Thank you, Tim, Great to be with a gang of men. I was saying at breakfast, and I count myself a man’s man, it’s hard to imagine a preacher as a man’s man, but somebody said, be careful. To see a room full of men who are leaders in the city and for me to have this opportunity is a phenomenal deal for me. Very encouraging.
I wasn’t raised to go to church. I did think Christians were soft. Pastors in England would talk rather like this, and it was sort of remote. I didn’t go to church, but I picked them up on the radio and when there was no such thing as television when I was a child and from time to time, you’d hear one speaking for whatever reason on the radio and I gave it no credence until I got into my adolescence and was asking questions about my own life.
I want to speak more about that; I may come back to that, but for me to be able to spend this time with you this morning and challenge you to speak very directly about your place in this city and the impact that you can have, that was a great introduction, Tim. Thank you.
What drew me to Pittsburgh? I was a young chap, had been married a year, and this year is my 44th year of marriage, so that’s over 40 years my wife and I have been in Pittsburgh and what drew us there was a vision for the city.
Now I know you know that Pittsburgh is the Birmingham of the north. We call you the Pittsburgh of the south, but back in the steel days, and in those early days when we went there, because that’s nearly a half a century ago when you start thinking in larger terms, Pittsburgh was still making steel and it was a very busy place steel-wise.
And the vision was not my vision that Pittsburgh become as famous for God as it was for steel. Men ahead of me had committed to that vision together and I was speaking at a conference up in New England and one of the other speakers at that conference was from Pittsburgh. And in our off time we’d sit and have a snack together and he told me about that vision. And already as a younger man as I was in those days, I was weary of the partisan spirit that there was in Christianity when the task we have before us is so vast. And if we all count Jesus as the one Lord and Savior and we’re committed to Him, then why is there not in some way a sense of vision, what we began to call a theology of place in Pittsburgh, to take on the whole of the community so that we’re not just playing church on a street corner with our own little group, our own little team, but we see ourselves as part of a larger vision?
That’s not to denigrate the local church. I’ve been a local church pastor for most of those years as well as doing the other things. You’ve got to have the small place to be – the family, the business, the clubs, the churches that make up a community. But there’s got to be a bigger vision than just our little corner of the world, given the fact that Jesus is the Savior of the world and came to reach the city of Birmingham, Alabama, your city, and to be speaking to you men who are the leaders of this city.
I was just saying at breakfast this morning, you could take the world with this group of men. Think about that. And you are connected with each other one way or another. And I love Birmingham. This is one great place to be. You chaps, I was saying to a fellow as I walked back from the restroom, getting myself ready for this, saying you chaps who live here have no idea how great Birmingham is if this is where you’ve always lived. It’s a great place. You’ve got a great thing going here, great stuff is going on. And I’m here really to encourage you and to stimulate what is already in motion. You don’t turn out a couple of hundred men for breakfast like this at 6:30 and not have something moving. So, that’s really great and I’m cheering you on in that direction. But along the way there are some things we really need to settle for ourselves individually. You can’t move a crowd except the crowd moves one at a time.
So, as I speak, it’s as if God is speaking to each one of you individually, personally. If you guys want to turn those chairs around, that may be helpful. There is a physical therapist at our table maybe, but you, don’t be sitting awkwardly if you can turn yourselves around.
Let me read this quote. It’s an older quote. You may recognize the name Nicholas van Hoffman, but I picked this up out of, I think it was The Washington Post. And he said this, “the Mush God”, he called this “the great mushy one”, M-U-S-H-Y. I don’t know whether you’d say mooshy or mushy. I say mushy. The great mush God. He’s called the great mushy one, by Nicholas Van Hoffman. It’s a secular commentator commentating on what he views in the religious scene.
