1 John 3:18-24 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
18 Children, you show love for others by truly helping them, and not merely by talking about it.
19 When we love others, we know that we belong to the truth, and we feel at ease in the presence of God. 20 But even if we don’t feel at ease, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if we feel at ease in the presence of God, we will have the courage to come near him. 22 He will give us whatever we ask, because we obey him and do what pleases him. 23 God wants us to have faith in his Son Jesus Christ and to love each other. This is also what Jesus taught us to do. 24 If we obey God’s commandments, we will stay one in our hearts with him, and he will stay one with us. The Spirit that he has given us is proof that we are one with him.
My first sermon at First Christian Church in Selma, California! Someone asked me yesterday if I was ready or nervous. My answer was “yes.” I was ready and nervous. See, I’ve got this history with first sermons.
My first “first sermon” was as a student chaplain at Robin Run, a Disciples Retirement Community in Indianapolis. The passage I was to preach was Matthew 10, including verse 35, which says in part, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me”. It was Grandparent’s Day. Luckily, when it came time for my first sermon as a student minister in a congregation I was in a preaching class, and just used whatever sermon I’d preached in class that week. While delivering my first sermon during Clinical Pastoral Education at the Indiana State Psychiatric Hospital - well, let’s just say I learned when not to ask rhetorical questions.
My first sermon at my first church was an amazing thing. I wrestled with it for two weeks, crafting it with care, placing each word precisely in the best possible place, tweaking and re-writing over and over until I was convinced it was exactly what I was supposed to preach. Because that’s the thing, you know. I’m supposed to preach what God wants me to preach, not what I think would be a good thing to say. I went to bed on Saturday night quite certain all would be well the next morning. And I woke up that next morning, that Sunday morning, that first sermon at my first church morning, that Pentecost morning, and realized I wasn’t supposed to use any of those words. Thank you ever so much, Holy Spirit. And just so you all know why I tend to look tired on Sunday mornings, I haven’t slept really well on any Saturday night since. I have no idea what the Holy Spirit is going to give me.
The passage I really wanted to use today was from Isaiah 43, especially verse 19a in which God tells the exiles in Babylon, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” I mean, it just seemed sort of like a no brainer for my first time preaching to you. A little obvious, maybe. But it wasn’t the lectionary reading for today, and after all, I did use it for my last sermon at my last church . . .
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that one of the lectionary passages for today was actually much more appropriate. “You show love for others by doing, not by just talking about it.” I said to you during the interviews that what I was searching for was a congregation I could love, and who would love me. This seemed very much like that place.
And then I got here. I spent my first week in Selma trying to unpack and get acclimated to my apartment and the town. Then last week, my first official week at the church, I spent unpacking and settling in to my office and trying to figure out who all these people are that are in and out during the week. In that process I discovered how much and how very well you love. Not just the home baked cake delivered to my door, and the dinner invites and the calls to see if I would like to come have coffee and treats in the morning. And not just the opportunity to sit around the dining table playing board games with a family, and go to concerts and have burgers at the Mad Duck. All those things were great. And welcoming. And loving. I have to tell you I have been crying tears of gratitude all week that God has brought me to this place at this time in my life.
But the real love I have been seeing in you has nothing to do with this place or with me. Rather, it has to do with how you love people who may not ever set foot inside this door. It’s Undies for Others - buying underwear for the adults served by the Salvation Army. (And I have to tell you that the Salvation Army folks were delighted to hear how Janice introduced that program in worship a couple of weeks ago.) It’s going to the SMART Center (pictured above) early in the morning and making sure the families who show up there have food to get them through the week. It’s spending entire days volunteering at Twice as Nice to help keep the local hospital open. It’s spending every Friday at the Second Chance Animal Shelter trying to make sure no dog or cat has to be put down. It’s fostering kittens from that shelter. And Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life. It’s some of the service you all perform for others who aren’t part of this worshipping community, just because it is the right thing to do - that’s the kind of love that Jesus told us to have for one another. That’s the kind of love that John is writing about in this letter to the First Century church.
