(delivered at the Senior Dinner for Biola’s graduating class, May 15, 2009)
Thank you so much for how you have honored me by inviting me to this special dinner and electing me Professor of the Year. It means a lot to me that out of all the great professors you have had in your years on this campus, you picked me. I feel especially honored because for this entire Spring semester I’ve been on writing sabbatical, working from home, writing a book, teaching no regular classes, and meeting with no students since December 2008.
That either means that I was such a good professor last Fall (from August to December) that it was enough to carry me the whole year, or else it means that the secret of my popularity is to stay off campus and avoid contact with students. Apparently absence makes the heart grow fonder, and students really like my teaching when I’m not doing it. If that’s the case, then I have a master plan to take the whole next decade off and see if maybe I can get to be Professor of the Century.
I. Famous Last Words
Senior class, you are bringing your Biola years to a conclusion this week. I know there are still some final exams looming on your horizon, and some major projects to wrap up, but the clock is ticking, the deadlines are clear and close, and everything about your time at Biola is shutting down all around you. What are you supposed to say at the end of an experience like college? What final words are appropriate for an ending like the ending you are approaching?
(from the crowd: “Thank you Jesus!”)
Yes, those are good final words!
It’s time for final words. You know what final words are. They’re the things you’re supposed to be able to say on your way out of a completed experience. They’re supposed to be wise words that sum up all that has gone before; words that omit the inconsequential details and grasp the very central thing itself and speak its inner meaning out loud for once; words that say what the whole thing was all about, put it all in one package, tie a pretty bow around it and attach a card with the perfect sentence on it.
Can you remember any of the famous last words spoken by famous people at the moment of their death? I have to confess that I collect these, because I find them absolutely fascinating. Is that morbid? I admit it’s a little morbid, but not too much: most famous last words are really about the life that went before them. Things like “I love you,” or “I have always loved you” or “tell him I forgive him” or “thank you for being with me” or “He has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.” (David, 2 Samuel 23)
Whether at the end of life or at the end of a phase of life like college, it is a blessing from God to have the clarity of thought, and the insight into what has gone before, to be able to sum it up and say out loud to yourselves, to each other, and to God, what it all meant.
The poet Christina Rossetti had the grace to speak some beautiful last words: She said “I love everybody. If I ever had any enemy, I hope to meet and welcome them in heaven.” Those are sweet, famous last words.
When Charles Wesley was dying, his wife and daughter asked him if needed anything, and his consistent answer was “Nothing, but Christ.”
Not everybody gets to sum up the meaning of their lives with final reflections appropriate to the occasion. Plenty of people are caught off guard. Bing Crosby’s last words were, “That was a great game of golf, fellers,” and Lou Costello (of Abbot and Costello) said “That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted” before he shuffled off this mortal coil. Those are kind of nice parting shots, though I’m not sure if the praise of simple pleasures summed up the meaning of their lives. I hope not! At least they’re better than Dylan Thomas’s last recorded sentence, which was “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that’s the record . . .”
Some people are so caught up in their work that they die with their minds still wrapped around it: P. T. Barnum’s famous last words were “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?”
Some people are just too stubborn to admit it’s over. The evil Roman Emperor Caligula, as he was stabbed by his own bodyguards, shouted “I am still alive!” Not exactly “et tu, brute,” there. And General John Sedgwick, a Union commander in the Civil War, was making fun of his own soldiers for dodging the single bullets of Confederate sharpshooters a thousand yards away. He marched around upright saying “I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” He repeated himself: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” That’s the last thing he ever said. Those Confederate sharpshooters are good.
Last words are hard. That’s a lot of pressure on a person. Karl Marx couldn’t take the pressure. When his housekeeper asked him to dictate some pithy last words that she could pass on to posterity, he shouted at her, “Go on, get out – last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.” So she wrote that, and that’s what went down in history. Pancho Villa the Mexican revolutionary found himself at a loss for words in a gun battle and said, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.” Okay: “Something.” Last word.
Well, famous last words. That was just a little morbid. I admit that when I die, I want to go peacefully in the middle of a deep sleep, like my grandfather did; not screaming in terror like the passengers in the car he was driving.
But friends, Biolans, countrymen, as you lend me your ears, I didn’t come here to bury the senior class, but to praise you, congratulate you, and give you a few last words about college. My last words to you are an exhortation, a charge to you to get your last words right. You are on your way out the door, and what you say as you exit really matters.
