Second Sunday of Advent
December 6, 1992
A Reason to Hope
The Christmas season signals a period of hope in the world. Everett Harrison wrote in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary: “The expression ‘the God of hope’ (v. 13) means the God who inspires hope and imparts it to His children. He can be counted on to fulfill what yet remains to be accomplished for them.”
Hope is necessary for everyone. As Thornton Wilder said, the projection of the imagination … [is] an energy that arouses the mind to explore every possible way to combat despair. The imagination is around to try every door, to fit together even the most heterogeneous pieces in the puzzle of life.
After fourteen chapters of hardnosed theology, Paul concludes with a message of HOPE.
I. Hope Fills Us With Joy.
Mother Teresa was asked to give a job description for any person desiring to work alongside her in the gloom, grime, and graceless gutters of Calcutta. Her quick response might surprise you. Two things she mentioned were the desire for hard work and an attitude of joy!
Several things can rob us of joy if we allow it to happen.
1. Circumstance. I like Chuck Swindoll’s comment in his book Laugh Again concerning circumstances. He notes that some critics would be quick to point out that our times do not lend themselves to an easy-going philosophy of cheer and joy. They ask, “Under these circumstances how could I be anything but grim?” To that Swindoll replies, “What are you doing under the circumstances? The Christian life is to live above the circumstances.”
2. The Past. I deal with people in pastoral counseling who cannot seem to let go of the past. They linger there, wallowing in past events, people, and lifestyles. It suffocates the present. Don’t allow the past to rob you of the present.
3. An Unforgiving Spirit. A lady in one of my congregations did everything in her power to make my life miserable. I had a very difficult time forgiving her. The thought of her dominated my life beyond my years of service at that church. It was several years before I could forgive her, and my spirit suffered. One day I knelt at an altar at my church — putting that woman in God’s hands — and forgave her. My life has been free ever since. The joy of life returned. If there is someone like that in your life, give it to Jesus.
II. Hope Fills Us With Peace.
Peace is a key ingredient in life for anyone who has a commitment to Christ. The person who has discovered peace brings to life the embodiment of Christ. He is the author of peace of mind and spirit.
Some old castles contain deep wells dug there to supply the inhabitants in time of siege. An aqueduct bringing water from outside would be at the enemy’s mercy; with a well inside, the foe would have no power. The peace the world seeks depends on one’s surrounding; in time of trouble its sources are cut off, like a spring outside the castle walls. But the peace Christ gives is that of the spring within.
Is your peace in Jesus today? It is only there if Christ lives in your heart.
III. Hope Overflows by the Power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit enters our lives to dispel hopelessness and helplessness due to sin. He comes in power to indwell and fill the inner life of each individual. Our lives are to be holy, pure, and thoroughly clean.
As believers we are bound together in holy love with other believers. Together we form an unconquerable organization — the church. This church is empowered to challenge the mores, philosophies, concepts and ideas of the world. Commissioned by Christ Himself, it is to bring holy living into an unholy world. It comes as a result of a human spirit yielded to the spirit of God. Have you given yourself to the Spirit’s control and power? Invite Him to be the cleansing agent of your life! (DGK)
Third Sunday of Advent
December 13, 1992
Enduring with Patience
I enjoy watching talented ice skaters, like those we see at the Winter Olympics. They display amazing beauty and grace as they dance on the ice.
What would you think if I told you I’m going to take ice dancing lessons and enter the next Olympics? You’d probably think I was crazy, because we all know that the remarkable skills displayed at the Olympics take many years of faithful, patient practice. When we see a particularly striking move on the ice, we can be assured that many hours of preparation went into those few seconds of performance.
It is much the same in the Christian life. It is not something that is taken up lightly and done with little effort. To walk with Christ is the commitment of a lifetime, and it requires patient endurance in the face of life’s pressures and opposition.
The congregation to which James ministered in the first century understood opposition. They were facing it every day, living as a persecuted minority. Yet in the midst of that hostility, James calls for patience. How can we be patient in the midst of suffering?
I. Because of the Example of Others
James reminds us that we do not walk this way alone. Others have gone before us who faced opposition because of their faith and service to God — such as the Old Testament prophets. They stood against the popular opinions of their day, and in the face of opposition they patiently endured.
If you plan to walk with Christ, be prepared to face opposition. The world doesn’t want to hear about God’s Word and will, for they stand against the sin, exploitation, materialism on which the world bases its own standards. But James says let the example of others help you to patiently endure.
