Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christmas Pageant

We just finished our Christmas pageant. O magnum mysterium. Not just animals, but children!

Jessica Stockton, aka Booknerd, and one of our Sunday School teachers, sent us this reflection by Rick Moody:

"Why is it that the worse the Christmas service, the closer we get to the idea of Christmas? Children's services, with children running aimlessly in the aisles in lamb costumes or dressed as wise men, neglecting or refusing to say their lines, why so much closer to the idea of Christmas?
What is this thing about Christmas, the paradoxical tendency of Christmas, that the more heartbreaking it is the closer it seems to get to the point? Why is failure and awkwardness so human and so natural at Christmas?...
Why is it that desperation is closer to God?...
At the same time, what about the Mean Estate stuff, what about Mary lying in bad circumstances? Why is it that the no-room-at-the-inn part is inevitably moving, even when you are skeptical about the whole thing?...
And why an ideology of the neglected and left out and miserable and disinherited and lonely and poor and ill and exiled, anyway?...
And why is it, meanwhile, that singing is the thing that enables me to understand this, why is it that singing makes the Christmas holiday what it is, what it can be, what it ought to be?"

- Rick Moody, Christmas 2006

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Please Not Pettitte

Oh no, not Andy Pettitte. I have always loved Andy Pettitte as much as I hated Roger Clemens. (The great things about sports is you get to love and hate with the purity of the Psalms!) And not just because Andy Pettitte taught Sunday School.

I'm sorry, Theresa, in my posting earlier this week, that I compared our Sunday School team-teaching to you being Pettitte and me Posada.

(I'll still take Posada. Theresa, you can be Dontrelle. But please come to Queens, Dontrelle, take the 7-train, not the D-train.)

I always figured that Clemens was on Rocket Juice. But to learn that Andy Pettitte is supposed to have taken "human-growth-hormone" is just too hard to bear.

I always figured that Pettitte's friendship with Clemens had to be chalked up to Grace, like Jesus loving sinners. There goes that sentiment.

When my kids were small, we all were fans of Lenny Dykstra. When Nick was six and Anni was four they would call out "Lenny Dykstra" when they saw him up at bat. We loved his energy and style of play, but also that he was one of ours, not just a Dutchman, but a Frisian!

And then he bulked up and tried to be a long-ball hitter. God made him a lead-off man, and now he wanted to hit home runs. No, Lenny, no. And how did he get such big muscles over the winter?

Well, as Frank DeFord always says, sports is the entertainment business, and sports stars are entertainers. What we do is amplify entertainers.

This past week we had some children singing in our sanctuary, and they miked them and amplified them with enough electronic equipment for a Stones Tour. Children's voices on steroids. It seems to be what people want.

It can't be good for the souls of those children, and it was very bad for Lenny Dykstra's body. I don't know if Pettitte still teaches Sunday School, but Sunday Schools have to offer children a whole different set of expectations, and give them back their own small voices, and quiet sounds, and their bodies as temples.

Sermon for Advent 3, December 16: God In Me

Isaiah 35:1-10, Magnificat, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

This is the third sermon in my series on the inner experience of God. This series is not going how I expected it. I had expected to focus this week on Mary. We just read responsively her famous song, the Magnificat, her ecstasy upon her pregnancy. She’s had a unique experience of God.

The character of Mary belongs to the Gospel of Luke, which we read every third year. The Gospel of Matthew takes the nativity from Joseph’s point of view. Matthew is more traditionally masculine. If Luke is Puccini, Matthew is Verdi. If Luke is Mozart, Matthew is Beethoven. Luke is Leonardo da Vinci, and Matthew Michelangelo. If Luke is ecstasy, Matthew is agony.
We will stay with the male viewpoint, with the agony of John the Baptist, and throught that find the ecstasy.
John the Baptist had expected great things from the Messiah, which things did not happen. He expected a revolution, he announced a regime change, which is why he was in Guantanamo.
But the leader he had pointed to was not leading it. The teaching and the miracles were nice, but not the Messiah’s job. We need a leader, not a teacher. We need a king, not a preacher. We need a commander, not a healer. So Jesus, no hard feelings, should we be expecting someone else?
The disappointment of John the Baptist is like the disappointment of that parishioner whose questions led to this series of sermons: How come I don’t feel like I have God in my heart, like other people do? Yes, where’s the benefit? If we can’t feel God, then why not stay with what we can feel—material things, food and drink, sex, exercise, yoga, or ordinary social relationships?

What can I expect in the experience of God? Should I feel Jesus inside me? Is the feeling discernibly distinct from my ordinary feelings? John the Baptist thought the Messiah would bring a discernible change in day-to-day events, that the power and glory would be undeniable.
Well, Jesus can explain himself. He has to be careful, because if says directly, Yes, I am the Messiah, then King Herod will arrest him too, because King Herod has the same expectations as John the Baptist, though opposite desires. Jesus does not regard it as the time and place to declare himself so directly. He has to reserve his royalty for the throne that is the cross.
But in the mean time, to any one with eyes to see, he is able to explain himself. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dumb speak.
Please note how Jesus is not a typical revolutionary. How little he changes things. In a real sense his miracles are not even supernatural. It’s nature he’s restoring as nature should be. He makes the lame to walk, not fly. His power as Messiah is not to do the radical and supernatural in the world, but to restore the ordinary world to how the Creator intended it, and to reveal within it where its Creator intends to take it. The only difference between the world he points to and the world we’re used to is the removal of the power and corruption of human sin.

Religious people so often look for the supernatural, the radically different, the miracle which is inexplicable. It appeals to the ancient love of magic and the modern love of getting high and the lure of special knowledge for the special class. It’s often as innocent as desiring a sacred pill to get us through a life which otherwise is nasty, brutish, and short.

Now it’s true that in special cases, for the sake of a special mission, God comes to people in special ways. During World War II, the German Resistance theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in a Nazi jail, and he reported in his letters home that occasionally Christ had come to be with him in his cell. When his friends wrote back to ask how they could get similar experiences of God, he answered in some exasperation that they had the normal encouragements of family and church and music, and all he had was this special experience of God, to compensate.
I have told you about my single direct experience of God, at 857 President Street. It was when I was at my lowest, and discouraged in my ministry, feeling my failures and my weaknesses. One day while I was in prayer, repeating a Psalm, I suddenly felt the presence of Jesus next to me. And it was not Jesus in my heart, but Jesus, somehow in the Word of scripture, next to me. And then suddenly he left, and has not come again. But I knew at once that is was for my mission, and since then I do not doubt my ministry.
Should I look for this kind of thing? No. Thou shalt not covet. It was a gift, not a possession. Too bad many Christians chase such feelings, and when the thrill is gone, they lose their faith.

The world that God offers us is the ordinary world. It is not a supernatural world, but this world, fully moral and spiritual. God gives us eyes to see the birds, not the future. God gives us ears to hear our neighbors, not the angels. The difference in the world God offers us is a moral difference, the removal of sin and guilt and corruption.
Thet moral difference is greater and more inclusive than we expect, the moral difference has a profound affect on many, many things, from family life to the economy to the soil to the weather to our physical well-being. The prophecy of Isaiah is of the world of nature coming to flower and full fruition. We are so used to a world that is corrupted that we cannot even imagine a fully moral world in all its consequence. And we might not even welcome it, considering the changes in ourselves to make us fit to live in it.
What we like is this world as it is, only in our favor. We like this world to be nice to us and we can stay the way we are. We like the presence of God to be the continuation of our current expectations. We like the experience of God to satisfy our current appetites, even as corrupted.
Look, our experience of God will not be what we demand, and yet it will be very natural. It will be real, but not as we expected it, and it will even judge our expectations. If we stand by our demands we may will miss it. If we are compelled by our felt needs we may miss his gifts, and our agendas leave no room for his agenda. But if we get past our stumbling blocks, if we get past our offense at him, if we give in, we are set free.
You get the healing of your own nature, the fulfillment of your creation. You will feel the presence of God in feeling yourself, for once, as God intended you to be. Your experience of the Spirit is your experience of yourself as God intends you will become.

What’s coming to birth in you is you. The Virgin Mary is unique in giving birth to God. What's in you is you, what the Holy Spirit conceives in you is the new birth of yourself. Your ecstasy is the feeling of that new self in you, moral and spiritual, and that is from God’s presence in you.

