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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

May 21, 2017, Confirmation

 Challenge and Promise

Joshua 1:1-9; Luke 15:1-10

            Ben Sasse was born in 1972 in the town of Plainview, Nebraska.  In 1990 he graduated from his public high school in that community, valedictorian of his class.  He enrolled at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1994.  Sasse went on to earn three masters degrees and a Ph.D. in history from Yale.  He was named President of Midland Lutheran College at the age of thirty-seven, and saved the school from going out of business, rebranding it as Midland University.  In 2014 Ben Sasse decided to run for the United States Senate and won.  Sasse is married to Melissa and they have three children, ages six through fifteen.

            I mention him because he has just written an incredibly important book, The Vanishing American Adult.  He is concerned that too many of our children are not growing up, but rather are extending their adolescence.  He notes a dramatic rise in screen time and a decline in religious participation.  Sasse sees our children failing to become self-reliant and resilient, and he expresses concern over this failure.

            Joshua shared a common concern.  As God promises to be with Joshua as He was with Moses, he offers this word: “Be strong and of good courage, be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

            What does it mean to “be strong”?  I think this is important, because you are not really able to live a good life in this world without developing strength.  I love Sasse’s book because he offers suggestions on how we can help our children grow up, become strong.  (Which, by the way is what “confirmation” means; “to make strong.”) 

            Here is a quick look at Ben Sasse’s prescription: (1) Resist consumption.  We only become strong when we learn to become productive.  A consumer addiction will only make you self-indulgent and indolent.  We were created by God to bless the world, to use our gifts so that others might prosper and flourish.  We were created to be producers, not consumers.  (2) Embrace the pain of hard work.  People only grow up to be interesting by becoming proficient at something.  I do not know Pekka Rinne, but I would bet my bottom dollar that he got to be as good as he is through hard work.  This six-foot five-inch Fin is capturing our attention because of how hard he has worked to become a great goalie.  I would say the same of Taylor Swift.  Sure they both have God-given talent!  But they would not be who they are apart from hard work to develop that talent.  Their work ethic is what has enabled them to excel.  (3) Get to know older people, and people of other generations from yourself.  Do not live in a generational bubble.  He says every teenager ought to know how to change a dirty diaper, and ought to have friends from other generations, who are not family.  This, by the way, is the treasure of First Presbyterian Church!  (4) Read, and become literate.  This is how we keep growing and learning.  The average American teenager reads nineteen minutes a day.  Nineteen minutes a day of reading is going to leave you a very boring, dull, narrow-minded person.  This one statistic is a harsh word of judgement upon us all as parents, grandparents, of our schools and culture as a whole.

            Some think happiness is freedom from obligation.  In fact, Sasse argues, happiness only comes through freely embracing a chosen obligation.  And that is what God is calling you to do with your life!  Find your passion, develop your gifts, and seek to serve the Lord through the vocation, the calling you discover.

            “Be strong.”  That is the challenge.  Now for the promise: “For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  Your iPhone will not make you strong.  God will.  And God is with-you-always.  When Jesus was born, the angel told Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”  Then Matthew recalls Isaiah, who said, “His name shall be called Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us.”  Jesus promises, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”  Jesus says, “I will never leave you or forsake you, but I will come to you.”

            God has always been with you.  God will always be with you – when you know it and feel it, and even more important, when you don’t.  Because God is always with us and for us.  Karl Barth said, “God has freely promised to be God-with-us, and never to be God apart from us.”


            Chris Anderson is an English professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.  He has written a book called, Light When It Comes.  Let me close with a small moment in his life that he shares:

            I stand in my office looking out the window.  My door is closed.  Below me students walk between classes.  And for a moment I have a sense of the presence of Jesus, in the room, behind me.

            I hesitate to talk about this.  It feels very personal.  Very intimate.

            What I felt wasn’t physical, exactly.  It was a presence.  But it was the presence of a person, of a man, and of a man with hands and feet and warmth and energy.

            The experience lasted just a few minutes, and it was never overpowering, and even as it was happening I was also doubting it and questioning it.  But for those few minutes what I felt was a kind of intense and quiet joy, and a lifting of the burden and a hope.

            Most of the time faith is just an idea for us, a set of dogmas we have to work hard to explain.  But what if the church isn’t just an institution, and the language we use isn’t just language, and there’s nothing we have to explain or justify?  What if Jesus is real, and he’s here, and he really does love us?

            I was standing at the window, and it was raining, and I had this feeling.  Jesus was with me.  He was in the room somehow, and in the air of the room, and he wasn’t an idea, he was a person.  It was almost like my son was standing there, or my father – it was the way you feel when someone you know comes up behind you – and I could feel his kindness, I could feel his awareness of me.  His interest in me.

            It was like a dream, too.  If I turned my head, it would all go away.

            I don’t know.  All I can tell you is that for a few minutes I was no longer worried about the things I had to do and no longer afraid of failing and no longer tired and discouraged.  I wasn’t thinking about myself at all.[1]

            “Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”


[1] Chris Anderson, Light When It Comes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016) 37-38.


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