The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
In Advent, we begin again.
It’s notably strange that we, Christians, continue to repeat ourselves year after year with this bewildering season. We pull out the purple paraments, we decorate our Advent wreaths, and we start singing tunes about “ransoming captive Israel.” Advent, for better or worse, is a season all about waiting – waiting for the birth of Jesus in the manger AND waiting for his return at the end of all things.
And, every year, we spend this season living into the tension of the already but not yet.
It’s just the best.
And yet, Advent can feel like a drag. We hear, week after week, about preparation, but it’s not altogether clear what we are preparing for. Sure, we’ve got to get the lights up on the house and purchase all the perfect presents and send out the color-coordinated family picture, but what does any of that have to do with Jesus?
The beginning of Mark’s gospel starts with the beginning. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
He, prophetically, points to the sinfulness within each of us to make sure we know what it is that Jesus is showing up for. He calls us to look into the darkness inside of us, and then points us toward the One who will rectify the cosmos, including us.
This is no easy task.
Therefore, Advent can be a little frightening as we prepare our hearts, minds, and souls for the One who shows up to cancel out our sins. But Advent is equally a time for celebration! We celebrate because Jesus has already done the good work of rewriting reality, and we now simply wait for his return and the knitting of the new heaven and the new earth.
Advent is a time in which we balance out both the beginning and the end all while looking straight into the darkness knowing that the dawn will break from on high. Advent is both convicting and celebratory. It is the church at her very best.
Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way:
“Advent is the church’s annual celebration of the silliness (from selig, which is German for “blessed”) of salvation. The whole thing really is a divine lark. God has fudged everything in our favor: without shame or fear we rejoice to behold his appearing. Yes, there is dirt under the divine Deliverer’s fingernails. But no, it isn’t any different from all the other dirt of history. The main thing is, he’s got the package and we’ve got the trust: Lo, he comes with clouds descending. Alleluia, and three cheers…What we are watching [waiting] for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether he wedding present-china has been chipped. God is, instead, the funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch [wait] for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun!” – (Capon, The Parables of Judgment)
So here’s to the season of repentance and celebration where we begin, again! Amen.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Everything happens for a reason. We say something like that to bring comfort to people in the midst of uncertainty, or tragedy, or difficult circumstances mostly because we don’t know what else to say. It is a remarkably common expression among Christian-types and it’s not in the Bible.
Years ago I received a phone call that a woman in my church was in her final moments. She had been suffering from a great number of chronic problems for the better part of two decades and most of her family had not expected for her to live as long as she did. We all stood around her bed together praying and sharing those final moments before she died.
A few days later, on the eve of her funeral, her now widower husband fell down the steps in front of their house after returning from the wake and was rushed to the hospital. He needed a few days to recover and we delayed his wife’s funeral until he was better. Eventually he sat in the pews with surrounded by his family and worshipped with the rest of us as we gave thanks to God for his wife.
After the burial and reception he returned to his now empty house complaining of our tired he was and after he went to bed, he never woke up again.
A husband a wife dead less than a week apart.
When I got the call about his death, having only seen him the day before, I rushed to the house to meet with the family who were still in town from the wife’s funeral. And one by one I watched and listened as every single family member exchanged a version of “everything happens for a reason.”
“God just needed another angel in heaven.”
“God wanted them to be married in heaven just like they were married on earth.”
“This was all part of God’s plan.”
And the more I heard it the more my blood boiled. But before I had a chance to blurt out something pastors aren’t supposed to say, one of the couple’s daughters beat me to it.
“That’s BS” she stammered.
Though she didn’t use the acronym.
“If this was all part of God’s plan, then why did God take away my Mommy and Daddy so quickly? Why would God do that to me?”
And that’s when the whole room turned to me, the pastor, the so-called expert on God.
So I said, “If there is a reason for everything, if God killed both of them on purpose, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.”
When we throw out trite and cliche sentences like, “everything happens for a reason” it puts all of the responsibility of every single little thing entirely upon God.
It makes God into a monster.
The author of car crashes, incurable childhood cancers, and unending wars.
And yet, more often than not, it is our go-to expression when we don’t know what else to say.
If there are two things that we, as human beings, just can’t stand they are mystery and silence. It’s no wonder therefore that when we face a situation that has no explanation we get as far away from mysterious silence as we possibly can by saying something we think is helpful. We both want to have an answer for every question and we want to be able to get out of uncomfortable moments when we don’t know what to say.
The problem with all of that is we think we’re helping someone when we’re actually making things worse.
Anyone who claims that everything happens for a reason are those who believe God wills every single horrific death, every incurable diagnosis, and even something like the Coronavirus. They see and imagine God as some great puppeteer in the sky instituting every possible contingency such that it must be this way at all times no matter what.
