First Things FirstJanuary 4, 2009, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Second Sunday After Christmas Day
Swallow the frog first...” It is a sign that has been, from time to time, taped on our kitchen cabinet door to remind the members of our household to do what must be done first. Otherwise, it may well not get done. I considered “Swallow the Frog First” as the sermon title for today, but did not want to be picketed by the society for inhumane treatment to frogs.
Still, it is a captivating image, is it not? First things first; do what needs to be done and do it first, lest it somehow not get done for the day. That sign has sent me to the gym, it has set me down to pray morning prayers when other things seemed more demanding, it has caused me to interrupt what I was doing to write a letter, e-mail, or make a phone call. It has forced me to sit down and begin writing a sermon, when I did not feel like writing and thought I had nothing to say. Yes, preachers have those days too. What then, does it mean on this first Sunday of this New Year? Swallow the frog first–first things first.
First, we are here. That is not insignificant. According to polls, some 75-plus percent of Americans profess to be Christian.1 Yet, on a given Sunday, only about 25-30% of us are in church.2 Your being here in worship today is a sign that you understand first things first. Their not, explains the flabbiness of the faith in this country. But, why this first; what is so important about what we are doing here? I know, we are worshipping God; but how? Have you ever asked yourself why it is we do what we do here, and why we call this Divine Worship? What would an outsider see wandering in here uninformed?
On the surface, we are listening to things out of a book called the Bible. Why? Is it because it is an ancient and revered text, honored by ages of wise women and men who found therein wisdom about God and about how to live daily lives? Scripture is, indeed, helpful for that. But that is not why we read it, listen to it, and build this entire worship service around it. (You have recognized that by now, I hope–the Christian Scriptures are the cantus firmus of this entire service, not only in lessons, but prayers, anthems, hymns and especially the sermon. It is part of what it means to be Reformed Christians.) Why all of this emphasis on the Bible? The Bible is God’s word, you say? Well, yes and no; it depends upon what you mean when you say that. More about that in a moment; for now, why do we read it?
In my office there hangs a famous print of John Calvin, the father of Reformed Theology, and beneath it, one of my favorite Calvin quotes. I will not embarrass us with my fractured French; here is what it says in translation: “The Word of God was given to us not to render us eloquent, subtle or entertaining, but to reform our lives.” First things first; listen for God’s transforming Word in the texts as they are read, sung, preached and enacted here in water, bread, and wine. You’ve heard me ask this before: are you here to be entertained, inspired, or transformed? Listen for the Word of God.
Notice the preposition we use introducing these lessons: listen “for” not “to” the word of God. Nor do we lift up this book, or one like it at the end of the readings and say “This is the Word of the Lord.” That is simply a pious, thoughtless action that smacks of idolatry that can lead to even greater blaspheme and theological injury. This [Bible] is Christian scripture, the holy book–that’s what “holy Bible” means–a collection of stories and accounts, written in ancient languages, over a span of roughly twelve to fifteen hundred years, reflecting the customs, values and ethics of those times, culled and brought together by the church, to witness to God and God’s actions with, in and for creation, and most especially God’s people. It is indeed holy–set apart for God’s purpose–and, in places, filled with God’s words, but it is not God’s Word. God’s Word is something else altogether, someone else altogether, the one we are to be listening for as this book is read and proclaimed–the voice of the Living Christ. And, by the way, if you do not hear the voice of the Living Christ speaking in and through those words, you are not listening to the Word of God, but simply the words of stories and events that reflect the culture and values of the times in which they took place.3
First things first: in the beginning was the Word. Actually, it was much earlier than the beginning; it was before the beginning, speaking of first things first! We are talking about a time long before that millisecond the cosmologists call “the big bang.” How long, before? An eternity really; remember eternity moves in both directions.4 And at the Alpha Point of eternity behind the “the Big Bang,” scripture says, standing there with the One who has always been, the One whose Hebrew name is the verb for being itself,5 is the One we are here to listen for. This One was not only with God at the beginning, but was and is a part of God, God’s self–God’s Word–God’s thoughts and will in personification.
