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Monday, November 30, 2015

Fall on Your Knees (Mal. 3:7; Lk. 12:35-36)

Our youth pastor Nathan gave the sermon for the first Sunday of Advent.  If you'd like a recording of his sermon, contact our church office or email me.

Here are my thoughts on the text of Nathan's sermon.

     Writer Philip Yancey says he has met the most fulfilled, godly people among the poorest of the poor in prison cells, leper colonies, and inner city slums.  In these dark places, where daily life is survival, and just barely, he has encountered truly holy people who are indeed, very close to God. 
Yancey quotes author John Cheever who said, “The main emotion of the adult American who has all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.”[i] I don’t know how Cheever knows that.  I do, though, find the quote compelling. 
Is it true? 
You can test it yourself, this season, leading to Christmas.  As you shop for that new game system or that new I-phone or some other gift that will bring great happiness when pulled from under the tree and unwrapped, ask yourself, is this were happiness and joy are found?  The main emotion of the one who has everything is disappointment.
          I don’t know if that is true.  I know the world is wounded.  I know there is disappointment aplenty in our community.  There is as much disappointment as there is affluence.
          There is also emptiness. 
          My friend wrote a book which he sent to several of us to review.  In his writing, he identifies a worldview that has no place for God and that accepts that humanity has evolved from simpler life forms.  Millions of years ago, simple chemical interactions came together to produce life – single-celled organisms.  Over the eons, these beings evolved to more and more complex organisms up to the present day.  And today we have us, beings with self-awareness. 
          When we die, our bodies will decompose and eventually go back to the dirt from which we came.  My friend, Steve Davis, a pastor whose church is near Fort Bragg, calls us “dirt in transition.”[ii]  This is the worldview he’s describing.
He does not believe that.  He actually believes we are created beings.  Even if evolution is the process, it is a process God created and each one of us is made in God’s image. 
          But many people are materialists.  They cannot by way of empirical observation prove God’s existence, so they assume there is no God.  They not only accept that humans are “dirt in transition,” they are sure of it. 
In terms of meaning, this worldview comes up empty.  Our lives no meaning beyond what we come up with ourselves.  If the only meaning we have is what we or other humans create, it is totally arbitrary.  No matter what we desire, we are in fact just complex chemical compositions fated to die.

          So is that the human condition?  Philip Yancey cites Loren Eiseley a materialist who makes art out science.  Eiseley thinks that when we long for meaning, the idea that there is something more than the world we see, we are like frogs croaking through the night.  “We’re here.  We’re here.  We’re here.”[iii]  And we hope against reality that something out there notices. 
          This bleakness is in the Bible.  The book of Ecclesiastes opens by saying, “Vanities of vanities.  All is vanity” (1:2).  So for Christmas, buy the I-phone for your girlfriend.  Maybe she’ll be happy, at least until the next one comes out.   Then, well, buy the next thing.

          This disappointment and meaninglessness leads to all manners of catastrophe.  On a small scale, people who cannot afford expensive things are envious and disheartened because they cannot have what others have.  Those who can afford those things are disheartened and disillusioned because the expensive toys don’t bring any real happiness.  The longed-for fulfillment never comes.
          On a larger scale, the emptiness leads us collectively to create myths.  Some myths are couched in religious terms that lead us to accept lies or to join movements that wreak havoc, like terrorist groups.  Other myths wear the colors of patriotism.  In our country that is blended with the myth of the middle class American life.  That is where happiness lies.
          Well, no, not really.  This is not where happiness lies! But our advertisers and our politicians have become wealthy selling this myth.  We get convinced and we buy it all time and in bulk around Christmas time.   In longing for something more, meaninglessness and emptiness and disappointment lead women and men to, create the means of their own destruction. 

          What if the incarnation is God’s response to our desperate longing for something more? 

Incarnation is the word we use to explain God becoming human.  In the birth of Jesus, God entered the world in a new way.  God had always been and always is present.  Nothing is hidden from God. There is never a time when you or I are alone, unseen.  God always is with us and sees us.
          In the incarnation, God is present in a unique way.  God took on human flesh as a complete human being with DNA, with a growth process from fetus to new born, from toddler to adolescent to adult.  Jesus was as human as you or I are human. 
          What I am asking us to consider is this.  What if God doing that – becoming human – was God’s way of responding to our condition, a depression of utter meaninglessness?  What if God came in Jesus in order to show us who we are and who we can be? 
          This assumes that God responds to human beings.  I believe the Bible shows over and over that God is a responsive God.  And I think God’s ultimate response to human pain is God’s coming as Jesus.  If Jesus is God’s embodied response, God’s love embodied, then we are saying God does respond to us. 

