16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I’m going to put a picture on the screens right now and I want you to see if you can identify what is going on in it. That is a picture of engineers at NASA responding to one of the most famous quotes ever uttered. And no, it’s not Neil Armstrong’s quote that he became famous for when he became the first human being to step onto the surface of the moon and said: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” because if you’ll notice in this picture, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of joy and jubilation on their faces. Rather there’s a look of grave concern. And that might give away what’s going on here. This is what things looked like at NASA’s Houston command center back on April 13, 1970, when Apollo 13 astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise found themselves about 200,000 miles from earth and after what was described as “a sharp bang and vibration,” Jack Swigert radioed these famous words back to the command center: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
From then on, the race was on to save the lives of those 3 American astronauts. And though I won’t take the time to go into all the details, it consisted of a just-in-the-nick-of-time ingenious rescue plan that basically involved them using their lunar module that was supposed to have taken them down to the surface of the moon as a lifeboat of sorts to get them safely back to earth.
Well, the near-tragedy of that space mission has lessons for all of us, especially those of us who have been sitting in on the sermon series that I started preaching some time ago entitled “The Foundation of Our Faith.” When we first started this series, I laid out the roadmap of where these sermons were going to take us. In them we’ve dealt a lot with what I’ve been calling biblical illiteracy, which simply means a failure on the part of Christians to read and study and know the Bible. It’s a plague that has reached epidemic proportions across denominational lines. So we began this journey by looking at some of the reasons that people give for not reading the Bible. We followed that up with some great reasons why we should read the Bible. Then we spent some time taking a look at some of the problems that can arise because of biblical illiteracy, followed by my last sermon 3 weeks ago about a time in the history of God’s chosen people in the Old Testament when they became so biblically illiterate that they actually lost for a lengthy period of time their only copy of the written Scriptures that were available to them. And now we’re set to bring this series of messages in for a landing with a final section that will consist of 3 sermons and that I am calling “Recovery 101.”
Today, using some lessons learned from the Apollo 13 space mission, we want to examine 4 issues that we must wrestle with if we are to stop the spread of biblical illiteracy in America and in our own individual lives. And the first one is this: We need to recognize that we have a problem. When Jack Swigert spoke those famous words, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” the engineers at the command center could have reacted in a couple of different ways. They could have gone into a state of denial and acted as though there was no problem in order to protect the image of the space program. But while denying the problem may have momentarily preserved the reputation of NASA, it would have seriously endangered the lives of those 3 astronauts. In fact, it would have resulted in their sure and certain death 200,000 miles from their home planet. But much to NASA’s credit, they acted with integrity, which required them to admit that yes, indeed, there was a problem.
Listen to this interesting and somewhat lengthy definition of denial I came across. Denial is “an attempt to reject unacceptable facts, situations, feelings, and thoughts in order to protect ourselves temporarily from things we don’t want to know, things we don’t want to think about, or things we don’t want to feel.” It’s not at all uncommon for people to enter a state of denial when they or one of their loved ones receives the ill-fated diagnosis of a terminal illness. “This can’t be,” they’ll say. “We’ll get a 2nd opinion, a 3rd opinion, if necessary.” And thus begins the search to hopefully find some doctor who will confirm what they in their denial are so tenaciously clinging to.
Well, it’s sad to say, but there are many in the Christian community today, including many pastors and leaders, who are in denial when it comes to the whole issue of biblical illiteracy. And I really don’t think this is anything intentional on their part. Rather, it’s something that they just haven’t given a lot of thought to. As long as the pews are fairly full and the programs of the church are sailing along smoothly and the finances are stable, you’ll find most pastors and lay people smiling broadly and talking about the success of their church.
That was definitely the case with Bill Hybels, founder and former pastor of what many would consider to be one of the most successful churches in America, Willow Creek Community Church, located in Barrington, IL. With an average weekly attendance now of close to 25,000, Pastor Hybels admitted some years ago that after an extensive study was conducted at their church, it was discovered that while their style of worship and their multitudinous programs and activities may have filled their pews, they were not creating true disciples of Christ. Listen to this incredibly honest quote from Pastor Hybels: “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible … how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.” I admire Bill Hybels for making that admission and trying to steer people back to the Bible again. For like NASA, if we are going to fix the problem, we must first be honest enough to admit that there is a problem.
