Walker Percy said that he wrote about “dislocation of man in the modern age.” Novels like The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman demonstrate the existential hopelessness when culture is untethered from faith, specifically the Christian faith.
His book Signposts in a Strange Land, a collection of essays published posthumously, continued his theme with nonfiction writing.
“The specific character of despair is precisely this: ‘that one is unaware of being in despair.,”
The Moviegoer’s main character, Binx Boling, a hedonistic Korean War vet, by then, a New Orleans stock broker, lives aimlessly, without faith, in search of the God he denies.
There are many in despair living aimlessly today (and I don’t just mean because of the U.S. Presidential election). The brilliant Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote A Secular Age to describe our present Western culture. Yet, many like Jürgen Habermas of Germany believes we are headed inevitably for a Post Secular Age because of the innate religious nature of Man. Miroslav Volf, then, in his Public Theology, considers how Christianity can get a hearing in a veritable cafeteria of religion, as Martin Marty has called it. Volf, a childhood survivor of genocide in Croatia, and a Yale professor of theology, describes how we must avoid inactivity, backing away from the table, and coercion, trying to dominate the table. He suggests an approach of engaging with the pluralistic culture from the “inside,” and “offering shared wisdom.”
Yet, if philosophy and theological reflection offers a strategy for the trials and changes that await us in Walker Percy’s “Ruins,” as he wrote about the human consequence of abandoning Christian truths as foundational pillars, St. Paul’s Pastoral Epistles offers hope in those “ruins.”
Tonight we see the first of four theological, expository thoughts given to us from 1 and 2 Timothy:
“God gives us hope in the ruins of culture, of personal sin, and its consequences, through a renewal of our sacred encounter with Jesus Christ.”
We find this specifically as we read chapter 1 of first Timothy. There, the apostle Paul begins to list the innumerable problems and challenges that await Timothy at the church in Ephesus. He gives Timothy the strategy – not by direct command — but by indirect, and very effective modeling. St. Paul models what God had done in his own life as containing the supplies necessary for Pastor Timothy to take on the challenges of Ephesus. In doing so we find supplies for our own lives which gives us hope in the ruins. What are they? There are four essential supplies for our rucksacks as we make our pilgrimage through the strange land.
I. Renewing our secret encounter with Almighty God gives us perspective.
The apostle Paul said “I thank him who is giving me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent, but I received mercy…” (12-13)
Paul had the perspective that a man can be lost, deeply in sin, blinded by the culture that he is in, and nevertheless know God’s salvation through a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. For Paul that happened on the road to Damascus.
Dr. Craig Barnes of Princeton Theological Seminary says that all preachers have but “one sermon.” He means, of course, that preachers should preach out of the fullness of what God is done in their own lives. We must bring the sacred encounter of Christ to every text and to every occasion. As St. Paul could never get over the mercy and grace extended to him, “the chief of sinners,” so each of us not only preach, witness, but also live our lives, share our testimonies, raise our families, stand as his men in the community, out of the veritable nuclear reactor that is going on inside of us — the encounter with God.
Now, I am not saying that your encounter was like the Apostle Paul’s. Mine wasn’t. And it doesn’t simply mean that we just have to hit the “remember button” and we will be given a morphine-like injection of hope. Although, I do like what Abraham Joshua Herschel said, that the greatest thing any man can do to honor another is “to remember.” Yet it is more than remembering. It is an existential knowledge of and experience of the presence and power of the living Christ in your life. That may have been from growing up as a believer in the Gospel in your home or it may have been in what we consider a more dramatic conversion. It means that we are given perspective: “if God saved me … that gives hope.”
You and I do not have to be Percy’s lost characters searching, groping for the God we sense, but deny. We can receive Him by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and God will save us, answer our longing soul’s cry for meaning, and give us hope for living and, yes, hope in dying.
A second supply is also seen in this passage and it, too, is essential for Hope in the ruins:
II. Renewing our secret encounter with Almighty God gives us power.
Look at verse 14: “And the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
The apostle Paul displays confidence, a spiritual resiliency in the face of all trials and difficulties — even his own sinful past—as he carries out his work as an apostle. Timothy, also, must have this power from on high if he is to conduct his ministry successfully and effectively at Ephesus. In Second Timothy chapter one, verse seven, the Apostle Paul says, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
This power is not necessarily demonstrated in physically strong men, but also in frail people. My Aunt Eva was viewed as a very frail old woman in many ways. She was powerless and often penniless. But some of the great leaders of our small rural community would often come to her, get on their knees and place their heads on her lap and weep over the brokenness of sins: sinful consequences in their marriages, with their children, or even in their businesses. They came to her because she had a power that transcended their own: the power of Almighty God’s grace and mercy resting up on her. Many times I witnessed a banker or a cattleman, a husband, a father, coming to my Aunt Eva to find the hope that was absent in their own lives.
