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Up, Up and Away!
"Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down," goes the spiritual. It's interesting how up and down have come to mean more than directions. When the stock market goes up, it's good; when it goes down, when it falls, it's bad. When sales go up, a company prospers; when orders go down, the company suffers. When salaries go up, that's good; when they go down, that's bad. When a student does well, the grade goes up; when a student does poorly, the grade goes down; as the high school student said to his parents when he handed them his report card, "Christopher Columbus and I have something in common--we both went down in history."
In the Bible, people often went up to find inspiration, to communicate with God. Moses went up Mt. Sinai. Sanctuaries were built on top of mountains. On our trip to the Holy Land, we learned at the excavation of Megiddo that "high places" often meant an altar built on a raised platform of rock. When there was no mountain or hill in the village, a symbolic high place was constructed of a layer of rock. In the Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus took three of his disciples up the mountain where they participated in a profound spiritual experience. Jesus was transfigured before them, and conversed with the spirits of Elijah and Moses. Traditionally we have located God up and the devil down. We point up to heaven, and down to hell.
Down is not fun. We are now in a recession; the economy is down. We are at war. Some are up, but most of us are deeply disturbed by the war, even depressed. When we are depressed, we are down. Life is the pits, we say. We are down in the dumps. In a "Peanut's" comic strip, Lucy and Charlie Brown are engaged in deep conversation about the meaning of life. Lucy says, "Life is like a deck chair. Some people place it so they can see where they are going. Some people place it so they can see where they have been. And some people place it so they can see where they are now." Charlie thinks about the "life is like a deck chair" philosophy, and replies, "I can't even get mine unfolded."
Another image for down is drowning. When life seems overwhelming, the victim feels as if he/she is drowning. Drowning in trouble, drowning in financial debts, drowning in sorrow, drowning in dependency. Some are caught in webs, inextricably caught in patterns of behavior that are dragging them down. They can't seem to get on top of their lives, can't seem to get their heads above water. Some are being pulled down by the friends they keep. Peer pressure to go along with the crowd, to smoke this, drink that, swallow the pill. They can't seem to break the hold the crowd has on them. They are drowning.
Paul Gorman tells a beautiful true story of his own experience with drowning. Let me read it as he wrote it, I was in about 40 feet of water, alone. I knew I should not have gone alone, but I was very competent and just took a chance. There was not much current, and the water was so warm and clear and enticing. But when I got a cramp, I realized at once how foolish I was. I was not very alarmed, but was completely doubled up with stomach cramp. I tried to remove my weight belt, but I was so doubled up I could not get to the catch. I was sinking and began to feel more frightened, unable to move. I could see my watch and knew that there was only a little more time on the tank before I would be finished with breathing. I tried to massage my abdomen. I wasn't wearing a wet suit, but couldn't straighten out and couldn't get to the cramped muscles with my hands.
I thought, "I can't go like this. I have things to do." I just couldn't die anonymously this way, with no one to even know what happened to me. I called out in my mind, "Somebody, something, help me!"
I was unprepared for what happened. Suddenly I felt a prodding from behind me under the armpit. I thought, "Oh no, sharks!" I felt real terror and despair. But my arm was being lifted forcibly. Around into my field of vision came an eye--the most marvelous eye I could ever imagine. I swear it was smiling. It was the eye of a big dolphin. Looking into that eye, I knew I was safe.
It moved farther forward, nudging under, and hooked its dorsal fin under my armpit with my arm over its back. I relaxed, hugging it, flooded with relief. I felt that the animal was conveying security to me, that it was healing me as well as lifting me toward the surface. My stomach cramp went away as we ascended, and I relaxed with security, but I felt strongly that it healed me too.
At the surface, it drew me all the way in to the shore. It took me into water so shallow that I began to be concerned for it, that it would be beached, and I pushed it back a little deeper, where it waited, watching me, I guess to see if I was all right...he made sure I was safe in the shallowest water. Then the dolphin turned sideways..made just one sound and went out to join the others.
He was saved from drowning. He was rescued by a dolphin, by a loving dolphin. He was saved by grace, not of his own doing, but purely by grace. He could do nothing for himself, nothing by himself. He was down. He was drowning. In my youth, we sang joyously the old gospel song, I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry.From the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me; love lifted me. When nothing else could help, love lifted me.
According to Robert Bellah in his book, Habits of the Heart, the number one reason why people go to church is to feel good about themselves. When you're drowning, it doesn't make any difference how you feel about yourself. Can you imagine how effective it would have been for Paul Gorman to feel good about himself: I'm not a bad person. I've done this good deed and that good deed. Paul Gorman did not need to feel good about himself, he needed to be saved from drowning. He needed to be rescued.
Yes, you need a good, strong self image. But, when you're drowning, when you are down, when you are depressed, when you are sinking deep in sin, you need to be saved, you need to be rescued, redeemed, and all the other biblical words which mean a new start, a new beginning, a second chance. And, rescue, salvation comes from the grace of God when you cry for help. We are saved, not by what we can do for ourselves, not because of good deeds, not because we are pretty, or rich, or an American, but because of God's grace. You are saved by God's unmerited, unrestricted, immeasurable love of you.
God's plan for you is to be uplifted, to ascend to the highest and the best, to fly, to soar. God's direction for you is up. God calls you to the heights. God wants to take you to the top of the mountain to have a profound spiritual experience. God loves you, and will save you, redeem you, rescue you from drowning.
How does God save us? This is a salvation sermon this morning. What do we do? Here are the ABCs of salvation.
A. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) You have sinned, we all have sinned. Sin is the state of being separated from God. Sin is estrangement, alienation. Sin is trying to live life all by yourself. Sin is to experience drowning, to be overwhelmed and inextricably interwoven with that which kills you, which drags you down. The first step in salvation is to realize you are drowning, realize you are down, admit you are a sinner. As an alcoholic cannot be saved until he admits he is a hopeless alcoholic and cannot save himself, but must depend on a power greater than him/herself, so all of us must come to the place in our lives where we admit we cannot save ourselves from drowning, and cry out for help.
B. "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." (Acts 16:31) Belief is more than a head trip, more than an academic, "Sure I believe there is a God." Believing in the Lord Jesus Christ means trusting him with your life. Reach out, cling to, hold on. As Paul Gorman held on to the saving dolphin for his dear life, so hang on to Jesus. Trust him with your life. Believe that Jesus can save you. Believe that Christ's way is the only way to live. Believe that the Holy Spirit has the power to rescue you, to put you on top of your life, to give you a new chance, to change your heart and mind, to empower you to live as one of God's people, to live ethically, honestly, gratefully, in service of your fellow human being. Rather than a religion where you feel good about yourself, you have a religion where you entrust Jesus with your very life, and live your life for others, rather than yourself. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
C. "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved," Paul promised in Romans 10:9. Confess with your lips. Make your faith public. Confess means tell. Confess means to stand before the entire congregation and take the vows of membership seriously. Confess means to tell the world, "Yes, I am a Christian. Yes, I follow Jesus. Yes, I live the life he taught, and when I fall, God forgives me and lifts me up again. Yes, I was drowning, but, thank God, I was rescued, I was saved, and I am constantly being saved."
The mountain top experiences, the transfigurations, were not just for Bible people. Up, up, and away can be your experience as well. You need not be down. You need not drown. Remember your ABCs. All have sinned, Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Confess him with your lips.
© 1991 Douglas I. Norris