And if that’s true, then every rape, every murder, every act of child abuse or neglect, every war, every storm or earthquake, are all part of God’s plan.
To those who believe that is the case, the response from the daughter whose parents died should suffice.
In his book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart recalls reading an article in the New York Times shortly after the unimaginable tsunami that wrecked South Asia back in 2015. The article was focused on a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of all his efforts, which included swimming in the rolling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to save his wife or any of his four children from drowning in the waters. The father recounted the names of his children and then, overwhelmed by his grief, sobbed to the reporter, “my wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here… he will save us” but I couldn’t do it.”
David Hart wonders, in his book, If you had the chance to speak to the father in the moment of his deepest pain, what would you say? Hart then argues that only idiots would have approached the father with trite and empty theological expressions like: “Sir, your children’s deaths are part of God’s cosmic plan” or “It’s okay this was God’s design” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Most of us, Hart believes, would have the good sense not to talk like that to the father. And then he takes it one step forward. “And this should tell us something. For if we think is shamefully foolish and cruel to say things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”
And to take it one step even further, if we mustn’t say things like that to such a father, then we ought never to say them about God.
St Paul wrote to the early church in Rome: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Which, for many, justifies the desire to say “everything happens for a reason.”
And yet we so often forget that this verse is the beginning of Paul’s big crescendo to one of the texts we use most often at funeral – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
What we miss in that profound and powerful declaration is that there are powers and principalities contending against God in this life.
That is, death is something that is trying to separate us from God, but God wins in the end.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated in Christ Jesus, and will ultimately destroy forever in the New Jerusalem.
That is, to put a fine note on it, the whole point of the Gospel in the first place.
It would then be nothing but ridiculous for God to delight or even ordain the deaths of those whom he loves for it would run counter to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”
God does not want bad things to happen to us. But bad things do happen in this fallen and fallible world we find ourselves in. We, all of us, make choices we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. We contribute in ways both big and small to the tremendous suffering in the world. From delighting in being able to purchase a banana whenever we want from the grocery store (a banana that requires low waged work, an absurd amount of fossils fuel, and harmful chemicals to make it to our plate) to texting while we drive (which distracts us from the kid running into the street to grab his wayward basketball) to a great number of other scenarios.
Some of the suffering of the world is willed, but not by God. It is willed by us in our relentless pursuit of whatever we think we deserve.
And yet a fair amount of suffering in the world exists not because of us or God, things just happen without explanation.
And when those things occurs, whether willed by human beings or random events in creation, we do well to close our mouths and rest in the knowledge that God has defeated death.
Does that erase death’s sting here and now? Of course not, death always hurts.
But as Christians, we know how the story ends, we know that those we lose in life will be waiting for us at the Supper of the Lamb surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that have gone on before us.
The “for good” that God works to achieve is the proclamation that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That even in our suffering, even in our deaths, God is with us.
Look, I hear it a lot in my line of work, people showing up at the church or calling me on the phone to ask, “Why is God doing this to me?”
The loss of a child. The loss of a job. The loss of health.
And for as many times as I have heard questions about God’s purposes behind the purposeless moments in life, I’ve heard from just as many people wondering, “What can I possibly say to someone in their suffering, in their loss?”
Sometimes the best thing to say is absolutely nothing. As hard as it might be to sit with someone else in their pain and in their suffering, just listening to them is far better than trying to fill the time with trite and meaningless aphorisms. At the very least, it’s the most faithful thing we can do.
Life is hard and all sorts of things happen without explanation. I know that might not sound very pastoral, but it’s true. Can you imagine how you would feel if you came to the church one morning in your grief or suffering or pain, and you got down on your knees to pray to God when all of the sudden you heard a voice booming from the heavens declaring, “I”M DOING THIS TO YOU ON PURPOSE! THIS IS PART OF MY PLAN!”
If that’s who God is, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.
Thankfully, that’s not who God is. God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. God is the author of salvation and not the dictator of death. God is the one who would do everything, and already did, to make sure that nothing, truly nothing, could ever separate us from the his divine love.
Our hope is not contingent on finding reasons to explain everything that happens – instead our hope is built on Christ who shows us in his life, death, and resurrection that God is with us, always.
And there’s nothing we can do about it.
For I am convinced, like Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s the gospel.
Jesus is the reason that even when things happen, we are not abandoned.
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
I did a funeral a while back for an older woman, and during the service people stood up to talk about how amazing she was how she always cared for everyone in her midst and how she was the paragon of virtue. We heard from grandchildren, co-workers, neighbors, it went on and on.
