A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 19, 2020
The Baltimore Ravens were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers and it was the first professional football game I had ever attended. I was thirteen at the time and in the area of Baltimore where I grew up, football was king. Even though the game started at 2pm that day, we pulled into the large parking lot surrounding M&T Bank Stadium at 8am, and were some of the last fans to arrive. Opening the back of my friend’s parent’s SUV, we unloaded chairs, two grills, three coolers, a cornhole set, a ladder ball set, a large rug in the shape of the Raven’s logo, and a big metal trash can that was spray painted with the line: “Terrible Towels go here.” Baltimore and Pittsburgh have always had a pretty intense rivalry, and Steelers fans are notorious for waving around these bright yellow towels called Terrible Towels. The trash can added just the right final touch to our tailgate masterpiece.
When it came time to go into the stadium and find our seats, we got in line with the other 71,000 fans. As we got closer to the gate, I could hear someone yelling through a megaphone, something about drunkards and gamblers going to hell. That seemed kind of strange. The rivalry between Baltimore and Pittsburgh is long and intense, but I thought someone screaming about hell was a little extreme. As we got closer, I saw that it was not in fact a football fan screaming but a larger man dressed in a black robe like mine, standing on a step stool, with a megaphone in one hand and a sign in the other. The sign said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and Ye shall be saved.” I’ve told you the story of my faith development over the years, and you’ll remember that it was at this point in my life that I had not darkened the door of a church in years. I remember thinking to myself, as this man shouted and screamed and waved his sign, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not one of those crazy Christians.”
Now, after a long morning of tailgaiting one of the fans who was waiting in line with us was pretty greased up and he decided to engage this ‘evangelist.’ “So let me get this straight,’ the man slurred, ‘I’m going to hell because I’ve had too many beers? Well…what about all the Big Mac and fries you’ve been eating, big guy.” With that, the well-lubricated fan poked his finger into the ‘evangelists’ belly and the man stumbled back off his stepstool. The ‘evangelist’ never lost a beat—he stuck to his script proclaiming all drunkards and gamblers were going to hell. The preacher then started adding others to the list of people who would be going to hell with the drunk and gamblers. Eventually the preacher’s sermon began to wind down and he looked out across the crowd and he said, “Hell is waiting for you all.” This amused another fan in the crowd who shouted back, “Maybe we’ll see you there.”
In my life, I’ve had some unreal experiences with God. On a trip to Germany I was able to worship in the Cathedral in Cologne which supposedly houses the skulls of the three Wise Men. The organ music for that worship service was so loud and the incense so thick and the liturgy so beautiful that I thought maybe that’s what heaven is like. A few years ago at Mo Ranch in Texas I sat on a great hill overlooking the Guadalupe River and heard the still small voice of God confirming that I was on the right path in life. Katie and I have crawled through some of the off-limits places in the National Cathedral in Washington, seeing all the ingenuity and faith and artistry that inspired generations to build that house of worship. I’ve been at the side of young people and old who have given their lives to Jesus after feeling the power and strength of his love. And yet, when I think back through all of my religious experiences, that preacher outside of M&T Bank Stadium preaching about hell and damnation is so clear and real in my mind.
Is that what Christianity is all about—people arguing with one another about who is destined to hell and who is not? Why is that the bad experiences stand out the most in my mind? The truth of the matter is that I’m not alone. There is a clinic term for this, being unable to shake an experience from your mind, particularly is that experience was negative. The clinical term is trauma, and how trauma effects people of faith has been the primary topic of my research for my doctoral degree. The National Institute for Health says that 60% of adults have experienced abuse or difficult family circumstance during childhood, 26% of children in the U.S. will witness or experience a traumatic event before they turn four, and more than 60% of youth age 17 or younger have been exposed to crime, violence, and abuse. Within the study where all of these numbers were laid out, 51% of the people interviewed for the study say that their traumatic experiences were caused by pastor’s, churches, or people of faith. The most immediate result of traumatic experiences caused by church or people of faith is that those victims simply walk away from the institution itself. The longer-range results of these experiences is increased instances of mental illness, substance abuse, loss of faith, and even suicide. It is beyond staggering to imagine how much pain the Church has inflicted on people throughout time, whether it was through those terrible message of hell and fire who through things so much more evil.
