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You asked for a sermon on Living for the Present or What Is Going To Happen Today?


Hebrews 3:13

I: — Psychologists tell us that the person who lives only for the present is woefully immature. The person who lives only for the present is like a child who spends all his weekly allowance the day he receives it, with the result that he has no money for the next six days. The fancy term for this kind of immaturity is “inability to delay gratification”. People who can’t delay gratification are controlled by impulses and appetites. They are exceedingly immature, chronically in difficulty with banks, mortgage companies and employers, and not infrequently in trouble with the law. Whatever they crave they have to have now, whether what they crave is punching in the nose someone they don’t like or pursuing an illicit relationship with someone they do like.

Living “in the present” in this sense of the word — instant gratification — isn’t good.

Then what about living in the past? Two things have to be said here. We must say that it’s good to have a past and to cherish the past. It’s good to cherish tradition. After all, our generation is not the first generation. And not everybody who lived before us was stupid. In other words, there is wisdom to be gleaned from the past, and we should only be fools if we ignored such wisdom. More to the point, the person without a past is like the person with no memory. Just as the person with no memory has no identity, so the person with no past has no identity — and therefore doesn’t know who he is. Without a past we can’t know who we are! Obviously it’s crucial to have a past and cherish our past.

Yet while we must have a past we must not live in the past. People who live in the past are nostalgia-freaks. They romanticize the past. In romanticizing the past they falsify the past. Romantically they create a “past” that never was. When I was a teenager my grandfather used to tell me tirelessly, “Pay no attention to those who talk about `the good old days’. They weren’t good.” My grandfather worked for the Ford Motor Company in the days before the trade unions had formed to protect workers. The stories he told me of callous exploitation, of institutional savagery, of factory owners’ cruelty and capriciousness — all this belonged to days that were certainly “old”, said my grandfather, and just as certainly were never “good”.

“Good old days?” Does anyone want see again the days that didn’t yet know vaccination and inoculation and painkiller as simple as aspirin?

We should have a past and should cherish our past. At the same time, only the silliest nostalgia-freak wants to live in the past.

Then what about the future? Once again we should anticipate a future and we should cherish the future that we anticipate. Not to anticipate a future is to live for instant gratification in the present — and we have already noted the perils of that immaturity.

At the same time, even as we anticipate our future and cherish it we must not live for the future. People who live for the future are investing everything in the future, with the result that the present is worthless. People who live for the future are counting on so very much twenty-five years from now that the present counts for nothing. People who assume that waves of happiness are going to flood them in fifteen years are plainly joyless today.

To live in the past is to bury oneself in a past that never was — and therein render the present insignificant. To live for the future is to fantasize about a future that is never going to be — and therein render the present insignificant.

Then the only thing to do is cherish both past and future yet live in the present; in fact, live in the present alone.

If we are going to live in the present alone, what can we expect to happen today?

As I mulled over the sermon-request I pondered scripture’s use of the word “today”. What does scripture associate with the word “today”? What is going to befall us today? And therefore what should we expect?


II (i): — Following our Lord’s healing of a paralyzed man Luke wrote, “Amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, `We have seen strange things today!'” (Luke 5:26)

Amazement seized them all — all the bystanders, that is; and these bystanders cried out, “We have seen strange things today!” What were the “strange things”? Four men had brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. Jesus had said to the paralyzed fellow, “Your sins are forgiven.” This could only have sounded silly; as silly as if you went to your physician with a terrible pain in your knee and your physician said to you, “Your knee hurts dreadfully? I want you to know that worldwide poverty is going to end.” Or suppose a victim of horrific child abuse goes to a psychotherapist, and the psychotherapist says, “Nature will soon no longer be `red in tooth and claw’; the wolf is going to lie down with the lamb.”

Both responses sound silly. Actually, they are profound. You see, excruciating pain in your knee and worldwide poverty are both manifestations of evil. Child abuse and creature-devouring-creature are both manifestations of evil. A man whose legs are paralyzed and a man whom sin has seized is a victim of evil twice over; a victim of the same evil, ultimately, twice over. So far from being silly, then, our Lord is perfectly sensible when he both forgives the man his sin and releases him from his paralysis. It is the ministry of our Lord to overturn evil: every manifestation of evil. On the same afternoon Jesus frees the man from the grip of sin and frees him from the grip of paralysis. Bystanders remark, “We have seen strange things today.”

“Strange things”. The Greek word is PARADOXOS. PARA, “against”; DOXA, “opinion”. PARADOXOS, “contrary to opinion; contrary to what people are thinking, contrary to what people expect.” Contrary to what people expect, to be sure, but real nonetheless because authored at God’s hand.

