Get Lost

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4, Psalm 119.137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12, Luke 19.1-10). Jason is the senior pastor at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including staying interested in ministry, God’s timing problem, the folly of pride, answering questions with questions, Godfather responsibilities, comedy in subtitles, VBS curricula, colluding with empire, and the unjust justice of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Get Lost

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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.

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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.

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“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

All You Need Is…

1 Corinthians 13.1-13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 

Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing. I can put in the hours of preparation, I can fall to my knees in prayer, but a lot of being a pastor is like fumbling around in the darkness.

My first wedding took place a few months after I arrived at my first church. I had done my due diligence with the couple, took them through the wringer of premarital counseling, I even walked them through the ceremony step by step, but when the actual moment arrived, I felt woefully unprepared.

I knew the expectation was that the bride was supposed to be kept away from the husband until that magical moment she she appeared by the door at the back of the sanctuary when the photographer knew to take a picture of the very-soon-to-be-husband crying as he took in his very-soon-to-be-wife in her wedding dress. So I sequestered the bride and the bridesmaids in a Sunday school room on the other side of the building, and I waited with the groomsmen in the narthex and greeted all of the friends and family on their way in.

When it felt like enough people had arrived and it was time to get things started, I pulled one of the groomsmen to the side and I said, “I’m going to go check on the girls so we can get this show on the road.”

I walked through the empty hallways until I could hear the girls laughing with gleeful expectation, and they told me they needed about 5 more minutes and then they’d be ready to go.

But when I made it back to the narthex, the groomsmen were missing.

Well, they weren’t missing missing. But they certainly weren’t where they were supposed to be. In fact they were already in the sanctuary, standing up at the altar, staring at the narthex doorway, waiting for the bridesmaids and the bride. 

And not only were the groomsmen looking back in anticipation, but so was every single person in the sanctuary.

Now, to be abundantly clear, five minutes might not sound like a long time, but it can feel like an eternity when the expectations are all caught up in the hopes and dreams of a wedding service.

For the first minute people politely smiled and waited patiently. But by minute two, the beads of sweat started appearing on foreheads, and by minute three, groups of people started fanning themselves.

I, trying my best to ease the tension, started walking down the aisle as slowly as I possibly could to make it appear as if this were all part of the plan. But even when I made it to the groom I knew there was still too much time, so I knelt down on the floor and started praying for the girls to hurry up. Because of the architecture of the sanctuary I strained to listen and eventually I heard their high heels scuffling across the floor in the hallway behind us, and finally, FINALLY, they stood in the back and we could get on with everything.

But, as it would have to happen, the first bridesmaid walked in the frame and seeing all of the eyes peering down on her, particularly with the added fear about a potential missing bride situation, she just froze in silence.

I subtly motioned for her to come forward, and then I eventually just started waving my hands out of frustration. And when she did start to move she walked down the aisle even slower than I did.

The poor pianist was running out of music to play.

Eventually the bride stepped onto the carpet, being escorted by her father and everyone stood in joy and excitement. The ceremony could truly begin, and after welcoming everyone into the space I said to the father, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

And he forgot what to say.

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We bring all sorts of cultural expectations with us into the big moments of our faith. Whether or not we’ve attended a lot of weddings, or funerals, or baptisms we certainly know what they’re supposed to look like because we’ve seen them in plenty of movies.

Many of us can remember any number of rom-coms in which the minister says something like, “If anyone should see why these two should not be lawfully married, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Many of us can call to mind a great number of scenes in which an entire group of people are covered in black from head to tow, while standing in the rain, watching casket being lowered into the ground.

And many of us can immediately picture the Corleone family flanking the priest by the baptismal font for the infamous baptism scene in the Godfather.

For what it’s worth, I’ve done plenty of weddings, and funerals, and baptisms and to my knowledge none of them have been interrupted by a would-be lover stepping in at the last second, I’ve never been to a perfectly monochromatic funeral service, let alone a burial in the rain, none of the them have resulted in a mafia style massacre.

But those types of things make for great dramatic moments that keep us on the edge of our seats.

And, in the same way we bring our expectations into those moments, we do that with scripture as well. By my estimation this is done more with 1 Corinthians 13 than any other text in the Bible. I probably don’t even need to read the actual words before many of us will immediately think about big white dresses, and rented tuxedos. 

