"Hearing Advice Is Easy"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 17, 2000

Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 3:7-18

     It seems strange that the candle we light this morning is representing our theme of Joy when we are faced with a Scripture lesson that contains such ominous images. For the most part, our homes are decorated. Our gifts are purchased, wrapped and under the tree. Our cards and packages are in the mail. We are prepared to celebrate, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son." Most of us are ready because next Sunday is Christmas Eve. (Why are some of you smiling?)

     Yet in our lesson today, John the Baptist is challenging his listeners that it is not enough to count on God's love of them. He said this because many of the Jews believed that since they were descendants of Abraham, they were automatically God's favorites. John reminded them that if God had a mind to do so, God could turn rocks into descendants of Abraham.

    God's love will not guarantee the quality of anyone's life, any more than the love of parents has the ability to guarantee the spiritual or material success of their children. That is not the way God designed our world to work. There are no guarantees. Besides, the Scriptures remind us that from those who have, much is required.

     Our lesson takes us to the Jordan river where John the Baptist is preaching. He thunders that "The ax is ready to cut down the trees at their roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire!" Today we are going to reconcile the two concepts of joy and self-erosion. These results appear to be in different areas of the universe. They are not. Both elements are locked into the same seed pod, us!

     Some time ago I was reading an article about a young woman who was experiencing what was diagnosed as Clinical Depression. Her parents were in a constant state of frustration because they had tried all the new, promising pharmaceutical products available and none of them appeared to work. For a month or so the medications generated the desired result but Debbie's self-defeating thought patterns always returned.

     The doctor's next advice to the family was seen as risky by some of his colleagues. He recommended that Debbie spend a month with the organization Outward Bound. His thinking was that he had to help her "jump-start" her inner world.

     Think of it. We are not teaching the children in our country about how much power their thoughts have in creating the quality of their future. There is so much that needs to be done in this area of education. We try to provide our children with an inclusive education, but issues of the spirit are missing. And that area of education may be more critical and central to our well being than any other.

     Her physician's theory was that everything about Debbie's life was rooted externally. Her fears ruled. She believed her parents had not loved her enough. The world expected too much from her. No one liked her at school. She failed at everything from relationships to simple tasks. On and on it went, her litany of self-analysis. When such thought patterns begin in the primary grades, they only grow stronger if they are not interrupted.

     The psychiatrist's proposed remedy had its roots in Newton's Law of Motion. Something will stay in motion in the same direction until it is acted on by something else. Outward Bound was a risky alternative because that program is designed to make the outer world of participants even more terrifying, an experience that forces clients to draw on their inner resources to solve problems.

     His thinking was that she would never recover from the mental prison she created until she learned to access and use her inner skills. She had to stop her insistence that the world be different. She had to discover that what was inside of her was not the emptiness she imagined but a rich unexplored territory filled with everything she needed for a productive life. Today Debbie has taken many strides in the direction of recovery and she is doing so with much less medication. She is learning that she really is a beautiful person.

     Interestingly enough, John the Baptist had used the same remedy nearly 2,000 years ago. While preaching, he was using a visual image that everyone understood. Absolutely no one would keep an olive tree in their grove if it did not bear olives. They would cut it down and burn the wood. Many people in John's audience, however, personalized his message.

     Immediately his listeners said, "What are we to do?" And the same advice was given to his listeners that thousands of years later was given to Debbie. John told people that they had to give of themselves just like fruit trees do.

     He provided this advice: "If you have two shirts, give one to someone who has none. If you are a tax collector, be fair with what you require people to pay. If you are a soldier, stop forcing other people to give you money. Learn to be content with your wages."

     In other words, get out of yourself. Stop being so self-absorbed. Stop demanding that the world be other than what it is. Stop making adjustments to your outer-world that you think will change the way you feel about it. Start opening yourselves to new ways of thinking. And he couched his words in a form that basically said, "You have a choice! You will either act in a way that is compatible with the way God made you or you will destroy yourself."

     God made us to experience joy. God created us to give. And when we do not learn how to do that when we are young, we may engage in activity and thought patterns that will play havoc with us in the years to come. How God created us has not changed. However, when we live in ways that go against our nature, we short-circuit. Our bodies are "a print out" of what is going on inside of us.

     But good old science has come along promising us many new miracle breakthroughs for nearly everything that troubles our health. We have to be careful that these new miracle drugs are not merely offering us a temporary means of "having our cake and eating it too." For example, medical science can help us mask the symptoms of stress when we should be working on eliminating the thought patterns and work habits that cause it.

