The Will of God for YouDecember 15, 1996, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Third Sunday in Advent
On this third Sunday of Advent, our time of waiting and preparation is interrupted by a clarion cry, an imperative -- Rejoice! The penitential purple lightens in color to rose, and we are reminded that our preparation for the Lord's coming is not to be borne out of anxiety or fear, but out of the anticipation of joy. His coming means not only our redemption, but the complete fulfillment of God's purposes for the world. The prophet Isaiah announces God's coming salvation in the first lesson this morning, a time when justice will spring up, not just in Israel, but among all the nations. Those Christians who envision Christ's coming as a time when we will be snatched out of this world, so that it can go to hell, have not read their New Testaments very well. The Biblical vision is of a world not only redeemed, but so transformed that the only suitable language is "a new heaven and a new earth," where God will dwell among us, and all shall know justice, mercy and peace.1 The promise is that at Christ's coming, God will make all things new. Not just the Church, not just Israel, but all things! That is the promise we await. But our preparation for that coming is lived "in between" the "already" of God's first advent in the incarnation and the "not yet" of Christ's final advent. And so the lesson today addresses us, telling us what God's will is for us as we live "in between."
When I first began work on this sermon I entitled it "Three Things God Wants You to Do." But as I looked at the texts more closely, I soon discovered not three, but eight! Verses 16 through 22 contain eight imperatives rather than three! The first three are positive: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in everything. These are followed by two negative imperatives: do not quench the Spirit, and do not despise the words of prophets. Finally there are three more positive ones: test everything, hold to the good, avoid evil. In an age where everyone is a victim of someone or something, the text asserts that you and I have far more conscious control over our lives than many think. In fact, fulfilling these imperatives is the will of God for each of us.
But lest this sermon fall into the trap of proclaiming the power of positive thinking or the importance of the mind over matter -- both of which miss the central point of this lesson -- Paul quickly moves to the closing benediction. But listen to it carefully. It is more than a formality, more than a wish, even more than a prayer. It is quite literally "a good word" -- the precise translation of benediction, Paul's understanding of what the gospel means for us who live "in between" the "already" and the "not yet." Listen to it as a statement of what God is doing in your life and mine, even as I speak.
"The God of peace make you completely holy, and keep your spirit, soul and body blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one calling you is faithful and will do it!"2
Paul is not just quickly moving from the eight imperatives to a liturgical closing. Rather, he is pointing to the real source of power in the Christian life and what it is that can equip you and me to fulfill the will of God for each of us.
Let me put this another way: You and I are not called to be good. Does that surprise you? No, our call is far more serious than that. You and I are called to be holy. There is an extraordinary difference between the two. One is measured by the standards and values of the culture. The other is measured by the fullness of life we see in Jesus Christ. The eight imperatives are not a prescription for how to be good. They remind us of our call to holiness, with the word that in and through them God is at work not only calling and challenging us, but changing us. Even now God is at work making us holy. That is today, You and I are not expected to make ourselves holy. Only God can do that. We are simply called to open ourselves to full cooperation with the grace of God.
That is, after all, what happens when you and I come into this place. That is why being here is so foundational to the Christian life. Can you and I worship God other places? Of course! But do we? Here, our attention is focused on God. Here, we are reminded of who we are. Here, we remember what happens when our attention slips from God to ourselves. Where else do you and I hear, again and again, that God does not give up on us? We hear the promises renewed, proclaimed, and in that word, are engaged by God's Spirit, who, in that encounter continues to work to make us holy. That is the work we are not to quench. We are not to resist those calls, those urges, those moments when God is calling us more deeply into service, for in and through those moments God is continuing to transform us, as any who have taught a Sunday School Class, served on a Session, visited as a deacon, worked on an Angel Tree party well know. God is making us holy.
Do we participate in much that is not holy? Absolutely. Our redemption is promised, not complete. God is not done with any of us yet. And a word of warning, the moment you think you have reached holiness, in your worship, in your relationships, in your work, play, or ministry, beware! You have just crossed the threshold from being sanctity to being sanctimoniousness, from one living out of the fullness of Christ to one posing as him. It won't take long before others know you are faking it. Isn't that what makes the sanctimonious so provoking? We know they are faking it. Ours is not to strive to be Jesus Christ. Ours is to open ourselves to his presence in such a way that he can fill us, change us, make us like him, make us holy. As John the Baptist will say later about Jesus, "he must increase, I must decrease."3 He must increase, you and I must decrease. That happens, not by our struggling to live by the sermon on the mount or keep every precept we hear from Jesus in the gospels. That happens as you and I open ourselves to his presence and give him permission to fill and change our lives.
