Who do you look up to? That’s the question I’d like for us to think about this morning. Yes, I know it’s not good English to end with a preposition, but, hey, this is Southwest Arkansas. If I were to ask, “To whom do you look up?” you’d think I was crazy. So, with apologies to Betty Jo, whose pet peeve is dangling participles, let’s bend the rules just once, and ask: Who do you look up to?
It’s a fair question because the essence of what we believe and value is personified in those we look up to and admire: They portray what we’d like to be.
So, who do you look up to? As little kids we look up to our parents. Horace Bushnell says that, for young children, parents are like gods: They’re all-powerful, all-wise and, in most cases, all-present. Somehow, mom and dad always know the right thing to do and the right thing to say. They have the ability to solve problems and overcome just about any crisis.
Growing up, I was always amazed at my dad’s ability to fix things. He has a mechanical mind. Give him something that’s broken, and, before you knew it, it’ll be as good as new again. My mother was the doctor in the house. She could cure anything but the break of day. She’d treat superficial cuts and scrapes with Camphophenique ointment and a band-aid; internal problems I’d rather not mention she treated with Cod Liver Oil. We didn’t always appreciate her remedy, but it got the job done.
As little children, we look up to our parents and try our best to be like them. We dress in their clothes, practice their mannerisms and imagine ourselves walking in their footsteps.
As we get older, the circle expands to include the extended family: Grandparents, aunts and uncles – then teachers, pastors, civic leaders and neighbors. We see in others these same virtues of wisdom, patience and godliness we first saw in our parents, and these become our role models.
• My uncle Robert was quite an outdoorsman. He loved to go hunting and fishing, something my father never cared for. I was intrigued with his penchant for guns and ammunition. He used to load his own shells. Was I ever impressed by that!
• My uncle Earl had a great sense of humor. You could hear his belly laugh all the way down the street.
• In high school I looked up to my band director, Jon Barbarotto. He challenged me to excel on trombone and got me hooked on classical music.
One of my favorite teachers was Mrs. Sparks in 7th grade English. She was a kind, caring woman who loved us and wanted us to appreciate great literature and use proper grammar. (She would not approve of the sermon title for today!) She was a devout Christian, and she’d start each day by writing a Bible verse on the blackboard which we were to copy into the back of our notebooks. One of the verses I remember to this day from her class is Psalm 34:14: “Depart from evil, and do good. Seek peace, and pursue it.” Something 7th graders would do well to remember.
Who are some of the individuals you can remember looking up to as a kid?
As we get older, we become more selective. No longer bound by our immediate surroundings, we choose our heroes from the wider expanse of geography and history. We want to be like Albert Schweitzer, perhaps, or Florence Nightingale, or Andrew Carnegie, or Mother Teresa. Some of my heroes include Mikhail Gorbachev, who helped bring down the Iron Curtain without firing a shot; Dag Hammarskjöld, who personified the dream of a United Nations and a world of peace and mutual cooperation; Martin Luther King, who attacked the evils of racial prejudice with the truth of the gospel and the power of God’s forgiveness and love.
Who do you look up to? Who are some of your heroes? Make a list. Put their pictures up on your refrigerator. Read their biographies. More than likely, the essence of what you believe and value is personified in those you look up to and admire.
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Of course, part of the problem in looking up to others is that, invariably, they fall short of our expectations. We set them up on a pedestal, but they keep falling off. They continue to tarnish, no matter how feverishly we polish them.
When I first got out of college, I taught school. For a place to live, I rented a room in the home of an elderly woman named Mrs. Turner. She rented two rooms, one to me and the other to an American History teacher. We called her, Mamaw. It was a great arrangement – we bought the groceries and Mamaw did the cooking. We were like family. In the evening, we’d play checkers or sit in the living room and read or just talk.
Mamaw used to love to talk about religion. She’d say, “I’m a hardshell Baptist and proud of it.” But she had a problem: She wasn’t sure about her salvation. As she explained it, she’d gotten saved at a revival meeting when she was just a teenager. The evangelist was a handsome young man who wore a three piece suit and carried a pocket watch on a chain and was the most eloquent preacher she’d ever heard. “He was a real talker,” Mamaw said. When he gave the invitation, she gave her life to the Lord. It was a life-changing experience for her.
“So, what’s the problem?” I asked. Mamaw got a serious look on her face and said she’d found out later that, after each revival service, the evangelist went out and got drunk. How could she be sure of her salvation when it came at the hands of a scoundrel like that? I told her it didn’t matter. It’s God’s righteousness that matters, not ours. She nodded, but I’m pretty sure she wasn’t convinced. She’d so looked up to this young preacher that she was willing to entrust her soul to him, and he let her down.
