But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Tomorrow morning my six year old son will open up his Star Wars Lego Advent Calendar and will promptly put together a little droid, or a mini-figure, or some other object from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
And he will rejoice.
But it’s hard for me to call it an actual “Advent” calendar. First, Advent started last Sunday, not December 1st. Second, the little trinkets are certainly fun but they don’t really have anything to do with the “hastening and waiting” that define this season. And, finally, Advent points to the arrival (and return!) of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereas most (if not all) Advent calendars point to the arrival of presents under a tree on Christmas morning.
Fleming Rutledge, my theological Advent hero, was once similarly struck by the strange juxtaposition of Advent calendars and the real message of Advent and said that the best Advent calendar would be one in which, every time you opened the next day/box, a strange bearded and camel-hair wearing man would jump out and shout, “You brood of vipers!”
John the Baptist gets to shine this time of year in church because he straddles the already but not yet. He sees the new world coming and warns the people of “the wrath that is to come.”
It just happens that the wrath of God is made manifest in the cross that is our salvation.
The church, in Advent, takes up John’s mantle and proclaims the truth that something is coming, and that we do need to prepare for it, but only because to miss it would ruin all the fun.
And yet, there is a strong temptation to make the call for preparation all about our need to finally make the world a good enough place for Christ to arrive. Preachers and pontificators alike will stand up and say things like, “You need to work on your racism, sexism, ageism, stop using styrofoam, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, live simply, practice diversity, give more, complain less, stop drinking so much.”
Which are all worthy things for us to do. But Christ arrives whether we do them or not. Frankly, Christ arrives because we do not do the things we should do. That’s the whole point!
Therefore, we don’t come to church in Advent (or any other time of year) to hear about what we need to do. Instead we come to hear about what’s been done, for us!
Or, as Martin Luther put it, “The Law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”
The sad and bitter truth of this season is that we are “a brood of vipers” and that we have much to repent. And yet, the truly Good News of Advent is that Christ comes for us anyway. That’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years – it is downright terrifying to be loved by God because we simply don’t deserve it.
I’ve long held that the mere writing of a sermon, words on a page, don’t actually make it much of anything. A sermon is only a sermon when it is proclaimed among and for God’s people within the context of worship. The prayers, music, and even presence of individuals make the sermon what it is because the Holy Spirit delights in making the words proclaimed from the pulpit God’s words for us.
And so, I have a sermon that is not really a sermon. I prayed over these words and put them together for the first Sunday of Advent, but became sick prior to Sunday morning and never actually preached them. Oddly enough, I am grateful that I didn’t preach this sermon because Isaiah’s insistence on God’s people beating swords into ploughshares, and my take on what that might mean today, was sure to upset quite a few in the pews. And yet, if we believe the church lives according to God’s future in the present, then perhaps every Sunday is an opportunity to proclaim the radical audacity of our hope in the God “who shall come to judge between the nations.”
Anyway, here’s the text and “sermon”…
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord form Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
We begin at the end.
7 centuries before the Advent of Christ, before the little town of Bethlehem hosted the heavenly host, before the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head, the prophet Isaiah saw a word.
What an interesting turn of phrase.
The prophet doesn’t see a vision, he doesn’t hear a word, he sees the word.
In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and all people will stream to it. A king will come and teach the ways of the Lord, the instruction will command the attention of the masses.
And what does this king teach?
An eye for an eye!
Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!
Life’s hard, get a helmet!
The king will teach the way of peace. He will come to judge the living and the dead. And, in judgment, the people will beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Their weapons of war will become instruments of agriculture.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Even if you’ve never read from the prophet Isaiah, you’ve probably heard these words before. Or, perhaps better put, you’ve seen them, or some version of them.
We’re familiar with these words because they have captivated the imaginations of the faithful for generations, just think of the famous images during protests against the Vietnam war and all the people who placed flowers inside the barrels of guns.
And, interestingly, this prophetic proclamation from Isaiah is engraved in large letters on the wall directly across the street from the United Nations. There they rest, day after day, mocking our feeble attempts to make peace while we continue to lift up our swords against one another.
