(A Sermon based on 1 Corinthians 13 for the Hanging of the Green 2012)
This morning we have celebrated the greening or the decorating of our sanctuary for the Advent and Christmas seasons (a reminder: Advent begins next Sunday and continues until Christmas Eve; the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and ends twelve days later). The decorations serve to enhance the always-present beauty of the sanctuary; they make an already beautiful place even more beautiful.
Decorations can dress up a place that is not already attractive, though. Imagine that you are driving around town at night looking at Christmas lights. You drive through various neighborhoods and by many houses, all the while thinking, “Well, that’s pretty.” Then imagine that you drive through those same neighborhoods and by those same houses in the middle of the next day. In some cases, you will still think the houses are pretty. In other cases, not so much.
You can dress up an ugly place. You can enhance a beautiful place. Or, you can make an ok place into a better than average place.
Let’s apply that line of thought to our hearts.
A human heart can be a beautiful place; it can also be an ugly place or a mediocre place. I suspect that for most of us it is mediocre or fair-to-middling or sometimes good, sometimes bad. For us, the days of Advent and Christmas can be, as all days can be, days when we focus on greening our hearts, on adorning them further with those qualities that make all the difference in a life. Let’s use these days to focus on the greening of our hearts with faith, hope, and love.
This is not a matter of dressing ourselves up so we can appear to be better than we in fact are. I remember clearly how, around forty-five years ago, I would at this time of year suddenly become much more interested in the quality of my outward behavior just in case Santa was watching; I didn’t want to be on the wrong list. Notice that we’re talking about greening our hearts, about adorning our innermost being, and not about dressing up our actions. We want to develop strong root systems so that we will produce the right kind of produce. If we feed our hearts, the actions will follow.
Remember, too, that this is about what God does in and through us, not about what we do for ourselves. Our responsibility is to be open, to be seeking, and to be receptive to whatever God has for us. To understand the difference between what we can do and what God can do, try this: first, when you finish decorating your house for Christmas, step back and admire the job you have done; then, on a clear night, go outside and look up at the stars to see what God has done. You will see the difference.
God will green our hearts with gifts that endure, with blessings that have staying power. As Paul said, “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three,” and those are the great realities with which God will adorn our hearts.
God will green our hearts with faith.
“Faith” means “trust.” There is an axiom that says that a person who chooses to represent himself in court “has a fool for a client.” The same principle applies if we try to represent ourselves in life. “Fools,” the psalm has it, “say in their hearts ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). We are made by God and we are made for God; therefore, we need God. God is the only One worthy of our trust because only God is God.
Trust in God is meant by God to be a beautiful reality in our lives and it becomes more beautiful as we grow in humble confidence that God’s will is becoming our will and God’s ways are becoming our ways. But trust in God can become an ugly reality when it deteriorates into arrogance and assumption, when we come to think that we really do know God’s will and way and when we assume that our will and way are God’s will and way.
Do you remember the father who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief”? (Mark 9:24). That’s a good prayer. Another good prayer is, “I believe; help my belief”; that is, don’t let my belief get the best of me and make me arrogant and shallow.
What a beautiful thing it is, on the other hand, when we simply and humbly give ourselves over to God, trusting that, both because of and despite who we are and what we do, God will show us the way.
God will green our hearts with hope.
Hope, biblically speaking, is confidence born of the assurance that God keeps God’s promises and that God is working God’s purposes out. Hope is not wishful thinking; hope is not fantasy; hope is not looking at the world through rosy-colored glasses. Hope sees the world as it really is and understands that reality is challenging and that the way through it is hard. But hope also believes in God and believes that God is working and will work God’s purposes out for all of creation.
Hope looks forward to that time when we will know as we long to know and we will be known as we long to be known. Meanwhile, hope gives us light in the midst of darkness, purpose in the midst of doubt, direction in the midst of chaos, and life in the midst of death.
God will green our hearts with love.
Our hearts are not suitably adorned, though, unless they are adorned with love. Faith, as great as it is, is without love arrogance. Hope, as great as it is, is without love selfishness. We can have great faith but still not be who God means for us to be and we can have great hope and not have the heart of God. But God will by God’s grace fill us with God’s love so that everything we are, say, and do is enlivened by the love of God. Faith and hope, while necessary in the living of this life, will not be needed in the next life; but love, being eternal (God is love, after all), will endure forever.
What is the love of God? It is seen in the fact that God made us even though God did not need us; it is seen in the fact that Jesus died for us when we were not worthy of such a sacrifice. It gives and gives and gives and sacrifices and sacrifices and sacrifices. So when that love fills us it will cause us to want to give and not to keep, to sacrifice and not to protect, and to help and not to hurt.
This Advent season, let’s ask God to decorate our hearts with faith, hope, and love. When God does, what will your life look like?