God, Please Send Some Lofty Thoughts
Cycle A Second Lesson Sermons for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany
Subject: Truly Human, Truly God's
Message: God, please send some lofty thoughts. Lauds, KDM
Surprise us, God, with something to pull us out of the January/February doldrums. Lift us to a higher level of existence than sheer boredom or loneliness that disguises itself as monotony. Give epiphany renewal to our sense of hope. Please, God, send some lofty thoughts. Lauds, KDM.
Lofty thoughts portray the noble effort that you and I make when we attempt to live from the rafters of an inner wisdom. They are telling when we try to glean wisdom from elsewhere. Let us look at three persons who yearned for these lofty thoughts in the midst of their universal human frailty: the Apostle Paul, advocate of God; Jonathan Edwards, Congregationalist minister during the Great Religious Revival of the mid-1700s; and a woman I will name Marcy Archer, the parent of a thirteen-year-old non-disabled son and a seven-year-old son with cerebral palsy.
First, the Apostle Paul. In the usual Pauline letter, Paul seems to puff up himself with boasting. Moving from church to church, he continually has to establish himself as credible. His Paul-centered talk boasts about how despicable his ways had been and how great (and beyond his doing) the change is in him. He presents himself as an example of someone whose life was recast from the errant Saul to Paul the apostle.
Can you hear him saying, "If I could be so transformed, you can, too"? Or, "See how powerful and exacting God is in my life. God saved me from my wicked self. God is in charge."
Today's epistle lesson carries another tone. Early in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he drops the boast. He announces, "And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling" (2:3). Paul may have gained more followers with those words than from his inflated attitude. If you and I are honest, here is how most of us approach new situations. Beneath the bravura, we come with weakness, fear, and much trembling. No lofty words or self-inflation in today's scripture passage. Rather than a guru-focus on Paul's wisdom, Paul wanted to minimize his role. He wanted people to consider God's wisdom, not his wisdom. Paul was the product of God's wisdom not his own. Paul: truly human, truly God's.
Second, Jonathan Edwards. It was August 17, 1723, the penning of Resolution #70. For over a year, Jonathan Edwards had been compiling a notebook of rules for living. He had scratched them on paper with as much concentrated ardor as he would preach his scholarly, passionate sermons at First Church in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Among the first 24 guidelines for self-discipline that this nineteen-year-old entered in a single sitting was the following: #6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live."1 (For your information, all of his resolutions can be found on the web in the "Jonathan Edwards On-Line" entry in the Encarta Encyclopedia.)
The young Edwards' appetite for self-improvement persisted throughout the writing of his resolutions. Resolution #25 reads: "Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it."2 His final entry read: "Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak."3
Jonathan Edwards' thoughts are lofty. They offer noble ideas. Edwards pledged to read these resolutions once a week for the rest of his life. Then came a gap in his personal writing. Most likely, it was a human interval most of us can identify with. We get too busy for either self-evaluation or remedy. Not until 1739 at age 35 did Jonathan Edwards again pick up the personal pen of his youth and begin his other volume of personal writing, a diary called, "Personal Narrative."4 (This is also available over the Internet.)
By that time, the Congregational minister had served thirteen years of a 24-year pastorate at the Northampton church. Readers of "Personal Narrative" will characterize the diary as the study of one Christian's ongoing struggle with falling short of noble thought. At midpoint in writing the seventy resolutions, Jonathan Edwards began this journal as a regular check-up of his progress with the earlier resolutions.
Early on in "Personal Narrative," he wrote, "I was a far better Christian for two or three years after my first conversion, than I am now... I am greatly afflicted with a proud and self righteous spirit much more sensibly than I used to be formerly. I see that serpent rising and putting forth its head continually everywhere, all around me."5
He recalled that late in his college days -- a time during which he was less diligent in monitoring his personal life -- he had a severe attack of pleurisy. He became so sick that, he said, "God shook me over the pit of hell."6
These words offer insight into what prompted the imagery in his best known sermon, "Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God." He preached the fiery sermon during the Great Revival in an attempt, he said, to wake up the unconverted in his congregation.
However, even the sophisticated readers in our new millennium may eventually quake at Jonathan Edwards' insistent imagery which arose from the Deuteronomy text, "Their foot shall slide in due time" (32:35). When we put ourselves into the slippery places, Edwards said, we are exposed to falling. Sooner or later, we will fall. We delude ourselves in our own schemes to avoid hell. "Only the pleasure of God," he added, "keeps wicked people at any one moment out of hell because they do deserve it."7 Jonathan Edwards: truly human, truly God's.
Third, Marcy Archer. An ordinary yet remarkable person, Marcy Archer speaks with a quiet, resolute voice. Several prizes of lofty wisdom declare themselves as she relates the practical, day-to-day story of raising two sons, one of whom lives with severe damage from cerebral palsy.
Archer reviews the staggering contrasts between the maturation of a non-disabled son and a son with disabilities. She has schooled herself in the art of celebrating one boy's inch-by-inch sprints and the other's mile-long bursts of growing up.
"You have to find the positives and work with them," she says. "You have to have patience. You don't hide one boy at home any more than you hide him behind an attitude of pity."
"Sometimes," Archer admits, "I want to slip into giving up, but I don't. Sometimes in life, you discover you are simply in a different place than you had planned."
Reflecting on the part of being a mother who continually learns to balance the possible with the impossible, she finishes, "I try to live in the present while keeping the future in mind."
Marcy Archer: truly human, truly God's. The noble guidelines Marcy Archer chose for meeting and making her way through each day are the wise words of one with a sustaining conviction.
Here, as with Paul the apostle and with Jonathan Edwards, we sense the spirit of God having searched the spirit of Marcy Archer, the parent, in the honest journey of being human. We discern in these three persons God's underpinning of strength. It comes as a calm, deliberate, and mysterious wisdom.
God has a way of returning us to ourselves while also showing us the nobility of our spirit. In the midst of being truly human, we feel ourselves both wordlessly pulled toward reality and drawn forward to being better persons.
Could part of our being human be our capacity for openness to receive the power of God's wisdom? Despite universally human foibles, we still have a mysterious ability for the lofty thought. Beyond words anyone can give us, we find the true spirit of God as it shows us the surprising, right path that lets us -- like Paul, like Jonathan Edwards, and like Marcy Archer -- become turned around and found. We, also, are truly human, truly God's.
1. From THE RESOLUTIONS OF JONATHAN EDWARDS (written 1722-1723) in "Jonathan Edwards On-Line," Encarta Encyclopedia.
4. See "Jonathan Edwards On-Line" in Encarta Encyclopedia.
6. Ibid. This image is found also in Edward's sermon, "Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God."
7. See SERMONS in "Jonathan Edwards On-Line" in Encarta Encyclopedia.