In the course of living my days I too find myself saying, “I have seen strange things today.”

Several months ago a man in Streetsville whom I knew moderately well lost his job. I knew that the man had a major drinking problem. I thought the stress of his joblessness would only worsen his drinking problem; worsen it to the point that he’d succumb to liver damage in a few months and all Streetsville would nod knowingly at the graveside and remark, “Wasn’t it too bad!” When I spoke at the Lions Club dinner in April concerning my visit to India I asked someone from the club how Mr. So-and-So was doing. How was he doing? Why, his problem had worsened until he was comatose; then he had sought help — found it, no less. Now he was released from his addiction and went to as many meetings as he needed to — at which meetings he even now spoke occasionally for the sake of other men who were suffering as he once had suffered. In addition he had found a parttime job only a few miles away. Because his “stinking thinking” had been dealt with, there was significant change in his manner and outlook. What had happened to him was contrary to what everyone had thought. Strange, isn’t it!

When I was in India last January a couple, Solomon and Salome, fed me one Sunday after church. Solomon and Salome are both gypsies. (There are 40 million gypsies worldwide, and two-thirds of them live in India.) Solomon schools young men (virtually all of them gypsies themselves) for the evangelisation of gypsies in the hinterland of India. Solomon himself is a second-generation Christian. How did his parents come to faith? Decades ago a young missionary, a young woman, no less, traipsed by herself through India’s jungle-growth for days until she came upon a band of gypsies. She stayed with them and accepted their hospitality. Equipped with nothing more than a pocket-bible, she told and retold the story of Jesus. Solomon’s father, steeped in Hinduism for generations, listened to the stories of Jesus. Eventually the one about whom the stories speak spoke himself! Strange, isn’t it! “We have seen strange things today.”

I was in my office one Saturday morning when a young man appeared at the door. He said he’d been robbed the night before. He had a job waiting for him in Saskatoon, but now he had no money for the bus ticket and needed $72. I didn’t believe him. (If you heard the tales I hear every week you wouldn’t have believed him either.) I asked him precisely where he had been promised work in Saskatoon. He told me. Calling his bluff (I thought) I telephoned the company in Saskatchewan — only to discover that my bluff had been called: he really did have a job waiting for him. It so happened that the congregation’s benevolent fund was exhausted, and it so happened too that I had been to the bank that morning to withdraw $100 for housekeeping purposes. I asked the fellow what he planned to eat for the two-and-a-half day bus-ride to Saskatoon. He hadn’t thought about eating. And so I gave him my $100. Off he went. A week later a woman in the congregation (someone who had been very critical of me, I thought; she insisted repeatedly that I am crude) told me with much embarrassment that recently a conviction that she should give me some money had overwhelmed her and remained with her. She couldn’t explain it and felt awkward doing it. I accepted her envelope — and found in it a cheque for $100.

I am not saying that we should expect to see “strange things” every day. If we did, they would no longer be strange. I am not suggesting that we should always be looking for the unusual, the bizarre, the freakish. But I am saying that we should rejoice when we are startled at the “strange things” with which God surprises us.


(ii) — More must be said concerning “today”. Jesus meets up with Zacchaeus and says, “I must stay at your house today.” A short while later Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he also is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:5,9) What has happened in between these two pronouncements? “I must stay at your house today.” They move off together to the home of the diminutive cheat. A short while later, “Today salvation has happened here!” The “in between” time is crucial, for “in between” Zacchaeus resolves to repay anyone whom he has defrauded four times over; in addition to compensating those whom he has “fleeced” he gives up half of his “goods” in order to assist the disadvantaged.

The biblical word for all of this is repentance. Repentance, in scripture, is a change of mind and heart followed by a change of life. There is both an inner conviction and an outer alteration.

We should note too that when Jesus goes to the home of Zacchaeus he says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” It’s plain, therefore, that salvation is nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else than the visitation of Jesus Christ himself. Salvation isn’t an arrangement or a scheme or a plan; neither is salvation a program for bringing a psychological experience upon oneself; neither is it a philosophy like existentialism or socialism which tries to pass itself off for salvation inasmuch as it uses a religious vocabulary. Salvation is nothing more, nothing less, nothing else than the effectual visitation of the saviour himself.

At the same time the one grace incarnated in Christ and displayed in Christ and visited upon us in Christ; this one grace is not only gift but also claim.

“Today I must stay at your house”, Jesus says to Zacchaeus. He does stay at the home of Zacchaeus. What a gift to the fellow! The “gouger” who merits from Jesus only the contempt he has already merited and received from the townspeople is now graced by the one whose visit surrounds him not with contempt but with consolation; in particular that cosmic consolation that has to be called “salvation” just because it saves us from something infinitely more ominous than townsfolk contempt.

