Here's a great sermon from one of our featured preachers, Haddon Robinson.
T. S. Elliott, in one of his poems, asked a penetrating question about what matters and what seems to matter. How do we decide? If you're a thoughtful person, that question will dog you all of your life. Between what matters and what seems to matter, how do we decide?
You're faced with it now as students taking a number of courses. You have to attend a number of classes, read a number of books, write a number of papers, and take a number of exams. If you're married you have a responsibility to your spouse. If you have children you have a responsibility to them. If you have a job you have a responsibility to the persons paying you a salary. If you serve at a church you have a responsibility to that body of believers. Between what matters and what seems to matter, how do you decide?
You face it as you move out into ministry. For example, if you're a pastor you're always dogged by the tyranny of the urgent. So many things to do. Being the pastor of the local congregation is a bit like dipping the Atlantic. You dip and dip and dip, and there's a puddle at your feet but the Atlantic is always there. At the end of the day you wonder if you've done anything worthwhile. At the end of a week, at the end of a month, at the end of a ministry, at the end of a life you wonder if you have decided well between what matters and what seems to matter.
I face it. God, with his delicious sense of the absurd, put me as the acting president at Gordon-Conwell. My predecessor at Denver described the presidency as being trampled to death by ducks. The president does everything she can do to keep those ducks out, but they keep coming through the window. I asked my predecessor a number of times, between what matters and what seems to matter, how do you decide?
How do you decide between what matters and what really matters?
But there's a similar question that's much deeper. And that is: between what matters and what really matters, how do you decide? All kinds of things take place on this campus, and they matter. If I were to ask our professors in exegesis, "What do you think matters?" they would say language matters. The folks in Christian thought would say ideas matter. The ideas as they've come to us throughout history, the ideas we have to wrestle with now, matter. If you go to the enlightened heights of the school where the preaching faculty is, they'll tell you preaching matters. What good is it to have all this information stuffed in your head if you can't get it across to somebody else? More serious people would say faith matters. Without faith it's impossible to please God; somehow you've got to create an environment where faith thrives. My colleagues would say the poor matter. The Bible has all kinds of things to say about the poor. And the person with the trump card says that's all right, but you've got to see to it that the people at the seminary understand that commitment matters. Jesus didn't say come follow me and we'll go to a Sunday school picnic. This is a way to a great career. His call was: come and die. So somehow you've got to get across that that matters.
And they're all right. It all matters. So the question isn't: does it matter? The question is: what matters most? There's a workable lead to that question in Paul's first letter in his Corinthian correspondence. In chapter 12 he's been talking about spiritual gifts, and Paul was no man to downgrade spiritual abilities. It's the gifts the Spirit gives that enable the church to thrive. But then at the end of chapter 12 he says, "But I show you a more excellent way." And he's going to say it's the way of love; that love really matters. If you miss it there you can pick it up in the first verse of chapter 14 where Paul says, "Follow after love." Earnestly desire spiritual gifts by ministering in love. Love really matters.
Many gifts are good, but they are worthless if done without love.
So Paul lays that out in the first stanza of this great hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13. He says, "If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal." Paul imagines somebody who is able to speak all the languages of earth. Talk about the gift of tongue. Nobody's ever had that gift to that extent. I once knew one man who could read 34 languages and speak in over half of them. As far as I know he never spoke with angels. But this person could speak all the languages of earth. Imagine what a wonderful missionary she would make. One of the difficulties we have of taking Christ to the world is if somebody wants to go to another country, they have to learn the language. It takes years to do it. Here's a person who, any time he lands at any airport in the world, he could talk to anybody he meets. And if he gets a chance to speak I gather he would speak eloquently. And yet Paul said if you have that gift as no one has ever had it and you don't have love, you're a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal.
The word for a gong here is the Greek word chalkŏs. It was a huge gong usually put into pagan temples. It would stir the people worshiping it to frenzy. The cymbals, also used in pagan worship, would be like cymbals in a symphony orchestra today. And the gong and the cymbals had one thing in common: there was no music in them. All they made was a loud, senseless din. And Paul is saying, without love your gift of languages, your gift of eloquence, is just a loud noise.
I remember some time ago talking with a long-time member of a congregation pastored by a well-known preacher. She said more wistfully than critically, "When he's in the pulpit and we listen to him preach we wish he'd never leave. But when he's out of the pulpit and we feel the caustic nature of his life we wish he'd never get into the pulpit again." Perhaps that was why Jonathan Edwards resolved early in his life: "I'm determined to preach no sermon or even to write one unless I am motivated by the glory of God and love for the people to whom I speak." Hear it well: without love our gifts accomplish nothing.
