November 4, 2018

Song of Ascent or Descent?

 Sunday of Pentecost

First Lesson:  Jeremiah 31:7-9

Second Lesson:  Acts 2:22-32

Gospel Lesson:  Mark 10:46-52

Sermon Text:  Psalm 126:1-3

A few months ago, Concordia University in Mequon came out with a new slogan: “Live uncommon.” Harmless, right? Not to those of us with grammar sensibilities.  “Live uncommon” is a terrible, annoying, and slightly offensive way to get their point across. They could’ve used, “Live uncommonly” making it an adverb since it is describing the action of the main verb.  They could’ve gone with, “Live in an uncommon fashion or way.” And what makes this extra annoying is the whole point of the ad was to get students to come to their school. If you are trying to attract the best and brightest, wouldn’t you at least make sure you are using proper grammar, sending a message you are indeed an institute of higher learning and communicate as such? I heard this ad over and over on the radio and each time I heard it, I became more and more annoyed.

Last year, a billboard went up for Moraine Park Technical College kitty corner from Good Shepherd. Again, the intent of the advertising was to attract students.  This was the slogan: “Go for the peek.” The problem? They spelled peak incorrectly.  They used the word we use for taking a quick look – P E E K.  Unless they were encouraging people to come spy on them instead of utilizing their school to reach the summit and accomplish their goals, the sign was all wrong.  I had to drive by it three times a week, but like a moth to a flame, I couldn’t help but look at it and wish I could climb up there and correct it. 

Why am I so bothered by these things? The answer? I DON’T KNOW!  While I enjoy proper grammar, I can’t say I have it down perfectly. I mess up lay and lie all the time. And to an even bigger point, why can’t I just ignore these things?  They don’t affect my life or the lives of anyone I love or care about.  Why am I letting a sign and a radio ad affect my mental health, wellbeing, and overall attitude?  Again, I DON’T KNOW.  But for some reason, I just can’t let those things go.

Now you’re probably wondering, “Why are you telling us these things besides to make us think you’ve lost it a little?”  Well, I’m a dearly loved, forgiven, heaven bound child of God. I have a family I love that loves me. I have a great job working with great people. I have you and your encouragement, prayers, and appreciation. I have a house that fits us, I coach football which I love, and I have a little boat to get away from time to time. All that, and what do I focus on?  Improper grammar.  Poor English. Clumsy slogans. Doesn’t make any sense, does it? With all these blessings, why am I drawn to the negative?

Do I really have to make the transition or is it obvious?  In describing myself, didn’t I also describe you?  If I asked you to make of list of your 10 greatest blessings, that’d be easy. And it’d probably be a lot like my list. Faith, family, friends, job, house, hobbies, etc. And when we compare our lives to many people around the world or compare them to people who lived 100, 500, or 1000 years ago, they are relatively easy, right? They’re not perfect. But we’ve been blessed beyond measure, so much so I don’t think we come close to realizing how blessed we are. That’s you, that’s me, and that’s all of us.

But what is your poorly worded slogan?  What is the sign that drives you nuts?  What is the small thing in life that gets under your skin, that puts you in a foul mood, or stops you from enjoying all the other blessings? And to follow up those up, why does it bother you so much?  Why does it take away from your joy?  Why do you let it get to you so much?

Look at our lesson – Psalm 126.  This is a song of ascent. Each year for Passover the Israelites would travel to Jerusalem.  It was on a hill, so they’d talk about going up/ascending to get there.  As they travelled, they’d sing songs not just to pass the time but to remind themselves of God’s blessings and to teach the kids.  And so you know, these songs were joyous songs. The people were excited to go to Jerusalem and celebrate Passover.  Think of it as happy, godly, travelling music.

So what, in this particular song, brings the people so much joy?  Let’s go through it.  “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.”  Zion is another name for Jerusalem, and sometimes Israel as a whole. If you read through the Old Testament, there were many times when the nation suffered, and it was always because they had turned from God.  But the loving God always brought his people back, and despite their struggles, continued to bless them. How did they react when God did this?  They laughed and sang songs of joy.  God had been merciful.  God had delivered them.  And they wanted to praise him for that.

Now imagine you are in that group marching to Jerusalem.  People are singing this song and praising God, but you chime in.  “Well, yes – God did great things in the past.  Yes – we’re going to worship and praise him.  But man, is this road long.  My feet hurt.  And why is traffic moving so slowly?”  Wouldn’t someone surely say to you, “Why are you so focused on the small, inconsequential things?  Look at the big picture.  Rejoice with us! Laugh with us! God is good!”

Isn’t that a question we need to ask ourselves regularly? Yes. Why?  Because we get distracted. Don’t say it out loud, but what small thing gets in the way of your joy as a Christian?  Is it people you work with?  Is it that you don’t make as much money as you’d like?  Is it that you have some dreams that are unfulfilled?  Sure, these things are all matters we have to deal with, but why do we fixate on them instead of rejoicing in what we do have, that big long list of blessings from before?

