Monday, January 26, 2015

Soul Searching

Preached at First United Methodist Church, Bradenton, Florida
January 25, 2015


What do you think of when you hear the word “soul”?  Soul mate, soul music, soul food, I’m a soul man?

 What is your soul?  You have one you know.  All human beings do.  How many of you have prayed:  Now I lay me down to sleep.  I pray dear Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray dear Lord my soul to take.  Amen.  So what is it you want God to take and keep?   Or how about this, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength."    (Luke 10"27) What is it God wants you to love Him with?

 A lot has been written about souls.  But for today, this is what I’m talking about:  Humans are physical and spiritual beings.   A person’s soul is their spirit.  Our soul is our inner life.  It is the part of us that motivates us. The soul helps direct our thoughts, emotions and actions.  You have a soul, a spiritual side to your personhood, just like you have a physical side, an emotional side, a rational side.  Your soul is responsible for your will to live, your will to achieve, your will to love and be loved.  The soul is the seat of desire. The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh.  And a scholar named Hans Walter Wolff describes the soul as the “needy man”  …Your soul is a needy man, a needy woman….. We see to be limited in so many ways - in our intelligence, our strength, our energy, our morality, but there is only one area where human beings are unlimited. …. We always want more: more time, more wisdom, more beauty, more funny YouTube videos. This is the soul crying out. (John Ortberg. Soul Keeping, 82)   

 How do we satisfy the desires of our souls?  We do a little soul searching, right? Socrates did say that the unexamined life is not worth living.   Soul-searching means to think seriously about what is important to us and what to do about it.   In all our soul searching, we try to figure out what will make us happy, whatever you think that might be….

 But you have to admit that in all our soul searching, something is missing.  We seem to go down a lot of rabbit trails, try different things, don’t we?   A new job, a new car, a new house, a new spouse.  Gee, that almost sounds like a new Dr. Seuss book.  Anyway, we just can’t seem to get satisfactory answers on our own. I believe this is typified by the  British poet Mick Jagger as immortalized by the Rolling Stones, "I can’t get no, satisfaction.  I can't get no satisfaction, I can't get no satisfaction  'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try. I can't get no, I can't get no.  No, no, no, hey, hey, hey. I can’t get no satisfaction."

And we can’t get no satisfaction on our own, because God never intended us to.  God never intended us to be satisfied with a life without God.   In all of our soul-searching, God is not a disinterested party. God has placed a desire for Himself in our souls, a desire that we seem to want to fill with everything but God.  That’s what sin is all about, but more about that later.   

 History is full of other versions of I can’t get no satisfaction.  St. Augustine, 4th century wrote:  You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. (  Thomas Aquinas, 13th century, wrote that this neediness of the soul is a pointer to God. (Ortberg, 82)  Blaise Pascal, 17th century,  There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus. (

And this idea isn’t just something some philosophers from Augustine to Mick Jagger discovered in their own soul-searching.  From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is a record of humans trying to satisfy their souls with everything but God, and God waiting patiently to be welcomed into their lives. 

 Genesis.  The beginning.  Adam and Eve have done the one thing that God asked them not to do.  They disobeyed.  They sinned.  Did God stop the experiment creation and start over?  No, He didn’t.  Because though they could no longer sense God the way they had before their sin, the God came searching for them. 

Genesis 3:8-10 When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees. Then the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (NLT)

 Where are you?  Are you hiding from God? 

 And then at the end of the Bible (just before the maps and concordance)  we find in John’s Revelation,   Jesus sending a message to one of the churches, a church whose love for Jesus has become lukewarm:

 Revelation 3:20 Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. (NLT)

 Friends with God.  How cool would that be!  There was a painting of this verse outside of the pastor’s office in the church where I grew up.  Jesus knocking at a door.  And if you looked closely, you would see that there was no a door handle on the outside of the door.  The artist’s profound point is that only we can choose to open the door to God, or we can choose not to.  God will not force himself in, but He will keep knocking.  Do you hear God knocking on the door of your soul?  Will you let him in? 

And the highpoint in about the middle of the Bible, in this sacred record of the struggle between our souls and God, comes Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, God himself, who said he came to seek and to save what was lost.  He told stories about how lost sheep, lost coins and lost sons were all found.  Two of those  stories end with Jesus saying, there was was rejoicing in heaven over sinners (those separated from God) who repent (turn away from their self-centered soul-searching to God).  (See Luke 15)

 “We are all sinners.  We all fall short of the Glory of God.  If God has a standard, we all fall short.  We need someone to do what we cannot do for ourselves.”  Jesus did more than tell stories and give us great moral precepts.  He died for all our sins, and rose from the dead to unite us with  God.  Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me shall have eternal life, will not be judged, will have crossed over from death into life.”  (John 5:24)  God through Christ has done something for you that you cannot do for yourself.  God has done through Christ what he never intended for you do to on your own." (Andy Stanley, Something for Everyone,

 The entire Bible is about how we are sinners and God loves us anyway.  It’s about how we keep turning our back on Him, and He keeps trying to get our attention.  God wants to be a part of our lives infinitely more than we can imagine and God is never going to give up. 

 So how does this all work?  Jesus described it to man named Nicodemus.  (John 3) Nicodemus, another searcher for the truth, came to Jesus at night because he was afraid of what his friends, the other Jewish leaders, might think.  Consorting with the enemy, if you will.  Kind of like a Republican wanting to have a meaningful talk with the President, or a Democrat honestly seeking to talk with Speaker Boehner.  He went at night when no one would know.  And Jesus freaked him out when he told him he needed to be born again. 

