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Born to Live

God meets us at our point of vulnerability

Jesus is enjoying the most exhilarating moment of his life. He has just finished being the guest of honor in the Palm Sunday parade. His archenemies, the Pharisees, have finally admitted defeat by saying that the whole world has gone after him and there is nothing that they can do about it. For this poor and wandering preacher and teacher from Nazareth, this is his shining hour. But the opportunity for his highest honor is yet ahead. We read that certain Greeks who are visitors in Jerusalem request a private audience with him. Imagine. The glory of the Greeks is his. What more could he ask of life? Wait. A shadow darkens the skies and the shudder of death ripples through the soul of Jesus. He does not respond to Greeks. Instead he confesses the tension that he feels between his will to live in the glory of the Greeks and his will to die for the glory of God.

Hear him once again in this passage of Scripture speak his tension. "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground it abides alone. But if it die, it brings forth much fruit." Jesus has no trouble handling the acclaim of the masses who shout "Hosanna" and wave the palm leaves. Even the reluctant commendation of the Pharisees does not faze him. But to be sought by the Greeks, this is the temptation that tests the very depths of his soul. We could appreciate the glamorous enticement for an unschooled carpenter from a despised town suddenly coming to the attention of the aristocrats and the intellectuals of the ancient world, the Greeks. If we have any clue to the personal ambition and human vulnerability of Jesus, this is it. Here is where his cross begins. Here is where death and life come into tension. Here is where our salvation is placed upon a pivot.

When we are vulnerable the Word of God is our defense

How does Jesus respond? First, foremost, always and only with the Word of God. Instantly as the temptation comes from the Greeks, one of his own parables comes to mind. How many times had he used a simple word picture of a corn of wheat? In other times his words were truth delivered to other people, but now the truth comes back to the Author as a matter of life and death when he says, "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abides alone. But if it dies it brings forth much fruit." Does this mean Jesus? His mind races from the simple beauty of the parable to the very plain and hard foundation of his preaching. A principle returns home. His own words, "He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal."

There is more. A parable, a romantic story has not only now been advanced to a realistic, principle, but Jesus also remembers as he reflects that he has publicly claimed the truth as the guide for his own life and has laid down the challenge for others to follow him when he said, "If any man serve me, let him follow me. And where I am there shall also my servant be. If any man serve me, him will my Father honor." Preachers, parents, politicians and presidents are the most vulnerable people in the world. Sooner or later they hear their bold pronouncements come back to them as brash and personalized truth. Preachers will hear their words come back to them through their parishioners, parents through their children, politicians through their constituents, and presidents through their alumni.

But what a picture of the Word of God at work. We must first know the Word as our first line of defense for the time of temptation and particularly when Satan attacks us at our most vulnerable spot. Before that hour comes, however, we must commit the Word of God to our hearts and there it will remain true even if it's not immediately relevant to us at that moment in time. But when the hour of temptation comes, the Word will remind us and return to us of our commitment to God and our desire to make him our overwhelming first and to do his whole and holy will.

Have you experienced the Word of God at work during your time of need? So often the Word comes back through a story that we remember, like the parable that Jesus gave. And then it advances to a principle that we have claimed at one time or other in our lives. And then it leads us to some personal commitment that we made where we stood our ground, and then it leaves us with the challenge to do what we have asked others to do. How practical the Word is. When we're tempted to grasp a piece of life as if it were the whole of life. Whether it is in public acclaim, professional reputation, possessive affluence, personal piety, or physical existence itself, the Word of God brings us back to the truth that self must die fully if we are to live wholly for our God.

When we are vulnerable we must choose to do the will of God.

One might expect the story of Jesus and the Greeks to end here. Not so. The struggle just begins. Truth even if it is obvious must be worked through our lives and through our motives as well as the mind until God's Word becomes our word upon which we act. Death does not come easily for a life affirming person like Jesus. So what had been a philosophical paradox about life and death now becomes a violent confrontation between his consuming desire to live and his willingness to die. And so we begin to enter into the soul struggle of Jesus when he says, "Now is my soul troubled and what shall I say, 'Father, save me from this hour'?" With these words, you see, Jesus indicts once and for all an easy faith which slides through life and death matters with a flippant Praise the Lord.

C. S. Lewis voices that protest when he writes: "Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I will listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolation of religion or I'll suspect that you don't really understand." Do you understand? Of course you do. We may find it hard to identify with the mind of Jesus as powerful truth is readily recalled, but each of us feels the anguish of his troubled soul when we too must choose between our personal desires and God's holy will.

Around our home I am known as the one who is constantly saying, "Let's look at the options." My pattern of decision making includes a listing of the pros and cons of alternate choices. Jesus here does the same thing. Hung on the horns of a personal dilemma he weighs the alternative of entertaining the Greeks and basking in the glory of their golden age. Ah, think of it. To choose a piece of life that is the envy of the whole world. Imagine the name of Jesus being included in any anthology of Greek thought along with the names of Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, Heracleitus, and Aristotle. Certain many people down through the ages would be inspired and some might even be changed by his teaching. But wait. There's another side. That is the side to choose to drink fully from the bittersweet cup of death which seems to offer only the dregs of social disgrace, not intellectual honor, bodily pain, not physical existence, and spiritual separation, not social acceptability. For what purpose does Jesus weigh these options? To do the will of God and fulfill the purpose for which he has to come.

