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True heroes are hard to identify. They don’t look like heroes. Here’s an example.

Step with me into a dank dungeon in Judea. Peer through the door’s tiny window. Consider the plight of the man on the floor. He has just inaugurated history’s greatest movement. His words have triggered a revolution that will span two millenniums. Future historians will describe him as courageous, noble, and visionary.


At this moment he appears anything but. Cheeks hollow. Beard matted. Bewilderment etched on his face. He leans back against the cold wall, closes his eyes, and sighs.


John had never known doubt. Hunger, yes. Loneliness, often. But doubt? Never. Only raw conviction, ruthless pronouncements, and rugged truth. Such was John the Baptist. Conviction as fierce as the desert sun.


Until now. Now the sun is blocked. Now his courage wanes. Now the clouds come. And now, as he faces death, he doesn’t raise a fist of victory; he raises only a question. His final act is not a proclamation of courage, but a confession of confusion: “Find out if Jesus is the Son of God or not.”


The forerunner of the Messiah is afraid of failure. Find out if I’ve told the truth. Find out if I’ve sent people to the right Messiah. Find out if I’ve been right or if I’ve been duped.1 Doesn’t sound too heroic, does he?

We’d rather John die in peace. We’d rather the trailblazer catch a glimpse of the mountain. Seems only right that the sailor be granted a sighting of the shore. After all, didn’t Moses get a view of the valley? Isn’t John the cousin of Jesus?

If anybody deserves to see the end of the trail, doesn’t he?


Apparently not.

The miracles he prophesied, he never saw. The kingdom he announced, he never knew. And the Messiah he proclaimed, he now doubts.

John doesn’t look like the prophet who would be the transition between law and grace. He doesn’t look like a hero. Heroes seldom do.

Can I take you to another prison for a second example?

This time the jail is in Rome. The man is named Paul. What John did to present Christ, Paul did to explain him.

John cleared the path; Paul erected signposts.


Like John, Paul shaped history. And like John, Paul would die in the jail of a despot. No headlines announced his execution. No observer recorded the events. When the ax struck Paul’s neck, society’s eyes didn’t blink. To them Paul was a peculiar purveyor of an odd faith.


Peer into the prison and see him for yourself: bent and frail, shackled to the arm of a Roman guard. Behold the apostle of God. Who knows when his back last felt a bed or his mouth knew a good meal? Three decades of travel and trouble, and what’s he got to show for it?


There’s squabbling in Philippi, competition in Corinth, the legalists are swarming in Galatia. Crete is plagued by money grabbers. Ephesus is stalked by womanizers. Even some of Paul’s own friends have turned against him.

Dead broke. No family. No property. Nearsighted and worn out.


Oh, he had his moments. Spoke to an emperor once, but couldn’t convert him. Gave a lecture at an Areopagus men’s club, but wasn’t asked to speak there again. Spent a few days with Peter and the boys in Jerusalem, but they couldn’t seem to get along, so Paul hit the road.

And never got off. Ephesus, Thessalonica, Athens, Syracuse, Malta. The only list longer than his itinerary was that of his misfortunes. Got stoned in one city and stranded in another. Nearly drowned as many times as he nearly starved. If he spent more than one week in the same place, it was probably a prison.


He never received a salary. Had to pay his own travel expenses. Kept a part-time job on the side to make ends meet.

Doesn’t look like a hero.

Doesn’t sound like one either. He introduced himself as the worst sinner in history. He was a Christian-killer before he was a Christian leader. At times his heart was so heavy, his pen drug itself across the page. “What a miserable man I am! Who will save me from this body that brings me death?” (Rom. 7:24).


Only heaven knows how long he stared at the question before he found the courage to defy logic and write, “I thank God for saving me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25).


One minute he’s in charge; the next he’s in doubt. One day he’s preaching; the next he’s in prison. And that’s where I’d like you to look at him. Look at him in the prison.

