Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Advent I - Romans 13 and then some

(wma audio link) - as always...watch for typos!

Are you ready? Your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation. Are you ready?

According to the world out there, it’s “Christmas” time. I’m not sure what that means. Toy soldiers, shiny balls, angry drivers, and overtly intrusive shopping music? Presents, presents, lots of presents, and gosh darn it, its so frustrating trying to buy them all, trying to ship them all, trying to pay for them all.

Sounds great. Where do I sign up? It’s even a good reason to miss Church, to put to the side the one thing needful, if only for a moment. To cancel the way the Christians have celebrated the incarnation of their Lord for millenia. We’re all so busy after all. Too busy to live forever.

Do you want to live forever? Are you ready to do more than just call yourselves Church? Are you ready to be a body, a living, active breathing body, with hands and feet and eyes and every member absolutely essential to our own well being? Are you ready to commit to each other, to say to your neighbor in the pew – you are my mother and my brother and my sister, and this world will pass away, but we, we will never pass away because we, together, are in Christ. We together come into Christ, here. And that, this, is eternal life.

Are you ready for that?

Are you ready for a Christianity that is worth more than $25 a week? Are you ready for a Christianity that is worth more than “whenever I feel like it”? Are you ready for a Christianity that is no mere club of like-minded, semi-religious do-gooders, but is active, sharp, cutting-edge, saving, real? Are you ready? Because that kind of Christianity is ready for you. It’s coming you. It’s here, right now.

It’s brought you here, gathered you here, by the Spirit, through the Word, called and elected you out of this world, whether you knew it or not. It has connected you now to each other. It has connected you to me. We have been connected together to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And as his sheep for the slaughter we have been placed into the fray of a mighty war between the cosmic power of light and darkness. We have been clothed with the armor of light which is the man Jesus Christ himself, born into us through his own flesh and blood, flesh and blood which was pierced for us, which ran for us, which became finished for us, in order that we might live forever, beginning right now and that’s not just some fuzzy talk about a bunch of clouds and harps in heaven. That’s about real life, real pain, real love, real forgiveness, real suffering, real answers, real Jesus.

But maybe you think this congregation isn’t worth it. Maybe you are captive to the mindset that predominated this body only a short time ago, a mindset which gradually convinced itself that this congregation couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t do anything, was victim of time and despair and basically was best off throwing a fit and pouting in a corner until the rains came and swept away. So maybe you’re still just kind of hanging back, wondering, watching, waiting, maybe even hoping it all falls apart. If that’s the case, then I’m sorry for you, because if that’s the case then you don’t believe in God. Either that, or you don’t believe that this is God’s Church. Because, you see, God’s Church never dies. God’s Church never dies because God, the real God, the one that actually exists, is strong enough to deal with whatever barriers we face, and to believe anything less than that, anything other than that is a horrible, wicked, and wretched sin. That is breaking the first commandment. And as often as you or I may have done that very thing in the last few minutes and hours and weeks and months and years, friend, that thing just ought not be so because this is God’s Church.

And God’s Church, God’s gathering, God’s assembly is bound up in His Son, who Himself begotten before all worlds, Light of Light and Very God of Very God, one with the Father, one with the Spirit, for us and our salvation came down from heaven and became man. And he suffered, once for all, under Pontius Pilate. He died and was buried. He died, but he didn’t stay dead and now he will never die again, because death has lost its mastery over him, and since we, His Church, are his body, since we, gathered here to listen to his Word, and to live from his flesh are his creation, and since it is He who is here and who has gathered us, there is no way in heaven or on earth or under the earth that this congregation will fail…unless, of course, it is because we simply choose to not believe He is who He has said He is – because we choose not to listen to his Word – because we prefer instead to cling to our worldly, worthless opinions.

