Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Sermon

Posting last two sermons:

Sermon # 1020
December 12, 2010
Hebrews 4:1-11
Dr. Ed Pettus

“The Rhythm of Faith”

In the movie Eat, Pray, Love, Liz Gilbert goes on a yearlong journey to find something that is missing in her life. After a broken marriage and general disillusionment about life, she begins her journey with something of an indulgence: four months in Rome – eating, drinking, playing, and learning the art of pleasure in what the Italians call “the sweetness of doing nothing”. After her time in Rome she moves on to India for a more “spiritual” quest at an ashram, a retreat center, to practice rituals in meditation. Liz finds her way back in Bali, Indonesia, where she returns to meet with a ninth generation medicine man named Ketut who, a year before, told her she would loose all her money and get it all back and would return to Bali to live for 3-4 months.

One of Liz’s quests is to find balance in her life – a goal to which we all might aspire. Ketut defines balance as “not too much God and not too much selfish”. We sometimes call that - moderation in all things! In the Christian faith we speak of a balance between work and rest. We use terms like balance or rhythm, health, and in more theological terms, graceful or grace-filled.

Today I want us to think together about the balance or rhythm of faith. Biblically we know such balance and rhythm from the very beginning of creation when God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. This is the rhythm of life and faith that God has built into creation itself – work and rest.

Robert McAfee Brown uses the terms withdrawal and return. A balanced life of faith oscillates between work and rest, withdrawal and return, action and contemplation. Without this rhythm of faith, life becomes…well, a mess! It seems to me that this time of the year, as we prepare for Christmas, life can easily becomes unbalanced. I don’t think that is what John the Baptist had in mind when he preached: “prepare the way of the Lord!”

The scripture for today from Hebrews 4 speaks of the elusive rest we too easily find ways to avoid.
9So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; 10for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. 11Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs [Israel’s].

Fascinating that failing to rest leads to disobedience. Busyness may be one of the great curses of modernity. Sometimes we don’t even ask people how they are doing, but are you staying busy! When was the last time you were asked if you were getting enough rest? Maybe your doctor? Lynn Baab has a chapter in her book on Sabbath entitled: “Too busy to rest”. We have a culture that promotes busyness and productivity.

Resting is not a positive concept in our culture. But if we are busy we believe that we are good and right. We are doing something right if we are rushing along and keeping up with everything in the world and talking on our cell phones while we are driving to the mall. But what we find is that busyness leads to exhaustion. Busyness leads to emptiness. Busyness leads to despair. We feel pressure to be productive, to be constantly active, and that pressure increases during this time of year when we are “getting ready” for Christmas. People are asking me now: “are you ready for Christmas?” What do they mean by that? Have I got all my shopping done? Have I chopped down the tree and decorated the house and cooked a ham and sent out Christmas cards and planned all the family visits and wrapped the presents and attended parties? I’m not sure how to answer that question anymore.

Unfortunately I had to get out into the world on Friday. Fridays are usually very hectic in and around Princeton anyway, but Fridays in December seem especially so. I wasn’t feeling well; the medicine was not ready at Wal-Mart on the first visit, so I knew I was going to have to come back out again. Hectic shoppers, traffic overload, and all I wanted was somewhere to lie down! I know some people love the label of shopaholic and the frenzy of Christmas shopping, but to me it is just a blur and a tiresome commercialization. (I know, the economy would collapse without all this.)

I prefer the imagined stillness of a dark Christmas Eve only illuminated by the stars and the bright star that would lead the Magi. Silent Night – Holy Night.
Should Christmas time leave us exhausted and spending more than we want? It is sad that we have to consider the question: can we find rest in Christmas? Can we find Sabbath in December? Can we maintain the rhythm of faith?

9So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; 10for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. 11Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs [Israel’s].

Christmas is a time, not for frantic planning and hectic shopping, not for exhaustion, but Sabbath rest and peace. Peace on earth and good will to people.
Peace of mind.
Peace of spirit.
Peace of body.
Peace of home.
Peace of worship.

The New Interpreters Bible contains this commentary on Hebrews 4: “The introduction of the theme of ‘rest’ into the presentation of the Christian life as that of a pilgrimage provides a striking image of the rhythm of faith: movement and rest. Psychologists and counselors have long understood this rhythm as basic to a healthy life, and leaders of organizations, including churches, are using it to design programming. But Hebrews can be additionally helpful in the reminder that the life of faith is not simply scheduled as periods of movement and periods of rest. Rest, says the text, does not just follow pilgrimage but occurs during pilgrimage as well (4:3). The rest of God is both present and future. Therefore, just as the Near Eastern proverb says, ‘There is going in my staying and staying in my going,’ so also does the preacher in Hebrews say, ‘There is rest in movement and movement in rest’” (Hebrews, pp.55-56).

We are on a pilgrimage of faith. We are on a specific faith journey in December – a journey to the manger. What I seek for myself and for all of us is a journey that can take the time to enter that rest that enables us to contemplate the joy of Christmas and the peace of Christmas. The pop theology phrase is: “the reason for the season”, but that has become something like a commercial jingle rather than a genuine call to enter into that rest that we might not fall into disobedience.

Perhaps we should take the time to ask ourselves if our over activity is disobedient. Perhaps we could rest long enough to see that we sometimes look like people who have camped out on Black Friday to make that 4:00am shopping run, plowing over anyone in our way to get that new cell phone or new toy. Rhythm does not rush, rhythm keeps balance, rhythm gives new life. Let’s keep a rhythm of faith, especially at Christmas when it is perhaps most needed. Amen.

