It’s Good to Get Out Alive
It’s Good to Get Out Alive
The tourist brochure said that you can catch the bus to Yosemite Lodge up to Glacier Peak. When you get there, you can stand on the rock where a hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir had their picture taken. And then you can go to the trailhead, where you'll take a left. It's just an 8.8 mile hike called the Panorama Trail, which earns its name from the unprecedented spectacular views of Yosemite's most famous landmarks. You'll hardly get down it when you'll turn to the left and immediately take in a picture-postcard view of Half Dome. Then, 2.2 miles down the trail is an overlook of Illilouette Falls, a ribbon of whitewater cascading 370 feet down on the rocks.
Next, you'll cross over the Illilouette bridge and slowly climb 800 feet to Panorama Point. Five-star breathtaking vistas stretch into Yosemite Valley, all the way to the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls and beyond to the Royal Arches. After that, you'll go left and descend more than 10 switchbacks. At the three-way junction, you'll bear right on the John Muir Trail and soak in views of the granite baldness of Liberty Cap. As you go further, you'll see the Merced River and the frothy spout of Nevada Falls dropping nearly 600 feet to the valley floor. At milepoint 6, you are there by the Mist Falls, where the rocks are baptized by water and rainbows appear in the air.
You'll enjoy your hike downward on a series of 600 steep granite steps. After you cross the Merced River and climb more stairs upward to the 317-foot Vernal Falls, the trail turns to pavement, and longer views unfold of Illilouette Falls. After crossing the Happy Isles Bridge, you'll hike to the trailhead parking lot—and it's all over.
This enticing description sounded like a walk in the park. That's what my two adult sons and I thought last June as we caught the bus and began our hike down the trail, our backpacks filled with granola bars and assorted energy stuff.
When we were 2.2 miles into it, we decided whoever said this was a six-hour hike must have come from an extreme sports show. By the six-mile marker, we were 10 hours into the hike, and the sun was setting behind the western peaks. Our feet were slipping on the jagged rocks of the aptly named Mist Trail, and we were within an arm's length of a waterfall plunging hundreds of feet down. The people who rated this hike "moderate" must have been sadistic!
Then the sun disappeared, and we inched our way forward in the pitch-black darkness of night by the narrow beam of a little flashlight, astride the roaring Vernal Falls—just one misstep away from plunging over. One month later, three hikers went over those same falls and were swept away forever. To our horror, we read signs that said, "Beware of black and grizzly bears, especially at night." These signs gave us two pieces of helpful advice if we saw a bear: "Make yourself look large," and "Do not act aggressive." Alone in a vast park at 10:00 p.m., that advice did not encourage us at all.
We limped back to the parking lot by 11:00 P.M., but to top it all off, we forgot where we parked the car. We never said this to each other, but we were all thinking it: It's good just to get out alive.
The challenges of ministry
In this curious little chapter 45 of the Book of Jeremiah, a pointed word came from the living God through Jeremiah to give to his friend Baruch, the scribe: "Baruch, when this whole thing is over, it's good that you'll just get out alive." Baruch does not belong to the marquee players of the Old Testament. He's either listed on the secondary, if not the tertiary, credits at the end of the movie. Baruch is like a meteor that burns brightly for a minute or two, and then disappears. He's like the mast of a ship on the horizon; you see him for a moment, and then he's gone.
Jeremiah 45 frames what is called "Baruch's colophon," his personal signature witness to the production of Jeremiah's prophecy. It's as if he carved his initials into a tree, sprayed his name on a boxcar, or scratched his name into an old desk. He's saying, "I'm the one who wrote this." It gives you a moment's peek at someone who otherwise would be invisible.
Scholars have discovered colophons in Babylonian, Assyrian, Ugaritic, and Egyptian texts. The scribes would leave a personal word about when and why they wrote the texts, along with a blessing for the one who read the messages and a curse for the person who tampered with them. Jeremiah 45 gives you Baruch's initials at the end of the letter.