II. Because Judgment is Certain (v. 9)
In the first century church, James must have seen incidents in which one Christian was arrested and imprisoned for practicing his faith, while another went free. How tempting to harbor feelings of anger and resentment against the one who appears not to suffer! It still happens today, doesn’t it — resentment toward a fellow church member who seems to prosper though they may not seem to us to be as faithful?
James says there is no room for accusations against others in Christ’s family. When we accuse, we point toward jugment — but God alone is judge. When we try to judge others we inevitably bring judgment upon ourselves.
We are called to be patient without turning on one another. God is judge, and He will be just and merciful with us.
III. Because Christ is Coming Again (vv. 7-8)
Christ’s trimphant return is a reason for patience in the face of suffering. The suffering of this age is limited and temporary. Christ’s return is certain. We live our lives in expectancy of His return. (JMD)
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 20, 1992
Look Who’s Coming!
“Twas the night before Christmas ….” And throughout the world, there are women and men of faith of all ages and colors and cultures and circumstances looking out windows and strolling down festively decorated streets and singing carols and eating more than they should and smiling at neighbors and even strangers and all of the other things to remind us that something very special — incomparably special — happened two thousand years ago. People are so excited that they will greet that day at the stroke of midnight with bells ringing and shouts of “Joy to the World!” and even humble approaches to His table to remember “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!” It’s our way of celebrating as we joyfully say, “Look Who’s Coming!”
After two thousand years, we know who’s coming. And we’re excited about Him. God came in Jesus and continues to come to us in Jesus as the Holy Spirit. And as that wonderfully warm hymn of Phillips Brooks reminds the world, “Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
And that’s what Christmas is all about. God came to us in Jesus to fill us with joy, happiness, wholeness, and the security of knowing that through Him we will live forever. It was the first, greatest, and most lasting Christmas gift of all. God’s gift of Himself to us in Jesus has an eternal lifetime guarantee.
I used to be one of those curmudgeons who blasted away at the holly spirit and all of the commercial trappings of this holy season. And I confess, I’m still more than a little concerned about forgetting the Birthday Boy in the midst of the party. But as I look back — and here I think I’m not much different from you — I can’t help but think the parades and candy canes and mistletoe and popcorn balls and evergreens and cookies and egg nog and even the guys in the red suits “help to make the season bright.” And when I drive past all of those shining lights and decorations, I get pumped. I feel like a little boy again.
Isn’t that exactly how God in Jesus wants us to come to Him on Christmas Day? Doesn’t He want us to come to Him with wide eyes — with expectant and amazed and pumping hearts? Doesn’t he want us to jump up and down with hands clapping and voices yapping as if to say, “Look Who’s Coming!”? Of course He does. For He said, “Let the little children come to me … for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19-13ff).
So let’s get down this Christmas. Let’s get down on our knees before the King. And let’s get down to some seriously ecstatic celebration. Look Who’s Coming! It’s God. And God came down in Jesus to make the season bright. God came in Jesus to make all seasons bright forever. Look Who’s Coming! It’s God in Jesus our Savior. And tonight and tomorrow and every day after that, we will say like children and savor like adults the good news given to us by God in Jesus and announced by the angel who said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.”
Merry Christmas indeed! (RRK)
First Sunday After Christmas
December 27, 1992
Be It Resolved
This is that time of year when we pause to make New Year’s resolutions. But not everybody does that. Take, for example, an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon by Bill Water-son. As they’re walking in the snow, Hobbes — Calvin’s stuffed tiger — asks, “Did you make any resolution for the New Year?”
Calvin comes unwound and says; “Heck, no! I’m fine just the way I am! Why should I change? In fact, I think it’s high time the world started to change to suit ME! I don’t see why I should do all the changing around here. If the New Year requires resolutions, I say it’s up to everyone else, not me! I don’t need to improve! Everyone ELSE does!” He takes a breath and then asks, “How about you? Did you make any resolutions?”
Hobbes has this Oh my look on his face and says, “Well, I had resolved to be less offended by human nature, but I think I blew it already.”
Luckily, most of us aren’t like Calvin. Instead, most of us are more like Hobbes. We have good intentions when it comes to making those changes in our lives. We intend to do something about it. Unfortunately, that’s as far as we get.