That is not the typical modern kind of self-discovery, of searching for your own authentic self. You cannot perform, you have to receive it. It has to be directed from the outside, it is conceived in you by the Spirit of God and its genetic code is the Word of God. And that takes openness, prayer, and study.
There is no substitute here for the Word of God. Yes, the scriptures, and the hearing of the scriptures in the community, in this local community, and the great community of Christians across the ages. There is no magic to the Bible, it isn’t quick, it takes time and patience, and studied openness.
But when we read the Bible, in patience and humility, and in community, it gives us the world back. It gives us back the natural joy of the world that we’re supposed to have. Not the world as we have made it, but the world as God intends it. We can already sense it and rejoice in it, and we can rejoice in ourselves as part of the world.
So when others forgive us, we can learn not to be ashamed of that forgiveness but to enjoy it. We learn to rejoice, not in what we achieve, but in what we are forgiven of. We rejoice not in what we have, but in what we are being given. I can tell you that that the enjoyment of your own forgiveness is the doorway to the joy and wonder in the world that God is giving you.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Teaching Junior Highs

I notice that Rabbi Andy Bachman also teaches Junior High kids in his shul. And then every week he writes about it in his blog.

I love it. I teach Junior High too. Actually I team-teach it with Theresa Levin, and lately she's become the leader in the team. She's Pettite, I'm Posada.

I am a little jealous that Andy gets to do it on a weekday afternoon. That's the right time. You just can't do it right on Sunday mornings before church.

As I read his blogs (Andy is a wonderful blogger) I am reminded that teaching Junior High can be one greatest pleasures of the ministry. Stimulating, satisfying, challenging, engaging. What a privilege. Makes one a much better theologian. Every theologian should teach Junior High.

How come our society doesn't regard Junior High teachers with greater esteem than Harvard professors?

I look forward to that Junior High class every week, as short as the sessions always are.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Jim Wallis at Old First, January 22

The Lord willing, we will host author Jim Wallis at Old First on Tuesday, January 22, 2008, at 7 pm, in partnership with the Community Bookstore.

He will be reading from his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious-Right America (Harper San Francisco).

The Community Bookstore will have copies for sale, and you can have your copy signed by Mr. Wallis.

Admission is free, and all are welcome. We are the second location in Mr. Wallis' nationwide tour to introduce the book, which debuts the day before, on January 21.

It will have been a big day for us at Old First. That morning we expect to host the second "Home Team" event in Brooklyn for the NYC Department of Homeless Services, working with the Park Slope Coalition for the Homeless.

Coalition for the Homeless

Something real that you can do.

Please go to my partner Rabbi Andy Bachman's blog, for information and an invitation to participate in Hope 2008.

Hope 2008 is the annual census of Homeless folks in New York City.

Rounding up volunteers to participate is one of the first activities of our young-and-restless Park Slope Coalition for the Homeless (PSCH, pronounce it as you please!).

By the way, I think it was great that our Old First Homeless Men were put in the Park Slope 100.

PS. So were the Transformers, and Heather Johnston, and Club Loco, and the Doe Fund Guys (the current two whose names are Irving and John), and the Written Nerd (Jessica Stockton).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Advent 3 Three Years Ago

Where’s the Messiah When We Need Him

Isaiah 35:1-10, Magnificat, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist was disappointed with his cousin Jesus. Jesus was not performing as the Messiah.

John had prepared the way for him, predicting his fiery judgment, the purity of his justice, the righteousness of his government, and the defeat of evil. John was expecting a holy revolution in Israel, and a total change in the systems of the world. John had prepared the population, they had repented, they were ready to join up and get going.

And what did Jesus do but talk and teach and do individual works of healing and mercy. John was expecting a new King David, but Jesus just seemed like a glorified social worker, Jesus just let the powers be.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said that he liked Jesus very much, but he did not regard him as the Messiah, because he never accomplished what the Messiah was supposed to do. The prophets had foretold that the Messiah would make a real difference in the world, addressing systems, not just individuals, dealing with empires, not just villages.

Jesus offers his cousin an answer back. He echoes Isaiah’s prophecy about the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the poor. He maintains that what he’s doing is real, though it is different than their expectations. His evidence is minimal. He calculates his evidence to leave a lot of room for reasonable doubt.

If there isn’t any room for doubt, then neither is there room for the development of faith and hope. What Jesus wants is for his followers to develop, for his followers to address the systems of the world, for his followers to move from villages to empires, starting with individuals.

The answer that Jesus offers requires a leap of faith. To accept him as the Messiah requires a jump, a risk, it just might not be true, the evidence will not be overwhelming, you have to take a chance. Notice that Jesus does not reprimand his cousin’s doubt. Your doubt is where you have to start. Where your doubt is, that’s the nursery of your faith. It’s not that Jesus proves his identity, he offers it, and you have to risk the decision of accepting it, and that’s always a running decision.

