Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Wisdom of Surrender to Christ

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 11:16-30
In his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven, Pastor Don Piper recounts what happened to him on January 18, 1989, on a bridge over Lake Livingston in Texas. An eighteen-wheeler hit the 1986 Ford Escort Piper was driving head-on.

For ninety minutes, Don Piper was dead.

A pastor who had attended the same conference from which Piper was driving at the time of his collision, happened on the accident scene. He asked rescue personnel what he could do.

Nothing, they said. The other drivers in the accident were unhurt. The driver of the Escort was dead.

But this second pastor, Dick Onerecker, sensed God telling him to go to the Escort and pray for the body.

Onerecker knew, of course, that you don’t pray for dead people. The dead are either with God or they’re not. No prayers can change the destinies either of those who have repented and trusted in Christ and entered into the presence of God or of those who have spurned Christ and live with the consequences of their decisions.

And yet, Dick Onerecker strongly felt the need to pray for the dead driver of the Escort.

He finally got permission to climb into the wreckage next to the body.

As he prayed, he felt led by God to pray that this lifeless body mangled beyond recognition be brought back to this life without any brain damage.

Onerecker prayed with deepening fervor and then, in desperation, began to sing, What a Friend We Have in Jesus:
Oh, what peace we often forfeit
Oh, what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry
Ev'rything to God in prayer!
Then something incredible happened! Don Piper, a man who had been dead for ninety minutes, began to sing along. He had come back to life! And, in spite of being dead for an hour and a half, he experienced no damage to his brain.

But the rest of his body was horribly damaged! Since that January day in 1989, Don Piper hasn’t lived a single moment without pain. It started with an initial 105-day stay in the hospital. There have been many shorter ones since. He’s undergone 34 surgeries. To save his left leg, he underwent a gruesome procedure with a device known as an Ilizarov. It’s designed to allow bone that has been lost to grow back by stretching the affected limb through the turning of screws every few hours every day for months.

Any person who goes through agonies like Piper has gone through is bound to ask, “Why am I still living? It doesn’t make sense.”

For Piper, those questions take on more urgency because of what he experienced during the ninety minutes he was dead. He had gone, he says, to heaven. He experienced his resurrected body in heaven along with others he had known who had trusted in Jesus Christ while on earth.

But then, in answer to Dick Onerecker’s prayers, God brought Don Piper back to this world. Since then, Piper has faced a lifetime of pain. There have been times of deep depression for Piper, a depression born, in part, of doubt about God’s wisdom in bringing him back here. What was God thinking? What did God have in mind?

Can you identify with Don Piper?

I haven’t gone through anything like what he has gone through. But I understand his feelings.

Some of the worst times in my life have happened to me since I became a Christian, because I am a Christian. (Or, rather, because I thought--even though I would never say so--that being a Christian entitled me to special privileges not enjoyed by others.)

I haven't had these tough times because of physical suffering, but because God wouldn’t act as I expected Him to act. I’ve sometimes prayed, “Thy will be done,” only to be appalled by what God willed for my life.

As a young Christian, for example, I remained intent, as I had been since I was a little boy, on a life in politics. (Yes, I was a nerd!) After coming to Christ, I figured that with Jesus by my side, I could be both effective and faithful. But while I dreamed my dreams, God awakened me to His call to be a pastor, just about the last thing in the world I wanted to be! In fact, one of the most influential people in my young life, the grandfather for whom I was named, used to tell me, "Never be a pastor. Pastor's are worthless. All they do is take people's money and then don't do anything!"

I wasn’t happy at first with the change of plans God made in my life, even though I now see how wise it was.

We create all kinds of agony for ourselves whenever we pray, “Thy will be done,” while really meaning, “My will be done.”

Every believer can testify to having experienced disappointment and maybe even depression and anger with God because, in spite of all their fervent prayers, things didn’t go the way they thought they should.

At the outset of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus—God in the flesh—expresses God’s frustration with the people of first century Judea. In words that echo a scene from the Old Testament book of Isaiah in which God puts His chosen people on trial, Jesus asks, “To what will I compare this generation?”

He says that His fellow Judeans are like little children in the marketplace, wanting to order others—in this case, wanting to order God and an emissary from God—around. “We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance!” they whine. “We wailed and you didn’t mourn along with us!” Pointing to the ministry of His earthly cousin, John the Baptist, Jesus says that John didn’t eat sumptuously and never touched strong drink and people claimed that he was demon-possessed. Jesus ate and partied even with sinners and they called His behavior scandalous. They wouldn’t be happy unless God did things the way they wanted God to do things.

Then Jesus says, in verse 19: “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” The Good News translation puts it this way: “God's wisdom, however, is shown to be true by its results.”

Wisdom isn’t the same as knowledge.

And it’s not what we would call “common sense.”

