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Opportunities In The Master's Hand

Journalist David Hajdu recently told a memorable story about Wynton Marsalis, one of the most easily recognizable jazz musicians in our day and one of the premier jazz trumpeters of all time. One night, Marsalis was playing with a small, little-known combo in a New York basement club. A few songs into their set, he walked to the front of the bandstand and began an unaccompanied solo of the 1930s ballad, "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You." Hajdu records that the audience became rapt as Marsalis's trumpet virtually wept in despair, almost gasping at times with the pain in the music.

Stretching the mood taut, Marsalis came to the final phrase, with each note coming slower and slower, with longer and longer pauses between each one: "I'don't'stand?a?ghost?of?a?chance?"

Then someone's cell phone went off.

And passing by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither has this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God might be revealed in him.
I must work the works of Him who sent Me, while it is day. Night comes when no man can work. As long as I am in the world,
I am the Light of the world.    
John 9:1-5
Journalist David Hajdu recently told a memorable story about Wynton Marsalis, one of the most easily recognizable jazz musicians in our day and one of the premier jazz trumpeters of all time. One night, Marsalis was playing with a small, little-known combo in a New York basement club. A few songs into their set, he walked to the front of the bandstand and began an unaccompanied solo of the 1930s ballad, "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You." Hajdu records that the audience became rapt as Marsalis's trumpet virtually wept in despair, almost gasping at times with the pain in the music.
Stretching the mood taut, Marsalis came to the final phrase, with each note coming slower and slower, with longer and longer pauses between each one: "I'don't'stand?a?ghost?of?a?chance?"
Then someone's cell phone went off.
It began to chirp an absurd little tune. The audience broke up into titters, the man with the phone jumped up and fled into the hallway to take his call, and the spell was broken. "MAGIC?RUINED," the journalist scratched into his notepad.
But then Marsalis played the cellphone melody note for note. He played it again, with different accents. He began to play with it, spinning out a rhapsody on the silly little tune, changing keys several times. The audience settled down, slowly realizing that they were hearing something altogether extraordinary. Around and around Marsalis played for several minutes, weaving glory out of goofiness.
Finally, in a masterstroke, he wound down seamlessly to the last two notes of his previous song: "?with?you." The audience exploded with applause.1
Only a master could change a moment like that from blame into glory.

Life gives us opportunities to turn a sour moment into something beautiful.

When Jesus and his disciples come across a man born blind the question that is raised is "who is to blame?"
Jesus turns it around to say, "but see what God can do."
It was the sabbath and Jesus and his disciples had been worshipping at the temple. As they left, perhaps near one of the gates they encountered a blind beggar. Likely he was well known because the disciples ask Jesus, "who was to blame that he was born blind...him or his parents?"

Their belief system was that unfortunate events were punishment from God.
They were not so different from us.
We would probably never admit it intellectually, but its probably true enough for us that if we experience some unexpected sadness, we ask ourselves, "why is God letting this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?"
That's true of us, isn't it?

Asking the question "why" is disempowering. "Why" makes us victims of fate or God's anger.
The empowering question is "how".
We ask, "and how can I live in this situation." That empowers us to bring out what we know and what we believe and live it. That is an opportunity in the hands of a master.
Jesus says, "No one was to blame. What we have here is an opportunity to see the glory of God."

This whole chapter pivots on the word "sight." The chapter is about sight and blindness, both physical and spiritual.
It's curious how the disciples are not able to see him as a man. They only see a theological controversy. The pharisees learn he was healed on a sabbath and they see a problem to be dealt with. His parents see danger and avoid it. The man himself sees hypocrisy and says so. Jesus in effect asks him later on if he believes in the Son of Man. He says, let me see him and I will tell you. Jesus response is "you are looking at him."

How often we look at one another and fail to see God at work. We see a burden to be carried, or a nuisance to be tolerated or worse. How often have we dared to see an opportunity for God's glory to shine through? It's much easier to dismiss or write off some people as not worth the time.
We say to ourselves, "I just can't see wasting any more energy on you."
I want to remind you of what we read in 1 John 3:2

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be. But we know that when He shall be revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
We become blind to one another through familiarity and contempt.
The glory of God is never so apparent as when we see His compassion.

