[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]
In his book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins, tells about his interview with the late Admiral James Stockdale.
Stockdale, unfortunately, got pegged for an oaf after his 1992 run as Ross Perot’s vice presidential running mate. It’s an undeserved reputation, though.
While being held as the the highest-ranking US officer in the so-called Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp during the War in Vietnam, where he was tortured more than twenty times in eight years, Stockdale applied his brilliance and self-discipline and courage to survive and to help others do the same.
When Jim Collins met Stockdale, the Admiral was doing some studies in the field of Philosophy at Stanford University, where Collins taught. In preparation for their meeting, Collins read Stockdale’s memoirs of his POW experiences. “As I moved through the book,” writes Collins, “I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak.” And then he thought, “If it feels depressing for me [to read about it], how on earth did [Stockdale] deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”
When Collins met Stockdale, he asked the admiral about that. “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale replied. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Collins let that astounding statement sink in for a while and then asked Stockdale who, of his fellow prisoners, didn’t make it out. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” That seemed to contradict what Stockdale had just said about never doubting the end of the story. Confessing his confusion, Collins asked Stockdale to explain.
Said the admiral: “The optimists...They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Writes Collins: “Another long pause...Then he turned to me and said, ‘This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end--which you can never afford to lose--with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’” I’m going to repeat that last sentence: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end--which you can never afford to lose--with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Here’s the point of my sermon this morning: The primary privilege and the primary responsibility of every person who claims to follow Jesus Christ is to hope.
You see, God has come into our lives in the Person of Jesus Christ, shared human life with us, gone to a cross where He took death, the rightful punishment for our sins, and then rose from the dead, promising that all who turn from their sin and hold onto Him as their only God and Savior will live in joy with Him forever.
Twice this past week, I presided over funerals—one for my uncle and another for a woman who lived just a few doors from this church, who I had never met until this past Monday in the intensive care unit of Hocking Valley Community Hospital but, as a housebound person who listened to our worship service every single Sunday, considered Saint Matthew her church. At both gravesite ceremonies, a benediction reminded the grieving of the hope that believers in Jesus Christ have: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our brother, we commend our sister…”
Following Jesus brings hope because, through Him, through what He has done for us and through our belief in Him, we live in the certainty that we know how the story ends. And it doesn’t end at the grave!
But that doesn’t mean that we’re called to be what Stockdale called optimists.
In my thirty-five years as a Christian and nearly twenty-seven years as a pastor, I’ve seen those kinds of Christians--the optimists--come and go. They’re like fireworks. When fireworks are first lit, they're beautiful. The colors and the noise and the spectacle are dazzling. And you think, “Wow!” But they always burn out as quickly as they ignite.
Christian firecrackers are those people who get all excited about having God in their lives and love the warm and fuzzy feelings they get as they first fall in love with Jesus. They feel like they could climb the highest mountains without rest stops. But then they hit snags. The snags can be as small as “not getting anything out of worship today,” as though worship was about them. Or another snag may be feeling that God isn’t there because He doesn’t give them what they want when they want it, as though a Savior Who, the Garden of Gethsemane, begged that He wouldn’t have to drink from the cup of crucifixion yet prayed, “Not My will, but Thine be done,” would turn the sovereign and almighty God of the universe into a cosmic kewpie doll.
Authentic followers of Jesus Christ—Christian disciples—are more like the fire in a winter fireplace. They may burn with varied intensity over time and they may sometimes need to be stoked. But unlike the firecracker Christians who act as the source of their own flames, authentic, maturing Christians know that it is Jesus Christ Who sets their faith on fire and keeps it going.
The Christians who keep on living with the hope that is the right of every follower of Jesus are the ones who understand that life on this planet may sometimes be brutal, but still are focused how the story ends. And that knowledge imbues their lives with peace and certainty even in the face of the chaos and uncertainty that can befall each and every one of us!
Our Old Testament lesson for today records a vision God gave to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s ministry as a prophet took place from 597 to 571 B.C. Long before Ezekiel was born, God’s nation of Israel had torn itself in two. The northern kingdom, called Israel or also Samaria, for its capital city, had long ago been conquered by the Babylonians, a people who lived in what is today Iraq. Then, in about 587 B.C., the nation of Judea, the southern kingdom, with its capital city of Jerusalem, and the nation from which Jesus would come many centuries later, was also conquered by the Babylonians.
The common practice in those days was that a conquering nation would capture the conquered country’s ablest and most prominent citizens and send them back to the conquering nation to be slaves. This is what happened to Ezekiel.
It’s difficult for us to imagine how shattering this experience was for the people of Judea. Judea was more than just their homeland. It was also the center of their worship. They always believed that God’s presence on earth was to be found in the Holy of Holies tabernacle at the Temple in Jerusalem. When they prayed to God, they did so facing that tabernacle wherever they were in Judea or in their synagogues.
Now that the Temple was all-but-destroyed and they were far from it in an unholy land, they wondered if God could hear their cries?
Did God care what happened to them?
Was God out of their lives forever?
Could God reach out to them with His compassion and power?
The optimists of Ezekiel’s day all died of broken hearts. They didn’t remember that they belonged to the God Who has charge and always has had charge of the ends of our stories, even in the bleakest of passages. Like us, the people of Ezekiel’s day needed to be reminded of that.
So, God showed Ezekiel a vision. In a valley, God put Ezekiel in the midst of dead, dry bones. “Okay, Zeke,” God said, “start reminding these people of how the story ends for people with faith in Me. Remind them that death and humiliation are not the ends for those who follow Me. Proclaim My Word of hope to them!” You know how the story ends: “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” sprang to life again.
God is still in the hope-giving business. A man I’ve told some of you about came to my house in Cincinnati one evening. We’d been acquainted, but I didn’t really know him. Nor did I know what he wanted to see me about. He was successful, financially well-off, handsome, articulate.
But as we spoke, he began to weep. “Three weeks ago,” he told me, “I watched my sister nearly die. She thinks she was saved by the medicine. They helped, I’m sure. But that wasn’t all. I watched my parents and others pray. I listened to them read the Bible in the hospital room. For the first time in my life, I really saw God.”
And, he reported, it wasn’t just because his sister had recovered that he was sure he’d seen God. You see, he’d seen God most in the depths, in the valley of dry bones, or, like the people of Bethany that day Jesus came to visit, in Lazarus’ tomb, where the stench of death was its worst.
He’d seen the hope that comes from God.
He’d seen how God gives life when all seems lost.
He’d seen the end of the story and so, been given an inexplicable hope even as he acclimated himself to the possibility that his sister’s earthly life would soon end.
My heart pounded in my chest as I listened to this man’s story. “What do you want now?” I asked him. “I want to give my life back to Christ,” he told me. And in the living room of my house, the two of us kneeling together, this man who had been baptized as a child and like a prodigal son, had wandered from God, surrendered to Christ once again. God gave new life and new hope to dry bones.
Christians still weep as Jesus did that day in Bethany recorded in today’s Gospel lesson. They wrestle with the seeming absence of God as surely the people of Judah did during their Babylonian exile.
But they have a hope that allows them to face life--and death--with hope. The day before he died, my uncle was visited by a friend at the hospital. The friend wanted to know how Uncle Jim was. My uncle lifted his hand and said several times, "I'm going up. I'm going up."
Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, Who went to a cross and rose from the dead is our surety that we have a hope that can never be destroyed. Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” and all who believe in Him, even if they go down to the dust in this world, will never die. No matter what, we know that the direction of our lives is up to God.
The primary privilege and the primary responsibility of every person who claims to follow Jesus Christ is to hope.
May you live in that hope every single day. Amen