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December 7, 2003 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Joanna M. Adams
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Philippians 1:6 (NRSV)
Create in us a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and steadfast spirit within us.
You, who are the master builder,
the source of all that is good and gracious,
bless us now, we pray, by your Word and Spirit,
that in your light we may see light,
in your will discover your peace.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This letter from the Apostle Paul puts me in mind of Christmas letters and how I like to receive them. Oh, I know there are some that veer off to the stratosphere of braggadocio, but they are the exception, rather than the rule. You know how those letters go, though. They might sound something like this:
Dear Loved Ones,
It’s been a wonderful year for us in every way. Our youngest grandchild graduated magna cum laude from kindergarten. Her teenage brother rode his bicycle across Australia with Lance Armstrong, leaving Lance in the dust, of course. And you remember our daughter, who once looked so adorable in pigtails. One day this past year, she received the Nobel Prize for Physics, won the Pillsbury Bake-Off, and gave birth to triplets. As for ourselves, we are blessed with great teeth, flat abdomens, and wrinkle-free complexions. We very much enjoyed our private audience with the Pope in the spring.
And so it goes. Those occasional excesses notwithstanding, I love the letters and the hope, love, courage, and resilience to which they so often bear witness. I love the reassurance that the bonds of love hold fast across time and space.
So far this season, my favorite letter is from my husband’s high school guidance counselor. Forty-five years ago, she befriended Al and stays in touch with our family still, often with good news about her nieces and nephews, whom we do not know, but we rejoice in their lives, because she rejoices in them. She is in her eighties and maintains an exceptional capacity to care about and offer support to people who come after her. This concern for the future and for those who will inherit it is known as generativity.
With her shaky hand, Al’s former guidance counselor wrote at the bottom of her Christmas letter, “May the blessings of Christ bring you peace and joy.” I could not ask for more on a cold December day than to read that shining wish on a Christmas card. It made me think about the generativity of this congregation and the spirit of genuine rejoicing that has filled our community of faith in recent weeks. As we have engaged in the wonderful planning process for Project Light, the whole point has been sharing peace and joy with the world. This undertaking will make such a difference in the lives of those who will follow us. It is no wonder that so many have seen Project Light not as an obligation, but as the opportunity of a lifetime. Like the Apostle Paul, John Buchanan and I give thanks to God every time we think about you and how much you give, how much you care, and how we are all blessed to join in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with this city and with the world.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus.” Notice that Paul takes no credit, neither does he give credit to his friends for the progress that has already been made. They are engaged in a massive construction project, but it is not a project they originated. Rather it is God’s idea—the renewal and reconciliation of the world. God started this project. God will finish it. There will be no darkness unvanquished, no buildings unbuilt, no conflict unresolved, no death unanswered by life when God gets through.(1)
No wonder our cards and letters overflow with joy, love, and confidence at this time of year. This is the season when we remember that God truly is doing something awesome and new in the world, and we have the great privilege of being a part of it.
News about what God was doing in the world was exactly what the angel had to share with the shepherds one night so long ago: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–12). And what will he bring into the world? Healing, love, and peace. God is determined to win the world with love. And you and I, like the members of the faith community in Philippi, make a contribution to God’s redemption project by continuing to wash the world with love. “This is my prayer,” Paul writes, “that your love may overflow more and more with the knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.”
Throughout this entire passage, Paul never uses a singular pronoun. All the yous are plural, which means that what God has begun is, by its very nature, a communal project.(2) It is tempting to take an entirely individualistic approach to faith, isn’t it? To decide that redemption and salvation have to do exclusively with one’s own relationship with God and Jesus Christ. You remember the hymn that was popular some years ago: “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses, and he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” That hymn is not untrue. It simply tells half the truth. The truth is that we are God’s together. The good work that God has begun cannot be reduced to the life of one individual.(3) That is why we gather in community and give to mission and build buildings. There is great work that God is doing in the broader realms of culture and society. It is the world that will be redeemed. “All flesh,” the prophet said, “shall see the salvation of God” (Isaiah 40:5).
I am looking forward to the lighting ceremony tonight. As we turn up the lights to illumine the exterior of our sanctuary on Michigan and Delaware, I will be thinking of Fourth Church as one of God’s Christmas letters to the city. As people walk by, they will see this beautiful sanctuary, and our friends and neighbors will remember that “the true light that enlightens everyone is coming into the world” (John 1:4), that God’s grace is for all, that God has great plans in which everyone is included.
May peace and joy be yours, Chicago, now and always.
Fourth Presbyterian Church
The landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed and produced all the outdoor elements of the 1893 Chicago 1893 World’s Fair, known as the Columbian Exposition, which attracted 27.5 million visitors in six months and which left a legacy of beauty along the lakefront that is unparalleled in any of the world’s great cities. “Every element,” Olmsted wrote, “has to have one supreme object, that is the property of becomingness; the becomingness of everything that may be seen as a modestly contributive part of the grand whole.”(4)
Becomingness: What a wonderful prism through which to look at what God is doing with the world and the modest part Fourth Presbyterian Church is privileged to play in the great, unstoppable purposes of God.
