Sunday, March 13, 2005

Hope Meets Despair

Ezekiel 37:1-14
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, March 13, 2005)

In his book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins, tells about his interview with Admiral James Stockdale. I’ve told this before, I think. But it bears repeating.

Stockdale, unfortunately, got tagged with the reputation of being something of an oaf after his 1992 run as Ross Perot’s vice presidential running mate. It’s an undeserved reputation because he is a truly brilliant and great person.

While being held as the the highest-ranking US officer in the so-called Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp, where he was tortured more than twenty times in eight years, Stockdale applied his brilliance and self-discipline and courage to survive that horrific experience and to help others do the same.

A few years ago, Collins had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Stockdale. The Admiral was doing some studies in the field of Philosophy at Stanford University and Collins taught there. 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.” Then he reflected on the fact that he was reading about Stockdale’s experience of brutality and torture as he himself sat in a comfortable setting with a window looking out onto a beautiful college campus. And then he thought, “If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he 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,” he 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 awhile 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.”

The primary privilege and the primary responsibility of every person who claims to follow Jesus Christ is to hope.

God has come into our lives in the Person of Jesus Christ, shared human life with us, gone to a cross where He took the rap for our sins, and then rose from the dead, promising that all who repudiate and walk away from their sin and hold onto Him as their only God and Savior will live in joy with Him forever. Following Jesus brings hope because we know how the story ends.

But we aren’t called to be what Stockdale called optimists. In my nearly thirty years as a Christian and over twenty as a pastor, I’ve seen those kinds of Christians, the optimists, come and go. They’re like firecrackers. When a firecracker is first lit, it’s a beautiful thing. The colors and the noise and the spectacle are dazzling. And you think, “Wow!” But firecrackers always burn out as quickly as they light.

The Christian version of 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 that’s what worship is about...because worship is about our praising God, not God or the preacher or anybody else entertaining us.

Or the snags can be the tragedies to which all of us who live in this imperfect world are subject.

Authentic Jesus-Followers are more like the fire in our winter fireplaces. They may burn with varied intensity over time and they may sometimes need to be stoked. But unlike the firecracker Christians who, like rah-rah, team! optimists, act as the source of their own flames, the fireplace 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 we know how the story ends. It ends with the followers of Jesus being with God in a forever kingdom of peace.

Our Bible lesson for today records a vision God gave to the Old Testament 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 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, could God 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.

Like us, the people of Ezekiel’s day needed to be reminded of that. So, God showed Ezekiel a vision.

In a valley (or maybe on a plain, because it can be translated either way), 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.

Which brings us to the second and final point of today’s message. The first was that it is the first privilege and responsibility of every follower of Jesus Christ to live in hope because we know how our stories end. Our second privilege and responsibility is this: to use our lives, our words, and our actions to give that same hope to others.

Through Pastor Steve Goodier, I recently learned of this true story from author Sherman Rogers. During his college years, Rogers spent a summer in an Idaho logging camp. When the superintendent had to leave for a few days, this nineteen year old college student was put in charge. He worried that the men wouldn’t take his orders. The superintendent said if that happened, he should fire them.

But then, as if reading Rogers’ mind, he said not to be too hasty in firing the one guy nobody liked. This one person had the lousiest attitude in the camp. He was an Italian immigrant named Tony. The superintendent conceded that Tony was a grumpy grouch who was negative and surly. But, the superintendent said, “Tony is the most reliable worker I’ve ever had...he comes in first and leaves last. There has not been an accident for eight years on the hill where he works.”

When Rogers took over the next day, he approached Tony and revealed that it had been his intention to fire him the first chance he got. But now, he said, he wasn’t going to do it. He then told Tony what the superintendent had said about Tony's work ethic and reliability. Tony dropped his shovel and tears streamed down his face. “Why he no tell me dat eight years ago?” That day Tony worked harder than he ever had and actually had a smile on his face.

Years later, Rogers ran into Tony in California, where he had become a great success in the mining business. Rogers asked him how it happened. “If it not be for the one minute you talk to me back in Idaho, I keel somebody someday. One minute, she change my whole life.”

Ezekiel found that one minute spent sharing the God we know through Jesus Christ can bring people new lives.

Please, this week, take some minutes to call your friends.

Tell them about our upcoming Forty Days of Purpose campiagn of spiritual renewal here at Friendship.

Invite them to participate.

Help them know the God Who, through us, can speak His Word of love and hope to people and make those who feel like dead, dry bones alive again.

Tell them to come join us as we all get to better know the God Who, through Jesus, has given us reason to hope because in Him, we know how the story is going to end!

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