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
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.
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?”
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.
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with Creation vs. Evolution.
“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.
“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google the answer and the young man rolled his eyes and opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.
I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, almost as if a whisper, “That can’t be right.”
“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”
And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old.”
In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Perhaps no words in all of scripture have been more analyzed, prayed over, and interpreted throughout the centuries. Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.
And it stands on the battlefield of the fight between Creation and Evolution.
Here’s the controversy: Centuries ago a man named James Ussher set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. However, with the advent of modern science and the likes of evolutionary biology and carbon dating, scientists have determined that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.
There is a big difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.
For a very long time, we humans considered the earth a relatively recent phenomenon. The Christian church established itself as the predominant leader of information distribution, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.
This has manifested itself throughout the centuries in a number of ways including the fight between the Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.
“How old is the earth?” It may seem like a pretty simple question without too many ramifications, but it is a big one, and the way we answer it has a lot of consequences.
A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.
It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.
I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.
I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?
But at the same time, some of my Christian friends stopped going to youth group and they stopped going to church. In learning about evolution their faith in church diminished. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned that the earth was older than what they heard in church, their faith was crushed. I, however, was fortunate to have pastors and older Christians who helped me to see the similarities between science and faith. But my friends only saw the battle.
The title of this sermon is Creation vs. Evolution for a reason. I titled it this way precisely because that is the way that many of us see the relationship between the two; Faith and Science represent opposite ends of the spectrum. One is archaic and illogical; the other is scientific and intellectual. One represents backward thinking; the other is forward thinking. One should be left to sanctuaries; the other is for the classroom.
The conflict between science and faith exists because of us; Christians who became defensive when scientists learned more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s creative majesty. Christians who were quick to jump ship when we discovered there was more to the world than just what we can read about in the bible; Christians who saw scientific discovery as a work of the devil and retreated further away from the world.
But are science and faith really at odds with one another?
Young-Earth Creationists are those who believe (like Ussher) that God created the earth over 6 24 hours days 6,000 years ago. They dismiss scientific discoveries like the Dinosaurs and carbon dating as a way for God to test our faith.
However, there are other ways of looking at the biblical account of creation from Genesis 1 that harmonizes with, rather than battles against, science.
First, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.
We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.
Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to master the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us who and why God created.
Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the zenith of God’s creation, was human life.
Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.
The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.
And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.
But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.
In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and who we aren’t. It is God Word for us. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Services of Death and Resurrection are sacred moments in the life of the church. For a brief time we gather together in our grief, we praise God for the life of a friend or family member, and then we proclaim the hope of the resurrection. Dozens of people will fill the pews, some of who have not entered a church in years, and sing those beautiful hymns like “In the Garden” and “Blessed Assurance.”
As a pastor, it is a humbling thing to be tasked with leading the services and preaching a faithful word about God’s love and the life of the dead. I try to find the right stories and scriptures that shed light on the individual and pray for God to speak through my words so that they resonate with God’s Word. I try to lead the service in such a way that we can experience tears and laughter. And I try to ensure that the experience is one of profound holiness.
Yesterday, after concluding a Service of Death and Resurrection for a long-time member of St. John’s UMC, I gathered in the social hall with friends and family for a reception. Like a high school reunion, I saw groups of people gathered together to share stories and offer condolences. I spent some time wandering about the room in order to check on the members of the immediate family when someone stuck out his hand and asked to speak with me. I had never met the man before but he explained his connection to the man that had died and he thanked me for my words. He described his fear of funerals because they always remind him that death will come for him one day as well. But then he said, “However, my favorite thing about funerals is the fact that I learn so much more about a person I thought I knew so well.”
Funerals do teach us so much more about the people we love. We hear from friends and family members willing to offer witness to the particular life and often we hear a pastor who is able to share a new vision of the life of someone close to us. It is in our willingness to listen that we discover something new.
Whenever I perform a funeral I am re-struck by the scripture: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” I have said it before groups of people more times than I can count, but each time it reinforces the fact that I still have so much more to learn about God. Every day is a new opportunity to open up scripture, pray deeply to the divine, and discover the Lord’s work in other people. Similarly, it brings me great comfort to know that God is the beginning and the end, that our lives are gifts from God and that death is not the end.
