Sunday, April 11, 2010

My Next 30 Years (Luke 3:23, 4:14-21)

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public work.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public work. So it would seem today that I am in good company. As most of you are aware by now, today is my 30th birthday. In fact, I will technically turn 30 about the time we get out of worship this morning, depending on how long-winded the preacher gets between now and then.

Several of you sent me something this week that I am compelled to share with the rest of you. These are George Carlin’s views on aging.

Do you realize that the only time in our lives when we like to get old is when we're kids? If you're less than 10 years old, you're so excited about aging that you think in fractions. 'How old are you?'
'I'm four and a half!' You're never thirty-six and a half. You're four and a half, going on five! That's the key.

You get into your teens, now they can't hold you back. You jump to the next number, or even a few ahead.

'How old are you?' 'I'm gonna be 16!' You could be 13, but hey, you're gonna be 16! And then the greatest day of your life! You
become 21. Even the words sound like a ceremony. YOU BECOME 21. YESSSS!!!

But then you
turn 30. Oooohh, what happened there? Makes you sound like bad milk! He TURNED; we had to throw him out. There's no fun now, you're just a sour-dumpling. What's wrong? What's changed?

BECOME 21, you TURN 30, then you're PUSHING 40. Whoa! Put on the brakes, it's all slipping away. Before you know it, you REACH 50, and your dreams are gone...

But! wait!! !
You MAKE it to 60. You didn't think you would! So you BECOME 21, TURN 30, PUSH 40, REACH 50, and make it to 60.

You've built up so much speed that you
HIT 70! After that, it's a day-by-day thing; you HIT Wednesday!

get into your 80's, and every day is a complete cycle; you HIT lunch; you TURN 4:30; you REACH bedtime. And it doesn't end there. Into the 90s, you start going backwards; 'I Was JUST 92.'

Then a strange thing happens. If you make it over 100, you become a little kid again. 'I'm 100 and a half!' May you all make it to a healthy 100 and a half!!

Thirty is one of those places along the road where you stop and take stock of your life. You think about what has brought you to this point – the people and experiences who have shaped you and the road that led to this place. You also think about the mark you have left, are leaving, and will leave on the world. You ask yourself questions like, “Is my life making a difference? Is my life counting for the things for which I want it to count?”

For those of us who claim to practice the Christian faith, who claim to follow the Christ, who claim that our lives are shaped by Gospel, the question is a bit more pointed. With our life, with our time, with our relationships, with all the resources God has given us – have we made our lives count for the things that are important to God? And that’s what I’d like us to consider for just a little bit this morning. May we pray.

For Jesus of Nazareth, the whole story really seems to begin at 30. Sure, we know some things about his life before this. There is a flurry of activity around his birth, complete with pregnant virgins, messenger angels, heavenly choirs, deviant kings, and adoring shepherds. We know Jesus was about two years old by the time the Wise Men from the East finally find him. Then Jesus disappears until we meet him as a boy of 12 in the temple, but he disappears again just as quickly as he appeared.

The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus was fully divine, but they also tell us that he was fully human. We can assume that he was going through the same trials of adolescence we all faced – schooling, first jobs, pimples, family dynamics. We know his father was a carpenter and he would have learned the family business in Nazareth – an insignificant agricultural town of around 500 residents. All the Gospel writers tell us is that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. I suppose that’s just a fancy way of saying Jesus got smarter and taller, and every birthday that came around, he was another year older.

Getting older is sort of a funny thing. My grandfather, the source of a great deal of the wisdom in family, had some things to say about aging. He told us that he was so old, he had taught baby bullfrogs how to swim. He said he was so old, they just put a railroad lantern on his cake instead of candles. He was so old, his driver license number was 7, his social security number was 12, and his first phone number was two long rings and a short.

