Decisions – Part 5

In Sermon Series by Rachel Schultz

God’s Part and Our Part

You’ve just been through a grueling job interview. You spent a nerve-wracking forty-five minutes sitting in the hot seat, trying to keep smiling, look confident, and appear employable. Towards the end, when it appears that you’ve locked up the position, the conversation moves over to items like corporate policy and the dental plan and the salary package and where you’re supposed to park your car.

But there’s one more detail. You can’t leave this man’s office until you find out one more thing. Sometime in that interview with your would-be boss, you need to take a deep breath and ask this one important question: “But, Mr. Boss, what exactly is MY job? What am I supposed to do?”

We’re spending several Sabbath here in a biblical study of our most important decision. Will we, or will we not, choose to have God as our Leader? Will we become disciples? But somewhere in this process of really becoming a follower of Jesus Christ comes this question pounding home: What is it our job to do? In the salvation experience, what do we do? What is our assigned task?

Back when the Protestant Reformation was just beginning to sweep across Europe, this was the question. What should a believer do in order to be saved? The jailer in Philippi wondered the same question. People coming to John the Baptist and then to Jesus asked this question: What is OUR role?

Do we try to be good? Do we spend a couple of years cleaning up our act and then “come to the foot of the cross”? Do we simply sing “I Surrender All”? I think we can all understand andaccept the fact and appreciate that God does the saving. But what is it our part to accomplish? Do we even do any of it?

Some of you have probably heard about the Four Spiritual Laws, or seen some of those booklets new Christians hand out at the mall or at the beach. Perhaps for you they were called the Seven Secrets of Salvation. One of the favorite classic Christian books in our Adventist denomination, of course, is entitled Steps to Christ—and we all know that it has thirteen chapters. Is that a magic number?

There’s a lady who grew into mature Christian faith around the time that our church’s own Ellen White did; her name was Hannah Whitall Smith. This wonderful Quaker writer from the nineteenth century describes how a man was converted to Christianity and was asked: “What exactly was your part, and what was God’s part?” Listen to this answer, which I don’t think was too far from the truth. The man looked down, remembering his turbulent journey toward the kingdom, and finally admitted: “My part was to run, and God’s part was to catch me!”

I think some of you here today have likely read Pastor Morris Venden’s groundbreaking book, To Know Go: A Five-Day Plan. He tells a story which parallels the experience I just mentioned. An old man stood up in a camp meeting revival, after years of living life as a prodigal son, and said with tears in his eyes: “For a long time God tried to get me, and He finally got me.”

This Sabbath, as we focus especially on what’s involved in the salvation process, I want to emphasize, over and over, that God basically does it all. Jesus told us in John 6:44: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” Unless God initiates the process of reconciliation, it will never be part of our nature to voluntarily come to Him.

We find the same truth in the Old Testament. Jeremiah 31:3: “I [the Lord] have loved you with an everlasting love; I have DRAWN you with loving-kindness.”

In his book, Pastor Venden shares five steps that seem to be part of the conversion experience. And it’s amazing as we consider them one by one—but all five of them seem to be on God’s side of the ledger. They’re all things that He does for us.

Here’s the first step: a desire for something better. Of course, this one is obvious. We’re not going to want a relationship with God until we realize that there’s got to be something better than what we’ve got right now.

It generally takes an economic crisis or a financial meltdown before people seriously look at their personal money picture, and decide that they need some changes. A rocky marriage can get very close to disaster before a man and a woman will say: “We are in deep trouble here; we had better seek help.”

I can say, as your pastor, that I will sometimes get a phone call from a person who has hit rock bottom. Their lives are totally thrashed. They don’t know where else to turn. And in the last throes of their desperation, they will try to find God. And the amazing thing is that it’s God who has brought them to that realization.

In the great Bible story where Jesus sits down with a Samaritan woman at a well in the city of Sychar, an interesting conversation takes place. Now, this woman has a tough, B-grade life. She’s stumbled her way through five husbands and now has decided not to bother with wedding ceremonies any longer; she’s simply living with victim #6. Her marital history is so checkered, each time she gets married she doubles the wedding cake recipe and freezes half of it for the next time. We think we’re sophisticated here in the 21st century; this woman had discovered the sorry treadmill of musical partners two thousand years ago. And she was tired of it. Despite her active social life, she was lonely. She was looking for something better. And Jesus asked just the right questions to draw out that pain, to get her to face up to the fruitlessness of how she was living.

We all know that the world jokes about the flimsiness of our marriage commitments today. Comedienne Phyllis Diller used to talk about how today’s brides make sure to get a wash-and-wear drip-dry wedding dress they can use several times. Jerry Seinfeld, whose hit TV show proclaimed the joys of a life focused on “nothing” and relationships that were built on little more than nothing. It was his theory that there’s a helpful purpose to all of the groomsmen at a wedding all dressing alike . . . and having a wedding sermon where the pastor says generically to the bride: “Do you take this man?” If for some reason, he doesn’t get to the church on time or is somehow unworthy of the job, the row of  guys in tuxedoes just moves over one notch, and the pastor ad-libs: “Okay, then, do you take this man?” But, really, there’s a note of sadness, of wearyness, in this kind of humor. In our hearts, we’re beginning to know that there’s got to be something better.

It takes some of us a long time before God can lead us to see the emptiness of doing things our way. Just like that woman at the well, a lot of people today have had five husbands. Fifty sexual partners. A number of years ago the late NBA star Wilt Chamberlain boasted openly about how many women he had had in his bed-hopping career. But, you know, a person who’s had fifty sexual partners or five thousand of them can’t have had a very fulfilling time with any one of them. People go from wedding chapel to wedding chapel, looking for that one magic person who will make them long-term happy. Again borrowing that classic line from C. S. Lewis and his best-selling Mere Christianity: “We’re trying to fill up that God-shaped hole with toys and games.”

