Sunday, August 5, 2018

Meet the Hows: Sermon on Romans 10:14-17

“Expect great things; attempt great things.” That was his motto. His parting words to his countrymen before he left his homeland, never to return again. Early the following year, 1793, William Carey had gotten on-board a ship to India, with his wife, his four children, and a friend. He knew what his great thing to attempt would be – and it involved being a missionary in one of the most populous yet least reached lands on the earth. He soon wrote, “I am, notwithstanding the little success we have had, far from being discouraged; and should I never succeed, yet I am resolved in the strength of the Lord Jesus to live and die persisting in this work, – and never to give it up but with my liberty or life. The worth of souls, the pleasure of the work itself, and above all the increase of the Redeemer's kingdom are with me motives sufficient, and more than sufficient, to determine me to die in the work that I have undertaken.” And so he would, forty-one years later – by the end of which, Carey had not only expected great things and attempted great things, but achieved great things.

William Carey had settled in the easternmost reaches of India, in West Bengal. After moving to Srirampur, he'd found an enduring home. Looking back over his life from the end, he had founded numerous schools, even a college; he had accomplished major social reforms of India itself; he had personally translated the Bible fully into at least six languages and partially into nearly two dozen others. Through his ministry, hundreds of locals had been converted; hundreds of souls were saved. And millions more would be, over the coming centuries. Because Carey had done more than go on an isolated journey. He'd sparked a movement.

I wonder if, one late day in the early 1830s, amid the humid breezes and river turns, walking among the thatch-roofed huts and the soaring trees – I wonder if his mind ever turned back to how it all started. He'd been born many decades earlier, in the middle of August 1761, in a tiny and little-known village in the heart of England. Even today, the population there is maybe half that of Gap, and a few hundred less than Terre Hill; how much less in the 1700s? Educated only until the age of twelve, he'd long had a fascination with reading books about travel – the stories and recollections told by voyagers who ventured the globe – so much so, his companions in youth nicknamed him 'Columbus.' While still a teenager, Carey attended the preaching of a dissident minister and was converted to an evangelical faith in Jesus Christ. At the age of twenty-two, in 1783, he got baptized.

Soon, he had three lines of work going on. In the evening, he'd manufacture and repair shoes for people. In the morning or afternoon, he'd teach schoolchildren. And when Sunday came around, he'd preach. To prepare for preaching, he immersed himself intensely in the Bible, even taught himself Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. But to teach his students geography, he kept reading the stories of great explorers, especially Captain James Cook. Gears in his brain started turning. He stitched together paper, made a world map on his wall, started jotting down information on every country on it. Soon, he was ordained as a full-time pastor.

That year, 1786, he was at a pastors' gathering, and the chairman solicited ideas of what they should talk about. All were silent, until Carey suggested the continuing relevance of the Great Commission. Among these church circles, you see, many people thought the Great Commission was only for the apostles, not for later generations of believers. And so Carey got a stern rebuke – was told to sit down and be quiet; that if God wanted the heathen converted, he'd do it himself or send a second Pentecost to restore the gift of tongues to ease the way. Otherwise, they said, it just couldn't be done.

Carey was mortified at the rebuke. But it set his brain into higher gear. He wrote, and eventually published, a little book – it wasn't very big, and didn't sell too well at the time – but a little book called An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Was printed in 1792, a year before he said goodbye to merry old England and set permanent sail for India. It's since been recognized as one of the foundational documents of the modern missions movement in the church. And on the title page, do you know what other words he put under the title? He added a quote from the Apostle Paul. And that quote was this:

For there is no Difference between the Jew and the Greek; for the same Lord over all, is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him, in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a Preacher? and how shall they preach except they be sent?

The very words of scripture we're here to talk about this morning. If you were here last week, you remember the first couple verses of that. Paul insisted that the sequence of salvation included believing in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and calling on his name, starting with the prayer of baptism, to be saved in relationship to God through Jesus. And that's the same terms given to Greeks, foreigners, as to Jews. And so Paul tells them that the same Lord is Lord over all things, all nations on the earth, regardless of their history (Romans 10:12). And he urges them that anybody, from any nation, from any background, who in any language calls out to invoke the name of Jesus, can thus be rescued from what ails the human heart, soul, and life: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).

But for Paul, that raises some questions – some hard-hitting questions. And all four start off the same way. The same four are the ones we have to face today, because he's asking us just as much as he was asking the churches of first-century Rome. So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I'm delighted to make a formal introduction. I would invite you now to “meet the hows.”

