Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Recount, Not Re-Count

Recount, Not Re-Count

 

Isaiah 63:7-9
63:7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that the Lord has shown them according to the Lord’s mercy, according to the abundance of the Lord’s steadfast love.

63:8 For God said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and God became their savior

63:9 in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but the Lord’s presence that saved them; in God’s love and pity God redeemed them; God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

 

Happy New Year! Now, the big follow-up question—what would MAKE your New Year happy? (Take a few moments to ponder this…)

 

Maybe we start like Third Isaiah did—recounting the good deeds of God, on their—and OUR—behalf. 

 

First of all, we have to stop right there and clarify that the word is “recount,” not “re-count.” Since 2020, we Americans have had a real problem with “re-counts.” When one “high profile” candidate LOST a national election and claimed “election fraud,” all “Hades” has broken loose when a member of that particular political party loses. Not being willing to accept defeat, candidates have cried foul, and have demanded re-counts, sometimes supported by angry mobs. One man’s massive ego (“Surely I couldn’t POSSIBLY have lost!”) has led to wholesale questioning of what has typically been a highly secure election process in this country. In this most recent mid-term election, a number of candidates continued to question the integrity of the process and demanded re-counts. Result? Sorry, you actually lost, Kari Lake. Sorry, you actually lost, Dr. Oz. In all fairness, we did not see this “re-count” act from this party (or the other one) prior to “You-Know-Who” and his loss in 2020. Thankfully, the mid-terms saw a lessoning of this “re-count” behavior, and most especially the angry mobs like the ones that stormed election centers in Arizona in 2020 and the U.S. Capitol in January of 2021.

 

No, the word Isaiah 3 uses here is “recount,” which means “recall” or “remember,” but with a note of “how many times did this occur” added in. So, in your moments of pondering either the blessings of 2022, OR what would give you a Happy New Year in 2023, what did you come up with? I urge you to make an actual list of these, so the past blessings can be your “praise list” to start off 2023, and your “What would make you happy” one could be at the top of your prayer list, going forward.

 

Looking back, 2022 was my first full year as a retired person. I loved the two careers I had during my “working” years—the first, working in local cable TV program production (and some radio), and the second, 36 years as a United Methodist pastor. Both careers embraced what I consider my “best gifts,” and blessed my family and me richly. (I said “richly,” not “rich,” as neither occupation moved us up too many tax brackets!) I must say, though, that retirement has been a wonderful experience. Dara and I have not let much moss grow on our Northsides during this first year. So far, we have been on one cruise, with a second booked for February. We spent a week at Myrtle Beach, a week at Lake Erie, a week at the Chautauqua Institution (I served as chaplain at the United Methodist House during Week One of the 2022 season), and attended a Native American Immersion Experience in Oklahoma. We spent a few days at Disney and Universal Studios, Orlando, with our daughter’s family. Of course, we have made several trips to Louisville to visit our grandchildren, and to celebrate both of their birthdays. And we’ve taken several “day trips” to interesting destinations, not to mention a bunch of nice Summer drives in the Batmobile (2008 Mazda Miata convertible, jet-black, of course). 

 

We enjoy just staying home, as well. When I was appointed as lead pastor at St. Paul’s in 2014, the Sterlings left parsonage life, as that church offered a housing allowance instead of a home. We used this to purchase our first house in 37 years (we owned one shortly after we were married in 1977), a three bedroom townhouse in Adams Township, Southern Butler County. Even at home we’ve been busy, having a whole new HVAC system installed, as well as new wall-to-wall carpeting, throughout. We each have a “cave” to hang out in—Dara’s is a fully-equipped sewing/embroidery/quilting room, while mine is a nice study with many books, a computer center, a Bowflex, and a treadmill. Did I mention a comfortable Lazyboy and a big-screen TV?