Cameo players like Baruch encourage me more than the titanic figures of the Bible. Who can actually identify with Jeremiah? His life was an emotional roller coaster ride. During his 23 years of preaching, not one person joined the church. Or for that matter, who can identify with Paul and his enduring perseverance through trials and tribulations? Yet I can identify with a Baruch or a Timothy.
Why? It's because sometimes those of us in ministry just whine. Baruch whines and doesn't think God ever hears him. In verse 3 God tells Baruch what he heard him say: "Woe is me now! For the Lord has added grief to my sorrow. I fainted in my sighing, and I find no rest." Have you ever noticed that it's hard to find a good key to whine in? A whine is a whine, whether it's in C major or in D minor. You won't find any anthologies in the library entitled The Great Whiners of History.
Yet you must have some sympathy for Baruch. For 23 years he was Jeremiah's only friend. Can you imagine how depressing it must have been to be the only friend of Jeremiah? God told Jeremiah to prophesy doom for all those years, and nobody listened as much as Baruch. Nobody ate nachos with Jeremiah during the ball game except Baruch. Nobody celebrated Passover with Jeremiah except Baruch. Nobody picked up the dry cleaning five minutes before closing time except Baruch.
But that's not all. He was the amanuensis, the person who had to write down all the pronouncements of doom. Can you imagine writing down 36 chapters of Hebrew? And when Jeremiah got the flu and couldn't go to church, he sent Baruch to read the scroll to the whole nation gathered at the great cathedral. Then the grand poobahs and high muckety-mucks forced Baruch to read it to them in private. They warned Baruch to get out of Dodge because King Jehoiakim only liked books about having your best life now. He definitely wouldn't like what Baruch wrote. After writing God's message once, Baruch must have been dismayed when the king cut up the whole book into little pieces and burned it in the brazier. So Jeremiah dictated the whole book to Baruch again. Imagine having to write out Jeremiah 1-36 twice. That is enough to depress a Hebrew professor.
Have you ever read a passage in the Bible, and later you realize it's about you? Baruch had heard the word, written it down, and read it to people twice. But it finally dawned on him that these words were about him, his family, and his career. The doom of Judah at the hands of the Babylonian army meant the end of him as well. He had been so busy with the jots and tittles that it took 36 chapters to traumatize him. After a sleepless night he went to Jeremiah and overwhelmed him with his newfound understanding of the word. This upset Jeremiah because his only friend was about to quit, so he prayed to God, "Do you have a word for Baruch?"
The word God gave Jeremiah wasn't easy. The sentence begins with "Woe" and ends with "… no place to rest or solid ground to stand on." Dr. Cleo LaRue, associate professor of homiletics at Princeton, says, "Woe is a misery without a remedy." It was woe because of the reading of the content of the book, woe because of the personal implications of the book for him, and woe because of the burning of the book by the king.
Burning books is hard on friendships. Thomas Carlyle once wrote a three-volume epochal history of the French Revolution. He loaned a copy of the first volume to John Stuart Mill, who left it out in the living room. Thinking the manuscript was wastepaper, a housekeeper started a fire with it, burning the only copy of the book. Carlyle was so upset that he could not write the first volume again for a long time. He penned the second and third volumes, and finally came back later to write the first one again. This incident led to the deterioration of a great friendship between Carlyle and J.S. Mill.
When you are in the Lord's service, sometimes loyalty will cost you. Some people you befriend in seminary and early in your ministry, you'll have to stand by for a lifetime. Some of you in ministry know well what it costs to stand by people.
I remember preaching on a program in south central Los Angeles with the famed preacher Rev. Dr. E.V. Hill. After we both preached, we were sitting on the tall platform at Mount Moriah Baptist Church, dangling our feet over the edge. Just the week before, he had been on the ABC program, "Nightline," and Connie Chung interviewed him. He was defending a long-time friend of his who had been caught laundering money and was sent to prison. I asked my friend E.V. Hill if he had risked his own reputation by identifying with that man. He emphatically poked me in the shoulder with his finger and said, "Gregory, if I am your friend out of jail, I will be your friend in jail." I have never had a good answer for that. The expression of loyalty in God's cause by standing with people through thick and thin will always cost you something. A friendship with Jeremiah got them both thrown into jail and probably made Baruch look for Prozac.
