Why I Am Not a Pessimist

Ephesians 5:15-17

My text today is very short, only three verses. And the verses themselves are short. They are often overlooked because they are sandwiched between two passages that are very well known. As is often the case in the Bible, little verses say a lot. The question posed in the title comes from the middle verse, which speaks of making the most every opportunity because the days are evil.

We need to hear what God is saying to us because we do indeed live in difficult times. The worldwide global economic crisis has cost trillions of dollars in lost wealth. People who only a year ago had reasonable prospects for the future have seen a lifetime of hard work wiped out. And with the loss comes rising uncertainty.

A week ago New York pastor David Wilkerson (author of “The Cross and the Switchblade”) issued a message predicting imminent catastrophe for America. He spoke of cities burning because of rioting and looting. This, he said, would be the judgment of God on our nation. I happened to read about his prophecy (if that’s what you want to call it) a day or so after he gave it. But I was struck hard when Peggy Noonan mentioned it in her weekly column in the Wall Street Journal. Under the title There’s No Pill for This Kind of Depression, Noonan begins by noting that the problem is not just the economic crisis. There is, she says, something much deeper.

I asked a friend, a perceptive writer, if he is seeing what I’m seeing. Yes, he said, there is “a pervasive sense of anxiety, as though everyone feels they’re on thin ice.” He wonders if it’s “maybe a sense that we’ve had it too easy in the years since 9/11 and that the bad guys are about to appear on the horizon.” An attorney in a Park Avenue firm said, “Things look like they have changed and may not come back.”

She goes on to wonder about the widespread use of antidepressants after 9/11. Did that somehow contribute to the loss of restraint that helped create the artificial euphoria that led to the irrational greed that fueled the current collapse? Maybe. Who knows? She points to a number of other factors:

Gun sales are up.
People are amassing cash and gold.
People are starting to grow their own food.
In Manhattan, church attendance appears to be up.

Something is happening. Yesterday a friend sent the warning of the Evangelical pastor David Wilkerson, of Times Square Church, that a new catastrophe is imminent. This is causing a small sensation in evangelical circles.

On top of that, people have lost faith in their government. They feel they have been lied to. How else to explain the mess we’re in? The pervasive cynicism about our leaders seems to cross party lines. Noonan spoke to a psychiatrist who analyzed the mood of his patients this way:

People feel “unled, overwhelmed,” the situation “seemingly unsalvageable.” The net result? He thinks what he is seeing, within and without his practice, is a “psychological pandemic of fear” as to the future of things-of our country, and even of mankind.

The column ends with these sobering words:

The moment we are living now is a strange one, a disquieting one, a time that seems full of endings.

Too bad there’s no pill for that.

Well now. What should we say about all this? First, I largely agree with her analysis of the current national mood. It’s hard to be optimistic when your retirement nest egg has suddenly vanished or your job has been downsized out of existence. Second, I have no idea whether David Wilkerson is right or not. If he is, then there are dangerous days ahead. Third, I do believe that times like these often occur at “hinge moments” of history, when God suddenly rearranges all the pieces on the board, so to speak. Perhaps we are “between trapezes,” having had our hands pulled away from the old, reaching out to the new, feeling suspended in space, not knowing if there is a net underneath.

We can’t predict what will happen when the stock market opens tomorrow morning. 

We don’t have a crystal ball to predict what will happen in six weeks, eight months or five years from now. The secret things belong to the Lord our God. And even on a small scale, we can’t predict what will happen when the stock market opens tomorrow morning. Or when or where the next war will break out.

How should we live in times like these?

Our text offers us three answers, each one filled with clear direction for the days to come. We face a strange situation in the world today, a seeming contradiction.

            Things are getting worse.
            There are great opportunities for the children of God.

Should we be optimists or pessimists?
Should we be somewhere in between?

Let’s see how God’s Word helps us answer those questions.

I. Watch Your Step.

“Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15).

