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A lawyer was trying to console a weeping widow. Her husband had passed away without a will.
“Did the deceased have any last words?” asked the lawyer.
“You mean RIGHT before he died?” sobbed the widow.
“Yes,” replied the lawyer. “They might be helpful if it’s not too painful for you to recall.”
“Well,” she began, “As I remember it, he said, Don’t try to scare me! You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with that gun.'” (1)
There have been many collections made of the last words of well-known persons. I ran across a collection of last words recently from people who are not that well-known. For example, murderer Richard Loeb was a trifle optimistic about his survival after being stabbed 56 times by a fellow convict in 1936: “I think I’m going to make it!” he said. Those were his last words. Legendary swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks must have been confused before giving up the ghost in 1939 because his famous last words were: “Never felt better.” William Palmer, who was hanged in 1856, was told to step on the scaffold’s trap door. “Is it safe?” he asked. Now that’s a great question. Finally, Phineas T. Barnum, the outrageous showman, asked a question with his last words: “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?” he asked. (2)
You would think that people confronted with their last few moments on earth would want to say something memorable something important something lasting.
Consider Jesus’ last words, as recorded in our lesson from Luke’s Gospel. Luke tells us Jesus opened his disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures, and then said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.”
These were Jesus’ last words. These were undoubtedly words that Christ meant for his disciples to remember. These were words that summed up his mission and theirs. It is interesting what part of his ministry he chose to emphasize with these last words.
Without this passage, we might assume that his final message to his disciples would be, Love one another. We talk about the love of Christ nearly every Sunday in this church. Obviously, no one loved like Jesus. And he taught love as the central ethic of life. But that was not the message he centered on in his last instructions to the church. And this is critical. If we preach only the love of Christ, people might think that the Gospel is a touchy-feely “everybody have a warm feeling about everybody else” kind of message with no real power to transform lives. No, love is at the center of our message, but it is not the complete message. There is something more.
Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that REPENTANCE AND FORGIVENESS should be preached in his name to all nations, . . .” Here is the message that we are to proclaim in the world: Repent and receive God’s forgiveness. Let me repeat this. This is the central task of the church to say to people, Repent and receive forgiveness.
At the beginning of the New Testament we encounter John the Baptist preaching a message of repentance. It is a very stark message, an unrelenting message. We would like to paint a contrast between John and Jesus. John was a rough-hewn backwoodsman, while Jesus was a more urbane rabbi. John was hard; Jesus was soft. John preached repentance; Jesus preached grace. The historical evidence does not support such a position, however. Jesus in his teaching was just as demanding sometimes even more demanding than John. “Lest your righteousness EXCEED that of the Pharisees,” he said. At his baptism Jesus identified himself with John’s message of repentance. It was a consistent theme throughout his ministry.
But he also preached forgiveness. In fact, he made boldly enough to say to one man, “Your sins ARE forgiven.” That really steamed the temple crowd that he should claim authority to forgive sins. But that was the second part of his overall message: Repent and receive forgiveness for your sins. And this is the central message that we as the church are to proclaim to the world: Repent and receive God’s forgiveness. However, since these two words repentance and forgiveness have lost much of their power to modern men and women, let’s phrase them in a different way. Let’s begin with repentance.
The first message we proclaim from Christ is this: IN WHAT DIRECTION IS YOUR LIFE HEADED? That is, everyone’s life has a direction and sometimes that direction is not desirable. For example, from time to time we encounter someone who is becoming more bitter with every day that passes. You’ve known people like that. Somewhere along the way something has caused them to sour on life. And rather than seeing the folly of such a depressing attitude rather than acknowledging that they ought to do something about their outlook before it drives everyone away from them they seem to nurture that negative attitude and ever more tightly it pulls them into its grasp. We want to say to such a person, “Turn around! Turn around before it is too late.”
We see people abusing these wonderful bodies that God has given each of us with cigarettes, with alcohol or drugs, or with simple gluttony or neglect, and we want to say, “Turn around. Turn around while you still can.”
A man finds himself being drawn into a relationship that is destructive to his happy home. He is on a path that will certainly mean heartache for himself, for his wife and children, even for his partner in sin, and we want to shout, “For God’s sake, man, turn around! Before it is too late, turn around.”
We see people who, lacking any other great motivation in life, begin surrounding themselves with things, at the expense of living a life of service and we want to say, “Turn around. You are serving things rather than allowing things to serve you. For your own spiritual welfare, turn around.” You see, the message of repentance is not the exclusive domain of murderers and prostitutes. All of us need to examine our lives from time to time and ask the question, “Where am I headed in life? If I continue in the direction I’m headed, will it take me where God means for me to be?”
