Sunday, December 28, 2008

Setting the Agenda

(A sermon based on Luke 2:22-38 for the First Sunday after Christmas and my third Sunday as pastor of FBC Fitzgerald)

When a new pastor shows up at a church it is natural for the people of the church to wonder what the pastor’s agenda is. What you may not know is that it is also natural for the new pastor to wonder what the people’s agenda is! Unfortunately but understandably the courtship period does not always reveal the whole story about the pastor or about the people.

The comedian Sinbad told the story of a man and woman who were dating. The man would say, “Where would you like to eat tonight?” and she would reply, “It doesn’t matter; I just want to be with you.” The man would say, “What movie would you like to see tonight?” and she would answer, “It doesn’t matter; I just want to be with you.” The man would say, “Would you like to stay in or go out tonight?” and the woman would say, “It doesn’t matter; I just want to be with you.” And it came to pass that they decided to get married. At the wedding ceremony when the minister asked the man “Do you?” he said “I do.” Then the minister asked the woman “Do you?” and she replied, “I do—and some things are going to have to change around here!”

Sometimes the pastor/church courtship is like that. We ask each other questions and we inquire into one another as best we can but now that we’ve taken the vows we might find that one partner or the other expects us to make changes or to adopt agendas that we did not expect. It seems wise to me, therefore, to state up front some of the items that are on my agenda. Understand, now, that this is not a comprehensive list; I will learn more about our situation here as we go along and I’m sure that in consultation with the Lord and with you items will be added to the list. Understand also that this is just a list; I’ll be fleshing these items out as we go along but today I just want to offer a succinct list.

Item #1: I want us to glorify God in everything that we say and do.
Item #2: I want us to commit ourselves fully to following Jesus.
Item #3: I want us to read and study Holy Scripture with an eye toward the forming of ourselves into true disciples of Jesus.
Item #4: I want us to continuously and purposely grow as Christian human beings so that we live as responsible Christian adults in our lives in the church and in the world.
Item #5: I want us to bear consistent witness in our homes, in our church, and in our community to the love and grace of Jesus Christ so that others will come to faith in him.
Item #6: I want us to reach out through caring and practical ministries to everyone that we can both in our own backyard and around the world.
Item #7: I want us to develop a genuine Christian spirituality that takes seriously the role of prayer in our lives.
Item #8: I want us to take seriously the Baptist part of our Christian identity, growing in knowledge and appreciation of our Baptist heritage and grasping the particular contributions that Baptists can make to our modern culture.
Item #9: I want us to take seriously the fact that we are Christians before we are Baptists and that all who share in our faith in Jesus Christ are our brothers and sisters.
Item #10: I want us to grow in our awareness of God’s love for us and in the depth of our love for God and for one another.

I am well aware of the fact that I have the advantage of the pulpit in letting you all in on my agenda and so I am going to be very intentional about creating situations in which I can listen to what you have to say. As a first step, our Minister of Education & Senior Adults Tom Braziel is going to be working with me on setting up a schedule for me to visit with all of the adult Sunday School classes for a time of listening and conversation; I plan to begin in January.

We need, though, to be very clear about one thing: what really matters is not my agenda or your agenda; what really matters is God’s agenda. We will work hard at praying, at listening, at talking, and at searching together to keep our agendas as in tune with God’s agenda as we possibly can.

And that brings me to today’s text, which is what set me to thinking about this matter of agendas, anyway. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary, being the faithful Israelites that they were, had Jesus circumcised and officially named him eight days after his birth. Then, in accordance with the teachings of Torah, they undertook Mary’s ritual purification forty days after the birth; for this they decided to journey to the Temple in Jerusalem. In these facts we get a glimpse at God’s agenda for Jesus and by extension for his Church: the Jesus event comes out of the background of the covenant community that God had established with Israel. In a similar way, we need to celebrate the fact that God will do what God is going to do here against the backdrop of what has gone on before. What God is about to do will not be done on a blank canvas; it will be painted against the backdrop of what has already been done and we appreciate and celebrate all of those who have gone before us and those in our church who, like Simeon, have seen much of what God has done and who look for what God is yet to do. Now, there were some beautiful pictures on Israel’s canvas but not all of the pictures were pretty ones; such is the case for a church, as well, so we have to be discerning about that to which we should hold and that which we should turn loose.

We get another glimpse at God’s agenda for Jesus and for the Church when we notice that the significance of Jesus was proclaimed by two prophets, a man named Simeon and a woman named Anna. Both of them, this man and this woman, were devoted and faithful in remarkable ways, both of them had been endowed with God’s Spirit, and both of them had been looking for the coming of the Messiah. The witness of this text and of the trajectory of the New Testament as a whole is that all of God’s people, regardless of gender, of social standing, and of ethnicity are to be involved in the ministry of Jesus Christ and are to exercise whatever gifts God gives them and have access to the Spirit of God. God calls whom God will and God empowers whom God will.

And even before that calling and empowering, God saves all who will come. Notice that Simeon, who had been “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” which means the coming of the Messiah whom the faithful had expected, understood that the Messiah’s coming was not just for the sake of Israel. True, Simeon did proclaim that the baby was “for glory to your people Israel” but he also said that he was “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (v. 32). It’s hard for us to understand just what a big deal it was in that day and time for faithful apostles and witnesses and preachers and believers to insist that the good news of Jesus Christ was for absolutely everybody, whether they were Jew or Gentile. Think of this way: imagine some person or some group of people that you have a hard time imagining being in church with you or even in heaven with you. It was probably even harder for some folks in Jesus’ day to think that God might love the Gentiles, too. But the good news is for all and all who will believe may come. That is God’s agenda.

Let me say one last thing about God’s agenda: it’s not easy. Look at some of the things that Simeon said to Mary about Jesus. He said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (vv. 34b-35a). Simeon said that Jesus compels a decision; people have to decide whether they will humbly admit their need for God or whether they will in stubborn pride cling to their ways and values and self-sufficiency. Simeon furthermore said that Jesus would engender opposition; grace and forgiveness and love never get a welcome hearing in this old world. Simeon moreover said that Jesus would make clear the true content of people’s thoughts and attitudes and motives; we can’t hide our true selves from Jesus and how we respond to his grace and love and how we then live in them tell everything there is to be told about us.

So here at the beginning we have some work to do on setting the agenda. But let’s be clear about this: the agenda that matters most is God’s agenda and God’s agenda for us is seen in God’s agenda for Jesus. Let us commit together to doing all that we can do, with God’s help, to find and to follow God’s agenda.

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