When the funeral was over, I mingled among the gathered people, offering condolences and so on until I met the recently dead woman’s caretaker. She was wearing scrubs, having already moved on to a new client and was only able to get away for the funeral. We chatted briefly exchanging pleasantries until she said, “You know what’s strange Preacher? Having to sit there and to listen to all these people talk about how perfect she was. Because she was the meanest woman I’ve ever met in my life. She treated me worse than dirt.”
I stood there silently stunned unsure of how to respond.
And then she said, “It’s a good thing we worship a God of forgiveness, right Preacher?”
I have a great sign in my office that says, “Live your life so that the Preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.”
I used to love how it would hang over the heads of those who came to confess yet another one of their sins. I hoped that it would convince them to shape up and start behaving accordingly without me having to say it.
But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve realized how strange of a theology the sign portrays. For, it implies that there are some people who have lived such good, and true, and virtuous lives that preachers don’t have to lie at their funerals.
But, that denies the real truth: Not a one of us is righteous, no, not one. We all fail to love God and neighbor with our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths. We avoid doing things we know we should, and we do plenty of things we know we shouldn’t.
And yet, how often have we gone to a funeral to listen to someone like me, a preacher, wax lyrical about the now dead’s holy life when we all know that all of our lives are more complicated than that?
For, the real truth is that all of us are the ungodly, we are the ones for whom Christ died. And that’s good news, because it means not a one of us is outside the realm of God’s forgiveness.
Which is just another way of saying that the only way any of us make it to the Kingdom of Heaven is because we worship a King of forgiveness.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed the,. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with Karl Barth. Later that night, Barth died in his sleep. Thurneysen explained later that much of their conversation dealt with the world situation at the time, and that Barth’s final words were as follows:
“Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That’s why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!” (Barth In Conversation, Volume III).
Karl Barth was never one to shrink away from speaking truth to power. He was removed from his teaching position in Germany for refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler before the second World War, he ridiculed the United States for it’s criminal justice system in the 1960’s, and wrote about the childishness of the Vietnam War in his later years.
And it brings me great comfort that with some of his final breaths, he still remembered that, even in the darkest moments, the One who chose to come and dwell among us still reigns. That, as Christians, we know how the story ends which frees us for “joyful obedience” to a kingdom the world would never choose for itself.
The Gospel is something that comes to us from outside of us. We are saved by God in Christ not because we deserve it (just turn on your TV for one minute these days and you’ll see how little we deserve to be saved), but because God choses to do so in God’s infinite freedom. That is what the Gospel is – it is our salvation granted to us by the only One who could – the judged Judge who comes to stand in our place – the shackles to sin and death have been vanquished forever.
Which is all to say, Christians, in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ see the world differently. We rebel against the insidious power of despair and seek out ministries that reflect the graceful work of Christ who came to raise the dead.
Someone reigns – that someone is Jesus Christ.
He is the difference that makes all the difference.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.14a, 36-41, Psalm 116.1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1.17-23, Luke 24.13-25). Sarah is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including shame in the church, John Prine, preaching with authority, Jesus’ titles, The Good and Beautiful Life, loving the Lord, the preciousness of death, Peter and Social Distancing, and grace in retrospect. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Walking and Talking
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.
A lot of churches are going to close because of the Coronavirus. 2 weeks of no in-person worship, let alone 6 weeks, is a death sentence for a great number of churches that are living, economically, Sunday to Sunday.
And the closure of churches won’t even come close to the destruction of thousands of businesses across the country, as well as the rampant rise of unemployment that is expected in the new few weeks.
The fears of what the virus is doing to the American economy have garnered attention from the biggest talking heads on the news, to conversations over backyard fences between neighbors holding fast to social distancing. And yet, the total and all encompassing nature of the economy as the epitome of our attention is nothing new. We are obsessed with money and how money defines who we are.
Jesus calls that kind of obsession idolatry.
That’s not to say our fears are unwarranted. There will be a whole lot of people who will struggle sooner rather than later in terms of figuring out how to get food on the table, or even to keep the homes in which their tables are situated. But the fears about the economic impacts have begun to outweigh fears about our public health.
I have read so many articles and posts from individuals and agencies lambasting different groups for shutting down in the wake of the virus. Christians have berated their pastors for canceling church services, parents have harangued School Boards for shutting down schools, and now citizens are demonizing political leaders for executive orders temporary closing businesses until it becomes safe to gather together once again.
And, I get it. I understand the fear and the anxiety and even the anger. The church I serve will struggle mightily in the next few weeks to pay our pills, fund ministries, and maintain our payroll. Sadly, so much of who we are and what we do (or can do) is based on what we receive through the offering plate Sunday after Sunday.
And when you’re no longer allowed to meet on Sunday, those numbers start dropping rapidly.
However, the short term economic concerns should not compare at all to the long term mortality rates.
