Thursday, December 23, 2021

It Came to Pass...


It Came to Pass…

Luke 2:1-20

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

 

Yes, the text for this Christmas message is from the King James Bible! And it’s not just because this is the version Linus recites when answering Charlie Brown’s question about the meaning of Christmas, either. It probably IS showing my age, however, as I grew up hearing the Christmas Story from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke from the “King Jimmy.” And there is something “poetic” or even “Shakespearean” about how the “Old English” renders the narrative. I don’t really know what “sore afraid” means, but it carries the mail on how much these humble shepherds must have been jarred by the celestial visitor. And if angels look anything like some of the “heavenly beings” described in Revelation, they may have been “sore afraid” because that can happen when you run into trees retreating at a full sprint! 

 

Phrases like “Once upon a time,” “It came to pass,” or in the contemporary lexicon, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” are the magic words that let us know a story is coming, and it is going to be an epic one. “Once upon a time” tends to denote a fable, or a fairytale, while “It came to pass” signals a moment in history, and one that has come to mark time, itself. (The Star Wars “A long time ago” screen crawl is meant to lift the viewer out of their seats and invites them into a very different world for a couple hours of what writers of drama call “the willing suspension of disbelief,” on the part of the audience. We’ll get back to these well-known story intros in a moment.

 

First, let’s revisit the Christmas Story in Luke, itself. As we listen afresh to the beautiful words of the second chapter, is it any wonder that the birth of Jesus became such a powerful phenomenon in human society? It’s a perfect story! The census that brings Joseph and his pregnant “betrothed” to tiny Bethlehem, nestled on the West Bank of the great city of Jerusalem—the mythical “Zion” of the Jews. The inn is full, but the innkeeper takes pity on the couple and offers them space in the hollowed-out cave that sheltered the animals. While not the best of accommodations, it was at least private, unlike the crowded rooms in the Bethlehem Inn. Out in the fields, shepherds are visited by a bevy of angels bearing a wondrous message of the birth of a Savior in a stable in nearby Bethlehem. Of course they go, probably trailing their flock of sheep behind them, and they find Mary, Joseph, and the babe, sheltered among the animals belonging to the other travelers staying in the inn. 

 

Now, let’s look at a few of the pieces of real magic in the story. First, Luke tells us that Jesus is born in a manger, or a feeding trough for the animals—animals that were surrounding the newborn Jesus. I imagine that these animals knew who this little child was. From deep within their genetic history, they probably felt the “familiar” vibes of the loving creator who had formed their kind at the foundation of the world. While a tiny, fragile package as an infant, the beasts may well have recognized the Incarnate God of the Creation. They paid their homage first to the Christ Child, long before the Magi would arrive to do likewise. I can guess that when the sheep arrived with the shepherds, they, too knew the significance of this “little light” born into the world on that night. Some have suggested that these particular sheep were being raised on the West Bank near the Temple as sacrificial animals. If so, they may well have been clued in as to the efficacy of Jesus, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. A number of works of fanciful fiction have been written about the role of the animals on the night Jesus was born, but was it really just fiction? I don’t think it is a stretch to imagine that the animals were essential to the story, and rejoiced and praised God just as fervently as did the humans in the stable for what they had witnessed.

 

And speaking of witnesses, I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed in the Luke 2 narrative how the shepherds, after the angels’ visit, and after witnessing first-hand the Holy Family, “…made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” They were really the first Apostles! The “good tidings of great joy” they experienced became a story they shared everywhere they went. I would argue that these shepherds met the “standards” of apostleship: they had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, they were called of God (a personal angelic visit would qualify here), and they spread their witness “abroad” what they had heard and seen. Like the animals, the shepherds are essential to the affective quality of this narrative.


We love to sing the great hymns and songs of Christmas, don’t we? But have you noticed that the “heavenly host” did not sing? They praised God and SAID: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” a promise that we still embrace today like a child snuggles a precious blanket. One doesn’t have to have a set of musical pipes to speak forth God’s Word, be a witness, or even to properly offer praise to God. Every Christmas, as part of my personal ponderings, I revisit Longfellow’s famous poem, “Christmas Bells”:

 

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound 
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
    "For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

T

hen pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

 

These words, like those of Luke 2, still bring me to tears, year after year. Luke, because of the beauty, simplicity, and profundity of the birth of Jesus Christ, and Longfellow, because the promise of the heavenly host has not yet been fulfilled. In fact, in our time, hate and wrong seem to have an edge. Truth has been relegated to the ash heap, and good will? Not so much. But both the heavenly host and Longfellow are pealing out loud and strong that the final chapter on God’s justice and God’s peace for humanity hasn’t been written yet. 

 

Santa Claus is real, and so is the Grinch, and so is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and so is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Let me tell you why: each is a witness to what that Christ Child is all about. Each is either a transformer of lives, or tells a story of redemption and transformation. You know the stories of each—think about it! Santa Claus brings joy to children—all children—and is an enduring symbol of hope, especially for the poor and down-trodden. The Grinch is a story of a stone heart becoming flesh once more—the Grinch who stole Christmas brings it back bigger and better than ever, and like Ebenezer Scrooge (after which he is modeled), he keeps Christmas in his heart forever. Rudolph is a story of a marginalized bloke with a disability that yields ridicule, and yet he becomes the hero of Christmas. And Christmas Vacation? A farse that collects all of its hilarious barbs first into a “crown of thorns,” but then morphs into an epiphany of redemption and good will. 

 

The birth story of Jesus has become the greatest launching point for redemptive and hopeful stories in the history of humankind. That’s why the celebration it spawned is so universal, even apart from its theological roots. The Christmas Story is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity.” It is the “Word made flesh.” It is “God in Christ, reconciling the world to Godself,” not following dogmas, doctrines, or ecclesiastical rules, but welcoming all…ALL!  It has broken WAY out of the churchy box well-meaning Christians have tried to keep it in. And it’s still evolving, from year to year. And when Longfellow’s “hate is strong and mocks the song,” the lights of Christmas get brighter, the children get even more wide-eyed, and even some who are nasty, mean bastards through much of the year become Santa Claus, offering acts of kindness and generosity (they, too, are in the process of being redeemed!). 