Isaiah sees the word about the days to come. He does not know when, or even how, these things will come to fruition, but the prophet catches a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos and he seeds the end.
It’s a bit odd that we begin at the end. Today, after all, is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year and we start with the conclusion. But, then again, it’s only right for us to do so because we are Easter people, we’re stuck squarely between the already but the not yet.
There’s a through line in the Gospels, frankly the whole of the strange new world of the Bible, about time. We sees these words about the past, the present, and the future, and it’s not altogether clear which ones are which. And yet, if there is a persistent proclamation, it is that we belong not to this age, but to the age to come. That’s why Paul can write in his letter to the church in Rome, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
We are a people out of time. We live in the future because we know that the tomb is empty.
But the future we live in its not a future that we bring to fruition.
There’s a temptation, every time Advent rolls around, for us to feel like it’s our responsibility to make the world come out right; that its up to us to make the word Isaiah sees real.
To use language from Stanley Hauerwas, we play at waiting this time of year. Advent, after all, is all about patience isn’t it. And yet, for us, it isn’t. We can’t help but make ourselves the main character of the story. We rejoice in this language of getting back to God, of climbing back up the mountain, of making the world a better place.
But, when was the last time we left church jazzed up to turn our swords into ploughshares, or transform our guns into garden shovels?
Did you know that there are more guns in this country than human beings?
The word Isaiah sees is not predicated on us finally getting everything good enough that we can be good enough for God. In fact, its quite the opposite. The end is made possible only as we come to grips with our badness and how badly we need someone to do for us, and to us, that which we cannot do on our own.
Isaiah sees swords turned into ploughshares, a people willing to relinquish their forms of control for forms of sustenance, a people of peace. The strange new world of the Bible is filled with impossible possibilities just like that. The Lord will bring the hills low, and raise the valleys up. The Lord will make the last first, and the first last. The Lord turns a sign of death (the cross), into the sign of life (salvation).
The end is not yet. We Easter people are oddly stuck living in the time of Advent. We exist in the time in between, the time being as Auden put it. We make it through this mortal life waiting and hoping for things not yet seen.
That’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years. We know not all is as it should be, but we also know that the future is coming, and his name is Jesus.
“Building a better future for our children.” I saw that on a sign recently. And I hear those kind of words all the time. Here at church. The PTA. On the news. And, it’s a worthy sentiment. What can we do now to ensure a better and brighter future for the coming generations?
The only problem is, we are not creating the future, and certainly not a better one.
We know what we should and shouldn’t do, and for some reason we refuse to change.
It’s been almost ten years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7, plus 6 adults were murdered. I remember being glued to the television and feeling this raw hopelessness in my heart. And yet, I also remember thinking, “This is so bad, we’re definitely going to make sure these types of things will never happen again.”
But we didn’t.
In just the last two weeks we’re seen horrific shootings in Charlottesville and Colorado Springs. Awful. And we just keep going forward as if nothing happened. We’ve become numb to the violence that we are.
And, sadly, I had to go back and edit this sermon because in between writing it, and preaching it this morning, there was another mass shooting at a Walmart in Chesapeake.
These reports keep coming out, year after year, about how we have a problem with guns in this country. There are too many and the access is too easy. But we do nothing.
We were at the pediatrician’s office a few weeks back, patiently waiting. Talking about living into the Advent season, waiting and waiting and waiting. And what is there to do when you’re waiting in a doctor’s office? You start reading all the random posters on the wall.
Here’s the proper amount of medicine for a 6 year old. Here’s an example of a healthy diet for a ten year old. On and on.
But then I saw a word, a poster on the wall that chilled me to my core:
“Firearms are now the number one cause of death for children in the United States.”
We are not making a better future.
But, thankfully, the future is coming to us. From God.
God is creating our future and that future is our only hope. If it were left up to us, we would continue on paths that lead to destruction. But it is not God’s will that anyone should perish.
Isaiah sees a word that is staggering. Weapons turned into tools for food. People gathering at the mountain. And judgment.
We don’t do well with that word. It sits heavy on our hearts.