Jesus says, this is an opportunity to see God at work.
Opportunities to see God at work are not just other people, but is any situation where we could ask the question, "Why me?"

We can show the glory of God in how we handle our suffering.

Everyone in this room knows the name Terry Fox, the young man with one leg who decided to run across Canada to raise money for cancer. When you think of Terry, do you think of a poor victim or cheer for the glory of God in him and in his story?

A Dutch woman named Corrie Ten Boom wrote her autobiography in The Hiding Place. Her story is about how she, her sister and their father were imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews in Amsterdam. Her story is about how she found the glory of God able to shine brighter than any darkness you can imagine. It's worth reading.

Sure, these are larger than life stories and as such God's glory is seen by millions.
Our opportunities are not on such a grand scale.
Behind the curtains of  home we wonder why we have to carry such a heavy load.
Or in the privacy of our own thoughts we wonder why life turned out so different from what we had hoped.
Where is the happiness, or the health or the material security we believe we should have?
But instead of asking "who is to blame?", we ask "how can I be my best self, not my worst self?"
Then when the answer filters through we begin acting on it.
When you feel unappreciated, even disliked, when you know you are doing your best, you just act in kindness and keep giving your best without complaint.

Perhaps only a few will ever see you glorify God by your attitude and actions.
But be assured that there will be always One who does. Maybe having God alone for an audience is enough. And you know something? Giving God your best self when you just want to find someone to blame, may be the best gift you ever give your creator.

There is an amazing story behind the writing of the gospel song, "Precious Lord Take My Hand"

Back in 1932, I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie, and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago's South side.

One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis, where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I didn't want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child.  But a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. I kissed Nettie good-bye, clattered downstairs to our Model A and, in a fresh Lake Michigan breeze, chugged out of Chicago on Route 66.

However, outside the city, I discovered that in my anxiety at leaving, I had forgotten my music case. I wheeled around and headed back.  I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. But eager to get on my way, and not wanting to disturb Nettie, I shrugged off the feeling and quietly slipped out of the room with my music.

The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.

People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out. I rushed to a phone and called home.  All I could hear on the other end was "Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead."

When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy.

Yet that night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn't want to serve Him any more or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well.

But then, as I hunched alone in that dark apartment those first sad days, I thought back to the afternoon I went to St. Louis. Something kept telling me to stay with Nettie. Was that something God? Oh, if I had paid more attention to Him that day, I would have stayed and been with Nettie when she died. From that moment on I vowed to listen more closely to Him. But still I was lost in grief.

Everyone was kind to me, especially a friend, Professor Fry, who seemed to know what I needed. On the following Saturday evening he took me up to Malone's Poro College, a neighborhood music school. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys. Something happened to me then. I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God.  I found myself playing a melody, into my head - they just seemed to fall into place:

Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand!
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn,
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

When my way grows drear precious Lord linger near,
When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.

When the darkness appears and the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.2

In dark times we can curse our circumstances, blame others, blame God, or we can reach out to the light. Maybe all we can do when we are at the end of our rope is to ask God to use our circumstances as a way to show us the light of glory.

Jesus said that He was to do the works of God while it was light.
When the darkness comes no one can work.

But he said, "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world".
Jesus said the same about you too.
He said, "You are the light of the world." (Matthew 5)
Work while the light is present, but you will not be here forever.
Take the time you have and use it to do the good you can and glorify God.
Take the time you have and use it to see God at work in your life rather than looking for someone to blame.

You know, after the man was healed hardly anyone recognized him. All they saw was a blind beggar not a man. They would all have walked past him without ever really recognizing what God was about to do in him. Mind you, who could have known?
Exactly
Who could have known?
Who could say what God will do in your life?
I just hope you have eyes to see the possibility of God at work while you have the opportunity.

What can be done by the hands of the master?
Give Him the chance and see what He will do.

Preached March 6, 2005
Dr. Harold McNabb
West Shore Presbyterian Church
Victoria, British Columbia


Notes
1. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Faith Today (May/June, 2003), p. 54 cited in
Preachingtoday.com
2.  Words and Music by Thomas A. Dorsey
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