This was the 9th message that I ever presented (yes, I keep a record of them). It was the first time that I stepped outside the boundaries of my home church (Grace UMC in St. Cloud, MN) or my mother’s church (and a former home church for me, Good Shepherd UMC in Bartlett, TN). I suppose that if I had read the Discipline a little more carefully, I would have known that I wasn’t supposed to seek opportunities as a lay speaker but rather wait for them to come.
As it was, I was going to be in Kirksville the weekend of April 15, 16, and 17, 1994 and I wanted to preach at 1st UMC because that was my church when I was in college. But the schedule for 1st had been fixed and it was neither practical nor possible for me to do so. I am still hoping that one day before I hang it up to preach at 1st UMC.
So I sent a letter to the pastor at Faith UMC and he wrote my pastor to make sure that I was who I said I was and I got to preach at Faith UMC in Kirksville, MO, on 17 April 1994. I used Ecclesiastes 2: 1 – 11 and Luke 24: 1 – 12 as the basis for this message.
I first want to thank Reverend Williams for allowing me the opportunity to come here today and present this message. As I mentioned to him, when I first came to Kirksville in 1966, I saw the signs about Faith Church but, because of the distance from the campus to the church, was unable to attend. Today, because I am a member of Grace Church, I am able to come to Faith Church.
Faith UMC was Faith Evangelical United Brethren Church when I first began attending Truman State University, then known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College. Because I had been a member of the 1st EUB church in Aurora, CO, before the move to Missouri in 1965, I naturally wanted to go to Faith Church, even though I had transferred my membership to the Wright City United Methodist Church.
At the end of the service that morning, one of the women of the church said to me, “You know, if you had called us, we would have come and gotten you.”
How does one measure success? How do we know if we are successful? One thing that has always amazed me in teaching science and studying how science is done is the number of discoveries made because others have misread the signs. Wilhelm Roentgen was one such scientist. He interpreted what others had seen and determined that a new ray, which he called X-rays, caused the “fogging” of the photographic plates in his laboratory. Others had seen this same fogging but ignored it or blamed on faulty equipment. Roentgen went beyond the simple explanations and made the discovery. Similarly, in 1962, Neil Bartlett synthesized xenon tetrafluoride. The uniqueness of this synthesis was that, according to the chemistry textbooks of the time, it impossible to do. Xenon is one of a group of elements called the Noble Gases because they appeared to be chemically inert and thus could not form chemical compounds. Dr. Bartlett looked at the properties of xenon and determined that, in fact, such compounds could be made. The result of his work was the pinnacle of success in science, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
While winning the Nobel Prize may seem unrealistic for most of us, the message about success isn’t. Louis Pasteur once said that “Luck favors the prepared mind.” The signs leading to discovery are always visible to those who look. So it is with us. The path we need to follow is before us today. If we wish to be successful, we must see that path and be willing to change our view of the world. If we wish to be successful and have peace and security in today’s society we must examine how we seek to gain that success. “Systems are designed for the results they are getting. If you want different results, you will have to redesign the system.” (Jones, Quest for Quality in the Church: A New Paradigm)
The problem today is how we view success. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, we come to believe that success comes through material things and power. We measure our success in terms of how much material wealth we have amassed. And if our material goods are not enough, then we need more.
The rapid growth of gambling in this country today is an example of this attempt to find comfort and protection. Whatever form it takes, be it on a riverboat or through the lottery, people turn to gambling because of the promises of quick riches and long-time security. Proponents of gambling speak only of the positive things that gambling brings; how it will bring in jobs and money; how it will help fund state projects. There is no doubt that gambling brings jobs and income into the state, be it Missouri or Minnesota. It is interesting that you never hear any discussion of the long-term problem of gambling addictions or other social ills that accompany gambling.
There is also another problem. Whenever we get what we are seeking, we find we need more. The gods of wealth and fame never provide the answers we seek. It seems like every time we gain what we are seeking in the material world, we are left with the feeling that it is not enough.
The writer of Ecclesiastes put it clearly. What use are wealth, fame and power when it is all lost in the end? The death of Kurt Cobain, the admittance of Darryl Strawberry into a drug abuse clinic (and for some from earlier generations, the confession by Mickey Mantle that he is an alcoholic and the demise of Sid Caesar’s comic career because of his addiction to pills and alcohol) are also evidence that fame and wealth are no guarantees for success. In fact, these examples, and those for the countless number of people who are never known, show that the pressures to reach success can demand a very high price. And if life is hopeless, how will we ever achieve a successful life? How do we achieve the peace and security in life that we so desperately seek? Where is the path we need to follow, the direction we need to take?