     After John gave his advice, he told his listeners that a person was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This newcomer will come with a tool (presumably the Kingdom of God) that will thresh out the grain. The wheat will be gathered into the barn while the chaff is thrown into the fire. In other words, the part of us that thrives and wants to remain fully alive will be kept, while the useless aspects of life, the husks, will be burned. It is clear that John was not threatening his audience; he was merely telling them about the power for living that Jesus will bring.

     How easy it is to hear advice! How easy it is to sit in church, in seminars, or in staff meetings and hear the "how to" advice that will work for us or our company. We engage in these exercises all the time. We are not deprived of wisdom. We are not starved for accurate information. If anything, we have more ideas today on how to improve the quality of our lives than in any other period of history.

     The ultimate decision comes down to something very fundamental as it did for Debbie and for those listening to John the Baptist. We have to decide to put these ideas into motion. No one can or will do that for us. Do we want to change? The issue of growth and our recovery of joy is one of motivation. Yet our thinking must take us beyond motivation. We must desire to think thoughts that are compatible with how God designed us. Just like the trees in John's illustration, we were designed to create.

     We could experience Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol a hundred times and never grow tired of the story. Many of Dickens' themes are present in our lesson this morning. The tax collectors and the soldiers were already bearing fruit. They saw what they wanted and they had the power to get it. How similar this kind of thinking was to the visible fruit of Ebenezer Scrooge.

In light of this reality, motivation is not the only key joy. We must consider the spirit that is inspiring us. Do our needs and wants cause us to pursue what we believe will make us secure, or are we engaging our energy in the process of creating? The resulting areas of either choice are dramatically different.

     Ebenezer Scrooge had extreme wealth for which, no doubt, he had worked very hard. He had power. He was very economically secure. His presence evoked fear in people, particularly among his employees. Two spirits came to him and offered advice. Scrooge was not convinced by what they showed him. It took the third spirit to show Ebenezer the consequences of his current life patterns. Seeing his future moved Scrooge to think differently. The message of Dickens is very clear, we can change our destiny right now by changing how we think.

     At the end of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge is laughing uncontrollably. His life is filled to overflowing with joy. Why? Because he learned that joy was a consequence when he began to create opportunities for other people. Because he changed his mind, Tiny Tim did not die. What Ebenezer Scrooge had done was harmonize his thinking so that it was compatible with the way God had designed human beings to be. We were designed to create. When we do, joy is the by-product.

     Nothing is simpler to understand and achieve! Nothing produces more dramatic results in our lives than giving instead of needing. For the wood-burning stove to produce heat, we must give it wood. Giving allows our lives to produce energy, light, and joy in much the same way. Giving stokes our furnaces.

     Frequently people who attend our church for the first time tell me that there is something present here that they cannot quite put their finger on. The environment is beyond being friendly. Perhaps they sense a joyous spirit because we are a congregation that is always giving?

     We can see the 154 gigantic poinsettia plants that you gave to help decorate our sanctuary. We can also see the bags of gifts for children whose parents are incarcerated in our county's detention center, the sweatshirts for under-privileged children, and the teddy bears for the elderly. And this giving is not merely a seasonal gesture, we are doing it constantly throughout the year. And almost all of us are involved on one level or another.

     One of you recently said, "I have not been in a Toys R Us for years. Going there with my kids to buy things for a nine year old was just the best." Regardless of what we have been taught, love is a one-way street. If love were a two-way street, God would have abandoned us thousands of years ago. God is a God who sees only possibilities. So must we.

     As we prepare ourselves once again to receive the one about whom John preached, may we remember how much God loves us. As we have learned today, God's love is half the equation. The other half is our response. When we see people who are giving and creating, the consequence is joy. And there is something else about joy -- it is contagious. Joy is one of the gifts Jesus brought us. Let us hope everyone eventually becomes filled with it. It is a natural result of who we were designed to be.


     O God, we come into this season of joy sensing how our world is transformed by music, colors, smells and fellowship. Yet we know how often our outer world is prepared long before we are. We still dwell on the distractions of life. We display emotions that inform us how much we have yet to learn. We find little things about which to complain. We sense how easily we can be offended. We exhaust ourselves worrying about issues we cannot change. We want our world to be other than what it is. Thank you for sending your son into such a world. He taught us how to decorate the inside of ourselves. He showed us how to live by changing our inner world. Then he urged us to follow him into a life of discovery. May what we learn serve to make our world one that is more gentle and kind.


     Thank you, God, for these moments of being together with others who are celebrating with us the coming of your Son into our world. We were so long in darkness. We believed for thousands of years that the nation with the most toys won. Yet humanity never took time to consider what it was that it won through conflict and the acquiring of possessions. And when Jesus came into our midst, he gave us a clear window through which to look at you. What a pleasant surprise it was when we found that through him you were looking back at us.