Sermon about David by Larry Bethune
The First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 1996
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
The last several months Iíve been in the jail four or five times. Iíve been visiting a man who has been sentenced to die. Not long after I saw the movie "Dead Man Walking" about Sister Helen Prejeanís courageous and emotionally intense ministry to death row inmates and their families and the families of their victims, Carlos Greth, a volunteer chaplain at the jail, called me. He said this guy on death row had seen stories about our church in the newspaper and wondered if I might drop by for a visit sometime. The last thing I needed this fall was that kind of intensity, but immediately Jesusí words flashed through my head: "I was in prison and you visited me." So, after exhausting my excuses, I went to the jail, and then back again, about every two or three weeks for the last four months. His name is David Powell. Currently he is in Travis County Jail awaiting his appeal on a death sentence for the murder of a policeman a number of years ago here in Austin. Some of you may remember the case, or at least what you heard of it in the news. But to me, David has become a person, even - a friend, even - a teacher.
Davidís case fills me with ambivalence. I have never believed in capital punishment. The first research paper I ever wrote (I believe it was in the sixth grade) was an impassioned argument against the death penalty. On the other hand, my brother is a policeman, and policemen have impossible jobs with poor pay. And policemen have families: wives and children, parents, sisters, and brothers. I love my brother, and I think: that could have been my brother.
David and I do not talk about the details of his case because we are not free from being monitored. This frustrates me. I do not know his story, his guilt or innocence, his remorse or regret, his understanding of what happened and why. But I am not there to condone or condemn. I am there as a minister of Christ in a situation unlike any I have ever known before where how to minister is not clear beyond my fundamental conviction that every person is beloved of God and included in Godís grace, regardless. And David is not hard to like. He is bright, well read, a careful listener. Maybe because we are in many ways alike - from the same race and class and about the same age, talking to him is easy. In other circumstances I could imagine talking philosophy with him over a cup of coffee at Quackenbushís. I think - that could be me. A different set of circumstances, a different family of origin, a different set of friends, and I might be in his shoes.
So I talk to David as a person, and ask him, "What is it like for you here? How do you survive the endless waiting?" He speaks of the struggle with depression, the frequent temptation just to give up and let them kill you. He speaks of the endless bureaucratic delays, the slow wheels of justice, and the dehumanizing experience of prison which takes your life away before they kill you. He keeps busy working on his appeal, of course. He is trying to save his life, though life in prison is not an appealing alternative. Still, the details of the appeal are brief and intermittent with long periods of time in between where there is nothing to do but wait.
This is what touches me: David fills his waiting with life. He makes friends with the other prisoners. He teaches them to read or write. He listens to their stories, offers comfort or challenge. He reaches out beyond the prison to people involved in a variety of social movements and ministries, gives interviews to groups of lawyers and judges from other nations studying our justice system. He is trying to help other people. Why does he do this? Because, threatened with death, his life is more precious to him than most peopleís lives are to them. Time is not something to be wasted, but the primary stuff of which to make life meaningful. Just as I would not dehumanize David by demonizing him as a complete criminal, I would not idealize him as an absolute angel. He is simply a person, a person who has gotten himself into an awful mess. But what teaches me is that even in a terrible situation of uncertainty, guilt, confusion, anger, fear, depression, what have you, he is putting all the meaning he can into his time. He reminds me of what another, albeit fictional prisoner said, in the movie The Shawshank Redemption: "You either get busy living or you get busy dying." I think thatís true for all of us.
We spend much of our lives waiting, and how we wait makes all the difference in the world. We wait for the degree to be completed. We wait for the wedding date to come. We wait for the perfect job offer or for that golden promotion or for our boss to retire. We wait for our children to grow up and become what we have dreamed for them, or at least what they have dreamed for themselves. We wait for the day when our church will have more members and more money to do the work God has called us to do. We wait for retirement. We wait for the doctorís report. And finally, at some point, we wait for death. But if we arenít careful, our waiting all along the way becomes a form of paralysis, a way of being stuck. We postpone living until we arrive at some goal, pin all our happiness and joy, not to mention our best efforts, on that "someday when" which may never even come.
We have come to the season of Advent in the church. It is a time for remembering the world which waited for the coming of Christ. It is a time to renew our waiting for Christ to return. It is a time of spiritual waiting. You see, the most important and most difficult waiting we do is our waiting for God. We live all our lives in the meantime between promise and fulfillment, between the definitive, ultimate acts of God to redeem human history and make good on the Divine promises of justice and righteousness and eternal life. We are all exiles here. This world is not our home. We are all on the way somewhere else. We are all waiting for eternity.
