Dr. Schuller, thank you so much. I bring greetings from Western Theological Seminary, all of my colleagues on the faculty and staff and our wonderful student body. Some years ago, the seminary instituted a distinguished alumni award and on the occasion of the very first award, the obvious and heartfelt choice was Dr. Robert H. Schuller. Dr. Schuller, thank you so much for honoring us by receiving that award. And thank you, too, for letting me be here today. He mentioned that Sheila and I were classmates at Hope College and I could read your minds. You were thinking the years have been kinder to her than to him.
Well in any event, I’m eager to get started. Here’s what I’d like to do. I would like us to begin by memorizing one of the bible’s most hopeful verses. Don’t worry, I’m a teacher, I can help you do this. All you have to do is repeat what I say back to me. Are you ready? If anyone, if anyone, if anyone is in Christ, in Christ, if anyone is in Christ; good, very good, he/she is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come. The new has come.
I mean think of it, how amazing is that. “If anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new creation. The old has passed away and behold the new has come.” Can you think of anyone that you would like to tell that to? Oh I can think of some. Just now I’m thinking of a 15 year old high school sophomore, who stands in front of the bathroom mirror and rehearses the same litany of shame that she did yesterday. I’m not smart enough, I’m not cute enough and I’m definitely not thin enough. What do you want to say to her? I want to say, “if anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come.”
Harry and Mary have been married for 30 years but it’s been so long since they laughed together, so long since they’ve loved together, they can scarcely imagine being married for 30 more minutes. What do you want to say to them? You want to say “if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation.” A 31 year old rising star in the business world is stunned when his company downsizes and he gets to dumb sized and now suffocating under a mountain of debt. He wonders ‘what am I even doing here?’ What do you want to say to him? “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come.”
You know one of my teachers along the way, a very wise one, told me that when people come to church on Sunday morning, they have two questions on their mind. The first one is, is there going to be a story this morning. And the other is, am I in that story. Well I’m here to tell you, you are in the story I’m going to tell you. It’s not my story, it’s a piece of God’s story, tucked away discreetly in the Old Testament, but I feel sure that as I’m telling you this story, you’ll recognize yourself. Listen to this wonderful story.
It was the 13th year in the 4th month. On the 5th day of the month, as I Ezekiel was among the exiles along the River Chebar, I saw the heavens opened and I heard the voice of the Lord. He lifted me up and led me out by the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in a big valley. It was filled with bones. He led me all around them. There were so many bones and they were very dry. And the Lord said to me, mortal, can these bones live? I said to Him, Lord, You know. He said to me, prophesy mortal. Prophesy to these bones and say to these bones, thus says the Lord. I am about to breathe My life into you, and you shall live. I will cover you with sinew. I will put flesh upon you and cover you with skin and I will breathe My life into you and you shall stand upon the earth. So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, I heard the rattling of bones, bone upon bone and I looked. And there was sinew upon them, and flesh had come upon them. And skin had covered them but there was no breath in them. And then the Lord said to me, prophesy mortal, prophesy. Say to the breath come from the four winds and breathe into these. So I prophesied as I was commanded and as I prophesied, the wind came into them and they stood upon the earth alive, a vast multitude. That’s some kind of story, wouldn’t you say? And it’s a story that stars you.
Now let me tell you something obvious about this story and then something inconvenient. Here’s the obvious part. God breathes life into dead bodies. God alone can give us the abundant life that all of us long for. Did you hear an eerie relationship between this story and the bible’s beginning? God said “let there be light and there was light.” God said prophesy to these bones, you shall live. And Ezekiel prophesied and they lived. Of course there’s a relationship between the two because God brings life in dead places.
You know I teach on a seminary campus, which is situated on a college campus. Some years ago, one of my colleagues on the college campus wanted desperately to have a child. The pressure of doctoral work, getting a job, the pressure to publish all of that kept family matters on the back burner. But when all of that was in the rear view mirror and they determined they wanted a child, they discovered that they were biologically incapable, and that began a long arduous process of adoption. So many agencies said no, you’re too old. But then finally one wonderful agency said yes, we’ll give you a child if, of course, you’re willing to take a 12 year old from China. Oh my, we’ll happily take any child, anywhere. I can still see them coming down the gangway at the Kent County International airport, looking so stunned. He stepped to me and said “she speaks no English at all.” Now, because they wanted to share with their child, not only the love of their home but the love of their heart, Jesus, and because they had heard me use a Greek or Hebrew word in a sermon, they figured I knew every other language, too.
So they brought her to me to share the love of Jesus. I can still see her standing in my office doorway, trembling. I must have looked to her like Goliath or something. We had several aborted efforts at communicating and nothing worked. And then I was given the idea. I’m sure the Lord gave me the idea. I leaned into her, and I said “Jesus.” With that, her eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. She reached for a pad of paper that was on my desk and she started drawing a little stick figure in an acorn. And I said “Jesus?” She turned the page and she started drawing several stick figures, one much larger than the rest of them. I said “Jesus?” She turned the page and started drawing this time three crosses. The one in the middle much larger than the two on either side. I said “Jesus.” And then she drew another figure laying on a cold stone slab. She took the edge of her pencil and drew a dark canopy of death over it. I said “Jesus.”
