The Spirit presents opportunities for growth in character. It is crucial not to miss them.

During the troubled years of the Second World War the Italian forces were driven out of Eritrea in North Africa. In an effort to make the harbor unusable to the Allies, the Italians filled great barges with concrete, and then sank them across the entrance to the harbor. When the Allies entered, their problem was to remove the barges to make use of the harbor.

They did this in a very ingenious way. They sealed great empty gas tanks of the sort oil refineries use in storing fuel, and then they floated them in the sea above the sunken barges. When the tide was out, they chained the floating tanks to the barges. When the tide came in, the tanks exerted their tremendous buoyancy to tug the barges free from the bay’s sucking sand. It was then relatively easy to clear the harbor for Allied shipping.

Think of the power in that! The barges were chained to the tanks. The tanks were dependent upon the tides. The tides were pulled by the gravitational attraction of the moon, and the moon was moving in accord with the whole cosmos. The tides exercise tremendous, unimaginable, dynamic power.

Shakespeare emphasizes this in the fourth act of Julius Caesar. Brutus, trying to enlist Cassius in his aid, refers to the power of the tides, and then adds another serious consideration concerning them:

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat;

And we must take the current when it serves

Or lose our ventures.

Shakespeare is saying that the tides not only have great power, but that they also cannot be stopped or retrieved. Their lifting strength comes for but a few hours and then is gone. And if we miss the flood, then we will be left in shallows and in miseries, having lost our ventures.

Let us now go to a place that is 35 miles inland. It is a garden called Gethsemane. Jesus has come there on the same night in which he was betrayed, for prayer. Judas has already gone to betray him. Jesus leaves eight of the disciples at the gate of the garden, and three (those closest to him: Peter, James, and John) join him in a kind of inner glade. And Jesus urges them to pray with him.

Then he goes apart, throws himself out flat upon the earth, and prays that the cup of a whole world’s sin might not be forced upon him. He is in a tremendous agony of spirit. All the hideous hurt of the world’s history is flowing through the single channel of his great heart. Having so prayed, he goes back to the disciples for some word of encouragement, and finds them asleep. “Could you not watch,” he asks, “even for an hour? Watch and pray, lest you yourselves enter into temptation; your spirit is willing but your flesh is weak.”

And again he goes apart to pray. This time, the Scriptures say, his prayer was so intense that his sweat came as it were like great drops of blood falling in a kind of crystalline rosary at his feet. And once again he goes back to the disciples, seeking some word of support, but once again he finds them asleep. This time he permits them to remain asleep (that’s a very significant detail in the story), and goes back to pray alone.

A few minutes later he sees torches flickering through the branches of the olive trees. The soldiers of the high priest have come. He goes back to his disciples and says, “Arise. My betrayer is at hand.” He is led off to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, and the disciples are left hiding among Gethsemane’s bushes. They are left in the shallows and they are left in miseries, because they have missed the tide.

Growth In Character

First, they missed the tide of opportunity to grow in character.

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Not long ago a young man asked me why so little thought is given to character today. Probably there are several factors: one concerns the dominance of behavioral psychology—which says that character is nothing more than the influence of our environment. Then, too, moral relativism has settled across the land like some thick, stinking fog so that there are no absolutes recognized as being right or wrong. And those who are psuedo-sophisticated laugh at the very notion of character. So it should not surprise us that there is so little serious talk of character, let alone focus on its growth.

But we all need to grow in character, and we need also to recognize that such growth cannot occur at every moment and under every circumstance. There are tides in the development of character. Catch them and growth is yours; miss them and you are left in shallows and in miseries.

My first pastorate was in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a city famous at that time for the world’s largest steel tube-rolling mills. They created a seamless tube that was unparalleled. Often I stood in the command module of one of those great machines (called a pulpit, incidentally) with the machine operator. I would see a great serpent of molten metal come slithering down into the machine, where it would be chopped off. Then the machine would grasp it by its ends and begin to spin it; by centrifugal force that bar of molten metal would open from the inside out, forming a perfect tube of steel, without seam or blemish.

