sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 12/15/2013
video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
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That experience of personal presence is at the root of the solution to all the world’s troubles. There is a power in presence that nothing can match. This is at the heart of why God comes to us on Christmas as a baby, to bring peace on earth, goodwill towards humankind.
Humankind, us people, the ones Jesus is given to on Christmas, are stressed out. Our minds aren’t working well from stress, we’re at our emotional breaking points, our bodies are suffering in the grip of stress, our relationships are in jeopardy because we are taking our stress out on one another.
Jesus offers us a way out of the grip of STRESS. Because STRESS has spiritual roots, roots in an un-reality, in shadow, in darkness. So Jesus shines a light for us on a truer reality, a reality we can seek asylum in and eventually become citizens of. A reality where STRESS and its demonic offspring aren’t authorized to follow us. And he gives us a way into that reality. I daresay that’s good news for us stressed out human beings.
On top of that, Jesus offers us the very thing that STRESS so insidiously steals from us. Jesus offers us LIFE. Abundant life. The kind of life he has, God-life. What the Bible calls eternal life – which, in the way that we’re talking about it in this context, isn’t a ticket to heaven, but rather the life of the heavens in the here and now (which of course, will continue on and on and on, without ceasing, even when our first creation bodies cease functioning, and will pick up at a whole new level in the new creation bodies we receive at the Resurrection.) The kind of life that isn’t subject to the destructive work of STRESS.
And it all starts with presence. With God making his presence available to us, inviting us to be present with him.
Our challenge, of course, is putting ourselves in a place to experience God’s presence near and with. We’re so stressed out it’s hard to even experience God’s presence.
That’s what Christmas is about. The rescue from our troubles starts with God entrusting himself to us as a baby. In due time, God will use his power to set things right. He’ll bring his powerful presence to bear in every corner of the earth. To fix everything that’s gone wrong. In us, in our relationships, in our world. But he begins by being present with us. Inviting us to be present with him. It’s in simple, holy Presence that the healing begins.
As we talked about last week, God’s presence – Love made Personal - is the antidote for stress. We even get a taste of that in every form of loving presence, don’t we? An embrace from friend, a family member, a spouse, a child, heck, even a gracious stranger. (Which is why nothing feeds stress like isolation and loneliness – which of course is different from being alone, with…with God, with nature, with your thoughts, a good book, etc.)
We have a problem with presence. Presence requires some things from us that aren’t easy for us.
Presence requires us to stop, for one. It requires us to stop, AND. And what? It requires us to stop and be attentive to what is present before us here and now.
What do we have to stop?
First, we have to stop rehearsing the past, ruminating, regretting, reliving, obsessing. To stop what-iffing.
We are who we are now. Now is what now is. Yes, the old nows can be assigned new meaning. The next nows can be changed, made better perhaps, more holy. But the now now is what it is, and we can either be present to experience it and draw life from the God who has given it to us and us to it, or we can miss it and move one step closer to death.
As the old King James Version says in Psalm 118:
This is the day which the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!
I like how Eugene Peterson translates that same verse in The Message:
This is God’s work.
We rub our eyes—we can hardly believe it!
This is the very day God acted—
let’s celebrate and be festive!
Salvation now, God. Salvation now!
Oh yes, God—a free and full life!
If we are going to be present to ourselves, to others, to the God who always occupies NOW, making his presence available to us, we’ve got to trust that God is big enough to gather the past in his arms and make something new and good out of it, no matter the regrets, difficulties, pain, or brokenness it contains.
What if you could do that, after a long day at work, with your rambunctious kids, a long day of tests and drama and trouble…? What if you could stop, pay attention to God’s presence with you right where you were, and realize, whoa, he’s here, and life is good, and it’s going to be OK. This is God’s work – I can hardly believe it!
A baby in our arms reminds us of this, doesn’t it…? No matter what has happened in humanity’s past, God has come here now. As a baby. New life, new hope, a new creation. Whatever has been, this now is good. I can accept a past that has led to the goodness that is now, divinity incarnate in my arms.
And presence requires us to stop worrying about the future. To stop imagining that bad is bearing down on us, and unless we make the right moves now, we just might get trampled in its path. If that’s what we imagine, and if we start using all of our nows to worry and fret and strain and manipulate whatever we can to avoid that imagined bad, then that imagined bad has already succeeded in its badness. It’s robbed us of all the good that might be present now, because we’ve missed it in our stressed out exertions. And in some ways, we’ve helped usher the bad into our future nows because of the way we operate under stress, developing cracks in all of our relationships and in our selves, good leaking out and emptiness rushing in.
