Benediction Online

Sunday, December 07, 2008

What's In it for Me?

This morning we heard some of the familiar prophetic themes, made familiar by Handel in his Messiah, ‘Comfort, comfort ye my people’ and ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’. The collect, or the theme prayer for the day says ‘Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer’. That’s the job of the Biblical prophets – not to foretell the future but to preach repentance, to call people back to the God of our salvation.

We too are given the task of prophecy. We are called to be prophets in our own time, calling the society in which we find ourselves back to God. That is a task that is being taken very seriously by some of our evangelical brethren but their idea of what it means is a little different from mine. They want to make America the ‘Christian’ country they believe it once was. For them the mark of Christian is moral behavior. By moral behavior they mean individuals living what they consider to be pure lives. So they are opposed to particular things which they see as symbols of impurity – they are opposed to abortion, gay legal rights, teaching evolution. They worry about secular influences on their children in schools. I think we should admire the energy they put into the work they believe God has given them.

However, I think they’re missing the point a little. The Biblical prophets weren’t talking primarily about individual behavior. In the culture of the time, as in many cultures today, the individual did not have identity apart from their family and community so Isaiah for example, wasn’t concerned about the way any individual person behaved but about the way society as a whole behaved. Since the enlightenment we have become fixated on the individual so we tend to read the Bible with a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude. Society only changes when its individual members and families and communities change, but the message of the prophets is to the society not just to the individuals.

Looked at from this perspective, what are the things which we as a society need to repent and turn from? What would Isaiah or John the Baptist be preaching against today? I imagine he’d be challenging us to turn away from our addiction to oil, to repent our failure to understand our impact on our environment, to stop fighting wars that were ill conceived and are not achieving anything but bloodshed, to pay our people fair wages, not too much and not too little. I imagine he’d be encouraging us to find ways of living which support the life of our planet, to increase our cooperation with each other and, in the words of our baptismal covenant, ‘to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being’.

I imagine John the Baptist’s biggest criticism would be our constant question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ I was slightly shocked this week to read in the AARP magazine about Helen Baker in Cherry Hill New Jersey who disliked recycling until a new company Recycle Bank started offering discounts and coupons. Now she’s happy to recycle and says ‘It’s making the world a better place and we’re going to get personal rewards as well’.

What’s in it for me?

The financial meltdown we are in has multiple causes which may never be fully understood, but there are three that can be identified. Investors looking for high returns bought financial instruments backed by mortgages, and the demand was so high that mortgage lenders began to lend in risky situations they would normally never consider. The investors wanted to make money, the lenders wanted to make money, even though it was increasingly risky.

What’s in it for me?

Speculators in the future markets trade products they don’t want in order to make money. Essentially they take bets on where prices will go and in the process effect prices. They drove up the price of oil in order to make money.

What’s in it for me?

Federal regulators didn’t step in to prevent high risk loans. I don’t know why but probably because the economy was humming along and everything looked good even though it was on thin ice, and they didn’t want to make unpopular moves. They believe that in a market where everyone looks out for number one prices are lowest and there is greatest efficiency.

What’s in it for me?

Advertisers know that question is always on our minds. On the opposite page in the AARP magazine is this ad about ‘There’s something for everyone’. It answers the unspoken question ‘What’s in it for me?’

I have a friend who says she’ll believe in God if God starts answering her prayers. People tell me they go to church to be uplifted, to get some peace, to feel better. What’s in it for me?

We’ve got it entirely the wrong way around. Our lives are not intended to be about me but about God. It’s all about God, not all about me.

Focusing on self is the basis of individual sin and it’s the basis of social sin - thinking it’s all about me. We were created to be in relationship with God, the mysterious almighty God who chose to be limited in human form, who chooses to be limited so that we might have free will. Relationship with God is the purpose for which we were created and when we make the mistake of asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ rather than ‘what’s best for the community, for the planet?’ and ‘what would God have me do?’ - when we make that mistake, we are no longer living the way we were created to be and so we’re not living in our full potential.

Many of you know that my little car is a hybrid which has a very small three cylinder gas engine and a large battery which supports the gas engine when I need acceleration or extra power to get up a hill. Two weeks ago the big battery died. I could still drive the car but it just didn’t go as well.

That’s like us. When we as individuals are focused on ‘what’s in it for me?’ when our country makes decisions based on ‘what’s in it for America?’ or ‘what’s in it for this powerful group?’ rather than ‘what’s best for all of us?’, ‘What does God want?’ we still live, but we’re not living to our highest, fullest potential. Driving my car without the battery gets me around but it’s not much fun. Living our lives thinking it’s all about me gets us by but when we remember that its all about God, things are quite different.

The gospel calls us to a complete conversion. It’s not a conversion that happens one moment and then we are saved, fixed and holy. It’s a conversion that goes on day after day. It’s a conversion that requires our active work. Every time we catch ourselves asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ and ask instead ‘what does God want?’ we are taking a step in our conversion.

This is the holiness that God calls us to, not monitoring or censoring other individuals’ behavior but changing our own. Moving from ‘what’s in it for me?’ to ‘what does God want?’ will lead us into prophetic work for social justice. It will lead us into working for change, for justice and peace among all people. Each one of us has a different part to play in furthering God’s kindom. This Advent let us remember to start every morning by asking ‘What is God calling me to?’ “What would God have me do today?’


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