And then she did a remarkable thing. She started drawing what looked like lightning bolts coming out of the body. But she didn’t like her artwork, so she took the page, wadded it up, threw it into the corner, took her little fingers like this and went.. And I said “Jesus!” What was that little one telling me? She was telling me that in Jesus Christ, there is life and life abundant. “If anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come.”
Maybe you’ve heard these words by CS Lewis. CS Lewis, the author of the wonderful children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia. He once wrote this: Jesus Christ can take the feeblest of us and the filthiest and make them into dazzling, rippling, immortal creatures, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love, which we now can scarcely imagine. The process will be long and at times painful. But that’s what we’re in for. That’s what He said and He meant it. What is obviously true in this story starring you is that God can bring life out of death, whatever that death might be. That’s what’s obviously true.
Now let me tell you what is inconveniently true about this story. When God does what God does in the world, bringing life in dead places, God always implicates someone else. Maybe you thought that, as you were hearing this story from Ezekiel. By the way, that was Ezekiel 37 that I was sharing with you. God said to Ezekiel “prophesy mortal, prophesy. Say to these dry bones I will breathe my life in you.” And I can imagine that Ezekiel was sitting there saying Lord, You just do it. I mean, why in the world would the God who can snap a finger and make anything happen, need Ezekiel to speak on his behalf? You think about that question. I don’t know. But I do know this: that God uses people when God wants to do what God wants to do in the world. And it has always been this way. When God was tired of His children jangling in chains in the years of slavery, he raised up William Wilberforce on one side of the ocean, and Abraham Lincoln on the other side of the ocean. And when the emancipation proclamation sent bigotry and discrimination underground, God raised up Rosa Parks to sit in the first seat of the bus and Martin Luther King to thunder over the bus, I have a dream! When God does what God does in the world, God does it through people.
When God wanted to reach out and touch the lepers in Calcutta, whose fingertips did He use? Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Mercy. When God does what God does in the world, God does it through people like you. When God was tired of His children shivering in subsistence housing along the Appalachian trail, He raised up Millard Fuller to say no more shacks! When God does what God does in the world, God uses you! And Dr. Schuller, if I may quote Dr. Seuss, in the Crystal Cathedral, there has never been anyone you-ier than you! It’s you! Why do you think God, in Jesus, raised up 12 disciples to cover the earth with the knowledge of the Lord like the waters cover the seas? Because when God does what God does in the world, God does it through people just like you.
I think I can show you what this looks like. Some years ago, as a very young pastor, I had the unspeakable honor of serving the historic First Reformed church in South Holland, Illinois. Now, today, one of my former students is the pastor there. In my day, as the pastor, one of the most famous missionaries in the Protestant world was a member of that church. Her name was Cornelia Dallenburg. Cornelia gave her life and her love to the people of the Arabian gulf and they loved her back. At one point in her ten year of work there, they changed her name from Cornelia to Sharifa, which I understand means princess and she was like royalty in our church.
When I was her pastor, she was very old and near the end of her life. On one occasion, she underwent a very difficult abdominal surgery. I can still remember the day getting up early in the morning, weaving my way through the rush hour traffic on the Dan Ryan, making my way to St. Luke’s Rush Presbyterian Hospital to visit Cornelia Dallenburg. I went up to the medical surgical floor, slipped into her room. She was lying on her bed sleeping. I stood next to her bed until she awakened. She opened one eye, saw it was me and then closed it again quickly. I didn’t speak. It was Cornelia’s right to speak first. Finally, she said to me “good morning pastor.” Good morning pastor. Good morning pastor, on the lips of Cornelia Dallenburg sounded like a symphony to me. Good morning pastor. And then she said to me “pastor, I saw Jesus of Nazareth this morning.” Now Cornelia Dallenburg is a sober woman. If she says she saw Jesus, she saw Jesus. So I thought to myself, here’s my chance. “Cornelia, what did He look like?” Cornelia Dallenburg then began to describe for me the physical appearance of Jesus of Nazareth as she saw Him that morning. Would you like to know what He looks like? I would think so.
Here’s how she described the beloved. She said to me “pastor, He had dark deep set eyes.” I thought oh my, of course. He’s middle eastern. He would have dark deep set eyes. She said to me “He had long tapered fingers, tender to the touch.” Of course He did. He was the great physician. He would have a surgeons hands. She said to me, “His brow was furrowed and He was perspiring.” Of course He was perspiring. The weight of the world on His shoulders. And then she said to me “He wore a little green skull cap and had spectacles on and a stethoscope around His neck.” I said “Cornelia, you’re describing your physician to me.” She said to me, “I know, this is how Jesus came to me today.”
When God does what God does in the world, wonder of wonders, God does it through you and me. Every one who offers themselves to the service of the living God, known to us in Jesus Christ. “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away and behold the new has come.” It’s a story starring you, friends, and I think its time to get up, get out and play your part.
In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.