There are defining moments that come every now and then in life in which we have to make painful choices about what we will hold on to and what we will turn loose.
One of the great story-telling preachers, Dr. Fred Craddock, tells about one of his schoolmates who spent many years ministering in China. He was under house arrest and the soldiers came one day and told him that he could return to America. The family was celebrating. The soldiers said, "You can take 200 pounds with you."
They had been there for years! Two hundred pounds! They got the scales and they started the family arguments-two children, wife, and husband. Must have this vase...Well, this is a new typewriter...What about my books?...What about our toys? They weighed everything and took it off, weighed it and took it off, until at last they had it right on the dot: two hundred pounds.
The soldiers asked if they were ready to go and they said, "Yes." "Did you weigh everything?" They said, "Yes!" "Did you weigh the kids?" "No," we did not. "You will have to weigh the kids." In the blink of an eye, typewriter, vase, books, all became trash. Trash. It happens.
Treasures become trash when we have to weigh everything and we can't keep it all. When value shifts, things of greater value surface. We've all had to trash things that were once of great value. We have tearfully and reluctantly taken things off the scale in some defining moment-cherished ideas and plans, crumbling relationships, pride of mind and body, financial gain. There are things tangible and intangible that have to go when life calls on us to "weigh your kids."
There are some seemingly important things that you cannot count on forever, and some that you can. That's what I want to talk about today.
Material possessions will ultimately fail. At the end of this brief and transitory life, the only thing that we may carry into the next world is what we are, not what we own.
I love the story of the man who arrived at heaven's gate with a wheelbarrow loaded with gold bars. St. Peter said, "You can't bring that in. Everyone who comes in here must come as empty handed as when they were born." The man fell on his knees and pleaded that his request be appealed to God. And in a moment of indulgent kindness, St. Peter consulted God about the man's request to bring gold bars into heaven. God's answer was a simple question, "Why does he want to bring in paving materials?"
There are so many people who are slouching toward the cemetery, and their wagons are loaded with things that they will have to leave behind. You may be one of them, and if you are, start unloading now. Use it or give it away. Unloading may be the most saving act you can do.
One of the basic teachings of Christianity is that nothing material will last. In 2 Corinthians, chapter 4 and verse 18, the Apostle Paul said, "For we fix our attention not on things that are seen, but on things that are unseen. What can be seen lasts only for a time, but what cannot be seen lasts forever." Trying to find security by accumulating material things is ultimately an empty gesture that will finally let you down. Jesus was clear and specific about this as he cautioned us not to "lay up treasures in this world where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal." He suggested that there is a heavenly treasure that we can acquire which defies the ravages of time and the frailty of the flesh.
In one of the many parables that Jesus told about money and material wealth, he spoke of a rich fool, a farmer, who, in the midst of plenty, recited an affirmation of faith that many people today recite in one form or another. He said:
I will pull down my old barns and build bigger and better barns;
and say to my soul, "Soul, take it easy, you've got it made.
But that night the voice of God came rattling through the walls, announcing to him:
You fool, this night your soul will be required of you. Then whose will these things be? Certainly not yours, for in order to use them earthly life is essential, and you're leaving tonight.
How devastating it is to invest your whole life in something that turns out to be worthless! How devastating it is to miss the meaning of life! The overall message of Christian teaching is that nothing material-not money, land, stocks, bonds-will last. This advance warning, which the Bible gives with great clarity, ought to have the effect of leading us to wean ourselves from any permanent attachment to things that will not last. Material things are to be used for the purposes they were intended, but they are not to become the central focus of life. Material possessions will ultimately be of no value.
Next, plans fail. None of us lives very long without experiencing the pain of broken plans. You would be surprised how many people end up living in a place they did not plan to live, in a job they had never thought of doing, and married to someone they had never dreamed of marrying. Many people live the last half of their lives with plenty of questions hanging like fishhooks in their minds. What if another romance had worked out, my dream job had materialized, the accident had never happened, the baby had not died, I had not divorced? There are a thousand "what if" questions. Perhaps you have asked some of them. I have. Only God knows the failed plans and broken dreams that haunt us. They prowl the cellars of our souls like restless ghosts.
Robert Burns speaks to us poetically of what life continuously reminds us existentially. "The best laid schemes of mice and men often go wrong and leave us nought but grief and pain for promised joy." Life keeps on breaking our little plans and schemes and sending us in directions we had never thought of going. In the 16th chapter of the Book of Acts, Luke recounts Paul's plans to go to Bithynia. Bithynia was a very promising place of ministry, but God had other plans for Paul, which did not include Bithynia. There was a small and insignificant place called Troas, to which the Lord pointed Paul. Paul was no doubt disappointed and a little hurt about the whole thing. But out of his disappointment and failure of plans, the door was opened to Macedonia. The wonderful world of Macedonia is always a probable consequence of our failed plans and broken dreams.
