Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH.
If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28 .
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today is “Stirrup Sunday,” so-called because of what is in our Collect for today, a day when we ask the Lord to stir up his mighty power and come among us to help and deliver us. This morning we also light the third candle on the Advent wreath. The candle signifies joy and I want to talk to you this morning about how you manifest the joy of Christ in your life.
You recall that over the last two weeks, Fr. Ron and I have been focusing on the Second Coming of Christ and what that entails for us as Christians here and now. You might further recall that two weeks ago when I preached, I asked you if you looked forward to Christ’s Second Coming or feared it, and suggested that how you answered that question would provide you with great insight into the nature and state of your faith because for Christians, the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31, RSV) is something to which we look forward. We do so because that is the day when heaven and earth will be joined in a new creation, we will get new resurrection bodies that will never decay or die, and it will be a day when evil and sin and suffering and all that plagues us now in our broken and fallen world will be destroyed forever. It will be a day when everyone will recognize King Jesus for who he is and we will get to live with him forever. It is a winsome and compelling picture for those who have put their whole hope and trust in Christ because what he has done for us in his death, resurrection, and ascension.
You can therefore imagine my shock and sadness when I read this past week about an English vicar who, after having returned from the West Bank where he witnessed the ongoing human tragedy of incessant fighting there, banned the singing of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in his parish because he said its words, “were too far removed from life in Bethlehem” (titusonenine.com). In this sad little story is contained essentially all that bedevils us and makes the human condition so terribly heartbreaking. There is no sure and certain hope in the Lord in the vicar’s comments, either for what Jesus has already done for us in his death and resurrection or what he has promised to complete for us someday; there is only a desperate acknowledgement of all that can go wrong with the human heart when we lose our faith and hope, or when we choose to ignore God, or seek to elevate ourselves to his level by thinking we know best and can go it alone.
Contrast this vicar’s response to the human condition to Paul’s letter in today’s Epistle lesson. Earlier in chapter 5, Paul had spoken hopefully about the Day of the Lord (remember Paul did not use hope synonymously with wishful thinking, but rather as a sure and certain expectation that something was going to happen) and he warned the Thessalonians to be ready for that Day because it would come suddenly and unexpectedly and would involve judgment as well as redemption.
Now in today’s passage he bursts into praise and thanksgiving. He urges the Thessalonians (and us) to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all circumstances. He did not tell the Thessalonians to give thanks only during the good times but in all circumstances, even the worst of times. He counts on God to sanctify believers and in doing so indicates that he understands we Christians do not live life alone or on our own.
Do you see the contrast here? The vicar apparently has let the human condition overwhelm him and is denying his parishioners and himself the very source of hope and joy that can prevent them (and us) from being overwhelmed by such evil. And we can have great empathy and compassion for that vicar, can’t we, because our world is full of bad news and we struggle with our own fears and doubts. But there is no hope or joy in that, is there?
Where is God’s Grace?
Paul, on the other hand, was full of the joy that his hope in Christ produced. Paul was no starry-eyed idealist who glossed over the ugliness of this world. To the contrary, he had seen his fair share of trouble and mortal danger (see, e.g., Philippians 4:12; 2 Corinthians 1:8-10; Romans 8:35-39; Corinthians 11:23-29) and knew firsthand what it was like to suffer for the Gospel’s sake.
No, Paul could tell the Thessalonians to rejoice and give thanks in every circumstance because he knew intimately the One who loved him and gave himself for him and claimed him forever on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) and that made all the difference in the world to Paul—literally. Because he knew Christ so intimately and because Paul knew that in Christ God had overcome sin and evil, but not yet completely, this allowed Paul to have a calm and sane perspective on life. The joy that Paul’s hope produced helped him avoid becoming frustrated or afraid or losing heart in the face of an onslaught of bad news and evil that life inevitably brings. It also helped him to work tirelessly to spread the Gospel and not worry about getting results. Why? Because he knew his future and the future of all believers was secure. He knew that no matter how bad things got or appeared, God was still in control because had taken on our flesh, lived among us, and had given himself for us in a terrible and costly act on the cross so that we could live with him forever. Paul knew that even though Jesus was bodily absent, he had sent his Holy Spirit to strengthen him and all believers and to help them persevere in their lives and work for Jesus until he came again to finish what he had started in his death, resurrection, and ascension.
In addition to having this joyous, life-giving and life-changing relationship with the Living Christ, Paul also believed the promises of the prophets, the kind of promise that we heard read in all of our lectionary readings today. It is the promise that the message of the end time is a message of God’s restoration of his broken and fallen people and creation. If Paul did not have the kind of relationship and hope, then frankly what he wrote to the Thessalonians is nonsense bordering on lunacy and there is certainly no joy in that.