Finally – with respect to how problematic presence is for us – it can be excruciating for us to be attentive to what is present before us here and now, because until God arrives – or until we become aware of his presence – sometimes all we have here and now is, well, there’s really no other way to say it, all we have is ourselves. And although we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and although reality is shot through with the glory of God, the first thing we are likely to notice when we attend to the reality present in us and before us is the brokenness, the emptiness, the sadness, the pain, what theologians call the “not yet” of God’s kingdom.
I’ll let one of the 21st centuries great philosophical minds explain…
[Louis CK clip…watch service at http://www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand (December 15) and go to 31:05…]
There’s some deep truth in that, isn’t there?
The even deeper truth, according to the scriptures and the witness of many who’ve gone before us, is that it’s into that emptiness and darkness that God himself comes, reveals himself, makes his presence known in a way we could never otherwise know him.
We’ll never know it though, until we can stop and give our attention to the possibility of the presence of God, here, now.
Jesus has a lot to say to us about that, as we began to talk about last week. Let’s continue.
25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
What keeps us from taking time to attend to the presence of God with us right now, right here, in this moment? What keeps us from slowing down enough to become aware of God, like a baby, among us, even in our arms?
One significant obstacle is the sense that if we don’t start doing what we need to do to take care of our futures, we’ll be in trouble. We won’t have what we need. And so worry drives us to activity and stressful existence, now after now passing us by, life slipping away in our misguided attempts to prolong our lifeless lives.
That’s why Jesus points out the birds to us. The birds are living entirely by instinct. They don’t dig up fields and plant seeds. They don’t harvest crops and fill up storehouses for a rainy day. They don’t remember the past. They can’t plan for the future. They have bird-brains after all.
Look at them, Jesus says.
Do they look stressed out? Not a bit.
You’re so much more valuable than they are, Jesus says. God cares for the birds. He’s caring for you as well. So worry is for the birds. Wait, strike that, worry is such a waste it’s not even for the birds!
Don’t misunderstand me. Planning and preparing for the future are part of how God has uniquely gifted us human beings. It’s part of his image in us, even, perhaps. We, alone among the known creation, can imagine the future and make wise decisions to cooperate with God’s creative work. But when we do it out of worry and anxiety, as a way to protect ourselves from an imagined scarcity and bad future that will surely overwhelm us if we don’t, then we have lost the plot. We’ve surrendered our gift and exchanged it for a curse.
Jesus knows we’ve forgotten what it means to sow and reap and store away in barns in a way that is fully mindful of God’s blessing in the present and promise of future care, so he’s gently shaking us awake to the reality of God’s good news. We’re not sowing, and reaping, and storing to get life for ourselves, or even to keep ourselves from dying. Stress is born in that perversion of reality. God will provide for us. Period.
No, we sow and reap and store, if that is what we do, or we teach, or we nurse, or we manage, or we parent, or we fix, or we build, or we design, or we make art or music or entertainment, or we beautify, or we invent, or we program, or we play soccer, or we act, or whatever we do, because we are cooperating with God’s rule and reign being experienced by his creation on the earth. As a part of his glory being displayed, magnified. All we need is his presence with us, like a baby in our arms. God himself is our life. If we forget that, then we’ll forget what it means to be alive.
Even more that, Jesus knows the Good News isn’t mediocre news. God will provide abundantly for everything we need for life and life to the full.
28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
The word that stands out to me here is splendor. Not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. God wants to give us splendid life. Glorious life. The Greek word here is doxa. It’s where we get the term “Doxology.” A hymn of Glory: Praise God from whom all blessings flow…. It is the glory of God to bless his children. The more blessings he pours out, the more he meets his kids needs, the more he is glorified. The more splendidly he clothes us, the greater his splendor is.
Paul writes in Philippians: And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Now to our God and Father be the glory forever and ever…
Something in the dark shadowy unreality of our world says to us that we can only have full, abundant, splendid glorious life if we go and take it for ourselves. It’s a twisting, a corruption of the truth.
