The End Is Here

Luke 21.5-19

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. 

We Are What We See

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” 

“If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?” 

That’s how James Lipton ended every interview on Inside The Actor’s Studio. Famous actors would sit before a large audience, answering all sorts of questions about the art and craft of movie-making, and then, at the end, each of them would mull over that last lingering query and have to say something.

George Clooney: “Welcome, c’mon in. Rosemary’s singing, Nat Cole’s on the keys, Buddy Rich is behind the kit, and they’re playing Always.”

Halle Berry: “Your Dad will be so excited to see you.”

Robert Redford: “You’re too early.”

Robin Williams: “Hahahahahahahahahaha.”

And James Lipton, himself, once answered the question this way: “James, you were wrong. I do exist. But you may come in anyway.”

It’s a great equalizer, that question. Most of us spend most of our time doing everything we can to not think about the end. And then, these superstars get real for a moment, and they open up in a way that runs counter to their entire profession.

Well, a few years back, some friends and I started recording conversations with theologians and pastors and regular ‘ol Christians for the podcast called Crackers and Grape Juice. And, because nothing original ever happens in the church, we decided to end the episodes with Lipton’s ten questions from Inside The Actor’s Studio. Some of the other questions include, “What’s your favorite sound?” And “What profession would you not like to attempt?” And “What’s your favorite curse word?”

I love that last one. There’s nothing quite like listening to a somewhat famous Christian shift around back and forth deciding whether to tell the truth, or pick a word like “shucks!”

And, like with Lipton, we end with the infamous, “What would you like to hear God say at the Pearly Gates?”

Most, of course, answer with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

It’s nice knowing Christians can quote the Bible, but that answer is so boring.

We’ve had only a handful of really striking answers to that question, but perhaps the best of all came from Bishop Will Willimon. Will and I went to church together when I lived in Durham, he was one of my professors when I was in seminary, I’ve got a bunch of his books on the shelves in my office. 

Prior to having him on the pod, he had become quite vocal in his denouncements of modern politics in general and the Trump Administration in particular. He wrote op-eds, he rebuked the former President from the pulpit, on and on.

And then when we asked him the question, this is how he answered: “Welcome Will, it’s about time. We’re so happy to have you here. But before you get too settled, the Trump family is over here and they would like to have a word…”

In theological speak: that is a rather robust understanding of the Eschaton.

In church speak: we do well to remember that Heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners.

In normal speak: If grace really is as amazing as we sing it is, then we are going to be surprised by some of the people we discover in Heaven. 

Imagine, if you can, a sermon that doesn’t start with some sort of punchy anecdote, though I do enjoy the one I just shared. Imagine you come to church, you sit down in these pews, and someone gets up here and says: “Blessed are those of you who are poor, who are hungry, who are unemployed, who are going through marital separation, who are afraid of what tomorrow will bring, who are failing in parenting, and who are going through any ordeals.”

You might wonder if the pastor lost his or her marbles.

How could any of those people be blessed?

If a pastor started a sermon in such a radical way, there’s no telling if anyone would still be listening by the end.

But here’s the rub: In the kingdom of the world, the kingdom we think pulls all the strings, if you are poor you are treated like a curse. If your marriage is falling apart, then you are cut off from your friends. If you’re failing in your parenting, then your children go off the rails and the birthday party invitations stop coming in. If you’re going through any type of ordeal, you’re largely left to your own devices.

There’s nothing blessed about going through an ordeal.

At least, not according to the world.

But sermons, and all of worship for that matter, they are not about the kingdom of the World. If they are about anything, they are about Jesus and his kingdom.

The kingdom of God.

And yet, we are so embedded in the world’s way of existence, that we live in constant kingdom confusion.

We can only act within a world, or a kingdom, we can see. What we do in church, through our singing and our praying and our listening and our responding, it’s all about painting a picture.

I know that, at times, church can feel like a program for betterness. That, all things considered, we’re a bunch of good people getting good-er all the time. A sermon can end with a call to social action, or the announcements can pull at our hearts strings in terms of being better paragons of virtue in the community. 

But the truth is a harder pill to swallow. We are not a collection of nice people getting nicer, we’re actually a bunch of bad people who gather with other bad people so that we can cope with our inability to be good.

Therefore the church, properly considered, exists to open our eyes, that we might see, glimpses of truth, Thou hast for me.

The church is not the world and the world is not the church. The world will always tell us that the most important things are first, best, found, big, and alive. But the church stands as a stark contrast with the reminder that Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Which, whether we like it or not, eventually includes each and everyone of us.

Jesus can say, in his sermon on the mount, blessed are the poor, and those who mourn, and those who thirst not because he is describing a program for what makes the world a better place. Instead, Jesus uses such striking language to push our vision to the limits so that we might see something so new, so different from everything else have ever seen, and begin to realize that we cannot rely on our older images of what is and what is not.

Put another way: The strange new world of the Bible doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to do. Instead, it paints a picture of who God is. 

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

John the Revelator sees what we, more often than not, cannot.

The great multitude in the Eschaton, from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They sing and the worship together forever and ever. But, oddly, John does not know who they are. And the elder has to answer his question, and ours: they are those who have gone through the great ordeal. 

