Rev Julie Lees
December 17 2017
Based on: Isaiah 64: 1-4, 8-11 and 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
Prayer: Holy One, be with us as we listen for your voice in our hearts and your message for our lives. Amen.
At school when I speak with inquirers about discerning a call to ministry or some form of theological education, I sometimes joke with them that “God’s going to get you in the end.”
And what I mean is that God is a constant in the world, God’s path is a way of love and justice, righteousness and hope, peace and fairness always open to us. God is always there. It’s us who lose track of God. Sometimes we ignore the presence of God in our lives because we know deep down that if we acknowledge God’s presence we’re going to be asked to do something that might be too hard or will take us away from the life plan we have crafted for ourselves.
God’s way can be too challenging at times. It can mean sacrifice, hardship, persecution, aloneness. Just look at our example – Jesus was alone in the desert, heckled by bystanders, often spoke in ways very few understood, and was hung on a cross to die.
Jesus lived God’s way.
So … yeah … God’s way can be pretty challenging, and bigger than we could imagine. No wonder we turn away. The ask is too big!
But … like I say to inquirers – God’s going to get you in the end, so you might as well say yes now.
As was mentioned earlier, in the pattern of Advent Sundays today is JOY!
Great introduction, eh? – persecution, sacrifice. Weeeeee.
Instead of “Yay, be happy. Sing a carol, wrap a present” we hear “God’s way is challenging – you could die!”
Gee, thanks a lot, Julie. Glad I got out of bed for this.
The good news is that JOY is bigger than HAPPY; weightier. I think about this kind of joy like the snow under a toboggan – it’s always there underneath us. We might wipe out, we might slide down in sheer glee, we might get stuck halfway down the hill … but joy remains underneath, grounding us, being present with us on the entire journey.
The biblical meaning of joy is a sense of well being knowing of God and God’s actions of love. Joy isn’t the denial of grief, joy is the affirmation that through grief, sorrow, depression, or anger … through it all … God is present and Love is with us.
This is a definition of joy we can get behind, even if we aren’t feeling happy. Because this definition of joy carries us through.
And, it’s this kind of joy that surfaces when we let God get us. When we finally tear down our walls of protection and defensiveness, when we let go of our illusions of power and success; when we finally say “okay, God, I’m tired of building these facades, I’m ready to be used in whatever way you see fit for my life. Lead me and I will follow.”
God is going to get us in the end.
Today’s scripture passages feed into not only this definition of joy, but also of following in God’s way. The Isaiah passage talks of binding up the broken hearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, releasing the prisoners; it even suggests this is like the year of the Lord’s favour – the jubilee – where everything is brought back to its beginning state: all debts are wiped clean, the land is returned to its original owner, fields are allowed to rest, and captives are freed.
And the letter to the Thessalonians is the same – bursting at the seams with joy and highlighting a people walking in God’s way. Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, and scholars say this is probably the oldest letter in the New Testament. Paul writes it from Corinth back to this group of people he is so fond of and misses terribly. It is an affirming and hope-filled letter.
One of the commentators expertly divides this short part of the letter into three: all life is worship, all life is discernment and we are called to lives of holiness.
“Rejoice! Pray! Give thanks” the letter says. And do this all the time. Put God in every part of life. Let’s not divide our lives into acceptable God pieces and non-acceptable God pieces. Our whole life is worship – the good deeds we do and the judgmental thoughts we have. Since we can’t hide from God we might as well whole-heartedly say yes all the time – even when we’re not being ‘godly.’ Life is worship.
Life is discernment. “Do not quench the spirit,” Paul says. We can’t control the movement of the Holy in our lives – we can only deny or accept God’s presence in all we do.
I challenge us all this week to notice a moment when we are conscious of God’s presence. Then discern to step into it – to follow God’s way wherever we are led instead of discerning to ignore God because it doesn’t fit into our schedule.
Maybe it’s something small like answering the phone instead of swiping it to voice mail. Maybe it’s a little bigger like writing a letter to the city to support modular housing for the homeless instead of waiting for someone else to do it. Maybe it’s even bigger than that. Discern a YES to God’s presence this week and see where it takes you.
We are called to lives of holiness. If God’s going to get us in the end, then we might as well re-orient ourselves to a whole life in Christ now; which brings us back to our theme for all of Advent – how do we get ourselves ready for this? To live at the ready for Christ’s return?
Eugene Peterson says “the way we conceive the future sculpts the present, it gives contour and tone to nearly every action and thought through our day. If our sense of the future is weak, we live listlessly.”
What if our sense of the future is that Christ will show up so drastically we won’t be able to ignore it?
We can’t mark on our calendar when Jesus will show up. He’s not calling ahead.
So, how do we get ourselves ready? Well, I hate to disappoint you … I don’t have the answer. But, scripture offers a theory – and that is this notion of righteousness. I have tried to avoid this word like the plague since I entered ministry. It’s such a big word. And how do we even start to separate it from what we think of today: self-righteousness?
We all know some self-righteous people, right? Folks who know they’re living well, are favoured by God for all the good they do; and can’t help but tell us how good they are? Ugh. We run the other way when we see them coming, don’t we?
Well, three times in the Isaiah passage there is talk of righteousness. It talks of those who mourn as oaks of righteousness; it talks of being covered by God with a robe of righteousness; and it says God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
The word righteousness is about being righted. Righted to God’s way, righted in God’s way. A great gift to this United Church, former moderator Peter Short, says “righteousness has to do with being righted in our relationship with the Creator so that we can fulfill our purpose, our work, and our destiny in living.”
This takes us back to the beginning – God’s way is a constant in our lives. It’s us who ignore God in our feeble attempts to keep God from messing up our life plan.
Theologian Douglas Hall talks of righteousness as being righted for our purpose/vocation in God’s world.
Righteousness is about authenticity, not being right. It’s about right relationships not winners and losers.
Being righted in God’s love and being righted to God’s way don’t happen in isolation. Right relationship by definition involves other people. It’s only through relationship – with God and each other – that we learn who we are and what we are for.
Paul is writing to a community in Thessalonica, not a bunch of individuals. And, the new world opening up in Isaiah is a whole people effort – those being oppressed and those oppressing. Everyone will grow and change and learn how to be with each other as the world is righted once more.
“They shall build up ancient ruins,” says the Isaiah passage. “Their descendents shall be known.” God’s covenant is with “them.” And who are “they” who are being saved? They are the oppressed, the broken hearted, the prisoners, the people who ended up powerless by economic pressures and powers.
Are we – living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada they? Are we – car owners and bus takers –they? Are we – home owners and apartment renters –they? Are we – eating one to five meals a day –they?
Maybe. Definitely some of the time. We all experience brokenness or oppression some of the time. But sometimes we are the ones holding the power – if not consciously then simply by the privilege of our geography and standard of living.
In the short time I’ve been with you, I’m aware of Knox’s desired direction – your desire to be missional, to be a place of justice. Well, this is a path of righteousness.
When the oppressed have been freed and the broken hearted made whole righteousness will spring up before all the nations, says Isaiah.
When mission isn’t something we do but someone we are then we cannot help but be in relationship with another. And when we are in relationship with another we are open to change. And, when we are open to change we have the potential of getting closer to our purpose. And the closer we get to our purpose the more authentic we are; and the more authentic we are the more righteous. And the more righteous well the more we are following in God’s way.
You see? God’s going to get you in the end.
As Paul says, rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances. When this is our practice we will be covered by God with a robe of righteousness.
Friends, this is not living listlessly. This is future oriented – and we are ready to let God get us.
Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.