Joyful Expectation

Audio and video of this will be available on the Christ Church website.

On the afternoon of April 23, 2017, Dennis Dickey and his pregnant wife journeyed out into the desert near Green Valley, Arizona with some family and friends excited to reveal whether the baby she was carrying was a boy or a girl.  This gender reveal party, and gosh am I glad my girls were born before these became a thing, was going to be unique.  Dennis Dickey was a US Border Patrol agent who used his skills to pack a small package full of a target practice material called tannerite.  From a safe distance away, Dickey shot the small package which exploded with a puff of blue  smoke.  For a moment, there must have been excitement and joy at the thought of welcoming a new baby boy into the family, but that quickly dissipated as the target’s fireball set the surrounding brush ablaze.  In a video made available by the US Forest Service, you can hear the tone quickly change to panic as they pack up their belongings and hit the road.  That small brush fire rapidly spread into the Coronado National Forest, and became known as the Sawmill Fire, burning almost forty-seven thousand acres.   For almost a week, firefighters from some 20 agencies fought the fire, which caused more than eight million dollars in damage.[1]  This September, Dennis Dickey plead guilty to a misdemeanor, was sentenced to five years’ probation, and has to pay almost $8.2 million in restitution.  So much for the joyful moment of expectation.

To me, Advent 1 kind of feels like that gender reveal party that went terribly wrong.  The whole world outside these walls is decorated for Christmas.  Trees, lights, and pictures with Santa, the season of joy and giving is upon us.  Yet, here in church on Sunday morning, we’re stuck listening to Jesus, once again, predicting the end of the world and warning of signs in the heavens, distress among the nations, and people literally fainting from fear and foreboding of what is to come.  As Becca said when we heard an almost identical lesson from Mark two weeks ago, where is the good news?  Where’s the hope?  Where’s the joy?  After another week of wars and rumors of wars, images of children running away from tear gas grenades, and an innocent black man who was the proverbial good guy with a gun being killed by police, can’t we just put up a tree, sing Joy to the World, click our heels together, and wish our way to Christmas?

Unfortunately, we cannot.  We are called to wait.  When Jesus told the crowd that “this generation” would not pass away before all these things came to pass, he wasn’t so much talking about the generation of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nathaniel, and Salome.  The Greek is more generic than simply meaning a 20-year period in which people are born.  This generation is an epoch, an era, or a season.  We are stuck here because here is where God is.  In the muck and mire, in the time in-between Jesus’ first coming – his incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension – and his second coming in a cloud with power and great glory to, as Billy reminded us last week, restore all things to their perfect state in God.  What defines this generation is our call to wait, not as idle observers, but as participants in the preparation: co-creators of the Kingdom of God.

Important things in life take time to plan, prepare, and bring to fruition.  Rome was not built in a day, and neither is Thanksgiving dinner.  It requires us to make a menu, develop a grocery list, and to know how long things take to cook.  You can’t pull a turkey out of the freezer at 9am on Thanksgiving Day and expect to sit down to a feast at 2.  The important things in life almost always take time, and then they are over in mere minutes.  Christmas takes at least a month of planning, shopping, and wrapping, and by 8am, the bags are filled with ripped paper and everybody is ready for a nap.  So too with the Kingdom of God.  Its arrival isn’t something that happens overnight.  Its preparation has taken two-thousand years.  It could take twenty-thousand more.

In the meantime, this generation, of which we are called to be a part, is one of waiting and preparation.  We are invited by Jesus to join with God in building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  “When you see these things begin to take place,” Jesus says, “stand up, and raise your hands.”  In the 2,000 or so years since Jesus said these words, there hasn’t been a time without war, famine, fear, and foreboding.  If one were watching out the window for the signs of the times, it might always look like Jesus is getting ready to hop on that cloud and enter with power and might.  Many have been made to shrink in fear that the end is nigh, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to.

