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Last, But Not Least, Is Love

With apologies for having only one camera…

John 3:22-26 and Hebrews 5:13-6:20
© Stacey Steck

It is the last Sunday of Advent, with the last of the candles lit before we light the Christ Candle of Christmas Eve. We are singing the last of the Advent songs before turning to the better-known Christmas carols. We are in the last days of the last month of this abysmal year of our Lord, 2020. Some would say we are in the last days before Jesus comes again. People have been saying that since he walked on the earth, and it hasn’t happened yet, but there’s still time, I suppose. The last of the Christmas gifts are wrapped, well, maybe not at our house where we always run up to the last minute, but in some houses somewhere, all but the last details for Christmas have been made. For some in our community, this will be the last Christmas we spend with them, sad but true, but for others, this will be last Christmas some couples will spend alone, before children come along, and it all gets more complicated and more joyful. And that is the last thing I will say on the matter of last things, except to say these important words: Last, but not least, is love.

That old phrase, “Last, but not least,” comes to us from the earliest days of modern theater, and by that I mean beginning in the 16th century. It was the custom that the biggest star of the show would be introduced after all the other lesser important players with the now famous words, “And now last, but not least…” to indicate that although said person got final billing, they were due the loudest applause. The first reference to it that can be found in print is from John Lyly's “Euphues and His England,” from 1580 in which he says, “I have heard oftentimes that in love there are three things for to be used: if time serve, violence; if wealth be great, gold; if necessity compel, sorcery. But of these three but one can stand me in stead - the last, but not the least; which is able to work the minds of all women like wax.” Yes, ‘tis sorcery that wins a woman’s heart, especially if you have no power and no gold! St. Paul had the same idea about how to emphasize that the last in a list was the most important when he wrote his famous words from First Corinthians, “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” And indeed, some suggest that the earliest use of the idea was Jesus himself when he said, “The first will be last and the last will be first.”

There are a lot of matters which could concern us where faith and religion are concerned, and indeed, the history of religion is the ongoing list of things the followers of Jesus choose to focus on, other then love. In the question of baptism alone, we have debates over sprinkling or dunking, infant or adult, one time or two, none of which really matter where love is concerned. When we get all wrapped up in what we think is important, even if it is important, we easily lose our way and forget that last, but not least, is love. Why, I can even imagine that happening at Christmas! Gifts, decorations, food, and the list goes on. But is love even on the list? It takes a certain maturity to be able to keep love on the list.

Christian maturity is, in fact, the very subject being addressed by the author of the letter to the Hebrews that we heard this morning. At first seeming to chastise the addresses by comparing them to infants needing milk, he goes on to give them credit for what they have already learned but exhorts them to greater maturity by tackling the finer points of the faith like baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. These are the things they should be ready to understand and share with others. It seems, however, that some of their number had fallen away from the faith, and others were sluggish, and so this message calls them to persevere in the faith they have learned and to go ever deeper into its mysteries. That seems like a list of interesting and worthy subjects, doesn’t it? Baptism, resurrection, judgment? Good, solid, doctrines of the faith, yes, but perhaps also too easy to get lost in, as perhaps some had done. And so, as a finishing touch, they get these words of conclusion: “Even though we speak in this way, beloved, we are confident of better things in your case, things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love you have showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.” Ah yes, the old, “Last, but not least, is love.” That other stuff is important, but love is the crown.

Nearly a thousand years ago, a very wise monk named Bernard pondered the relationship between love and maturity in the faith. You may know Saint Bernard of Clairvaux better through the hymns of his we still sing, like “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee,” and “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts” than through his treatise on the Four Degrees of Love, but it is the latter which offer us an interesting way to think about maturing in love as well as in doctrine. Bernard begins with the very natural kind of loving that comes with being a human being – loving yourself for your own sake. It hard not to be self-interested as a human being. You have to eat, stay warm, protect yourself against your enemies, navigate your family and the social world. When you are at that stage, you are looking out for yourself and perhaps others, but that’s because they are part of your self-interest. But there comes a point at which a person discovers that he or she can’t do it alone, or finds the need to reconcile one’s smallness or weakness with a power greater than oneself. And this leads to the second degree of love which is loving God for your own sake. At this stage you enlist God on your side, so to speak. You find you can love God because of the goodies you get, whether eternal life, or a sense of purpose, or a meal from people who say they love God. This second stage is sort of a transactional one. I love God, and God provides for my needs, or as the Old Testament puts it, “You are our God and we are your people.” I don’t know if a modern survey has ever been done to find out where most Christians are today, but I suspect a pretty large number of people would fall into this category.

