I know that it is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, but this coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, like Lent, is a time of waiting. Developing after Lent, in many ways it was designed to parallel the Lenten discipline.
In most Protestant denominations the rediscovery of both Lent and Advent are fairly recent additions, with observances only showing up in the past fifty years or so. I often find it funny how many older members remark on how they never really talked about Advent at all growing up, at least that is if they were raised in a Protestant home. This does not mean they were “missing” something; you can be a faithful Christian without ever celebrating or observing any special day. However, the modern church has re-embraced Advent and Lent and many other types of observances as tools of faith.
Sometimes as people of faith there are so many disciplines and messages that go along with our faith journey that we are unable to focus on some parts that are really important, like the themes of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. So we celebrate the season spending time each week in preparation for Christmas, focusing on what each of these concepts mean and how they shape our understanding of Christ, as well as getting a glimpse of both the first coming of Christ at his birth and understanding how we are prepared for His second coming in the last days.
This week our focus is hope. Much of the time when we think of hope we think of things that we hope for like the right toy, getting into a good college, finding the right job, that the new boss will understand you, that your kids are successful, that you’re able to retire comfortably, that when your day comes it is peaceful. All of these are valid hopes, but like so many things they are temporal and really are different based on where we are in our life’s journey.
As with everything associated with Advent, the challenge is to get us thinking beyond the temporal and into issues that are forever, or to move us from thinking about things that are earthen bound to things that are divine. As you can see in the verse that associated with the week of hope, Jeremiah 33:14-16, the hope that is exemplified is a transcendent hope. This hope points to something far greater than any individual want; it is a hope that we cannot realize because it is true uncorrupted righteousness.
Since this hope is something that no human could begin to explain or even grasp, it takes faith. Think of it this way: if you can place your hope in something that you can only get a glimpse of, then you can live out that hope through your kindness, care, and understanding. You can model what it means to live for things greater than yourself and you can find strength in the fact that what is now is not what will always be because what God has planned for you is more incredible than you could ever imagine.
Are you saved? For christian traditions which stem from or are influenced by the anabaptist and piety focused traditions this is probably one of the first questions you will be asked, especially on many of the contemporary evangelical traditions. This is because their theology puts a premium on works righteousness, or the idea that what you do paves the way for your own salvation.
As Presbyterians, “Being Saved” is not something that you would hear in most congregations. It is not that it is unimportant, but the motivation and moral code that we live by is not based on a quest to be saved, rather it is based on a desire to live in thankfulness for the salvation that God has given to us through Jesus Christ. Since Salvation for us is something which God extends to all people, our focus is an ordered life, which is based in living thankfully for the grace and mercy which God has extended to us.
I often remark at how important this is, because when we live in thankfulness we are no longer living for ourselves, rather we are living for God. More importantly, those things that are such a struggle become blessings.
In my congregation in Iowa I had a family that gave their time to the local homeless support organization. They spent hours and hours of time counseling, listening to the most desperate of stories, and working to find ways to help. Often they found themselves in situations, which were precarious to say the least! But every time they were asked why, they would come back by saying that God had blessed them so much it was only a partial repayment! I know that was tongue-in-cheek because when you pushed them they would always come back to it being a gift they could give out of thankfulness.
Ordering life out of thankfulness is hard to do today. Our society is built on greed. We do not need to look much farther than our own community and the disparity between “the haves and have-nots” in the Silicon Valley. But, as people of faith, we have to think of a better way, a way that focuses our lives on how we live thankfully and contently with God.
This ordered life is as intentional as those who live a pious life with one big exception; we are not living for our own salvation, we are living for the praise and glory of God who has given us all things good and wonderful! See the difference?
When we live for ourselves it is a chore or a checklist. It does not matter what we do as long as it gets done rightly. Rather when it is out of thankfulness and gratitude we are doing it out of a sense of call without expectation of reward or anything else. This means that the joy we find is not something that is personal, rather it comes from knowing that we have shared with others a glimpse of what God has given to us.
The truth about the family that did the service at the homeless shelter in Iowa was that they would often state that if their work at that place were a job they would never take it. But as a mission they would do more than was ever expected. This came from a real understanding that their Joy was in serving God in Thankfulness, not in reaping the rewards that so many place on doing good.
As we enter this Thanksgiving week and celebrate that wonderful day with our families, I ask you to think about how you order your lives and ask if you order your lives in thankfulness to our God in Heaven.
Jerry was one of those quiet boys growing up; while teachers loved his polite and kind presence, the larger boys found him to be a good target, meaning that every day he endured a different kind of torture. Sometimes physical, often emotional, Jerry accepted it and continued to live through it.
Contrary to what many believed, Jerry was not an innocent victim of his bullies. Every day, since his stop was the first, he would get on the bus taking up the first seat. As the others would file in, most would give him a nudge or a punch but nobody would harass him. At the fourth stop along the bus route Jerry would always get up and say the most obnoxious thing he could think of, usually quoting something from a book or movie. As all of the other kids were focused on him yelling things like nerd or freak, another boy named Timmy would slip into the seat next to him unnoticed.
Timmy had some physical and learning issues, and at the beginning of that year had been teased mercilessly, as middle school children are known to do. Jerry came up with this plan after watching the boy unable to defend himself leave the bus every morning in tears. He figured he could handle the teasing.
