The sermon for week December 14, 2014
Tricking Myself into Christmas1 Thess 5:16-24
I once said to my atheist friend, “I pray to God with my every thought.”
He said, “You're delusional. How do you know if it's God or just you who talks?”
“Great question,” I said. “I'll never know if I'm delusional, I just believe that I am not.”
“What's your life verse?” My cousin's husband asked me this once like 4 years ago at Christmas. I told him I never knew I was supposed to have a life verse. 4 Christmases later, I found it. I had no idea how you acquired one, or what exactly a life verse is prior to this point. A life verse is something in conservative evangelical circles. It's a verse that has really resonated with who you are and your faith journey and can also be something you aspire to, a verse that represents a calling for your life. I think 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 is mine. These concepts are ones I aspire to and try to embody. Being joyful, praying constantly, being grateful, listening to hard truths, being curious and skeptical, and holding to what is good and avoiding evil. That sounds like someone I want to hang out with! That sounds like someone I want to be.
When I was in grade-school, I remember this time I was walking down the hallway. I must have been heading to the restroom, because I was alone, not with my class. I remember the blue carpet, how the sun was shining in. I remember it being early spring, and I was feeling good that it was finally nice outside and we'd have outdoor recess consistently. Then I heard my name. I stopped and looked around. No one was there. I started walking but I heard it again. So I looked around again. I started to get freaked so I began to run to the bathroom.
On my way there, I ran into my priest. He sternly told me to walk in the hallway, not to run. I must have looked panicked because he then knelt down and asked what was wrong. I told him what was happening. Then he told me the story of the call of the prophet Samuel. Samuel kept hearing this voice calingl his name in the middle of the night, so he went and woke up his mentor, Nathaniel. At the third time, Nathaniel realized it must be God calling Samuel... or Nathaniel was tired of getting woken up three times in a row and he told Samuel, “The next time you hear this voice, just say 'Here I am Lord.'”
It wasn't long after that I heard the voice again and I answered as my priest instructed me, “Here I am Lord.” And I heard the same voice say, “Pray always.”
I'll never know if I'm delusional, I just believe that I am not.
Since then, I've tried to live my life as if I'm having one giant conversation with God. Each thought is a prayer. And each prayer is a request for God to speak back into my life. To call me on the carpet, to comfort me, to affirm me, to just say anything. Sometimes God speaks, but mostly God listens. I try not to shy away from prophetic words or treat them with contempt. Sometimes my initial reaction is that, but once I can sit with it and talk to God about it, I am able to come to terms with hard truths.
Now my atheist friend who I mentioned at the beginning. He was pretty skeptical about all this. He says I'm delusional, that I'm talking to myself. That it's just my ego or ID or something talking back and I'm just tricking myself. We revisited this talk around this passage. His first comment was, “What the hell does this have to do with Christmas?” And then we picked the conversation back up where we left off.
But I had a new understanding of how to articulate these strange experiences. I shared with him my sermon entitled “The Great Truth of Ministry.” There I said, “If you feel two emotions at once, like I did then with confidence and humility, that’s how you know that God is speaking to you.” And I added, “There are sometimes that a thought comes unbidden. It's an idea that's brilliant, just what I needed at that moment. It's a thought so awesome, so cool that causes multiple contradictory emotions to happen in me, I knew it couldn't have come from my brain. It’s just a gift of unbridled clarity.”
My friend was silent for a few days (we were discussing this through email). When he finally wrote back he said, “I have never had this experience save for being inspired yet I don’t understand where that comes from either. You might be onto something here.”
Now about his first question, “What does any of this have to do with Christmas?” Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica about some of their concerns. One of them is a concern about Christians who are dying before Jesus comes back. Paul writes that these Christians will “meet Christ in the air.” Some bit of poetry that Paul writes. I think he’s telling the Thessalonians not to be too concerned about this, that Jesus will find us.
Now it is my personal opinion that Jesus won't come again in some huge, dramatic fashion. He didn't come like that the first time. He was born in a barn, wrapped in rags, and put in an animal trough. Those who visited him where lowly shepherds and some crazy fortune tellers from unknown lands. The first Christmas wasn't flashy or widely known. And thus Jesus can come into our lives at the strangest times. Times we don't know he was there until way later. Times that leave us questioning, was that Jesus?
It is my sincere belief that anyone can give birth to Jesus at any given time. Anyone can be Jesus, that every day could be Christmas: the Spirit's fire come again. An answered prayer. A prophetic word. If we're flirting with evil, holding contempt to hard truths, or putting out the Spirit's fire, we can miss these Christmases. We can miss the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we must disciple ourselves, we must have a guiding principle to help us find and be Christ in our world. This takes a long discipline in the same direction to find these little Christmases happening all the time. Christ comes back every time you love God with heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. Christ comes back every time we're at the table, or when two or three are gathered, or any of the least of these is served. Christ comes back to the world through his followers. And our world could use some Jesus right now.
I see these Christmases in how people protest unjust treatment. We are hearing some prophetic words right now in our society. How are we listening to them? Are we hearing things with contempt? Protest is a form of prayer. I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat in hospital bedsides and waiting rooms protesting “Lord, please don’t let this happen. Please let this have a good outcome.” Or even in those same hospitals rooms and funeral homes, “God, I protest that this has happened. I cannot accept this.”
I see this Christmases in community organizers like Lorna Gonsalves who have police and youth sit down and talk to one another. To learn one another’s name. Reconciliation is a radical act in our world.
I see these Christmases in the healing a hospital visit brings, they are truly a gift. Or the telling of someone’s life story can help resurrect the essence of a person for those in grief and give them reason to celebrate. Sort of like how Jesus did for Lazarus but not quite on that scale.
But this is my take on my life verse and how it relates to Christmas. This is how I feel I'm living it out and some of the experiences I have had trying to do so. I hope it gives you joy and inspiration as you seek to find and be Christ in our world. I don’t know if I'm delusional with all of this. I just believe that I am not.
Lindon, Luke. The Great Truth of Ministry. Sermon on June 15, 2014.