 

Back to those story-starters. “Once upon a time” may be the beginning of a fairytale, but the story of God’s intervention as the Incarnate Christ is bigger than any fairytale or fable ever written! “Once upon a time” Jesus broke into our world in a manger in Bethlehem, and the world has never been the same, and is still changing! A period was put at the end of the sentence to humanity’s enmity with God, and the new sentence speaks of God’s embrace, and God’s lavishly bestowing God’s grace upon humankind, “grace upon grace!” 

 

As the promise of the heavenly host of “Peace on Earth, Good-will toward [all people]” continues to unfold, and as His-Story continues to help the “right prevail,” the distance and fantasy signaled by George Lucas’s “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” is drawing closer to reality right here on Planet Earth. In Jesus Christ, God is painting a redeeming act that knows no cosmic limits. Where there are people out there, past, present, or future, and regardless of what galaxy in which they may reside, God loves them and will embrace them!

 

Indeed, “It came to pass.” Maybe we should say “It (He) came to be passed along,” like the excited witness of the shepherds, who added their encounter with the Lamb of God to their flock, and wanted to tell the whole world about it. Jesus came to save me. Jesus came to save you. Jesus came to save every corner of the creation, here and across the cosmos. Jesus will save even those most seduced by evil and “wrong,” and will help “right prevail” in each and every life. Jesus saved. Jesus saves. Jesus continues to save. And Jesus saves because Jesus came to save,  Period—a joy for ALL people, not just the ones who have deduced, published, and preached a theological meaning to the event. Indeed, “It came to pass!”

 

This Christmas, may you get a giddy joy out of the neighborhoods full of colorful lights and blow-up Santas! May you take time to really watch the wonder in the faces of children, or watch the violence with which they tear the wrapping off of their presents! May the beautiful hymns and corny songs of Christmas bring a tear to your eye! May the bit ‘o Grinch in each of us fade just a bit more this season, and may our generosity “kick it up a notch.” And when you light your candle in church and sing “Silent Night,” may the Story stroke your heartstrings one more time, and may you glorify God in the Highest.

 

And may we all someday…SOMEDAY…someday soon, “Live happily ever after!”

 

Amen.

  

 

 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

O Little Town...

 


“O Little Town…”

 

Micah 5:2-5a
5:2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

5:3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.

5:4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;

5:5 and he shall be the one of peace.

 

 

Micah’s prophecy that the “one who is to rule Israel” would be born in Bethlehem is not too surprising. Since King David was born in Bethlehem, this wasn’t exactly a “Kreskin” moment. From one “great ruler” to another (the anticipated messiah), Bethlehem was a highly predictable launching point. Still, Bethlehem was a small, sleepy town on the West Bank of the great city of Jerusalem, and one not accustomed to such honors. The Micah text wants to make sure the reader doesn’t think he is talking about Bethlehem in the territory of Zebulon, so by adding the locator “of Ephratha, this was avoided. Bethlehem was a lesser suburb. Sheep were grazing on its slopes, hence the shepherds to whom the angels appeared, announcing the birth of Jesus. In that day, Bethlehem was sort of a backwater town. Remember that Mary and Joseph went there, according to the Bible, so Joseph could register for the census; they were certainly not sightseeing. And while they wound up in the horse cave, this would not have been much less spartan than Bethlehem’s inn, and more private, to boot. Jesus’ birth narrative reads much more like Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and family in the bowery in Camden Town than that of the royal family. When you think of it in that way, is it any wonder that so many wonderful, yet “non-biblical” Christmas stories have grown up around it? The story itself reads like something out of Dickens, or even one of those sappy Hallmark movies. But it is a story we tell (or read) every year, year after year, and like “A Christmas Carol,” it never grows old. In fact, I can say that for me, and probably for most of us, it grows sweeter and sweeter each year. This year—my first in retirement—I’m looking forward to “returning to my first love” with the Christmas story, as I can just revisit what it meant to listen to it, get lost in the wonder of it, and believe it in my heart, afresh and anew! I'm not in a panic about what I should preach about it in a Christmas Eve sermon.

 

Not to draw any parallels with Jesus, but I, too, was born in a small town—Oil City, Pennsylvania. We know of Bethlehem, because the Savior of the world was born there. Historically, those who know Oil City, do so because, basically, the oil industry was born there. It would not be a stretch to say that the energy industry was born in Oil City, as oil and its later distillation into gasoline, launched what grew into the wider energy industry, not just here, but throughout the world. For three years in the 1870s, Oil City was the home of the world Oil Exchange, which was the largest financial exchange market next to the New York Stock Exchange. It's hard to believe that my little home town was once a major financial center of the world, but even harder to believe is the story of nearby Pithole.

 

Pithole was an oil boom town that sprung up in 1865, after Colonel Edwin Drake successfully drilled for oil near Titusville, PA. Pithole grew to over 20,000 residents. At its peak, Pithole had at least 54 hotels, 3 churches, the third largest post office in Pennsylvania, a newspaper, a theater, a railroad, the world's first pipeline, as well as a “red light” district that rivelled that of the infamous Dodge City. In three years it had shrunk up to a fraction of its size and influence, as the oil boom waned, and in a little over ten years, it ceased to exist. A trip to “historic” Pithole today finds a visitor’s center, grown over land, and scattered metal fragments of what used to be drilling rigs and oil derricks. Most people have never heard of Pithole, and think you are kidding if you tell them about it. 