But since He is who He said He is, and since I believe what the Word says, and since I’m your Pastor, then I’m going to tell you what the score is right now. You, dear people, have come farther and accomplished more in the last four months than is humanly imaginable. You’ve taken gutsy, hard, painful steps, bold steps that, frankly, many outside this congregation didn’t think you were capable of. And, honestly, you weren’t capable of it, but Christ, your Christ, has refused to leave you incapable. Because He has called you in baptism, and chosen you to be Church, He has refused to leave you stagnant in unbelief and despair, tied to the thorns and thistles of this world while you die of thirst.

It’s because of that work of his, that Word of his, that in the last four months you have seen cast aside much that entangled you. Some may refuse to believe it, but when I walked into this assembly for the first time what I found a group of people who were so downright cruel to each other, hating each other and being hated, that I could hardly believe it. And not one of you in this room should sit high on your horse as if you weren’t a part of that askance-eyed, whispering-in-corners culture of secrecy and clique, for you too have, you have harbored grudges against those who sit and who sat in these pews. And if you want to know what killed this congregation slowly over 10 years, over ten long years, it wasn’t that old pastor, or the changing world around you – it was that gossipy, backstabbing, power mongering culture which sucked up every single one of you right into itself. Eye contact was scarce. Voices raised in anger easily and often. Battle lines were drawn and left up so that eventually everyone knew their place and stayed in it for fear of retaliation. And visitors, if they came, they knew quickly that they where they did and didn’t belong, which left most of them convinced that they didn’t belong at all.

That is what I, a young, eager seminary graduate walked headlong into, and, somewhat like a bull in a china shop, put my foot down right into, pretty much before I realized it. But for better or for worse, that is not what I see now. No matter how it happened, this community forced itself through the hard as nails steps it needed to begin healing, to begin finding here not fear and frustration, but comfort and consolidation, friendship and reconciliation.

And how did you get there? It started here, Word and Sacrament. And, it still ends here, in Word and Sacrament. But from here and to here this Word and Sacrament go and come, not on the winds, or in a fleeting dream, or a nice fuzzy feeling, but through you, in you, for you, real, ordinary, sinful people, real, wretched, regular sinners who have now despite your best efforts been caught and changed by Christ, been coerced and prompted by Christ, been challenged and molded by Christ into a young, but truly living, authentic, Christian community. We’ve got a ways to go, but wow! What a start.

It started here and it ends here week after week, but this Christianity IS having its way with you, not only here, but everywhere. It is moving your heart and your mind, and with heart and mind made new in the Spirit, in real, sin-convicting, Christ proclaiming ways, your life is changing in more ways than one, even if all you notice is that little nudge urging you get to Church just a bit more often.

And look what is going on at Church. Look around you. Look at all the people who are here. This is your family. Did you know that? They love you, each and every one. Did you know that? They love you not because of your worth, not because of what you have or haven’t done, not because you give or because you serve or because you’re rich or because you’re cool. They love you because you come to this altar too. They love you because you’re a sinner too. They love you because you feast on the Lamb of God to have your sins covered too, and that is a bond closer than a brother because that bond is forged by the blood of God.

Little children, your sins are forgiven. You have known the one is from the beginning. You have overcome the evil one. You know the Father. You know the One who is from the beginning. You are strong. You are strong because the Word of God abides in you and therefore you have overcome the evil one.

Do you think after all of that, the Lord Jesus Christ is going to turn his back on you and let you rot? Do you think after he walked this thorn-invested, sick soil for thirty years only to be beaten and nailed hand and foot to a God-cursed tree - do you think that after Jesus Christ endured the damnation and punishment of all the sins of the world on one dark Friday afternoon, to the point of losing his very own spirit into the bonds of death – do you think after all that that he’s going to let the fact that we only have 25 people decide to show up on any given Sunday stop him keeping His Church alive in New Jersey? The congregational hurdles that we face in the here and now are pop-tarts compared to descending into hell and rising on the third day.

And, not to burst your bubble or attack your old idols, but look, he has already provided everything you need. You have a Pastor, - a priest and teacher, trained by the fathers of the Church, and, for all his failings, vowed to teach according to your own sworn Confession of faith and committed unto death to the right handling of these Sacraments on your behalf.