“The mush God has no theology to speak of being a cream of wheat divinity. The mush God has no particular credo, no tenets of faith, nothing that would make it difficult for believer and non-believer alike to lower one’s head when the Reverend Temporary Chairman tells us that the Rabbi Father Mufti or so-and-so will lead us in an innocuous and harmless prayer. For the God of public occasions is not a jealous God. You can even invoke him to start a hooker’s convention and he, she or it won’t be offended. God of the Rotary club, God of the Optimist’s club, protector of the buddy system, the mush God is the Lord of the secular ritual, of the necessary but hypocritical forms and formalities that hush the divisive and the derisive. The mush God is a serviceable God whose laws are not chiseled on tablets of stone but written in the sand, open to amendment, qualification, and erasure. This is a God that will compromise with you, make allowances, and declare all wars holy and all pieces hallowed. The mush God has even been known to appear to millionaires on golf courses. He appears to politicians at ribbon cutting ceremonies and clergymen speaking the invocation on national TV at either Democratic or Republican conventions.”
Now let me ask you, because you recognize that God, don’t you? You know that is the public neutering of God. If you had a crisis in your life, you find out that your kid’s on drugs, your wife wants to leave you, you’ve got cancer, you’ve just lost your job, the market’s crashing around you, would that God be of any use to you whatsoever? You know the answer, no deal. The mush God is absolutely worthless for a real life, like a man like you or me, with real things to deal with in our families, our business, our associations, our personal life. You’ve got a real deal going. You need a real God on the job. And that’s where the trouble comes in, because once you start dealing with the realities, it raises other issues.
And the one issue we’ve really got to settle this morning that I want to settle with you and have you think aloud with me is this, that Jesus really is who He said He was and that if He is not who He said He was, He cannot deliver what He promised. Got it?
If He is not who He said He was, He cannot deliver what He promised, and we need Him to deliver. When our back’s to the wall, we need Him to deliver. That’s for you and me. And when we don’t get that right, then nothing else fits. If you don’t get that issue right, you are always scrambling to somehow mix things together to have an adequate faith that is not difficult to live with because you kind of just go with the flow. You and I know what I’m speaking about. And to just make this point, you get one thing wrong, nothing else fits.
This is a remarkable story I heard recently and it’s about an English school teacher who was offered to take a job in Switzerland and this was back in the day when everything was sort of decorous, you were well-mannered, you didn’t use vulgar words in public, and so this school teacher took a job in Switzerland and she wrote from England and asked what would the accommodations be. And the headmaster of the school sent and told her that there is a delightful place where she’d be staying and a loveliest view and a small garden and mentioned the bedroom and the kitchen and what the apartment looked like. But he didn’t mention anything about the toilet, the bathroom. So, she wrote back and wanting to remain tactful ladylike, she asked about the W.C., which in England is a water closet and is shorthand for a bathroom, what Americans call a restroom. Which always amazed me because we never, you wouldn’t know what a restroom was in England. And I’m telling you what a W.C. is. If you run over there and you see a sign that says W.C. and point somewhere, that’s the bathroom, the toilet. And you may be needing it running around London. In any case, the headmaster didn’t know what a W.C. was. And not to be embarrassed with his own staff, he went to the local priest and said, have you any idea what a W.C. is? And he thought for a moment and said, well it’s obviously a Wayside Chapel. Beginning of the problem.
He wrote to the lady and said, “Dear madam, the W.C. is located nine miles from your apartment. It’s in the heart of a beautiful grove of trees. It will seat about 150 people at one time and is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. Some people bring their lunch and make a day of it. The acoustics are very good; the slightest sound can be heard by everyone. It may interest you to know that my daughter met her husband at the W.C. We are now in the process of taking up donations to purchase the seats, new seats because the old ones have holes in them. My wife, rather delicate, hasn’t been able to attend regularly. In fact, it has been six months since she even went. Naturally, it pains her not to be able to go more often.”
Just one simple mistake and nothing fits.
Same way with Jesus.
So, I want to take one straightforward passage that all of you have heard if you’ve ever been to a funeral service because it’s invariably read. John chapter 14, let me read it and then pass some comments.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust in God. Believe also in me. In my father’s house are many rooms,” the old translation, many mansions. “If it were not so,” did you hear that? “If it were not so I would’ve told you.” In other words, I’m straight dealing with you. If it were not that way, I would’ve told you. He’s not playing fairy games the way we often do about heaven.
“I am going to prepare a place for you and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas, that’s doubting Thomas, said, “Lord, we don’t know where You are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way, I am the truth, and I am the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you really knew Me, you would know My father as well. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.”