 

Oil City has had a little better luck, given that its story has been “marketed” by the town’s remnants over the years, leading to at least some recognition and notoriety. Unfortunately, it, too has declined markedly, in terms of its industry and population. When I was growing up there, Oil City had somewhere just South of 20,000 residents, had 47 major industries, and was a thriving, “All-American” third class city. Even in my lifetime, it was the national headquarters of both Pennzoil and Quaker State. However, as the oil industry moved to Texas, so did these companies. Oil City once had a large Pennzoil refinery, as well as a glass manufacturing plant that made most of the bottles for the Evenflo and R.T. French companies. These, along with many companies that grew up around the oil industry, are all gone, and Oil City’s population today is less than 9,000 people. Many of the majestic old homes that housed both barons and their wannabes are in disrepair or are already gone. Since I have family still living there, I make regular trips back to Oil City, and it saddens me to see that most of the things that made my early memories are gone now—pizza shops, five and dime stores, soda fountains, and downtown department stores. In a way, it seems like the little town I grew up in has been disrespected by the country it helped to forge. 

 

Bethlehem is kind of the Pithole or the Oil City of the biblical world. As Christians, we believe the Son of God was born into the world there. We venerate the rich Christmas Story recorded in the second chapter of Luke. We sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with teary eyes as we return to the side of the Nativity. We preserve this precious memory in paintings, movies, and countless miniature creche scenes, and of course, in song. But what of the “real” Bethlehem? The birthplace of the Christ is basically a town in exile. It is still there on the West Bank of Jerusalem, but the political state of Israel controls, disrespects, and persecutes what is now a Palestinian city. Political Israel continues to usurp land and resources from the Palestinian people, squeezing them into smaller and smaller parcels in total violation of the agreements made after World War II, when the State of Israel was created out of Palestinian lands. Evangelical Christians and the U.S. government, believing they are supporting the Israel of the Bible, stand with political Israel in this, taking sides with them against the Palestinian people, and both believing and promoting the lie that the Palestinians are all terrorists. Many Americans and most Christians refuse to believe the facts about what political Israel is doing to the Palestinian people, and when factions of the Palestinians strike out at Israel after they bulldoze yet another of their housing complexes, cut off their water, or deny them access to Jerusalem, where most of the jobs are, the Palestinians are always portrayed as the “bad guys.” Doctors without Borders and other benevolent organizations like them tell us of the violent bombing attacks political Israel launches in retaliation for a rocket-propelled grenade falling in Israeli territory. These bombing raids are carried out against civilian targets like schools, hospitals, and residential neighborhoods—places where Palestinian citizens have been compressed into as their land is seized. There are many deaths, and even the news media, jaded by the false, political narratives fed them by Israel and its “blind” allies like the United States, refrain from reporting them.

 

Bethlehem is disrespected and rendered dangerous by political Israel’s continuous persecution, rationalized by them because it is in Palestinian territory. Little towns like Oil City and Pithole are what they are today because history has passed them by, sadly. But Bethlehem continues to be a town under siege today. The town where Jesus Christ was born, the “little town” we remember each year as we celebrate Jesus’ birth, is suffering at the hands of political Israel, as supported by people who call themselves Christians. 

 

In this Advent season, may part of our resolve be that we, as the church, and as Christ-followers, would engage in protests and boycotts against political Israel for their treatment of the Palestinian people, and say a prayer for Bethlehem, even as we pray for the peace of Jerusalem. After all, as a Galilean, Jesus was a Palestinian, himself. May we stand with the Palestinian people, many of whom are practicing Christians, in working for just resolutions to their conflict with political Israel. And may we help other Christian siblings come to realize that political Israel of our time is not the biblical Israel they believe they are called to support. When political Israel starts to act like the people of God, rather than as a God unto themselves, then they may regain the support of their "adoptive" family, the Christian people.

 

As a small town boy, myself, I will stand with the people of Palestine and Bethlehem. And I will think of them every time I sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”! Amen. 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Snakes on a Plane...

 


 

Luke 3:7-18
3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

3:10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"

3:11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"

3:13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."

3:14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

3:16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

 

We are often in such a hurry to get to John the Baptist’s public introduction and baptism of Jesus that we ignore John’s jarring message of repentance and righteousness! Of course, John did not have the gracious diction of a silver-tongued orator. He begins his message to the gathered crowd in today’s text with “You brood of vipers!” Not exactly a crowd-pleaser. STORY: Many years ago, when I was a young lay staff person in my home church, our pastor invited a “guest evangelist” to grace our pulpit for a week of special meetings. He had read books by the geriatric British writer/”revivalist,” the Rev. Leonard Ravenhill, and had invited the enigmatic Ravenhill over “across the pond.” Ravenhill was to begin his week of “revival” by preaching the main Sunday morning service, which was also broadcast live over the local radio station. Unfortunately, our pastor got called away that Sunday to tend to a dying parent, so our lay leader joyously introduced the Rev. Ravenhill, unaware of what would come next. The curmudgeonly old evangelist walked intently to the pulpit, slowly and silently glared around at the congregation (the radio audience must have wondered what was happening), and then spoke: “Most of you are just playing GAMES with God. Why don’t you go home!” A nervous laughter tittered through the crowd (like it probably did when John the Baptist called his crowd a “brood of vipers”), thinking the old boy was joking. His sermon that day, and the six that followed over the next few days proved he wasn’t. And he sure got our attention

 

An insane movie named “Snakes on a Plane” caught the attention of the viewing public back in 2006 because most of us panic around snakes, and the idea of being “trapped” on an airliner with a bunch venomous reptiles on the loose just makes us shudder--even thinking about it as I write this! Similarly, our selfishness and sinfulness disrupts God’s better plan for humanity and the human community. WE are the “brood of vipers,” in this movie. John the Baptist has a message for us that still applies—living “rightly” or “righteously” still has its place, even on this side of the Cross! There are many in our American society who have “enough,” but will rail against those who have little chance of ever getting to “enough,” blaming them for their plight, and going so far as accusing THEM for limiting the wealth of privileged, middle-class white people! I think John would say to them, “OH, your brood of vipers!”

 

Both John’s “brood of vipers” greeting, and his message of judgment got their attention. After his warnings to the crowd, some wiseacre shouted out, “What then should we do?” Seeing that he had already told them to “flee the wrath to come,” (which, incidentally, became John Wesley’s rallying cry, too), he went on to describe several practical, ethical and compassionate things they could do in order to “live out” the righteous life Torah required. And these stern warnings of John’s colored his introduction of Jesus, for he initially describes Jesus as the “great judge” that will separate the wheat from the chaff. I love how the author of the Gospel “recovers,” with verse 18: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. Every time I read this text, my mind asks, “WHAT good news?”

 

Ravenhill was right—many in the congregation before him were just “playing games with God,” but I would suggest that their “games” were less intended to deceive or “fool” God, themselves, or others, and more the result of just not understanding what it means to live the righteous life. In some cases, where they did have a “clue” of how, there was the issue of desire. Some of the “game playing” we do happens when we refuse to give up a grudge, or feel we have a “right” to judge someone else for their bad behavior. The “good news” of John’s message was that God was sending a savior, and that God had “signaled” through the message of John and the other prophets that God desired to forgive and redeem all people. While Rev. Ravenhill’s messages were hard to listen to, as he was out of the old “hellfire and brimstone” tradition, he never finished one without offering Christ to his listeners. Trouble was, that old tradition scares off the audience before they hear the good news! The adage, that one “catches more flies with honey than with vinegar” certainly applies here, only we “flies” want to be “caught” by God. Few people shy away from grace when they fully understand that it is being extended to them as a gift, and that it can wipe away the sin and harm of sin, rendering them right with God. Many reject it when they DON’T understand it, often believing there is a “catch,” or that they must become somehow “acceptable” to God before the grace is applied (probably a side effect of our “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps” ethos—the same ethos that is used to sour or even deny helpful programs for the poor and disenfranchised among us). Others don’t want to so quickly and greatly alter their lifestyle or change their behavior, and therefore reject God’s grace, or at least postpone the acceptance of same while they “sow their wild oats.” Fact is, God takes us as we are. Early in my ministry I used to say that the Gospel is a “come as you are” party, only with the caveat that God’s Spirit will lead us toward a life of positive, moral change AFTER we have been forgiven.

 

John was right about his “brood of vipers” remark.  His crowd was made up of Jews who believed they were the “elect” of God (“We have Abraham as our ancestor…”) just because they were sons and daughters of Israel, and because they nodded to the law. They came to hear John because word was out that a prophet was in the land. Understand that it had probably been over 400 years since Israel had heard the voice of a prophet. Prophets were like Rev. Leonard Ravenhill—a great reputation, but when you finally heard them, you kind of got beat up by their message. It wasn’t meant to be a comfort, but it was meant to strongly urge you to get your act together. Their message was often fearful, indicting, and carried word of what was to happen to you if you didn’t heed it. This was the method of old-time “revival” preachers like Ravenhill. They hit you right between the eyes, as did the words of the prophets of old. The revivalists and the prophets spoke of God’s redeeming, “cleansing” power, or in the case of John, the “refining” fire that would burn the chaff off of our “game-playing” lives. In both cases, however, the good news was that God was out to cleanse and purify God’s people so the love and grace of God would have a place to land in the human soul. I am reminded of how Jesus talked of “chasing out the demons,” but then “cleaning the house” so they could not return. Likewise, once the “demons” that haunt us are exorcised, the house is cleaned by God’s redeeming grace so God’s sanctifying or “teaching” grace has a home. It is this grace that John Wesley taught would teach us the ways of Christ and Christian discipleship. It would “perfect” our lives so that we could “live rightly,” which is what the word righteous actually means. 

 

John addresses sanctification in his message to the “brood of vipers,” telling them that the ethical, moral life, as well as the generous life of giving and servanthood, are the result of getting close to Jesus Christ, who served as an example of both. 

 

It’s interesting that the Lukan text talks of John’s “exhortations” to the crowd, as this relates to my personal story about Rev. Ravenhill. His style of harsh preaching wherein he “called out” the sins of his listeners, was actually known as “exhortation,” and the preacher was labeled an “exhorter.” There aren’t many of these left in our time, thanks to the “catching flies” adage cited earlier. People who come to hear preaching today are looking for the answer to the question they posed to John: “Teacher, what should we do?” The preacher who makes the message of the Gospel relevant to the needs of her congregation, offering “practical” lessons about how to live it out, from day to day, is the preacher who will be listened to. The preacher who uses fear as his attention-getting technique will either “turn off” his audience, or will attract those who respond only to such fear. The Christian life that is lived out of fear and IN fear, is not a very effective one. This paralyzing or debilitating kind of fear is NOT what the Bible is referring to when it talks of “fearing God.” That expression has to do with taking God seriously, and respecting the Divine, not something that makes one cower.

 

And speaking of fear, let’s get back to the “Snakes on a Plane” reference. This movie put two things together that strike fear in our hearts, at least most of us. People are typically a bit anxious when flying on an airliner. If not because of the fact they are speeding along at almost 700 miles an hour in what some have described as a “sealed tube of death,” then because of the stress of getting through TSA security and being “humbled” by removing shoes and belts, and being X-rayed and “wanded,” if not patted down before even boarding the aircraft! And fliers ARE sealed into that tube, and trapped at 34,000 feet. Now, introduce a bunch of poisonous snakes slithering around the cabin. Might there be a bit of fear and panic going on? And would there be anyone on that plane who wouldn’t pray for a “savior”? I didn’t see the film at the theater, but eventually caught it on television. My “theology as film” mindset brought me to the conclusion that this scenario is not a bad metaphor where John’s message was going. While his listeners thought they were doing OK, John exhorted them, accusing them of BEING the “snakes” in the eyes of God, because of their false righteousness. Not until they let God “kill the snakes” could they find the true saving grace of God. In our time, the “snakes” haunting us are our inordinate fears of judgment, and what we believe could be the eternal penalties for our wrong behaviors and skunky attitudes. Either way, the snakes must go if we are ever to feel safe on our “flight” through life. Thanks be to God that Jesus “chases the snakes away” like St. Patrick banished them from Ireland, only in Jesus’ case, it’s no legend, it’s the Gospel truth! What I like about the “Snakes on a Plane” fear is that I can’t imagine anyone being happy with that scenario, and neither should any of us grow “comfortable” with our personal demons, either. For our spiritual health and wholeness, the snakes and the demons must go. Then, by yielding our lives to the redeeming, sanctifying grace of God, a new course for our lives may be charted. And this is what we call discipleship! Happy landings, Dear Ones! Amen.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Hope and Fear: Two Ways to Spell Love


 Hope and Fear: Two Ways to Spell Love

 

Malachi 3:1-4
3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;

3:3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.

