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A Twinge of Nostalgia

We must live in the present in order to seize the future God has planned for us.

One wintry day the children put a top hat on their snowman, and, in a spell of Christmas magic, he came to life.

Frosty the Snowman showed those children the time of their lives. With Frosty, the sleds would slide farther than they'd ever slid before. With Frosty, they could play out all day long and not get cold in the snow. With Frosty, shopping was ever so much more fun than it was with Mom and Dad.

Then one day the weather got warmer, and along came a gust of wind that blew off Frosty's hat. The spell was broken and Frosty the Snowman had to hurry away. He waved goodbye and said, "Don't you cry. I'll be back again some day." The song continues, "(Thumpity-thump-thump, thumpity-thump-thump) Look at Frosty go / (Thumpity-thump-thump, thumpity-thump-thump) over the fields of snow."

The children in the song are like the disciples in the story. The disciples also had been with someone who had made them feel more alive than they'd ever felt before. With Jesus, life was a miracle a minute. With Jesus, they could do anything their hearts desired. Yet one day Jesus was taken up out of their sight into heaven, and they were left to live with a burning memory and a future promise. He waved good-by and said, "Don't you cry. I'll be back again some day."

Many people handle life by living in nostalgia.

The children in the song and the disciples in the story are like us on this the Sunday after Christmas. The magic is fading; the spell is broken. Our loved ones are waving goodbye. The tree is going to come down soon, if it hasn't already. The tinsel will go into the trash. The diet will begin.

Yet it is on this day, the Sunday after Christmas, that you and I are perhaps in the best position of any Sunday of the year to understand the setting in which the Christian life takes place after the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. For Christians, all of life takes place on the week after Christmas, after Jesus' first Advent and before his second Advent, between the times with our Lord Jesusa burning memory and a future promise.

W. H. Auden has written a beautiful poem in which he speaks about the tension of the "time being," which, he says, is the most trying time of all.

Now we must dismantle the tree, putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes and carrying them up into the attic. The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burned. The children must return to school. There are enough leftovers to be warmed up for the rest of the week, not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot and stayed up so late. We attempted again this year to love all our relatives, and in general grossly overestimated our powers.

But for the time being, here we are back in the moderate Aristotelian city, where Euclid's geometry and Newton's mechanics could account for our experience, and the kitchen table exists because I scrub it. It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets are much narrower than we remembered. We had forgotten that the office was as depressing as this.

To those who have seen the Child, however dimly or incredulously, the time being is the most trying time of all. Auden says it's hard to go to work after Christmas, to get back into the old grind and pick up the same old monotonous chores. It's not as fun as it was on the 25th. He is also saying it is hard for us to live after the first Christmas but before the Second Comingthe most trying time of all.

On this day, which is the last day before the last decade before the third millennium, let's ask ourselves how we ought to be living between the timesthis most trying time of all.

A lot of people handle life by living in nostalgiaback into the past. The disciples in the story were smitten by an attack of nostalgia when Jesus was taken away from them up into heaven. They wanted Jesus back. They wanted to roll back the clock. They wanted to push the rewind button. If Jesus had put his Ascension to a vote of his apostolic session meeting, it would have been eleven to zip in favor of keeping Jesus right where he was. They wanted him to stay.

During the holidays we often remember precious bygone moments. I think back to this last Christmas morning with my children around the Christmas tree. I wanted to freeze that time forever. I can hardly wait to get the pictures back so I can relive those moments. See, I already have nostalgia for this last Christmas.

A certain Christmas song drips with nostalgia, tugs at our heartstrings, and even brings a tear to our eyes. You all know, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know." Even Southern California had to have snow for Christmas. In December we used to squirt our windows with foam. It's interesting that Irving Berlin wrote that song about a white Christmas while lying next to a Hollywood swimming pool homesick for the Christmases of his childhood.

Every Christmas Eve I make a phone call to my father in Southern California, where he's very smug about the warm winter weather. I always call on Christmas Eve and say, "Dad, eat your heart out. We have a white Christmas up here." Then I laugh, because it's a funny thing how I find myself struck with a twinge of nostalgia for orange blossoms, smog, and freewaysthe Christmases I used to know.

How do you account for the spell nostalgia has over us? I think the answer is in the word itself. Nostalgia comes from the Latin word nostras, which means home. Originally the word nostalgia meant a search for home.

Life is a search for home. You and I are the children of Israel exiled from the Promised Land, singing the Lord's songs in a foreign land, yearning for home. That's another reason baseball is so central to the American consciousness: first base, second base, third base, home. Why isn't that fourth base? Why is it home? Because home is the place you and I all leave from, and we spend our whole lives trying to get back there.

Novelist Thomas Wolfe says you can't go back home. A week from tomorrow we're going to Southern California for a three-month sabbatical. People are telling me, "Vic, you're not coming back to the same Los Angeles you left seven years ago. It's more crowded; the pace is faster." Many of my old friends have moved away. I can't go back home. Time has moved on.