To “be careful” means literally to walk accurately or precisely. The King James uses the old word “circumspectly.” It has the idea of walking on a narrow path along the side of a steep mountain. Keep your eyes open lest you take a wrong step and plunge to your death.

Most often we trip not in headlong pursuit of evil but in our headlong pursuit of good.  

Sometimes we are guilty of living too fast. We make too many snap judgments, too many hasty decisions, we speak too fast, we move too fast, we react too fast, we answer before we hear the question, we just keep on pressing the throttle of life forward because we’ve got too much on our plate and we dare not slow down. It’s even possible in the name of God to go too fast. We want to right the wrongs of the world too fast. We try to win the world too fast. Because we speak too quickly, our words are hasty and ill-timed. We go before we’re ready, speak before we have anything to say, teach before we’re taught, and build high before we build deep.

What happens when you hurry, hurry, hurry? You don’t watch where you’re going and you trip and fall. Most often we trip not in headlong pursuit of evil but in our headlong pursuit of good

The answer lies not in buying a planner or getting organized, but in those ancient words of the Psalmist. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). When we slow down enough to get God involved, we discover that he can do more through us than we can ever accomplish on our own.

II. Redeem the Time.

“Making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16).

The King James Version uses the word “redeem,” as in “redeeming the time.” To us redeem is a salvation word, but originally it comes from the marketplace and means to “buy back” or to “purchase” something. You “redeem” something when you buy it for your own use.

“These are desperate times!”

You’ll note that the NIV uses the word “opportunity” instead of time.  That’s because the Greek language has two basic words for time. One word refers to the passage of time in the sense that we talk about hours, minutes and second. “What time is it?” “It’s 6:22 PM. We’re leaving in eight minutes.” That’s one sort of time. The other Greek word refers not to the strict passage of time but to the moment of opportunity that requires action. It’s what Martin Luther King meant when he told the vast crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on a hot August day in 1963, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” It’s that phrase-the fierce urgency of now.”

But that’s not all. Paul says there is a particular reason we must “redeem the time” and grasp “the fierce urgency of now.” Check that little phrase at the end of verse 16. “Because the days are evil.” Here’s another translation. “These are desperate times!” (Msg)

We in the 21st-century have nothing on the ancient world.

Paul writes these words while chained to the guards in a Roman jail. The emperor was a man by the name of Nero, a perverted excuse for a king. Before too long he would set fire to Rome and blame the Christians. Later he would order Paul beheaded. And Ephesus was a city wholly given over to heathenism. In Paul’s day it was the most important city in the Roman province of Asia.  Located near the coast, Ephesus served as a center for international commerce. It was a prosperous, bustling, booming city. If there had been a Fodor’s Guide to Ephesus in the first century, it would have mentioned the famous Temple of Artemis. That was the glory of ancient Ephesus. Artemis was called Diana by the Romans. But they referred to the same thing. Artemis was the goddess of sex. Her temple was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The central portion contained a statue of a woman with many breasts, symbolizing unfettered sexual freedom. We in the 21st-century have nothing on the ancient world. The people worked themselves up into a religious frenzy and then followed their lustful desires. One ancient writer said of the Ephesians, “Their morals were lower than animals.” Astrology, black magic, and sorcery joined with sexual perversion to produce a degraded form of idolatry that held ancient Ephesus in its grip.

Meanwhile clouds of persecution are rolling in on the horizon. As the gospel spread, it encountered opposition in the form of entrenched interests that saw Jesus and his followers as  a threat. The crosscurrents of heresy threatened to undermine the purity of the gospel.

That’s what Paul meant when he said, “These are desperate times!”

What would he say today?

“Day of moral corruption offer special opportunities for the prosecution of great enterprises for the kingdom of God”

Evil days tempt us to despair, encourage us to give up, to say, “We can’t do it” because the day is dark, the hearts of men have grown cold, and there is nothing to be done. I for one refuse to think like that. Sometimes we give up too soon. “Day of moral corruption offer special opportunities for the prosecution of great enterprises for the kingdom of God” (G. Campbell Morgan). That’s good news. The things that make it difficult for us for live as Christians are the things that make us shine.

