Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Life That Is Waiting

The Life That Is Waiting
Matthew 4:18-22
            The English novelist E.M. Forster said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey tells Mary Hatch (his future wife) that he has his whole life planned.  He knows what he’s going to do in a year, in five years, and as far down his life’s pathway as he can see.  His future is set in stone—only it isn’t.  The main theme of the film is George Bailey coming to grips with the fact that nothing he has planned for himself happens.  He never leaves the small town in which he was born.  Not until the end of the film, with the intervention of a rather unusual guardian angel, does he see how successful his life has been—not the life he planned, but the one that was waiting for him.
            George Bailey fights desperately to live his life-plan until he realized its impossibility.  Events conspire to undermine his dreams and ruin his chance at what he sees as success.  Another character, the miserable old wretch, Mr. Potter, accuses George of being a miserable young wretch—and it’s true.  George wants so desperately to shake the dust of Bedford Falls from his feet and accomplish great things that he can’t settle for the life to which he is called.  It takes an act of God for him to see that the life he has built while he was looking elsewhere is far more successful than even his wildest plans and dreams.
            Contrast George Bailey with the first disciples Jesus called.  Simon Peter and his brother Andrew were mending their fishing nets.  They had been out all night fishing, and, as usual, there were holes in the nets where they had snagged on rocks and other obstacles.  I can’t imagine this task was much fun, but it was part of the job.  Otherwise the holes would grow larger and fish would be lost. 
            Jesus walked by and said, “Follow me.”  Matthew tells us they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus.  No stopping to think about the life they had planned for themselves, or for family obligations.  Jesus called and they went.
            Jesus wasn’t through.  A little farther along the shore he saw two more brothers, James and John.  He issued the same call to them.  Like their fellow fishermen they immediately left their nets and joined the group.
            What makes this story so remarkable is the culture in which it is set.  This was a time and place when tradition and society expected a man to follow the profession of his father.  The sons of carpenters became carpenters.  The sons of priests became priests.  The sons of fishermen became fishermen.  Sons were supposed to stay close to home, as it was their responsibility to care for their parents when the time came that the older generation could no longer work.  In spite of the demands of society, when Jesus called they followed him into the life that was waiting for them.
            Charles Dubois predated Forster with a similar thought.  He said, “The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”  John the Baptist responded to this call, as did Jesus—as did Peter and Andrew, James and John.  Years later, Saul heard the same call, and even changed his name to pursue the life that was waiting for him.
            The same call sounds for us today.  God is calling us to leave behind our elaborate plans, all that we think will make us successful, and lead the life that is waiting for us. 
            How will we answer?
How quickly will we follow?

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Changing the World

Changing the World
Acts 2:36-47
            This is Christianity’s version of the Big Bang.  The disciples’ pent-up energy resulting from the resurrection and their time with Jesus afterward exploded with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They burst from the upper room like a football team after a rousing half-time speech, and attacked Jerusalem voraciously.  They were hungry to spread the good news which filled them to overflowing.  Three thousand converts the first day, “and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
            What happened?  If Christianity had continued at that pace there would not be one person left on this planet who had not accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and his church as their spiritual home.  What happened to that enthusiasm?  What happened to the forward motion?  Why are there still so many who have not heard the gospel, let alone accept it?
            There are many answers.  I want to look at a few of the most obvious. 
First, the spiritual big bang of Christianity behaved the same as the Big Bang that started the universe.  (Full disclosure:  I accept the Big Bang theory of creation with one caveat:  I believe God created the bang.)  Scientists tell us that the universe is continuing to expand, but the rate of expansion seems to be slowing.  They also believe that at some future time the universe will begin to contract, but that’s another blog for another time.
The first millisecond generated the vast majority of the energy of the entire process.  In other words, the rate of expansion had to diminish because it was impossible to keep up that level of intensity.  The same is true of Christianity’s big bang.  The level of energy generated on Pentecost and in the months and years immediately afterward was impossible to sustain.
Second, Christianity moved slowly but surely from being an outsider to being an insider.  The church went from lean and hungry to fat and happy.  This is what led to the Reformation.  It’s what continues to produce new churches, new denominations, and new ways of looking at the gospel.  Sometimes the lean and hungry outsiders split from the contented denomination to form a new group.  Sometimes the lean and hungry are powerful enough to reform the denomination from within.  Either way, a mini-big bang produces a new burst of energy—which eventually slows down as that group becomes content with its own status quo.  Unfortunately, large swaths of the Christian Church have stopped singing Onward Christian Soldiers and other hymns which define an energetic, lean and hungry movement.
Third, we can say that the early converts were the “low-hanging fruit,” the easy ones to reach.  When the major opposition to Christianity was a paganism which has long since disappeared, we might question how potent that paganism was as a religious force.  Yes, there were those who followed a particular god or goddess with enthusiasm—the Ephesians worship of Diana for example, which made things difficult for Paul.  But paganism could not hold out against Christianity the way other religions have, some of which have been in existence as long or longer than Christianity.  Many of these religions have strong ethical and moral components which can make them seem equal—and in some cases, superior—to Christianity.
Perhaps the church is still moving forward, but moving differently.  Perhaps the movement—glacial as compared to the post-Pentecost church—is active in a more disciplined way.  They say still waters run deep.  Perhaps Christianity is moving under the surface of society in ways that will have a longer-lasting effect on the world.  Perhaps we’re still using Onward Christian Soldiers, but humming it quietly, in a way that disrupts things subversively.
Perhaps we’re not so glacial after all.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Blooming Forever