We look at the new year with fearful excitement because we know, come the 3rd of January, that list we so diligently made on the 31st will be nothing more than a source of guilt. Just like Hobbes, we start with the best intentions but we seldom follow through.
1. We’re Fallen
That’s our dilemma. We want so much to start the new year with a clean slate. But hanging a new calendar doesn’t mean a fresh start. As we enter a new year, we hope to leave behind unwanted baggage. But we can’t wipe the slate clean. AIDS, drug abuse, pornography, child abuse, incest, rape, murder, alcoholism, lust, war, and all of those things we would like to leave behind will follow us into the new year.
We don’t like to admit it, but there is probably more of Calvin in us than there is Hobbes. As the Bible puts it, “We have all fallen short of the grace of God.” We want to do what’s right and good, but often don’t and can’t. The biblical judgment is: we’re sinners.
2. We Can’t Do It On Our Own
We want to be in control. We want to make all the decisions. We want the power. And every time we get it, every time we take it, we blow it. That’s why Christ came. Hebrews 2:11 and 17 say, “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers … For this reason He had to be made like His brothers in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that He might make atonement or expiation for the sins of the people.”
Because of our sinfulness, a great gulf exists between us and God. But then Christ came. His love and sacrifice give our lives meaning and power. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ empowers our lives.
3. Christ Strengthens Us
Hebrews reminds us of just how much Christ can strengthen us. He didn’t just appear to be one of us. He didn’t get up every morning and put on His earthling suit. Jesus was one of us. Hebrews 2:18 says, “Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.” And that’s good news. We don’t have to face the temptations of life alone. We can be strengthened to say no and walk away from temptation.
In another Calvin and Hobbes installment, you see the two of them sitting on top of a snow-covered hill on a toboggan or bobsled. With this look of fear in his eyes, Calvin says, “Well, here we are, poised at the precipice of ‘Pallbearer Peak’ on a flimsy, unsteerable sled! The mind recoils in horror to imagine the awful descent. Yes, it’s a thousand foot vertical drop onto a boulder field lined with pricker bushes! It’s a journey calculated to exceed the human capacity for blinding fear!”
He turns to Hobbes and says, “Are you ready to go?” Hobbes simply says, “Ready.” And in the last scene you see Calvin and Hobbes walking away from the hill.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is to walk away. The good news is that through Christ we can. Hebrews 2:18 says, “Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.” Christ faced our temptations and He overcame them, He wasn’t overcome by them. He can help us overcome the temptations we are facing. Our lives can be different. We can know the peace of God.
In the coming year we will be faced with a multitude of decisions. There will be times of uncertainty. A bishop once said to a friend who was struggling with a decision, “If you’re uncertain which of two paths to take, choose the one on which the shadow of the cross falls.”
Jesus is our pioneer, He has walked where we walk and has stepped in places we won’t ever have to step because He has gone there first. Meet the challenge of a new year with faith in Christ. (BDS)
January 3, 1993
The Unsearchable Riches of Christ
We have just celebrated Advent and Christmas, representing the incarnation — the coming of Christ, our Savior, into the world. Soon we will be celebrating the Lenten and Easter season, as we consider Christ’s sufferings on our behalf and joyfully proclaim His victory over death through the resurrection.
As Paul wrote about this remarkable gospel which had changed his life, he couldn’t help but be amazed that God was permitting him to be a messenger of Christ (v. 8). Like Paul, we have also been called to proclaim the “unsearchable riches of Christ.”
Notice two characteristics about this proclamation:
1. The Attitude of the Messenger (v. 8a)
Paul knew he was unworthy of the ministry to which God had called him. Unlike some who try to don a veneer of perfection, Paul recognized his own sin. If God’s work depended on sinless servants, none of us could participate. God takes us as we are and makes us fit instruments for His use. God can use you!
Joseph Parker was one of London’s great preachers in the last century. A man once asked Parker why Jesus chose Judas to be a disciple, knowing he would betray Him. Parker replied, “I don’t know; the greater mystery to me is why the Lord chose me!”
To see our own unworthiness and to marvel at His grace and love brings us to a point of usefulness.