John catches a glimpse of what Jesus’ promises. In the last days, it is by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that we shall rejoice at the Supper of the Lamb. No amount of suffering can stop God from getting what God wants. Each and every one of us will experience ordeals in this life because we live on this side of the end. But, in the same way, there is no amount of good works or repentance that can earn us anything in the resurrection of the dead. In the kingdom of heaven it is by the blood of the Lamb that the sins of the world are taken away. 

Contrary to the often-used joke about St. Peter’s manning the gates to Heaven, there is no bouncer checking the IDs of our goodness before we are swept up into the party. Actually, there might be a bouncer. But if there is a bouncer, his name is Jesus, and he has torn town all the barriers that would ever prevent us from getting in.

Here’s the promise, the promise of God and the promise of scripture and the promise of faith – we will hunger no more, we will thirst no more, the sun will not strike us nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb will be our shepherd.

This is our comfort and our hope. And there is good reason for us to hear this promise today. It is good for us today because some of us are hungry right now. We hunger for literal food and we hunger for righteousness. Some of us are thirsty for clean water to drink just as others thirst for the waters of baptism that remind us who we are and whose we are.

On and on John speaks of his vision into our lives realities here and now.

But what does the vision mean? We can’t help ourselves from such a question, earthly creatures that we are. I long for the days when images and visions are enough on their own without us having to probe for every little meaning. But, perhaps today, we can at least answer the question with this: 

John’s vision reminds us that not all is as it should be right now.

There’s a sentiment we sometimes share with one another, particularly when we don’t know what else to say: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

And, though its true, we often offer it as a denial of the truth of the world. There are plenty of things to frighten us. We know the depths of pain and the banality of evil. We sit in a sanctuary that is decorated with a cross!

We, therefore, tell the truth of what is happening among the powers and principalities in the world not as denial of their presence, but as a reminder that though they exist, they don’t get the final word.

God gets the first, and the last word. And that word is Jesus.

All of the multitudes gathered in John’s vision are there only because of the last word. We now see what John’s sees because it gives us the strength to live in a world such as ours. 

Consider: The robes are made clean by the blood of the Lamb. We can’t make ourselves clean. We all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.

As the old prayer book put it, we are miserable offenders.

We can absolutely try to make the world less of a mess for ourselves and others, we can even come with ideas on how to make it more bearable. But any programs for progress or better strategies for better behavior will fail to do what we really need. It those things worked, we would’ve fixed all the worlds problems by now and no one would ever go through an ordeal. 

What we really need is a Savior – we need someone to save us. And that’s exactly what God does for us in Christ Jesus.

Salvation is a gift offered by the only one who can give it: God in Christ. When we know that this gift is given, that it cannot be taken away, it starts to change everything else. Living in the light of grace compels us to be graceful toward ourselves and others.

John helps us to see that, in the end, when all is said and done, when the forces that sometimes cause us to suffer and weep and mourn are vanquished, the once crucified Lamb shall reign at the center of the throne. Every tear will be wiped away not because we have made it so, but because we worship God who reigns above and below. 

Believing is seeing. Amen. 

Who’s In Charge Here?

Revelation 1.4-8

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

There’s a moment that happens every single Sunday without fail. It doesn’t matter what the context is, or what music is offered, or even what scripture is read. 

It happens right before I stand right here.

There’s a silence.

An eerie silence.

Perhaps it sounds different to me than it does to all of you. Your experience of the strange silence might be born out of discomfort or awkwardness.

But as far as I can tell that moment happens every week and its special; there is true attention and silence. And in that silence there is hope.

People like you and me hope, even for but a moment, that this time we will hear an answer to the question: Is it true?

Sadly, more often than not, that hoped for question isn’t even addressed. And if it is, it is only done so indirectly. There’s an assumption that, just by being here, we all assume all of it to be true.

But that’s not right. I think we’re all here, the tall and the small, the first and the last, the believer, half-believers, and unbelievers, because we want to have our question answered.

Is it true?

Today is the second Sunday of the season we call Eastertide. It stretches all the way from Easter Sunday up to Pentecost Sunday, its the great 50 days. Every Sunday in this season is a little Easter in which we re-celebrate the most amazing thing ever to take place in the cosmos.

And let me tell you: you all are a special bunch. There is something remarkable about those in worship for the second Sunday of Easter. You’re here because you know that following the Lord is more than just being present for the big moments. You’re clued in to what takes place behind the curtain of the cosmos. You’ve experienced the Lord in such a way that you can’t imagine being anywhere else doing anything else.

But, we must confess, we of the second Sunday of Easter crowd, that the promises of Easter are not yet fully realized.

We need only turn on the television, or scroll through Twitter, to be reminded that not all is as it should be.

I, myself, riding the incredible wave of Palm Sunday worship was deeply grieved to receive a phonemail the Monday of Holy Week that my oldest friend in the world took his own life the night before.

We sang some good old gospel hymns down in Memorial Hall on Maundy Thursday, we shared the body and the blood of our Lord, and my family and I had to jump in the car to drive up to Alexandria so that I could speak at my friend’s service of death and resurrection the next day.

Not all is as it should be.

Easter Sunday, exactly one week ago, it was remarkable! First sunrise service in 100 years, the First Light Band had the whole sanctuary clapping, even our children shouted out the Good News in song and shakers. 

All told we had more than 300 people in worship last Sunday! Truly remarkable.

