A Sermon by Dr. Ralph Blair
for The City Church, New York on March 9, 2003
As I mentioned, today is the birthday of Phoebe Palmer Knapp. It was 130 years ago, in the Knapp mansion on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, that she first played her new hymn tune for her friend, the blind poet, Fanny Crosby. "What does this tune say, Fanny?," she asked. Her friend answered with no hesitation: "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!," and she went on to write the rest of it.
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Both women knew just what that meant, though they came from very different backgrounds. One was born to New York’s high society and married the founder of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The other was born to a hardscrabble life up in Putnam County and now lived among black servants and day laborers in a tenement down at Varick and Canal Streets. But they both belonged to Jesus. They both belonged to Jesus, to whom, in Fanny’s words, they submitted in perfect delight, in whose Spirit they were born and in whose blood they were washed, with whose goodness they were filled and in whom they were lost in love. Their theology was straight from the Scripture they both knew by heart.
Their "Blessed Assurance" was Jesus himself. This was their story, this was their song, as they both praised their Savior all the day long. This has been the story and song of Christians for 20 centuries. In 1968, Jerome Hines published his Christian testimony under this title: This is My Story, This is My Song.
But these days, there’s a new spin on these words. "This is my story" morphs into "This is my story." It’s all about me! In postmodern parlance, "Jesus is mine" means I can make Jesus mean whatever I want him to mean. So there’s a self-serving "Jesus" for this and a self-serving "Jesus" for that. Such a perverted "Jesus" is the private property of entrepreneurs, propagandists and promoters of everything from diets to cars to whether or not we should be at war with Iraq. A perverted "Jesus" props up even anti-Christian bigotry. It’s all as though Messiah Jesus is just a Michael Jordan – a useable celebrity for endorsing products and pushing pet projects – and you don’t even have to pay him a royalty. All the copyrights ran out ages ago.
Vegetarians say we’re in danger from red meat. So they ask "What Would Jesus Eat?" – implying he would not eat meat. But they overlook the fact that he did eat meat. Environmentalists say we’re in danger from SUVs. They ask "What Would Jesus Drive?" – implying he wouldn’t drive an SUV. But they overlook the fact that he never drove a Mini either.
Some say we’re wrong if we don’t attack Iraq. Others say we’re wrong if we do. And guess what? Both opponents and supporters of war claim Jesus as an ally. On the one side, the liberal Christian Century magazine – in which one never reads of the hellfire Jesus preached – references his words to warn that going to war in Iraq puts us "in danger of hellfire." Rebuffed by the White House, the antiwar National Council of Churches runs an ad asking if the President would meet with them "if they brought along Jesus?" On the other side, Joseph Loconte of the conservative Heritage Foundation quotes Jesus: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt 10:34) But he fails to note that the "sword" of which Jesus spoke was not a weapon of war, but a metaphor for the inevitable division that would split his followers from their unbelieving families and friends. Luke’s account of this actually uses the word "division" instead of "sword." (12:51) And, going back to the Gospel Locante quotes, he conveniently overlooks Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for slashing the High Priest’s servant: "Put your sword away, Peter. All who take up the sword will die by the sword." (Matt 26:52)
Last winter, "the New Republic devoted twenty-four pages to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s ‘What Would Jesus Have Done?’" – a vicious diatribe that a rabbi and historian, writing in The Weekly Standard, calls "one of the most virulent attacks against the Roman Catholic Church ever printed in a major American publication." (David G. Dalin) The rabbi notes that Goldhagen’s "equating Christianity in its essence with anti-Semitism [is so] bizarre and dangerous – that most scholars in the field have simply tried to ignore it." But it’s gotten lots of play in the Christophobic press.
So when we sing "Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine," we must discern just which Jesus we mean and just whose story it is. Do we mean the Living God in whom Fanny and Phoebe trusted, the One in whom countless Christians still trust, or do we mean something to be manipulated for our every self-serving dead end?