At the same time the consolation Zacchaeus now knows frees him to hear and heed and happily honour consolation’s claim upon him. He doesn’t have to have his arm twisted. He doesn’t have to be cajoled or pestered or manipulated. He knows that the gift given him — a gift without strings attached — nonetheless requires a response from him. The same Christ-bestowed freedom that freed him from his tree-top hiding-place now frees him from tight-fisted hoarding. At this point — only at this point — Jesus exclaims, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Salvation occurs as the gift of grace acquaints us with the claim of grace and the claim of grace is finally honoured — thanks to the quickening of grace.


(iii): — Zacchaeus’s discipleship is genuine; his renewal at the hand of Christ cannot be doubted. At the same time, the “Way” that he has newly begun to walk is not without potholes and pitfalls, booby-traps and distractions. Exactly the same has to be said of the “Way” that you and I are called to walk: not without potholes and pitfalls, booby-traps and distractions. For this reason we must listen to the writer to the Hebrews: “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called `today’, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13)

For as long as time lasts, every day is “today”. Today is the only time we have. The past is behind us and we can’t recover it, while the future is ahead of us we can’t access it. Today is the only time we have. Then today we must welcome fellow-believers who will tell us the truth about ourselves lest we stumble into sin; and having stumbled into it, find ourselves increasingly deluded by it and increasingly hardened in it.

If we are isolated from fellow-believers (I mean intimate fellow-believers) then we are far more likely to be spiritually sabotaged by temptations that are so subtle we can’t even perceive them. If we are isolated from intimate fellow-believers then our endless rationalization prior to spiritual disaster and our endless excuse-making after it will never be checked.

When temptation settles upon us like tranquil mist we can whisper to ourselves that the sin we are flirting with isn’t all that sinful — in “this” instance — and can therefore be indulged a little more. But temptation doesn’t always settle on us like tranquil mist; sometimes it falls on us like a wolf falling on a rabbit. On such occasions it is no time before we have lost sight entirely of the truth of God and the way of discipleship and our own vulnerability — not to mention our Lord’s grief.

When temptation falls on us like a wolf we need the instant intervention, the most brutal intervention, of Christian intimates, or else we are undone. On the other hand, when temptation settles on us like tranquil mist we need the winsome wisdom and the reasoned thoughtfulness and the gentle persuasiveness of Christian intimates, or else we shall accommodate temptation’s gradualism until our resistance is eroded. As long as it is called “today” we must exhort one another lest we succumb.

Myself, I have learned to welcome three kinds of “exhortation”, all three of which help me resist sin’s deceitfulness and its capacity to harden. One kind of exhortation is casual conversation with people who love me enough to be honest with me. Another kind of exhortation is sharp rebuke from those who may or may not love me but in any case are angry enough with me to correct me. The third kind of exhortation is by appointment. I have a Christian friend outside the congregation, a man of spiritual maturity and wisdom, integrity and insight. I see him by appointment.

What have you found helpful as a vehicle of that “exhortation” which the writer of Hebrews says we all need lest sin’s deceitfulness deceive us and harden us? What kind of exhortation works for you?


(iv): — Lastly, on any day we may hear our Lord say to us, “Today — with me — in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) It isn’t every day we hear this; we die only once, after all. But any day may be the day when we are relieved from our struggle and spared further suffering. Any day may be the day when our faith is crowned with sight and our discipleship rewarded and our journey brought to completion in our Father’s many-roomed house.

We must be sure to notice that on the first Good Friday our Lord said to the insurrectionist dying alongside him, “Today!” Our Lord didn’t say, “later” or “at the end of the age” or “some time in the future but I’m not sure exactly when.”

You and I do not know how we are going to die. We may die suddenly: heart-attack, massive brain-haemorrhage, motor-vehicle accident. Or we may die slowly, an inch at a time, as our final disease moves at a snail’s pace. At the end of the day it will make no difference to us, because the day ends with “Today.” “Today — with me — eternally.”

Today is all we have. It is “today” that will see the “strange things” which occur as God’s inscrutable providence brings before us what we could never anticipate or imagine.

It is “today” that can find anyone owning the visitation of Jesus Christ himself only to hear him say, “Today salvation has come even to this house!”

It is “today” that must find us doing all we can to spare each other either a gradual descent into spiritual disaster or a catastrophic collapse into it.

And it is “today” — any day — that will find our struggle ended, our suffering relieved, our journey fulfilled, our faith crowned with sight, as the one who bound us to him years ago draw us even deeper into his own heart and holds us there eternally.

Today is all we have. And therefore today we can expect it to happen.

                                                                         Victor A. Shepherd
June 1996