Sunday, December 05, 1999


Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: 1 John 2:6-8, 19-28

Advent Anticipation

We come today to the end of the single verse which has occupied our attention since September, Galatians 5:22. With loving patience, and joyful good humor, and a kindly, gentle peace, you have faithfully endured a whole season of preaching dedicated to just one line.

Now, however, the time has come. The streetlights have been lit and the summer evening is ended. The whistle has blown and the train is headed out. The housemother rings the bell or flicks the lights and the date is over. The hour is coming (and now is!) John the Baptist is banging on the door, and it is time to move on, to Advent, to Christmas, to the Millenium, into God's open future.

And really, the whole of Scripture, is replete with last words. Joseph hears Jacob's last word and final breath. A last word. Deborah celebrates the end of a military victory. A last word. Moses, aging and toothless on Mt Nebo, gives his blessing to another generation—Joshua. A last word. Think of Elijah and Eliesha walking through every blessed Palestinian town until the heavenly chariot came down. A last word. Jeremiah, crippled, and on his death bed, taking the longer view. A last prophetic word.

And our Gospel today, St. John, is largely presented on the night of Jesus' betrayal. In fact, all Jesus says in John, with little remainder, he says on the last night, the night of betrayal. A dominical last word.

Just one word remains of our Fruit of the Spirit. It is, in fact, a word that John the Baptist, dressed in camel's hair and feasting on locusts and wild honey, would truly have appreciated. You know, John the Baptist has to be faced, and heard, every year before we can walk on to Bethlehem. Every year, on this Sunday, we brace ourselves to hear his wintry voice, his prophet's call, his voice that bears into our psyche what we may not want to hear but usually need to hear. One year, the theme is tithing. Another year, we wrestle with abortion. Still another Advent, we celebrate "precursors" like the Baptist in all of life. Last year, we heard about evangelism. So it goes, down by the river's edge, outside the city, in the cold dark, as night falls.

I picture him every year. He has such endurance, standing as he does just outside the city limits. John the Baptist waits down by the subliminal river, down outside the bright lights and big city, down in the riverside thicket of the subconscious, down in the dream world that sets the beat, far more than we ever care to acknowledge, for our waking, official life. Have you had a dream lately? Then you know his voice.

The voice of one crying in the wilderness.

It is fortuitous that he waits for us today. He would appreciate our struggle to understand this last mark of Spirit named by the great apostle to the gentiles, enkratea, "self-control", especially here at the end, at least from one accounting, of the millenium.


Perhaps the most striking feature of much millennial discussion this year, one could argue, is its familiarity, its bland predictability.

What is the great bogeyman of the month? Y2K? The possibility of technological failure. I honestly expect nothing unusual to occur January 1. But what is striking is that what some others fear, even if it happened, would be…NOTHING UNUSUAL. Do you see, to paraphrase Ecclessiastes, technological breakdown? Ah—it has been before. Your network has never gone down? Your computer has never blanked? Your car has never stalled? Your dentist has never made a slight error? Your preacher has never given a dull sermon? Failure? Human and mechanized?… NOTHING UNUSUAL. "To err is human", wrote Alexander Pope 300 years ago.

So we have a kind of millenial angst. We sing, "Have a holly, jolly Christmas.."

We might better sing,

Have an anxious, edgy Advent
To end the millenial year
The cold wind blows
With heavy snows
The nights are touched with fear

Have an anxious, edgy Advent
The darkest month of the year
O By Golly
Have an anxious, edgy Advent, this year.

Listen: If your fear is that Y2K will mess up your checking account, take it from one whose checking account has been in disarray since ordination—it's nothing unusual.

But our Y2K ennui goes deeper than a January hesitation, a January hiccup.

Listen, and you will hear it, abroad…

Why is our Poet laureate speaking to packed houses today, when he recites Frost and Auden, and asks people to read and write their own poems? Is it out of a longing, a yearning, a hunger—the new problem with no name—for meaning? Paul said freedom, in Galatians, but meaning will do.

