During the troubled years of the Second World War, the Italian forces were driven out of Eritrea in North Africa. In an effort to make the harbor unusable to the Allies, the Italians took great barges, filled them with concrete, and caused them to be sunk across the entrance to the harbor. When the Allies entered, their problem was to remove those barges in order that the harbor might become usable.
They did so in a very ingenious way. They took great gas tanks—not the kinds of tanks we have on our cars or in our homes, but those huge tanks that hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel in great oil refineries. They sealed those tanks so they would float, and they caused them to be floated over the place where the barges were below. When the tide was out, they chained the tanks to the barges. When the tide came in, the barges were lifted by the tanks floating with the tide. The barges were pulled from the sucking sand at the bottom of the bay. It was then a relatively easy matter to remove them and make the harbor usable again.
Think of the power in that! The barges were chained to the tanks. The tanks were dependent upon the tides. The tides were pulled by the gravitational attraction of the moon, and the moon was moving in accord with the whole cosmos, the great sidereal system. Tremendous, unimaginable, dynamic power belongs to the tides.
It's this idea which Shakespeare emphasizes in the fourth act of Julius Caesar, when he puts these words upon the lips of Brutus trying to enlist Cassius in his aid. (Note how Shakespeare speaks of the power of the tides and then adds another serious consideration concerning them.) He writes: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyages of their life are bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures."
What Shakespeare is saying is not only that the tides have great power, but that they also are irretrievable, unstoppable, unrecallable. Their lifting strength comes for but a few hours and then is gone. And if you miss the flood, you will be left in shallows and in miseries, having lost your ventures.
Now I ask you to come with me to a place that's not at sea, but rather is thirty-five miles inland from the sea. It is a garden called Gethsemane. Jesus has come there, on the same night in which he was betrayed, for prayer. Judas has already gone to betray him. Jesus leaves eight of the disciples at the gate of the garden, and three, those closest to him—Peter, James and John—join him in a kind of inner glade. And Jesus urges them to pray with him.
Then he goes apart and throws himself out flat upon the earth and prays that the cup of the whole world's sin might not be forced upon him. He is in a tremendous agony of spirit. All the hideous hurt of the whole world's history is flowing through the single channel of his great heart. Having so prayed, he goes back to the disciples for some word of encouragement and finds them asleep. "Would you not watch," he asks, "even for an hour? Watch and pray, lest you yourselves enter into temptation. Your spirit is willing but your flesh is weak. Therefore, watch and pray."
Again he goes apart to pray, and this time the Scriptures say his prayer was so intense that his sweat came, as it were, like great drops of blood falling in a kind of crystalline rosary at his feet. Once again he goes back to the disciples, seeking some word of support and help. And once again he finds them asleep. This time he permits them to remain asleep (that's a very significant detail in the story) and goes back to pray alone. A few minutes later he sees torches flickering through the branches of the olive trees. Soldiers of the high priest have come. He goes back to his disciples and says, "Arise. My betrayer is at hand." He is led off to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, and the disciples are left hiding among Gethsemane's bushes. They are left in the shallows and they are left in miseries, because they have missed the tides.
We must not miss the tide of opportunity to grow in character
First, they missed the tide of opportunity to grow in character. Every one of us is in need of growth in character. Not long ago I was talking to some young men who are part of the Word of God Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One of these young men asked me why it was that there is so little thought about character in our time. And what I said to him, I share with you this morning.
In a day when behavioral psychology is the dominant psychology of the time (a psychology which teaches us character is nothing more than the influence of our environment), and in a time when moral relativism has settled across the land like some thick, stinking fog so that there are no absolutes recognized as being right or wrong, and in a time when the pseudo-sophisticated laugh at the very notion of character, it should not surprise us that there is so little serious talk of character, let alone focus on growth in character. But we all need to grow in character, and we need to recognize such growth cannot occur at every moment and under every circumstance. There are tides in the development of character. Catch them and growth is yours. Miss them and you are left in shallows and in miseries.
My first pastorate was in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, which was famous at that time for having the world's largest steel-tube rolling mills. They created a seamless tube there which was unparalleled. Many was the time I stood in one of those great machines (the command module was called the pulpit, incidentally) with the man operating the machine. I'd see a great serpent of molten metal come slithering down into the machine, and it would be chopped off. Then the machine would grab it by its ends and begin to spin. By centrifugal force, that bar of molten metal would open from the inside out, forming a perfect tube of steel without seam and without blemish.