Which is all to say, we care more about money than anything else.
Case in point: When I meet with couples to go through premarital counseling I ask a few standard questions to get the conversation rolling like, “What was your last fight about?” and “What’s a challenge you two had to overcome together?” and (eventually) “Are you two currently sexually active with one another?” Those are weird questions in any situation, but the couples I’ve met with are often able to share truthfully where they are and what it has meant for them as a couple.
And yet, there’s another question I ask that is often met with blank stares: “How much money do each of you make?” It’s an important question to raise when considering marriage since the majority of divorces stem from economic disagreements. But couples on the cusp of marriage don’t want to talk about how much money they make. It has boggled my mind to hear talk of sexual histories, and screaming matches, but when the question of money comes up they don’t want to share anything.
Or another example: There’s a popular Youtube Channel called CUT in which they ask 100 random individuals the same question. And, more often than not, the questions are not the type of thing people willfully discuss. Some of the questions have included, “Have you ever tried drugs?” “How you ever cheated on a romantic partner?” “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
One by one they look into the camera and they answer. It’s kind of shocking not only to discover what people have done but also the fact that they are willing to admit it.
And yet, there’s one particular video where the question is, “How much money do you make?” and the majority of the participants refused to answer the question!
And one more example: A few people on the news this week suggested that we, as a country, should be willing to let 1% of our country die if it means keeping the country from economic collapse (The 1% stems from some figures saying that only 1% of people who contract the Coronavirus die from it, though the percentage actually appears to be far higher). 1% might not sound like much, but that would mean letting over 3 million Americans die to preserve our economy.
Or, let me put it a little differently: We have roughly 110-120 people in worship every Sunday at the church I serve. Do you think it would be right to kill someone in our church just so we could keep having church the following Sunday?
How we answer that question says a lot about who we are and what we believe.
Interestingly, Jesus has a whole lot to say about money, though preachers types like myself often get uncomfortable bringing up what the Lord had to say. Perhaps the most striking example is Jesus reminding the disciples that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve Money and the Lord at the same time.
We have to make a choice.
Or, maybe another way to put it would be like this: If we are willing to let people die to save the economy for the rest of us, then the rest of us won’t have lives worth living.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
“I know all about that.”
I looked up from my book toward in the man sitting next to me. He had bandages all over his face and he was pointing at the cover of my book.
When God Is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor.
I was trying to mind my own business at the dermatologist, just preparing for a routine exam of my pale and mole-y body, I didn’t even wear a clergy collar because I just wanted to be like everybody else, but I didn’t think about the book I was reading.
So I looked into the eyes of the man and I said, “What do you mean?”
“I know all about God being silent.”
And, knowing that listening is often better than speaking, I just kept looking into his eyes and waited for him to continue.
And then he did.
I learned about the man. About his life, about his family, about his struggles, about his skin cancer that just keeps coming back. About how many times he’s pleaded with God to just give him a sign, to just say anything at all. He kept talking and talking until they called his name and he left me sitting there in the waiting room, waiting for my own appointment, in silence.
I hear this a lot, considering what I do for a living. I hear about God’s silence, about the absence of God from one’s life. I hear about suffering and loneliness and fear and, in particular, the silence of death. People want to know what their loved ones long dead are now doing. They want reassurance that, even though they hear nothing, God is somewhere still speaking.
In other words, they want to hear about life without having to think about death.
And they, whoever they are, are us.
We all do it.
Consciously and unconsciously.
Whether we’re lying awake at night frantically willing ourselves not to think about the end, or we’re watching yet another commercial desperately attempting to convince us that we can make it out of this life alive.
I was sitting with a family one time preparing a funeral and the daughter of the woman now dead said, “We really want this to be a celebration of life.”
“Sure,” I muttered, thinking we could move on to selecting hymns or particular scriptures, but she continued.
“In fact, we would prefer it if you didn’t mention how she died, or even that she’s really dead at all. Come to think of it, we’d really like it if you could talk about her as if she were still alive with us right now.”
There is a time to live and there is a time to die, as the scripture goes. And we’d prefer to have to the first bit without the latter.
I wonder if the reason we feel so afraid of death, the reason we pretend the dead aren’t dead, is because the silence of death is so overwhelming. We go from having someone with whom we can converse and then suddenly that conversation is cut off forever. We don’t know what to do with something we can’t control, and we therefore fear it with every fiber of our being.
We fear death.
We used to fear God.
I’ve been preaching and gathering together with Christians on Ash Wednesday for the better part of a decade, and I find it to be one of the most incredible and strange things we do. Ash Wednesday, though hyper focused on our identity as sinners in the hands of God, is a time when we are actually encouraged to do some navel gazing.