It's all right to dream and plan and think about the future, but don't build your life around your plans so solidly that there is no flexibility-no room for circumstances beyond your control to be factored into your plans. If we have the flexibility of which Kipling spoke, then we can survive broken plans. Remember the beautiful poem "If"?
If you can dream and not make dreams your master,
If you can think and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with triumph and disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stop and build them up with worn out tools.
Plans fail. Dreams become nightmares, and our most high-flown thoughts and visions lose their meaning. I have heard it rightly said that life is what happens to us on the way to what we had planned.
Next, friends fail. Thank God for friends! But do not build your life around your friends. They are human. They will ultimately fail you. There will come a fork in the road, and you will take one path and they will take another. And they will soon be out of sight. You do not live very long before you discover that there are times in your life in which you must walk a lonely road on which there's no one to walk with you. Think of the friends that you've had at various times and places in your life who, for whatever reasons, are no longer there for you. Friends fail. They will move away or you will move away or they will die and leave you.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul said, "At my first defense, no one took my part."
And as Paul sat alone in a Roman prison, he wrote again to Timothy,
"Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with the world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescans has gone to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me now."
The farther Paul went down the road toward home, the thinner his company became. It wasn't that Paul did not have friends. He had many friends, people who loved him for uncovering cool springs of salvation in the deserts of paganism. But they were busy. They could not come when he needed them. Paul knew that his life had to have a higher focus of relationship than friends. Friends fail.
Jesus' friends failed him. The closer Jesus got to the cross, the fewer his friends until, finally, there were none. He was betrayed by an intimate friend, denied by one of his closest friends, and abandoned by all the others. When he hung alone at the top of the cross, he cried out, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" He died alone.
Enjoy your friends, but do not build your life around them. Friends fade and, finally, fail.
Next, our bodies will fail. Most of us act as if our bodies will last forever. I do. We put forth all sorts of effort to add a few more years to our bodily existence, but life is terminal. Nobody lives forever, not in this dimension. Soon, the working tools of life will slip from our nervous grasps and as far as this old body is concerned, it will all be over. Take care of your body. Feed it. Treat it when it's sick. Paint it up. Exercise it, admire it, enjoy it, but don't count on it to last. Not all the health foods, deep-breathing exercise, or vitamins in the world will stop the body from its ultimate progression to the dust from which it came. If our lives are built around bodily beauty and physical strength, then we are worshipping at the wrong altar. No matter how well you take care of your body, you will eventually lose it. Don't get hung up on it.
The dusty bodies of friends and loved ones who have outrun us to heaven are timely reminders of our destiny. There is no permanent security in the body. Our bodies will finally fail.
Well, upon what may we depend? We all love the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians because it is so perfectly and poetically put together, but Paul does more than say nice things in a pretty way. This is Paul's magnificent distinction between the permanent and the passing, between things that change and things that don't. Paul recites all the things that will pass away. Some of them are very important now. He lists prophecy, knowledge, and all the secondary accomplishments of humankind, individually and collectively. He dispenses with things we hold dear and he relegates them to their ultimate destiny of no permanent value. And then he says, "Now abideth these things," and he recites the things we may count on forever. "Now abideth these three things: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love." Make love your aim. Whatever assets we will take beyond the grave, the greatest of these is love. What loving persons we would all become if we could but see that this one characteristic is so saving in this world and in the next.
Religion can get complicated; theology can become confusing and doctrines can be deceptive, but here is something simple you can hold onto and understand. It is that silent force that holds the world together and ties us to the world to come. It does not change. It is written into the constitution of creation and personified in the Lord Jesus Christ: faith in God, hope in God's eternal purposes and love for God and God's creation.
When we look for the embodiment of what is permanent, our eyes turn to a little land in the Middle East called Palestine and to a time almost 2,000 years ago. We focus upon the life of a solitary figure in history in whose nature was mingled the fullness of humanity and the fullness of divinity and whose mission was to be the bridge between heaven and earth. In Him all things hold together. And when persons and possessions and plans and body fail us, He is there. He is the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. He is the revelation of the Eternal God. He is the source and the object of our faith, hope, and love. He is forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Let us pray.
O God, you have committed to us the swift and solemn trust of life. You have given us a frightening latitude of choice. Help us to grow and mature so that we may have the strength to walk away from temptations to easy and evil choices which lessen the divine element you have placed in our humanity. Grant us that special kind of insight that helps us distinguish between things that change and things that don't. Amen.