Being Made Perfect
Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
This morning I want to tell you about my golf game. Golf to me, is one of the loveliest things in the world. I love it. Golf courses are about as nice as any place can be. You could not pick a place to be on a May day better than a golf course with the grass newly cut and green and lovely and the trees in full leaf. It is just about the loveliest place to be in the whole world. Not only that, the game of golf itself is a wonderful game of discipline and honor. Golf is the only game in the world where the participants are expected to call fouls on themselves. It is a game of highest honor. It is also a game where, if it is played rightly, has great elegance and beauty. The flight of a well-struck golf ball is one of the most beautiful things you will ever see. Conversely, the flight of a poorly struck golf ball is one of the ugliest things that you will ever see.
I have learned over the years to love the game of golf. I think the first time I ever played was when I was in seminary and a friend of mine, while we were having dinner together one evening, said, "Let's go out in the backyard and hit some whiffle balls." It was the first time I had ever had a golf club in my hand and I quickly became hooked on the game. In the years since, I have played whenever I found the opportunity.
I was reflecting on my golf game a few weeks ago as I was putting my clubs away for the winter. I was remembering back to the first golf course on which I played regularly. It was a little municipal nine-hole course. I used to go out to the course on my day off which, in those days, was Thursday. It was a small town and not a lot of people played golf. Sometimes on Thursday morning when I went out to play, I might be the only person on the course. I got to thinking about how I scored in those days. Remember I said it was a game of honor? What shocked me was that twenty years ago, when I first started playing golf regularly, I played just about as well as I played last summer. It was a very depressing realization!
Some of you have played golf with me. You now what it looks like. It is not pretty. One of the things that is most frustrating about this game I love is that I never seem to get any better. Now some people have told me (rightly) why I don't get better. One reason I don't improve is that I am not naturally athletic in ways that make golf easy. But that is an excuse. The big reasons I don't got better are that I don't take lessons and I don't practice. This is not a game in which you improve on your own. I don't take lessons; I don't practice. No wonder I am a bad golfer.
As I was thinking about all of this, it occurred to me that in some ways my golf game is a metaphor on our spiritual lives. We don't practice. We don't take lessons. That is an appropriate thing for us to consider on the second Sunday of Advent because one of the great themes of the Advent season is preparation: My golf game is not very good because I don't prepare rightly to play, but it is also true many times that our spiritual fife, our devotional life, our discipleship are not very strong because we have not prepared. Preparation is the great theme of Advent. Certainly we see it around us as we decorate and prepare for Christmas. There are all these wonderful preparations: the decorations, the baking, the shopping. All the things that we are doing to get ready, this preparing time, underpins everything we do in Advent.
In the first lesson that we read this morning, St. Paul talks about how one day that which is begun among us will be brought to completion. The Gospel lesson quoted Isaiah for Isaiah talks about preparing a way for the Lord. Preparation. Getting ready. Are you actively engaged in getting ready to be the very best disciple of Jesus Christ that you can be?
Preparation is not only a great theme of Advent, it is also a great theme of Methodism. John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodists movement, were often known is evangelists and as social activists, but John Wesley was also something of a theologian. One of the great contributions to Christian theology that John Wesley made was his emphasis on something he exiled "sanctification." To Wesley, it was not enough just to get religion. Evangelists are often about "getting religion" but John Wesley knew that was never enough. He knew that one never finishes growing in Christ, that one never quite becomes all that they might be, and that the Christian journey is best when we are always striving ahead and reaching for something that we have not yet become. Even to this day, Methodist preachers-when they are ordained--are asked, "Are you going on to perfection?" It is a very disconcerting question, I can tell you, but Wesley believed that all life was destination oriented and if our focus, our sense of where we are going, is not on to Christian perfection, if it is not on to sanctification, then what direction are we going?
Even Martin Luther talked of this theme when he wrote, "This life is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness. It is not health, but healing. It is not being, but becoming. It is not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished."1 Preparation.
How do we prepare to be the best that we can be? How do we prepare to greet Christ again this year? The answers to this are nothing new. They are the things that you have heard all your life: pray, worship, study the Scriptures and the great models of faith throughout history, practice giving witness, and serve your neighbor. These are not new ideas to you, but perhaps there are new opportunities to practice them, to prepare to be what God meant us to be.
Why do that? Well, my friends, preparing to be what God meant us to be, growing in discipleship, and deepening our With are things that we do because we never know what life will give us. Do you know? Are you prepared for what life might dish out to you? If the current prosperity of your undertakings and the vigor of your health lead you to believe that you do not need many spiritual resources, you are kidding yourself. Because I tell you that life will not--in the long run--treat us gently. When the day comes that the doctor looks at us and says it is not operable, when the day comess that our dearest loved ones pass from our sight, when those days come as they inevitably will, we need to have prepared. We need to have made Advent and growth and going on in righteousness so much a part of our lives that the--resources will be there in the hour of our need.
We also need to be people always preparing, because the world needs mature arid committed Christians. The people in the jails, the people who struggle with substance abuse, the people that are confused about direction in life--on and on the list goes--all need the world to have mature and committed Christians in it. If we are not about the practice of our faith, what will happen to them? Preparation.
A man named Malcolm Warfield, in an address to the governing association of the Boards of Seminary Trustees, told an interesting story a number of years ago. He said that a decade or so ago at the New College at Oxford in England, the beautiful old oak beams (maybe not unlike the beams over our sanctuary) holding up the ceiling and the roof-structure of the great dining hall became infested with a pest called the death-watch beetle. This infestation was so severe that the beams had been weakened to the point that they threatened the structure of the building. At that particular time, the College was not in good financial condition and there was a great panic. Where would be found the huge oaken beams that were needed to replace the ones being destroyed by the death-watch beetle?
One of the junior fellows at Oxford suggested that the extensive grounds of the College might hold some oak trees large enough to contribute the beams that were needed for the dining hall. When the College forester was asked abut the possibility of finding such trees, he calmly replied, "Well, sir, I have been wondering when you would be asking. " it seems that in 1379 when the College was founded, a grove of oak trees bad been planted in anticipation of the day when the deathwatch beetle would strike the dining hall. The College foresters, for all of those centuries, had been instructed by their predecessors about the location of the grove of oak trees and the necessity of protecting those trees for the eventual needs of the College.2
My friends, this world is full of oak being eaten by the death-watch beetle and our own lives are sometimes so attacked. If we do not plant the trees that will prepare the way to carry us through and help us carry others through the hours of their need, who will? Advent and life are about preparation. Not the preparation of homes and trees and decorations and food and lists and gifts. Advent and life are about preparation to be the Christian disciples that God needs us to be in an age such as ours. Are we getting ready?
Carl L. Schenck
1, Luther quoted in "Context," 5/15/86. 2, From "Recruiting Seminary Trustees," 1/1/85.