But not every urging is of God. Not every opportunity which comes our way is God's will for us. And so we are to test things to see if they are of God, if they honor God, if they will draw our attention more fully upon God. We are to evaluate the validity of claims made on us in the fast-paced and complex lives we lead, especially in this city. And in our evaluation, we are to hold to those things that clearly carry God's signature, while rejecting -- turning away from those that do not. As one commentator has paraphrased the text, we are to "sift out what is good, and steer clear of what is evil."4 The promise is that as you and I do, we are opening ourselves to God's power to make us into the ones each of us has been called to be.
The Christian life is not passively sitting around waiting for the Lord's sudden and unexpected appearance. It is about actively attending to God as God goes about the business of transforming us. When our radio spot ends "It could change ... everything!," this is precisely what we mean. Focus on God in every aspect of our lives means every aspect will change. That is why Paul says "pray without ceasing." For the essence of prayer is precisely this -- attention -- conscious attention to God.
This last week I was visited by a former parishioner. Product of an abusive father and alcoholic mother she ran too quickly to an ill-advised marriage which, unsurprisingly, failed shortly after the birth of a child. Through a twelve-step program she and her young son found their way into our congregation in Pennsylvania. By then quite cautious, she tested everything, often to the exasperation of we pastors and others who worked and served with her. But in the following five years, increasingly, she found her life being transformed. Sensing a call to some form of ministry, and blessed with a brilliant mind, she went to seminary. At the same time, she continued to try to understand her past with a good therapist. Not surprisingly, in the course of that work, extraordinary anger has emerged. Just as she has completed her theological preparation she has entered another crisis.
quot;Fred," she said, "I'm between a rock and a hard place. My work, both in counseling and study, has raised all these issues which have me in a rage. Therapy has helped me understand it, but that is not enough. It can't heal it. Only God can do that." I listened, marveling at her wisdom, and wondering when she was going to tell my why she had asked to come to the city to see me. "That's my problem," she continued, "I can no longer pray."
She told of going to the pastor of the church where she was worshiping and asking if the pastor might pray for her, with her. Tragically, the pastor announced that prayer was not really her thing. Might there be some older women in the congregation who would be willing to meet with her regularly to pray for her? No. There was a group of women who had been meeting for Bible study for eight years. They would be glad to study with her. But no, none of them felt comfortable holding her before God in prayer. "Fred," she asked, now wiping away tears of frustration, "What do I do?"
quot;Precisely what you are doing." I responded. "This is prayer, as indeed I have been praying for you in this conversation, and will continue to pray for you in the days and weeks to come." I even promised that we would pray for her here, each Sunday, and that during our services of healing and wholeness someone would be anointed on her behalf. Yes, we would hold her before God in prayer. But then I described a form of prayer, that I regularly suggest to people like her, who for whatever reason, find it hard to pray.
Find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted. Sit or lie still, eyes closed, and breath deeply, inhaling as deeply as you can, exhaling as fully as possible. And with every breath, envision the Spirit of God filling you. Each time you exhale, envision all the anger, the frustration, the brokenness, the hatreds and hurts leaving you, being driven out by God's Spirit. After about thirty seconds of this, fall into a normal pattern of breathing and let your mind wander, focusing as it chooses. Your mind, and God's Spirit will do the rest. They will bring to God the things that need to be discussed, those places which need to be driven out, those things which need to be touched and healed. You will be opening each of those to the power of God's Spirit.
As you and I attend to God with our concerns, our angers, our fears, our frustrations, we are opening ourselves to God's power to make us whole, to make us holy. As we attend to God in our work, in our play, in our relationships, our attempts at ministry, we open ourselves to God's presence and power to make us and all around us whole. It happens, not because we initiate the conversation, nor even because we permit God into our lives. It happens because when attended to, when welcomed, God enters to take residence. That is why we can give thanks in all circumstances -- where God resides, things begin to change. Evil is driven out, and health emerges.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
- Revelation 21:1-5
- translation, my own.
- John 3:30
- Carl R. Holladay, Preaching the New Common Lectionary, Year B, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1984), p. 38
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