 (Paraphrasing here) Not possible, said Nicodemus , I’m already here.  Jesus told him that it is not only possible but it is necessary.     Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. (3:6)   Remember, humans are both physical and spiritual beings. 

The wind (that is, the Spirit of God)  blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:8, NIV)

 As you know, wind moves from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure.  When you keep the door shut, God’s spirit just keeps moving around you, banging at the door.  But only when you open the door, will He come in.   God’s spirit joining with your spirit. Like Paul described to the church in Rome:  Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”[i] 16 For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:15-16)  

 The story of God searching for us doesn’t end with the Bible.  Let me tell you some real-life stories about how people and God reconnected in our lifetimes.

 (Note:  In the preached version, I did not  initially identify the people I was talking about in the sermon.  I extemporaneously summarized their stories.)
The first story was about Anne. 
You can read her story here:   or in her book, Travelling Mercies. 
I ended my description with her words:  

 I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along me heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my house, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “[Okay,]. I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”

 Here is Jack's story.  (He wrote a book about it, entitled Surprised by Joy.)    I ended my description with his words: 

 Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to “Spirit” and from “Spirit” to “God,” had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive. At each step one had less chance “to call one’s soul one’s own.” To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction. It brings God nearer, or near in a new way. And this, I found, was something I had not wanted. But to recognize the ground for my evasion was of course to recognize both its shame and its futility. I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.” (Surprised by Joy, 236)    

 And now Susie’s story.   Susie appeared to have it all.  Young, healthy, educated, with a wonderful, well-paying  job she loved.  She was married to her high school sweetheart.  They had a great house, great cars and not debt.  Life looked really good from the outside.  But Susie felt that something was missing in her life and in her marriage.   She had been raised in the church, the Methodist church.   She hadn’t rejected the God of her youth, but gave him an increasingly small role in her life.  Sunday’s were for doing laundry and prayers were of the “Help me, help me” variety that we all seem to say from time to time.  But as I said, Susie felt that something was missing, so in her soul searching Susie decided to read her Bible and on the way to work. Each day she would stop at a park near the office and read a few Psalms.  Then, one day, she got to Psalm 139 where she read this:  “You have searched me, Lord,   and you know me.”  And after the Psalmist David tells how God hunted him down, created him, never let him go, the Psalm ends:  “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. “

 And in that moment Susie knew that she was loved – not because she was a good boss, wife, daughter, friend, none of that.  All things she struggled so hard to earn.  She knew in that moment that she was simply loved for who she was, a forgiven child of God, and not for what she did or didn’t do.  Soon after she returned to church.  She knelt at the rail waiting for Holy Communion, the first time in a long time, and heard in the depths of her soul, welcome home.  

 In case you were wondering,  Anne’s story is that of Anne Lamott, best-selling author, and now elder in her Presbyterian church.  Her latest book is Small Victories:  Spotting the Improbable Moments of Grace.  Jack is CS Lewis, who went on to write of the most important books on Christianity in the 20th century, like Surprised by Joy, Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, and maybe you’ve heard of the Chronicles of Narnia….or seen the movies.   And Susie, in case you couldn’t guess is me.  That marriage ended in divorce.   I changed careers and became a pastor. And I married again to the most wonderful man on the planet. I am happier and more at peace than I could have ever imagined. 

 Each of these stories is marked by our neediness, and God’s loving desire to satisfy that need with Himself.  But the paths for each of us in our relationship to God are as unique as we are. 

 Every one of us, you included, has that neediness inside of us that we try to satisfy on our own – Anne tried with alcohol and drugs, CS Lewis with intellectual pursuits, me with plain old stuff and trying to please everybody. 

 But if we pay attention, the wind of God’s Spirit is always moving around us.  God will use what is unique in us and in our circumstances to draw us to Him. God’s soul connected with Anne’s soul through the gospel music pouring out of a little country church and a vision of Jesus in the depths of her sadness and in the hour of her need.  God’s soul reconnected with Jack’s soul through his interests, conversations with Christian friends, and his intellect.  God’s soul connected with my soul through His Word and in the Sacraments.  Each step in a process leading to the moment when we surrendered our lives to the love of God. 

 God met each of us in a different place, in a different way.  God never gave up on any of us, and God will never give up on you.  He wants you to believe that He is who He says he is. 

 Jesus told Nicodemus a great truth:  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16)

Anne believes.  Jack believes.  I believe.  We believe and in our belief the door to our souls opened, and God’s Holy Spirit moved into our lives.  Our souls are satisfied. 

 But what about you?  Is today the day for you to say Yes, Lord, I believe in You?  Is today the day for you to say, please Lord, make me yours and satisfying the longing of my heart.    As you can tell from my stories, you can say yes to God in the way that suits you.  There is no one size fits all way to do it.  It is up to you and God.   

 But sometimes we want a little help with the words.  So I’m going to end by offering you a prayer.  You can change the words.  You can ignore it.  You can tuck it away for later.  Perhaps, if you have already given your life to Christ, you can use it to make a little more room for Him. 

 (Please pray with me)  Heavenly Father, Blessed Lord Jesus, Holy Spirit,  Come into my life.  Thank you for loving me.   Thank you for never giving up on me.  I believe Jesus is the Son of God.  I believe he died for my sins.  I believe he rose from the dead.  I am a sinner, begging for forgiveness.  Help me turn away from my self-centered soul searching and put my trust in You.  You alone can satisfy my soul. Amen. 


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