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Who Can Take It?

The Spirit of God can help us respond redemptively to the inevitable troubles of life.


Ezekiel 2:2 says: "As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me." The voice of this prophet, Ezekiel, is a voice from exile. It is the cry of the oppressed rising above the hopelessness of cruel circumstance and giving expression to an undying hope. There is a contemporary note in his message that might have been written from somewhere in Poland, from the land of the Czechs, or from any one of the Nazi-occupied countries.

Ezekiel remembered the beginning of his nation's sorrows — the invasion by the enemy, the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile, the killings, the cruelties, the ruins of the Holy City, the broken families, the concentration camps of his day—and the flickering light of hope had almost gone out. Then something happened to him. He became fired with a new resolve. He became one of the leaders of a cause that was not lost but, on the contrary, could never be defeated. What had happened to him? He said, "The Spirit of God came into me and raised me to my feet."

Yes, that does happen to men and women in the hours of their darkest despair. They are raised from the horizontals of despair to the perpendiculars of hope. They are elevated from the depths of despondency to the heights of courage and vision. Something happens when the Spirit of God enters into men and changes them. New courage comes. Fires are rekindled. Dusty flags are again unfurled. Songs are revised. Dazed eyes begin to shine again. People stand upon their feet. They can face the present for the hope of the future.

Surely the story of Ezekiel is timely for us. It is a parable that ought to strike responsive chords in the hearts of men and women today. All around the prophet, people were going to pieces, giving up hope. And who could blame them? It is difficult to expect to them hope when there is no hope. It is hard to persuade them to endure when there is no future to which to look forward. It is hard, as another prophet cried, to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land. And only the exile knows how patently true that is.

The Jews in concentration camps in this century knew full well how Ezekiel felt. To them it was an old story too tragically familiar. In the midst of lost faith, lost hope, and lost morale, Ezekiel rose up. The Spirit entered into him and set him upon his feet. Problems can be overcome. We are inclined to say with regard to modern problems, "Well, of course, that's human nature," as if that were something that could not be changed, as if that were one of the final irreducible factors in modem perplexity. But what heresy is that, to say merely with a shrug of resignation, "Well, of course, that is human nature"?

Human nature need not be like that. Human nature can be changed. Human nature must be changed. It would be heresy to say otherwise. But only the Spirit of God can change human nature. We are not to change it by giving men a new address. Substituting a different environment will not change the heart. A new nature does not come from a new neighborhood. Human nature must be changed, and the Spirit of God can and does change it. Some of the grandest things men have ever done were done when everything was gone save the feeble flicker in the lamp of hope that can be built up into a glorious blaze to light the weary heart of the hopeless.

When next you hear the thrilling strains of the "Hallelujah Chorus," will you remember that when Handel wrote it, his health and his fortunes had reached the lowest possible ebb? His right side had become paralyzed, and all his money was gone. He was heavily in debt and threatened with imprisonment. He was tempted to give up the fight. The odds seemed entirely too great. And it was then that he composed his greatest work—"Messiah." Could not we say of Handel that the Spirit entered into him and set him upon his feet?

The misfortunes of life do not come to all men equally. And there are times when we are tempted to suspect the dice are loaded and a cruel fate with malice toward us in particular is dealing from the bottom of the deck. But, after all, the important thing is how we deal with troubles that come to us. I might paraphrase an old Negro spiritual and say, "All God's children got troubles." Of course they have. Troubles have come, are coming, and will come to all of us. But that which differentiates us is our response to them—what we do when trouble comes.

I believe I can illustrate my message by use of what you might call a parable or a simile or a metaphor. I'm not at all sure what it is. You may judge. One day in the land of the bivalves there came real trouble to one oyster. Into the oyster's shell there intruded a grain of sand. It was not a very large grain of sand, quite a tiny piece of quartz. But it was sharp. Its edges were keen, and the oyster was painfully aware of the intruder. There were at least four courses of action open to the patient sufferer.

The mutineer

First, there was the attitude of the mutineer whose sign is the clenched fist. The oyster might have said with considerable heat and justification, "What have I done to suffer this? Why should this have to happen to me? If there is a God of justice, if there is a God of love, then why should this be permitted to come to pass? Why should I be called upon to endure this pain? Why should this misfortune have descended upon me? Considering the millions of oyster shells lying up and down the Eastern seaboard, why in the name of higher mathematics did you have to enter my particular shell?" There are people you know who speak like that. There are those who grumble and complain. There are those who whine petulantly unto heaven in a vain effort to understand why misfortunes come. It would be understandable if the oyster harbored resentment and bitterness or entertained self-pity. It would be understandable if in the oyster's heart there were to roll the drums of mutiny. It would be understandable if the oyster should pass his time in complaint before God. Yet, we know (and doubtless the oyster knows) that all of his grumblings and all of his complaints could not adequately deal with the situation because the grain of sand would still be there.

