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Reflections of Survivor

Rom 3:23-26

05/26/02 Trinity Sabbath

by Tony Grant



I am a fan of the CBS program "Survivor." There have been four editions of the program, beginning with Survivor Pulau Tiga, then Survivor Outback, Survivor Africa and now Survivor Marquesas. Survivor Marquesas concluded in a most unsatisfactory way with a two hour finale last Sunday Night.

For those of you not familiar with the program, let me summarize the way it works. It begins with sixteen strangers in some harsh wilderness location. They undergo all sorts of tests and challenges for a period of a little over a month. And periodically, they vote someone out of the tribe. The winner, the last one standing, gets a million dollars. All sorts of relationships develop during a "Survivor." Alliances are forged, bonds are formed, friendships are made. On the other hand, hatreds develop. There are verbal battles and skirmishes, and plenty of human ugliness and meanness is on display . The program is an interesting human laboratory, but ordinarily I would not burden you with my interest in "Survivor," except that the finale last Sunday night exposed a deep human problem that we need to think about.

At the conclusion of Survivor Marquesas, Vecepia Towery, the 36-year-old office manager from Portland, Oregon, became the Sole Survivor and winner of one million dollars. Vecepia is an outspoken Christian. She is always talking about how the Lord is with her, she was often in prayer, and talked about Jesus--all of which is well and good. But you should also know that among the sixteen contestants of Survivor Marquesas, Vecepia had perhaps the worst record for backstabbing, lying, and deceiving.

Even in the finale, this was painfully obvious. It was down to three people and Veceipa made an alliance with Kathy to vote off Nyleh. Within a matter of hours, she made another alliance with Nyleh, turned on Kathy, and voted her out of the game. That was not the only time she did that kind of thing. Sean was her best friend among the survivors. She voted against him also. So this dubious was of behaving was her history throughout the game. Yet throughout the game she kept talking about how wonderful the Lord is. In the end, I was wincing whenever she talked about Jesus, because she was doing harm to the faith. It does not help Christianity for someone on national TV to say, "I love the lord, here turn around so I can put this knife right between your shoulders." Not every testimony for Jesus is a good testimony.

There was such a gap between Vecepia's talk and her walk that it was obvious to her fellow contestants, and they confronted her with it in the final episode. Tammy Leitner said sarcastically, "You beat me at my own game. You lied better than I did, you manipulated better than I did, and you deceived everybody better than I did. So congratulations."

But the confrontation did not seem to effect Vecepia. She sat there and smiled. During a post-"Survivor" interview, she said, "I had the feeling that God would lead me (to victory), and he did." She never understood her problem. Now of course I do not know what was going on in her mind, and I hope that I am wrong, but at least outwardly it appeared that she never understood that what really ticked off some of the others was that she talked one way and acted another. Vecepia seemed to lack that moral sense that would allow her to realize the discrepancy between saying and doing. Understand that it was not just that she lied, cheated, and backstabbed. All the contestants did that. It was that she was so self-righteous about her lying, cheating, and backstabbing.

She lacked a sense of personal sin. She was missing that spiritual attitude that would allow her to look at her actions and realize the sinfulness of what she was doing. It is not an unusual problem.

Woodrow Wilson

Let me do a little history. I know that no loves a history geek, and yes, I am a history geek but bear with me. Go back to WWI. The war began in Europe in 1914. The United States wisely stayed out of it. We could not understand why we should care if some Austrian Archduke was assassinated in Bosnia, and certainly we were not going to fight about it. Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912. He opposed the war. He was re-elected in 1916 on the slogan "he kept us out of war," with the promise to continue to do the same. Wilson thought of himself as a man of peace, and talked peace. A year later, April 2,1917, he led us into WWI. It was one of the most glaring betrayals of the people who voted for him in American history.

But it does not end there. Wilson went before Congress in January 1918, to enunciate American war aims. He gave one of the most famous speeches in world history—called "Wilson’s Fourteen Points." The fourteen points were intended to establish a moral, peaceful society after the war. Each point was noble, ethical, and good. The last, fourteenth point, wanted to establish "A general association of nations...affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike."

