THE GOVERNMENT OF YOUR SPIRITS
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
November 13, 2016
Second Sunday Before Advent
Lections: Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Joseph Benson was an 18th-century English Methodist preacher and the author of a well-regarded 5 volume commentary on the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In his notes on the last verse in our gospel reading, “By your endurance you will gain your souls,” Benson says, “Be calm and serene, masters of yourselves, and superior to all irrational and disquieting passions. By keeping the government of your spirits, you will both avoid much misery, and guard the better against all dangers.”[i] The identical comment appears in his friend John Wesley’s Notes. Today I want us to focus on this verse.
In context, we hear Jesus speaking at the end of the church year; next Sunday, Christ the King, is the last Sunday before we begin Advent season and the new liturgical year. Isaiah sets the stage for the Gospel reading by talking about last things, the “new heavens and a new earth” that God creates “as a joy” and the new Jerusalem where “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard” or “the cry of distress,” and “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together.” The end times in the biblical account of sacred history resemble the last days of our earthly lives. As God’s “steadfast love endures forever,” our love too should now be steadfast, for we are hopefully prepared to cross over from our temporal life to its eternal fulfillment. At the end of this earthly existence, we will want to call out with the psalmist, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” We will want to give thanks “that you have answered me and have become my salvation.” So we pray, “O Lord, we beseech you, give us success.”
Naturally we ask, what does success look like? Paul instructs us we are not to be idle, but he is not saying we should busy ourselves with worldly affairs. Our refuge is in the Lord, and we should do our work “quietly” and “earn our own living” so that we avoid profiting at the expense of others and exploiting those who do not have our strength. We cannot be successful when we are harming others. Instead, we should “not be weary in doing what is right” but pray for the Lord to direct our hearts “to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” In this context, the phrase “steadfastness of Christ” should remind us of the sorrowful mysteries: his agony in the garden, scourging at the pillar, crowning with thorns, carrying the cross, and crucifixion. To be clear: Paul is not endorsing a fledgling form of free market capitalism. Rather, he is saying that the community of brothers and sisters in Christ should not behave like a dysfunctional family, as it prepares, in the words of Jesus, to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).
The gospel reading from Luke warns us against being deceived. Jesus’ main point is that we cannot foretell the future; cause and effect are largely undisclosed in the present, and the future surprises us. We do not know when God will create “new heavens and a new earth” or even when we shall die. Rather, we know to expect birth pangs, as this life passes into the next: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” Each of us, Jesus says, must be prepared then to testify to her and his faith, with the wisdom he himself gives us, for the end times will be a time of hatred and destruction, when Christians are persecuted, and some are killed. This is why Jesus tells us, we will even then be delivered, because “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
We hear again that the Christian way of life is not an easy one, which explains why Joseph Benson and John Wesley’s note is important. In the midst of our end of life challenges, of the “birth pangs” of our new existence, we are to “Be calm and serene, masters of yourselves, and superior to all irrational and disquieting passions.” In other words, we are to give evidence of the fruits of our Christian discipline. Our virtues will be manifest, and we will be called to show our love of “the beautiful, holy, and exalted,” that “a life of sanctity” produces. When we fall short, we remain enslaved to “all irrational and disquieting passions” and are easily deceived. The way to avoid this misery, and guard the better against all dangers, is “by keeping the government of your spirits.” We do this by cultivating “the better:” our intellect, stillness, and watchfulness; our prayer, devotion, service, and especially love.
Finally, I want to single out the word “government,” which is bound to recall the elections held this past week. We should note two things. First, nowhere does Jesus teach us to be frightened. The dire predictions both candidates made, regarding the consequences of electing their opponent, raised the level of fear in this country to heights I haven’t seen since Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson. In our Christian life, we should guard against being deceived, and keep in mind the importance of trusting God. Second, when we do become afraid, we should observe how fear changes us. We become easily angered, dejected, boastful, listless, and greedy. We are prone to unhealthy sexual activity, gluttony, and demeaning others. In short, we become incapable of giving evidence of our faith, and we condemn ourselves to “much misery.”
Let us, therefore, avoid fear, and focus our attention inwardly on its remedies. As we approach the end of the year, let us remember to read from the Psalms daily, as part of our daily prayers, and re-commit ourselves to overcoming the challenges each of face in our hearts and minds. Let us cultivate joy, patience, perseverance, and abstinence from those things which enslave us. Let us be steadfast, calm in the midst of turmoil, and watchful; compassionate rather than judgmental, and practiced in sharing with all the persons we meet in our daily lives the wisdom and love God shares with us. In summary, in all that we say and do, let us govern well our spirits and guard the better against all dangers. Amen.
[i] Benson’s Notes are available on Bible Hub: http://biblehub.com/commentaries/benson/luke/21.htm