Back to our lesson.  The people were rejoicing, laughing, and praising.  And that praise was seen by others.  “Then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’” Other people not only saw their joy.  They also knew the source.  The people were rejoicing, laughing, and singing, because God has blessed them tremendously.  They were happy because they knew that in having their Lord, they had everything they needed. Vs. 3 sums it up best: “The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy,” a joy so obvious that all the world could see it.

Joy.  Joy as a believer.  Joy as a child of God.  Is that what people see when they look at you or at me?  Do we project hope in our day to day interactions with others?  Do we have a positive outlook on things and an optimistic view of the future because we know it is a future in which the Lord who blessed in the past will keep doing that? Or, when they see us, do people see complainers because Z went wrong and Y stinks? Do they see the bitterness that often results from not getting what we want?  Do they see sour people who seem angry/annoyed all the time? Do poorly worded signs and grammatically improper slogans bother us so much we fail to have and fail to show the joy that is ours as believers, as children of God?

The old line regarding preaching you learn at the Sem is this: First, preach to yourself.  What that means is before we share the message with others, we must apply it to ourselves. And after preaching to you about not getting sidetracked from all our blessings, I must honestly admit I’m often a hypocrite in this area.  Yes, the signs and slogans get to me, but the list is much longer than that.  I get annoyed when the ice takes longer than normal to go out, thus I have to wait to fish.  I have a hard time driving around town on Saturday because the road is packed with people who can’t for the life of them drive the speed limit. I have to wait 5 extra minutes in line for a Diet Coke, and I’m ready to blow. In the grand scheme, these are tiny, miniscule matters.  But these little things can set me off and annoy me for anywhere from 10 minutes to the rest of the day.

But that is insane, isn’t it?  Yes, it is.  I have so many blessings, but all my mind wants to focus on are the problems, the annoyances, and the petty issues.  Tell me you don’t struggle with that.  Tell me you are laser focused on blessings all the time and let the other things roll over you like a stream.  Tell me you don’t waste time getting bothered by the little things which causes you to overlook the great, amazing, wonderful, gift from God things.  You can’t, can you?  

Why is that?  Because the sinner in us is miserable.  The sinner in us wants things to be exactly as we think they should be.  The sinner in us sees God’s blessings as insufficient.  We should have more money, a better job, more friends, a happier home life and marriage, etc.  And when we don’t get those things, the sinner in us is annoyed and bothered, if not angry.  Then we start looking for things to justify our mindset that things stink, nothing ever goes right, and gloom/despair will be on the menu for a long time. We shouldn’t think this way, but we do. We’ll struggle with this until our time here is up.

And I wish I could say there is an easy way to combat that.  There isn’t. That negative, woe is me, everything stinks part of each of us is in there by nature, and only death can remove it. There isn’t an easy way to fight, but there is a way.  Imagine your child or a friend comes home after a tough loss in soccer or softball. They lost, and it is clear they are not happy about it.  How do you cheer them up?  You try to get them to focus on the positives.  You talk about what might be learned from it, highlight what went right, and focus on doing better next time.  You don’t whine with them.  You help them move on.

And who can do that better for us when we struggle than our Lord?  And of what does he remind us?  When we feel bitterness or anger or resentment or frustration over what bad thing happened or what good thing didn’t happen, what does our God do for us?  He picks us up.  He refocuses us.  A question I get from time to time is this: “Why keep going to church?  It’s not like the message changes!” No, it doesn’t, and that is precisely why we keep coming to church.  Think of the things this week alone that beat you down, got under your skin, and annoyed/bothered you.  What do you need to hear, even though it is the same thing you hear each week?

That you are blessed beyond measure.  That no amount of annoyance can change the fact Jesus Christ is your Savior.  That no amount of frustration will alter the fact every one of your sins are gone and you are in a strong relationship with your Lord.  That as you face these things, God has surrounded you with many people who’ll help you through the issue and help you move on. That even when things are tough, you still have so many blessings that can’t be taken away: peace with God, peace with self, hope for the short/long term future, and the reality in time the struggle will end and heaven’s your home.  

Is that new information?  Now.  But when we make that list, which we basically do every time we are here, doesn’t that put things into perspective?  Realizing our blessings – from the big ones like faith, forgiveness, and heaven – down to the little ones – a nice meal, a relaxing evening, a hug from a friend – helps us let go of those other things.  It helps us ignore the poorly worded slogans and improper signs.  It helps us not get uptight about bad traffic and rude employees.  How so?  Because those things really don’t matter. What does matter – our life with God and his life with us – is reality, a reality nothing in this world can change.

And with that mindset, won’t we be like the people marching to Jerusalem, singing out praises for all to see?  Yes, bad examples and hypocrites stand out, but so do positive examples and genuine people.  When we live as the joyous people God made us, that stands out in this bitter, angry, ugly world.  We are lights, and we pray we impact others. Not just to just to make the world a nicer place but to help people see the joy we have as God’s children, a joy offered to them as well.

I will do my best to not get bothered by dumb signs and slogans.  I want you to try your best not to get bothered by all the things in life that annoy and frustrate.  And the only way we can do this is to stay focused.  Stay focused on what it is that is the true source of your joy – that you are a loved and forgiven member of God’s family.  Realize that joy.  And live that joy, for all the world to see.  Amen.