The danger of mishandling God's Word
But then Baruch found out that those who handle the Word also need a word. Baruch was probably thinking, What good is it if God speaks to the Edomites and the Moabites and the Babylonians and the Egyptians but he never speaks to me?
The peril for us in the ministry is that we become like chefs who cook food we never taste or transcribers of music we never listen to. We can become like the security guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre, eyes glazed over in the midst of all those masterpieces they never look at. All they do is look at the people who come to see them. The peril always looms when we objectify the Word of God, rather than let it speak to us.
It dawned on Baruch, who had written 36 chapters of gloom and doom for the nations, that he now he needed a word for himself. Amos Wilder, a theology professor at Harvard University and brother of renowned novelist Thornton Wilder, wrote an amazing little book on early Christian rhetoric. In this work he remarks that the unique thing about the words of Jesus in the Gospels is that you have the sense of being personally addressed. Wilder's book is a fountainhead of influence, both in narrative theology and narrative preaching. He insisted that form and content could not be separated in the study of biblical text. Indeed, the type of rhetoric in biblical texts has no counterpart in Aristotle or Quintilian. The nature of Christian biblical language is akin to someone who stands up in the middle of a riot and utters an authoritative word that calms things down.
To borrow a simple but multifaceted image from German philosopher Martin Buber, we view things as "its" and people as "thous," if we relate to them appropriately. But our lives are turned upside-down if we relate to people as "its" and things as "thous." We also need an "I-thou" relationship with the Word of God, not an "I-it" relationship. After years of transcribing the Word of God, Baruch might have begun to treat that scroll as an "it." He had been working on "it" for years, and now he needed the "it" to become a "thou." He needed a word spoken directly to him.
So do I—more days than not, after preaching. Instead of objectifying the Word, I need to let the message address me. Sometimes I need to stand back from dissecting a text and with a second naïveté sing with C. Austin Miles: "He walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own." Sometimes I like to sing those words penned by A. Katherine Hankey in 1866:
I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, because I know 'tis true;
It satisfies my longings, as nothing else can do.
I love to tell the story, 'twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story; more wondrous it seems,
Than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams.
I love to tell the story, it means so much to me;
And that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.
God save us from being channelers to others of words that do not really touch us. There needs to be a sense in which the word is not just for everybody, but it is a word for somebody.
Baruch asked for the word, and he got it. The Bible doesn't say how long it took, but Jeremiah brought back the personal oracle, the individual message, or the specific word from God to Baruch. The word comes to him like a velvet-covered brick. God the builder is about to wreck everything he has built, and God the gardener is about to uproot everything he has planted. In fact, in the Septuagint and the Vulgate the emphatic personal ego is used: "I myself will tear it down, and I'm going to pluck it up." The God of the cosmos lavished his care for 1,400 years on this family of Abraham, but the whole venture has run off the rails. So God is going to demolish it and pull it up by the roots.
H. Wheeler Robinson, the great Baptist scholar of Regent's Park, exclaims, "Nowhere is it more evident that there is a Cross than in the heart of God." Redemptive work costs something. God could not do it from a detached, antiseptic, clinical, removed, aloof distance. This is not some tribal deity, but the almighty maker of heaven and earth. Here is the God who didn't come in generalities; he came in specificity. Here is the God of somewhere, not just everywhere. He took his almighty name and bound it up with this wandering group of Semitic people, even though he had to put up with the shenanigans of people like Saul and Solomon. And now God has to undo everything he has done.
The danger of vanity
Baruch was worried about his career path. God said to him in verse 5 of the KJV, "Seekest thou great things? Seek them not." The Jerusalem Bible translates this verse, "And you are asking for special treatment?" It's as if God was saying, "Baruch, you're asking for the best stateroom on the Titanic? You want an upgrade on a doomed jet? You want to be eating at Windows on the World looking out over Manhattan when the tower goes down? You want the best seat on the beach when the tsunami comes in?"