And, I’m no mathematician, but I don’t see 300 today.

Why is that? Why are there those who only darken the doors of the church twice a year? 

Much has been made of the so-called Chreasters, the C and E crowd. They come because of familial obligation, or guilt, or tradition. There’s a hope, even if people like me refuse to admit it, that one year they will actually all return the next Sunday. 

But the longer I do this, the more I understand that the church swells at Christmas and Easter because those who don’t normally attend know they have a better than good chance of hearing nothing but Good News: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” and “Christ the Lord is risen today!”

Part of the challenge is that we always proclaim the joy of the resurrection, in song, sacrament, and sermon, to people who, admittedly, feel like those two on the road to Emmaus. We know something has happened, but life beckons us elsewhere. 

It is true?

John the Revelator certainly seems to think so.

I don’t know what you know of John of Patmos and his epistle of Revelation. It is, perhaps, the most misunderstood book in the Bible and yet, at the same time, the most important. It, like the concluding chapter of any good book, ties everything together. But to drop in at the very end, without knowing the beginning or the middle is a recipe for disaster.

There are some wild bits to this book, some that we will encounter over the next few weeks, but, as GK Chesterton noted, “John saw many strange monsters in his vision, but he never saw a creature so wild as those who try to explain it all.”

John, whoever John was, wrote for a people living in a time in-between. They were stuck squarely between the already but the not yet, planted in the time before the end time.

You know, people just like us.

Easter people, while all is not as it should be.

Oddly enough, even with its bizarre images and confounding cassations, Revelation is an odyssey of encouragement. It tells us who we are, who God is, and what is the world is going on in the world.

To put it simply, it tells us the truth.

John begins, rather abruptly, with the decisive declaration that Jesus is Lord and King of the cosmos. He was, he is, and he will be. 

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one who remains steadfast even when we don’t, he points to the real things that matter in this life, and he is committed to doing so no matter what.

Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead, he is the one who, by death and resurrection, makes possible an impossibility, that in our deaths we are raised to new life. 

Jesus Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth, he is the one in charge.

I wonder though, if we actually believe that, or if we trust that to be true. I think, all things considered, it’s not difficult to affirm that Jesus is faithful, and that Jesus is risen. If it looks like Good News and it sounds like Good News. But Jesus being the ruler of the kings of the earth?

Its like a church meeting I remember attending long ago, certainly not something that would ever happen here, where we gathered for an important conversation, debate, decision making, and as we gathered voices were raised, accusations were made, and when finally came to the end of our appointed time, fists clenched, no wiser than we were when we stared, someone present had the audacity to ask if we might end our time in prayer.

I thought, “What for? We certainly didn’t behave like God was in the room, why invite the Lord in now?”

You see, when Jesus is in charge everything changes. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets better. Have you read about the stuff he got up to the in the backwater towns of Galilee?

Are we sure we want Jesus to be in charge?

From the very beginning he predicted that those in power would reject him, and they did. I would say that’s strike one. Jesus has the gall to call all kinds of people who have no business being in the kingdom business. I mean, fishermen for disciples? Tax collectors for apostles? What’s next, bankers for Sunday school teachers? Lawyers on the mission committee?

Jesus is risky and foolish, spending all of his time among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. If we ever want to make the world a better place, we need a leader who’s going to spend time with the first, the best, the found, the big, and the lively.

What kind of leader forgives betrayers? What kind of ruler leaves ninety-nine behind to find the one who is lost? What kind of king hosts a banquet and invites everybody to attend?

Jesus.

John reminds us, across the centuries, through the power of words that Jesus is the one in charge, and in his infinite and confounding wisdom, he loves us, he has freed us from our very worst mistakes, and he has made us into a new people who will always feel like strangers in a stranger land. 

And, to be clear, being in charge doesn’t mean being in control. If God in Christ is the author of every war, cancer diagnosis, and car crash then God isn’t worthy of our worship. But as the one in charge it means that God in Christ is the one we follow. He leads the way.

It is to Jesus, John says, that we owe our allegiance because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves – he makes a way where there is no way. He, himself, is Easter for us.

The key according to the Revelator, the important truth that will be brought up again and again, is that it’s all up to Jesus. We can absolutely respond to what Jesus has done, we can even take up our crosses to follow, but he’s the one in charge, he gets all the good verbs. He, to put it plainly, is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and the Z.

Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life for people like you and me, the good and the bad and the ugly. 

The message of Revelation, of the one who is, and was, and is to come, is that it isn’t over yet. Easter is still happening. Until we all feast at the Supper of the Lamb, we will live in the in-between – the place where we vacillate between mourning and dancing, crying and laughing. 

Every Easter we make the same declaration – Christ is risen! But that’s a little deceptive. It is true, but we have more to say: Christ is risen, and he’s in charge. Amen. 

Foolishness

1 Corinthians 15.35-38, 42-50

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed it’s own body. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus is is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 

A United Methodist Bishop received a chain saw one Christmas and quickly went to work with it. And then, on New Year’s Eve, the chainsaw slipped, grabbed ahold of his sleeve, threw him to the ground, and in a matter of seconds did some serious damage and he was rushed to the emergency room.

The bishop later reflected that, while riding in the back of the ambulance and the sirens were ringing, if he died because of blood loss, he hoped that his wife would be smart enough to tell everyone that he died chopping firewood for poor orphans.

While in reality he was really just trimming some hedges that weren’t yet in need of trimming.

However, he didn’t die.

Though at moments he wished he did.

He went through serious surgery and was stuck in the hospital for quite some time while he recovered.

And, it was during this time that a well intentioned chaplain entered the room and offered “pastoral presence.” The bishop had enough pastoral presence in his life, but he motioned for the young man to come in. The chaplain looked over the bandage wrapped around his arm and asked, “Are you a Christian?”

The bishop replied, “Sometimes.”

“Well then,” the chaplain intoned, “I suppose your accident caused you to do a lot of praying?”

And that’s when the bishop realized that throughout his whole ordeal he hadn’t felt moved to prayer in the slightest. He shared, later, that his lack of prayer was not due to a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal. The bishop was quick to note that there are scores of healing stories in scripture, that Paul considered healing a sign of God’s active grace, that the book of Acts points to the power of Christ working to heal through the disciples, and that even James the brother of Jesus calls for the people called church to pray of the sick that they might be healed.

Why then was he, a bishop in the church, so reluctant to pray?

At first he wondered if his lack of prayer could be attributed to the fact that God had better things to do with more people in need than his little chainsaw accident. But the more he thought about it, the more he thought about his aversion to the regular prayer requests he had received countless time before throughout his ministry.

That is, he was sick and tired of everyone being sick and tired in their prayers.

We’re at the tail end of what we call the season after Epiphany. Transfiguration is coming. Ash Wednesday is coming. Lent is coming. We will shortly make the journey inward to confront the condition of our own condition leading up to the cross on Good Friday, and yet, we’re still dealing with the shock of the incarnation.

Sure, most of us have packed away all the Christmas decorations weeks ago. Though, if you drive around the neighborhood around the church, you’re still likely to catch quite a few Christmas lights dangling from gutters.

But the proclamation of Christmas is one that lingers even when we move through different liturgical seasons. God, bewilderingly, refused to stay above and instead got down and dirty with us, in the flesh, and moved in next door, as it were.

Jesus, fully God and fully human, chose to be a people, a family, what we now call church.

We are the body of Christ in the world.

And how is our body faring?

Some of us we are tracking our calories constantly, or our exercising doesn’t count unless we can post it somewhere on social media. Some of us are struggling to fall asleep at night as we run through the list of things that terrify us. Some of us are making plans for the next degree, or the next job, or (heaven forbid) the next spouse.

We’re obsessed with our bodies and our physical well being. It dominates our prayers to the degree that if we ever ask someone to pray for us there’s a better than good chance that our request has to do with our, or someone else’s, body.

It dominates our waking, and sleeping life, so much so that many of us have devices strapped to our wrist that not only tell us if we move enough during the day but also if we’re getting the right kind of sleep at night.

And for those of you keeping score at home, I’m wearing one of them right now!

Our health and well being, or lack thereof, is constantly being reinforced through commercials designed to sell us on bodies that we will never have and beauty magazines that will only ever make us feel ugly.

And here’s the Christian message in the midst of all of it: it’s not up to you.

Your salvation isn’t up to you.

You can’t earn it through perfect church attendance on Sunday mornings.

You can’t earn it by giving more through the offering plate than the person next to you.

You can’t earn it from developing an 18 pack of abs.

You can’t earn your salvation because it is a gift given by the only One who can: God.

And yet, the gift of salvation, our very resurrection from the dead, means that our bodies matter today. It means that, once we come to grips with what God did and does, our being in the world changes.

The Corinthians to whom Paul writes his epistles, the Christians he derides for their foolishness, were living as if their bodies no longer mattered – they were giving in to their desires to such a degree that it was harming themselves as individuals and as a community. They were getting drunk on the wine from communion, they were trading bedfellows, they were letting their flesh and blood dictate everything about who they were.

And Paul says, “No! Listen: we’re not there yet. We’re still in our bodies in this mortal life, but the resurrected life is coming.”

Our bodies are important. As I’ve noted before – Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one. It’s why we baptize with water, and we share bread and cup. It’s why we take seriously the needs of the hungry, and the poor, and the outcasts. And it’s why we are bold to pray for the health and well being of ourselves and others. 

But all of that is a long cry from the obsessiveness that we have with our own bodies today.

None of us have the body that we really wish we had. And if we do, we resent how much work it takes to make our bodies look and feel that way. And the older we get, the more we discover that our bodies are not as trustworthy as we thought they once were. 

Certain foods don’t sit like they used to. It’s harder to lose the holiday weight. No amount of lotions and creams can make our wrinkles disappear. And that’s not even mentioning the inability of our bodies to ward away sickness.

The bodies we are in can’t be, and won’t be, perfect.

Paul puts it this way: the flesh is weak.

That’s why he admonishes the Corinthians to not give in to each and every little desire while, at the same time, he reminds them (and us) that we need not beat ourselves up over whether or not we look and feel like we want to look and feel.

Certainly, there are moments during Jesus ministry when he healed those in need, but those moments are remarkably ambiguous. He didn’t heal every sick person in Judea, and even when he did heal he often told people to not tell anyone about it.

Whatever Jesus’ mission was, it was about more than physical restoration.

Consider: Each and every person that Jesus did heal eventually died.

