November 2014 Sermons:
"Greatness Is, As Greatness Does" — November 2
Matthew 23: 1-12
The Quaker leader, William Penn, was ahead of his time. He founded the city of Philadelphia as a place of tolerance for all religions. That idea was unheard of, in the seventeenth century. He believed, as members of the Society of Friends do, that no human being should receive more honor than any other. Had you ever noticed that the main streets there are named Chestnut, Walnut, and Spruce, instead of being named for well-known people?
Jesus said that we should avoid signs of status. Other rabbis of His time thought differently. You’ve been hearing gospel stories that come from near the end of Jesus’ earthly life. The Pharisees crop up more and more often. Pharisees are fellow rabbis who live by the letter of the Torah laws—all 613 of them. This isn’t easy to do. They expect others to do the same.
Earlier in His ministry, Jesus hadn’t been on their radar screen. But now these men are starting to think He’s dangerous. They’ve been trying to catch Him at something wrong. If they can get Him to speak blasphemy, they can haul Him up before the rabbinical authorities. If He makes an unpopular comment, the crowds will turn against Him. If He speaks seditiously, the Roman soldiers will throw Him in jail. But in all the debates they’ve had with Jesus so far, Jesus has come out on top.
We don’t know the real concern of the Pharisees. Obviously, Jesus doesn’t oppose Old Testament law. Is their beef a personal one? Do they think He is leading people away from their own leadership, with the things He’s been teaching? Are they fearful that the Romans will intervene if they can’t settle down the crowds who are cheering for Him?
Even if we didn’t already know “the rest of the story,” we would sense that a crisis was getting ready to happen. We aren’t quite there yet with today’s reading! But there is a new development! Prior to this, Jesus had left the scribes and Pharisees alone except when they came looking for Him. Granted, that was starting to happen a lot, but He hadn’t initiated the confrontations. In today’s reading, the tables are starting to turn.
This story comes on the heels of the one you heard last week. You’ll recall that the Pharisees had asked Jesus to tell them which is the greatest commandment. So chances are, they’re still standing around as our story begins. So even though Matthew begins chapter 23 by saying that Jesus is speaking to the crowds and to His disciples, it’s likely that the Pharisees and other religious authorities are still there, and that Jesus wants them to overhear His words.
“Do what they teach you about,” says Jesus, because after all they do “sit on Moses’ seat,” they are the authorities on God’s word. “But do not do what they do, for they themselves do not do what they teach.” Can you imagine the Pharisees’ blood pressure starting to rise already? “They lay burdens on everyone else’s shoulders,” continues Jesus, but they themselves won’t lift a finger to carry them. “They put on a good show when others are watching, and they love to sit at the head table and have people call them ‘rabbi.’” Or in other words, do as they say. Don’t do as they do. Don’t let anyone call you “rabbi,” “teacher.” There is only one teacher, He tells the crowd. Because these men exalt themselves, they will be humbled; but if you humble yourself, you will be exalted.
Even the earliest saints of the church struggled with keeping a balance between humble and exalted. As Protestants, we don’t think about “saints” in quite the same way as our Catholic brothers and sisters. We don’t pray to them. But in the Apostles’ Creed, we speak of “the communion of the saints.” Who are the saints?
One of the surest signs of a saint is humility. Saints do their good deeds quietly. They don’t want to be seen by others. Far from wanting to sit at the head table at banquets, they are usually behind the scenes, working in the kitchen, or serving guests, or cleaning up. When someone greets them with respect, or sets them up as an example, they refuse the honor. They are aware, sometimes painfully so, of the ways in which their actions don’t always match their intentions. From the outside, we see their good works. From the inside, they know about some works they’ve chosen not to do. Maybe, they even know of “bad works” in their past that they hope nobody finds out about.
I think the reason Jesus gets so frustrated with the Pharisees, is that they’re so close to being saints, but they never get it right. They are teachers. They care about trying to live according to God’s law, and they try to obey it. But they can’t let it go at that. They want to be rewarded. They exalt themselves, and want others to exalt them as well. It’s that kind of behavior that leads Jesus to say that folks should do what these men say, but not what they do.
In the church, we sometimes speak of “saints and sinners” as if those were two different categories of people. Like “sheep” on the right, and “goats” on the left. The truth is, “saints” and “sinners” are the same people. Everybody is a sinner. We all fall short of the glory of God. All of us have every reason to be humble, and little reason to be exalted. Some of us know this. We accept it, laugh at ourselves, and say honestly, “Do as I say, not as I do, because I know better than some of the things I do.”
