"The Joy of Getting Ready"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 12/7/1997

Luke 1:68-79; Luke 3:1-6

     One of the most exciting things to happen in the District of Columbia in recent years is the completion of the MCI Center. Lois and I lived in the District when the Center was still an imaginary possibility. We learned that few of the District's power brokers were that excited about it. Many critics said that crime would prevent people from coming to that part of city at night, that parking would remain a challenge, and that Abe Pollin would be unsuccessful in getting the necessary money together to make the project happen.

     Excitement for the Center did not build until six weeks ago when the public began to learn more about its completion. At 74, Abe Pollin was ready to unveil the fulfillment of a dream that had inspired him to put his entire personal fortune of 200 million at risk. As 20,674 people entered the new facility for its opening event, nearly everyone attending the Wizard's basketball game agreed that the arena was what the Nation's Capital needed to continue its progress toward renewal.

     There is an interesting parallel with this story in our lesson today. John the Baptist was repeating to his listeners Isaiah's vision, "Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel! Every valley must be filled up, every hill and mountain leveled off. The winding roads must be made straight, and the rough paths made smooth. The whole human race will see God's salvation."

     No one got excited about Isaiah's thoughts when he originally spoke them. No one got excited about his dream when John the Baptist quoted Isaiah's words again. Even after Jesus was born, nothing in the minds and hearts of people changed. This lack of excitement was identical to the response to Abe Pollin's dream. It was not until people experienced the MCI Center, that they understood what had happened. It was not until the businesses surrounding the arena surged with new customers did the owners become believers. To believe, people had to become a part of the experience.

     We may think that this is an odd comparison, but it is not. Many of us enter the Advent Season by entering shopping centers armed with our credit cards and gift lists because it is a tradition we engage in every year. We get our greeting cards into the mail. We decorate our homes. We have our open houses. We crowd the church on Christmas Eve. We become emotional with memories of family and friends. Christmas is a time of great joy. We get caught up in the preparation and celebration, but is there something more that needs to nourish our understanding?

     The other day I received a call from a friend of mine. He is the CEO of a small company and he said, "Can you spare some time to talk to me during the next two weeks? I think I have had an epiphany, a real break through in my life. I need clarification and some fine tuning to certain areas of my faith. I now have understanding unlike at any other time in my life."

     Last week someone from our most recent new member's class said, "I am really interested in learning more. Do you have any books that I might read?" I gave him two. What is it that motivates us to look at what has surrounded us for most of our lives and come to believe that we need to examine our faith more closely? Among other signs might be one that suggests our faith is no longer inspiring us to be more alive, hopeful and filled with enthusiasm.

     In preparation for their marriages, I visit with many couples who come from many cultural and faith traditions. Many of them are no longer involved with their respective faith communities and have come to me because of their minister's refusal to marry them. There are many reasons why this is so. When they are told that they must accept certain beliefs or comply with certain requirements that the couple believes have only marginal application to their experience, they walk away and seldom look back. These young people want to be fed spiritually but have little appetites for pre-packaged belief systems and church requirements that are lifted up as truth.

     Yet, when they hear what Jesus brought and how useful his teachings are to their lives, many of them act as if they are hearing it for the first time. They become interested and want to hear more about them. The couples appear hungry for someone to teach them how to use what Jesus taught instead of insisting on what it is they should believe. Their shift in thinking comes when they realize they do not have to believe anything at first. All they have to do first is begin putting into practice what Jesus taught and the beliefs will follow.

     The same response can be seen when we contrast people who have only heard about the MCI Center with those who actually experienced the results of its presence. One skeptic quoted in The Washington Post said -- and notice his choice of words -- "I have heard about this arena for years. I am now a believer. Last night we served over 700 patrons when on a normal night we serve about 350." Result oriented experiences is what generates believers.

     Last week I was talking to one of our church members in the narthex. She said, "I have been frustrated by all the programs going on in the church right now. You have been asking money for presents to go into the stockings, the sweatshirts, the family food baskets, and now for teddy bears. Then we have to come here and wrap everything on the 14th. I found myself thinking, "enough is enough!'"

     As I stood there feeling like I had just been "lovingly scolded," the unexpected happened. She reached out and hugged me, drew back and then with both hands on my shoulders she said, "I finally got it, Dick! Last week it hit me. I began to understand what you have been asking of us. My kids have always had everything. Our home has everything. We have love in our family. I know these other kids have so very little that tells them they are loved. Right now I don't care what it costs because giving is something I want to do. I am glad that I don't have my check book with me at the moment. I'd empty my account."

     When we experience our faith working, when we experience how peacefully we can extend ourselves in ways we never thought we could, and when we experience doing it with no real loss to ourselves, we have prepared ourselves to experience a joy we never expected to happen.


     O God, thank you for creating us with the ability to have vision. Thank you for the gifts of memory and of understanding. It is only with such tools that we can correct our mistakes, sharpen our skills and increase the joy of living the truth. And thank you for the challenges of uncertainty that enhance our faith in you. It is only from such a spirit of our humility that we learn to trust someone other than ourselves. Enable us to prepare ourselves for greater service. Inspire us to think of new ways to make you visible to other people. It is our continued joy that you heal others through what we do. Amen.


(The 13th century Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi)

     Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

     O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. We pray these things in the spirit of Jesus Christ who taught us to say when we pray...