Philip, another one of his followers said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
And Jesus answered him, “Don’t you know me Philip, even after I have among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say show us the Father? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I say to you are not just My own. Rather it is the Father living in Me who is doing His work.”
Now I made the comment immediately when we began our time together saying that if Jesus is not who He said he was, He cannot deliver what He promised. What does He begin by promising to deliver? A home in heaven. To know that we can really be absolutely sure that heaven is our home. Not as a wishful thought, but as something real. You remember He said, “If it were not so, I would’ve told you. I go to prepare a place for you that where I am,” that’s in glory in heaven, in this prepared place, you can be as well. And to know that for sure. Absolutely for sure.
And the only way you can know that for sure and absolutely depend upon it and nail your color to the mast about that, that’s an old English sailing term from the days of the high seas and the sailboats, the tall mast where your color was your insignia, your nation, and when you nailed your color to the mast, you sent one of the deckhands up to the top of the mast and he would nail it there so that if opposition came over the horizon, you couldn’t run your color down. You couldn’t change sides. You said, here we are. This is who I am.
For a man to do that in today’s society, you had better know who you are, what you’re committed to, and know that it’s for real because no one, you know this, if you are at all ambivalent about who Jesus is in the first place, therefore ambivalent about what He can really deliver in the second place, you are not going to risk your identity, your relationships, your career, your place in the marketplace on something that is not sure, that you haven’t settled.
And in something of still a Christian culture in our society and a church-going culture and men like you who take the trouble to turn up and go to Bible studies with the Executive Center and whatever church Bible study group you are involved in and or family groups and home groups, if, at the heart of things you’ve still got the secret unresolved doubt, you are never going to nail your color to the mast. And, as a result we kind of drift with the culture rather than going against the tide. And you men here can take Birmingham, Birmingham as you call it, maybe even more particularly Birmingham.
Believe it or not, if you’ve ever been to Birmingham, England, they speak differently than I do. They’ve got an accent, not that much different from the Beatles. They call it Birmingham. That’s what they call it in Birmingham. Birmingham. So you can say it a whole lot of different ways, but we all know what we’re talking about here. That issue is absolutely critical for you to resolve who Jesus was because what He promises to deliver when He says, I go to prepare a place for you. It wasn’t like He’s the housemaid who’s gone to make the bed, put a posey beside your bed, dust the floor and get everything ready. He went to the cross to prepare a place for you. I mean, He knew where He was headed, to the cross.
He made a way for us to get home to be with Him, not by dusting the room and making the bed, but by laying down His life radically in anguish. Agony. The word excruciating comes from the Latin for the cross. Ex Crucis. Out of the cross. The anguish of it, laid down His life and took on the sin and the filth and the compromise, perversion, and the cowardice of the world. Everything that’s disgusting and that we despise or would never want anybody to know about us, He took on himself to get rid of the mess that would stop us getting to heaven. And that is big time stuff. It’s not a nice little theological dogma.
God so loved the world that He sent His son to get that done. So, unless we get clear on who He was, we’ll never believe that He really did what He said He could do. They’re completely related. So when, and this is the remarkable thing, when the disciples have no idea where He’s going, what does He say? He said, you know the way. They said, we don’t know the way because we don’t know where You’re going. And Jesus said, I himself, a person, am the way. And then to follow that up, a remarkable statement, I am the truth. In a world of existentialism and relativism that Jesus would claim to be the truth is like a dagger in the heart of any kind of relativism. But we’ve all been raised on relativism. It’s in the airwaves.