And the first How to come along and shake your hand is this one: How, then, will they call on him in whom they have not believed?” (Romans 10:14a). See, that's the thing about prayer. That's the thing about calling out in the dead of night, or in the brightness of noon. You can't call on a name you don't think will catch the attention of a viable helper. If I were over at the hospital, and suddenly I felt my chest constrict and my right arm grow numb, and I thought to myself, “This is a heart attack; I need help right now!”, you know what the last thing I'd say is? “Stairway, help me! Elevator, help me! Floor tiles, help me!” That isn't even going to cross my mind! (I'm not that crazy...) See, my trust in a medical emergency won't be in the stairwells or in the elevators or in the floor tiles. But I just might say, “Doctor, help me! Nurse, help me!” Or even if I just cried “Help!”, that's who I'd have in mind. A person with medical training and certified skill, who knows what to do and has the power to do it. In an emergency situation, I'm going to call out to somebody I trust – somebody I think is real, is there, and is able and willing to help, and to whom I entrust myself in a case of urgent need.

To do the opposite just doesn't make sense. Stuck on the train tracks, I won't be shouting for help from the local ant colony. Caught in a flooding river, I won't be asking for Elvis. Because Elvis ain't around, so far as I can tell, and the ants may be there, but they can't understand me, can't react, can't do a thing for me. I'm not going to call on someone I don't believe is real and available to be present to the situation – I'm not going to call for Elvis. And I'm not going to call on someone or something I don't think I can trust to be useful or worthwhile – I'm not going to ask the ants. You can't, you don't, you won't call on someone in whom you haven't believed. That just ain't how it works. And the first How knows it. That's why he's asking.

So then a second How hops over to join his brother and shake your hand, too: How are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14b). This How gets brought up a lot when the age-old question comes up, “But what about those who have never heard? Don't they have a chance? And if they don't, can we really still believe in a God who conditions everything on a message some folks never get?” Theologians debate exclusivism and inclusivism – whether can there be such a thing, as Karl Rahner put it, as an 'anonymous Christian.' Well, I'll be dodging that question this morning. Even Billy Graham moved from one side to the other. Whatever the answer is, it's the justice and mercy of God. Whatever contingency plan he may or may not have, I've got my suspicions but no clear word, so we can dive down that rabbit-hole some other time.

The important thing is this: To actually believe, to actually know and trust, requires having heard of them. If I was one of those kayakers who had to get rescued on the Conestoga River yesterday afternoon during all the wild flooding – how likely do you think I am to yell out, “Save me, Mr. Schnickelbüdel!” Not too likely, because I've never heard of any such 'Schnickelbüdel' guy! Now, maybe it turns out that one of the local rescue workers, somebody within earshot, just so happens to be Stan Schnickelbüdel. But if I've never met him, never even heard of him, if the name's never reached my eyes or ears, how am I going to know he's there and call on him by name? I can't! That's the point this How is making. He might well be around and available to help, but if I've never heard of him, I won't be able to believe in him; and, like the first How showed us, if I don't believe in him, I can't call on him and get his attention and get rescued from the mess I'm in.

Just when you had gotten to know the first and second Hows, the third member of this How clan jogs past and reaches over, catching your attention: How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14c). If nobody's out there announcing the news, are you going to get the news you need? That's the reason people have been so stirred up the past couple of years about the state of the media. Whatever you think on that, the idea is, with so much neglect and distortion going on, the audience isn't hearing the real news because it isn't being told. Again, whatever your politics, and however well or poorly you think this or that media outlet is actually doing, that's the idea behind the complaint some are making. Whether you think they're right or not, we can see the problem it creates if they're right. If the news isn't being clearly and distinctly announced, if nobody is getting on the air and covering that story, the result is that you won't know about it.

If no media outlet reports, if no eyewitness goes public, if no grapevine of gossip relays, about, say, the suicide bombing against a mosque in Afghanistan on Friday, or about the attempted assassination of the Venezuelan president yesterday – well, if no media outlet reports about them, if no eyewitness blogs about them, if no chain of gossip gets the word to me, I'm not going to know about it, am I? I can't hear what the news is unless there's somebody out there telling it, and unless that telling reaches me – in the black-and-white of newsprint, on the radio, on the TV, on the Internet, in the prayer guide in our church newsletter, or through an in-person relay of information, or however else it might get distributed, unless the news is told and the telling reaches you, you won't hear about it. There has to be a teller if you're going to hear. That's what the third How wants you to get.

