Ravi Zacharias - The Greatest Story Ever Told
We're going to make this brief. We're going to tell it in the form of a story. Actually, when I was told that I was speaking on the theme of beauty, I was not quite thrilled. It seemed quite a conflict for me to be talking about beauty, but reminded me of this story of n.T. Wright, when he was speaking in vancouver years ago. He said he was driving into the parking lot, and he saw his name on the marquee at the church. It said, "Who is the king of glory? Nt wright". And he said, "I was terrified that they were expecting to see the king of glory when I stood up to speak". He said, "A few years later, I went back, and they got it right. It said, 'the return of the prodigal, NT wright'".
So this is about beauty, and nice to have my wife with me. She would be more reflective of that splendor than I would. But the story of the Gospel is really a very amazing story. It is not a very typical story that you would hear in eastern folklore. For those of you who are used to reading eastern stories, the Gospel is extremely very different and full of surprises. In fact, Abdu Murray and I are now writing a book on Jesus through eastern eyes. I was originally writing that with Nabeel Qureshi, and we both had signed that contract together, and as you all are well-aware, sadly, we lost Nabeel. He passed away, and the publisher asked who I would like to join me in writing the book, and knowing Abdu himself comes originally from Beirut and Lebanon, I picked another easterner, and a former Islamic faith, to write that book with me. And my opening chapter is on Jesus as the storyteller, how marvelous he was in holding the attention of people. It was not just the parables, but the way he even told, would speak on the sermon on the mount, which seemed like an unfolding, layer after layer after truth.
And then, I think the greatest story of all, what Jesus must've told, as I often been asked, if there were one sermon you could hear Jesus preach live, which one it would've been. It would've been the one that he told on the Emmaus road, after his resurrection. Because in that one, he unfolds all of history and these disciples listening to him are really so overwhelmed that they say to him, "Why don't you stay the night with us? We'll buy you your dinner". And they're walking with him, and the most amazing thing about that entire historical narrative, as Jesus went back to the past and brought them out to the present and the resurrection, is that by the breaking of a piece of bread, they looked at it and remembered who they had seen do it that way. And their eyes were opened, and Jesus stepped out of there, almost to fulfill.
"You shall see my face no more, unto you shall say, 'blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord, and we shall once again break that bread in heaven with him to memorialize that tremendous sacrifice that he made for us.'" The Gospel story is summarized in one simple verse, depending on which version you actually take, but it's about 32 to 33 words, and that is: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life". That's in John 3:16. And it comes on the heels of him having this incredible conversation with Nicodemus about the new birth. It is a magnificent chapter, and ends with John the baptist's testimony of Jesus. The whole chapter three of the Gospel of John tells you the story in a very beautiful way.
Let me begin with the brief story that I heard as a young man, and then I will end with another one that carries on actually in a more present tone and a present tense of what this story of God's love means. When I look at this, I point it out in many different ways, that John 3:16, in a handful of words here, the starting point is filial. "For God so loved the world," in sending his son. The giving is unconditional. The reception is built on making it relational. The range is eternal, but the core is judicial. There is a law in operation. Starting with the father, it being filial, all the way to seeing the network and the matrix of a law at work all along. "That he so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life".
When I was a young lad, the story that made the most profound impact on me was the story based on imagination. You may have heard me tell this story in different forms, but it has been many, many years since I ever retold it. And it's the story of a young man from one village who was in love with a woman from another village. He wanted to marry her and have the permission of her parents, but she was tough and resistant towards his love. And finally, one day, she said to him in a bizarre way, she said, "You know, I don't believe you really love me more than you love anyone else in this world. I will marry you if you prove your love to me". This is a typical eastern hyperbole, hyper-eastern exaggeration, but the eastern imagination is quite rife out here. So he says to her, "What do you want me to do to prove that I love you more than anyone else"? She said, "Go back home, and I believe you really love your mother more than you love me. If you're willing to take the life of your mother for me, sacrifice her life, I will give you a yea in your proposal to marriage".