Our kids, your children and you, because I’m looking at people who were children when I went into the ministry. Fifty years ago, I was ordained so I’ve been around a while and back in the rock and roll days, I actually traveled with a band. I was up, like behind the hair and the beads and the Hare Krishna shirt, an ordained Episcopal minister, rock and rolling on college campuses, bell bottom, big wide buckle belt. I was undercover with a bunch of guys who really helped me. They were as ugly as sin, who were coming out of the drug scene and then they were, they were brilliant musicians and we put together this band and went campus to campus doing concerts. First half of what we did was secular. Second half sounded secular, but we were giving our own message in amongst it. Not singing praise songs. It wasn’t church, it was gutsy rock and roll. You can hardly believe that looking at me, can you? I mean I can’t believe it when I see myself. But I wanted to reach that element. I’d already done my theology, been ordained in England, picked up a guitar. The Beatles hit the scene. I came in on the wake of the Beatles and the Stones and the Yardbirds and the Moody Blues, you know that cool guys from back then, and Hendrix and to mention one or two American folks here. It was just an amazing deal. And I remember a student coming up to me saying, Hey man, where are you at? That’s the way we talked in those days.
And in a conversation, this was a remarkable conversation. Listen to this. A couple of guys were into this discussion in the scene that I’ve just described. And one guy was dominating the conversation because he was saying, Hey man, where are you coming from when you say that? So, I saw what was going on and I said to him, bear in mind I’m just one of the guys, got the hair and the beads and the guitar. I said, where are you coming from when you ask the question? He said, Hey man, I don’t know. Well, I wasn’t gonna let him off the hook. I said, how do you know you don’t know. He said, I don’t know I don’t know. This is a university student. I said, well how do you know that you don’t know that you don’t know. You can see where this conversation heads. I don’t know that I don’t know that I don’t know, because once he admitted that he knew how he knew where he was coming from, he was dead meat intellectually because now he could be talking about something. He was very smart. He was being evasive. He didn’t want to know how he didn’t know because he didn’t wanna deal with any realities.
And you know the game because once somebody like Jesus says, I’m the way, I am the truth, I am the life and no one comes to the Father but by Me, you’ve got something to deal with because those are absolute claims. He’s not saying I am a way. I’m not just one of the ways you can live. It’s not like I’ve got some information that will be helpful to you and fulfill your life along the way and give you something to go for. These are absolute claims. But if He’s made the absolute claim that He’s going to prepare a place for us in glory, in heaven, where we can be sure we are going and it’s going to cost Him His life on the cross, you’d better make up your mind. I’m saying this to you that He really was who He said He was.
One of the guys who had this thought through on his way to becoming a Christian was C.S. Lewis. He wrote a book which if you don’t have it, get your hands on it. It’s called Mere Christianity. It goes all the way back to the World War II days.
He died in 1963 on the same day that Kennedy was assassinated. So, his death was kind of lost in the shock of the Kennedy assassination. But Lewis wrote the Narnia series, which has now been turned into movies like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and so on. Well he was an atheist who was really an agnostic of atheistic proportion. An agnostic who says, I don’t know that I don’t know, you can’t know is really an atheist in disguise. But atheism is a real commitment. Agnosticism is a convenient label for it because it’s like you’re just ambivalent about any of it.
And some folks like Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and others, contemporaries of his, led him to a faith by which he was willing to nail his color to the mast in academic Oxford University where he was already becoming something of an intellectual legend.
And here’s what he said, this is nearly a thoroughly accurate quote. I didn’t bring the quote with me, but he said, “Jesus has not left us the option of saying that He was a good man or a great moral teacher or even a prophet. He has not left us that option. Given what He said about Himself, if He said the things He said about Himself, as if they were true, believing that they were true, if Jesus said the things He said about Himself,” just as I’ve quoted Him on one instance, “I am the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father but by me” or “I’ve gone to prepare a place for you,” speaking of glory, “that where I am, there you may be as well. And one day I will come and meet you and take you there and you will be with Me.” Those sorts of things and so many more like it.
If He said those sorts of things about Himself, believing them to be true and they were not true, then said C.S. Lewis concerning Jesus, “He was mad after the order of a man who thinks he is a poached egg.”
And then he went on to say, “If He said those things as if they were true, knowing that they were not true, then He was wicked because He deliberately misled. And if you can’t believe that He was mad, insane, and if you can’t believe that He was wicked,” this is Lewis’s deduction, “then you are left with only one other conclusion. He was who He said He was.”
Now the other evidence concerning that is overwhelming and in particular the Resurrection, which we don’t have time to go into here this morning, but the evidence for Jesus walking from the grave alive and therefore demonstrating irrevocably that He was who He said He was and has the power to deliver what He said He can deliver, and as I said, we don’t have the time to go into that, but the evidence is overwhelming. The evidence itself.