You and I look for “Signposts” (again, Walker Percy) in the “strange land” that we are going through. We should look no further than what God has done in our own lives. We should look to him for the sacred encounter that God had with us when he saved us by his mercy and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord. This is what will get us through the difficulties and trials of the days ahead of us. And this hope is what we desire mostly for other men and women and boys and girls: that they know the Lord Jesus Christ in a deep and personal way as they repent of their sins and come to him in the Holy Spirit and He continually transforms them.
The third supply that the apostle Paul gives to Timothy and which we need in our own rucksack for going forward in the strange new world is located in a powerful and often elusive word that appears in this text—patience.
III. Renewing our secret encounter with Almighty God gives us patience.
In verse 16 Saint Paul tells Timothy the God showed him “patience as an example” to those who were to believe.
This is a powerful and necessary spiritual supply as we go through the cultural changes we face and as we go through the changes in our lives as husbands and fathers, as students, as friends, as grandfathers, and as sons. We need divinely wrought patience. We need to remember how God exhibited patience in saving us. Living out of the encounter that we have with Almighty God gives us the patience that we need when we look at this old world we live in. As we remember how God dealt with us we are able to be more patient with those around us and even patient with God himself. Many wonder why God does not act in a certain way to vindicate his own righteousness in this evil age. But God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts. We learned this patience as we live out of the sacred encounter that we enjoyed with the risen Christ.
The sacred encounter with Almighty God is not a one-time event, but is a continuous flow of the Holy Spirit from heaven into our hearts and minds. Thus, we learn patience as we are sanctified throughout all the days of our lives.
As a pastoral counselor, if I am to assess, diagnose, and treat the spiritual ills of those who come before me for counseling I want to know their relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. I want to know how He abides within them through word, sacrament, and prayer—the God-ordained means of receiving His grace. Often, a sign of spiritual immaturity is that a man or a woman will not concede that God may act as creatively with someone else as he did with them. They want to project their own experience of God on to everyone else. But when we abide in Christ and become familiar with the working of the Holy Spirit in our own life we become more patient with others. We also are given the patience to go through days of difficulty in times of trial because we know God works in his own way, in his own time, but he always works to his own glory. We abide in Christ and become familiar with the working of the Holy Spirit in our own life and we become more patient with others. We also are given the patience to go through days of difficulty in times of trial because we know God works in his own way in his own time but he always works to his own glory.
Finally, let us to see this great spiritual truth:
IV. Renewing our secret encounter with Almighty God gives us Presence.
In verse 17 the apostle Paul breaks into a spontaneous doxological combustion of prayer and praise, “to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, the honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
This might appear as a non sequitur; an out-of-place passage, since it follows Paul’s reflection on Jesus Christ and His encounter with Paul. Yet, it is actually the most logical flow of thought: sacred encounter to hope to living life as an unending act of worship and prayer.
It is a joyous thing to live our lives with the possibility of such spontaneous doxological combustion! It means that we are living out of the sacred encounter of God which never leaves us. He said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” He is always with us. It is his presence that gives us power and that gives us hope in the middle of the ruins we find ourselves in: yes, even the ruin of our own sin and the certain consequent of death. Thus, the sweet Psalmist of Israel wrote, “Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me . . .”
So we have learned that we can have hope in the ruins through our own secret encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ and such hope surely brings us:
Willa Cather wrote in The Song of the Lark, about the pioneering life that she saw when she lived as a girl in Nebraska in the 19th century. She wrote of that difficult Midwestern farming life and how families made it through to the other side of a drought, or dust storm, or sub-freezing icy winter. She surmised, “there are some things you learn in the calm and some in a storm.”
We may be headed into the storm—a cultural storm, a chilling new age where old familiar landscapes are bulldozed over by lawlessness and godlessness—but we may be headed into some of the most exciting times for life in Christ.
Are you ready? What are the signpost you’ll be looking for in the ruins? In fact, what ruins do you find yourself in tonight? Look no further than the work of God in your own life, the life of Jesus Christ which is given to you when you trust in him as your God and your savior. And if you have never trusted in him, tonight is the night. Hope is but a prayer away.
In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.