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BELONGING TO JESUS
“In Belonging We Discover Love”
Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11
Second Sunday of Advent – December 9, 2018
Our prophetic reading for this second Sunday of Advent is from Malachi,
the last book of the Old Testament. The name Malachi means, “my messenger”.
A word was given the prophet to proclaim to the people,
that the Lord’s messenger would come dramatically, suddenly,
to bring about repentance, a reversal in the direction of the people.
This prophecy was offered somewhere between 500 and 450 BC during the Persian period,
when the Iranians ruled over the Holy Land.
Under Persian rule, religious tolerance was encouraged, and Jewish religious life,
centered around the Temple, remained an important part of the Judean community.
But it seems that religious life and practice were being taken for granted.
Just before the text we read this morning, the word had come to the people,
“You are wearying the Lord”, and the question that followed was,
“How have we wearied you, O God?”
Throughout Malachi we hear that God has been “wearied”, wearied by lax religious observance,
by unfaithfulness in family life, by corruption in the courts and in the marketplace,
and by indifference to God’s commandments.
And so a word of the Lord is proclaimed by God’s messenger, calling for repentance.
Hear the Word of God, Malachi 3:1-4:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
We had a wedding here last night of a young couple, Paul and Schell,
and it seemed to me and to all the family members and friends present,
that this wedding, this offering of themselves to one another in marriage,
was also a pleasant offering to God, an event pleasing in the sight of the Lord.
During the ceremony, I reminded Paul and Schell that in order to belong to one another over time,
they must continue to show some measure of vulnerability.
I reminded them of the story they had told me of their first date,
when they first were getting to know each other, and the vulnerability that first date required of them.
You cannot love one another in a marriage, in a family, even a congregation
without some willingness to be vulnerable before others.
Without vulnerability we will never truly know one another, and without knowing one another,
any experience of belonging to one another will be limited.
Last night, as many of you are aware, Atlanta United won the Major League Soccer Cup,
which is the Super Bowl for soccer in the United States.
Atlanta United won at least in part because their manager, Coach Tata Martino,
nurtured belonging among his players.
He molded a tight squad from a combination of older, seasoned players and fresh young talent.
The team came together, united, from across the globe, not only from the United States,
but also from Argentina, Venezuela, Paraguay, England, and Germany.
Defender Greg Garza, one of my favorite players, said:
“I think the thing that probably stuck out to me the most is just how humble and how honest Tata is.
Off the field, he’s a guy you can probably talk to about the game or talk about anything with
and he’ll give you a straight answer – and tell you what he’s feeling
or what he thinks about you on the dot. There’s nothing he hides.
“He’s the kind of person that (will) sit in the middle seat on the plane on travel days,
(so his players can stretch out their legs).
He doesn’t want to make himself feel a bit more special than any of us.
He’s a part of this group, a part of this team and we (are glad to) leave him a good legacy on Saturday.”
For those of who are familiar with the sport, soccer is an extremely collaborative game.
To be successful on the field, you have to know the attributes of the other players.
You have to trust them, and have an uncommon rapport.
Coach Tata said last week: “It’s very important to have a good group of people that get along well,
where the people come in to work and do it in a happy way, that they enjoy being (together) at the club.
“And it’s not just the players, but the coaching staff, the trainers also, the kit-man…
In these two years, we’ve been able to work in a marvelous environment…
I think that good energy over the course of time transmits itself on to the field.”
Given their success last night and uncommon success over the past two seasons,
that certainly seems to be true.
Rev. Tom Lewis is the former director of the spirituality program at Columbia Seminary.
Some years ago, Tom and I co-lead a group of twenty pastors on a pilgrimage to Israel.
At the pre-trip overnight gathering, one of our goals was for the group to get to know one another.
To do so, Tom engaged the group in a sharing exercise as we sat around a large table
in one of the meeting rooms at Emory Conference Center.
During the exercise, I was surprised at how quickly this group of strangers shared with one another.
Personal challenges in family and ministry were revealed. Tears were shed.
I shared with Tom my amazement at how quickly the group had opened up to one another.
Tom reminded me of the openness and honesty of one of the very first persons to speak,
and Tom’s comment was that “nothing happens until someone becomes vulnerable.”
I will never forget that.
Nothing happens in terms of depth of sharing and relationship in a group, or in a family,
or among a group of friends, or even in a marriage, until someone becomes vulnerable.
Vulnerability is not often encouraged in today’s world.
We are more likely to be encouraged to be tough and strong,
to put on a happy face, to smile even when you don’t feel like smiling.
Sadly, even worship at times can be a place where, unintentionally,
people feel like they have to put their best foot forward.
You might be going through one of your most difficult holiday seasons in your life,
and there is a very good chance that the persons sitting near you in the pews today have no idea.
