Sunday, November 27, 2011

Three Gifts for Those Who Wait

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
How would you react if someone you trusted told you that by this time tomorrow, your life on this earth would be over? How would knowing the exact time of your death affect the way you lived? What would it do to your relationship with God?

Chances are, if you're as wise as I think you are, you’d spend some of the next twenty-four hours repenting for sin, affirming your faith in Christ, and, to the extent you could, living a life of love for God and love for others.

But, how would you react if at the twenty-third hour, the same trusted person who had told you that you had one day to live said, “Actually, you may have more than one hour left. You will die, but the time left is indefinite”? Would that seem like a reprieve from a death sentence or permission to ease up on the faith you so fervently confessed just the day before?

When people in the first century AD came to faith in Christ, many assumed that Christ would be returning soon to judge the living and the dead and to fully establish His kingdom.

They even had a term for the day when Jesus would do all this. They called it the parousia, a Greek word meaning presence, arrival, or even official visit.

But as the early Church grew, the years went by, Christians were persecuted, and the first believers died, Christians grew restless. They felt like the parousia had been delayed and they wondered what the hang-up was.

Why, they wondered, was Jesus waiting so long?

And how could they keep on in faith with the return of Jesus now off in some indeterminate future?

We Christians in 2011 may not spend much time considering when Jesus will be coming back. But we do know all about the frustration of not seeing the things for which we’ve hoped and prayed when we want to see them. Delayed gratification is as hard for us as it was for the first Christians.

The Advent season we begin today is one in which we wait for the arrival of Christmas.

It's also a time when we remember that, like those first Christians, we await the moment when we will see Jesus face to face. It may be long years from now. It may be in a few moments. It may be when Jesus returns to the earth. It may be when we leave the earth.

But whenever it may be, we face the same question: How do we live until we meet the crucified and risen Jesus face to face? All of the second lessons of this Advent season focus on this question.

Today’s lesson, from 1 Corinthians, reminds us that until we see Jesus, God gives us three special gifts.

First, verse 4 says that “the grace of God has been given [to us[ in Christ Jesus.” In Christ, God gives the gift of grace.

Grace is the charitable attitude that God has for every human being. But it’s more than mere sentiment. The most famous passage of Scripture, John 3:16, shows us that God acts on His attitude of grace. God the Father sent God the Son Jesus to live a simple life in the Judean hills, then to die as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, then to rise so that all who trust in Him will have what none of us deserve: new and everlasting life with God.

The word we translate as grace is, in the original Greek of the New Testament, charitas, from which we get our English word, charity. While we wait to see Jesus face to face, we can live each day in the charitable grace of God.

God will forgive the genuinely repentant.

He will help those who humbly admit their need of Him.

He will empower us to love Him and to love others with acts of service and kindness.

While we await Jesus' return, God gives us grace.

In verse 7, Paul says of believers in Jesus Christ that none are “lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God gives believers in Jesus Christ spiritual gifts.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not a solo proposition. Some people say that they can worship God just as well on the golf course as they do in worship on a Sunday morning. While I know that God's Name probably gets used more on a golf course than it does in a church building, I don't agree.

Just as we’re going to be part of a great company of believers in eternity, God means for us to be part of a great company of believers—the Church—here and now.

And to each and every one us of God parcels out spiritual gifts with which He expects us to make ourselves useful to His purposes and to His Church as long as we draw breath.

A few months ago, I was waiting for a prescription to be filled at Riverside Hospital in Columbus. I was in my collar, having gone there after visiting Janice and my own doctor. I was reading a magazine at a table, waiting. A janitor came in and went about his business quietly. I wasn’t going to say anything. I’d decided that, to the extent it was possible for anyone in a collar, I wanted to be anonymous.

But then, God gave me a nudge. “Talk to that person,” God seemed to tell me. I don’t always like it when God does that! I put my magazine down and decided to do the bare minimum in obeying God's nudge. I looked at the guy and said: “Hi.”

The janitor stood up and, with a beaming smile, returned my greeting. “Are you a priest or a pastor?” he asked. I explained that I was a Lutheran pastor.

That began a conversation in which he told me some of his life story. Two years ago, this man, Daniel, and his wife fled Ethiopia, where they had faced persecution for their faith in Christ. Today, Daniel and his wife work different shifts at the hospital, both as janitors, so that one of them can be at home for their son at all times.

