PUTTING THE PUZZLE TOGETHER
August 23, 2015
I normally don’t tell blonde jokes. Some of my best friends are blondes. And there is a sexist element to such jokes, I will admit. But sometimes one comes along that’s really funny.
A certain young lady calls her boyfriend and says, “Please come over here and help me … I have a jigsaw puzzle, and I can’t figure out how to get it started.”
The boyfriend asks, “What is it supposed to be when it’s finished?”
The young lady says, “According to the picture on the box, it’s a tiger.”
The boyfriend decides to stop by and help with the puzzle. She shows him where she has the puzzle spread all over the table. He studies the pieces for a moment, then looks at the box, then turns to her and says, “First of all, no matter what we do, we’re not going to be able to assemble these pieces into anything resembling a tiger.”
He takes her hand and says, “Second, I’d advise you to relax. Let’s have a cup of coffee, then …” he sighed, “let’s put all these Sugar Frosted Flakes back in the box.”
Let’s talk about puzzles. That’s appropriate I believe, because, let’s face it, life is puzzling. Relationships are puzzling. Even faith is puzzling, if it is a mature faith.
Even the most expert puzzle fans know that it’s much easier to put together a puzzle if you first look at the picture on the box. The picture on the front of the box is the guide to helping you make sense of all those hundreds of little, disjointed puzzle pieces. If someone handed you a box of pieces, you drive yourself crazy trying to make some sense of them without that picture. But with the picture as a guide, you have a fighting chance to make something sensible, even beautiful, out of all those pieces.
Some of you remember an old, old story that preachers used to tell about a little boy who was bothering his father while his father was reading a magazine. The father decided to occupy the little boy by a tearing a page out of the magazine, then cutting it into pieces. Then he had the little boy try to put the pieces back together. He thought this would occupy the boy for a long time, but he was wrong. In a short time, the boy had the page reassembled. His Dad asked how he had done it so quickly. The boy replied that it was easy. There was a picture of a man on the other side. “When I got the man right,” explained the boy, “everything else fell into place.” It is an old story, but it is an important one, especially when we come to the Gospel of John.
The author of John’s Gospel has seen the picture on the other side of the piece of paper, and it is a picture of Jesus. Life is no longer a random, meaningless jumble of pieces anymore. God has revealed God’s self through Jesus Christ.
That is the message of the book of John. John opens his gospel with this declaration about Jesus: “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.”
Two chapters later, he records Jesus’ encounter with an elderly Pharisee named Nicodemus. When Nicodemus is slow to comprehend how he, an old man, can experience a second birth, Jesus blows him away with this promise: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John has seen the big picture, and he can’t stop talking about it. He has found the key to life! If you want to know the purpose of life, look to Jesus.
In today’s lesson, John is writing about a time in Jesus’ ministry when the crowds are starting to fade away. Jesus’ teachings were too hard. They challenged too many preconceived notions about faith and meaning. His ministry, which had once seemed so promising, was in trouble.
Jesus understood what was happening. He turned to the 12 who had been with him from the beginning. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked them. And it was that irrepressible disciple Simon Peter who answered with one of the most beautiful statements in the Scriptures, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Simon Peter knew, as did John: Jesus is the picture on the box. He is the key to the puzzle of life. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
A small boat makes its way across the angry waters of the Mediterranean Sea. On board is a Christian woman named Monica. Tossed about by the waves, the experienced crew seeks to calm the fears of the passengers. Monica needs no such assurance. In fact, it is she who calmly promises the troubled sailors that everything will be just fine.
Monica’s son, Augustine, faced his own stormy seas. At his home in Italy awaiting his mother’s arrival from Africa, Augustine was in “a dangerous state of depression.” What he was depressed about was his own search for meaning.
Augustine was born in 354 in a Roman province of North Africa. His father was a Roman pagan; his mother, a devout Christian. An avid reader and a lifelong student, Augustine poured over the various philosophical teachings of his day in a vain attempt to understand good and evil, sin and virtue, heaven and hell. And he tried it all. In his own words, as a youth, he “ran wild in the shadowy jungle of erotic adventures.”
Augustine had been raised in the church, but he found the Old Latin version of the Bible uninviting. And so he explored other adventures and avenues of truth. But each of these he discarded as inadequate. Then one day his mother Monica introduced him to the teachings of Ambrose, a Christian bishop whom he grew to respect deeply.
In the summer of 386 A.D., Augustine was in a garden waging a spiritual debate within himself. He felt so trapped by the sins of his past that he broke down in tears. He heard the voice of a child chanting, “Pick up and read, pick up and read.” He felt this to be the voice of God, so he found his Bible, opened it, and began to read: “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”
“I neither wished nor needed to read further,” Augustine would write of his conversion. “At once,” he continues, “with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.” The following Easter, Augustine was baptized. His mother, Monica, live to see her son’s conversion. She died a few years later, her prayers answered.
