Where were you on Monday, April 8, 1974, at 9:07 p.m.?
I was on the Midway Baptist Church bus—I wanted to paint the words Heaven Bound on the front but Preacher Bill said “No”--with the rest of our youth choir; we were pulling back into Barnesville on our return trip from the Liberty Baptist Church near Jackson, Georgia where we had just finished another dazzling performance of such contemporary classics as “Here Comes Jesus (See Him Walking on the Water)” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand (of the Man Who Stilled the Water).” Being Baptists, we had this thing about water, I guess.
It turned out to be yet one more experience of my missing something of great historical significance because I was at church. When the Beatles had first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was at church. When Hee-Haw was moved from Saturday at 7:00 p.m. to Sunday at 7:00, I was at church.
And, while I was coming back from church rather than sitting in church at 9:07 p.m. on Monday, April 8, 1974, it was nonetheless because of church that I missed Hank Aaron hitting his 715th career home run, thereby breaking Babe Ruth’s long-standing record.
I wasn’t at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I didn’t see it on television. I didn’t even hear Milo Hamilton’s call on the Braves Radio Network.
I thereby proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was willing to give up more to follow Jesus than anyone had ever given up before or has given up since.
Not that it was necessarily up to me; the way my parents saw things, if seeing Jesus come back would have meant my missing church, I just wouldn’t have been able to see Jesus come back.
Since I’m a pastor I know that some folks will be shocked to hear me say it, but there are things in life that are worth missing church for. On the other hand, though, there aren’t enough things worth missing church for to explain the high volume of absences some worshippers of God pile up.
Given that I wasn’t there the night that Hammerin’ Hank broke the record, you might wonder why I have a certificate hanging in my study that says, “I was there when Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run to pass Babe Ruth as the top home run hitter in the history of Baseball.” The reason is that my mentor Dr. Howard Giddens was there and, when he passed away, his certificate was passed along to me. In a way, then, I inherited not only the certificate but the experience from Dr. Giddens.
Sometime before Aaron broke the record, the late great Braves’ Hall of Fame third baseman and long-time Aaron teammate Eddie Mathews said, "I don't know where Hank Aaron will break Ruth's record but I can tell you one thing - ten years from the day he hits it three million people will say they were there." Mathew’s estimate was probably conservative.
In a way, though, I feel like I was there, and I don’t think it’s just because of the hundreds of times I’ve watched the replay or the numerous articles I’ve read about the event. Aaron’s breaking of Ruth’s record was a community event; it was a happening that was and always will be celebrated by all who belong to the family of Baseball—even those who were not there, even those who were not yet born, and even those who have not yet been born. Henry Aaron belongs to all of us and we will all always remember the glorious night that he broke the Babe’s record.
We in the church are also heirs of a great tradition.
Jesus said to Thomas on the Sunday after Easter Sunday, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). One of the main reasons we are able to believe without seeing is that those who did see Jesus were faithful to pass on with their words and their lives who Jesus was, what he did, what he said, and, most importantly, the fact that he lives. No, we weren’t there, not literally, but we are among the millions and millions of people for whom the experience of Jesus is so vivid that we might as well have been—and that is in large part because of the way in which it has been, thanks be to God, passed down to us.
I think often about the scene in the book of Deuteronomy in which Moses led the first post-exodus generation, those who, after the first generation had passed on during the sojourn in the wilderness, were about to enter the Promised Land, in a covenant renewal ceremony. He said to them, “Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive here today” (Deuteronomy 5:3). The fact was that the vast, vast majority of his audience on that day had not been there forty years earlier when God had established the covenant with Israel. And yet Moses assured them that they had been. And so they had, because the traditions that are handed down are that alive and that enduring. But even more—the God who established the covenant was still alive and the relationship God established with God’s people was enduring.
Was I there when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record? No, I wasn’t. And of course I was.
Was I there when God established God’s covenant with God’s people? No, I wasn’t. And of course I was.
Was I there when the disciples saw the resurrected Lord? No, I wasn’t. And of course I was.
And I still am …