Sermon - 2 Epiphany
In the Name...
There was a man who became obsessed with finding the secret of a happy life. He read many books and sought out many teachers, but none of their ideas satisfied him. Finally, he heard of a hermit who lived in a cave high in the mountains and at once the man set out. After many adventures, he arrived at the cave where he saw an old man seated in the lotus position. He asked the old man, "Honoured sir, I have been told that you alone understand the secret of life. Please be so kind as to share this with me." The old man answered, "Work hard; say your prayers; love your family." The man was delighted, but when he returned home his wife said, "And what have I been telling you for thirty years?"
Why are we here? I don't mean why are here at St. Paul's, but why do we exist; why were we born; what's the purpose of it all? On one level that's a very broad and philosophical question, and on another it's intensely deep and personal. It's a question with which great minds have struggled and which comedians have spoofed. George Carlin said the goal of life was to find a place to store all our stuff.
And there have been many other, more serious, answers given to the question, such as, to seek happiness, to pursue a dream, to be a good friend, to come out on top, to accomplish my goals, even to die, as the bumper sticker says, with the most toys.
The problem is those answers are all secular answers, even if they express high ideals, because they lack an objective perspective. They're all limited by being self-generated. They're my answers about myself. Once upon a time, there was a scientist who had a mouse and the scientist found, by using cheese as a tool, that he could train the mouse to spell words and even answer questions. Finally, one day, the scientist asked the mouse, "What is the meaning of life?" and the mouse spelled, "Cheese."
Our Old Testament lesson contained a great line. "Surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God." In other words, the purpose of my existence lies with the Lord or to put it another way, responding to God's call is the only thing that gives meaning to my life.
Let's look at the text, again. "Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. ...And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’"
Before you were born, God had you in mind and a purpose for you once you were born. What a concept. It almost doesn't bear thinking about, in fact, it's probably easier not to. But this Scripture explains why a lot of people feel their lives are empty and without meaning because they're not doing what it is they were created to do. For example, if God has in mind for someone to be a teacher and that person goes into business he or she may be successful, yet, would probably find that something that they couldn't quite put their finger on would be unsatisfying no matter how much money they made. On the other hand, that same person may find they really enjoy leading employee training sessions or Sunday School, but not know why.
Make no mistake, the Scripture says, God has a more intimate personal relationship with you than you may like and he has equipped you, he has given you gifts for you to use in his service. If he didn't make your mouth a sharp sword, as Isaiah says God did with him, maybe he gave you a quick mind, or a generous heart, or an eye for detail, or limitless patience, or deep insight into other's needs. In the film "Chariots of Fire", the character of Eric Liddell makes the comment, "God made me for China, but he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure." Liddell, of course, won Olympic gold and then served the China mission. But isn't that a great sentiment - to be able to feel God's pleasure in what you do?
Ah, "But” the prophet also says, "‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Well, that's the human side speaking out. As equipped and gifted as we may be, we are still creatures of earth and liable to feel disappointment and even discouragement. Those who pray most can still find their words become dry. Those who come to church the most can still have days or even weeks and months when worship seems dull and unfulfilling. Those who give themselves to others the most can still feel unappreciated and criticized. These are human feelings and we wouldn't be human if we didn't have them. I've had them.
But sometimes we get those feelings because we're holding back. We're using some of what we've been given but not all, and that's also a human tendency. Sometimes, our greatest fear is not that we might fail but that we might succeed because success can bring a whole new set of responsibilities. A lot of folks like to work behind the scenes and shun the limelight. The snag is that God said let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
How did God respond to Isaiah's complaint? His answer wasn't very comforting. "‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel.” Personally, I think that would be quite enough on anybody's plate, but God goes on to say, "I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’" Well, we’re still reading this, aren’t we?
In the second lesson, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "I give thanks to my God.... that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift." As it was with Isaiah, so it was with the Corinthians and St. Paul spends a lot of time in this letter reminding the Corinthians exactly what they have been given to do the work of ministry and chastising them for not getting on with the job.
So it was with the Corinthians, and so it is with us. What does God want you to do? That's a question every one of us should ask, and not just once. It's a question which far too many people never ask, even once. Too many people never think about the purpose God has for them and they find they lack peace in their lives.
For there is peace and blessing to be found in knowing our purpose. And we are blessed when we bring to others the peace which comes from knowing our purpose. As the prophet said, surely, our cause is with the Lord, and our reward is with our God. Let's never forget that.
In the Name...