“What is the most important ingredient in the process?” I occasionally asked those directing the machines. The answer was always the same: “It’s the temperature of the metal. If it is too hot, it will fly apart. If it is too cold, it will not open as it ought. Unless you catch the molten moment, you cannot make the perfect tube.”

Just so. Unless we catch those molten moments when character can develop, we miss our opportunity. The disciples missed such an opportunity in Gethsemane. They could have seen how Jesus handled suffering and hurt. They had the chance to see him face ugliness straight on—not run away from it, or attempt to deny it, but to confront it and so to defeat it. In observing him they could have learned about courage, and patience, and hope, and endurance, and pity, and mercy, and fortitude. But they slept, and so missed the tide.

I do not know what would constitute a molten moment for you. It might be your own suffering, or the death of someone you very much love. Perhaps it is some inner urge you cannot explain—the voice of conscience. Maybe it is the example of someone you admire; a bit of Scripture; a piece of lace you find, which once belonged to your mother; a letter from an old friend; the words of a sermon. It is whatever suddenly causes within you some desire to expand your character beyond what you have known before. Claim that moment. Don’t sleep through it.

Growth As Children Of God

The disciples in Gethsemane also missed the opportunity to grow as the children of God. Any one of us can strike a match. Any one of us can light a candle. Any one of us can ignite a bonfire. But no one of us and no group of us, and not all of us together, can at will command the flaming power of the Holy Spirit of God. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit comes and goes like the wind, utterly outside any direction or control from us. And there in Gethsemane, that night, the Holy Spirit was moving. His hot breath filled that place. And the disciples slept through it. Notice that while Jesus wakened the disciples the first time, he did not waken them the second time. In Matthew 26:44 we are told that, finding them sleeping again, he went away. In other words, one cannot depend on the Holy Spirit of God to interrupt in such dramatic fashion each and every time. If we turn away from the kindling power of the Spirit, we may never know that power again.

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Think of this in terms of that great space shot when, a few years ago, we sent a sophisticated space vehicle out to take pictures of the planet Jupiter. For more than two years it moved toward its objective. Then came a time of closest approximation. In those moments the cameras on board the vehicle took and sent back to us remarkable pictures of Jupiter. Afterward, having completed its task, the vehicle continued on out into space, and it continues so until this very minute. Never again will it come close to Jupiter.

Just so there are times when we come very close to God, and the hot breath of his Holy Spirit is all about us. And in that time of closest approximation, let us claim what it is to be a child of God, for if we miss that moment, it may never come for us again.

David Brainerd, the great missionary to the American Indians, was on one occasion witnessing to a chief who was very close to deciding for Christ. But he held back. Brainerd got up, took a stick, drew a circle in the soft earth around the chief, and said, “Decide before you cross that line.”

Why this urgency? Because Brainerd recognized that at that moment that chief was close to God. If he missed that moment he might never be so close again.

Every Sunday I witness in a church whose congregation is 217 years old. We are now worshiping in our fourth building, which is 85 years old: white marble floors, gray granite stone, Tiffany windows all about, every inch of woodwork mahogany—architecture rooted in craftsmanship. That sanctuary has heard a thousand million prayers. If somehow the great beams that span the life of that building could chorus together, they might well speak of countless people who sat there not far from the kingdom, because the Spirit of God was moving. But many did not claim that molten moment. They missed the tide, and they have never been so close again.

It is said that Satan once called together the emissaries of hell, and told them he wanted to send one to earth to aid women and men in the ruination of their souls. He asked who would volunteer. One creature came forward and said, “I will go.”

And Satan said, “If I send you, what will you tell the children of men?”

He said, “I will tell the children of men that there is no heaven.”

And Satan said, “They will not believe you, for there is a bit of heaven in every human heart. And in the end, everyone knows that right and good must have the victory. You may not go.”

Then another came forward, darker and more foul than the first. And Satan said, “If I send you, what will you tell the children of men?”

And he said, “I will tell them that there is no hell.”

And Satan looked at him and said, “Oh, no; they will not believe you. For in every human heart is a conscience—an inner voice that testifies that not only will good be triumphant, but that evil will be defeated. You may not go.”

