Better and Better

John 2./ML King Weekend

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Some years ago, a friend of mine told me about a preacher he had discovered. My friend couldn’t sleep one night, and he was surfing through the channels on his television and he came upon a show produced by an evangelist named Joel Osteen. Osteen is the pastor of the Lakewood Church in Houston.

The basic premise of Osteen’s preaching was summarized in the title of his first book, Your Best Life Now. He believed that God wanted everyone to be happy—so happy that however successful or fortunate they thought they had been in the past, they would realize that even better days were ahead of them.

In his book, Osteen claimed that, “If you foster an image of defeat and failure, then you’re going to live that kind of life. But if you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from you.”

In the years since I discovered Joel Osteen, he has become even more popular. His congregation worships in a former basketball arena; his books have sold millions of copies; and his show is now broadcast on Sunday mornings. I discussed his optimistic interpretation of Christian faith two years ago in my Easter sermon.

It must be said, though, that Joel Osteen has many critics. Theologians have pointed out that Jesus warned his followers about expecting an easy life. His disciples would instead need to take up their “crosses” when they joined his movement. Christians often lose comfort and security. The only prosperity followers of Christ can be sure of obtaining is the joy and peace of Heaven!

Rather than finding our best life now, many people’s lives appear to get worse as time passes. Included in this number are devout Christians who seem to have followed all the rules of their religion and have been as faithful as they could be—and yet, their lives appear to be in decline.
Think, for example, of Christians who have been persecuted for their faith—those who resisted Hitler, or the Christians who have been murdered recently in countries like Malaysia and the Philippines and Iraq.

Or we can think of Christians who, despite their faith have been afflicted with debilitating illnesses. Remember the images of Pope John Paul II at the end of his life, as he dragged himself into church, hunched over and crippled by Parkinson’s disease. 
Surely if anyone was in touch with God, it was this man! And yet, this pope only got weaker and weaker.

And, of course, think of Haiti. In the earthquake, the wife of our Episcopal bishop was injured and their house was completely destroyed.

We live in a cruel, fallen world where positive thinking doesn’t always work. Can we really expect that our best days are ahead of us?

Well, we can agree with one point that Osteen makes. We can agree that it is always possible to make progress in faith.
We can’t expect to live a perfect life. But we can become a little better than we were, a little in touch with God’s Spirit. In this crucial sense, we can hope to live our best lives now.

The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley called this process, “sanctification.” Wesley said that the Holy Spirit guides us toward better ways of thinking and acting, and, as time goes by, we become closer to the ideal persons that God wants us to be.

As the line in the Gospel for today suggests, God “saves the best wine until last!” In this Bible story, Jesus changes water into wine so that a wedding reception can continue.

Now it happens that the parents of the child who will be baptized today were married here. So they will recall that this miracle is referred to in our wedding service. The story of water changing into wine symbolizes the celebrative aspect of marriage: it is good for two people to find each other, and their joy will be increased in their future life together.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything will be pain-free. In fact, prayers later in the wedding service ask for God’s help and protection as the couple builds their new life.

But a successful marriage over time will display exactly the “sanctification” that John Wesley proposed. It’s no wonder that many couples mention their grandparents in the wedding programs.
For long-married couples provide happy examples of life getting better. Over the years, couples may approach a remarkable spiritual unity as, for them, God saves the best wine until last.

Martin Luther King, Jr. also provides an example of the life of faith displaying sanctification over time. When he was a young man, King seemed only an average clergyman’s son. His academic career was mixed; while he managed to earn a doctorate, it appears that he plagiarized some of his seminary essays.

Only after much prayer, and inner struggle, and many hard knocks of activism did King rise to become the best-known leader of the civil rights movement.

Even then, Martin Luther King wasn’t satisfied. His vision continued to grow. He defended those who were drafted against their will to fight the Vietnam War. At the time he was assassinated, he was trying to assist impoverished sanitation workers who were trying to obtain better wages.
Now some people back then felt that Martin Luther King was taking on too many “issues.” They thought that he should have confined himself to his original goal of ending discrimination against black people.

But in retrospect, it seems clear that King was right. His vision of justice and fairness had expanded so that he became not just the hero of African-Americans, but a world champion of human equality.

In Martin Luther King’s life, too, God saved the good wine until last. And we too can be renewed by the Holy Spirit that we received in the waters of baptism; we can be sanctified by Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist; and we are given new occasions to serve God in the challenges we face each day.

Life gets better and better in the Spirit. God does indeed offer us a chance to live our best lives now.

Amen.


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