(Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; Acts 9:1-20)
We are born. (I’m assuming you all know that fact!) We are born, and we begin to engage with our world. At first, all we know is what our senses tell us. We hear sounds, see images, feel materials, taste milk, and smell odors. When our needs are not met, we cry and fuss. When they are met, we are content and sleep.
Eventually, our brains get involved and we move into desiring things as well as needing them. I’m not hungry, but I’d really like that candy! I’m not thirsty, but that apple juice tastes so good! I don’t need that toy to survive, but if I don’t get it, I’m going to SCREAM! We have moved past the need stage of life into the desire stage of life: I want what I want because I want it!!!
As we mature, we learn that we can use our brains to help us manage our needs and desires. Yes, I am hungry, but I have to wait my turn to get my lunch. Yes, I want that toy, but I have to wait my turn to play with it. Yes, I would like to have that delicious cookie my friend is eating, but I am not allowed to grab it out of her hand and eat it or I will get into trouble! We begin to manage ourselves, and we have some success at it if we are lucky!
The older we get, the more control we are able to have over our lives. Our parents let go bit by bit, and we take over bit by bit. Eventually, we are responsible for ourselves. We make good choices; we make bad choices; but they are OUR choices. We begin to create the life we will live.
Even though we are now young adults, we are still subject to our needs and desires. We still have to eat, drink, sleep, wear clothes, and have a place to live in order to survive. We still want more than what we actually need. We work to survive, maybe even to thrive, and we try different things that will make us happy. Different people try different things, but some of the common things are: careers; romance; sex; love; food; recreation; alcohol; drugs; buying things; moving a lot; taking vacations; creating a family; anything else I haven’t mentioned that has occurred to you?
Eventually, we get to the place where we ask, “What is the meaning of my life? Why was I born? Why do I exist? Does any of ‘it’ mean anything? Because, honestly, everything I thought would make me happy doesn’t make me happy.” We realize that we can have everything that we have ever desired or worked for and that those things still don’t make us happy. We have – finally – hit the wall in our search for happiness. We stop trying and we crumple and we ask, “What’s it all about, this thing called life?”
For those of you who are near my age, you may remember the Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime,” that captures this sense of existential crisis. The lyrics are, “You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack / And you may find yourself in another part of the world / And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile / You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife / You may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?”
This moment of existential angst (the angst of existence) – although it feels awful – is THE golden moment. It is the moment when we STOP chasing and grabbing and grasping, and are STILL; and, in that stillness, we can hear, see, taste, touch, and smell God. “Oh taste and see how gracious the Lord is” (Ps 34:8). It is the moment in which we can be born again into the life that truly IS life: The life that is oriented toward God.
The answer to the questions about why we were born, why we exist, why we are here on Earth is: We were created, we were born, we exist to praise God and God’s creation and to give thanks for them. In Psalm 30, the psalmist states, “I will extol you, O Lord” (v. 1), and he invites us to extol the Lord, too: “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name” (v. 4)
When we are not praising and giving thanks to God, we are living for ourselves. The power we draw from comes from self-confidence and self-sufficiency and is used to satisfy our selves. The psalmist states: “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved’” (v. 6). Our reality is bounded by our selves, which are limited, so our world and experiences are limited. Self-centeredness is, in fact, a version of hell. It’s all about ME, ME, ME, and where I stop, my world stops. The psalmist learned, soon enough, however, when things turned sour, that he (without God) was not enough. He was “dismayed” (v. 7). And, so, he turned to God: “To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication” (v. 8).
And, then, his life was transformed! “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever” (v. 11-12)
The psalmist learned that ALL of life is transformed when we turn to God. Yes, we will suffer, as the psalmist suffered. Suffering is inevitable as we walk this Earth. We cannot escape it and, when we try to escape it, we just create more suffering, for ourselves and for others. But, when we turn to God, our suffering is redeemed, even while we are in the midst of it. For we know that we are not alone in it; that God is with us in our suffering; that when we acknowledge God with us, we open ourselves to what God can do with us and for us even in the midst of suffering; that, sooner or later, the dark night will give way to the light of dawn and our mourning will turn into dancing, and we will be clothed with joy. “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (v. 5)
We were created, we exist, we were born to give thanks and praise to God. When we do so, our lives are bounded by God, who has no boundaries! God is infinite and eternal, so our lives become infinite and eternal! Instead of staring at our navels, we stare out into the world, at the people, trees, and rivers; then out to the sun, moon, stars, and sky; then out to the planets, the Milky Way and beyond. A life oriented to God is oriented to EVERYWHERE and EVERYTHING for ALL TIME! It is a life of wonder and possibility and transformation!
