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Sermons

The Forgotten Christian Discipline

December 14, 2008, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Third Sunday in Advent
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor

Isaiah 61:1-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28;

Last Sunday focused us on the lingering question of why Jesus is so late–reminding us that he is gracefully so–and that it has to do with God’s patience.1 God waits to give opportunity for repentance. It may just be that God will continue to delay the Day of the Lord, and Jesus’ return, until that time when one day passes in this world without anyone repenting. I find that an intriguing and even comforting notion. It reminds us that, like any loving parent, God wants to extend every opportunity to his children to repent from their self-destructive ways. But again, as every parent knows, there are limits to parental patience, even God’s!

In a conversation with one of you this last week, I was reflecting more on the issue of repentance, and remembering that repentance is not something that is over and done with. Rather, the Christian life is really a constant process of repentance–not just once, but day in and day out–a constant turning that places our feet ever more surely on that road to holiness and godliness we heard about last week. It is also a life of discipline–discipline that keeps us on that road with practices that enable us to follow Jesus more faithfully. Each discipline, at some level involves repentance and conversion–conversions about the use of our time, conversions about our attitude toward the poor, conversions about who our neighbor is, conversions that cause us to try to love our enemy and abandon our warring ways with them. For some of us, the repentance-conversion cycle is about dealing with other kinds of fear. Each of these is a Christian discipline.

The Session has been talking this fall about Christian disciplines. When asked about the ones they were living by, we heard things like the disciplined use of our time and what it means to keep the Sabbath–the importance of being in Christian worship every Sunday. For the encounter with God here is, after all, of a whole different nature than experiencing God in nature.2 Elders talked about daily scripture reading and prayer, tithing and other disciplined uses of resources, journal-writing, meditating, serving in the shelter, at LEAP, or Shelter Dinner, working with young people, visiting the sick, the infirmed, the shut-in, and the dying. Each of these can be a Christian discipline–a place where the Spirit of God draws us more deeply into the presence and power of Christ in our lives.

In this sense Christian discipline is less about what we do and more about what we give ourselves to, less about gritting our teeth to get through a challenge than self-consciously recognizing and responding to Christ’s presence and power, in any given challenge. Often it means deciding to give up on our own mastery of the problem and give Christ permission to take over. Folks in twelve-step programs talk about this as learning to rely on their “higher power.”3 Christian disciplines are those activities you and I can intentionally enter into that bring us face to face with the presence and power of Christ in our lives, and draw us deeper into a life of wholeness to which Christ calls us, and for which God patiently waits.

Today we are reminded of yet another Christian discipline–one so frequently forgotten–the discipline of rejoicing. “Rejoice always,” writes Paul, “...give thanks in all circumstances: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Yes, doing so is a discipline. Notice what Paul does not say. He does not say “Rejoice over all of the things that come to you in life, and give thanks for all circumstances.” There are plenty of things in life to mourn. But in the mourning we can also rejoice–rejoice that we are not caught in it alone. Paul says, regardless of what comes to you in life, rejoice.

This is Paul’s first letter, or at least the first of Paul’s that we have in the New Testament. This means we are listening to Paul mid-point in his ministry. He is well into his second missionary journey with all of its trials and hardships–calamities, beatings, imprisonment, riots, hunger and sleepless nights.4 He writes to a church he founded but was quickly forced to leave behind in Thessalonica, because of a riot that emerged over his preaching of the gospel. This fugitive for the gospel says “Rejoice always.” Later, Paul will write similar words to his beloved congregation in Philippi, and from where he had come to found the Thessalonian Church. To the Philippians, Paul adds, “the Lord is at hand.” There, the reason for rejoicing is much the same as we heard in our call to worship today with its seasonal Advent emphasis–the Lord is coming in its most ultimate sense. But in writing to the Thessalonians, Paul’s exhortation to rejoice has more in common with what the prophet Isaiah says in our first lesson. Isaiah writes “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garment of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”5

I was intrigued when I looked at this in Hebrew,6 for the phrase is “beged yesha”–garment of salvation–yesha being the root from which the name Yeshua comes, which not only means salvation, but is also Jesus’ name in Hebrew. Paul would say, “Rejoice, for God has clothed you in the garment of Yeshua–God has clothed you in Jesus, the Christ. He is present in and to us through the sacraments–really! Here is the reality behind the dynamic of this forgotten Christian discipline: you and I are to rejoice always, because we have been clothed in the garment of Yeshua, in the garment of Christ; we have put him on, as Annabelle will put him on later this morning.

