THE FIFTH SPARROW
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-6-64 10:50 a.m.
The First Baptist Church in Dallas counts it a high and holy privilege to come into your home to share this service with you on television and on radio. The title of the message is The Fifth Sparrow.
When I had finished preaching for so very many years, almost eighteen years, when I had finished preaching through the Bible, starting at Genesis, continuing through the last and climactic book, the Revelation, I placed in our little church paper The Reminder, a block, and asked our people to fill out the questionnaire contained within the border. The question was, “Is there some subject or some text of interest to you upon which you would like to hear the pastor preach?” I have kept those and from time to time, though without announcement, I deliver a message on one of those subjects, and shall continue to do so, that so greatly interest or trouble our people.
To my very great surprise, several of our members said in that little questionnaire, “We would like to hear you preach again that sermon entitled The Fifth Sparrow.” That message was delivered here within a Sunday or two after I came to be pastor of the church, which meant that there were several in our congregation who remembered what I preached about twenty years ago. I wish I were that astute and that able; but the subject of that sermon, to me, is one of the most precious and meaningful and encouraging of all of the revelations of God’s mercy and sympathy to be found in the Holy Scriptures. I cannot remember, of course, all of the message that was delivered so long ago; but the spirit of it, the text of it, the idea of it is writ so large here in the holy page. It fits this season of the year precisely, unusually so. Therefore, the sermon this morning delivered by the pastor is entitled The Fifth Sparrow.
It comes from a comparison of the words of our Lord concerning the loving care of God, a comparison of our Lord when He spake of it in the tenth chapter of the First Gospel and in the twelfth chapter of the Third Gospel. This is what our Lord said in Matthew 10:29-31, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” A farthing—about one-half a cent:
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?
And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
But the very hairs of your head are numbered.
Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.
Now remember that: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” [Matthew 10:29].
When I turn to the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, 6 and 7 verses, look at the Lord as He says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows” [Luke 12:6-7].
In a comparison of those two texts, the Lord said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” [Matthew 10:29]. On the basis of analogy wouldn’t it be true if two sparrows are sold for a farthing, four sparrows will be sold for two farthings? But the Lord says, “Are not five,” a fifth is added, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings?” [Luke 12:6]. There’s a fifth one thrown in for nothing.
When you go back into the story and into the life of messianic times, in the days of His flesh, you will find a very typical incident that would happen at Jerusalem like this. Up a steep, narrow alley of a street, there is walking a poor, old woman named Martha. And she arrives at a little cubby hole of a market. When she comes, she greets, she salutes the market keeper. He’s known her for the years and the years. And in loving kindness the old market keeper returns the salutation of aged Martha. She has come to buy the meat for the day. As always, she looks and she handles all the meat for sale. He knows exactly what she is going to buy, what she will ask, what he will say. So as she looks at all of the meat there on the counter, she asks about the sparrows. And the old market keeper replies, “Two sparrows for a farthing.” So the aged mother undoes a knot in her sash, and puts a copper coin on the counter. And the market keeper pushes across the counter two little dressed sparrows. Martha then undoes another knot in her sash and places another copper on the counter. And the old market keeper pushes across two more little dressed sparrows. Then Martha asks a question that had been repeated so often it was lifted into the category of a proverb. Old Martha says to the meat keeper, “But are not five sparrows sold for two farthings?” So the old market keeper, just to close a deal, to seal a trade, throws in that fifth sparrow, that extra sparrow for nothing. So little, so insignificant, so no-account, so trifling he throws in the fifth one just for nothing.
Our Lord had seen that all the days of His life, since He was a little boy; that fifth sparrow of no consequence, of trifling significance, of no value, thrown in for nothing to complete a deal, He picks out that fifth sparrow and said, “But God saw it fall to the ground. Not one of them, not even the fifth one added for nothing, not one of them is forgotten before God” [Luke 12:6]. Then the sublime and the heavenly benedictory words: “You, you, not only are ye not forgotten, but the very hairs of your heads are numbered” [Luke 12:7]. He whose eye is on the sparrow, so inconsequential, so trifling nothing, He who watches over the sparrow, sees it fall to the ground [Matthew 10:29], He does not forget us. Now that’s the idea of the sermon.