So he goes home, ponders over this bizarre thing, and says to himself, "How can she even be making such a demand on me"? But in a frenzied moment of anguish and almost trying to prove his point, he takes the life of his mother, and the woman had laid one condition: you'll have to prove to me that you have taken her life. Bring her heart in your hand to prove to me that my heart is more important to you than hers. Takes the life of his mother, takes her heart in his hand, and he's running across the woods in order to get to this other village. While he's running, he stumbles over some stubble and all of that there, and falls on his face, and the heart bounces out of his hand, and he can't find it. And he's rummaging through the dirt and the underbrush, and suddenly sees this heart. Finds it, puts it in one hand, stands up, and he's dusting off the dirt off his knees and his chest and so on. And he hears a voice coming out of the heart, saying, "Son, are you hurt"? "Son, are you hurt"?
Incredible imagination, typical eastern form with melodrama. But a young lad hearing that story naturally is pondering, what is the point of this story? And it doesn't take long for you to figure out that a mother's love is so constant that no amount of injury given to her by any child will still diminish the love in that mother's heart for her children. "Son, are you hurt"? That, to me, encapsulates the magnificence in human terms of what the power of a story is, and points to the greatest story ever told, the story of the father sending his Son, and turning his face away from the agony through which he had put his Son, only to say, "Of you and me, Father, forgive them, because they really don't know what they're doing". This story of love is the enormity of the greatest story ever told. Yes, you see hints of these kinds of things in many other middle eastern and eastern stories, but this one is rooted in history from an eternal perspective of a law that is at work which cs lewis so wonderfully captured in the Narnia Chronicles. There's a law underlying all of this, but the sacrifice of Aslan, and to demonstrate the love that he had for the children there and to point out that there's a Heavenly Father who demonstrates this kind of love for you and for me.
So the few minutes that I have, I want to just bring to you some up-to-date realities with which we live, and show you the supremacy of this love, and why it is indeed the greatest story ever told. The terrifying thing at this time in human history is that on our own terms, by naturalists, naturalists try to tell us that if you go back to the big bang and how long that this universe has existed, in their own storytelling of naturalism, we are only about .0015% of the history of time occupying in this linear mode. We are sort of the last stretch of the cosmic mile. For billions of years, according to them, have elapsed and we have just come on in this last moment, and this last scene, so much preceded all of this, and yet here we are now.
In contrast to the scriptures, we are the reason for the creation of this world. We are not here as an afterthought and as the last stretch of this cosmic mile. We are the reason this world was really created, completely different in a paradigm and a story, and the terrifying thing is this: that even though they tell us we have existed for just such a small, minuscule percentage of time, if you look at what is happening in this world and the way we are destroying each other, and all the pain we are inflicting on each other, we have lost the notion of ourselves, even in this short period of time. Somehow, we have desecrated and destroyed what it is that life is all about.
Some time ago, a writer from england by the name of David Levy wrote an article which sort of hit the fan, and his article basically says this. People could now be falling in love and having sex with robots within a few decades, even marrying them according to a British artificial intelligence researcher. In intimate relationships with artificial partners, he argues that current trends in robotics and artificial intelligence mean the leap to humans and robots forming relationships is not far away. Once robots become more like humans, David Levy believes Romance between the two, and even sex and marriage will be possible between a human being and a robot. He says also that though he's as an international master in chess, he believes that robots will soon appear so like humans in the way they look and act, in their personality, and how they express emotions, that many people will fall in love with robots.
His predictions are based on his analysis of certain trends on what he sees as the inevitability of how they will continue in the future. One trend looked at was how the objects of human affection have slowly expanded beyond other humans, firstly to animals, then to virtual pets, and even to robotic dogs. His thesis is this: that soon, it will extend to robotic people as well. Virtual reality, you got virtual dogs, you've got virtual this, virtual that. I would love to know, when he writes his book, whether he's willing to accept a virtual check, or whether he would want a real one in its place. Just imagine, this is what has happened to us in the reality in this few moments of the cosmic mile, as they say. So not only is it terrifying, it is ironic that the more we understand the marvels of matter and our earthly home, the less we seem to understand the very purpose of life. The more this mystery supposedly is unraveled in the worldly terms and in material terms, the less we seem to have real value about who we are, and the marvelous purpose of what life is all about.