That may be where many of us are, but that doesn’t have to be the last word. Bernard suggests that the third degree of love is loving God for God’s own sake, in other words, that our love of God helps us transcend ourselves just a little bit, and begin to seek God’s purposes a little more often, to put off some of our needs for those of the greater good, to give glory to God rather than ourselves. To be able to do so reflects an intimacy with God, a depth of experience and trust that allows us to be vulnerable enough to leave something of ourselves behind, knowing that God’s got our back. But as nice as that might sound, there’s still more, Bernard says. There’s the lofty fourth degree which he describes as self-love for God’s sake, or being united with God’s love. It is this degree about which Bernard writes, “Our whole heart should be centered on him, so that we only ever seek to do his will, not to please ourselves. And real happiness will come, not in gratifying our desires or in transient pleasures, but in accomplishing God’s will for us. This is what we pray every day: ‘Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.’ ”

Not that many of us can reach this state, but those who do are those about whom he says, “O chaste and holy love! O sweet and gracious affection! O pure and cleansed purpose, thoroughly washed and purged from any selfishness, and sweetened by contact with God’s will! To reach this state is to become godlike. As a drop of water poured into wine loses itself, and takes the color and savor of wine; or as a bar of iron, heated redhot, becomes like fire itself, forgetting its own nature; or as the air, radiant with sunbeams, seems not so much to be lit as to be light itself; so for those who are holy all human affections melt away by some incredible mutation into the will of God. This degree no human effort can attain: it is in God’s power to give it to whomever he will.” Pretty lofty stuff. Love as good as it gets.

As lofty as that fourth degree may sound, I do not think it is just some mystical experience, divorced form real life. Bernard doesn’t describe what exactly it looks like in practice but I think what this union with God means is that we begin to live our lives knowing that we mean something to God, knowing that God wants us to become what God wants us to be, and then we run with it. In those earlier degrees, we want God to endorse what we want to do with our lives. In this fourth stage, we allow God to shape us in ways we never could have imagined, and the divine results speak for themselves. Last, but not least, is love.

Our Gospel reading this morning brings John the Baptist back into our Advent countdown to Christmas, and just in time to provide a witness to Bernard’s fourth degree of love. We heard on the first Sunday about the announcement of John’s miraculous birth, and on the second Sunday his father Zechariah’s song in praise of the God who made it happen. This Sunday, we hear about John’s response to the coming of Jesus, not when he was a baby, but rather when he comes into his own, and starts putting his love into action. Jesus has just had his famous late-night conversation with Nicodemus in the third chapter of John in which we find the famous, or infamous, verse sixteen: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life,” and had apparently been letting people know about it because he’s out in the countryside baptizing people, just like John. And so John’s followers come to him and tell him this, and his response shows just how close he’s come to that fourth degree of love that God mysteriously grants. “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

We can imagine someone like John, who was the result of a miraculous birth, to try to live into that expectation, to try hard to fulfill it. He might even have had a pretty high opinion of himself as the one spoken about in the stories of the angel Gabriel’s mysterious visit to his father. And even if he held no more exaggerated opinion of himself because of that, he surely would have been on the self-interested train as a human being, and especially as a teenager.

But we can also imagine at some point that he recognized that his own efforts were not going to be enough, no matter how lofty the expectations and that he figured out he would need some outside help. And so he came to believe enough in God’s love for him that he could have some love for God, and so he perhaps learned enough about the story of his people that he could begin to think about inviting them into repentance.

And then we might imagine that with even more maturity, John developed a full commitment to God and put his money where his mouth was, and risked his reputation by condemning as vipers those who came to him in the wilderness. Bernard’s third degree.

Did he ever attain that fourth degree, the love of self for the right reasons? I like to think that he did, as told in the story of his condemnation of King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, a sin so grievous that John, for his own integrity’s sake, not to mention God’s, could not hold his tongue. His knowledge of God’s love for him led him to the truest kind of love for God, the one that allows us to authentically and disinterestedly love ourselves, and let come what may the consequences. The love we celebrate at Advent, the love of God for us shown in Christ, is putting our lives and our futures in God’s hands rather than our own, or someone else’s, or some philosophy, or some fad, or political party, or any other unworthy alternative. This is what John the Baptist did. He could have tried, like a televangelist, to market his own brand at the expense of Jesus. But instead he ceded the limelight, because he recognized that God had at heart the best interests of everyone, including him, when Jesus came in the flesh. Last, but not least, is love.

The truth is that sometimes we are sluggish in the faith, and we are like babes in need of milk, and we are worried about losing what we think we’ve gained. We are in need of maturity in both doctrine and love. Part of that maturity is putting in the effort, engaging with intention our Bibles and our prayers and our acts of service. But another part of maturity is recognizing that trying to achieve it may prevent us from achieving it, and that perhaps it is best to simply allow it to happen, not trying so hard, by simply being open to the love of God that is a gift given to us, one that we cannot acquire on our own merits or efforts. As John the Baptist so wisely said, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.” We have lit the candles of hope, peace, joy, and last but not least, love. Let us receive God’s love again this Christmas. Amen.

Taking the Plunge

Joshua 23 and Hebrews 4:1-11
© Stacey Steck

What would Advent be without an Advent calendar? For the last several years, my stepmother has sent us an electronic Advent calendar from the Jacquie Lawson card company. There’s no chocolate in this version, and you can’t open the treat for the day early because it’s locked, but each year is a different culture or theme and it’s very wonderful and interactive. This year’s theme is a Nordic Village and on the seventh day, the treat was a book about Scandinavian practices during the holiday, including the sauna. Now, you probably know that a sauna is a kind of steam bath, perfected by the Scandinavians in general and the Finns in particular, and maybe you know that it is a particularly Finnish custom in the dead of winter to go directly from the hot confines of sauna to the icy depths of the nearest Nordic lake, a study in contrasts if there ever were one. My kids were enthralled by this idea, not to the point of doing it, mind you, but because it seems so bizarre. “Wait, what?,” they said. Why would you go from being nice and warm, they asked, to plunging yourself into a half-frozen lake? They couldn’t understand the positive benefits to the human body’s reaction to these alternating extremes. And there was no way they were going to take the plunge to find out.

There’s a backstory to today’s readings from Joshua and Hebrews that tells the tale of another failure of nerve, another time when the risk of doing something seemed too great for the as-yet-unknown benefits, and God’s people refused to take the plunge. I briefly mentioned it last week and it comes immediately following Miriam’s challenge to Moses’ authority. Apparently ready to stop having to babysit the Israelites in the desert, God gives the order for the invasion of Canaan, the Promised Land, to begin. Send in spies, God says to Moses, and check it out. You’ll see that it’s worth the undertaking, and hey, it’s the land I promised you. So Moses sends one man from each of the twelve tribes, including a certain Joshua, and they go on a little reconnaissance mission and they indeed discover that the land was “flowing with milk and honey.” But, they also reported, this great land was crawling with nasty, brutish people as well, including some Nephilim, some giants, and, compared to them, they concluded, “we seemed like grasshoppers.” And so the congregation “raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night.” And the next day, instead of remembering that joy comes with the morning, and that God would be with them, they rebelled against the idea that they should occupy this land, and said, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” And there were only a very few dissenters, including Joshua and Caleb, who pled God’s case for conquest, while the rest were content to return to the slavery from which they had been so recently liberated.

Well, as you might imagine, this angered the Lord just a little bit. “How long will this people despise me?” God says. “I will strike them down with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you, Moses, a nation greater and mightier than they.” I’m gonna start over again, God is saying, with better raw material, kind of like with Noah. But Moses talks God down from the cliff with the old argument about how bad it would make God look in the eyes of the other nations, and so God relents, mostly. The people are spared, God says, but on account of their lack of trust, their unwillingness to take the plunge, no one who refused would be allowed to enter into the promised land of rest. Only Joshua and Caleb, of that generation, would be allowed, because they alone were willing. And so it would be another nearly two decades of wilderness adventure until that generation, including Moses, died off, before Joshua could lead the people across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. This episode later became known as the Kadesh moment, because that is where it took place.

