The Wrong Way Roundabout
Harry turned up for our very first Sunday when Free Baptist Church was born. Harry was one of the nicest people you would ever meet, a committed believer who is now with the Lord. He knew the Word of God, he tried to live it, and there was no question of his faith and love. Harry was indeed an ambassador for Christ. When you have a man like Harry in your church, you ask his advice on almost everything.
One of my favourite stories of Harry goes back to the time we had been back in the U.S. for a couple of months. I had been driving on the right-hand side of the road for two months, and all those old habits came to the fore again. On Saturday, Harry phoned to ask if I could give him a lift to church the next day — his car had broken down.
When I arrived to pick him up, he had walked out to the street to save me having to drive in to get him (typical of Harry, thinking of others). He was standing on the right side of the road so I pulled over to that side, and he walked around the car and got in.
It was so good to see him. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months, and there was much to say, so as soon as he was in the car, we started talking, and I was very focused on the conversation as we pulled away from the kerb.
Yes, I had been driving on the right-hand side for two months, and I was to the right after he got in the car, and we were talking. So of course, I drove off on the right-hand side of the road. It was Sunday morning, there weren’t any other cars, and I just drove.
I came to the end of the street, signaled to the left (from the right side of the road), and as there were no cars, I turned left, onto the right hand side of THAT road. Another block, and it got tricky — a roundabout. Something didn’t seem quite right, but Harry and I were talking, and I signaled to the left (from the right-hand side) and then went anti-clockwise around the roundabout! When leaving the roundabout, I dutifully indicated to the right, and went off down THIS road on the wrong side. Like I said, something didn’t seem right….
On this road, there are always cars parked on the left hand side, but not the right, and you have to move out around them. Suddenly, the lightning-bolt penetrated my mind — I’m not having to move out to go past these cars. I quickly moved over to the proper side of the road, and said, “I’m driving down the wrong side! I guess I’d better get over to the proper side of the road.”
Harry said something I’ll never forget: “I wondered when you would move over.” I said, “Why didn’t you say something?” and he said, “I didn’t think it was my place, since you were giving me a lift!”
The Bay Bridge Collapse
On 17 October 1989, at 5:04 pm, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay area. Sixty-seven people died, most of them in Oakland when the upper deck of Interstate 880 collapsed, crushing many rush hour commuters in cars on the lower deck.
The upper deck of the San Francisco Bay Bridge collapsed (pictured). Interstate 80 connected San Francisco and Oakland across the bay. No one was killed in the initial collapse, and some cars that went over the edge landed safely on the lower deck. (In the picture, these drivers were moving from the right hand side of the picture to the left, so they just dropped down through the gap and landed on the lower deck.)
Tragically, due to a miscommunication by emergency workers, some cars were routed back onto the upper deck at Yerba Buena Island, going the opposite of the normal direction toward the collapsed section. One driver, at least, recognised the danger, stopped, and turned around. Someone in that car filmed the following, which was played on news broadcasts, and for many became the predominant lasting memory of the earthquake. (Warning: the following video includes a “watered-down” instance of taking the Lord’s name in vain, so some may prefer to turn the sound off.)
The woman speaking on the video is obviously stunned, but once she realises what is happening, and that people are driving over the edge, her response is the obvious and natural one: “We need to go help!” Sadly, the car that went over the edge was going the opposite direction of the cars that had just dropped down, and smashed into the collapsed section of bridge. The driver died, and the passenger was badly injured.
Is Silence Moral?
The woman who filmed that video was heavily criticised by many people for filming rather than warning people. Maybe she couldn’t have done anything to stop that car. Maybe someone with her was trying to do so. Maybe she didn’t know that more cars were coming until it was too late — there shouldn’t have been any cars coming, after all.
The specifics of that case aren’t important, except that it illustrates my main point: silence is immoral, if you are able to warn someone headed towards death. People may ignore your warnings, but your responsibility to warn of the danger is obvious. If you know the danger, you need to warn those who aren’t aware of it.
If someone is driving the wrong way around a roundabout, it certainly is “your place” to say something. Harry and I laughed about it later. The danger was minimal, because there wasn’t any traffic, but that doesn’t change the responsibility. Harry was being “too nice” — any reasonable person would want him to say something. In fact, his responsibility was greater because he was a passenger in the car — it was “his place”. I had invited him into a place where he would be expected to say something if I were acting dangerously.
Knowing Harry, I suspect he was trying to figure out a diplomatic way to say it, rather than actually wanting to neglect his duty. Diplomacy would have been so like him — but it’s hard to be diplomatic when your message essentially boils down to, “Stop being an idiot!” 🙂 It would have been better to just say it — my ego would have survived the blow.
Ambassadors — a Serious Responsibility
If we are ambassadors for Christ (II Corinthians 5:20), we have a very serious responsibility. Part of the message God has entrusted us to carry is a warning, and He holds us responsible to deliver the warning. Ezekiel 3:17-19 records God’s message to the prophet Ezekiel, and the principle of accountability is the same for those of us who are now ambassadors for Christ:
17 Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. 18 When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. 19 Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.
