Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28
My topic today is the convergence of God’s great mission with your personal religious needs, how God’s divine and sovereign purposes in the world converge with your own purposes to come to church. These two things are not the same, God’s mission on the one hand and your religious needs on the other, but their convergence is a happy one, a joyful one, although of course a challenging one. You come here for your reasons, and you want to leave here with God’s reasons.
Why are you here today? What are your reasons for practicing religion, your personal motivation, your consumer purposes for going to church?
You want some God in your life, you want to be close to God, you want to find some greater meaning than you can generate on your own, you want that greater perspective to help you make sense of the world and where it’s going, or how to rescue the world from the human effects of violence and destruction, or to help you with the facts in your own life, your own disease or disappointments, your own desires and delights.
You believe there is a God, and you want to have a positive relationship with God, and the Christian religion is the most familiar and available.
Maybe you’re not sure there is a God but you want to explore the possibility.
You want some religious instruction for your kids. You want some company, some community, to help you maintain your spiritual life.
You want to confess your sins and get told you are forgiven.
You want to pray, and pray along with other people.
You want to praise God with music, and it’s not right to do that all alone.
You want to practice love, and love in the larger sense, a love beyond what is available in humanism.
You want some recharging of your morality, some inspiration for your ethics.
You come for inspiration and information in some combination with reconciliation.
If these are your reasons they are good and right, these are your positive consumer purposes.
So you come here today, and you hear me telling you that God is on a mission distinct from your own needs and purposes. God is on a mission to reclaim the world from our rebellion, and to repair the world from our damage and our violence, and to restore the world to God’s original intention, only this time better. God is on a mission to make the world fit for God finally to come into the world, that the world itself may be God’s temple, God’s mansion, God’s city, God’s kingdom, as completely as heaven is already.
God is on a mission to come into the world right now, if partially, in order to include you in God’s mission, to pardon you and save you and reclaim you and repair you and restore you and make you fit to share in the great life of that kingdom when it full comes, that city when it opens up, that mansion, that temple, so that you share in it when God comes into it, so that God’s final coming will be your own coming into it as well.
God’s great mission in the world is far greater than your personal consumer motivation for religion. But they are not opposed. The greater may satisfy the lesser without the lesser constraining the greater. So do come with your consumer motivations, do come with your demands, but then also welcome the transformation of your demands the great demands of God, which are for your good. You get that. You can see that. That’s why you keep coming back.
You get it that this relationship of God’s mission and your religious needs is unequal. It is not an equal partnership, it’s not like a marriage. But it is like the Incarnation, that special convergence of God and humanity that came true in the birth of Jesus, the son of Mary, when God Almighty poured God’s self into an infant boy — not that God’s nature be reduced, but that human nature be taken up into God — two natures, and yet one person, one heart, one soul, one Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God, the mystery of the Incarnation. In Jesus we have seen God’s way.
Just so, you have one heart, one soul, and one experience, but in your single experience the Holy Spirit converges God’s great, high mission with your personal consumer interest in religion. God’s way is to invest God’s great universal work of salvation in the present reality of your personal need, although of course, the Holy Spirit uses that convergence to transform your personal interest to fit God’s greater plan. And because Jesus was a little boy who looked and smelled like any other little boy while God was fully in him, just so your consumer agenda for religion can look anybody else’s in Brooklyn and yet be full of God’s mission, without limiting God’s mission or restricting it.
This is God’s way. You can see God’s way in the metaphors of Isaiah’s prophecy: the God who liberates captives and releases prisoners, the God who builds up ancient ruins and raises up the former devastations, the God who repairs the ruined cities and replants the devastated forests, that God also decks you out, puts new clothes on you, and jewelry, and puts a robe of righteousness on you.
The reason you are here today is because you want to believe that it is real in your own life, although you know there must be more to come. You want to believe that the Kingdom of God has truly come into the world, but you know from the agony of the world that it has not come yet as it is in heaven, and you find ourselves impatient for its coming. This impatience is the message of the Advent season, that you must wait for it, but in your waiting also to prepare for it.
The metaphors from Isaiah give you hope but also give you discontent. When we who live in New York City hear of proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, how can we not think of Rikers Island and all the penitentiaries upstate? How can we not think of the mass incarceration of a whole generation of young black men, which we have allowed ourselves to pay no attention to, which we should have known about, the alienation and the deep frustration that finally is breaking out?
You cannot separate the larger issues of this city from your personal need of being set free from your own inner bondages and liberated from your sins and miseries. God addresses with a single promise both your personal spiritual health and welfare and the health and welfare of this nation, especially those people who do not share it. All those lovely metaphors will become literally true in our vision for God’s great mission in the world.
Between God’s great mission in the world and your need for religion is the church, and this church in particular. This church is a religious corporation registered in the State of New York in order to serve your spiritual needs. First you came here first as a religious consumer to receive its services, and then you enter the community of Jesus, and then you begin to see the larger mission which takes up into it your own religious needs, and you are challenged to join in the larger mission of the church, and then you discover that the challenge is fulfilling because your religious needs are more than you knew, your religious need is to give as much as to be given to, to forgive as much as to be forgiven, and to love as much as to be loved. You begin to experience this church as your church, and then you go further, and you begin to experience your church as God’s church.
This building is our building according to the laws of New York but this building is really God’s building for God’s mission. That sanctuary out there is God’s sanctuary for God’s mission. That pipe organ out there is God’s pipe organ for God’s glory. And if you rebuild that ancient ruin on the other side of that wall you’re doing an incarnation of God rebuilding ancient ruins and building up the former devastations, and there is no separation between God’s mission and your fulfillment.
We end with the Thessalonians. We can hardly imagine their personal religious needs. Why would these people want to meet those needs by signing up with this impossible new religion, which will bring them persecution just for signing up? Yet St. Paul tells them to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances. How in the world shall they do that?
You can rejoice in the vision of God’s promise for the whole known world. You keep your mind upon that promise by praying without ceasing. You can give thanks for the small and passing but also real and quietly powerful incarnations of that promise in your own lives right now. And you can rejoice with the angels and the shepherds who have seen God’s way, that God has come into the world as one of us, Immanuel, God with us.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.