And then Paul turns from the gift of tongues and talks about gifts he appreciates. He says in verse 2: "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." Because of the financial struggles we face these days it's been hard to replace faculty. But I'll tell you this: if somebody came along with these gifts and asked to be on our faculty, we'd get him through. This person has all knowledge. You could take this whole crowd together; they don't have all knowledge. And this person understands all mysteries. Sovereignty and responsibility are a snap. Eschatology, they got it down. And what is more, they have the gift of prophecy. They can speak perceptibly to a congregation. They can communicate. I've known some people who have knowledge stored in their heads like the gold at Fort Knox, but when it comes to getting it across to somebody else they can't make change for a dollar. This person can do it all. And what is more, this person has faith that can remove mountains. This is the kind of person who starts a seminary, founds missions movements, starts churches, who can see where God's wants him or her to go, and although there are mountains of difficulty they have a faith to see their way through it. Talk about leadership. This is the kind of person you write biographies about. And yet Paul said, if you can do all of that, even though people might be startled at what you're able to do, if you don't have love you are nothing.
Imagine you have a $50 bill, so you go to buy some groceries. The clerk takes your $50 bill, puts it in the cash register. A little later the manager needs some money to pay an electrician and takes your $50 bill, leaves an IOU, and pays the electrician. The electrician realizes he needs some gas for his truck, so he goes over to the Gulf station, fills it up, pays for the gas with your $50 bill. The man who runs the station has your $50 bill and the landlord comes over and wants to be paid. So he takes your $50 bill and several others and gives them to the landlord to pay the rent. The landlord is going to mail a letter to his daughter down in university in Rhode Island, so before he goes to the post office to send the letter, he takes the 50 dollars and tucks it into the envelop as a token of his love. A day or two later the young lady gets that gift and, grateful to her dad, she takes that $50 bill, goes to the bookstore, and buys two textbooks. The manager of the bookstore takes your $50 bill and several others to the bank, and as the teller is counting out the money, he comes to your $50 bill and discovers that it's counterfeit.
Now that bill has gone all over New England doing good things—bought the groceries, paid for an electrician, purchased gas, became a gift for a college student, bought books. But when it comes to the bank where only real values count, it's discovered to be worthless. In a similar way it's possible to minister the gifts God gives you, do all kinds of things with it, but when we stand before God with whom only real values count, if we have not ministered with love we ourselves are nothing.
Then Paul takes this a step further. Not only do your gifts without love accomplish nothing, not only do your gifts ministered without love make you nothing, but Paul says, "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames but have not love, I gain nothing." Notice here is an individual who's concerned about the poor, or at least it seems that way. He gives all that he has to the poor; not just the interest, but the principal as well. And then it says, "If I surrender my body to the flames." I'm not quite sure what that means. Perhaps the apostle is thinking of those three Hebrew young men back in the Old Testament who went into a fiery furnace rather than to deny God, or maybe it's somebody who runs into a burning building to save somebody from death. One commentator suggests that in the ancient world Christians would be in slavery, and a brother who was free would sell himself into slavery, have the mark burned into his hand, and his brother would be free to serve the church. We don't know what it means. The point, however, is clear. And that is, if I give myself in sacrifice, give my money to feed the poor, if I do all that and don't have love, when I stand before God on that day I gain nothing.
Love matters most.
The point's clear, isn't it? Among the things that matter, love really matters. In fact, if you don't have love, all of your Christian service comes to nothing. We need to note that in our seminaries, in our churches, in our movements we put a great deal of emphasis on sincerity and sacrifice and service and the use of our gifts, but they can be a kind of service from which all love has been squeezed, a kind of sacrifice that is simply a neurotic response to feeling that you're doing something if you hurt. We have a kind of service that is just self-advertising: I'll give to the poor if you name the mission after me. But Paul says that of all the things that matter, love really matters.
We passed out a program, so you can pass the time by doodling. It's great. Everybody thinks you're taking notes. I suggest that you take the page and draw a row of zeroes. It adds up to nothing. So get another row and another row and then another row and another row and another row. You can fill the whole page; the whole thing adds up to nothing. But you take one zero and put a one in front of it, it counts for ten, two is a hundred, three is a thousand, six is a million. And in some way that's true of love. Minister, go use all your gifts without love and it adds up to nothing. But take the smallest gift and minister it in love, and it counts. It counts with people, and it counts with Jesus Christ.
Of all the things that matter, love matters most. Take joy in that. If you're a Christian you are better at loving than you think you are. The same God who has given you gifts is the same God whose love is shed abroad in your heart. It's the work of the Spirit that produces love. And you are a gifted bunch. I'm in awe of the gifts you have, and God gave you those gifts. But he has also enabled you to love. Love him and love one another. Of all the things that matter, love matters most.
To see an outline of Robinson's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.