This week, let us take time to learn more about the people in our lives and to learn more about the God of life. Maybe it means picking up the phone and calling a dear friend, or opening up our bibles to read a familiar passage. Maybe it means praying for the people in our local and global community, or listening for God’s still soft voice in the words of a hymn. Whatever we do, let us do so with the hope of learning more about one another and our Lord who is the beginning and the end.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
On April 4th, 1742, Charles Wesley came up for appointment as university preacher in St. Mary’s in London. Charles preached from Ephesians 5.14 which reads, “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”
Now, just for context sake, Charles Wesley was the younger brother of John Wesley, the primary founder of the Methodist renewal movement that eventually led to the formation of the United Methodist Church. Both brothers believed that, at the time, the Church of England was losing a sense of purpose and needed to be renewed. They were strongly rooted within their church structure, but they considered their ministries to be caught up in spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land. While John was known for his organization and preaching, Charles was known for his ability to write hymns; some of his more celebrated hymns are sung on a regular basis in many churches: Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, to name a few.
So, Charles found himself invited to preach in front of a university audience that he largely believed had lost sight of what it meant to be Christian in the world. Those in attendance that day were far more consumed with the “academic pursuits” of Christianity rather than a deep and inward sense of what it meant to be forgiven and loved.
Like many young and naive pastors, Charles preached a sermon filled with a barrage of frightening assumptions and left many in attendance frustrated, angry, and ignorant.
Here are a few of his lines, adapted for our contemporary period: Wake up! Everyone of you, wake up out of your dreams of worldly happiness. What is the state of your soul? If God required you to die right now while I am preaching, are you ready to meet death and judgement? Have you fought the good fight and kept the faith? Have you secured the one thing needful? Have you recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Are you clothed in Christ? Do you know that God dwells in you by his Spirit that he has given to you? Have you received the Holy Spirit? Or do you even know if there is a Holy Spirit at all? If any of these questions offend you, be assured that you are not a Christian nor do you desire to be one. Indeed, your very prayers have been turned into sin; and you have definitively mocked God this very day by praying for the inspiration of his Holy Spirit when you did not even believe that such a thing existed!
Needless to say, this was Charles’ first, and very last, occasion for preaching there.
Though Charles chose to preach from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul also wrote in a similar vein to the church in Rome: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep!” What is the “this” that he is talking about? Love is the fulfillment of the Law. So, besides knowing that love is the fulfillment of the law, it is now time for us to wake up! For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Coming off of a major holiday weekend where we have all gratified our desires with mountains of mashed potatoes, rivers of gravy, quarries of cranberries, and seas of stuffing, where many of us were filled with debauchery and quarreling as we competed for the best holiday shopping prices on Black Friday, where we are now more focused on Santa Claus than Jesus Christ… it is very difficult for a young foolish pastor like myself to preach this text without ruffling some feathers. I used to laugh when I read Charles Wesley’s sermon “Awake, thou that sleepest” but now I’m beginning to understand how important it was for him to preach those words.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year. Just as we came to a conclusion with Christ the King Sunday last week, today we begin by looking forward, with expectation, to the birth and arrival of our King. But here’s the great paradox, even though we are looking forward to Christmas, it feels like we’re stuck looking to the past. In many areas of church life this is a plague that has permeated throughout a multitude of ministries, relationships, and conversations. We talk about where we are as a church, what we want to do, but far too many of our imaginations are trapped by the past.
If, as Paul argues, love is the fulfillment of the law in he past, then love is most assuredly also the appropriate mode of action in the present.
Being Christian is all about love in action; not just a reflection on the past, but also a waking up to the present and the future.
For disciples of Jesus Christ, one of the hardest things to wrap our heads around is “time.” We are a people who regularly remember the past, in order to live into the present, while also looking forward to God’s promises. We are a people rooted in time, removed from time, and unaware of God’s time. Our past is constantly invading the present, and the future has already met with the present in the presence of the Holy Spirit within the faithful community.
If your head is spinning, don’t worry. It should be.