Disciples of Jesus are not able to sit idly by, fearfully waiting for the day of judgment.  Disciples of Jesus are called to lives of loving service while we wait.  We are called to avoid the causal anesthetics of this life.  Jesus calls them dissipation and drunkenness.  We might call them iPhones, Facebook arguments, cable news, or retail therapy.  Jesus warns us not to get so caught up in the here and now, be it the evil that we see around us, or the pacifiers we use to numb our fear-filled minds, that we lose sight of the bigger plan of restoration, renewal, and redemption.  It is easy to become numb to the bigger picture when all we see on a day-to-day basis are the painful realities of sin, but to get caught in the cycle of anger and fear or to allow ourselves to get drunk on groupthink and the comfort of being right is to lose focus on the signs that point to something larger, something more hopeful.

Just as the signs that Jesus talked about: wars, fear, and distress; have been around since the beginning, there have also always been signs of hope.  Even when things seem to be at their worst, we see people caring for those in need through acts of compassion and charity, strangers willing to love their unknown neighbor as themselves.  To borrow from Jesus’ metaphor, the fig tree has been coming into leaf for quite some time.  The Kingdom of God, even in our most godforsaken moments, is near at hand.  It has broken in through the birth of our Savior on Christmas and it will come to full fruit when Jesus returns with power and might.  In the meantime, as we long for moments of joy and hope amidst what can feel like the brushfire of everyday life, we are invited by Jesus to stand up, raise up our heads, roll up our sleeves, and get about the work of God: restoring all of humanity to right relationship with God and one another.  Are we willing to do that work? Will we be able to see that the great revealing that will take place isn’t meant to harm and destroy, but rather, to build and to restore?  Be on guard.  Be alert.  Get to work.  As we prepare for the coming of Christ, both as an infant born of Mary and as the King of kings on judgment day, we are invited to a season of joyful expectation, of hope for the future, and of God’s great gift for the world.  Amen.


Many will say “the time is near”


Late last week, the Babylon Bee, a satirical Christian news site made in the image of the Onion, posted an article entitled “Second Coming of Christ Scheduled for Game 7 of Cubs-Indians World Series.”  Quite honestly, that Jesus didn’t come back during that rain delay is surprising to me, but who knows, perhaps God’s omnipotent plan for all of Creation doesn’t revolve around the decaying pass time of the current largest empirical economy in the world.  I’ve seen others who think that maybe tomorrow will be the day.  This is again an American-centric plan that suggests that the 2016 Presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might be the catalyst for Jesus’ Second Coming.

Of course, Jesus warned us about such foolishness. In Sunday’s timely and unavoidable Gospel lesson, we find ourselves jumping ahead to Holy Week.  Since most Episcopal congregations skipped over Proper 27, Presumably in order to transfer All Saints’, but likely because nobody wanted to preach levirite marriage, after almost four months of walking with Jesus from Mount Tabor to Jerusalem, we all of a sudden find ourselves in Jerusalem in the thick of Jesus’ struggle ahead of the cross.  Last week’s lesson was h the first of several encounters with the religious powers-that-be.  This week, we hear a portion of Jesus’ ongoing lament over Jerusalem, and how the central image of God’s steadfast love for his people has been sabotaged, and now has to be torn down.

Even then, Jesus says, even when God allows his very home to be destroyed in your midst, don’t let people fool you into thinking it is something bigger than it is.  There will be wars and rumors of wars.  We’ve got that.  Earthquakes.  See Kansas and Oklahoma.  Famines. Check. Plagues.  Isn’t Whopping cough making a comeback?  Portents in the heavens?  A Wrigley Field sign that reads “World Series Champs” would seem to qualify.

If you are looking for signs, they will no doubt seem to be there, and yet, we do not know the day or the hour.  Instead, rather than getting caught up in the signs and the scare tactics, Jesus invites us to trust that he will be by our side.  As we go to the polls tomorrow, fueled by a healthy dose of fear mongering from both sides over the past year or more, remember that even if the world were to end tomorrow, not that I think it will, God is still in control.

Jesus’ Apocalypse

In this week’s “Sunday’s Coming” lectionary post at Christian Century (which I cannot link to, but you can subscribe here – update, you can now read it here), the brilliant Rev. Dr. Kathy Grieb invites us to think about whether or not we are living in apocalyptic times.  She points out, rather helpfully, that the word “apocalypse” doesn’t mean “the end of the world” or “the great cosmic battle between good and evil.”  Instead, it simply means “revelation” or “unveiling.”  While it may be tempting to think, and popular culture has jumped upon the idea, that the book of Daniel, the Revelation of John, or any number of Jesus’ sayings are specifically dealing with the eschaton (the last), they are apocalyptic texts, unveiling that which has been previously unseen.

Take, for example, Jesus’ apocalypse in Sunday’s gospel lesson.  Having spent the better part of half a week arguing with the Temple authorities, Jesus and his disciples retreat to the Mount of Olives.  Jesus must be deep in prayer for the city and people he loves so much, but his disciples are more like tourists, oohing and aahing over the sites in the city down below.

As they sit, the can see before them three very impressive structures.  In the foreground is the Temple, built around 516 BCE, but recently updated by order of Herod the Great.  Just behind it, and probably standing just a bit taller than the Temple itself was Antonia’s Fortress, also built under the reign of Herod the Great, and named after Mark Antony.  Finally, toward the Upper City section, there was Herod’s Palace, built by, you guessed it, Herod the Great.

Each of these buildings was impressive, built of huge stone, standing taller than anything else in the city, and each served as a symbol of Rome’s power and might.  As the disciples gawk at their magnitude, Jesus opens the curtain to show them that despite their beauty, these buildings are not what God had planned for Jerusalem.  “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Jesus was not interested in Rome’s symbols of power.  He was especially distressed that even God’s Temple had taken on the trapping of Roman influence.  It was no longer a house of prayer for all people, but a place where money and influence were the name of the game.  God’s desire wasn’t for big buildings and elaborate worship, and so Jesus opened the veil to show the people what God really desired: that his people would follow his will through prayer, study, and loving service.

As we know, he wasn’t talking about the end of days either.  When his disciples pushed him on the when question, he was quick to say that these things were only the beginning.  Some three decades after his death, most of Jesus’ apocalyptic vision would take place.  During the Jewish Revolt of 66-73CE, all three of Herod’s monuments to Roman power would suffer significant damage.  Herod’s Palace was nearly burned to the ground by Jewish revolutionaries in 66AD.  The Temple and Antonia’s Fortress were both destroyed by Roman hands during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70AD.

Not one stone would stand upon another, yet the power of God would continue to work in the lives of the faithful.  Through the diaspora that resulted from persecutions following Stephen’s stoning, Nero’s fire, and the Jewish Revolt, the Good News of Jesus Christ spread throughout the known world.  What was seen as an end, really was only the beginning.  So let’s not worry about wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and flood, but rather, let’s be about the business of sharing God’s love for a suffering world.

Destroy the Works of the Devil

Like almost every possible theological topic, The Episcopal Church has sort of a hazy relationship with evil in its personified form.  We are very clear on the power that evil wields in our everyday lives: from corrupt governments to greedy corporations to individuals who lie, cheat, steal, and respond with violence.  Evil is all around us, from the evil we have done to the evil done on our behalf, but when you start to talk about demons and the devil, many Episcopalians start to squirm in their seats.  There are several reasons for this.  First and foremost is that, by and large, Episcopalians are comfortable with medical and social sciences and so most of what was once described as demon possession can now be easily explained as epilepsy, postpartum depression, or some other completely reasonable diagnosis.  Episcopalians also tend to be wary of those who somewhat uncritically accept supernatural explanations for things that are most likely the result of one’s own choices.

Thirdly, and beyond the scope this post, is the fact that as a whole, modern, western Christians have an angelolgy that is more Hollywood than it is Biblical (hint – Aunt Mae didn’t become an angel when she died, and that’s a good thing).

Yet for all our skepticism about angels and demons and most especially the devil, on Sunday, we’ll pray a prayer that includes these words, “O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life…”  Marion Hatchett, OBM, tells us that this collect was written for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, probably by the Rt. Rev. John Cosin, Bishop of Durham, for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.  In the 79 BCP, it was moved to Proper 27, or the third Sunday before Advent, to begin to turn our minds toward the return of Christ. (Commentary, 195)

This prayer, expressing hope for the power of God at the second coming, recalls for us the Revelation of John which, whether you take it literally or metaphorically, is a story of the great battle between good and evil.  As Christians, whether we believe in a personified devil or not, we confess that Jesus Christ by his death and resurrection, has already won the battle.  Good will prevail, evil and the devil will be defeated, and sin will be no more.  That, I hope, is something we can all agree upon.

The Rapture is Upon Us!

That’s right folks, we’ve arrived at 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17.  What you probably didn’t know about rapture theology is that it also includes a battle of the Bible versions.

More evangelical versions of the Bible, like the NIV and the NLT, are careful to limit the work of Jesus at his second coming.  “For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus comes, God will bring back with Jesus all the Christians who have died.  15 I can tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not rise to meet him ahead of those who are in their graves.  16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the call of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, all the Christians who have died will rise from their graves.  17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and remain with him forever.”

While more mainline versions, like the NRSV, allow for a more expansive final judgment.  “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.  15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.  16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

I can tell you that the word “Christian” which appears twice in the NLT is not in the Greek text.  What was inferred in the NIV “14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” is expressly stated in the NLT.  What I find most interesting, however, is that neither version actually states anything about Jesus snatching believers from their chariots, leaving them to careen off cliffs or to run unabated into the first century equivalent of a couture cupcake shop.  Simply put, there is no Biblical case for a pre-tribulation rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4.

So then, what is Paul talking about?  Well, I’d rather let someone like NT Wright do that heavy lifting, but he can be a bit long winded.  Here’s what I think.  I think Paul is talking about the new heaven and the new earth.  I think he’s helping the struggling believers in Thessalonica see that when Jesus does come back, it will be to restore all of Creation, not just parts of it.  The second coming isn’t about who’s in and who’s out, but rather about the power of God to restore hearts, minds, souls, and even created matter into his perfect vision.

The Word of the Lord… Wait, What!?!

It is almost nine o’clock on Monday morning.  I’ve been in the office for nearly 90 minutes now.  My vacation week is over, but my brain doesn’t seem to know it yet.  I’ve done my usual Monday stuff.  I’ve sorted emails.  I’ve checked the week’s calendar.  I’ve read over the lessons for Sunday.  After a week away, I should be ready to pound out a decent Monday morning blog post, but the haze – that ungodly fog of vacation mixed with a case of the Mondays and another year of preaching “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – just won’t go away.

To make matters worse, we’ve moved into Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians for this week and the RCL powers-that-be have once been forced to make an interesting breaking point.  “For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.”  The Word of the Lord!?!

With Nicolas Cage’s mug all over the place, selling the latest in the terrible “Left Behind” series of movies, the idea of our being rescued from “the wrath that is coming” takes on added baggage these days.  And to end the lesson that way, even if it is the end of the chapter, well that is just odd.  What wrath?  Coming when?  Let’s make one thing clear.  Paul does not have a pre-tribulation Rapture in mind as he writes this letter.  The Rapture is a theology that came into fashion in the early 19th century and continues to plague the world with bad movies starring Nicolas Cage and Kirk Cameron to this day.  We’ll deal with 1 Thessalonians 4:16, the Rapture verse, more when it comes up in the lectionary in a few weeks.

What Paul probably did have in mind, here in the oldest known New Testament text, is what we call “immanent eschatology.”  The early Christians believed, rather strongly, that Jesus was coming back quickly.  The end of this world and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God were expected within just a few years.  So, as Paul writes, he believes that Jesus is coming to judge the world sooner rather than later.  The wrath that will fall upon those who do not believe that Jesus is Lord is coming, but thankfully, the Christians in Thessalonica have believed and are being saved through Christ.  Despite the confusing way in which it comes to us in this lesson, that really is good news.  We who follow in the footsteps of the Thessalonians, while probably not thinking Jesus is coming back tomorrow, know that when the final judgment comes for the whole world, we who serve the one, true, and living God, rejoice in our salvation.  Thanks be to God.

Lord, is this (finally) the time?