Augustine embraced Christ with such a passion that eventually he was ordained, and later became a bishop. His writings have had an enormous impact on Western thought. Augustine discovered what Simon Peter discovered: the key to the puzzle of life is Christ. Millions of people of every walk of life have discovered this truth: the picture on the box is Jesus. When will you and I discover that truth for ourselves?
Growing up in a Christian culture may blind us to Christ’s call. It’s true. If we lived in a culture that was hostile to Christian values, we might see the stark difference Christ’s coming has made. Suppose we lived in a culture in which girls counted for so little that girl babies were slain at birth. Or if we lived in a culture in which people of other faiths were considered infidels and could be slain with impunity. Or a culture where you were not to help the poor because they were being punished for misdeeds in a prior life.
Indeed, maybe it is impossible for us to objectively view our own faith–even the standards by which we judge it have been so affected by the coming of Christ. For example, we just assume the values of love and respect for all people are true. That’s how we’ve been raised. And we were raised that way because of the influence of Christ.
Pandita Ramabai was born in 1858 in India into a loving family. Her father, ignoring the customs of his day, made a point of educating his wife, who had been just a child when they married. Pandita demonstrated great intellectual gifts at a young age, so her father also committed himself to educating her. But the Ramabai family became mired in debt, and hunger and poverty stalked them. When Pandita was in her early teens, most of her family died of starvation.
She and her only surviving brother set out on a pilgrimage that would carry them over 4000 miles across India. Along the way, they suffered from hunger and exposure to the elements. Although Pandita prayed to the idols, like her father had taught her, she could find no relief. But one day in Calcutta, she heard a talk on Jesus, the Messiah who loved and accepted all people, even women. She became a believer.
As a Christian, Pandita, with the help of her brother, began a campaign advocating education and expanded rights for women. She especially abhorred the practice of child marriages which was commonplace. Child brides were often married off to much older men. If the men died, the child widows were often kicked out of their houses and abandoned by the husband’s family. Some became Temple prostitutes, so they would not go hungry. Some girls were even forced to kill themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre, to show their devotion.
Pandita married and had a daughter, but her husband died a year and a half after their marriage. Her grief only spurred her to greater devotion to her work. She became a lecturer, and spoke before government officials on the need for women’s education.
Pandita’s books, detailing the oppression of women in India, gained her solid support in the United States from women’s groups and various distinguished citizens. When Pandita returned to India and opened a home for widows, she had their full financial backing. Out of this home grew Mukti Mission, a vast, full-service mission agency for women and children in India. Over 800 people live at the mission, which has schools and businesses, vegetable gardens and fruit groves, a hospital, a laboratory, and a huge church. The Mission cares for widows, women and children, and the disabled. Not only does Mukti Mission provide for the physical needs of its inhabitants, it also provides education, jobs and job training, counseling, and religious instruction. In times of famine, the Mission has kept all its inhabitants fed, sometimes in seemingly miraculous ways. Pandita also took upon herself the task of translating the Bible into her native language. It took years of work, and Pandita was old and ailing by the time the rough draft was finished. She was almost through with the proofreading when she became ill. Pandita prayed to God for 10 more days to finish her work. At the end of 10 days, she finished proofreading her translation of the Bible. And then she quietly died. Pandita discovered what Simon Peter discovered and what Augustine discovered: that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He is the key to making sense out of life.
There are many diverse philosophies in the world today, some of them quite bizarre. The September 5, 2005, issue of Newsweek magazine focused on “Spirituality in America.” The author of the lead article makes the point that more and more people today are creating their own religion out of the mix of Orthodox and non-traditional practices and beliefs. Among the many people quoted in the central article was a young woman, a student getting her doctorate in Religion and Nature at the University of Florida. The articles author noted that this young woman’s idea of worship consists of “composting, recycling, and a daily 5 mile run.”
I hope that works for her. I really do. But I have my doubts. From all the evidence I’ve seen no alternative faith offers anything that is even close to the power of the words of Jesus. Simon Peter turned to the Master and said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
That is why we have gathered in worship this day. We haven’t come because, “Well … that’s our tradition.” We haven’t come to see our friends. We haven’t come because we enjoy the music. All of these are important. However, if any of these are the one critical reason you’re here today, you are probably not going to have a truly uplifting experience. Such reasons for worship, in G. K. Chesterton’s words, revealed that our religion is “more a theory than a love affair.”
I hope you are here today because you have a love affair with God. I hope you are here because you have found that Christ has the words of eternal life.
Malcolm Muggeridge accompanied a film crew to India in order to narrate a documentary on the late Mother Theresa. He already knew she was a good woman or he wouldn’t have bothered going. When he met her he found a good woman who was also so very compelling that he titled his documentary, Something Beautiful for God. When he remarked to Mother Teresa on the fact that she went to mass every day at 4:30 AM she replied, “if I didn’t meet my Master every day, I’d be doing nothing more than social work.”
I hope you are here this day to meet the Master. I hope you’re not here for some other reason. I hope you are here to listen for Christ’s word for your life. I hope you find out what John and Simon Peter and Augustine and Pandita and Mother Theresa found: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”