A More Excellent Christmas
For Advent we will look at John Wesley’s sermon titled “The More Excellent Way” over 1 Corinthians 12:31 “31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way”. Today we will look at section I, II and III. If you want to read the full sermon it is found here: The More Excellent Way.
To begin at the beginning of the day. It is the manner of the generality of Christians, if they are not obliged to work for their living, to rise, particularly in winter, at eight or nine in the morning after having lain in bed eight or nine, if not more hours. I do not say now (as I should have been very apt to do fifty years ago) that all who indulge themselves in this manner are in the way to hell. But neither can I say they are in the way to heaven, denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily. Sure I am, there is "a more excellent way" to promote health both of body and mind. From an observation of more than sixty years, I have learned, that men in health require, at an average, from six to seven hours' sleep, and healthy women a little more, from seven to eight, in four-and-twenty hours.(I)
Did you know that John Wesley wrote a book about homeopathic or natural ways to cure diseases? You may guess this but it is not very good or accurate. Theologians, no matter how well read they are, do not make good physicians. Yet, of course Wesley believes he knows the proper amount of sleep both men and women should receive and as a high-functioning overachiever he wants us to get just enough-not too much or too little. So how can we understand Wesley’s thoughts on sleep or health for today? I believe that if we understand that the point of John Wesley’s sermon is that this idea of a “more excellent way” extends to all areas of our life we can then apply the principal of striving for health of body, mind and soul while not using his exact suggestions. We can apply the principal that there is a more excellent way each of us can take care of our body. There is a more excellent diet, exercise routine, work schedule, and even sleep patterns each of us could consider. The point Wesley is making as he is about to shift the focus on our spiritual life is that while he does not condemn people for their health practices he does want to impress that we each things we can change that can improve our health.
The generality of Christians, as soon as they rise, are accustomed to use some kind of prayer; and probably to use the same form still which they learned when they were eight or ten years old. Now I do not condemn those who proceed thus (though many do) as mocking God; though they have used the same form, without any variation, for twenty or thirty years together. But surely there is "a more excellent way" of ordering our private devotions. What if you were to follow the advice given by that great and good man, Mr. Law, on this subject? Consider both your outward and inward state, and vary your prayers accordingly.(II)
Wesley believes that just as there are health practices that will promote health, there are prayer practices that will promote spiritual health. Again, Wesley does not want to condemn people for not having a developed or mature prayer life and yet he does want to stress that there is a more excellent way to pray. This way is to not be rote but to be true and honest to the Holy Spirit. Wesley will go one to say that if you are suffering then you should cry out in suffering; if you are struggling over something then you should pray naming the uncertainty; if you are filled with peace then give thanks. By praying in the honest state we are in we are opening ourselves up not only a more engaging prayer life but also opening ourselves up to experience God beyond the ritual and in are everyday life. This leads Wesley to his third point.
The generality of Christians, after using some prayer, usually apply themselves to the business of their calling. Every man that has any pretence to be a Christian will not fail to do this; seeing it is impossible that an idle man can be a good man, -- sloth being inconsistent with religion. But with what view? For what end do you undertake and follow your worldly business? (III.1)
Health, spiritual life, and now business. Wesley is compelling a transition statement “I will show you a still more excellent way” into a decree on how to live. What I take from this is Wesley’s commitment and belief that the more excellent way of love that Paul is alluding to is life transforming. The more we learn of God’s love for us the more we are called to live in that love which penetrates all areas of life. The problem Wesley encountered was emotionless and powerless religion where, in Wesley’s view, people’s faith had no impact on their life.
Again: In what manner do you transact your worldly business? I trust, with diligence, whatever your hand findeth to do, doing it with all our might; in justice, rendering to all their due, in every circumstance of life; yea, and in mercy, doing unto every man what you would he should do unto you. This is well: But a Christian is called to go still farther, -- to add piety to justice; to intermix prayer, especially the prayer of the heart, with all the labour of his hands. Without this all his diligence and justice only show him to be an honest Heathen; and many there are who profess the Christian religion, that go no farther than honest Heathenism. (III.2)
We end today looking at Christmas. There is a spirit in the air to give to others and help the less fortunate at this time of year. Many will give donations or gifts to organizations. Wesley would probably say that is good and yet there is a more excellent way. How can the manner we celebrate Christmas reflect both the divinity and humanity of Jesus? This is not a call to remember the reason for the season. This is not a call for repentance of culture for saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". I believe it is a question of how does the way you celebrate Christmas impact who you are. There are many things people will do out of tradition or expectation. You may do the same and yet is there a more excellent way to experience Christmas? Wesley is stating that in all areas of our life there is a more excellent way if we choose to take it. Even Christmas. What would it look like to be open to the emotion and power of the season- To experience Christmas not as a tradition but God's love in Jesus reaching you exactly where you are at?