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If I Only Had One Sermon
July 27, 1975

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

ACTS 16:25-34

Centenary church in Modesto is having a series of weekly evening meetings, inviting guest preachers to preach on the question: If in your entire ministry, you only could preach one sermon, what would it be? Last Wednesday was my turn. I thought I would have a very difficult time but as I prepared that sermon, (and you’re fortunate enough to get it now!), I realized that it was not difficult, for there is really only one sermon. I imagine if I went through all the sermons that I’ve ever preached, probably 90% or over, sometime in the sermon, at some point or another, in some form, I gave one word, the basic ingredient, the basic essential of the gospel that gives an answer to the human situation, to those great questions that humans ask—who am I? What am I? Where am I going? What am I doing here? What is life all about? Or the question asked out of human desperation, the question asked by the jailer in the New Testament lesson today. 

Paul and Silas were released from the jail cell because of an earthquake. The jailer was terrified. When Paul and Silas did not leave, did not escape, he did not have to commit suicide. He realized who these men were and what they were preaching and asked out of the depths of his heart, “Brothers, what must I do to be saved?” That’s the universal question of all people that dwells up and swells up and bursts forth from us, what must I do to be saved? We ask it in many ways. How do I get peace of mind? How do I find happiness? How do I find purpose? How do I find meaning? What must I do to be saved? 

If I only had one sermon, it would be to answer that question with the bare essential of the gospel. Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of this century who has written ream upon ream of theological work, volumes of treatises on theology on who is God, what is his nature, what is life all about, said that the gospel can be expressed in one phrase—“Jesus loves me”. Jesus loves you. That’s the word. If I only had one sermon, I would say to you that God loves you. If I only had one sermon to give to the world, or to anyone or to whatever situation it would be, “God loves you”. God loves you because he made you. God loves you because he has redeemed you. 

God made you. He created you. He decided you should be here. He put you together and placed you here. And as a great artist carefully designs his work and puts himself into his creation, loves his creation and is proud of what he has made so the Lord loves you because he has made you. 

A couple of weeks ago, we were privileged to go to Yosemite and see for the first time water pour over the falls. What a sight that is! How we stood in awe of the waterfalls in Yosemite—that power surging, the wonderful majestic acts of God’s creation! Now we are thrilled with the space ventures and the cooperation between America on Russia. We are thrilled with the vistas opening in our generation, the universe’s doors opening. We’re able to sense the grandeur of what God has made beyond our comprehension of all that is out there. And we stand in awe. Some people’s reaction when they stand in awe of the Yosemite waterfalls, some people’s reaction when they stand in awe of space is to feel how small and weak and insignificant they are. 

But there is a better reaction. There’s a healthier reaction. When you stand in awe of the Yosemite waterfalls, when you stand in awe of God’s space, realize that same life is in you, that same power is in you, that same creative life force is in you. Stand in awe not only of his creations outside of you but stand in awe of his creation of you. What an intricate work of art you are! Just think how your body works. It can’t be duplicated, or your mind, your brain. They tell us we haven’t even scratched the surface of the power that’s in our brain. Stand in awe of what God has done. Stand in awe and realize what a beautiful, unique, creative, delightful person you are. God loves you because he has made you. 

God loves you because he has redeemed you. The Lord has so loved us that he has given us a process, given us a way whereby we can come into relationship with him. He’s given us a way by whereby we can be saved. He’s given us a way out of the human dilemma, out of the ugly, despicable things that we do to each other on this earth. God has not left us here on our own to struggle with human sin, degradation and evil. He’s given us a way, given us a process by whereby we can come to Him, and He sent Jesus Christ to reveal that through the life, the teachings, the words, the death, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can come to know God in a very personal, living vital way. 

Books upon books, volumes upon volumes have been written on why did Jesus have to die? What does his death mean? Why did he have to shed blood? Great minds for centuries have tried to develop a system whereby that’s made intelligible to us. And no one has succeeded yet to make that understandable. For the cross is folly, foolishness to the mind of man. But somehow, when we catch a vision of his death on the cross, we catch a vision of his resurrection, the love of God is revealed to us. In the cross where Jesus died, out of his love for us, we see the very heart of God breaking. We see the heart of God hurting over the way we live, agonizing with us. He hurts. He aches because of the way we live. But out of His love, he forgives, he accepts, he reconciles, he brings us together with him. That is the great glorious good news of the gospel. Through Jesus Christ, we can know his love. God loves you because he made you. God loves you because has redeemed you. 