 

We are thankful for all of the “perks” of retirement, the trips, and the freedom, but most of all, we are thankful for more time with family and each other. This Christmas was especially wonderful. I am writing this message from the cozy little home we rented in Middletown, KY (Louisville suburb) just a few miles from our daughter’s family. We have been able to take in many of our grandchildren’s holiday activities, as well as the incredible Christmas concert Christ Church United Methodist put on. (Our daughter played flute in the orchestra.) We have enjoyed outings and visits with our son-in-law’s parents who now live in Louisville. And to top it all off, our son, Evan, who lives in Alaska (works for the National Fire Service) and his friend, Connie, flew down to spend time with us all, too. It just couldn’t have been a much more blessed time!

 

2022 also saw another change in our family. My mother, who is now 92, broke her hip in January and moved permanently into a senior care facility in Oil City. This has been a good placement for her, as she is now getting some socialization, decent meals, and excellent care. We make frequent trips up to visit with her, as does my brother, Jay, and my brother, Jon, who lives in Oil City. We are most thankful that stellar facilities such as Oakwood Heights exist!

 

Dara and I have had a blast, so far. I am most thankful of all for her and our companionship. We celebrated 45 years of marriage in 2022, and it has all been good! I worship the ground she walks on, and am in awe of the amazing person she is. The depth of her Christian faith is far, FAR greater than my own, and an ongoing inspiration to me. She seems to appreciate that I am willing to leave her alone sometimes so she can pursue her various interests, yet I appreciate that she is not tired of me hanging around! Seriously, we function quite well independently, but deeply treasure our “together” experiences. 

 

Yes, this is what it means to “recount,” as the prophet says. While I have been listing personal blessings, are these not all directly attributable to the involvement and agency of our God? While we have been blessed to make good choices in our lives, we fully believe God has guided these, as we bathe our lives in prayer, together. And while we have “sown good seeds,” generally speaking, we know that it is God who brings the harvest. We are recipients of God’s amazing grace through our relationship with Jesus Christ—aren’t we all? 

 

Isaiah urges Israel to “recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,” citing “great favor,” mercy, abundance, and “steadfast love” as examples. And as I recounted some of my own blessings, it is with compounded awe I realize that Isaiah addresses ME in saying, “God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” We certainly feel the blessed effects of God “lifting us up,” especially as our “days of old” are finally here!

 

The New Year is a wonderful time to take stock of your past blessings, but it is also a good time to renew your faith in the salvation of God offered to us all. AND it is a fresh opportunity to set some new goals for the year ahead. If you haven’t already, take some time to ponder what would grant you a HAPPY New Year, as I mentioned earlier. And then make this part of your prayer list for 2023.

 

Personally, here are some of the things that would be in my HAPPY New Year. I will refine and better define my personal health activities, which are pretty random, right now. I do my “workouts” at home, but thanks to the “Silver Sneakers” program, I can join the nearby gym facility to do more than my Bowflex allows. I will walk more regularly with Dara, who is quite disciplined in this endeavor. We will continue to travel, visit more with family, and enjoy each other. These things make me very happy! I will continue to broaden my reading, will continue to write a weekly sermon and post it to this blog, and purpose to write more poems. There are a couple of other writing projects I hope to begin, so 2023 sounds like a good time to jump into those, as well. I also hope to keep this Isaiah passage as a kind of “theme verse” for the New Year, as recounting our blessings has the power to jazz up our faith. 

 

Of course, none of us is able to know what unexpected challenges the New Year may bring, and some of them could certainly be significant. Again, though, the prophet reminds us that “God became their savior in all their distress,” and that when we are “down,” God will lift us up! 

 

We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus, and have been seasonably reminded that his beginning was humble, hazardous, and was not greeted by everyone of that day as a blessing! This weekend’s passage from Matthew reminds us, too, that he and his family had to “flee” these threats. And let us not forget that for 30 years, we know almost nothing of what Jesus and his family faced, but at the least, it included the death of Joseph along the way. We also know the trials that were ahead for Jesus, including his trial and crucifixion at the hands of those who felt threatened by his live and message. And yet, what God has wrought through his life is the salvation of every human who opens her or his heart to Christ. May 2023 be a year of constant recounting of this miracle on our behalf!

 

So, here is your homework assignment: make your lists of both the blessings you “recount” from 2022, and the things that would result in a Happy New Year in 2023. Commit them both to prayer, and with much thanksgiving, believe in wonderful things! And may we all experience God’s steadfast love like never before in the New Year! Shalom, Beloved! Amen. 



Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Holiday Inn

 


Holiday Inn

 

Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered.

2:4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.

2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

2:8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

2:9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

2:10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:

2:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

2:12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."

2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

2:14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."

2:16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

2:18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

2:20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

I’ve probably told this story before, but when my brothers and I were kids, our family vacations were largely unplanned. A destination was chosen by my parents, we’d pile into the car, and away we’d go. Some of this lack of planning was due to my mom’s career as a nurse, and one who worked mostly 11 to 7, so when she got time off, we took off. However, my dad liked the serendipity of “just going,” and loved to drive. I’m sure the economic realities crept in, too, as the companies my dad worked for as a bookkeeper just kept being bought out and then moved most of their office staff to Houston or Chicago, and we weren’t leaving Oil City, so in my childhood, he had to keep finding new jobs. Hence, we weren’t “made of money,” as they say. 

 

Our vacations were in the Summer, while we were off school, and the destinations chosen were usually very popular places for middle class motorists, so we were almost always fighting the crowds, but none so much as when it was time to find a motel, many of which were out of our price range. As the sun began to set, we’d begin stopping at cheap motels that either had “Vacancy” signs illuminated, or didn’t have one at all. We’d all stay in the car while my dad went in to check. He’d often return to the car with a report that either there was no vacancy OR the motel “wanted too much.” Sometimes we would drive for two or three hours around these popular vacation spots looking for an “affordable” motel room. As the oldest boy of three, I can remember the exhilaration of dad finally saying, “This one’s good.” Once we got into the motel room, my siblings and I would scour the place just to “check it out.” We liked to collect the tiny soap bars, and see if there was a radio in the room so we could try to listen to Pirate baseball games. Cheap motels had a certain “air” about them, usually had really ugly carpet chosen to hide the dirt, and if they had air-conditioning, it was one of those window units that sounded like a Boeing 707, if it worked at all. But for three boys who loved to travel, it was a treat, and we sure loved those vacations. I remember staying in one very tiny room in a bargain motel on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls (back before it became such a commercial “potpourri”). I could lie in bed and hear the roar of the falls, both because of the motel’s proximity to them, and its paper-thin walls.

 

While I don’t recall the destination, I remember one year our search for a motel room was dragging on and on. Even my patient parents were beginning to get discouraged, with each place either filled or “too pricey.” Back in the day, about the only motel chain that was advertising on TV was the recently-founded Holiday Inn chain. They claimed to be “family friendly” and at affordable rates. Being an avid TV watcher and having seen their ads, as that evening’s search lingered on, there on the horizon was one of these new Holiday Inns. They were unmistakable, with their large, bright green signs populated by more neon than a traveling carnival. I shouted, “Dad, stop HERE, stop HERE!” He pulled the car into their spacious parking lot, and there on the giant sign was the brightly lit “Vacancy” notice. Of course, I had to offer my endorsement of this “family” motel, garnered from my TV expertise. Dad kind of shook his head in the negative, but responded, “OK, I’ll check it out.” As he walked toward the door to the front desk, my next-youngest brother and I couldn’t help but notice that this Holiday Inn had a pool that was open at night, and it was actually filled with water! We were so excited. As our dad returned to the car, however, our hopes were dashed as he exclaimed, “Those people are CRAZY! They want $40 a NIGHT for a room!” And on we drove…

 

Each year, when I read the birth narrative of our Lord Jesus Christ from the second chapter of Luke, I can sympathize with Joseph and his pregnant betrothed, Mary, when they arrive in Bethlehem to find a “No Vacancy” sign on the inn. I often wonder if the economics weighed in as well? Had Joseph enough scratch, might he have slipped the innkeeper an extra ten spot to get a space inside? Who knows. If you read the commentaries about Luke’s story, you find that there are doubts as to its accuracy, especially his dating of when it occurred. I know scholars have to study stuff, but is that really all that important? I remember late United Methodist scholar and storyteller, Michael Williams, telling a seminar crowd that when he would give a story, invariably, someone in the audience would ask if it was a “true” story. Williams would often respond, “Well, it OUGHT to be!” Stories can certainly impart “truths” without necessarily being true, or even accurate to facts. Think of the parables of Jesus. (We could get into a tussle over how some people attempt to take the Bible so literally that they are compelled to believe the parable of Job or those of Jesus MUST have been accounts of actual occurrences, or for them the Bible isn’t “true,” but it’s Christmas, so let’s not.) The “truth” of Luke’s story is best witnessed by it becoming such a beloved account of Jesus’ birth.

