“God's Biggest Challenge”
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 24, 2007
While the question is absurd, it lifts up how we tend to think of God in physical terms, as did many writers of the Scriptures. We sometimes forget that atoms and molecules can only be found on this side of life's curtain. On the other side, we find the realm of spirit where absolutely nothing exists that has a physical form, as we understand it. Such an environment is difficult for some people to fathom even when using their imagination.
A number of months ago, there was a program on the History channel that featured interviews with key religious leaders of every major faith community in the world. All of the spokespersons were of the stature of the Dalai Lama, who was also interviewed. They were asked one question, “What is your understanding of heaven?”
It was shocking to listen to what they said. Every one of them described heaven in physical terms, e.g., rolling hills, blue skies, fresh water and a place where lions will lie down with lambs. I honestly believe they did not want to disturb the faith of their believers who sincerely think this way. I know each of them has a mystical side, but none of them went there with their words. I have read their books.
We are so locked into our solid forms and all the symbols related to how we live here. We transfer the best that we know about the physical world and project it onto what we hope heaven will be like. Why? This is all we know with our five senses.
If we move to the realm of spirit for a moment, what has been God's biggest challenge? Our experience tells us that God's biggest challenge is communication. The question is, “Can God communicate in such a fashion that everyone understands the same message?” How can God communicate about matters of spirit to beings who are thoroughly grounded in and hold on to what it means to be alive in our solid forms? Just look around.
Tonight we celebrate the birth of a baby who was born in a stable, in an obscure part of the world, a world where everyone on the planet would die for hundreds of years before any of Jesus' teachings were known outside the place where he taught.
His Good News, his Gospel message was simple, “Love the Lord, your God, with all your mind, heart, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” When we do this, we will have the innocence of a child and live from a spirit where our deepest desire is to make love visible.
Is such a thought that revolutionary? Why would such a thought inspire the development of separatist communities called Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, American and Southern Baptist, Episcopalian, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Eastern, Russian and Greek Orthodox, the Assembly of God and Mormon? These are just some of the faith communities who claim to depict accurately what Jesus grew up to teach.
Erasmus once wrote, “Truly the yoke of Christ would be sweet if petty human institutions added nothing more to what he himself taught. He commanded us to do nothing save to love one another.”
All the theology we Christians believe and hold as extremely sacred about a virgin birth, personal salvation and a second coming of Christ will not matter one bit in the grand scheme of things if we cannot make visible this message from God that came through a humble carpenter whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow!
God communicates to us in many forms. One that I enjoy lifting up came to me one time when I was laying tarpaper on the roof of a mountain cabin. Snow crystals fell individually against the frozen black tarpaper. Not one of them was even remotely like any other. It was like walking into one of God's art galleries.
The creativity behind snowflakes applies to each of us. Each of you is one of a kind in his or her mix of emotions, intellect and spirit all packaged through a personality that delivers your discovered inner treasures to the rest of us. God is telling us that we are magnificent in our design because God called our species into existence. However, we will each have to grow and evolve at our own pace because we reap exactly what we sow.
In reality, communication is not God's challenge at all. It is ours. Just because we may find it difficult to accept, experience and understand what God is saying does not mean that God will stop loving us. It is only through the eyes of love that we truly see clearly. I will close with an illustration of how we can see and yet remain blind.
When you entered the sanctuary this evening, it was decorated with all the symbols of Christmas. You entered and found your seat, preparing to experience the annual portrayal of the story of old through hymns and Scriptures. When the service concludes you will walk back to your cars and in no time be homeward bound for the BIG day tomorrow. You will only remember what your eyes saw and what your ears heard as you experienced the Christmas Eve service.
What lies beyond even those of you who are still blessed with 20-20 vision are angels in the flesh who filled the candles with oil and who lovingly placed each poinsettia where they are. You did not see the very hard working Mira Collins who donated our Christmas tree from Collins nursery for the 12th year in a row. You did not see the hands that decorated that tree. You did not see the people who wrote the hymns we sang, or those who painstakingly copied our Scriptures through the centuries so that we have them today in countless forms. All this loving energy was focused on one purpose B that tonight you might enjoy all that God has given and continues to give to us.
This is how God communicates. God's loving energy comes in countless ways and forms that we take for granted just as many of us did when we came to St. Matthew's tonight. God's love comes to us automatically whether we feel we are worthy or not. The miracle is that what you think or believe about God's love only influences how each of you perceives. Such thoughts and beliefs do not influence God's love that continues to surround and enfold us. The beauty is that we cannot earn it; you do not have to be good to experience it.
Jesus came to teach us that we are capable of participating in God's love by giving it away to others, just as God has done to every person who ever lived. When we participate in that love we become angels in the flesh, or disciples of Jesus who know the value of how to give without counting the cost. Merry Christmas!
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for fashioning our eventual destiny through the seeds you planted in the life and teachings of Jesus. Tonight we celebrate the birth of the child who grew up to change how many people in the world think and perceive.
As we celebrate this evening and tomorrow, we recognize that these are times when our emotions rise to the surface of our lives. We may remember past experiences in our homes when we were children. The smells, food and fellowship remind us of members of our family who may no longer be with us. Coming to church on Christmas Eve, singing the hymns and hearing once again the story of old B helps to recall your infinite love of us. Thank you for communicating to us in so many forms. We are vulnerable to self-definitions that are vastly different from those that you have. You believe so much in us that you never cease surrounding us with your presence, even though our sensitivities have been dulled.
While we are here in the beauty of our sanctuary, we ask for blessings upon families who have been separated by war, upon our police officers and our medical personnel who remain on call, upon those who are hospitalized and in nursing facilities, upon those whose families are dissolving and upon those who can no longer believe in anything that has sacred value to us. Teach us how transformed life can become when we learn that love is an energy pattern that we give to others, just as you do. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .