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Monday, October 3, 2016

Sermon by Mike Powers at Edgewater on October 2, 2016

Scripture:

2 Corinthians 4: 6-18
Matthew 6: 25-33






God is Calling
By Mike Powers
Message
In the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1:27 tells us “So God created humankind[a] in his image, in the image of God he created them; [b] male and female he created them.”
If that is the case, you might ask, why don’t we all look like the image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?  For that matter, if we are all made in God’s image, why do we all look different from each other?  And another thing, given the wear and tear our human bodies undergo while we are using them here on earth, it would seem that God would be deserving of a more impressive appearance. 
Our faith tells us that God is eternal and transcends the limitations of a physical presence.  It would be fair to assume that the image being referred to in Genesis is not how we look in a mirror but something that is more significant than superficial appearance.
When God first created humans, He endowed us with the God-like gift of an eternal life in a paradise free from worry.  However, with the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man, paradise was lost and mortality gained.  We regained the possibility of eternal life with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  As John 3:16 famously tells us, 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
In the beginning, our souls perfectly reflected the purity of God’s image but it was not long before we began to diverge through the commission of sin.  We retain the original gift provided by God that is our immortal soul.  However, that soul is paired with our mortal existence here on earth which requires us to be attentive to the two aspects of our being—the temporal and the eternal. 
In the scripture reading from Second Corinthians that we just heard, Paul refers to our mortal bodies as “clay jars”.  Paul notes in this passage that whatever difficulties we may be encountering in our present life they are preparatory for the greater glory to come.  Paul wrote, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies
In the gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus tells us not to be concerned about our earthly physical needs 33 “But strive first for the kingdom of God[l] and his[m]righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 
The idea that we should pay more attention to the eternal than the temporal is a perfectly sensible proposition given that no matter how long we live here it will be but a “flash in the pan” compared to the forever to come.  However, what does it mean to “strive first for the kingdom of God”?  How are we supposed to know what to do? 
The “what” God expects from each of us may differ significantly as each of us have been given different gifts.  But the “how” -- how we arrive at determining what God’s expectations are for each of us will be pretty much the same and that is we need to allow God to guide us and that guidance can only come through our willingness to develop a relationship with Him.
 To have a relationship with God, one must come to know God.  We need to talk to Him and listen to what He says to us.  Where do we go to speak to God?  How do we connect with God when God has no apparent physical presence? 
Augustine of Hippo, or Saint Augustine as he is known in the Catholic church, was a theologian from the fourth and fifth century and very influential in the development of Christianity and Western philosophy.  He believed that knowledge of God is not necessarily observed in nature but comes from our own intellect which God created. 
Augustine wrote, "We apprehend material things by our bodily senses, but it is not by our bodily senses that we form a judgment on them. For we have another sense, far more important than any bodily sense, the sense of the inner man, by which we apprehend what is just and what is unjust, the just by means of the 'idea' which is presented to the intellect, the unjust by the absence of it. The working of this sense has nothing to do with the mechanism of the eye, ear, smell, taste, or touch. It is through this sense that I am assured of my existence; and through this I love both existence and knowledge, and am sure that I love them." St Augustine, City of God (Book 11, Chapter 3, 2. Chapter 3, 4.).
Augustine makes a very important observation that our communication with God may not necessarily be via our five physical senses.  God may not speak to us in the form of a burning bush as with Moses or by hurling a lightning bolt like the one that struck the Apostle Paul then named on Saul while on the road to persecute early Christians in Damascus. 
We sense physical things through our physical senses.  That God’s presence is not subject to the limitations of our physical world, it is entirely logical that God instilled in each of us a way to connect to Him in a way that does not use the usual five senses.  Paul wrote in today’s scripture from Second Corinthians, “…we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18b)
However, we do need to open ourselves to being aware of this most important communication channel in order to take advantage of it.  Just as we can prevent ourselves from seeing by closing our eyes, we can shut down this internal connection with God by ignoring it, by focusing too much on the physical world and overlooking the spiritual.  The Apostle Paul wrote in First Corinthians 2:14-15
14 Those who are unspiritual[e] do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. 1 Corinthians 2:14-15
We can miss God’s call to us if we are not sensitive to it.    Fortunately, God is very persistent and if we miss the first or second or even the thousandth call, we can still pick up because God will keep trying.
So knowing that we can communicate with God, what do we want to talk to Him about?  God might be a good source for knowing whether or not it is going to rain tomorrow or if our favorite sports team is going to win its next game but there are probably more important things to cover.
Perhaps a good place to start a conversation would be for us to get to know God better and, as we heard in Genesis, since God made us in His own image getting to know God and getting to know ourselves may be two inseparable tasks.