The Scriptures talk about this responsibility as a debt — “I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also” (Romans 1:14-15).
The Warning Part of the Gospel
If the need to give the Gospel is a debt, and part of the Gospel is a warning, then giving warnings is an obligation, a debt. Going back to last week, I posted that as ambassadors for Christ our message has three main components:
- The need for reconciliation with God
- His provision for reconciliation
- His great desire for reconciliation
The first is, “The need for reconciliation with God.” You cannot be honest about that without it being a warning. Because of a person’s sin (the wrong that he does), his relationship with God is marred. This is where my “Ambassadors for Christ” series of posts touches on my sermon summaries. One of my posts on last Sunday’s sermon dealt with this extensively, and I wanted to wait to post on the ambassador’s responsibility to warn until I had dealt with that summary.
In part two, I talked about the command to “abhor” or detest evil. I gave five reasons to hate sin, and without taking the time to develop them again (see that post for the Scripture behind them), I want to just repeat the last three of those five reasons:
- Because Sin is Self-Destructive.
- Because it Makes God Angry with Us.
- Because it Creates a Barrier Between Us and God.
We have to warn people that their sin has badly messed up their relationship with God. They are in serious trouble. They are headed around the roundabout the wrong way, driving towards a collapsed bridge section. Their sin is not only self-destructive, but it has come between them and God, to the point that the God who loves them is angry with them — and He is the Judge.
Often, the hardest person to warn is the person that is close to us. We love them, so we don’t want to upset them. These people, of course, are the ones we most need to warn. They’ve invited us into their lives as surely as I invited Harry into my car. We may need to find a charitable way to warn (my suggestion for Harry to say “Stop being an idiot!” probably isn’t a good plan :)), but saying nothing isn’t an option. Maybe something doesn’t seem quite right to them (like me going around a roundabout), but whether that is true or not, we can’t remain entirely silent.
Someone might say, “But people don’t want to hear about their sin and what comes of it.” In all probability, drivers on the Bay Bridge didn’t want to hear that they couldn’t get home by going over it, either — but the consequences of driving that way were drastic. The consequences of sin are eternal — as a friend of mine once said to someone who was considering spiritual things, “You’re dead a long time.” Just because someone doesn’t want to hear doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t get a warning.
We would be more comfortable if our “ambassadors” message didn’t include the warning component. It’s so much easier to talk about God if we can portray Him as “Father Christmas in the Sky”, who dishes out good things right and left, and never has any expectations that would make people uncomfortable. Who would be offended by that? People will like us better if we don’t step on their toes, after all. Everyone likes to be liked. Maybe we should just tone down that “warning” part of it? If we do, probably more people will listen, after all.
If we take that approach, we are ambassadors that have “gone native”, adopted the thinking of the foreign nation, rather than of the Sovereign who sent us. We aren’t ambassadors for Christ at all, if we leave the warning out. We’re not giving the true Gospel of Christ. It isn’t “good news” (the meaning of the word “Gospel”) if people don’t even know about the problem it is solving.
How we give that warning is important. Someone who walks around with a sign that says “Repent!” may be giving a warning, but he is leaving out or obscuring the other two key points of our message, God’s provision for reconciliation and His desire for reconciliation. So we want to give the warning rightly, but whatever we do, we can’t leave it out.
Hell, Fire, and Brimstone?
Harry liked to pass out leaflets, and one of his favourite leaflets said this: “Life is Short; Death is Sure; Sin the Cause; Christ the Cure.” He may not have been great at wrong-way roundabout warnings, but he knew the most important warning to give. Sin brings death — but Christ provides the solution.
A few years ago, Harry died. That day, he and his wife had driven to Glasgow for a cousin’s funeral. On the way back, he told Lynn, “When I die, I hope Jon preaches hell, fire, and brimstone!” In the evening, he had a heart attack, and went home to be with the Lord.
I didn’t really preach a hell, fire, and brimstone message at his funeral. It wasn’t the time or the place for that. My time was limited, and I needed to talk about “Christ the Cure”. But I certainly did warn of hell, of sin’s eternal consequences, of the fact that life is short and death is sure. I trust that everyone there heard a warning of the dangers of sin, and of going through life, and ending life, without Christ.
A stereotypical hell, fire, and brimstone message is often long on the warning part of our message and short on the reconciliation part. I’ll be writing more about the reconciliation part. But make no mistake — an ambassador for Christ cannot afford to leave out the warning part. Life is short, death is sure. Sin is the cause of death, and it causes spiritual death as well, eternal punishment in the lake of fire. Hell, fire, and brimstone is real, and most of the people we know are driving towards a collapsed bridge that leads there.
People may not think that is a charitable message — but the charitable message on the Bay Bridge in October 1989 was “STOP! THE BRIDGE IS OUT!” That was true whether drivers wanted to hear it or not. It’s not charitable to give the message in a way they are likely to ignore — but the worst violation of charity is to neglect to give the message at all.
The bridge is out, ambassadors. Spread the word.