Summit Presbyterian Church
December 9, 2012 - Advent II
1 Philippians 1: 3-11
Sharing in God's Grace
"And this is my prayer," says Paul, "that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."
This prayer, which is the lectionary for the day, is one of the prayers that we looked at in our Wednesday night adult study this fall, "Prayers of the Bible." I think I speak for the group when I say that we all liked the first half of this prayer. It's a prayer we'd want Paul to pray for us, a prayer we can say for each other, a prayer for the church: that our love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help us determine what is best -- or as the Jerusalem Bible translates it, to help us discern what is of value. Who doesn't yearn to overflow with love, grow in insight and knowledge, and to be able to determine what is best?
But the second half of the prayer was a different story. We felt a little queasy about a prayer to become "pure" and "blameless." No one is pure and blameless - as it says in another part of the Bible, if we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Few of us can escape at least some blame for problems in this world. We could still pray for purity, but the trouble is, when the church has sought purity it's often gotten into trouble or done blame-worthy things. Churches have split, wars have been fought and people executed in struggles for theological purity. I remember seeing, in a church in Prague, a statue of Athanasius -- one of the fathers of the church - standing over Arius -- one of the heretics - with a spear at his throat. Now, Athanasius didn't actually kill Arius, but it wasn't an edifying statue. Crusades for moral purity have also been problematic. Often they've been used to exclude those already stigmatized -- such as unmarried mothers or gays and lesbians. So, as progressive 21st century Christians, rather than praying to be pure and blameless, we're more comfortable praying to be better. For slow but steady spiritual growth, with lots of allowances for setbacks.
But Paul, and John the Baptist, and Malachi, insist on purity. John proclaims that the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. He warns that the one more powerful than he will come with a winnowing fork in his hand, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire. The prophet Malachi warns that the messenger of the covenant is like a refiner's fire and a fuller's soap, who will purify the descendents of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Who can stand the day of his coming? But Paul, and John and Malachi are also clear that we don't purify ourselves and it doesn't happen on our timetable -- perhaps not even in our lifetimes. John offers a purifying baptism of repentence with water, but it's the one coming after him who baptizes with spirit and fire, and who carries the winnowing fork. It's not Malachi, but the messenger to come who is is like a refiner's fire. And Paul says that the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion -- but not until the day of Jesus Christ. These prayers and hopes for a purified people are prayers and hopes for the future. A future when nothing stands between God and God's people, including our sin. That future may be coming into the present, but it's not here yet.
But with that set, maybe we're setting our hopes too low. We can't achieve purity and shouldn't claim to, but we can hope and pray for the kind of transformation that brings us closer to a pure and blameless life. The kind of transformation that comes when we abound in love, and share in the grace of God. The kind of transformtion that comes from Christ working within us and among us now, even as we must wait for that day when we may stand pure and blameless before him. I believe there are signs of such transformations all around us, inside and outside the church. I would call the re-election of President Obama such a sign. I'm not saying that God wanted Obama to be elected (we don't know that). Nor am I saying that the President is always right, or that the Democratic party has all the answers. I'm also not saying his election means we've won the struggle against racism, which still has a deep grip on this country. But being African American didn't keep Obama from being elected twice. Coming out in favor of gay marriage didn't keep him from being elected -- I'm still pinching myself on that one. For in my lifetime (and I'm not that old) legal segregation was alive and well, and no one knew any gay people. We have grown, in love and knowledge and insight. As a pastor I see the grace of God transforming lives in people doing the hard work of sobriety, emerging from depression, reconciling with family, caring for loved ones under the most difficult circumstances. I've seen lives not just improved, but changed, turned around.
So let's raise our hopes as we prepare for the coming of Christ. Our hopes for our lives, for our world, for the church. Standing before Jesus pure and blameless is only in God's power -- who must work on us after our death. But the coming of Christ now brings overflowing love, knowledge and insight as we share in God's grace. A love and grace that is more powerful than the demonic forces in our world and our lives. A love and grace that is moving towards completion.
Please join me in prayer; Oh God who is coming to us in love and grace: may our love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, so that in the day of Christ we may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God." Amen.