Sermon for Sunday, September 10, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem PCUSA. (Looking for the lyrics to Rev. Simmons’ “Books of The Old Testament” rap? Click here).
Rev. Cynthia L. Simmons
In recent years, I have been rather amused to watch Lehigh Valley Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital duke it out for primacy in providing health care to the Lehigh Valley. Where once Lehigh Valley was an Allentown institution and St. Luke’s was a Bethlehem institution, now they are both all over the Valley. And both hospitals have gotten into the urgent care business.
You know about urgent care centers – they are those places popping up all over the country that provide immediate medical service in an outpatient setting for the treatment of conditions that come up after doctor’s offices are closed and are not severe enough to need the level of care provided by an emergency room.
The way Urgent Care centers use the word “urgent” is probably the way most of us use it – to describe a short-term situation that is of concern, but not a bonafide emergency. And when we visit an Urgent Care center, our hope is always that they will have some form of treatment to get our lives back to normal quickly.
But our Scripture lessons today have a very different way of understanding the concept of urgency and what it means to live in an urgent situation. When Paul wrote to the Romans and urged them to put off their old lifestyles and put on the ways of Christ, he did so believing that the day of the Lord – the day that Jesus would return and God would usher in the new age – lay just around the corner: You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.
Paul was convinced that the new age was imminent, and that the Romans needed to wake up and get ready for its arrival: Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Now, reading this list of behaviors that the Roman church needed to put off could raise some red flags. Yes, church folk have always needed to watch out for quarrels and jealousy, but when Paul cautions the Romans to lay aside revelry and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, we have to wonder just what kind of life were these people living?
And the answer is that the Roman Christians were living a Roman life. They were surrounded by happy (or not-so-happy) pagans who routinely practiced just this kind of behavior. Prostitution was legal and widespread in Rome, adultery wasn’t seen as adultery if the man chose a prostitute or slave as his partner, and banquets often got pretty bawdy.
So, in today’s reading, Paul is urging the Roman Christians not to get sucked into the practices of the larger culture, but to be intentional about adopting another way of living.
Paul didn’t mean his words to be an exhaustive list of behavior unbefitting a follower of Jesus; it was a suggestive list of the sorts of things that the Romans would have to put off if they were to put on the ways of Christ. But what Paul wanted the people to understand was how urgent it was that they heed his call and get their lives in order because the time was fast slipping away
Paul speaks of laying aside an old way of life and adopting a new one as if it were like taking off one set of clothes and putting on another set – a set of armor, the armor of light. And our Old Testament Lesson today, another story of urgency, also talks about how to dress – but this time, the words are not metaphorical – they are literal.
The setting of today’s Old Testament lesson is the final days of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. Again and again, Moses has appealed to Pharaoh to let his people go, but again and again the answer has been “No!” in spite of all the plagues that God has visited on the Egyptians.
So God tells Moses and Aaron that things are coming to a head: soon there will be a 10th and final plague – the one that will break Pharaoh’s will. The Lord will pass through the land of Egypt, striking down every firstborn in the land, but passing over the houses of the Israelites if they observe the instructions that they will receive from Moses and Aaron, the instructions laid out in today’s reading from Exodus.
Our reading from Exodus is an ancient story that, like many of the oldest stories in Scripture, offends our modern sensibilities and raises some legitimate questions about how God could be the creator of all people and yet inflict such suffering on the Egyptians. Modern Jews, when they celebrate the Passover, include in their celebration recognition of the pain of the innocent Egyptians who were caught in this power struggle.
But if we can get into the mindset of those ancient Israelites, let’s focus on the instructions the Israelites receive. Not only are they told exactly how to prepare the sacrificial Passover lambs, but they are also told how to dress for this event. They are to eat the meat of the lambs with their loins girded, their sandals on their feet, their staff in their hand, and in great haste.
In other words, they are to recognize the urgency of this moment and be ready to flee Egypt on a moment’s notice when Pharaoh finally relents.
When God spoke to Moses, the escape from Egypt was imminent. And when Paul wrote to the Romans, he believed that the day of the Lord and the return of Christ were imminent. And so both Paul’s words and the passage from Exodus have a feeling of urgent expectation.
But what about those of us who live centuries after the time in which the story of the Exodus is set, and centuries after Paul founded churches throughout the ancient Mediterranean? What role, if any, does urgency play in our lives as God’s people today?
We’ve all seen the sad spectacle of gullible people being taken in by self-proclaimed prophets who declare that the world will end soon. Sometimes those naïve folks have even quit jobs and sold their houses, expecting to be raptured out of the world soon.
But does having a healthy skepticism towards phony end-times prophecies mean that we shouldn’t have any sense of urgency about our faith? Even if we believe that the kingdom of God has already arrived through Jesus Christ and that our job is to continue to seek it and make it visible, should we not still have a sense of how important all of this is?
Maybe the question to ask is what we mean by urgency and whether it has to be tied to fear.
Consider the combat veteran who comes home in one piece, but whose subconscious can’t get over feeling that he or she is always in imminent danger. The sound of fireworks or a backfiring car can send this person’s mind instantly back into the dangers of combat and his or her body reacts accordingly. This kind of chronic urgency, based in fear, is obviously not healthy or helpful.
But consider also the situation of the woman who is near the end of her pregnancy. Unless she has a scheduled C-section, she has no way of knowing when she will go into labor. She can pack her bag for the hospital but she does not know when the time will come for her to have that baby. So, she lives with a constant sense that something very important is right around the corner. She is living with an urgency that is based on hopeful expectation. And while she does everything she can do prepare for the birth, she also goes about her day-to-day activities, knowing she is ready for the moment to arrive.
I think that hope-filled expectation with an unshakable commitment to do whatever we can to bring about the kind of world we are hopefully expecting is a good way to describe the kind of urgency that we need as people of faith.
Now, it is hard to be hopefully expectant all the time – it is hard to keep up our energy for doing what we can to show forth God’s kingdom in the world, whether in the way we live our personal lives or the projects we undertake for the sake of the kingdom. In a nutshell, it’s hard to be on fire for God all the time.
This congregation, of all people, knows how hard it is to live in hope when you have had to endure 17 months of worrying and wondering as you wait for the court to straighten out the legal issues that are causing so much pain. Each time you thought a resolution was near, the date for a decision was pushed back further and further into the future. And even though we now know that the judge will issue a ruling within the month, there is still so much uncertainty about how the future will play out in this life of this church and of the ECO congregation.
It would certainly be understandable if you were to come to the beginning of a new program year with as much fear as excitement. But if we let the fire of God’s love be extinguished by fear or uncertainty or hopelessness, then we’ve lost the very source of abundant life.
Dag Hammarskjöld, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, once said, “God does not die on the day that we cease to believe in a personal deity. But we die when our lives cease to be illumined by a steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all comprehension.”
At times that steady radiance flares up like flame when we are excited about a new opportunity for mission or witness; at times that steady radiance is more like a simmer, giving just enough heat to keep us going, keep us serving, keep us hoping.
Urgency is not always … well, urgent! Right now, you have a definite date that you are awaiting: the date when the judge will issue his ruling. But after that ruling is issued, you will still need to hang onto a healthy sense of urgency.
You will need to remember God’s words to Moses, and Paul’s words to the Romans – words urging them to be ready to experience God’s power at any moment. And you will need to urge yourselves to listen for those same words today in the life of this congregation and in your lives as disciples of Christ.
So, hang in there, hang onto each other, and hang onto hope, sure in the conviction that God’s life-transforming love will keep you strong and keep you going.