Some see only the good that they do, not the hurtful things they do, or the good deeds they don’t do. “Don’t tell me I’m a sinner!” we exclaim. “Why, compared to person X and person Y and person Z, I’m a saint!” Here’s the paradox in what Jesus says: The saints are those who know themselves to be sinners. The sinners are those who believe themselves to be saints.
All of us are sinners. All of us can be saints. If we do what we know is right and refuse to seek recognition for it; if we know that, despite our doing what is right, our salvation depends on God alone, then we are saints. It’s not wrong to receive or give honor where it’s due. But we should be asking ourselves: do we live lives of selfishness or service? Do we measure success by how much we get, or how much we give?
Jesus calls to us, “Follow me!” There is no place we can go, where Jesus has not already gone. The title we should prize is not Doctor, or Reverend, or Esquire, or Lord, but servant. The place of honor is a cross, not a throne or the cover of Time magazine. The only recognition we should seek, is to be known as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Have Christians stopped believing in afterlife? I’ve noticed telltale signs. On September 11, 2001, we were living in New Jersey. New York City commuters who had died in the World Trade Center, had lived in our part of the state. The memorial services that were held for the victims were surprisingly secular. There was a lot of “open mic” with not much theology. Pastors, family, and friends spoke about the people who died on 9/11, saying that those who perished had made their friends’ lives better by their presence. Earthly lives were the focus, not life after death. Had the victims’ loved ones lost hope? Or were they afraid to express their faith in afterlife because it might make their nonreligious friends uncomfortable?
In the past ten years, we’ve started seeing public shrines marking the places where people have died in automobile accidents. They are fastened to trees or poles along the road, and they stay up just for a short time. Most of them have artificial flowers and color photographs of the victims, covered in plastic. Occasionally, you can see a cross too, and to me, that’s a hopeful sign. For two years, there was a shrine on a telephone pole on Lehigh Street. It was set up in memory of a woman who died in an automobile accident. I drove past it every day. It made me sad, but uneasy too. The scene of a tragic accident is hardly a place of heavenly rest. Now that her shrine has been taken down, do her friends consider this young woman permanently gone? This new highway symbolism may soothe the pain of the living, until they move on emotionally. If their survivors have no hope, I am sorry. Perhaps Christianity has failed them. What I take away from this is that we have an opportunity to evangelize each time we speak with a grieving person about our Christian faith.
What do we really believe about life after death? Death is God’s enemy. Death is our enemy too, if this life is all there is. Terrorists, Ebola, and cancer are monstrous if this life is all there is. As Christians, we say we believe in “the life everlasting,” when we say the Apostles’ Creed. How does our belief shape what we do? Do we believe that God triumphed over death in raising Jesus to life?
The mystery of death fascinates us. I remember our class on the Christian theology of death at seminary. Not a single one of my fellow students cut class that day because they knew what that lecture was going to be about. The classroom, half empty for most classes, was packed. The theology professor delivered this particular lecture from the heart, instead of reading it from a manuscript. At the end of class, this stone-faced man was sobbing. I had never seen my professor express powerful emotion before. It was obvious that his faith was important to him.
We pastors are mostly silent about heaven and the second coming. I could find only four sermons about today’s epistle lesson from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, online. Are pastors afraid to admit we don’t have answers about the afterlife? Because, believe me, we don’t have firsthand knowledge, any more than you do. But Jesus tells us in the scriptures that death is not the end.
The new Christians in Thessalonica were wrestling with questions about life after death. It’s easy to read between the lines and infer that some were claiming Paul had spoken out of turn. After all, Jesus hadn’t come back for them yet and He had died twenty years ago. Paul had told the Thessalonians that the Lord’s return would happen any day. He’d said that Jesus would meet that entire congregation in the sky and take them to heaven.
As the Thessalonians had waited for Jesus to arrive, some of their faithful members had died. Remember that, two thousand years ago, life expectancy didn’t extend beyond the early thirties, at best. It seemed that their family and friends were going to miss out on Jesus’ second coming, if He didn’t show up soon. This was a burning issue for people in Paul’s churches. For us, death is somewhat remote, unless we are in health care professions. That wasn’t true for these ancient people.