Every other day of the church year feels different. As the oft quoted line goes, “The church is the only institution in the world that exists for the sake of outsiders.” That’s probably true, but today is different. Today, it really is about us.
It’s about how we know we’re going to die, and how God is going to make something out of the nothing of our deaths, and how God will still speak even in the silence of our ends.
But that’s not an easy thing to handle, and its why fewer and fewer people attend services like this one, whether its at 7 in the morning or 7 in the evening. We don’t want to look at sin and death any more than we have to, but we have to do it. Otherwise we run the risk of perpetual self-deception, in which our ears become so stopped up that we can’t hear the voice of the Lord that still speaks in spite of us.
Like the psalmist, today we come before the throne of the Lord and confess that God has a case against us and we throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Lord.
As Christians this rests at the heart of who we are and whose we are – we cannot ignore the condition of our condition, we cannot fool ourselves into believing that we are better than anyone else, we are sinners resting in the hands of a loving God.
That we can call God a loving God is what makes all the difference. For, it is in the same moment that we can truly acknowledge our brokenness that we also begin to see God as the One who offers mercy to us even though we don’t deserve it.
While we were sinners, Christ died for us. Not before we were sinners, or after we were sinners, but in the midst of our sin.
Even the psalmist gets it: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
That is the prayer of someone who knows that there is hope in spite of feeling hopeless, who knows that God’s compassion far exceeds our own, and who knows that grace is always greater than our sin. Always.
I waited my turn, all the while thinking of the man and what he said. I pondered over what I would’ve said had his name not been called, and I kept mulling over the different scriptures that speak about God’s silence in the Bible. I even pulled out my phone to look up a passage about Elijah and the still small voice, when I realized that the man was finished and was walking back into the waiting room. But instead of walking toward the door and leaving us all behind, he walked back over to me, sat down and said, “Thanks for listening earlier. I feel a lot better.” Then he shook my hand and left.
His gratitude for my silent listening was a reminder for me that whenever God might feel silent, perhaps God’s silence is due to God’s listening. That, rather than interrupting and knocking us down a peg or two (something we all deserve) God is content to listen to whatever we might hurl at God. God can handle our anger and our fear and our frustration and even our sin because God is holy.
In a few moments we are going to pray together. As we pray and reflect on the overwhelming love of God we are going to confess our lack of love. While we remember Jesus’ willingness to come and take away our sins, we are going to confess those sins for which Jesus came. As we acknowledge the unconditional grace of God, we are going to confess the conditions we place on one another all the time.
And while we do all of that, lifting up contradictory elements of who we are and who God is, it will become our worship. God has done a remarkable thing for us. We don’t need to lie to ourselves or to others, we don’t have to compete with unattainable moral expectations, we don’t have to pretend we are something that we are not.
We are Christians, we can be who we are and can be seen as the sinners we are, because God will not remain silent.
God speaks his Son into the world who comes to be the judged Judge in our place. He takes each and every one of our sins, nails them to the cross, and refuses to evaluate us by our mistakes. God reminds us today, and every day, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
But God is in the business of raising the dead, which means that dust isn’t the end. Prayer.
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.
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I was exactly halfway through seminary when one of my professors decided to do something a little different with his lecture. Those of us in attendance had taken classes on Church History, The Old Testament, The New Testament, Theology, Greek, Practical Ministry, and an assortment of others, but this particular professor was responsible for teaching us about American Christianity. For months we had listened to him lecture about the budding growth of the church as the frontier spread west, we knew all about the Great Awakening that took hold of the new nation, and we even examined the manifold reasons for the explosions of denominations across the Union.
But for the last class before the final exam, our professor didn’t pull out the powerpoint slides with the appropriate lecture notes. Instead he said, “I want to preach.” So preach he did.
I don’t remember the text. I don’t remember the points he was trying to make. Frankly I was studying the all the important details I had in my notebook for the impending final exam. But as he got toward the end of his sermon his disposition and his voice changed. He no longer looked down at the papers on the podium, and he rest his arms down and looked at all of us straight in the eyes. I remember the room being eerily silent as he took a longer than usual pause before saying something I will never forget:
“Part of what I’ve hoped to teach you and show you this semester is that if you can do anything else with your lives, you should drop out of seminary right now and go do those things. If you think God has called you to be a pastor you better be absolutely sure that God has in fact put that call on your life because it will be a difficult one. You will be expected to do things that you know you shouldn’t do. You will be surrounded by death at every turn. The pay isn’t any good. And with each passing year the church will beat you down until you know longer remember what it was to have the faith you had.”
