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A Warning Ignored

Thirty-seven years ago this weekend, seven astronauts suffered a horrendous death as the space shuttle Challenger exploded in mid-air seventy-three seconds after takeoff. Almost anyone, at least in America, who was alive at that moment has the visual image of that explosion etched in our memories. 

Where were you when it happened? I was just about to begin my first solo pastorate at a small country Presbyterian church. I was in my office preparing the notes for my first sermon to my new congregation. I paused to watched the television broadcast of the live launch from Cape Canaveral, and with horror, I saw the plume of the explosion. When I returned to my desk, still trembling, I set my sermon notes aside, for I knew I had to change my intended pleasant greetings to the discussion of a far more serious matter.

There’s a fine article about the tragedy in today’s Wall Street Journal, entitled “The Man Who Tried to Stop the Space Shuttle Challenger’s Launch”. Apparently the principal engineer for the company that made the O-Rings for the shuttle’s fuel system warned that the temperature was way too cold for the O-Rings to seal properly. NASA had been duly warned not to launch, but they felt there had already been too many delays, so they ignored the warnings, and launched anyway. And we know what happened.

When I read this article, that visual image of the airborne explosion flashed across my mind. A clear warning was given; it was ignored; and seven astronauts lost their lives.

How many warnings do you and I hear every day of our lives—that you and I have been hearing all of our lives—that we just too often quickly ignore? “Heck, my life is already overflowing with warnings, with delays and distractions, preventing me from doing the things I really want or need to do!” Or maybe, “Which specific warnings are you talking about?! Our lives are inundated with far too many warnings to keep track of! And the opinions are so contradictory, it’s impossible to know which to heed!” Or, there’s that simple meme we hear on the recent diet soda commercial: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

As I considered this, my morning devotions happened to take me to the thirteenth chapter of Romans, so, in the midst of the plethora of options, I thought maybe this is a text God might want us to consider today. I’ll try to keep it brief.

(1) Don’t let the politics of the day distract you from what is eternally important:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. …Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Romans 13:1-5)

For two thousand years, theologians have argued over how to understand and apply this warning from St. Paul, especially when a government has gone as haywire as our own. But as bad as it might seem today, it was just as bad when Paul was penning this epistle to the Christians living in Rome, many of whom—including Paul himself—would suffer martyrdom at the hands of these same “governing authorities”. 

But it seems to me the key warning here is that we must not allow our lives to become distracted by the political battles of our day, most of which we have no control over—mainly because all these battles, and the people absorbed in them, remain in the mysterious hands of God. What we need to focus our attention on are the more important warnings that follow.

(2) Owe no one anything, except to love one another:

“For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:6-10).

So much of what captures our attention every single day of our lives distracts us from that which is really most important. Our Lord Jesus, and His apostles who penned the New Testament, as well as His Church, have been warning us all of our lives, but how well have we listened? That which is most important in our lives is not politics or economics, or even so much the great Laws of Scripture and our Church, if they are not grounded in our love for God and for our family, friends, and neighbors. 

St. John warned in his first Epistle, “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). We might shoot back, “I know this! I don’t love the world,” but if we fill every waking moment of our lives with the things bombarding us through the media, if we’re constantly stressed and driven by every fleeting news voice, I would suggest we are far more in love with this world than we might realize. 

I can just hear a few of you saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this all my life!”—just like the decision makers at NASA responded to the warnings of the engineers. Jesus once reminded His apostles of what God through the prophets had said many times before: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'” (Matthew 9:13a). Every single thing we might do for God—even the blessed rituals and rules of our particular Faith tradition—are empty, if they are not done with love, and mercy.

(3) “Don’t Put off until tomorrow …”

“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. (Romans 13:11-12a).

Maybe this hits me more now because I am seventy pushing seventy-one. My father passed when he was seventy-five; my mother when she was eighty-three. And I wonder if the seven astronauts who entered the space shuttle Challenger were fully prepared for what was going to happen seventy-five seconds after their seemingly successful blastoff?

One of the very last warnings our Lord gave in the book of Revelation is: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done” (22:12). Seriously, not a one of us can say we haven’t been warned.

(4) So what should we do? Paul ends this chapter with a short list:

This really comes down to, with whatever times we have left (and a few of those astronauts, God rest their souls, were quite young), we must do all we can, by grace and through faith in Christ, to imitate Him. 

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ”, which means turning our lives fully in His direction—while He still, in His mercy, has given you and me time, and maybe a last opportunity we really don’t deserve, to respond: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.”

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