When Jesus came to claim Christian believers, He would take only those who were still living. Or, that’s what the Thessalonians had started to believe. Those who had died in the Lord would still get to heaven, but only in the memories of those who were still alive. Death would keep making the kingdom of God smaller and smaller by taking more and more loved ones away. This seemed terribly unfair. The Thessalonian Christians were scared. They were impatient with Paul and with God.
It is one thing to believe that Jesus died and rose again. It is another, to believe that God will bring with Jesus at His coming all those who have died in faith. The Thessalonians weren’t buying Paul’s promises of heaven anymore. Don’t make that mistake.
What has the resurrection of Jesus Christ to do with the rest of us? After all, it’s been more than 2000 years and Jesus hasn’t come back yet. Paul writes, in this letter, that the promise of the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God in glory is the reason for our hope in the face of death. It is the reason we do not grieve as those who believe that death is the end of life.
The resurrection of Jesus is not an isolated event, a solitary rabbit God pulls out of the hat of death to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah. The resurrection of Jesus liberates our lives from the finality of dying. With His resurrection, God established the power of Jesus over the authority of death. When the kingdom of God comes, God will resurrect everyone who has died in faith and reunite the living with them. As Paul writes, God does not prefer the living over the dead.
This is the great good news that the Christian faith has for everyone. Without faith--- that those who live and love in the resurrected Christ, will rise above the power of death when the kingdom of God comes in glory---Christianity offers little that makes much difference. As the Apostle Paul says, if our hope were limited to this world, we would of all people be the most to be pitied.
By the power of the resurrection of Jesus, there will be a reunion in heaven with those who have died in faith. The dead in Christ will rise. Those who are still alive when the kingdom comes will be part of this event. Our joy will be shared with those we have loved. The kingdom of God becomes important to all of us as it becomes more populated with believers who have gone before. I find a great deal of comfort in Paul’s words.
"Further on up the road, where the way is dark and the night is cold, one sunny morning we'll rise I know and I'll meet you further on up the road." Bruce Springsteen sings these words in his album called The Rising. It is a rising that the Christian faith awaits. It rests on the promises of Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead, and in His resurrection will resurrect us into His kingdom further on up the road.
This is another of my least-favorite parables. Why? Because I can see myself in that third servant—the one who buries his talent in the ground. Fear of making a mistake paralyzes him, and so he does nothing. I understand why he does what he does—or, rather, why he doesn’t do what he doesn’t do. He is too careful! And the master—who is God--- is pretty displeased about that.
Our society teaches us to be afraid of failure. We are so competitive. What’s the worst thing that can happen in school? To get an “F”! What’s the worst thing that can happen when you’re on a sports team? To be on the losing side. Failure means shame and ridicule. We hate to be shamed and ridiculed. So we tend to play it safe, instead of risking ourselves for Jesus Christ?
The cause of the third servant’s cautious behavior is his lack of trust. Fear is just a symptom of his problem. He concentrates on protecting himself. His concept of God is wrong, in my opinion. God doesn’t want us to bury our gifts in the ground. Jesus’ parable tells us to use our talents, and then watch them multiply. It doesn’t matter whether we start out with five talents, or two, or only one. We must share the treasures we’ve been given, and get results. Jesus wants disciples who invest their talents wisely, like the first two servants.
Martin Luther once said that Christians should "sin boldly." He didn’t mean that we should deliberately do all the sinful things we can think of to do. No, Luther was describing situations we all face at one time or another. He was speaking of the times when we have to make risky decisions with very little information. So often, it’s not yet clear what choices will be right or wrong. We have to "sin boldly,” so to speak, and move ahead with a decision. If we turn out to be right, that’s good! If we’re wrong; well, that’s why Luther said, "Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in God more boldly still." Believe and rejoice that the power of God is stronger than the power of a mistake. Believe and rejoice that God forgives us for being wrong once in a while, if we have good intentions. Sin boldly. Use the talents and the intelligence you’ve been given; don’t bury them. Thomas Edison failed at more than a thousand experiments with electricity before he invented the light bulb. Every time his staff members failed, he celebrated their willingness to experiment, and thanked them for their courage.
Now having said those things, let me interrupt myself for a moment. We talk about "being prepared" as one important part of stewardship. "Being prepared" often means saving for the future: college expenses, retirement, whatever. That’s a good thing to do.
