Hope…next year, things will be different
The way Eugene Peterson translates this passage of Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome it seems like he is writing it to us in 2010. We are relentlessly blasted with consumerism, Christmas music, and schedules this time of year in one ear and in the other we hear “remember the reason for the season” and keep Christ in Christmas in the other. There is a feeling that if we give into society even a little bit somehow we are a little dirty and less Christian. It is a constant battle as the consumerist world and the Christian culture pulls us in opposite directions.
There is a tendency out there to put up the culture and Christianity up butting heads during this season. I am sure there will be news stories about the War on Christmas. How saying “Happy Holidays” somehow puts Jesus back in Mary’s womb or if you write Xmas you are taking Christ out of Christmas. (but if you remember one of my sermons last year X is the Greek shorthand for Jesus, so Xmas doesn’t take Christ out at all) There is this societal tension and what do we do with it. This Advent though I hope we can do something a little different. What I would love is that we find God at work in our world. Instead of looking at the world around us and shaking our finger at it, what would happen if we looked at it and saw what God was doing instead?
Today is the first Sunday of the Christian year. We start off each year looking towards Christ’s second coming, his second Advent on this first Sunday of the Advent season. We also light the first Advent candle, the candle of Hope. Hope is always a great place to start something new because hope is something that looks to the future with optimism. Hope is a feeling that what is wanted can be had and that is great picture of what Advent is all about. We have hope that one day Jesus will come back again and make everything right. We have hope that the way it is, is not how it is supposed to be. We have hope that no matter what life throws at us, we know the end result, we know who wins. Today we light the candle of hope because it is hope that burns in our souls and gives us strength to get through today to see what tomorrow brings.
I cannot imagine what went through Purity’s mind as she laid her father to rest at age 10 and then her mother at age 14. She not only had to take care of herself but now she was the provider for two younger siblings and her older brother who has a mental disability. 14 years old. There is no social service safety net in Kenya. It is not like here where these children would then be cared for by a Children’s Home or foster parents. It is a life and death situation. Either she learns how to take care of her family or they all die. How many of us had to make that type of decision and change in our lives at the age of 14?
At the age of 15, on the other side of the world, Amanda walked into her minister’s office and announced that she was going to go to Africa and work with orphans over there for the summer. Both her parents and her pastor were hesitant. How many of us would send our 15 year old to a African country for two months? She debated this calling she had with her father every night at the dinner table for months. Amanda recounted how she convinced her father to let her go, “I told him that he may be my earthly father, but my heavenly father was telling me to go.” He did what almost every parent does, he told her, if your mother says it fine, then you can go. She said yes and at the age of 15 Amanda headed across the world to be with orphaned children in Africa.
Her passion inspired her minister, Greg Jenks. Soon after Amanda’s trip Greg was stirred by God himself to start the ZOE Ministry. ZOE, the Greek word for “life,” initially stood for Zimbabwe Orphans Endeavor, the country where ZOE’s work began. In early 2004, Greg led a ZOE team to Zimbabwe to hear firsthand from United Methodist sister churches and schools how ZOE might best partner with them to alleviate suffering among children who were orphaned by the AIDS crisis. Today, thousands of people have helped meet the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, and Rwanda through the work of ZOE Ministry. Purity, the girl in the video, was helped by this ministry and is alive today because of the work people have done through this ministry in our own state. They provide a lot for the orphans of Africa but the gift of hope is the most precious of all.
Hope is not passive though it is an active state of mind. Those who have hope do not sit around and simply wait, their hope in the future pushes them out to share that with everyone they meet. It moves them into action when the opposite of hope, fear, paralyzes people. Fear makes movement hard because of the unknown and worries about the future. Hope gives us the ability to keep moving into a future that is promised. In a classic hymn we sing these words, “My hope is build on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
Advent can be a time of sinking sand. We are trapped by what one commentary writes “the tyranny of time.” I think that is a great way of describing this time of year. Time takes a hold of us and consumes us. There are only 26 days and 12 and a half hours left to get everything read before Christmas. That means there are only 26 and a half days to shop, cook, decorate, party, wrap, shop for what your forgot the first time you went shopping, cook some more, and then attend church once in a while, if there’s time. In October I looked at my calendar for December and it was already ¾ full. There were no weekends free. I had something to do every Saturday and Sunday. Time can strangle us if we are not careful and we will give into it over and over again. Over and over again I hear people say, “I’m so busy.” We never seem to have time these days and I have never met anyone who looks at December and says, “ah, that is a month full of down time and peace and quiet.”
During these cold mornings there is nothing better than warm sheets wrapping you up as you awake to the day. Cold mornings are some of the best mornings to stay in bed. In bed you are warm and comfortable but once you throw back those sheets the cool air rudely tickles your skin and slaps you in the face. Yet we cannot stay in bed forever. I know people who would love to but we can’t. At some point we have to throw back the sheets and wake up.
Paul is telling us to do that in this letter to the Romans. He says, “Get out of bed and get dressed! Don't loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute.” Paul wants us up and about ready to experience what God is doing. He tells us, “But make sure that you don't get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God.”
John Wesley talks about three graces in his theology; prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. Another way of thinking about them is preparing grace, accepting grace, and sustaining grace. What Paul is calling us to be aware of is prevenient grace around us. Prevenient or preparing grace is the work God does before we get there. It is the puzzle pieces we cannot see until we get there and can look back. We, as Methodists, believe God is at work in the world right now and preparing people to move into a relationship with him. When people tell their stories of salvation they may speak of moments when people talked to them about God but they pushed it away. Or stories of people who impressed them with their actions towards others that later they learned they did it because they believed in Jesus. Those moments, those events that happen before are moments of prevenient grace.
Paul tells us to get out of bed, get dressed in Christ and be about. Paul thought Jesus was coming back in his lifetime so there is a sense of urgency in this passage. Jesus could come back at any moment so we need to be out there doing God’s work right now. We don’t want to be caught in bed with the covers pulled up tight because we are sacred of the cool air on the outside. We need to “be up and awake to what God is doing.” We need to be looking at our world and seeing where God is at work. We need to understand what God is doing and do our part to help.
In the church newsletter I am encouraging everyone to start a ‘fridge journal’. You can use the Advent Devotion or simply a piece of paper on your refrigerator. It doesn’t matter what you write on the point is this. During the Advent season I want you to jot down “God moments.” Write down moments when you see God in our everyday life. When you notice that God is at work in the people around us. Maybe it is the amount of people helping with luminaries at Holly Hills. Or the face of a person who gets excited about a toy they bought at our Toy Sale. Or the face of the person you feed at CCM. Or the person who smiled at you in the checkout line, gave up their parking space, or held the door at the mall for the elderly couple. I am encouraging you to be awake to God at work in our lives. We intentionally do something during the season of Lent to get ready of Easter, but in everything we do in Advent are we truly ready for Christmas?
Purity knows God is at work. She invited others to her Christmas dinner to share what God has given her. She is only 18 years old. When we get dressed in Christ we put on his eyes to see the world. Then we can see stories like Purity’s and know it is God at work. When we are dressed in Christ we don’t get swallowed up by the tyranny of time but we can stop, slow down time for a second, and take in what God is doing in this world. The gift of prevenient grace is acknowledging God’s active work in the world. When we see that active work something starts to grow in our hearts. Something warm starts to sustain us from the inside out. That something…is hope.
And all God’s people said…Amen.