2. The Glory of the Message (v. 8b)
Though Paul recognized his own unworthiness, he also recognized the incredible glory of the gospel message. It is “unsearchable” — incalculable, beyond human understanding or description. Those riches don’t relate to a doctrine or creed but to the person of Christ.
a. There are the riches of His life. In Christ, God came to dwell in bodily form — He entered human history to share our lives.
b. There are the riches of His death. God gave His only Son to die that we might know life. He took on the agony of the cross that we might know the glory of fellowship with the Father.
c. There are the riches of His resurrection. Good Friday would be history’s greatest tragedy if it were not for Easter! Death could not hold Him; evil could not conquer Him. And the power of His resurrection is available to us today! (JMD)
Baptism of the Lord
January 10, 1993
He Commands Us
There is a significant message for us in the 10th chapter of the Book of Acts. The earlier chapters of Acts tell the story of the disciples of Jesus and the beginnings of the Christian church. The more the disciples work among the Jewish people, the more they come in contact with those persons who are not a part of their historic community of faith. Phillip converts the Ethiopian eunuch. Peter deals with Cornelius, the centurion of the Italian Cohort. Troubled by the idea of Gentiles finding favor with God and peace in daily living, Peter has that dream which concludes with the pronouncement of God, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”
Convinced by that vision, Peter preaches at Caesarea. That sermon is recorded in Acts, chapter 10. Peter remembers and retells the story of Jesus, and then concludes the message addressed to Jews and Gentiles alike, “And He commands us to preach to the people, and to testify that He is the one ordained by God to be the judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).
Examine this sentence closely and we can discover the exact nature of the work of the disciples and the followers of Jesus Christ.
1. They were given a specific task: to preach.
There are two different Greek words in the New Testament which we translate “preach.” One of them is the root of the word “evangelize.” That preaching is the bringing of the good news. It is the reporting on the transformation of life through God. The other word for “preach” has not been carried over into any English word that we use. It meant to publish or to proclaim. In being a herald, one tells the news about Jesus Christ. That is the word used here.
Many persons had never heard the story of Jesus in that day. The disciples and followers would tell each community where they visited what had happened, about the news from Jerusalem. It was a simple, basic story; and it was told over and over again.
Peter’s sermon in Acts 10 presents four simple, yet very profound, truths about Jesus Christ: God sent Jesus Christ; Jesus healed persons; Jesus was crucified; Jesus was raised from the dead. Perhaps we too easily assume that everyone today knows the story of Jesus. Making that assumption, we begin our conversations with them at the place where Peter’s sermon ends. Most of us surely know that story. But there are many in our world, even in our own communities, who do not. In a recent survey, less than half the people could name the four Gospels, less than half could tell the number of Jesus’ disciples, many could not name the family of Jesus. Have we assumed that people know a story which they have never really learned?
2. The disciples were given a second responsibility: to testify, to witness.
Not only must people hear the story of Jesus, that story must be explained to them. Throughout the New Testament, both in the Gospels and in the Letters, there are not only descriptions about Jesus, but explanations of His meaning for the lives of persons.
To proclaim that God sent Jesus is one thing, but to explain that is another. To properly explain that truth, we must talk about the value of each person, the personal interest of God in every individual. To proclaim that Jesus healed persons is one thing, but to explain that is another. We will need to think about the natural order which God created, the source of sickness and evil, the power of God to change the inward and the outward circumstances of lives.
To proclaim that Jesus was crucified is one thing, but to explain that is another. We would need to describe human sin, the righteousness of God, God’s judgment on all that is destructive of human dignity and hope. To herald the great truth that Jesus was raised from the dead is one thing, but to explain that is surely something else. We must then explain death as well as life, help persons see that there is more to God’s creation than this world, that God provides to all His children an extension of life past what looks so final, for all His children as well as for Jesus.
The disciples used whatever tools they had to explain that story. A story is told of the Norwegian pastor called into the Gestapo headquarters during World War II on the charge that he was defying the Nazi regime. Before the interrogation began, the Gestapo officer pulled his Luger pistol and placed it on the desk between himself and the pastor. The pastor reached into his briefcase, took out a Bible, and placed it on the desk beside the pistol. “Why did you do that?,” inquired the officer. The pastor replied, “You put your weapon on the table. I have simply placed mine there also.”
3. Because Jesus would be the judge of the living and the dead, they had the opportunity to live the story, to act the truth.
I remember reading a book many years ago titled Doing the Truth. Often, we think of only telling the truth. Yet we not only put the truth of God into words, we also put that truth into deeds.
