Sunday, November 27, 2016

In the light of the Lord

Scripture Lessons: Romans 13: 11-14 and Isaiah 2: 1-5, OT pages 631-632 Sermon Title: In the light of the Lord Preached on 11/27/16 Today is the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t grow up thinking much about Advent. We didn’t go to a church where we paid too much attention to it, or else we didn’t go to church regularly enough to pick up on it, but Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. It is a time of preparation not unlike Lent, the season leading up to Easter. Our church takes Advent seriously, and there are many things that you can do to celebrate this time of preparation. The Christian Education Committee provided Advent Devotionals with Scripture Lessons and prayers for each day of this season. Thanks to a great idea of Dawn Taylor, the Christian Education Committee also put together a special Advent Calendar, each day of Advent offering its own spiritual discipline – a charge to pray for someone or to do a good deed. These in addition to the liturgy of lighting the Advent Candle, Susie Baxter putting up the Chrismon Tree, Bitty Crozier and Martha Jones decorating the sanctuary – we do all this to make sure you know a baby will be born and we must get ready. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and Advent is all about preparation. Someone is coming. Someone is coming who will change everything and in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, to prepare for the coming savior means preparing to be taught: In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all nations shall steam to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, that he may teach us his ways.” Isaiah is clear – they go to the mountain to be taught. Twice in this Second Scripture Lesson for the First Sunday in Advent the Prophet tells us that the Savior who is coming has something to teach us. We read there in verse 3, “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction.” Now, if Advent is about preparation then how should we prepare for a coming savior who has a Word to give us, who has a lesson for us to learn? How should we prepare for the coming of a teaching savior? For I wonder, how teachable am I? I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in 7th grade pre-Algebra. I was never much of a math student. My father who has his masters in mathematics failed to pass on to me any of those genes and in the words of my childhood friend Mickey Buchanan, “Math got really hard when they mixed in the alphabet.” Algebra was hard, so I expected the worksheet our teacher handed out to us as we entered class one morning to be difficult, so I sat down and diligently began working like all my classmates did. I went from problem to problem all the way to the end and thought I had done alright, but then the teacher wrote the answers on the board and I got every single question wrong. That was a new low, and the teacher seemed to be able to read my face and the faces of my classmates. She asked, “did anyone answer these questions correctly?” Only one girl raised her hand, so the teacher said, “As for the rest of you, go back and read the directions,” and there, right at the top of the page it clearly stated, “add 10 to your answers.” “Never start an assignment without reading the directions first,” she told us, but how often do I still go through life unteachable because I don’t read the directions, I don’t heed advice, I don’t ask questions – at least not until I’ve tried and failed on my own, then tried and failed on my own again. Is that part of the human condition, I wonder. Paul seemed to think that it was. In our First Scripture Lesson from the book of Romans the Apostle Paul calls us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” which we all treat as a good suggestion, but as for most people – they’re going to keep on with the works of darkness until they hit rock bottom. In the words of that great preacher William Sloan Coffin, “We put our best foot forward, but it’s the other one that needs the attention,” for we are full of good intentions but we still have a foot stuck in “I’ll do it my way.” We have intentions to be better and to do better but so often we stay put in ignorance until we have no other option. The coming savior brings us eternal life, but we won’t receive it unless we’re ready to listen. You know that great quote from biochemist and science fiction author Isaac Asimov: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,’” but to fit this thought into our Christian framework might mean to change it to something like, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” It’s not just human ignorance verses human knowledge, but what is human knowledge even? John Calvin, the man who in 1559 wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion and laid the theological framework of the Presbyterian Church, begins his two-volume work by clearly stating that anything we humans know that is worth knowing is a gift from God – and – that our ignorance should lead us directly to Him. Listen to this: “For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself… The miserable ruin, into which the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward. Thus, not only will we, in fasting and hungering, seek thence what we lack; but, in being aroused by fear, we shall learn humility… Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God.” Now understanding that takes some work. That Calvin knows some things, but what every seminary student must do is pick up his book and start studying, and not all do. “Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God.” Or, to put it another way, each of us must stare into the face of a worksheet where we have answered every question incorrectly if we are ever to start reading the instructions at the top of the page. Each of us must hit rock bottom before we’ll give up on the works of darkness that drag us down. Each of us suffer in our own ignorance or our own wisdom – we must go on believing that we know it all until we are struck down by our own arrogance – and then, and then we are compelled to “look upward.” That’s why the Israelites had to wander in the desert – so they would learn to trust not in their own strength. That’s why we read in the Proverbs – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” That’s why, Jacob had to be defeated by God as they wrestled on the bank of the Jabook – to learn we must first surrender – because in Christianity those who want to gain life must first lose it; and to be wise, to be taught; in order to learn we must stop thinking that we already know. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, but our world doesn’t The world tells us that if someone asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to just answer the question you wish they would have asked. The world tells us that it’s not the one with the right answer, it’s the one who talks over everybody else. The world tells us that might makes right, but it doesn’t. Might makes war and war means death and the Prophet promises a future where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks; where “nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” And how? How will this be? Because “Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” My question for you on this First Sunday of Advent is: “Are you teachable?” For the Lord has wisdom to offer. The Lord who is coming has enlightenment, a new way to live, and to prepare for his birth we first must humble ourselves enough so that we can be taught. I first started learning what it means to be a preacher as a guest at a small church outside Jacksonville, Florida. I finished the sermon and was standing at the door. A man came up to me and said, “So you’re a seminary student are you.” “Yes, sir I am. In my third year,” I said. He responded: “Well they should have taught you something better than that by now.” How many times have I felt that same feeling looking out on a congregation of blank looks? It makes me wonder if failure is my destiny or if boring congregations is just my calling. It’s not. But to move, that best foot forward must be followed by the foot that is stuck in arrogance. That best foot forward has to be followed by a humble heart ready to listen to something new. That best foot forward must be free of the temptation to do it my way or the highway for my way and the highway both lead to death. Life is so full of changes, and the way we’ve always done it won’t always work. Thanksgiving looks different after someone we love is gone. Life keeps on changing and we all must keep learning and trying and following the one who leads to new life, because only he can lead us to those places we’ve never been before. So, “house of Jacob, come, let us be ready to listen, let us be ready give up on arrogance, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Amen.

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