Now to speak it: there are many, many things that argue for our worthlessness. Here’s one: the disclosures of modern science. Used to be it was reasonable to assume that this little earth, this planet, was the center of the universe and all of the systems of astronomy of ancient day were Ptolemaic, they were built around the idea and the conception, the persuasion that the center of all creation was this world. Then Copernicus and the scientists that followed, and they discovered that this little planet is one of the infinitesimal, inconsequential specks of dust in this vast and illimitable infinitude all around us. The great and world-famed Pascal said, “When I think of the eternal silence of infinite space, I am terrified!” A naturalist one time wrote, “When I look into the starry heavens I experience a cosmic chill!” And another scientist asked plaintively, pathetically, poignantly, “Is the universe friendly? Is it?” As we stand so small, indescribably, infinitesimally small in a vast universe so big and so vacant and so silent, our hearts sometimes fail within us.
One of the most effective writers of modern times, Hall Caine, describes in one of his books [The Scapegoat, 1890], a little blind and deaf and therefore speechless girl named Naomi. She is the daughter of Israel ben Oliel. And Israel ben Oliel, in that story, wakes up so many nights. And there, standing by his bed is the sweet little girl Naomi in her white nightgown, just standing there. He couldn’t ask her what she wanted; she couldn’t hear. She couldn’t say to him what was in her heart; she couldn’t speak. And the day was as the night to her. Israel ben Oliel would just wake up and there was standing by his bed that blind and deaf and speechless little girl. She just wanted to be near, to stand close by, to feel the presence of somebody dear.
All humanity is like that. In a universe so infinite, and so measureless, and so impersonal, and so inexorable, like little blind and deaf and speechless Naomi—oh, to draw near, to have somebody to stand by!
There are so many things that argue for our worthlessness: not only the disclosures of science, but all of modern philosophies, all of them. Almost in our generation, in our lifetime has arisen those philosophies that have swept and convulsed this earth. The totalitarian concept of government, and of culture, and of state, and of police power has largely been implemented in our day and in our generation. And the basic philosophy of totalitarianism is this: that a man and his life and his soul are nothing! Feed them to the cannon; thousands and millions, nothing. Communism, fascism, Nazism, any kind of totalitarianism, it’s all alike. There’s not anyone aware of the world in which he now lives but has stood aghast at the cruel and merciless and needless slaughter of those white hostages in the Congo. Pictures of the great missionary doctor Carlson and his companions and children—why? To a communist, to a totalitarian, what is a life? What is a man? What is a soul? What is murder and blood, war and rampage? Nothing, nothing.
And even the basic philosophy that is increasingly guiding the destiny of our modern Western world is called existentialism. What is existentialism? Existentialism is the philosophy of abject and indescribable despair, this: that a man is nothing in a universe, without purpose! Not any God, not any rationale, not any reason, not anything except by accident that we can’t explain we’re here; and there’s no destiny and there’s no future, there’s not anything but death and despair. That is the basic philosophy of modern Western culture. And it is leading to the deterioration and the destruction of all modern Western civilization.
I repeat again: all of the philosophies that have been developed in our lifetime are built upon the thesis and they argue on the basis that a man is nothing; he’s alone and he drifts without purpose in the infinitude of this universe.
There are so many things that argue for our worthlessness—the providences of life. I speak now out of a world in which I live, live all the time. I held a funeral service upon a day, not a single soul attended, not one, not one, not one. The service was announced, the hour was set, the place was stated; when I stood up in the chapel of the funeral home to conduct the service, I was by myself. There was not one in the chapel, not one. When I came down out of the pulpit, the funeral director said to me, “Would you be kind enough to find somebody to come in and look upon the face of this man, so if any question is ever raised in the future, we can verify that we buried him with dignity and in respect?” I walked out on the sidewalk, I found a hamburger man. I said, “Sir, would you come into the chapel and look upon the face of this man in the casket, so that if any question is ever raised in the future, the funeral director can say that he was buried with dignity and with respect?” The only man who looked upon the face of that fallen brother was a hamburger man whom I invited into the chapel, just passing by.
You live long enough, and you will be a stranger in the world. All the family gone, all your friends gone, and you’re by yourself—the things that argue for our worthlessness. What is it if a man dies?
That was what Jesus meant when He said, “Fear not, fear not, do not be discouraged, fear not. That fifth sparrow, even that fifth sparrow thrown in for nothing, a trifling bounty, even that fifth sparrow, when it fell to the ground God saw it. Not one of them is forgotten before God” [Luke 12:6]. The Lord sees, God knows, and God cares.