And then, as if there weren't already enough Hows around, the last of their household drops in for a visit. This fourth How introduces himself this way: How are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:15a). The question might strike you as a bit odd. Why does somebody have to be sent? Why can't they just start talking about it? But the word 'preach,' in Paul's Greek, means to be a herald. Back in the old days, how would news get out? Other than the Acta Diurna posted in the Roman Forum, there was nothing even vaguely resembling a newspaper, much less Fox or CNN. And even then, most couldn't read. So how did news get out?

Well, a lot of the time, it was the town crier. The herald. The guy who, in medieval England, would stand in the town square and ring his bell and shout, “Oyez, oyez! Hear ye, hear ye!,” and then give you the scoop. Could be the latest deals in the market; could be changes in the local laws or bylaws; could be royal pronouncements. But they'd get your attention, they'd shout at you to listen, and then they'd tell you what's what. Some heralds had to go a long way to get the message out. You know the story of Paul Revere's ride. Long before that, Pheidippides ran twenty-six miles to Athens to tell the news of a Greek victory over Persia at a spot called Marathon, and then keeled over dead – hence why people I don't understand have run marathons ever since. In Paul's world, there were some heralds sent out by the imperial court, using horses and chariots, to get news and commands quickly to distant parts of the empire.

But to get that news out, they had to be authorized. They had to be sent. The emperor wouldn't be happy if a bunch of random people just started going around the empire peddling lies in his name. To be an authorized herald, to preach whatever 'good news' Caesar wanted told in this or that town, they had to be sent by Roman authority. And Paul says the same thing's true for the gospel. To be an authorized herald, to preach 'good news' from heaven's Lord, there has to be a sending by divine authority. “No one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God” (Hebrews 5:4). There needs to be a sending for the message to be authoritatively announced; and it has to be announced if people are going to hear it; and if it's credibly announced to people who hear it, they might just believe it; and if they believe it, then they can call on the one name that saves.

So once we've met these four Hows, there's just one question left: Has God sent any heralds? And that's when Paul, following hot on the Hows' tracks, whips out his Bible and quotes from the fifty-second chapter of Isaiah: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:15b; cf. Isaiah 52:7). And the picture there is an advance scout, showing up on the hills to bring news to a city under siege – news, good news, that reinforcements are on the way, rescuers are riding down, they can lift up their heads and fight knowing the victory is at hand, and safe haven will be soon. Paul quotes this so that we know that God does send heralds. And if God sends heralds, then he must want them to announce this good news. And if he wants his heralds to proclaim the good news, he must want folks to hear the good news. And if he wants folks to hear the good news, he must want them to believe the good news and trust the One at the heart of it. And if he wants them to trust the One at the good news' heart, he must want them to call on him. And if he wants them to call on this Good News Man named Jesus, it can be for one and one reason only: that God is aiming to do some saving!

And yet there are people in this world who are still drowning in the river. There are people in this world still stuck in the path of that oncoming train. There are people in this world still languishing and falling and dying. There are people who seldom call on the name of the Lord and who appear, maybe very openly, to have no saving connection to Jesus. Some of them live in the Middle East. Some of them live in India and China and Japan. Some live in Europe. Some live in DC and the Windy City and the Big Apple. And some of them live in Lancaster County, and maybe not too far from your door. Do all your friends and relatives and neighbors have a saving connection to Jesus, confessing his Lordship and believing in his resurrection and calling on his name? Probably some do, but does each and every one? And if not, where's the breakdown?

There can be no breakdown between the calling and the saving – that's a promise straight from God: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13). So is the breakdown between the believing and the calling? For some, it might be, if you define believing as just mental assent. Agreeing with ideas isn't Paul's idea of believing. But there are people out there who have some stuff in their head that never makes it to their heart. One of William Carey's assistants was a local man named Ramram Basu. And Ram helped Carey translate the Bible into his native language of Bengali. And Ram wrote books denouncing idolatry and praising Jesus. And Ram wrote the very first Christian hymn in his language – the first one! But into his dying days, so far as anyone knows, Ram stayed a Hindu. He wrote, “I understand something of the gospel, and can make it known a little to others, but I cannot leave my caste. This is my great difficulty.” There were things in his Hindu life he knew he wasn't willing to give up, so in spite of knowing the good news and seeing its goodness, he wouldn't call on the name of the Lord to be saved. Some are like that.

