(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
When I was sitting in treatment for the second time– I got assigned to one of the toughest counselors on the staff. And when I walked into his group – on the very first day – he looks me straight in the eye, shakes my hand and says:
“Hi, my name is Ted – I’m your counselor … and I’m going kill you!”
I don’t think most counselors here would do that – but you know the funny thing was – that a part of me wanted to say, “Well thank God someone’s finally gonna do what’s needed doing for a really long time!”
See I knew that whoever was running my life inside my own head wasn’t doing a very good job – and that guy needed to be killed – or at least, he needed to be put out of commission and someone new badly needed to be put in charge.
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Now a lot of water’s passed under the bridge since that day; but I’ve always been grateful for the insight that counselor gave me of what recovery’s really all about. It’s really about dying to our old selves – Dying to our ego-centered selves; And then it’s about sticking around long enough and being willing enough to let God create a new Self in each and every one of us.
Tonight’s the second Sunday in the season the church calls the season of Epiphany. And an epiphany simply means waking up to a reality that’s already there –
It’s there – but I can’t see it – So it means coming to understand something that just a short while before I couldn’t understand at all.
Bill Wilson had an epiphany in his detox room. His epiphany started a chain reaction that’s spread to millions of alcoholics & addicts who found themselves just as hopeless as he was.
Bill’s alcoholism had sent him to the hospital for the 4th time in less than two years – but that last time he was desperate enough to get down on his knees and pray to a God he wasn’t quite sure was there – and he wasn’t quite sure would help him.
But when he did that, when he prayed, when he emptied himself of his ego and invited God into his life Bill had his epiphany.
He felt God’s presence – right there with him in that room – The sense of separation that he’d known for so long was now over – and inside he knew he wasn’t alone and he knew who was really in control.
Bill had made a conscious connection with God. Bill was changed and he never drank again. But I had left treatment my first time – unchanged – unconnected – and so it was only a matter of time before I did drink again.
There were a whole bunch of things that needed changing in me – Things I had missed that first go-round and for me one of the biggest had a lot to do with understanding the depth of that First Step – Understanding what it really means be powerless and our lives: unmanageable.
I’d been out of treatment only a few months when someone had come along and offered me a drink and I barely put up a fight. I thought, maybe this isn’t too smart – but I took the drink anyway – and I got drunk – just like I’d always done. What kind of insanity is that? Maybe it’s a kind we can all relate to!
The Big Book says we need to admit to our inner-most selves that we we’re powerless over alcohol and drugs – that when we drink, we get drunk – and that’s what being powerless means – that for us, alcohol and drugs are like poison and we’re powerless over the effects of poison. We get sick when we take it – and sometimes we die
But then it tells us also that our innermost minds have become unmanageable – that our minds don’t see reality right – they don’t quite get it – they don’t really believe we’re powerless – they don’t really believe this stuff’ll kill us – not this one time – so off we go – we listen to the madman inside, we follow his or her guidance and we mess up again.
When that first step tells us our lives are unmanageable – it doesn’t mean that we’ve lost another job, or another family or even lost our freedom & gotten ourselves locked up again –
That’s not what unmanageability means at all – Unmanageability means we’ve lost our ability to think sanely – We’ve lost our ability to manage our lives by ourselves. Someone is badly needed to manage them for us.
There’s a story I heard in treatment that second time that helped me have a little epiphany. It helped me see what’s going on deep inside the mind of an unmanageable alcoholic like me. It’s the story of how you make a pickle.
And all of us here have been pickled a time or two so we ought to be able to relate. But how you make a pickle is like this: You start off with a cucumber – And you take that cucumber and you plop it into a jar or into a barrel loaded with brine and with spices. And you let it sit there for quite some time soaking in all that stuff until one day you finally open up the lid and suddenly that cucumber is no longer a cucumber but it’s now been turned into a pickle.
And that’s all well and good but the real question the story asks and the question that makes it relevant to us is this: Just who do you think the pickle thinks he is?
Cause now that poor pickle’s putting his mind to work on his new identity problem – And what’s going on inside his very pickled brain is this; Why are all these people calling me a pickle? – Hell I’m a cucumber! After all – I was born a cucumber – and I was raised a cucumber – My mother was a cucumber and so was my old man – I went to school with cucumbers and I married a cucumber – (I should have married that hot tomato) – but anyway, we had a bunch of little cucumbers – so who are all these jerks telling me that now I’m a pickle?