But for today, what I’m saying may sound like almost the opposite: that we should use what we have and not bury it. Frequently there’s a very fine line between saving and hoarding. The servant with the one talent doesn’t save it. He hoards it. Sometimes we think we’d be better off if Jesus had given us some more specific rules to go by. That’s the wonderful and scary thing about our Christian faith: God leaves us free to make our own decisions. Which means that sometimes we’ll do the right thing, and other times we’ll be wrong. Nevertheless, as Martin Luther said, sin boldly!
Isn’t it amazing that the first Thanksgiving ever happened? The pilgrims may seem pretty strait-laced to us today. But they were huge risk-takers. They were part of the Protestant faith tradition that started with Martin Luther. We Presbyterians are part of the same tradition today.
As we know, the pilgrims were a ragtag bunch of folks, running from religious persecution. They endured a long, dangerous sea voyage in a tiny ship. Some of them died on the way over. They were so far from home it took months to send letters back and forth to their families and friends. Their new land was beautiful, but it required many months of backbreaking labor to make it ready for cultivation. The weather wasn’t like anything they had ever experienced. And to top it off, there were native tribes around to complicate their lives. They dressed strangely, they spoke strange languages, and weren’t always friendly. How amazing that, in the midst of all that, it even occurred to the pilgrims to stop, share their feast with the Indians, and give God praise and thanksgiving. But they did. And we should do the same, whether we’ve received five talents, or two, or only one. We give thanks to God, and then we use what we’ve been given.
Most of us aren’t much like the pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving. The Puritans were considered radical and daring, back in England. For most of us, religion has not been a high-risk venture. Faith is a personal comfort zone for people today. It’s no more risky than getting your personal theology right and then trying to live a good life by avoiding temptation and other bad things. I suspect that’s what Jesus’ friends thought too. I’m guessing they were stunned by this parable. It’s about Jesus, of course. He took the precious gift of His thirty-three-year-old life, and out of his love for God, He put his life on the line by going to Jerusalem. When He told this story, He was speaking of Himself and His disciples. As they listened, we can imagine them wishing they could go back to Galilee, to their homes and their fishing boats.
Maybe this parable got them all thinking about the best ways to be faithful to Jesus and to His vision of the kingdom of God. He was urging them to invest their own lives, to put it all on the line like He did every day. Because in Jesus, these fishermen had come alive.
We are good stewards when we use our money, our skills, our time and our energy to help others. So don’t hide yourself and your gifts away. Give of yourself, richly, with praise and thanksgiving. That’s the message of this puzzling parable. Thanks be to God for all good things! Amen.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Throughout history, whenever a monarch has come to power, people have wondered, “What kind of king or queen will we have now?” In ancient times, every country had a powerful king, and the quality of royal leadership was vitally important to everyone.
This is the last Sunday of the church year, when we celebrate the reign of Christ. What kind of king is Jesus? Scripture shows that He is a shepherd king, like His ancestor, David. Both David and the prophet Moses had started out as shepherds. Although Moses and David weren’t perfect like Jesus, they were the people’s shepherd kings. They used their authority in faithful ways. We are electing church leaders today, so faithful use of power is an important thing for us to consider.
In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Ezekiel gives us a vivid image of the shepherd king. For Ezekiel, who lived seven hundred years before Christ, God was not a king on a throne, carefully guarded by security forces. He was a shepherd caring for His sheep. Because the Twenty-third Psalm is so familiar to us, we understand what shepherd kings are like…. even though few, if any, of us have ever met a real shepherd.
In the ancient Near East, the concept of the Shepherd King was well-known. The kings of the Israelites in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, prior to Jerusalem’s fall, had not been shepherds at all. They were corrupt, and Ezekiel knew this. Those leaders had had little interest in protecting the lost or healing the sick. Instead, the Hebrew kings had stayed in their throne rooms, accumulating wealth. What’s more, the priests of the royal court, and the court prophets, had been telling the kings what they wanted to hear instead of warning them of impending disaster.
Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylon, had discovered how weak the Hebrew kings and their armies were. He had taken advantage of their weaknesses to destroy Jerusalem, capture the king, and send the people of that royal city into exile. God, out of His love for humanity, had spoken to Ezekiel, who was being held prisoner in Babylon, with the people of Jerusalem.