Fast forwarding forty years or so to our reading from the book of Joshua, we find Joshua reminding them of this Kadesh moment, as well as they fact that they did indeed occupy the land and enter into a time of rest. And this is his great warning for them to remain faithful. Look what God has done for you. Don’t turn your backs on God like your parents and grandparents did. What happened to them could happen to you if you are not careful. It’s all kind of fragile, he seems to be saying. And of course it was, as the rest of the story shows. But at least at that moment of the story, God’s promises were kept and the people were at rest. They took the plunge, and were rewarded with the benefits.

Fast forwarding yet again another couple thousand years, we find this Kadesh experience still very much in the mind of the author of Hebrews. Only this time, those being encouraged to take the plunge are Jewish followers of Christ. This chapter in Hebrews is a bit like listening to a Robin Williams-style stream of consciousness comedy routine, although about a serious topic, but it’s worth taking the plunge into it as well, because its message is timeless, both literally and figuratively. It’s timeless because it goes back to the beginning of time, and because it meets the faithful of every generation who have to make for themselves the choice to follow or not follow. You see, there is goodness and blessing waiting for us, if we can muster the courage to face what look like giants.

The theme of this fourth chapter of Hebrews is rest, holy rest, sabbath rest, eternal rest, all of those types of rest or none of them exactly, but rest nonetheless held out for those who believe in God and follow Jesus Christ. The rest described here seems to be of the same substance as God’s rest on the seventh day of creation, and it seems to be related to the rest Joshua and his followers experienced when they finally did conquer the Promised Land, and it appears to be not unlike the comfort of being in relationship with Jesus Christ, both now and forever. But most importantly for this letter is the fact that the possibility of entering into this rest, whatever it truly is, is still open and available, as long as we are not too timid to take the plunge. “Let us therefore make every effort to enter into that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience” as the Israelites at Kadesh. They had it all in their grasp, but threw it away for that failure of nerve.

There are many ways in which that same failure of nerve can prevent us from being obedient to God’s call in our lives. You’ll often hear me include the phrase “selling ourselves short” when I introduce the prayer of Confession in worship. That’s because few of us are immune to the sin of shrinking back from using the power we’ve been given by God. Perhaps because we’ve so thoroughly incorporated the virtue of humility into our lives, we sometimes get the notion that we’re not good enough for this or that task. Even Albert Einstein, recognized as one of the most influential scientists of the last five hundred years, had a case of Imposter’s Syndrome in his later years. He once confided to a close friend: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” Of course, nobody really thinks of Einstein as a fraud, yet he still felt insecure about his talents and achievements, as do many extremely competent people today. And maybe that’s you about being a parent, or student, or employee, or unemployed or suffering somehow in mind body, or spirit, feeling like an imposter, selling yourself short. But here the thing about you and your inner commentary or those Israelites hearing the words of warning brought back by the spies. First of all, God isn’t sending you out to battle alone, or unequipped. The promise of God’s presence and power go before us in all of our endeavors. How did God ultimately bring down the walls of Jericho? With the trumpets and marching feet of the faithful, not the battering rams of the army. And if that weren’t enough, God isn’t asking for anything more than our best effort. We don’t need to be perfect parents or straight A students, or employee of the month to be faithful and obedient. We just need to be good enough parents or students or employees. Good enough, that’s all. God’s standards aren’t made on the basis of perfection, but on faithfulness. And whatever physical or emotional or financial limitations we might think we have, whatever perceived shortcomings we may experience, these too must fall by the wayside in favor of God’s grace. Who were those loser Israelites besides people who had formerly been slaves and were now barely getting by in the wilderness? They weren’t organized. They didn’t have fortified cities or cavalry. They didn’t have anything to their name except the most important thing: God’s power and presence. And yet they thought they weren’t good enough, even though God did.

Maybe you remember the story of St. George and the Dragon that led St. George to become patron saint of England. The region of Silene in Libya was plagued by a venom-spewing dragon dwelling in a nearby pond, poisoning the countryside. To prevent it from affecting the city itself, the people first offered it two sheep daily, then a man and a sheep, and finally their children and youths, chosen by lottery. Over time, the lot fell on the king's daughter. The king offered all his gold and silver to have his daughter spared; but the people refused. And so the daughter was sent out to the lake, dressed as a bride, to be fed to the dragon. Saint George by chance arrived at the spot. The princess tried to send him away, but he vowed to remain. When the dragon emerged from the pond while they were conversing, Saint George made the Sign of the Cross and charged it on horseback, seriously wounding it with his lance. He then called to the princess to throw him her girdle, and he put it around the dragon's neck and with that garment around its neck, the dragon followed the girl like a ‘meek beast’ on a leash. The princess and Saint George led the dragon back to the city, and Saint George offered to kill the dragon if they consented to become Christians and be baptized. Fifteen thousand men including the king of Silene converted to Christianity. George then killed the dragon, beheading it with his sword, and it took four ox-carts to remove it from the city. The king built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint George on the site where the dragon died and a spring flowed from its altar with water that cured all disease. That old story never tells us what George said to himself as he waited for that dragon, or as the dragon appeared. But it’s clear he knew a dragon was coming and that he held his ground anyway. And he probably was quaking inside, and questioning his abilities, and reviewing his bucket list. But he must also have calculated that he was a good enough soldier, and as a result of his obedience to God’s call to him as a knight, a whole host of people entered in God’s rest.

If that story seems a little far-fetched, consider the closer-to-home perspective of poet Wendell Berry about the everyday courage it takes to do what needs to be done. “It’s like having a milk cow,” he says. “Having a milk cow is a very strict discipline and a very trying circumstance. It means you’ve got to be home twice a day to milk whether you want to or not, or else the cow will be ruined. Some days you’d rather do anything than go down to that barn and maybe some days you go and you’re kind of bored with it. But other days it’s a most rewarding thing and you realize that you get the reward and happiness of it because you stuck to it when it wasn’t rewarding. There’s some kind of wisdom in that fidelity, when you can say, “ ‘All right, every day ain’t going to be the best day of your life, don’t worry about that.’ If you stick to it, you hold the possibility open that you will have better days.”

“If you stick to it, you hold the possibility open that you will have better days.” Isn’t that the truth about farming? Or teaching? Or parenting? Or persevering? Or coming up with the theory of relativity? Or slaying dragons? Or wearing masks? And isn’t it the truth about the waiting of Advent? Of enduring the ever darkening days of December until the solstice begins to turn them back to more and more light? I don’t know where in your life you might need to take the plunge, but God knows and you know. And you know and God knows that there’s rest waiting for you if you do, and may God give you the courage for confronting whatever giants or dragons lie in your path. Amen.

Running the Numbers in Advent

With apologies to those who were watching when we went offline…

Numbers 12:1-16
© Stacey Steck

Miriam always liked to live dangerously, didn’t she? This is the woman who as a little girl was part of the plot o defy Pharaoh’s order to kill all the Hebrew baby boys when she saved her little brother Moses. This is the girl who had the audacity to suggest to Pharaoh’s daughter that she find him a nursemaid, who just happened to be the boy’s mother. This is the woman, named as a prophet, who gloats over the defeat of the Egyptians and gets her own song in the Bible when she says, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” This is the woman who had done enough in her years leading the Hebrews through the wilderness that she is remembered hundreds of years later by the prophet Micah who reminded the people of his day, “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. This was the woman, who, maybe just maybe, is why God chose a little girl named Mary, the anglicized version of Miriam, to be the one to bear Jesus into the world. This was no mere handmaiden making sure the mutton was ready when the menfolk got home. No, she liked to live more on the wild side.

Once in a while, however, there are consequences to living on the edge, as this Miriam found out when she found herself thinking, “Wait a minute. I saved this punk’s life and now he thinks he’s all that? I changed his diaper for Pete’s sake, and now he’s the chosen one? Who am I?” Chopped liver?” And so she takes her brother Aaron aside, and complains to him about Moses, about how he’s breaking the rules by marrying “that woman,” that woman who just happened to be from the other side of the tracks, you know, the darker side of town. Well the truth of the matter is that she was black, and so maybe this is the first recorded Biblical case of racial bias, and wouldn’t it just be like Miriam to blurt it out? But then, even worse, are the words that land her in big trouble with God: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And then it says, “And the Lord heard it.” And the next thing you know, the three siblings get called to the principal’s office and Miriam gets her punishment. Seven days of leprosy, banished to the margins for criticizing a woman from the margins, and calling into question God choice to lead the people out of the margins and into the promised land. Yes, Miriam always liked to live dangerously.

Well, God liked to live dangerously too, and the book of Numbers tells part of that story of God’s wild side. Numbers is like the sequel to the drama of the Exodus, the chapters which tell what happened next, after they escaped Egypt and after they received the Commandments. It begins with a census, hence the name Numbers, in which God tells Moses to find out just what there is to work with among this rabble that so hastily crossed the parted seas. And it goes on to outline the responsibilities of the various tribes, clans and families, pretty mundane stuff, and it adds in a few more laws, and then it’s time to move on, to leave the Sinai desert to get a little closer to the promised land, and “Whenever the ark (of the covenant, the container of the ten commandments) would set out, Moses would say, “Arise, O Lord, let your enemies be scattered, and your foes flee before you.” And whenever the ark came to rest, Moses would say, “Return, O Lord of the ten thousand thousands of Israel.” Life was pretty good, about as good as it could get in the wilderness. And then the grumbling started, and it didn’t quit until a certain someone came down with leprosy.

I’m not going to review in detail all the grumbling, but it had to do with people being hangry and cranky about the food God provided, and people being jealous of other people’s relationship with God, and people wanting to put God’s spirit in a box. And each time people complained, now that things were supposed to be moving forward, each time now instead of God responding compassionately, God starts to get a little angry, and Moses has to step in to cool down God’s anger, the way we saw when he intercedes for Miriam to get her sentence reduced to just seven days. God’s patience is wearing a little thin at this people’s lack of gratitude, and their inability to be satisfied. After all, they just escaped four hundred years of slavery, they are getting their basic needs met, they’ve just been given the most amazing covenant, a deal no earthly leader is going to give them, and yet they are still complaining. It all comes to head a few chapters later when the people become fearful and decide to trust the eye of their spies instead of the power of their God when they are commanded to take possession of the land of Canaan. It is then that God offers the punishment for faithlessness that would set them back two generations. It will now be forty years wandering the wilderness, instead of just a couple. They didn’t learn from Miriam’s experience to trust God’s judgment, and they paid a mighty price.

So what does this story have to do with the second Sunday of Advent at Thyatira, or wherever you may be tuning in from this morning? Does it mean you should smite your children if they complain they didn’t get the gifts they wanted for Christmas? Does it mean you’ll come down with COVID-19 if you talk smack about your neighbor’s lame light display, or the bad cookies at the office Christmas party? Could it mean, and I’m going to live dangerously here, but could it mean that we heed the words of the prophets when they say, “Thou shalt wear a mask and stay at home as much as possible?” Could it mean that in every age we face the temptation to forget what our ancestors in the faith had to learn the hard way? That seems to be what’s at stake for the writer of the book of Hebrews who hundreds of years later tells again the cautionary tale of what happened in the wilderness? Don’t be like those people who were rebellious under the leadership of Moses, he says, when Christ is so much greater! Moses was the man! But Christ is greater. Moses had God’s ear. Christ was there in the beginning. But still we grumble. So could it just mean that good things come to those who trust in the Lord in all circumstances and who can find contentment with their lives as imperfect as they may be?

At the risk of suggesting that God does not value the overall spirit of Miriam’s stye of living dangerously for the kingdom, let me suggest that the story of her leprosy shows us the limits of our partnership with God. The author of Hebrews begins our passage this morning by calling the faithful “holy partners in a heavenly calling,” but doesn’t say that they were equal partners. Indeed, even Moses, as great as he was, the man who was called “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth,” the man who interceded with God on behalf of the rebellious, even Moses was not Christ’s equal, and yet, from time to time, we get the notion to question God about some pretty petty things. Look at the content of the complaints in Numbers. We want meat, not this manna. Who is Moses to go and marry a foreigner? Why aren’t we accorded the glory Moses gets for speaking for God when we do too? And in answer to all of these understandable, but ultimately trivial matters, God pushes back with increasing vehemence with a message something like this: Just be satisfied. I’ve got this under control. There’s a bigger picture you are not able to see, and your complaining just confirms it.