Where is the Application?
So how should we Christians live as people with a joyous hope in these last days, the time between Christ’s first and second comings? If we really do have a sure and certain expectation (defined biblically as hope) that Christ has defeated sin and evil and will come again to finish his work, then we need to listen to what today’s lessons tell us.
First, we need to pray without ceasing. Do you know how to do that? Paul did not mean that we should be on our knees in prayer 24/7, but rather that we should pray regularly and consistently. Prayer allows us to talk and listen to God so that we get to know him better and know his will and marching orders for us in every area of our lives. When we commit ourselves to do everything for God’s sake, not ours, we are praying without ceasing.
Furthermore, the verb Paul uses for pray in today’s passage is plural, meaning that Paul intends for us to pray as a church as well as individually. Do you do this? Do you pray together with others and do you keep God’s Church here at St. Andrew’s in your prayers? Do you ask God to raise up leaders and volunteers for our ministries? Do you ask Christ to show you how to use the gifts he has given you to build up his Body here? Do you seek the Lord’s will for St. Andrew’s and then act on that will so that you can see that he is trustworthy and thereby bolster your hope in him?
Second, we to need read the Bible everyday. Doing so will help us better understand God’s will for his creation and all people, and it will help us remember that throughout history, God has consistently acted on his promises. Historical amnesia is a terrible thing for God’s people because it makes us forget Whose we are and the fact that God delivers on his promises.
Likewise, we need to remember God’s mighty acts in our own lives. For example, look at how God has brought us through some very dark times and established us here in one of the fastest growing areas of the state to be a beacon of light and hope for his broken and hurting people in this community. We are slowly transforming this building into a place for liturgical worship. We have a new organ and an expanded parking lot that is rapidly filling up. Despite bad economic times, we have been generous with our pledges in a most remarkable way. Who could have imagined any of this just twelve months ago? Who among us can look around and say that the Spirit is not palpable here and that God is with us in Spirit and in power?
Last, our joy should translate into action and transformed lives. Listen to the prophet in today’s OT lesson. God has sent his Messiah, Jesus, to preach Good News to the oppressed, to bind up our wounds, and to bring liberty to the captives. While we are not the Messiah, we as Christians are called to be like him in every way (Ephesians 4:15). And because God is going to redeem his creation when Christ comes again, we are called to be good stewards of it and to care for our fellow human beings, especially considering Matthew 25:31-44, where Jesus tells us how he will divide the sheep and the goats. As James reminds us, faith without works is dead (2:26) and by its very nature, joy must manifest itself in tangible ways.
In closing, I want to share with you how God has helped me rejoice always during this Advent season, a time that I dreaded to see come because of the death of my mom [testimony about God’s consolation and the resulting actions].
What about you? How are you manifesting your faith and joy? Two weeks ago, I asked you how your hope manifested itself in service to Christ’s Church here at St. Andrew’s, service that we call “ministry.” Today, I ask you how your joy is manifesting itself to service outside of Christ’s church, service we call “mission.” Is God calling you to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to folks in this community? Perhaps he is calling you to help a struggling family this Christmas so that they too might taste his abundance and come to know this God who is audacious enough to take on our flesh and make it possible for us to live with him forever by dying for us. Maybe he is calling you to a life of public service where you can be a shining beacon of Christ’s light in an arena that so desperately needs it. Perhaps Christ is calling you to do volunteer work or community service so that you might have a chance to witness his love for you and you for him. Look around at Christ’s broken and hurting world, pray without ceasing for your marching orders, and then live out those orders. As Christians, we are expected to attend to the whole person—body, mind, and spirit, because our whole person will be redeemed on the Last Day, not just our spirits.
What is it that God is calling you to do? Whatever it is, expect to find opposition and resistance and to suffer when you do God’s work. But count it all as joy when you do because our Lord told you that this would happen. Count it as joy because you are doing the work of the One who loved you so much that he willingly bore the punishment you deserve so that by faith in his grace you can live with him forever. Count it as joy because he is actively with you in the presence of the Holy Spirit, empowering and helping you do the work to which he calls you.
If you are having difficulty in discerning God’s call to you, try this. Read Isaiah the way I have sometimes imagined Jesus read it in Nazareth on that fateful day (Luke 4:16-22). Read it by putting the emphasis on the word “me” and then ask the Lord in prayer if you are indeed the one whom he is calling to do any of that work listed in the passage. If you are, then go do it in his name. If you are not, wait for your orders and then go do the work he calls you to do in his name. As you read the passage and pray, pay special attention to the first verse of Isaiah 61 because once again our Lord promises to give us the Holy Spirit to equip us to do the work he calls us to do, and that means you never have to worry about going it alone or being judged for not getting results. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.