Readings: Psalm 32, Lamentations 3:22-33, 2 Timothy 1:3-14, Matthew 16:24-27,
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 13th, 2016
Sal Hepplewhite made his fortune directing and producing budget movies in Hollywood. None of them were huge, many were made only for TV or limited release but he made enough of them to earn a lot of money.
Enough money to have a house in L.A. and an apartment in New York. He liked flashy cars and had a habit of trading them in for new models, a habit he replicated with his wives, his latest being a Puerto Rican beauty half his age. Sal Hepplewhite wasn't expecting to die in a restaurant whilst contemplating whether or not to have the cheesecake … but that's what happened.
Sal found himself at heavens gate standing before a rather ordinary looking angel holding a guest list. “Name” asked the angel. “Well... y'know me” said Sal, “Sal, Sal Hepplewhite.” The angel scanned the list in his hand. “Hmm. Not seeing you on the list.”
“Look...” said Sal “I know how this goes. Gotta be some way I can make it worth your while to let me in. That's how it works, isn't it?”
“No entrance fees here, Sal” said the angel. “Everything's already paid for.” “What d'ya mean, already paid for?” “Jesus paid the entrance for us all,” replied the angel, “All we have to do is trust that He has everything taken care of. You do trust in God, don't you, Sal?”
“God” said Sal “Never really needed God. Always taken care of myself. I've done all right. Look at my houses. Look at my cars. Look at the ladies who hang out with me. The movies I made, the people I've met, the places I've been... trust me, I worked hard for all of that!”
“Sal” said the angel “You worked hard. But for what? Where does all of that leave you now? Only way here is trusting in God.”
In our journey through “The Story” we have reached the penultimate chapter titled not “Sal Hepplewhite's Final Days” but “Paul's Final Day's.” Sal Hepplewhite is a fictional character but there was nothing imaginary or fictional about the Apostle Paul. Chapter 30 of “The Story” continues the account of his life from the Book of Acts, and includes excerpts from many of the letters he wrote to the churches.
We read about his visit to Jerusalem where he reiterates his conversion experience and sets the whole place in a spin. We are told of his arrest and transportation to Rome. On the way the ship in which he is traveling becomes shipwrecked and offers an unexpected opportunity to preach the gospel on the island of Malta. He eventually arrives in Rome where, whilst under house arrest, he composes many of the letters that form such an important part of the New Testament. For Paul, his trust in God enables him to see every setback as an opportunity.
Chapter 30 of “The Story” finishes by speaking of Paul's friendship with a young man called Timothy. Historically, this is when Nero becomes the emperor and a great persecution of the church begins. Timothy fears for Paul's life. His fears are well grounded as it is thought that Paul was executed by Nero around the year AD68.
In what is thought to be one of his final compositions, his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes to encourage his young friend not to be disheartened by the persecution they were enduring, but to continue soaking up sound teaching that built up faith and love of Jesus Christ and to “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” (2 Tim 1:14).
When we began looking at “The Story” at the beginning of the year, we spoke about there being an “Upper Story” and a “Lower Story”. The “Upper Story” is the way God sees things. The “Lower Story” is the way we see things. The challenge is to take our own story and relate it to the “Upper Story” of God's purposes for the world, rather than constantly reverting to a “Lower Story” perspective, in which life is simply a matter of doing our best and hoping that the worst never happens.
Going back to my opening illustration of Sal Hepplewhite, a man who in the eyes of the world may have had a lot going for him, from an eternal perspective he totally lacks any sense of trust in anything but his own ability to save himself. Time and time again we have seen in “The Story” that when we seek to be our own salvation, that nasty little thing called “sin” trips us up every time. It is a twist of our nature not to pursue God, but to head in the opposite direction of trust, faithfulness and commitment and believe we can do much better without God's help!
The lives of Paul and Emporer Nero, which overlapped in Rome, make for an interesting comparison. While Nero was making headlines, Paul was a nobody. Late night chat show hosts would have wanted Nero on their show. Heads of State would invite him to dinner.
Paul was an annoying preacher who kept talking about Jesus all the time, as though Jesus were alive and as if believing in Him was what really mattered in life. He so upset the religious folk of his day that they had him locked up on ridiculous, unfounded charges.
