A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Sermon (December 6/2nd Sunday of Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Take the Plunge!"

     How many of you remember those Nestea commercials that said, “Take the Nestea Plunge!”  Those commercials go way back.
     Just by drinking some refreshing Nestea Iced Tea, it felt like you were being plunged into a pool of water, at least so we were told!
     Whenever I go to visit my family in the summertime, my brother and I will go for a three mile run.  And for many of those runs, it’s like 90 degrees outside with high humidity. 
     But I actually look forward to running with him because I know that when we’re done with our run, we will get to jump into his swimming pool and immediately cool off.
     When you’ve just gotten done with a run and it’s over 90 degrees, there’s none of this sticking your big toe in the water to see how cold it is.  You just dive right in because you know how refreshing that pool is going to be!
     Any other time that I get into his pool, I don’t dive right in.  Instead, I gradually get used to the water before actually getting in the whole way.
     When I was in elementary school, I can remember taking swimming lessons at the YMCA with a friend of mine.  Our mothers would take turns taking us to swimming lessons and they would often sit up in the bleachers during our swimming lessons.
     We started in the shallow end of the pool for the first few weeks, but then they wanted us to go to the deep end one day.  I cried and cried and cried.  There was no way that I was going to jump into any water that was over my waist.  I ended up crying me way out of lessons that day.
     After the lesson that day, my friend’s mother who had brought us to the Y that day, said, “I don’t know who was crying his head off during swim practice.  Do you know who that little boy was?”
     Embarrassed, I said, “Uh, that was me, Mrs. Manifold.”   But the reason I tell you this story is because, Mrs. Manifold assured me that it would be OK and to trust my instructors.  By the end of the next swim lesson, I was out there in the deep end learning how to swim.  All because someone reassured me and told me that it would be OK.
     I took the plunge.
     I immediately thought of the Nestea commercial as I read our scripture passage from the Gospel of Luke.  Luke tells us about a prophet-like man out in the wilderness calling for people to take the plunge – to come and be baptized. 
     And not to just stick our big toe in the water to see if we’ll like it or not, but to just go ahead and take the plunge and get totally drenched and all wet.
     John the Baptist was not announcing that a new religion was about to be formed, and would you like to drop on by, and try it on for size?  No.  John was saying, “The time is now.  Salvation is just around the corner.  You better take the plunge or you’ll miss out.”
     Which is why this post-Christmas story is read year after year during the 2nd Sunday of the Advent Season.  The only way to embrace the miracle of Christmas, it to take the plunge now.  Right here.  Right now.  Out here in the wilderness. 
     Whether we have our moral act together or not.  John the Baptist is calling you and me to take the plunge!
     At a conference I attended with Methodists from all over the country, I met a lady from the Oklahoma Missionary Conference – a United Methodist Conference that ministers primarily to the Native Americans of that area in Oklahoma.
     She shared her faith journey with me and began by saying that she grew up outside the church. And she shared how she had been addicted to drugs and alcohol and married to an abusive husband.  Someone from a nearby United Methodist Church invited her to come to worship one Sunday morning and she didn’t want to go because she didn’t feel worthy enough to go to church.
     But she went one Sunday morning and to her surprise, she found out that the people of that congregation loved her just the way she was.  In her own words, she said, “You should have seen me then, I was a pitiful thing.  My life was all messed up at that point, but the people of that congregation loved me anyway.”
     And as her voice started to quiver, she went on to tell me, “Nobody in that church judged me or criticized me for my problems.  They just loved me for who I was.” 
     She said, “I was used to people telling me, ‘you should quit taking those drugs, you need to stop drinking, and start doing this and stop doing that’ but nobody had ever accepted me for who I was and just loved me.’  That Methodist church put their arms around me and said, ‘God loves you and we love you.’”
     And she said, that church helped me to become a Christian and a follower of Jesus.
     I said to her. “Patricia.  What a powerful story.  And just look at you now.  You’re here at this denominational week of training representing your Annual Conference back home.  Just look at how far you’ve come.”
     Patricia was where she was because she took the plunge.
     If I remember correctly, that’s what the famous Christian author, C.S. Lewis said about his conversion.  C.S. Lewis was this brilliant professor of medieval literature in England in the middle part of the 1900’s who was struggling with whether or not he should become a Christian. 
     And the reason he finally became a Christian was because he had remembered that as a boy, the only way he learned how to swim, was by finally making a decision to jump into the water.