Sermon # 1019
December 5, 2010
Luke 1:57-80
Dr. Ed Pettus

“The Benedictus”

The Benedictus is the title given to Zechariah’s speech in Luke 1:68-79. Benedictus is the Latin word for blessed or blessing, the first word Zechariah speaks in this passage. It is the last word spoken to us in worship, the benediction or the blessing, when the minister proclaims a blessing to the people: “may God’s grace be with you” is a blessing or a benedictus. Mary’s song is called The Magnificat named also by the first words of her song: “my soul magnifies the Lord”.

The preface to Zechariah’s prophecy is the birth of John. Last Sunday we looked at the pronouncement of the angel Gabriel, that barren Elizabeth would have a son and Zechariah was struck mute because he doubted this could happen since they were both getting on in years. Now we come to the time of the birth and, as was and still is custom, friends and family came to celebrate with Elizabeth.

On the eighth day it was time to circumcise and name the child. When we think about naming children we consider a variety of options. Should we go with a family name? Whenever we run across some strange name with someone we often ask if it is a family name. We might consider a name that has some specific meaning or we just like the sound of a particular name. Naming is important and we usually give it a great deal of time and consideration. Edwin was my grandfather’s name and Hoyt, my middle name, was a name from a good friend of my father. His name was Hoyt Hand. At least mine was in the middle and did not get full time use!

Elizabeth and Zechariah may have had ideas for a name when they were very young and expecting to have children in their early years, but no children came. Elizabeth was barren. But now, as they are getting on in years, they have a son, a most unexpected blessing, and the time has come to name him. During the circumcision the name would be given. The family members and religious leaders were expecting him to be named after his father, Zechariah, but Elizabeth spoke up and said: “No; he is to be called John.” This caused a stir among the gathered folks and so they motioned for Zechariah to clear things up, maybe they thought Elizabeth’s age was causing some unclear thinking. Zechariah, still unable to speak, wrote his name on a tablet: His name is John. The people went from confusion to amazement and just as quickly, Zechariah’s voice returned!

He began to speak and to praise God and everyone then went from amazement to fear and this event became the talk of the town. The buzz was about what this child would become and all this surrounding the process of selecting a name. The narrator adds: “the hand of the Lord was with him”. I suspect Luke is looking back over the story knowing what kind of person John would become and there is no other explanation of his life than “the hand of the Lord was with him”!

The next part of the narrative is Zechariah’s speech. I imagine, after being unable to speak for the duration of a pregnancy, that Zechariah had plenty to say and was ready to say it! The beginning (68-75) is unique to Jesus and the remainder (76-79) is in reference to John. Zechariah’s phrasing and content is along the lines of Old Testament prophecy. God has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them by raising up a mighty savior. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors. The language of rescue leads God’s people to the ability to serve without fear (74).

After this prophetic word about the savior, he addresses his son who will be called a prophet, preparing the way, leading people to salvation and forgiveness and this section ends with the language of leading our feet into the way of peace (79).

Jesus will rescue us from fear. Fear is a powerful force in our lives. Imagine being delivered from the fear that holds us back from achieving great things with God. I do not just mean fear of walking down a dark ally, but fear of risking ourselves for God. We fear of letting ourselves go, surrendering ourselves that we might grow even closer to God. We fear completely giving our lives over to the Lordship of Christ.

John’s preparation for the coming messiah guides us to the way of peace, not because John is the way – he makes that clear in his message – but because Jesus is the way to peace. Life without fear, life with total peace. It is only made possible because God chose the most unlikely people to bring peace and to release us from fear.

Luke makes a point to set the redemption of God under the nose of King Herod of Judea. The people of Israel expected the redeemer to come like a great king, but God chooses to bring the message of salvation through the son of a barren woman and an old priest. In the reign of the great King Herod, God does not act through him, but through a virgin named Mary, through the very people oppressed by Herod’s rule.

That is how God seems to work, choosing the weakest people to do the greatest things. Think about how you might plan to save the world. Would you start with a barren woman? Would you start with a couple too old to have children? Would you start with a teenage girl and then put her in a situation where she would have to tell her fiancĂ© that she is pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit? I don’t think anyone could have dreamed up this kind of plan, well, other than God.

Zechariah was told by the angel Gabriel earlier in chapter one, that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit and would turn many people to God (15-16). In this prophetic word from today’s reading he sees two things John will do: prepare the way of the Lord and give the knowledge of salvation (76-77). I guess you can’t ask for greater expectations out of your infant son!

Zechariah’s Benedictus is a testimony to God’s amazing plan of salvation for God’s people. It is grand in language, but in another sense, it is a most simple, humble plan. God does not use royalty or people of privilege to bring forth his plan, but people of humble means, even people we would see as unable to bring forth any plan, let alone one that selects a barren woman to give birth to the messenger of God and a virgin to give birth to the savior. It is amazing. It is surprising. It is the way of God. It reminds us that God can do amazing things through any one of us. It assures us that God can and will do amazing things for the sake of our salvation and peace.

Perhaps the word for us from this text is to receive God’s word today – not in the sense that God needs to bring a Savior to the world as he did then, but God calls each of us to become the storytellers, to speak through word and deed of the Savior and the amazing voices of Zechariah and John. We are the voices today – telling the amazing story of redemption and peace. Amen.