3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016
Work hard for God by sharing God’s love. Use your resources to feed people who are hungry. Through invitation and friendship and conversation, help people who have no knowledge of God come to know God through faith in Jesus. Encourage Christians, friends who have gone through pain, by standing with them and helping them. Help. Provide. Evangelize. Work.
On the other hand …
Sit in silent, blissful stillness as blessings from God wash over you. In the exultant triumph of music, experience the glory of God. See God’s goodness in friends who bring happiness to you in the things they do for you. Bask in God’s majesty as you meet God in creation, in nature. Marvel. Relate. Listen. Be blessed.
Is the faith dynamic clear? As we live in relation to God through Jesus, we live in a dynamic of reaching and receiving. We reach for the Kingdom of God when we work for justice, when tell others about Jesus, and when we work to build up the church community and help the family of God be a community of love and welcome. All of this takes proactive effort on our parts. As an individual believer, being a Christ-follower involves complete commitment.
At the same time, we know that the greatest blessings of life are those God gives when we have not earned them and sometimes when we least expect them. This is very hard, because we are a hard-working people who like to think that we get by on our own capabilities. We have to resist the urge to claim independence. We are dependent. We depend on God’s grace for joy, for spiritual and emotional fulfillment, and for eternal life.
We reach and we receive in relation to God. When we think of who we are as a body of believers and as individuals, we understand the necessity of both. We do not neglect the work of discipleship telling ourselves “God will take care of it.” We go to work. We study for the exam. We pay our bills. We raise our families. We contribute to society. We build up the church. Through spiritual disciplines we grow and mature as disciples.
At the same time, we do not count on our own efforts. We work hard in all things, all the while knowing our best blessings come as gifts God gives. We neither neglect work, nor do we deceive ourselves into depending on our own efforts. We live in a reach-receive dynamic. It is a beautiful way to live as we enter the story of the birth of Jesus. In entering the story and reliving his birth we see that our lives don’t make sense apart from Jesus.
Our family does not go to the mall or toy stores – never, ever. But somethings cannot be avoided indefinitely. My 8th grade son Igor sings in his school choir and we want to support him. So, when they do their annual holiday concert at Barnes and Noble bookstore, our family goes.
It seems like every time I am in there, Barnes and Noble has sacrificed space that used to be used for book shelves. In that space, they sell other things, like toys. I cannot imagine Toy ‘R Us selling more stuff for kids than what they had in the Barnes and Noble we recently visited for the choir concert. It was plenty for my 2nd grader and 4th grader to look at and wonder at as they waited for Igor’s concert to start and waited even more longingly for Christmas morning to arrive.
“Daddy, come look at this!”
“Oh Dad, you have to see this!”
I thought maybe the two of them were going to rend me apart, rip me into two pieces. And maybe they wouldn’t notice as long as each one had one of my hands they could drag to football card collector’s set or the American girl doll or the Lego this or the Lego Friends that. It was fun to watch them, but it was also clear that my children, at that moment, were not interested in receiving blessings on Christmas morning. They were reaching for what they wanted.
And it is OK. It is OK that in that moment they expelled the holiday energy bubbling up inside because they know they have a mom and dad who love them and who want to give them good things. On Christmas morning, they will be happy with what they receive. They won’t dwell on the 55 things on their lists that aren’t under the tree. They’ll celebrate the goodness they receive. (I hope). The reaching and the receiving are both part of this season. So is the waiting.
Three stages of waiting have an accent that is unique to the Christmas season. First we wait for the birth of Christ. It’s tempting to say, “No, Jesus was born 2000 years ago.” We wait for his birth in the sense that a part of our worship is to enter the story of God and human beings, and a key point in the story is the miraculous birth to Virgin Mary. We know that her premarital pregnancy caused a scandal. We know Joseph was a faithful and good and stayed with her in spite of the scandal. We know the Roman census forced them to make the ill-advised journey to the Joseph’s family town of Bethlehem. We know they make it. We know that so many people had to do this because of an imperial overlord unconcerned about how his edicts inconvenienced an entire populace and so there was no place to stay. We know that this led to the Savior being born in a barn, a stable.
Knowing all of it, we enter the story. Waiting for the birth is as much a part of the waiting of Christmas as is waiting for Santa Claus and presents under the tree. We can’t hurry it along. We put up our tree, we hang our stockings, we decorate our homes in lights, but no matter what we do, December 25 does not get here until December 25. And Jesus is not born until we arrive in Bethlehem. Ask Heather. The baby comes when it is time and not before. For all our reaching, the blessing is one we receive.
There’s another stage of waiting. From Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year – we call this the holiday season. But there’s a waiting that is beyond this, a waiting that hits us any time of the year throughout our lives. We wait for God to act.