But the day of judgment that Isaiah sees is ultimately a day of hope, not of despair. It is a day of restoration, not doom. It is a day of judgment when sin will be no more.
That’s why we pray to God for help.
We need help that is outside of us. We need something done to us. We need this because we’ve had plenty of opportunities to change ourselves, to make things better, and the world keeps going down the toilet.
No wonder God had to send God’s son into the world. We need all the help we can get.
God is in the business of making all things new; yesterday, today, and forever. And the church, as Christ’s body in the world, is not some social club or gathering that provides a distraction from all that is wrong in the world. Instead, the church exists to call a thing what it is. Or, in other words, the church exists to tell the truth.
Advent starts in the dark. It always has and it always will. The texts, the hymns, the prayers, they all beckon our attention to the way things are knowing that that not all is as it should be. It is the season of honesty about who we are, but more importantly whose we are.
We are not making a better future but, as the church, we live according to God’s future in the present. We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales.
The church is God’s weird and wild story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that runs completely counter to everything else in the world.
One day God is going to get what God wants. Swords will be beat into plowshares, guns will be melted into garden shovels. Peace will reign. O church, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 11.1-10, Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19, Romans 15.4-13, Matthew 3.1-12). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ASMR, lectionary cycles, spaghetti with maple syrup, The Muppets Christmas Carol, fear, the word of judgment, righteousness, ecclesial harmony, the magic of music, apple trees, the central advent character, and prophetic insanity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Stumped
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
I’m a stickler for liturgical purity. That is, I feel very strongly about following the liturgical calendar because God’s time is not our time. Therefore, while the community still rests in the comforts of Thanksgiving this Sunday, we’ve already changed the colors in the sanctuary and shifted our theological mood – it’s Advent!
Advent is the great beginning of the Christian year during which we stand firmly between the already, but not yet. We explore the scriptures of the Israelites awaiting the Messiah, while also looking forward to the time when Christ returns to make all things new.
And yet, Advent for me started weeks ago. For as much as I might complain about the stores dragging out Christmas paraphernalia prior to Halloween, we decorate our house way in advance. We do so out of a practical concern since I am busier at this time of year than any other with various church responsibilities, but also because, as Christians, we’re always living in Advent – Advent is who we are.
When the prophet Isaiah paints a picture of the Lord’s house being raised higher than any hill, I think of the joy of the neighborhoods filled with twinkling lights in celebration of the culmination of this season. They provide a different light among times of darkness. However, even the brightest house pales in comparison to the light of the Lord that changes everything.
This Advent, let us rest in between the times, giving thanks for what God has done while also anticipating God making all things new, even us.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Thanksgiving is not a liturgical holiday.
But it could be.
For, what could be more faithful than breaking bread with family (and foes) knowing that Jesus spent his entire ministry doing the same?
And yet, there is a sense in which what happens around the Thanksgiving table is more determinative over our lives than the One who gives us life. Rare is the family that is immune to the political pandering that happens over turkey and mashed potatoes. Gone are the days we could sit back and rejoice without worrying about who will say what and ruin the holiday mood. We, then, approach the table of blessings without feeling like it’s much of a blessing at all.
But what if God is the one calling us together for the explicit purpose of redeeming our Thanksgiving tables? What if this is the year to let forgiveness reign over judgment? What if we took seriously the claim that, as Paul put it, “The Lord is near,” even at the holiday table?
There’s no guarantee that anything good can come out of our Thanksgivings this year, save for the fact that we worship the God of impossible possibility! So keep your eyes and ears open, let your gentleness be known, and rejoice! The Lord is near!
And, in the spirit of bringing a little holiness to a moment that is sometimes devoid of holiness, I’ve put together a little “Thanksgiving Liturgy” that anyone can use. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of faithful clarity to an otherwise bewildering experience…
A Liturgy For Thanksgiving
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is God that made us, and we are God’s; we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture. Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name. For the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations.
The delight of Thanksgiving is both in the thing itself, and what it anticipates. So many other holidays come and go and leave us feeling vacant. And yet, upon the conclusion of Thanksgiving, while we put away all the dishes and say our goodbyes, we do so with the knowledge that Advent is knocking at the door, and with it: Christmas!