Many times I asked the men directing those machines, "What's the most important ingredient in the process?" The answer was always the same: "It's the temperature of the metal. If it is too hot, it will fly apart; if it is too cold, it will not open as it ought. Unless you catch the molten moment, you cannot make the perfect tube." Unless we catch those molten moments when character can develop, we miss our opportunity just as the disciples did.
They missed such an opportunity there in Gethsemane. They had the opportunity to see how Jesus handled suffering and hurt. They had the chance to see him face ugliness straight on—not run away from it, not attempt to deny it, but confront it, and so defeat it. In observing him they could have learned about courage, and patience, and hope, and endurance, and pity, and mercy, and fortitude. All of these precious lessons could have been theirs. But they slept, and so missed the tide.
I do not know what would constitute a molten moment for you. Perhaps it might be your own suffering. Maybe it is the death of someone you very much love. Perhaps it is some inner urge you cannot explain, the voice of conscience. Maybe it's the example of someone you admire; a bit of Scripture; a piece of lace you find, which once belonged to your mother; a letter from an old friend; the words of a sermon; the words of this preacher in this sermon. Whatever it is, it suddenly causes within you the feeling that you wish to expand and develop your character beyond that which you have known before. Claim that moment. Don't sleep through it. Jesus says to the disciples, "Could you not watch? Watch and pray lest you, yourselves, enter into temptation."
We must not miss the tide of opportunity to grow as children of God
The disciples in Gethsemane also missed the opportunity to grow as the children of God. Any one of us can strike a match. Any one of us can light a candle. Any one of us can ignite a bonfire. But no one of us and no group of us and not even all of us together can enkindle the flaming power of the Holy Spirit of God. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit comes and goes like the wind, utterly outside any direction or control from us.
There in Gethsemane that night, the Holy Spirit was moving. His hot breath filled that place. And the disciples slept through it. Notice that while Jesus wakened the disciples the first time, he did not waken them the second time. In verse 44, we are told that when he found them sleeping again, he went away. In other words, one cannot depend on the Holy Spirit of God to interrupt in such dramatic fashion each and every time. If we turn away from the enkindling power of the Spirit, we may never know that power again.
I often think of it in terms of our great space shot. Do you remember a few years ago when we sent that sophisticated space vehicle out to take pictures of the planet Jupiter? For a period of more than two years, that space vehicle was moving toward Jupiter. And then there came a time of closest approximation. In those moments, the cameras on board that vehicle took and sent back to us remarkable pictures of Jupiter. But then, having completed its task, the vehicle continued out into space, and it continues so until this very minute. Never again will it come close to Jupiter.
Just so, there are times when we come very close to God, and the hot breath of his Holy Spirit is all about us. In that time of closest approximation, let us claim what it is to be a child of God. For if we miss that moment, it may never come for us again.
David Brainerd, the great missionary to the American Indians, was on one occasion witnessing to a chief, who was very close to deciding for Christ. But he held back; there was some pause or hesitation. Brainerd got up, took a stick, drew a circle in the soft earth about the chief, and said, "Decide before you cross that line." Why this passion and urgency? Because Brainerd recognized that at that moment that chief was close to God. If he missed that moment, he might never be so close again.
It is said that Satan once called to him the emissaries of hell and said he wanted to send one of them to earth to aid women and men in the ruination of their souls. He asked which one would want to go. One creature came forward and said, "I will go." And Satan said, "If I send you, what will you tell the children of men?" He said, "I will tell the children of men that there is no heaven." And Satan said, "They will not believe you, for there is a bit of heaven in every human heart. In the end everyone knows that right and good must have the victory. You may not go."
Then another came forward, darker and more foul than the first. And Satan said, "If I send you, what will you tell the children of men?" And he said, "I will tell them there is no hell." Satan looked at him and said, "Oh, no; they will not believe you, for in every human heart there's a thing called conscience, an inner voice which testifies to the truth that not only will good be triumphant, but that evil will be defeated. You may not go."
Then one last creature came forward, this one from the darkest place of all. And Satan said to him, "And if I send you, what will you say to women and men to aid them in the destruction of their souls?" And he said, "I will tell them there is no hurry." And Satan said, "Go!" That spirit is still abroad on the face of the earth. "There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune." Missed, and we are left in shallows and in miseries. "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." Awake, because the tides may be running for you at this very moment. Don't miss riding those tides.