New York magazine’s recent cover shouts "Living with Anxiety." We wait, we’re told, "some with an effort at coolness, others with rising hysteria" over war, the stock market, terrorism – as well as illness and bills and even social rejection. Previous generations feared all this and more. At least most of us don’t fear not having enough to eat or no shelter. But people of previous generations feared something else that so many New Yorkers today tend not to fear at all. They feared for their souls? Do we fear for our souls – for welfare at our deepest depths? Or do we distract ourselves with merely material matters, consumer convenience, custom coffees, and a "Who’s Hot?" I.Q.? Are we only "all entertainment all the time?" Instead of "getting real" we fall for faux "reality" TV. Enmeshing our souls in superficial sophistication, as so many New Yorkers are wont to do – aren’t we in danger of being spiritually indifferent, careless and even presumptuous about the safety of our souls? This question may seem too old-fashioned, so too, too passe. Our real problem may be our disdain for this question itself. Avoiding it though, we do not avoid the emptiness and anxiety.
Weapons of mass destruction, serious illness, recession, and an escalating excess of escapism – these can, indeed, devastate and destroy. But these can reach only so far. So Jesus, speaking – not of everyday trouble but of the inevitable prospect of persecution in the lives of his true followers – warned them that it’s foolish to "fear those who kill only the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather," Jesus said, "fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matt 10:28)
"Soul and body" means the whole person. Scripture teaches that soul and body are separated at death – a separation that’s evident at every open casket. (Cf. Luke 23:43; II Cor 5:1-10; Phil 1:23f) A Bible scholar comments: "Only God has power over the soul and thus the whole person. It is thus God, the final judge of all, and not human beings, who alone is to be feared, that is, to be obeyed and trusted (cf. Ps 33:18)." (Donald A. Hagner)
But where are we today in this country? Over half of all the adolescents in America have no connection to a Christian group. They’re biblically illiterate. So, instead of trusting God, their primary coping tools are a victim mentality, an aggressive cynicism, entertainment and drugs. Simultaneously, studies show adolescents’ problems of stress, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, family issues and sexual assault to be more severe than ever. After Job had gone through distress after distress, he was able to say that though he’d once heard of God, now he’d seen God. So many people these days have not even heard of God – not the God of Scripture, not the God of Blessed Assurance. How, then, as Paul asked, can they trust in Him of whom they have not heard? Even in so many American churches, the focus is on a quasi-psychotherapy for feeling better about oneself or else its about some right-wing or left-wing political or social agenda.
How can we today know the strengthening and Blessed Assurance known to previous generations – in spite of anxieties of war, illness, finances, in spite of anti-Christian ridicule and persecution, in spite of all indications to the contrary? How can we be assured that we really are safe when all is said and done that can ever be said and done against us?
Well, first of all, looking for assurance that we’re safe, we’re tempted to want to feel safe. We want to feel at ease. But too often, we feel only dis-ease. Can an assurance that we’re safe be based in our feelings?
These days, feelings are all the fad. Feelings have been propped up to a point of relevance perhaps never before seen in the history of the world. Time was when, whether in the pre-modern world of superstition or the modern world of science, street savvy and common sense counted for something. Now, in our postmodernist pop-psycho culture, the common sense of traditional values is suspect. Feelings are said to matter more than facts.
We’re told: Don’t think, feel! Therapists tell their clients to get in touch with their feelings. What do they think prompted the clients to come for therapy in the first place? An unawareness of feeling distress? Touchy-feely gurus tell us we have a right to our feelings – though what they really mean is adrenaline-pumping self-righteous anger. We want "a right" to rage, don’t we? We really don’t want "a right" to feelings of fear and frustration!
Now, facts are said to be biased. We’re told that facts are only so-called, that facts are nothing but privileged propaganda controlled by the powers that be, who have no interest in our welfare but only in perpetuating their power. Of course, it’s true that facts can be and frequently are manipulated – even maliciously. Manipulation is likely to be in the hands of those in some sort of power – though it’s not always the stereotype of power. Power can be wielded by the supposedly powerless.