Wisdom is a gift from God, something that He reveals to those who seek to faithfully follow Jesus Christ.

The wisdom of God can’t be intellectually proven any more than can the existence of God. When Dick Onerecker arrived on that bridge, there was no rational, empirical reason he could offer—to others or even to himself—for going to Don Piper’s body to pray. Don Piper was dead. And yet, God impressed on Onerecker the need to do what didn’t make sense. The wisdom of doing that was vindicated when a dead man started singing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The apostle Paul says that even “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.”

Of course, we don’t have to be in extraordinary circumstances or search far and wide for the wisdom of God. All that we need to know about God, the will of God, the way to a life of purpose here, and the way to peace even in the midst of turmoil in this life has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. (And, as we’re learning as we read the Bible together this year, the Bible is authoritative in the wisdom it gives because, from Genesis to Revelation, it reveals and points us to Christ.)

In verses 20 to 25 of our Gospel lesson, Jesus mentions two foreign cities notorious for their sinfulness—Tyre and Sidon, and an Old Testament city whose very name is synonymous with evil, Sodom. He says that even places like those would bow to the wisdom of God and bow to Him as God-on-earth had they seen the miracles He performed in some of the Judean cities and towns to which He had gone. On the day of judgment, Jesus says, those places of evil will be in better shape than the places that had seen Him and heard His call to turn from sin and believe in Him and yet spurned Him. Wisdom and salvation were revealed to them in Jesus. But they rejected them when they rejected Jesus.

The same thing happens today. Often I have conversations with people who are living unrepentantly in sin, then wonder why they have no peace in their lives. When I was called to start my former congregation, I knocked on thousands of doors. Once, I was welcomed into a beautiful home set on a golf course. Living there was a man whose father was a Baptist pastor and a woman whose father was an Assemblies of God pastor. They had both been previously married and gone through divorces. Now they were living together. They knew what they were doing was wrong. Yet they wondered why they didn't have peace in their lives. It wasn't obvious to them that anyone who knows the God revealed to all the world in Jesus Christ couldn't deliberately flout God's holy commands and actually have peace. There's no mystery in that.

Nor is there any mystery in the lack of peace committed Christians sometimes feel--and I sometimes can be included in their number--who try to tackle life's problems and challenges on our own. Without even meaning to, we can refuse to give Christ control of our lives. We would rather rely on our own intellects, our own common sense, or our own stubborn wills rather than on God. We can have no peace when we do that!

We’re just like our parents, Adam and Eve; we want to “be like God.” The result is untold and unnecessary worrying, stress, sleeplessness, and illness.

Relying on anything but God will get us nowhere.

In verse 25 of our Gospel lesson, Jesus prays: “I thank You, Father…because You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”

Jesus isn’t telling Christians to check their brains in at the Baptismal font.

We don’t need to dumb down. But we do need to wise up!

God told King Solomon 1000 years earlier: “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death.”

Intelligence uninformed by God’s revealed wisdom might tell you that since you’ve never seen God, God can’t exist.

Common sense might tell you that since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, the love and forgiveness of God couldn’t possibly come to those whose sins deserve death.

And yet, God’s wisdom has been revealed.

Through Christ, we know that the creation has a Creator and we know that Christ has paid the price for our sin, meaning that all who repent and believe in Christ can claim eternal life and forgiveness as free gifts.

God doesn’t help those who help themselves. God helps those who turn to God for help.

Are we humble enough to recognize our need of God in any situation?

And, when we rely on Christ, God can do even more than give us help in getting through life. Pull out the special insert and read verse 28 with me. Jesus says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

God wants you to know peace. This side of heaven, we never will have all the answers. We won’t have it all figured out. And we will never be insulated from the evil that exists in this world, which lurks like thistles among the wheat. But in this world, we can have Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord Who sticks with us through everything and because of His cross and empty tomb, can promise all who trust in Him eternity with God.

God is still in the miracle business. And I still pray for miracles for those who suffer. I've seen God answer prayers for miraculous intervention too many times to believe that they're all just coincidences. When people pray humbly and helplessly in the Name of Jesus, God does things--great and wonderful things--that wouldn't happen otherwise.

But more than answers to our questions or our prayers, more than control, and more than our own ways, we need Jesus.

And when we take hold of Him, we have peace. In Jesus, even in the midst of life’s uncertainties, we can live in the certainty of His peace.

If you’ve been holding back any part of your life from Christ, turn to Him now. Tell Him, “Lord, Thy will be done. Truly, Thy will be done.”

If you’re like me, you’ll have to pray that prayer countless times every day.

But as we surrender all the pieces of our lives, the peace of Christ will come to us.

We’ll find rests for our souls.

To trust in Christ is the way of wisdom and, one day, God will vindicate all who trust in Him.

May the peace of Christ fill you now and always. Amen

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