sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 12/08/2013
video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
podcast here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/VineyardChurchOfMilan
or via iTunes here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/vineyard-church-of-milan/id562567379
Holding a baby. The experience of now. No thought of the past. No worry about the future. Just the wonder of the now. An attentiveness to this living being.
A calm that comes because of the simplicity of the baby’s existence. It’s here. Profoundly here. When its needs are met, it just breathes. Looks. Responds.
The thought of a baby doesn’t have this impact. Not the idea. Not a picture.
(Well, maybe a little, for some of you.)
No, it’s the baby’s actual presence. In your arms.
Really, there has to be a physical connection, doesn’t there? Across the room, in the crib, in the car seat, someone else’s arms - it’s just not the same.
Not the same as in your arms.
In your lap.
Against your chest, your breast.
It is a wonderful, wondrous wonder.
Assuming you can get over whatever nervousness or discomfort or whatever that you might have with babies.
Assuming you’re not having to attend to its needs.
To make it stop smelling bad.
To get it to stop crying.
Or to get it to eat.
But you’re just there, with her. She’s there, with you.
There’s something about the shared experience of presence. You with him. Him with you. Just the now. The wonder of life and breath and presence.
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 – hear me on this! – 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. We’ll be exploring this truth over the next couple of weeks together.
Our journey doesn’t start with the baby in our arms though. It starts with stress. If the baby in our arms is the now, the wonder, the peace, the warmth of presence, the solution, then unhealthy stress is the rumination, the anxiety, the worry, the coldness of isolation and loneliness, the problem at the root of all our problems.
Stress itself seems like not that big a deal, at least not at first. We most all of us feel it, almost all the time for some of us. Life is full of potential stressors. Financial stress. Relational stress. Work stress. Raising kids stress. Health stress. Stuff stress – cars and houses and technology. Mental stress – our brains can’t handle everything there is to think about, and we think we’re going crazy even sometimes. Emotional stress – we’re right on the edge of anger or despair or contempt or terrifying fear, so easily overwhelmed by the seemingly smallest things. Physical stress – our blood pressure is up, we’ve got ulcers and indigestion, knots in our backs and shoulders, headaches.
To clarify the obvious – we’re not talking about healthy, good stress here. Like when you break down muscle tissue so you can get stronger. Like when you tax your brain to learn a new skill or concept, and then have to sleep to retain the new learning. Or when you push yourself to the limits of your capacity so that your capacity can increase. Or when the pressure of a deadline or a developing situation brings you into focus and you marshal everything you have to overcoming a challenge you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, and you discover something inside of yourself that maybe didn’t even exist before. No, that’s good stress. It’s what strength and endurance and true joy are built on.
Jesus wasn’t immune from that kind of stress; he didn’t run from it or avoid it or resist it.
We’re talking about STRESS. The kind that a good night’s sleep won’t erase. The kind that’s destructive. That stays and becomes chronic. The kind that makes you grind your teeth and messes with your physiology and psychology and sociology. The kind that’s rooted in anxiety and scarcity and worry and fear and shame. The kind that makes you smaller and meaner and weaker and less of who you truly are, not larger and more generous and stronger and more fully the you that God intends as gift to the world.
77%. That’s the percentage of people in the United States who report regularly experiencing physical symptoms caused by stress. 77%. Regularly. This is from July study this year by the American Psychological Association.
73% Regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress.
48% Reported lying awake at night due to stress.
48% Feel their stress has increased over the past 5 years.
33% Feel they are living with extreme stress.
Ok, maybe it is a big deal.
But it’s worse than that even. Because how we begin to relate to each other, and the world around us, and even to ourselves is shaped by that stress.
54% of people report that stress has caused them to fight with people close to them. (I wonder if people close to stressed people report that 46% of stressed people lied on the survey…)
Terrible ills, from global in scope to personal, are fueled at first by stress. Wars, greed-fueled inequities, domestic abuse, suicide, broken relationships, theft, destructive sexual behaviors, addictions…what do they have in common? They grow out of unhealthy stress.
Is there anything we can do about STRESS? Does Jesus have anything to teach us about it?
Because of course we can take deep breaths. And of course we can practice brain calming techniques like meditation and prayer. And we can exercise. And eat better. And, yes, hold babies. All of these, and others, will help. And are worth doing.
But is that all we’ve got? Some decent ways to cope with STRESS? Wouldn’t it be great if there were some hope for more than that?
Jesus offers us more.
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.
That’s what Christmas is about. The rescue from our troubles starts with God entrusting himself to us as a baby.
There’s not much you can do with God when he’s a baby in your arms, is there? You’re just present with him, and he with you. The past slips away and the future pauses to make space for the present moment. All you have is now. You. Jesus. Breath, warmth, weight.