Feelings, we’re told nowadays, are somehow always authentic. We’re told we can and should trust our feelings. And so we’re urged to give vent to our feelings – as though we’re each "a little teapot, short and stout, here is my handle and here is my spout. When I get all steamed up I will shout. [I really will!] Tip me over and pour me out." Tip you over? Pour you out? Don’t tempt me!
The fact that this notion about the trustworthiness of feelings is, itself, not a feeling but a belief, doesn’t seem to phase these "feelers." They’ve lost both street smarts and skills of critical thinking about feelings and thoughts and anything else.
In reality, of course, it’s the feelings that can’t be trusted for any kind of assurance. Why? Because feelings flow from facts as we believe them to be. A feeling is a manifestation of a thought. There are no thought-free feelings. There are no uninterpreted facts.
Even the way we speak of our feelings tells us this. People say they feel overwhelmed or they feel in charge. But "overwhelmed" is not a feeling. "In charge" is not a feeling. "Overwhelmed" is a belief that things are impossibly beyond control. "In charge" is a belief that one is in control of things. So, you see, thoughts are behind both wanted and unwanted feelings. And in either case, the thoughts might be true or they might be false. But the feelings are real, that is, they really are felt and the feeling can be one of ease or dis-ease. So it makes sense to examine carefully what it is we believe to be true.
For example, if I think I’m in danger, an alarm gets tripped in the center of my brain and I’ll feel fear – whether or not I’m in danger in fact. I can’t feel better unless I change my mind so the alarm will shut off. So I must examine the evidence. Am I in danger? If so, what kind of danger, what degree of danger? And what, if anything, might I be able to do about it?
On the other hand, if I think I’m not in danger, the alarm in the center of my brain won’t get tripped and I’ll feel at ease – whether or not I’m safe in fact. And I can’t feel otherwise unless I change my mind and so trip the alarm. If I mistakenly believe I’m safe, and see no reason to try to protect myself, my feeling at ease is actually dangerous. My ignorance may be bliss but such bliss is nothing to bank on.
Well what does this little lesson in psychology have to do with the Blessed Assurance of God’s love in Jesus? Just this: The Blessed Assurance of God’s love in Jesus is not and cannot be based in our feelings.
Depression is and has been the emotional experience of millions of Christians -- even many of the great ones. The hymn writers who gave us "Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me" and "God Moves in a Mysterious Way, His Wonders to Perform" both suffered from lifelong depression. So did Frances Ridley Havergal. But instead of taking her own life she wrote the hymn prayer: "Take My Life, and Let it be Consecrated, Lord, to Thee."
Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, C. S. Lewis, E. J. Carnell – they all suffered from depression. Carnell was a brilliant apologist, president of Fuller Seminary. But neither extensive psychiatric treatment, nor barbiturates (to which he’d become addicted), nor electroshock therapy could conquer his depression and chronic insomnia. He confided that "Whenever I fall into seasons of depression, a cloud of futility hovers over my soul." At age 48, a perhaps mistaken overdose of sleeping pills ended his misery in a lonely hotel room.
Describing his own experience of depression, Bible translator J. B. Phillips wrote: "The colour, the meaning and the point of life simply disappears … . We pray apparently to an empty heaven, and in our misery we torture ourselves by brutal self-condemnation."
Well, if Blessed Assurance can’t be based in feelings that manifest what we tell ourselves, can it be based in what we tell ourselves?
The other day I received some junk mail in the guise of a color catalog touting all sorts of silly self-help. The bottom line was this: Tell yourself what you want to believe. The theory: If we tell ourselves what we want to believe, we’ll believe it and feel better. So there were posters pretending "I like myself!" – intended, of course, for people who don’t. There were posters pretending "I believe in myself!" – intended for people who don’t. There were posters pretending "I am important!" – intended for people who think they’re not. Does anyone really believe that wishful thinking makes it so?