Daniel Defoe, the author of ROBINSON CRUSOE, ran away from home and went to sea as a young man. His father protested young Defoe’s plans, and his mother wept. But Defoe was determined to have his way. On his very first voyage out, his ship was wrecked and young Defoe barely escaped with his life. He saw his foolishness and the bad choice he had made, but he was afraid to go back home because he knew his friends would make fun of him. Remembering how he felt, Defoe came to the conclusion that people are not ashamed of sin, but they are ashamed to repent. (3)
That’s an interesting thought. We are more ashamed of changing directions than we are continuing in our sin. Studies in psychology reinforce that idea. These studies show that once we have decided on a course of action particularly a dubious course of action a course of action totally out of character with our better selves we will build up all kinds of rationalizations to justify that course of action. And the more others point out our fault, the more we feel the need to justify our aberrant behavior. Our pride becomes involved and in a most demonic twist of thinking, we harden in our justifications until we get to the point that we will fight rather than switch even when we know what we are doing is stupid beyond belief. (4)
And the message comes from Christ and from those who love us, “Turn around. Please, for your own sake and for the sake of those who love you most, turn around.” Has anyone ever heard those words before? Have you ever been tempted to speak them to someone else? We all need to hear them from time to time. That’s the first message Christ has for us. Repent turn around.
Here is the second: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR LIFE THUS FAR? Do you have any regrets? Do you look back over your life and wish you had done some things differently? Most people’s lives have a secret here or there. Most of us have some part of our lives we wouldn’t particularly want to share with our children or our spouse or our parents. Most of us can look at our lives and say, “Gee, I didn’t handle that relationship quite like I should” or “I wish I hadn’t said THAT” or “I wish I had spent more time here and less time over there” or “If only I could go back and live THAT PART of my life over again.” I thought about this truth when I heard about a thriving new business that someone has started.
Most of you are familiar with a new method of selling items. Through this new method you can buy almost anything from credit cards to celebrity secrets, from love and romance to sexual scandals. This new sales phenomenon is the 900 phone line. For instance, after the Jim Baaker scandal a few years back, if you had a desire to hear Jessica Hahn tell all about her most intimate secrets, or to hear “what really happened” to her, you could call 1-900-230-5050. If you had an interest in meeting the man or woman of your dreams, Jessica would help you do that also with her 1-900 LOVE PHONE. Of course the way these telephone services work is that the call costs you anywhere from two to fifty dollars for the first minute and one dollar and fifty cents to twenty-five dollars for each additional minute.
Pastor Gregory Schmidt of Shelton, Connecticut tells of watching a TV news show, like “A Current Affair.” On that show he saw a report that he says has led him to contemplate changing the focus of his ministry. The story was about a woman who ran a 900 phone service called “The Confession Line.” The “confessions” which people made included anything and everything, from admissions of petty theft to adultery and even to murder. The woman explained that she had been operating for just under a year and the 25 lines she had were busy 24 hours a day. The woman went on to say that The Confession Line was such a success she was expanding to 100 lines in order to keep up with the demand. Finally, and this is the part that got Rev. Schmidt’s mind racing, she admitted that in the first year of operation The Confession Line made close to 17 million dollars.
Wow! Maybe we ought to see about a 900 number for our church. But here is what this phenomenon is really all about: We all have things in our lives we need to confess. Unresolved guilt is one of the great problems in people’s lives. It manifests itself in physical disorders, sleeplessness, depression, and numerous problems in building relationships. And most of us are not even aware that it is a problem. Because we are confused about the nature of sin, we aren’t aware of our need for forgiveness. Sin is any brokenness in our lives. It is any transgression against the love of someone else or the love of God. Sin manifests itself anytime we have used another person or when we have not lived up to our full potential as children of God. All of us have regrets about the way we have lived our lives, and I am able to say to you on behalf of our Lord Jesus Christ, “You are forgiven. The past is past. It is gone forever. Today is a new day and you can be a new person. You don’t have to live out that old self-defeating script anymore. You are forgiven.”
Those, then, are the two messages Jesus means for his church to proclaim to the world, “Turn around” and “You are forgiven. The past is past. This is a new day.”
According to writer Jamie Buckingham, the day after Jimmy Swaggart, one of the nation’s best-known TV evangelists, went on public television to confess his sin of immorality and ask the nation’s forgiveness, a friend of Jamie’s called him on the phone.
“Do you want to know what God thinks of Jimmy Swaggart?” the friend asked.
Jamie told him since everyone else in the nation seemed to have an opinion, it might be refreshing to know what God thought.
“God told me He is rejoicing,” his friend said.
“Rejoicing?” Jamie asked. “How can God rejoice when one of His best-known TV evangelists has brought shame and reproach to the kingdom?”
