12.15.2013 Preaching Text: “[The] blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:5
Let’s face it, you and I are burdened by many things. Why? Because we’re human.
As humans, we have been placed on this earth with remarkable gifts, talents and responsibilities. We have minds that are capable of remarkable achievement. Think of computers, space exploration, and medical advancements, to name but a few. We are capable of a high level of reasoning and our imaginations can conceive and articulate whole new worlds. Adding to the mix, we also possess a remarkable degree of freedom to employ all these things!
Throughout our lives we are presented with countless situations that require action. In each case, we must choose what we are going to do, and how.
Closely related to all this, we also possess willpower. In fact, we have an inordinate ability to will all kinds of things into being.
Throughout our lives, from early on, we make choices that impact not only ourselves but others. Some of those decisions bring about happiness and goodness. But others, as we know, have the opposite effect.
To live, in other words, is to make mistakes through the misapplication of our human, God-given powers. There’s no way to avoid it. The question, though, is what we do with the ill-effects of these bad decisions and actions.
During this season of Advent, we are asked to consider our lives the way God does. That may sound strange, but isn’t it the case that the observations of family and friends, even strangers, often surprise us? For the way we see ourselves is largely colored by our own subjective perceptions.
Perceiving ourselves objectively, as others see us (and as God sees us), is especially difficult. After all, we’re born completely self-centered.
Psychologists tell us that newborn babies see everything around them as part of themselves. As a mother leans in to kiss her newborn child, the child interprets the mother and her actions as an extension of himself or herself. Only later, especially after we learn the word “no,” do we begin to distinguish the world as separate from ourselves.
We are born, in other words, seeing everything from our point of view. The world orbits around us; it has no independent reality of its own. Only later do we begin to see ourselves as just one part of a larger whole.
Distinguishing ourselves this way, of course, is a lifelong project, one which doesn’t end when we become adults. When we add God to the mix, the Unseen Presence, things get even more complicated. For not only must we come to terms with our place within the world and people we see, but with the God we can’t see. We learn by fits and starts how we fit into God’s plan for our life.
In Advent, the liturgical year invites us to encounter this, God’s truth, the truth about us and our world. Needless to say, this is not a natural thing to do. We are used to seeing things our way – and defining the world our way. We don’t take kindly to the suggestion that there is a better way, or that our way is inadequate, much less wrong!
Throughout my entire ministry I’ve challenged the notion that admitting our shortcomings is “negative.” Instead I’ve argued that confessing our shortcomings is a positive thing, as counterintuitive as that might seem.
In general our culture teaches just the opposite. In times of stress or difficulty, we’re encouraged to think positively, keeping a smile ever on our faces. To admit any failure or wrongdoing is to invite an unwanted avalanche of negative thoughts and feelings about which we can do nothing.
Of course there are those times when our culture’s advice makes sense. Over the last few months my mother and Mildred Davidson have become “pen-pals” of sorts. Each is struggling with uncomfortable physical limitations and each has had to face the kinds of hardships only those going through such a situation can appreciate and understand.
In her most recent communiqué to my mother, Mildred sent along an adage, the specific wording of which I can’t remember. But the essence of it was this, “Courage is being afraid without other people knowing it.”
There is something to this. Facing adversity with courage and determination is not only good, it’s noble. We’ve all experienced situations where we’ve had to face adversity with this same grit and determination, situations where we’ve had to act. Only later do we have the “luxury” of deconstructing, or analyzing, what has taken place.
But that’s not the sort of thing I’m talking about. Rather, I mean those times when our thoughts, words or deeds have caused problems for ourselves or others, things for which our souls require forgiveness.
In a grief recovery video I’ve told you about before, the convener, a pastoral counselor, likens what he calls grief-work to removing clutter from a blocked river. Grief, he points out, can block the flow of life from deep within, something akin to twigs, branches and limbs that collect in a river and eventually block the flow of its waters. In doing grief-work, we effectively unblock the impediments to the free flow of the river of life.
When the channels of grace are blocked, our ability to experience joy is markedly diminished. This, alas, occurs whether we’re aware of it or not. True, we can deny it’s happening, we can put on a smile and get busy, but our ability to experience life’s joy remains weakened, even if subconsciously.
Simply put, the way we’re made is that all actions have consequences. And harmful actions require a remedy, which is forgiveness.
God, in Christ, offers precisely this, mercy, forgiveness, and renewed joy. All we need do is accept his gracious invitation. More generally, it’s not God’s intent to punish; it’s that we deny God the opportunity to take our burdens from us!
Jesus, later in the 11th chapter of Matthew, offers words simple yet profound, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This forms the essence of the Christian life to which each of us has been called. It is glorious – and promises great joy.
We have been told time and again that the basis of Christian life is faith. And while this is true, I’ve always found the word ‘trust’ more descriptive. For words like ‘faith’ and ‘belief,’ while valid, imply mere intellectual assent to a set of prescribed doctrines.
Instead, trust implies the relational aspect of Christianity, which is at its core. We are called upon not primarily to believe in a set of doctrines but in the existential reality of God’s personhood. We worship and follow not a set of beliefs but a living being with whom we have entered into a personal and life-changing relationship.
If we would but trust God to take our burdens from us, to direct us and lead us, how different our lives would be. And that is the message of Advent, that we might trust…and live. Amen.