     C.S. Lewis took the plunge!
     Mark Feldmeier, who pastors a United Methodist Church in Colorado, tells the story of a call he received one day from a nurse at a hospital.  She told him that a man they were caring for was near death and wanted a pastor to baptize him.
     And Mark agreed and soon was there at the bedside of this 95 year old man who had an oxygen mask and a failing heart.  The man’s wife and son were witnesses and the nurse held the bowl filled with water.
     Mark baptized him by sprinkling water on the man’s head.  After he baptized him, the 95 year old man pulled Mark close to him and through the oxygen mask, said, “I am content.”
     Two days later, Mark received the news that this man had died and he was asked to officiate for his funeral.  Several friends of the man spoke and then Mark shared how he had baptized him just a few days ago and how this had given him a sense of peace.
     After the funeral an old buddy of this man came up to Mark and said, “You say, you baptized, Robert, huh?” 
     “Well, yes I did – there in his hospital room.”
     “The day before he died?  Wow!  He kind of cut it close, didn’t he?”
     Robert took the plunge.
     After worship one Sunday, a little girl came up to me to let me know that she wanted to be baptized, probably just old enough to be able to answer the baptism questions for herself. 
     She showed me a picture that she had made in her Sunday School class that morning.  It was a picture that said, “God loves you!”
     I remember thinking to myself, “I think she’s ready to take the plunge”
     I became friends with this guy in college. He was studying accounting. Every Monday morning, he would tell me how he got drunk with his friends over the weekend. He would often still be feeling the effects of his hangover.
     As I got to know him, I started to share my faith with him. This was soon after I had taken the plunge and made a recommitment of my life to Jesus Christ. I told him how my faith was helping me to have a sense of purpose and peace in my life.
     I told him to think about inviting God to come into his life. This became a reoccurring invitation that I offered him each week when I would see him.
     One Monday morning before class, I knew something was different about him. I could tell that he wanted to share some good news with me because of the smile on his face.
     He said, “I did what you told me to do. I asked God to come into my life. I feel like a different person. I’ve been reading those bible verses you gave me to read and I’ve been praying. I feel like a different person!”
     That friend from college ended up going into the ministry. I ended up being one of his groomsmen when he got married.
     I’d say that he took the plunge!
     A church member shared with me, “I think that there are a lot of people who really want to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ, but when they hear about opportunities to get involved in their faith, they have all of these second thoughts.  And they think that, this will be another thing that they’ll have to add to their already busy schedule.”
     And then he got to the heart of it when he asked me this question, “How can we help people who think they’re too busy to get more involved in the life of the church?”
     Ever since, that question has been ringing in my ears. 
     The people of Nestea would say, “Just take the plunge.”
     John the Baptist says, “Today on this second Sunday of Advent is our opportunity to turn our lives around and turn toward God.  Today is the day to take the plunge.  Go into this thing with both feet.  Immerse yourself in the water of baptism.  Turn from your old ways, and find newness of life by turning to God.”
     Think with me what it would be like if we would take the plunge this morning.  Think what it would be like for our church if we took the plunge and reordered our lives around the celebration of the coming birth of Jesus Christ.
      Taking the plunge means confessing our sins, ridding ourselves of those things which do not help us to get closer to Christ.  It means coming to worship with the one motive of honoring and glorifying God. 
     Taking the plunge means finding a group of other Christians who will meet regularly and keep us accountable in our walk with Jesus Christ.  Taking the plunge means putting Christ first in all that we say and do and allowing Christ to rule our hearts and lives.
     Maybe this old Gospel song says it best in this Season of Advent:
     People get ready.  There’s a train a coming.  You don’t need no baggage.  You just get on board.
    All you need is faith, to hear diesels humming.  You don’t need no ticket.  You just thank the Lord.
    People get ready for the train to Jordan.  Picking up passengers from coast to coast.  Faith is the key.  Open the doors and board them.  There’s room for all among the loved and lost.
     Now there ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner whose hard on mankind.  Just to save his own.  Have pity on those whose chances are thinner.  Cause there’s no hiding place from the kingdom’s throne.
     Oh people get ready.  There’s a train a coming.  You don’t need no baggage.  You just get on board.  All you need is faith to hear diesels a humming.  You don’t need no ticket.  You just thank the Lord.
     “People get ready.”  That’s the song of John the Baptist.  Today is the day to get on board.

     Take the plunge!

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