We’ve all heard it, these oh-so-familiar words that we try to outgrow , “I want one. Everybody else has one.” Parents have heard it. I remember saying it – don’t you? But it’s sad to see it in Scripture, though it’s something we all live with simple ENVY. “Give us a king, so we can be like everyone else. All the other countries have one, so we want one too, to govern us & to fight our battles for us.” Israel was tired of their judges & prophets. They were tired of being seen as a mere family of tribes, easy to conquer. They wanted swords & spears now, rather than sacrifices and prayers. Though Samuel at last had brought peace & well-being to the land, the people now thought he was too old for them, and his sons & heirs were greedy & dishonest. So time for a change! What’s trending? Give us a king! They closed their ears to the warnings of freedoms they’d lose. Instead, they put their hopes & dreams into the hands of one who would be their warrior, their superstar, their hero, and their god. And the God of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob heard their complaints & chose to leave them to their own devices.
Sounds too much like our own politics today, as we hear rumbles of revolution, as we hear bravado about money & war & power, no matter the cost of tyranny for our sons & daughters, for servants in our household, for plants & animals & all creation. Lord, please don’t leave us to our own devices. Even in the church, we so often hand over the responsibilities of our faith to the one shining, charismatic leader who will make things happen and bring us to glory, maybe so we don’t have to, but assuredly to make us look good. For in a world where image rules, we must look like a winner, to play in the game, to keep up with the Joneses – or today, it’s the Kardashians. The competition for status and prestige, for money and glamour, ever haunts us. For everything’s gotta be Gucci, or lit, or “on fleek.” We’re thirsty for acceptance and the advertising companies feed off that. Want it? Gotta have it! Just like everyone else, until we find ourselves enslaved by our own desires, never satisfied.
Psalm 37 says – don’t fret or be envious of someone who seems to be getting ahead. Keep on trusting God and doing good, and you will be secure. For don’t you know – economies will crash; their gains will fade; but the right relationships you have stored up will remain. Verse 4 says – take delight in the Lord, and God will give you the desires of your heart. My younger reading of that was “God will give me what I want,” but my experienced reading now is that the love of God will change me, so that I come to desire God. I come to want what Jesus wanted – hospitality and welcome for all, forgiveness and healing and wholeness shared – and now all these desires will surely be fulfilled, as the Spirit works wonders within us & among us.
Now this is a lifetime process. Surely God’s changing of our hearts & desires isn’t some magical “poof” in the blink of an eye, but instead a steady transformation, a growing into, like sanctification. We belong to God even before we’re born, and yet the dailyness of life with God deepens our understanding of God’s love, as we learn from life’s experiences and see God’s faithfulness fleshed out in Christ and in each other. There will be mountain-top “aha” moments like the Montreat candlelight worship around Lake Susan. There will be times we’re angry with God for creating a world filled with disease & accidents & death. There will be days when the staggering numbers of suicides and the unreported cases of abuses which later come to light will leave us devastated and broken. And there will also be the surprising joys of many random acts of kindness, as we “pass it forward,” sharing the bounty & the beauty of what we have been given. Yet if we keep our hearts open through ups & downs, open to ALL there is to learn about life & love, then together we may truly discover the secret the Apostle Paul wrote about – the art of contentment that is God’s gift of grace & presence along the journey, come what may. And over time, we may also discern the pattern of life & death & resurrection that Christ showed us, our deepest source of hope & peace – a pattern for world events & a pattern for our own lives too – as we experience the fullness of life with God, from generation to generation.
Paul’s letter to his best friends, the Philippian congregation, is about these same hopes, written in a difficult time when he was in prison, wondering if his life’s work was crumbling, for criticism was high and false teachers were leading some churches either back to the Law of Moses or to a libertine freedom from all regulation. Would the seeds of faith in Christ he had planted survive? Paul himself had lived through many trials – numerous beatings & floggings & one stoning almost near death, many other imprisonments, robberies, shipwrecks, and exposure to the elements, in hunger & thirst, with great anxiety & pressures as he disagreed with fellow Jews. He also lived with the past guilt of causing the deaths of early Christians, before his encounter with the Lord on the Damascus Road. And in writing this letter of encouragement to his friends, he was preaching to himself, as preachers do, for we’re all in the same boat, aren’t we? His charge to be gentle with each other, to pray with a thankful heart, and to fill their minds with good thoughts, dwelling on what is true & right & honest & lovely as they followed the ways of Jesus – all this would bring his friends (and himself) a peace beyond understanding, in the face of all that endangered them, so that they too could be content in each & every situation, knowing God would supply all they needed and strengthen their souls with the loving power & presence of Christ.
This focus on a life of contentment may seem too passive, too self-centered, at first. Yet I see Paul’s words at work in the lives of so many saints through the centuries – and in ours, the quiet yet passionate work of Mother Teresa with her economically violated brothers & sisters in Calcutta – the non-violent resistance of Mandela & King, to the blatant racism of our day – and the many & faithful voices for change this past year, concerning gun violence & sexual violence & violence to our planet. These are examples of the hard & righteous work it takes to make right relationships, the courageous words & deeds offered by those who surely have such an inner core of contentment that comes from following the desires of their hearts for a better world – more welcoming of all, more hospitable & forgiving & healing & whole for all – more like Jesus wanted, deep change that comes from deep caring & sharing.
And so we do not lose heart, as God dwells with us and renews us and encourages us on our journey. We learn and grow to be more like Christ, with each experience of his love fleshed out in our lives and in this world, and we do not settle for what contents us alone, but rather for what ushers in the peace of God even beyond our understanding, for all God’s children, for all God’s beloved creation. May the Spirit of grace fill us, with an everlasting hope. Amen. Beecher Mathes