I do not mean to minimize Davidís circumstances or anyone elseís when I say we are all under a death sentence and waiting for God. "It is appointed for mortals to die once," says the author of Hebrews, "and after that the judgment" (9:27). He does not say this to be morbid or fatalistic, but to put our lives into perspective before God and remind us of our only ultimate hope. We are made of mortal stuff. We belong to time, and only God can offer us the gift of the eternal. Thus the author of Hebrews says, "Just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (9:27-28). And how we wait makes all the difference in the world.
We can stop, stand still, give up, passively wait for God to do something or circumstances to change because of what others do for us or maybe, against us. We can give up on God and the world, and just try to make ourselves comfortable, spend all our time laying up for ourselves "treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal" (Matt 6:19). Materialism is the ultimate expression of despair. Or we can make use of the time we have to be better prepared when the day comes and the goal is reached and the waiting is over. We can either get busy living or get busy dying.
It is important for us to be waiting and working. When the Hebrew people were dragged into exile by the Babylonians - cut off from their homeland, cut off from their families, cut off from their history, cut off from their God, whose temple was a heap of dusty rubble back in the ruins of the once glorious Jerusalem - many of them gave up on their faith and just muddled along from day to day without hope. But there were a few who learned a great lesson about God because of the exile. Some of the most important spiritual experiences are born out of the most difficult times in our lives. In exile Israel learned that God was not just a God of military conquest and national protection, that their God was a God of the defeated, too. In exile Israel learned that God was not geographically restricted to one holy place or even one holy people. In exile, Israel learned that no matter how dark things may seem, God is not finished and will not be finished until every promise is fulfilled.
A prophet preached a word of hope to the exiles in the name of Isaiah, probably from the school of Isaiah, who way back in the eighth century had urged the people of Jerusalem to trust in God rather than political machination or military might. Now, three centuries later, in the city of Babylon, one of Isaiahís disciples preached the same message in a different context, a message we find in chapters 40 and following in the Book of Isaiah. We listen again to this prophetís preachments to our own experiences of exile, and especially this time of year when we dare to reassert our hope and yearning for God to act against the darkness of the world. In desperate times, this prophet preached hope. He preached faith. He preached about waiting for God.
We feel the peopleís yearning in his prayer of lament: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence" (Isa 64:1). And we hear their renewed hope in his declaration: "From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him" (Isa 64:4). And we hear the prophetís guidance on how we wait for God and prepare ourselves for Godís interventions: "You meet those who gladly do right," he says, "those who remember you in your ways" (Isa 64:5). In all his lament the prophet reflects the peopleís guilt, too. They got what they deserved and they knew it, and they were struggling still, maybe more than ever, to keep the faith. But the hope of Godís people has never rested on their faithfulness. Our hope rests on Godís faithfulness, and God is faithful. God has proved faithful over and over again. Thus we see, the way we wait is greatly determined by our sense of what or whom we await. If we wait for nothingness or evil or pain, we wait in fear with paralysis or panic. But if we wait for the God whom we already know in Jesus Christ, then we wait in hope with joy and preparation.
So I say to David, and to all those who face hard, even life-threatening situations, and to everyone who grows weary with well-doing and is tempted to give up because the meantime between promise and fulfillment is indeed, a mean time: donít give up hope. Donít give up on God. Wait for God, but wait actively. Get busy living in the confidence that our hope in Christ is a reality, that God isnít finished yet, so that your living will prepare you for what God has prepared. As Paul says,
We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Ernest Campbell writes of a scholar friend who named his cat "Apokaradokia," the Greek word Paul uses in Romans when he speaks of creation "waiting in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God" (Rom 8:19). The cat had the proverbial curiosity, and was always stretched out to the full, its nose pointed up, poised to press into new and unknown places. Says Campbell:
The word in Greek means to watch with head outstretched, to direct attention to anything, to wait in suspense. It connotes constancy in expecting. Forget the cat. Forget the word if you must. But remember the posture. We are called to live on the stretch because there is more to come. There always is. Our role is to wait for it, to watch for it, and to work for it.
Perhaps it would be truer to say we are not waiting for God to act; we are waiting for God to finish. God is already at work, moving all things to the goal God had in mind from the foundation of the world. Just as God worked across centuries until the time was right for the Christ to enter our world, so God is at work already to prepare the world to meet the eternal. God is with us, working with us, working through us as we wait for the day of Godís full disclosure. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul in The Message:
God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his son and our Master, Jesus. God will never give up on you. Never forget that! (1 Cor 1:8-9).
I hope you never will. But then, what are you waiting for? May we pray?
God of hope, we long for the day of our salvation, for the end of our journey, for the fulfillment of your promise of a new heaven and a new earth where justice and righteousness and grace and peace will finally reach all persons under the Sovereignty of Christ. In the meantime, help us in our waiting, to live by your love now, to work for your dominion in every good way, and never to give up on you, for Jesusí sake, Amen.
Larry Bethune is Senior Pastor at the University Baptist Church in Austin since 1987. He is also the First Vice President of the American Baptist Churches of the South and former president of its Ministers Council.