"Of Wild Goose Chases and Imaginary Elephants"
1 Thessalonians 2:1-13
John 1: 1-5, 10-14
Most of us have been on what’s called “a wild goose chase?” In other words, we’ve wasted our
time and energy searching for something that couldn’t be found. Have you ever been on a wild elephant chase?
Gordon Crosby, a pastor from Washington DC, tells a story from his days growing up in
Lynchburg, Virginia. The circus was in town. So Crosby and a few of his teenage buddies decided to
play a practical joke on some of the townspeople. They loaded themselves into an old car, and went
tearing down the back roads in the area. When they came upon another vehicle, they’d screech up,
roll down the window and breathlessly ask, “Have you seen an elephant?” Then they’d describe how
an elephant had broken loose and escaped from the circus, and that there was a big reward for its
capture. Who, we ask, would buy such a story? I think it was P.T. Barnum who once made a statement
about people who just might do that very thing. At any rate, Crosby recalls, in no time all Lynchburg
was lit up and buzzing with elephant hunters; all looking for an elephant which had not escaped in an
effort to receive a reward that had not been offered.
Over the centuries, the church has been accused by its critics of such alarmism; of sending well-intentioned believers on such crusades and wild elephant chases, searching for rewards that do not
exist. We may remember, for instance, a congregation of Christians who believed that they had un-
locked the mysteries of Scripture under the leadership of a charismatic preacher. They gathered at
a certain time on a hill just outside Waco, Texas, to greet the Lord upon His return. The time came….
and went…. and they eventually returned to their compound with empty hands and broken hearts
from an imaginary elephant hunt. Less than a year later, preacher David Koresh and over eighty
Branch Davidians tragically died in that compound.
There are always those who promise -- in the name of Christ – big profits and huge rewards for
all those who believe enough, and of course send in enough money. There was once a television
minister who had his congregation repeat this chant as part of their worship: “God wants me to
have a million dollars!” One critic of such ministries mused: “Make Jesus your choice, and he’ll give
you a Rolls Royce!” These are rewards being sought – wild gooses being chased – that are both un-
biblical, and unoffered. Elephant hunting has nevertheless become quite popular in many 21st
In a sense, the apostle Paul was a retired elephant hunter. Paul knew what it was like to chase
zealously about in search of an oppressive and ungodly orthodoxy. As a faithful – and might I add, a
anger-riled Jew -- Paul had chased breathlessly after Christians, trying not only to capture them, but also to exterminate them for their liberalism. After his encounter with the risen Christ on the road
to Damascus, Paul laid down his weapons, his hatred, his aggression, exchanging them for something worth pursuing: good news living, or what we might call “authentic Christianity.” And it was Paul who was concerned about those Christians in Thessalonica, who had themselves been sent on a wild goose
chase by those who were trying to convince them that they had somehow missed Jesus’ second coming. So Paul gave them some excellent advice about how to live out the good news as authentic
Christians and how to avoid imaginary elephant hunts.
If you want to live the good news, Paul said foundationally, you may begin by being committed to the gospel story in your own life. Paul said that he and others had often suffered and been shamefully treated as they told the story of Jesus, particularly at Philippi. Nevertheless, he and they continued to tell the story in the face of what Paul called “great opposition;” not as a practical joke or fable; not as an error of interpretation; not as a way of guile or deceitful cunning toward others, but
in a sincere effort to “please God,” who both “approved” the story, and “entrusted” Paul and others
to share it. Paul is encouraging the Christians at Thessalonica - and across the ages, encouraging us –
that even in the face of opposition, they and we should continue to tell the good news story of how
God has blessed us and sustained us.
Paul goes on to say: “…we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed, nor did
we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others.” Authentic and faithful Christians
are motivated by neither personal gain, nor by a desire to be applauded by the world. Rather, we tell –
and more importantly, live out -- the gospel story no matter how much it costs us, because in our doing
so, God is pleased, and others are benefitted.
Then Paul describes good-news living in terms of self-giving grace, and self-sacrificing love. Describing his and his colleague’s approach to sharing the gospel, Paul writes: “But we were gentle
among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we
are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you
have become very dear to us.” This is such a Christ-like approach to evangelism, emphasizing Christ-
like servant hood to others. Paul knew that many could talk about their Christian faith. But when it
came time to live out the requirement of the faith to serve others, it was not so easy. Even some
twenty centuries later, some folks find it easy to give a Bible, or a devotional book, or a tract on
spiritual laws, or a word of godly wisdom. But they haven’t an idea how to give of themselves; to
sacrifice for the well being of the other, sometimes at a great cost.
There’s a story of a seminary student rushing down the stairs of the school’s library on the way to
a lecture. A voice slowed him momentarily with an odd question. There in the midst of all those
books of Biblical studies, sermons, church history, and theology, a disheveled man asked, “Is this a
Christian seminary library?” “Of course it is!,” the student snapped back without even a glance.
“Then can you tell me if there are any Christians around here?” “I believe I am,” the student answered
finally turning to look at the fellow. There before him stood a young man who just wanted to talk to
someone with authentic faith. He was in a financial crunch, but he did not ask for money. He had no
shelter, but he did not ask for a room. He had not eaten in two days, but he wasn’t looking for physical
nourishment. He only wanted someone to care enough to be gracious; someone who believed the
good news story enough to care about his pain.
“…determined to share with you,” Paul wrote, “not only the gospel of God but our own selves.”
Not many years later, the evangelist John wrote: “And the word became flesh and lived among us…..
full of grace and truth.” That “word” was and is Jesus. Authentic Christian faith is grace-filled living.
And the good news comes to life, and the Word is made flesh once again.
Finally, Paul reminds us that authentic Christians are thankful. He says we are to be filled with gratitude that when the gospel story was told, it was received not as the words of human beings, but as through it was straight from God. And so it remains every time we tell, and live the gospel story today. One of the great mysteries of God is that our frail and faltering words and acts somehow participate with God’s Words and acts, and become authentic; in these, Christ is again incarnated; the “word” again, “made flesh.” That is the good news! And for it, we are most appreciative.
You see, becoming authentic Christians – persons seeking to live out the good news of Christ – requires changes in us. We have to be willing to give up some of our frivolous goose chases and elephant hunts. But what awesome changes occur when we abandon our trivial pursuits in favor of pursuit of
the godly. In her book Call to Commitment, Elizabeth O’Connor writes: “There is a mystic wind that
blows across our days…. You hear it in the lives that are being transformed. On a Sunday morning, a committed atheist and a committed alcoholic listen to the same sermon and their ways are made radically different….. Here the shy learn how to speak with eloquence, the fearful know courage, the one prejudiced and the one prejudiced against call one another brother [and sister]. The fatherless find a father and the wounded a physician.”
Elephant hunts? No, not at all. Wild good chases? Hardly. Yet authentic Christianity is a quest of sorts; a searching for truth, and meaning, and life. And it does have its rewards: authentic self, experiencing healthy relationships with God and with others, not to mention the eternal rewards of the very Kingdom of God. Rather than waste our time and energy searching for that which can’t be found, let’s apply our time and energy to searching and finding that which can be: an authentic life of faith grounded in the good news story of Jesus Christ.
Lord, our wild goose chases are many. And the world offers so many promises with neither basis nor substance. Forgive us, Father, when we chase the trivial, and pursue that which does not enrich life, but detracts from it. May our daily pursuit be after the life-giving good news of Christ. And may we live out that faith through acts of gentleness, graciousness, and self-sacrifice, that our witness be pure, and our testimony genuine. Hear this, our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.