There is good news, though, my friends. And it comes to us today directly from Jesus Christ himself. The gospel tells us that as Jesus was walking along, John the Baptist pointed to him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John goes on to say a little more about how Jesus was the one he had come into the world to tell people about. John even helps his listeners to remember the events of Jesus’ baptism. Now the next day, Jesus walks by again, and again John says, “Look, the Lamb of God!” This second time John’s announcement caught the attention of two of his disciples. There was something so intriguing, so engaging, so fascinating about this Lamb of God that the two disciples literally started following Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw the two and he engaged them in a conversation which ended with an invitation: “Come and see.”
The first thing that we need to take to heart from this passage is how John the Baptist points to Jesus, says a few things that he knows about Jesus, then says nothing more. John the Baptist knew that the power of Jesus was enough to captivate people and he did not have to add or take anything away. “Here is the Lamb of God”—simple, to the point, truthful. John then follows this announcement with a few words about his experience with Jesus. He says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” Again: simple, to the point, truthful. Unlike the preacher outside of M&T Bank Stadium all those years ago, John used just a few words and left the rest to Jesus. The second thing that we need to take to heart from this passage is just how Jesus picks up the rest where John left off. “Come and see,” he said to the disciples. He did not question their motives; he did not ask their net worth; he did not ask them whether or not they had accepted him as Lord and Savior. He simply said, “Come and see,” and the two disciples followed.
This magnificent experience with John the Baptist and Jesus led one of the disciples, Andrew, to run and find his brother Simon who would later be renamed Peter. That’s the power of Jesus—when he speaks, when he offers that invitation, the only thing we want to do is go and tell others about him. Andrew ran to Simon and shouted, “We have found the Messiah,” and running back, Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Peter.” Fast-forward a few years as Jesus’ time on earth is starting to run out and he again looks at Simon and says, “You are the Rock, Peter, and on you I am going to build my church.” The rock of Peter on which Jesus built his church only came to know about Jesus because of his brother Andrew. And Andrew only knew about Jesus because John the Baptist kept it simple, kept it plain, kept it kind, and pointed: “Here is the Lamb of God.”
This is exceedingly good news for us today because we don’t have to get tangled in the sort of street-corner preaching that has turned so many people off, hurt so many people, pushed so many people away from the church. In fact, we don’t have do any preaching at all, unless, of course, that is your call. The call we have today from Jesus is to simply point to him, speak words of truth and kindness and love about him, and tell to others that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We must remember, my friends, that our task as Christians is not to save the souls of other people. That is God’s work, that is something only God can do. Our task as Christians is to stand in our places in this world—at home, at work, in the church, with friends and family and others—and point out those moments when Jesus appears. We don’t have any effect on people’s souls—we just point them to the one who does.
I wrote it about on Friday in my weekly email to you, but it must be repeated because it is the truth: there is a lot of anxiety in the world right now as far as the church is concerned. Attendance isn’t what it used to be, budgets aren’t what they used to be, Christians don’t enjoy the same places in society as we once did. It’s a sad fact, one that touches each of us in one way or another. But it is not the ultimate reality of the world or the church. We’ve just come out of a season celebrating how our God was not above taking on our form to live among us. We’ve just come out of a season celebrating how our God walks among us and experiences life as we do. We’ve just come out of this season that proclaims over and over again that God has not and will never abandon us. So we must have hope and we must take seriously the call to point others to Jesus. That happens in so many ways. Sometimes it is an invitation to worship or to take part in a ministry of the church. Sometimes it is in an invitation to coffee without any prior agenda. Sometimes it is in listening in order to understand instead of listening in order to respond. Sometimes it is in recognizing that people have been hurt, by any number of things, and simply the best thing to do is acknowledge that pain and remind them that they are loved.
Jesus doesn’t want us standing on the corner screaming at people about him. Jesus wants us face-to-face, arm-in-arm, shoulder-to-shoulder, standing together in love against the darkness of the world. And he wants us to point to him. That is how salvation spreads. That is how transformation begins and takes hold of everything. That is how the kingdom of God grows and it might be how the church grows, too. Answer the call today, my friends. Jesus is depending on us. Amen.