Advent is the season of waiting and watching, but what we’re waiting and watching for is already present at our Thanksgiving tables. The splendor of Advent is made manifest in the One who breaks bread with us whenever we break bread: Jesus.
Therefore, let us rejoice in our Thanksgivings, much like we do when we come to the Lord’s Table in church. Advent is already around us, hiding in the basement, laughing upstairs, and dancing in the living room. The unknown day and hour of it bursting into our reality is something worth celebrating, not fearing.
Put another way: God is not our mother-in-law who comes over once a year checking to make sure we’ve kept the house in order and that we haven’t chipped her wedding-present china. Instead, God is like our delightful uncle, who barges in unannounced (and perhaps uninvited!) with a baguette under one arm, and a bottle of wine in the other. We do need to wait and watch for God, but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.
Lord, free us from fear and worry that, trusting in your goodness, we may always praise your mighty deeds and give you thanks for the bounty of your gifts. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 2.1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13.11-14, Matthew 24.36-44). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Handel’s Messiah, Chicago, Advent themes, the house of the Lord, church attendance, Fleming Rutledge, hopes and fears, worldly preferences, divine peace, Good Mythical Morning, progress, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were handed there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you the not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned just, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“Jesus for President.”
That’s what the sign said. I saw it when I was going for a run during a particularly contentious election season (aren’t they all?). In just about every yard there was a red sign or a blue sign, with one name or the other.
I’ve always found political yard signs to be problematic.
I mean, why do we put them up? Do we honestly think anyone has ever changed their vote because of a yard sign?
I think we put those signs up in our yards, and attach them to our bumpers, and post them on Facebook, not because we want to change anyone, but because we want everyone to know where we stand.
We want everyone to know what side we’re on.
And so seeing yard signs is fairly normative. In fact, its the houses without signs that seem strange. Until I saw, “Jesus for President.”
It was so shocking I remember stumbling over my feet and nearly wiping out on the sidewalk.
Jesus for President?
Perhaps someone thought it fitting to cut through the political paraphernalia that year with some sort of prophetic pronouncement. Maybe they really thought Jesus presiding in the Oval Office would be a good idea.
Except, “take up your cross” doesn’t poll well. Turn the other cheek is a strange campaign slogan. And that’s not even mentioning the first will be last, and the last will be first. That doesn’t sound like a milk toast soundbite from a politician, it sounds like a threat.
Jesus for President. It could never work. Particularly since Jesus is already our King – Jesus is Lord.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. A remarkable offering on the liturgical calendar. With Advent hovering on the horizon, churches across the globe gather today with proclamations about the Lordship of Christ. And yet, this is a recent addition to our liturgical observances, as far as those things are concerned. We’ve celebrated Christmas for centuries and marked Easter for millennia, but Christ The King only started in 1925.
Why? Nearly 100 years ago, Pope Pius XI looked out at a world in which Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, Hitler had just published his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, and the economic frivolity the led to the Great Depression was in full effect. And bearing witness to the world at that moment led the Pope to announce a new liturgical holiday – Christ the King Sunday would round out the year to remind Christians across the globe that we have our own King, and it is to him alone we owe our allegiance.
Over the last year we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God who encounters us, we’ve been transformed by the Lord who transforms bread and cup, and all of it, all of the Sundays all of the studies all of the sacraments, they all pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.
That’s the thing about us Christians, everything starts and ends with Jesus. He is the first word and the last word.
And yet, we do well to remember that this King of ours is strange…
Listen, there was a man named Jesus who hailed from the town of Nazareth. He was poor and had no real standing in the world but he preached about the kingdom of God, and he usually drew a pretty good crowd. For centuries the people Israel had suffered hardship after hardship, persecution after persecution, and they waited for the One who was promised. And Jesus said, “I am he.”
Many signs and wonders were done, healings happened, bellies were filled, and the crowds grew until they didn’t. The more he talked the more he was rejected. The more he did the more people grumbled. And he was betrayed, arrested, and condemned to death.