Nobody, other than the bus driver knew what Jerry was doing, but for the rest of that school year nobody even noticed Timmy on the bus. I’d love to say this ended up happy, but like many a hero’s fate, , tragedy was not far off as Jerry went too far one day. As he was walking from the bus to his house three other boys from the bus met him and proceeded to beat him so bad he ended up in the hospital.
Not wanting to say anything, like most boys, he lay in his pain feeling a little peace knowing that he could handle that, but Timmy never would. While lying in his hospital bed, Timmy’s mother showed up. Timmy could not go to the hospital because of fears of catching something: She looked at Jerry and with tears flowing mouthed “thank you!” Jerry began to cry. He knew at that moment everything he had endured made a difference, and he was able to relax into his recovery.
When he returned to school he noticed that people treated him differently. Though he was one of the smaller kids in his class, the others looked at him as if he was the strongest of all the leaders and nobody ever laid a hand on him, nor did he ever hurt another kid.
After a few months Jerry had gone over to play with Timmy, and Timmy’s mom asked why he did what he had. Jerry said:
“When I was in elementary school I was teased and went home crying every day until another boy stood up to the bullies for me. He became my best friend! He taught me how to not get picked on, but I realized that I had become stronger because I had someone who stuck up for me. I thought I could do the same for Timmy because I am so thankful for what was done for me.”
One of the greatest parts about being a Christian is that we are not living our lives for ourselves and we don’t live for some ethereal reward, but we are called to live in thankfulness, and living in thankfulness means that we are living in a paradigm that puts gratitude before personal gain, and others over our own selfish motives so that we can share thankfulness with others.
I have to say, when I first met Jerry many years later as an adult, I would have never known he had experienced the trauma he had growing up; he is one of the happiest people I know. But when he told me the story, in far more detail then I have here, I could not help but cry. He smiled and said; “Everyone does that, but you know, it is OK because I learned that pain is temporary, but doing the right thing out of thankfulness can overcome just about anything life throws at you. I mean when you realize that God has saved you, how can you possibly not be thankful for every day of your life? And how can you not step out and share that thankfulness with others?”
Being what would normally be an election day I cannot help but think back to when I lived in Iowa. Living in Iowa in a presidential election year is a very interesting thing. It is partially the reason I no longer have a landline: too many calls! It was there that I learned the saying: “You have no right to complain if you don’t take the time to vote!”
I recognize that there are many counters to that, but, really, few hold much water. The one that goes the farthest is the argument that one’s vote statistically does not matter. With some of the close elections of the past few years I think that myth has been blown out of the water, but even without a close election, voting has as much to do with participating in our society as it does the outcome; if we choose not to vote, we make the conscious choice not to be part of society.
It is interesting because we have a very simple and private way to get involved, yet many people make the choice not to. Unfortunately, this is a huge problem! Not only does it mean that the best decisions are not made, but also our society lacks because we end up relying on the powerful to think and act on our behalf, not on the behalf of what is the best for society.
This is not new. At the time of Jesus, the Hebrew people had bestowed onto the clerical community all the authority of faith. Instead of taking an active role, they followed the leadership and relied on them to make the determinations as to what was faithful, what was not, and, most importantly, what to believe. We see this develop throughout the Hebrew works, most of which were completed a few hundred of years prior to Christ.
By the time of the prophets people had become lackadaisical in faith. In some instances they had been found to be worshipping false prophets, their leaders, their own wants and desires, even other gods. But often we see in the stories this disconnect started when the people no longer made it a priority to follow their faith and instead chose either to withdraw or follow some human interest or desire.
It is easy to see how the powerful use society for their own benefit. They did not have elections as we do, but they did have money, and money, as it does today, carries power and influence. As we see with the Scribes in Mark 12:38-39, their money affords them both a comfortable life and power, but what do they do with that power?
Conversely, we have the poor woman in Mark 12:42. The story tells us of a woman who gave everything she had out of her faith. It was not much to others, but it was everything to her. While no one would respect the amount she gave, Christ uses this to point out that her reward does not come in what is tangible now, but with what is intangible in heaven. So what is important is not the amount, but the sacrifice.
It is interesting that this passage follows the one concerning the Golden Rule. For the scribes to assert their position they have to be able to judge others as lesser than themselves, but for the woman, her gift is a judgment of her own heart. It comes from self-reflection and faith, trusting that her gift will be used greatly. And for God, that is the most important kind of gift!
The Scribes are imbued with power because the society has allowed this to happen. They are honored for giving out of their abundance. And that gives them an understanding that they are better than others because of their position. They feel that they hold a position, which allows them to flaunt their wealth and power.
But the story that Christ tells shows something very different. Their giving was not sacrificial, it was easy, and their participation in the temple was far more about show than it was faith. The poor woman is the one in the seat of honor, not for the amount she gave but that she gave everything of herself to God. Most importantly, she did not expect a return on the money, praise, or services!
In this time of stewardship, we don’t expect you to give everything you have, but we do ask you to think about that example of faithful giving, but not just with money, with time and talents as well. Think about how your faith can grow not looking for the return but how you use your gifts to build up the body and build your relationship with God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen