Sunday, November 27, 2016

Are you ready? (Romans 13:11-14; Matt. 24:36-44) Sermon for first Sunday of Advent

This text in Matthew is a text I remember from the days I clutched a Scofield reference Bible. Along with Scofield’s infallible notes I carried around a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, you know, the premier text on the future of the world. He called it the late great planet earth because he believed that the earth was headed toward Armageddon, which would culminate in the Second Coming of Christ. He also believed, as was taught in the notes of the Scofield reference Bible, that the church would be raptured (not ruptured, the church has been continuously ruptured, but raptured) – that is, snatched away, evacuated into heaven before the tribulation and suffering that would engulf the earth. This view originated in Europe by a man named John Nelson Darby who later brought it to America, where it was spread through the preaching of popular American evangelists. It offered the kind of sensationalism many evangelists crave. It should come as no surprise that this was an invention of the Western world, where it found a home in Western, and especially American exceptionalism. We tend to gravitate toward a theology of comfort and privilege. How convenient that God would snatch us out of the world before all the tribulation and suffering starts right?   

This text in Matthew is part of Jesus’ end-times discourse. Actually, it may be more of the early church’s end-times discourse than it is Jesus’ discourse. As I said a couple of weeks ago, scholars are divided on how much of this actually originated with Jesus and how much of this originated with Jesus’ first followers. I read texts like this symbolically and metaphorically, which, I would argue, is the way religious texts should be read. The question I ask and the question many spiritual seekers ask is: What is the deeper truth, behind the end-times speculation? Here I think it is simply: Be ready!

The same theme is echoed by Paul in his words to the Roman church. I love the story about the little boy who learned to tell time by listening for the chimes of their grandfather clock. One afternoon he was playing in the house while his mother was out working in the yard. The clock began to chime; he expected three chimes. It chimed once, twice, three times, then four times, five, six, seven, eight, it just kept going – the clock had obviously malfunctioned. Totally disconcerted the little boy raced outside to find his mother, “Mommy, mommy, listen to the clock,” he screamed. His mother said calmly, “Billy, what time is it?” He exclaimed, “I don’t know, but it’s later than it has ever been before.”

It’s true, you know. It is later than it has ever been before. Paul says to his readers, “You know what time it is, it’s time for you to wake from your sleep. It’s time to be ready. For your salvation, your healing and the earth’s healing (this goes together; Paul tied our fate together with the earth’s fate in Romans 8), your liberation and the liberation of the planet, is nearer today than it was yesterday.” Of course, Paul, in his particular historical time and place, did not have the benefit of knowing what we know in our time and place. There’s no way he could have known that the earth has been around for billions of years and life emerged ever so slowly in stages. He couldn’t have known that. But what he says is still true, sisters and brothers. The deeper spiritual truths of sacred texts always transcend historical context, which is why our ancient scriptures still speak to us today. (Actually it is the Spirit speaking to us through our understanding and modern day application of the scriptures).

Rev. King said that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but it bends slowly right? And there are always forces trying to push it back. And sometimes they do push it  back. But they cannot permanently stifle the force for good in the world. Because that force, that energy is inspired by and empowered by Spirit (capital S). Sometime it is three steps back before we move forward again. One of the great perennial truths these ancient apocalyptic texts teaches us is that deconstruction precedes reconstruction, that the line of progress is never constant, that sometimes the powers that be – the religious, social, or political powers – have to come unhinged like stars falling from the sky (as the text in Matthew says) in order for a new creation to emerge.

The prophets prophesied of a day of justice and peace, when the light of the Lord would shine brightly, but they also spoke of times of injustice and violence that would precede the new age. If you will remember the Gospel text from a few weeks back, Jesus warned that before the day of peace and justice arrives, there will be deception, calamity, persecution, conflict, and violence. (Do you remember that text?) In Matt 24:29 the text says, “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken.” This occurs before the coming of the Son of Man. All of this is symbolic language. The coming of the Son of Man is a symbolical way of talking about the coming of a new day for humanity, when humanity more clearly reflects the image of the divine, when the law of love becomes written on all our hearts and minds. And though that day may be a long time yet in coming, we are closer to that day  today than we were yesterday, even though there are days, months, and even years when that doesn’t seem to be true. We view progress from within our own limited, boxed in view of time. But if we are open to a larger vision, we can see that as a species we are slowly making progress.  And what Paul says is true, though in a deeper way than he intended I’m sure. Salvation is nearer. The darkness will give way to the dawn of a new day. That is our hope, which is rooted in the very narrative, the very story that is at the heart of our faith – the death and resurrection of Jesus.

If we judge Jesus by the visible outcome of his work we would have to say he was a failure. His anti-establishment critique and his positive vision of the kingdom of God landed him where? On a Roman cross. He was executed by the powers that be. When he died, according to the passion story in all three of the Synoptics, darkness descended over the earth. Now, whether that historically happened is irrelevant. The symbolism here is what matters. Darkness seemed to have engulfed the world. Hate had done its deed. It seemed as if injustice and evil would prevail. But then the tomb turned up empty. And Jesus appeared to his disciples. Then it became clear to Jesus’ followers that the darkness would not last forever. God raised Jesus giving hope to all who would dare to believe that love and justice would one day prevail, showing us that somehow, someway, when death seems to be the strongest, life springs forth. You can’t keep love down. Love springs up! Hope springs up! Faith springs up! And so the praying and preaching for a just world will not be silenced. The dreaming goes on. The work goes on. The teaching goes on. Hope springs eternal, because love is eternal.