In this passage, Ezekiel speaks the word of God. "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and I will make them lie down," says the Lord God through Ezekiel’s prophecy. "I will seek the lost and I will bring back the strayed and I will bind up the injured and I will strengthen the weak.” This is just what the Israelites in exile needed to hear. They had been enslaved by the Babylonian king for several decades. These defeated people longed to go home and rebuild their city. Ezekiel’s prophecies and vision encouraged them to do that.
Leaders sometimes tend to avoid taking risks. Security, and a lot of distractions, and calendars that are too full, can make us averse to taking risks for God. Like the Hebrew kings of the seventh century BC, Christian leaders want to stay in social circles where just about everybody looks like us, and believes the same things we do. We get complacent. We like our lives to stay neat and tidy. We want hold onto practically every cent we’ve earned. But to obey God's call upon our lives, we must engage in the challenging work of shepherding. God wants His followers to get out of the sanctuary, to search for lost sheep, to take risks and to make sacrifices to make the world better.
I like the image of God as the shepherd king. I think that’s why I like Pope Francis. Francis has a heart for the poor and needy. He has added people to his staff at the Vatican. Their job is to go out into the community to be the pope’s eyes and ears. The new employees scout out the places where the church should be making things better for people in need. That's the image our leaders need today in the church.
As Christian leaders, we are far more than private citizens, far more than volunteers. The word “pastor” comes from the Greek word for “shepherd.” All of us are ministers, not just me--when we visit shut-ins, when we greet people on Election Day, when we donate to Camp Brainerd and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Food Bank, when we teach the Bible to children and adults--- we represent the incarnation of Christ. In other words, we represent Jesus in the world.
God not only helps the weak sheep, but He also brings to judgment those who have taken advantage of the weak. In Ezekiel 34, verse sixteen, God says, "...the fat and the strong I will destroy." Then God says he "will feed them with justice". I picture the thin sheep sitting down and feasting at a fine banquet of due process, civil rights, economic justice, and equal protection. The fat sheep choke on the same food. As they consume, they will be consumed by God's justice. I love this image.
We can’t eradicate the evil in the world. It turns up in unexpected places all around us. Cruel entrepreneurs do great harm to young people. A respected professor at my undergraduate college was arrested last month for selling child pornography. Children get shot at school. There are care givers who practice elder abuse. My own mother was a victim. A nurse bought a car with her credit card, a few Christmases ago. There is identity theft—a nightmare for anyone who experiences it. People in our congregation have had it happen to them. There are computer hackers. I found more than two hundred documents wiped from my laptop this morning. God calls the strong to teach the weak how to protect themselves, and to speak out against the fat sheep who exploit others for personal gain.
Peter Storey, a Methodist minister who fought to keep the Church from becoming a mouthpiece for the government of South Africa, issued this warning, "The Church must be different from……and in contradiction, to the ways of all nations. That alternative identity must be …..guarded as the most important characteristic of the Church. The richest gift the Church can give the world is to be different from it. Christianity must be a constant irritant that the world doesn't want, but cannot do without." Peter Storey is right. We are counter-cultural. We observe four weeks of Advent, when the rest of society already started celebrating Christmas before Halloween.
It's no surprise to us that Jesus lived out Ezekiel’s vision of God, the shepherd king. He spent His life on earth, gathering in the weak sheep and warning the fat sheep. And so we come back to the question I had asked in the beginning of this sermon: What kind of king is Jesus? He is a king who guides His flock along the paths we should follow. Can we lead by His example? And what sort of leaders, in God’s kingdom, we will be?
It was a wonderful treat for five-year-old Madison to go shopping with her grandfather at the mall. One day, he carried the little girl high on his shoulders from store to store. At one point, a family friend stopped to talk with Madison and her grandfather. “You are certainly a big girl now!” the friend said to the little girl. She replied, “Not all of this is me!,” pointing down at her grandfather. Sometimes children are our greatest teachers, without even knowing it.
Every Thanksgiving gives us a chance to think about the blessings we enjoy in our lives, and to realize that, as little Madison said, “not all of this is me!” You and I could never have come as far as we have, in this world, without the love and grace of God.
In our Scripture text for today, we hear Moses’ concern that the children of Israel people remain thankful when they inhabit the Promised Land. God has miraculously provided for His people as He has led them through the wilderness. Their forty-year journey from Egypt was extremely difficult, but God was with them. God fed them with manna, brought them water out of solid rock, kept their clothes from wearing out, and covered them with a cloud to protect them from the sun as they traveled. Not once did they even get blisters on their feet!