The dreamer

Or the oyster might adopt the attitude of the dreamer, whose sign is the closed eye. The oyster might refuse to face the fact and try to live in the warm atmosphere of wishful thinking. The oyster might have heard in its brief season of popularity the popular song that says, "If you wish long enough, wish strong enough, you will come to know that wishing will make it so." And the oyster might have said, "Oh, I do wish this grain of sand would go away. And I shall wish it every day. And I shall wish it over and over again. O grain of sand, go away."

Or perhaps the oyster might, like some Americans, have been inclined to say, "What? A grain of sand in my shell! Why, it's impossible. It couldn't happen here. It's just propaganda. I'm not going to believe it. Such things couldn't happen to me." During the heroic defense of the Bataan Peninsula, I happened to overhear a conversation between a civilian and a major in the United States Army in the lounge of a Pullman car. The civilian had asked why we were not sending reinforcements to General MacArthur. I shall not soon forget the major's reply. "Oh," he said with a shrug, "MacArthur's doing all right. Besides, one American soldier is as good as a hundred Japs any day." I have often wondered what that major is thinking now. Or if he has yet begun to think.

Yes, the oyster might, like some of our most cultured and most highly-educated people, have tried to deny reality. The oyster might have said, "After all, pain, like sin, is an error of the mind. It is negative thinking. And I shall dismiss it entirely by projecting my thoughts upon a high, pure, lovely, positive level. I shall concentrate only on the good, the lovely, the beautiful, and the true. I'll deny entrance to my mind of any other negative thoughts, and thus make it unreal. I'm perfectly all right. Very comfortable, thank you. Getting along very well." The oyster might have subscribed to a course in ten easy lessons on how to influence himself. And he might have said over and over again, "Every day and in every way, I'm getting better and better." Yes, the oyster might have said things like that, but it would not adequately have dealt with the problem because the grain of sand would still be there.

The stoic

Or the oyster might adopt the attitude of the stoic whose sign is the stiff upper lip. This is a noble attitude. There is something thrilling about it, something that we cannot help but admire. The brave heart that cries: "No surrender. Don't give up the ship. We have not yet begun to fight. Hold that line!" There is something thrilling and noble about a spirit like it. William Ernest Henley's poem "Invictus," even in its paganism, has this thrilling line: "My head is bloody but unbowed." That's fine; that's noble; that's grand and thrilling. We all respond to courage and heroism. We read with misty eyes and lumps in our throats of sailors clinging to life rafts tossing in the ocean, or huddled cold and wet, watching their ship plunge to the bottom. Their grim determination and magnificent spirit thrills us all.

At the beginning of the war, there were notable examples, like the foundering of the Aphenia. At that time, one of the popular songs was "The Beer Barrel Polka." Incredible as it seems, we read of survivors struggling in the water and crouching wet and shivering in life boats, singing together, "Roll out the barrel, and we'll have a barrel of fun!" One might wonder at the choice of the song. One might be aghast at the prospect of facing eternity to the strains of "The Beer Barrel Polka." But there is something thrilling about a spirit that can sing at such a time, even though what they sing seems inane and strangely inappropriate.

I have often thought what a startling contrast to another maritime disaster in May 1912 when the Titanic went down. I was a little boy then, but I can well remember the special editions of newspapers and magazines with heavy black borders describing the loss of this magnificent new ship that men said could never sink. This floating palace collided with a floating mountain of ice, and icy knives ripped open a hull that was claimed to be unsinkable. The ship's orchestra, which a few minutes before had been playing Strauss waltzes in the ballroom, gathered on the boat deck. Male passengers stood aside to the cry, "Women and children first!" as loaded life boats were lowered away. They waited patiently, hoping that there might be a chance of rescue.

When it appeared that none was likely, the orchestra began to play and sing, "Nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee, E'en though it be a cross that raiseth me. Still all my songs shall be nearer, my God, to thee. Nearer, my God, to thee. Nearer to thee." When you contrast that with "Roll out the barrel, and we'll have a barrel of fun," you can see what has happened to a nation's faith. You can see what has happened to the faith of people in thirty years, can't you? Facing eternity to the strains of the "Beer Barrel Polka" or "Lay that Pistol Down"—what a commentary upon the faith of immortal souls.

