Thursday, December 8, 2005

Sermon for December 4, 2005

Keeping the Fire Alive
1 Thessalonians 5:16‑24

It’s that time of year again – time to fight about public religious displays. We will start to see mangers, flanked by toy soldiers, with Santa on the rooftop to worship the baby Jesus by the light of the Hanukkah candles. Perhaps Tthe holy infant will be wrapped in kente cloth to celebrate Kwanzaa. When it comes to religion in the public square, there are only two options: Get rid or all public religious displays, or include everyone’s. What we end up with is a hodge-podge of symbols that try to include everyone’s beliefs. I don’t find these displays very inspiring. I like to be mindful that not everyone celebrates Christmas like I do. But, what we get is a holiday buffet full of bland offerings and lukewarm sentiment.

Sometimes our faith gets that way -- bland, and runny, and so generalized that it stands for nothing. Some people want more. Last week I pulled questions out of the brown bag, and we briefly talked about the qualities of growing faith. I want to talk about that question in more depth this morning. How can we keep our Christian faith vibrant and real when we are tempted on every side to water our beliefs down and adhere to some sort of cornmeal mush religion ‑ a runny version of the faith that might not tastes plain and won’t upset your stomach? How do you keep the Spirit alive when you don’t feel God's presence? How do you stay spiritually vital when the bottom drops out and you feel like giving up? The Apostle Paul gives some advice to us in today’s reading.

Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Prophecy was a widespread practice in the early church. Paul saw prophecy as an inspired utterance, verbally delivered to a gathered group of people. Because of the charismatic and Pentecostal movements, we tend to think of prophesy as some special power to predict the future either for ourselves individually or for the world at large. I remember a book that caused some panic in Christian circles a number of years ago. Edgar Whisenant, a NASA engineer, wrote, 88 Reasons Why Christ Is Coming In 1988. I was sure an angry Jesus was returning to earth, and I was in big trouble. When ’88 went by and nobody told Jesus that he was supposed to come and judge the world, Whisenant published 89 Reasons Why Christ Is Coming In 1989. Paul did not have this kind of prophecy in mind. Prophecy is declaring the mind of God in the power of the Spirit. Since God completely revealed himself in Scripture, prophecy has to do with speaking forth the mind of God from Scripture.

One way you can keep yourself spiritually alive is to constantly put yourself in places where you are able to hear what God has to say to you -- not only going to church, but taking time to read and discuss Scripture and listening to the Holy Spirit. Let me just ask you, what messages are listening to? In what ways are you hearing, and reading, and being regularly spoken to by God’s Word? Paul encourages us to put ourselves in those situations. Do not despise them, for there you gain wisdom from God.

Then Paul gives a warning. Once you put yourself in situations where you are being spoken to by God, test what you hear. Anyone can stand up and say in a holy sounding voice, “This is the word of the Lord.” It’s your job to make sure that preachers and prophets are in line with Scripture. People on every side are telling us what God wants us to do, but there is so much that is counterfeit. So test what is said. Compare it to your knowledge of Scripture and the character of Jesus Christ. Hold on to the good and reject the bad.

Be Joyful. Paul mentions another quality of spiritually vibrant people: be joyful always. Many of us can name people who are wretched grumps. Those same miserable people go to church, sing hymns, and pray, hoping that God will somehow give them an infusion of joy to make it through another day. They are looking for some kind of heavenly transfusion that will bypass the misery of their daily lives and give them joy. God promises to transform misery, not to bypass it. Sometimes God does give us an infusion of joy to offset a bitter situation. But usually, God brings joy, by taking the ordinary moments and making them holy. Joy is not found in singing a certain type of music or getting in with the right group of people. Joy is found in following Jesus. When the power that is in Jesus reaches into our work and play, our happy times and our sorrows, and redeems them, there will be joy where once there was mourning.

I told this story last week. Bear with me as I tell it again – the good ones bear repeating. A pastor named Jack Hinton was leading worship at a leper colony on the island of Tobago, when a woman who had been facing away from the pulpit turned around. It was the most hideous face Jack had ever seen. The woman’s nose and ears were entirely gone. As she lifted a fingerless hand in the air and asked, “Can we sing “Count Your Many Blessings?’ ” Later, a team member said, “I guess you'll never be able to sing that song again.” Jack replied “Yes I will, but I'll never sing it the same way.” Have you counted your blessings? Have you seen how Jesus wants to touch you, and transform you? Can you count your blessings, even when life is wasting you away? Be joyful always.

Pray continually. Next, Paul says pray continually. There once was a shepherd who lived in the French Alps. Because of careless deforestation, the mountains were barren. Former villages were deserted because their springs and brooks ran dry. In 1913, while mountain climbing, a traveler came to the shepherd’s hut, where he was invited to spend the night. After dinner, the traveler watched the shepherd sort through a pile of acorns, discarding those that were cracked or undersized. When the shepherd counted out 100 perfect acorns, he stopped for the night and went to bed. The 55‑year‑old shepherd had been planting trees on the wild hillsides for over three years. He planted 100,000 trees, 20,000 of which had sprouted. Of those, he expected half to be eaten by rodents or to die due the elements. The other half was expected to live. After WWI, the traveler returned to the mountainside and discovered incredible rehabilitation. There was now a forest. Water flowed in once empty brooks. Willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, and flowers were birthed. The traveler returned again after WWII. Twenty miles from the lines, the shepherd continued his work, ignoring the war of 1939 just as he had ignored the war of 1914. The reformation of the land continued. Whole regions glowed with health and prosperity. The traveler wrote, “On the site of the ruins ... now stand neat farms. The old streams, fed by rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again. Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. People from the plains have settled here, bringing youth, motion, and the spirit of adventure." Praying continuously is like planting those acorn trees in a barren land. Those who pray are like spiritual reforesters, digging holes in the wasteland and planting seeds of life. Through these seeds, the barrenness of life is transformed into a rich harvest, and life‑giving water is brought to parched souls. Paul knows that if we have the faith and persistence to pray constantly ‑ to pray without ceasing, the world will be changed and we will be protected from spiritual dryness.

Give thanks in all circumstances. Paul also encourages us to give thanks in all circumstances. Mother Theresa told this story at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994.

One evening we went out, and we picked up four people from the street. One of them was in a most terrible condition. I told the sisters, “You take care of the other three; I will take care of the one who looks the worst.” So, I did for her all that my love could do. I put her in bed, and there was such a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand as she said two words only: “Thank you.” Then she died. I could not help but examine my conscience before her. What would I say if I were in her place? My answer was very simple. I would have tried to draw, a little attention to myself. I would have said, “I am hungry. I am dying. I am in pain,” or something. But she gave me much more; she gave me her grateful life, and she died with a smile on her face.

We, too have something to be grateful for. Thankfulness is a response to joy. We have a God who loves us enough to send us a Savior. We are nurtured by God and given a place in God’s family. Our old identities pass away as God transforms us into new creations. We give thanks always, because no gift will ever be as good as what God has already given. In good and bad, in health or disease, in times of plenty and times of scarcity, we give thanks to God. It is our quiet response to the daily trials that come our way. Just imagine what could happen in our lives during Christmas if we did away with running ourselves ragged and instead took time to count our many blessings and give thanks.

Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances. Do not treat prophecies with contempt. This is where the apostle leaves us; with the hope of our coming Lord Jesus, and the resources to stay strong and live in a new and different way in this day and age. May God himself, the God of peace, make you holy through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

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