After the Germans signed the Armistice in November 1918, the United States was in a position of dominance in the world. The great European nations had lost an entire generation of young men. American losses were comparatively light, and American industry was untouched by the war. Moreover, Woodrow Wilson by his virtuous words in the fourteen points speech, had inspired people around the world. He was regarded as the foremost statesman of the time, and he was the one person in the world who had the power to actually do something to produce a peaceful world society. Unfortunarely, none of the fourteen points were ever adopted by anyone, not even by the United States. Wilson frittered away his advantages, including his reputation, and wound up helping to produce a skewed state of affairs in Europe that led directly to the rise of the dictators- Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler--and thus directly led to WWII. Wilson, of course, is not totally to blame for WWII, but certainly he was the one person after WWI who was in a position of power to do something, and who had said he would do something—though in fact, he did pretty much the opposite of what he said.

Now Wilson has his supporters and apologists who tell us that he could do not other than he did. Wilson was his own chief supporter. He always felt that he was a man of peace and good will, and somehow he had been totally defeated by circumstances. He had been forced into war. He had been unable to put into practice any of his high-minded rhetoric. He never got it.

Two of Wilson's contemporaries were Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Mahatma Gandhi. Freud and Gandhi were about as unlike as any two people in the world. The German, Sigmund Freud, was the founder of modern psychiatric practice. Mahatma Gandhi was a leader in India’s independence movement, but is better known as founder of the twentieth century's civil disobedience movement. As I said no one would expect Gandhi and Freud to agree on much of anything--both of them agreed that Woodrow Wilson was a hypocritical moralist. Freud was so outraged that he co-authored with William C. Bullitt a book on Wilson. Freud was convinced that Wilson was in need of mental help because he was unable to make the connection between high words and Low deeds. Both Freud and Gandhi saw in Wilson a man who was thought to be the embodiment of peace but who proved to be a man of deep hypocrisy and the greatest threat to peace.

Hypocritical Moralist

Let me explain what a hypocritical moralist is. It is a person who talks in high flown moralistic terms about what we ought to do, and then acts without any morals. Understand that such folks are not deliberately or consciously hypocritical. They are not con artists, they are not saying, "I am going to pat you on the back so I can pick your pocket." It never occurs to them that they are hypocritical. After all, they have all these morals and they will be ever so happy to tell you about their morals at great length. But they never make the connection between what they are saying and what they are doing. It is almost as if when their personality was put together, something got left out. They never got an essential quality. They never got a sense of personal sin. They never understood that the problem is not circumstances, or someone else, they are the problem.

I can say this in traditional Presbyterian terms. Hypocritical moralists are people who never receive the Holy Spirit, never have a conviction of their own sins, hence they never can come to the gospel, and never were predestined to be among the people of God.

"The Saddest Word"

Clarence Edward Macartney (1879-1957) was a great Presbyterian preacher of the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote a sermon entitled "The Saddest Word." He begins by saying,

What is the saddest word in the Bible and in human speech? Some thought it was Death; others, Hell; others , Depart; and many voted for Lost. But what is the saddest word? What is the word that is the fountain of woe, the mother of sorrows, as universal as human nature, as eternal as human history? What is the word that is the cause of all war and violence and hatred and sorrow and pain? What is the word that is man's worst enemy? What is the word that nailed the Son of God to the Cross? That word is, Sin.

As you can tell Clarence Macartney was an eloquent preacher, and unlike the other folks I have been talking about, he had a sense of sin. He knew that without this sense of sin, we can never come to the gospel. Now I beat up on poor Vecepia pretty good, and Woodrow Wilson has been dead for three quarters of a century so we have no great need to talk about his sins and shortcomings. But understand that I am not really talking about them today. I am talking about ME. I would like to make this as personal as I can. I can never come to the gospel. I can never understand the cross of Christ--without a deep and abiding sense of personal sin.

