Praise

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott

Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 19, 2021

Luke 1:39-45

We have two dogs at home; two little mutts. Lady and Murphy. Now, Lady came from the Waco Humane Society. She was what they called “a lonely heart special,” because she had been returned multiple times. We know why – she’s a hot mess. Murphy on the other hand, used to live out on a ranch in Waco. His best friend was a donkey. Well, Murphy became accustomed to breaking into the chicken coop and helping himself to the chickens. A bona fide chicken killer. So Murphy the farm dog moved in with us and became Murphy the city dog. Murphy is also a hot mess.

I know some people think of their dogs as their pride and joy. I’m not sure I’m there yet. I consider them like my shame and my sorrow. See, after watching them all these years, I think I’ve psychoanalyzed them sufficiently. Lady is a good dog who happens to make bad decisions. Murphy is a bad dog who happens to make good decisions.  

Once I reached this conclusion, I realized what a terrifying proposition that is. Because the question turned to me – am I a good person who happens to make periodic bad decisions? Or am I a bad person who by the grace of God makes periodic good decisions? What am I? Who am I? Why do I do the things that I do? I probably started asking myself these questions while desperately trying to coax my sorrow and my shame to take their heart worm medicine. 

All joking aside, these are some critical anthropological and theological questions. Who did God create us to be? What did God create us to do? Why are we here? How is that some people seemed to be wired differently from others? How is it that some people just can’t ever seem to make the right decision and others never seem to make a wrong decision? 

I would imagine that you, like me, have experienced this in your walk with Jesus. Some days I seem close to God and God seems close to me. I will sit here in church and listen to the holy scriptures and I can feel that Spirit of God flooding my heart. I feel inspired, invigorated, connected to the Holy One. And some days I just don’t feel much of anything. Either I’m distant from God or God seems distant from me. So which is the real me? Which is the true version of myself? The one connected to God, taking pride and joy in the Lord, or the one who is disconnected, riddled with shame and sorrow. I trust I’m not the only one whose spiritual life sometimes feels like a rollercoaster.

Well, I do think that the holy scriptures today give us a hint, they point to who and what we really are; to who and what God created us to be. Let’s set the stage.

In the Gospel of Luke two women, against all odds, are carrying children in their wombs. First is Elizabeth, who despite her old age, is carrying a son who will eventually become known as John the Baptist. The other is Mary, who despite being a virgin, is a carrying a son who will eventually become known as Jesus the Lord. After the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is carrying this child, she goes to visit her family member Elizabeth. And “when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child (John the Baptist) leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). Elizabeth goes on to say, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (1:44).

John the Baptist is greeting his Lord, even from the womb. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit just as the sight of Mary with child, carrying Jesus. Mary bursts into song, praising God for the gift of these children. John, Elizabeth, Mary – all three provide a glimpse into what it means to be human. For in that most human moment, two women sharing the pains and joys of child-bearing, they burst into praise of God. 

Take this for the glorious lesson that it is. As humans, at our core, at our most human moments, we were created to praise God. Even children in the womb, even strangely pregnant women, burst forth in love and in song. This, I say, is who we were created to be. We were created for love, created for praise, created to rejoice in the One Lord. The Christian life then is all about giving back to God what God has given us. Love, grace, peace, joy, compassion. When Jesus says, “Give unto Caesar the things that Caesar’s and give unto to God the things that are God’s,” I believe that this is what he is talking about. The things that are God’s are all the holy, beautiful, sacred things of life. The love shared between a married couple celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. The joy, the pride you take in your child learning how to tie their shoes. A good meal shared with old friends with lots of laughter. These are the things of God. And it’s those feelings, those gifts that we return to God. At the sight of God, at the sound of our Lord’s voice, we too leap for joy rejoicing and praising for all the wonderful, rich blessings of this life. That, that who is we are by design and what we are created to do. We are God’s beloved children, and our purpose in life is to praise God. 

So we can get out of the business of asking ourselves if we’re good people or bad people. We are just people. Knowing full well that yes, sometimes we will fall short. We will miss the mark. We will gripe instead of rejoice. We will complain instead of giving thanks. We will do our own thing rather than God’s thing. That is sin – but as God’s beloved children sin does not define us. God’s love and compassion and grace and mercy define us. I’m not saying that we can go about sinning because God loves us anyway. By no means. I’m not a hedonist. What I am saying is that to be truly human, to be truly yourself, is to love God and your neighbor with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. As one theologian put it – sin is the incurvature of our souls (Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology). Love, loving God and our neighbors, is bending our souls outward, following the example of John the Baptist in the womb, of Elizabeth being filled with the Holy Spirit, of Mary shouting her praise of God. Those heroes of our faith are not special in that way. They are just showing us what it means to be truly human. 

And if I may press the point further – it’s what all creation is called to be and to become. Yes, humans have a special place, we are called to be stewards of creation. But the Christian proclamation is also that all creation, all creatures great and small, are designed to worship God. So every tree, every rock, every bird, every mosquito, and yes, even every hot mess of a dog is designed to rejoice in the Lord always. At their most mosquito-y-ness, at their most bird-y-ness, at their most dog-y-ness, they are made to praise. Just as we are called to worship God as the very core of our humanity. Jesus says that even if the people stop praising him, even the stones will cry out. And the very last line in all the psalms says it best. Psalm 150 concludes, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah!”

Remember that at your best – at your absolute God-given core – you were made for praise and worship. Our whole lives, should be about one thing and one thing only – the praise of God Almighty. It is who you were created to be, it is what you were created to do. To rejoice, give thanks, and praise. So as you make all those last minute preparations for Christmas this week – as you stuff your stockings, as you munch on your candy canes, as you prepare the big meal – remember that it all points to something. Open your heart, reach out and grasp your full humanity. Rejoice in God your Savior. 

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