Monday, December 3, 2012

Now Showing: The Coming of Holiness and Hope

Preached on Sunday, December 2, 2012: The First Sunday of Advent
Scripture readings: Psalm 96:1-13; Titus 2:11-14

For several years, when I was growing up, my dad was the chairman of our town’s fall festival parade. In those years, the only complaint about the parade was that it was much too long and that it had way too many antique cars.

Pictures Taken: Fall 2012 Bassett Park Washtucna WA
My dad’s parades did have a lot of old cars, because he loved old cars, and he liked sharing what he loved with others. But the parade also had a lot of other things; lots, and lots, and lots of other things. The way I remember it, his parades were all well over an hour long. My dad often seems to have lived by the theory that you couldn’t get too much of a good thing.

There was a time when my dad’s attention zoomed in on one good thing. He decided to get Bing Crosby to be the grand marshal of our fall festival parade. My dad liked Bing Crosby. Who wouldn’t? Bing Crosby was the singer and star of stage, screen and television from the nineteen-twenties to the nineteen-sixties. And Bing Crosby came to Sutter County every fall to hunt.

Western Sutter County is one of the oldest, and best, and most accessible places in the state of California for bird hunting: all kinds of birds. Bing Crosby loved hunting all kinds of birds.

In the wetlands and fly ways of Sutter County, there were Bing Crosby sightings every year. Only you had to look closely because he dressed in boots and blue jeans, and he never wore his toupee.

My dad found that he had connections; that he knew people who knew people who had connections (or said they did) to Bing Crosby, and he played those to the hilt. He pursued Bing for two years in a row. The first year, we were politely turned down. We had tried to schedule him too late.

The second year it became clear that we were not worth his time. Bing Crosby would never make a grand appearance in the Live Oak Fall Festival Parade.

Our Psalm for this morning and our reading from Paul’s Letter to Titus tell us about another grand appearance: the appearance of God in our world. The Psalm says, “Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” (Psalm 96:12-13) And Paul says, “We wait for the blessed hope; the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ….” (Titus 2:13)

In the Psalm, the grand appearance of God is seen as a future event, although it tells us that we can see him even before we see him. It tells us that we can see that the Lord rules and we can sing about it. “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all the peoples.” “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns.’” The Lord rules! (Psalm 96:3, 10)

And yet the Psalm gives away some reasons why we should not see God here at all, and reasons why God should not appear. The Psalm looks forward to the appearance of God because, “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.”

This Psalm is telling us that we will see righteousness and truth take over the world when the Lord makes his appearance, meaning that we don’t see it yet. We live in a world where righteousness and truth are not apparent. We may not see them at all. Why should a holy God grace, with his presence, a world without righteousness and truth?

And why does this world lack righteousness and truth? This world deliberately ignores a righteousness and truth that stares it in the face every day. This world can look up at the sky and see the righteousness and truth of God. “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” (Psalm 96:5)

We may think of idols as statues and pictures of false gods and goddesses, and it’s true that there are such statues and pictures. But God’s people, in the Old Testament, had a curious way of describing these. They didn’t call these statues and pictures “statues and pictures”; they called them “nothings”. Idols were real things that were “nothings”.

Pretty much everyone but the people of God worshiped real things that were “nothings”. Even some of God’s own people straddled the fence and worshiped those real things that were “nothings”.

What were they? They were gods and goddesses of weather, and harvest, and wealth. They were gods and goddesses of sex, and intelligence. Yes, even some of God’s own people secretly worshiped such gods, such idols, such “nothings”.

Doesn’t the whole world still worship these? Isn’t it the greatest scandal world? Isn’t it the greatest embarrassment in the world, when someone finds out that you don’t worship these gods like everyone else does? We may not bow down and pray to the statues and pictures of these things any more, but we don’t dare to call them nothings. We don’t dare to neglect them.

Jane McCormick’s father essentially called them nothings. Jane grew up in a home with lots of brothers and sisters. I think there were nine children in her family, growing up together. In later years Jane joked with her father that, if he had raised pigs instead of children, he would have been a wealthy man. He looked at her and said, “I am a wealthy man.” He knew what real wealth is.

The Psalm was teaching its people to look forward a world where God would make his grand appearance, and would show that world what real wealth is. We think of righteousness as a quality that makes us better than other people. The people who think they are righteous may look down on us. True righteousness is a life that makes things right; that sets wrongs right.

God’s judging the world in righteousness doesn’t mean just that he is right and we are wrong, and that God means to assert his rightness over us. God’s judging the world in righteousness means his life reaching into our world and reaching into our lives and setting us right, making life good.