I didn’t think my parents were ancient, but they were definitely old. I remember doing the math and figuring out that my Dad was 30 when I was born, thinking, “Wow, he was kinda old to have a kid!” And now, somehow, I find myself arriving at the same number and I’m like, “You know, 30 isn’t that old.” At the same time, it’s taken me my entire life to get here.

In Scripture, Jesus hits 30 and the Gospel writers come alive. We’re given a clue that this is the important part of the story, and indeed it is. In Jesus’ culture, age 30 implies full maturity. Levite priests couldn’t serve in the temple until age 30. It’s the age Jewish men could enter into legal disputes. In the Old Testament, Joseph began serving before Pharaoh at 30 (Genesis 41:46) and David became king of Israel at 30 (2 Samuel 5:4).

When Jesus appears to begin his ministry, he is 30. Jesus returns back to his hometown to make his inaugural sermon. This is where he’s going to give us his mission statement. This is the place he is going to tell us about his life’s purpose. This is the place he will tell us about the kingdom of God.

We are told that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard, met, and interacted with a whole lot of people who are filled with a whole lot of things, but not the power of the Spirit. Some people think my eyes are brown because of what I must be full of. Jesus here is not full of himself – he’s full of God! We can’t be God’s agents in the world and rely solely on ourselves. If we are going to be about God’s mission in the world, we have to be filled with the power of the Spirit. The task is too great for us to do it apart from God. We may think we’re quite clever and full of all sorts of good ideas, but none of our efforts amount to anything if they are devoid of the power of the Spirit.

We need to be people who are full of the power of the Spirit. Every day, we need to surrender and dedicate our lives to Christ. Every moment of every day, we choose to be followers of Jesus Christ. Every moment of every day we surrender our wills to God’s. Every moment of every day, we need to be willing to be the people God desires for us to be.

Every morning, when you wake up, when you’re brushing your teeth, when you’re walking the dog, or when you’re driving into work, try saying this simple prayer: “Lord, I give my life to you again today. Do with me whatever you will. I pray that you will use me to serve your people today. Help me to bring honor to your name. Grant me a humble heart.” Try doing that every day for two weeks, and see if God doesn’t honor the disposition of your heart in that and fill you with the power of the Spirit.

In my next 30 years, I am going to surrender my life daily to Christ that I may be filled with the power of the Spirit.

We are told that word was spreading about Jesus. When something good is happening, word travels quickly. I think one of the important things here is that Jesus didn’t get caught up in his own hype. Remember, he wasn’t full of himself – he’s full of the Spirit! If we are full of the Spirit of God, there is little room for our own ego to assert itself.

But, have you ever begun to believe your own hype? Have you ever let success go to your head? Have you ever thought that you were pretty special? Have you ever thought that a church, or a civic club, or your work, or some other organization would grind to a halt if you stopped doing what you’re doing?

We all like to think we’re pretty special. I fall into this trap so easily. I’ve got a healthy ego, I’m self-aware enough to know about my gifts and abilities and how they’re bearing fruit, and I can begin to believe my own hype.

On the night of my ordination, my family was posing for photos with Bishop Lawrence McCleskey. My mom looked at Bishop McCleskey and said, “Bishop, we’re just so proud of him. He’s very special, you know.” Bishop McCleskey looked at me and said, “Well A.J., I reckon my mom thinks I’m pretty special, too.”

This is a fine line for each of us. On the one hand, God has given us gifts and abilities and faculties, and God intends for each of us to use those things to their fullest to the glory and honor of God. That is our purpose – to live fully for God and to use all the resources at our disposal to God’s glory – but we need to keep the focus on God and not ourselves. Because on the other hand, we are each only a tool in the hand of our Creator. I have people who remind me of this all the time – friends from all chapters of my life tell me I’m a tool, and I’m sure this is what they mean.

As the pastor of this congregation, I have to remember that I am a tool in the hand of our Creator. Last week, when 183 people were present for worship as opposed to 82 for Easter the year before, someone looked at the crowd and then looked at me and said, “This is all because of you.” If I’m not careful, I can begin to believe that. I can let success go to my head. I can think I’m pretty special and that the resurrection we are experiencing here at St. Paul is because of me. When the bishop and district superintendent are bragging on us, when I am getting called by other pastors to consult with their congregations on how to turn themselves around, when the media shows up and I find my face plastered across the front of the Carolina Living section, it’s easy to let success go to my head. It’s easy to think I’m special. It’s easy for me to think the resurgence of new life – the resurrection happening here – is because of me. But it’s not about me, it’s about God.

Have you noticed that there are people who want to let you know what a deeply-committed Christian they are? How spiritual they are? How important they are? How close to Jesus they are? Have you watched people brag and brag and brag about the spiritual resume just to make sure that everyone around them knows what a strong Christian they are?

Have you also noticed that you’d probably never know these people were such deeply-committed Christians if they didn’t tell you? I find that the more we brag about our spiritual accomplishments or our own self-importance, the more spiritually immature and stunted we are.

I am reminded of an exchange that takes place in the 1965 classic The Sound of Music. During a formal ball, a local Austrian official who supports the Nazi regime gets into an exchange with Captain Von Trapp, who says, “If the Nazis take over Austria, I have no doubt, Herr Zeller, that you will be the entire trumpet section.” Herr Zeller responds, “You flatter me, Captain,” to which Captain Von Trapp says, “Oh how clumsy of me – I meant to accuse you.”

Part of a Christlike character is humility. God is love, and one of the things the Scriptures teach us about love is that it does not boast and isn’t easily angered. If our ego is more important to us than doing the things God wants us to do, then we will be boastful and easily-angered.

What was it we learned on Maundy Thursday about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God? Jesus said the greatest among us would be servant of all. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, cultivate a servant’s heart – a heart that is focused outward, a heart that thinks of everyone outside oneself before thinking of oneself.

It’s not about me, folks. It’s about God. It’s not about you. It’s about God. It’s not about the building. It’s about God. It’s not about the finances. It’s about God. It’s not about the history. It’s about God. It’s not about the future, either. It’s about God. We are all just tools in the hand of our Creator. When we are tempted to let success go to our heads, we need to remember that God could have just as easily used someone else.

I don’t know about you, but at the end of the day, I don’t want word to spread to spread about me – I want word to spread about Jesus. The more we are caught up in our own hype, the easier it is for the church to be about us.

In my next 30 years, I am going to keep it about Jesus and not about me, I am not going to get caught up in my own hype, and I am not going to let success go to my head.

Back in our text, Jesus finally gets up to read, and he reads words from the prophet Isaiah that were written 700 years before he was born. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

These are ancient words, old words, familiar words, words that have been read over and over again for the last 700 years, words the people have gotten so used to hearing that they seem to have lost all the depth of their meaning.

I wonder if we’re like that sometimes. I wonder if we’ve gotten so used to hearing the old, old story that it no longer speaks to us? I wonder if the message of Jesus has become so familiar to our ears and comfortable to our hearing that it no longer carries the same punch for us.

But these words of Jesus are challenging. They are just as challenging to us today as they were 2000 years ago. Jesus is making his first preaching debut, the text from the prophet Isaiah was carefully chosen to let people know what he was about. Jesus is good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, the oppressed being set free, and the year of the Lord’s favor – words that are challenging.

What Jesus is talking about here is change. Jesus is talking about a major change in the status quo. If you like the status quo, if you like the way things have always been, I’d suggest that you not hang out with Jesus. Jesus is reading about the complete reversal of fortune here – this is about freedom, for sure, but not the flavor of freedom to which we Americans have become accustomed.

Jesus reads the message from Isaiah and declares himself as the one who brings true release and freedom. It’s not the government, it’s not policies or legislation, it’s not some organization or agency who brings real freedom. Only Jesus brings freedom. Only Jesus, in the life-giving power of his resurrection, brings freedom.

