Monday, November 28, 2011

A community of possibility . . .

     Too often in this modern world we see ourselves lacking possibilities. Like the world in which Isaiah prophesied, we seem to be more and more accepting of the idea that who we are, what we are to become, how we are to interact with others, and the like are determined. These things are determined by our genetics (good breeding tells, as does bad), by our family systems (families with addictive tendencies will tend to produce more addicts, families with histories of abuse will tend to produce more abusers and more victims), by our socio-economic station (money buys happiness, does it not?), and by anything but ourselves. Much of what seems to be going on in the world around us reflects this belief that the possibilities are not really there. Most of us here in this room remember the creation of the Euro. Within a few weeks, we might all see the collapse of that same Euro and the anarchy that may well follow, unless some economic white knight comes riding to the rescue to keep taxes and retirement ages lower in certain member countries. Occupy Wall Street is, among other things for some people, a demonstration that many people believe the American Dream to be dead to nearly all of us. Those in the 1% might be truly free to pursue their dreams, but it is at the expense of us other 99%, or so the argument goes, unless someone or something, like a government, breaks in and changes the playing field for us.

     This idea that we have no possibilities before us has even invaded our faith. We like to pretend that we are helpless victims. Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we wish we weren’t. But there’s not much we can do about it. God made me an addict. God made me an abuser. God made me slothful. I wish I weren’t, but this is who I am. If He would give me the grace necessary to act differently, I would. But He has not seen fit to, no matter how many times I sincerely ask Him. As pastors, we even encourage this attitude by reminding people and ourselves that it is ok, that we are all loved by God and accepted for who we are. All we do is claim the cross, and everything is fine. In many ways we do not even realize that we have bought into the world’s victimization and baptized it, if you will, to absolve us of our sins and of our failing to live into the glorious inheritance to which He has called us.

     In many ways, we find ourselves in a situation not unlike that described by Isaiah this morning. In this morning’s passage, the prophet declares that Israel sinned, so God had looked away. Because He was looking away from them and remembering His wrath, they could not hope to do anything good. It is a hopeless cycle described by the prophet. God has turned away because His people have sinned. His people cannot do anything worth anything to God because He is no longer with them. All our righteous acts are like filthy rags. What hope is there?

     Isaiah reminds us that when God acts, He is capable of doing amazing acts for the benefit of His people. Unlike the other gods of the ANE, Yahweh acts for the welfare of His people. Mountains tremble at His presence. Watercourses are changed by His command. Events such as the Exodus event, the various victorious battles of King David against military superiority, the covenant with Abraham--all testify that God acts, and acts in amazing fashion, for His people! And, as we look back on the work and person of Christ, we know that He acts amazingly for us even still. But is that it? Is that the end of the story? Are we, like the world and so many religious like to claim, finished? Or is there more to claiming our inheritance?

     Whom does God truly help? Isaiah reminds us that He helps those who wait for Him, who gladly do right, and who remember His ways. Our faith, brothers and sisters, is not a passive response and acceptance of the way things are. Yes we are sinners. Yes we have terrible faults. Yes, God must act to save us. Yes, God must act to circumcise our hearts. But part of living into our faith, part of keeping our covenant with God, is living into the possibilities He has made possible through Christ. Will we, in other words, do our part to see His intervention alive in our lives and in the world? In other places, Paul describes this holy living as a struggle. The Greek word for this struggling includes the root word for agony in the effort put forth. Does accepting our sins and shrugging our shoulders at God’s seeming unwillingness to zap us seem like a struggle? Of course not. Our walk in faith begins at our baptism, brothers and sisters, but it does not end until He calls us home or returns in victory and begins the separation described last week. From the moment of that adoption until our dying breath, you and I are called to struggle, in agony, to do what He calls us to do, to live righteously, to become sons and daughters worthy of our Father. Yes, Jesus did the worst of the suffering, but you and I each have a part to play both in our own spiritual growth and in salvation history. In a way the world cannot understand, you and I are freed to become the men and women and boys and girls He has called us to be, but like all freedom, it includes a terrible struggle.

     Why the talk of possibilities? The world, brothers and sisters, is taking the easy way out and forgetting the call of God and the glorious inheritance made available to all who claim His Son as Lord. It is a far, far easier thing to blame our addictions, blame our behaviors, blame our faults on our circumstances, our genes, on our upbringing or on the world around us.  Like a warm, soft blanket, such an attitude gives us an excuse to fall short of the glory to which He calls us. Yet it is that same God who speaks and causes mountains to tremble, who appears and causes the dried twigs to burn and the water to boil, who calls us to become men and women worthy of Him, Kings and Queens in His eternal kingdom. Why the talk of possibilities? Because you and I and all who accept Him as Lord have been redeemed and set free from failure and from "good enough."  Our struggle is a struggle for living into our Father's image, our potter's artistry.

     And redeemed, for you and for me, brothers and sisters, means a world of possibilities has been opened to us. Unlike the world around us which accepts the idea that “this is the way that it is” or “that this is as good as it gets,” you and I know better. We are freed to become the people He has called us to be. How do we know? Because we have experienced that redemption in our own lives already. Some of us gathered here have already experienced what it means to be redeemed in our own lives or witnessed it in the life of another. Ever known a hot-tempered person? To be sure, his or her image is distorted. But when God breaks in and they live a life in the manner God has set before us, what often happens? That hot temper is crucified on the cross in Christ’s death, and what was negative becomes an asset for the glory of God. Hot-tempered people become passionate people, people passionate for God and His glory when they engage in the struggle of their faith. Ever known or been an addict? Ever felt the need to fill that emptiness inside through the use of a bottle, a syringe, or some other self-destructive behavior? When that emptiness, through the engagement of our faith, becomes filled with His life giving water, addicts can become lights in a dark world, people grateful for the love which filled their emptiness, people who can speak from experience of the emptiness and the discovered joy at finding what can truly fill it. Ever known or been someone who could not love another? Perhaps you or they felt unworthy. Perhaps you or they were afraid to experience the pain that comes when others whom we love hurt us. Yet, what happens when such people discover the love, the hesed, of God? They become God-lovers, people who realize that their Father will never forsake them, not even in death. And such people can open themselves up to anyone and anything because they know the love with which they are held. And, even better, they can become people who speak lovingly of God’s work in salvation history to those whom the encounter in life.

     The past eight or ten weeks we have been looking at what a redeemed life looks like, brothers and sisters. We spent a great deal of time in Matthew’s Gospel recalling Jesus’ teachings from those last days of His life. It seems only fitting then, as we begin a new church year and enter Advent, that we remind ourselves why it is that we are called to do what we are called to do and just how unlimited our possibilities are. By virtue of our baptism, brothers and sisters, we have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit. What is left for us to do is to live lives which allow Him to remake us like Him. It is right that during this quick season of penitence and expectation that we take a spiritual inventory of our lives. What are those triggers which tempt we to act in ways which we know are offensive to Him, and unworthy of a child of His? Where is the struggle in our life from which we have shied away? Can I avoid those triggers or places? Can I avoid that temptation with His grace, and so live into the life He would have me live? What in each of us should we nail to the cross with our Savior, that He can redeem and restore in us to His glory? Better still! How can you and I live a life open to the possibilities of one born not of flesh but of His redeeming Spirit and so draw others into that same life with us?

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