June 5, 2016

Luke 7:11-17


Years ago, a strange ad appeared in a newspaper’s classified section. It was an ad for a used tombstone. The ad read like this: “Used tombstone for sale. Real bargain to someone named Homer Jones. For more information please call …” and a number was listed. A used tombstone? I guess the deceased no longer needed it. A resurrection, perhaps?

Dr. E. Stanley Jones, the famous missionary, once told about a layman who was called upon to conduct a funeral service. Being an exact man, he wanted to do it right. So he turned to the Gospels to see how Jesus conducted a few. And he found that Jesus didn’t conduct funerals at all. He only performed resurrections. Not one person died in his presence. He came upon those who were already dead and resurrected them and gave them new life.

Some of you may remember a motion picture from the early 1990s titled, Awakenings. The film starred Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, and was directed by Penny Marshall. It was nominated for three Academy Awards.

Awakenings was based on the real life experiences of Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist who sought to treat a mysterious illness that swept across  Europe and the United States after World War I. This illness was sometimes referred to as “sleeping sickness,” but was more properly known as encephalitis lethargica. The main symptom of this sleeping sickness was that its victims fell into a comatose state that could last for months or even years. A few of these patients did awaken from these comas, but when they did, their bodies would twist and tremor with symptoms very much like extreme cases of Parkinson’s. Because the vast majority of the patients remained comatose, they were often warehoused, and generally forgotten, in the long-term care clinics.

Oliver Sacks focused his attention on the sad and almost forgotten people. There was a new wonder drug called L-Dopa that had been shown to help victims of Parkinson’s. Since some of those suffering from the “sleeping sickness” manifested its symptoms similar to Parkinson’s, Dr. Sachs began treating his patients with the drug. When he did, the results were astounding. Many of them “came back to life,” so to speak. “They regained the ability to move, speak, interact, and live a normal life. Each patient reacted to this new life differently. One patient became fearful and disoriented. Another patient developed an insatiable desire for new experiences. He wanted to read great books, study the detail in a flower, write his autobiography, dance all night. This particular patient announced, ‘I feel saved, resurrected, reborn.’ Sadly, the L-Dopa lost its potency over the next few months, and the patients slipped back into their vegetative states.”

My friends, there is no source of new life that is permanent except new life in Jesus Christ.

Consider the lessons from today’s Scripture readings. There are three well-known instances in the Bible besides the resurrection of Jesus in which people who were dead were brought back to life.

The most famous story is found in John 11. “Lazarus, come out,” Jesus commanded outside Lazarus’ tomb. And Lazarus came out.

The second is found in today’s lesson from Luke 7. Jesus came upon a funeral procession. The only son of a poor widow had died. She was distraught. But Jesus said to her “Don’t cry.” Then, to the dead son he commanded, “Get up.” The Scriptures tell us that the young man sat up and began to talk.

There was another well-known incident in the Old Testament. Again it involved a widow and her only son. This time it was the prophet Elijah who was God’s instrument. The widow’s son was dead but he was given new life when Elijah offered a prayer to God.

It seems somewhat clear to me from these lessons that the business of faith is new life. Paul understood that. He discusses at length the transformation that took place in his own life when he encountered Christ. Jesus did not bring him back from the dead in a physical sense. The death that Paul experienced was the death of the old self–the self that had been self-righteously persecuting the tiny but fast-growing Christian community. It was the old self of unhappiness, fear and rigid adherence to the law. The new life Paul experienced was spiritual.

Paul’s experience reminds me of two sisters I heard about who enjoyed attending wild parties–parties that were not consonant with Christian values. However, one day these two sisters found new life in Christ. They received an invitation to a party and sent their RSVP in these words: “We regret that we cannot attend because we recently died.”

Paul had died to the old self. Through Christ he received new life–abundant life.

A loser became a winner. Paul got his life together. He knew who he was and what he was to do. And he knew Who was with him. Paul became one of the most dynamic, one of the most articulate, one of the most influential men who ever lived. But first of all he needed life–abundant life–the life only Christ can give.

I believe life is hopeless without Christ. Many people today live in a fool’s paradise. They keep themselves sedated with alcohol and drugs and in the accumulation of fancy toys rather than confront the meaninglessness of their lives. They buy self-help books religiously, but despair that so few real changes take place in their life. They seek to cultivate a positive attitude, but deep within they know it is a show–a sham–because their lives are desolate.

They are like the soldier who was in an Army guardhouse. Another prisoner asked him, “How long are you in for?”

“30 days,” he answered.

“What did you do?” asked the first soldier.

“I was AWOL,” replied the second soldier. “What are you in for?”

“Three days,” answered the first soldier.

“What did you do?” asked the new acquaintance.

“I murdered the General,” the first soldier replied.

The second soldier was incredulous. “How come I got 30 days for being AWOL and you got only three days for murdering the General?”      he asked.

“They’re hanging me on Wednesday,” the condemned man answered.

Regardless of how positive our attitude toward life, if there is no overall meaning to life, if there is no energizing influence from within that will allow us to be victorious, then life is ultimately an absurdity. Without Christ there is no hope, no help, no lasting happiness. Life is but a fleeting shadow with no substance, no staying power.