And you have each other, a rag-tag group bunch of no good sinners, who, because you’re in Christ are a whole lot more than worthless - you are the people of God, a city on a hill that cannot be shaken, a light on a stand for the nations to see, a family and a body where life simply isn’t fair because grace rules here.

And there’s more. You have a vision. It’s growing and it’s coming, and it still needs to be voted on, but it’s your future nonetheless. In spite of the groans and pops that come with stretching after a long sleep, this congregation is in the process of refusing to be trapped by the shackles of secondary things. This Project we’re calling congregational Resurrection is something to be darned excited about.

And finally, I’ve got to say it. You’ve got the money. You’ve got lots of money. You’ve got it at home. You’ve got it in your bank account. And you’ve got it in your land.

You simply need to know this. You simply need to stop listening to the lies and wake up to the light of day: If you had to, if you were pushed to the wall, if you had no other choice – right now, you as a congregation can easily survive another 10 years without putting one more dime in the offering plate. It’s true. You have that much money sitting under your own feet as you listen right now.

And that means that you, as an assembly of sinners living grace, and me as a pastor sent to be your father in the faith, and Project Resurrection and all that it entails, is a guaranteed reality for the next decade. This congregation is not going to die. This assembly gather to feed on the deep deep love of Jesus is not going to fade slowly away into oblivion. Yes, things will change. Things always change. But rather than letting the change change you, you’re going to change it, and you’ve got the time and money to make it work right because ten years is a lot of time in downtown Clinton or anywhere else we might find space. Ten years is an eternity in this culture.

Ten years ago it was 1996 and I was a freshman in college who wasn’t even a Christian. Ten years ago the most powerful computer was an IBM 486, and the internet consisted mainly of America Online chat rooms. Ten years ago no one had ever heard the name Monica Lewinski, and Star Wars was only a trilogy. Ten years ago people carried pagers, and used film in their cameras, and tape in their VCRs, and the price of gas hovered down around $1 a gallon.

You think that ten years in a storefront authentic Christian assembly committed to the Word of god, and therefore committed to each other, and therefore committed to excellence, will find us to be nothing but 40 angry and chagrined people afraid that the sky is falling. That is not the Christ you know. The Christ you know doesn’t let his Church die. The Christ you know dies for his Church. The Christ you know rises for his Church. The Christ you know feeds and sustains his Church. And you are his Church: look, he has already provided everything needed to be Church until Rachel and Emily and Caitlyn are all off at college, and Chloe and Kaden are the same age as that Leigh Anne is now.

I call that hope. I call that a future. And this is to say nothing of the rock solid fact that Jesus Christ is coming again.

No, this congregation is not going to die anytime soon. We have a decade and beyond to put into practice an Advent life of community centered around communing on the Word and Sacraments of Christ and looking for his return. Let’s open our eyes to that reality. Let’s wake up, like the Apostle Paul said today. Let’s recognize that we do not wear ourselves as we weigh into this warefare against demons and darkness and lies and hate. We wear Christ, and Christ never fails. Even when He dies, He lives!

So this “Christmas” shopping season, do yourself a favor. Look at the broken, fading, killing, dying of this world, and know that that’s not you anymore. Look at the hedonistic, self-centered, merry-made, frivolity of waste that people think is the meaning of Christmas and remember that that’s not you anymore. Look at the lies, and tell yourself the Truth. And then come worship in that Truth, bathe in that Truth, eat that Truth, and goodness, gracious, sing that Truth because the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord. We are her new creation, by water and the Word. From heaven he came and sought us to be his holy bride. With his own blood he bought us, and so we might live, he died.

See? Yes. Your King comes to you. Righteous and having salvation, to prosper you, and not to harm you. To give you hope, and future. That’s what Advent is all about. Wake up to it. It might even feel good.

In the Name…Amen.

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