Monday, November 23, 2009

Sermon for Sunday Nov. 22, Reign of Christ

Alpha and Omega
Revelation 1:4-8

Here’s how I know I’ve been having a low week. I yelled at a telemarketer. They always call at a bad time. On the day in question, it was around 8 AM. In between my coughing, trying to figure out what we can make for breakfast that will take the least amount of human effort, dealing with the kid’s fevers, getting the healthy kids ready for school, not to mention the dogs deciding it was time to go berserk over phantoms, the phone rang. It was a guy selling directory assistance Internet ads. “Hello, can I speak to the Trumbull Congressional Church Office?”
“It’s Congregational. And no, this is a residence. Please call the church office after 9:00 AM.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your business?”
“Actually, I do mind. Please call the church office.”
“Do you have the number? I gave the number. He said he would call the office later. Then he asked, “Is this a United Church of Christ?”
"Please call the church office after 9 AM. Good Bye.” I hung up.
No problem so far . . . only mild annoyance . . . until the phone rang again about one minute later. Same company. Same script. Different voice.
“Hello, can I speak to the Trumbull Congressional Church Office?” My sudden anger could have poached an egg. I like to think I’m a patient person. I can put up with a lot of abuse before I lose my cool. But not today.
“Listen,” I said, in that fake, strained, I’m-not-smiling-on-the-inside-OR-the-outside kind of voice. “Someone from your company just called here. This is a residence. The church office opens at 9 AM. Please call the office.”
“I’m very sorry sir. But can you tell me, is this church a United Church of Christ?”
My eyes got all twitchy, and in a terrifying flash I did something I told myself I would never do. I turned into my father on the phone. “I already told you to stop calling here. Now I’m getting REALLY aggravated. Please stop calling here IMMEDIATELY! Good Bye.”

I slammed down the phone. The kids looked at me in surprise. The dogs stopped barking, sat on the floor, and started whimpering. From the other room Chris asked, “Who was that?”
“Telemarketers,” I grumbled.
“You were kind of grumpy with them. I liked it.” She said.

Sometimes life becomes more difficult than we expect it to be. Forget about telemarketers. How many of you are coming into the holidays facing health problems? How many worry about money and jobs? How many are sad because you will be celebrating holidays alone as the kids go to be with the ex-spouse? How many have difficult confrontations to make this season? How many have hard choices? How many seek wisdom and don’t get any answers? In the past two weeks, I’ve talked to people who worry about each of these scenarios. For many, it is a low time of year. We come here with heavy burdens, with anxieties and fears, maybe even panic.

For others, this may be a bright season. Life is good. Do you know people who are always happy? I mean, WAY happy? The Devil himself could rise out of the ground and they would be shake his hand and tell him how happy they are to see him. Once I sat next to one of those happy dads who kept asking me if I was amazed by my children's brain and how wonderful it is to watch kids grow and develop. While I do think they are amazing, I felt like saying “Right now I think it would be amazing and wonderful to not watch my children pick their noses.”

Enough about me. How about you? Is today a low Sunday or a bright Sunday for you? Have you come here carrying heavy burdens, or have you come ready to celebrate the victory of Christ? At one time or another, we feel like we are sinking in the troubles of life. We can use all kinds of bloated rhetoric about resurrection victory and new life in Christ, but that’s not always how we feel. Author Brennan Manning points out that sometimes the church creates the impression that once we confess Jesus as Lord, the Christian life becomes a picnic on a green lawn. Marriage blossoms into conjugal bliss, health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar. Everybody is declared to be a winner. An attractive 20-year old accepts Jesus and becomes Miss America, a floundering lawyer conquers alcoholism and whips Alan Dershowitz on court TV, a tenth-round draft choice for the Patriots goes to the Pro Bowl. Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, and shy people become outgoing.