Hard times are blessings in disguise.
Days of moral compromise offer incredible opportunities for the gospel.

When the world around us seems to be going haywire, we have an incredible opportunity to display the life-changing power of Jesus Christ. The darker the night, the brighter the light shines.

III. Do God’s Will.   

“Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:17).

I have always been deeply moved when I watch the video of Martin Luther King’s  final speech, the one he gave in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. If you read it in context, it is a remarkably hopeful message, given the pressure of those momentous days. And because we know what happened the next day, we tend to miss the optimistic tone. Though you can sense the unrelenting pressure of opposition and death threats, underneath there is bedrock faith. Dr. King frames the whole message this way. Suppose God were to come to him and ask this question, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” He goes on to survey all of human history, starting with Egypt, going on to Greece and Rome, then skipping the centuries to the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, then on to the days of Abraham Lincoln, then on to the very troubled times of 1968 when the whole fabric of the nation seemed about to unravel. Here is his imagined answer to the Almighty’s imagined question:

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.

He goes on to talk about what it means to live at such a crucial moment of history and applies it to the situation with the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. As I read it this week, I could feel the power building to that final climax, the one where utters words both poignant and prophetic:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

A thousand years from now, we will still remember those words. I am always struck by this simple sentence in his final paragraph: “I just want to do God’s will.” Those seven words summarize how we all ought to face the future, understanding the fierce urgency of now, grateful for the privilege of being alive for such a time as this, wherever God has placed us:

Christians are both pessimists and optimists, but we are much more optimistic because though we see what is happening in the world around us, we know that Jesus Christ conquered the grave.

I just want to do God’s will.

 So, then, the final question. “Pastor Ray, are you an optimist or a pessimist?” Both, but mostly an optimist because I know that God is in control of the circumstances of life. Sometimes the answer depends on where you are at the moment. It’s like being in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. On Friday pessimism reigned. But on Sunday, as the truth slowly dawned that the Lord had risen from the dead, as that one great truth broke through, as they began to believe the best good news anyone would ever hear, sorrow turned to joy, grief turned to laughter, and despair gave way to hope.

We live on this side of the empty tomb!

So, yes, Christians are both pessimists and optimists, but we are much more optimistic because though we see what is happening in the world around us, we know that Jesus Christ conquered the grave. And because he lives, we too will live.

That brings me back to David Wilkerson and Peggy Noonan. While I share their concerns, and while I wonder what the future holds in the short term, I know what it holds in the long term. And that makes me ultimately a biblical optimist.

These are great days to be alive.

Exciting days.
Amazing days.
Uncertain days.
Frightening days.

All those things are true at the same time. When we see evil advancing in the world, keep in mind what Jesus said. “Let not your heart be troubled.” (John 14:1 KJV). After noted radio personality Paul Harvey died several weeks ago, I ran across one of his famous quotes:

In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.

Paul Harvey was right. There have always been times like these. And no matter what happens today, the promises of God will still be true tomorrow:

“The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation” (Exodus 15:2).

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

“There is no rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2:2).

“Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16).

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1 KJV).

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

“As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?” (Micah 7:18)

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

“Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4 KJV).

And here are two final verses (of hundreds that might be quoted from every part of the Bible). The first one is actually the next-to-the-last verse in the entire Bible:

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).

Carpe Deum. Seize the day for God!

And this is how we should live in light of these magnificent promises of God:

“Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Be encouraged.
Let not your heart be troubled.

Watch your step.
Redeem the time.
Seek to do God’s will every day.

Why be a pessimist when we’re living in the greatest days of history? Who knows but that we may be the generation that hears the trumpet call of God? Jesus may come back in our lifetime. If that is true, things will get better and worse at the same time. In any case, do not despair.

Carpe Deum.
Seize the day for God!

Main text for this sermon:
2009-03-18-Why-I-Am-Not-a-Pessimist

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