Sermon: New Occasions
05.25.2015 Preaching Text: “You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:27)
The place has been under bad management, to put it mildly. What place? Earth. Under whose management? Satan’s.
That, in a nutshell, is how those in biblical times understood “the present age” in which they were living. Originally made good and designed to reflect divine glory in all its aspects, creation had been overtaken by a malevolent, anti-human force.
Such a scenario is found in virtually every fairy tale. They begin with a happy premise that’s suddenly and unexpectedly jeopardized by a serious outside threat. Ultimately, through heroic effort, the dark threat is defeated and life restored to its original happy state, such that our erstwhile protagonists live “happily ever after.”
At the time of the first Pentecost, things looked grim for the Jewish people. Jahweh’s promises seemed faint as successive waves of foreign interlopers cast an ever darkening shadow over the nation (and world). It was as if the forces of godlessness had won outright.
Then out of nowhere a heroic savior appears, functioning like an invading army storming the beaches of Normandy. After a horrific battle (Jesus’ death and resurrection) the forces of good have successfully established a beachhead; the church is born. The Holy Spirit has come and rescued an oppressed people, offering a long-forgotten vision of life as it ought to be, as intended at inception by its Creator.
Though the battle is won, those possessing the Holy Spirit must bring this message of victory and salvation to a world still suffering under the effects of the Enemy’s malevolent mismanagement.
One of my professors at divinity school likened this to two warring parties who have sat down at table and signed an armistice. But those out in the far-flung fields have yet to receive the word to lay down their arms in peace. So the war rages on.
But there’s a twist. The victorious party has given the combatants a limited time to cease hostilities and receive the blessings of peace. For, unannounced, sometime in the unknown future, the victor shall return and a final judgment shall be made.
As you know, the Book of Acts has been referred to as the “acts of the apostles.” It has also been referred to as the “acts of the Holy Spirit.”
The book, in effect, chronicles the movement of God’s “go-betweens,” the church, from its original place of victory (the beachhead of Jerusalem) out into the rest of the world. Its purpose? To announce that the war between good and evil, life and death, has now ended.
More than that, its mission is to announce this as the Good News, as an opportunity to be rescued from the sinfulness of this world as well as the wrath to come, when every vestige of evil shall be destroyed once and for all, and life restored to its purest state (here all shall live “happily ever after”).
Of course, we today generally consider this as a bit primitive, if not uncouth. But to any child who knows the inherent truth of fairy tales, the Gospel presents the best possible outcome – that the forces of darkness are defeated and goodness fully restored.
This applies as well to all who live under suffering and oppression. To hope that the forces of good will come to the rescue and defeat the forces of oppression is, simply put, a ‘no-brainer.’
Part of the challenge of proclaiming this new, though timeless, message is how it counters the world’s settled way of being. For it only stands to reason that people living within a badly managed environment will have developed its insidious habits and counterfeit beliefs.
More than that, each age presents a different set of challenges with its own set of resistances. Thus in each age the church is required to present godly sensibilities and habits to a world that, in varying degrees, knows neither.
In 1847, the American poet, James Russell Lowell, penned these famous words, intended as call for all Christians to take a stand against war with Mexico. The poem is called Once to Every Man and Nation and was later set to music as a hymn:
Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side,
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
Its third verse contains these compelling words: “New occasions teach new duties; Ancient values test our youth…”
Here the church rediscovers its ancient task of discerning the signs of the times in order to effect God’s timeless truth. We are the Holy Spirit’s heart and hands in this unique time and place. We are the heirs of those first recipients of the Spirit two millennia ago, charged with bringing the same Good News to a mismanaged world while presenting a different, godly way of being that stands in contrast with the deformed habits that too often pass for wisdom.
The lines in Lowell’s poem speak of defending truth when falsehood is ascendant. That they were written in 1845 illustrates how history tends to, if not precisely repeat itself, then to follow very similar recurring themes.
Today we have entered a period in our history when we are reexamining our national character and considering what kind of nation we wish to be. The presence of falsehood – in the form of distorted moral values and dishonest political ideas – is very much a factor in our decision making today.
It is appropriate, then, to post Lowell’s heartfelt lines on Memorial Day weekend, when we honor patriots who sacrificed much to keep our nation free from evil and harm.
They fought — and in many cases, died — not to deter progress, but to fend off those forces which would have compelled change inimical to our essence as a people, and to retain for us the liberty to make choices free from unnatural and corrupt influences.
Thus, as the church born of the Holy Spirit, we are called to face the moral and spiritual struggles of our day, discerning rightly what God would have us know while seeking to live and love and act in righteous accord. Amen.