Love is patient, love is kind.

Can you smell the floral bouquets, and hear the nervous pitter pattered footsteps of the ring bearer and flower girl waiting to walk down the aisle?

The majority of us have heard these words before, and we think we know what they mean. They are so familiar that we can scarcely imagine them meaning anything else.

But their familiarity is also their downfall.

I’ve done a lot of weddings, and I have held fast to one rule in all of them – I will preach on any text from the entirety of the Bible during a wedding ceremony, but I refuse to preach on 1 Corinthians 13. 

It’s all about love, and marriage has to be about more than love. Love, whatever it may be, is not nearly enough to sustain two people through the crucible that marriage is. No love is strong enough when we are stripped of all of our defense and all of our disguises. Love doesn’t help us when all of our imperfections and insecurities are laid bare for the other to see.

So instead, I’ll preach a sermon in which the honesty about the difficulty of marriage will leave people squirming. Not because I get satisfaction out of it (well maybe I do), but because I don’t want people entering into marriage thinking its easier than it really is.

The other reason I refuse to preach on this text, much to the chagrin of some couples, is that it doesn’t really have anything to do with marriage in the first place, of even with love we feel toward other people.

1 Corinthians 13 is about God.

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The Corinthian Christians were abusing their freedom in Christ – they refused to share in common the kinds of things that were normative in the church, certain individuals were not participating in the joy of the community and still yet others were jockeying for positions of respect at the expense of the poor and the marginalized.

The differences within the body of Christ were apparently too difficult to overcome.

The church, since the earliest gatherings, has always been full of differing theological opinions, programs, organizations, missions, and ministries. And for most of the time, there has been plenty of room for this kind of diversity to exist peacefully.

But tensions always rise.

It happened in Corinth.

It’s happening in the United Methodist Church right now.

And it will continue to happen in the future.

Fights about space, or time, or money, or personalities, or even political proclivities infuse the church and lead to the kind of divisions that have haunted the church for centuries.

Social and cultural concerns press in upon the church and lead some to insist that its either my way, or no way. Which completely neglects to even consider that Jesus is the way!

When these things happen, Christians seem to have this incredible and blinding power of masking our self-interest with self-righteousness.

I’m right.

You’re wrong.

And this church ain’t big enough for the two of us.

Over and over and over again. 

And in the midst of this infighting, whether in Corinth, or now, or somewhere in the future, we Christians forget that there are most important things than being right or even being powerful!

Whenever we think we have gained everything by standing on principle, or dominating others, or simply being “right”, we have already lost it all.

If we want to be faithful, if we want to follow Jesus as the way, rather than believing we know the way, then this text stings in a way than it doesn’t when its read aloud at weddings. Because the passion of love and intimacy that we might reserve for those who exchange rings implies a willingness to not only know someone else deeply and truly, but also to be known by someone else deeply and truly.

And for us, this takes place between us and God.

This text isn’t about our love for each other, or even our love for God, but God’s love for us.

God is the love that holds up a mirror to who we are and reveals to us the stranger that we are to ourselves.

We, in and of ourselves, are not capable of the kind of love described for us by Paul. We are not patient, nor are we kind. We certainly aren’t free of envy or boasting. Not with our friends, not with our families, not with our spouses, and not even with our church.

The sentimentality of a patient and kindly love expressed at weddings ignores the active, tough, resilient, and long-suffering love that God has for us!

But whenever we come across this text, at a wedding or on a Sunday morning, it is always whittled down to another thing we are supposed to do. In the Bible, the Law is always a list of you must do this, or you must not do this. And it shows up in our lives all the time – all of the shoulds, musts, oughts, that we constantly hear in the back of our minds. 

And, like the expectations we bring to the Bible, when we encounter this call to love, it does not result in a kind of joyful and carefree freedom, instead it bears down upon us like the weight of the world.

Simply because we know we can’t do it. 

The Law and the call to love shines a painful light on all of our failures, all of our fractures, all of our fears. And so when we read this passage about love, the result is that we just kind of wind up feeling worse about ourselves.

