Toorak Uniting Church

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Priorities first

Exodus 20: 1 – 4, 7 – 9     Psalm 19     Philippians 3: 4b – 14
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10:15 am, 2 October 2005

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

As most of us, Paul had a lot to boast about within the young Christian Community. A Jew by birth, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews. His faith heritage going all the way back to Abraham in an unbroken line. Educated and trained in the Pharisaic tradition he had been a zealous believer and a person that followed the law to the letter. A parentage to be proud of, an education and training that provided him with erudition, polish and a cultured mind. He had kudos as well passionate involvement in matters of faith and the ability to radically change course if so inspired. A faithful believer who had made no compromises in the living out of his faith but had fulfilled his commitments to the letter.
Plenty to boast about.

As we have, in this lovely old Church, newly refurbished, surrounded by beautifully kept grounds and inhabited by committed believers of whom most have been part of this set up for many many years, as their parents and even grand parents before them. People who are proud of their informed faith, their interesting programs, their challenging and exciting projects, their wonderful outreach, and the way their Church is organised.

Tradition, parentage, erudition, prestige, involvement, they are all part of our own pride of place and feelings of satisfaction here in Toorak. Plenty to boast about, even if we don’t think of our own achievements as upright Christian people playing their part in the world, bringing up families, working all hours and pulling our weight in society.

And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. Paul really is proud of his heritage, his parentage and his education and he had every reason to. He knew the faith Jesus had grown up in from the inside out, he was part of the tradition that had brought forth the Messiah, and he had had the privilege to be educated by the best teachers of his time in that tradition. He was devoted, passionate as well as able to change and adapt. He had lived his life within the boundaries set by God in his laws. He had been faithful, incorruptible and righteous as much as was humanly possible.

And yet.

We may feel the same. Committed to our faith, following in the footsteps of Jesus as much as we can, generously giving of our time and money to the Church, working our socks off to be upright, trustworthy, honourable and loving people we may find ourselves at times overcome with anxiety:

Are we doing the right thing? Have we done enough? Should we perhaps have made different choices? Should we have worked harder? Given more? Did we really do all we could or were we perhaps lacking in some respect? With all that we are, all that we have achieved, all the control we seem to have, isn’t there more? Isn’t there different?
And we may, on occasion, suddenly feel our lives lack direction and feel scattered with all we try to do, be and achieve. Feel somehow a bit lost and out of focus. Sure, it all looks good, and certainly, considering everything, we should be really pleased with ourselves and our place in the world, but gee, after all the running around and making sure everything is ship shape and in order, we may suddenly start to wonder……

Well at least I do.

Because of Christ I have come to regard all those things as loss says Paul. As worthless and not significant, getting in the way even of what is really important.

And I think most of us will be able to recognise that as well. At the end of the day, when all the running around is done and everything has been organised to perfection it is well possible that if we dare to admit it we are confronted with a feeling of emptiness and confusion rather than one of satisfaction. Is this what life, is this what faith is all about? Is this what we are on about as a Church, as believers, as people of faith?

Paul, for me, is always a great one to help me take a step back at moments when I feel like that and help me realise that although all these things are of the utmost importance they are not the most important thing in my life as an individual or in the life of the Church.

That only the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord, is. Knowing meant here in the Hebrew sense of being intimate with someone or something to an extent that involves body, mind and soul. Knowing in the sense of a passionate longing to become totally enmeshed with somebody or something, without reservation, without holding anything back, physically, mentally or psychologically.

When that happens says Paul, when we let that happen, everything else pales into insignificance. Knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, becoming like him in every respect, brings us a life that is completely different from the imperfection and emptiness we lived with before. Through Christ God offers us a life liberated from the slavery of trying hard and never quite getting there, of feeling inadequate and guilt ridden because of our imperfections. God doesn’t want us to live like that. God never intended for us to live like that. God longs to take those burdens from us and offers us through his boundless love and forgiveness the freedom to live a resurrected life, a life that has nothing to fear or worry about.
Christ died for us says Paul and through his death showed us that God holds on, even when we haven’t managed to get everything right, even if we failed miserably in our lives, in our faith, for the people around us.

That is a truth, a reality that is quite difficult to appropriate. Because we are addicted to worry, because of the way our world works. We are accustomed to be measured by what we have achieved, loved because we have performed, respected because we worked hard and earn a lot. To be loved, honoured and respected because we are what we are is something that is quite hard for us to grasp. And yet it is that Paul says is what God offers us: unconditional love.

Not that I have already obtained this, or have already reached the goal says Paul. Even he is still wrestling with the concept and working hard to make it his own. Even if we did nothing God would still do everything. Even if we were nothing, God would still embrace us with all encompassing love.

To learn to live our lives accordingly is what is important and what, if we learn to practice it more and more will, in the end, fulfil us completely and make us one with Christ in our trust and surrender to God, in our ability to live generously and unreservedly for others and bring healing and peace to the world instead of strife, worry and stress.
Even Paul was aware that he still had a long way to go before he would reach that goal and finally be able to unite completely with Christ.

When we live life like that, straining to become more and more one with Christ, longing to let go of what is relatively unimportant for that what really counts, the law becomes what it was always intended to be: a tool, a means to an end and not an end in itself. Not a burden that will painfully show us time and again how imperfect we are, but a guideline that wants to help us find our way towards that goal of living a Christ like life, of living God’s way.

Psalm 19 already sings of that. Calling God rock and redeemer long before Christ was born. Israel already knew that God was out to save and not to condemn, to redeem and not to judge. The law precious as gold and sweet as honey in the quest for a God filled life.

There is nothing to worry about.

That may be a bit of a let down if we are of the worrying type and often feel that life, the world and the Church depend on us working hard and getting it right.

It is not like that.

God invites us to a life liberated by the knowledge of Christ. Liberated that it is not the law, not our hard work and right behaviour that in the end gives life, but he boundless love of God that is capable of bringing it back even from beyond the gates of hell.
When we live with that, when we learn to accept that in our lives, our worries will decrease and our stress levels come down.

There is nothing to worry about.

Then there is only the joy of living in the light of God’s grace, of being free of anxiety and unrest, and being filled with peace and the healing strength of the Holy Spirit.
Then the Church will be what it is meant to be: The body of Christ bringing the Christ light to the world, sharing love, peace and justice generously with everyone around.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2005

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