I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.
Surprised by Joy
My friend called early evening on this past Tuesday, late afternoon California time. He had just come from an amazing meeting at a Peet’s Coffee with some new friends who have been attending the church where he serves as pastor. I had known part of the story.
On the Second Sunday of Advent, just four days after the shootings in San Bernardino had raised anxiety across the Los Angeles basin, two Iranian men walked into the morning worship service at the church. The congregation is not large enough for visitors to slip in and out unnoticed. Being the congregation that it is, however, the visitors were welcomed and invited back. And they came back. Four of them the next week. Recently arrived from Iran, the four had been raised as Muslims, but were wondering about Christianity.
They worshiped with the congregation for the rest of Advent and on Christmas Eve, and they kept coming back throughout the weeks of the winter. And they kept being welcomed. Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day they heard the gospel preached. The people in the church became their friends.
My friend called this past Tuesday to tell how, at Peet’s Coffee that afternoon, all four acknowledged Christ as their Lord and Savior. Such joy. The Good Shepherd is always about the business of seeking and saving his lost lambs.
As we talked, my friend, spoke of the journey the four had taken to Christ, and the grace of his having been a part of that journey. He told of the conversation at Peet’s and how each of his new friends had declared faith in Christ as Savior and an intention to follow him as Lord. Then he added, “But I think they were already Christians.”
He did not mean that they were Christian – anonymous or otherwise – that Second Sunday of Advent when they wandered in to a church whose name and address they had found via Google.
For four months these now new Christians had heard the Word faithfully preached. They had been embraced by the household of God and experienced the joy of being a part of the family of faith. They began to see a light in the Gospel that they had never seen before, a light that was shining in the darkness they sought to flee.
The Confessions speak of the Holy Spirit working to “quicken and renew” as Christ’s call is made effective in our lives. That is, it is not a sinner’s prayer or a preacher’s invitation that brings the gift of life to a new believer; it is God the Holy Spirit in obedience to the will of the Father and the love and grace of the Son.
There are no “almost” Christians. There is a moment when saving grace is given, Christ’s righteousness imputed. But often that moment is imperceptible to the new believer. That’s what my friend meant when he said that his friends already were Christians before the conversation at the Peet’s Coffee. God had put a longing in their hearts, and he began to satisfy it that Second Sunday in Advent. By the time they confessed their faith this past Tuesday afternoon, they already knew, with no turning back, that they had found the one who, alone, is able and willing satisfy their longing.
C.S. Lewis tells the story of his conversion in his wonderful book, Surprised by Joy. One sunny morning, as he writes, God gave him the assurance of grace, joy, he so long had desired. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.
In our recent “Contagious Christian” Faith Acts class we were encouraged to learn how to tell the story of our own journey to faith in Christ. The curriculum provided six questions to consider as we crafted our story to be told. We were to remember the unsatisfied needs we experienced before we knew Christ and how the Gospel seemed to satisfy those needs. Right at the center of our story we were to offer the details of how we received Christ – what we did so that we might tell someone else what to do.
I like the Contagious Christian curriculum and would be happy to see us use it again. But my story never fits the template I am supposed to use in telling it. Did I receive Christ some summer morning when I was five years old and enjoying a week of Vacation Bible School? Did I receive Christ as a fourteen year-old Confirmation student who stood before the congregation and, with integrity and sincerity, declared Christ as Savior and Lord? Did I receive Christ four years later through a campus ministry when, as a lonely college freshman longing for a community and a person to whom I might belong, the Gospel I had known seemed to spring to life? Yes and I don’t know – it may have been one of those times or some other. I don’t know.
As Lewis on his ride to the Whipsnade Park Zoo, as those new Christians at Peet’s Coffee this past Tuesday, so for me that moment when faith was quickened is not known to me. But I have a sure and certain hope, an assurance that cannot be shaken. Christ is Lord. He saved me and he will neither leave me nor forsake me. And he desires that all might be saved.
By the way, the four Iranian-American Christians will be baptized on May 15, Pentecost Sunday.