That is why two white-robed angels descend to these disciples as they're up there on the mountain looking into heaven. The angels come down and say, "Snap out of it fellows! Men of Galilee, why do you keep gazing into heaven? Why are you wishing for something that used to be? Get a move on. There's a world out there to win for Christ. Come on down off this mountaintop."

And friends, you and I need to listen to those angels today, because there is a dark side to nostalgia.

During seminary Becky and I were privileged to spend a year living in a beautiful, 18thcentury colonial mansion just outside Princeton, New Jersey. We were the guests of a wealthy widower whose wife had died ten years before after 30 glorious years of marriage. This man had never gotten over his wife's death. He had a big bookcase filled with 30 leather bound scrapbooksone for every year of their marriage. Every night after dinner, he would retire to his den with a bottle of Scotch and spend the evening thumbing through the scrapbooks. Instead of making the most of his present, he wallowed in the pit of his past.

If you are not living in the present, you are not living anywhere.

Nostalgia is a wonderful servant, but what a horrible master! Someone once said, "If you're not where you're at, you're nowhere." In other words, if you're not living in the present circumstances of your life, you're not really living at all. The apostle Paul once said he had learned to be content whatever his circumstances.

At this holiday season, let's enjoy the freedom of sentimental journeys down memory lanenostalgia. Go ahead and relive the days of yesteryear, but then come back and be where you're at. Because if you're not, you're nowhere.

Maybe you are a widow or a widower remembering a storybook romance. My friends, your life isn't over. We need you here in this church to be all you can be for God here among us. Don't be back there. Be here. Be where you're at.

You may be a young person or a single person who can't wait for life to begin. Out there someday you'll get that big job, or that special someone will come into your life. In the meantime, enjoy today the benefits of being a single person.

Maybe you're someone who is disabled or someone who is undergoing the health problems that come with aging. You don't have to pine away at a pity party. You can resolve today to live every day of your life for the glory of God.

If your marriage needs an overhaul, if you're in a dead-end job, or even if you have a terminal diseasewhatever the post God has assigned yoube there today. Be present; serve the Savior.

You and I already have a home. Our home is not in the past somewhere. The home we have is God. In the majestic words of Psalm 90, we read, "Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations." Simply by dwelling in your true home, you can have all the power you need to face the most trying times.

The departure of Jesus does not translate into his abandonment of us.

The great news in our text is verse eight. There Jesus says, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you." You will receive power. Jesus didn't abandon us when he went off into heaven. Jesus made a big promise to you and me and to the church.

In John 16:7 he promised, "I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." At Pentecost God sent his Helper who brought the power to the church to heal, to cleanse, to cast out demons, to clean lepers, to dream the unthinkable, to do the impossible, and to love the unlovable.

How do we get this Holy Spirit down in our lives? He comes to us in our baptism. The apostle Peter said, "Repent and be baptized, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." And so, friend, if you are a baptized believer this morning, you have God's own Spirit living within you. You have God's power within youat your fingertips every day of 1990. It's God's promise to you.

About a year and a half ago, I bought a new navy blazer at Nordstrom. It was one of those cases you may have gone through where you buy an item of clothing and the more you wear it, the more you realize you don't like it. My blazer wasn't the right color, and to make matters worse, it attracted lint like it was going out of style. After wearing it pretty regularly for six months or so, I stuck it in my closet and didn't wear it for a long time.

Tucked away in the back of my mind all the while was that famous Nordstrom unconditional return policy. I thought, I've had this thing for a year and a half. I've worn it lots of times, and there's just no way they're going to take it back. About two weeks ago I decided I had nothing to lose. I pulled the blazer out, threw a lot of lint on it to make it look bad, and took it down to Nordstrom's men's department.

I walked in, and immediately I felt nervous. I felt like I was about to pull a scam of some sort, but I played it straight. I walked right up to the first salesman I saw and gave this little prepared speech. I said, "I am about to put your famous unconditional return policy to its ultimate test. I have here a blazer. I've worn it lots. I've had it for a year and a half. I don't like it. It's the wrong color, and it attracts lint like it's going out of style. But I want to return this blazer for another blazer that I like." Then I stood there.

I couldn't believe it. This guy with a big handlebar mustache just looked at me and shook his head. He said, "For heaven's sake, what took you so long? Let's go find you a blazer." Ten minutes later I walked out with another blazer that was marked $75 more than I paid for the one that I brought in. It was perfect for me. Didn't cost me a penny.

God is like Nordstrom. (Now, please do not go home and clean out your closets of all the old stuff and go down to Nordstrom to say the pastor of First Presbyterian said you could get new stuff. I could get sued!) God is like Nordstrom. God makes all sorts of outlandish promises that we cannot bring ourselves to believe.

When we get up enough courage or we're desperate enough, we finally take him at his word. He looks at us and he shakes his head. "For heaven's sake," he says, "what took you so long?" God promises us power to live.

On the last day of this decade, let me ask you: If you knew power was available to you so that you could not fail, what great dream would you dream for your life in the '90s? If you could erase fear of failure as a factor from your life, what dream would you dream for this church or for this community? If you knew that the power was there from God and his promise was true, what risks would you take?