What is my relationship to God? God hates my sins. God hates my moral hypocrisy. My high talk and low living makes me ugly to God. My sins so stain my life that God cannot bear to look upon me. God shudders at my ugliness, and when I talk about Jesus under such circumstances, I am an abomination. I have no right to take the name of the Son of God on my lips, and doing so, I bring upon myself the wrath of God. When the Apostle Paul says,, "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." He is saying to me: Tony Grant, you are the one who has sinned, you are the one who has nothing of the glory of God.

And understand the depths of that word "sin." Macartney is right. Sin is "the saddest word." Look at the destruction it has wrought in human history. More importantly looke at the destruction that it has wrought in our lives, in my life. If God cries, God cries over sin.

And understand that sin is such a part of our nature, is such a part of the human condition that we can never be rid of it. If I were to bring a therapist before us today to talk to us about her work, she would tell us that a major part of her work is helping people to deal with things they have done wrong years ago, maybe even decades ago, that have so twisted their lives that they are unable to fully live here and now. Now a therapist would not use a term like sin, but we are talking about the same thing. Sin twists us, makes us less than we ought to be, makes us ugly misshapen things that are not only unacceptable to God, but that are even unacceptable to ourselves. We are enemies of God and enemies of ourselves.

And it is only when I understand this that I can come to Christ. This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 3. After having told us, what rotten people we are, he tells us that we lack something--we lack the glory of God, that is to say that we have no righteousness, we have no goodness, that we can bring before God and brag about and be happy about. We cannot say to God, "Lord, I did well today." We did not.--not by God's standards. We might have done well by our standards, but that does not count here.

Let us get to the point: because of that sad word--sin--nothing in us can make us in any way acceptable to God and the first step in salvation is to realize this.

Notice that I began the reading today with the last part of v22: "For there is no difference." There is no difference, no distinction among people with regard to the sad old problem of sin. We are all alike in that we are all that sinner Paul is talking about. Thus nothing is left for any of us but to perish under the wrath of a just God.

But having made that awful point, Paul moves on to some good news, saying that we are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

What is Paul saying. Salvation has nothing to do with what a good and righteous person I am. In fact, the first part of salvation is the recognition that I am not good, I am not righteous. Again, to use traditional Presbyterian theology: God gives me the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit convicts me of my sins, causes me to realize that I am the problem. When I do realize that, then I can throw myself at the foot of the cross, and receive as a gift of God, the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. The redemption is not in me, of me or by me. It is in Christ--to whom God calls me by his Spirit.

The Mourner’s Bench

Unfortunately, what has happened to day in much of the church’s teaching is that this process of salvation of has been shortcircuited, and the sin part somehow gets left out. We are told that I must make a decision for Christ. And the idea is that this is my decision, this is something I do. Again we are told that I must live for Christ. Again that is something I am doing. And the whole point of what Paul is saying is that nothing of what I am doing is ever going to make me acceptable to God.

In some denominations, as you probably know, it is the practice that at the end of the sermon, the minister gives an invitation for folks to come down to the front of the church, and make their profession of Christ. Presbyterians do not do much of that because we figure it was all predestined anyway. But, in any case, even that practice has changed over the years.

It used to be that churches that did that sort of thing had a mourner’s bench--a long wooden bench down in front of the pulpit. When the invitation to come forward was given, the invitation was not to profess Jesus as savior, but to mourn our sins at the mourner’s bench. People would come forward and kneel and confess with tears, "God be merciful to me because I know what I am. I am the sinner you have condemned." And when the people had this terrifying sense of transgression, when they had nothing left but faith, they were ready to receive the gift of God--salvation through Jesus Christ.

Now what about you and me? Have we come to that point? Have we come to the mourner’s bench, to an awareness of our sin, so that we are ready receive that gift? I certainly am. I hope you are too. Amen.


For Gandhi and Freud on Woodrow Wilson, see Gandhi’s Truth by Erik H. Erikson (W.W. Norton and Company, New York, London, 1969) 436.

On Clarence Macartney's Sermon, see Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, Volume Nine, (World Books Publisher, Waco Texas, 1971) 118.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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