Martin Marty has told how much one of his professors, Richard Cammerer, meant to him. Marty says that he was one of the four persons who most influenced his life. Cammerer had that kind of influence on several generations of students. When the professor died, one of his former students, speaking at the memorial service said, “We did not climb the stairs to Dr. Cammerer’s office to hear the answers, but to see them.” God does indeed wrap up character, moral strength, love, and truth into persons so that all the rest of us can see and understand more clearly His truth.
What others have been for us, we can be for others.
Peter’s sermon indicates so clearly the challenge before the early Christians — they were to tell the story, they were to explain the story, they were to live the story of Jesus Christ. There is an ancient legend which tells of Jesus meeting with the angel Gabriel one day in heaven. The angel asks Jesus how things went for Him down on earth. Jesus tells Gabriel about His ministry, His teachings, and about how persons misunderstood Him, how they finally killed Him in order to silence Him. Gabriel asks, “Well, what will happen now?” Jesus told him, “I have given the message to Peter, to James, to John, and to the others. I asked them to tell others; those in turn will tell others.” Gabriel, knowing the flaws of humans, questioned Jesus, “But, Lord, if Peter, James, John, and others do not tell the story which they have seen and heard, what then?” Jesus replied, “I have no other plan. I am counting on them.”
Jesus commands us to the same tasks which were given to that small band of disciples so long ago — to tell the story of Jesus, to explain the story of Jesus, to live daily that story. He commands us to that vital task which creates a new world for all mankind. (HCP)
Second Sunday After Epiphany
January 17, 1993
We Cater to Clutter
An ad in the classifieds read: “We cater to clutter. Dependable house, apartment or business cleaning,” followed by phone numbers. That ad could be the Church’s motto. We cater to clutter. We don’t cater to the perfect. We cater to those who need to be perfected. That’s our purpose. God takes the outcast, the imperfect, and through His divine love and grace, God perfects them. God transforms them.
God helps us clean up our lives by pruning and grafting until we are like Christ. That’s why Christ came; that’s why John the Baptist got so excited when he saw Jesus coming his way on the day this passage took place. You can hear his excitement as he sees Jesus coming toward him. “This is the one, folks! This is Him! This is the one I’ve been telling you about! I saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Him like a dove. I saw the heavens open up and I heard the voice of God say, ‘This is my beloved Son’.”
John had made a positive ID. You can almost hear John impatiently saying to the crowd, “Hey, don’t you hear what I’m saying? This man — this ordinary, carpenter-looking guy — is the Messiah, the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world.”
John’s role was to be the announcer, the herald of Christ. With his deep courage and conviction, John had convinced people that they were sinners. At the very same time, John realized that though he could convict the people of their sin, he could not remove their sin. All he could do was tell about the coming of the one who could and would remove both their sin and guilt.
John had waited a long time to make his announcement. And suddenly there He was. In unrestrained excitement John says, “Look, there He is now, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Down through the ages there has been a lot of theological argument and speculation over exactly how Jesus takes away the sin of the world. But if we get involved in the arguments of how, we can get bogged down. The how isn’t as important as the fact that through His death and resurrection the Son of God does take away the sin of the world. And that’s the Good News.
1. Be Honest About Guilt
When we hear the Good News, we begin to yearn deeply for the promised salvation but our lives are so filled with clutter. How do we come to know the forgiveness that Christ offers? How do we let Christ take away our sin? The first thing we have to do is to take responsibility for our lives and for our actions.
There’s an old story about a certain king who decided to go into the dungeons to see the prisoners. As he passed the different cells, he asked what their offenses were. Almost every one claimed he was innocent. They blamed circumstances, they blamed somebody else or they accused the judge of being bribed. One young man, though, spoke out, “Sire,” he said, “I deserve to be here. I’m guilty. No one is at fault but me.”
Hearing this, the king started shouting, “Guards! Guards! Get this scoundrel out of here! What’s he doing here anyway? Get him out of here at once! I don’t want him corrupting all these honest, innocent men.”
The key to that young man’s freedom was the admission of his guilt. And that’s the key to our forgiveness: we have to admit that we are sinners. We have to admit that we clutter up our lives and our faith by not doing God’s will. That clutter keeps us weighted down and burdened but when we admit our sinfulness, then through faith in Christ, that clutter can be cleaned up.
2. Be Transformed
It’s not enough to say “I’m sorry!” Forgiveness demands change. It demands that we allow God to transform our lives. God makes us clean. It is our job to remain open to God so that we might remain clean. We have to be transformed by our forgiveness. Repentance means turning our back on sin and letting Christ clean out the clutter.