II. God’s Final Word
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of it this way, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is a Gospel of Last Words. Jesus Christ himself is that last word, that ultimate and decisive self-expression of God, both in the beginning when he was the word with God who was God, and in the end when the final word became flesh and dwelt among us, when the God who had spoken in many ways to the Fathers through the prophets spoke in these last days through a Son, the inheritor of all things, through whom he made the world. Jesus is the final word of God not in the sense (or nonsense) that God is dying, but in the sense that God has summed up everything in Christ, and all his ways and all his works, and all his will is fulfilled in this man. God knows how to speak a final word, an all-encompassing summary of what he means, a word that doesn’t blow away or go away like our words, but a word that is God all over again, God the Son. One theologian has said of Jesus’ ministry that “There is no word he spoke that does not have its significance as a revelation of God’s dealings with man and man’s dealings with God. In Jesus’ person and words, in his death and resurrection, the dialogue between God and man reaches the simplicity and decisiveness of ‘last words.'” (James D. Smart, The Rebirth of Ministry: The Biblical Character of the Church’s Ministry (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), p. 131.)
Jesus Christ is not only God’s ultimate word to man; he is man’s last reply to God. What we do with Jesus Christ is the summary of everything we have to say in response to what God has said to us.
Here is a better way of saying it:
A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. (Mark 12:1-9)
Here’s the big news: God’s last message to sinful man, after all the other messages, is his beloved Son.
Here’s the bad news: Man’s last message to God, in response to that final divine word who is the Son, is the same as all the words that went before: rebellion, rejection, and murder. “What will the owner of the vineyard do?”
Here’s the good news: Jesus Christ intercepts that final message from man to God, takes it on himself, and in its place he offers to the Father a better answer: The obedience and love of a true human Son of God. In his perfect life and vicarious death, Jesus Christ the word made flesh becomes our final word to God as he was God’s final word to us. He is the whole conversation, both sides, God and man. Hallelujah and Amen.
III. Your Last Words
That was the important part. Now comes the part where I conclude by saying my last words about your last words. This is the free advice part of the after-dinner talk. As you prepare to leave Biola, take time to put your last words together well, so that you don’t leave unsaid what you ought to say. Rapid fire, here’s all the wisdom I’ve got for you, in six quick points.
1. Your last words in college are important, but they don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be absolute last words, because this is not an absolute ending. And of course as you try to say what has happened to you here at Biola, you may not understand it all yet. If you had to come up here and say your last college words right now, you might say something like “that was a tasty dessert, fellers” or “I am not done with finals!” Some of you are still too close to the trees to see the forest for what it is. At some point in the not too distant future, you’ll have a revelatory moment like a Jane Austen character who suddenly realizes that what she thought was one thing was in fact another thing altogether. Like an Austen character, you’ll re-run the tapes of your college life, you’ll see through your pride and your prejudice, and you’ll come to understand what God has really done to you here.
2. Say Thank You to Biola. She’s your alma mater, to use that venerable old phrase; she formed your soul in ways you will continue to recognize as the years go by. Biola’s only 101 years old, so the four year foothold you’ve got on this place is a significant portion of the school’s history. You’re part of the history. You guys are history! Get out of here.
3. Forgive one another. There’s no time like an ending to recognize that you’re still carrying a grudge. Those grudges will harden your heart faster than you can imagine. Unrecognized and unforgiven, these will make you ugly and useless. You can spend your thirties getting over your stupid twenties. Or you can forgive each other, forgive your roommates, and your professors, and Biola now. And if you are the offender, leave your offering at the altar and go reconcile while there is still time.
4. Admit that it’s over. That was it. The best of times, the worst of times, the highs, the lows, the creamy middle. It was your time in college, and something else comes next. Your life as a Biola student is rapidly receding from sight in your rear view mirror. Finish it well and walk away into the next thing God has for you.
5. Hold on to every bit of truth you’ve found here. In all your majors, in your general education classes, and especially in your Bible classes, you have been schooled not just in facts but in wisdom and insight. Don’t let the world rob you of it. Doubt your doubts, and look for clarity. You know the right things to do, and you even know a lot about how to do them. Don’t pretend you don’t know what you do know. Hold fast the truth.
6. Give these past years to God. Senior class, you already gave him your whole life. You made promises to him, and now you’re the same you as that kid who accepted Christ, but you’re on the other side of a college degree. You’re bigger. You’re more educated. You discovered and developed parts of your soul you didn’t know you had. But it’s still you, and you still belong to Christ, and Christ still belongs to God. Present your college-educated self, body and soul, to Christ, which is your reasonable service.
Let your last words be gracious, well seasoned, so you know what to say to everybody. (Colossians 4:6)
Will you pray with me?
Father in heaven: Thank you, and please help us. Thank you, and please help us. Thank you, and please help us. That’s all we have to say. In Jesus’ name, Amen.