Tents and Revivals

Based on Mark 10:17-31

I read an article in Christian Century by Craig Barnes, the President of Princeton Divinity School. In it, he said, “I can still smell the wet canvas and sawdust of my father’s revivals. Like many old-school country preachers, he believed that any self-respecting revival was held in a tent.” Do you remember revivals? In your tradition, I believe you still have them. In fact, your Pastor Aaron told me recently he was preaching one.

I remember revivals. Ours didn’t have tents. But they were always in the summer. And I remember what they didn’t have: air conditioning. And they didn’t have comfortable seats. They also didn’t seem to have a time limit… But I remember what they did have, too. They had fancy preachers (I never figured out why our own pastor couldn’t preach a revival, but it was always a specialist). They had ice cream socials with peach ice cream. They had loud preaching and long songs, like Have Thine Own Way, Lord, and Just As I Am without One Plea…

You know what else they had? They had a lot of talk about hell. And they had a lot of talk about sin. And they had a lot of talk about how we weren’t making the mark, and how we were going to go to hell. And they had a lot of guilt.

Did I mention that they were long?

Because they were. The 16th verse of Mold me and make me, After thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still. Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way was exhausting. So then the preacher would say, “The Lord has told me there is someone here today ready to turn away from the fires of hell…. With every eye closed and every head bowed, pray with me… If you want to accept Jesus today, raise your hand. If you know you’re called to serve God through Christian ministry, raise your hand… I see you. If you want to rededicate your life to Jesus today, raise your hand. I see you. Put your hand down.”

It was quite a show, wasn’t it?

Now some of those preachers were great men (by the way, when I was a child, they were all men). And some of them really, really loved the Lord. But the way they motivated people to come to Jesus used to kill me… The plan seemed to be, let me exhaust you to the point where you nearly fall over, let me tug on all of your guilt, let me manipulate you to come to Jesus.

Because I thought, any way you can get there, you should get there.

And I believe that to be true. That each of you has a way that you’re going to get to God. And it is truly your own way.

But I think that the methods that preachers use should be similar to the method of Jesus, who, by the way, never says, “The wages of sin are death,” or even, “Give your heart to me.”

Instead, we have a picture of evangelism by Jesus himself in today’s scripture.

A man comes to Jesus and asks, “How can I have eternal life?” Do right, Jesus says. The man says, “I have done good my whole life.”

Then Jesus says, “Do good. Sell all you own and give it to the poor.” Some say that Jesus saw through to the man’s greatest love. Some say that Jesus saw through the one way the man was working around the law. I think Jesus saw that following God means we let lose of everything, and use our resources to support humanity.

But there’s a piece I left out.

Did you notice the word in the Scripture reading? It says, “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him.” How do you think the author knew that Jesus loved the man? I think about the look Jesus gave. Or maybe Jesus reached over and made a gesture of some sort, rubbed his hand, shook his hand. Maybe Jesus hugged him.

How do you know that Jesus loves you? And that God loves you? We know it in creation—that this good world was created for us to enjoy. We know it in the Scriptures—over and over again we here of God’s hesed, the faithful love of God. We know it from our grandmamas—the way they knew it, too—that God was walking alongside and guiding their steps. We know it from our preachers (except, sometimes, we don’t know it through guilt and talk of hell). We know it from the person sitting next to us in worship, we can see it in their eyes.

The love of Christ made manifest today looks a little different from the way that the man knew it with Jesus there… because it comes to us from one another, we feel the love of Christ through one another.

And may I remind you of another part of this text? After Jesus says that it’s nearly impossible for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, more difficult than getting a camel through the eye of a needle, the people gasp.

How can it be so hard?

Jesus reminds the people that it’s impossible for us to get into the kingdom of God. But that all things are possible with God.

Craig Barnes wrote again about those tent revivals:

What I remember most about those hot nights was the altar call. Just before the choir began singing, “I Surrender All,” my father would stand at the front and say, “Jesus was dying to love you. All you need to do to accept this love is to step out of your seat, come down the aisle, and give your life over to the forgiving love of Jesus. It doesn’t matter what you have done, whether it was very bad or very good, you can’t get to God without surrendering all of it to Jesus.”

Somewhere along the way, I lost summer revival services. I found all the parts of them difficult. I didn’t like the long preaching, I didn’t like the guilt and manipulation. I didn’t like the sense of impossibility of God’s love. But this article this week reminded me of what I miss—I miss the call to surrender to God.

But that call to surrender has to be based in God’s deep love of us.