An old painting was removed from a barn that had partially burned. The painting was offered at an auction. It was so dirty and grimy that nobody paid much attention to it except for one man. He examined the painting carefully and offered a modest opening bid which was accepted because nobody bid against him. Months later that same painting was the main attraction at a prestigious art exhibit.
What happened? The man was a skilled craftsman who had removed the smoke and the dirt from the surface of that painting. In the process, the original colors were restored and brought glory to both the original artist and the one who redeemed the painting.
God can cleanse our souls and remove the stain of sin and the clutter of our lives. Our lives can be transformed. The challenge is to accept the transforming power of Christ by taking responsibility for our own lives, by acknowledging our own sinfulness, and by accepting Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. Let Christ clear the clutter in your life. (BDS)
Third Sunday After Epiphany
January 24, 1993
Leaving Your Nets Behind
What does it mean when we say “good-bye”? It can be a good thing — the commercials tell us to “say good-bye to those unwanted pounds.” I’ll best just a few weeks ago, as the new year was approaching, many people were happy to say “good-bye” to 1992 and the difficult times they may have faced last year. Good-byes can be good.
But good-byes can be sad as well. Mom and Dad take their youngest child away to college and drive home alone. Family gathers around the bedside of one who is nearing death. Tough good-byes.
Just because Matthew describes the event in very few words, don’t think it wasn’t tough for Peter and Andrew, James and John, to say good-bye and begin a new life with Jesus that day. It was a monumental decision — not unlike the decision some of you will face today, as you decide what to do about Jesus. What kind of good-bye will you say today?
1. Following Christ Means Saying Good-Bye to Old Behaviors
Being a fisherman has never been the most genteel of occupations, and there’s no reason to suspect these men were any different than the norm. We have that image of Peter as a rough-and-tumble guy, but there’s no reason to think the other three were much different.
So when Jesus challenged them to repent (v. 17), He was confronting them with the need to say good-bye to some old patterns of behavior so that He could begin reshaping their lives.
Repentance literally means to turn and go in a new direction. That same call of Christ confronts us: are we willing to let Him change our lives?
2. Following Christ Means Saying Good-Bye to Old Priorities
Every day they had taken to the boats to fish. It was the family business; it was their livelihood. What could be more important?
Then Jesus stood before them and offered them the chance of a lifetime — but it would require a transformation of priorities. They would be leaving behind what had been at the center of their lives for so many years.
Perhaps for you following Christ won’t mean changing professions — but what if it did? He demands that He be the ultimate priority in our lives.
Are you willing to say good-byes in order to let Christ bring a new beginning to your life? (JMD)
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
January 31, 1993
What’s the Rush?
(1 Corinthians 13:4a)
I’ll never forget Earl the Pearl. And I’ll never forget Pearl who was a lot like Earl. We met ten years ago in Kansas City. Though Earl walked around with this fire-tongued-red-faced-with-unresolved-anger-ruin-your-day look painted on his face, Pearl was one of those sweet-talking passive aggressives with a smile as thin as the veneer on an elementary school desk to distract you from her stab-you-in-the-back relational skills.
Whew! That was a mouthful. And so was Pearl.
I’ll never forget the day she walked past my secretary, sat down on the edge of a chair next to my desk, crossed her legs, placed her neatly folded hands on her lap, looked up and away from eye con-tact, and said, “I don’t like your beard.” I wanted to reply, “Your mama!” Fortunately, I didn’t. But I did think it was a rather odd way to start a conversation. And though my mind raced through many inappropriate ways to respond, I did the pastoral thing. I repeated what she said: “I hear you saying you don’t like my beard.”
Eventually, we got around to why she didn’t like it. It seems her son had a beard and she had a bad relationship with her son which she was transferring to me. She said she couldn’t stand looking at me in worship because I reminded her of her son. She said my beard was ruining the worship service for her. Though I now know what she really needed was to think about her son and that my beard wasn’t really the issue, I said something I grew to regret: “If it makes you happy and will help you to worship, I’ll shave it off. If that’s what you really want, I’ll do it. God forbid that I should get in the way of your worship.” What a dumb move on my part. She took me up on the offer.