“But if you can’t do anything else – if the call is so real that you know there is nothing else for you then the work of ministry well then you must stay, you must study, and you must give yourselves to the Lord. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
It was a sobering moment, to say the least. Our professor politely smiled and walked out of the lecture hall while we sat there doing our best to absorb and make sense of what he said. Personally, I felt my call stronger in that moment than in almost any other because I felt, deep in my bones, that God had in fact called me to ministry, that there was nothing else I could do with my life, because all I wanted to do was share the Good News that has made all the difference in my life.
So I sat there, reasonably assured by and with the words my professor offered – but the experience wasn’t mutual for some of my friends. It was not mutual for some of my friends because in that profound moment they realized that ministry was not what they were called to do, that the stark reality my professor painted left them not assured but confused. And, on the other side of the final exam and the end of the semester, more than a few of my classmates did not return after Christmas break.
I’ve thought a lot about that sermon, or at least the end of it, in the years that followed. I am thankful my professor spoke as candidly as he did and saved some of my classmates from entering into a life and vocation that would ultimately leave them feeling like something was missing. I’ve felt reinvigorated by my call again and again and again and have known, with assurance, that this is what I’m supposed to do.
But something else has percolated up over the years, something I couldn’t quite articulate in the beginning, but now understand to be important: My professor was wrong.
To be clear, he wasn’t wrong about how bizarre and crazy the life of ministry is, all that he said is true. But he was still wrong. He was wrong because he made it out as if there are two types of Christians in the world: pastors and lay people. But that’s not how it works – all of us are disciples of Jesus Christ, all of us have been put on a different path than we would’ve chosen on our own, and all of us are called.
Or, to put it another way, what my professor warned all of us about a life of ministry isn’t meant for ministers alone – it’s for all of us.
We Christians are different. We are, as Paul puts it, set apart for the gospel of God. This language of “set apart-ness” has created problems over the millennia as we’ve assumed that perhaps only pastors are called to do special things that the rest of Christians don’t have to do. And, even worse, we’ve taken that language to mean that the church is better than the rest of the world.
Think about how many times you’ve heard a sermon (even from me) about how the church is right and the world is wrong. It’s certainly true as times, but the more we hear about our rightness and their wrongness, the more we consider ourselves special, or elite, or the beloved.
But that’s not what Paul means when he writes about set apart for the gospel of God. Paul didn’t choose for himself that life that God called him into. Remember – he was confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus to begin again, to set his life anew. And everything about Paul was wrong for the role to which Christ called him – he was brash and arrogant and self-righteous and furiously committed to exterminating the new Christian faith that was budding up in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Jesus calls that guy to speak the Good News across the world.
Think on this for a moment – God took the enemy and sent him out to carry the Gospel to the very people Paul would have considered beneath him, namely the gentiles. And to make matters all the more confounding, without Paul there would be no worldwide Christian faith.
And yet Paul saw his entire mission not as his own, but instead Christ working in him.
Thats a far cry from “If you can do anything else with your life, go do that thing instead.”
Can you imagine Jesus knocking Paul down on the road to Damascus and saying, “Hey Pauly! I know you’ve been hating on the people following me, you’ve dragged them off to prison and probably even killed a few. No worries. But I want to talk about something else… What would you think about coming to work for me? The pay isn’t very good, my followers won’t want to accept you (for the time being), and you’re going to get killed in the end because of me. Now, if you can do anything else with your life, tent-making or Christian persecuting, go do that. But if you can’t do anything else, then I have a job for you.”?
Paul didn’t have a choice.
The Good News of God in Jesus Christ grabbed him by the collar and refused to let him go. Paul heard what all of us hear at some point – you’re not enough, or you’re doing the wrong thing, or you’ll never cut it. And instead of relenting to the nihilism of it, Paul heard a better Word from the Lord – come to me all of you with your heavy burdens and I will give you rest.
You see, that’s what the beginning of the letter to the Romans is all about. It’s not a list of all the things pastors have to do, or even what lay people have to do. It’s not a litany of complaints about how hard the life of faith is. Its not even really about the people receiving the letter! It’s all about Jesus and what Jesus did and does for us, his people.
We are set apart for the gospel of God, the Good News he promised before the beginning of time and throughout all of his prophets, the Good News about his Son, who comes from the line of David and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all people for the sake of his name, including us, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
The beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is one long sentence filled with theological nuggets about what it means to be part of the called. Being called means being set apart, not from the world or above the world, but set apart to know who we really and and what we’re really like!
That was Paul’s burden and it is ours as well.
Paul was called to a life of spreading the Good News about the one for whom he tried to punish others previously. Imagine a white supremacist being called by God to work for racial equity, or a sexist man being called by God to work in a battered woman’s shelter.
Paul writes about the obedience of faith, and when we hear the word obedience it sets off all kinds of red flags. Obedience sounds like something that will infringe upon our rights to freedom. But the obedience of faith, strangely, is all about freedom – its the freedom to confess what we, on this side of the resurrection, know to be true. There is nothing good in us nor among us. Try as we might, we will do things we know we shouldn’t and we will avoid doing the things we know we should.