Even Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again.

Outside of scripture we should note that churches were the location for, and eventually created some of, the very first hospitals because taking care of the last, least, lost, little, and dead is part of the work of God.

But only recently has our obsession with our bodies come to dominate just about every aspect of life.

Including our prayers.

That’s not how Jesus prayed, nor it is how Jesus taught us to pray. Bread and trespasses are mentioned in the Lord’s prayer, but our illness and discomfort are not. I have heard prayers and I myself have prayed prayers about every medical diagnosis you can imagine, but I rarely pray for God’s strength to help me love my enemies, I’m not often asked to pray for someone to have the courage to actually forgive the person that harmed them. 

Prayer is, and must be, more than bringing our wish lists to Jesus, asking him for occasional help when our bodies are no longer functioning the way they are supposed to. 

Prayer, instead, is the risky attempt to let Jesus speak.

That bishop, the one who nearly cut his arm off, the one who didn’t pray in the hospital, he said he was ultimately reluctant to clasp his hands together in petition because the last thing he wanted was to risk a visit from Jesus, who usually shows up making our lives harder and not easier.

The bishop also said that one of the joys of following Jesus (and he used joy sarcastically) is that Jesus usually shows up even when we don’t pray, and sometimes because we don’t pray. 

He experienced Jesus in learning how to be dependent on someone else in his healing, something that most of us avoid at all costs – we never want to be a burden.

He experienced Jesus in the reminder of his own fragility, and his destiny to return to the dirt from which he was created.

He experienced Jesus as the only hope in the world he really had, because were his salvation up to himself, he really would be a lost cause.

There was a time when health didn’t mean just freedom from pain and physical discomfort – health meant wholeness, even holiness. And sometimes holiness is nothing more than coming to the realization that what makes the Good News good is that it isn’t up to us – it’s up to God.

Which is foolishness according to the world. The world bangs us over the head every chance it gets about the need for us to be self-made creatures, to make our own destinies, to pull ourselves up by our boot straps.

Grace, from that perspective, is complete foolishness. It is everything for nothing. It is a divine lark in the midst of overwhelming frustration. It is the only thing we need and the only thing we don’t deserve.

Our bodies will fail us, but God won’t. Maybe some of us will be fortunate enough to experience some divine healing in this life, but all of us have already received the greatest healing of all – the gift of salvation.

In the end, the only thing we have to do is trust God. And when we do that, well, then we’re living in grace and by grace.

No matter what happens to us in the course of that trust – no matter how many things we do or leave undone – if we can trust that God, by death and resurrection, has made all things new, then we can rest in our gift and relax. 

The whole diorama of all our mediocre performances (which is all we can ever really offer anyway) can’t stop the Love that refuses to let us go. If Jesus refused to condemn us because our works were rotten, then he certainly isn’t going to flunk us if our bodies aren’t perfect. 

Do you see? That means we can fail again and again and still live in the life of grace.

Because, at the very worst, all we can be is dead and for the One who is Alpha and Omega, that’s no trouble at all. Amen. 

The End Of The World (As We Know It)

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Advent [C] (Jeremiah 33.14-16, Psalm 25.1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the new year, Advent 1 recommendations, mandolins, Vince Guaraldi, Die Hard, divine promises, sacramental arrivals, sins, keeping the cross in Christmas, bullying, incarnational prayers, apocalyptic anticipation, and the end of the beginning. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The End Of The World (As We Know It)

To Hell And Back

Mark 9.38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?

Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith! 

So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?

Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.

We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject. 

And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.

The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.” 

We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big   columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?

Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”

And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”

But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”

But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”

This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school. 

Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.

A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.

Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.

To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident. 

Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.

Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna. 

Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again. 

That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps. 

We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.

It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now. 

And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna. 

It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.

One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.

Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners. 

That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.

Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!

Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.

Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.

The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity. 

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. 

And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.

Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins. 

Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.

Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.

Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.

We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.

The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.

But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do. 

But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.

All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition. 

Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.

In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.

Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.

Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.

That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.

Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.

Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen. 

Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lauren Lobenhofer about the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent [B] (Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3.8-15a, Mark 1.1-8). Lauren serves as the senior pastor at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including beginning again, Lauren Winner, comforting in chaos, divine reversal, unpacking peace, worship at war, Dr. Who, slowing down, divine grammar, and embodying Advent. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey

Knowing The End At The Beginning

Devotional: 

Isaiah 9.6 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

Weekly Devotional Image

A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas and it was the first time she ever asked about the holiday and why it was something they celebrated. The father explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked about it the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a illustrated Bible and began reading to her every night.

And she loved it.

They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and his teaching, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from the Lord like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So the father would share thoughts about how Jesus teaches his followers to treat people the way they want to be treated. They read and the they read and at some point the daughter simply declared, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas, they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix right out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss as was the figure nailed to it. The daughter pointed out the window and said, “Dad, who’s that?”

The father realized in that moment that he never told his daughter the end of the story. So he began explaining how the man on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because is message was so radical, and that they thought the only way to stop his was to kill him. And they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of Christmas, the Preschool where his daughter attended was closed for Martin Luther King Jr. day and the father decided to take the day off and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. When they were sitting at the table waiting for their food at the restaurant, the daughter saw the front page of the local newspaper laying across the next table with a picture of MLK’s face on it. And the daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad, who’s that?” 

