I confess that in this series on Heroes of the Bible I have often simply lifted up the history of the hero, and left you to draw the lessons from his or her life. I myself have learned a mighty handful of lessons I want to share with you this morning.
1. Just because someone is a hero in scripture does not mean that they started life as the sharpest knife in the drawer.
God choose Abraham when he was old, and Jacob when he was weak. God choose Moses to be his spokesperson even though he had difficulty speaking. Jesus called Simon Peter not because he was a bible scholar but because he was a fisherman who knew the heights of victory, and the depths of defeat. Jesus was more concerned with Peter’s mental and spiritual toughness than with his pure intellectual ability. (Note 1:)
During our recent goal setting exercise, we learned that many members of our congregation were concerned with our youth, so I will finish with a word to those who are here.
That word is “Jeremiah,” a hero I hope to speak of in the future. Jeremiah writes, that he protested God’s choice of him, saying, “I am only a youth.” Then continues:
7 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. 8 Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Jeremiah 1:7-8
God is more interested in our availability than our abilities. Even our lack of experience is not a handicap with God, for God is the author of all experience.
2. The heroes of the Bible are not always that likeable.
Some of them are downright intimidating. We saw how Moses advised people with disobedient children to deliver them up to the elders so that they might be stoned to death, so that the evil of their disobedience might not spread among the people of God. Admittedly this practice was pre-Christ and sub-Christ. Some people try to take the sting out of this practice by suggesting that it was a scare tactic—the ancient equivalent of parents telling their children, “If you don’t do so and so the bogey man will get you.” They say that few parents would have carried out such a threat. It still sounds ominous to me. As a child I often disobeyed my parents, and even as an adult, my dad and I have exchanged more than a few words. I am quite sure that if I had lived, back in the day, and spent time with Moses, I would have been shaking in my sandals.
And what about Paul? Paul is my main man. I think he is often misunderstood and under appreciated. If ever I had had the chance to do a Ph.D. in New Testament I am quite sure that I would have done my dissertation on some facet of Paul’s life and work. Yet, if I had lived back in that day, I am not sure that I would have been completely comfortable around Paul. In Philippians 3 he talks about his life before Christ saying, “As to righteousness under the Law, I was blameless.” A little later he talks about his relationship to Christ and to others, saying, “Imitate me, and those who so live as you have an example in us.” It is one thing to wear a bracelet that says, “What Would Jesus Do?” It is quite another to wear a bracelet that says, “Imitate, because I am only doing what Jesus would do.” That is a confidence that few possess.
Personally, I like Paul when he calls himself—“the chief/foremost of sinners.” (1st Timothy 1:15) (Note 2:)
And what about King David? He is at the other end of the scale. He did some despicable things. I can forgive him his adultery with Bathsheba, but I have a harder time with his murder of Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba. Uriah was a Hittite, and a foreigner, but he was a real patriot in Israel, and one of the truly great men of the Bible. When I was in the Marine Officer’s Tactical Basic School, he was held up as an example because he refused to comfort himself when his troops were still in the field. Had I lived back in David’s day, and had I known the facts about David and Uriah, I suspect that I would have felt about David the way the most ardent Democrats felt about Richard Nixon after Watergate, or the way that the most ardent Republicans felt about Bill Clinton after Monica Lewinski and the lies he told about her.
That said, every time I even think about judging another, I am reminded that in Matthew 7:2 Jesus said, “the judgment you give will be judgment you get.” And how, in Romans 14:4, Paul challenged his readers saying, “Who are you to judge the servant of another, it is before his own master he stands or falls.”
And every time I even think of holding a grudge, I remember a story about a certain man and his use of The Lord’s Prayer. The story is told that this man was leading his family in devotions. Suddenly, right in the middle of the prayer, he stopped, left his house without explanation, and did not return for several hours. When he came back, his wife said, “Why did you leave so suddenly?” He said:
“Well when I prayed the Lord’s Prayer, I remembered that I was at outs with a man in the village. I decided that I dared not pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ and not seek his immediate forgiveness.”
3. The heroes of the Bible sometimes failed and failed big. Sometimes they directly disobeyed God. Yet, over and over again, God forgave their failures, and gave them the grace to go on.
When Moses was leading the People of Israel through a dry and parched land, God told Moses to command the rock at Meribah, and it would give water. Moses disobeyed. He added a flourish. He showed off. He took his staff and struck the rock. It was because of this disobedience that God would not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land. He was allowed to look in but not go it. (Numbers 20:24)
Given the example of Moses, the Lawgiver, it is no wonder that the ancient rabbis taught that the good work of a lifetime could be destroyed by a final disobedience.
Of course, the ancient rabbis also taught the reverse of that. They taught that at the end of a wasted life, a man could repent and throw himself upon God and God would accept him, and give him a future and a hope that was nothing more and nothing less than pure grace.
That hope was fulfilled in John 6:37 Jesus said, “He who comes to me I will not cast out.”
