have heard much about Him in a church you grew up in. Or, you may have seen a contradiction in the lives of those who called themselves Christians but did not live it out.
But that does not make Christ and His claim on you any less real. For He says: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6) "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)"... if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9) "And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son has not life." (I John 5:11-12)
And this Christ cannot be added to by another Gospel or another Lord, or one loses the true God Himself. As Paul wrote: "There is...one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all." (Ephesians 4:4-6)
And in this God-man Jesus Christ and in Him alone is there forgiveness before Our Heavenly Father. He alone is the Son of man who has power on earth to forgive sins. (See Matthew 9:6)
And so I call you to faith in and forgiveness from the God who is only revealed in Jesus Christ.
No matter how great a guilt you may have felt from anything in the past, let me tell you of a God of forgiveness! "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (I John 4:10 KJV)
Corrie ten Boom tells of how the Dutch feel very close to the sea. And when she speaks of God's forgiveness she says it is as if God takes all of our sins, when He has forgiven them, and He casts them into the deepest part of the ocean, and then He puts up a sign: "NO FISHING ALLOWED." We are not to go back again and again in remorse over sins which He has already forgiven. As He says in Isaiah: "I, even I, am He who blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins." (Isaiah 43:25 KJV)
As former President O. P. Kretzmann of Valparaiso University put it: "We need to learn how to pray the prayer: 'O God, forgive me the sin of coming back to you and asking forgiveness for a sin that you forgave -- and forgot -- a long time ago!'"
What a God! What forgiveness! What a Friend!
Your parents may fail you. Your friends may fail you. A religious group in which you invested your whole life and commitment may fail you. But Jesus Christ will never fail you. I will never leave you nor forsake you, says the Lord.
Is your faith in this Jesus Christ? Is He the heart and center of your commitment, exclusive of all else...and of all others who would displace Him?
You and I may be sincere members of a religious group (regardless of what it calls itself) but Christ's words may still apply to us: "This people draweth near unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." (Matthew 15:8 KJV)
And so, many and devious are the ways people try to "run away from God." But none of them is of any avail. You need stout defenses against the devil; you need stouter against God. You may crowd your walls with sentries but there is one invasion you are powerless to withstand. That is the universal experience. God is inescapable. Sooner or later, in life or in death, we must come face to face with Him. As the Psalmist said: "Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?... if I make my bed in sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me." (Psalm 139:7-10 KJV)
And the beauty, the wonder of it all is, that once you stop running away from God and really let Him declare Himself to you, you find that He isn't the kind of God you thought He was at all!
Once you confess, "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner," once you confess the selfishness of wanting to run your own self-centered life and stop long enough to look at that cross and see that it was your sins that nailed Him to the tree... and it was your sins for which He died... Then you can see that the God from whom you in your folly tried to run away is not your vindictive judge, but your loving, forgiving Heavenly Father.
And that the reason He follows you down the nights and down the days, and down the arches of the years, down the labyrinthine ways of your mind, and in the mist of tears and under running laughter, the reason why He will not give you up, will not let you go, is that He longs to rescue you from yourself, from your waywardness and your wandering, and wants to bring you home.
And so, if you have been running away from God -- like Adam and Eve, like Jonah, like Augustine, like Francis Thompson, like the cherry-blonde graduate student in chemistry...if you have been running away from God in an unbalanced love for the things of this world, in dishonest doubts, or in just going through the motions of church membership, then listen to the loving and concerned call of your Savior as He says: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:20 KJV)
In closing I would like to tell you the story of a young woman from Japan who came to the University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley which I served some years ago. She was engaged to a young doctor, also from Japan, who had recently become a Christian. When she arrived in Berkeley, I baptized her, after instruction, and married the couple in our chapel. Both of them were rejected by their families for becoming the hated "Christians." Gradually they felt compelled to return to their native land, also to share their new faith with their people. Their life was difficult, and his work at the medical center in the old conservative city of Kyoto was particularly strenuous. Then one day our students and I received a cablegram from the young wife, whose name was Toko. She said her husband had died in her arms of an acute heart attack at 12:30 a.m. "Please pray for me," she concluded. And some time later a letter came from her:
Oh, Pastor, I am so weak these days in spiritual life. It is sometimes unbearable to wait our first Christmas in Japan alone. The same old questions come up in my heart so repeatedly. 'Oh, Lord, why, why did You not take my soul with my dearest one? And why didn't You allow me to have our first Christmas together? And why did You not allow me, us, to have a small family?' Oh, Pastor, I am such an undisciplined girl, such a spoiled girl! I am singing Christmas songs, remembering you and your students, your home with Christmas trees, doughnuts, hot chocolate, ice cream, and singing voices! I am singing alone songs, songs he played with his flute.
But, Pastor, I am not complaining what God has done. I am learning everyday, through this small cross of sorrow and loneliness loaded upon my shoulder, little by little how to trust and how to obey God of love. Beyond sorrow, I find a joy and hope, even though the joy to live may wane so soon. God does not leave me long in despair, He never, never leave me down...
I thank God giving me such beautiful memories of Christmases received with my dearest and many, many good friends from all over the sea. I'll never stop singing songs to praise my Christ Child whom he trusted and loved, even in tears and smiles... Pastor, Lord makes me brave. I take Bible everywhere and do not hesitate to sing and pray among non-Christian friends. I cannot die, because He insists me to live and work for His glory. I am His slave. Please remember me and encourage me to live. Yours in Christ.1
What better prayer can I have for you than that, no matter what burden or loss in life may oppress you, you like this young woman, though you lose family and friends for the sake of your faith or lose your loved one, may still be able to say:
"Christ never, never leave me down. My eyes are full of tears with happiness, remembering these small treasures. I'll never stop singing songs to praise my Christ Child. I take Bible everywhere and do not hesitate to sing and pray among non-Christian friends. I cannot die, because He insists me to live and work for His glory. I am His slave."2
God give you that faith -- through Jesus Christ!
1 Devil's costume story adapted from "The Devil and the Masquerade Ball," and Japanese woman's letter quoted from "A True Story of Christian Faith," pp. 83 and 93-94 in The Possible Years: Thoughts After Thirty on Christian Adulthood, by Donald L. Deffner, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House 1973.