3:4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

 

The Advent preacher is initially faced with three challenges: 1. Seminary teaches us to avoid heisting prophetic texts from the Hebrew Bible to apply to Jesus; and 2. Advent, in the tradition of the church, is focused on the second coming of Jesus, something we little understand, and rarely agree upon just what that looks like! However, the folks sitting in our pews have none of these reservations. They can “see” Jesus in all of these Old Testament prophecies about a “new hope” for God’s people, or most certainly when the texts speak of a messiah-like figure; AND some have “read the books” (Hal Lindsay, Tim LaHaye, et. al.) and can often speak in much detail of exactly what will happen when the “rapture” occurs, and may even have theories about a date and time. And 3. A majority of our people just see Advent as a countdown to Christmas, still rooted firmly in the anticipation we remember from childhood. So, is the role of the preacher to dispute these popular ideas? Probably not, but we are compelled to “speak our truth” and be prepared for pregnant questions resulting from the arising cognitive dissonance, both of which are welcome opportunities for the engaged pastor. Honestly, if I have “fallen prey” to any of these popular distortions, it is the latter, as I’ve never gotten over my love of Advent as the “countdown” and Christmas as the “blastoff.” If you likewise choose to err, go with this one, and “sneak in” some of your seminary teachings about proper etiquette with OT prophecy and the “second coming.”

 

With this extended introduction out of the way, let’s look at the Malachi text. Clearly it is a prophetic word of God’s promised “messenger,” and a word we hear echoed in the Gospels. Commentator Anne Stewart says of it:

 

The prophet Malachi raises a disturbing question for all who proclaim God’s arrival with joyful expectation. Are you ready? Do you know what it means? Who can endure it? In the prophetic tradition, the day of the Lord anticipates God’s victorious kingship and a period of righteous judgment. Consequently, the prophets describe the day of the Lord with dramatic language that is both uplifting and fearsome. Depending on the context, it is the promise of deliverance or the threat of judgment. In fact, it is usually both elements at once. In either case, it is the might of God’s power that comforts and disturbs.

 

I like her assertion that hope and fear belong together. Those in trouble hope for a rescue, as did ancient Israel on many occasions. However, along with the rescue will come a change of lifestyle, which we may have come accustomed to in our distress, AND some answer to our rescuers as to how we fell into the mess in the first place. Hope and fear can certainly both be drivers. In a perfect world, hope would motivate us to grow, improve, and be ready for the promised hope, which is to come, as well as to work toward the goals the object of our hope has laid down for us. In that same world, fear would not paralyze, but become the “guide rails” along the journey, and like those guide rails, would be something we would never go head to head with unless we seriously “run off the road.” However, as Israel often discovered—and I would submit the church has frequently, too--HOPE can paralyze, as we wait for “something else” to come along, and stop working to dig ourselves out.  FEAR may become our primary motivator, leading us to a life of bouncing off the guide rails, as we use them as a harsh GPS. Malachi’s author uses words like “covenant,” “refiner’s fire,” “soap,” “purifier,” “gold and silver,” and “pleasing offerings” to put hope and fear in their proper place and prepare Israel—and us—to receive God’s messenger and God’s message.

 

Between the ideas of hope and fear, we encounter another valiant word: respect. When I think of what the word hope describes, I must also consider the things I respect, which make hope a possibility. In matters of human endeavor, I must respect the people in whom I hope,  to partner in bringing that for which is hoped for, about. I must respect the human efforts, gifts, and sacrifices that are typically necessary to bring to reality that which is hoped for. If we do not respect these people, these gifts, and these efforts, then hope will never become  reality for us, or for the human community. We must respect each other. The “laborers” must respect the ones investing hope in their labors, and those who hold out hope must respect those making the effort, even when they have doubts that that which is hoped for will become a reality. And, even if the efforts fail, respect must be paid to those who put their hearts into the project or problem, because it the right thing to do, and shows compassion for one another. Those who hope, and who provide encouragement along the way earn respect, too. Throughout history, those who have provided support to important human endeavors are often just important to the work as those who are actually “hands on.” Respect is the fuel of hope, hard work, problem solving, and higher aspirations. 

 

Without respect, fear is nothing but a debilitating emotion. When fear compels us to respect the “giants” we face, we have a shot at hitting them square in the forehead and felling them, even when they eclipse our size. And yet, we must also develop a self-affirming respect for who we are, as we face our fears. If fear fosters only doubt in ourselves and our efforts, it has won. But if we hold a healthy respect in our abilities, our past successes—and even in our failures from which we have learned important lessons—and in our own spirit of dedication to the task, we can fell giants, overcome the insurmountable, and navigate the darkest seas life may put in our paths. 

 

For the believer, our faith in the Divine breeds this respect—respect in our ability to hope, respect in our ability to act, and respect for ourselves. When we respect God, pray to God, and yield to God, God uses our fear to foster hope, and hope to build faith, and our faith to feed our path forward.  As the apostle says in Romans 5:

 

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

 

Here, Paul summarizes how fear, hope, and even respect are the key ingredients in love. God’s love is not an emotion, it is an act, it is a fruit, and a fruit which breeds other fruits such as compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and grace. 