I think that Moses saw that kind of grace was coming. When Moses stood on top of the last mountain he would ever climb, and looked across into the Promised Land, he did not see just rocks, and hills, and trees, he saw the fulfillment of all the promises of God. To borrow a phrase from the Hebrews 11:13, Moses like so many of the Old Testament heroes, “… died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar.”
4. The heroes of the Bible stuck with the task that God gave them until they finished it.
At the end of his life St. Paul said:
4:6 For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. 2nd Timothy 4:6-8)
A dying man once gave his family (and me) the best advice I ever heard for any one. He said, “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!” He was not talking about clinging to the last shred of life, he was talking about how to live it to the fullest.
When I was in seminary, Elayne and I used to rush home from Sunday services at the Nicholasville Presbyterian Church to watch “The Hour of Power.” I loved Dr. Schuler’s pithy and memorable saying. Most of all I liked his personal creed. I have used it before: I will use it again. Dr. Schuler said:
“If faced with a mountain of a problem, I will not quit. I will climb over, or find a way around, or tunnel underneath. Or, I will stay right where I am and turn that mountain of a problem into a gold-mine of opportunity.”
Another of my favorite non-Biblical heroes was a man named Dr. Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision International, an organization that Elayne and I started supporting about the same time I started watching “The Hour of Power.” We still support World Vision in its efforts to relieve world hunger. Dr. Pierce often preached a sermon he entitled “God Room.” In it, he said that most of us accept some task as an assignment from God, and we work at it a while, until we get tired, or flummoxed, or loose interest, and then we quit. And when we quit, we go to God and pray:
“O, God, the task you gave me is just too much for me. I am tired and at the end of my rope. I have nothing left; I cannot go on. Can’t you give me a task more suited to my abilities?”
Dr. Bob says that it is a shame that we so often give up just as we have reached the end of our own abilities and endurance. He said that it is only after we reach the end of our own abilities and endurance that we enter “God Room,” which he defined as “that space in which only God can work.”
He said that God is not interested in making us look good because we have the natural ability and lots of resources. He said that God is interested in making ordinary people look great when he helps them to do something that was impossible for them alone.
My friend Douglas Peacock used to tell a story about God and Moses and God Room. You will find this story in the Bible, though you will look in vain for this bit of dialogue until you look into your sanctified imagination. It happened when Moses and the children of Israel were caught between the Yom Suph and the Armies of Egypt. They had run out of room, and they had run out of options. Moses went to God and prayer and told God that he had failed him. And God said, “Moses, Moses, Moses, I did not bring you here to drown you in the sea. And I did not bring you here to kill you with the sword. I brought you here so that I might reveal my glory.”
And you know the rest of that story. It continues today. During our weekend of goal setting we talked about organizations that go from “good to great.” I think a church goes from good to great when it starts doing bold things, and taking real risks, in the faith that God will bless our efforts when we give God room to work.
5. Finally, I would mention that all the heroes of the Bible reflected Jesus Christ. The Heroes of the Old Testament reflected what was to come. The Heroes of the New Testament reflected what had come. That is all that any of us can do.
Dr. Robert Schuler started the Garden Grove Community Church in a drive-in, and he preached from the roof of a snack-bar. He invited Dr. Norman Vincent Peal to be one of his first guests. They belonged to the same denomination, and Dr. Peal accepted. On the morning he was to speak, Dr. Peal stood with Robert Schuler on the roof of the snack bar, and he was flabbergasted by the invitation Schuler gave him. Dr. Peal reports that Dr. Schuler said:
“We have with us today the greatest positive thinker who has ever lived. His words have been heard and read by millions of people all over the world. He has changed more lives than can be counted. The greatest positive thinker who ever lived is here—with us—today! In person! His name is …Jesus Christ! And here to tell us all about him is Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.’”
I once stood behind the pulpit at Lititz Moravian Church. The congregation had place a sign there, which only the preacher could see. It read, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” That flows both ways. People still want to see Jesus, they still want to know him, and his touch. They want to know he cares about them. We are just here to talk about Him, but he is the One True Hero who puts the heroic spirit in those who seek to follow him. In the final analysis, all the heroes of the Bible are nothing more than planets spinning through life in the orbit of Jesus. That puts me in mind of an old Moravian Hymn:
Christian hearts, in love united, Seek alone in Jesus rest;
Has He not your love excited? Then let love inspire each breast;
Members on our head depending Lights reflecting Him, our sun,
Brethren His commands attending, We in Him, our Lord are one.
Note 1: Some object to Peter’s authorship of the both epistles associated with his name. They object that the 2nd Epistle of Peter comes from a time later in the history of the church and that may be true. They object to the 1st Epistle of Peter because it is way too polished to be from the pen of an ignorant fisherman like Peter. In my view, that makes way too light of the power of just being with Jesus, as Peter certainly was.
Note 2: Some think that the Pastoral Epistles reflect a church that is much too structured and developed to be from the pen of Paul, being instead from one of his “associates” who outlived him. Even so, no less an authority than Dr. Bruce Metzger, one of my teachers at Princeton Theological Seminary, maintained that they contain genuine Pauline material. No doubt, if Paul thought of himself as “the chief of sinners,” it was in the context of his persecution of the church.