For many of us, though, life is more like a victorious limp. More realistically, the story sounds more like this: At some point in our lives many of us were deeply touched by a profound spiritual encounter. We were swept up in joy, we finally felt peace, and love. We no longer became unraveled as we went about the daily routines and occupations of life. But soon enough, we got snagged in the netting of school, or family, or career and all the other important distractions that the busy world offers. We began to treat Jesus like an old high school buddy whom we dearly loved but gradually lost track of. It was unintentional. We simply allowed circumstances to drive us apart. Eventually, heightened by inattention, the presence of Jesus grows more and more remote. So our days become more and more trivial. Our concentration is interspersed by meetings and small crises. Eventually we settle in to well-defined lives of comfortable piety and well-fed virtue. We lead practical lives. Our feeble attempts at prayer are filled with overformal phrases to an impassive God.

I guess I won’t speak for you — this is the victorious limp of my life. It is up and down, peaks and valleys. At different times on the journey, I try to fill spiritual hunger with a variety of substitutes: work, reading, travel, ice cream, TV, music, day dreaming, making lists. Some how, I allow myself to be hardened to God, and therefore I don’t to pay attention to the love Jesus offers.

Today’s reading from Revelation helps me to remember that life doesn’t have to be this way. To begin with, I’m reminded that Jesus is the Alpha. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Jesus is the beginning. I hear Jesus say, “I am the Alpha. Your life begins in me. You are God’s child, and from the beginning of time, I created you to be at home in me.”

Remembering that Jesus is the Alpha reminds me that behind all the Christian clichés, I will fall flat on my face. And at those times I have choice. I can creep away, feeling like a shamed loser, or I can remember that I am God’s child. My life begins in Christ. My existence has purpose and meaning. Because Jesus is my beginning point, I can summon the willingness to keep growing, and the readiness to risk failure throughout all of life. With all of our scars, with all our sins and insecurities, we stand with Jesus, the Alpha, the First. He marks the beginning of our long journey from death to life.

We also remember that Jesus is the Omega. Omega is the last letter in the Greek Alphabet. In other words, we begin in Jesus, but Jesus is also our finish. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. In Christ we have received life, and to Christ we must give life back.

We hold back so much on life, don’t we? I mean, isn’t it easier to know that everything is going to be safe? Low risks–or no risks involved? I’ve told this story before, but I like it, so you get to hear it again.

A town gathered in the courthouse for a trial. The prosecuting attorney called his first witness, an elderly woman, to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?” She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy. And, frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a rising big shot, but you haven’t the brains to realize you will never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.” The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?” She replied, “Why, of course I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. I used to babysit him. And he has been a real disappointment to me, too. He’s lazy, bigoted, and has a drinking problem. The man can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the shoddiest in the entire state. Yes, I know him.” At this point, the judge rapped the courtroom to silence and called both counselors to the bench. In a very quiet voice, he said with menace, “If either of you asks her if she knows me, I’ll hold you both in contempt of court!”

Many of us go to great lengths to hide the truth about ourselves. We live behind all kinds of masks that conceal who we really are. Why do you hold back from a life fully yielded to Christ? What are you afraid of?
Are you afraid Jesus will ask too much? Afraid you might have to actually love some enemies along the way, or even harder, you might have to love yourself?
Are you afraid that Jesus is going to take away all the fun and joy out of life?
Are you afraid Jesus might dig around too deeply into your life along the way?
Afraid of being judged?
Afraid of being seen as a failure?
Are you holding back your love for Christ because you think Jesus won’t like you? You can’t see any good in your life–what if you draw closer to Jesus and he doesn’t see it either?

The question the gospel puts to us is simply this: What are you waiting for? Who shall separate you from the love of Christ? Jesus says, “I am the Omega. I am the End of your hard journey. Come to me.”

Are you afraid your weakness can separate you from the love of Christ?
It can’t.
Are you afraid that your inadequacies can separate you from the love of Christ?
They can’t.
Difficult marriage, loneliness, anxiety over the children’s future?
They can’t.
Negative self-image.
It can’t.
Economic hardship, hatred, rejection by loved ones, suffering and sickness, persecution, terrorism?
They can’t.
Mistakes, fears, and uncertainties? They can’t either.

The Bible says, “Nothing can ever separate you from God’s love.” Jesus loves you. His love is our bright hope during the low times. Everything else will pass away, but in the beginning, and the end, there is still Jesus, the Alpha and Omega. He’s the A and the Z, and everything else in between. From him we come and to him we must return.

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