What troubled John was that Jesus’ miracles were all temporary gifts to individuals, while the permanent problems of society he left untouched. Blindness and leprosy were individual abnormalities, but it was normal to be poor.

Jesus’ answer to his cousin touches the issue between them. The sick get healed, but the poor just get good news. The blind get their sight, but the poor don’t get their money. The dead are raised, but the peasants are not raised from poverty. That would require Jesus dealing with the whole system of the Roman Empire, which is precisely what John the Baptist had been telling the people to expect.

To be fair to Jesus, it really was news. Look, it’s a given in ancient religion that the gods were intimate with those on top: the rulers, the priesthood, the brahmans, the donors, the benefactors, those who can demonstrate by status or success that they are blessed.

And Jesus was telling them that God actually likes to be intimate with the poor, with those who have nothing to donate back. God is so willing to be intimate with those on the bottom that God is willing to live among them precisely in their poverty. Which is one reason that Jesus doesn’t change the situation, for that would say that he really did find them unacceptable as poor. "Don’t fix me, just be with me."

And it was news because it’s a given in natural religion that the law of Karma holds, that people get what they deserve, that if you are poor, you probably deserve it, so just accept your lot. But Jesus is telling them that their poverty is not God’s judgment on them, and it isn’t even God’s idea.

And it’s news because it’s a given in modern economic theory that there’s little you can really do about the poor, that poverty is inevitable, and some Nobel Prize economists have told us that the way to deal with poverty is for the government to increase the wealth of the rich.

So it is real news that God sees things very differently, and just to know that is empowering. Especially when you look at the Torah and you read that God’s idea for Israel was a single economic class, and a system that every seven years returned to the poor a piece of private property, and every fifty years canceled all indebtedness. That was God’s idea. But God will not do it for you. You have to do it for yourself, and not through violent revolution, but through obedience and faith.

Where’s the Messiah when we need him? If you want him to come and change the world, you’ll be disappointed. If you want him to be among us and tell us what God’s will is, and empower us to do God’s will, then the Messiah is right here, inviting us to do our own works of healing and mercy and good news.

His style is not to act triumphantly and dramatically, but organically and quietly, patiently, through very individual acts of personal connection, demonstrating to us the very kinds of things that we can do.

We tend to see time and space as vast and empty. The centuries stretch before us into millennia, and then into eons, and millions of years, while light keeps traveling through the empty reaches of outer space. We see ourselves as individuals, specks of dust, points of light, brief candles, tiny atoms of self-awareness trying to make a little bit of meaning for the short time we exist.

But Jesus didn’t see the world that way, as empty stretches of time and space. He saw it with the eyes of God, as full and rich, where every little person counts, where every tiny thing has meaning as an object of God’s attention and love, and where every little act we do gets its true significance sub specie aeternitatis, that is, under the rubric of eternity. From Jesus’ point of view, to help one person see was to make a permanent change in the universe.

You know, Jesus was his mother’s son. He was the son of his mother as much as his father. You can get an idea of the kind of things that Mary will have taught Jesus from the song she sang to the mother of John the Baptist while Mary was still pregnant with him inside her.

I mean, what is more ordinary than pregnancy, and yet she sings, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my savior. What is more organic and commonplace, and she sings, for he that is mighty has done me great things, and holy is his name. Who is as powerless as pregnant girl, and she sings, he has cast down mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. What is as draining and exhausting and painful at the end, and she sings, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

This season you might be discouraged, and dealing with disappointment and difficulty and emptiness and loss. I have good news for you. You are filled as Mary was filled, the Holy Spirit has conceived inside you something fragile, and organic, and very small, but real, right here in your belly, what has been conceived inside you is not from the world, but that special godly love for the smallest thing, the most organic thing, which the world ignores, but God counts precious, and rejoices in, to give you hope and joy.

Advent Sermon Series

This year I'm preaching a series of sermons for the Advent Season. The series is on the Experience of God.

The series is a response to the questions of a parishioner. I tell the story of those questions in the first part of the first sermon, the one I preached on Advent 1, December 2.

Can we have an inner experience of God? Can we have a direct experience of God with us? Can we have God inside our hearts and know it? We hear people say that they have Jesus in their hearts---can we have that too?