I had the distinct pleasure of substitute teaching Father Keith’s Wednesday morning Bible Study today.  Our assigned topic in his Eastertide study of Encounters with the Resurrected Jesus was the ascension story; a timely topic what with tomorrow being the feast day that bears that name.  His title for the study was the question of the two men robed in white from Luke’s version of the story in Acts (a portion of which is also assigned for Sunday), “why are you standing there?”  But I think I’m in agreement with the Sermon Brainwave crew when, back in 2011, they suggested the key question in this text is “Lord, is this the time?”

The disciples had followed Jesus to the precipice of Hell and back.  They had heard him teach about the Kingdom and its politics.  They had seen him exert supernatural control over wind and water, illness and demons, even life and death.  They had marched into Jerusalem with him ready to take on the world, watched him toss the tables in the Temple and get in the theological grill of the religious powers-that-be, and declare that the whole thing would come tumbling down while he would build it back up.  They were ready for him to flex his muscles and restore all things to their rightful place when they watched with horror as he stood silent before his accusers, admonished them to put away their swords, collapsed in exhaustion under the weight of his cross, and died pathetic and naked hanging from a tree.  They had been to the bottom of the pit and had sunk in the miry clay, when lo and behold, he was back.  He had conquered death!

After 40 days of hanging out in and around Jerusalem.  After hearing him continue to teach about the Kingdom and its politics.  After watching him disappear from their sight in Emmaus and reappear in the middle of an upper room in Jerusalem.  After a miraculous catch of fish and delicious fire baked breakfast. After all of that, they were ready for him to do what they still fully expected him to do – put his boot on the neck of Pax Romana and restore the Kingdom and lineage of David.

Lord, is this [finally] the time!?!?!

You can hear the desperation in their voice, and feel the sinking feeling when he responds essentially by saying, “Nope.  Not yet.”

We do not know the day or the hour.  Trying to pinpoint the time and the place and what series of construction projects will bring Jesus back is absolutely pointless.  What matters is how they, how we, take all that stuff that Jesus taught and that stuff that Jesus did and work toward bringing the Kingdom to earth in the meantime.  Now certainly is the time for that.

A Peculiar Ending

As I noted in yesterday’s post, this parable of the unjust judge or the persistent widow is a troublesome one, and it is made all the more convoluted by a rather peculiar ending.  Jesus, having told this parable and laid out a “how much more” or “how much different” or “how much better” argument for God’s willingness to give justice to those who ask for it, brings it to a close with a) a difficult conjunction and b) a strange exhortation.  Here it is in context:

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The Greek for this phrase includes a word “ara” that is “an untranslatable interrogative participle implying anxiety or impatience.”  What does this desire to find faith at the parousia (eschaton, end times) tell us about the difficult stuff we’ve just heard from Jesus?

Again, context helps.  Thanks to the way somebody set up chapters and verses in Scripture – that weren’t there to begin with, mind you – and thanks also to the way the Lectionary necessarily breaks the Bible up in to reasonable bite-size chunks, Luke 18:1-8 is set up at an isolated interaction between Jesus and his disciples.  What we miss out on, however, is how these verses are setup by a question from the Pharisees back in chapter 17, verse 20, “One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” (NLT)

Jesus spends the next seventeen verses discussing the end times (in a way that gives rapture theology enthusiasts way too much to build upon).  It is in the midst of that context, “when will the Kingdom of God come?” that Jesus tells his disciples about their need to keep praying and not to lose heart.  It in the midst of this mini-apocalyptic vision that Jesus wonders aloud, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

The delayed parousia was a huge issue for the early church, one that we can’t really seem to understand 2,000 years of waiting down the road, but the fact of the matter is that Jesus’ disciples and the early Church that developed out of their witness, fully expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes.  There were those among them who were severely disappointed that the Son of Man hadn’t descended upon the clouds with victory and majesty.  There were real questions about the whole thing as the first generation of disciples died off.  As Luke put his gospel to parchment, there was a real concern as to whether when Jesus did finally return, would there be any faith left?

Like yesterday, these are difficult questions for the people of the late 1st century, but I’m still scratching my head about what it means for us today?  What causes our faith to waver, if not the fact that Jesus still hasn’t returned?  What is it that holds us back from living into the kingdom today?  When the Son of Man [finally] comes, will he find faith on the earth?