God doesn't make promises he can't keep, so step out in faith. Take him at his word. Expect a miracle.

See the future from God's perspective.

You know it might well take miracles for us to meet the challenges of the '90s. The problems we face out there in the '90s are not only big problems, but they're ticking time bombs.

I know we talked a lot today about the wonderful things happening in Eastern Europe. They're certainly true. Once soldiers were walking around with guns, and now they're walking around with wire clippers snipping barbed wire all over Eastern Europe. Those who used to be oppressed by the government are now the government.

There's another side to that ledger. We have a drug problem that is getting worse and worse in this country and in our own city. Yakima has been stigmatized nationally in the media for our drug problem.

We have the issue our own Mike Nixon raised as he addressed the presbytery recently. Mike quoted a report from the Hudson Institute, a prestigious think tank. The report says that by the end of the '90s, 1,500,000 Americans will have died of AIDS. The report also says 14.5 million Americans will be infected by the AIDS virus.

Waiting for us in the '90s are the effects of all the pollutants that we're daily releasing into the atmosphere. And there's a scenario that has the planet warming, the polar ice melting, climates changing, oceans rising, and agricultural patterns shifting. With the food supply decliningand ours being an agricultural valleythis scenario is not a happy one to contemplate.

In addition to the drug problem, in addition to the spreading of AIDS, and the environmental problems, we also have clouding our future the national debt, Third World poverty, dissolution of the family, and other problems looming out there. Futurists are calling the '90s the deadline decade, the time when history will hang in the balance like no other time. What we do is going to set the course for our nation and our planet in the future. With all of the challenges looming out in the future, it's easy for us to see the danger of falling into despair.

This past week Samuel Beckett died. Mr. Beckett, one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, saw life as hopeless and utterly futile. Some of you have seen his great play, Waiting for Godot, which consists of nothing more than two hoboes sitting around waiting for a third bum who never shows up. Think again of the title of that play: Waiting for Godot. Beckett says God is the bum who never shows up.

I saw another of his plays entitled End game, which is simply a blind paralytic lamenting his fate while his crippled, senile parents die of despair in garbage cans. I mean we're talking despair!

Beckett would be right, were it not for the gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul said if we have hope in Christ only for this life, then we, of all people, are most to be pitied.

My friends, as we are on the threshold of a new decade, let's stand firm and tall on the promises of God. On tiptoe, peer out into the future and see your life from the eternal perspective. Instead of nothing at all having significance, everything suddenly takes on significance. Our simplest and tiniest act of kindness has eternal consequences from the eternal point of view.


Let me give you an example. This past Friday night our small group had a little party for Becky and me because we will be leaving for three months. They gave us funny little presents and made a fuss over us. They made accusations, saying that even though I'm going away to study, they know me well enough to know that I'm not going to let study get in the way of my bicycle riding (which, of course, is a satanic lie). It was a nice time together. Actually we felt very loved at that little Friday night party.

Now, on a world scale that event probably would not even register as a blip. It's not even really worth mentioning in a sermon, except I am an eternal being who is loved by God. I felt God's love through the gestures of the people in our small group. It makes me want to be more loving and to somehow make others feel the way I was made to feel by the love of the people in that small group.

From a temporal point of view, even great events are trivial because they get wiped away by time. From an eternal point of view, trivial events are eternal. Our tiniest acts of love and kindness have spinoffs in all eternity. Jesus was giving us the other side of that when he said, "I tell you, in the last judgment men will be held accountable for every idle word they utter."

Everything you do in the '90s is going to have an implication for eternity: every word of criticism or praise to a family member, every letter written or unwritten, the dinner out with an aging parent, the word of forgiveness given or withheld, the racist joke, the little white lie. I would ask you, "Why not revolutionize your understanding of success in the '90s by looking at your life from the eternal point of view?"

Every bit of the fame, power, and wealth you presently enjoy is one day going to melt away like a snowman on a hot afternoon. All that will remain are simple acts of caring love. Those are going to go on and on and on and on forever.

I leave you with the wisdom of a little poem that was sent to us in a Christmas card from a longtime friend. It tells us what really matters from the eternal perspective.

I asked God to take away my pride, and God said no.

He said it was not for him to take away, but for me to give up.

I asked God to make my handicapped child whole,

and God said, no, her spirit is already whole. Her body is only temporary.

I asked God to grant me patience, and God said no.

He said that patience is the by-product of tribulation. It isn't granted; it's earned.

I asked God to give me happiness; God said no.

He said he gives blessings; happiness is up to me.

I asked God to spare me pain, and God said no.

He said I must grow on my own, but he will prune me in order to make me fruitful.

I asked God if he loved me, and God said yes.

He gave me his only Son who died for me, and I will be in heaven some day because I believe.

I asked God to help me love others as much as he loves me,

and God said, "Ahhhh, finally! Now you have the idea."

1990 Vic Pentz

Preaching Today Tape #88

A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. Many people handle life by living in nostalgia

II. If you are not living in the present, you are not living anywhere

III. The departure of Jesus does not translate into his abandonment of us

IV. See the future from God's perspective