Talbot Davis ~ What’s the Alternative?
This is the second sermon (first HERE) in a series entitled “The Shadow of a Doubt.”
We like to have alternatives in life, don’t we? Like if you went to a restaurant and opened the menu and there was just one item there, you probably wouldn’t be happy. Nor would you return. We like to have an alternative, to choose from a variety of options, to make choices. You go to a car lot to buy a car (can’t really order one online yet can you?) and you want to see it in blue or in gray or in red or even an alternative model. We LIKE alternatives, choices, and options. It’s why a Stepford Wives world scares even if they are all perfect! Just think about the rise of alternative music (a whole station on XM!), alternative sources of energy, alternative lifestyles. If you don’t like something, you like being able to opt out of it for something different.
It’s interesting the way our identity as a choice saturated culture does (or does not) intersect with our discussion in this series about faith and doubt. John 6 is one of the most revealing parts of Scripture and it includes a line from Jesus that exposes his humanity even more than Jesus wept. Now I’m not going to show you that line just yet – it’s coming – but I am going to tell you that as we get to John 6 Jesus’ popularity is on the rise. The ascent. A massive uptick in the way he is in the public consciousness. In fact, he just fed 5000 with five loaves and two fish earlier in John 6 and when the YouTube of that miracle was posted it went viral like that! At this stage, he is so well known and generating such good will with crowds that are bigger and bigger and so the sky really is the limit.
And just when it couldn’t get any better, Jesus keeps talking. And what he says is odd enough, shocking enough, perplexing enough that you know his handlers were like (throat slash) . . . STOP! . . . Cut it short & get out of the way! Don’t stop your own momentum! But that’s exactly what Jesus does when he says these odd, discordant words in 6:53:
So Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you.
The people were like, “Ewwww! Cannibalism!” (And incidentally, the concept of holy communion is still a very difficult one to translate into cultures that are brand new to the gospel.) But folks don’t know if he is speaking literally, symbolically, metaphorically, or just crazily. Whatever it was, Jesus kills his own buzz! Because look at the response in 6:60:
Many of his disciples said, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?”
His own followers! The ones who’d been making him run out of bulletins! All of a sudden they’re like, “I don’t think I’m coming back next week!”
Then look at what Jesus asks in 6:61:
Jesus was aware that his disciples were complaining, so he said to them, “Does this offend you?
He knows there is a murmur and it’s not a holy buzz but an unholy grumbling. So in 6:66 (accidental?!) he goes through a preacher’s worst nightmare:
At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.
Lord, I’ve made leadership decisions that have caused people to leave church. I’ve had a demeanor or a position or a style that have caused others to leave. I’ve had friends in ministry who have been decimated when people left in droves in the wake of something they said or something they did. And I can tell you from experience that having a John 6:66 moment shakes your convictions, ruins your confidence, makes me want to take up landscaping. And I don’t know what kind of blow to his self-confidence Jesus endured as a result of 6:66, but I do know he asks the all-time question in 6:67 (aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t speak in 6:66!). 6:67 is when Jesus’ humanity gets most exposed, more than his weeping. His closest aides are probably thinking “maybe we’ve been wrong to follow him.” So in the wake of losing the crowd, Jesus addresses the core with his most human of questions:
Not you too? Are you getting ready to join the exodus? Are you leaving me as well?
And the reason I zero in on the questions is because (well, partly because I’ve asked it more than once!) we are living in a John 6 world right now. The United States in 2014 parallels the John 6 atmosphere in more ways than I can count. It’s a world where the words of Jesus and of Scripture on a wide variety of subject seem so odd, so off-putting, so out of step, that people leave. Leave church, leave bible, leave faith. Think about it! Sex? One man, one woman, in marriage, for a lifetime? Revenge? Don’t get it? Pray for those people who wrong you? Self? You mean self-control is a virtue in the bible and self-expression is not? Money? Give the first 10% back to God instead of to my IRA? Or a new iPad?
Those kind of words out of the mouth of Jesus and from the words of Scripture sound just as odd and offensive today as his language about eat my flesh and drink my blood did yesterday. We’re in a John 6 world, we see some sobering stats about the influence of the church in our land, and every once in awhile it is as if we can hear Jesus still asking that question of 6:67: “You’re not going to leave, too, are you?”
And when some of you hear that question, you’re not quite sure how to answer it. Because you’ve had seeds of doubt sown into you. Maybe for those of you in college now or you remember college then, it’s that class. The professor is so smart, so agnostic, so belittling towards the bible and faith. He makes you feel small for believing it . . . and so part of you doesn’t anymore.