And so our discipleship to Jesus compels us to be ready. To be ready to speak when the occasion calls for speech, and to be silent when the occasion calls for silence. Our duty is to be ready – ready to pray, ready to serve, ready to love, ready to work, ready to confront, ready to comfort, ready to do whatever it is that will further the cause of justice and peace and the common good that God wills for all of us. We must never give in to the darkness. We must resist the urge to respond to hate with hate, or to respond to violence with violence. Our calling is to embody the peaceful, nonviolent, compassionate but courageous way of Jesus.  

One aspect of being ready is that is that we must be ready to risk and suffer if necessary for God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Once there was a general who was infamous for his viciousness. He was brutal and without mercy. He went to attack a small village that lay in the path of his army. Everyone in the village, knowing the general’s reputation, ran away – everyone, except one man. When the general entered the village, he found this one man sitting calmly under a tree. So the general went up to the man and said, “Do you know who I am? Do you know what I am capable of? I can run my sword right through you without batting an eye.” The man said calmly, “Yes, I know.” Then looking at the general he said, “But do you know who I am and what I am capable of? I’ll let you do it . . . without batting an eye.” What are we willing to risk and suffer for the cause of justice and peace in the world?

Another aspect of being ready is that we must be ready at all times to be a channel of blessing to others.  John Philip Newell in his book The Rebirthing of God says that in the last months of his father’s life, as dementia was consuming his mind and memory, he witnessed a river of feeling flowing strong in his father. Throughout his father’s life, his father loved to extend what is sometimes called the Priestly Blessing that is found in Numbers 6:24-25, which begins: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you.” As the current of feeling began to well up in his father, his father wanted to extend that blessing to everyone, everywhere, repeatedly.

During John’s last visit to his father in Canada before his father entered a nursing home, his sister asked him if he would help sell the family car, which his father was still trying to drive, illegally. So John called the local car salesman and set up an appointment for the next day. He made a point of saying to the car salesman, “When you meet my father tomorrow you will notice that he seems confused about all sorts of things. But please honor him by speaking to him, not me. This is his car. And I’ll be there with him.”

The young salesman totally got the point. There was a playful banter between them. Even in his dementia John’s father had not lost his sense of humor. There were, of course, absurd moments in the conversation. John’s father said to him one time, “Now, how much money do I owe you for this car?” The salesman responded, “No, no Dr. Newell. We want to give you money for the car.” John’s father looked at John and said, “This is very generous of them.” (And those of you with parents or other loved ones suffering from dementia you know how that can be).

At the end of the transaction, as the check was being handed over to John’s father, John said to the young salesman, “Whenever I part from my father or whenever we finish a telephone conversation, he gives me a blessing. And I think he would like to bless you now.” So, with the three of them standing in the middle of the car showroom, John’s father took the salesman’s hand, looked straight into his eyes and said, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

When John looked up at the young salesman there were tears streaming down his face. He would never forget that moment. You know, sisters and brothers, everyone of us carries with us every day the potential to be such a blessing to one another. There is a well-spring of potential grace and blessing within each of us that can flow out to others at any moment if we are ready to carry that blessing, if we are ready to be a conduit for the blessing of God to flow to another. Are we ready?

Now, for this blessing to flow freely we may have to get rid of some things. We may have to relinquish some things. It is not likely we will be much of a blessing to anyone if we keep carrying around old wounds and grudges. We will have to let go of our grievance stories that we keep playing over and over in our minds, like a video set on constant repeat. We will have to let go of our bitterness and resentment. And no matter how much we may dislike the actions and attitudes of another person or group, we can’t allow our dislike to become hate or be expressed through harmful actions. Are we ready to move beyond our own little stories, our personal agendas, our own self-interests to embrace the hurt, pain, grief, and suffering that another may be going through? 

In her little book titled, Earthly Good: Reflections on Life and God, Rev. Martha Stern tells about one time when she had taken her car to a body shop after her son drove it through the house. This unfortunately wasn’t the first time she had been to that shop. She says to the owner, “Roy, you see a lot come through here, don’t you?” He nods and says, “I see them come and go. And come back. And people get upset, you know. It really don’t matter if the wreck’s your fault, if the wreck ain’t your fault. Wrecks are upsetting business.” And by the way, that’s true whether you are talking about your car, or your marriage, or your family or an election, or a business deal, or your job, or your health, or whatever right?  Wrecks are upsetting business.

Roy pauses here, then he says, “I still remember one lady, must have been twenty years ago. She did what I believe y’all want to do. She laid right down, right out there on the asphalt. And she hollered.” Martha asks, “What did you do?” He says, “Well, we picked her up.”

Sisters and brothers are we ready to pick one another up? Are we ready to bless one another? Are we ready to encourage someone who may be very down? Are we ready to extend hospitality and grace to someone others may be ready to disregard or discard?  Are we ready to risk or even suffer with those who are marginalized and treated unfairly? Are we ready to dream, pray, speak, and work for the common good – for a just and fair world. Are you ready?

Our good God, help us ready ourselves for the opportunities that open up to us each day to be a blessing to others and to participate in your good will. Amen.


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