          So what then? 
We are empty when we try to find meaning for ourselves.  God responds to impoverished souls by becoming one of us in order to show us love, to die for our sins, to overcome death in resurrection, and then to invite us to faith and life and relationship as we find ourselves in Jesus.  We have the condition and God’s response. 
What of it? 
          How do we respond to God’s action in Jesus Christ?  Chew on this.  We’re ontologically bankrupt.  We have nothing that brings significance.  Then God comes and fills us with joy and meaning and purpose.  What do we do? 
          The great hymn “O Holy Night” gives part of the answer.  In that hymn, we sing these words.
                   A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
                   For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Yes, in the coming Christ, all Heaven had broken loose.  Meaning?  Significance?  Purpose?  We clumps of dirt in transition are invited into an eternal relationship of love with the holy God through the action of God-in-the-flesh!  What do we do?  The song gives the answer.
                   Fall on our knees.  O Hear the angel voices.
                   O night divine.  O night when Christ was born

          We don’t kneel very much in our worship services.  Sometimes individuals will come during prayer time after the sermon, kneel at the steps and either bow their heads or look to the cross.  In these profound moments, the kneeling is a beautiful gesture done to show that the one praying knows who God is.  That’s what we say in kneeling.  I know who God is.  And I know it is not me.
          Through the mouth of the prophet, God said the following (Isaiah 45):
          22 Turn to me and be saved,
    all the ends of the earth!
    For I am God, and there is no other.
23 By myself I have sworn,
    from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
    a word that shall not return:
“To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear.”
24 Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me,
    are righteousness and strength;
all who were incensed against him
    shall come to him and be ashamed.

          Every knee shall bow.  I wonder if this word from Isaiah was on Peter’s mind the first time he met Jesus and saw a miracle.  He threw himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet in worship and in humiliation (Luke 5:7-9). 
I wonder if Paul had this Isaiah passage before him when he wrote in Romans 14:11 that every knee shall bow to the Lord. 
We find a similar sentiment in Philippians 2.  There, Paul is quoting what most scholars believe was an extremely early hymn, possibly sung within just a just few years of the resurrection.  The gospels weren’t written until probably the 60’s or later.  First Thessalonians was the earliest of Paul’s letters.  The hymn he quotes in Philippians 2 might be the earliest actual written Christian work.  In it is the declaration that upon seeing Jesus in glory, everyone will have no choice but to bow in reverence.  This will be an act of humiliation, not an act of faith.  Every knee shall bow.

What I am suggesting is that now, when our response to God is a faith response, not a response that comes after judgment, we choose to kneel.  There is precedent for making this choice.
Throughout the book Revelation there is kneeling.  First, the author, John of Patmos, falls at Jesus’ feet (ch. 1). Then the elders who spend their time in Heaven on thrones, exalted, threw themselves down before Him (ch. 4, 11).   The otherworldly “living creatures” we meet in the vision do the same (ch. 5).  These are instances of people as well as divine beings choosing to kneel and worship.

We find ourselves in a time when we can choose.  Today, God does not force us to kneel, to worship, to give homage.  God helps.  The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins.  This means, the Holy Spirit shows us the extent to which our sins destroy our lives and the lives of those we love.  The Holy Spirit pricks our consciences, awakens our minds, appeals to our hearts, and opens our eyes.  But God does not force us to worship.  It is our choice and it is one I urge us to consider. 
The prophet Malachi offers a perfect word for us as we live in the days leading up to Christmas.  In Malachi, God says, “Return to me, and I will return to you” (3:7).  Then Malachi writes that the Lord took notice of those who revered Him and said, “They shall be my special possession on the day when I act” (3:17). 
When we kneel before Jesus Christ, we are saying, we are not God.  He is.  He is the source of hope because he brings forgiveness of sin, healing of wounds, restoration of hearts, and an invitation to life.  He gives us meaning when he shows us what love is and fills us with this love and nudges us to share it.  Also, in humility and with great compassion, we invites others to come to Him. 
We are not the source of own meaning.  We are not responsible for filling our own emptiness.  He accomplishes all of this in us when we look to the Lord and when we live in love. 
It starts when we follow the song’s prompt and fall on our knees.  No longer are we consumed with ourselves.  We die to self and find ourselves born again, made new, called into resurrection where our bodies are no longer clumps of dirt, but incorruptible, made of the stuff of Heaven. 

What is Christmas going to be for you this year?  Who can say?  Not me. 
But, here is what I can say.  Of all the things that fill the season, the shopping, the TV specials, the office and school Christmas parties, the decorating, and the other traditions, Christmas is a time of worship.  As you read this, say this out loud, over and over, until it rings in your heart.  Christmas is a time of worship.
          Look at your nativity set.  The lowly shepherds and the gathered magi together kneel before the baby Jesus.  As we worship this Christmas season, may we worship while kneeling before the glorified, risen Lord.  May we discover the joy and happiness that can only be found there. 

[i] P. Yancey (2014). Vanishing Grace (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI), p.208.
[ii] S. Davis (2015).  Faith in Your Handwriting (self published, on Amazon Kindle reader).
[iii] Yancey, p.137.

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