Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. I mean that.
Walker Percy said that he wrote about the “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 stockbroker living aimlessly. It is not that the landscape of New Orleans looks so different when he returns from war. It is that he can’t recognize the landscape inside of himself anymore. Maybe he never has seen it, and so he has no idea what he is looking for.
There are many in despair living aimlessly today. The brilliant Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote A Secular Age to describe our present Western culture. Yet, many like Juergen 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 the Balkans, 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 “offering shared wisdom.”
Yet, if philosophy 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, Paul’s Pastoral Epistles offers hope in those “ruins.”
As we move through the Pastoral Epistles, we begin to see the first of four theological, expository thoughts given to us from 1 and 2 Timothy that tell us that 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 wake Timothy at the church in Ephesus. He gives Timothy the strategy – not by direct command — but by indirect, and very effective modeling. 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 for supplies for our lives, which give us hope in the ruins. What are they? They 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 think him who has given me strength Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formally I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insulant opponent, but I received mercy…” (12–3)
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, when they are delivering God’s Word with authenticity, are always preaching out of the fullness of what God has done in their own lives. As Paul could never get over the mercy and grace extended to him, “the chief of sinners,” so each of us not only preach, but live our lives, share our testimonies, raise our families, and take our stand as women and men in the community, out of the nuclear reactor that is going on inside of us — our encounter with the living God.
Now, I am not saying that your encounter was like the Apostle Paul’s. Mine wasn’t. The Scriptures certainly do not mean that when in trouble, we act like a surgical patient recovering and give the morphine pump a little squeeze to ease the pain. Abraham Joshua Herschel wrote that the greatest thing any man can do to honor another is to remember him. When we remember God in our lives, we honor Him. Yet the act that brings renewal, vision, and hope is even more than remembering. Such a glimpse of God’s presence is an existential knowledge of and experience of the present some power of the living Christ in your life. That may have been from growing up as a believer in here in the Gospel in your home or it may have been in what we consider it more dramatic conversion. It means that we are given perspective: if God saved me, then . . . If Christ came to me in the desert, then, . . .The certainty of Christ’s saving grace remains the constancy of Christ’s healing power.
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 uncanny confidence, a spring of 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 1, verse seven, the Apostle Paul says that “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
This power is not necessarily demonstrated in merely a physically or even emotionally strong man, but also in frail people.
My Aunt Eva, who reared me, was a very frail woman in many ways. Aunt Eva 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 head on her lap and weep over the brokenness of sin’s devastating consequences in their marriages, with their children, or even in their businesses. They came to her because she had a power the transcended their own: the power of Almighty God’s grace and mercy resting upon her. Once, I saw one of the wealthiest men in our little community come to Aunt Eva late in the night. He knelt before her, as Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son, and he wept and asked for her prayers that he might believe again. He had lost his way. He needed guidance to find the path that led to wholeness, the trail of tears that led to repentance and faith.
You and I look for a signpost in the strange land that we are going through. We should look no further than what God is done in our own lives. We should look to him further than the secret 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 it is this that we desire mostly for other men and women and boys and girls: that they know the Lord Jesus Christ and him deep and personal way is they repent of their sins and come to him in the Holy Spirit transforms them.
The third article of supply at the Apostle Paul gives to Timothy is seen in verse 16. We need this truth in our discipleship backpack, as well.
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 the 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, and sons. We need 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 others 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.
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. 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 would become more patient with others. We also were 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 would become more patient with others. We also were 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 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.”
His denouement is a non sequitur. His coda seems misplaced. Having introduced such pain and sorrow, he recounts how Christ saved him, and he cannot help but break forth in spontaneous combustion. Would that all teaching end with such praise.
It is a joyous thing to live our lives with the possibility of such spontaneous praise. It means that we are living out of the sacred encounter of the God who never leaves us. He is always with us. It is his presence that gives us power, and that gives us hope in the middle of the ruins of culture, politics, education, work, and, especially, our personal lives. And, yes: Jesus is the living hope amid the ruin of our own sin. He is the only hope in the ruins of the grave.
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 that “there are some things you learn in the calm and some in a storm.” It is an insight that each of us knows.
We may be headed into the storm, but we may be headed into some of the most exciting times for life in Christ. Are you ready? What are the signposts you’ll be looking for in the ruins? 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 in your savior. And if you have never trusted in him tonight is the night.