Or you’re in the middle of a marriage that is quite frankly miserable. You’ve heard it said from Scripture that God hates divorce and you wonder if he might just not hate your marriage more. Or you wonder if those words are from such an ancient time (people were dead before midlife crisis ever hit!) that they don’t really apply any more. Or possibly you have been really successful; you keep getting your quarterly bonus check, and you get them without Jesus’ help, thank you very much. So what’s the use? Jesus’ question to them has become his question to you? And it is a haunting question because I have seen people through the years answer with “Yep, I’m leaving faith,” walk away, make some of the most God-awful, life-destroying decisions, and then come back to faith five years later. And when they come back, they still don’t have their questions answered, they just have a debris field of wrecked relationships and ruined psyches in their wake.
Which is why Peter’s answer to Jesus’ all-too-human question in 6:68 is just perfect:
Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.
To whom? If we doubt, if we leave, what’s the alternative? Is there a better idea? Who else has the words of eternal life? See, when you knock up against doubts and they make you consider jettisoning the Christian faith altogether, I want you to not only think about those burning questions, but, as one pastor said, I want you to consider the alternatives as well.
If I stop Jesus/Christ/Church/God, then what? If stop THIS, then WHERE? See, in discussing doubt we always wrestle with the questions; we rarely consider the alternatives to the beliefs we have. Is it nothing? That’s tempting, freeing, it will make you feel as smart as Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens. But it will likely lead to a descent of self-absorption – because, face it, you become God – and the trauma of being in charge.
Or maybe it’s another religion as the alternative? Is it like the woman who said to me years ago, “It doesn’t matter really what religion you have just so you are a religious person.” Huh. Would it be Islam? Of course, did you know that even the most devout of Muslims never have assurance of their salvation after death? Which explains the rise of Islamic martyrdom – that’s the one way in their belief to ensure it? What about the religions of the East, like Hinduism & Buddhism? Some of you wouldn’t mind a second chance at this – reincarnation! Did you know that in those systems, the goal of reincarnation is to get off the cycle and be absorbed into the universe? To become nothing? Deeply hopeless. What about Judaism? Incredible, great, our foundation, but again it is a bit murky on a notion of eternity much less on how you get there.
And then I know that because of your experience in AA, a lot of you adopt a “god of your understanding.” Which, again, is so laissez faire, so non-judgmental, it’s very tempting. It’s also what Paul encountered in Acts 17:23:
for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.
Same here! And yet our answer is the same as was Paul’s in Mars Hill – that even in doubt, even with unresolved questions from really smart atheists, we have a name for the God of our understanding: Jesus.
See, here’s what I think will happen when you consider the alternatives in the midst of doubt’s shadow: you will realize that Jesus is the eternal who in the midst of a sea of whats.
You’ll end up echoing with Peter: To whom shall we go? Who else? Where else? How else? You’re the only one with the words of eternal life! Do you have a better idea? A stronger alternative? And the answer every time is no. He alone not only has the words of, but is the way to eternal life. So don’t just weigh yourself down with questions, weigh yourself down with the alternatives. All the other religious options say: do this, do that, do more (the non-religious: do nothing). Christianity alone says: done. On the cross: it is finished. Can’t be added to or improved on. God does for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. You look at doubts that way, weighing the options, and you’ll land with Peter: To whom shall we go?
Look how Peter follows it up in 6:69:
“We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.”
We’ve seen too much. There’s too much evidence. There’s too much that I’ve seen to doubt the One I haven’t seen. Oh, you’ve had that. You’ve seen. Felt. Heard. Answered. Whenever I’m ready to answer Jesus’ you’re not leaving too are you? with sorry, but yes, I remember my shoulder. This one. College. Tennis. Injured and would not get better even after four months of nothing but rest. And so the doctor suggests surgery which would have ended everything prematurely. But I asked a friend of mine who I knew prayed for healing to lay hands on me, to pray in tongues, and to seek healing for my shoulder. Julie joined him. 30+ years later and I still haven’t had that surgery. We have seen too much to go anywhere else! We have come to believe!
Or I even look out at all of you. Multi-generational, multi-cultural, multi-hued. What we call full color. Makes no sense. Nothing in my background that qualifies me to be part of leading this kind of unique community. But God. Oh, we have seen too much to go anywhere else! We have come to believe!
See, time and time and time again you’ve seen too much and felt too deeply for it to be anything but true. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know; I’m simply reminding you of what you are tempted to forget. You’ve tasted too much goodness and sweetness through the years and so you know that the alternatives are nothing but empty promises.
To whom shall we go? Who is better? Stronger? More liberating? Who conquered death? No one and no thing. Oh, don’t be the one who walks away and then comes back 10 years later with no more answers but with a debris field trailing behind you. Ask yourself what’s the alternative before you leave and see all the options for the empty promises they are. And then fasten yourself to the eternal who towering over all the pretending whats.