A number of years ago Max Lucado penned a very touching book entitled No Wonder They Call Him the Savior. If you can find a copy of it, it’s well worth reading. But he writes about a girl named Judith Bucknell. There’s nothing especially wonderful about her; she’s just your regular thirty-something 40-hour-a-week, beat-your-brains-in-to-pay-the-bills woman. She lived for the weekend and then couldn’t find fulfillment or joy. But she went through a cycle of looking for love that would break your heart.

As he relates the story, she went through something like fifty-nine lovers in 56 months. One after the other after the other; just a stream of failed relationships. It was a promiscuity born of desperation and fragile dysfunction.

And she writes it all down in a diary that got left behind when Judith Bucknell was stabbed to death and strangled at the age of 38. Listen to this: “Where are the men with the flowers and champagne and music? Where are the men who call and ask for a genuine, actual date? Where are the men who would like to share more than my bed, my booze, my food . . .I would like to have in my life, once before I pass through my life, the kind of sexual relationship which is part of a loving relationship.”

Well, she never did. Judith Bucknell wore designer clothes and hosted parties and had a great apartment overlooking the bay in Coconut Grove, Florida. On the surface things looked great. She was on the arm of a different guy every Saturday night. And her heart was breaking from loneliness.

Right at the end she wrote this: “I see people together and I’m so jealous I want to throw up. What about me! What about me!”

Well, she was looking for something better. What a tragedy that for her, that “something better” didn’t come in time. She checked out before discovering that there is a Man who comes to the lonely woman at the well, or at the computer terminal, or at the dance party . . . and offers living water of life.

So for the woman sitting with Jesus at the well, and for you and me here today, we can make the wonderful discovery of step number two: a knowledge of what it is that is better. 

“There’s got to be something better!” we cry out. “Surely this mess I’m experiencing now can’t be all there is!” Yes, there IS something better. And here’s what it is:

God’s gift of salvation. God’s promised gift, His absolutely free, no-charge-whatsoever, no-strings-attached, no conditions, no quid pro quo, no “pay to play” gift of salvation and eternal life. That’s what He described to the woman sitting there at the well. And it’s the very same gift on this Sabbath morning.

The American political system was rocked recently by the news that a state governor had tried to literally “sell” a Senate seat. President-elect Barack Obama was vacating his post in the U. S. Senate in order to move in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and this greedy politician thought he could trade his signature for a fistful of dollars or an ambassadorship. But Jesus does not trade salvation for any trinkets we can offer Him; Calvary is a free gift. There’s no price tag . . . not for YOU to pay anyway. God wants to give it to you right now.

The idea that salvation is a free gift—is the most often-explained and often-forgotten idea in Christianity. God keeps saying it and the Devil keeps burying it. We keep losing sight of this fact even though it’s quoted in the most popular verse in the Bible: “God so loved the world that He GAVE His only begotten Son.” John 3:16.

Notice this second testimonial: “The wages of sin is death, but the GIFT of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23.

And everyone sitting here today knows that I’ve quoted Ephesians two, eight and nine, so many times from this pulpit  that the Apostle Paul wants to charge me royalties on it. “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Pastor Venden likes to put it this way: “We can’t earn it, we can’t purchase it, we can never merit it. Salvation is a gift.” But now listen to this next line: “It has no relationship to what we deserve.” He adds later that heaven is on the “gift system” all the way.

Right here we almost have to check our pulse and have someone throw a glass of cold water in our faces. Because our whole world is built on the idea that you get what you deserve. Work a day, get a day’s pay. (Our church board and the conference office has taken pains to make sure I understand this reality!)  Be good to others; they’ll be good to you. Plant pumpkin seeds and you get pumpkins. Go to the store with fifty dollars and you can come out with fifty dollars’ worth of stuff.

But in heaven’s plan of salvation, we don’t get what we do deserve and we do get what we don’t deserve.

I don’t know if any of you have ever gotten to tour England and spend a few hours in that most exclusive of department stores: Harrod’s.

Now, I imagine that if I were to take U.S. dollars there, Harrod’s would find a way to take my dollars and figure the correct exchange rate and give me either pounds or euros. And my few euros would probably not take me very far, from what I hear about how elegant a place it is.

But suppose I were to show up at Harrod’s with a whole pocketful of Monopoly money? A suitcase full of orange $500 bills in Monopoly money? (Frankly, when you see the prices there, you’re almost tempted to do this.)

Well, you know what Harrod’s is going to say. “Pastor NAME, we’re dreadfully sorry, but your money’s simply no good here. We can’t accept it.”

“But I brought it all the way from America!” I protest.

“We’re very sorry. Maybe over across the pond, there in the colonies, the shops accept play money with little choo-choos on it. But we’re just on a different system here. Monopoly money doesn’t work.”

Do you understand what I’m saying here? Listen. So many of us are convinced that our good deeds and our proper religious behavior earn us—if not a whole ticket to heaven—at least part of a ticket. Surely all the good things we’ve done count for something!

But no. In God’s plan of salvation, we discover that God’s on a completely different financial system altogether. Our money’s no good . . . but we don’t need money! Because salvation is a gift.

We have more salvation steps to explore together, but we could pause here and praise God for a long, long time. But how, then, do we respond to a free gift? Our journey will continue.

Shall we pray?

Father, we are here because we do have this sense of our great need, and that the Christian message is of a better way. For all of our hurts and desires, You have a way of healing and providing. We want to begin to respond to Your free gift of salvation, and then to enter in to the fullness of a saving relationship with You and Your Son. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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