When Jill planned this conference, you know, she's one of our prides and joys out here. She does a marvelous job in her love for the arts and her love for beauty, and she has a great love for storytelling as well. She's a prolific writer here, writing regularly, week after week, in our just thinking. So what I want to do is take one aspect of beauty. We normally talk on four themes. Origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. You take any one of those four themes. Origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. None of them can ultimately be fully explained without the sense of beauty within them. From the created order, finding meaning and purpose, and how David even realized how beautiful the law was, and how precious it was that he drew his delight in the love of the law that it was made for you and me for our benefit. And then, as for our destiny: "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither has entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for them that love him".
From origin, meaning, morality, to destiny, beauty is implicit in all of those. We see the beauty of a child in our lifetime, from the moment of conception where then the mother begins to feel the movement of that little one in her body, and the marvel of the mystery awaiting the arrival of that child, all the way 'til the day you then give them away in marriage, and you see the beauty of a bride, or the wonder of a groom receiving that bride. In fact, minutes after my talk is over, I have to head to the airport to officiate at a wedding in Kansas. Our longest serving employee in India, her son is getting married tomorrow in Kansas, and I am to be there for the rehearsal there tonight, and then to help officiate at the wedding tomorrow. I can just imagine this little guy, born and cradled in Chennai, India, marrying this young gal from Kansas. Thousands of miles apart, and tomorrow, they come together to celebrate this wonderful picture of a man committing himself to a woman.
One of the aspects of this ceremony that she wants me to make sure we do. In India, they call it the Thali Ceremony. It is a necklace. The groom doesn't just a ring, he also gives a necklace. It is him committing to her that this adornment that you wear around your neck is my commitment to you, that I will embrace you and hold you and treat you as that great treasure, just like the priest of old wears that clerical collar, saying he belongs to God. This necklace around the neck of that young gal, given by the bride-groom, is a commitment that they really belong to each other in the wonder of service. Love is a beautiful thing. From origin, meaning, morality, and destiny, the central theme of the scriptures is really the love of God. Very unique in the Gospel. So I wanna race through that, the supremacy of love, and the first thing I say to you. Love is supreme in its reach, love is supreme in its refinement. It's supreme in its reach, how we reach across miles, how we reach across time, how the memories of love extend across so many chasms and so many barriers.
Billy Graham's brother-in-law is a man by the name of Leighton Ford. And one day, we were sitting at the O'Hare airport in Chicago. Leighton's a big, tall gentleman. He's married to Billy's sister, Jeanie, and Jeanie is Leighton Ford's wife. They've been married many, many years. In fact, Jeanie spoke at her brother's funeral when Billy's funeral was held recently. Jeanie's a lovely gal, but he was talking to me about his own life, Leighton, and what Billy meant to him, and how he became like an older brother, and how, when he met Jeanie, his life took on new meaning. But he says, "Ravi, the thing that I want to tell you that shaped my life most was the fact that I found out that I was really an adopted little boy, and I did not know who my mother was".
And for decade after decade, he searched for who his mother really was. Finally, he tracked her down to St. Catherine's, Ontario, Canada. Through all the methods that you have these days, he was able to find her. And he made that trip on a snowy day, landing in Toronto, getting into car, and driving to St. Catherine's. He had contacted her and told her that he had found her, would she be willing to meet him and see him? She was stunned. She said, "I would love to see you, son". And so, he got into the car, and drove. It's about a 75-mile journey, but in the snow, took much longer. He said, "I arrived in this neighborhood with the snow so drenching those streets, and wondering what it was going to be like". He was in his 40's at this time. So he pulls up in the street, and he's looking for the street number in that biting cold. He didn't have to look for the street number, he saw a woman standing under the tree, waiting, looking out for this car to come up the road.
And as he paused and looked, sure enough, waved him into the driveway. He said, "I'll never forget the day I finally met her for the first time. I had been given away as an infant child, and was wanting so much to know a little more about my mom". So there, they sat around the kitchen table. She was shocked to find out he was an evangelist, even more shocked to find out he was the brother-in-law of Billy Graham. And finally, when he was leaving her in the driveway, put his arms around her, and he said, "Mom, what can I do for you? Is there anything I can do for you"? And the tears started to run down her face. She said, "Yes, you can". He said, "What's that"? She said, "Just love me". "Just love me". The reach of love across four-and-a-half decades, from a man would become one of the most eloquent preachers of our time, is in search of his roots, and the womb that had brought him forth into this world.
