Inward, Outward, Upward

Since the first Sunday in November, we’ve been talking about the “Already” and the “Not Yet.”

We’ve been waiting for the day, for the moment to arrive, when Christ is born again in our hearts and minds and lives.

But it is a kind of paradoxical waiting, because God has already entered human history through the birth of Jesus. As Paul’s letter to Titus speaks – God’s salvation has appeared!

We have been waiting for something that has already happened… A long, long time ago in a Galilee far, far away.

 

Thursday, so many gathered right here, in this very place, to light candles and celebrate that birth. We rejoiced with the shepherds and angels. We brought gifts like the wise ones. Christ was born all over again in our hearts and minds and lives. You could see it on the radiant faces, holding the candles. You could feel it in the warmth and kindness and love offered to one another. Peace on earth and goodwill to all.

 

Today, a mere three days later, have we truly received what we we’ve been waiting for?

Or did everything go back to normal?

 

That truly is the question.

Did this Christmas change anything? Is your life at all different because of the birth of our Savior?

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Maybe all Christmas has taught us is that we aren’t quite done waiting…

In his letter to Titus, with just a verse in between, Paul goes from saying that “the grace of God has appeared…” to “we wait for the blessed hope and the glorious appearance of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:11-13)  Or as we talk about every time we take communion, Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

We believe there is still more to come.

We look out on the world and see the pain and hurt, the broken relationships and nations at war. Salvation and grace might have appeared, but this world is much the same as it has always been. There is another act to this drama of redemption that has yet to play out.

 

As a church, we have been reading this book, Awaiting the Already, by Pastor deVega. And he suggests that Paul’s advice to Titus is good advice for us today… advice about how we should wait during these “in-between times.”

He writes that the grace of God teaches us to live sensible, ethical, and godly lives.

Sensible.

Ethical.

Godly.

As deVega writes:

…these three words together capture the full range of the spiritual life. To live sensibly (or “with self-control,” as it can also mean) is to live in harmony with one’s self. To live ethically means to live in harmony with others. And to live in a godly manner means to live in harmony with God. In just three words, Paul reminds us that every relationship we have deserves our fullest commitment to love and reconciliation.

To live sensibly is to have harmony in your inward life.

To live ethically is to seek harmony in your outward life… with the whole of creation.

To live a godly life is to allow God’s harmony to filter through your upward relationship with the divine.

And, you can’t have one without the other two. Even Jesus, when asked to teach his followers the most important commandment included all three aspects: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Paul, for his part, is writing to encourage and instruct Titus, who had been tasked with organizing the church in Crete.   As Titus was to choose leaders, these three qualities… sensible, ethical, godly… should be present in their lives.

supervisors should be without fault as God’s managers: they shouldn’t be stubborn, irritable, addicted to alcohol, a bully, or greedy. Instead, they should show hospitality, love what is good, and be reasonable, ethical, godly, and self-controlled. (Titus 1: 7-8)

Why are these qualities so important?

Because they mark a transformed life. These qualities are a witness to the power of grace to make a difference in a life.  They show the world that we don’t just believe in the good news, but that it has taken hold of our lives and we are no longer the same.

You see, we may not be able to control other people’s lives… we don’t have any power over nature or sickness or disease… we can’t stop civil wars or end hunger…

But the grace of God, the birth of Jesus into our midst, has given me the ability to control MY life. And you, yours.

 

And that means, you and I can live sensibly, with self-control.

We were taught how to do so by Jesus himself, who faced earthly temptations of power and wealth and chose instead a better way.

But Jesus also showed us that living sensibly does not mean to live without joy. He turned water into wine at a wedding and he celebrated meals with friends and strangers alike. But never was he out of harmony with himself.

On Christmas Eve, fellow pastors and I were sharing on facebook all the little things that went wrong. This time of year can be awfully stressful as we try to make everything just so. More than one time, a colleague mentioned drowning away their troubles in a bottle of wine.

And one of us spoke up.

She said, “I’m in recovery… I’ve been clean for ten years this February, God willing…. I see more posts about alcohol in this group than anywhere else on Facebook. What does that say about us?”

It was a great moment for our group to evaluate and stop and take stock of our habits. To check in with ourselves and ask if we need a drink to get through an evening, what does that say about our health, our stress, and whether or not we are living in harmony with our inward selves.

 

Likewise, we should be living in harmony with others. We can follow the wisdom and teachings of Jesus who welcomed the stranger and healed the sick and fed the hungry.

This is a time of year when that type of generosity comes as second nature. But not too long after the tinsel is taken off the tree, we forget how to be generous and self-giving. Our hospitality gets worn out.

There are many different types of ethics that we might follow, but the entire point of an ethical life is that it is a habit or a custom. We shouldn’t treat our neighbors any different one time a year as another.   And so the spirit of joy and peace we discover in the warmth of embraces on Christmas Eve should be the basis of how we treat every neighbor all year long.

The saints and heroes of our Christmas story are those who sought the way of love and compassion, like Joseph choosing to stay with Mary, and the innkeeper who made room for the holy family. The grounding for our ethical lives is how we treat those who are the most vulnerable in this world.

 

Finally, we should live godly lives.   To be godly does not mean to be perfect or holier-than-thou. It means to turn our attention to God… to live a life of worship… to actually be in relationship with God.

Jesus taught us how to do with when he taught us to pray and reminded us that God is our Abba father. Jesus showed us how to do this when he took time to get away and pray.

But he also demonstrated what it means to be godly as he respected and honored the faith of others… including the Samaritan woman at the well and the Roman soldiers. He held open the door wide for all people to be in relationship with God. And at Christmas, we remember that even strangers from a far off land with no concept of the faith of Mary or Joseph were some of the first to kneel at the manger and honor God.

 

So what difference does Christmas make?

It might not change the world… but it can change your heart.

We are each tasked with living a sensible, ethical, and godly life.

As Howard Thurman once wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.

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