Prone to wander

One of the misconceptions I had when I became a minister was thinking that my most important job was to bring people into the church and get them to join. I think churches that consider themselves “evangelical” make a similar mistake when they urge people to say the “sinner’s prayer.”

As if bringing people in the door and getting them saved is all there is to a life of faith.

Now it is important to join the church. Jesus called the church his “bride” (Ephesians 5:22-23). It’s his gift to humankind. Its purpose is to put hell out of business (Matthew 16:18).

And without confessing your sin, the blessings of salvation can’t flow into your life.

But joining the church and confessing your sin are just the beginning of a life of faith.

This week we’re going to sing one of the most beloved traditional hymns, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The hymn was written by Robert Robinson in 1758.

Robinson was born in England in 1735. He father died when Robinson was eight. When Robinson was 14, his mother sent him to London to learn to be a barber.

Robinson fell in with the wrong crowd and became part of a gang. One day the gang decided to crash a meeting where the great evangelist George Whitefield was preaching. It seems they went to “scoff at the poor, deluded Methodists.”

Instead of scoffing, Robinson was converted. He became a minister and went on to write books and hymns, of which the most famous was, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

The second verse of the hymn includes the phrase, “Here I raise my Ebenezer…” a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12, where Samuel raised up a “stone of help” as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to Israel. We need “Ebenezers” to remind ourselves that God is faithful, even when we’re not.

And we need Ebenezers because, as Robinson wrote in the third verse, we’re “prone to wander.”

Robinson knew his own heart. It turned out that even he was “prone to wander.”

The story goes that sometime later in life, Robinson was riding in a stagecoach where a woman passenger was studying a hymnbook. The two struck up a conversation. The woman asked Robinson what he thought of the hymn she was humming. Through tears, Robinson replied, “Madam, I am the poor, unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”

We may be saved once and for all, but our hearts are “prone to wander.”

We need “stones of help.” We need the church.

We need something to point us, again and again and again, to the ultimate “stone of help,” Jesus Christ.

Stones don’t stack themselves

Have you noticed that it’s almost impossible to be amazed?

Today, anything people can imagine can be digitized. Ducks, geckos, and emus sell insurance.

You have to be purposeful if you want to be amazed. You have to stop and wonder. For example, a single-cell organism is more complex that any machine humans have ever imagined, but we dismiss them as “simple.”

Lots of times when God did something amazing in the life of his people, he told them to stack up stones to commemorate the occasion.

Simple, right?

Yet, stacking stones is inconvenient.

You wouldn’t stack them up for fun, the way you might make a snowman.

So if you lived in Old Testament times, and you came across standing stones, you’d be left to stop and wonder: what do these stones mean?

When God brought his people into the Promised Land, they had to cross the Jordan River at flood stage. God stopped the water, just like he’d done forty years before at the Red Sea.

So God told Joshua to take twelve stones, one per tribe, and stack them up.

God had given his people freedom from slavery, and now he was the one bringing them home. He wanted future generations to remember that.

Stones don’t usually stack themselves.

When you see them stacked up, one on top of the other, like in a great old church building like ours, you need to stop and wonder.

What do these stones mean?

What great things has God done here?

Stone for a pillow

For the first 50 years or so of my life I never imagined being a minister. I always belonged to a church, and Jana made sure we attended most of the time. But when asked to serve, I usually said that I was too busy. In looking back, I probably disappointed more than a few pastors who might have hoped that that I would get more involved.

Now I tell people that if I can be a minister, you can too.

If God wants you to do something, God will eventually get God’s way.

Take Jacob, for example.

God had called Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, to be the founder of a new nation. God chose Abraham’s son, Isaac, to carry on the legacy. Both of those men had powerful experiences of God’s call on their lives.

But when Jacob and his older twin, Esau, were born to Isaac, they didn’t have a great experience of God. If Jacob and his brother heard their father tell stories of God, the stories didn’t sink in. Just as bad, Isaac’s family was dysfunctional. He favored Esau while his wife favored Jacob.

Jacob grew up to be a conniving mess.

God’s plan to build a great nation seemed hopeless.

Genesis 28 picks up the story with Jacob on the run from his brother who wanted him dead. He must have left in such a hurry that he had no provisions, for when he stopped for the night, he had to use a stone for a pillow.

When all seemed lost for Jacob, that’s when God showed up in a big way. God gave him a vision of a stairway stretching all the way between heaven and earth. On the stairway were angels going up and down, spreading out across the earth. Above it all was God, looking down on Jacob and everything else.

God’s angels were everywhere.

God had been with Jacob all along.

Are you so low that you’re using a stone for a pillow?

Think God can’t use you?

God used a conniving mess named Jacob to transform the world.

What’s important

As I write this, the prayers of millions are focused on a young football player, Damar Hamlin, who collapsed on the field last Monday night. By all accounts, Damar is a Jesus follower and a man of character. He’s also an elite athlete. Last Monday, millions watched in shock and sadness, and for a moment at least, were left to contemplate what’s important in life.

This Sunday, as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, we again contemplate what’s important in life.

When couples bring their child to be baptized, I remind them there will be moments when they will be terrified for their child’s health: A little one struggles to breathe in the middle of the night; her fever spikes, prompting a panicked rush to the ER.

In those moments of terror, we remember our Baptism.

We remember that we are not our own. Our children are not our own. We belong to an eternal God who first gave himself to us. 

John the Baptist had said that Jesus would come to baptize people with fire. Instead, Jesus showed up asking to be baptized by John. There was no fire and John was horrified. He said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 

New Testament scholar Dale Bruner said this was the first miracle of Jesus: the miracle of his humility. The miracle that God was willing to go down with the whole human race into the waters of repentance and baptism. 

Jesus began his life as a baby in the manger, but he began his ministry in a river with sinners.

His life ended with prayers for us on a cross between sinners. 

His entire ministry was down at our level; identifying with us; one with us in our humanity.

We’re his.

In life and in death, we’re his.

That’s what’s important in life.