There is a longing, a craving, a hunger abroad for a new creation.

Why is Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman playing with such force, 50 years after its writing? Is it because the consumption culture finally does not feed us? Or, as Paul wrote in Galatians, "if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another." Yes Willi, yes Mr. Lowman, attention must be paid.

There is longing, a craving, a hunger here for a new creation.

Why did Kevin Spacey choose to star in American Beauty, a millennial film about suburban emptiness and marital hell? Is it because we have in face, as Paul wrote in Galatians, been set free in Christ, and over time, down deep, we begin to recognize cages however gilded, as cages nonetheless.

There is hunger, a longing, a craving here, for a new creation.

Why did Bill Clinton's perjury and infidelity so rivet our attention and illumine our national landscape, with such costly, indelible, and pervasive consequences? Is it because, at last, a whole generation is waking up to the ironically confining, and paradoxically enslaving power of unmitigated self-indulgence? This is what Paul—however quaint and dated and sexist and heterosexist his earnest words now sound—was trying to convey to the Thessalonians, "that each of you learn to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor".

There is a hunger, a longing, a craving here for a new creation.

Spirit and Flesh and Law

Our human expectation is fear not hope, and usual not unusual.

All of this—Y2K, Willi Loman, Kevin Spacey, Bill Clinton—and what shall we make of the heavily masculine angst here?—is what Paul called "flesh", and the effects of the flesh.

It is this human penchant for competition, for pride and envy, this human tendency toward the impulsive desire, this human banality, finally, which is under attack today, according to St Paul and St John. Paul calls this "flesh".

Watch carefully. The Fruit of God's invasive Spirit is the antidote to "flesh", not the Law. It is the Spirit that gives life, not the law. It is Spirit, not religion, not compulsion, not athleticism, not achievement, not LAW.

Blake had it close to right:

When Satan firs the Black Bow Bent
And the Moral Law from the Gospel Rent
He Forg'd the Law into a Sword
And the Spill'd the Blood of Mercy's Lord

It needs to be said: Much American religion today resembles that of Paul's opponents in Galatia—biblical, traditional, ethical, disciplined, castrative, and above all, reverent before religion law. But Paul warns them and us—it is not law that will free you from flesh. It is not religious observance or self-discipline or harsh order that will free from flesh!

What must Paul have meant, then, by including in his description of Spirit—an actual, real, historical force—enkratea? What is this strange presence?

Self-control here means something other than what we think of as self-discipline. After all, for Paul these are fruit of the spirit, not merely human virtues. These are the gifts of the Gift of the living God! More than jogging, more than fasting, more than frugality, more than self-discipline is at stake here.

Nor are the many and helpful current lists of helpful habits what Paul has in mind. Enkratea means more than

Being proactive
Beginning with the end in mind
Putting first things first
Thinking win/win
Seeking first to understand then to be understood
Sharpening in the Saw

More than habits of highly effective mortal units is at stake here. As practical as Steven Covey's list is, Paul has bigger fish to fry.

Mission and Vision

You know, we can get so enmeshed in our own activity, our own mission in life, that the illuminating, enlivening power of God—the vision and purpose and meaning of life—can be obscured. The moon of human mission, even of very pious and very important and very religious and very churchly mission, can eclipse, for a time, the bright sunlight of Christ, in which we are warmed and healed and made right. But it is the Spirit that gives life! The flesh is of no avail. It is the fruit of the Spirit on which we are meant to feast as we face the open future.

We are living in a season of spiritual harvest! God has stepped onto the human scene and is waging war against all that enslaves the human being. And we are enlisted—you and you and you—in the army of liberation. God's Spirit is feeding us, if we will but taste and enjoy, and sending us forth into the new creation.

And to this part of the army of liberation, God has given a map of the new territory meant for us. You can take the bulletin home today, with the nine fruit listed, and use it as a map for your spiritual journey. Every pastor who goes to a new town quickly acquires a map of the county, which she reads and uses with care. Often, too, he just calls back to the office for directions. But the map serves to mark out the new territory. The City of Rochester. The County of Monroe. The Village of Pittsford. The Town of Brighton. Webster. Hilton. Spencerport.

