Sunday, December 15, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Tools"

Isaiah 2:1-5

This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be the highest of the mountains. It will be lifted above the hills; peoples will stream to it. 3 Many nations will go and say, “Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain, to the house of Jacob’s God so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will come from Zion; the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. 4 God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. 5 Come, house of Jacob, let’s walk by the Lord’s light. (Common English Bible)

“A Place at the Table: An Advent in Solidarity With the Poor,” Week Three

Because for the past few years I have been dedicated to purchasing at least some of my family’s Christmas presents from humanitarian vendors, I now am blessed with an abundance of catalogs every holiday season—seriously…buy a (in Elmer Fudd voice) wascally wabbit for one family, and you get mail for years afterwards.  And, like clockwork, the catalogs arrived this year from WorldVision, Heifer International, and other amazing organizations that do incredible work.

And they recently fine-tuned their sales pitch to know exactly what would get my attention: my ancestral homeland of Armenia, because right there on page five was the headline “Heifers Help Families in Armenia Escape Hunger.”

You know the pictures your family takes of you on Christmas day?  The ones of you sitting next to the tree, surrounded by presents, and grinning toothily like a maniac?  Imagine instead of getting to pose next to your new DVD player or pair of sneakers, you are posing next to…well, a cow.  A cow is your gift for Christmas this year, and it isn’t because you wanted one, it is because you needed one for your livelihood because you live on $2 a day.

And I began to realize something, flipping through those pages after pausing, and looking at the picture of this young man with the same skin complexion, the same facial structure, as me…that what I was being asked to give here were not gifts, but tools.  Tools for life, tools for provision, tools that had nothing to do with the luxury of being able to ask for what you want for Christmas, and everything to do with the necessity of having to ask for what you so desperately need.  And as we focus so much on buying gifts everybody else wants, we lose sight of the reality that we are giving gifts to celebrate the arrival of that which we so desperately need: a Savior.

This liturgical season—called Advent—is relatively short, only four weeks long, and unique in that it is largely a waiting game as we count down the days to Christmas (which, let’s be honest, how many of us started doing after Halloween?).  Even though Advent is a time of festiveness in our culture, with Christmas carols on the radio station and gingerbread this and peppermint mocha that, Advent actually began as a penitential season—a season in which we were meant to follow the exhortation of John the Baptist as he foretold Christ, telling us to repent and believe in the coming Messiah.  One of the most prominent spiritual disciplines of penitence is fasting, and so for this Advent, I chose a source of sermon series material you may be familiar with.  If you remember my “Advent Conspiracy” sermon series two years ago, about trying to find Christ within the crass consumerism of Christmas, well, one of the Advent Conspiracy authors, Pastor Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston Texas, has written a sequel called “A Place at the Table,” in which he details fasting as a spiritual discipline.  Though the book is actually written for Lent, the season when we are supposed to give something meaningful up, I have shanghaied it for Advent because I think that the holiday season is probably when our charitable goodwill is often on the front burner, and I wanted to be able to speak to that here.  This week, we turn to the chapter of Pastor Chris’s book entitled “Tools,” in which he writes in part:

Christianity is filled with truths that seem so paradoxical on the surface: the last will be first, we must die in order to live, in weakness we are made strong, the poor and the persecuted will be blessed.  How can these things be?

I enjoy the feeling of strength, power, and security—not insecurity, vulnerability, and frailty.  I like having enough money in my account to cover my bills and groceries for months to come.  But the truth is, when I am satisfied with my life and provisions each day, when I am not striving for a Ferrari or any version of my own personal extravagance, I am better off…

The world’s economy drives people by fear.  God’s way is to bring people comfort in grace and love.  May we lay down our desires and seek the heart of God.  When we begin to panic, when discomfort surfaces, may we turn to our Savior… (from the book’s conclusion) at the end of the day, our greatest calling is to love God and to love our neighbor.  My greatest struggle is to take myself and my selfish desires and ambitions out of the way and to replace those selfish desires with the desires of God.

If I am honest with myself—and with all of you—I have come to think that selfishness and selfish desires are the root of most kinds of evil in the world.  I have to think it is why Jesus tells us that the entirety of the law and the prophets hangs upon loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  We are more than happy to look out for number one, and woe be to the person who suggests otherwise: after all, Jesus did precisely that and we wound up killing Him for it.

And there are so, so many ways that we have come up with to tell ourselves that being selfish is okay.  We say that the world is best served by everyone pursuing their own best interests, or that wanting more for ourselves is what produces excellence.  And Isaiah tells us that cannot be true.

It cannot be true because Isaiah tells us that God is calling us to change the tools we equip ourselves with—and not just change them out for new tools, but to take the old, inadequate, and destructive tools and make them into something new.  In other words, we cannot just get new plows and new pruning hooks, no, we are supposed to beat our existing swords and spears into those plows and pruning hooks.

How inefficient of God to expect us to do that.  Doesn’t God know that we can just go out to Home Depot and buy new tools, right off the shelf?  Hell, we can even buy those new tools, wrap them up with a bow, and stick them under the Christmas tree if that will make God happy.  But the thing is…I am not so sure that it will.

Think of yourselves—and I do not, do not, do not mean in the selfish sense.  Consider yourselves.  Consider humanity.  We are flawed.  Broken.  Fragile.  Imperfect.  Do you think that maybe, just maybe, God the creator of all things, maker of heaven and earth, all that is seen and unseen, would not want to do the exact same thing with us, to look at our own limitations and decide that He wanted a new people and could just pick a new people off the shelf, fashion them with brand-new, state-of-the-art materials, and be more satisfied with them than with us?

Sometimes, I do.  I wonder why God hasn’t yet.  Because sometimes, we just plain suck.

And here is the whole point of the Christmas story, the entire reason for the season, that I can boil down into a single sentence: God does create something new, but that something new isn’t just us, it’s also Him.  God sends us something new, a baby boy who is to be called Jesus.

God sees our problems and our screw-ups and our messes, God sees the terrible things that we are capable of doing to each other, but compared to way back in the primeval past, when He might be content with sending a flood or a curse, God instead sends His Son, the Prince of Peace, to make us into new creations.

We are the swords and spears that God is trying to beat into plowshares and pruning hooks.  We are God’s own tools; battered and broken we might be, but God still is finding new uses for us. God accomplishes this by making Himself into something new, that’s the miracle of it all.  By making something new Himself, He in turn can make us into new tools and creations as well.

Like any tool, though, the making of us as God’s vessels and instruments takes time.  Forged in fire, cooled in water, shaped and molded by metal, we live our lives with our faces in the fire and our bodies in the cold.  We live exposed and vulnerable to so much that the world puts in front of us, from financial insecurity and homelessness to malnourishment and indebtedness, but in the midst of all these poverties, God is still hard at work, fashioning us again and again and again.

And it isn’t just us.  It isn’t just what we would think of as the “elect,” whatever that means.  It’s all of us.  Isaiah is prophesying of a world in which “all the nations shall stream” to the Lord’s house…or the Lord’s forge, as it were, to be made and remade again and again and again.

Yet, as with all pilgrim journeys, we cannot make it into the Lord’s House merely by staying inside our comfort zones.  The pilgrims of old risked life and livelihood to make it to whichever holy site they were journeying.  That dimension is lost for me today, at least in a physical sense. I do not fear being beaten by highwaymen on my daily commute.  Like Pastor Chris, I do not fear, as those receiving the tools of life from humanitarian Christmas catalogs do, living on that edge.

But what I do fear is a world that cannot, will not, shall not take this vision of Isaiah seriously.  I fear a world in which the reverse happens, where people decide to run from  God, to shut their ears to his words, to decide to beat their plowshares and pruning hooks into swords and spears, to lift up those ill-gotten weapons once more, to learn how to make war, to walk not in the light of the Lord but in the darkness of the evils of this world that we inhabit.

And I know that fear is in many ways the opposite of faith, and that I am supposed to be faithful and to call you to faith as well.  I know that.  But my hope is that by confessing to you my own fear, by showing you the poverty that exists within my own soul, you might feel a little bit more ready and willing to examine yourselves, to see where in your life you are poor, and to pray to God to meet you there.   Because God has already shown a willingness to meet you where you are, for He already did it once, over 2,000 years ago, in a tiny town called Bethlehem.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 15, 2013

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