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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

2013-11-24 Celebrate The End, But Give Thanks for Beginnings

2013-11-24 Celebrate The End, But Give Thanks for Beginnings

Deuteronomy 26:1-3

Colossians 1:11-20

I don't know if any of you like to wake up before sunrise on Black Friday and go extreme shopping. Maybe you do but wouldn't admit it in public. It's very exciting. You against the ravenous masses. Kind of like the start of the Hunger Games. Of course, the crush has eased a little in recent years now that stores have started opening the day before on, what do they call it? Thanksgiving.

I've done the 5AM Black Friday feeding frenzy. And that's why I will always treasure my nine-gallon wet/dry RIGID Shop Vac from Home Depot. I earned it. I fought for it. My Precious.

What have you earned, that you treasure? What have you fought for, in a bold race for the finish line, or for the checkout counter, that holds a special place in your heart?

Maybe it's a shop vac. More likely it's a diploma. Or a house. Maybe that dream car. Maybe you earned a the clean bill of health by exterminating extra pounds and bad habits. It might be an "A" in a class taught by the meanest teacher in the world - or maybe just a passing grade. Maybe that guy or that girl whose heart you won, back when you were still romantic.

Whatever the prize, you fought for it. You earned it. It's yours. Should someone or something threaten the reward, you'd protect it, maybe even wage a counter-attack.

After reaching a goal and collecting the trophy, whatever that is, we switch on the locks. We punch in the code. We go into security mode when the work is done, when we reach the end.


From the Pilgrims to Bible-times, festivals of thanksgiving were celebrations of The End. For farmers, thanksgiving times marked the end of the planting, the end of the growing, the end of the tending, the end of the harvest. They kept the farm productive another season. The farmers lived through another year and deserved a break. They could relax for a few days. Feast a little. They earned their reward. They could look at the fruits of their labor and cook a few of them, too. They could admire what they had produced, what they'd fought for, what they'd done with their own two hands. They could rejoice at the end.

We all do that, don't we? We raise our hands at the finish lines. We dance in the end zones. People prize the accomplished. We celebrate The End.

And THAT might turn out to be one of the most important ways God's NOT like us.


I know you all love reading Deuteronomy. I'm a minister. I'm weirdo and I know it. I love Deuteronomy. It's filled with rules that make you wonder, "Why would anyone ever make THAT law?" Kind of like how UT never had sorority houses because it was illegal for more than eight women to live in the same building. (Because, you know, men are weak.) Finally got that law changed. But if you notice, the sororities are on the other side of the railroad tracks.

So, Deuteronomy says that as the people are finally, finally entering the land that the Lord their God has given them - after forty years in the wilderness - at The End - they are to gather up and dedicate the FIRST fruits of the harvest. The First things.

The people are glad for The End; God wants the first.


The Bible talks about more Firsts in the letter to the church in Colossae. Listen to how many firsts it names.

He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created [at first], things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created [first] through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

The Israelites of old celebrated The End of their journey with the FIRST fruits of their harvest. In Jesus, God celebrates The First of ALL creation. Jesus is ground of all being, the origin and the glue that keeps everything from spinning away to destruction.

It goes on:

he [Jesus] is the beginning, the firstborn - from the dead - so that he might come to have first place in everything.

The people saw The End; God saw a new first. When people looked at the cross they thought they were seeing The End, but what God saw was a mysterious re-writing of that ending into a new beginning, where the end, the last, became the first: The firstborn Christ of new life.

And what did humanity contribute to this beginning? Some boards and some nails and the spilling of blood in a twisted attempt to create The End.

God took The Worst End and turned it into a New First.


Think of the Ends you've celebrated, the goals you've met, the rewards you've earned. Think of the happy endings.

Now, think of The Ends that you dread. The unhappy endings. Endings of life, or of relationships, or of blissful moments that skip away so fast.

What makes some endings so good, and other endings so bad?

Maybe it's a matter of choice.

We celebrate the endings that WE choose. We celebrate the ends that reflect back our own hard work back. Our work. Our effort. Our sacrifice. This is what we celebrate. The celebrations not only reflect it, they magnify it. Magnify us. I did it. I earned it. It's mine. It's - in a way - it's me.

On the other hand, we mourn the ends that remind us of how little control we have to change anything. Bad endings are failures. Bad endings are thieves that steal our time so precious. Bad endings reflect and magnify all the countless things over which we have no power.

Good endings equal power. Bad endings equal no power. Or put it another way: when we have power, we can create our own good ends. When we are powerless, things are bad and will likely get worse, and probably end badly.

Isn't that how it goes?


Imagine being a farmer who works the ground for months. Finally, that first little shoot produces. That one little bean plant pushes through the soil. Oh, what a good feeling. The investing, hard work and early rising has paid off. There's the reward. Your reward.

Deuteronomy says, hold on. That's the piece that belongs to God.

Wait, that's not fair! God's taking the prize you worked for. God's stealing the happy ending. God is stripping you of the great sign of your power. God wants you to just give it away. We might think God's asking a little too much.

But on the cross, the firstborn of all creation, in whom all things hold together - on the cross God strips himself of his power. God just gives away his power of firstness.

On the cross, God does what God's been asking the people to do all along. God yanks away his own reward. On the cross, God shoves aside the power of a happy ending in order to make room, make room for a first.

And the first grows out of soil so powerless.


George and I were talking about the theme for this year's Stewardship season and he said, "You know it can sound kind of trite to say, 'Count Your Blessings.'" It can sound kind of trite when things are bad and someone tells you, "Count your blessings," because they don't know what else to say and things are going generally better for them at the moment.

To me, blessings are the opposite of rewards. Rewards are what you've earned by your own power. Blessings are what you stumble into. Blessings remind you that no matter how much you work and plan, there's uncountably more that you're totally powerless to control. The best you can do is receive a blessing, with gratitude, and with the knowledge that you neither deserve it now, nor could you ever. Call it luck. Call it grace. Just call it for what it is. A blessing is a beginning. Someone a long time ago might have said a blessing is the "firstborn of all creation."

Before you can count your blessings, though, you have to see them. And you can only see these beginnings when you stop focusing on your own ends.


Thanksgiving is this Thursday. Before you slice into the harvest meal, do take a few moments to reflect back on the year. Reflect back on what you've accomplished. There's nothing at all wrong with that. Reflect on your victories. Reflect on how far you may have come since Thanksgiving 2012.

But then, after you've finished reflecting on yourself, refocus your eyes on what you haven't done, what you're powerless to have done, and yet which came to you out of sheer luck, or God's grace, or whatever you want to call it. Think about the things you have no control over, but which, you know, were kind of nice. Uncountably nice.

Celebrate the end of a year. Celebrate the ends you've achieved. That's OK.

But spend some time giving thanks for the unplanned beginnings that came your way. Thank God for the new life that sprang up, while you were busy doing other things.