There is even a possibility that your own family members are not aware of what you’re feeling.
We have been talking about this theme of “belonging” all fall.
Belonging is a critical need in our world today.
Research has shown that people in the United States today are more lonely and isolated than ever,
especially those who live in large cities.
People are more connected than ever technologically, but emotionally, connections are not so strong.
One antidote that we have long known within the Church is that when there is some willingness
to share our lives with others, then people from various walks of life will experience belonging.
Over time, as we share our lives, as we speak of daily joys or challenges,
as we let others know our sincere hopes or our dashed dreams,
as we offer prayers for family concerns or challenges at work,
then layers of protection that we have built begin to drop, and the masks we wear begin to melt away.
This past month’s issue of Money magazine revealed the stories of parents
who are navigating the challenges of adult children with opioid addictions.
These families have spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to keep their children off the streets,
supporting them through a rehabilitation programs, or, in many cases,
simply trying to keep them alive.
Statistics show that we are making some headway in reducing the numbers of opioid addicts,
but this is still a major health crisis. 70,000 persons died of overdoses in our nation last year. 70,000!
The loss of life is staggering, not to mention the loss of productivity or the loss of life savings
or the loss of some of one’s best years due to addiction.
The magazine article told the story of a number of parents who began their road to survival
and even to redemption when they finally shared their stories with others.
They began attending PAL, Parents of Addicted Loved Ones,
which was begun by a former policeman whose son had been homeless, jailed,
and hospitalized several times, including twice during the Christmas holidays.
When the parents shared their stories and received support to make difficult decisions,
often their addicted adult children began improving as well.
Everyone is dealing with something this Advent season.
Even if your biggest challenge pales in comparison to a family dealing with addiction issues,
everyone needs the love and support that can experienced in a true sense of belonging to God and others.
Whatever you may be dealing with, let someone know. Let someone in.
Tell a friend or a counselor. Make an appointment to have coffee with one of your pastors.
Participate in one of our small groups or Bible studies, and speak up when you are there.
We are here for you. We are here for each other.
Perhaps this Advent season could become a time for you to move into the light of God’s grace
by sharing with another human being what may be concerning you or ailing your loved one.
Perhaps there is some great joy or some new opportunity that you’re excited about,
but have not shared with others; it just has not come up in casual conversation.
Perhaps you could use a listening ear for a decision you need to make in the new year.
When we let our guard down just a bit, when we let others know what is going on in our hearts and heads,
when we remove the masks and reveal how we really feel or what we are struggling with,
we take a step toward a deeper sense of belonging.
This is no doubt a risk; pastoral counselors will tell you that this will not always go well.
We may not receive the support we were expecting. We may be disappointed in another’s reaction.
For some, sharing personal thoughts and feelings can be terrifying.
It might feel at first like a refiner’s fire, or like the fuller’s soap mentioned in Malachi.
But sharing with others may also hold great potential for belonging,
for growing in a loving relationship, even for redemption.
And we just might discover that we are loved after all.
And friends, that is a risk worth taking.
Last week, we spoke of how, in this season of waiting, we are not waiting for a child to be born.
The Messiah has already born in our midst.
What we are waiting for and working for is his kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven.
In close to three decades of ministry, I have noticed is that if there is any laxity in the worship of God,
as the prophet Malachi mentioned.
If there is unfaithfulness in marriages, if there are problems with truth-telling in the courts,
if there are greedy persons taking advantage of the poor,
or neglecting the needs of widows and orphans,
then at the heart of those issues are typically disordered or shallow or broken relationships.
At the heart of many of our most pressing religious or social or family issues is a lack of belonging,
a lack of any feelings of intimacy with God and other human beings.
Paul spent 18 months with the congregation in Philippi,
and he describes that congregation as perhaps his most beloved of churches.
He writes that he longs to see them again, for he knows that they hold him in his heart,
just as holds them in his heart.
The congregation in Philippi was pleasing to Paul and pleasing to God.
Hear the Word of God from Philippians 1:3-11
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on 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.
Unlike the lax temple worshippers of the Persian period in Israel,
the worship in the early Philippian church was more true, their generosity more evident.
Unlike the unfaithful priests and community members in Jerusalem in the fifth century bce,
the relationships in Philippi grew deep, and their service and their giving became even sacrificial.
Unlike the neglect of proper worship and the turning away from poor and needy,
the earliest Christian churches sought to welcome all to worship and worked to meet the needs of all,
particularly those most at risk.
Perhaps, in this coming Advent season, like what happened in Philippi,
we may catch a glimpse of the hope proclaimed by the prophet Malachi:
“(When) I return to you, says the Lord…all the nations will count you happy,
and your (nation) will be a land of delight.”
May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church