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True Grit

A Sermon by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.

Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

If you are a movie buff, you know The Academy Awards ceremony is scheduled for tonight. And I will make no secret of the fact that I hope the movieLincoln picks up lots of awards.

I’ve now watched the movie twice, and am more convinced than ever that were it not for our sixteenth president, we might not have a United States of America today.

Except for Jesus and William Shakespeare, more has been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other person in history. And much of that analysis has attempted to answer the question, “How did this lanky, self-educated lawyer born in the backwoods of Kentucky end slavery and hold our nation together?”

Some say it was his intellectual brilliance. Others say it was his political savvy. Some point to his considerable leadership skills. Still others say it was it his strength of character, including his humility and humor (Lincoln once said, “At least you know I’m not two-faced: if I had two faces I surely wouldn’t be wearing this one!”).

I say it was all of the above…and his true grit.

In a recent article about the movie, Lincoln, John Ortberg cites research documenting that our national spelling bee winners cannot be predicted by IQ or grade point average or test scores. Rather, the winners are those who have the grit to keep looking at flash cards and drilling and practicing long after everyone else quits. Grit is the ability to endure, to continue a worthwhile activity in the face of boredom, frustration, pain, fear, or lack of immediate gratification. And over time, grit is more vital to effectiveness than talent.

We get a clue about how Lincoln endured in the face of so many challenges in a document he wrote entitled, “Meditation on the Divine Will.” In that document, Lincoln agonizes privately over the excruciating length and the cost of the Civil War. He concludes that God has willed the war not to cease yet because God knows the war is the only instrument that will end slavery in America.

Based on that conclusion, Lincoln told his Cabinet he had made a “vow to his Maker” to see this purpose through. Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with God is a very complex subject we don’t have time to address here. But Lincoln felt so strongly that ending slavery was God’s calling upon his life that he persisted through hell and high water—as the movie shows—to accomplish that cause. Eventually, with the help of political allies, he succeeded and soon thereafter the war came to an end. Five days after the war ended, so did Lincoln’s life by the hand of an assassin on Good Friday in 1865. But the legend of Lincoln lives on.

As great as Lincoln’s grit was, I would submit the grit of Jesus was greater still. When Jesus was just a child, he undoubtedly had a growing realization that he was different somehow, called for a unique mission. But it would be thirty years before the launch of his ministry, thirty years of learning, praying, growing, and
working in a carpentry shop.

Surely it would have been easy for Jesus to forsake his calling and live like other ordinary Jewish men of his day. But Jesus persisted in his season of preparation for three decades.

Finally, it was time for Jesus to begin his ministry, and with the help of John the Baptist he had a magnificent baptism ceremony. But then Jesus ran into an immediate road block, doing battle with the devil for forty days in a seemingly Godforsaken wilderness. It was an intense struggle, and few if any people could have
withstood what Jesus did. But Jesus gave as good as he got, and he left the desert full of the Spirit for ministry.

Yet the obstacles to Jesus’ ministry continued to mount. Jesus’ hand-picked Cabinet that we know as his disciples didn’t understand him most of the time. Jesus’s own family thought he was nuts, and the citizens of his hometown tried to kill him after he preached his first sermon. As Jesus slowly made his way through towns and villages toward Jerusalem, teaching, healing, and casting out demons, you would think the current religious leaders would back him. Instead they plotted to have him killed. Meanwhile, political leaders like King Herod were taking notice of Jesus, and they were not amused by his talk of the kingdom of God.

But none of this was as difficult as the spiritual burden Jesus carried. He was literally carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Jacques LeClerq puts it this way: “Jesus is going to Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny. He knows it. From the beginning he has before his eyes all our sins which he will redeem. Now, little by little, day by day, their weight lies on him more heavily, for the moment approaches when he must pay (on) the cross. And he alone; all the others are busy with silly dreams.”

Abraham Lincoln was bent on saving America. Jesus Christ was called to save the world.

We get a good glimpse of Jesus’ grit in our passage today from Luke’s gospel. The wily Pharisees who have been verbally jousting with Jesus for some time warn Jesus that King Herod is after him. Are the Pharisees actually looking out for Jesus’ welfare, or is this a ruse to get Jesus out of their hair? We honestly don’t
know.

What’s striking is how Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ warning: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work’” (emphasis mine). Most commentators are quick to notice that the phrase “on the third day” foreshadows the eventual resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion. But I want you to notice the four words, “I finish my work.” That’s Jesus way of saying, “I’m here to do what I was sent to do. And not Herod or anybody else is going to stop me.”

That’s brave talk, especially when you remember Jesus knows Herod has just beheaded John the Baptist. Herod may be a fox rather than a lion, but he is still extremely dangerous. Yet what Herod doesn’t know is that during those thirty years of preparation, Jesus absorbed scriptures like Psalm 27 that say,

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

And so Jesus carried on…knowing that death would soon meet him, not at the hands of Herod but on a cross in Jerusalem. How do we explain true grit when we see it? Commitment to the cause and a refusal to fail are surely part of the equation. Lincoln knew if he quit or failed slavery would continue and the Union would not. So he carried on, knowing his cause would likely cost him his life.

Jesus was also committed to his cause – the stakes for humanity could not be higher. But there was more.

Jesus was possessed by God. He was so intimate with God and trusting of God that he refused to allow fear or discouragement to have the final word. Was Jesus ever afraid or discouraged? Of course. But his way of abiding in God enabled him to keep on keeping on and not be weary in well-doing.

Jesus was also possessed by a love for people that is beyond explanation. He loved people like a mother hen loves her chicks, even when they didn’t return that love. So he carried on, knowing His love would eventually get him killed.

Friends, I don’t what you are facing these days. But the wisdom of Lent says each of us is on a journey. And if we are following Jesus on that journey, we will need that same kind of grit that comes from the Holy Spirit of God, the grit that carried Lincoln and Jesus through thick and thin.

So as we leave this place today, having worshipped God one more time, having walked with Jesus one more time, I say to you: never give up. Don’t let the temptations of the devil, or the discouragement of your setbacks, or the fear of any adversary get you down.

In the name of Jesus and of all that is right in this world, never, ever give up!