God’s future casts a light into the present and provides the illumination of the reality by which we are all called to live. Because God has promised to come again and make all things new, a new heaven and a new earth where death will be no more, death will die, then we are called to live into God’s future reality in the present. We are called to love in order to fulfill the Law.
What makes us unique as a people is precisely the fact that God has invaded our present with the Spirit, with his Son who walked among us, with his Word, with his sacraments, that we are a distinctive people with expectations of how the world needs to be.
For us, the time is now! Wake up!
As Christians we are not to be content with passively accepting injustices and evils in the world. Our faith demands that we reach out in love to combat the sinfulness of the world. How often do we think about our obligations to love outside of our families and our church community? What could this world look like if we seriously considered loving all, and all means ALL, of God’s creatures?
We are creatures of the present, though we are so consumed with our pasts. Our text today encourages us to look to the future in order to know how to act. As Paul wrote elsewhere in Romans, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Discover newness in your lives which the future will bring.
Wake up! We are no longer burdened by living for ourselves, but we are privileged to live for God, we are a people who obey his will for our lives. That is what Paul means when he says we are to clothe ourselves in the Lord Jesus Christ. Its what he means by putting off the darkness and putting on the armor of light!
Because of Christ’s redemptive act on a cross in a place called The Skull we have all been liberated from the burdens of a sinful past. We strive forth with confident steps into a future that is always bringing us closer and closer to the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan for the entirety of creation. We are here as a people of anticipation, here the first Sunday of advent, remembering while anticipating Christ’s in breaking in the world in order to bring about God’s kingdom on Earth.
Wake up! This moment is the eternal moment – the now – when the past and the future stand still, when the past ceases its going, and the future its coming. This moment is not a time that comes and goes, it is God’s eternal moment, a spot of clarity amidst the ridiculous chaos of our lives.
This passage from Paul, read for us this first Sunday of Advent, deepens our understanding of the future whose coming we celebrate both in the birth and in the return of Jesus Christ.
So, how can we wake up from the sleep that we are caught up in? How can we love in such a degree so as to fulfill the law?
Love is always the essentially revolutionary action.
We love the way that Christ loved, and still loves us…
We can reach out to the lonely in our community, those who do not have a family to share this holiday season with. We can gather together in the front of the church selling Christmas trees while demonstrating Christ’s love in the world through the way we reach out to those who stop by. We can participate in quilt for a cause, letting our fingers and needles and thread create a tangible sense of love for individuals in our community. We can donate money for the Children from Social Services who we have adopted for Christmas presents this year, reminding them that nothing will ever separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
We can open our eyes to the injustices within our local community, and abroad, and be willing to speak out against the disparity present. We can love the unlovable, reconcile with friends and family from whom we have been separated, and we can provide a little warmth this coldest time of the year.
Our love for others, creation, and God is never just a concrete act, something that once began and continues on a course. Our love is the Beginning, the Miracle, the Creation in every moment of time, it sets our hearts aflame for Christ Jesus and allows us to be his body for the world.
And so, though paradoxical, what we are doing, the ways that we embody love, can be no more than point to the victory which has occurred, does occur, and will occur in Jesus Christ. Love directs us to the one whose very birth we now await and anticipate. Love awaits the ends of darkness which is the Beginning of the light of the world.
Wake up! You all know what time it is, and it is time for us to wake from our sleep. This is the beginning, another chance to start again. Whatever baggage you are carrying, whatever sin you believe is too harsh to be forgiven, whatever frustration you are dealing with in your life, today is a new beginning. We have gathered together as a community to rid ourselves of the darkness in our lives. We are here to care for one another. You are not alone. You are part of a community of faith that loves you because God loves us. Put on the armor of light. Prepare yourselves to be surprised by God’s grace in the world.
Wake up! Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Do not be consumed by your past, but with excited expectation live in the present and anticipate God’s future for you.
This table is our Beginning. For it is here that we gather to confess our faults, receive forgiveness, reconcile with our community, and feast at Christ’s table. This place is where past, present, and future all wind themselves together. Christ’s table is the matrix of time; it is where we remember God’s mighty acts, anticipate his birth and coming again, and live into the new reality of love, mercy and forgiveness.
Wake up! God is waiting for you.