There was a self-confidence CD to "heighten self-reliance and enhance optimism and trust in the future" through guided imagery. A video promised to "reinforce self love." But it’s pitched to people who think they don’t love themselves – so what’s to "reinforce?" There was a collection of cards of personal affirmation packaged in a can called "I CAN." Cute. There were so-called "non-competitive" board games in which "everybody wins." How’s that for a dose of reality? There were packs of little cards affirming such untested assumptions as "I am safe" and "I can do it." Do what? There was The Self-Esteem Companion book that promised to help readers resist yielding to "shoulds" while nonetheless telling them they should buy this book.
The catalog also offered stuff on what it called "the spiritual side." Videos on The Natural Way of Prayer – were for connecting with "what you feel deep within" ("for people of all faiths," of course). A pack of cards called Spirituality: An Inside Look, were for connecting with "the inner spirit." There’s not a note of transcendence in any of it. It’s all, indeed, self-help – self-diagnosed, self-generated, self-projected, self-referenced, self-reinforced and – ultimately – self-defeating. For what is the basis for confidence here? It’s self-delusion. It’s the wishful thinking of people who think they’re deficient in self-love while they obsess over themselves with inordinate self-absorption. But try as one might, simply saying something’s so, doesn’t make it so.
Well, if assurance we’re safe cannot be based in how we feel or in what we tell ourselves, can such assurance be based in our circumstances?
Hannah Whitall Smith wrote one of the 19th-century’s bestsellers, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life. But as her biographer says, she went through "periods of great discouragement, doubt and even despair." For years, her co-evangelist-husband had extramarital affairs and was finally caught in scandal, winding up disgraced and renouncing his faith. Four of her seven children died in childhood. Perhaps none of her children ever decided to follow Christ. Her daughter Mary deserted her own husband and two baby daughters to run off to Italy with the art critic, Bernhard Berenson. Her daughter Alys married the most outspoken atheist of the day, Bertrand Russell. Whitall Smith acknowledged her unhappiness in her book, Everyday Religion. She wrote: "The prayer which is answered today, may seem to be unanswered tomorrow. The promises, once so gloriously fulfilled, may cease to have any apparent fulfillment. The spiritual blessing that was at one time such a joy may be utterly lost. Nothing of all we once trusted in and rested in may be left us but the hungry and longing memory of it all."
And how safe was life for Fanny Crosby – poor and blind in Hell’s Kitchen? Incidentally, when she told the wife of the founder of Metropolitan Life Insurance, a company with the largest office building in the world, that her new tune said "Blessed Assurance," the terms "assurance" and "insurance" were interchangeable in the industry. Some were insurance companies and some were assurance companies. So the hymn might have been "Blessed Insurance?"
But neither an assurance policy nor an insurance policy – even from MetLife and Snoopy himself, is enough for Blessed Assurance. And no Social Security card, no Department of Homeland Security, no UN Security Council, not even yards and yards of duct tape can insure us against all the fallout of a fallen world.
Blessed Assurance cannot be based in our circumstances any more than in what we feel or in what we think. So what is the basis of Blessed Assurance? Wrong question. Who is the basis of Blessed Assurance? The Blessed Assurance is God’s assurance, given in Christ. And we can grasp Christ only as He grasps us. And our grasping the pierced hand of His outstretched love is by faith alone. And even that faith in God’s grace in Christ is, itself, God’s grace.
Do you happen to know what’s the most commonly sounded word in the world? It’s pronounced the same in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, English – and in untold tongues of the Third-World. The most commonly sounded word in the world is "Amen." We say and sing it some 13 times in every Sunday service here at City Church. And all around the world, every hour of every day, whether shouted and sung by congregations and choirs or whispered in trembling secret, that sound ascends. And that sound has soared for centuries.
Do you know what "Amen" means? It means "surely," "assuredly," "certainly" – as in that old Negro spiritual, "Certainly, Lord." It means "to be firm," "to support." It means "steady" and "trustworthy." It means "Yes!" And throughout the Bible, "Amen" is a liturgical formula of response to covenant declaration, doxology, prayer and benediction – just as it is today. In these instances, "Amen" means to confirm: "So be it!" It’s not unlike "Right on!," "You can say that again!," "Yes, Sir!"