In the fruit of the spirit, the Scripture gives us such a map, to mark out our real home, the place we were meant to live, for which we were made, the new creation set free in Christ. See—the city of love. Look—the county of joy. Watch—the village of peace. There—the town of patience. Over there—the suburbs of kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness.


Self-control simply keeps you pointed in the right direction.

A New Creation

This is the staggering news of Jesus Christ whose advent we await, whose Spirit feeds us like a wet nurse. Not religion, not law, not technological excellence, but a new creation, a totally new creation, is in our future.

Our heaven is too low, today.
Your heaven is not high enough, today.
Our heaven is too low, today

We await a little larger return on our investment, when the Spirit of God is making us soldiers who are landing on the beachhead of a new world.

The fruit of the spirit are locations within a new creational community. The works of the flesh are anathema, not because they show individual weakness, but because they harm community, the new creation. You may go through the list yourself in Galatians 5. Paul warns about the works of the flesh, not out of some hidebound killjoy religiosity, but because they keep us from our real native land, which is a wholly new creation.

Racism delays the new creation. Alcoholism delays the new creation. Self-indulgence delays the new creation.

"God does not want a new religiosity, but a renewed creation under the cosmocrator God." (Kasemann)

This is why the list of nine ends with enkratea, self control. The Spirit gives us the gift of freedom, which is "the gift to be obedient to God in God's presence." (Martyn)

So, the antidote to impulsive sensuality is not more self-discipline (law), but a new creation of love.

So, the antidote to wreckless consumption is not more frugality (law), but a new creation of joy.

So, the antidote to destructive competition is not more values clarification (law), but a new creation of peace.

It is a whole new creation that awaits us—in every direction. I believe that our church is a part of God's beachhead into the world of flesh. Here we can receive hands and lips with which to touch and taste the fruit of the spirit.

Endnote: Pear Trees from Augustine to Today

My grandmother Coons, a graduate of Smith college, born 28 years before women's suffrage, Sunday school teacher, homemaker, communion steward, and cook, was also a sometime gardener. In her little backyard she had a pear tree (like the one from which St Augustine stole in 370ad?), somehow planted and tended and guarded in our harsh climate. She kept a long handled pear picker in the garage, and once or twice a year we would come and take the pears, now ripe, and let them fall into the hoisted bag. You know, there are some moments that last forever, they just linger. Out behind her modest city home—very like our Rochester house in fact--I stand with the pear picker to take the fruit. I feel the sun of an autumn day. I hear the last of the insects buzzing. I see the gold and green of the pears. I hear the rustling in the nearby kitchen, a meal cooked to precede the newly picked dessert. I watch—there is no ending for such a moment—once the little picking chores are done, and a table is spread with linen and china and silver. Ruddy hands are carrying the serving plates, with potato and chicken and gravy. And there is the ripeness of the fruit, its scent and heft and color. And there is the family together at table, its care and intimacy and warmth. So I place the pears in a white bowl, and start toward the house. (Was it in such a garden and such a day that Augustine, at last, received the Spirit, take and read? Was it from such fruit that he received the gift, at last, of self control?) Hands are washed, and heads are bowed, and a prayer is offered and the meal stands ready. There, you see, in the middle of the table is the bowl, with nine good empire state pears. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

After my grandmother died, on All Saints Day, 1987, I was asked what from the house I would like, and, who knows why, I mentioned the pear picker.

It is our prayer that these sermons, all too human, will help you to pick the Fruit of the Spirit out of the tree of life, and so nourish you as soldiers of the new creational struggle, that God's day, in you, will come a step closer.

It is our prayer that the ministry of this church, all too human, will provide you with a spiritual pearpicker or two, in worship, education, care, spirituality, membership, stewardship, and communication.

So now you have the map. And now you hold the compass. And there is the New Creation. Happy hiking.