This is the message I gave for Laity Sunday, October 16, 1994, at Grace Memorial United Methodist Church (Independence, KS) and Sycamore United Methodist Church (Sycamore, KS). It was also the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (B) but I choose Acts 9: 3 – 9; 17 – 19 and John 9: 30 – 34 as my Scripture readings.
Caves are very interesting places. For early mankind, caves offered shelter from the weather. During times of trouble, caves offered places to hide. Many a prophet hid in caves when the people got angry. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves. Even today, they serve as places of entertainment. One thing that used to dominate the countryside, especially in this part of the county, were barns painted with advertising to come and view Meramec Caverns outside St. Louis. I am sure that many of you have seen such advertising.
If you have never taken a tour of a cave, you should. And inevitably, during the tour, after you have gone deep into the passages, the tour guide will have everyone stop and then he (or she) will turn off the lights. When that happens, you begin to get the feeling of what it is to be blind. Nothing else comes close. Even at night time, with no moon, there is still enough light to allow us to see. In a cave with no added lights, the statement “so dark you cannot see your hand in front of your face” comes true.
It is also at such times that we can understand the fear that Saul must have felt when he was blinded by the Holy Spirit.
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.(Acts 9: 3 – 9)
The fortunate thing for Paul is that the blindness he suffered on the road to Damascus and the darkness we are surrounded by when we are in the caves is only temporary. Even while he struggled with his blindness, Paul knew that the God would take care of him. We know that the lights will come back on inside the cave.
Still, the thought of becoming blind is very frightening. Even in today’s enlighten times, it is hard for us to realize the limitations that society placed on the blind. During the 17 and 1800′s, the blind were often institutionalized. For others, though, blindness is not so temporary. It was perhaps even worse during Jesus’ time. The blind were looked upon with pity and sorrow for it was felt that, in someway, their blindness was due to some sin in their life. And if the person was born blind, as was the case of the individual in the passage we read in John, the sins were assumed to have been those of his parents.
Against the background of blindness and an indifferent society, the author of the three hymns we sing today, Fanny Crosby, triumphed. Most people are probably aware of the many traditional Methodist hymns written by Charles Wesley, John Wesley’s brother. However, I am sure that not many people are aware that over 1000 hymns Christians sing today were written by Fanny Crosby. She was born in 1820 and died in 1915, living most of her life in the New York area. And from the sixth week of her life, she was blind. The notes that accompany the United Methodist Hymnal point out that she spent most of her adult life working with other blind people and, of course, writing those wonderful hymns that we turn to in times of trouble and in times of joy.
Fanny Crosby was much like the blind man in John. Her presence and her song writing skills were to let others know what joy Jesus brings to our lives.
“As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9: 1 – 5)
It was her faith in Jesus that gave Fanny Crosby the vision needed to write such powerful songs as “Blessed Assurance”. Through her faith, through the light provided by Jesus, she saw just as well as you or I, perhaps even better.
Today, as we begin looking to the coming new century, we hear a lot of talk about our country’s lack of vision. But why should we be surprised by our country’s lack of vision. What Abraham Lincoln said some one hundred and thirty years ago is still true today. Governments are of, by, and from the people. If the people are lost and confused, the government will be likewise. If the people do not have a vision of what they expect for the future, how can we expect the country to know where it is going? If the government is to have a firm sense of direction for the coming years, that direction must come from us, both as individuals and as the church.
Today is Laity Sunday. This is the day we honor all those who have worked for the church during the past year. It is also an opportunity to look at how we, the members of the church, can work for the betterment of the the church and society. I do not think that it is a coincidence that our observation of Laity Sunday comes at the same time as our national elections or the meeting of the Nominations Committee of the local church. This is the time when we set the direction we want our church and our country to take. Yet, at least on the national level, this direction is very, very confusing.