John Calvin, a leading figure in the early stages of the Reformation in the 16th century, wrote “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.  Without knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of self.”
This sounds like a classic “chicken and egg” paradox and Calvin acknowledges the difficulty of determining which precedes the other.  The good news is that we don’t have to decide as it is best to tackle both tasks at the same time. 
As Paul noted, in examining ourselves and noting the talents and the abilities that we have, it is difficult to conclude that such gifts came anywhere but from God.  God encompasses all goodness so that our strengths are a subset of His strengths.  Awareness of the nature of these gifts can direct us how to best serve as God’s instruments during our time on earth.  It allows us to be more intentional about it.  Dolly Parton put it succinctly when she said, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”    
We set ourselves apart from God through our failings and weaknesses.  By having a healthy self-awareness of our failings we learn how God does differ from ourselves.    This self-awareness of our faults tells us where we should direct our efforts at self-improvement to move closer to God.
Soren Kierkegaard was a 19th century Danish philosopher who developed a line of thinking that combined moral philosophy with tenets of Christianity.  In an article entitled “The Dynamics of Despair” Kierkegaard wrote, “The human being is essentially spirit. But what is spirit? In short, the self is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.  The self is the conscious unity of these factors, which relates to itself, whose task is to become itself.  This, of course, can only be done in relationship to God, who holds the synthesis together.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy held that an individual progresses through three life stages in the journey towards becoming a true self:  the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.
In the aesthetic stage, an individual’s realm is sensory experience and pleasures with little regard for the impact on others.  This stage is an immature phase and an individual is likely to find that the pleasures obtained do not provide true long-term satisfaction.  The joy obtained from each repetition of a pleasing activity provides a decreasing level of enjoyment and can lead to either boredom or the pursuit of a “higher high” often times at increasing levels of risk.  Ultimately, if one does not move beyond this immature, self-gratification period they will grow to despair the lack of substance of their lives.
To strive towards a higher purpose, an individual can choose to advance to the ethical stage.  Ethics are the social norms that govern how we are to behave with each other and cause individuals to act for the good of society.  Ethics do not preclude experiencing pleasure but, when the two come into conflict, the ethical choice must prevail. 
Unlike the aesthetic person, the ethical person will give more weight to benefiting others versus themselves.  While the pleasure-seeking individual soon becomes bored with the repetitive nature of their experiences, the ethical person will enjoy a different set of pleasures that appeal to a higher set of principles. In other words, it is true that it is “better to give than to receive”.
But even a person living in this ethical stage may not be honestly portraying themselves to others.  They may be adopting false personas in order to please others, succeed in business, be accepted in certain social circles or for any of a number of other reasons.  By not revealing their true identity they are betraying God by not being the person that He had created.  Living a life that is not true to oneself can lead to all manner of emotional distress and can lead to unhealthy relationships with others and God.
Accepting God into our hearts means being willing to shed our old ways and drop the masks that we may have been wearing to fit in.  God wants a relationship with the authentic you—blemishes and all.  We bear witness to God by living a life of authenticity and integrity out of our true selves and not out of a fictitious self that we think others will find to be more acceptable.
 Being true to ourselves provides us with the courage to stand by our principles and convictions instead of trying to base our positions on which way we think the wind of popular opinion is blowing.  It allows us the strength to go against the current when that is called for. 
Jesus certainly provided a great example of being someone who was willing to go outside the bounds of what was thought to be acceptable behavior in that he did not hesitate to meet with people considered to be on the fringes of society, he overturned tables in the temple, he was critical of religious leaders and his preaching was at significant odds with commonly held values and beliefs of the time.
Many people get to know God outside of themselves.  They may be familiar with the story of Jesus, go to church and may even read the Bible but only in the context of God as an external power. They view God as a somewhat distant all-powerful being of which to be wary so as not to bring punishment for disappointing Him by sinning. 
In a personal relationship with God we create space for God in the form of the Holy Spirit to live inside of us.  God is not a force to fear but a close and trusted partner and advisor who cares for us and wants only the best for us.  
God put us here for a reason and if we do not have a full understanding of ourselves and our relationship with Him we could very well be wasting a precious opportunity to act as His servant in the manner for which He created us.  Being true to ourselves in how we live our lives will also alleviate much emotional distress and lead to better, more honest and loving relationships with others.
Paul in Second Corinthians is correct when he describes our mortal lives as “clay jars”.  These clay jars have a limited shelf life but what is inside is ever lasting.  Paul also noted that Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
That renewal can only come through a personal relationship with God.  God is calling us to engage in that relationship.  He wants to have it.  God made us, God loves us and God wants us to succeed.  If you pay attention you will know that God is reaching out to you.  Please answer the call.

Amen.