Sunday, March 30, 2008

"But now I have a river that carries me."

The year was 1871. Dwight Lyman Moody, who had arrived in Chicago in 1856, had gone from being a shoe salesman and Sunday School teacher at Plymouth Congregational Church to become the pastor of his own congregation. The Illinois Street Church quickly grew to be a great church. The building seated 2500; and, in those days when there was very little in the way of wholesome activities to occupy people in the evenings, the church held services that were filled almost every night.

Moody had gained an international reputation. Still in his thirties, he had been invited to preach in prestigious churches in New York City. He had met the great British pastor, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and had preached in England. His popularity was growing and invitations to preach all over the world were increasing. Many pastors would have been satisfied. They would have said it was enough.

But Moody was restless, feeling that there had to be something more. On top of that, he became increasingly dissatisfied with his own preaching, realizing that it was not as effective as it once had been.

God intervened in Moody's life through two women: Sarah Anne Cooke, a Free Methodist who had recently immigrated from England, and her friend, Mrs. Hawxhurst. Mrs. Cooke had attended a camp meeting in the summer of 1871 and reported that, "a burden came on me for Mr. Moody, that the Lord would baptise him with the Holy Spirit and with fire." She soon enlisted her friend, Mrs. Hawxhurst, and the two began to pray for Moody.

The two ladies began sitting on the front row every time Moody preached. At the conclusion of each service they would say, "Good night, Mr. Moody. We're praying for you." This began to bother Moody. One evening, he asked the two ladies, "Why are you praying for me? Why don't you pray for sinners to come to the Lord?" The ladies responded, "We're praying for you because you need the power of the Holy Spirit." Disgusted, Moody muttered through his beard, "I need the power?"

The two ladies continued to sit on the front row, and Moody became increasingly irritated. Finally he invited them to his home to talk with them. When they met, the women poured out their hearts in prayer, asking God to fill Moody with the power of the Holy Spirit. Unexpectedly, Moody's attitude changed and a great hunger formed in his soul. He asked the ladies to pray with him in his office each Friday afternoon. On Friday, October 6, 1871, as Mrs. Cooke later reported, "Mr. Moody's agony was so great that he rolled on the floor and in the midst of many tears and groans cried to God that he would be baptised with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

That Sunday evening, October 8, a capacity crowd filled the church. As Ira Sankey sang "Today the Savior Calls," the commotion of fire bells and the clattering of horse-drawn fire company wagons could be heard outside. Those who went outside saw a disturbing red glow in the southwestern sky. Inside, Moody dismissed the meeting and sent people to their homes. The winds picked up to a gale force and the red glow rapidly grew nearer. It was what is known today as "The Great Chicago Fire." The fire raged for two days and destroyed several square miles, encompassing all of downtown Chicago, including Moody's church, his home, and the dwellings of most of his members.

Moody could not look to his congregation for help in rebuilding the church. In a day when property insurance was rare, they had lost their homes as well. Moody was forced to travel to cities from coast to coast to solicit help from Christian leaders and philanthropists to aid his congregation and to rebuild their church.

One day, after calling on some Christian benefactors in New York City, Moody was walking down the street, tired and discouraged. Reflecting that he had certainly been "baptised with fire," he began to wonder about the Holy Spirit. Suddenly an overpowering sense of God's presence came upon him. Hailing a passing horse-drawn cab, he gave the driver the address of a family he knew lived nearby. Arriving at the house, he declined his friend's invitation to come in and share dinner, saying urgently, "I wish to be alone. Let me have a room where I can lock myself in."

His understanding friend quickly showed him to a room at the rear of the house and closed the door behind him. Moody stretched prostrate on the floor as wave after wave of God's love and power flooded his soul. More than two hours passed. Moody lay still, both unable and unwilling to move. Of this mountaintop experience, Moody would later write, "I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of his love that, at last, I had to ask God to stay his hand or else I could not have stood it."

Friends later said of Moody that his resolute will and determination came under new management that day, as God remolded him and left him as gentle and tender as a baby. Moody wouldn't try to choose his own path any longer; he would leave everything up to God. Moody remarked thankfully, "I was all the time carrying water. But now I have a river that carries me."

Moody, who was considered by all who knew him to be a great man of God, became fully God's man that day. And Moody, who was already a great pastor, went on to be the evangelist who led over a million souls to Christ.

What can God do with us? What does God want to do with us? We will only know when listen to God like Sarah Anne Cooke and when we are as fully surrendered and filled with God's Holy Spirit as Dwight L. Moody was.

Additional References:
  • Dwight L. Moody (from Wholesome Words).

  • Ira D. Sankey (from Wholesome Words).

  • Duewel, Wesley L., "Dwight Lyman Moody," in Heroes of the Holy Life. Zondervan, 2002.