Pretend you don’t know him. You’re a guard or a cook or a friend of the hatchet man, and you’ve come to get one last look at the guy while they sharpen the blade.


What you see shuffling around in his cell isn’t too much. But what I lean over and tell you is: “That man will shape the course of history.”

You chuckle, but I continue.

“Nero’s fame will fade in this man’s light.” You turn and stare. I continue.

“His churches will die. But his thoughts? Within two hundred years his thoughts will influence the teaching of

every school on this continent.” You shake your head.


“See those letters? Those letters scribbled on parchment? They’ll be read in thousands of languages and will impact every major creed and constitution of the future. Every major figure will read them. Every single one.”

That would be your breaking point. “No way. He’s an old man with an odd faith. He’ll be killed and forgotten before his head hits the floor.”


Who could disagree? What rational thinker would counter?

Paul’s name would blow like the dust his bones would become.

Just like John’s. No level-headed observer would think otherwise. Both were noble, but passing. Courageous, but small. Radical, yet unnoticed. No one—I repeat, no one— bade farewell to these men thinking their names would be remembered longer than a generation.


Their peers simply had no way of knowing—and neither do we.

For that reason, a hero could be next door and you wouldn’t know it. The fellow who changes the oil in your car could be one. A hero in coveralls? Maybe. Maybe as he works he prays, asking God to do with the heart of the driver what he does with the engine.


The day-care worker where you drop off the kids? Perhaps. Perhaps her morning prayers include the name of each child and the dream that one of them will change the world. Who’s to say God isn’t listening?

The parole officer downtown? Could be a hero. She could be the one who challenges the ex-con to challenge the teens to challenge the gangs.


I know, I know. These folks don’t fit our image of a hero. They look too, too, . . . well, normal. Give us four stars, titles, and headlines. But something tells me that for every hero in the spotlight, there are dozens in the shadows. They don’t get press. They don’t draw crowds. They don’t even write books!


But behind every avalanche is a snowflake.

Behind a rock slide is a pebble.

An atomic explosion begins with one atom.

And a revival can begin with one sermon.

History proves it. John Egglen had never preached a sermon in his life. Never.


Wasn’t that he didn’t want to, just never needed to. But then one morning he did. The snow left his town of Colchester, England, buried in white. When he awoke on that January Sunday in 1850, he thought of staying home. Who would go to church in such weather?

But he reconsidered. He was, after all, a deacon. And if the deacons didn’t go, who would? So he put on his boots, hat, and coat and walked the six miles to the Methodist Church.


He wasn’t the only member who considered staying home. In fact, he was one of the few who came. Only thirteen people were present. Twelve members and one visitor. Even the minister was snowed in. Someone suggested they go home. Egglen would hear none of that. They’d come this far; they would have a service. Besides, they had a visitor. A thirteen-year-old boy.

But who would preach? Egglen was the only deacon. It fell to him.


And so he did. His sermon lasted only ten minutes. It drifted and wandered and made no point in an effort to make several. But at the end, an uncharacteristic courage settled upon the man. He lifted his eyes and looked straight at the boy and challenged: “Young man, look to Jesus. Look! Look! Look!”


Did the challenge make a difference? Let the boy, now a man, answer. “I did look, and then and there the cloud on my heart lifted, the darkness rolled away, and at that moment I saw the sun.”

The boy’s name? Charles Haddon Spurgeon. England’s prince of preachers.2

Did Egglen know what he’d done? No.

Do heroes know when they are heroic? Rarely.


Are historic moments acknowledged when they happen?

You know the answer to that one. (If not, a visit to the manger will remind you.) We seldom see history in the making, and we seldom recognize heroes. Which is just as well, for if we knew either, we might mess up both.

But we’d do well to keep our eyes open. Tomorrow’s Spurgeon might be mowing your lawn. And the hero who inspires him might be nearer than you think.

He might be in your mirror.


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