Sermon for November 10, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 51:7-8/Acts 9:1-22
Title: “A Life Of Our Own?”
Do you ever have days when the weight of the day’s obligations feel immobilizing? There are days when my feet barely hit the floor in the morning before my mind begins to scroll through the day’s “to do” list.
Most of, I think, discovered very quickly that retirement gives little relief from our “to do” lists. It has become a cliché, but the truth has been borne out in the experience of many of us. We are as busy in retirement, perhaps busier, than when we held a full-time job. No, retired life doesn’t offer the off ramp into the carefree life we imagined.
Life serves up obligations that cannot be ignored, obligations that many time prey upon us like a swarm of pestering gnats that won’t leave us alone. We become exasperated. Sometimes it feels as if we don’t have a life we can call out own.
Strictly speaking, of course, none of us has a life of our own, not if considered, at least, from the standpoint of the origins of our lives. We are but the stewards, or managers, of the lives God has given us.
That we have a life that can be encumbered by those seemingly endless lists of commitments and obligations, has nothing to do with a plan we drew up for ourselves. Our parents were certainly involved. We won’t forget them. But they were merely human agents chosen through the God’s providence to perform the role providence assigned.
We will not diminish in any way our free will, the latitude we have been given to choose how we will manage our lives, but nevertheless as children of God who acknowledge our indebtedness to God, we affirm with the church at large that “In life and in death we belong to God.”
“In life and in death we belong to God.” For people of faith that single statement says it all.
It is root from which all of the creeds and the confessions of faith spring.
Creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, with which we are familiar, and the Nicene Creed, that is perhaps less familiar, all represent an attempt by the church to clearly state its core beliefs concerning God, Jesus Christ, the church, and salvation. The creeds and confessions were written on behalf of the church, but they were also written for the church, to assist you and I to ground our faith in some very basic core convictions about what Scripture would have us believe and do.
The word “creed” derives from the Latin word “credo,” which means “I believe or I trust.” We recite the creeds and confessions as statements of the Church, but our purpose in reciting them is to implant them in our minds and seal them in our consciousness.
The creeds and confession attempt to set forth what the Church believes in effort to help you and I define what we believe, something most of have found to be a lifelong vocation.
We recite the creeds and confessions not merely to strengthen our connection with the Christians in the third and fourth centuries who gave us the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, or to connect with our ancestors in the Protestant Reformation, or to honor those who gave us our more recent creeds, we recite the creeds and confessions to give voice to, and reinforce, our own personal beliefs.
Imagine what the world would look like if we who make up the Church, this vast body of Christ, lived our lives in the conviction that in life and in death we actually did belong to God, as the creeds and confessions insist. Unfortunately we are unlikely to know what such a world might look like because there is within each of us a yearning to take control and manage our destinies in ways we believe will best serve our own personal best interests. We may recite the various creeds affirming God’s supreme authority in our lives, but then we consistently choose to rope off parts of our lives as our own private domains over which we can exercise exclusive control.
From the very dawn of history our ancestors decided, as we do today, to assert our independence from God. Claiming to know a better way to achieve the “good life” on our own, we have only succeeded in alienating ourselves from God who created us to enjoy the best life. One of the faith statements created by members of my own denomination reads, “we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.”
We are a rebellious lot, no doubt about it, but that certainly is not the whole story. Though God takes our rebellion into account, he will not allow that rebellion to undermine the relationship he is ever seeking to maintain with us.
We are a rebellious lot saved by grace. The Bible and the confessions and creeds tirelessly affirm that we can never so thoroughly cut ourselves from God, though we may try, that God can’t win us back.
But let’s talk about the winning back. Let’s talk about you and I truly accepting, not merely as words on the lips, but as a deep-seated conviction of the heart, that we do, in fact, belong to God in life and in death. What might that look like? It might look like a world where we didn’t violate the image of God in others or ourselves, where we didn’t accept lies as truth, didn’t exploit neighbor and nature, didn’t threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.
It is difficult to imagine such a world amid all the upheaval with which we are accustomed to living. But it is less difficult to imagine such a world when we adjust our focus to a single life in whom the image of God was so gloriously manifest.
There once was a man with very deep-seated convictions about his God and what his God required. So zealous was he that he committed all his energies to persecuting all those who failed to believe as he did. He saw to it that people were thrown into prison, tortured, and killed for not believing as he did.
Those he persecuted feared him greatly. So long as this man was around they could enjoy no peace.
Left alone who knows what this enemy of the followers of Jesus might have accomplished. But he wasn’t left alone, was he? It is a story most of us know very well. He was traveling the road to Damascus when he was blinded by a light from heaven. He was confronted by the very Jesus whose followers he was persecuting. The confrontation eventuated in a commission: “to bring [Jesus’] name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.
Saul experienced a decisive, life-altering call personally delivered by Jesus himself. God asserted his claim on Saul, who would later become known as Paul. Jesus’ claim did not go unheeded, for we are told that Saul immediately set out to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. He didn’t take his message to hiding places where believers gathered fearing persecution, instead he took his message public, took it to the synagogue, the very place it would most certainly be rejected.