The tone of most political commercials today seems to be how bad the opponent will be for the country. During the last two presidential campaigns, there were a number of complaints about the negative nature of the advertising. It does not appear that much has changed in the past two years. I heard a political advertisement the other day as I was driving to Tulsa. In this commercial, the challenger stated that his opponent was out of touch with Oklahoma and then he went through all the bad things the opponent had done. For this candidate, the solution to the problem was for the voters of Oklahoma to vote for him. Yet, this challenger never did say what it was that he would do if he were elected. Kansas political ads appear to be no different.
But our political campaigns are merely a reflection of the way we have allowed our nation. Whether it is in politics or just everyday living, the majority in this country willingly let others tell them how to act, what to wear, and how to think. At the time when the world is at peace, when the Glory of God should be shining through, we have lost our direction. We stand at the brink of the greatest time of our lives and our direction is set by others, not by God.
We are like the Israelites standing before the Promised Land. We struggled for many years to reach this point and now we wait for the final report. In the case of the Israelites, it was a matter of sending in twelve spies, one from each of the tribes of Israel. You would have thought that, considering the time in the wilderness and all the difficulties that trip had to overcome, the people would have been overjoyed. Yet what did the spies report:
“We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”(Numbers 13: 31 – 33)
And to this, the people cried
“Would that we have died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”(Numbers 14: 2 – 3)
Every time during the Exodus when the Israelites ran into trouble, they cried out how Moses and Aaron had failed them and that they were going to die in the wilderness. Faced with the difficulties of traveling and living in the wilderness, knowing that the Promised Land was just inches away, the Israelites would have rather turned around and returned to the seemingly comfortable life of slavery in Egypt. Are we not like that today? Isn’t it much easier for us to complain about the present situation than to work towards improving our lot?
The turmoil in our lives today is directly related to the fact that we, both as a nation and individually, have lost our commitment to God. We have forgotten that with God, all things are possible. We no longer put God first in our lives and, as a result, have lost our spiritual direction. Like the Pharisees, we have become blind to the troubles of the world. In a world split by race, creed, and economic status, we see the problems these differences cause but we want others to solve them. Even though He has repeatedly told us that he would provide, we no longer have faith that God will do so.
It is admittedly not an easy task. But it was their faith in God that enabled the Israelites to leave slavery in Egypt and make the trip to the Promised Land in the first place. It was their faith in God that enabled them to conquer that land. Despite the negative report from ten of the spies, not all of the Israelites had lost their faith in God. Joshua and Caleb offered a different opinion of what was in the Promised Land.
And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, “The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” But the whole congregation threatened to stone them. (Numbers 14: 6 – 10)
Joshua and Caleb put their faith in the Lord and were rewarded for their faith. When the Israelites reached the Promised Land after spending the extra time wandering, only Joshua and Caleb were still alive to enjoy the fruits of the Promised Land. Those who had lost their faith had died during the extra years in the wilderness.
It is the same for us. In these times of trial, all we have to do is return to God. As James wrote
“If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way, and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answer.”(James 1: 5 – 8)
When God sent the Israelites out of Egypt, he did not do so without providing them instruction. Even as they began that journey from the certain and safe surroundings of Egypt into the unknown wilderness they called the Promised Land, they still knew that it was God who guiding them.
The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13: 17 – 22)
I have painted an admittedly dark picture of our and this country’s future. Yet, the pillar of fire which accompanied the Israelites by night and the pillar of cloud which accompanied them by day is still present today. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples in the passage from John, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9: 1 – 5)
Paul understood what it meant to see the world through the light of Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in his second letter to Corinthians.
“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of god. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of god. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”.(2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 6)
The light that shines in the darkness today is Jesus Christ, our Savior. It is that light which can guide each one of us. When we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, we will be like Saul regaining his sight and becoming Paul.
So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus,who has appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.(Acts 9: 17 – 19)
We are entering a world which is becoming increasingly dark and forbidding. We, you and I, must make a choice. We can live our lives in the total darkness of sin or we can live our lives in the light of the salvation of Jesus Christ. The question is ours to answer “Do you see the Light?”