When we are most vulnerable God sometimes speaks

Jesus already is convinced that he's born to die. But until this moment he has no certainty that he is born to live. And so when the issue is finally drawn he chooses not between death or life; he chooses God when he says, "But for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name." Well, God responds to Jesus' reckless act of faith with a confirmation of a thundering voice. We read, "Then came there a voice from heaven saying, 'I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.'" It's as if God is calling into remembrance all of his acts from the time of creation through the history of the children of Israel and into the miracles of Jesus himself God lets his Son know that he had not lost his power to deliver those who put their trust in him. "I have glorified thy name, and I will glorify it again" is the promise of that power in action in the future.

And we need a God who speaks from time to time. Rare is the moment when God breaks through natural forces to confirm the decisions of his Son. Once when Jesus was baptized by John and once when Jesus stood on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah God's voice was heard in the heavens, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Now when Jesus chooses to do the will of God rather than accept the glory of the Greeks, God speaks again. Why? Jesus tells the crowd, "This voice came not because of me but for your sakes." No longer does the sonship of Jesus need to be confirmed, but he with us in this moment of confrontation and temptation needs the confirmation of God for a life and death decision at the point where he is most vulnerable. A day or so later he will have to kneel all alone in the Garden of Gethsemane struggling with the agony of physical death. No voice from heaven will be heard. No angels will minister to him. And add just one more day when Jesus is on the cross, God will not only remain silent but even severe the spiritual supports so that Jesus feels forsaken and totally alone.

But God always comes to us at the level of our need. When our faith is the weakest and our humanity is most vulnerable, that's when he comes to us with the confirmation of a thundering voice. But where our faith is strong and where our humanity is given to God, he may ask us to trust him in his silence.

The classic book entitled The Dark Night of the Soul, cites instance after instance where the saints of God have been tested in the silence. For our sakes, then, let the voice of God be heard down through the ages. When matters of life and death are at stake and our faith is tested at the limits, God will come to us as we need. But keep in mind, the greater our faith the more God will put us on our own. Perhaps waiting three days or more to confirm our choice in the act of his new creation as he did with Jesus after the crucifixion, three days before the resurrection.

When we are vulnerable we must be willing to let go of our lives

For Jesus, in this instance, the weight of his decision to die tips the scales toward life in its grandest expression short of the resurrection itself. First of all, Jesus deals with the false values which men hold. He declares, "Now is the judgment of this world." All of the lifesaving, death denying values of a secular and humanistic society are ever condemned to be deficient. And then Jesus deals with the subject of death himself when he says, "Now shall the prince of this world be cast out." He's saying that sin, Satan's hold on human life, is broken and death, Satan's last bastion of power, is conquered. And that frees Jesus to begin to soar toward the affirmation of life by an acceptance of death when he says, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth." Jesus had spoken of death before, but this is the most specific indication that he will die by crucifixion, lifted up from the earth to die the death of a thousand thief.

Before this time Jesus might not have fully absorbed this harsh truth, but now he can not because he's nursing a sick wish for death but because he sees the other side of the scale and he has the vision of drawing all men unto him. "I will draw all men unto me." All men, not just the Greeks, but Greeks, Romans, Jews, rich and poor, whole and handicapped, simple and intelligent, black and white, male and female, east and west, north and south. Life, you see, bursts with full meaning for Jesus. Affirmative action is announced not as a legislated form of social justice from the federal government but as the free gift of God's love for all men everywhere. Jesus now knows that he is born to live.

At least once in my life I have had the faith to let go of my life as Jesus did. Shortly after entering into one of our college presidencies we were confronted by the fact that the institution had a current debt of almost one million dollars. All of my dreams that took me to that university had to be deferred by financial crises? And what would I do? As you might expect by now, I took my wife to lunch and laid out our options. We decided that we could resign and feel justified. But if so, how had we been so sure that God was calling us to that ministry? We could stay, pour ourselves into the task and possibly succeed with the knowledge that financial recovery is a hollow victory and soon forgotten. Or we could stay and we could fail. But who wants a college president who has failed? We also said we could stay and lose our health. We could stay and lose our family. My wife and I struggled with each of these options and all of its implications.

Finally I said "I will stay on one condition. It won't be on the basis of financial recovery. It won't be with the fear of reputation. It won't even be with the concern about my own personal health. But I simply cannot lose my family. God will have to help me at my point of vulnerability."

When I said that my wife answered, "What are we waiting for? Let's go."

Years of good ministry have passed not without wins and losses, not without exhilarating highs and deep, wounding lows. But each time we felt like walking away from that task God has spoken through the lives of our children—their salvation, their college choices, their marriage partners, their career decisions. You see, in some other life and death matters my faith might be strong, but as God knew that Jesus had his Greeks, the point of vulnerability between life and death, David McKenna has his family.. And so in praise to God this day, knowing that he calls us to be born to live because he calls us to be born to die, I say thank God for his testing. Thank God for his Word. Thank God for his struggle. Thank God for his voice. Thank God for his life. Thank God for his glory. Thank God. Thank God. Thank God.

David McKenna is president emeritus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. His books include Wesleyan Leadership in Troubled Times.

(c) David McKenna

Preaching Today Tape #07


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. When we are vulnerable the Word of God is our defense

II. When we are vulnerable we must choose to do the will of God

III. When we are most vulnerable God sometimes speaks

IV. When we are vulnerable we must be willing to let go of our lives