Those two words are tough to admit, or even fathom. But they’re true. At the heart of the Christian witness is the fact that, when push comes to shove, we nail the Son of God to the cross. And, incidentally, it’s why we sing, every Good Friday, “I crucified thee.” The strange new world of the Bible refuses to let us walk away with our hands clean.
The soldiers place a purple robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns upon his head, a cross on his back, and they force him to march to The Skull.
Jesus is painfully quiet in this moment. The gifted preacher and parable teller has no words left to share. The crowds, of course, are loud. Sick with anticipation. Hungry for blood.
And he’s nailed to the cross.
Only here, hung high for all to see, does Jesus speak his first words as king. Make no mistake, this is when Jesus is crowned our king and Lord. And what is his first decree?
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
How odd of God.
With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, “Father, forgive.”
Earlier he commanded us to forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Easy to preach, hard to practice.
On the cross, Jesus dares to pray for his worst enemies. Us.
It’s rather strange that God units ignorance with forgiveness. We usually act and behave as if ignorance is the enemy of forgiveness. We want people to know they’re wrong before we forgive them. We want repentance before mercy.
And yet, for God in Christ, it is always preemptive forgiveness. Forgiveness is the first word.
Jesus doesn’t hang up on the cross until we realize we made a mistake. He doesn’t wait until someone from the crowds shouts, “Um, maybe we went a little too far this time. Sorry Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t forgive after we come to our senses, but right in the thick of our badness, Jesus’ offers his goodness.
Oddly enough, forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out in love, beat God away.
Perfection in the Garden – We reject it for the taste of a little knowledge dangling from a tree.
Unified Community – We reject for selfish desires of power.
Covenanted Relationship – We reject it in favor of other hopes and dreams.
The story of the Bible is the story of our rebellion and foolishness. We worship at the altars of other gods, moving from one bit of idolatry to the next, over and over and over again.
And then, in the midst of our muck and mire, God arrives in the flesh.
Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, fully God and fully human, comes to make all things new, with promises of hope and peace and grace and mercy.
God looks at our miserable estate and condescends to our pitiful existence, God’s attaches God’s self to us sinners, and what happens? We nail God to the cross!
And look at us, with all the means at our disposal, with power and prestige, with sin and selfishness, what happens? We are forgiven.
The first word from the cross, from the throne, is forgiveness.
It’s strange! But then again, it should come as no surprise even though its the most surprising thing in the history of the cosmos. Jesus was forever walking up to people and, without warning, saying to those whom he met, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Have you ever noticed that almost none of them ever asked to be forgiven?
I’ve heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that this moment, when Jesus hangs on the cross, is when God is in total solidarity with humanity. The suffering crucified God.
And yet, that forgiveness is the first word is completely contrary to us. For us, if we forgive, it is almost always with conditions.
We wait around for an apology, we wait for amends to be made, and then (and only then) will we forgive.
Forgiveness is the currency of God’s kingdom. Forgiveness, as Dolly Parton notes, is all there is.
And it’s also the the hardest thing to do.
St. Augustine, theologian and preacher from the 4th century, once preached a sermon on forgiveness, and in the sermon he admonished his congregation because some of them, if not all of them, were omitting the phrase from the Lord’s prayer that said, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespasses us.”
They would let those words remain silent every time they came around, and they would just skip to the next phrase. They refused to say those words, according to Augustine, because they knew they’d be lying if they said them out loud.
Forgiveness is hard, and it always has been.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus preached about it so much, told so many stories about grace, and tossed around forgiveness every where he went. Even on the cross! With nails in his hands, with thieves at his sides, abandoned by his closest friends and disciples, before asking anything for himself, he asks something for us, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Our King rules not with an iron fist, but with an open hand. The first word of the kingdom is forgiveness.
And if that were all, it would be enough to pop every circuit breaker in our minds, it would leave us scratching our heads bewildered at the outcome. We don’t deserve it one bit. Frankly, we deserve nothing. And instead we get everything.
But the story isn’t over!
The first word is forgiveness, a prayer within the Trinity, and then Jesus speaks to the criminal on his side.
