The Scandal of Particularity


Editors Note: This is the text of a sermon I preached at the Dupage Vineyard on 2/24/08.

There are many people who wonder what I do day to day. “He’s paid by us, and he goes to school, but what exactly is it he does,” you might have asked one another. That is OK. When I was working for the church in Birmingham, we got that question so much that we often joked as shooting a mock video expose of our daily lives of the staff of the Inverness Vineyard. The plan was to have one of our members who worked for a local TV news team narrate the video and go from office to office where he might “catch in the act” the senior pastor treating his interns (myself and another guy) like marine recruits, the Outreach Pastor cornering our secretary in the break room where he rambled on and on, and the Worship Pastor dancing to the Backstreet Boys (this several years ago).

I can assure you that my life is not so exciting and would not make a good expose. It mostly involves sitting around the library reading dusty old books. As I have mentioned before I love reading the stories of others, attempting to place each of stories in context, and trying to make judgments on the why’s, what for’s, and so what’s of these stories. For me there is a great link between my work doing this and my work in the various churches I have served. As a leader in the church I feel that I am in the story-telling business, and I am also in the what, why, and what for business. It is a tremendous privilege and a tremendous burden.

Recently I had the great privilege of sitting down and reviewing a box of old clippings, papers, and stuff none to the Billy Graham Archives at Wheaton as Collection 449, Box 1. In this box of material lies a very interesting and sad story of John and Betty Stam, missionaries to China from 1933-1934. Their time in the field was short, but their impact has been great. In the short time that we have this morning I would like to take some time to tell their story.

John and Betty Stam were simple people from simple families. John was born and raised in New Jersey to parents who ran a mission there, and Betty was born in Michigan, yet raised in China as her parents were missionaries. Both committed their lives to Christ in their teens and found themselves at Moody Bible Institute (just 20 some miles from our building) in the early 1930s. In 1934 they moved themselves and their year-old daughter to Tsingteh in China to run the China Inland Mission there. One reporter described their mission as such, “It was a challenge. It was a grave risk. But out there on the fringe of danger were abandoned mission stations. And in those districts were humble Chinese in very special peril because they were Christian.”1

John was aware of the danger that awaited him and his family. Addressing his graduation class he had opened by stating that “this morning our hearts beat a bit more quickly as we realize that this particular section of what has so often been called our ‘institute family’ will never meet again as we do today until we meet at the feet of our blessed Lord.”2 He would go on to say, “We may find ourselves at the place where we shall have to drink the bitter waters of March, but our Captain’s presence can sweeten even bitter water.”3

Whether he was aware of just what bitter water he would face, we cannot say. Yet on December 6, 1934 those bitter waters would carry a band of Communist insurgents into and through the town of Tsingteh. These bandits were on the run having been routed by the forces of Chiang Kai-shek further to the South. Their flight north took them to Tsingteh. Rumors filled the town and these bandits approached. Buoyed by hopes that the local magistrate would keep good to his word of protection, as well as confidence in their Saviour, the little family stayed in the comfort of their modest home. Yet soon it became obvious that the approaching flood could overcome the tiny mission, and so the couple began to prepare to leave for safer ground. But as the magistrate and his small band of soldiers fled in disguise, the bandits arrived inside the city sooner than expected.

Before anyone could pause to collect anything bandits were inside the outer section of the mission and pounding on the door. Ever the gracious man, John said to his cook that he would open the door and welcome them. However his guests would not be so gracious. In disgust at the feebleness of the wealth amassed by these Americans, the bandits took the Stams hostage and took them on a forced march to a stronghold in Miaosheo. Witnesses of this march report talking to John and asking this kind American brother where they were being taken. John is said to have remarked, “I don’t know where they are going… but we are going to heaven.”

On December 8th John and Betty Stam were marched through the streets of Miaosheo, and were killed in gruesome fashion as a show of force by these guerillas. The bitter waters had engulfed the lives of these two. It is as I said a sad story. It is a story of couple who in the end gave up everything to serve the God they loved.

This may seem an odd way to start a message. It may seem an odd way to live a life. But John and Betty were not the first to pack up all and follow the prompting of God. History is filled with stories of those people have been called and have gone to the far ends of the world to follow God. Listen to the writer of Hebrews as he describes one such man:

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” 4

Abraham: An Unusual Man

Like the Stams, Abram was a man living contently in the land of his birth. He was surrounded by friends and family. He was starting out with his wife Sarai, and the future looked promisingly good. Then Abram developed a problem, well, the God of the universe picked him, singled him out really, to enter into a new and radically different type of relationship. God wanted to make a covenant with him. God wanted him. For those of us raised in the world of evangelicalism with our ease in talking about the importance of having a “personal relationship” with God this may not seem odd; yet it really is, if you stop to think about it. And it was not something that was done then, and really admit it, it can sound just as weird today. TV, movies, and books are filled with just such odd characters who believe that God is speaking to them, and often in these media we find out that it is just the “brain tumor” talking. So yes Abram had a problem. God was speaking, but would he choose to listen? Would he choose to pack up everything and follow this thing that seemed to be God?