What's really hiding behind Baruch's pity party? Baruch was a scribe. In the ancient near east, the scribes were a favored elite group. They were literate in a largely illiterate world. Trusted and admired, they got a key to the executive washroom. They parked their chariot close to the office. They had the number for the company membership at the Jerusalem City Club. They were on the inside. They used all those nonverbal cues and innuendoes that signified they belonged to the establishment. Baruch's grandfather had been governor of Jerusalem. His brother would be a chamberlain to King Zedekiah.
Baruch was asking, "What does all of this mean for me? I thought I was going to be the head scribe. I thought they were going to make a sequel to that movie about Elijah and Elisha, and Jeremiah's mantle would fall on me. I thought that if I was Jeremiah's friend, I would at least have a free ticket out of here."
But God was stern with him here. God said, "Baruch, I will not let you co-opt my big mission for your little program." Without any apology or flinching, God tells Baruch that his program is subordinate to his larger purposes. That's why our Lord could walk up to people and say the most audacious things. If he wasn't who he said he was, how dare he say them? "Look, you fisherfolk, drop your nets and leave them with your father Zebedee." To other people eager to follow him, he said, "Let the dead bury their dead." If we follow him, and most especially in ministry, our little programs must be subordinate to his big mission. When we confuse our program for God's mission; he tells us to make an adjustment right now.
In the Heritage Room at Truett Seminary, I interviewed the most famous living American preacher, Dr. Gardner C. Taylor. I asked him for one word of advice that he would give to all young preachers. He did not even hesitate. He intoned in a voice that sounded like the ages, "Avoid vanity. Don't try to replace the Lord Jesus Christ in his own house."
Joseph Parker, the egotistical pastor who was a contemporary of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, could strut sitting down. When the architect was designing the blueprints for the City Temple, he tossed them aside with the statement, "Draw up plans for a church so that when Queen Victoria drives by, she will ask, 'Who preaches there?'" Once approached by a pastor search committee from a smaller church, he replied with a single sentence, "An eagle does not roost in a sparrow's nest." Baruch was not infected with that Promethean ego; but he did wonder what was going to happen to him, and he cried, "Woe!" when God's mission contradicted his own personal program.
Is this not honestly what we face in this thing called ministry? This is not a fair world, but a fallen one. We ministers stand somewhere between ape and angel, dust and spirit, our personal program and God's majestic mission. Here, we have a career inside of a divine calling. The very best of us are always challenged by this word from God to Baruch, "Are you seeking great things for yourself? Seek them not." Oh, the insidious, creeping crawl of encroaching entitlement tries to catch all of us with its undertow. I have to watch for it every day.
When I came to Truett Seminary six years ago, I may have been the most surprised preacher in America. It was almost impossible for me to believe that I was actually graced to be here, that the door was open to me, that an opportunity beyond any expectation had been handed to me by people who believed in the grace of God. Yet, as the years go by, the hellish, cackling, cacophonous, leering, self-aggrandizing demon of entitlement always peeks around the corner. For those of us in the ministry, our first thought when we wake up in the morning should be, "God, thank you for the grace that lets me stay in this place." At noon we ought to thank him for his generosity that allows us to be in the ministry. In our last waking reverie before we fall asleep, we should thank God for having another day to serve him.
Back in the day when they had big religious conventions, a Baptist preacher and his wife entered a gigantic city center with tens of thousands of preachers filling it to the top seats. The preacher was so overwhelmed by the sight of so many preachers, he spoke a soliloquy into the air to no one in particular: "My God, I wonder how many truly great preachers are here?" His wife, who knew plenty about preachers, responded, "One less than you think."
The real goal of ministry
Then God gave Baruch the only promise he would get. And if you overhear this, he is telling you what you can get. It was the same thing my sons and I thought as we staggered out of Yosemite National Park at 11:00 p.m.: "Baruch, you are going to get out of this thing alive. When Jerusalem is in ruins and some are dragged to Babylon, while others are carted off to Egypt and I have demolished this nation, you are going to get out alive." Period. End of blessing. No more Bible promises. "You are going to get out of this thing alive."