If there ever was a man who bore testimony that his life belonged to God, it was Paul. In a letter he would write to the church at Ephesus we read these words, “For we are what he [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
“For we are what God has made us.” We may take pride in what we have accomplished, and the rewards those accomplishments have earned us. There is nothing wrong with any of that so long as we do not become deceived about the origins of our good fortune. “We are what God has made us.” That reminder is boldly stated by the prophet Jeremiah where he declares, “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord.” God has a purpose for your life and mine, and that purpose is not realizeded by fulfilling the personal goals and aspirations according to the world’s benchmarks for success. The first step in achieving that purpose is to recognize that our lives are a gift from God, and that no aspiration we maintain apart from God can offer what God has to offer.
As the source of life itself, God maintains an eternal claim on your life and mine. That claim is expressed in our vocation, or calling. Saul experienced his calling in a dramatic life-altering event, and fortunately insofar as the future of the church is concerned, he heeded it.
In many denominations it is said that the minister has accepted a call when he or she agrees to serve as pastor to a congregation. It is presumed in that call process that the candidate for the position of pastor and the church seeking a pastor establish their relationship on the mutual conviction that God has blessed that union and will continue to bless it as church and pastor proceed in ministry.
Fundamentally this fellowship, this church, offers us the opportunity to define our calling, both as individuals and as a church. And Paul summarizes that calling in one forcefully declaration to the church in Ephesus, “For we what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be or way of life.”
Have you ever stopped to consider just how big God’s investment in us actually is? It’s huge! The Church exists to insure that all who accept its discipline and engage in its witness understand what God created us to be and to do.
Truly exciting things can happen when people discover their calling, perhaps not exciting on the Paul scale, but exciting nonetheless. Where people find their true calling, there you will find a yearning, a passion to act upon it.
But how do we discover it? First off, relatively few of us will ever experience what Paul did on the Damascus Road. For Peter, his brother Andrew and the twelve disciples the calling came in the form of an invitation from Jesus, “follow me.” Some of us have felt God make a claim on our lives. Others are still waiting. Whatever our status, we gather for worship and fellowship so that we might discern more clearly what God is doing in our lives, not only as individuals, but collectively as a church.
To discern God’s call is not something that occurs by happenstance, but occurs as part of a very intentional process. As we enter the season of Advent I want to encourage you to commit to a new faith discipline, or apply yourself to one you currently maintain with more consistency.
Advent is a season that stresses patient, expectant waiting for God’s promises of old to take a new form, even as two young parents awaiting the birth of their baby in that stable so many generations ago.
The affairs of life in the Western world are often so all-encompassing as to take over our lives. Worship and the disciplines of faith are designed to help us reorder our lives around the eternal truths that Jesus, Paul, and the saints of the Church have taught. And those eternal truths are based one primary truth, “in life and in death we belong to God.”
May that truth challenge your imagination, your faith, your heart, and may you enjoy the freedom of knowing that no setback we may suffer in this life can ever loosen God’s grip on our lives. Yes, we are that special. AMEN
Heavenly Father, we feel the pull of many responsibilities and obligations that weigh heavily upon us, and are often so preoccupied by them that we sometimes feel that life is passing by us unlived. In you, O God, we find life, but our attention repeatedly strays. We repeatedly assign priority status to things of limited worth, and complain that we are unfulfilled. In your mercy, O God, show the path that leads to the life that is truly life..
“In life and in death we belong to you.” Our minds struggle to comprehend the mystery of the afterlife. Will we be reunited with those we love and cared about in this life? Will we have the same body? Even as we entertain our questions we know that you can be trusted no matter what your providence holds for us today or tomorrow. Strengthen us when events in life put that trust to the test, and may those challenges make our trusting more resilient and secure when future tests come.
O God, you have no favorites, for all of us are precious in your sight. You care nothing about how far we rise in the eyes of the world. A heart to love you and love what you love is all you require.
Forgive us for the prejudices we harbor for those who don’t look like us, speak like us, or think like us. Grant us the courage to admit that we are prejudiced as a first step to rid them from our lives.
Turmoil continues to afflict the world. Women, men, and children pushed to and from by forces over which they have no control. We pray your blessing on all those who struggle to survive amid the violence imposed upon. As the current battles in Syria wage we pray that the leaders of factions involved will heed the call for ceasefire and negotiation.
Strengthen your church, O God, that our proclamation and witness may bring hope to the careworn, courage to the fearful, and light to confused. Help this fellowship to meet the challenges we face with a willing spirit. Where doubts about our mission arise, O Lord, grant us courage to challenge those doubts and turn to you as the source of direction and hope.
We are the church, the body of Christ. May each one who has come here today feel your holy presence in song or silence, word or reflection. We pray that our self-centered ways may become Christ centered ways, and that our lives may give you glory.
In gratitude for all that gives our lives meaning, for the friends with whom we worship today we give you thanks, O Lord, praying the prayer…