I should say here, in passing, that the classic Reformed answer is Well, no, but yes.

I've been composing these sermons by studying the usual Advent Lessons (from the Lectionary) with these questions in mind, and then seeing what kind of sermon comes out.

I'll say this: it makes for very different sermons than what I preached on these same texts three years ago. Just for the fun of it, I'll post some of the sermons from three years ago too. Maybe it shows how rich and suggestive these Advent lessons are, to yield such different applications.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sermon for December 9, Advent 2: Opening To God

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 2:13-23

Advent Series on Our Inner Experience of God
Sermon 2: Opening to God

This is the second sermon in a series on our inner experience of God. Last week I spoke on the desire for God, this week on opening up to God. My text is Matthew 3:2-3: In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’"

In the days of John the Baptist, the people of Judea did not feel God among them, but far away. The Temple was empty of God’s presence and no Son of David was on the throne. The only glory in Jerusalem was that of Caesar and the gods in power were Jupiter and Mars. So they were praying for the return of the Lord.

Be careful what you ask for, you might get it. The prophet is standing at the Jordan River, just down the road from Jericho, to remind them of the first return of the Lord, with Moses and Joshua, the Lord of Hosts upon the Ark of the Covenant, on the shoulders of the Levites, who stood in the Jordan River and the waters held back, and thousands and thousands of the hosts of Israel were baptized as they passed through the Jordan into the Promised Land.

Joshua led them marching around the walls of Jericho, and they shouted "The Lord of Hosts" and the walls came tumbling down. All the inhabitants of Canaan were terrified, their armies melted away, and their leaders trembled to sue for peace.

The Lord is coming back, says John the Baptist, with a fiery host we can only imagine, and their leader will be another Jeshua, another David, and those in power will come down. When God comes it’s not just God, it’s the whole kingdom of heaven, a new administration, a new set of laws, a new kind of justice. Justice means judgment, so be careful what you ask for.

When he comes to judge, when everyone gets examined, how will you stand up? Will you have been connected with the Romans? Do you collaborate? Have you been trying to get along? Did you join the Baath party just to get your job? Are you now or have you ever been a Communist? If the Lord is really coming, you might want to repent.

You can hardly blame John the Baptist for expecting it like this. How could he have known what only Jesus was the first to see, that the Lord would come but so much differently? Yes, in judgment and holiness and righteousness, but from the inside, in the heart, his only army the Spirit of God, his only weapon the Word of God.

Jesus knew it from that same Spirit resting on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. This is the Holy Spirit we want inside of us, opening us up, making room, increasing our capacity for God. To give way to this Spirit is to repent.

When I was a child I was allergenic and asthmatic. Some nights I was so clogged up I couldn’t breathe. We had a little machine called a vaporizer, which made steam, and my mom would put it in my room. She would add Vick’s Vaporub to the water, which added menthol to the steam. That vapor would fill the room and I would breathe it in and that would open up my passageways inside, and the more I breathed the more I could breathe.

Consider now the proposition that repentance is not something you do, but that God does inside you. Consider that repentance is not your act, but God’s activity inside you. That repentance is God’s Spirit inside you making room for God’s self, like cleaning out the place while moving in, like clearing the land and building a house. It helps us, I think, to realize that repentance is not so much our work as the work of God in us.

Our part in repentance is to give way to God, to let God do it, to not prevent it nor obstruct it, to give way to God’s Spirit opening us up inside, painful and scary as that may be. Because you can’t expect to have the feeling of God inside you and have everything else about you stay the same. You can’t have more God in your life and still keep yourself the way you are. Of course not.

Maybe you don’t want to have God inside you. That’s easy. Just don’t repent. Who wants to give way to outside influence? Who wants to call oneself into question, who wants to doubt oneself? Who wants to hesitate, or look weak, or not in control? Ain’t it so that he who hesitates is lost? Who wants to be examined, to be up for review, to be subject to reconsideration, who wants to let another have more say about you than yourself, who wants to be judged?

Or maybe you do want God inside you but you don’t want to repent. So what you can do is keep God’s spirit small and weak and minimal. You keep it in a little box and keep it silent. You can protect yourself and your estimation of yourself, the way you’ve worked out everything, the commitments and loyalties you already have, your promises to yourself and to your past, your solutions to your problems, your own judgments about people and the world. You can keep the judgments of God confined within you.