And to settle that issue. And it’s a tough decision because you know the implications of nailing your color to the mast in our culture. When you go to work today, the decisions you make about your life and your career and your family, what you tell your children, where you invest your money, where you invest your life, if it’s for real, that Jesus really was who He said He was and can deliver what he said He wanted to give to us, the gift of eternal life.
So, that the verse that caught my attention coming out of a non-church going background was this, “I’ve come that you might have life and have it in all its fullness.” That’s why Jesus said He came. And as an adolescent that’s what I was looking for, but we never went to church, we never prayed. We didn’t have a Bible in the home. We never said grace. My father took his own life when I was age seven; committed suicide.
My mother was left with three children. It was in the middle of the second World War and our life was absolutely and, in many respects, forever different from that moment on. My mother said of my dad that he died an atheist. I found that out some years later.
But when I came to faith myself and began to wrestle with these issues that we are talking about now, if my father was an atheist, then he went to hell. I know the temptation to compromise the absolutes that we’re dealing with in order to somehow soften the results of rejecting Jesus. And I don’t say this with any arrogance, I say it with a broken heart. I’ve wept over my father since then. But I am not willing to change the truth of Jesus, to make it convenient for me and my family circumstances because if I do that, I buy into the mush God. And if I buy into the mush God, then all you get are mush Christians who are not worth anything and a church life and a faith that has no guts or center to it. So, I’ll hang in with Jesus and trust Hm for whatever my father went through on his way to taking his life. I knew my dad, he used to sing me to sleep. I know the two songs he used to sing to me. One of them is, “You are my Sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know dear how much I miss you. So please don’t take my sunshine….”
You know the song, it’s kind of like a pub song. My dad used to sing that to me, sing me to sleep. I can remember it. You think I don’t care, but I’ve anchored my life in Jesus. When I made that decision as an 18 year old young man, that was the deal. And what He has done for me and what He’s probably done for you is so exceptional.
But here’s where I want to conclude. The price He’s paid and what He has done is so phenomenal. The whole thing is so grandly central to your dignity, to the core of your being, to who you are as a man that when you settle that issue and are willing to say, yes Lord, I will take You at Your word. You are the way, You are the truth, You are the life. You are what I’m looking for. And you embrace Him with your life, and you surrender to the core of your, the throne seat of your life to Him and let the rest of the pieces then fit in. It does fit, it does come together. You minimize who He is, then you minimize what He’s done, and you don’t have anything to hang on to except some wishful thinking.
So, to settle that issue, to really nail it down, you can take Birmingham.
Let me just put it in these terms because, how am I doing here? I’ve got another five minutes. Somebody who knows what’s going on here. Five minutes, two minutes, five minutes. Sorry about that.
Let me just put it in these terms. I think this is the way it really comes home to us. There was a Mr. Griffith, this is the real deal, real story, who operated a lift bridge on the Mississippi River and his job in life was to raise the bridge when river traffic came through and lower the bridge when rail traffic was going over. You know, that sort of thing.
One day he took his little boy Saturday morning to see how it all worked, walked him through the machine room along the catwalk and then the phone rang on the wall, and he was to go lower the bridge because a train was running ahead of schedule. Mr. Griffith went back up that catwalk, up the steps and into his tower to pull the lever that lowered the bridge. And when he, and he said to his son, don’t you move, don’t you dare move, you stand right there. He shut up the ladder and up into the tower and as he looked down in his line of vision, he saw that his son had climbed into the machinery and out in the distance the train is coming, Mr. Griffith was confronted with a decision, leave the bridge up and the train crashes, pull the lever, lower the bridge, and kill his son.
Mr. Griffith pulled the lever, lowered the bridge, and crushed his son. As the train came speeding through, he’s standing looking out through those big glass windows, sobbing, broken, and the train comes through and he sees men sitting there in the restaurant car reading their newspaper, sipping their coffee, business as usual, and in an overwhelmed manner, he started pounding on the window and screaming as to these men sitting there, don’t you know I just killed my son for you? Don’t you know I just killed my son for you? And they hadn’t a clue.
