Sunday, December 17th's inspirational message “Seeing Beyond Ourselves” by Rev. Toni Carmer.
Seeing Beyond Ourselves
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
First United Methodist Church, December 17, 2017
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
Imagine you’re building a new house or getting ready to move into a new place, but you’re not quite ready to load up the pickup or the moving van. The plumbing isn’t connected, the drywall hasn’t been painted or the flooring laid down. There’s just an empty spot where the appliances will be. This new thing—this new life and way of living is about to happen, but you’re not there yet. It’s not quite time.
That’s the world we live in: we are in the midst of the “already” but “not yet.” Christ has already come as the babe in Bethlehem—as the one who brought salvation to Israel and to us—and he will come again to bring history to a close, to complete the bringing of God’s Kingdom on earth: when God’s will will be done. It’s all started…but it’s not yet complete.
Jesus has already come once, and he’s coming again.
So Paul is writing to the people of Thessalonica to encourage them. To tell them how to live in this “in between” time, so they’ll be ready when Christ returns.
We read Paul’s words and think—those are good words. They all sounds good. What he says makes perfect sense to us. And yet—at the same time—we can’t help but think: our world is a little more complicated than his world. Things aren’t so cut and dried these days. As we’ve come to know things about the world, about science, about biology—we’ve had to make some compromises…some adjustments. Just an example, if someone has a physical illness we don’t even think about asking—so, who sinned, the person or their parents? And let’s be real: we’ve got a lot more temptation to wade through these days…things Paul couldn’t even have imagined (wouldn’t have wanted to). It’s not always so easy to distinguish between good and evil and right and wrong today. Our world is a lot bigger today. It’s more complex.
And yet, it’s important for us to see that there are some bigger truths in scripture—in Paul’s words—truth that speaks to both the ancient world and to our world today. We tend to make things “smaller.” We tend to translate scripture into what it means today, in our lives here and now. I’m not saying that’s wrong. We do that. That’s often how I concluded so many of the messages as we were working through in “The Story.” We’d work through the biblical stories and I’d ask—so, what does all this have to say to us today? That makes sense; we need to understand how God’s word impacts our lives today…to understand its relevance in our lives. The way we do that is by looking for the big truths.
That makes sense, doesn’t it?
The problem comes when we focus more on how it works here and now and lose track of the big truth…the bigger picture.
I think of when I was learning to drive. My mom took me out driving a few times and decided that the couple of hundred dollars that it would cost to have me take classes at school would be well worth the investment. Our driving adventures were no more fun for me then they were for her. I still remember: She’d keep saying things like, “Drive faster.” “You don’t have to slow down at the curve.” I felt like I was going plenty fast in that big ole car. I don’t remember: maybe there was a whole line of cars stuck behind me with a double yellow line in the middle of the road so they had no choice but to follow this pokey 16 year old and her annoyed mother up ahead. But I also remember some words of wisdom from her that didn’t come naturally for me, but were absolutely right: I remember her saying: “Stop focusing on the road right in front of the car. Look ahead. Look farther out.” So I still do my best to do that.
We come into this season of Advent, and we’re challenged to look ahead. To look further out…beyond today. To readjust our focus from our own lives, our own trials and troubles, our own limited vision—to what God sees, to what God envisions, to what God wants for our lives and for our world. It doesn’t come to our minds first and it doesn’t come naturally, but it’s something we can learn to do. It’s something we can help one another to do…it’s something we’re challenged to do as the church—as the Body of Christ in our world today: to help us all to see beyond the front of our cars, to see further out, to the place beyond where our headlights reach—to the place that is illuminated by the light of God.
Paul urges us to focus on the culture of heaven, to find our identity and definition in the ways of God, and not be limited by our culture or the ways of this world.
In just a few verses, Paul says a lot. He begins by telling us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.
Okay, Paul, we might respond. Maybe that’s easy for you to say. But those words seem a bit out of touch to our lives, don’t you think? Rejoice always? Pray without ceasing? Give thanks in all circumstances? What about when you’re sick…in the hospital…really hurting. What about when your marriage falls apart? When you gave it your best but it’s done and you know it. What about when you’ve tried so hard to do the right thing, and then you said what you said. You were really mad and you meant it at the time, but when you saw the look on the other person’s face, you were immediately sorry…but you couldn’t take the words back. Not then, at least. But the damage has been done. How can she trust you now? And how can you rejoice and give thanks when you know your job is coming to an end? When the funding has run out and you only have a few more paychecks?
Really Paul? Maybe what you meant to say was—rejoice often, as often as possible. Pray regularly. Every morning is good, right? Before I begin my day? And what about a slight adjustment when it comes to “all” circumstances. How about, “whenever good things happen.” That would make better sense, wouldn’t it?
I think of how some of us aren’t so convinced when we say, “God is good, all the time.” We’re not so sure that God always has our best interests in mind.
Paul wants us to hear that God does: Yes, our world is a broken and sinful place, and we will unfortunately experience the consequences of that…we will all experience disappointment and hurt. But in spite of these difficult moments and times, God loves us and somehow works through every situation…we can’t always see it, often can’t understand it, but God is present in the midst of those challenging and awful times, and calls us to be faithful even in the midst of those times: “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Reach out and hang onto God’s power…don’t rely on your own, it won’t get you through. C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity, “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day…and you will find eternal life.” His inspiration? It was Jesus who said in the Gospel of Matthew, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (10:39).
There’s this bigger picture…this greater light…illuminating the darkness beyond where our headlights reach.
In verses 19-21, Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”
I remember years ago, my dad and Scott were talking about something and whatever it was that Scott said, my dad responded: “You’re supposed to say that. You’re a pastor.”
You know what? Not only as pastors, but as Christians, you and I are called to look at the world in a different way. It’s not that we’re “supposed” to say this, but God has touched our lives through the word and ministry of Jesus, and we have this understanding…this hope…this recognition that we’re not stuck where we are, but that transformation is taking place in us and in our world…and what Amos said will become reality, that “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). That what Isaiah says is true: the grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever (40:8). And the one who is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace will bring an endless peace, that will be established and upheld from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this (from Isaiah 9:6-7).
This is the light that shines in the darkness. This is the word of the Lord. God’s word has held true. God’s promises are real. When we believe it, when we choose to be a part of what God is doing, we are a part of the transformation, the ushering in…we’re not quenching the Spirit. We’re listening, we’re honoring the prophets, we’re discerning God’s way and God’s will, we’re not falling into false teaching, but we’re holding fast…holding strong…and that will prepare us for the Lord’s coming.
C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity takes the image of the not quite finished house a little further. He speaks of the house as this body we live in. He says:
“Imagine yourself a living house. God comes to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that [God] is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but [God] is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.”
Something to remember: Messiah came as a carpenter. He's still building.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this (v. 23-24). Amen.