The fifth sparrow [Luke 12:6]: a little child is a fifth sparrow, a little child. Don’t even notice the little fellow; he’s so little, playing around your feet. Decisions are made by grown folks. All things are in order, set there by grown people. Who pays attention to little children? The fifth sparrow is a little child [Luke 12:6].
I went to hear Homer Martinez; he held a revival meeting at our Calvary Chapel when we had our Latin American crusade this last September and October. I went out with some of you to encourage those dear people, our Latin Americans. And then I heard him again in the big central convocation in the music hall in our Dallas Memorial Auditorium Center. In one of those services, he told the story of his conversion.
Now I take a little piece of it. He was converted in a little mission in San Antonio. Angel, his older brother, and the famous, more famous of the preachers in the family, Angel, his older brother was converted first. And then he went back and spoke to his mother. And after many tears and much praying, the mother was converted, and she came forward confessing Jesus as her Savior. Then his sister was converted. And Homer was the little child, and small for his age in the family. He came forward; Jesus had touched his heart, and he wanted to give his soul to Jesus; and then they sent him back to his seat, see he was too little. So while they were rejoicing and praising God, he was there by himself, and the Lord just touched his soul, and he couldn’t keep from responding again; so he went up there to the front, and stayed this time. He’d found the Lord as His Savior.
So Homer Martinez said, he said, “After the service was over, we were all there in line. And the people came by to shake hands.” And he said, “They shook hands with Angel, and rejoiced in the conversion of Angel.” Then they shook hands with his mother, and rejoiced in the conversion of his mother. And they shook hands with his sister, and rejoiced in the conversion of his sister. And then the preacher said, “I held up my little hand for the people to rejoice with me,” and he said, “ninety percent of the people passed me by and didn’t even so much as shake my hand.” Isn’t that typical? Oh, what a glory, these converted! Oh, what a marvel, these converted! This little boy, pass him by, pass him by. The fifth sparrow is a little child, a little child.
The fifth sparrow is an old man or an old woman [Luke 12:6]. I asked Dr. Woodrow Fuller to come into my study just recently, just a few days ago. I said to him, “Dr. Fuller, I don’t care what else you do in this church, all of these organizations head up in you, and the direction of all the activities heads up in you, and all the ministries of this church head up in you. But there’s one ministry that’s dear to my heart more so than any other ministry we have, and that’s the pastoral ministry. Now Dr. Fuller, whether you do anything else or not, I want you to organize the life and the energies and the abilities of this church, to minister to our people.”
Here is a family that gives their lives to God and to this church for a generation; and then they get old and feeble and invalid, and we pass them by. Their very names drop out of our memory. They’re not able to come anymore, they’re not seated here anymore, we don’t see them anymore and promptly forget them. “Oh, Dr. Fuller,” I pled, “I’m not giving you the answers, but I just want you to know that the dearest ministry to my heart in the church is pastoral ministry.” Is there somebody in need? Is there somebody in despair? Is there somebody old? Is there somebody forsaken? The energies of one man are so abbreviated, and I can do, it seems to me, I can do so little compared to the infinitude of the pastoral need in this great city and even in our wonderful church. But whether I can go or not, somebody ought to go. And whether I can kneel by the bed and pray, somebody ought to kneel and pray. And whether I have enough money to help in an hour of need, somebody ought to be there to help in an hour of need. The fifth sparrow is an old man, it’s an old woman, it’s the aged in our midst in need [Luke 12:6].
The fifth sparrow is the poor [Luke 12:6]. I have always felt, and I’ve had no reason to change my mind after thirty-seven years, I have always felt in my reading, in my studying, and in the sensitivity of my own soul and as I stand before God, I have always felt that the church that lives is the church that ministers to the poor. I have always felt that a class church, full of rich and affluent people, will ultimately and inexorably and inevitably die! I still think so. It lives for a while, it ministers for a while, but it ministers to an increasingly decimated congregation. But the church that lives is the church that ministers to the poor! And ever since we’ve been a church, we’ve been working on somehow pouring our energies into these many ministries among the poor. And to me it’s the finest work our church does.