The very next Sunday as she made her way to greet me, I just knew she was going to thank me for what I had done for her. I just knew she would recognize the sacrifice I had made in parting with any of the hair that will grow on my head. She took my hand, held it tightly between both of her hands, looked me soulfully in the eyes, and said without shame or sympathy, “Now about your moustache.”
I learned two things from that moment. First, I learned never to seek affirmation for my beard. Second, and this was the really important lesson, I learned there are times when you can’t win.
As I read the Bible and look to the example of Jesus as the perfect pattern for life and ministry, I have discovered we aren’t called to win. We are called to love. Sometimes love includes winning. Sometimes love includes an extra mile, other cheek, or even a cross. God knows it can include a cross. Loving like Jesus doesn’t mean we have to change the color of our hair or the way we dress or the car we drive or any of the other things so spiritually insignificant to the health of the Kingdom.
And when people like Pearl and Earl drop by and don’t make your day, loving like Jesus includes patience. “Love is patient,” our Lord inspired Paul to write to His Church.
God knows it’s tough to be patient. It’s not too hard to imagine how our Lord’s children have tested the limits of His patience. And in this hurry-up-and-wait-flushed-rushed-and-razzle-dazzled world of ours, patience is an unavoidable as well as necessary virtue.
The patient part of love Paul was talking about in this text has more to do with the problem people in our lives. Christians offer patience to the Earls and Pearls and problem people who cross their paths. I think of it as counting-to-ten theology.
J. B. Phillips translated this text, “This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience.” Specifically, it means Christians don’t rush into resentment or revenge in response to the Earls, Pearls, and problem people in their lives. That’s why I call it counting-to-ten theology. Instead of rushing to get even or get ahead or get over or get rid of, Christians chill out. Christians incarnate prolonged restraint.
Late 4th- and 5th-century preacher Chrysostom explained, “It is a word which is used of the man who is wronged and who has it easily in his power to avenge himself but will never do it.” Christians are actively patient with the Earls, the Pearls, and problem people in their lives.
It means to refrain from rushing into a response to the Earls, Pearls, and problem people of this world. Permit me to put it another way. Choose your battles wisely! The Kingdom of God does not rise or fall on too many of the things which provoke us. The Kingdom of God does not rise or fall on carpet color, the great grape juice versus red wine debate, the hymnbook we use, the volume of the organ, the length or order of the service, or so many other things which stir the spirit. Can you imagine meeting our Lord face to face and asking, “What color carpet do You think is best for our sanctuary? Which hymnbook do You prefer?
The Kingdom of God rises or falls on Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God moves along at a faster pace when those who love Him love like Him.
Earls and Pearls cause problems because they have problems. They are suffering. They hurt. And though it’s sick and wrong, they often cause problems as a way of crying out for help.
I am reminded of the woman from somewhere in North Carolina or Virginia who called me after hearing a sermon I had preached over the radio about the prodigal son. She began dumping on me in a major way: “I really hated your sermon. You don’t know anything about the prodigal son. The older brother was the real hero of the story. He’s the only one who really tried to please his father. That younger brother was good for nothing and should have been kicked out of the family for good.” As I tried to explain the themes of grace, mercy, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption in the parable, she kept telling me how awful I was as a preacher, pastor, and person.
At this point, I should say she wasn’t a member of the church. I had never met her. So I was really tempted to tell her what she could do with her feelings about me. I didn’t. And as I look back and consider how I wanted to let her have it, I realize it was the Holy Spirit who tied my tongue.
After a few minutes that seemed like hours, it hit me: I was talking to the older brother of the parable. So I asked, “Excuse me, but do you have a younger brother or sister who reminds you of the prodigal son?” She burst into tears. And then I began to talk to her about grace, mercy, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption in very real ways. Holy Spirit inspired patience permitted me to be a pastor to that terribly-provoked-because-she-was-suffering person.
Over the years, I have learned to pay very little attention to the first things people say — especially when those things are said in anger. I’ve learned to wait for the second things. It’s usually what a person says second that is really the meat of the matter. And I’ve learned I’m not responsible for what others say and do but I am responsible for how I react to what others say and do. I’ve learned our Lord loves Earls and Pearls and problem people no more and no less than He loves you and me.(RRK)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI; Robert R. Kopp. Pastor, Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, PA; Billy D. Strayhorn, Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Groesbeck, TX; Harold C. Perdue, Development Officer, Texas Methodist Foundation, Round Rock, TX; and Michael Duduit, Editor of Preaching.
Second Sunday of Advent