Moses, as he preaches this sermon, knows that he, himself, will never enter the Promised Land. In this land, the people will lack nothing, Moses promises. The land is fertile, and it has plenty of water. It’s filled with fruit trees and vines, especially grapes for wine. The hills in the Promised Land are rich in minerals for producing farm implements and armor. In such a land, the children of Israel will have every reason to offer thanksgiving and praise to God for the great gift that He has given them. This is not to say, though, that some people still won’t grumble. There will always be some annoyance, some discomfort, to complain about and expect God to fix. Moses knows that all too well.
In verse 11, God, speaking through Moses, expresses concern that the people might forget Him. It is ironic that wealth and comfort sometimes lead us away from a relationship with God, rather than drawing us closer to Him. Most of us know that this is true because we have experienced this in our lives. We are tempted to think we are “self-made.” We forget our dependence on God. We become self-centered and selfish, and we start to believe that the world revolves around us. Our prosperity brings opportunities, and we get too busy for prayer or Bible study. That’s how praise and thanksgiving start to dry up. To offer thanks to God is to admit that our lives are better because of His movement in them.
In our materialistic world, we always want more, and we never seem to be satisfied. Having a surplus can get us into trouble. Dot Jackson, a newspaper columnist, wrote one Thanksgiving about her own childhood, “Enough was a roof that didn’t leak. Plenty of chairs on the porch and at the table….Enough was food and safety from the elements…enough was a little help for a friend in need and debt to no one. There is something perverse about more than enough. It’s always somewhere out there, just out of reach. The more we acquire, the more elusive enough becomes.”
Moses was aware of the problems surplus could cause, as he addressed the people with the word of God. “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.”
God is our God, whether we praise him or not. The Lord is with us in the worst times. The pilgrims at Plymouth, in 1620, endured many months of hunger, freezing cold, and deprivation. More members of their little band had been buried in the ground than walked upright. Yet even so, gratitude swelled their hearts, because they felt so blessed to be alive and free in their new home.
The wilderness that the Israelites crossed, more than a thousand years before the pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, was filled with dangers. God didn’t abandon them and wait for them to arrive at the borders of the Promised Land. Rather, God walked with them and provided for them and protected them. He did it for the folks at Plymouth Rock, so long ago. And He will do the same when we walk through the wildernesses of life.
God was the God of Israel, and the God of the pilgrims, in good times, too. God provided them with all the things they needed to enjoy life and be successful, productive and happy. God is behind all that we have and all that we are, in good times as well as bad times. God not only craves a close relationship with us, but He also wants us to be happy.
Gratitude is nothing less than the key to happiness. For this penetrating insight, I am grateful to Dennis Prager, author of a book called, Happiness is a Serious Problem: a Human Nature Repair Manual. “There is a ’secret to happiness,’" Prager writes, "and it is gratitude. All happy people are grateful, and ungrateful people cannot be happy. We tend to think that it is being unhappy that leads people to complain, but doesn’t it make more sense to say that it is complaining that leads to people becoming unhappy? Become grateful and you will become a much happier person." This is a keen observation that Prager makes. For me, it helps explain why the Judeo-Christian tradition places so much emphasis on thanking God.
"It is good to give thanks to the Lord," begins the Ninety-second Psalm. Why? Because God needs our gratitude? No: because we need it. Remember past Thanksgivings, when you didn’t have as many blessings as you have today. We learn our best lessons during periods of struggle.
To what are we entitled? What does the Bible say about entitlement, as a theological idea? According to Deuteronomy, we are not entitled to anything—even if we are God’s chosen people. The less we take for granted, the more pleasure and joy life will bring us. Only a small part of the richness of our lives is just you, or just me. Thanks be to God.
I Corinthians 1:3-9
I’ve never been good at waiting, but I’ve gotten even less patient over the years. Having lived more than half a century, I now have a greater sense of how quickly time moves. I find myself looking at my watch and tapping my fingers when I am forced to wait for anything. I tend to finish people’s sentences for them. In the supermarket, when I see that the person in front of me in the checkout line has a big stack of coupons, I switch lines. I hate to waste a single minute.
