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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Tell Me the Stories of Jesus?

Date: 06/26/2005
Feast: 13th s in o
Church: LHPC
Bible text: Matt. 10:40-42, Genesis 22:1-14
Theme: Cup of cold water, Testing of Abraham

Do you remember the old hymn, “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus?”

First let me hear how the children stood round His knee,And I shall fancy His blessing resting on me;Words full of kindness, deeds full of grace,All in the love light of Jesus’ face.

It sounds a lot like Jesus saying, “…whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple--truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” he said at another time.

It sounds as though Jesus is talking about the “little ones” who come up for a children’s sermon. Jesus is meek and mild, gentle and sweet. He’s full of loving promise and assurance. You’d never be scared of a person like this. Plus…

"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Good news. Great news, actually. If you welcome someone who’s doing the work of Jesus, you’re welcoming Jesus himself, and you’re welcoming God the Father, too. One kind act and you’ve got a whole houseful of divinity.

But in our haste we skipped over what Jesus said in the verses preceding, and it’s not so nice.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

(By the way, this was the text for last Sunday, Father’s Day. Being a father, I opted to preach on a different text. Our girls are still at the age where they like us, and I didn’t want to encourage them otherwise.)

The Bible has a certain pattern. God has a certain pattern that’s followed over and over again. Yes, there’s blessing, meek and mild. There’s promise. But there’s also sacrifice. And you have to have both. If you only have blessing, Jesus is just a really nice guy. If you only have sacrifice, it’s like Jesus is telling us to be mean and hateful. Blessing and sacrifice go together like beans and cornbread, catfish and fries. But God always follows a sequence. Like dessert follows a main course, the blessing comes, but ONLY after the threat of sacrifice.


The threat of sacrifice precedes blessing. Jesus isn’t the first follower of the Father God to preach this lesson. It’s an old, old story that goes back to the very beginning of God’s covenant.

In our Old Testament lesson, Abraham, the first follower of God, is well over 100 years old. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, who’s in her 90’s, have been going to fertility specialists for years. Finally, finally they have their son, a child born to a mother in her 90’s. It brings new meaning to, “high risk pregnancy.” Isaac is the symbol of highest risk – physical risk, spiritual risk. At long last, Abraham has his heir, and God has the start of a family, with descendants to number more than the stars in the sky.

One night, when Isaac is in his early teens (the age when many parents consider child sacrifice), Father Abraham sits straight up in bed and announces to sleepy Sarah, “The Lord has told me to do something terrible to our son.” Abraham’s over 100 years old, after all, so Sarah assumes he’s finally lost it. “Oh yeah, Abe? Well, The Lord’s giving me some ideas about you.”

That’s not actually how it went. The truth is, this message from God is Abraham’s dark little secret. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

Abraham does as God tells him. He saddles up the donkeys and takes Isaac to the mountain. He prepares the sacrifice.

Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Heartbreaking words.) Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

Yet another scripture NOT to be read on Father’s Day. Abraham is looking like a very bad example. But at the last moment, as the blade is drawn and held over his son’s body in Abraham’s quivering hands, an angel says, “Stop!” The angel stays Abraham’s hand and provides a ram, caught in a thicket. Abraham is blessed by God (to say nothing of Isaac also being blessed). The Lord provides.

Abraham is blessed. Isaac is blessed. Their future generations are blessed.

But only after the threat of sacrifice.


Which brings us back to Jesus.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Jesus sounds cruel. And he’s echoing one of the oldest stories of the Bible. Take what identity you have, take what promise of the future you have, take whatever it is you love most – and be willing to sacrifice it. Don’t just pretend. Don’t just go through the motions, knowing that God’s going to provide. Really be ready to let it go out of your own hands, by your own hand. And don’t do it to get a blessing. Because you don’t know if the blessing’s going to show up or not. Do it because God tells you to do it. That’s the kind of sacrifice God requires.

Not many of us have that kind of faith. Not many of us would want the threat of that kind of faith. Our families would have us locked up. Our churches would disown us. “Poor old Abraham,” they’d say. “Doing just fine until he hit 107.”

Faith is supposed to threaten us. Faith is supposed to make us scared. Faith OUGHT to be frightening. Faith tells us to believe in things we can’t see. Faith tells us to trust God because God is God. Why? For exactly the same reason we parents give our children: “Because I said so, that’s why.” That’s a horrible reason. I hate to hear myself saying it… seven, eight times a day. But I don’t mind saying it nearly as much as I hate hearing it. Faith tells us to accept answers that aren’t good explanations. Faith gives us answers without explanations. Faith tells us to trust the commands of God – NOT because the commands make good sense. But to trust the commands because they’re from God. The faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus, is just plain frightening.