Then the 2nd issue I want to deal with today is this: We need to get serious about the problem. That’s what NASA did when they received word that the Apollo 13 spacecraft was in grave danger. Look at this picture again. The caption beneath it stated that there were 4 teams monitoring and discussing the situation: the Gold Team, the Black Team, the White Team, and the Maroon Team. Then a little later it said that each of these teams “devised heroic measures to save the mission from disaster.” Put simply, the best and finest minds at NASA were brought together to devise a plan that would get those astronauts safely back to earth again.
You know, there is always great danger when meeting a wise and crafty enemy in battle. But an even greater danger exists if we don’t take that enemy seriously. As I mentioned before, 3 weeks ago we looked at a time in the Old Testament when the Jews had become so apathetic, so lackadaisical, so negligent in their study of God’s Word that they actually lost as much of the written Scriptures that were available to them at that time. But when those scrolls were re-discovered during a general housecleaning and repair of the temple in Jerusalem, the nation was fortunate enough to have a king by the name of Josiah who after reading those scrolls recognized the spiritual downturn the nation had been on and who then got serious about the problem by instituting some major reforms that drew the people back to God once again.
Well, now that we’re hopefully much more aware of the problem of biblical illiteracy, we too need to get serious about the problem. Which leads into the 3rd issue I want to deal with this morning. And that is, Don’t look to fix the blame; rather, look to fix the problem. You see, one reason why biblical illiteracy is so prevalent today is because the church has been trying to do the former rather than the latter. And while I guess there is always a certain degree of comfort in pointing the finger of blame at others, we need to ask ourselves, what good does that really do? What does it accomplish? While I was working on this sermon, I came across a great quote from well-respected theologian J. I. Packer who was interviewed about the growing problem of biblical illiteracy in the church. When he was asked where he would put the blame for this problem, here’s what he said…(read quote from Woodrow Kroll’s book, pp. 155-156).
So while the blame for biblical illiteracy can be fixed in any number of places, identifying who’s to blame really doesn’t accomplish anything. Instead, what we must do is admit we have a problem, get serious about it, and then get creative in fixing it.
And that brings us to the 4th and final issue I want to deal with today: We need to develop a plan for recovery. Again, that’s what happened with the Apollo 13 mission. And thankfully that plan came before it was too late. But not much before it was too late. The Apollo 13 spacecraft that held those 3 astronauts got down to the point where there was only about 15 minutes worth of power left in it. So the engineers at NASA instructed them to move over into the lunar module and get some power from there.
Listen, my friends, when the loss of power is that dramatic, that significant, and that life-threatening, something needs to be done, and done quickly. I believe we’re at that critical point in the church today. Surrounded by a culture that is no longer Christian friendly, faced with increasing demands on our time and energy and finances, having to deal with the break-up of the family and the incredible dysfunction that exists in so many homes these days, many people today find themselves faced with a very noticeable loss of power in their lives to handle these and many of the other challenges that come their way on a daily basis. Put simply, they need help. They need a plan of recovery. And it’s my contention that that plan must include the power of God’s Word. Like the Apostle Paul says in our text for today: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”
Think about that for a moment, my friends. If God’s Word carries with it the power to save sinful human beings like you and me from a well-deserved eternity of separation from God, don’t you think that it just might also contain the power to rescue you from the challenges and difficulties of life that come your way? Not that it’s going to prevent them altogether, but it will give you strength, wisdom, guidance, direction, comfort, support, and whatever else you might need to emerge from those problems a stronger and better person than when you entered them.
So in my final two sermons in this series we’re going to be getting real practical as we take a look at what each one of us can do to stamp out biblical illiteracy in our own lives. Recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all recovery plan, we’ll be talking about a number of ideas and suggestions to get us moving in the right direction. And hopefully we’ll have the same happy ending that those Apollo 13 astronauts had when their lunar module splashed down in the ocean on April 17, 1970. Hopefully our recovery plan will get us safely home, safely back to our Heavenly Father’s arms where his life-giving, life-changing, and soul-saving words can work their mighty wonders in our lives. Amen.