Why are long waits so annoying? We are conditioned to a world of instant gratification. We gulp down fast food. When we order gifts online, in less than five minutes we get email confirmation. The uncertainty of waiting bothers us. We are impatient to know what’s coming, especially in the case of final exam grades and jury verdicts. The longer we wait and wonder, the more our blood pressure rises.
Keeping people waiting has power implications. There’s a tradition that the more-powerful person in the business world, keeps the less-powerful person waiting! I had a boss at the library who would meet with me in his office once a week. He had an annoying habit. He would take every phone call that in the middle of our meeting, and talk for ten or fifteen minutes with each caller, while I cooled my heels in his office. My boss never apologized to me. He never offered to call the person back later and never even said he was in a meeting.
Dealing with that boss taught me a good lesson in patience. That lesson has had theological significance in my life. Who has more power than any human being? GOD! God keeps us waiting all the time and never has to apologize. We don’t understand the reason why our prayers aren’t answered. As we wait, we feel angry at God for delaying, just as I felt frustrated with my boss for the telephone interruptions. And yet, I look back and realize how much the boss cared about all of his callers. He took care of my concerns, too, but I had to wait. And wait! And wait!
Today, the first Sunday of Advent, we begin our journey toward Christmas. The season calls us to a pleasant kind of waiting— a look forward to the birth of Jesus. When you were little, did you count off the days until Christmas? I remember as a child, waking up early on Christmas morning. I knew that I would have to wait until our parents awoke before I could see what Santa brought. That last hour was the hardest Christmas wait—but the shortest one of the season. I would make as much noise as possible, hoping that I would “accidentally,” on purpose, wake the family up.
We love Christmas, and yet, we hate to wait for it. It’s not only the anticipation of the fun that will soon come. It is the memories of Christmases past that make December such a joyful time. If only we could hold on to the Christmas spirit for the rest of every year!
If you are like me, you never slow down in December. You are constantly in motion, nailing down details, working on several projects at the same time. It must have been like that for the early Christians as well. Corinth, like many cities in our own time, was a large and prosperous city, quite multiculturally diverse. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians seem timely for us today. Like the Corinthians, we are concerned about how to live as Christians in a complex, challenging society.
Paul’s first words to the church at Corinth are about waiting. They think Jesus has forgotten them. Paul reminds them of the spiritual gifts God has given them. He believes that the world is on the cusp of a new age, because of Jesus’ birth and ministry. Paul insists that Jesus will come again soon, and that they shouldn’t be impatient because they have everything they need to make it to His Second Coming. Paul writes, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Corinthians were eagerly looking forward to the event we are now awaiting—the coming of Christ. As we celebrate God’s coming in the person of Jesus, we, with the Corinthians, also look for God’s second arrival—for “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The good news that Paul shared with them is just as true for us today: not only are we waiting for God, we are also waiting with God. Have you noticed that when someone else is waiting with you, it makes the delay more pleasant? Having a friend to talk with as you wait for your name to be called in the doctor’s office eases the tension. Sharing your hopes with a coworker about a plan you have been working on together, can add to your excitement. Waiting is so much better in the company of others.
That is what is so reassuring about Paul’s words. We are not waiting hopelessly in this world for the coming of Christ. Instead, we have been given all the spiritual gifts we need for the journey. All those gifts from God are right in front of us as we wait, and their purpose isn’t to glorify us, but to make the church strong.
More important, our faithful God is with us in the wait. God will “strengthen you to the end,” Paul writes. God offers us the company that makes waiting easier because God has called us “into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” That is the promise of Advent. Christ is coming—Emmanuel, “God with us.” We must grab hold of that promise.
In my family, when we were traveling to my grandparents’ house, my Dad, who drove the family car, always gave the same answer to our question, “How much longer?” He would laughingly reply, “Five more minutes.” What began as a joke to prevent constant questioning became much more. My brothers and I knew that “five more minutes” wasn’t an accurate answer to the question. Instead, it became my Dad’s shorthand for “I know waiting is hard, but hang in there. We will be there soon.”
We may not be able to change the world in all the ways we would like to. Yet, we have seen enough of God’s faithfulness through Christmases past, to know that He will make things right in our own futures. This Advent, let’s all try to slow down enough to be able to notice and to join in God’s work in the world around us. And remember that phrase, “five more minutes,” to remind you that He will come, that we are waiting together, and that God waits with us.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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