The One who was forever accused of consorting with sinners now hangs next to one. The One who ate with sinners now dies with them.
One of the criminals looks at Jesus and says, “C’mon King of the Jews, it’s miracle time! Save yourself and us!”
But the other replies, “Are you not afraid? We deserve what we’re getting, but this guy has done nothing wrong.” And then he looks over to Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Is the thief confessing his sin? Perhaps. At the very least, he owns up to getting what he deserves. But confession has nothing to do with getting forgiven. It is not a transaction, it is not a negotiation. Confession is nothing more than the after-the-last gasp we offer when we know the truth of who we are and whose we are.
We don’t confess to get forgiven. We confess because we are forgiven.
Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon our lives constantly. Preachers proclaim it. We sing about it. We pray for it. And, miracle of miracles, we receive it.
When we confess, we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.
Perhaps the thief is bold to ask Jesus to remember him because he was the first person to hear Jesus’ first word from the cross, “Father, forgive.”
It was almost 100 years ago when Christians across the globe needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a day set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.
Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it reminds us, beats upon us, that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality that our King rules from a cross. It compels us to hear the Good News, the very best news, the strangest news of all: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Amen.
Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Christ the King Sunday started in 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted it through a papal encyclical. Mussolini had been in charge in Italy for three years, a certain rabble rouser named Hitler had just published his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, and economic frivolity that led to the Great Depression was in full effect. And it was at that moment the Catholic Church decided they needed a Sunday, every year, to remind the Christian community that we have our own King and it is to him alone that we owe our allegiance.
Today, nearly one hundred years after the institution of Christ the King Sunday, it is usually overlooked on the liturgical calendar in order to celebrate themes of Thanksgiving. Instead of reading about the lordship of Christ, churches talk about the blessings made manifest through turkeys and potatoes. And, to be clear, that’s all good and fine. However, Christ the King Sunday is a rare and blessed opportunity for the church to be unabashed in our convictions about power, allegiance, authority, and a host of other aspects of our discipleship.
It is the perfect time to be reminded that Jesus Christ is Lord, and everything else is bologna.
The first time I traveled to Guatemala for a church mission trip, we stopped briefly in the town of Chichicastenango, known for its traditional K’iche Mayan culture. We were told to explore for a few hours before returning to the various vans that were taking us to our final destination. And, after only a few minutes of wandering down a variety of streets, I realized I was completely lost.
So I did what anyone else would do: I looked for a higher vantage point to get my bearings. Eventually I found myself on the steps of a very old church. I trudged upward and yet, before turning back to look over the town, something (read: the Holy Spirit) drew me inside the church.
The sanctuary was damp, dark, and devoid of just about anything. The ground under my feet felt like soft soil, the walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires, and the paintings of the walls were so smudged that I couldn’t even tell what they were portraying. The smell of melted candle wax filled my nostrils and I crept closer and closer to what I imagined was the altar.
Frankly, it was one of the least churchy churches I had ever experienced.
Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over a rickety wooden pew and fell on the floor right in front of the Lord’s Table. And there, hovering above my head, was the most pristine sculpture of Jesus that I had ever seen. The Lord stood in complete contrast with everything else in the space. Jesus stood with robes draped over his shoulders, his hand was outstretched as if inviting me closer, and upon his head rested a crown of thorns.
Christ the King.
What kind of king is Jesus? In that Guatemalan church I was confronted with the stark reality of what it means to confess Jesus as Lord. For, while I was surrounded by decay, desolation, and even disregard, Christ stood firmly in front of me as the King of the cosmos. Just as the psalmist proclaimed, I was still before the Lord, and saw God’s exaltation above all things; even death.
Our King reigns from a throne not made by the blood of his enemies, but with his own blood spilled on the cross.
Our King wears a crown not of gold, but of thorns.
Our King rules not by the power of judgment, but through the gift of mercy.
On Christ the King Sunday we confess the truly Good News that our King reigns not above us, but for us, beside us, and with us. Thanks be to God.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ And, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
“A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.”
The Mennonite Central Committee came up with that slogan many years ago and started printing the words on posters. My former professor Stanley Hauerwas was quite taken by the sentiment of the poster, and hung one on his office door more than twenty years ago.