We must not miss the tide of opportunity to grow in friendship with Jesus
One last thought: Those disciples in Gethsemane also missed the opportunity to grow in friendship with Jesus. It is a wonderful thing to have friends, and that, of course, is particularly so in the time of trouble. When we're battered by the hammer of hardship, that's when we need our loved ones close. That's the reason Jesus, who in the Scriptures is recorded most often as going off to pray alone, on this occasion took his disciples with him. He knew the deep agony of spirit which was going to be his, and he wanted their comfort close. He wanted to feel their shoulders beside his own. But they slept.
When he came back the first time from his prayer, his robe was dirty. He had thrown himself upon the ground, but there was no one there to brush him off or to give him words of love. When he came back the second time, his sweat was like great drops of blood. But there was no one awake to wipe away that perspiration or to give him words of encouragement and support. To all his other burdens was added the burden of loneliness.
It's a tragic irony that this Christ who was so filled with compassion, this one who looked upon the multitudes and saw them as sheep without a shepherd, this one who took the separated and united them, who healed the sick, who uplifted the broken, who gave himself in the service of others—in the moment when he needed service, found none. Peter went on to become the prince of apostles. James went on to become leader of the church in Jerusalem. John went on to write that great vision which is the Book of Revelation with which our Scriptures close. But no one of these men has ever been able to say that at the moment when Jesus needed them the most, they were there. And they never had such an opportunity again. Don't miss the tide which gives you the opportunity to serve the Jesus in others.
You know as well as I that before this same date rolls around next year, some we know will no longer be with us. They will have either gone from this earth or moved far beyond where we can reach them. Perhaps there is on your mind right now someone to whom you ought to speak: a word of encouragement you should bring, a word of reproof, a word of witness, a word of apology. Don't miss the opportunity when it is yours. Don't forsake the tide which might be flowing in your heart of hearts at this very moment. Claim this day, for in very truth, there will never be another one like it.
Two summers ago I received a telephone call from my physician, who also happened to be the physician of my most beloved seminary professor. He called to tell me that my old prof, who had been retired for many years (he was in his eighty-sixth year at that time) had been taken to the hospital, and that he would not be coming home from the hospital. I said to the doctor, "Is Prof's death imminent? Will it be today or tomorrow?" "Oh," he said, "I doubt it. But it won't be too long. And he won't be coming home."
I had a commitment for that night which I had scheduled almost two years in advance, but I broke that commitment in order to go to the hospital. When I walked into the hospital room, I found my old professor with another of his former students, whom I knew well, sitting beside him. As I came to the door, he looked at me and said, "Thielemann, old chap, you've come to help me die." I said, "No, Prof, I'm sure you can do that by yourself."
We began to talk and to share, and he decided he would like to confess his sins. He said things like, "I taught you boys too much theology. I should have taught you more about Jesus. I'm taking my final examinations, and I find I wouldn't even be able to write my name on the paper were it not for my Savior." And he talked about his love for his wife. As he talked he moved a bit in the bed, and I went over at one point to move him back to his pillows again. I remember I was astonished at how little he weighed. There was so little of the body left, and yet that great spirit was still sparkling.
At last he said, "Boys, I think I'm going to go to sleep now. And I don't think you should wait, because it may be a very, very long sleep." As he said that, he reached out and took the nurse's hand. And I said to him, "Prof, I don't think you ought to hold that nurse's hand." "Why?" "Because if you're going to go now, I have a feeling you're going to go like Elijah in a fiery chariot, and I don't want her to be singed!" He said, "If I'm going to go that way, then I'm going to take her with me!"
He fell asleep holding her hand, and the tides came and took him away. But I was there, and no one will ever be able to take that from me. I was there. The greatest message any minister can bring to a pulpit is the message that addresses the human soul. I have spoken to you of growth in character, of growth as a child of God, and of growth in the service of Jesus. All of these are matters of the soul. I have held Jesus before you as example, as opportunity, and as need.
Please don't say anything to me about tomorrow. Tomorrow is the word the Bible does not know. If you can find me any place in the Scriptures where the Holy Spirit of God says "Tomorrow," I will step down from this pulpit and never step into it or any other pulpit for as long as I live. The Holy Spirit's word is the word today. "Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation." "Today, if you will harden not your heart and hear my voice …."
Don't say "Tomorrow." "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty place and lights fools the way to dusty death." The word is today. Come to Christ today. Grow in Christ today. Serve in the name and in the spirit of Christ today. Ride the tides while they are yours.
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? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Bruce Thielemann is the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA.