Sermon for Sunday, November 26, 2017
How many of you know that today is the last Sunday of the church year? When considering the Sunday calendar, today is like “Advent Eve”. Therefore, what better time is there to write our Christmas card letter.
The custom of sending Christmas cards has really changed over my lifetime and with the addition of personal computers in our homes, one change has been to include a holiday letter to share your life experiences with all those family and friends you are accustomed to exchanging Christmas cards.
My experience with the year-end letter is that it is a list of the high points in a family’s life. No one really mentions too many negative or sad experiences, yet I admit using the letter to let others know of some such changes in our family. Sometimes I feel like I do not have anything worthy of sharing as the year is just filled with the day-to-day activities of work and household chores. Those are the toughest ones to write.
Yet, time is getting away, so let’s get started:
Dear Family and Friends,
Blessings to each of you this holiday season. The years are certainly racing ahead, but we are blessed with good health and a comfortable home.
Sadly we have to report that we lost two of our family this year: Mary Ellen and Ms. Bonnie. Their passing leaves empty space in our pews, but we know that they have continued their faith journey to meet Jesus Christ himself.
Joyfully, though, we can share that two have chosen to be baptized as Christians. Two young ladies made this personal decision and it was a joy to share in the sacrament with them. . . .
These Christmas letters are ways to share with others the basic facts of the closing year, but sometimes they become an opportunity to share something that has influenced our lives in profound ways. My brother includes a list of favorite books, movies, and music that he has read, seen or heard through the year.
If we choose to include something like that in our church’s letter, it is difficult, especially if we are not participating in a small group study or even accustomed to the practice of reading scripture. Each week, the common lectionary is included on the bulletin. That is just one way to practice John Wesley’s act of piety of reading scripture.
Reading through the lectionary this week, I found the four readings all related to the same metaphor: the shepherd separating the sheep and the goats. The parable in Matthew is familiar and we have reviewed or referenced it repeatedly, so that makes it difficult to hear God’s message for today, Advent Eve. Of course, put the choice of these verses into the perspective of the Christian year’s conclusion one may discover something in these verses that does fit.
The common lectionary is based on a 3-year cycle. With this week, Year A concludes. But the lectionary for Year B is already available, as is Year C. Commentaries are available, and during the course of the year, a variety of on-line sources are available to help understand the significance of these verses in our lives.
How they are interpreted depends on real-life circumstances and how God uses the words to speak to us depends on a broad range of things—whether it is good sheep behaviors or troublesome goat behaviors.
Let’s consider the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25:31-36
31 “But when the Son of Manco mes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
Jesus is addressing the Pharisees who were testing him, but Jesus was a well-trained Jew and his answer directly referenced the scripture from the prophet Ezekiel as written in the Old Testament book Ezekiel 34:17:
17 “And as for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to his people: I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats. (emphasis added)
As the church year closes, considering the metaphor of God’s judgment as separating the sheep from the goats does help us to evaluate the church’s adherence to Jesus’ teaching. Before we can finish the year-end letter, we need to honestly determine how we have followed Jesus’ commandment to love God above all else and to love one another as we want to be loved.
But, let’s get back to the job of writing the annual Christmas letter:
The church continues to hold weekly worship services and offer Sunday School for the kids and the adults. There has also been a Maundy Thursday service and a Community Christmas Program.
Two events continue to be provided for the community kids and those are the Easter Fling and the Halloween treats. Through one member’s extra efforts, the local kids have also had movie nights and a summer food program.
Members worked together to create food packs for delivery at Annual Conference in June, and school kits and hygiene kits for the annual Festival of Sharing in October.
When school began, the church hosted one of the teacher work-day lunches. And no year is complete without the Chilhowee Community Fair and the church’s concession efforts. . . .
The Christmas letter conveniently packages up the year in a way to tell a positive story to all those reading it. But one might wonder what the letter does not say. There is no need to add more, God already knows.
The prophet Ezekiel goes on to tell how God will not abandon his faithful and despite the failures of the leaders at that time, he would send a “perfect shepherd.” This promise from Ezekiel 34:22-24 develops the metaphor of the Good Shepherd taking care of his flock:
22 So I will rescue my flock, and they will no longer be abused. I will judge between one animal of the flock and another. 23 And I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David. He will feed them and be a shepherd to them. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be a prince among my people. . . .
The Christmas letter is almost done, but what is left out is probably the very reason that we need to continue reading scripture and meeting in community to work together loving one another.
Wesley repeatedly demanded accountability from his congregations in weekly class meetings. His focus on mission came from his understanding of Jesus’ message. Jesus’ use of the parable becomes a checklist for how we are living out the commandments. We must ask ourselves the very questions included in the parable from Matthew 25:37-39:
37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
Before we can finish this year’s Christmas letter, we need to ask ourselves these questions. We need to be accountable just like Wesley expected the early Methodists. We need to hear the King tell us:
I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!
Today we must reaffirm our efforts to serve one another as God asks us to serve. We need spiritual wisdom and we can find it in the words of Paul’s prayer:
. . . I pray for you constantly, 17 asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God.
18 I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called . . .
19 I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him.
Believing in God’s incredible power is not easy as we face the daily challenges of our life, but as we close out the church year we need to honestly ask the very question the Pharisees asked:
‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
God is all-powerful. God is mighty. God never gives up on us, so we must not give up following him. The resolution we have to add to our Christmas letter should be quite simply:
. . . In closing, we return to the most basic commandment that Jesus gave us: Love one another. How we live that commandment needs to look like the work that Wesley did—doing all that we can for all we can in any way we can. This is our new year’s resolution.
The wish we share for each of you is the blessings that come from being part of the God’s family. We invite you to join us each week during Advent as the new year begins. Join us in learning how God’s love was so strong that he gave his son so that we may be saved.
Your brothers and sisters in Christ