You know, I would like to talk about Isaiah for a moment - that whole “new thing” thing. What I really wanted to do was preach my first sermon here on Isaiah 43 on the First Sunday of Advent. The timing for that didn’t quite work - God is funny about not letting me have my way much of the time. But we are moving into a time of new things - Advent.
Now I know that, while some of us are pretty well versed in the liturgical year and how the church calendar works, for others of us . . . not so much. So let me give a quick lesson about Advent so you can be fully prepared next Sunday.
First, Advent is a time of waiting, not a time of celebrating. We light candles in an Advent wreath, adding a new one each week as the light, Jesus, gets closer to being here. We decorate with the sorts of images that remind us of his death - wreaths and poinsettias to remind us of the crown of thorns - and of his resurrection - evergreens and garlands to symbolize his eternal life. We sing music that looks east, that begs for his arrival, that cries out in longing for the birth of the Savior. We do not sing music that celebrates his arrival, because in a very real sense he isn’t here yet. If we set up a nativity scene, the cradle is left empty until midnight on Christmas Eve. We read the prophecies so we might have some idea what to expect. Some years the scripture readings come from the book of Revelation, reminding us we await his second coming just as eagerly as the Jews awaited the arrival of the Messiah.
Also, Advent is the beginning of the Church year. I know some (many) think it would make more sense to begin the Church (aka liturgical) year with Easter or Pentecost, but the fact of the matter is that the first Sunday of Advent is the first Sunday of the church year. No idea why, but there you go. Some things just don’t make much sense and we have to roll with them anyway.
Now I do realize that all of the stores and all of the TV commercials and all of the emails you are receiving from all those places where you have some kind of member card are yelling “IT’S CHRISTMAS!” It’s not. And it won’t be for another month. Advent helps us remember that. Advent helps us escape from Grinches and Red Nosed Reindeers and Scrooges and the never endings stream of Christmas Carols in stores and elevators and Facebook and even on our car radios. Advent helps us slow down in the middle of the craziness and remember what the season is about. During Advent we can wander in here, sit down and breathe, knowing that the time is not quite here yet, that we are still waiting to see God’s love made flesh.
Because what Advent really is, you see, is God doing love. Advent reminds us that God doesn’t just say “I love you.” Advent reminds us that God loves us in a very particular, very concrete, very real way. God loves us so much that God sent Jesus to live as a human, to share our lives, our pain, our joy, our entire human experience. God stands as the best example ever of doing love.
As does Jesus - as an adult, of course. Not the baby. The baby is just a baby - helpless and adorable. But Jesus the adult, Jesus the rabbi, the healer, the compassionate and loving man, he is the one whose example we try our best to follow when we are doing love. We ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” and sometimes we get it right. When we are driving on the 43 and that big white SUV pulls up on our back bumper . . . how would Jesus do love in this situation? I suspect he would shake his head and pull to the right, making room for the silly person to go past. When we see a stranger looking confused on a street corner . . . how would Jesus do love in this situation? He might greet that person, who might then feel emboldened to ask for directions.
“When we love others, we know that we belong to the truth, and we feel at ease in the presence of God.” Doing is loving. Doing the best we can, not just for the least of our brothers and sisters, but for every one we meet. I heard someone say a couple of days ago that every day when she goes to work she tries to remember that her work there is to be done for God’s glory. So even when the clients are difficult, or the bosses are overly demanding, or the deadlines are looming large, she tries to remember that her work is always for God, that everything she does is always for God, because she knows just how much God has done for her. Doing her work as an act of love for God makes it easier for her to remain focused and positive.
We are about to enter that time of year when the evidence of God’s love for us is about to come to life. Let us go out from this place ready to do love, in gratitude and thanksgiving. As we share our annual Thanksgiving meal with families and friends, let us also do love, serving one another, refraining from the kinds of arguments that can spoil our remembrances of God’s great and abiding love for us, seeking only to bring God’s light into every interaction. Let us go out from this place today ready to commit ourselves to doing love for all our brothers and sisters, for all of God’s creation, in every thing that we do.