 

The prophetic text from Malachi was intended to both comfort and disturb Israel, as Anne Stewart states. As Christians the call of Jesus Christ to us as Christ’s followers is also both a comfort AND a disturbing challenge—hope AND fear. We take up the challenge out of respect for Jesus, and out of the respectful belief that, propelled by the Spirit of Jesus, we can succeed in whatever God calls us to do. The paradoxical elements of comfort and disturbance are present in just about every prophecy Israel heard or read in the Hebrew Bible. They are both present in the teachings of Jesus, and certainly in the letters of Paul. Our faith leads us to respect the fear, but more than this, to respect God, ourselves, and our calling, and NOT to fear those times when, temporarily, circumstances disturb more than comfort us. Most of believe life would be easier if we could just be lovingly led along, rather than need the occasional kick in the butt to move forward, but this is not the way of discipleship. And it is not the way of the active love of God that visits upon us.

 

And it certainly was not the way of the Son of God whose visit among us we are preparing to celebrate again in this most loving of seasons. Amen.

 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

What ARE the Sins of my Youth? (And Why Should God Forget Them?)



What ARE the Sins of my Youth? (And Why Should God Forget Them?)

 

Psalm 25:1-10
25:1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.

25:2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.

25:3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

25:4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.

25:5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

25:6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.

25:7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD!

25:8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore God instructs sinners in the way.

25:9 God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

25:10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep God’s covenant and decrees.

 

Thanksgiving weekend is also the first Sunday of Advent, as often happens (the next time it doesn’t happen is in 2023, when Advent begins December 3). I was thinking I would do a “Thanksgiving” sermon for this weekend, and give Advent a week off, but when I read the Advent lectionary texts, I was nudged to tackle the Psalm. 

 

Advent is a lot of things in Christian lore. Traditionally, it is a time when we reflect on and anticipate the final arrival of the “Kingdom” (or Realm) of God. This often includes texts that refer to what is commonly known as the “second coming” of Jesus Christ. As I have grown older and wiser, and have tried to be a keen observer of current events and world happenings, I have come to emphasize more our “partnership” with God in bringing about God’s Realm, more so than the Second Coming. Why? Because we have been given the Holy Spirit and the tools (gifts of the Spirit) to make this happen, and because way too many people believe they will just wait on Jesus to “fix it” when he returns. This latter view is bad on several counts, not the least of which is many folk who so relish Jesus’ return are looking TOO forward to him squishing their “enemies,” although they would say they are “God’s” enemies. This nasty tendency to believe  in  retribution as the “wow factor” of Christ’s return is enough for me to demote it as a human creation, more than a scriptural one. No, I’m going to say Advent is more about getting our house in order so Jesus may actually want to return someday.

 

This weekend, though, I was taken by the verse in Psalm 25 that says, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions…” What were the “sins” of my youth, has my “youth” ended yet, and why does the verse speak of both sins and transgressions? Doing a little spelunking around various commentaries and Bible references, I will take a stab at this, and hope it is an educated one. 

 

“Sins of my youth” may refer to the bonehead things we do as kids and teens, some just because we don’t have a clue, and others because we think it will be entertaining. These things may not rate highly on a “Sin-O-Meter,” but either could have been—or were—harmful to ourselves or others. Think of the series of movies that all began with the title “Jackass.” Years ago, on my day off from the church, I occasionally went to the movie theater. My wife isn’t much of a movie buff, and besides she did not have the same day off as me, especially when she was working full-time. So, I’d pick a movie or two I would like to see, and off I’d go. There was this time when my first and second choice films were both so popular, they were already sold out, when I arrived. I had seen a promo for the film, “Jackass: The Movie,” and believe me IT wasn’t sold out, so in I went. I would say that “Jackass: The Movie” was the stupidest movie I had ever seen, but if you don’t know that already, you really should get out more. In keeping with the theme, I could call it asinine, as “sophomoric” would be high praise for it. Where I’m going with this is that this “film” was full of hijinks of the sort that we might have tried as teenagers? Things like loading a friend up in a shopping cart and pushing him over a steep hill, “having fun” by poking each other in the genitals with a cattle prod, or starting fires in weird places, just to see what happens—these would be major plotlines in “Jackass: The Movie.” As teens ourselves, I would admit to trying the shopping cart trick, only we didn’t put anyone in it, we just pushed it over a steep hill toward traffic (thankfully, it was so unstable, it just hit a curb and turned over). We used to start random fires, just to see how big they got before we put them out. How fortunate we were that none of them ever got so big we couldn’t handle extinguishing them! We got ahold of an old ham radio transmitter and used it to blast profanities through neighborhood TVs. Once, we used a friend’s pickup truck with a hitch to “borrow” a giant promotional steer from in front of a new steakhouse and back it into another friend’s front yard. Since he lived in one of the more “uppity” neighborhoods, the neighbors weren’t too happy with the lawn d├ęcor the following morning, nor were his parents. Our church life wasn’t without a few pranks, either. 

 

A bunch of us used to sit in the balcony like little cherubs, but when the sermon started, we would bolt to a little coffee shop across the street named “Famores” for sticky rolls and a coke, arriving back in the balcony just as the congregation was singing the final hymn. I think my dad knew what we were doing, as the church didn’t sell the “Sporting News,” and our pastor, the Rev. Hugh Crocker, would see us leave each week, too. He pulled me aside one Sunday and asked where we went each week. When I told him, he asked, “Do you talk about important things there?” And honestly, we did. It was great “guy talk,” and it really did usually cover the major questions about life, the universe, and everything. Oh, and girls. Rev. Crocker just said, “OK.” I never forget his quiet “endorsement” of our sticky roll klatches, and his “handling” of it (he never told our parents) would later factor into my call to the ordained ministry. I had a number of important pastors and lay persons who positively influenced my faith and life, but none who seemed to understand the wanderlust of a group of small-town teenage church boys in the 1960s like Rev. Dr. Hugh Crocker. I rejoice that before he died, I was able to tell him how much he meant to me.

 

All this to say that the “sins of my youth” mentioned by the Psalmist were probably “Jackass” sins like these—pranks, capers, fun stuff that could have been more treacherous, but thankfully weren’t. Transgressions? Well, that would be a different story. Transgressions, I believe, were things that ticked off God, mostly because they were actually intended to be harmful, or to hurt the feelings of another, out of some sort of spite. When we got old enough to begin dating, or fighting with each other over girls, or competing for accolades on the sports fields or in academic contests, there were transgressions. Privilege or selfishness often led us to attitudes of entitlement. Those of us who owned (or were just granted) popularity often hurtfully made fun of those who had none. High school-aged teens can be very, very mean, and while some may be born of naivete, most was manifest intentionally. Personally, I tended toward being more “inclusive” and accepting than some of my peers in my high school years, but I was not totally without blame—and transgressions. When I began to learn about “white privilege” in college, years later, I knew exactly what this was about. When others discounted it or denied it—as is still happening today—I knew it was all too real, and still is, today. 

 

The author of the Psalm appeals to God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” to forget all of these things—the “Jackass” sins and the serious transgressions of youth. And God did.

 

Out of God’s goodness, God forgives our badness. The Psalm goes on to say: “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore God instructs sinners in the way.” God doesn’t just forgive and forget—God uses these incidents to instruct us “in the way.” “The way” is a life that seeks “righteousness,” or “right living,” and in “the way,” this is not a goal just to make God happy, but to improve life. Righteous living is less about “obeying God,” and more about fixing the world and the communities in which we live. 

 

The major themes of this Psalm are: God is REALLY good and loving; we are NOT, and whether by “omission” or “commission,” we are guilty of sinfulness, stupidity, and spite, or the “trifecta” of them all. God forgives and forgets, because God loves, and God desires to restore the originally intended fortunes of humanity. Think of the great parable we call the Book of Job. Eventually, after a colorful drama of Satan, God, “Job’s friends,” and poetic speeches by Job AND God, Job’s fortunes are restored and once again, all is right with the world. This is the vector of Psalm 25, only it’s not a parable.

 

Have you spent time pondering whether you are “sorry” for your “Jackass” sins and your transgressions? Some may be, almost to the “clinical” level. We have the unfortunate ability to fixate on our shortcomings—some do, more than others—to the degree that we are rendered dysfunctional. Others, on the opposite end of the spectrum, appear to have the ability to forget their own transgressions, even when a little “remembrance” may bring at least a small level of accountability and repentance. God forgives, forgets, and educates. How we respond to this grace is up to us. Genuine contrition goes a lot farther toward healing and wholeness, and aids each individual to become a “Lego piece” of a restored community. Having a too-short memory of our “Jackass” sins and actual transgressions may feel good, but doesn’t help much. Repentance is not just “good for the soul,” but is also good for the whole human community. “Repenting” means we understand our infractions, and the Greek term metanoia means we will turn and go the other direction from them. One commentator said that “repenting” (metanoia) means “turning our lives God-ward.” Each of us doing so makes us the building blocks of a better, more forgiving and accepting society.

 

As the psalmist says, God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” are amazing things, and each of us benefits from them. However, if they are not also infused into the human psyche and “redistributed” to the rest of the human community by our prayers, acts of mercy and kindness, and through our willingness to forgive others as we have been forgiven, they are just biblical niceties—cranberry sauce for the turkey, in the vernacular of the season. “Keeping God’s covenant and God’s decrees” is not done to please God, but to rescue and revive God’s community. We must always keep in mind that God’s original purpose was to create a loving, harmonious people with whom God could relate, and who would relate graciously to each other. Recovering this original goal of creation is now God’s “vision,” or aim, and the “Second Coming” is more about putting God’s covenant and decrees back into play than wishing Jesus to physically come again. Doing the latter is akin to the bad parenting model of “Just wait until your father gets home!” The return of Jesus model doesn’t fix the problem, it just metes out punishment for bad behavior.

 

This week, as we pause to give thanks for our blessings, may we also say a prayer for the First Americans who originally resided on the lands we now occupy. And as we begin the Advent season, may we purpose to live out God’s covenant and decrees in order to participate in God’s efforts to redeem and restore us, the church, and the whole of the human community.

 

Grace and peace to all. Happy Thanksgiving. And may you all have an Advancing Advent! Amen.

 

 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

King for a Day...


 King for a Day…

John 18:33-37
18:33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

18:34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"

18:35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"

18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

18:37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

 

This Sunday is “Christ the King” Sunday in most Christian traditions’ liturgical calendars. The text above is one of the lectionary passages for celebrating “Christ the King” or “Feast of Christ the King.” Others in this week’s lectionary come from Revelation, an apocalyptic work serving as the caboose of the New Testament—it is a really strange book about which countless books of “interpretation” have been written, with most authors proclaiming to have unlocked some of Revelation’s “secret codes” about the second coming of Jesus Christ. Another of the “Christ the King” lectionary readings is from the book of Daniel. It’s an even stranger book, and one whose inclusion in the Old Testament was much in dispute, historically. I chose the Johannine passage because it, to me, sounds much more like the Jesus we experience in the Gospels, and the Jesus I was called to follow.

 

Despite all of the “kingdom” language in the Bible, and the promises of a “kingly” messiah found in various Bible texts, I submit that Jesus was just “king for a day,” and it was on the day he was crucified. As we see in this text, it was Pontius Pilate who dubbed him a king. Jesus seems to deny the “coronation.” “You say that I am a king,” was Jesus response. Pilate “crowns” Jesus as part of his punishment (the crown of thorns) and puts him to death, mostly because he was a nuisance to Pilate. The reign of this “Christ the King” lasted only a few hours, and then Jesus was taken down from the cross and put into the tomb. 

 

Now, I already hear you protesting: But the scriptures proclaim that God’s Messiah will be “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign for ever and ever!” Well, this certainly is in some of the messianic prophecies we read in the Bible, but is this really about Jesus? Or is it from the Hebrew tradition of a messianic king who will be a great military leader, and who will lead Israel to battle and victory over all of the oppressive nations and forces, and then establish a great earthly throne in Jerusalem? Most likely. And what of Revelation’s claims about “He who sits on the throne,” the “Alpha and Omega”? Let’s unpack this idea a bit.

King language would have made a lot more sense in the time of the Hebrew prophets. After all, it was Israel who cried out to God for a king, because they wanted a strong, earthly leader, and I’m guessing they may also have been trying to “force” God’s hand to give them the Messiah King who would not only rule them benevolently and “forever,” but who would get rid of all of their enemies, as well. Even as Christians today try to “shoehorn” Jesus into some of the Old Testament prophecies that are really not about him, so the Jews of old may have wanted their king to be THE king, the “great king” they saw clearly promised in prophecy. Even the best of their long succession of kings was not “great,” with the exception of King David, who we all know had a dubious immoral streak, and yet was forgiven by God and put on the throne of Israel. David is still the king venerated by the Jews. The author of Luke’s Gospel includes the Davidic line in his birth narrative that Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father was “of the house and lineage of David” as a messianic endorsement aimed at Jesus. Israel’s earthly kings were like many of the quarterbacks in the NFL today—they have a few good games and a few bad games, but what everyone is looking for is the next Tom Brady. That’s a good metaphor for Israel’s “king search” for a messianic king, one which they have yet to find. That said, it is simply a fact that we in Western society, and Christendom in particular, do not understand most “kingdom” talk.

 

Jesus never envisioned himself as this “conquering king messiah.”  He rather flippantly rejects Pilate’s “nomination” as King of the Jews. “You say I’m a king,” he says. Instead, Jesus speaks two important and self-revelatory statements: “My kingdom is not from this world,” and “I was born and came into this world to testify to the truth.” If we scrub the ancient “king” language out of this text, what we may hear Jesus saying is that the basilea of God is not a place or a “government,” per se, but an event! It is the restoration of the vision of God that our world and God may live together in a fulfilling, loving, and just relationship, and with equal footing as God’s children. It is the restoration of the vision of Eden. It is a realm where truth reigns and falsehood and struggles for power are banished forever. And while it may not ever happen on this side of the great divide, it is a vision that Jesus challenged the human community to tackle by living out his teachings and loving others according to them. This is the “kingdom” Jesus was witnessing to Pilate about. And it was through the sacrificial love of God that was ultimately manifested by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the beginning of this realm (basilea) of God even becomes possible. 

 

When we were kids playing Hide and Seek, at some point, when the game needed reshuffled, the person who was “it” would shout “Ollie, Ollie in Free,” or in some neighborhoods, “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free!” Those phrases never made much sense to me, but I read recently in one of those “etymology” sites that the origin of our silly phrases was actually a German expression, alle, alle, auch sind frei which translates, basically, “EVERYONE is Free!” In Jesus Christ, God is shouting alle, alle, auch sind frei! and “restarting the game.” Then through the teachings of Jesus and the inspiration, wisdom, and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we “gamers” partner with God to begin unveiling the realm, or a “kingdom that is not from this Earth.” 

 

If you really digest the totality of the scriptures about Jesus, there is less “king” language, and more about the profundity of the truth to which he bears witness, and the righteousness he calls his followers to. The “kingship” of Jesus has little-to-nothing to do with power or dominion, and everything to do with benevolently redeeming, restoring, and residing with God’s people, both now, through the church—the Body of Christ—and eternally, in the timeless realm of God we often call “heaven.” Even the Bible’s proclamation in Revelation that he is the “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” defines Jesus’ eternal status as part of the Godhead and participant in the on-going process of redemption, not of any “kingship” that bears resemblance to any historical, human understanding of what a “king” does. Jesus, in the earthly understanding of a king, was only king for a day, courtesy of Pontius Pilate. But the Risen Jesus sits on the throne, not to “lord over” God’s people, but to enjoy them, not unlike a loving parents watch their children at play. This “throne” is not a place to claim higher ground for Christ, but a seat, so he has a lap. Remember when Jesus told the disciples to “let the children come unto me,” and would take them into his lap to love and affirm them? THIS is the right model for the unfolding and future realm of God, friends. We will be forever beckoned to climb into the lap of Jesus. 

 

If you’re having trouble catching a vision of this view of Christ the King and what God wants the “Kingdom of God” to look like, remember also that Jesus said “The one who wants to be the ‘greatest’ (or most loved or appreciated) by all must first become the servant of all.” He also said, the last shall be first. When Paul talks about how Jesus will be “exalted” and “given the name that is above every other name,” this is the kind of exultation he is speaking of—the servant of all becoming the most loved, and the “last” being brought to the fore, so that “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” And this “Lord” is not one who “lords over,” but one who is the Lord of Love. In the text from John, Jesus states that the greatest praise we can give him is to listen to his voice. Obedience to the law of love is that which truly exalts Jesus, not empty words of praise. And living and acting on this law of love is the highest form of praise to God.

 

As a Methodist preacher, I have long been impressed with the “tone” I find in reading the sermons of John Wesley. Wesley’s veneration of his “King Jesus” is clear and vibrates through each of his famous sermons, but what is clearer and more pronounced is the sense one gets from them that Wesley KNEW this Jesus, and owned and fostered an intimate spiritual relationship with him. Wesley was driven not by “duty,” or a sense that he ministered merely out of “obedience,” but was led by the love he had for Christ and the love Christ had shown him. Do you feel deeply loved by Christ, today? Can you feel God’s pleasure in your just being who you are? Do you feel “close to God” when you practice being in God’s presence? Friends, I urge you to find THIS “King Jesus,” if you haven’t, already. If, when you think about God, you are first struck by fear, doubt, or with an emptiness, or an “unknowing,” then seek today the truth that Jesus brought to us. Open your heart to love God with all your strength, mind, and heart, and your neighbor as yourself. And in this experience, may you find the intimacy and peace with God you are seeking. And may you then experience Christ’s “kingdom that is not from this world.” Amen.

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...