Now, most people in Daniel’s position, having escaped a life of deprivation and fear, would content themselves with trying to work up to a better position and scratch together the money to buy a house and secure educations for their children. That, after all, is what we call the American Dream and there’s nothing wrong with it. And maybe that figures in the thinking of Daniel and his wife.

But what he spent time telling me about was the growing church of which he’s a part, where 300 Ethiopian Christians and more gather to worship God each Sunday, and all the service and evangelism they’re doing together in the northern tier of Columbus.

He also told me about the ministry he’s taken on at Riverside, a ministry he's so excited about that he's recruited his supervisor to help with it. Every day during his breaks, he and his supervisor go to the hospital chapel and pray for the intensive care patients and for anyone else aware of their ministry who asks for prayer.

All Christians are called to “pray without ceasing,” of course. But my guess is that Daniel has the spiritual gift of intercession, the special passion God gives to some Christians to not only pray extensively for others, but also to persuade others in doing the same thing.

Spiritual gifts aren’t what God gives you to make a living, they’re what God gives you to be fully alive in Christ.

What spiritual gift has God given to you to honor God, to tell others about Jesus, and to encourage and build up Christ’s Church?

God’s Word says that you’ve got at least spiritual gift, maybe more, and using your gift is one way God wants you to spend the time between now and when you see Jesus face to face.

Verse 8 of our lesson says that the risen and ascended Jesus will “strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” As we wait to see Jesus face to face, God gives us the power for holy living.

This doesn’t mean that you and I will be perfect. Only God is perfect.

But, as we live in relationship with Jesus, daily owning our sins, putting our lives before Him for examination, and seeking His help for living more like Him today than we did yesterday, His power for holy living will invade our lives.

One method I use to stay close to Christ and His power in my life is the ACTS method for daily prayer.

ACTS is an acronym for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. (A supplication is a request. But if we used request in the acronym, it wouldn't spell out ACTS.)

By praying each day in this way, I try to keep my priorities straight.

With adoration, I begin my prayers by praising God for Who He is.

In confession, I admit my sins and ask God to show me others of which I’m unaware. I seek forgiveness in Christ’s Name and receive the power of the Holy Spirit to live differently.

In thanksgiving, I name and thank God for my blessings. My wife. My kids. My life and the new life I have through Jesus. My work. My extended family. This church. And, most of all, for Jesus Christ. 

Finally, after I’ve transacted this business, I feel free to offer supplications, my requests. I invite God into all the people’s lives and circumstances for which I pray.

I pray for our sick.

I pray for those who mourn.

I pray that God would help every member of Saint Matthew to experience and enjoy God’s presence with them that day; that God would cause our congregation to grow in faith, in numbers, in generosity, and in joy.

I pray for my family and friends.

I pray for myself.

Like your days, folks, mine can get busy. But what I have learned is that the busier I get, the more I need to pray and that the more I pray, the more actual good I get done each day.

When we make requests in Jesus’ Name, it’s like turning the tap of heaven onto every person and circumstance for which we pray. As someone has said, "When we work, we work; when we pray, God works."

We don’t know when we will see Jesus face to face. But until we do, our second lesson for the day reminds us that among all the many gifts God gives us to use until we see Him are:
  • His grace,
  • Spiritual gifts, and 
  • the power for holy living. 
If you feel that any of these things are missing in your life right now, I can assure you that it isn’t because God hasn’t given them to you. If the problem isn’t with the Sender, it must be with the Receiver. (Speaking for myself, when I get honest with God, I see just how often I get in the way of God giving me gifts He wants me to have. Don't let that happen to you!)

Psalm 46:10 tells us to “be still and know” that God is our God. So, sometime this week, hop off the merry-go-round and take a little quiet time with just God and you.

You might pray, “God, I find it hard to believe, but I know that Your Word teaches that You want me to live in the certainty of Your grace; that You have given me spiritual gifts by which I can honor You, encourage Your Church, and tell others about Jesus; and that You give me the power to lead a life marked by Your forgiveness and presence in all I do. Help me to experience this kind of living, Lord, until I see you face to face. Get me off the rat race and help me live in Your power each day.”

Keep praying that prayer and I promise, God will surprise you with the answers He brings into your life. Amen

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