Knowing The End At The Beginning

Devotional: 

Isaiah 9.6 

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

Weekly Devotional Image

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

And she loved it.

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

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

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

The daughter was silent.

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

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

She said, “For Jesus?”

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

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

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

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

Away-In-A-Manger

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

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

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

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

Signs of the Times

Luke 21.5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you 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.”

this-is-not-the-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.

end_beginning-670x676

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. 

Questions like:

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. 

The End

Devotional:

Isaiah 65.17

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 

Weekly Devotional Image

On Sunday countless Christians across the globe will hear words from the lips of Jesus as recorded in Luke 21. The particular passage is often hailed as a mini-apocalypse in the midst of the Gospel, and is present in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The imagery and language has been examined again and again over the centuries and have caused many to interpret contemporary signs as signs of “the end.”

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”

“There will be earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues.”

“There will be dreadful rainfall and great signs from heaven.”

Every new war and every climate related disaster get viewed through this lens of Christianity and we are left wondering if what we’re seeing right now is the end. 

Part of that theological process often includes reflections about who is in and who is out if this in fact the end. We create measurements of morality, or degrees of faithfulness, that would grant someone passage into the great beyond. Or, to use the language of Isaiah, the new heavens and the new earth.

For a regrettably long period of time, the church has used this language as a tool to convince or persuade others to give their lives to Christ in order to be saved from the coming wrath. 

Robert Farrar Capon, however, offers a great alternative to those Christians who would desire to “scare people into faith” using the apocalyptic language of Jesus:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days, he says, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of the heaven will be unsettled.”

This is the hour of grace, the moment before the general resurrection when a whole dead world lies still – when all the successes that could never save it and all the failures it could never undo have gone down into the silence of Jesus’ death.

“And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.”

This is the hour of judgment, the moment of the resurrection when the whole world receives its new life out of death. And it is also the moment of hell, when all those who find they can no longer return to their old lives of estrangement foolishly mourn their loss of nothing and refuse to accept the only reality there is.

“And they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

This, at last, is the end: the triumph of the acceptance that is heaven and the catastrophe of the rejection that is hell. And the only difference between the two is faith. No evil deeds are judged, because the whole world was dead to the law by the body of Christ (Romans 7.4). And no good deeds are required, for Christ is the end of the law so that everyone who believes may be justified (Romans 10.4). Judgment falls only on those who refuse to believe there is no judgment – who choose to stand before a Judge who no longer has any record and take their stand on a life that no longer exists.

And heaven? Heaven is the gift everyone always had by the death of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. All it ever took to enjoy it was trust. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment).

May it be so.

maxresdefault

Blinded By The Light

Luke 17.20-37

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his say. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them – it will be like that on they that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone of the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lost it, but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

Jesus was doing his Jesus thing when yet another group of Pharisees showed up and started badgering him with questions. They were mystified by all the mysteries, non-plussed with all the parables, and they just couldn’t take it anymore.

“Enough is enough Jesus. When is all of this actually going to happen? And, for once, could you just give us a straight answer?”

“You and your friends all want one thing: a sign. You want some big demonstration that what I’ve been talking about is getting set into motion. You flock to Twitter and assume that with every new major scandal or devastation that it’s a sign of something greater happening. Yeah, I see what you all do on the Internet, I know you inner monologues of conspiracy theories – I’ve even eavesdropped on some of those mid-afternoon gossip sessions you’ve been having.

Parables-of-Jesus

But if you’ve been listening to anything I’ve been saying, the more you go looking for the kingdom somewhere else, the more you will miss it. Because the kingdom, my kingdom, as I’ve been trying to knock it into your brains, is already here. Seriously. It is among you, hell it’s even within you. Perhaps it’s best if I put it like this: It’s lost in you and only when you admit that you are lost as well will you actually start to see it.”

“C’mon Jesus, what in the world are you talking about? We don’t want some sort of mystical kingdom. We want you to overthrow the powerful and the wealthy. We thought you were going to take the throne and let us reign over the earth. How can your kingdom be among us when the world still feel like garbage – better yet, how can the kingdom be in me when I feel like garbage?

“I know I know. You all can’t stand the stuff I’m bringing, but I’m bringing it anyway. I know all of you well enough to know that even my talking about it as clearly as I am right now won’t leave you feeling like its all settled.”

“You think you’re being clear right now? For God’s sake Jesus just tell us something true!”

“All of you will point to things as if I have some master trick up my sleeve, as if I’m working behind the curtains and pulling all of the strings. You will pick and choose the signs that match most with your own sensibilities, you’ll probably even lord them over other people and tell them that this was my work or that I have something to do with the craziness that’s going on in the world. And all of that squabbling and pontificating and gesturing will be for nothing because it will be a denial of everything I’ve already done for you.

“I believe you Lord, I know you’re telling the truth.”

