"Want A Savior Or A Coach?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 30, 2003

Psalm 25:1-10; Jeremiah 33:14-16 

     This morning we enter the season of Advent by the lighting of the candle of hope.  Each year this season begins by aligning ourselves with the ancient Hebrew parents of our faith who looked forward to a time when God would deliver them from their darkness and despair.  The authors of the Hebrew Bible created a wide variety of images describing how God would usher in this new day.  Many of the Psalmists, for example, looked forward to the restoration of Zion and the throne of David.   

     In this morning's lesson Jeremiah wrote, 

The time is coming when I will fulfill the promise that I made to the people of Israel and Judah.  At that time I will choose as king a righteous descendant of David.  That king will do what is right and just throughout the land. 

     Isaiah is most vivid in his numerous descriptions of the coming hope. In one passage his words painted a mixed portrait of destroyed enemies, confiscated wealth and an established rule by none other than God.  

The Lord will show us his glory.  We will live beside broad rivers and streams, but hostile ships will not sail on them.  We will seize all the wealth of enemy armies and there will be so much that even the lame will get a share.  The Lord himself will be our king; he will rule over us and protect us.  No one who lives in our land will ever again complain of being sick, and all sins will be forgiven.  (Is. 33:21-24) 

     It would be a challenge for any student of the Hebrew Scriptures to find a precise understanding that describes exactly what the Jews hoped would come. They certainly had their share of saviors.  In spite of how wonderful they were, none of them produced cultural or economic stability that lasted more than two or three generations. 

     For example, Joseph was a true savior of Jacob's entire household.  He brought them into Egypt to escape the seven years of famine and gave them the land of Goshen as a place to live. However, eventually there arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.  The Hebrew population had grown so rapidly that the new ruler of Egypt enslaved them in fear they would become too powerful to manage.

     Moses saved his people by leading them out of Egypt and by giving them their law code.  Later, with the Ark of the Covenant going before them, Joshua lead the Jews across the Jordan into Canaan.  Even though the "Promised Land" was God's gift to the Hebrews, they had first to cleanse it of its current inhabitants, e.g., the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites.  (Josh. 3:10) 

    While this was the land "flowing with milk and honey," it nevertheless became the stage where the drama of war became a constant theme. When their dream of restoring Zion was never realized, the Jews began to look forward to the coming of a Messiah. This leader would embody every quality that would provide leadership for establishing an ideal world for them.

     Is eagerly waiting the arrival of a Messiah a hope that has value?   Can there ever be an ideal world, particularly since every generation must learn to build on the wisdom of those who have gone before them. As we are painfully aware, each newborn to planet earth must learn life's lessons in a time they choose.  The "perfect world" may always be in the eye of the beholder.    

     Over the last six months I have grown intrigued by the message underlying the television commercials for the automobile industry.  Their producers have created a concept of an ideal world. It is a world where no one else exists but the person behind the wheel of their car.  Have you noticed this?

     The cars are generally traveling on open, winding roads at high rates of speed. No other cars can be seen anywhere. One commercial even has the car being "guarded and guided" by four small angelic creatures. 

     While driving in the city, the driver in one commercial finds himself in a major metropolitan area where the streets are completely empty. How they ever filmed this remains a mystery.  There are no pedestrians in sight. Another advertisement features a gridlocked traffic pattern that freezes allowing one driver to maneuver through the stilled traffic as though he were totally in control of his world. The reality is that most of us go from 0 to 60 in about 30 minutes or about the time it takes us to get to Route 50 between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. on a "good day."

     In our tradition, Christians look forward each year to the birth of Jesus, whom we believe is the Savior of humanity. Are we clear what it is we are looking forward to in the birth of this child?  What do we honestly expect from our Savior -- that our sins are forgiven and our slates are wiped clean?  Is it that our lives can be made new? Do we expect Jesus to bring into existence a new world order? What are we hoping for with all our celebrations, rituals, decorated homes and sanctuaries?

     Collectively humanity has not appreciably changed spiritually since the birth of Jesus.  Many centuries before Jesus' birth, Isaiah captured with his words a major tendency found in human behavior.  His findings are still accurate today.  While addressing Israel he wrote,

Listen you deaf people!  Look closely, you who are blind! Israel, you have seen so much, but what has it meant to you?  You have ears to hear but what have you really heard?  The Lord is a God who is eager to save, so he exalted his laws and teachings. He wanted his people to understand them and apply them to their lives.  But we would not live as he wanted us to live or obey the teachings he gave us.  Throughout our history, we have lived very tortured lives.  We never knew what was happening; we lived as though we had learned nothing from our heritage, traditions and faith.  (Isaiah 42:18f)

     Perhaps the perception of a savior is as mythological as the commercials being offered by the automotive industry.  Can anyone save us?  Yes, they can, but not in the way we commonly associate with our faith tradition.

     There is a young woman whom I will call Cindy.  She is a stunning, shapely beauty who is 33 years old.  She is single.  She was referred to as being "high maintenance" by the person telling me about her.