All of creation exists to praise God: earth and sky, flora and fauna, sun and moon. There are psalms that state that the rivers clap their hands; the seas resound; the mountains sing; the deer longs for flowing streams. Even Jesus said that if the people are stopped from praising him the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing! Revelation 5:11-12 includes, even, the supernatural beings: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’”
All of creation exists to sing praises to God! Humans, out of all of creation, are the only ones that can choose not to sing praises to God! We, alone, can turn from God, and we do. In doing so, we turn our backs to the light and live in the shadow. We eclipse the sun/Son with our own bodies. We sentence ourselves to a living death, a living hell. As the saying goes, we shoot ourselves in the foot.
Let us not be so foolish! Let us join the song (Rev. 5:13): “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” Let us join every creature everywhere and sing praises to our God!
Now, in order to give you an example of a life lived both turned away from God and turned toward God, we will look at the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9:1-20.
Paul, then known as Saul, was a vigorous persecutor of Christians, those who belonged to the Way. Saul thought he knew the right way to worship God and he was hell bent on persecuting the Christians who were doing it the wrong way, to the point that he was murdering them. Saul was too wrapped up in his own thinking and way of being to look up from his navel and see things from a different perspective. But Jesus saw in Saul the intensity his church needed to grow and expand, so he intervened with flashing light and the proclamation, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul fell to the ground and lost his sight even though his eyes were opened. I see this as symbolic. His eyes were opened – in other words, he thought he knew what was right and good – but he could not see – in other words, he did not know what was right and good! Jesus merely let Saul be physically what he was spiritually: blind! What street did Jesus tell Saul to go to? Straight Street, where Saul would be set straight! While staying on Straight Street, Ananias comes to Saul at the request of Jesus, lays hands on him, and heals him of his physical and spiritual blindness. Saul received the Holy Spirit, was baptized, and was renamed Paul. He was born again into the life that truly IS life, a life oriented to the God of Jesus Christ!
What did Paul do from that day on? He worshipped God (which means he gave thanks and praise to God) in word and deed, doing great things for the church, the body of Christ in the world! Paul went from a life turned away from God, a life of persecution and death, a life that was hell on Earth, to a life of teaching and assisting, a life that was heaven on Earth. Self-centered to God-centered. Limited to unlimited. Finite to eternal. Mourning to joy. Death to life.
Jesus has come into our world. He has redeemed it with his own body and blood on the cross, and sin and evil have no ultimate power over us. He has conquered death in the resurrection. This is the time of joy and celebration, the Easter Season, and every creature everywhere sings praise and thanksgiving to God. A statement from an Eastern Orthodox worship service states:
Enter ye all into the joy of your Lord,
You who are rich and you the poor, come to the feast,
Receive all the riches of loving-kindness . . .
And let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Please join me in the response to this invitation to enter the joy of the Lord, which you will find in your bulletin:
The Passover of the Lord.
From death unto life,
And from earth unto heaven
Has Christ our God brought us . . . .
Now are all things filled with light,
Heaven and earth and the places under the earth.
All Creation does celebrate the Resurrection of Christ
On whom it is founded . . . .
We celebrate the death of Death,
The annihilation of Hell,
The beginning of a life new and everylasting.
And with extasy we sing praises to the author thereof . . . .
This is the chosen and holy Day,
The one King and Lord of Sabbaths,
The Feast of Feasts and the Triumph of Triumphs . . . .
O Christ, the Passover great and most holy!
O Wisdom, Word and Power of God!
Grant that we may ore perfectly partake of Thee
In the day of They Kingdom which knoweth no night.
And may we all, along with everything everywhere, say, “Amen!”
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, on Sunday, April 10, 2016, the Third Sunday of Easter.
 This sermon was inspired and informed by the lectionary commentary for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C, in Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, Vol. 3: Year C. Westminter John Knox Press, 1993. Brueggemann, Walter; Charles B. Cousar, Bervely Roberts Gaventa, James D. Newsome, Jr.
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 Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press; 2nd Revised & enlarged edition, 1973.