“Well,” he began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

She said, “For Jesus?”

The father replied, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat everyone fairly no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like du unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The father laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl lowered her gaze to the table and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and said, “Dad, did they kill him too?”

Away-In-A-Manger

Kids get it. They make connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2019 has been a strange and rough years with all the political rhetoric and partisanship, with all the suffering of individuals and communities across the world, kids still get it.

The baby in the manger is the same person who hangs on the cross. 

That’s a difficult and challenging word for those of us who like our Christmases unblemished, who want to think only of the precious new born child without having to confront what will be done to him at the end of his days. But he was a child born for us, who came to make a way where there was no way, and his story has changed our stories forever. 

Or, to put it another way, we cannot make sense of the beginning without knowing the end. 

The End Is Our Beginning

Luke 21.25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heaven will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

I was in Richmond for most of the week completing the final retreat in my year long leadership program. Every other month a group of clergy retreated from our churches to reflect on how we have led while praying for God to show us the right way to lead. 

On Wednesday evening, upon completing the lectures and break out sessions for the day, we gathered to worship in a small chapel on the property of the retreat center. We prayed together, we lifted up our voices together, and we listened together. I could still feel the Spirit’s presence washing over me at the end of the service when one my colleagues asked if any of us wanted to join him for a drive to go look at some Christmas lights.

If you know anything about me, after being cooped up listening to speakers and participating in self-reflection, driving around to look at blinking lights sounded light the best possible way to end the evening. So a group of us scrunched up in one car and we began our journey. 

There were plenty of homes in that part of Richmond with the requisite strand of lights hanging from a gutter, or the solitary electric candles standing starkly in every window. But there was one home that glowed in such a way that would make Clark Griswold proud, and it was our final destination. 

Across the lawn there was not a foot of space that wasn’t adorned with an inflatable character, a string of lights, or a mechanical animal. You could even tune your radio to a particular station playing Christmas music to which the lights were coordinated. The house had a hotshot driveway so that you could drive onto their property at the expected 2 miles/hour and soak it all in.

I wish I could appropriately convey in words the sheer depth and breadth of what we experienced. And remember: we were a group of trained theologians, properly educated and reserved in our beliefs, and yet all of our faces were pressed tightly against the windows.

Xmas_lights_DC

There was the giant blinking “LET IT SNOW” on the roof top, there was a projector displaying Santa Claus packing up is sleigh before the midnight departure, and there was a set of inflatable elves playing instruments in rhythm with “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree.”

There were at least 4 full sets of reindeer attached to their own respective sleighs, there was a strange assortment of Santa Clauses in every shape, size, and color, and there was a palm tree decorated as if it were a Christmas tree.

There was a section with holiday adorned characters including Mickey Mouse, Lightning McQueen, a gaggle of Minions, and a small Darth Vader, R2D2, and Yoda.

We did the loop three times.

And it was only during the final pass through, while we were all laughing and giggling with the joyful experience that I realized something strange – there in the midst of all the lights and color, all of the sounds and movement, was only one tiny manger scene tucked away in the corner, as if it was an after-thought.

It looked like they were excited about Christmas, but almost forgot about Christ.

It is strange to gather in this place and at this time with all of the expectations of the world – The Christmas carols started playing on the radio before Thanksgiving, the department stores had up the decorations even before Halloween, and some of us did our holiday shopping months ago.

And now we come to church, to finally catch up with the season we’ve been preparing for and what do we hear about from God’s word? There’s no mention of Santa, we don’t learn about a young virgin named Mary, we don’t even catch a glimpse of a cute baby all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.

No. Today we get the end instead of the beginning.

Spruce Tree branch on Wood Background

This is not the sweet Jesus away in the manger. It is the stern adult Jesus picturing the whole of the universe being shaken and turned upside down.

But what about the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style? What happened to all the falalalalalalalalas? Where are the chestnuts roasting on an open fire?

Advent, for better or worse (mostly worse) has moved very far from what it once was. Now, we imagine it as this awful time of participating in the virtue of patience up until Christmas morning during which we get to cut loose and open up all the gifts. But thats not really what Advent is all about.

Advent it the recognition that we are people stuck in the middle – We are living in the in between.

We already know what happens on Christmas morning, we are aware of the Messiah child named Jesus and what he will do for the world, and yet we are waiting for his return. 

And we do this, as Christians, all in the midst of a horribly unpredictable world. We are certainly a people of patience, but it is a confused patience. We wait for his arrival, we wait for his return, and yet we know where he is.

It’s enough to give you a headache.

But that’s Advent! Head-scratching, incarnating, frustrating, waiting. 

The End, whatever that may mean, is so often shrouded in fear and foreboding. The wayward person carrying around the sign “The End Is Near” is not often regarded with joy or gratitude. The End raises the hair on the back of our necks and we feel the beginnings of existential dread. 

And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it with the disciples – things are going to be bad. The whole of the cosmos will experience the dynamic shifting of things from the sun to the moon to the stars and to the earth itself. There will be distress among the nations and the peoples of the planet who won’t be able to make sense of the senseless changes. 

People are going to faint from fear when they begin to experience what it coming upon reality for everything will lose its sure foundation.

And then they will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory.