     In every relationship she has financially drained her male companions until eventually each had to draw a line in the sand and walk away.  She is a woman who needed the clothing, jewelry, dining at the finest restaurants, Broadway shows, etc.  The storyteller said, "She's finally hit the lottery.  She has met a man who is 54.  He has put her up in a condo that costs $2,000 a month and he has given her a VISA card that has no credit limit.  She is in heaven!"

     Cindy has been saved, for the moment, from having to grow up, from having to assume responsibility for her life and from having to develop marketable skills.  She is free to indulge herself any way she wants.  Her newly found economic power will allow her to deepen the illusion that she is worth it.  What will happen to her when the means for meeting her neediness ends and she is left with masks that will no longer hide her true identity?  We either grow or engage in delay. 

     Today we are not preparing ourselves for a savior who can wave a magic wand and give us everything we fear we lack.  That is not the kind of Savior Jesus grew up to be. We experience our lives exactly as Isaiah indicated how the Jews were experiencing theirs. We may have the rules from God memorized, but we prefer to follow the often whimsical responses to our own desires.

     Regardless of what Jesus taught and what he did during the last several years of his life, until we resonate with his message, we will not be among those who hear his voice.  Not everyone is ready to hear.  Not everyone wants to understand life the way Jesus did.  The physical trappings of our earthly environment are simply too tempting, too desirable, too attractive and too compelling.  After all, why search for a deeper meaning and purpose for our lives when we already have found happiness, have lots of friends and are successful in our vocational field?  What more could we possibly want?  

     The Jews had placed their hope in material symbols, too, symbols such as "the Promised Land," an idealized ruler of David's bloodline or a time when the Son of Man will come in the clouds and give to them a restored Zion.  We Christians may find ourselves preparing for the arrival of a savior who we perceive with an equal number of fuzzy, abstract definitions that communicate very little of substance.

     Perhaps a better metaphor for us is a coach who entered our world embodying the rules of God.  He taught his followers how to radiate thoughtful, loving energy patterns and he became an inspired cheerleader for anyone who had the courage to follow him.

     He knew that for humanity to be saved from the disastrous, cyclical, earth-binding themes of our collective consciousness, there would have to be a group of pioneers willing to take risks by following him.  He called them his disciples. Eventually they began to teach what has inspired followers in every generation -- there is more to our lives than what we perceive through our five senses.

     It is this understanding that allows us to love someone who will not or cannot return it. Having this understanding helps us to move beyond being held an emotional captive of our hurt feelings.  This allows us to permit others to be whoever they are while we love them just as we find them.  This allows us to be in the midst of chaotic power struggles at the office while we remain detached as though we were watching a drama unfold at the theater.  This orientation helps us to be an authentic support for others as we literally become the wind beneath their wings. We become saved not by being given a new external world but by being coached on how better to live in the one we have.

     We cannot pattern ourselves after Jesus' likeness without him remaining the coach who encourages us. Our Shepherd's voice comes through many channels. Our faith community inspires such teachable moments. We can receive course corrections from a friend while being a part of a Church School class discussion, from a sermon on Sunday morning, from a book, from a listener whose presence in our lives means everything, through prayer or while in the midst of our quiet times.

     It is we who must remain open, willing and attentive.  Nothing that produces spiritual maturity is ever automatic.  There must be a willingness to accept course corrections-a choice that saves us from the countless blind alleys and human struggles that beckon us to enter.  When we go there, we become entangled in a web and our lives suddenly become complicated.  During his ministry Jesus invited his followers to become a different kind of being.

     Advent is not a time to look forward to some divine transfer from God to us of all the skills we never took the time to develop. Advent is looking forward to this truth:  "God so loved the world's people that He gave them His Son. Whosoever believes what he taught will reveal their eternal nature.  God did not send His Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its savior. (John 3:16-17)       

     The new world will come not by what we hope God will establish for us.  If that had been the plan, it would have already happened.  The new world will come because we had the courage to listen to our coach who brought part of his world into ours. This is our hope.  This is what we eagerly look forward to with the coming of a baby in Bethlehem.


    For so many years, O God, a number of us have settled for recycling our habits and rituals of Advent.  Our days come and go and the years drift into decades.  Without realizing it, we can grow complacent with our traditions. We may find ourselves more busy with the details of the season than we are with stretching toward the horizons of spirit. 

    Help us remember that for which we prepare -- the coming into our world of a truth that was so strangely packaged, few recognized your finger prints.  Humanity grows suspicious when new insights challenge what many believe was divinely inspired.  The dictates of Hebrew Law gave way to the inspired quality of the spirit by which we live. 

    Heal us of complaining about long shopping lines, the price of products, the need to eat every time we turn around or who to drop from our Christmas card list.  Help us learn to ignore the inconveniences and frustrations that come with being among lots of people as we work on our skills of kindness, patience and understanding.  Perhaps the greatest gifts we can give this season will come from the way we display courtesy, smiles and joy that is both consistent and gentle.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .