Over my 20 years of ministry I have approached the idea of discipleship a number of times. I have done formal studies put out by the larger church that usually focus on traditional individual practices. I have encouraged people to the simple actions of prayer and scripture-reading, hoping that those basic actions of discipleship would be transforming.
What I have found in that time is that the idea of discipline is not that popular. Sometimes people will try an experiment like contemplative prayer or reading a chapter of scripture each day, and, like many personal improvement programs, they will stumble. They miss a day and then miss a week and soon a discipline becomes something they used to do or intend to do or will get back to down the line.
Some traditions add a smidge of guilt to this process. If you really love God, you will pray every day. If you really love God you will read the scriptures. The days when you miss the disciplines are days when you forget to love God. Others will offer a carrot on a stick, saying that God rewards faithful people and faithful people read the Bible and pray every day. Although such traditions see themselves in the Protestant heritage, much of what they are preaching is a rediscovery of the joy of legalism, the sigh of relief one has when you know you are doing the right thing because someone, a handpicked line of scripture, a preacher, or a church body, told you what to do. But that sigh of relief is inevitably followed by the gasp of judgment upon those who do not carry out the disciplines, who fail to meet the standards, who don’t live a proper Christian life.
I have come to believe that there is not a single Christian life, but there are Christian lives, shaped by the love of God in Christ, yet gifted in different ways, expressing that love in different ways. For some people prayer is a gift and for others it is a struggle. Some folks will quickly go deep into Bible study, others are satisfied by the Greatest Hits, a little Psalm 23, a little John 3:16 and I’ll trust more passionate people to work out the rest. Now there is a danger here, because if you don’t have a deeper knowledge of the story it is easy to be led astray, told a story of separation and judgment, a story of self-righteousness and rejection. As an example, I once briefly convinced an adult class that, “The lemon tree is pretty and the lemon flower is sweet, but the bitter fruit of the lemon is impossible to eat,” was a wise saying of Jesus rather than a Peter, Paul and Mary song. In addition, many Christians believe that the Roman saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” is a scriptural saying that reflects Christian teaching.
This diversity of Christian life is part of the reason that this year, when talking about discipleship, I am going to focus more on what I see as virtues of discipleship, the feelings and attitudes which practices of discipleship encourage, because not everyone is going to have the same reaction to every practice. The virtue of awe and wonder is a great one for this because there are a variety of ways that different people experience awe, and what is a trigger for some will not be a trigger for others. Last week we talked about rocks and everyone in worship got a souvenir rock to take home. Some of you may have been impressed with talk of magma and massive amounts of geologic pressure and millions and millions of years in your hand. You may have had a moment that pulled you outside of yourself and into the great immensity of things. Others may have said, “Nice rock.”
For me, I have often had people tell me how amazing an experience of worship has been. They have been moved, touched, brought outside of themselves. This has never been my personal experience of worship and I have worshiped in many different settings. It can be awkward at big synod meetings or worship services where you can tell a lot of time and effort have been put into the worship and where I am looking around the room and can see that many people are experiencing something that I am not. It’s just not how I respond to worship. I would love to have that response, but it just doesn’t happen. I am the kid who checked off the order of service as we worked through the bulletin every Sunday, waiting for the blessed words of dismissal. I think part of the reason God called me to preach is because God didn’t want another guy checking his watch through another pastor’s sermon because that is totally who I would be. But when I am honored to stand before each one of you and place Christ’s body in your hand, as I see a community that greets the sacrament with joy and tears, I am aware of the presence of God in this place. When I sit in silent prayer, letting things slow down, basking in the presence of God, I am drawn into the wonder that is the living God. When I learn new things about the world, that there are species of octopus that will run on the sea floor on two of their tentacles (look up running octopus!), I find that fascinating, all these lives around us adapting changing, figuring out how to survive, amazing.
It is important that each of us experiences this awe, this awareness of that there is something larger than ourselves. In the Advent season, as we remember the ministry of John the Baptist, this seems to be what he was about, pointing people beyond himself to the one who is to come. But if you have no sense that there is something beyond yourself, larger than yourself, if your world is so small you won’t know where to point.
And our worlds have become much smaller. Somehow with all the information at our disposal all the connections we are supposed have through social media, we are trapped by the technology that was supposed to free us. How often do you check a phone or device, waiting for that self-gratifying chime or whistle telling that you that you are important and necessary? And it turns out that many of our windows to a larger world operate with algorithms that tell us what we already wanted to hear and show us what we already wanted to find. We don’t want to be surprised or challenged. We want to be affirmed and comforted in what we already believe.
But God will not and cannot be contained in our little worlds. He is willing to enter them. That’s the point of the Jesus story. God was willing to enter our world, to walk among us as one of us. But he walked among us with a powerful and challenging message, “Wake up and keep awake. Wake up and pay attention. Wake up and change direction, change the focus of your attention. Wake up to the greatness of God. Wake up to the presence of your neighbor. Wake up to what is happening all around you.” But this message is also why the Jesus story heads to the cross. The cross represents an ultimate wake-up call; Jesus looks upon us and says, “Wake up to where the paths of selfishness lead, the paths of hatred lead, the paths of separation and superiority lead.” And in the resurrection he calls to the faithful saying, “Wake up to where the paths of love lead; the paths of life lead; the paths of humility and kindness lead.”
The virtue of awe and wonder is a virtue of waking up, drawn out of your day to day existence with its chimes and chirps and shiny objects, drawn toward a God whose love is much larger. The challenge for the church today is to be the John the Baptists, to be the ones who point beyond ourselves toward that something larger, that immense love of God. The temptation for the church is to get wrapped in the small world that happens in these walls. We need to experience awe and wonder in our lives. We need to wake up to the love, hope and joy that is all around us. We need to wake up so that the world can be awake. Wake up. Pay attention.