This is one of the first messages I ever gave in my lay speaking career. I had come down to Tennessee for a seminar and conference at Vanderbilt University so I arranged my flights so I could spend the weekend in Memphis with my family. (Besides, flying down over the weekend was cheaper than flying straight to Nashville for a Monday and Tuesday meeting.)
This was the 1st Sunday in Lent but I was still “picking and choosing my scriptures instead of using the lectionary as I do now (I don’t think that I was even aware of the lectionary readings at that time). So my starting scriptures for this message were 1 Samuel 17: 46 and Luke 23: 39 – 43.
As I was preparing this sermon, I was also preparing a chemical education seminar for presentation to the Chemistry Department at Vanderbilt University tomorrow and another talk dealing with computers, communication, and education for presentation on Wednesday. I hope to keep them straight, but if you learn anything about chemistry or computers today, count it as a bonus.
On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry rose before the Virginia Convention and gave a speech that we may have read and perhaps even memorized. He closed that speech with these lines:
Gentlemen may cry peace, peace –– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it the gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me … give me liberty or give me death! (Patrick Henry, A Biography, Richard R. Beeman, 1974
With these words, Patrick Henry provided the spark that brought Virginia into the Revolutionary War. What was Patrick Henry thinking of as he spoke these inspiring words? What vision was before him that might have given him the power to speak them? From the available evidence, it appears that Patrick Henry’s wife was very mentally ill. While we have a somewhat enlightened attitude about mental illness today, the same was not true in the late 1700’s, when those who were mentally ill were locked away as criminals. Henry could have placed his wife in a mental institution but he chose to keep her at home, though locked away in the basement. This image of his beloved wife locked away in the basement of their plantation was probably the inspiration and vision that allowed him to speak the words “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”
Similarly, on another continent, another vision of freedom led to the following interchange between Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol, and John Wesley:
Butler – You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.
Wesley – My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever, therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay. (Frank Baker, John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript, August, 1739)
With these words, John Wesley began the preaching which eventually would lead to the formation of what is now the United Methodist Church. The vision that inspired Wesley to begin his ministry related to what was happening to the people of England during the Industrial Revolution, and what the Church of England, his church, was doing about it. Or rather what it was not doing.
At that time, only those who were members of the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours, limited health care, and the lack of education that the working class and poor had to contend with every day. Like Henry’s wife, these people were locked in the basement of society and not even the Church had an interest in feeding their souls.
For Wesley, the inaction and lack of compassion shown by the Church of England toward the poor was not what the Gospel was about. To him, the Gospel was more than a collection of words one read on Sunday and then forgot the next day. Nor was it reserved for one class of society. Rather, the Gospel was alive and something you lived every day. And it was available for all people. To Wesley and his early followers, if you had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then your life and behavior reflected that acceptance. One way that was done was in how you treated individuals; even those of a lower class than your own. Were it not for the work of Wesley and the Methodist Revival in seeking to correct the many social problems of that period and the changing of many hearts by the Gospel message he (and others) preached, England would have undergone a far more violent social change than it.
Visions have long been a part of our heritage. We are all familiar with the story of Joseph in Egypt. The Pharaoh had a series of dreams which neither he nor his advisors were able to understand. Only Joseph was able to transform those dreams into a vision of the future and take action.
On more than one occasion Jesus Himself gave us a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God on earth was to be like. We find one such vision in John 1:42 where we read, “He [Andrew] brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephus (which means Peter – in Aramaic & Greek the rock.” In renaming Simon Peter, Jesus showed us the volatile, wishy–washy fellow who was to become the rock upon which He would build the Church.
What is our vision for the church today? Is our church built, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, on love? Is the mission of our church the one given to Peter? From Acts 1:3 – 18, we read
“…saying ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ But Peter began and explained to them in order: I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance, I saw a vision, something descending, like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came down to me. Looking at it closely I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter, kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘No, Lord: for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up to heaven. At that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we first believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God? When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God.
Then so to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life. (Acts 10:3 – 1)
In this vision, Peter was shown that the Gospel is for everyone. Yet today, in a society split by race, creed, and economic status, is our church a beacon of hope and love for all those who seek Jesus? Does our church today reflect the concern for society and the well–being of its members that was expressed by both Jesus and John Wesley? We may have answers to these difficult questions but unless action is taken, these answers may only be our dreams. But today’s problems, generated by fear and hatred, will not go away by dreaming or even if we just ignore them.
Robert Kennedy, during that fateful presidential campaign in 1968, often quoted George Bernard Shaw, “You see things and say ‘why?’ I see things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’ We must transform our dreams about what the church is into a vision of what the church should be and can do.
But from where will the power come to make our vision reality? Where can we turn to find the power to deal with today’s problems? The Gospel still has the power to meet the problems we now face. But the Gospel alone will not make today’s problems go away. The only way we can solve these problems and transform ourselves and our church into the vision shown to us by Jesus is through action. Not just any action, but action powered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Consider David as he prepared for battle with Goliath:
“Then Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a helmet of bronze on his head, and clothed him with a coat of mail. And David girded his sword over his armor, and he tried in vain to go, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these; for I am not used to them.’ And David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near the Philistine.
And the Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield–bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked, and saw David, he disdained him; for he was but a youth, ruddy and comely in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, ‘am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.’
Then David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand. (Samuel 17:38 – 47)
David, armed only with a slingshot and his faith in God, could stand before Goliath while all the armies of Israel ran away. But it wasn’t David who defeated Goliath; it was the Holy Spirit. You can take all the armies in the world and they will still be defeated by the Holy Spirit.
It was the Holy Spirit which gave Jesus the wisdom to answer the questions in the temple when he was just a boy of twelve.
After three days they [Joseph and Mary] found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:41 – 52)
Today is the First Sunday in Lent. This is our time of preparation for the walk to Calvary; a time to reflect on how we live. It also that time when we can allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives.
The Pharisees sought to get rid of Jesus because they were not prepared for the Holy Spirit nor were they ready for the new church. The disciples were instructed to wait in Jerusalem until they received the power of the Holy Spirit, and then they were to go out and preach. A dream or vision not supported by the Holy Spirit is doomed to failure. How powerful is the Holy Spirit? It continually offers hope to all, even on the cross.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying,
‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man had done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.’
And He said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:39 – 43)
Wesley’s spirit was ignited by the flame of the Holy Spirit and with the Holy Spirit came the power to preach the Gospel and revitalize the people, the church and the nation.
So too can it be for us. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Holy Savior in our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to fill our lives, the dreams we have become visions, and we gain the power to turn those visions into reality.