But, and it’s a big but, Paul’s talk about love isn’t meant to be the Law. It’s not supposed to be a call to executing the loving order that’s detailed over these thirteen verses. It’s not meant to be a club that we swing around at other people for nothing loving us enough.

In fact, it’s supposed to the opposite of the Law…

It’s the gospel.

As a friend of mine wrote this week: It’s the Law that says, “Be loving.”

But the Gospel says, “You are loved.”

This often used marriage scripture isn’t about what we do, or even how we treat each other. It’s about how Jesus does these things when we cannot.

If God is love, then so is Jesus.

Jesus is patient; Jesus is kind; Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way; Jesus is not irritable or resentful; Jesus does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth. 

Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Jesus never ends.

So, we can go and love the people around us. We can even love the people we hate. The world could certainly use a little more love. But there is a big difference between “be love” and “be loved.”

The former is the Law.

And the latter is the Gospel. Amen.

Age Is Just A Number

Devotional:

Jeremiah 1.6-7

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.”

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I was out in my front yard when the two young men wheeled up with their too tight helmets and their too long black skinny ties.

Mormons.

I had seen them around the neighborhood on a number of occasions but always in passing and they never seemed to notice me. But now here we were, standing on the sidewalk when the taller of the two introduced himself and immediately began with, “Excuse me, but do you know Jesus?”

Do I know Jesus?

For a moment I thought about lying, I thought about pretending I had never ever heard of the man, just to see what kind of lecture I was going to receive.

But I was tired, and in no mood to be evangelized. So I simply said, “I sure do, and I tell people about him every Sunday, I’m a pastor.”

The two monochromatically dressed missionaries stared at me in disbelief until the smaller one said, “Gee, I thought pastors had to be old.”

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It has amazed me how much my age in relation to my vocation is brought up on a regular basis. And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even look very young. I’m losing my hair and I have a fairly sizable beard. 

And yet, there is this strange expectation that to be involved in the duties of pastoral ministry requires a look of weathering!

When called called Jeremiah to his vocation of being a prophet, Jeremiah promptly responded with doubts about his usefulness precisely because of his age. And God hears none of it: “This isn’t about you or your age or your experience; it’s about what I’m going to do through you!”

Throughout my varied experiences in varied churches there is this limiting belief that God can only call certain kinds of people to certain kinds of tasks. Churches want extraverted people leading worship, but they also wanted introverted people to visit them in the hospital. They want young ministers to help bring in young families, but they want old pastors who can work from experience.

In the church, almost more than anywhere else, age is nothing but a number. Time and time again throughout the Bible God calls upon people regardless of their age, or their experience, or even their talents simply because God is the one who will work through them. 

Do you feel unqualified for something that’s happening in church? Do you believe your abilities might be best suited elsewhere? Has God called you to something that you think is impossible?

These are important questions, but like Jeremiah, we do well to remember that it’s not really about us; it’s about what God can do through us. 

Rage Against Explanation

Isaiah 62.1-5

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name, that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall not more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

I saw him walk by the window before I heard the knock on the door. We get a lot of foot traffic by the main office, and every once in a while someone will stop by the entrance to talk with the preacher. A few have asked for directions. Others have wanted information about the church. Most need some financial assistance.

I stood in the doorway and extended my hand and offered for the guy to come in, take a seat, and enjoy the warmth of our building on a particularly cold day.

He told me about his life, the ups the downs, the children and the wives, the bottles and the sobriety. He’s currently employed by the federal government but, like many, he’s not getting paid right now. 

And then he asked, “Why is God doing this?”

On Thursday three white Chicago police officers were acquitted on charges that they had conspired and lied to protect a white police office who fired 16 deadly bullets into a black teenager named Laquan McDonald. The officers claimed that the young man had swung a knife at them repeatedly, and even though there was no evidence of the fact on the videos presented to the court, the police officers were released with no penalties.

A pastor who was present in the courtroom was interviewed immediately after the verdict was released and said to anyone with ears to hear: “How could God let this happen?”

I was getting my oil changed this week when a woman in the waiting room leaned over and asked what I did for a living. And I told her the truth. She asked if I was being serious. She told me about how she grew up in the church, how the people in that church were salt of the earth, how they made her into who she is. I asked where she went to church now. She said she doesn’t. And, she remarked matter-of-factly, that church she grew up in closed a few years ago. 