Part of what makes us different is that we know that we no longer belong to ourselves and we haven’t been left to our own devices. We belong to Jesus Christ who came into the world to take us and our burdens upon his shoulders. We belong to Jesus Christ who sees and knows our sins and nails them to the cross anyway. We belong to Jesus Christ whose birth we mark in the manger, and whose return we anticipate with joy and wonder.
Today is the end of Advent, it is the end of a season in which we stare straight into the darkness, the sinfulness, of our own lives and the world. Regardless of the lights on the tree or the carols on the radio, these weeks have been a time set a part for us in which we confront the reality for which God had to come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
If anything, Advent is a time for us to confess that being a Christian is hard, whether we’re pastors or not. But what makes it hard isn’t what we often think it is. It’s not about expectations and moral observances, God no longer delights in those things. It’s hard to be a Christian because while the world constantly tells us to be better on our own terms or by our own merits, God reminds us that all that work will be for nothing. Instead, God is the one who makes us better by sending his Son for us, to do for us that which we could not.
It’s hard because we want to be in control but Advent reminds us that God is in control.
That’s what sets us a part. It’s also why we can call it good. Amen.
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 seen, 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 of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
The disciples are just like us, and we are just like the disciples.
They’ve spent years with Jesus, listening to him tell story after story. They’ve witnessed countless miracles and have had their bellies filled time and time again. They’ve even seen parade into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
But sometimes, even being around the Messiah can’t explain everything. And the disciples are confused.
Their Lord has talked openly, and frighteningly, about the great overthrowing of all things. The whole “the first will be last and the last will be first” stuff. And now here they are in the shadow of the temple, the very thing Jesus has said that he has come to destroy and the disciples cover their confusion with small talk. “O Lord, what big stones this temple has!”
It’s like those times when you’re gathered around the Thanksgiving table and your filterless uncle starts in on his political ramblings. The whole family will shift around nervously until someone tries to cover up the feeling of discomfort by changing the subject, or simply talking loud enough to drown him out.
The disciples know that their mysterious Lord is acting even more mysterious than normal and instead of facing the mystery, instead of engaging with it, they try their best to bring up something else.
And how does Jesus respond to the tourist like behavior of his disciples?
“Hey guys, come close. You see all this stuff? The big ramparts and the towering walls? You see the guards pacing back and forth? You see the lines of people coming in to present their gifts to God? All of this is going to disappear. Every one of those stones will come crashing down and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”
This is a shocking claim and an overwhelming revelation. For many of Jesus’ contemporaries the temple was the most sure thing around. So much so, that some worshipped the temple itself instead of the God for whom the temple was built. And to say that it would come crashing down sounds more like the proclamation of a terrorist than the Lamb of God.
Then the disciples ask the question that anyone would have asked, “Lord, when will this happen, and how will we know it’s about to go down.”
What follows is what some call the mini-apocalypse in the middle of the Gospel. Jesus foretells, in a sense, what is to come and he warns his disciples about what this will mean for them.
“When things start to fall apart, be careful that you are not led astray. There’s going to be a whole lot of people who claim to be me or, at the least, be on my side. Don’t listen to them. They wouldn’t know the Good News if it hit them in the face.”
“When you hear about wars cropping up, or even the rumors of war, don’t be afraid. These things have always taken place, and they will always happen. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.”
“And don’t even get me started on the natural disasters – the earthquakes and famines and floods.”
“But before that great disrupting of things occurs, you’re going to get arrested and persecuted. The powers and principalities are going to hand you over to the authorities and the prisons, you’ll be brought before those in charge because of me. And when it happens, don’t worry. This will be an opportunity for you to share the truth.”
“So do me a favor, don’t waste your time coming up with the perfect speech or the perfect story – I will give you the words and wisdom that none who are in power will be able to handle.”
“I know it’s going to be rough. Some of you will even be betrayed by your parents or your siblings or your friends or perhaps your children. Some of you will die because of this. You will be hated because of me. Don’t take it personally.”
“Because in the end, all will be well – I promise. It will be well because I have destroyed death, and you will live with me in the Resurrection. The end has no end.”
Jesus goes full end of the world stuff here, rambling on like one of those men dressed in a sign on the street corners of life. And, to be honest, this reflection from the Lord has been used to inflict some serious damage across the history of the church. Leaders have held these verses over the heads of Christians in order to frighten them into faith.
Which, to be clear, doesn’t work.
Telling teenagers that unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior they will suffer the consequences for eternity only leads to teenagers staying as far away from the church as possible.