That’s the problem, isn’t it? Sooner or later, those we look up to prove to be painfully human – just as human as the rest of us.
A couple of weeks ago, I ended the sermon with a quotation by Paul Tillich, one of the leading theologians of the 20th Century, and another of my heroes. A friend who gets my sermons by email wrote back and said, in effect, Mrs. Tillich probably held a lesser view of her husband, since he was known to have had a long-lasting affair during the bulk of their marriage. Ouch.
A hero for many people was Jerry Falwell. As you know, he died this week. Falwell will long be remembered as the man who motivated and coalesced what was to become known as the Moral Majority. I mentioned this to a friend, and here’s what he said:
“I respected his conviction and commitment. I will die not having started a college with 10,000 students with a faith commitment, with many going on foreign missions … One measurement of a man is what he leaves behind. Falwell set up homes for alcoholics and pregnant teens so they wouldn’t have to abort … On balance, (he) left the world a much better place, by my calculation.”
Did he have his faults? Of course, he did. But then, don’t we all?
Who do you look up to? That’s the question. And the problem is, whether your heroes are Presidents or statesmen, inventors or scientists, missionaries or philanthropists, they’re all subject to the same stigma of human sinfulness. They all have feet of clay, and, sooner or later, they’re apt to disappoint you.
So, who can you look up to? The Christian Faith has an answer: Jesus Christ. Jesus is more than a great teacher, prophet, miracle worker or a saint; he’s the Son of God, who died for our sins and rose from the dead that we might have the promise of eternal life.
And that’s what we celebrate today: This same Jesus who lived among us and died on the Cross ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and to reign over all creation as King of kings and Lord of lords. In the words of our opening hymn:
“Crown him with many crowns,
the lamb upon the throne;
Hark how the heavenly anthem
drowns all music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing
of him who died for thee,
And hail him as thy matchless king
through all eternity.”
The Good News of the gospel is that Jesus is the one person in all of life we can look up to who will never forsake us, never disappoint us, never let us down. Look up to Jesus and your faith will be anchored in the One who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. (Hebrews 13:8)
If you ever get a chance to visit the Holy Land, more than likely your tour will include a stop at the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. It’s a small, cylindrical building built around a rock that marks the historic spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven.
Now, I’ll have to tell you, when I went there, it left me cold. I have a hard time believing Jesus just, somehow, beamed up to heaven.
Have any of you been to see The Great Passion Play at Eureka Springs? I took a youth group there years ago. When it got to the part about the ascension, they hoisted Jesus up to the top of the pine trees by a system of ropes and pulleys. I could have howled. Give me a break!
Well, if you were the director, how would you portray this part of the story? While this probably wouldn’t please the crowd, I like to think of the ascension as simple as smoke from burning incense rising up into the atmosphere. It’s enough for me to imagine that Jesus went up on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, then simply faded from their sight.
However you describe it, what’s critical about the ascension is that it marked the point where Jesus’ days on earth came to an end. If the disciples were to see Jesus again, it would have to be in the faces of others. And this is where the story of the ascension speaks to me, for once we learn to look up to Jesus, we’re able to see him in the faces of those around us.
One of my favorite children’s sermons is the one in which the preacher asks the children, “Have you ever seen Jesus?” At first they all say yes, referring to pictures they’ve seen in their Bibles and Sunday school classrooms. The preacher explains that these are not actual photographs, but different artists’ ideas of what Jesus may have looked like. Besides, they’re pictures, and the question is, has anyone actually seen Jesus, face-to-face? They think this over and say no. The preacher asks, “Would you like to see Jesus?”, and of course, they all say yes. All the while the preacher is folding a piece of construction paper in half and cutting a half-circle out of the middle. When he finishes he holds up what looks like a picture frame with an oval in the middle. Then he takes the picture frame and holds it in front of the children’s faces, one at a time. With each child he says, “Look, here’s Jesus; this is what Jesus looks like!” At first, the children are amused and a little embarrassed. But soon they get the message:
“I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat.
I was thirsty, and you gave me drink…
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you
hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink?’
The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you,
inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,
you did it to me.'” (Matthew 25:31-40)
And this is what I hope you’ll take home with you today: To look up to Jesus is to see him in every person you meet; not just the heroes, but the least, the last and the lost.
As for those we hold in high esteem, first look up to Jesus, and then you’ll be able to look up to others, not because they’re perfect in every way, but because you’ll be able to see in them the presence of the living God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.