Now I don’t discount government programs. Every time there’s a slum cleared and a housing project goes up, I say, “If that’s the way it ought to be done, fine.” I have no objection to any kind of a government program in behalf of the poor. I’m just saying this: that what these people need is not so much a bigger salary or a bigger house or a bigger automobile or a better washing machine, but what they need is the love and sympathy and forgiveness and presence of God in their families and in their hearts! You can have all of the rest, and they’re still as empty and as undone and as lost as before the government poured in those millions.
All this last week I have been in New York City. I went up there with our Annuity Board, with Dr. Reed, attending a conference on taking care of ministers and missionaries. And as you go through New York City, there are those tremendous housing projects. And the sociologist said—they say so many things—the sociologist said, “Now you clear out these slums and these tenements, and you build these great marvelous projects, and you won’t have any more gangs, and you won’t have any more ruffians, and you won’t have any more brigands, and you won’t have any more violence.” So they cleared them out, and they built those tremendous tenements, those vast apartment projects. And the gangs in those projects are more vicious and more vile and more cruel than they have ever been in the years gone by! All you’ve got to do is just read your paper, read your paper, be aware of what’s going on. New York has never been so terrified as it has since those programs began. Living way up and down those vast apartment buildings, without a name, without a face; but their souls empty and they gang together, just finding out some meaning in life.
Last week somebody placed in my hand a book by a Pentecostal preacher, by an Assembly of God, a Holiness preacher. It’s called The Cross and the Switchblade. Had the weather not been so terrible in New York and had I just a little time, I wrote the address of where that preacher ministers; I was going to see him, I was going to see him. I wanted to talk to him. He’s a Holiness preacher, and God had put it in his heart to go to New York City and to see what he could do to turn that vile, merciless, juvenile, murderous gang warfare against society and against the police and against people, to turn it to God. And the story of how God blessed him, not through a government subsidy, but through the grace and love of Jesus, the story of that is in that little book, The Cross and the Switchblade. I want to take one leaf out of it:
Jo-Jo, Jo-Jo is the leader of one of those vicious gangs. So he asked a boy to introduce him to Jo-Jo. “Oh,” said the boy to the preacher, “Jo-Jo might not like that. No.” So the preacher found him himself, walked up to Jo-Jo, introduced himself and put out his hand. In contempt, in one of their signs, the boy slapped the palm of his hand like that, and he stooped over and spit on his shoes, the sign of contempt, turned around and sat with his back to the preacher on a bench. Well, the preacher went over there and sat down by his side, tried to talk to him and the fellow said, “I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Well,” he said, “I want to talk to you. Where do you live?” And Jo-Jo said, “You’re in my parlor now.”
“No,” said the preacher, “where do you go when it rains?” He says, “I go down to my suite in the subway.” Kid had on canvas shoes, and his toes sticking out, and filthy clothes. He said, “Where’d you come from?” And Jo-Jo replied, “I belong to a family with ten children, and we’re all on relief. And there wasn’t enough food to go around, so I had to leave.” He began to talk to him about the Lord. And the teenage gang leader said, “Don’t try to get me in that God business. Look at your clothes, they match. Look at your shoes, they’re new. You’re rich! No wonder you talk about this God business.”
Preacher never had thought about it. He took off his shoes, gave them to the boy, “Put them on.”’
“What you trying to do?” said Jo-Jo, “this heart business?”
“No,” said the preacher, “put them on.”
“I won’t do it.”
“Try them on.” He got the boy to take off his canvas shoes with his toes sticking out, and put on the preachers new shoes. When he did so, the preacher said, “They’re yours.” He got up and walked two blocks to his car in his stocking feet, down the streets of New York City. When he got in the car, he looked out the window and there stood Jo-Jo. “Preacher,” he said, “you mean these are mine?”
“Yea,” said the preacher, “they’re yours.”
“Why,” said the boy, “I never had any pair of shoes in my life.”
“You got a pair now,” said the preacher, “They’re yours.” The boy stuck his hand through the window and said, “Preacher, I forgot to shake hands with you!” Preacher said, “Jo-Jo, I don’t have much money, and I’m bumming a place with a family to stay. Would you like to stay tonight also?” The boy said, “Yes.”
He went to a Puerto Rican family where he was staying, and asked the woman if the boy could sleep on the couch. And the boy stayed on the couch. The preacher took him down with the eight dollars he had left and bought the boy some clothes, some clean clothes; and prayed with him, and talked to him, and won him to Jesus. And then they got the whole gang, got the whole gang to the Lord. Then in the morning there was a call early in the morning, the police station. The lieutenant says, “Come immediately.”
The preacher had given them Bibles. He offered them little Bibles. The boy said, “No, we want them big so people can know what we’re carrying around.” He had no idea what had happened, but it was an urgent message from the police, something with a gang. So the preacher went down to the police station. There was the sergeant, and there was the whole gang in the police station. So the sergeant sent word on the inside for the lieutenant, and the lieutenant came out and lined up the entire police force in that precinct across the room, across their headquarters. Then the lieutenant said, “Preacher, come here.” He said, “I want to shake your hand.” He said, “You see that gang?” He said, “They’ve declared war on us and on our society and on our people, and they’ve given us endless trouble. But,” he said, “this morning, the whole gang came to see us, and guess what?” The preacher said, “I can’t imagine. Has something tragic happened?”
“No,” said the lieutenant, “no, they all came here this morning and wanted all of us policemen to autograph their Bibles, to autograph their Bibles!” And the lieutenant said, “Preacher, this is the police force of the precinct, and we all want to shake your hand. We want to shake your hand.”
That is the answer and the solution to all racial, and economic, and sociological, and political, and cultural, and marital problems of this world! It lies in the mediation of the love, and the sympathy, and the mercy, and the goodness of God: the poor, the fifth sparrow [Luke 12:6].
Before we go off the air, may I mention one other? The fifth sparrow, the fifth sparrow is the lost, the lost [Luke 12:6]. It’s very easy and convenient for the church to assemble its dear and sweet and precious friends and family and people together. And we can be in classes and in groups and in parties, in fellowships, and I love it. I have no life outside of the church. And if there’s any happiness and gladness and any being together for somebody like me, it has to be in the circle of the church; I don’t go beyond it. And I love to be with the people; I love being with them. I’d go to every party I could if I had the strength to do it. I’d go to every convocation and every meeting if I could. I love that, and I love to see it in the church. But the fifth sparrow is that fellow that’s not there: the fifth sparrow is somebody outside. The fifth sparrow for whom Jesus died is somebody lost [1 Corinthians 15:3]. And the great destiny and purpose and call of the church is to reach out a saving hand to that somebody who is lost [Matthew 28:19-20].
In our library in Muskogee is a room where all the literature of the Five Civilized Tribes is kept; the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, the Creeks, the Seminoles, and the Cherokees. Their most famous Indian poet was named Alex Posey; he was a Creek poet. If you’ve ever gone in a little boat down the river, have you seen the trees overarch? He wrote this poem:
Why do trees along the river
Lean so far out o’er the tide?
Very wise men tell me why but
I am never satisfied:
And so I keep my fancy still,
That trees lean out to save
The drowning from the clutches of
The cold, remorseless wave.
[“My Fancy,” Alex Posey]
Alex Posey, the greatest Indian poet, Creek, died when he was trying to help two white people across the flooded North Canadian River. Yet, he held onto a branch of a tree until help could come, but by the time they could throw him a rope his hands had paralyzed, and he couldn’t undo to clasp the rope, so he sank out of sight beneath the waters, and died in the tide, in the flood of the North Canadian River. And in Muskogee, in the library, they dedicated that room to him; and there you’ll find in bronze letters that simple and so much like an Indian poem:
Why do trees along the river
Lean so far out o’er the tide?
Very wise men tell me why but
I am never satisfied:
So I keep my fancy still,
That trees lean out to save
The drowning from the clutches of
The cold, remorseless wave.
And that’s the church, with an extended hand; always an extended hand. Somebody lost, somebody forgotten, somebody forsaken, somebody neglected, somebody needs God—this is the church with its hand of love and devotion and friendship extended; the fifth sparrow in the love and in the watching care of God [Luke 12:6].
We’ve gone beyond our time. May the Lord bless the message to our souls. While we sing our hymn of appeal, somebody you give your heart to Jesus [Romans 10:9-10], somebody you come into the fellowship of the church, a family you, a couple, one somebody, while we sing the song, while we make appeal, would you come now? Come over here on this side of our Lord’s Supper table. “Pastor, I give you my hand; I’ve given my heart to God. I’m coming into the fellowship of the church.” As the Spirit of the Lord shall make the appeal to your heart, come now; make it now, while we stand and while we sing.