Or you could do designer spirituality, which is fashionable today. Keep your god the size and shape to fit within you. Your own personal higher power, your piece of the energy of the universe, the god who is everything and everywhere, the god with no desires and no initiative and no justice and no judgments. This god needs no larger room in you, you don’t need to repent.

But do you want to have inside you the God of Israel and Jesus, who is willing to stand against you, to challenge you and wrestle you and call you into question?

About four years ago, my wife Melody finally got it through to me that I should expect resistance to my leadership and opposition to my big ideas, and not get angry when it happens and even welcome it. It took me fifty years to get this. None of us like to be opposed, none of us likes to be judged, but we face this from other people all the time. When we welcome others into our lives, we have to welcome this as well. So, will I resist it back or gain from it?

I am claiming that you can get help with repentance from the opposition and resistance of the world. We’re tempted to resist it back or dismiss it because it’s usually unfair and frequently misleading. The trick is not to take it on its own terms, but to interpret the opposition against me by means of the Word of God, so that my opposition’s value does not depend on its intent.

When other people judge me, my gain is from when I let their judgments move me on to the judgments of God, which are more fair and loving, and useful, and always more just. It’s not that God sends the opposition, the world is hard enough as it is, but that God’s Word can make a straight path in it and God’s Spirit can enter in upon it.

Even our blessings and successes can be opportunities for repentance if we are listening to God and judging our experience by the categories not of the world but of the Word of God. Not just from the Bible, but the Bible in community, the Word of God as we share it together, the wisdom of those who have been kind to us and have our better interests in their hearts, who love us, warts and all, and want us to love them back. Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.

In the Apostles Creed, the Holy Spirit makes the communion of saints which leads to the forgiveness of sins. The community can help in our repentance, help to open us up, to notice when we need the vaporizer in the room, and even to come close and massage the Vaporub upon our chests, and give us words to clear our minds. The community can be the mother that helps you breathe and the Voice in which you hear the Words of God.

So now let me state it once again. Repentance is God’s work in you. It’s not that you first repent in order to be clean and ready for God to come to you. That makes you focus on yourself. Rather focus on welcoming this God. Welcome the Word of God in all its ways and means into yourself, and the Holy Spirit certainly makes room in you to build her nest.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sermon for December 2, Advent 1: Where is God?

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

Let me tell you about a conversation I had last Sunday after church. Someone said to me, I liked your sermon, especially the end, when you talked about how your grandfather still loved the Dutch Queen, and you know, I want to have Jesus in my heart, like other people do, but I don’t feel like I do.

I was both gratified and mystified. I didn’t see the connection. Of course the sermon preached is not always the sermon heard. Maybe I was unclear, or maybe what I said could be taken a different way than what I meant, or what I said touched off a deeper issue in the listener’s mind.

Well, I your preacher am a jealous preacher, and I like my sermons to mean what I mean them to mean, so I reviewed my point that our hearts have a place that desires to love and be loyal to someone who is Lord, like a king. Then I said it’s not that Jesus is in my heart. Jesus is out there, on the right hand of the Father.

Then I mentioned that the Lutherans and the Reformed differ from the Methodists on this. The Lutherans and the Reformed emphasize Jesus being objectively outside us, for us to put our faith in, while the Methodists emphasize the subjective inner feeling in our hearts. I said it’s important not to base our faith on our feelings, as feelings come and go, but to base our faith on something objective, something public, on the promises of God. And the way that God is in our hearts is not Jesus but the Holy Spirit, and that makes things different.

The person said, Whatever; I want to have the feeling of God in my heart.

Well, that is the same desire as the Advent hymn that we just sang:
Redeemer come, we open wide / our hearts to thee, here Lord abide;
Let us thy inner presence feel, / thy grace and love to us reveal.
(And that was written by a Lutheran, not a Methodist!)

So this Advent season I will preach a series on how God comes to us, not just generally, but personally. Can I have God in my heart, and know it and feel it?

We will be guided by the scripture lessons from the lectionary. So we will put off until Advent 3 the matter of feelings, the feeling of God inside you. Next week, Advent 2, I’ll talk about making room for God inside you. On the fourth week I’ll talk about moving with the God who comes to you. Today I’ll talk about the desire for God, the longing for God, and the longing for the experience of God.