Love has an enormous reach. It can reach across time, reach across miles. It'll reach across the flames that might threaten you, if a parent is trying to rescue the child. It'll reach out to lift a weighted car to rescue somebody, even who's not near and dear to you. We do those things, because that's the supremacy of love in the enormity of its reach, and the greatest gap that was ever crossed: "God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life". Why do we love like this? Why? In fact, if you were to ask a Buddhist to explain this desire, nirvana, the monk will tell you, is to renounce this desire, stop desiring, and that's what will give your nirvanic hope. And even when you talk of Moksha, release in the pantheistic worldviews, it's to be released from desire, released from any of these things.
And yet, Jesus tells us we are to desire, to hunger, and thirst after righteousness. And the most righteous thing is the purity of love that is bound by the moral law that God gives to you and to me. The supremacy of love, the enormity of its reach, and in its refinement. I don't have time to expand all of this, but then you come to the selflessness of love. How love becomes so unselfish in the process. You know, the truth of the matter is when you hold the young maiden's hand and pledge, "I do, I do, I do," you don't really realize how much you're gonna have to do the rest of your lives. You just say it. You do and do and do and do. But whether we like to admit it or not, there is a degree of selfishness in that. I desire to love this person, I desire to be embraced by this person, and then two adults walk life stride by stride together. There is a degree of selfishness in this. But when a woman gives birth to a child, you see the beginning of total sacrifice. Complete sacrifice.
Even just this week, our daughter and her husband are in Europe. She has four of them. I don't know how she manages, frankly. The oldest is six, and then there's a babe in arms. You know, every time a person with four children comes into the plane, I start praying. Because I'm very selfish, I say, "Is this gonna be a longer journey than I had in mind"? And yet, you watch the mom. Amazing. There was one such flight, and this child was screaming most of the flight. Probably really being bothered in the ears. It just seemed like a scream of pain. And everybody, of course, turning around, which the mother sure appreciates, I'm sure, you know, to see that.
And at one point, I got up from the aircraft, from where I was sitting, and I was walking to the back of the plane to the restroom, and I was walking right past the seat where this woman was with her child. And the child was leaning on her breast, and the woman had her head down, and the tears were running down her face. What do you do? How do you manage this? You can't get out of that aircraft. You're carrying that little one. Will that, in any way, diminish the love of this mother for the child? Absolutely not. It's one of the most selfless things that you can do. Love has its supremacy, but love also has its selflessness. You cease to live for yourself. That comes from the vertical direction, and then it goes in the horizontal direction.
You know when Dostoevsky died, there were 40.000 young men lining the streets at his funeral. 40.000 men in st. Petersburg. And they all said, "He taught us so much about life. His name will ever be etched in our hearts". A similar scene with William Wilberforce when he died, and here he was fighting for that surge of slavery and it is only on his death bed that he got the word that he'd been successful. But if you ask Wilberforce what was the life verse that molded his life, it was the one from the scriptures that say it so clearly, "God be merciful on me, a sinner". And then he goes on to explain that that verse, that Christ should die to save a sinner such as I is the verse that molded Wilberforce's life, the vertical dimension and then the horizontal. Once you see the vertical sacrifice Christ has made for you, the horizontal comes more naturally for you and for me.
The supremacy of love. The selflessness of love, thirdly the sacredness of love. It's a very sacred love, it cannot be violated, it's inviolable. That's your love for God and your love for your fellow human being. There is a sacredness to love which can always be trusted. I would love to expand upon this but let me just give you a simple illustration here. Some years ago, I was watching a television program, when the golf war was going on and one of them was a woman marine, who had been rescued by her mates, where she was on top with the terrorists somewhere with some of the other soldiers when a device was detonated and some of the bodies were just ripped apart. She lost her right hand and was in agony, sorry her left hand and was in agony and in pain. And while she was being airlifted, she screamed out and she said, "I've lost my ring. I've lost my ring".