Jesus turned the term to his own purpose, too. He used "Amen" for a distinctive Messianic note of authority, catching the attention of his hearers by beginning his every important pronouncement with: "Amen I say to you." The King James Version has it, "Verily I say unto you." That’s "trustworthily I say unto you." Jesus used "Amen" as the Hebrew prophets had used the startling phrase: "Thus says the Lord." And, in the Hebrew Bible, "Amen" does double duty as a divine title, a name of God Himself. (Isa 65:16) In the New Testament, too, "Amen" is a divine title, a name of the risen and victorious Christ. (Rev 3:4)
"Amen" is at the very heart of this morning’s sermon. Blessed Assurance is God-blessed assurance, divinely-affirmed assurance, God-backed reliability, Truth-based trustworthiness, our faith’s firm foundation in the Father’s own faithfulness. The Faithful Heart of God – not the hearts of Christians – is this heart of Christian faith. Our Mighty Fortress is Jesus Christ, the Church’s One Foundation, our only sure Hope.
It was in this theological context that we were called to worship from the book of Hebrews: "Let us draw near to God … in full assurance of faith, for He who promised is faithful." (Heb 10:23) From the very earliest biblical texts, in Job: "My witness is in heaven, and he that vouches for me is on high" (16:19) to the final vindication of the blood-washed redeemed under the heavenly altar in Revelation: the Guarantor is God Himself.
Remember that comforting warning made by Jesus: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Pray that those neglected words get our attention as they were meant to arouse the attention of those to whom Jesus first spoke them. But Matthew’s text continues: Jesus said: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
The One who can destroy the whole person can also save the whole person. If we cast our lot with the One who casts His all for us, there is His all available and we’re lost in His love. But if we cast our lot within ourselves, refusing Him who casts His all for us, there’s nothing of His all that’s available to us, and we’re lost in ourselves.
The internalized accusations of the Accuser – the epitome of evil – can most threaten to undo us. The more tender our conscience, the more the terror. Yet, we’re assured: "God is greater than our conscience." (I John 3:20) The Accuser, himself, stands accused. And doomed. And so that great heart searching poet of The Temple rebukes all "spiteful bitter thought!," all "bitterly spiteful thought!" of doubt and dread and despair that would abuse against confidence in the Savior. George Herbert taunts back in lines printed on the front of our Order of Worship. He rebuts distrust in his good God’s grace:
"Couldst thou invent / So high a torture? / Is such poison bought? / Doubtless, but in the way of punishment, / When wit contrives to meet with thee, / No such rank poison can there be.
"Thou said’st but even now, / That all was not so fair, as I conceiv’d, / Betwixt my God and me; that I allow / And coin large hopes; but, that I was deceiv’d / Either the league was broke, or near it; / And, that I had great cause to fear it.
"And what to this? what more / Could poison, if it had a tongue, express? / What is thy aim? wouldst thou unlock the door / To cold despairs, and gnawing pensiveness? / Wouldst thou raise devils? I see, I know, / I writ thy purpose long ago.
"But I will to my Father, / Who heard thee say it. Oh most gracious Lord, / If all the hope and comfort that I gather, / Were from myself, I had not half a word, / Not half a letter to oppose / What is objected by my foes.
"But thou art my desert: / And in this league, which now my foes invade, / Thou art not only to perform thy part, / But also mine; as when the league was made / Thou didst at once thyself indite, / And hold my hand, while I did write.
"Wherefore if thou canst fail, / Then can thy truth and I: but while rocks stand, / And rivers stir, thou canst not shrink or quail: / Yea, when both rocks and all things shall disband, / Then shalt thou be my rock and tower, / And make their ruin praise thy power.
"Now foolish thought go on, / Spin out thy thread, and make thereof a coat / To hide thy shame: for thou hast cast a bone / Which bounds on thee, and will not down thy throat: / What for itself love once began, / Now love and truth will end in man."
This is our story! This is our song! In spite of all our fears and depressing feelings, in spite of doubts and distressing circumstances, we sing of the Blessed Assurance of God’s faithfulness in Jesus Christ – who loves us and gave himself for us.