Blooming Forever
Isaiah 27:2-6
            We expect flowers to bloom in the spring and summer.  As the old song says, “The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la.”  It’s true, most of our flowering plants reach their peak in the warmer months.  Azaleas bloom in the spring.  Roses bloom in the summer.  Various other flowering plants produce blooms throughout both seasons. 
            As I write, there are four large hibiscus plants in pots in our garage.  They bloom throughout the summer and early fall.  One pot also contains two mandevilla, one white and one red.  All these plants should have died years ago.  In our climate (northwest Mississippi) hibiscus and mandevilla are not supposed to last through the winter, and every winter most if not all the leaves fall off.  Yet, for several years, each spring, new leaves appear, and then blossoms, to enrich our patio and our lives.
            Some plants wait until fall to bloom—chrysanthemums for instance.  When I was an undergraduate, many years ago, an enterprising group on campus sold mums for moms every parents weekend.  We often have mums blooming as late as October.  Its interesting that some of our azaleas also bloom again at that time.
            Two plants bloom in the winter.  We have been quite successful growing Christmas cacti.  There is one on my desk at church, now almost fifteen years old.  Two weeks before Christmas it was covered with white blossoms with just a hint of pink in the center.  In our house’s upper room there are two Christmas cacti which even now, almost two weeks after December 25, are covered with deep pink blooms.  I try to go upstairs once or twice a week just to let them know someone appreciates them.
            The most familiar Christmas plant is the poinsettia.  Every year we have a few at our house.  Some are given to us.  Some we purchase in memory of loved ones who have attained their final reward.  They grace our church during Advent, then come home at the end of the Christmas season.  We plant them all in one large pot and keep them for a year or more.  True, they never again reach the red splendor they attain that first Christmas season, since we have no means of placing them in the absolute dark to encourage their change of color; but they grace our home with their green beauty.
            Isaiah had much to say about blooming.  It is one of his most powerful metaphors for Israel’s return from captivity.  He assures the nation that, despite the winter of its exile, God’s planting will bloom once more, and bloom in the place God has chosen for it to grow.  “In days to come,” God says, “Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.”  And that rooting—that blooming will be in the Promised Land.
            God never breaks promises.  If God says Israel will bloom, then Israel will bloom.  Streams will break forth in the desert (32:2), and water the dry thirsty land.  Like a tree planted by water, Israel will thrive.
            Israelis believe their return to Eretz Israel is the fulfillment of this promise, and it well may be.  But there is more to the promise than this—more to the fulfillment.
            Christians believe that, in part, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promises is Jesus Christ.  We used to sing,            
Jesus, Jesus, Lily of the Valley,
Bloom in all your beauty in the garden of my heart;
            This is the promise for us:  that Jesus will bloom, not just for a season, not just for a few years, but bloom forever.  The perfect flower in our hearts’ gardens.