The next step is up to you and me. Our response is up to you and me. God doesn’t force us. God doesn’t push his way on us. He doesn’t overrule us. Now he does nudge us at times. Sometimes he nudges us right between the eyes. Sometimes he hits us over the head with club. He knocks the wind out of our sails, but he doesn’t force us. He knocks at the door but we open the door. 

Our response to God, is to first of all, confess and admit who we are, to be honest with ourselves. Alcoholics Anonymous is the most successful program designed to help people out of the illness of alcoholism. Alcoholics Anonymous has taken the gospel and divided it into 12 steps—the Bible in 12 steps. The first step: no alcoholic can ever be helped until he says, admits to himself and to the whole world, “I am an alcoholic and I need help.” No one can be helped until they’re honest with who they are. 

None of us can come to God until we’re honest with who and what we are. Turn to God and ask for help is the first step. After we’ve been honest, after we’ve admitted our need, after we’ve turned to him, then we trust. Trust God with your life. Trust Him with your dreams, your hopes. Trust him with your problems. Trust Him with your body, with your illnesses, trust him with your death. Let go and trust Him. Quit trying to struggle through all by yourself. Let go, relax. 

I think I’ve told you before, but I like the story of a little boy who climbed a tree. He climbed the tree just as far as he could go, went out on a limb and then he looked down. He realized how far he was from the ground. He looked around and saw the trunk was a long way back. And he froze, petrified. He couldn’t go forward. He didn’t dare go back and he sure as everything wasn’t going to jump. So there he froze. Then along came a man. He looked at the boy, sized up the situation, went, stood under the limb, held out his arms and said, “Come on. Jump, I’ll catch you.” The man did all he could. He stood there with his arms held out (in my little story, there are no ladders). The man stands with his arms out and the choice, the decision is up to the little boy. What is he going to do? Now no doubt he believes in the man’s existence. He says, “I can see you. I know you’re a man. I believe you’re there. I even believe that perhaps you can catch me.” But that doesn’t get him out of the tree. Believing in the man’s existence does not get him out of the tree. 

Or he can recite a creed. He can say, “I believe that you are John Smith. You live over on Elm Street. I even know your son. I play with your son George. George is a good boy. We have a real good time together. He’s a fine boy. Therefore you must be a pretty good man because you’re his father. I believe you’re a good man. I believe you even have strength. I believe you can catch me.” He can recite a creed all day but it doesn’t get him out of the tree. Or he can tell the man all about how righteous he is. He can say, “I’m a pretty good little boy. I carry out the garbage for my mother. I make my bed. I hardly ever sass her. I go to Sunday school. I’m a good little boy. I try.” But reciting his righteousness doesn’t get him out of the tree. 

Not until he decides to let go and trust the man with his life even though he’s not sure the man will catch him. He could slip through his arms. He could fall. The man could sneeze and miss the whole thing. And we’re not always sure in the final analysis that God can help us, that God can save us. That’s what faith is all about. Faith means the evidence isn’t all that conclusive. The evidence isn’t all that sure. The evidence isn’t all that dependable. Therefore, I’ve got to take risks. I’ve got to put my Adam’s apple back in my throat, let go and trust. Does the boy jump? That’s up to you. 

After one confesses, repents and trusts God with his life, then he serves like the jailer did. They told him to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And after he believed, his first act was to wash the wounds of the prisoners, to wash their backs. They’d been beaten before they were thrown into prison. He washed and dressed their wounds, and then took them to his home where he fed them. He opened his house. He welcomed them to his family. He opened his heart. The Christian opens his arms to the world and washes wounds, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and gives whatever he can do to make this a good and beautiful world in which to live. Wherever there’s injustice, wherever there’s oppression, wherever there’s ignorance, wherever there’s hurt, there is the Christian serving, dressing the wounds out of gratitude for what God has done for him. 

If I only had one sermon, I would tell you in whatever way I can, with whatever words I have, with whatever wisdom, with whatever spirit I have; if I only had one sermon, I would tell you and hope that you could believe that God loves you because he made you, because he has redeemed you.

© 1975 Douglas I. Norris