Well, you and I know what that’s a drama representing not just a mere drama. That’s a real deal. What I’ve just described, a movie was made of this.
We dare not look at Jesus business as usual, just pick up the coffee, read the newspaper, and move on. So, I want to stop here right now, be done, and have a prayer with you that that Jesus who is present here, it’s not like He’s remote, He is here. He walks around amongst these tables, and He comes looking for us one at a time, one person at a time. He knows who we are. He comes to where we are, He comes to us individually. It becomes our decision, our response to Him. And everyone here knows what I’m speaking of. I’ve just reiterated what you know, the claims of the Christian faith are in every denomination in the world, whatever slice of the pie you represent, you know that that’s the theology on which it’s all been built up and rooted and people gave their lives for it.
But if you settle that issue irrevocably for yourself to move beyond the ambivalence and the little school case of doubts that you’ve carried around and from time to time open up and you get them out and you look at the doubts, never resolve them, put them back in. You know what the issues are. We’ve discussed them here this morning. Shut the case and go on with your little bag of doubts following the same track somewhat, but never rooted at the core of your being and therefore ambivalent. When the push is coming to shove, you’re ambivalent so you can settle that deal right now. Really, you can make the choice. It’s a choice. It’s not just a feeling, it’s a choice because you can choose to say, I’m done with all the questions. I’ve chased them around forever. I know the implications and I’m willing to say yes to the claims of Christ and to Jesus Himself.
So, let’s bow our heads and speak to the Lord. This may be just for one man here this morning. You know that Jesus did tell a story of a hundred sheep and one got lost and went looking for the one until he found it. You may be that one this morning who moves out of the shadows and into the sunshine.
Instead of straddling the line walking down the middle of the road, you step over onto the Jesus side. Well, as Jesus comes right to where you are, sir, as I would speak to you personally, and you look at Him and you know He’s been speaking to you this morning. So, see Him standing there looking at you, not with His hands on His hips, challenging you, daring you, but with His arms open to welcome you as you look at Him simply in your own heart and life. Resolve that you will trust Him. You believe in God, said Jesus, then believe in Me.
Say to Him, in your own heart privately, but it’s between you and Him. You want to resolve this issue. Say to Him, Jesus, I’ve fooled around long enough. You know the doubts I’ve struggled with secretly, quietly. But in the privacy of this moment with You, I’m willing to resolve all those questions simply by entrusting my life to You. I do believe that You loved me enough to die on the cross for me, Lord Jesus, that You are present here and desire me to surrender the throne of my life to You.
Come into my life, Lord Jesus. Forgive me my sin. Forgive me my indifference. Forgive me my cowardice. Forgive me my indecisiveness. I want You to forgive me all the misery and failure of my life. I want You to come into my life, Lord Jesus right now and take over to eradicate all my sin and the guilt and the shame and the judgment it deserves and fill me with Yourself. I do want to know for sure, Lord, that my home is in heaven, that I might live my life joyfully and confidently with You. So again, I ask You, come into my life. I surrender it all to You. I choose You this day. Thank You Lord. Thank You for Your promise to come in and to fill me with Your forgiveness. Fill me with Your joy to fill me with Yourself. Thank You.
And as you sit here with your heads bowed, your eyes closed, if you are that one person, I’m just gonna lift up my face and look out over this audience and if you are that one person, I want you to raise your face and look at me and I will look at you. I will catch your eye and point to you and simply say, God bless you and confirm with you and the Lord what you have just done.
God bless you, sir. God bless you, sir. God bless you. God bless you, sir. God bless you. God bless you. God bless you. God bless you. God bless you young man. God bless you. God bless you, sir. God bless you and you, sir. God bless you, sir. God bless you. God bless you. God bless you. God bless you, sir. God bless you. God bless you. God bless you. God bless you and you, sir.
Lord, thank You for each one. The transaction that they’ve settled with You this morning. Give them that sense as they stand and walk from here and go to their office or whatever the day holds that they belong to You. You will never, ever leave them. The deal’s done. Thank You Lord. Amen.