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  • Writer's pictureChurch of the Incarnation

Advent 3: When things are falling apart and won't get better

What would you say is the greatest barrier to Christians fulfilling the Great Commission to go out and share the Good News that Jesus Christ has come to heal the sick, to care for the poor, to restore the people made through him to the perfection for which they were created? 

I’ll tell you what I think it is. It’s us. We are the greatest barrier to our own ability to share God’s healing and reconciling love with others. Why? Because we forget this simple truth: “as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” Or to put it another way: “[This God who comes to you and] who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

One of the greatest deficits we have in the Christian Church is not accounted for in our finances: rather the deficit is in our faith that God is at work in this world at all. I think we start from a problematic premise: that God started things in motion - like a watchmaker starts a watch or a clock - but that once started, that watch or clock, or that church i.e. us, must accomplish the rest using our own power, expertise, our civil laws, our corporate strategies, our culturally conditioned ways of thinking. I think in fact that we become so Adam and Eve like in our sin - in thinking that we know better than God what ought to be - that we are utterly blind to how God is actually working through us. 

We see ourselves weakened as individuals or as a church and what do we think? This is wrong. God is not on my side. What a disaster. I must fix this. And what happens if we can’t fix it? Anger, bitterness, abandonment, despair, deep cynicism, lashing out at others, maybe even losing our faith. How dare God abandon me/us; I shall abandon him first for he is not strong enough, good enough, big enough. I will do it on my own. Is this not a familiar story: Adam and Eve, the Israelites who ask Aaron to melt down their gold and offer up a golden calf to foreign gods who might bring them food and water in the desert, Annanias and Sapphira who hold back the proceeds of the sale of property rather than sharing it as part of a common pot for others in the Christian community who have need. 

And what message does it send to other people when we act in ways that are intended to secure us, to mitigate our fears, to walk away from having to face our decline? It suggests that we do not believe that God is doing something through us even in this state. It suggests that God only comes for the strong, the powerful, the winners, those who have it all. It suggests that unless we are capable of saving ourselves, God will not save us. But of course this is an utter contradiction of the truth. 

God sends Isaiah and John to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and to release the prisoners. He gives comfort to those who mourn. He says that he will give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. To the people who admit their weakness - Abraham, David, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ruth, Naomi, Paul, Mary and Mary Magdalene - God says, “in your weakness and in your willingness to choose me rather than trying to fix your weaknesses with the world’s ways - I will show my power.

I will make of you a righteous branch, I will make you a place where people can see me at work, I will reshape your hearts and minds, I will make you capable of reaching those who have lost all faith, all hope, all joy. I will make you able to touch the lives of those who live in fear and anxiety. And this is the only power that remains. It is the only power that opens another to the unchangeable, unrelenting nourishment of grace that doesn’t pass away but remains forever.

Let me tell you a story. I picked up Paul ------- a few weeks ago to take him to our men’s coffee hour. Paul can’t drive. I had to help him get into the car and out again. Paul was an accountant. He was once not just capable, but someone who excelled at analysis, easily able to get around, independent, and powerful. I love to ride my bike everywhere and take for granted the ability to do so, to think analytically and render judgments. I say I would define myself and my value by these things. I said to Paul, “does what’s happened with you make you angry?” He said to me, “it used to, but anger is wasted energy. Listen, what do you love about cycling?” I replied, “It’s my freedom, my independence, my way of conceptualizing space and time, the way I see and hear God.” Paul replied, “so is my analysis of how to move from my front door to your car door. The scale of movement is different, but the underlying reality of moving in God’s world is the same.” I was driving so it was dangerous to cry.

But Paul’s words to me were God’s own: “it is not you or your ability through which I, your Lord, is encountered or shared. You don’t get to determine how I will work through you. Rather it is in offering yourself to me just as you are, allowing me to work through your weaknesses, your folly, your brokenness and lack of vision, your diseases, your falling apart, your inability to manage, your shrinking as a church, your having to change course because you no longer have the resources to go out as you once did, it is just here that I transform you into the most powerful witness to God: for it is just here that weakness - the weakness of a baby or a man on a cross - is met by God’s divine order that far surpasses anything we can offer or do. It’s just here that God is seen by others: not in our strength, not in our capacity, but in our willingness to allow God to take us where we are and reform us to his purposes, that we might find value and meaning in our lives, and yes, even our purpose and our work to do as a church.

For all that remains, all that has value and meaning, is what God makes of what is. To know that and accept our part in that relieves us of all the burdens to climb over others, to compete, to win, to be successful, to align ourselves with corporate interests or military or political powers. It is to lay ourselves bare before God and allow his grace to work in ways of which we cannot conceive to draw others to him. This is what John was driving at when he said, “the one who is coming after me is far more powerful than I: I must lay myself down, even my life, so that others might know him; for he is all that remains.” Thanks be to God that the one who loves without end is fitting us for this very reality. AMEN.

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