He also hung it up because he likes to stir up controversy whenever possible.
For, over the last twenty years, countless students (and professors) knocked on his door with anger and frustration. Each of them, in their own way, would barge into his office and declare, “Your sign makes me so mad. Christians shouldn’t kill anyone.”
And Hauerwas would reply the same way every single time: “The Mennonites called it a modest proposal – we’ve got to start somewhere.”
The disciples were walking by the temple, like a bunch of tourists with their eyes in the sky, taking in the beauty, and the large stones, and the gifts dedicated to God. And Jesus said to them, “The days are coming when not one of these stone will be left upon another.”
And, of course, the rag-tag group of would-be followers follow Jesus’ proclamation with a question, “How will we know this is taking place? What signs should we look for?”
It’s easy to knock the disciples for their hard-headedness. They’ve had the benefit of hearing and seeing and witnessing Jesus day after day for three years and they still can’t get it through their thick skulls what he’s all about.
But we’re no better.
We’re still obsessed with signs that will clue us in so that we might catch a peek behind the curtain of the cosmos.
The ever-enduring “next thing” demands our attention and allegiance. The next politician. The next prophet. The next program. We hope that one day, the next big thing will finally get it right and set things right. We pour our trust into these fleeting and flawed figures and we are disappointed time and time again. And, worse, we are led astray.
And Jesus warned us this would happen!
Listen – Many will come in my name, Jesus says, and they will lead you away from the kingdom of God. They will tell you that the end is near. Do not listen to them. Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and famines, and pestilence, terror, and great signs from heaven.
We well-meaning Methodists are not necessarily familiar with this type of language, at least in the church. We can hear all about it on the news at night. But here, on a Sunday morning, no thank you. We’re accustomed to hearing about God’s love and the need to be a little kinder toward our neighbors. We’re used to hearing about the relative comfort of the present, rather than being concerned with the terror of the future.
But Jesus, when asked about the possibilities for the future, was upfront about the end. Stones will be thrown down, wars will be waged, famines and plagues. It’s right there in the Bible, and it’s on our televisions, and it’s in our doom scrolling on Twitter.
And we can’t look away.
Paul Zimmer was 19 when the US Army sent him to Camp Desert Rock in 1955 to do something he was totally unprepared for. He wrote about his experience with these words:
“I’d seen pictures of Hiroshima, I knew it was bad, but I thought getting to watch atomic explosions would be kind of cool, a story to interest girls. I had no special training and the first time I had no idea what to expect. We traveled by bus at night out into the desert, chain smoking until we were ordered into the trenches. We wore steel helmets, and our fatigues, but nothing else. I did not become fearful until the countdown was broadcast.
And I only became terrified when I saw the flash; a flash so bright that, even with my eyes closed, I could see the bones of my hands over my eyes. A shockwave crashed over us, and we were ordered out of the trenches. We saw the mushroom cloud, glowing purple and changing colors, rising and rising. I saw 8 atomic blasts in total. Some from the air, some from underground. Some created such massive shockwaves that we were buried in our tenches and we had to claw our way out from our own graves. When clearance was radio’d over, were were ordered to march forward into the blast area and bear witness. As far as I could tell, bearing witness was the only reason we were there. Ozone hung in the air. Maimed animals in every direction. Houses were splintered and scattered. Total devastation. We never had to write reports, nor did anyone ask us what we saw. Because, it turns out, they were watching us. They wanted to see how young men reacted to an atomic blast. Lately, I’ve begun to realize that I am one of the last people living in America to have actually experienced close up explosions of Atomic bombs. Now, in my old age, when I can conjure that brief and surreal period of my youth I try in vain to make sense of it. It has become my responsibility to share how that great flash and blast permanently reached into my young mind and heart. How the sounds still ring in my ears even today. I feel it my duty to tell of the reckless absurdity of it all. We keep threatening to use these weapons, and I am sure that one day we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of, I have not.”
I heard Zimmer’s story years ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. To have experienced what he did, to turn on the news like we do every night with nothing but bad news, it’s easy to feel like the end is near.