Then his friend quoted Jesus’ closing statement in the parable of the good shepherd and the lost sheep. “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). His friend was not saying God rejoiced over Swaggart’s sin. Rather, He rejoiced over his repentance. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of anything else Jimmy Swaggart may have done before or after that circumstance, his public repentance pleased God. (5)
Repentance and forgiveness are serious business. From time to time all of us need to turn around. And the healthiest person alive is the person who knows his or her sins are forgiven. So, if someone asks you about Jesus’s last words here they are: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem . . .”
1. Frank Eames in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, INDEPENDENT.
2. George Gipes, THE LAST TIME WHEN (Almanac, 1981).
3. Donald F. Ackland and Robert Dean, 52 READY-TO-TEACH BIBLE STUDY LESSONS, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1994).
4. See Robert Cialdini, INFLUENCE.
5. PARABLES, (Milton Keynes, England: Word Publishing, 1991), pp. 75-76.
Imagine a situation in which they are falsely accused of doing something wrong or making a mistake. (Perhaps their parents come home and find that an expensive vase has been broken.) Ask them also to imagine that someone else has seen exactly what really happened. (Their brother or sister, for instance, has seen the dog knock the vase off the table with its tail.) Now ask them if they would want the witness to speak up – or lie about what really happened? Remind your class that people accuse Jesus falsely every day when they say that he has deserted them or never really existed. Remind them that they are the witnesses who must speak up and defend Jesus.
Prove the world is round
There are many things we believe in this world that we haven’t seen. As children we learned that the earth is round. We’ve never traveled into space and looked back at the earth but we believe what we have been taught.
It was the ancient Greeks who first theorized that the earth is round. This discovery is attributed to Pythagoras who first proposed it sometime around 500 B.C. “Earth is a sphere floating in space,” he declared to a packed lecture hall.
It is said that a grave silence fell upon the hall when he said this. His listeners were amazed. They wondered how they could live on a sphere! Common sense suggested that earlier philosophers were right when they said the earth was a flat disc floating on the air. Pythagoras had deduced the idea of a round earth based on his observation that earth casts a circular shadow on the moon during eclipses. (1)
His revolutionary idea was accepted by Aristotle and other Greek philosophers and became common knowledge as early as 300 B.C. Most of the rest of humanity, though, had to accept it on faith. It has only been within our own lifetime that human beings have escaped the earth’s magnetic field and ventured out into space and affirmed that Pythagoras was right. The world is round.
Of course, there are still some people who belong to the Flat Earth Society. They believe from their own limited experience that the idea that the earth is a sphere is preposterous. Of course, some people still contend that humans have not landed on the moon. That it was all a government hoax. I have no idea what to do with such folks, but most of us have accepted the truths of science from an early age. We believe even though we have not seen.
Scientists tell us that life began to emerge on earth as early as 3.5 billion years ago. That is amazing. They also tell us that our earth is rotating on its axis at 1100 miles per hour; that our earth is rotating around the sun at 481,000 mph; and that our sun and solar system are whirling into space at 57,000,000 mph. Wow! It would take quite a leap of faith to believe all that, but people I know and trust tell me it’s true, and thus I believe that, yes, it is all likely true.
Furthermore, they tell us this universe is enormous. Now this isn’t mere conjecture. For four decades two Voyager space crafts have been hurtling beyond the edge of our solar system at a rate of 100,000 miles per hour. These space craft have been speeding away from earth and are now approximately 12 billion miles from this small planet. When these craft were still responding to signals at about 9 billion miles away engineers would beam commands to them at the speed of light. It took these commands thirteen hours to arrive, even at the speed of light! It is estimated that to send a message to the edge of our enormous universe at the speed of light would take 15 billion years. And within this enormous universe there are billions and billions of galaxies. (2)
That’s more than I can get my mind around, but isn’t it a magnificent thought that we live in such an amazing universe? Is there anyone in this room who believes that such a magnificent universe could just have happened with no guiding hand at work? Are you mad?
British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle compares the likelihood of life appearing on earth by accident as equivalent to the possibility that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials found there. (3) An accident? I don’t think so.
There is a story about a caveman who was out hunting one day and found a modern-day watch. He noticed this strange looking object on the ground making a ticking sound. Looking at the face of the watch, he saw the hands go around. Opening the inside, he saw a system with order. At that time, he didn’t know what it was but he said, “If this is a watch, there must be a watchmaker.”
And that is the way most of us respond to this amazing universe. Without a watchmaker, there could be no watch. And without Supreme Intelligence, there could be no universe. There is no way this world with all its immensity and intricacy and beauty could simply have happened. Even a caveman could see that.