Jesus speaks to us, his disciples, throughout the gospel texts with a repeating message: “The world will fall apart around you but you need not be afraid – I have overcome the world! Be patient in your waiting, just before the dawn, because in the midst of the darkness there are strange and even redeeming events afoot.”

That’s Advent in a nutshell roasting on an open fire – Look up, pay attention, and be ready. Advent compels us to prepare ourselves for the two arrivals of God coming into our world and Jesus returning to the world at a time we do not know.

This is how we begin the Christian year – not with a moralistic lecture on making good resolutions and sticking to them and not a recap of our failures from the past and the descriptions of the new steps we need to take into the future. Instead, on this first Sunday of the year, we spend our time thinking about the end of the story. 

As Christians we are forever beginning at the end.

Jesus names and claims the truth about the end, all things will pass away, but he doesn’t leave the disciples with their tails tucked between their legs: Consider the fig trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these crazy and frightening things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

This prophetic and apocalyptic vision of the future is all about expectation and anticipation. Though not necessarily the types we are used to. 

You and I are living in a time where hope is limited to that which we can often imagine; we go through the motions waiting for something, but without really knowing what that something is. And so we get used to the stores having the decorations up months in advance, and we shrug our shoulders when we see the almost forgotten manger scene tucked away in the corner.

But the kind of real anticipation that Advent contains is the anticipation for the end of time, my time and your time and everything in between, AND the fulfillment of all the God has made and redeemed. 

If we imagine the end at all we often do so with such stark and negative terms, but consider this: Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to new life! Look at the fig free, look at the new budding branches, new life is the sign of the end.

How wonderfully strange!

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Jesus is describing the anticipated and expected reign of God’s kingdom on earth, and though he speaks of the fabric of life falling apart he also does so with descriptions of summer and new beginnings, not winter and barrenness. For some strange reason we miss that beautiful and hope-filled little detail and instead we focus only on what will be destroyed and decimated.

But friends, there are plenty of things in our world that need to be destroyed. There are many things that have to be abandoned. There are plenty of things that need to be crucified.

The fear of a man who stayed inside of a UMC in North Carolina for 11 months hoping to achieve legal status before being abruptly arrested and deported last week.

The anger of parents who sit in worship on Sunday morning even though they know their church believes their child is incompatible with Christian teaching.

The hopelessness of a child who goes to sleep hungry every night wondering if anything will ever change. 

Some things need to be destroyed because the message of the Good News is that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion, we cannot discover who we are without abandoning our false identities, and we cannot have new life without destruction.

Advent is the season we celebrate new life – Jesus’, our own, and the new reality made possible by our God. We live in a time and among those who wish to see the world fizzle out in a tiny smoldering fire, but the Lord promises to return to us in a glorious way and is already bringing us signs of new life and peace.

And so Jesus beckons us to look for the new sprouts and signs of new life. Because it is in the opening of our eyes that we how the end is in fact our beginning. Amen. 

The Beginning Of The End

Mark 13.1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ And they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise up against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” 

This might be our least favorite Jesus. We prefer the Jesus who fed the 5,000 gathered to hear him speak. We like rejoicing in Jesus’ greatest parables like the Prodigal Son and the 

Good Samaritan. We enjoy reflecting on Jesus’ final evening with his friends while passing bread and wine around the table.

But the apocalyptic Jesus? No thank you!

Jesus and his disciples are walking through Jerusalem and the temple is casting a shadow over everything (literally and figuratively). It captivates the hearts and imaginations of all who walk in its shade, and it is the pivotal focus of their faith. It stands as a beacon to all with eyes to see regarding the power and the glory of God.

And the disciples can’t help but marvel in the giant stones and the large buildings. Like kids seeing a skyscraper for the first time they probably kept fumbling over their feet while their eyes were stuck in the sky.

Jesus had led them all through Galilee ministering to the last, least, and lost, but now they are in Jerusalem, rubbing shoulders with the very people who fear Jesus the most.

It was probably Peter who keeps his finger pointed up high with every passing arrangement of architecture and Jesus says, “Psst. You want to know a secret?”

The disciples frantically move to get close enough to hear the Good News.

“All of this stuff is going to be destroyed.”

“Now wait just a minute Jesus! This temple has stood for centuries. You mean to tell us the pinnacle of all that we hope for and that we believe in will crumble?”

“Yep.”

Later, they’re sitting on the Mount of Olives, opposite the temple, and they bring it up again: “Seriously Jesus, when is this going to happen? What will be the signs of the times so we know what to expect?”

“My friends, beware that no one leads you astray with empty promises about the end. There will be plenty of people who come in my name declaring profound change, and messianic power. They will lead many down the wrong path. But when you hear about wars and destruction, do not be alarmed; all of this must take place. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines. There will be wars. But all of this is just the birth pangs, the beginning of the end.”

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Big and towering buildings are not supposed to crumble to the ground. Oceans are not supposed to leap out and cover the dry land. The earth is not supposed to shake and tremble.

We are not supposed to lose the people we love. 

But then it happens. 

Those who witness such unfortunate and frightening sights not only lose things that are dear and precious to them – like the countless families whose homes and properties have burned to the ground in California. But in a very real sense they have also lost their innocence. 

They now know that something they once believed to be a sure thing is no longer trustworthy. 