That’s a pickle whose life has become unmanageable! That’s a pickle who needs an epiphany! A pickle who needs: Pickles Anonymous!
Now the reading from Isaiah is there to give us, and all the pickles of the world, some hope when it says of God: Behold I make all things new. Even pickles!
If we hope to get sober – we’ll have to be made new. If we leave here the same people we were when we came through those doors – we’re in trouble – we need to change – we need to die to our old self – and let God make us into a new self.
That’s the much-needed spiritual awakening – the epiphany that can teaches us we’re not who we think we are and the world of spirit is not the way we thought it was either.
In tonight’s gospel, we get a little glimpse of what that new self is like in the story of Jesus’ baptism. Matthew wants us to know how very connected Jesus was to God.
Jesus steps into the water – he goes down deep – deep under the waves and deep inside his own self. And there – Jesus empties himself — of self. He gives himself to God – and he does it more completely than any man has ever done so before.
And when he does – when he comes up out of that water – Jesus has an epiphany. What he couldn’t see or sense before – now he does. The story says it’s as if the sky opens up and God’s spirit comes down in the form of a dove and it rests right on him.
Then Jesus hears a Voice that says – Today you have become my son – a son I love – a son in whom I am so very well pleased.
When self gets out of the way – a new world opens up. When we become humble enough to step aside and ask God to come into our lives – he comes.
And when he comes we too have an epiphany – We see the world and we see ourselves and we see all our problems in a very different light. On the outside of things – maybe nothing changes – but inside, where it counts nothing is ever the same.
We’re catapulted into what the Big Book calls the fourth dimension of our existence. We find a world and a self we never experienced before – a world and a self we’d probably been looking for all our lives – but looking for it in all the wrong places.
In our Third Step Prayer we pray: Lord, free us from the bondage of self. Free us from the prisons that our old selves have us locked inside of – Help us become new people – free people – People who can trust and not be so afraid – People who can love and not be filled with guilt and shame for who we mistakenly think we are. People who can leave treatment and stay sober because when we leave here this time, we’re taking you with us.
When Jesus comes up out of the water – he sees God’s spirit coming to meet him in the form of a dove. The spirit of God comes and it rests on him – it touches him – it’s at one with him – If he ever was alone inside, he’s not any more – If he ever felt separated from God, that’s no longer the case. This is my son – my beloved – and in him I am well pleased.
This is the season of the epiphany. It’s a wild season where God enters our world and we enter his. It’s a season of awakenings, filled with awe and wonder. No half measures in this one! It started last Sunday with a star that some men from the east were wise enough to start following and when they did, it led them straight to Jesus. Now this week, we hear about a man who opened himself so wide and emptied himself so deeply, that God could come and fill him and he could call a flesh and blood man his very own child.
When Matthew thought of Jesus, he remembered the promise of Isaiah where the Lord said:
I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, To open the eyes that are blind and bring the prisoners out from their dungeons Behold, the former things have passed away, And I make all things new.
God makes all things new. He makes whole worlds out of nothing and he makes men out of clay.
But God didn’t just create once and then sit back and be done with it. God keeps right on creating – he keeps making old things new. Whenever we’re ready, he’s there waiting inside us to do it again and again and again.
Ask the ones of us who’ve stayed sober for a while and we’ll all tell you the same story – We couldn’t do this thing by ourselves. We got knocked down, we went down about as far as we could go but then something changed inside –
For some of us the change was fast and sudden but for most of us it was slow and gradual – but it happened to all of us who kept coming back.
People who were alone & isolated – drunk & in trouble, we felt the power & presence of God’s spirit come to rest on us too.
People who had repeatedly failed at recovery – we changed deep enough inside
that a whole new dimension of God’s reality opened up for us too – And when it did, then we too could see what we couldn’t see before And, with God’s help, we could do what we couldn’t do before.
There are lots of grandma’s in the world who can turn a cucumber into a pickle –
but there’s not a single grandma out there who can turn a pickle back into a cucumber.
Once we’ve crossed the line into addiction it takes a Power far greater than ourselves & far greater than our grandmas to save us.
The Big Book says – it takes God – a God who wants nothing less than for us all to wake up to his presence and to his love – wake up – have an epiphany
and recognize that all he wants is for us to become his very own sons and daughters –
That’s a God worth knowing – That’s a God worth seeking – That’s a God I’d gladly let take charge of my life and when I do that – when I let go – He does what he promised: He makes all things new.