Even John Wesley struggled with this idea. When he, along with his brother Charles, was sent to Georgia as a missionary, he did so with a great amount of joy and expectation. For now he had the opportunity to show that what he had been saying along would work. No longer would he have to put up with his detractors making fun of his Methodism. You know how it is. How many times have we heard someone say “it won’t work because we’ve never done that sort of thing” or “we tried that once but it didn’t work.” We stand on the side watching others make changes, hoping that they will fail so we can say “we told you so” but when they succeed, don’t we stumble over each other to catch up.
Yet when he returned to England in 1738 he did so with a feeling that he had failed. Prepared as he and his brother were with the understanding that one cannot find peace in life outside Christ, neither man felt that they had truly found the Peace of Christ. Despite their training, despite their background, neither Wesley was willing to say they trusted the Lord.
Only when he let Jesus into his life, that moment know to us as the Aldersgate moment, could Wesley write
“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Only when he accepted Christ as his personal Savior did John Wesley understand the direction his life was to take. By turning his life over to Christ, Wesley gained the confidence needed to make the Methodist revival possible.
Solomon was considered the wisest and richest man of his time; he certainly was one of the most powerful. How was he was able to obtain that wisdom, those riches, and the power. You know those commercials where one person is discussing their financial state and the other person, “Yes, I know. My broker took care of that problem several years ago.” The first person always says “How did your broker know?” “Because he or she asked.” Solomon gained all that he had because he asked.
“And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people; able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern these, your great people?”
It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before your and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statues and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.” (I Kings 3: 7 – 14)
Solomon saw the path to a long and prosperous life could be reached by following the Lord. If we stop reading Ecclesiastes after we hear cry about the futility of achieving fame and fortune we failed to read that the Preacher points out that everything we received is from God and that all that we do must reflect that gift. Putting your hope in the material world will not solve your problem. The modern Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, phrases it this way.
Scripture and tradition habitually put the joys of Heaven into the scale against the sufferings of earth, and no solution of the problem of pain which does not do so can be called a Christian one. We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning Heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about “pie in the sky,” and of being told that we are trying to “escape” from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is “pie in the sky” or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced, whether it is useful at political meetings or no. Again, we are afraid that Heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives. (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
When the women came to the empty tomb that first Easter Sunday, their thoughts were still of the material world. They came, not in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, but in sorrow for the loss of the last great hope and promise for the world.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” They remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stopping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. (Luke 24: 1 – 12)
X-rays had been seen by others before Roentgen, others had made xenon tetrafluoride before Bartlett described its synthesis. Only because Roentgen and Bartlett see the new path were they successful. Jesus told the disciples what was coming; yet, they were not prepared to see that path. Even in those first days after his death, the empty tomb meant disaster and death, not joy and eternal life.
The message of the empty tomb today is very simple. If we follow the path of material things, if we seek to find peace and security in things which cannot last, our lives will be as empty as the tomb and we will be forever lost. If we see the path that leads through the tomb; if we believe that Jesus does offer us an answer that cannot be obtained through material success, then we will receive riches and rewards greater than anything Solomon ever received. The message of faith in Jesus is not new. Every great leader of our Christian heritage has trusted in God completely and followed Him faithfully. Turning to Hebrews 11: 33 – 35, we read
“These people all trusted God and as a result won battles, overthrew kingdoms, ruled their people well, and received what God had promised them; they were kept from harm in a den of lions, and in a fiery furnace. Some, through their faith, escaped death by the sword. Some were made strong again after they had been weak or sick. Others were given great power in battle; they made whole armies turn and run away. And some women, through faith, received their loved ones back again from death. But others trusted God and were beaten to death, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free – trusting that they would rise to a better life afterwards.” (Hebrews 11: 33 – 35)
The longest journey begins with a single step. The hardest step we ever have to take, the hardest choice we ever have to make is the one where we allow Jesus to enter our hearts and become the direction to our lives. You are invited to make that step today. When we allow Jesus to enter our hearts, the troubles of world no longer become important. Knowing that Jesus will be there when we need him, by placing our lives in His control, we find the direction in our lives and find the solutions to the problems we wish to solve. We find our success in Him. You can say that “it’s a matter of faith”.