Telling new parents that unless they baptize their child the flames of hell will be their reward only leads to parents writing frightening Facebook posts about what they heard in church on Sunday.
Telling people at the end of their lives to give more money to church or suffer the wrath of God leads only to emptier and emptier pews on Sunday morning.
It doesn’t work and it shouldn’t.
Jesus declaration is not meant as a description of the nightmare that can be, and is, discipleship. It’s about what he is about to do, and what he has done, for us.
The world’s passion is taken up in Jesus’ passion. And by passion I mean the suffering that leads to a new creation. What we miss, what the church has often overlooked, is that what Jesus gets into here is not a catalogue of all the bad that’s awaiting us, but instead it is Jesus painting a picture of a dying and rising Lord who reigns in the midst of the world falling apart.
Jesus saves the world in its, and in his, death. But we are so afraid of death that we choose to believe something else about Jesus’ work.
We like Easter without having to think about Good Friday. So much so that when we hear about all these horrible things happening in the world we only think about them in terms of how they might affect us as individuals instead of seeing how God already did the most horrible thing of all to save us.
Fanatical and apocalyptic Christians might warn us about how “The End Is Near” but what we’ve missed is that the real end has already arrived through the disaster that was the cross until the resurrection.
In many ways, what Jesus said to his disciples and what he says to us today is this: “You may see signs that you think are the end. But they are not the end.”
Redemption, pointed to through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, involves neither the rejection of the world in its weakness nor the fixing of all the weakness by stepping in. All that matters is recognizing that resurrection comes out of death.
And yet many of us have fallen prey to the myriad of ways a text like this has been used to manipulate, frighten, and even coerce those who hear it.
We’ve left church on Sunday mornings afraid of God for all the wrong reasons.
Instead of announcing the grace of God and the resurrection of the dead being made available to all, we lift up words like these as a potential punishment for those who don’t believe it.
Instead of resting in the strange grace of God’s unending love, we fixate on fixing all the world’s problems with programs that often lead to more doomed living.
We try and we try and we try, and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
We embark on a new campaign and the lost keep wandering and the found keep yelling.
We announce a volunteer program and the least wither away while the greatest smile proudly.
I don’t know how it all happened, we could probably blame sin and our own self-righteousness I guess, but in the church we behave as if we will only allow sinners to gather among us so long as they try to not look like sinners. We perpetuate systems of salvation that both deny the truth of who we are and lay it out as if its all up to us.
For far too long, Christians have left their places of worship with the understanding that the world can only be saved by getting its act together. Or, worse, I can only be saved if I get my act together.
Now, sure, all of us would do well to get some things sorted out, but in the end that’s not what saves us. The world has never gotten its act together and neither have we nor will we. We chose the things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing the things we know we should.
That’s the disaster of history – we cannot save ourselves and neither can the world.
So when Jesus speaks to his friends and disciples, when he tells them about things they cannot yet imagine, he is offering us, today, a corrective for the ways we’ve lost sight of the whole thing. Late or soon, the world is going down the drain. Just pick up a newspaper (do any of us still read the newspaper?) or pull out your phone and you will see how prophetic Jesus’ words really are. But as the world spins down the drain Jesus reminds us that only a Savior who is willing to work at the bottom of the drain can do anything about it.
The world has a future and the church is the one entrusted with proclaiming that future. Much to the chagrin of Hallmark and certain pastors, it is not a future of pie in the sky or even pie on the earth – it is resurrection from the dead. And without death there can be no resurrection.
Whether we like it or not, Jesus’ proclamation to the disciples outside the temple walls compels us to ask ourselves questions.
Who are we and what in the world are we doing?
Are we like the disciples wandering around merely marveling at the scenery around us?
Are we “signs of the times” police, attacking anyone outside of what we think is the Gospel?
What is the church and what it is supposed to be?
We can begin to scratch at the surface of those first questions by addressing what the church is not. The church is not an exclusive club of the saved. It is not a gathering of people who will be granted the lifeboats of salvation while the world falls apart because of our superior faith or morality. It is not a museum for saints.
If the church is anything it is a sign for the whole world about the salvation of the cosmos made possible in and through Jesus Christ.
Sometimes it feels like the church is in the midst of a crisis. It should come as no surprise that less and less people come to church week after week, the world feels like is twirling down the drain faster than ever before, and that’s not even getting into the specifics of cultural and societal changes. But if the church really is in a crisis it is because we have foolishly convinced ourselves that we are a bunch of good people getting better. The truth of the church is quite the opposite: we are a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.
And Jesus has a word for those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see: You don’t have to put your faith in political action, or moral achievement, or spiritual proficiency because those things can’t and won’t save the world.
We need only trust that’s its not up to us in the end. And what better news is there than that? Amen.