The stoic has always inspired us. Heroism in the face of difficulty has put backbone into many a man. So, if the oyster were to say, "I'll never give in. I'll fight it out on this line. Though I'm bleeding and sore, yet I will never surrender. I must remember that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. I'll hang on." I say that's noble. It's thrilling. It's fine. It's magnificent. But it does not adequately deal with the problem. The grain of sand is still there.

The realist and idealist

As a matter of fact, the oyster does none of these things because the oyster is at one and the same time a realist and an idealist. You can be both; you must be both in times like these. You must be a realist and an idealist, and the Christian can be and must be both. The oyster knows, with a profound wisdom God gives to the humblest of his creatures, that nothing is accomplished by rebellion against hard reality. The oyster knows that you can't deny a bleeding, stabbing pain in your side. You can't deny blood. And the oyster knows that no amount of stoicism can ever make life comfortable again once a grain of sand has entered your shell.

So what does the oyster do? The oyster begins carefully and patiently with infinite skill to deposit upon the quartz a milky substance, which upon its sandy base is spun and wrapped in nature's magic to make of the grain of sand that for which divers are willing to risk their lives—a pearl, a thing of beauty and hidden life, smooth and warm, wondrous beauty wrapped around trouble. May the Spirit of God come upon us.


Let us learn from the oyster, for life is a difficult game and these are trying times. We have not yet begun to pay the cost of the war. There may be some in this very place, within sound of my voice, who will be called upon to make the supreme sacrifice. There may be some who will be called upon to make a great renunciation, to lay upon the altar of patriotism that which they cherish most. There may be parents whose hearts have already begun to feel the pang of a separation that might last until the end of the trail, because blue stars are turning into gold. Troubles may come that we know not of. Pain and grief may come to us. Many horrible things are possible, and many horrible things are yet to happen.

But if the blow should fall, it will not crush us nor lay us low. Remember, Ezekiel did not set himself upon his feet. He did not pull up his own boot straps to rise from dead horizontals. No, the Spirit of God raised him up. The Spirit of God entered into him. The Spirit of God came to him and changed him. May the Spirit of God come to you and to me. May the Spirit of God enter into your heart and mine. May you and I be changed. God knows we need to be changed. The tragic story of our years is not the end. We have not come to the close of the chapter. God builds no roads that end in dreary bogs or lose themselves in melancholy wanderings over the moors of misfortune. By the Spirit of God, we have the faith that the plan of God is not at the mercy of our enemies and cannot be defeated by their triumphs or their temporary gains. We have the faith that out of this tragedy and sorrow there will come a better world, a brighter tomorrow, and a richer life.

The Spirit of God entered into Ezekiel and set him upon his feet. And the Spirit can enter into you and me to keep us from falling and, if some heavy blow should bring us low, raise us up again with a new vision of God, a new sense of his purpose, a new hope in his promise and the glorious victory over our misfortune. May we make of our troubles the pearls that shall adorn our faith.

May I remind you that when the writers of our old hymns, when our parents and our grandparents used to speak of the pearly gates, it was much more than a figure of speech. When they spoke of entering into heaven into the presence of God, into glory and to bliss forever more through gates that were made of pearls, they spoke an eternal truth. Because it is through our misfortunes, transformed by the grace of God, that we enter into his presence and into his joy forevermore. In as much as a pearl is wondrous beauty wrapped around trouble, so are the pearly gates, by the grace of God, made of our misfortunes, our trials, and our temptations through which we emerge triumphant by the grace of God. It is more than a figure of speech to say that we enter into heaven through pearly gates.

When the Spirit of God enters into you, you will be changed. You will become triumphant because Christ has promised, not to save us from trouble, but to save us in it. His promise is not to deliver us from tribulation, from temptation, from sorrow or tears, but to save us in the very midst of them. So come what may, let the darkening skies break upon us. Let the unknown future whisper its menace. We shall not fear. Our trust being in God, our faith is well founded; and we shall find his grace sufficient for all our needs, sufficient to transform every grain of sand into lovely pearls with which our diadem someday shall be adorned. So might it be.

© 1994 Peter Marshall, Jr.
A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. The mutineer

II. The dreamer

III. The stoic

IV. The realist and idealist