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For This I Was Born
Some years ago a Methodist minister visited the slums of London, the red light district and skid row. He was so moved by the poverty, filth, hunger, depravity, so taken by the needs of the people that he dedicated himself to "the service of those sick souls." His decision to serve the poor changed his life and had far reaching ramifications. That London Methodist minister was William Booth, and his decision to serve sick souls marked the beginning of the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army has served the poor for generations providing food, housing, clothing, and general assistance. In our own community we are indebted to the Salvation Army for providing emergency housing and food to those in need. After the Salvation Army movement had spread to several countries, General Booth was asked, "Tell me, what is the secret of your success?"
It would have been interesting if someone had put that question to Jesus. "What is the secret of your success?" The Gospel Lesson this morning is from the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Pilate must have wondered what was Jesus' secret for success, wondered why Jesus had incurred the wrath of the local authorities. Pilate couldn't understand the accusation, nor could he understand Jesus' accepting attitude. Pilate wondered if Jesus considered himself to be a king, but Jesus said, "For this was I born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth."
The secret of Jesus' success is he knew why he had been born. Jesus knew why he had been sent to this earth. Jesus knew what was his mission and purpose, "to bear witness to the truth." John tells us earlier in his book, 1:14, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." In John 14 Jesus described his mission as, "I am the way, the truth and the life." Jesus knew why he had been born, and he was willing to commit himself to his mission, to the reason for his birth, even if it meant his death.
The apostle Paul also had a keen sense of mission and purpose. Paul knew why he had been born, and he set about to do it, regardless of the consequences, even though it cost him his life. You have to admire Paul. This small, sickly hero of the faith suffered beatings, imprisonments, stonings, emotional stress, bickering and squabbling churches, shipwrecks, debates, interrogations by kings, but he never gave up. Why? He knew why he had been born. In I Corinthians 9:16, Paul wrote, "Necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel." Necessity is laid upon me, for this was I born!
General William Booth had a similar sense of mission and purpose. He saw poverty, and he gave his life to serving the poor. For this was he born. When he was asked, "What is the secret of your success?" Booth answered, "I will tell you the secret. There have been many people with far greater abilities, far greater opportunities, but my secret is that God has had all there was of me to have." General Booth saw a need, judged that need in accordance with the high principles of truth, of what is right and wrong, and totally committed himself to the cause. No doubt his Methodist colleagues thought he was crazy, giving up his ministry to risk everything he had in the slums. But, "God has had all there was of me to have." And history thrust greatness upon Booth.
Why were you born? Why are you here upon the earth at this time? Many people never ask this question of themselves, or if they do ask it, they find no answer. The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung has said, "The central neurosis of our time is emptiness." Emptiness, no purpose, no goal, no sense of mission, no assertion of "For this was I born." The infamous Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees said, "If you don't know where you're going, you're likely to end up someplace else!"
Why were you born? Are you satisfied with the answer you have been giving yourself to that question? Look at it this way. If you should die tomorrow, would you be proud of your epitaph, or the meaning of your life the minister might summarize at your Memorial service? One woman apologized to her minister for the smallness of her financial giving to the church by complaining about the high salaries she now had to pay her maids, butler and chauffeur. Poor thing. I wonder what epitaph she is writing for herself. The famous poet, Anonymous, has written:
There are a lot of men who creep
Into the world to eat and sleep,
And know no reason why they're born
Save only to consume the corn,
Devour the cattle, bread and fish,
And leave behind an empty dish;
And if their tombstones, when they die,
Were not to flatter or to lie,
There's nothing better can be said
Than that they've eaten up their bread,
Drunk up their drink, and gone to bed.
Born to consume, born to devour the natural resources, what a reason to be born! Is that all there is? Why were you born?
If you don't know the answer to that question, don't despair. We are not born knowing the reason for our birth. Discovering why you were born is a long process. Few great persons knew in advance what their mission was. In fact, as I read history, greatness is something that was thrust upon them. The key was in their response. William Booth responded to the cries of poverty. His greatness lay in being at the right place at the right time, with high principles and devotion to what is right, and being willing to commit himself wholeheartedly, totally, to the call of God. While on vacation last week, we visited the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. It is a fascinating place and I was struck by a Kennedy quote. He was asked, "How did you become a war hero?" Kennedy replied, "It was involuntary. They sunk my boat." No one decides ahead of time to be a war hero. It depends on the circumstances, and, decidedly, it depends upon the response. According to Gore Vidal in his latest novel, Empire, which I am currently reading, Abraham Lincoln once said, "I do not act. I am acted upon."
A sense of mission and purpose, a certainty of "for this was I born," is the result of being acted upon, and then responding with greatness. Those whom we call "great" had high principles, were dedicated to "truth" as was Jesus, dedicated to what is right and just, and then accepted their destiny with a total commitment that encompassed their dreams, money, and future.
Martin Luther lived at a time of tension between Papal rule and local authority. Because of his theological belief in the primacy of Scripture and his deep conviction of everyone's right to the Scripture and to God, coupled with his courage to resist the Pope, history concludes Martin Luther was born for the Protestant Reformation.
Abraham Lincoln was president when the nation strained to the breaking point. Because he was committed to the preservation of the union of these great states, on the basis of the abolition of slavery, and had courage, faith and stamina, history concludes he was born to free the slaves.
John Wesley had a spiritual experience of the grace and love of God. He began to share it gladly with the people, especially the common people. When he was refused permission to preach from his boyhood church, he stood on his father's grave in the church's cemetery and preached. The people came and the Methodist movement was born. The Methodist movement was his not by design, but by a combination of circumstances. Because of his dedication to the highest of principles, and his commitment to people and the gospel, history concludes John Wesley was born to found the Methodist Church.
Rosa Parks' feet hurt. She had worked long and hard and was tired of being ordered to stand in the back of the bus so a white person could sit down. She resisted. Because she was committed to common sense with a conviction of right and wrong, focused in her tired feet, history concludes Rosa Parks was born to launch the Civil Rights movement.
What if these "greats" had chosen otherwise? What if they had chosen not to get involved? What if they had chosen security and financial well-being instead of risking their futures? What if they had let themselves get bitten by the bug of apathy and complacency? William Booth could have visited the slums, decided not to get involved, and gone on with his life. What if these people we call great had chosen otherwise? We would never have read their names. They would have sunk into oblivion. They would have never discovered why they had been born. Who can imagine what the world would be like if these great persons had never realized their greatness?
For what were you born? It's a matter of choice. Every day you are confronted with choices. Will you choose what is easy or what is right? Will you choose what the majority say is right or what your conscience inspired by the Scriptures says is right? Will you choose truth or propaganda? Will you choose what is expedient or will you risk? Will you choose the status quo or what is just? Will you choose conformity or the will of God? As you make your daily choices, you prepare yourself for the big decisions.
For what you were born--finding your mission and purpose in life--is a matter of response to what is thrust upon you. Begin with high principles, a vision of what life might be like, with a high priority on truth, and a deep conviction of what is right and what is just. Then, be open to the possibilities and challenges which confront you, often daily. Through prayer and study, be open to the Holy Spirit. Finally, add commitment--your willingness to give yourself totally, without reservation. Give God all of you there is to have, and you will discover your destiny. You will gradually come to know why you were born.
ã 1988 Douglas I. Norris