The truth is that work is a gift and blessing from God, and we come fully alive in giving ourselves wholeheartedly to our purposes, that there is joy in exertion. But there is only life and joy in work and exertion if it comes from a foundation of confidence in God’s provision and care and delight in us for simply being who we are, his children – which is why Jesus says “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”
The perversion of Satan’s message to us is that we can only have God’s blessing and favor if we work for it, if we earn it, if we deserve by being perfect, so we’d better step to it. If we believe that, we will work to earn the un-earnable, and stress and worry will rob us of the very thing we are longing for.
So Jesus directs our attention to the flowers. God gives them a splendid, glorious life, and they don’t work at all. Surely we can pause, take in the moment of God’s presence with us now, today, here in this moment, breathe deeply of the smell of new life right under our noses, and live out of that experience of his presence with us.
One of the interesting things here is that Jesus isn't talking about clothing from a warmth/protection standpoint. When we are worried about "what shall we wear?" our worry isn't that we'll freeze (for some people, of course, this is a basic survival question, especially here in Michigan - but in the world Jesus inhabited, closer to the equator, that wasn't the primary issue with clothing.
It had more to do with the way in which you see yourself, the way in which others see you. How will I be able to clothe myself in a way that really reflects how I want to be seen? My clothes are worn out, or not fashionable, not high enough quality to make a good impression. And it's not just about what others think, is it? When we are dressed well, we feel good about ourselves. Like we can take on the world. When we put ourselves together well, we feel like somehow we are that person we see in the mirror, we rise above our flabby, aging nakedness. [Marty McFly, Back to the Future story...watching back to the future at 13 years old, thinking, man I'd like to be the kid that sleeps in his jeans, rolls out of bed, wears a flannel shirt over his t-shirt, takes on the world on a skateboard...actually started going putting on my jeans after closing the door to my room at night...]
From the beginning, clothes are what we use to cover our shame.
Sometimes the STRESS that drives us to anxiety, that keeps us from being present to God's presence, from being present to one another's presence, even from being present to ourselves, stems from the thought that we need to present ourselves in a particular way, in a way that says something about our strength and productivity and usefulness and excellence as human beings. That if anyone - others, God, even ourselves - saw us naked, raw, unmade up, un-killing it, a little unsure of ourselves sometimes, hurting sometimes, just holding on sometimes, maybe just a little like our parents walking around with dark knee socks and boxers, nightgowns and curlers - they wouldn't respect us, want to be around us even, wouldn't go after life with us, wouldn't do life with us.
This is such a lie.
Look at the flowers of the field. They don’t do didly-squat. They don’t even last that long. And they have splendid lives. God makes them beautiful. He’ll do the same for you – you’re his son, his daughter. And you’re going to last forever. Clothing yourself in importance, making yourself look valuable – such a waste! You can relax. There is no shame with God. Your needs are just part of who you are – you don’t need to hide them; God already sees them and he loves you. You’re valuable to him, needy and all. Be concerned with important things, like the presence of God among us, and God will take care of everything else you need, moment to moment to moment, without fail. It’s what he loves doing, it’s how he glorifies himself. God himself will cover your shame.
1. Give worry the _________. (No, not the bird) The Peace Sign. Identify the two or three things you most often worry about. Picture those worries as vultures circling, hoping you’ll die. Picture yourself giving them the peace sign, and them falling out of the sky dead, replaced by birds happily wheeling about in play and song. Now, pay attention to the next time you start to worry about one of those things. As soon as you notice it, actually hold up your fingers in the peace sign and say to yourself – Jesus promised me that everything is going to be OK, and it has nothing to do with me making it that way. Then, close your eyes for 10 seconds (unless you’re driving or something like that) and say, “I’m here. Please give me your peace as a sign of your presence.”
2. Pray to baby Jesus. For some of us, we feel all kinds of shame when it comes to praying. Because God knows our failings, our weakness, our sin, our needs, we sometimes imagine he won’t be happy with us. Instead of picturing a Majestic, Glorious, Holy God who you’ve got to dress up for to come into his throne room, picture God as a baby in an animal’s feeding trough. Imagine yourself coming in, picking him up, and talking to him. What baby ever cared about the clothes you were wearing? Or how well you spoke? Or if you’d ever done anything important with your life? All they care about is if you love them. The same is true of the God who comes to us in Jesus. The God who clothes the useless flowers in splendor.