Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lent 4 sermon (March 22)

NUMBERS 21:4-9; PSALM 107: 1-3, 17-22; 1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-25; JOHN 3:14-21

How many of you have heard of Eric Liddell before? How many of you have seen the movie Chariots of Fire? Some of the life of Eric Liddell is portrayed in that movie as the runner who would not race on Sundays and had to change events in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.

Liddell was born in China where his Scottish parents were missionaries through the London Missionary Society. When Eric was six, he and his older brother were sent back to Scotland to be educated. They were both very athletic, but Eric could run and run. He was rumored to be Olympic worthy, but very few people from Scotland or Britain in general won Olympic running events.

Liddell was also famous for something else, during his younger years in Scotland. When he was a university student, he could draw enormous crowds who came to here him preach. He was a dynamic and powerful speaker who talked about the importance of the life of faith and of serving God.

In the film Chariots of Fire, Liddell is depicted as practicing for the 100-meter race and finding out only days before that the Olympic-qualifying heats would be held on a Sunday. Because of his strong belief in the Sabbath, Liddell refused to run on a Sunday.

In reality, Liddell found out months ahead of leaving for Paris about the Sunday trials and began practicing for the 400- meter race. In that race in the Olympics, Liddell did win a gold medal and set a new world record. He won a bronze in another race as well.

In the next few years, he won or helped win several other national titles for Britain and set other records. Yet Liddell felt other pulls on his heart and he heeded them.

Liddell returned to Northern China where he served as a missionary, like his parents, from 1925 to 1943. Liddell's first job as a missionary was as a teacher at an Anglo-Chinese College (grades 1-12) for wealthy Chinese students. It was believed that by teaching the children of the wealthy that they themselves would later become influential figures in China and promote Christian values. He used his athletic experience to train the boys in a number of different sports.

In 1941 life in China was becoming so dangerous that the British Government advised British nationals to leave. Liddell’s wife and children left, but Liddell accepted a new position at a rural mission station, which gave service to the poor. Meanwhile, the Chinese and the Japanese were at war. When the fighting reached the rural areas, the Japanese took over the mission station. In 1943, Liddell was interned at an internment camp. Liddell became a leader at the camp and helped get it organized. Eric kept himself busy by helping the elderly, teaching at the camp school Bible classes, arranging games and also by teaching the children science. The children knew him as Uncle Eric.

In his last letter to his wife, written on the day he died, he talks about suffering a nervous breakdown in the camp due to overwork, but in actuality he was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, to which being overworked and malnourished probably hastened his demise. He died on February 1945,

What does this the story of Eric Liddell have to do with anything? Well, it has to do with everything. One of Liddell’s most famous quotes was, “I believe that God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. When I run it is in His pleasure.”

When I run, I feel God’s pleasure. As we enter the sunnier spring, we all tip our faces up and feel the sun, God’s creative pleasure, shining on us. The ever-so-slightly warmer air gives us a bouncier step. The ability to leave our house and not worry about leaving lights on frees up some of our worries.

These are all small, delicious pleasures. It is true they enrich our lives, but they are not the stuff of life. Our texts today call us to feel God’s pleasure, to be in God’s pleasure, in a way that brings healing, wholeness and light. Moses lifts up the serpent, so that the Israelites won’t die from the snakebites they brought on themselves. Instead of basking in God’s pleasure to release them from slavery and provide for them in the desert, they wanted to complain about being sick of the food and the sand and the never-ending wilderness. Moses follows God’s instructions and lifts up the snake, so that the Israelites might continue to live and know God’s pleasure at providing for them in the wilderness and saving them from the Egyptians and from themselves.

John’s passage offers the same message. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus under the cover of night and talks to him about why God would send his Son into the world. Because God first loved the world, so God gave the only Son. God acts first so that the world might know his pleasure. Too often we think that we have to move, that we have to accept, that we have act for God to act toward us. Here we see God’s first actions toward us so that we might believe in something beyond ourselves.

That we can look to Jesus lifted up on the cross, a light shining into the darkness, and know God’s pleasure. That in believing in the message of the cross, we come to know God’s wisdom and God’s joy in bringing us to Himself. Believing in the cross does not mean there are no struggles with faith, that each day is light and joy. But it does mean that the darkness cannot completely overcome us, that the world and its foolishness does not have the power to separate us from the love of God.

Many people now look at the story of Eric Liddell and say he’d never make it today as a serious athlete because he was not as dedicated as he needed to be. But I think those people miss the point completely. Liddell was very famous for his unorthodox running style, head thrown back and arms flailing behind him. Through his life, he did everything in this headlong way- from racing to serving God. He ran in faith that he would be where God needed him to be and in the end, God’s dedication, through the cross, brought Eric Liddell to where Eric needed to be.

We are called through God’s word to run in the same way, even those of us who don’t actually run. We are called to abandon what the world considers good form and to throw ourselves into God’s pleasure. In our leisure time, in our vocation, in our families, with our friends, through good works to all our neighbors…

God so loved the world. God so loved you. That He sent the only Son. He sent part of Himself into the world. That everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.

Believe in what God has done for you and in what God is doing through you, for you and in you. Believe. And may the Spirit open your heart so that you can feel His pleasure.

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