Our scripture tells us the answer. Yes by faith Abram left home, and family; safety and security to go somewhere, wherever the voice of God led him. In this act of faith and many others to follow, Abram would become Abraham, and the promises of God to him, and Sarah his wife would be fulfilled, “I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”5 Abraham and his wife Sarah are considered the Parents of the three grand religions of our day: Judaism, Islam, and of course our own Christianity. One man, the “father” of 3 children. God’s promises come true.

The Scandal of the Christian Death

Such an unusual man: a man much revered and loved; yet there is some bit of scandal to be found in Abraham’s inheritance. The scandal is in the telling of Abraham’s story. There is the scandal of particularity. What I mean is this, God chose one man with whom to enter into relationship. One man amongst how many, thousands, millons, billons. To rip off a quote from the great Rick Blaine, “of all the people in all the world, God chose to come to one man.” There is scandal here. How the unchosen of centuries past and present howl in disgust. God chose one man, what utter nonsense, what utter rubbish. One could easily react in the native tongue of our resident Scotsman, “bollucks.” In the turmoil of emotions challenging this fact you hear the cry of a child… “this is so unfair.” God can’t act that way, can He? Can He really chose to interact with, to save just one man out of the many?

It is here that we find the scandal of the Christian Death. This scandal is best expressed by the writer Paul who said:

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where are the wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”6

Our message is utter rubbish. Paul said it himself. He called it foolishness. God has chosen to align himself to a people. God has chosen to call a particular people for a particular purpose at particular times in particular ways. How can you say that? Is God not bigger than all this particularity? Is not God larger than life, are not his ways higher, and more loftier than anything we can imagine? To these honest questions, I say Yes, Yes, and Yes. Thank God Yes.

And yet the struggle remains. How can this be? Is it not rude and crude and unacceptable to say these things? Can one really with straight face, and all proper modesty and all necessary humility really repeat the words of that son of Abraham who also happened to be the very Son of God that He is “the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through”7 him and him alone. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the way of the Christian is the way of the cross. The message of the gospel is come and die. To a world comfortable with life, and ballooned up with a false sense of security about their greatness, this call to death is a scandal of the first order. They are the very words that cause a watching world to recoil in horror. They are the very words that cause the wise to mock, and the philosopher to scorn. “You can’t say that,” says a watching world.

The Scandal of the Christian Life.

Yet in these words, in these stories, they is something to be said which is even more scandalous. Even more delicious. Even more amazing. It is these stories which I shall refer to as the scandal of the Christian Life. Listen to the words of this son of Abraham and Son of God which follow and flow from the scandalous pronouncement made mere seconds ago,

“ ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.’ ”8

For those who willing to believe the scandalous nature of Christ’s first proclamation are invited to an ever deepening and far greater scandal. The scandal is this. As a follower of Christ we have before us a record of the works of Christ in history. They sit in our Holy Scriptures. We read them in our gatherings, and the “best” of us read them in their daily lives. We read, we discuss, we debate, we exegete, we deconstruct. The watching world finds great horror and dismay in these words which we read, as well as, by the strange stories we tell. Yet it is at this point that we have an offer to enter into an even greater scandal, a scandal that divides even those who love and revere these words. The scandal has been described by our founding father in the Vineyard thusly, “I read the scriptures and I do what I see Christ doing.”

“Wait,” cries the watching Church, “You can’t do that.” You can’t pray for the sick and see them healed. You can’t speak to the corpse and raise the dead. You can’t run into the Temple with a switch and chase from it the moneylenders. “Stop trying to lead us,” the Church shouts at its supposed leaders. “Stop trying to make me look bad by succeeding,” the Church shouts at its supposed followers. The yelling is fierce. The scandal is strong. You will do more. You will see more. You will succeed beyond your widest imagination. The Presbyterian is called to go beyond their intellectual rigormortis to a living faith. The Baptist is called to go beyond the altar call to a living faith. The Anglican is called go beyond their liturgy to a living faith. The Charismatic is called to go beyond their emotions to a living faith. These are words of scandal. These are words that invite mockery and heap shame from the pews and pulpits. “You can’t do that,” says a watching Church.

Abraham: Dead Man Walking

In the passage in which we began, there is a curious verse. It says, “And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”9 Abraham, a man as good as dead. It is a phrase that strikes me as strange. Yet it illuminates the passage all the more. As I read this passage I am struck with single thought, “has the author of this passage not read Genesis. Has he forgotten their history? Is the desire to show Christianity as the fulfillment of the Jewish faith blinded her to true story?” Abraham may have been great, but Abram is another story. When God tells him to inhabit the land of Palestine, he flees to Egypt. When God tells him that his wife will bear child, Abram argues, and Sarai laughs. And when this blessed event does not happen immediately, the two decide to take matters into their own hands, and help God out a little. With the exception of the one event mentioned by the author, as Abram and even as Abraham, he rarely gets it right the first time.