Becomingness of another sort was what John the Baptist had in mind when he traveled up and down the banks of the Jordan River, with a message laced with vinegar and fire. He proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his path straight.’” There was nothing modest about the man or his approach. Yes, God is going to lift up the valleys and bring the mountains low, but you need to do the necessary roadwork to prepare the way. His message was piercingly personal. You have work to do in order to receive the blessing of the new in the world and in your life.
Not long ago, a member of this congregation sent me a story by email. It had to do with an incident at a city traffic light. The light had turned green, and the car that was closest to the light didn’t move. The driver in the second car blew her horn; the man in the first car remained oblivious to the green light. The second driver blew her horn again; the first car didn’t move. The second driver began pounding the steering wheel; she screamed and cursed and, of course, the light turned yellow, and the man finally woke up, drove off, and left the second car to sit through still another red light. The driver was furious. She was pounding on her steering wheel again when she heard a tap on her window. She looked up to see a police officer, who ordered her to get out of the car. He handcuffed her, took her to the police station, fingerprinted her, and put her in a cell. Hours passed. Finally she was taken back to the booking desk, where the officer who arrested her was waiting. “Lady,” he said, “I’m very sorry for the mistake, but I pulled up behind you while you were blowing your horn and cursing; and as I was sitting there I noticed the bumper sticker on the right side of your car: ‘What would Jesus do?’ On the left bumper was that other bumper sticker: ‘Follow me to Sunday school.’ And then there was the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on your trunk. So naturally I assumed that you’d stolen the car!”
Sometimes there is a gap between who we think we are and who we actually are. Pay attention to that gap, John the Baptist said. You need to think about what you can do to live a life that is more reflective of the ways and purposes and spirit of God. And how do you do that? John the Baptist is clear as a bell about the methodology. Repentance is what he said. The gospel he proclaimed was “a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).
Repentance is a word we do not hear often today, but it is an ancient, good word. In Greek, it means “to change.” It indicates a change of mind, a change of direction. As one wise person has put it, “no amount of extra exertion will ever help a runner who is headed in the wrong direction.” To repent is to turn around and face the right way, to look in the direction in which salvation is to come, and to do the work that is necessary to receive salvation when it comes into our lives. Redemption—that is God’s doing; but repentance—that is to be our agenda during this season of Advent. Our agenda is to think about how to close the gap in our life between the person that we wish we were and the person that we actually are. This is the time to make the crooked places straighter; to stop doing things that separate us from other people and from God; to clear our consciences of old, debilitating guilt; to take inventory of the principles by which we live out our business and professional life; to tell the truth about the beams that might exist in our own eye. We should try to clean up our act a little bit, now that we know that the Lord is surely coming.
Perhaps you remember the story that was told about Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, a man who spent his life amassing a fortune in the manufacture and sale of weapons. One day he woke to read his own obituary in the newspaper. A French reporter had made a mistake, and though it was Alfred’s brother who had died, it was Alfred’s obituary that appeared in the paper. The headline was “The Dynamite King.” The entire obituary spoke of him as a merchant of death. Nothing else he had done in his life was mentioned.
Reading the characterization with horror, Alfred Nobel resolved to change his life, to make clear to the world what his true meaning and purpose were. He decided his last will and testament would be an expression of his life’s ideals. The result was, of course, the most valued of international prizes: the Nobel prizes, one of which is given to those who work for peace in the world.
Wake up. Pay attention. Change your life. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John the Baptist cried.
I attended the mayor’s prayer breakfast this week. Young people representing five different religions in the world did a beautiful reading together, and in the course of that reading, one of the young people said, “In spite of our religion, we all want to be human together.” I thought that was the most tragic claim I could imagine. Religion should make us more human with one another. If we vow nothing else this Advent, it ought to be that we, as people of faith, will make sure that the way we live out our Christian faith will never be through the dynamite of unbending self-righteousness and other ways of being religious that give birth to all manner of violence and human hurt.
I hope we can wake up and be kinder Christians. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “darkness will never drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hatred will never drive out hatred. Only love can conquer hatred.”
What is the mission of Fourth Presbyterian Church? To drive out hatred with love and to drive out darkness with light. I can think of no better reasons for this church to exist for another hundred years than those.
I close with a personal word because John the Baptist got so personal in his Christmas message. Do you remember in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, how one day Ebenezer Scrooge, stingy and flint-hearted Scrooge, woke up to his future, after the visit of the third Spirit? To his great relief, Scrooge discovered that “the bedpost was his own, the bed was his own, and, best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own to make amends in!”
This is a wonderful time of year for all of us to think whether there is something in our own lives that might be blocking progress on the construction project that is a whole new us. It’s never too late to begin again. While it is unrealistic to expect perfection or completion in our lifetimes, God the master builder really does want to get started now, so that the blessings of Christmas may be ours, when Jesus, child of Mary, is born in a manger—God’s Christmas gift to you and to the world. Amen.
1. Texts for Preaching, Year C (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 15.
2. Ibid., page 16.
4. Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (Crown Publishers, 2003), p. 55.
5. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Signet Classics, 1984), page 130.