"So What's Different Now?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 26, 2004
Psalm 148; Isaiah 63:7-9
Many shoppers will skip church--experience the ultimate post Christmas
nightmare in order to engage in more shopping an activity inspired by
words like “clearance” or “the lowest prices this year.” They will also
stock up on Christmas cards at price reductions far below their inflated
doubt there will be fender benders. Sadly, people may be injured in car
accidents today. Already exhausted merchants, who had to feature insane
hours for opening and closing, will be dealing with some irate customers
who wonder why a particular sales bin is empty of some advertised
product. Parents, weary from all their preparations for Christmas, will
be praying that soon the batteries will run down in the toys that
produce those repetitive melodic sounds.
What is different now for some of us because of Christmas? Did the celebration of Jesus’ birth bring to us anything substantive? Did some Advent meditation, sermon, prayer or performance of the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah bring us a peace that we have never known? Do we have increased confidence as we face the New Year knowing God is with us? Or have we simply consumed more calories and gone a little deeper into debt?
Actually the world is exactly as it was prior to Advent. The rudeness of some people will still be there. Iraq has not gotten any closer to being a healed nation. The traffic patterns will continue to grow worse. The politics of the office will display the same dynamics. Each time we pass a mirror, we vow in the New Year that we are going to exercise more and monitor more closely what we eat. Yet, inside, we know that we are struggling with a battle we cannot win. The treadmill still has laundry draped on the sidebars. So what’s different now?
Indeed, the world has not changed. The truth is that it really has not changed for thousands of years. About 70 years before Jesus was born, Marcus Cicero wrote the six most common mistakes made by people: 1) The illusion that personal gain is made by manipulating others. (2) The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected. (3) Insisting that a thing is impossible because we have not yet accomplished it. (4) Refusing to set aside trivial preferences. (5) Neglecting the development and refinement of our minds by not acquiring the habit of reading and study. (6) Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.
Judging from this list, we could easily conclude that nothing has changed in well over 2000 years. What hope is there for humanity? If we arrive at such a conclusion, then we need to revisit the message of Christmas. We may have gotten caught up in the pageantry of the Gospel stories, and, that is fine, but to discerning minds, perhaps we located something that has been missing in our lives because of being reminded that God is with us.
When we examine closely either Scripture lesson today, we find something very interesting. If we choose any random verse in either of our lessons, we find praise, thanksgiving and celebration. For example, take verse 11 from Psalm 148, “Praise him, kings and all peoples, princes and all other rulers, young women and young men, old people and children.” In the Isaiah passage we find these words, “I will tell of the Lord’s unfailing love; I praise him for all he has done for us.”
Isn’t this interesting? These people had no cars, aircraft, cell phones, video games, or season Redskin tickets. There were no relationships formed through eHarmony.com, no indoor running water and no drainage system designed to manage everything from torrential rains to human waste. Most of these people had little or no understanding of cultures located 1,000 miles away. What, then, excited these authors? What had so inspired these writers that made their spirits soar with praise and thanksgiving to God long before Jesus was born?
They must have discovered something that still remains obscure to so many people. The quality of life is not made up of the abundance of goods and services, creature comforts, or information sharing or even benevolent forms of government. There is a freedom of spirit when that spirit willfully chooses to remain connected to the Creator of the universe. Change will continue to happen all around us, but when we build our house on such a solid foundation, the winds and rains of change will not prevail against it.
I visited Ruth Cagle in the Crofton Convalescent facility not long ago. As I was leaving, I met her roommate. She was watching a program featuring Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, one of my favorite preachers as I was growing up. As I hesitated in front of her television, I noticed a picture of a strikingly beautiful woman and a very handsome man. Sensing from the clothing and hairstyles that the picture had some age to it, I said, “Are these your parents?” She said, “Oh no. That was my husband and me a long time ago.”
All at once I realized that this stunningly gorgeous woman, who must have turned heads wherever she went, was now sitting in front of me in a wheelchair. Her body was much larger now, her hair was thin and her once smooth, soft skin was now covered with age spots and wrinkles. Yet inside that body was the same beautiful creation of God that I saw in the picture.
As this woman was experiencing the sunset years of her life, she was still feeding herself by listening to a message of hope from a Roman Catholic Bishop whose physical presence has long since left the stage where all human drama is acted out. As best I could tell during my brief encounter with her, this woman had not invested her identity in her fabulous beauty. Instead, she chose to remain anchored to a faith that continues to evolve and nurture her as she passes through all the seasons of her life.
Even though these Hebrew writers were experiencing tumultuous geopolitical events almost on an annual basis, their traditions and heritage gave them a very precious gift. Their faith was not encumbered with elements of materialism as our Christmas celebrations can be. Their faith was anchored to a reality that connected their spirits to God. Nothing could move them away from wanting to praise God from whom all blessings flow. Yet today many people have forgotten this knowledge.
For example, as I was lamenting this week the
loss of so many people in Iraq to a suicide bomber, the story reinforced
my belief in the futility of war. War is waged on the belief that the
world will be safer and more wholesome if certain people are destroyed.
