This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 4th Sunday in Lent, 2 April 2000. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Numbers 21: 4 – 9, Ephesians 2: 1 – 10, and John 3: 14 – 21.
Back in 1965, the Boy Scout troop that I belonged to was involved in a first aid contest with other Denver area troops. The rules of the contest were very simple. Five guys from a troop would make up a team and be given a number of situations to assess and then perform the appropriate first aid. In each situation, one of the five would be the patient suffering from the symptoms as described by the judge. One of the five would be the directed caregiver who would be responsible for determining the treatment and appropriate action. And in each situation, the remaining three would perform duties as needed by the caregiver. The only person who the primary caregiver could not turn to for advice was the patient. Other than just lying there and pretending to be sick, there wasn’t much the patient could do.
So it came to be my turn as the patient. The symptoms presented were a pale and wet skin with a rapid but weak pulse. It was heat exhaustion, or as it was known back then, sunstroke. Unfortunately, the primary caregiver thought I had heatstroke. So, as he was describing how he would treat this by moving me to a cool and shady place and giving me lots of fresh water, I started to whisper, “salt water, salt water.”
I can’t adequately describe why giving fresh water to a person suffering from heat exhaustion is incorrect but it is enough to say that it would make a bad situation worse. But since I was the patient in this case, anything I said was to be ignored. Besides, the guy doing the treatment was one of those who had his own mind about things and he wasn’t going to listen to me anyway.
So, it was all over and the judge gave the team no points for the situation since the treatment resulted in my death. As he was leaving for his next situation and team, he told the leader that he should have listened to the patient.
The problem with first aid is that many times, you have only one shot at the right treatment and there isn’t much you can do if you screw it up. That is why you practice and hold contests; so that you can get it right the first time.
Life, if you will excuse the rather trite cliché, is like that. Each day we make choices. Sometimes they are the right choices; sometimes, they are the wrong ones. The writer C. S. Lewis offers an interesting view on the idea of making choices. He writes,
People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God say, “If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature; either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven; that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (From Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis)
It seems that throughout all of the Exodus and the wanderings in the wilderness, the Israelites never could get it right. From the moment they left Egypt, they complained about either the food, the water, or the living conditions. Somehow, life in Egypt and slavery always seemed to be better than freedom and living with God.
Yet, when they ran out of food, they complained but God provided them with manna from heaven. When they ran out of water, God gave them fresh water from the rocks. In the Old Testament reading for today, they again are complaining about the food and the water.
This time, God sends serpents to strike at them. With the pain of the snakebite, the Israelites realize that they have done wrong and immediately repent of their mistakes. As a reminder of their repentance and a means for asking forgiveness, God has Moses make a bronze serpent as a means of providing first aid.
I think that we still sometimes see life in the terms that Lewis outlined. If we live a good live, we are rewarded; if not, we are punished. The problem is that we often don’t want to make those choices that are going to cause us pain or anguish. The pain that comes with failure is often too great to accept. It is much better to simply not make a choice rather than have to live with the consequences of a wrong choice. But the problem with such an approach is that it never gets us anywhere. As we begin the new baseball season, it would be appropriate to point out that you cannot run to home if your foot is stuck on third base. We lose too many opportunities because we want to stay in “safe” territory.
But, as Paul pointed out in his letter to the Ephesians, living a good life, making appropriate choices is not necessarily a guarantee of salvation. The only thing that saves us is God’s grace.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, (Ephesians 2: 8)
But, if we make the choice to follow God, the other choices that we make each day become that much easier to make. God does speak to us, though we may not often hear Him, offering us guidance for the choices that we make. Sometimes it is that soft, still voice telling us, “This is the Path, walk in it.” (Proverbs 16: 12)
Jesus, Himself, had to make choices that were extremely difficult to make. Many times, He had to say no to people. He said no to the ambitious young man who wanted to follow Him, yet who would not give up all his worldly goods. He had to say no to His mother when she tried to interrupt His teaching. He said no to Judah when Judah wanted to make the ministry a political one. He said no to the temptations of the wilderness. He said no, at times, to Himself, “No, I will not run from this. I will drink the cup that is placed before me.” (John 18: 11)
Peter tried to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem. He (Peter) sensed danger there and he was right. However, Jesus knew it was part of a larger plan. So, he “set his face towards Jerusalem,” (Isaiah 50: 7) even knowing the consequence. Throughout it all, Jesus turned to God to help make the right choices.
It is important for us to understand that the one choice God made for us was to send his Son, our Savior, so that we could be saved. As much as we remember John 3: 16, it is as equally important that we remember John 3: 17
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3: 17)
There are going to be days when you feel tired and weak; there are going to be days when it seems that everything is going against you. And this happens to the best of people. It is times like these that a little first aid is needed and we can find it in God through our Savior. It could be that you have been searching for something to help through these troubled times. There are some choices that you can make. Fortunately, the first aid that can be applied is sufficient, and, if you need it again, it is there. God’s grace is limitless and the choice of accepting it is ours through Jesus Christ. That is the choice we have today.