If you asked anyone in Rome at the time, “Who will have the most impact on the world, Paul or Nero?” they would pick Nero. At age 25 Nero erected a 120 foot tall statue of himself. People looked up at Nero, they looked down on Paul. Paul was beat up. He was a fanatic. He was in prison for crimes they were still trying to concoct.
But while in prison Paul was busy writing letters that would change people lives and bring them to a faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. He had an “Upper Story” perspective about things. He believed that as he trusted in God, God's purposes would be achieved.
Paul anchored his life to a hope out of this world. He talks a lot about grace. To his young friend Timothy he writes that grace “... has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Paul entrusted his life into the hands of God, even when, from a “Lower Story” perspective, things were totally messed up.
Paul ended his life well. Nero did not. Paul's new life had begun on the Damascus Road when Jesus stopped him in his tracks and turned his life around. He ended his days giving his life for what he believed in. Nero, at the age of 29, was lonely and paranoid. His second wife killed his first wife and then, while she was pregnant, Nero assaulted her and she died. Four years after Paul's death, Nero committed suicide. Nero was no hero. Paul still impacts us today.
There are no Saint Nero cathedrals. People tend not to name their children Nero, though many call them Paul or Pauline. Who are the real difference makers in the world? Throughout the whole of “The Story” we have been given the perspective that it's not the rich and powerful and those who are important in the eyes of their peers who make the eternal difference, but humble people of faith, who trust God to lead them and guide them, and who prayerfully seek to live lives that honor God, evidenced in the way they live out their calling.
I hope that as we have traveled through “The Story” there have been characters and situations and moments when you have been seriously challenged to consider why it is you were put on this planet.
Probably not to be a Saint Paul or an Emporer Nero. But it's easy to be a Sal Hepplewhite. No... I don't mean to be a multi married, fairly successful, fictional movie producer with homes in L.A. and New York, but to adopt a philosophy of life that, at the end of the day, leaves us spiritually bankrupt.
If we take scripture seriously there will come a moment, beyond this life, when we have to account for what we've done with the time God has given to us. Many, many times in His teaching Jesus points out that the way the world does things, doesn't work. That much of what people value and place their trust in is empty and vain.
Nowhere is this more clearly stated than in Matthew 16:24-27. “Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in His Father’s glory with His angels, and then He will reward each person according to what they have done.”
The phrase used there, that each person will be rewarded “according to what they have done.” has nothing to do with earthly achievement but has to do with what has been achieved in a persons life through allowing the love of God to direct them and guide them.
Earlier in Matthew 6:33 Jesus encourages us “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness.” Most of the time we ignore how deep and raw that commitment really is. Jesus is telling us that His commandments, His desires, His love, should be at the center of what we are and desire to be. That if we do that, then everything else in our life will line up in the right way.
Remember that little story at the beginning? Sal Hepplewhite trying to buy his way into heaven? That's how he made it through his earthly life. That's how it was meant to be.
“No entrance fees here, Sal” said the angel. “Everything's already paid for.” “What d'ya mean, already paid for?” asked Sal. “Jesus paid the entrance for us all,” replied the angel, “All we have to do is trust that He has everything taken care of. You do trust in God, don't you, Sal?”
This is the 30th week this year we have looked at a chapter from “The Story.” Chapter 30 has been all about a guy, who at one time trusted in his own understanding and ability to get him through. God changed him. Saul the persecutor of Christians, became Paul, the unashamed, unapologetic, apostle of Jesus Christ.
Time and time again the challenge that has come through these chapters has been, “You do trust in God, don't you?” The only person who can give an honest answer to that question is ourselves. We have a choice. Go it alone or go with God.
I believe that, at the end of the day, the second option makes most sense. In my own imperfect, stumbling way, that's how I'm trying to live out my life. I know that without the love of Jesus, available through the Holy Spirit, it's not even an option. But every moment I place my trust in Him, it seems like everything else starts to fall into place.
I believe Paul is right on. It's all about grace. It's all about love. It's all about what Jesus has done for us on the Cross. It's all about what God can do through God's resurrection power. That's the only way the “Lower Story” of my life can ever connect with the “Upper Story” of God's purpose. And my prayer as we near the end of our journey through “The Story” is that we'll all discover that living God's way is the best way to live.
Next week, in the liturgical year, it is Christ the King Sunday, we'll be taking a look at the book of Revelation. Chapter 31 “The End of Time!” Hope you are ready for it.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.