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Sermon – “Surely at Hand” – July 28, 2013

Sunday, July 28, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Surely at Hand Psalm 85; Colossians 2: 6-15; Luke 11: 1-13

Harry Potter’s come and gone, and it may be hard to remember that the first burst of popularity of the books really upset part of the religious community. There are Protestants for whom it is an article of faith that there are evil spirits at work in the world of the occult–that there is some genuine, sinister power in things like horoscopes or ouija boards or potions or spells, which all are opposed to the God they worship. People with those convictions naturally were unhappy that children were reading books in which the hero was a wizard.

An earlier generation of British fantasy writing, by having all its magical or supernatural elements framed by what either was or looked like Christian theology–most famously, the Narnia stories of C. S. Lewis, and less well-known, the novels of Charles Williams, and Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth–which, if not explicitly Christian, still have elements of innocence, temptation, pride, discipline and duty, love and self-sacrifice enough to please a Christian reader–didn’t bother anyone. It was Harry Potter’s seeming to locate all uncanny power in the world of magic which, I suppose, made him unwelcome in some church circles.

The stories about Harry, however, did have this in common with the stories about Aslan and the Bagginses, and that is the confident establishment of a world not seen to ordinary eyes but vital, meaningful, and of the utmost importance to all. Even though the particulars of the stories — such things as the power of spells and the existence of beings capable of magical manipulation of their surroundings–offended the same people who always are trying to keep people from having fun with Halloween–the overall sense of the tales shares with religion the concept that there are larger powers abroad than merely the physical forces of gravity or electricity or chemical attraction or magnetism. “Harry Potter” stories say that in the spiritual or moral realm there are laws and individuals engaged in important things. The whole genre of stories involving magical beings and fairy tale elements emphasizes the importance of good and evil, love and hate, pride and humility, identity and destiny, and so, no matter what the scruples a Christian might have about how seriously the tales are taken, echo the religious world’s instincts about reality.

The way the Bible speaks about unseen powers and the invisible world has a naive layer in the oldest parts of scripture. Many of the Sunday School stories from the Old Testament have legendary or mythic qualities, and one thing that people in our time tend to do is to lump all the Bible’s telling about supernatural things together. The image of God walking around in a Garden of Eden is equivalent in their minds to God’s appearing in the New Testament. People don’t take the time to notice how, over the history of the development of scripture, the human way of talking about God approaches more and more the way we ourselves might do it. The descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus is described as being “like a dove,” which is a figure of speech. Some Christian traditions have adopted the image of the dove as part of their identity, but that makes concrete what the scriptures intend as an analogy. There is something about the coming and going of a bird out of the blue which is the closest thing to the Spirit’s coming that the author knows. Similarly, the speechofGodislikenedtothunder. Accountsofthedeityarerarelyasstraightforwardas they once were–what is of God is “like”: something else. The difficulty of describing things of God, of pinpointing God is already there, just as it is for us.

The New Testament more often will call visions and dreams just that. They are accepted as insights into the divine world, but the fact that they are extraordinary, and unusualkindsofconsciousness,isexplicit. Angelsappear,buttheirappearanceisn’tas literal as it is in our Christmas pageant–there is an element of mystery to God’s messengers, while at the same time no description of their appearing different from anyone else. The New Testament thinks angels might be abroad among us without being recognized, and that’s a very different sense of what these spiritual beings are like than we have given them.

In short, the New Testament is about astonishing things while often expressing itself in the same searching-for-a-way-to-describe it position that we are when we try to say something about marvels. In the fantasy stories with which I began the sermon there always is an explicit boundary between normal reality and that other world in which events unfold involving quests, heroism, spiritual growth, and new insight about the supernatural world which is a counterpart to our own. Some unusual or invisible means transports people from the midst of daily living into a new world. In short, such stories acknowledge that the realm of spiritual powers is hidden, and access to it is challenging.

The gospel story of Jesus teaching prayer says so, too. Prayer is not instinctive, no matter how much some persons are religious by nature. Jesus’ disciples, whom he must have chosen because they are good candidates to continue his legacy, find the practice of prayer a mystery. They see that Jesus prays, and ask that he teach them how to do it.

Jesus not only offers them a prayer to make, but implicitly acknowledges the tenacity which prayer requires–it is neither so automatic nor evident in its results as to reinforce its practice on its own. Reaching across that boundary between this everyday world and a realm of even greater spiritual reality often seems like a fruitless pursuit, and much of Jesus’ teaching on prayer anticipates that, because most of Jesus’ teaching on prayer is encouragement to stick with it despite its seeming unproductive.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians addresses in a different way the difficulty of consciously counting on heaven. He has revealed through the gospel and by converting these former pagans the true nature of God and the moral sense of the cosmos– the status of individuals and their acceptability in the presence of holiness and their potential to be good and all that–but he understands that since this knowledge is possessed on the basis of faith, confidence in it can be undermined. That’s what is happening in this church, and he tells them to stick with the teaching they’ve received. “Let no one make a prey of you with human philosophy and deceit” he says, which shows you what he thinks of other teachers’ efforts to amend the impressions Paul has given the church. Their would-be reformers have nothing but their own made-up speculations and are offering not only that inferior teaching but, consciously or otherwise, lying about reality. The original teaching of Paul is what they should stick to.

It is possible that the matters in which the new ideas are getting a hold have to do with who and how the Colossians must be in order to be acceptable to God, to have their sinful nature negated in order to be right with God. It seems that this may be what’s going on, since that’s an ongoing issue in Paul’s day with rival teachers, and because Paul reiterates teaching about Christ having achieved, once and for all, their innocence before God.

Since there is a concern of some kind about how the Colossians think about their spiritual lives, and their individual relationships with heaven, it is obvious that they live in this world conscious of the priority of that other world which faith insists is their origin, their reason for being, and their destiny. Paul doesn’t need to tell them to take that world seriously; he only needs to remind them that everything they can know about it, they already do in the simplelineamentsofChristianteaching. Asdifficultabasisfordailylifeastheirtemptationto welcome other teachings betrays it to be, they must be content with that. Efforts to elaborate on the nature of the unseen world only will invite inadequate or inaccurate notions.

The challenge of faithful living is shown in the psalm, too. What does the psalm say? It says that God is not helping the faithful, and if that lack of involvement in his people’s fate is regarded as punishment for sin, the psalmist is saying enough is enough. What offers hope in a life in which God’s hand in things isn’t seen? The past. The psalm begins reminding–both the psalmist and God–that God has rescued in before, and that gives hope that God will rescue again.

The final bit of the psalm is a vision of the effect of righteousness and peace, when it is established in human life. These spiritual realities will result from God’s blessing, and invite further into the world of men and women the presence of God. Just as in the familiar Christmas scripture about faithfulness and desire for God making a highway in the wilderness for God’s approach, here we are told that righteousness will go before God, and make a path for God’s steps. We, who often live as those needing to believe better than we can, are offered this psalm and these scriptures to encourage us that being persons of God never has been easy, but always relies on something true. Like the disciples, we need better habits to connect us with where God is. Like the Colossians, we are tempted to prefer plausible theories to what has been revealed by God’s actions, and like the psalmist, we have to remind ourselves of what God has done, to sustain us in those times in which it looks to us like God is neither available nor interested. Pray for deeper faith, to allow you to learn from these lessons to live as both trusting and true.

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