Any of you have your season passes to Dollywood? Now, there’s a frightening place. That’s why we love it. We especially love the roller coaster with all the loops. We’re a little crazy, that way. Any of you like that one? You’re crazy, too. Riding a loopy roller coaster is an act of faith. Faith in human engineering. Faith that the person riding in front of you hasn’t just eaten a jumbo corn dog. We pay a lot of money, and go to a lot of extremes, to scare ourselves into exercising our faith.

A little scare, we call an amusement. A big scare, a real scare, an honest life-or-death scare – there’s nothing amusing about that at all. Faith is no joke. The scares that bring out our faith are no joke. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom (Psalm 111).” And oddly enough, “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them (Psalm 25).”

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild – the God of Abraham and Isaac – if we’re going to have their blessing, we first have to give them our respect, and even, our fear. The threat of sacrifice always comes before blessing. In order for God to provide, we have to confess that we can’t provide for ourselves.


Both our Old and New Testament lessons today are dangerous for people who want to take the Bible literally. I don’t believe God wants us to act like Father Abraham, or Isaac the passive victim. Nor do I believe Jesus wants us to disrespect our parents. But there are a couple of lessons (if not more) that we can learn from these scriptures of family devalues.

First, if you believe that putting your trust in Jesus will make your life a bed of roses, think again. If your faith removes all tough choices, you may have faith, but you didn’t get it from the Bible. If your faith never challenges your opinions or the people who gave you your opinions, you may have faith, but you didn’t get it from the Bible. If you think having faith means you can never be scared, that you shouldn’t cry, that you can’t disagree with friends, family, or even disagree with God, you may have faith, but you didn’t get it from the Bible. This is the very selfish faith of blessings and blessings alone. It’s a very one-sided faith that God exists to make you happy. Think again.

Second, if you believe that putting your trust in Jesus means you can freely disrespect and devalue the people who dare to disagree with you, think again. If your faith requires you to sacrifice people (love them or hate them), you may have faith, but it didn’t come from the Bible. If your faith is a source of cruelty or a source of paranoia, it didn’t come from the Bible. This is the very selfish faith of sacrifice and sacrifice alone. It’s a very one-sided faith that God exists to make you happy by wiping out all the people who don’t. Think again.

The faith that comes from the Bible begins to grow where sacrifice and blessing intersect. Like the beams of a cross, nailed at the center, where the threat of sacrifice and the mercy of blessing join together, faith is reborn. In fact, we don’t have any greater symbol of this than the cross, the place of ultimate sacrifice and the place of eternal blessing. But, even with the cross, as it always seems to go, sacrifice precedes blessing.

Christianity is a dangerous faith. Christianity is dangerous because it pulls us away from the extremes of selfishness. Instead of being selfishly blessed, and instead of being selfishly cruel, the faith of the Bible brings us to a middle ground where God provides.

“Provides what?” we might ask.

A cup of cold water? It’s a start. It’s what Jesus offers. And to a person thirsting for answers, it’s a good start. Anything that throws cold water on our sinful, selfish ways is a pretty good thing.

So, is he gentle Jesus, meek and mild or is he Jesus the demander of sacrifice? The answer is “yes” and “yes.” Should your faith scare you out of your comfortable routines? Should your faith comfort you in God’s providence? Again, “yes” and “yes.” Both are true. How can this be? I think if God tried to explain it, we still couldn’t understand. So God showed us – in the cross. God shows us in those times when we don’t know how we’re going to make it, and somehow, we come out feeling blessed.


Back now, to the hymn, where we began: “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus.” Back in 1885, William Parker wrote this hymn for his Sunday School students in Nottingham, England. In most American hymnals, in the one we had when I was growing up, the RED Presbyterian Hymnal (God rest its soul), the hymn has three verses. And with the chosen three verses, all the stories of Jesus are nice and sweet. But if we look at the original hymn, William Parker was a man whose faith had more than one dimension. His last verse – one that isn’t often included – goes like this:

Show me that scene in the garden, of bitter pain.
Show me the cross where my Savior for me was slain.
Sad ones or bright ones, so that they be
Stories of Jesus, tell them to me.

Our feelings of sacrifice, or our feelings of blessing are never the end of the story. God’s blessing is the end of the stories of Jesus. In patterns older than the Bible itself, that story keeps repeating itself in your life. And blessed are you when your sacrifices and your gains lead you to understand just a little of Jesus Christ.