In the book Born to Win, the authors tell about a youngster named Earl. As a little boy, Earl was rarely spoken to directly by his parents. One day, in desperation for some kind of direct encounter with them, Earl smashed a hole in the bedroom wall with his baseball bat and waited for his parents’ response. No response was forthcoming; his parents ignored his action. The next day he overheard his mother saying, “Earl must have fallen against the wall. There is a hole in it.” Repeated incidences of being ignored so discounted Earl, that he became psychotic.

In a sense, Earl’s desperate story is the story of every person who tries to live without God. Is there no one there to notice me? No one there to care about me? No one there to help me cope with my life? For many people today the answer is “no one.” Without Christ life is ultimately hopeless. Jesus is the source of life–abundant life–life with possibilities untold. Indeed, he is the only real hope of new life that we have. How does this new life manifested itself? What does faith in Christ promises us?

First of all, he is rest for the weary. Rest–that is what many of us crave. We are like the fellow who was having trouble getting up in the morning so his doctor prescribed some pills. The man took them, slept well, and was awake before he heard the alarm. He took his time getting to the office, strolled in and said to his boss, “I didn’t have a bit of trouble getting up this morning.”

“That’s fine,” replied the boss, “but where were you yesterday?”

It is rest many of us crave–and in some cases that is what we need. But many others of us are more tired than we need to be. The source of our fatigue is mental and emotional. We come home from work and we are exhausted. We hardly have energy to get out of the chair. And yet if someone has something really exciting for us to do–something active–something enjoyable–we would discover energy we never knew we had. Psychological and emotional conflict drains energy from us. We need rest not for our bodies, but for our souls. If our inner person could “get it all to gather” we would have energy untold.

My friends, there is no greater Energizer in the world than commitment to Jesus Christ. When life is centered in his purposes, life has a new freshness. Read the story of Paul. Notice the energy bursting forth from this man as he encountered every obstacle to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. There is a great motivating force in life that gives more than rest to the weary. He is the Source of life–energy–power.

He is also a roadmap for the wanderer. Are you a wanderer? Are you simply meandering through life with no direction or purpose–no fixed idea about what you are doing here? Does it puzzle you then why you seem to be accomplishing so little?

Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said that the problem with many people is that they are wandering generalities rather than meaningful specifics. And that’s true. We wander, we dabble, we fritter life away with no great driving purpose. There needs to come a time in every person’s life when he or she sits down and asks the question, why am I here? What is it that is really important in my life?

A great businessman said that the secret of his success was that every morning he made a list of the things that he needed to do that day in the order of their importance. He started, then, with the most important task and stuck with it until he was finished.      The problem with many of us is that we have never determined what is most important in our lives. We simply wander. We let happenstance control the events in our lives. We are like billiard balls on a table. We are bounced here and there, but we never really take control of our lives. Of course, some of us need a new direction for our lives.

Maxie Dunnam tells about a pamphlet he once ran across with the intriguing title, “Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” It was the story of a woman who found new life in Christ. And she had lived many years in sin, with no restraint on her passions and her deeds. She had played the field of sin. Then, by a miracle of God’s grace, someone witnessed to her of the redeeming love of God and led her to accept Christ and commit her life to him. In the pamphlet, she described her life of sin with its problems and pain, its degradation and sorrow. Then she showed how God delivered her from her old life and gave her a new life. Therefore, across the door of her old life, she had placed a sign, “Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”

What a wonderful transformation Annie experienced. You and I may not have wandered as far as Annie did, but we are as much in need of God’s guidance as she was. That is one of the reasons daily prayer is important in the life of a Christian. Prayer is important not so much because it changes God. God is always loving. God always wills his children’s good. There is nothing about God that needs to change. Prayer is important because it changes us. Prayer allows us to center our thoughts on the One who is the source of our life. With God’s guidance we sort out what is really important in our lives. We discovered God’s will for us. We discover insight into how we might effectively accomplish that which God has called us.

For the weary he is rest. For the wanderer, he is a roadmap. Finally, to the worrier he is relaxation. For many of us worry is the most destructive force in our life. We worry because we have never entirely entrusted our life to God.

The late Norman Vincent Peale once told about a friend of his who coped in a marvelous way with a long bout with a disease. Dr. Peale asked him, “At any time during this experience were you afraid?”

“Yes,” he replied, “there was one time when I was afraid. That was when my temperature stayed at 104° for three days. The thought crossed my mind that maybe I wasn’t going to make it. But I was afraid only temporarily. I just began to apply common sense, and as I did so the fever went down. All the common sense I had told me that the doctors on this case were confident that they were doing the right thing.” And he added, “Beyond that, I was in good hands. When I board a plane I’m not afraid I know the equipment is good I know the plane is well serviced, that the pilots and the engineers know their business. I don’t sit there being afraid. I apply common sense to it. I am in a scientific universe.”

“Well,” Peale commented, “you’re one man who doesn’t seem to have fear in the slightest degree.”

“Why should I?” his friend replied, “I gave my mind over to Jesus Christ. He freed me from fear. And when you do that you don’t need to be afraid of anything.”

Many of us need to learn from this man. We need to let go of our worries–about health, about finances, about family situations. Jesus can free us from our fears. We don’t need to be afraid of anything!

Well, there you have it. I know a name … His name is Jesus. He is rest for the weary, a roadmap for the wanderer, relaxation for the worrier. Jesus never performed a funeral. He specialized in resurrections. He is life–abundant, never-ending, joy to overflowing–life.