If reports are accurate, the young man who destroyed himself in one of our temporary mess halls was just married in November. After committing himself to his bride, how could his identity still be anchored in hate, violence and destruction -- the very essence of war itself? We find it difficult to believe that anyone could conceive of building a better world on the foundations of annihilation.
The wise Hebrew writers knew that we could
not change the external world until people changed their interior world.
They had discovered how to remain filled with praise and thanksgiving
even when their world was not what they wanted it to be. This was the
substance of the message that Jesus brought with him.
So what is different now for us? Perhaps we have learned to view life differently. Perhaps we no longer expect the office politics to change; we have finally changed our attitude toward it. Perhaps rather than becoming emotionally polarized because of someone’s tasteless words or actions directed toward us, we have learned to say a silent prayer that they might be healed from such thoughts and activities. Perhaps now we are more sensitive to the needs of those around us. Perhaps Advent and Christmas reminded us who we, are and that served as a wake-up call.
For example, we should all stay tuned
to the drama unfolding around the Apgar family. First, their picture
and story appeared in the Bowie Blade. As many of us know, Tom
and Tommie are having their daughter Brittany treated by Dr. Norman
Cowen. He is the specialist in Bowie who is internationally renowned
for enabling children to grow their own hand from the stub with which
they were born. The good doctor was going to retire this month until he
Joanne Haworth recognized the family at
Chick-fil-A. As she spoke to them, she learned that they were staying
at the Comfort Inn. She contacted Jean Baker, and, in no time, the
family from Farmville, North Carolina, moved into our church’s apartment
a move that will save them about $4,500.
Not only have the Apgars been inundated with
many gifts, food and support from the Bowie community and us, but
Farmville Presbyterian Church -- their own church family -- has
established a Crisis Fund for Brittany. The congregation thus far has
collected over $9,000. We have given the Apgars access to the Internet
and they are able to keep in close contact with friends and extended
When we remain connected to the Vine, we
observe what others may not see.
Our lives are surrounded by miracles, understanding, fellowship and
laughter. We learn that there are no mountains we cannot climb. How we
conduct our lives has everything to do with the way we perceive. Not
everyone understood life as did the Hebrew writers whose words encourage
The greatest insight for us now that we are
on this side of Christmas is to remember that our world will never sing
our song during our lifetime.
Always there will be people who have the potential to hurt us. There
will be people who are held prisoner by their own self-absorption.
There will be people who will remain extremely fragile, who nurse wounds
from memories they cannot release. If there is anything different
about our world today, it has to be us.
The lyrics to a familiar song have it right,
“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Do we see
where the responsibility lies for creating such a world? Jesus came
here to teach us how to sing in perfect harmony but only some of us
learned the song. Now it is our turn to teach others.
What we learn from history is that this song of Jesus is not new. Two hundred and fifty years before Jesus was born, the great Hindu teacher, Patanjali, once wrote, "When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary idea, all your thoughts break their bonds. Your mind rises above perceived limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents come alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be."
What an insightful description of what
happens to us when we become a disciple! Jesus’ Kingdom of God has been
around for thousands of years. When he came into our world, he grew up
and lived in that Kingdom. In doing so he became a light to the
world. It is possible for us to be a light, a source of
understanding and healing in our office, in our church, in our family
and in all seemingly impossible circumstances.
What is different now? We have, once again,
been reminded how to let go of ourselves and trust that God will move
all barriers to our destiny, a destiny that has little to do with events
in our world.
Infant Jesus grew up to teach us that the infinite consciousness of God surrounds us. When we tap into it, divine genius pours through us into our physical world of change and limitation. The Hebrew writers knew this and now so do we. Our praise and joy come from making this truth visible. As we approach the New Year, the path of what to do with our lives appears very clear. Will we walk on it confident that the universe is unfolding according to a design we may not understand?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal and always faithful God, we thank you for moments of anticipation coupled with times of reflection. Jesus gave us a window. We can now dream where we are going while recalling where we have been. Jesus taught us to trust in the unfolding of our lives. From the mountains and valleys encountered, we find our meaning and purpose. The New Year always challenges us to convert uncertainties into opportunities. We are given moments to think again about our habits, thought patterns and the quality of our dreams. Give us the vision of how we should stretch and the wisdom to let go of what we cannot change. May we leave our guilt and regrets behind, as we learn that we become what we give away. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and always
faithful God, how grateful we are that your signposts of guidance still
direct the paths of those of us who choose to remain attached to your
vine. Truly life is much different when perceived through the eyes of
trust and faith.
Christmas, we were reminded that you came to us in a form we could
understand. You spoke in our language and used symbols that helped
us learn our identity as your children. The signpost of Lent
reminds us of the value of restraint, of reflection, of meditation and
of remembering who you called us to be. The signpost of Good
Friday lifts up for us how blind to truth we humans can be, as your son
confidently radiated love’s vast power while facing death. The
signpost of Easter gives us a pearl of great price – the truth that we
do not die. We have learned that nothing real can ever be
threatened by the powers of this world.
As we face the coming New Year, we thank you for the understanding that comes from making mistakes. We thank you for how our emotions and spirits can be touched when others forgive us, when others love us, when others call us “friend” and when others glow around us because they enjoy being with us. We thank you, God, for being exactly who you are and for revealing yourself to us every day. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .