Sunday, November 29, 2009

Are You Ready?

OK, I admit I watch professional wrestling sometimes. And yes, I know it’s scripted and that the action is about as real as a choreographed movie fight. So what? Sometimes those are fun, too.

Two wrestlers in a popular (for the moment) tag team often begin their in-ring spiel with the question, “Are you ready?” When they ask this, the crowd responds affirmatively. But alas, their affirmation is unconvincing, so the wrestler must repeat himself: “No! I said, ‘Are! You! Ready!’” This time, the agreement hits the proper decibel level and he can continue with the rest of his promo, which is pretty much not appropriate for sermons.

Although I greatly doubt Jesus would have been a professional wrestler if that business had existed in his time, the promo parallels the way that Jesus talks to his disciples about the end times and his return here in Luke. He tells them that there will be signs that point to his coming, and those signs will be so overwhelming they will make people afraid of what’s happening.

Then they will “see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.” And he tells them when they see these things, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The question is unspoken, but it’s obviously there. When Jesus tells his listeners about the hard things they will see before he is fully revealed as the Messiah, and how they should act when it happens, what else would we think but that he’s asking them if they’ll be ready to do that when it does?

Perhaps, when he said this, he looked at the crowd to see what kind of response they had to his message. And whether through not understanding or misunderstanding what he said or some other response, he felt that he needed to ask the question again. Only instead of yelling it louder like the wrestler does, he used a parable.

Look, he said, when you see the fig tree sprout leaves, you know summer is near because you know that’s what fig trees do just before summer gets here. So when you see the kinds of things I’m talking about, then you’ll know what I’m talking about is going to happen. Even if you don’t really know what’s going to happen, you’ll still know it’s me doing what I said. So look out and don’t get so wound up in the cares of this world you forget I’m going to be building a new world.

Now, when we look at how the disciples responded when things started happening that fulfilled Jesus’ true mission, we can see they were not ready. There may not have been great turmoil in the world, but there was plenty within their own circle. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, the rest deserted him, and he was arrested and put on trial before Herod and Pilate. Falsely convicted, Jesus was sentenced to death and executed. Did the disciples “stand up and raise their heads?” No, they ran away. They – most of them, anyway – were not ready. And when he was revealed in his power and glory in the Resurrection, where they there to see it? No. Remember, they ran away.

Because he came to them later and revealed himself to them, they finally understood and began the work to which he’d called them, but that had a lot more to do with God’s mercy than with the disciples’ readiness.

And then the question of readiness expands even more, out to reach us living in our time.

As you’ve no doubt heard before, the signs of trouble that are supposed to point to Jesus’ coming are not unique to what we sometimes call “the end times.” They are parts of human history that are always with us. And so Jesus is always asking us, “Are you ready?” Are we ready to receive him, to stand up and raise our heads as our redemption draws closer? Or are we also weighed down with concerns than anchor us to things that don’t last and never will?

He’s come. As Christians, we believe that. We may never be able to prove it like we can prove George Washington was born or that Marie Curie helped discover radium, but we believe it and we base our lives on that, with God’s help.

Every Advent seems to sneak up on us, doesn’t it, hiding behind those Pilgrims and Indians like someone ducking down in the back row of the picture. For me, that’s a reminder than I’m not really ready for him, any more than the world was ready for him back then.

But I’m getting there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Now That's My King (John 18:33-37)

Yes, I made the sword joke the last time I preached on this passage. I can't believe anyone is surprised that a pastor recycles jokes. ;-)

This, the last Sunday before Advent begins, has often been called “Christ the King” Sunday in church history.

A sizable number of Christian folks are uncomfortable with some of the images that conjures up. Kings are authoritarian, maybe even dictator-like. They represent power figures that often use their power to get their way and keep weaker people down so they can’t fight for themselves. They may have long noses and funny-looking ears – well, at least the King of England will after Queen Elizabeth passes on.

But because of all these images that seem directly opposed to who and what Jesus was, some folks suggest we modern people should get rid of the idea of Christ as a King It’s a way of thinking a lot more appropriate to that day and time than to ours.

I’m not sure, though. I think this passage shows us that Jesus was trying to communicate the difference in his understanding of kingship even here, with a Roman governor. And we know he came from a people who counted kings like David and Solomon as among the most important figures of their national history.

In those days, kings might set up most of their own laws if they wanted to, with very few checks on their authority. Even so, they couldn’t guarantee they would be followed on the throne by the person they wanted for that job, because they usually didn’t quit being kings until they died. So a new king would come into office facing uncertain times.

Would the old king’s advisors support him? Would the people? How about his own family? Many kings married more than one wife and the new king will have brothers, half-brothers and probably some uncles who might be gunning for the crown. What to do about them? The usual answer to that one didn’t involve a family meeting, by the way, but it did make sure that the holiday card list was a looooot shorter than it had been.

Where a modern king might very well rely on some form of settled legal precedent for his assuming his throne, the ancient kings had to rely on a more basic argument.

“Hi, I’m the king.”

“Who says?”

“Me and all my buddies with the sharp pointy metal things.”

“How may I serve Your Majesty?”

So people in the ancient world were very likely to surround their vision of kingship with the same kind of potential authoritarianism and maybe dictatorship that might trail that word in our time. They may have been just as unhappy with the idea of some kind of absolute ruler as we are.

But, as Jesus establishes in his conversation with Pilate, he’s not that kind of a king. His whole understanding of kingship and the power that comes from it reverses what people then thought about it. “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over,” he says. He hasn’t told his followers to do that. In fact, when one of them tried it, he told that guy not to fight.

Even more, Jesus knows exactly what kind of pressure he could bring to bear on Pilate if that’s what he chose. Legions of angels, heavenly warriors who would let Toga-Boy here know exactly who ran things in this universe, and Jesus can summon them with a word or less. His kingdom, though is “not of this world.”

It is a kingdom where the greatest power ever known will not be used to crush his enemies but will instead allow itself to be crushed. It will not count power as a thing to be grasped and fought over, but used instead to build up the weak, even those so weak they try to force that power to submit to their own. It is a dignity and a might and an authority so awesome it fears not to take a towel and wash fishermen’s feet.

Or, as we begin next week to prepare to note, to arrive in this world completely helpless and totally dependent on a teenage Jewish girl and her carpenter husband.

I agree that a couple of things about the idea of Christ as King might need to be changed. But in the person of Christ, that change has already taken place. Hadn’t you heard? It’s the good news.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Signs of Doom! (Mark 13:1-18)

OK, if you want some irony in your Bible, here it is. Jesus forecasts a sign of trouble to come, trouble that will actually be “birthpangs” of the Kingdom of God. And he does so in the context of a warning against trusting people who use signs to point to the coming of the Kingdom of God!

Now, obviously Jesus wants his followers to be aware of the possibility of trouble that will surround God’s work in the world. The people who read Mark may have thought that God’s work would be finished in their lifetimes, and Christ would return. Since we live some 1,900-plus years later, we know that wasn’t the case, but the warnings still stand. There are two of them in this passage.

The first warning is against the idea of thinking that size or magnificence somehow equals durability and strength. In our day, we are used to large buildings, and we know that although there’s a lot of work that goes into constructing them, they are regular features of life in many areas. People live in them, in apartments that may be hundreds of feet off the ground, and think no more of it than they would of stepping up on a curb.

But think about what it takes to build such a building if you don’t have modern cranes and hoists and I-beams and girders and riveters and welders. Think about what it might take to build even a four or five story building if everything you want to use on that fifth story has to be hauled up those stairs, or at best winched up with some kind of draft animal pulling on a block and tackle. You can cut huge stones to bear the weight of your towering structure, but there’s no diesels to haul it to the site and no hydraulics to help lever it into place.

If you see a great stone building in this day and time, you might very well look at it in the same light as a hill or mountain. It’s immovable! It’s mighty! It’s an everlasting symbol of some king or ruler’s achievement!

No, Jesus says. It’s as impermanent as any other thing that people build. What people build, people can wreck. And, he might ask us in a context we’d understand, if you’ve rested your faith on such things, then what will you do when the wrecking ball hits?

Such a possibility worries the disciples. Later, they ask Jesus how they’ll be able to know that calamities like the one he describes are about to take place.

“Yea verily,” Jesus says. “When a silly movie makes Lloyd Dobler the hope of the human race and allows a hack director to market wrecking CGI pictures of the world (again), then you shall know the end is nigh…” OK, no he didn’t actually reference the John Cusack movie 2012. But he probably would have if he’d been preaching today.

Jesus actually gives his disciples another warning. Beware of people who tell you that they’re me, he says, or that they know what things will happen next and you should follow them. Bad things might happen and panic you into following someone who says they’ve got the answers. But don’t be fooled. God is still the one in charge.

There’s a cliché among Christians that while we may not know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. Like most clichés, it roots in truth, and it sums up some of what Jesus wants his disciples to know. Just like the future is not in human imitations of permanence, like big buildings, it’s also not in the hands of those who try to interpret signs in the heavens.

A minister friend of mine is the proud possessor of a pamphlet called “88 Reasons the Rapture Will Happen in ’88.” And another by the same author called “89 Reasons the Rapture Will Happen in ’89.” No few Christian writers warned us that the Y2K bug that would wreck the world’s computing systems was a sign that Armageddon and the final battle were on the horizon. You can buy books or visit websites that will tick off all the signs that predict Christ’s coming and specific world events that match them.

It’s not hard to find interpretations or information that confirms that the world has already ended or is about to end or will for absolute certain end soon if we don’t change certain behaviors – Christians aren’t the only ones who predict it or produce detailed and documented evidence that proves their predictions.

Behind the curtain, though the prophets of doom and of human magnificence, both biblical and secular, selectively interpret facts in their own direction or worse, manipulate data and statements so that what they say makes sense.

And we all know what we’re supposed to do about the man behind the curtain. Pay him no mind, because after all, that ain’t where the power is. It’s in the Good News, and the One who brings it.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Repost: The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption (Romans 8:15-16)

Continuing with some interpretations on John Wesley's sermons. First preached Oct. 12, 2006 (by me) and in the mid-1700's (by Wesley). If you're interested in reading the original, click here.

Methodist founder John Wesley was fascinated by what he saw as a process of salvation. On the one hand, God saved people once and for all through the work of Christ on the cross. On the other hand, Christians didn’t all seem live that out the same way. Some followed Christ’s path closely while others could make an onlooker wonder if Jesus made any difference in their lives. That “split personality” might also change over time, Wesley noticed.

The situation interested him because he saw the pastoral need of helping people move forward in their faith, and because it also matched his own experience. His long years of doing every good work he could think of hadn’t eased his spirit the way God had when Wesley was at the study meeting at Aldersgate.

When he looked at his own life and listened to others talk about their own spiritual journeys, Wesley saw that people seemed to live in three different places on those journeys.

The first he called the “natural” state, or being asleep. People who lived a life in the natural state weren’t really aware of God or of their need for him. Even if they had heard about God and about Christ, they weren’t really interested or moved to find out more. They had other goals – like the satisfaction of their own desires and wants. Today, these people might have bumper stickers that say, “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse,” or “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

Or they might be good and compassionate people. The key is their indifference to God and an unawareness of any need for God.

Well, sooner or later, the alarm sounds and wakes up the sleepers. Wesley might have called the alarm “life.” Eventually, even the most unconcerned people wonder a little about the purpose of their lives. Wondering why we’re here is something that human beings do and other animals don’t. When I watch “Meerkat Manor,” for example, I don’t recall any meerkats asking each other what it means to be a good meerkat. Which is good, because that would be a really boring show.

Such people might become aware of their sin and start fighting to overcome it. In the terms I like to use, they wake up to the reality that their relationship with God is somehow broken, not what it was supposed to be. So they try to repair it. They try to bridge the gap and try to live like God would want them to.

Problem No. 1 rears its head here: It can’t be done. Like quicksand, sin seems to drag us more heavily the more we try to free ourselves from it. Paul says it this way: The good I want to do, I don’t do. And the bad that I don’t want to do, that’s what I do. Wesley calls this the “legal” state, and said it’s characterized by a spirit of bondage to sin.

Someone in the natural state isn’t really aware of sin, so while they’re stuck in it just as deep, they don’t know it. But someone in the legal state knows about sin, knows its consequences and problems, but can’t get free from it. Wesley said this was his own story, talking about all of the different things he did to try to work his way to salvation.

But God’s goal is that we know the spirit of adoption, to live as believers. He called this the “evangelical” state. God doesn’t want us living as slaves to sin, but as his adopted daughters and sons, heirs with Christ. We may still sin, as another Wesley sermon mentions. Now, though, we know that we are not slaves to it and we are given strength by God to conquer and overcome it.

My tendency when I hear about stages or states or levels is to think they line up and I progress from one to another in a nice neat line. Of course, life is not a nice neat line – it’s messy. And Wesley told his people that people might have different parts of their lives in any of these three states.

I might not be aware of how something I do separates me from God, for example. Or I might be aware of it and trying to master it on my own. Or I might have, through God’s grace, conquered it and be free of it – in order to sin that way again, I have to deliberately act against what my spirit now wants to do. I have to ignore the witness of the Holy Spirit within me, testifying to me that I am a child of God and I don’t have to follow that spirit of slavery any more.

The spirit testifies to my spirit that I am a child of God. What good news.