What if you devoted yourself to making life right and good for your husband, your wife, your children, you neighbors, and your world; being a person serving the purpose for which God created you; not turning away from that? What if you did this because you were letting God set you right? Imagine God making your right with him, and making you right within yourself; working on the process of you heart, and mind, and imagination. Imagine God working on your desires and dreams and setting those things right.

A ancient king would travel around his kingdom and serve as its chief justice. The king’s justice existed to set things right in his kingdom. That is what God’s grand appearance is for.

Paul tells us that this grand appearance has come, and the justice that God brings is grace. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope; the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ….”

But Paul surprises us to say that there are two grand appearances. Jesus Christ has appeared already and, as Paul says, he “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

Our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, has appeared, Paul says, and this God and Savior gave something for us in order to do something to us. Jesus came and took away our worship of nothings. So he purified us through his coming.

And what did he do to take away our nothings when he came? He came as the baby for whom there was no room. He was a baby that a king and his soldiers tried to hunt down and kill.

He was a boy in a carpenter’s shop. He got calluses, and big honking splinters, and gashes in his boyish hands, learning how to make important things with wood: to build a roof, or a ladder, or a table, or a plow; to make something that would make the lives of simple peasant people better.

He became a teacher, and a healer, and he raised the dead to life. The wind and the waves obeyed him, but he had no roof over his head because he would not live to serve nothings.

He said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) And he was arrested and killed, in a viciously painful and dehumanizing way, by those who had seen and heard more than enough of him. Although the truth is that he died to redeem us, to purchase and buy us, from our slavery to the nothings of this world.

Then he rose from the dead. Then he returned to heaven to rule and lead his people with the promise and the hope of his next grand appearance.

He purified us from our nothings. Paul’s talk of the change from godlessness to godliness tells us about this. In this particular place the Greek words give us an ancient way of thinking about the quality of our life.

Our language and our way of thinking lack the words for it. We could say that the appearance of the Lord changes us from impiety to piety, but what is that?  We think of pious people as being, somehow self-righteous or hypocritical. The Old Testament concept of this is called “the fear of the Lord”, but what is that? We think that the fear of God would make us sad and cringing.

In our Psalm Ninety Six we read that the Lord “is to be feared above all the gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols…” Eugene Petersons paraphrases it this way: “His terrible beauty makes the gods look cheap; pagan gods are mere tatters and rags.”

In the ancient world a pious person lived every day and every moment of their life in an attitude of reverence because they knew that they were living in the presence of a terrible beauty: an unspeakable beauty. They were living lives of enormous consequence and worth because they had the attention of a beautiful God.

When we worship nothings, then nothing is holy, sacred; but when the Lord makes his appearance then everything and every moment is sacred. Every step we take is a journey we make on holy ground.

This sounds deadly serious but this doesn’t mean we lose the gift of laughter. Even laughter, even the humblest and the silliest thing, is holy. I almost think that whatever doesn’t kill us should make us laugh.

My little town of Live Oak was too small for the great Bing Crosby, but a manger was not too small for our God and Savior Jesus Christ. This purifies our hearts from the worship of nothings.

Sometimes our nothings seem so big and important that they blind us the terrible beauty of God. They outweigh the gifts of God that take the form of our own family and our neighbors. We make ourselves too big for God, when God did not make himself too big for us. Death on a cross, to take away our sins and give us a new life, was not too small for him.

So we have been changed by the appearance of God in Christ, and we wait for his coming appearance that will bring real righteousness and truth to our world. We have been so changed that we no longer worship the nothings. Instead we have a passion for the most important things of all: rightness and truth, even when they seem smelly and difficult (like mere mangers and crosses) to the world around us. We have a passion and eagerness rightness and truth, even when they look like mere mangers and crosses to us.

These will be the things that count. These are the true wealth. Our hope to see rightness and truth rule is not wishful thinking. It is because of our faith in the God who appeared in Jesus. This is why we live with hope. The passion of God, appearing in Jesus Christ, gives us a passion for the little things of rightness and truth that make us truly wealthy.

The passion of God in Christ makes us faithful in little things, because we see that even they are holy, and we are not afraid of this passion because we are people of hope: the hope of his appearing; when God’s good will be seen to be good, and when God’s rightness will be judged to be right, and God’s truth will be proven true.

1 comment:

  1. Living in the presence of a terrible beauty, an unspeakable beauty...
    Idols=nothings. (What word do they use for idols?)
    I really find it hard to leave a comment here for you without it sounding trite but I truly find your sermons inspiring.