Yet this one verse tells me that the author of this moving tribute to the man Abraham, is not unaware of the man Abram was. John Martin and many of the youth may remember the conference we attended last year. Maybe they will even remember the words of the Saturday morning service. In that service our speaker talked about a life that occurs in 2 stages. The first he referred to as the Heroic Journey. Here the believer is the ascent. They are determined to live a life characterized by words we used at UT, “Go big or go home.” This is the way of the “Youthful Idealist.” Think Indiana Jones. There are big dreams and big accomplishments. All of it seems there for the taking.

But life is not so big. Most of us do not change the world. Most of us do not even change our cities, our neighborhoods, or our streets. Some may wonder if they have even impacted their own home. Here one meets a new phase of life known as the Great Defeat. In this defeat and realization of life’s true realities, one can react in a variety of ways. One can refuse to admit defeat. To refuse to take stock of this reality is to become an “Old Fool” who is doomed to repeatedly make the same mistakes, and continually suffer the consequences. Think Homer Simpson. Or one can dwell on this defeat replaying all of life’s hurts and cuts. To refuse to move past the hurt is to become an “Embittered Rascal” doomed to trip over themselves and their hurts the rest of their life. Think Anakin Skywalker. Or one can embrace defeat, and carry it to one’s own private Golgatha. One can learn to die to oneself, to pick up their cross, and follow him. This is the way of the Initiated Leader. Listen to the words of Christ:

” ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward everyone according to what they have done.’ ”10

By embracing descent, by becoming lesser, so that He might become greater, we become the leaders of a new race of people. By dying to ourselves, we are initiated into the Kingdom.

Conclusion:

In this way, these stories we read and tell are not stories without hope. They are not without joy. One of the friends of the Stams was a Chinese man known to all as Pastor Lo. He was in the area when the guerillas came. He had been captured but released. He had fled to hills with his family, but came to the town in search of his friends. He found the bodies of the Stams and was able to rescue the couple’s child (who had been spared on the request of one of people witnessing the act). He prepared the bodies for burial, and standing over the bodies of his friends he shared the gospel with the gathered townspeople.11 Even in death the Gospel we preach can be heard.

If John were here today I think that he would say something in line with a journal entry he recorded on August 13th 1932: “[I] do praise God for lessons learned here… lessons of hopelessness and uselessness of the life outside of Christ and of the blessedness of His help and comfort in suffering, lessons of my own weakness and His great strength.”12

These words while written as John prepared leave America for China, echo nevertheless throughout the story of his life. They should also echo through the lives of those of us gathered here today. They are many that would like to demean and discourage the work of people like John and Betty Stam. They would see it as weak and pointless. A sacrifice for nothing. Yet we in this body ought to know better. We ought to know that it is a Big God whom we serve. The founding father of our association of churches was fond of saying that he “was just a quarter in the pocket of God, and God could spend him anyway he chose.” This is great quote, but perhaps we often understand it wrongly. We take on meekness and humility talking about the weakness of our offering. Never understanding that if the God of the universe deems us a valid sacrifice then we must never be seen as pointless.

We as a people are called to be a people of scandal. Let us go back to the passage:

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”13

In a world populated by Young Idealists, Old Fools, and Embittered Rascals, there is scandal when one should chose to embrace our hurts and fears. There is scandal when we choose to embrace defeat and even death. But in our descent we go as those who by faith believe the promise of the scriptures which state that:

“ Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” 14

The scriptures call out to us, and both the world and church are scandalized by our faith. Yet in this very real scandal lies the power of our faith: the power to become Intiated Leaders in a new covenant, inheritors of a great wealth, members of a new country. Let Abram we are called to arise and leave our countries, our homes, our lives at the altar of faith.

 

 

 

1 Untitled News Release. Folder 1. Box 1, Collection 449, Records of John and Betty Stam. Archives of the Billy Gram Center, Wheaton, Illinois.

2 John Stam. “Go Forward.” Graduation Speech at Moody Bible Institute (21 April 1932). Folder 11. Box 1, Collection 449, Records of John and Betty Stam. Archives of the Billy Gram Center, Wheaton, Illinois.

3 Ibid.

4 Hebrews 11:8-18. TNIV.

5 Genesis 17:16. TNIV.

6 1 Cor. 1:18-25. TNIV.

7 John 14:6. TNIV.

8 John 14:10-13. TNIV.

9 Hebrews 11:12. TNIV.

10 Matthew 10:24-27. TNIV.

11Robert Brown. “Faithful Unto Death.” The Alliance Weekly. 2 March 1935. Folder 1. Box 1, Collection 449, Records of John and Betty Stam. Archives of the Billy Gram Center, Wheaton, Illinois.

12 Diary of John Stam, 13 August 1932. Folder 10. Box 1, Collection 449, Records of John and Betty Stam. Archives of the Billy Gram Center, Wheaton, Illinois.

13 Hebrews 11:13-16. TNIV.

14 Romans 6: 8-10. TNIV.

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