Then one last creature came forward, this one from the darkest place of all. And Satan said to him, “And if I send you, what will you say to women and men to aid them in the destruction of their souls?”

And he said, “I will tell them that there is no hurry.”

And Satan said, “Go!”

That spirit is still abroad on the face of the earth. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Missed, and we are left “in shallows and in miseries.” The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Awake, because the tides may be running for you at this very moment. Don’t miss riding those tides.

Growth In Serving Jesus

Those disciples in Gethsemane also missed the opportunity to grow in friendship with Jesus. It is wonderful to have friends, especially in time of trouble. When we are battered by the hammer of hardship, we need our loved ones close. That’s the reason Jesus (who is most often recorded in the Scriptures as going off to pray alone) on this occasion took his disciples with him. He knew the deep agony of spirit that was going to be his, and he wanted their comfort close; he wanted to feel their shoulders beside his own. But they slept.

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When he came back the first time from his prayer, his robe was dirty. He had thrown himself out upon the ground. But there was no one there to brush him off or to give him words of love. When he came back the second time, his sweat was like great drops of blood, but there was no one awake to wipe away that perspiration or to give him a word of encouragement. To all his other burdens was added the burden of loneliness.

It is a tragic irony that this Christ who was filled with compassion—this one who looked upon the multitudes and saw them as sheep without a shepherd, this one who took the separated and united them, who healed the sick, who uplifted the broken, who gave himself in the service of others—in the moment when he needed service, found none. Those disciples never had such an opportunity again.

Don’t miss the tide that gives you the opportunity to serve the Jesus in others. On this same date next year, some whom we know will no longer be with us. They will have either gone from this earth or moved far beyond our reach. Perhaps there is on your mind right now someone to whom you ought to speak: a word of encouragement, a word of reproof, a word of witness, a word of apology. Don’t miss the opportunity when it is yours. Don’t forsake the tide that might be flowing in your heart of hearts at this very moment. Claim this day, for in very truth, there will never be another like it again.

Two summers ago I received a telephone call from my physician, who also happened to be the physician of my most beloved seminary professor. He called to tell me that my old prof, who had been retired many years (he was then in his eighty-fourth year), had been taken to the hospital, and that he would not be coming home. I asked the doctor, “Is Prof’s death imminent? Will it be today?”

“Oh,” he said, “I doubt it. But it won’t be too long, and he won’t be coming home.”

I had a commitment for that night, one I had scheduled almost two years in advance. But I broke it to go to the hospital. When I walked into the room, I found another of Prof’s former students whom I knew well sitting beside him. As I came to the door Prof looked at me and said, “Thielemann, you’ve come to help me die.”

I said, “No, Prof, I’m sure you can do that by yourself.” We began to talk and to share; he decided he wanted to confess his sins. He said things like, “I taught you boys too much theology. I should have taught you more about Jesus. I’m taking my final examinations and find I wouldn’t even be able to write my name on the paper if it weren’t for my Savior.” And he talked about his love for his wife.

There was little of his body left, and yet that great spirit was still sparkling. At last he said, “Boys, I think I’m going to go to sleep now. And I don’t think you should wait because it may be a very, very long sleep.” And as he said that, he reached out and took the nurse’s hand. And I said to him, “Prof, I don’t think you ought to hold that nurse’s hand.”

He said, “Why?”

I said, “Because, if you are going to go now, I have a feeling you are going to go like Elijah in a fiery chariot and I don’t want her to be singed.”

He said, “If I’m going to go that way, then I’m going to take her with me.” And he fell asleep holding her hand, and the tides came and took him away. But I was there. And no one will ever be able to take that from me. I was there.

We have been considering a message that addresses the human soul. We have looked at growth in character, growth as a child of God, and growth in the service of Jesus.

Please don’t respond by thinking about tomorrow. “Tomorrow” is the word the Bible does not know. The Holy Spirit’s word is today. “Now is the accepted time.” “Now is the day of salvation.” “Today, if you will harden not your hearts and hear my voice.” Don’t say tomorrow!

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

(—Macbeth, Act V)

The word is today. Serve in the name and the spirit of Christ today. Ride the tides while they are yours.

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