Don't you think that's setting the bar low? No. Is that the truth? Yes. Does that make you want to roast marshmallows and sing "Kum Bah Yah"? No. Is it reality? Yes. Does it make the ministry a select career path? No.
This is the same God who responded to the whining Jeremiah with this audacious challenge: "If you can't run with the foot-soldiers, how do you think you'll keep up with the cavalry?" (Jer. 12:5). God sometimes offers to us bracing words.
I recognize that the phrase, "You'll get out alive," is just an image or a way of speaking. What does that mean today as a practical matter of ministry? Does anyone want carved on his or her headstone, "I got out alive"? That would be an interesting and oxymoronic monument. Let me put some current significance into what God told Baruch.
For some reason my ministry, now in its fifth decade, has always been situated around thousands of preachers. I've taught at Truett Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastored two churches by that huge seminary in Fort Worth. What's striking and sad is that only a few pastors at the end of the way are still standing in the faith and ministering with a sound mind. Their souls are not cynical, and their testimony does not consist of whining. They have not left the church or given up on the faith. They don't have souls shrunk to the size of raisins because of bitterness.
What does it mean to get out alive? It's what Hebrews 4:14 means. When many people wanted to leave the faith, the author exhorted, "Seeing that we have such a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, let us hold fast to our confession." It's what Paul meant in Ephesians 6:13, "Having done all, stand." Isn't that putting the bar low? No, not from what I've seen.
We need to be right there with Paul, who said in 2 Timothy 4:7, "I have fought the fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Notice that Paul did not say, "I wrote Romans." He didn't say, "If you really think about it, I won the fight at the Jerusalem Council," or "I was invited to preach on Mars Hill by the Areopagites." He didn't say, "During one missionary trip, I took over the ship and saved everybody in a storm. When we were washed ashore, I fixed breakfast for everyone on Malta." No, Paul just says in chapter 4:16-17, "No one stood with me, … but the Lord stood with me and gave me strength." That is what it means to get out alive. Stripped of all company, denuded of all dignity, denouncing all credentials, and confessing amnesia about all achievements, Paul triumphantly cries out, "I kept the faith."
Aim at getting out alive. Don't quit the church, give up on the calling, curse the deacons, blame the seminary, or condemn the denomination. Don't aim at fame, because it is emptier in the ministry than anywhere else. Disdain acclaim, for it is a siren song that will always die before you do if you live long enough. Keep this as your goal: to get out alive in the faith.
Model yourself after the One who must have heard the same question that Baruch heard, "Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not." There is that One, famished in a desert carpeted with little brown stones that looked like the bread cooked in the communal ovens of Galilean villages. That One knew that he had more power in his little finger than in any half-baked messianic thaumaturgist who had ever walked in Galilee. "Do you seek great things for yourself?" No.
There he stood on the rooftop of the Temple, looking down at the caucuses of rabbis expecting the Messiah. "One jump and you'll have it all," said the Devil, who was tempting him. "Do you seek great things for yourself?" No. On that magical, mystical mountain, he could watch the Roman triremes split the waters of the Mediterranean and see the standards of the legions. He knew that he had more power at his command than Tiberias ever dreamed of. "Do you seek great things for yourself?" No. And because he said "no" to temptation and "yes" to the Cross on Friday, early on Sunday morning he got out alive—in the greatest sense of the word.
Right now, if you could rend the veil and part the curtain on another world, there would be a little Hebrew scribe standing at the corner of Shekinah Boulevard and Glory Avenue. His eyes are wide open with wonder from spending the last 2,500 years in a place he never knew existed and did not expect to be, along with Father Abraham and a now-smiling Jeremiah. All of them are now in a place with no more sorrow, no more pain, no more tears, and no crying. Instead they are singing praises to the great I Am and living in the light of the risen Lamb. Every now and then he says, to no one in particular, "Wow, did I ever get out alive!" And so can you.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching, holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.