God’s message to just be satisfied comes two ways actually. Yes, it’s a command: Be satisfied, stop complaining, stop yearning and striving for so much, but it’s also a blessing, as in “Go forth and be satisfied. I have supplied your every need. I’ve given you satisfaction you never could have dreamed of.” No, it’s not perfect. No, it not easy to go without what feels like enough. No, it’s not pleasant to labor without the affirmation you desire. No, it’s not comfortable to watch cherished notions of tradition and stability be challenged by upstarts. But in the end, is not your freedom, and is not your faith in the God who does the miraculous, worth the benefit of the doubt when you don’t really have all the answers?

Throughout the years, a great deal of wisdom has been shared about the virtue of finding contentment in all circumstances, including the Apostle Paul’s famous words from Philippians when he says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty.” Paul learned well both from his Jewish tradition, but also from his Greco-Roman tradition, the one that understood that to have as few needs as possible – not having expensive tastes, nor being incapable of spending time alone, not being incapable of missing a meal – was a great virtue, insofar as it was a means to happiness, or a defense against unhappiness. As the philosopher Epicurus put it, “Nothing is enough to the man for whom enough is too little.” And Socrates, walking through the marketplace, is famously said to have proclaimed, “How many things there are here, that I do not want!” Wise words indeed in the age of Amazon.

In his book, “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment,” the Puritan writer Jeremiah Burroughs had this to say: “A Christian comes to contentment, not so much by way of addition, as by way of subtraction. That is his way of contentment, and it is a way that the world has no skill in. I open it thus: not so much by adding to what he would have, or to what he has, not by adding more to his condition; but rather by subtracting from his desires, so as to make his desires and his circumstances even and equal… [A] heart that has no grace, and is not instructed in this mystery of contentment, knows of no way to get contentment but to have his possessions raised up to his desires; but the Christian has another way to contentment, that is, he can bring his desires down to his possessions, and so he attains his contentment.” Wise words indeed, in an age of acquisitiveness.

A couple of hundred years later, the Englishman John Spencer aptly observed that “By the art of navigation, with great pains and industry, men fetch in the silks of Persia, the spices of Egypt, the gold of Ophir, the treasures of the Indies. By the art of contentment, a man may stay at home, and fetch in the comfort of any condition whatsoever; that is, he may have that comfort by contentment that he should have if he had the very things themselves.” Wise words indeed, in the age of COVID.

But perhaps Henry Ward Beecher said it best: “If I had been made a firefly, it would not become me to say, "If God had only made me a star, to shine always, then I would shine." It is my duty, if I am a firefly, to fly and sparkle, and fly and sparkle; not to shut my wings down over my phosphorescent self because God did not make me a sun or a star.” Wise words indeed, in light of Miriam’s leprosy.

The uncomfortable desert is not such a bad place to be, if one can find contentment and see the bigger picture. I had a professor in Seminary who told us how often students would come to him complaining of feeling spiritual thirsty, of losing their sense of enthusiasm for the gospel and their call to ministry. And he said he would direct them to the stories in the Bible when, yes, God’s people did indeed find themselves in the desert, but also found themselves both being prepared in the desert for greater things, and comforted in the desert when things seemed desperate.

We are living in a season of desperation. I don’t really need to remind you that the virus is claiming more people than ever and that economic hardship is overwhelming families and business, and that we are all desperate to resume life as it was. But perhaps I can remind you that we are also living in the season of Advent, a season when waiting and contentment are virtues that bring blessings. Advent is that season of pregnancy that comes with all its discomfort, yes, all of its possibilities for complaint and grumbling, but also with all of its opportunities for blessing if we can just endure it. It takes nine glorious months to make a baby ready for the world, and no amount of complaining is going to change that, but it’s worth the wait. Who knows what awaits us when the pandemic is over, but let us live dangerously this Advent by being satisfied with what we’ve got. Amen.