“Peter, such a good boy. Maybe you’re good with everything I’m saying, though when push comes to shove you’ll deny it, but I’m getting ahead of myself. No matter how all of you feel about this stuff, there will be others who point at the craziness. They’ll say that mass shootings are my way of getting you back to prayer. They’ll say that locking up immigrants is a sign of holy justice. They’ll point and point and point and say my name. For God’s sake, literally, don’t go running after all that nonsense and don’t you dare follow their examples. Those people haven’t a clue in the world.

this-is-not-the-end

“When I come in glory it won’t be in a particular place or through a particular people. When I show up in glory it’s going to be like lightning – all over the place and all at once showing the truth to everyone and everything.

“But before being blinded by my light, the Son of man will have to endure suffering and be rejected by those in power.”

“Of course you will Jesus, no one is going to buy anything you’re selling.”

But don’t you see? I’m not selling anything – I’m giving it all away. It will be just like during the days of Noah. Remember him? He was in on the whole mystery of death and resurrection before just about anyone else, but even he didn’t really know it at the time. He was a sign that the whole world was going to hell in a hand-basket and that God had plans to use death to save the world. But everyone during the time of Noah ignored it, they wouldn’t think about anything except their precious little lives. They had dinner parties to go to, vacations to plan, tennis matches to watch. And they went right on doing all those things until the very end when Noah packed up his Ark while the rest of the world drowned.

Are you starting to get it now? The message I’m giving you to share with the world is that even in death you will be fine because death is my cup of tea. The problem isn’t death – its with all the people who are so committed to their version of whatever they think living is that they can’t let go. When I come in glory its the people obsessed with holding onto their lives that aren’t going to be very happy.

“Imagine your neighbor being up on his roof replacing a wonky gutter and he sees me risen from the dead. What good would it do him to go into the house to grab his wallet and check his hair before joining me in glory? 

“Picture someone mowing the lawn. Do you think they should go inside to finish filing their tax return before joining me in the blinding light?

“Do you remember the story of Lots’ wife? When everything was finally out in the open, God had done a strange and new thing, and it was time for her to go with God’s flow, she decided to have a nostalgia binge and look back to her old life in Sodom. And you know what happened to her? She turned into a pillar of salt!

Plenty of you are going to try to save your lives like that, and you’re going to lose it all. You’re so obsessed with what you’ve done, and what you’ve earned, and what you’ve accomplished that you can’t see the truth even when its standing right in front of you. And, I can’t blame you, we’ve all been conditioned to hold onto our lives with every fiber of our being so losing that control will literally feel like losing our lives.

“I know this kingdom stuff isn’t easy to digest because everything and everyone else will try to sell you a different story. That’s called idolatry. Whenever you feel compelled to worship something else whether it’s a person or an institution or heaven forbid a political party, those things can’t give you life. In fact, they suck away the marrow of your life. They portend to tell you what to do, and what is important, and what is good and true and beautiful. And those things aren’t necessarily bad, they might even be significant, they make differences in the ways we live and move, but they aren’t the difference that makes the difference – that’s me.

“And believe you me, things are going to get worse before they get better. You will pit yourselves against each other over the dumbest things, you will reject one another because of a wayward comment or a foolish story, and at some point you’re going to look back at your life and wonder where everyone went. 

“But when it comes to my kingdom, remember the one that’s already around you, it’s going to be even more confusing. Some people are going to accept it and others won’t. You’ll see two friends out in a boat fishing and one of them will say yes to my death and resurrection and the other will say no. You’ll see friends on a trip to the market and one will go for the deal and the other will say they need to think about it, forever.”

“Enough Jesus! Where is this going to happen? Just cut the small talk about about the mystery and give us something real.”

Where the corpse is, that’s where the vultures will gather… Oh, you don’t like that? Are you feeling uncomfortable? It’s all about death! Haven’t you been listening to any of the stories I’ve been telling you? I know that death is the one thing you all choose to avoid more than anything else, not just your literal deaths but even talk about death, and yet death is the one thing you don’t need to worry about. Because you can put the dead anywhere and the vultures will find the bodies – that’s what they’re good at.

“Don’t you see it now? I’m in the death and resurrection business, that’s what I’m good at. I will come and find you wherever you may be. So forget all of your anxiety about the question of ‘where?’ And, while you’re at it, get rid of you ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ as well. The only thing that matters is you trust me to do what I say I’m going to do, and then get out there and tell other people to trust me too – because in the end that’s all you can really do – I’m going to take care of everything else.

“Stop worrying about where you are or who you’re with – I’m with you.” Amen

The End Is Our Beginning

Luke 21.25-36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xmas_lights_DC

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

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

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

We did the loop three times.

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

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

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

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

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

Spruce Tree branch on Wood Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s enough to give you a headache.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Christians we are forever beginning at the end.

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

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

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

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

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

How wonderfully strange!

end_beginning-670x676

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beginning Of The End

Mark 13.1-8

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

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

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

But the apocalyptic Jesus? No thank you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep.”

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

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

this-is-not-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.

forgotten_church_by_gaudibuendia-d6pu2zm

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. 

Devotional – Revelation 1.8

Devotional:

Revelation 1.8

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Weekly Devotional Image

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.”

revelation1-8-web

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.