On the other hand, the primary actor is Christ himself, who through the Spirit lays claim on us. As one of you wrote in a recent response to a request to stand for election as a deacon, “I thought of all the reasons I should not, but then had to face the fact that Christ has put himself on me and because of that my life is no longer simply my own. I am his.” This was no pious gush, no religious rhetorical flourish. It is one of our own reflecting upon what it means to have Christ take us captive and clothe us in himself, as Annabelle will be so clothed. When that happens, again in Isaiah’s words, “the Lord God [causes] righteousness and praise to spring up...” in us.

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances... do not quench the Spirit.” For the caldron of fire from which rejoicing emerges within us is nothing less than the presence of the Yeshua–Jesus Christ–enlivening us, supporting us, sustaining us, and reminding us that power to become more like him is draped about us as well as infused within us, and given to us afresh every day, and most visibly on Sundays through the gifts of scripture, song, water, bread and wine. We simply need to turn–there’s that word “repent” again–turn over whatever it is that is vexing us, addicting us, crippling us, tempting us, distracting us, keeping us from becoming more fully Christ’s own.

Now Paul moves from exhortation to invocation, calling upon God to be present to us even more deeply to sanctify us entirely–to “make us holy”–sound and blameless in spirit, soul and body. You see, this business called sanctification is a complete and life-long overhaul, the ultimate make-over, until every portion of our lives becomes sound and blameless.

Somewhere in the move from Harrisburg to New York City seventeen years ago, I lost the little cartoon that was on the door of the vestment closet in my study. It pictured a road construction crew hard at work with a large sign that said “Caution: Work in Progress.” Below it hung a second sign that pleaded: “Patience: God is not done with me yet.” Remembering this truth is also part of the forgotten discipline of rejoicing always. We give thanks, not only because God’s work is in progress within us, but also because God is not done with any of us yet.

As we move more deeply into Advent, as we live in these very challenging days, when the Dow regularly bounces 500 points in a day, and we see the church endowment and our retirement investments down 30 to 40% or more, let us rejoice that we are more than the Dow, more than our endowment, and more than our 401Ks. One of you who work in the financial industry said it magnificently this week. When I asked, “How are you?” his response was, “We’re great. Our money is in real trouble right now, but we are great.” And then he continued, “One of the blessings about all of this is it reminds us of something so many people in this town forget–we are not our money.”

That is practicing the forgotten Christian discipline: rejoicing always, in all circumstances–a discipline that not only has power to sustain us, but to change us, and to restore us to who it is God created us to be. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; this forgotten Christian discipline is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God!

  1. 2 Peter 3:8-15a, especially vss. 9 and 15a
  2. Sabbath is very different from encountering God elsewhere in day-to-day life. And Sabbath has transformative powers.
  3. The 12 step movement is simply an extension of the Christian doctrine of sanctification, stripped of its religious language, for those who would be put off by it, or kept away from the movement’s help because at some point in their lives they have been inoculated to religion, and more specifically, Christianity and the church. It is also true, that in most cases, 12 step communities provide participants with the dynamic of fellowship and acceptance that shames many Christian congregations.
  4. 2 Corinthians 6:4-5. Scholars date this somewhere between 50 and 55 A.D., which means it is some 20-25 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and 15 to 20 years before the Gospel of Mark is written.
  5. Isaiah 61:10
  6. Good computer programs can do wonders for my fledgling Hebrew that is now almost 40 year old!

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