The longing for God is good and right, it is built into us, we are designed to desire God. But this longing can be painful, because God can seem so absent and so far away. We tend to blunt this longing, even to make ourselves insensitive to it, whether from our pride, or frustration, or long dissatisfaction. We compensate with food and drink, we substitute with sex and science, with the lure of the flesh and the life of the mind. We occupy ourselves with materialism. Buying this, buying that, and we feel less guilty about it if we are buying for someone else. We devote ourselves to other people’s expectations, laboring to make them happy by the presents we wrap and the table we spread. It would be fine if it were not a distraction and diversion. At least I can manage my appetites and occupations, but God is so great and so distant and so uncontrollable, so it’s easy to substitute.

It is not so much ironic, as it is poignant and even predictable, that Advent should coincide with the month that is most materialistic, whether from purchasing or from partying. We commit to passing satisfactions, and we starve ourselves of what we deeply long for. This season is the costliest and busiest, and our restlessness indicates how deep a desire we are diverting from. St. Augustine reminds us, "Thou has made us for thyself O God, and our souls are restless till they find their rest in thee."

We are troubled by the poignancy of our desire for God. We are discomforted by this longing. We are not used to dealing with real hunger, we who have cash on hand, to just get something to eat. We live in a culture that emphasizes the early satisfaction of our appetites and the quick resolution of our feelings. If you desire it, get it. So we think, what’s wrong with me, that I keep on having this desire?

Why don’t I feel God when other people do? Where is God, where’s God in my own life? Because the satisfaction seems distant I reach for closer compensations. And so therefore what the practice of piety offers is help to keep me from going to those compensations. The practices of piety help to keep the longing sharp, to stay with it and not to be afraid of it. The practices of piety also confirm in me the promises of God and the faithfulness of God, that God will come, that God will come and let me know it. The practices of piety help me trust the time and place of God.

The life of faith requires a leap. The act of faith is a projection. We have to believe in what we cannot know in the way that we know other things. We have to be satisfied in what we cannot get in the way that we get other things. What we know best is our own fears, our doubts are what we are most certain of. We are convinced of our failures, and the wrongs that others have done to us, and in our virtues we have small confidence. The practices of piety help me aim and project my powerful subjective feelings into the goal of the objective public promises.

Let yourself fully feel your longing. Don’t drown yourself in it, but fully give yourself to it in ways that are intelligent and mindful and responsible. We learn from it. The longing makes us richer and deeper, more open, less proud, sweeter, more gentle. God has placed the longing in you. If you feel the desire for God in you, that already is from God’s Spirit inside you, building a nest inside you, in which there will be life to come. You wouldn’t have the desire unless God’s Spirit were at work in you already. We do not look for God until God calls us.

And I believe there is another value to feeling the desire and the length of our longing. It’s because God is going somewhere. God is moving somewhere. The God of the Bible is not the static God of the philosophers, nor the ethereal higher power of the universe that is somehow always there. The God of the Bible is purposeful and intentional. This God has designs, this God has designs for the world and designs on us. This God has a project, a project that we can know of now sufficiently, but also is more fully in the future, and we can know of it only in part.

God is taking us there. We need to be discontent with what is now. We need to long for resolution, and also recognize that the resolution is something we cannot achieve but must receive.

God takes us there by means of Instruction. Isaiah 2:3. Out of Zion shall go forth Torah: instruction, the law, the commandments, the wisdom, the word of God. And we desire it. Tell us more. Tell us how should walk. Remind us how we should be saved. Remind us who we are and whom we belong to. The word of God is both the satisfaction and the stimulation.

I rejoice in that passage from Isaiah. It excites our desire and it stimulates our longing. The mountain of the Lord’s house rising up, all nations streaming up to it, all nations learning peace, desiring to walk in the light of the Lord. That prophecy has more than one fulfillment. We see it fulfilled already in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and his gospel spreading through the nations. We will see it more fully when he comes again, though how and when we do not know. The news of it is both to stimulate and satisfy. The more in you it satisfies, the more it stimulates. The more you get of God the more you long for God.

Yesterday morning the sunrise was at 6:59 A.M. I watched the sunrise from my window that looks out over the park. But at 6:00 A.M. already I was there, when it was still dark. And that’s when I could see Venus low in the sky. It is called the morning star. It reflects the light of the sun before we can see the sun. Venus tells me that the dawning is at hand. And so the darkness before the dawn is a joyful pleasure in itself. And that is our life now. In the darkness of the world we live as children of the light.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.