  • Harvey, Bonnie C., D.L. Moody, The American Evangelist. Barbour Publishing, 1997.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

John Wesley, Anglican Revivalist

This past week, in the Episcopal calendar, we celebrated the feast of John and Charles Wesley. Although John Wesley is probably best known as the founder of Methodism, both John and Charles remained Anglican priests throughout their lives. Their impact on world Christianity was tremendous--John as a preacher in what is now referred to as the First Great Awakening, and Charles as a writer and composer of hymns that continue to inspire the Church 250 years later.

In my sermon on Ash Wednesday, I mentioned being at Christ Church in Savannah, Georgia, the previous Sunday--the historic church where John Wesley was the third rector.

I may have mislead you with that reference to Wesley. Because, if that is the only information you have, you might imagine that Wesley had a glorious ministry there--preaching powerful and eloquent sermons, seeing multitudes converted, etc. But nothing could be further from the truth. At this point in his life, Wesley lacked assurance of his salvation, and his ministry reflected it.

On the trip from England to Savannah, the ship on which Wesley was sailing went through a series of storms, one so violent that the wind broke the ship’s mast. While Wesley and most of the others on board were terrified, one group of passengers calmly prayed and sang hymns. They were Moravian Christians. Wesley was so impressed by their faith that one of the first things he did when he arrived in Savannah was to go and see the Moravian bishop--Bishop Spangenberg. Spangenberg asked him, "Do you know Jesus Christ?" Wesley responded, "I know he is the savior of the world." Spangenberg pressed him, "But do you know he has saved you?" Wesley could only respond, "I hope that he has died to save me."

Returning home to England after less than three years in Savannah, Wesley became curate at the church of St. Mary-le-Strand, he was greatly moved by his rector’s sermon on Pentecost Sunday 1738, dealing with the power of the Holy Spirit. Recalling the only Christians he had known who had displayed that power, he was led to seek out the Moravians once again. Shortly thereafter, on May 24, 1738, Wesley attended a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street. Listening to a reading of the preface to Martin Luther’s Commentary on Romans, Wesley was enabled to trust Christ fully and to know that he had been saved by faith.

John Wesley's brother, Charles, was one of the most prolific hymn writers who ever lived. He wrote many powerful hymns of faith. My favorite is “And can it be that I should gain, an interest in the Savior’s blood? Died he for me who cause his pain, for me who him to death pursued?" These are rhetorical questions Wesley is asking, and each one demands an affirmative answer:

"And can it be that I should gain, an interest in the Savior’s blood?" Yes.
"Died he for me who cause his pain, for me who him to death pursued?" Yes.

Then the hymn continues:
"Amazing love, how can it be, that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"

When my daughter Laura was about 4 or 5, I took her to buy a Valentine’s Day present for my wife. Children are so cute in their innocence at that age. Laura had said she wanted to help buy her mother's present. So we got to the store and picked out a ring. And Laura helped pay for it. She put her 35 cents on the counter; and, well, I put about 500 times that amount on the counter, and we left with the ring.

Some of us think like this about salvation. We know that Jesus died, and that he did something to procure our salvation. But we think that it is up to us to "help." The only problem is that, when it comes to salvation, we don't even have 35 cents!

Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."

Titus 3:5 says, "He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit."

As I did research for this sermon, I ran across one writer who stated boldly, "the Bible never explicitly declares Jesus to be our substitute nor declares Jesus to have died in our place." Apparently, this writer has never read 1 Peter 2:24, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might be dead to sins but alive to righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” And 1 Peter 3:18 says, "For Christ also died for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit."

The good news of Jesus Christ is that, when we were totally incapable of helping ourselves, Jesus died for our sins in order that, through faith in him, we might have eternal life.

When we read verses such as we did in our Old Testament lesson this morning from Isaiah 49:5, "[God] formed me in the womb to be his servant," or Jeremiah 1:5, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as a prophet to the nations," do we think that God only foreordained and called Isaiah and Jeremiah to serve him?

No less than Isaiah or Jeremiah--or John and Charles Wesley, God has a purpose for each of our lives and intends for us to live for him and serve him, and to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ to a lost world. But we can only do that, as John Wesley discovered, when we have the full assurance of our salvation by faith in the Savior who died for us.

"Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"

Saturday, March 1, 2008

God, give us the boldness of Polycarp!

Let us never relax our grasp on the Hope and Pledge of our righteousness; I mean Jesus Christ, "who bore our sins in His own body on the tree," "who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth,1" who steadfastly endured all things for our sakes, that we might have life in Him. Let us then imitate His patient endurance; and if we suffer for His name's sake, let us give glory to Him. For that is the example He gave us in His own Person, and in which we have learned to put our faith.
~ Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians
1. I Peter 2:22,24.