But not everybody. For the rest, is the breakdown between hearing and believing? Maybe the words get in their ears, but not into their heads or their hearts? For some, sure. Paul quotes Isaiah again, the next chapter, and the words he finds go like this: “Who has believed what he heard from us?” (Romans 10:16b; cf. Isaiah 53:1). So some don't “obey the gospel” – a disconnect between hearing and believing (Romans 10:16a). Maybe some of your neighbors fall in that camp – they've heard, somebody's told them, it's reached their eyes and ears, but they just aren't buying it and aren't obeying it. Some of the fault may rest on our lives being very unconvincing advertisements for the gospel; and some of the fault may rest on their hardened hearts. Some are like that.

But not everybody. For the rest, is the breakdown between preaching and hearing? People try to tell them, and it isn't that the recipients don't let it sink in, but that they don't even stick around long enough to really get it in their ears; they just push the messenger away? Well, sometimes, sure. But I think even today, just as in William Carey's time, a bigger breakdown falls between sending and preaching. Oh, the sending happens – God authorizes heralds – but then the heralds stay home and stay quiet. And in many cases, even here in Lancaster County, let alone that wild and woolly world out yonder, here's the problem.

See, when Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18), he wasn't just talking to the eleven men standing in front of him. Nor was he limiting himself when he said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). It's for all of us. We're all commissioned. We're all authorized. We're all heralds. We're all sent. Ours are meant to be those beautiful feet on the mountaintop, bringing news of rescue to a city under siege!

But here's the problem, and William Carey had our number in 1792 in his Enquiry. He wrote: “...multitudes sit at ease, and give themselves no concern about the far greater part of their fellow-sinners, who to this day are lost in ignorance and idolatry.” Can we honestly say that we aren't Carey's targets there? Isn't it true we have a tendency to “sit at ease, and give [ourselves] no concern about the far greater part of [our] fellow-sinners, who to this day are lost in ignorance and idolatry”? They may be lost in the house next door; they may be lost just down the street; they may be lost at your family reunion! And still we don't think about it, and even if we think about it, we think, “Well, that's a shame,” but yet we just sit and don't do anything.

So when Paul introduces us to the Hows, he's got a good reason. Do we realize that God has been trying to send us? Why aren't we going to those “lost in ignorance and idolatry”? Why aren't we announcing the good news, why aren't we preaching? Don't we realize that, if we aren't preaching, it means they ain't hearing? And if they aren't hearing, they sure ain't believing? And if they aren't believing, they sure ain't calling on the Lord? And if they aren't calling, they sure ain't finding safety on the higher ground called Christ our Rock? If we want them to be saved, we have to see them call; and if we want them to call, we have to help them believe; and if we want them to believe, they need to hear; and if we want them to hear, it's got to be us who get up and preach it?

Is that always a comfortable thing? No. In William Carey's early years on the field, he was lonely, he was sick, he was miserable. He lost children. His first wife cracked under the strain and went literally insane. To preach the gospel in India was, for William Carey, a costly thing. It took him seven years before he saw his first native convert. And even then, progress was slow. Nor did it always pan out. He later admitted that many of his early converts “have pierced us through with sorrows.” Amidst it all, he wrote, “This is indeed the valley of the shadow of death to me. But I rejoice that I am here notwithstanding; and God is here.”

He was right. God was there. Another Bengali man was saved and then went back to his family and said this:

At length I heard of there being a new way preached at Serampore. I have been there, and I have heard glad tidings, that Jesus Christ came into the world and bore the punishment due to sinners. This is a great word, and it has filled my soul with hope and joy. Hence I have laid aside the proud thought of making amends for my own transgressions. I make my refuge in his death, and consider all my holiness as a heap of sin. I have been baptized in his name. If I can believe in him, and obey his command, I shall get over my everlasting ruin. If you can unite with me in becoming the disciples of Christ, then I shall find my home, my mother, my brother, my wife, and a Savior all at once; but if you cannot, then I will abide in my Savior, and go everywhere proclaiming his name. If I die in this work, under a tree or anywhere else, verily it shall then be well with me.

See the sequence. A 'new way' was being preached. When he was there, he heard the glad tidings. And what he heard, he believed. And so he called on the name of Jesus and was saved. And once saved, he determined to “go everywhere proclaiming his name,” including to his family. And we're told that, when he preached to them, they heard, believed, called, and were saved, too. Like the Apostle wrote, “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

And William Carey said, “Surely a crown of rejoicing like this is worth aspiring to. Surely it is worthwhile to lay ourselves out with all our might, in promoting the cause and kingdom of Christ.” It was worth it, because God was there. And God is here, too, no less than in India two centuries ago or in Rome two millennia ago. And here, God is sending us. God is sending us to preach, so that others may hear, believe, call on Jesus, and be saved. Will we? Will you? The Hows, and their God, are waiting for our answer. Will we? Will you?

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