And one of the soldiers decided in a cloak and dagger operation, to get back to the top of that roof, and found, not only that hand but saw the ring still in that hand. And this young gal was being honored at super bowl and she was telling the story of how it happened and now with that artificial hand there, but the ring in there, you know, commending the soldier who was brave enough to go back and get her back that ring. It was the sacredness of her commitment and her trust in her vow. It's a beautiful thing when you see that kind of reality in the sacredness of love. So you see its supremacy, you see its sacrifice, you see its sacredness and lastly you really see that that it's a story itself. It's the whole story of your life and mine.
And why am I here today? Because at the age of 17, somebody brought a Bible to me, whole I was on a bed of suicide. Just recently, the man who had sent it to me, passed away. Whatever prompted him to do that, he knew, I must have been a desperately, lonely young man in search of a meaningful relationship and that only Christ could offer it to me. Many years ago, in reader's digest, 1985 pricelessly, there was a story, there was a story of a journalist going on a run. And while he was making that run, he saw a wallet on the side of the road, it's a true story by the way. He picked up that wallet, there were only four dollars in it, but there was an old letter that was folded up and so creased, when he opened that letter, he noticed that it was dated 60 years earlier. But it was a dear John letter, written by a young gal to this man:
Dear Michael, I'm sorry to tell you, but my parents will not allow me to see you anymore and I have to break this up but I want you to know, I will never love and marry another person, you will always be the love of my heart. Forgive me, but we cannot see each other again.
So he looked at the letter and teared up. And he thought 60 years ago, this letter was written, who ever owned this wallet must have found that letter to be his life line to the past. But there was an address on that. It was just signed Hannah, and dear Michael. So he started to look for that home, and when he found that home, the people said, "Yes, I bought it from a family who had a daughter named Hannah. But they're long gone, about 30 years ago, they moved out of this house and the mother was in a retirement home and I know Hannah had taken her there". So he went down, all in a days work you know, and he goes and finds this home where the lady had been taken 30 years before, they said, "Yes she is long gone, but Hannah herself now is in a retirement home, but not this one".
He managed to track the retirement home's down, found out where Hannah was. And he arrived there on the seventh floor, it was about 10:30 P.M. At this point and he expected everybody to be sleeping, but there was this lady sitting on a chair, watching television and he goes over to her and he says, "Is your name Hannah"? And she says, "Yes indeed it is. How do you know that"? He opened this letter and he said, "Does this letter mean anything to you"? She looked at it and said, "Oh my, I was only 16 years old when I wrote that. But I wrote that to the only man I've ever loved, his name was Michael. Where did you find this"? "Well, I found this on the road side, somebody must have been walking or something like that". She said, "If you ever find Michael, tell him I have never ever loved another person, he's the only one I've ever loved".
So he took that and he said, "I'll make sure ma'm". He puts the wallet back into his pocket and he's walking out and the security guard says, "Did you find the lady"? He said, "Yeah sure, but I'm still looking for the man who's wallet this is". He said, "Let me see that". He said, "Oh this is Michael Goldstein's wallet. He's on the third floor here. Everyday, he keeps losing his wallet all the time". So he goes over there, and Michael is sitting there, watching television too. He said, "Sir, is your name Michael"? He said, "Yeah". He said, "Is this your wallet"? He said, "Oh my, where did you find it"? You know, he said, "I keep losing this". He said, "It's not the money, but there's a letter in there". He said, "I know, I know". He said, "Are you willing to face a surprise this late in the night"? He said, "What's that"? He said, "Come with me".
And he takes him over to Hannah's floor. And there she's sitting watching television. He introducing them to each other, leaves the wallet and walks away. A few days later he gets a wedding invitation. And he attends the wedding of Michael and Hannah. It's an absolutely beautiful story and the story is told in reader's digest 1985, and it says that it caused this man to believe that really there's a sovereign power over your life and mine. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be and he'll make sure that even if it took six decades, he'll bring those two hearts back together.
Nobody on earth listening to that story can ever say, but that how beautiful. How beautiful, that two lives, 60 years ago, broke it up to satisfy the desire of the parents but their commitment to each other had stood firm, that is a great story, nowhere near as great as the greatest story ever told. For God, from the beginning of time had planned to send his son so that you and I should not perish but have eternal life. Tell this story of love, it's a beautiful story, it changes your heart first and then has the capacity to change every life you come into contact with. Jill, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to be with you and God bless you.