And yet, it isn’t.
The end isn’t near, it’s already here. Our faith is predicated on the notion that we have already seen “the end,” that the world has come to a decisive crisis in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In Jesus’ death we believe that the whole history of the cosmos reached a turning point. At that moment, as the sky turned black, as the temple curtain tore in two, as he was nailed to the cross, the conflict between life and death, good and evil, was resolved in favor of Jesus’ lordship over everything.
We know the end because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. We read the last chapter before the introduction. We heard the postlude before the anthem.
God establishes a new kingdom through the cross and it is not dependent on us getting everything solved, or by getting the right person elected, or by finally making the world a better place.
Do you know what the mission of the church is? Our denomination says we exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That’s fine. But it betrays the central claim of the Gospel. God has already transformed the world in the person of Jesus Christ!
The kingdom we live in is based upon what God has done and is doing for us, rather than upon what we do.
The church doesn’t have a mission – we are the mission. Our being is based on the presumption that we are witnesses first and foremost to Christ who is the difference that makes all the difference. We bear the marks of his life that gives life to us and others. Jesus has already made us different.
We, then, don’t exist to make changes, but living in the world made possible by the cross will, naturally, lead to transformation. It will lead to transformation because we embody the joy that comes from being part of Jesus’ body. It will lead to transformation because we can’t rest easy while the world is flushed down the toilet. It will lead to transformation because we know the truth (his name is Jesus) and that peace comes through weakness, not violence.
Paul Zimmer was commanded to bear witness to the power of our self-made destruction. We spend our days bearing witness to the brokenness of the world around us. And yet, more often than not, we dare not question why things are the way they are!
Jesus tells the disciples they will be hated because of his name. I don’t know if any of us here today have ever felt hated because of our discipleship. But I can assure you, the world will hate us if we call into question the powers and the principalities. To question our wanton disregard of the environment, or our obsession with weapons of mass destruction, or our never ending political industrial complex, will put us at odds with the world.
Put another way, in order to bring it a little closer to home, Thanksgiving is coming up, that hallowed occasion to gather with family and friends over a shared meal. Imagine, while seated at the table, when you are up to your elbows in mashed potatoes, what would happen if you said, “Can we have a conversation about our nuclear arsenal?”
I don’t know if you will be hated, per se, but you might not be invited back next year. And yet, to raise such a subject would be, at the very least, faithful!
Hear the Good News: the power of Jesus’ love is such that, even though we will be hated, we will be carried by his love through life. Even in distress we can trust, even in times of fear we can rejoice, because Jesus Christ is Lord.
I heard someone on the news a few weeks ago who expressed a total lack of hope for the future. They waxed lyrical about how politicians keep failing to live up to their promises, how we spend so much money on our military might all while kids go to bed hungry at night, how we willfully ignore the devastation we are wreaking on the environment, on and on.
And I thought, “No wonder they don’t have hope.” They could only imagine their hope being in us, in our ability to make things right. Let me tell you, we are hopeless. We’ve known, for longer than we care to admit, what we should and shouldn’t do, and yet we still continue to do things we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should!
We don’t have a hope in the world, unless the hope of the world comes to dwell among us. Which is exactly what Jesus did.
Jesus says we will be hated because of his name. And yet, we should rejoice because in those moments we will be given opportunities to testify, to bear witness. Which, in the end, is nothing more than living according to the world made new in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord.
The old hymn is right and true: Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Christ is the solid rock upon which we stand, and all other ground is sinking sand.
Wars and rumors of wars will come. Churches will be built, and churches will crumble. Families will grow, and they will fall apart. And even though the world will change, we can hold fast to the truth, we can tell the truth, because we know how the story ends.
When Christ shall come with trumpet sound, O may we then in him we will be found, dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne… On christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, Isaiah 12, 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13, Luke 21.5-19). Mikang is the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including itinerancy, the prophet Isaiah, pandemic preaching, joy, skepticism, Pauline discomfort, deadly sins, apocalyptic imagery, ecclesial hatred, and the difference Christ makes. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Chosen By The Word