Thinking the conversation had come to a conclusion I made open up a book but she left this lingering question hanging in the air: “Why would God let a church die?”

All of us, in some way or another, are looking for answers. 

The people Israel were utterly devastated by Babylon – they were conquered, humiliated, and carted away as strangers to be planted in a strange land. An entire generation would pass before they could return to the land God had promised them. Most of them only knew about it from the fairly tales their parents would tell them.

It’s not hard to imagine that the people of God, far from home, were asking themselves, “How long will this God of ours remain silent? It’s all good and nice to hear about what God did for Abraham, and Moses, and David, but when is God going to do something for us?!”

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These kind of questions appear again and again in the Old Testament – frankly they are the kind of questions that just about everyone in this room have asked at one point or another, and if not yet, we will one day.

And so it is in the midst of utter hopelessness, with no sign other that the words of aging relatives, that the words of the prophet arrive like electricity: “I can’t keep quiet!”

For the sake of God’s people I will not remain silent! God has given me something to say!

So much of what happens in the church today, whether is a sermon or a program, really boils down to this: “What are we gonna do about it?” 

We confront a particular issue and we wrestle with a particular response.

Sermons or programs end with a “lettuce” moment. 

Let us now go into the community to fix all the wrongs we encounter, let us challenge the powers that be, let us make the world a better place.

And yet Isaiah doesn’t tell God’s people what to do. Isaiah begins by demanding that God needs to do something about the situation, that God needs to make good on God’s promises!

Part of the power of this book, the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, is the good news it has to offer toward people who desperately near to hear good news. But the other part of its power is found in its ability to name the realities that people are facing all the time.

We’ve been talking about what’s right with the church this month, and I can think of no better way to put it than this: the church tells the truth; the truth about us, about the world, and about God.

Nothing in this collection of words makes any sense unless we are people of faith who believe that it’s true.

It’s as simple as that.

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However, there is a tension, the same kind of tension we wrestled with in Advent between the already and not yet. Isaiah announces and reminds God’s people about God’s promises. God has not, and God will not, abandon God’s people. But that strikes an uncomfortable chord when we consider how messed up this world is. What good is the promise of God in the middle of our pain?

I get asked many questions. There’s something about this office that carries with it the implication that I get to see behind the curtain and have the answers to the questions that confound us. But, to be abundantly clear – there is no good answer to the question of suffering in the world.

There is no good explanation for why horrible things happen, at least from the perspective of God.

For instance: if I have to hear another pastor preach over the funeral for a young person’s untimely death with the words, “God just wanted another little angel in heaven.” I will throw my bible across the sanctuary and tries as hard as I can to hit the preacher right in the face.

There are of course “bad things” that we experience and can point to the powers and principalities and personalities in the world and throw are charges against them. 

Like yesterday, during a peaceful indigenous peoples’ march in DC, a group of young white men surrounded and belittled an elderly Native American man while he was chanting and playing a traditional drum.

We can point to the powers and principalities that have rewarded that type of bullying and discriminatory behavior that resulted in the scene from yesterday. We can call to question the behaviors and practices and motives and ideologies that lead to something like that. 

But even still, there are indiscriminately horrible things that happen to people in this world that are beyond explanation.

How, then, are we to respond? Should we sit around twiddling our fingers in our own exile? Should we sit back and wait while things fall apart all around us? Should we offer trite and cliches responses to suffering because we don’t know what else to say?

Perhaps one of the greatest responses to this suffering world is what David Bentley Hart calls “rage against explanation.” We, as Christians, rage against the desire and the drive to explain everything as if God allowed something to happen or willed something to happen.

It’s the people who try to fill in the void created by tragedies with explanations of God’s plan that make God into a vindictive monster instead of the one who knows the truth of our suffering.

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I can remember being in the hospital one night while I was working as the on-call chaplain at Duke. The beeper attached to my belt felt like a shackle that I dragged around the building; I fretted over every notice and whether or not I would be called into a room filled with people looking for any explanation.

And so when the beeper went off, I made a mental note of the room number, and started trudging toward the other side of the facility.