True freedom does not consist in money and possessions and the ability to do as one pleases. It is, as Jesus will show us, release from the captivity to death, the will of others, and our own self-will.

Jesus brings change. Change in the depth of our hearts that orients us away from self-centered living to God-centered living. True freedom, Jesus will tell us, is about no longer being enslaved to the pursuit of wealth and worldly possessions and our self-will.

Jesus brings change. Change in attitudes and dispositions, change in the way we view the importance of ourselves and the importance of others. Jesus is preaching the radical change in the status quo. God never leaves people where God finds them. If you truly meet Jesus, a change in your condition always takes place. Radical change is what Jesus proclaims, and time and time again, it is exactly what Jesus performs. The radical change of which Jesus speaks is real change in the life and spirit of the person who hears the good news and whose life is never the same afterward.

And when does Jesus say the change takes place? When does Jesus say the scripture is fulfilled? Today.

Friends, we are integrally part of Jesus’ mission in the world. Jesus gets anointed for the mission, but it turns out that it is only in our hearing of it, in our internalizing of it, in our realizing of it, in our living of it, that this God-sized mission happens. Jesus says TODAY these scriptures are fulfilled. Today reminds us that when people encounter Jesus, they are changed. Today is the day of change. The change may involve attitude, or priorities, or finding comfort and hope in the midst of despair and death.

Even so, there are two other days that keep us from being the people God desires for us to be today. Those other days are “yesterday” and “someday,” and both of these are a crutch to avoid the changes of today.

Some try to continue to live in the past. “Remember the good old days.” They may remember and talk about all the things they used to do. What are they doing to make today just as glorious? Or they may look back at the rotten past and blame all their troubles on their hated history. What are they doing today to change that past?

History is important. We constantly need to look back and learn from our past. But we can’t live there. We live today.

On the other hand, we can also avoid changes of today by dreaming of someday. Someday the prisons will be empty. Someday the oppressed will be set free. Someday poverty will be ended. Someday all people will have heard the Gospel. God will do all that someday – so we don’t have to do anything now to help the oppressed out of their plight. Someday I’ll lose weight. Someday I’ll quit smoking. Someday I’ll get out of debt. Someday I’ll take that college course. And we do nothing today to help make that future come true.

Yesterday can be so glorious. Someday can look so glamorous. Today can seem so ordinary. But today is an extraordinary day, if for no other reason because God is with you today.

For my next 30 years, I am going to remember each and every day that God is with me today. I am not going to worry about 30 years stretching off into the future, each day, I am going to be the person God has called me to be on that particular day – not mired in my failings of the day before, not hanging onto yesterday in some nostalgic feeling, but not rushing to tomorrow or someday while failing to miss the opportunities and blessings of today. In my next 30 years, there are 10,950 “todays” just waiting to be lived. I am going to dedicate myself to God and God’s purposes on every today for the rest of my life – 10,950 opportunities to be the person God has created me to be – 10,950 opportunities to be a tool in the hand of my Creator – 10,950 opportunities to surrender my life daily to Christ and be filled with the power of the Spirit.

How about you? You’ve got a today or left too, you know. What are you going to do with today? What are you going to do with all the todays that you have left?

Today calls us to action now. Today shakes us out of complacency. Just as the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus, so that same Spirit is upon each of us. You will make some wrong decisions – God promises to forgive those – and who knows how the Spirit will use your mistakes! You will make some right decisions and you know that the Spirit will use those. You will become a better person, a better follow of Christ, and this world will be a better place for some people because you were willing to be used on every today.

Think about those idealistic and impossible God-sized dreams. Daunting, yes, but awesome, too. Jesus is saying that the impossible is happening today. The good news is this: you can start today. You can be part of those miracles today. There will be great, wonderful moments along the way, and there will always be more that needs to be done. But hear the good news: Jesus promises to be with you today.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a good sermon. I am surprised and amazed by it. May you always stay close to Jesus and be filled with His Spirit. Jesus himself says without Him you can do nothing.