These images, both in scripture and in our lives, are what we might call apocalyptic. They signal to those with eyes to see the destructive forces of the world such that reality seems to be pulling at the seams. But thats not what apocalypse means.

An apocalypse is a revelation from God – it is a vision of a timeless reality. It is the past. It is the present. It is the future.

Jesus’ friends saw the temple as the end-all-be-all of faithful living, and he quickly brushed it aside to say that even the brick and mortar will fall away. 

Don’t put your faith in the buildings and in the structure. Keep your faith in the Lord who reigns forever.

But we don’t like this Jesus; he’s frightening!

These words are tough to swallow in our comfortable and contemporary condition. What if the things we cling to most are just illusions? What happens when those things we so elevate come crashing to the ground? How have we so forgotten these words from Jesus?

Take a look around for just a moment at our sanctuary… None of this will last. Everything has its time. But we deny it again and again. Look at the pews, there’s a reason they’re bolted to the floor! They are made to feel far more permanent than they really are.

All of this will disappear. All of our great monuments are temporary – not just in the church but in the world at large. 

And we don’t have to be seasoned with life to know that this is true. Each of us here, in some way, shape, or form, know about the finitude of things. We all kind of know, whether we like to admit it or not, that all life is loss.

Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing…

We try to deny the truth, we erect giant edifices, we worship our architecture as if it was here from the beginning, and we believe that are favorite institutions are too big to fail. 

But they do, and they will.

Perhaps most frightening of all isn’t the foolish belief that these things will last forever, but that we will last forever. We won’t. The bell will toll for us all.

We cannot stop the inevitable. 

All life comes to an end. 

Only a living God can make our end a beginning.

There is a strange and bizarre comfort in these words from Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem. I know it doesn’t sound comforting. For us, when Jesus says, “God’s gonna destroy all of this,” it sounds like bad news. But for others, those for whom these institutions and statues are like hell on earth, the destruction of them is good news.

None of those things give true life. No building, no institution, no company. 

Only God gives life.

The truth of the gospel is that God is gonna get what God wants. No matter how much God’s gotta mess up what we’ve got, God’s gonna get what God wants.

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Jesus rightly warns his disciples that many will come proclaiming some version of a truth, they will come with empty promises about the saving end of all things. They will, in some way, call upon you and I to join up to protect the things that we think rule the world.

But Jesus is abundantly clear – the temple cannot and will not stand. 

The restoration of the temple, getting Jesus back in schools, whatever the thing is that we are willing to die for is not the end of all things. Those things are not God’s goals for the world.

The goal of all life is resurrection!

This is why we are cautioned about those who draw all of our attention and focus and energy of bold claims about what’s really at stake. And yet we cannot help ourselves! The all-you-can-eat-buffet of suffering and destruction in this world is a fix that never stops bizarrely comforting us.

And we, today, become so focused on discerning the signs of the time, that we neglect to open our eyes to the truth of the gospel today. 

Our focus is not on the signs of the times themselves, but rather on the one who is to come – the one who enables us to stare into the void of such devastation and claim the certainty of a new day dawning in the light of the resurrection. 

Today, faithful living, whatever that means, has become something of fanatical observance, or an apathetic endeavor. 

Just turn on the news and you will quickly learn about the destructive powers of Christians in their communities all across the theological spectrum. Or you can learn about the failure of so-called Christian politicians. Or you can learn about the greed in churches that wedge themselves between families, between friends, and between brothers and sisters in Christ. 

The world quickly identifies the people who claim to speak on behalf of Jesus who then rapidly lead disciples down paths of idolatrous worship. They care more about which politicians won certain seats than about the people who sit in the seats of their churches. They preach intolerance rather than love, they emphasize death over resurrection, and they support judgment above new life.

And then, on the other side, there are countless churches that contain only the blandest sense of discipleship. Week after week the pews fill with less and less people as the sermons are filled with more and more trite aphorisms about living your best life. They might have a bible displayed at the front of the sanctuary but it is covered in dust, the people who show up on Sunday don’t even know why they do so, and they only pray because they don’t know what else to do.

And so, it is against the fanatical religious leaders of today, Jesus warns us to beware that no one leads us astray. He speaks to us through the apocalyptic vision of the past, present, and future about holding fast to the love that has been revealed to us in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And he beckons us to remember who we are and whose we are. 

And it is against the apathetic churches of today, the ones who are just going through the motions, that Jesus announces an electrifying and revelatory message: this is not the end!

This kind of scripture might terrify us to the core; we might see the world falling apart under our feet and immediately identify what we witness with what Jesus warned his disciples about. Depending on who we are, and where we are, these verses can appear more horrifying than hopeful.

But for anyone with a truly terrifying reality – this is a profound word and vision of hope. 

For the woman who fears the Thanksgiving table, and the conversations and memories it brings, “this is not the end” promises something redemptive and transformative.

For the man who knows he cannot afford to buy Christmas presents this year, “this is not the end” is a hope that burns like a faithful flame in the midst of darkness.

For the family grieving as they take their first steps after burying someone in the ground, “this is not the end” takes on a whole new meaning when they experience the glory of God who promises our resurrection. 

No matter who you are, and no matter what you going through in your life right now, hear these frighteningly and faithfully apocalyptic words and know that they are meant for you: “This is not the end.” Amen.