~ John 3:14-18/Ephesians 2:1-10/Psalm 107 ~
I have a story this morning.
It was my very first sermon. I was 18 years old. First semester at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and my first “practical Christian work” assignment was at the mothership of rescue missions, the Pacific Garden Mission just south of the loop. Of course, this was to be an evangelistic sermon because the whole purpose of the mission was to get those men saved. Getting the men to walk down the aisle to accept Jesus as their personal savior was the goal of the sermon.
I had come up with what I thought was a brilliant message, a sermon with such compelling logic that it could not be denied and would certainly result in a rich harvest of souls. I preached that day from these familiar words from John 3. But I didn’t choose verse 16 as one might assume – “For God so loved the world.” No, I chose verse 18: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” “Condemned already!” That was my sermon.
As I said, the logic was unassailable or so I thought. If you haven’t decided for Jesus, you’ve already decided against Jesus. You’re condemned already. It’s like if you are standing on the railroad tracks with a train coming at you. You either choose to get off the tracks or you get hit by the train. You cannot notdecide. So, my evangelistic appeal that Sunday afternoon at the Pacific Garden Mission: Believe in Jesus – now. Don’t wait. By waiting you’ve already decided. And, more urgently, Jesus might be coming back any moment, so don’t dally. Flushed with excitement, I concluded by inviting the men to come forward and get saved.
And…nothing happened. While the invitational hymn went on verse after verse the men just sat there. Finally I asked if any might want me to pray for them; “raise your hand if you’d like prayer.” Again, a long pause. Finally, one man raised his hand.
With that the meeting closed and they all went off to supper. I sought out the man who raised his hand. I really can’t remember what he wanted me to pray for. But he did tell me that he’d been saved several times already that day. And it suddenly dawned on me. The method of the rescue mission philosophy was that in order to get a meal or a bed at night you had to first sit through an evangelistic service conducted by the likes of me and my cohorts. Thus was the beginning of my questioning the whole ‘evangelistic’ approach to doing ministry. I vowed that if I were ever to run an inner-city rescue mission, I would let the guys eat first and then invite them to a service, but only if they wanted to.
I said that I couldn’t remember what the man wanted me to pray for. Not quite true. He told me he’d been going through a really hard time – sleeping on the streets, getting hassled by others on the street, facing a drug charge, and more. Frankly, I didn’t have anything to help him. I told him he could check in with the mission staff. But he’d already done that. So, I told him God loved him (which, in retrospect should have been my sermon all along) and that I’d pray for him. And I went back to my dorm pondering. My journey to find a relevant faith began that day. The things one remembers from 50+ years ago.
Why do I tell this story? Because I’ve come to learn I had it all wrong. God just isn’t out to judge and condemn. Oh, I suppose one can find judging-type language in this chapter three of John. Indeed, that’s what I jumped on those many years ago. But the important message is that “God so loved the world.” Love is the message and that’s message that we need most.
You can find some judgmental language in all our texts today. Ephesians speaks of being dead through our trespasses and sins. But the takeaway is grace, “the immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace. Psalm 107, featured in our call to worship and assurance of pardon, speaks of those who were sick due to their sinful ways, nearing the gates of death. But the real message of the psalm is redemption and God’s “steadfast love endures forever.”
So, like Nicodemus coming to ask questions of Jesus in the middle of the night, when we come we don’t need to hear a bunch of judgment, being reminded of how we don’t measure up, how we deserve the fates of our sinful ways, indeed, that we deserve hell. No, we just don’t need that, not now, not ever. Particularly in these current times, we need some love, some grace, some hope. We need and want to be embraced and hugged and told we’re ‘gonna be all right’.
Oh, to be able to hug again! One year ago today we stopped worshipping together, in person. I wasn’t here but I do know you had a meeting after worship and decided to suspend in-person worship for a couple of weeks. Keenan was truly sad about the stoppage but she was prepared to lead you all in the first Zoom worship the next Sunday. But then, on March 16, the city shut down everything and the rest is history – a full year of Zoom worship. Little did we know that it would be such a hard year, in so many different ways. And yet, here we are, keeping on.
So, the last thing we need is divine finger-pointing. We don’t need “condemned already.” Many of us have been going through some really tough [expletive delated] this year. It’s been hard. It still is hard. Some of us are experiencing real sorrow. We need healing. We need consolation. We need to speak of our anguish. We need salve for our wounded hearts.
These sentiments are featured in the hymn we are going to sing now: Come, Ye Disconsolate. The author and composer, Thomas Moore, was an Irish balladeer in the 1800’s. He was quite well known; sort of an Irish Robert Burns. He hung out with the likes of Lord Byron and Mary Shelly. A prolific writer of verse, he often was embroiled in the Catholic and Protestant conflicts of the day but he was not an overtly religious man. So it surprised many when in 1824 he published his Sacred Song Duets, which included Come, Ye Disconsolate.
The hymn invites the disconsolate, those who are unhappy, to bring their miseries to God’s mercy seat, assuring them that “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” So maybe, as we sing this old hymn, those of us who are experiencing disappointments might find some healing, some restoration, and some wholeness. “Come to the feast of love, come, ever knowing earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.” Amen.