And the wonder of it all.
God in our arms.
The divine energy, personality, creative power at the center of the universe, Love itself, tiny legs swaddled in the crook of our elbow, tiny hands and fingers curled around our finger, content with us. Content, in that moment, to simply be, with us.
Even then, Jesus, as a helpless infant, beginning to teach us in action what he would later teach us with words.
Because there is power in the presence of a God who is making himself present to us. And 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.
Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 6.
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?
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.
I understand that the connection between all this and the infant God in our arms may not be immediately obvious, so let’s take a few minutes and see how it works.
Can anyone of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own, Jesus says.
What’s so wrong about worry? The irony of worry is that every hour of worry robs us of an hour of life. Worry keeps us from being present to the here and now where God is, where God is present to us with his care and his Love – even when now is full of troubles. Worry is rooted in a distorted picture of the past and anemic view of the future. Jesus is trying to dislodge us from that false past, trying to pull us back from that mistaken future. Jesus wants us to be present right now, here, in this very moment. Because this is where he is. Now. Here. We are surrounded by a God-breathed, God-filled, Good-News witnessing now.
Try this exercise.
Think about food for 15 seconds.
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
What did you think about? A meal you ate at some point in the past? Something you’re hoping to eat in the future? Food you really enjoy and are hoping to have? Food that you cooked or want to learn how to cook? Food that you hate?
Whatever you were thinking about – no matter what it was – you weren’t present to this present moment. You were somewhere else. Ruminating about or rehearsing or remembering the past. Planning for or hoping for or being concerned for the future. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself, but it’s that somewhere else where worry can get in a foot in the door.
Although God was in the past, when we were there, unless we invite him to accompany us as we revisit it, and reveal himself to us there, we won’t experience him in the present moment as we dwell in the past. There is no present presence.
And although God will be present in the future, when we get there, unless we invite him to shape our imagination as we consider the future, and reveal himself to us there, we won’t experience him in the present moment as we imaginatively cast our minds into the future. There is no present presence.
And since all any of us actually has is a series of neverending nows, as long as our nows are spent thinking about the past or the future, then we are missing God’s actual presence with us now. And all we have left is God-empty past that makes room for worry to dominate our present as we live in fear of what the future might bring. That’s STRESSFUL, isn’t it?
Now, try this.
Instead of thinking about food, just pay attention to your experience of food, right now. For the next few seconds. Do you feel satisfied? Provided for? Hungry and in need? Go ahead and just notice your present experience.
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
This is a completely different way to experience life, and it opens the door to experiencing the presence of God in the present moment. Because if what you notice is that you have been provided for, that you are satisfied and cared for, it tells you a Good News story. God loves you, he’s taking care of you, you’re not alone, you have nothing to be afraid of in the future. You don’t have to worry.
And if what you notice is that you are hungry, that you have unmet needs, well then those needs can be presented to God, right now, who is here with you, right now, and is already aware of them, but because he’s your Father, who gets his glory from providing for you. And because you’ve given your needs to God, you don’t have to worry about the future. What the future holds is God being faithful to his promise to provide for you in all sorts of interesting and surprising ways. What the future holds is a series of Christmas morning experiences. Who in their right mind would worry when they anticipated that kind of future?
Which brings us back to the baby. To God arriving as a baby. Placing himself in humanity’s arms.
If anyone should be worried, it would be the baby Jesus, in that situation, don’t you think? After all, what is it about our past behavior that suggests we’d take excellent care of him? We don’t have the best track record with caring for one another, let alone with God. And what is it about his actual immediate future that wouldn’t give him reason to worry? He’s going to be misunderstood, rejected, crucified. By us! The one’s holding him in our arms. He should be petrified.
But he’s not.
Glad tidings! The angels sing. Peace on earth, goodwill towards men on whom God’s favor rests! Praise God!
Jesus doesn’t worry because from the first moment of his human experience, he is simply present in the now that is God-breathed, God-filled, Good News witnessing. He is present with us, and God’s Spirit is present to him.
17 minutes of presence. Take 17 minutes each day this week (a minute for each day until Christmas) to pause and be present to God, simply opening yourself to experiencing the reality of the presence of God with you. Begin with a simple prayer: God, I’m here, in your arms like a baby. Will you show me that you are here, now, in this moment, in this place? If your mind starts to ruminate about the past or worry about the future, just gently stop it and return to now. Notice how you’re feeling, if it helps. Express gratitude for whatever you notice that’s good. Ask for God’s help for whatever you notice that feels like a need or a problem. You can try holding a baby, if you have one. Or someone or something else – yes, even a thing will do – that’s precious to you. When the time is up, say, Jesus, you are all I need, and you have come to me. Even if you’re just saying it in faith.