December 3, 2017
How many of you play the lottery…Powerball or scratch offs or whatever? Every year at Christmas Karen buys all of us scratch off lottery tickets and then we scratch them off on Christmas Eve. Occasionally, someone will win one dollar, five dollars or ten dollars, but mostly it ends up being just a waste of money.
Since the lottery is considered a form of gambling, let me read to you what the United Methodist Church as a whole thinks about gambling: Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic and spiritual life… As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to help those victimized by the practice. The church should promote standards and personal lifestyles that would make unnecessary and undesirable the resort to commercial gambling – including public lotteries – as a recreation, or as an escape…” “Gambling feeds on human greed and invites persons to place their trust in possessions rather than in God.” “We oppose the growing legalization and state promotion of gambling” (The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tennessee; United Methodist Publishing House, 2000, 491). Now, with that being said, let me ask that same question again: How many of you good, God fearing United Methodists play the lottery?
Let me add that that is exactly why I don’t play the lottery. I don’t play because deep down inside I’m afraid I might win and I would end up being awfully embarrassed (except on Christmas Eve…and if I did win on Christmas Eve, I’d give the card to someone else). I’m afraid I would have a very hard time explaining to the Bishop how one of his clergy won a million dollars playing the lottery while at the same time defying the social principles of the Church that I’m supposed to represent.
I was reading the other day about a hardworking, middle class family from Medford, Oregon; the husband and his wife were in their fifties and their three children in high school and in college. The lived off of two incomes: his, as the owner of a small landscape company and hers, as a bookkeeper for a local business. They weren’t wealthy by any means; in fact with their monthly bills and college tuition payment they were, like many of us, just making ends meet.
Life was filled with day to day struggles and problems until October 19th this year – and then everything changed. Steve West just happened to notice that the Powerball was up to $340 million and decided on a whim to buy a lottery ticket. 7, 21, 43, 44, 49, 29 – the numbers on his ticket matched the winning numbers on the largest single ticket prize in Powerball history.
Suddenly there would be no more struggles to pay the bills or the college tuition payments. No more working at a job that was nothing more than “just a job.” No more second mortgage. No more first mortgage for that matter. No more sitting around and talking about what they would do with all that money if they were ever lucky enough to win the lottery.
I’m not sure how the West family is going to get along with all that money but I am inclined to believe that not all their problems are going to be solved. In fact, surveys of past lottery winners have showed that the lives of the people who have won the big money have become much more difficult and stressful and…their lives are filled with problems they’d never dreamed of having despite all their money.
They are no longer just normal, everyday people…instead they have suddenly been separated and put into a very elite group of people…and suddenly they find themselves with all sorts of problems. Among the problems they face is that they have become celebrities; everybody knows them and their time is no longer their own. They have to hire lawyers and accountants and financial planners and money managers. They find themselves buying things they’ve always wanted but never really needed. And they have friends and long lost relatives coming out of the woodwork wanting this and wanting that and charity after charity continually hounding them for extra special donations.
Life has changed and things just aren’t like they thought it would be. They thought a different lifestyle would make things better and much easier and they would be much happier. But many of them find themselves more alone and more unhappy than ever before and many of these people wish they could go back to the good old days and start all over again.
As I look back over my life I am so much better off than I could have ever imagined being…and I hope you feel the same way about your life as well. But despite our good fortune I wonder how many of us feel a sense of loneliness and darkness and emptiness in our lives? We have more than we could have ever imagined – nice homes, adequate food and clothing and plenty of friends and family. It all makes us look good and feel good – but this “feel good feeling” this “warm fuzzy feeling” is just temporary.
I say temporarily because none of these things, including the $340 million won at Powerball will fill the darkness and the emptiness and the loneliness we feel when we can’t feel the presence of God in our lives. Despite looking good on the outside with our bright, smiling faces and being surrounded by good family and good friends, some of us are secretly crying out on the inside because something is missing…and the thing that is missing is the presence of God in our lives?
That is exactly how Isaiah’s people felt when they returned to Jerusalem. While they had finally been released from exile (after 70 years) and all their hopes and dreams of returning home had come true, everything had changed…their city had been destroyed and their temple had been ruined. But something else had changed; something else was different. Even though it was home and even though they should have been happy to be there, there was a feeling of loneliness. Something was missing and what was missing was God.