When I got right outside the room, the doctor pulled me aside and said that the patient had been asking to speak with a professional pastor (which of course I wasn’t), and when I asked for more details the doctor just shrugged his shoulders and went back to making his rounds.

I walked into the room and the woman looked me up and down, and then rolled away from me toward the window.

At that point of the night I had already been in too many rooms and sat with too many families, so I just sat down in the chair and stared out the window with her. 

I have no idea how long we sat there in silence together, but eventually I pulled out the tiny bible I had in my pocket, and I turned to a random psalm:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

To which she rolled back over with a slight smile on her face and said, “It’s nice to know that someone knows how I feel.”

God is God and we are not. God thoughts are not our thoughts nor are God’s ways our ways. But once we begin to grasp even the smallest bit of God’s greatness, and majesty, and other-ness, then the news of Isaiah’s proclamation is even more bewildering and awesome – God rejoices over us.

There is no good explanation for why certain things happen. We can’t make sense of the senseless tragedies that happen all around us. 

But this is also not the end.

The Israelites eventually returned to a broken and abandoned community after their years in exile – they never quite experienced the promise they had imagined. But then, the time came, with God’s definitive act in the world, the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully human, came from the far country of God’s divinity to dwell among us, and then the ultimate price was paid such that the promise would come to fruition – not just for an individual, or even a nation, but for the entirety of the cosmos.

In scripture and in life, God does not speak to us of why things happen. Instead, God speaks about how things can be. God speaks to us not in explanations, but in promises!

Promises that we can scarcely imagine or even fathom.

What Isaiah announced to the people called Israel, God has revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We who were once far off, removed by our own exile, have been brought near by the blood of the lamb who was slain for the world.

So we can rage all we want at the powers and principalities and personalities that are responsible for so much of the suffering in the world, but we can also rage against explanation as we walk hand in hand with those who are in the midst of darkness. Amen. 

The Voice Of The Lord

Psalm 29.4

The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. 

Weekly Devotional Image

It was a particularly nice day outside so I decided to walk across the church lawn to the retirement home that was adjacent to the property. A number of my members would march with their walkers across the grass every Sunday for worship and I would try to swing by for random visits whenever I had the time. On this particular day I can remember the sounds of birds chirping in the trees as I turned toward the main entrance.

When I looked up I saw Polly, one of the oldest members of the church, standing out on her balcony on the third floor. She was tidying up the little space that she had, and I cherished the brief stolen moment I had seeing her without know that anyone could see her. But then it felt a little awkward to be staring at an older woman from the parking lot so I shouted out, “Hey Polly.”

No response.

I knew she could be hard of hearing so I cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted even louder, “Polly!”

To which she quickly looked up in the sky and said, “Yes Lord?”

I started laughing so hard in the parking lot that it took me a few moments to collect myself before going into the building to actually knock on her door. And when I did she answered with a flustered look on her face and she said, “Pastor Taylor, you’re never going to believe this… but I just heard God talking to me, and He sounded a lot like you!”

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The psalmist describes the voice of the Lord like thunder with tremendous power that can even break cedar trees in half. I tend to imagine God’s voice sounding a lot like Maggie Smith’s voice from her portrayal of Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series, but it doesn’t carry with it quite the weight of the psalmist’s understanding. God’s voice is apparently powerful enough that it can shake the very foundations under our feet.

Today it is all too easy to read scripture or hear it read aloud in church on a Sunday morning and immediately think of someone else for whom those words were written: 

“Judge not, lest ye be judged” and our minds jump to our remarkably frustrating relative and we think about how nice it would be if they would stop being so judgmental! 

However, the strange and convicting truth of the gospel is that when God speaks, God speaks to me – to us – to you. Sometimes the voice of the Lord speaks great and comforting words into the midst of our fears. But there are other times, times we’d rather ignore, when the voice of the Lord calls us out of our sinfulness into lives of holiness. 

The Beginning Of The End

Mark 13.1-8

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

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

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

But the apocalyptic Jesus? No thank you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep.”

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

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

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

We are not supposed to lose the people we love. 

But then it happens. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing…

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

But they do, and they will.

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

We cannot stop the inevitable. 

All life comes to an end. 

Only a living God can make our end a beginning.

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

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

Only God gives life.

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

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

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

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

The goal of all life is resurrection!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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