You’re a Christian, certain that the only way to have a meaningful life is to live in relation to Jesus as his follower. And someone you care about has not committed to Christ. Your dear friend is ambivalent about faith. You’ve prayed. You’ve witnessed to your friend. Now, you’re waiting for God to reveal God’s very self to your friend in such a dramatic that like the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, your friend cannot resist God any more. You’ve done all you can, but you know you have no control over God or your friend’s responses. So you wait hoping your friend will turn to Christ.
You are at a decision point. What comes next in your life? You’ve made a list of pros and cons if you choose ‘A,’ and a list of pros and cons if you choose ‘B.’ You have researched. You have thought it through and discussed it with close friends. They are praying too. But you don’t want to move until God shows you the way. So now you’re waiting for God to speak.
We could list numerous other ways we wait for God to act. The young person trying to discern God’s call waits. The horrible powerlessness in the room aptly named, the waiting room, where we hope the doctor will tell us our dad is going to make it, God has healed him. Waiting for the birth of Jesus reminds of our lives spent waiting for God to act.
Also we think of the ultimate waiting: we wait upon the return of Christ, which is promised in the Bible. He who defeated death in his resurrection then ascended to the right hand of the father. He will return. We don’t know when, so we wait. The New Testament story reveals that his return means wars will end forever. Evil and death will be permanently defeated. All who have died in Christ will rise as Jesus rose. And we will live together in relationships of love in the Kingdom of God forever.
The New Testament book of James says, “Be patient beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (5:7). The final judgment, the resurrection of all people, and the end of days is what is meant by the phrase ‘the coming of the Lord.’ James counsels patience because we have to live faithfully until Jesus returns.
How are do maintain joy as we wait?
The word ‘patient’ connotes endurance. The church James wrote to was under persecution. They were minority group victimized by prejudice and sometimes terrorized by government officials. The church told by James to be endure was at times afraid for its very survival. In this context, they were to go beyond just surviving and actually called to thrive as witnesses that drew the world to God through knowledge of Jesus. James and other early church leaders taught the church to share the joy of Christ with a lost and hurting world. That divine mandate has passed to us
Thus in verse 9, he addresses the church members as ‘beloved.’ They are family. They are not a group of like-minded individuals. They are not an institution or a non-profit agency. They are brothers and sisters in Christ. Beloved.
Think of our church family that way. The United State government has classifications for us – non-profit; religious organization. People on the street have notions of what goes on in here. People in other religions will describe us in one way or another. We know that we are a family, sisters and brothers linked in the heart because of Jesus. When James writes “beloved” in verse 9, he’s writing to us.
“Do not grumble against each other.”
Reaching for the Kingdom of God leads us to be too self-reliant. Those who do more or accomplish more may have more recognition within the community of faith. Maybe they appear more Christian or one might say they more advanced as Christ followers. Retreat to a posture where we only wait to receive can lead to spiritual sloth where we never grow. The waiting to receive might produce a person who makes a commitment to Jesus but after that never lives a Christ follower. An outside observer would never know that person has anything to do with Jesus.
We reach and we receive – the life of faith is both. Waiting for the birth of the promised one; waiting for God to act in our lives; waiting for the final resurrection; throughout our waiting, we live actively, and we live gratefully. We reach for the Kingdom while receiving blessings from God. And we do this as a community of peace.
Much of James echoes the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in other places. In chapter 2, verse 8, James repeats Jesus’ royal law – “love your neighbor as yourself.” Thus two instructions from James color our living as we wait: be patient and do not grumble against one another. Waiting purposefully, as people who grow in our faith, and gratefully, as people who receive blessings, and waiting peacefully, we come to a wonderful discovery. Joy is in the waiting.
We will end our worship singing these word. “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains: and the mountains in reply, echoing their joyous strains. Gloria, Gloria, Gloria, in excelsis Deo!”
Earlier we sang “Joy to the world.” We’ve been singing these songs for three weeks now and will continue through the end of the year. As a family together – a family of peace and love, not bickering and resentment – we wait, together. The joy reaches its height in the manger, but it has already come.
“Daddy, come and see this.” That longing joy is there.
“My friend, come with me to church this weekend. There are many nice people ready to welcome you and love you as you are.” That welcoming joy is here and is growing.
With the eyes of our hearts fixed on God, the motion of present joy, coming joy, growing joy need not be unsettling. The motion can actually be reassuring that God is present and at work among us.
The Christmas season has every emotion. Every one. I believe that when we are in Christ no matter what else we have, we can also have joy. Reach for it. Receive it. Wait for it. And do all of this in the embrace of the family of God, the body of Christ, the church. In Christ, God beckons you to come to His loving arms. Come to him today.