Do you remember Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town? There is a scene in it where Jane Crofut gets a letter from her minister when she is sick. The envelope is addressed like this: “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.”
That’s right the mind of God. That is where it all began. Science can tell us how it happened, but only faith can tell us why it happened.
A father told of taking his family to the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. He said the sky seemed more brilliant than they had ever seen it, and the stars were so close you felt as if you could touch them.
Their three boys decided that they would put their sleeping bags out on the ground so they could go to sleep watching the stars. The man and his wife had just settled down for the night when their youngest boy came into the tent, dragging his sleeping bag with him.
“What is the matter?” his parents asked. “Is it getting too cold?”
“No,” he answered. Then he added, “I just never knew I was so small.” (4)
Well, it does make us feel small. But it also reminds us of how great and wonderful God is. Even if you were determined to be an agnostic, you would still be left with mysteries that science cannot answer: The first of these is the creation of the universe itself: that there should be something rather than nothing is miraculous. The second is that, once upon a time, some of the inanimate matter on this earth planet suddenly came to life. And the third is that some of that matter that came to life gained the ability to think, to be motivated, to seek, and to imagine, even to hope. (5)
Even if you weren’t impressed by the immensity and the intricacy of it all, the wondrous beauty of creation alone should show the sheer lunacy of believing it all happened by pure chance. “Nature,” wrote Jonathan Edwards, “is God’s greatest evangelist.” And he was right.
So why couldn’t they see? Why couldn’t the friends and neighbors of Elliot Rodgers in Isla Vista see what was going on inside his head? Why couldn’t his parents see beyond their own frustration? Why couldn’t he see beyond his own needs and insecurities? Why could he not see the lives of those he would kill? The father of one victim asks “why can’t our nation see what guns are doing to us?” Professionals ask why we can’t help those who so obviously need it.
There is, I think, one kind of seeing that happens instinctually. It’s mostly passive. Our eyes take things in, we may note one or another thing, and then we move on to something else. Almost all the seeing we do this way. When something happens later, or someone points something out, we knock ourselves in the head wondering why we didn’t notice it at first.
But another kind of see is not passive; it’s active, engaged, searching, and deep. We have this striking phrase in the second reading today, from Ephesians: “the eyes of our hearts.” This is the scriptures’ way of talking about the deeper seeing we need when dealing with God. Look at so many more people who think they are atheists today. We want to ask them: are you even looking? Looking in the right place? Looking with open eyes?
But we ourselves can be like the disciples of Jesus who, with passive eyes, are staring at Jesus ascending into heaven. We can imagine this is all about outer space, and strange worlds, and the bottom of Jesus’ feet. “Men of Galilee,” the angel has to say, “Why are you looking into the sky?” We cannot see the Ascension by staring. We’ve got to use the eyes of our hearts.
What do the eyes of our hearts see? Deeper, more clearly, more peacefully, with contemplation, in prayer: all that for sure. But also our more expansive hopes, not only for ourselves but for humankind. Also the deepest meanings and implications of our loves and our loving. And, most of all, how we cannot see without seeing things in God. “In your light, we see light,” says one of the Psalms; St. Augustine meditated on this phrase for most of his life—to see everything in God’s truth and love. What does God’s light show me?
Part of seeing in God involves not only living in God, but also acting in God. The angel tells the “men of Galilee” that Jesus will return—so they are to live in hope, acting from hope, not with small and crippled visions. But Jesus himself tells the disciples in Galilee, in this very famous passage from the end of Matthew’s Gospel, that they are live with the kind of hope that drives them forth, helping others see in God’s light, helping others find Jesus with the eyes of their heart, helping the world become his disciples.
The eyes of our hearts, when they look on Christ, bring us hope and bring us mission. The Word has gone out—not only to all the nations, but through twenty centuries, until we ourselves hear it. We are no different than the “men of Galilee”—we too are told to make the world disciples. But we can do that only by consciously accepting our discipleship, consciously looking with the eyes of our hearts, and consciously seeking to help the world see God, see God in Jesus, see God with his Spirit.
This doesn’t mean we go to Nigeria or Thailand. It means right in our own homes, our families, among our friends, in our own living environment. If our families, our children, our friends and associates, only see us looking passively, how does this help them to see with the eyes of the heart? If our faith is mostly a cultural form, and not an active way of life, how do others come to see in the light God asks us to shed and spread?
Jesus’ Ascension is not an absence; it’s a deeper presence, in the world and also in our hearts. He continues to return in our prayer, our worship, our daily deeds done in love, in our love for others, in the hopes that allow us to live with conviction and energy. Enough angry people with eyes filled with violence, enough of that. It’s time for clearer eyes, light-filled eyes, and love-filled hearts.