God was missing because of what they had done and how they chose to live their lives. During their seventy years in Babylonian exile they decided that they no longer needed the God who had always taken care of them. His laws were too difficult to follow and too hard to keep so they turned away from him. During their time in exile they changed to the Babylonian way of life because it was so easy and so much more open and relaxed; they accepted the anything goes, free-wheeling Babylonian lifestyle as well as their food and their music. They even changed their religion; they went from worshiping one God to worshiping many gods and they even began to sacrifice to Babylonian idols.
They were finally home again but things had changed…they felt as if they were strangers in their own city, strangers in their own homes. There was a feeling of emptiness deep down inside of them…a darkness that surrounded them…a silence that overpowered them. They found themselves alone…all because they had sinned against God. He seemed so far away, so hidden, so silent. For the prophet Isaiah and his people, God’s absence was overwhelming. What they needed more than anything was for God to come down and make his presence felt in their shattered lives.
We begin this Advent season acknowledging our separation from God…some of us more than others. We feel his absence in our lives because of what we have said and what we have done and what we have thought. We feel his absence because we try to run our own lives and we try to do things our way.
So we confess: we confess that God has a right to be angry with us because we have turned away from him. We’ve sinned against him and we’ve sinned against each other. We haven’t loved him with all our heart and if we haven’t loved him with all our heart that means that we have failed to love our neighbor. We have failed to hear the cries of the poor and the needy. We have simply failed to do his will. We have failed as a Church and we have failed as a people.
Taylor Burton – Edwards writes that, “Advent, the season of preparing for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, is a time for taking stock of our present lives, straightening our crooked paths and bringing our mission and purpose into sharp focus as we prepare not only for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also [for] his coming again in final glory. It is a time when we need to be brutally honest about who we are and where we are going as God’s people” (Taylor Burton – Edwards, Advent as Realignment, United Methodist Discipleship Ministries, November 27, 2017).
This has not been a good year for a lot of people. Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented flooding in Texas and Louisiana caused people to abandon their homes and then come back to find all they had underwater. And as the waters receded, people found themselves coming face to face with a new reality – they have lost everything and are going to have to start their lives all over. Others, who are more fortunate, will spend months or even years rebuilding their homes and reorganizing their lives.
Elsewhere, hurricane Irma struck took a toll on Florida while devastating numerous Caribbean islands along the way. Hurricane Maria followed shortly thereafter nearly destroying all of Puerto Rico. Massive earthquakes have hit Mexico and other countries while monsoons flooded India. At the same time forest fires tore across many of our western states destroying literally everything that got in its way. And just the other day an earthquake was felt out on the east coast. It’s only in the aftermath of all of this chaos and destruction that we fully realize our human frailty as we attempt to recover from the powerful forces of mother-nature.
It seems like every day we turn on the television or pick up the newspaper and once again there is some type of disaster, catastrophe, challenge or fear in the headlines. I’ve heard some people say this is the worst it’s ever been…that perhaps, the end is on its way…and it could very well be. We’ve all got our own thoughts and ideas but we don’t know for sure, because we’ve been told of course that no one but God knows the exact day or the exact hour.
So with all of this in mind, we have to live our lives as those who are ready, as those who are fully prepared for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s “will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
So go ahead and play the lottery; go ahead and play Powerball whenever you can. But don’t let it become a controlling factor in your life. And who knows? Maybe you’ll win, and I hope you do win, but know that if you do win and you have all that money and all the stuff your money can buy, it’s all only temporary…and life can still be very dark and very lonely if God is missing from your life.
Isaiah reminds us that we have always struggled with our failures. We have always been sinful people, a people who are prone to doing whatever we want to do or saying whatever we want to say without thinking too much about the consequences. And because of our failures, we go through periods when God seems to be angry at us or even absent from our lives.
Because we are who we are and because we want to do things our way, we need a time like Advent to help bring our lives back into focus and to help us confess our sins, our spiritual uncleanliness, and our weaknesses to God. We need him in our lives. We need to be reassured that the Lord is merciful and gracious, that he is slow to anger and full of unconditional love. We need a time like Advent to help us focus on who God is…and we also need a time like Advent to also focus on God’s grace. Advent is about today…and Advent is about the future. It’s a time to realign our lives so that we can return to God.