In the beginning was the word. English is too weak for this. Greek is better: In the beginning was the “logos.” That not only means “word” but also the personal wisdom and power of God in action in the entire created order. The Logos is God’s agent in the cause, order and governance of the cosmos, the cause and source of all life, physical, moral or spiritual, the One who brought all things into being, the One who is life itself. This is the One who became flesh in Jesus Christ and dwelt among us, full of that grace and truth. And today, when accompanied by the Third Co-Equal personification within God’s being–the Holy Spirit–He speaks to us through scripture read, proclaimed, sung and meditated upon so that you and I hear none other than God–the voice of the Living Christ. When this happens, that Word has the same creative force and power it had when the Logos first spoke to bring things into being.
When you and I hear Christ speak, we discover his power to make us more than creatures in or of the universe, we discover his power to make us children of God. The One who spoke and brought all that is in creation into being has the power to speak us into God’s new creation.
That, as we have heard in our second lesson, was not an afterthought. God’s Word did not become incarnate as an afterthought–God’s mid-course correction within a creation project that somehow got out of hand and off-course. Before the foundation of the world God destined this, intending this as the means to make us God’s own. From the beginning God determined to become one with us in order that we could grow into the fullness of who God ultimately destines us to be, daughters and sons of God–little Christs–living to the praise of God’s glory. Think about this, if you can: from before the beginning of all things, God determined that you should not simply be, but also be in and with God in Christ–belong to God as God’s daughter or son, not metaphorically, but really! Does that say something to you about your value and your purpose in this thing called life? What would it mean for you to rise daily, look in the mirror and tell yourself; I am God’s child, part of Christ’s new creation?
This is the audacity of the Christian Gospel. God chose us to be God’s own, before the foundation of the world, destined us for adoption, and here is where that all takes place. Here is where we learn what it means to belong to someone other than ourselves. Here is where we learn what it means to live together with others who also belong in this adoptive household. Here is where we learn how those who belong to this family are to live in the larger world, and how we are to treat those in that larger world, even if not yet part of the household. Here is where we receive power to be God’s new creation and live that way.
Here is where we receive gifts that enable us to grow into our predestined status–Christ himself. In word, water, bread and wine, a divine alchemy takes place within this place and within us as each are engaged by God’s Spirit. As water is poured over us in God’s three-fold name, a change takes place within us. Christ is born in us and we begin our gestative growth into full union with him. It happens only once–one pregnancy was enough for each of us to come to be, thank you–but we must nurture it, remembering, embracing, adopting our baptisms.
The food for that nurture is here, each Lord’s Day, as God’s Word is spoken in this pulpit and then enacted here at this table. Here the One who spoke us into being, who was born in us in baptism, who continues to speak transformations in our lives, meets us through these gifts of bread and wine to give us more and more of himself, so that you and I can grow more and more into him, more and more like him, until we become him ourselves. I said it is an audacious claim. The Greek Orthodox have a term for it: theosis. It means being filled with the presence of God until the day we are godlike ourselves. That is what is happening here.
On this first Lord’s Day of the year, on the Second Sunday of Christmas, you are putting first things first. The one who is First, who brought all things into being, who came into human life to dwell with and among us to give us life and make us children of God, comes to us again to make us more his own. That is why we are here. That is what we are doing here. But more, that is what God is doing here with each of us. Think of what you would have missed today, had you not put first things first.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
- The actual numbers, according to the 2001 American Religious Identity Survey were 76.5% Christian, 13.2% non-religious/secular, 1.3% Jewish, and the rest scattered among Islam and various other oriental or new age religious movements including scientology. See www.adherents.com.
- Daniel O. Aleshire, Earthen Vessels, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Press, 2008), p. 135.
- Confession of 1967, “Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I,” Book of Confession, (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, PCUSA, 2002), 9.27-9.30, p.257.
- If the astrophysicists and cosmologists are correct, it moves in all directions.
- The name God gives to Moses at the burning bush is four Hebrew consonants that transliterate into English as “Yahweh.” Those four consonants form the verb of being that is translated not only as “I am,” but can also be translated “I am who I have been,” and “I am who I will be.” In the New Testament the same concept is expressed in the phrase “The God who was, is, and is to be.”
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