 

“Close the door—were you born in a BARN?”, my grandmother used to say. The Son of God and the Savior of the world was. Again, we can debate what kind of a “barn” it was, whether a cave hewn out of the hillside, or a wooden stable, such as the one portrayed in most of our Nativity scenes, but it doesn’t really matter. Luke tells us the newborn child was put into a manger, and that was a trough used to feed animals, so we can assume the animals of the inn’s paying guests were there. We also make the assumption that that the visiting shepherds probably brought at least some of their sheep with them, if not all of them. Obviously, our Nativity scenes—possibly like Luke’s tale—have less to do with historical accuracy and good journalism than “telling the story,” as they usually include a cow, a couple of sheep, and of course, the Magi, who surely did not make it for the birth. But in a quick glance at our Nativity treasures (or watching church children act out a tableau of the scene) we are instantly transported back to that magical night of Christ’s birth. Luke’s narrative takes us there with a few simple sentences. Some of the words I think of when revisiting that night are: tranquil, serene, blessed, hopeful, loving, and VACANCY! While there was “no room at the inn” for the strangers from Nazareth, there was room in the “barn,” and there was room for the wonderful cast Luke assembles…and there is room for all of us there, too.

 

The “It OUGHT to be” truth of Luke’s story may also be verified by imagining other ways the Son of God could have entered the world. Jesus could have just “shown up” one day, proclaiming himself as Messiah, and doing a few parlor tricks to prove his divinity. He could have ridden a meteor down from heaven, or come to town in a triumphant parade, possibly doing the trick of simultaneously riding on TWO beasts, as Matthew would later write. (Obviously, these scenarios assume he would arrive as an adult, and not be “born” into the world like a Dalai Lama.) Or, he could have been born to royalty, or been “adopted” by them, as was Moses—something for which there was biblical precedent. Had Christ’s arrival been any of these ways, I doubt we’d have the creche scene on the coffee table or have the children acting it out on the church stage. Luke’s story is too good NOT to be true. Even Spielberg couldn’t have done better—angels, humble shepherds, cooing animals, the watchful Joseph standing by, the beautiful, young Mary, and the “babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The story COMPELS us to revisit it, year after year, and to renew our love for the God who was born into our world, if not also for our questions for the Divine about what it all means.

 

Birth, itself, is a most magical thing. For those of us fortunate to be parents, we will never forget that moment when our firstborn made her or his appearance. It was a most miraculous and blessed thing! And yet, I had just “coached” my beloved through an experience that for her meant almost unimaginable pain and discomfort. To say that birthing a child is “labor intensive” is so much more than a play on words. As I held my little girl in my arms, I looked down at my spouse in amazement at what she had just wrought. Our lives would never be the same again, from this moment on. Sound familiar? In Jesus’ case, Mary’s pain was coupled with what Jesus must have experienced as he “emptied himself of the privileges of being God” and wound up in a feed trough. And yet, the love and exhilaration that envelop a birth cannot be matched. Is it any wonder that God chose this way to “tabernacle among us”? And then, as the mother’s pain and the father’s anxiety slowly give way to pure joy, friends and family begin to arrive to visit the new family. We never, ever forget those times. Such it is with the Christmas story, too. You want to talk about a Holiday Inn? Sit back and listen afresh to what Doctor Luke writes in the second chapter of his gospel!

 

Truth be told, we haven’t actually stayed in too many Holiday Inns. A number of years ago, though, when Dara’s family gathered to bury my beloved brother-in-law (Dara’s older brother) who died of a brain tumor, we all stayed at the same Holiday Inn Express. It was the saddest of times, and yet, the evening after the funeral, we took over the community room, with the blessing of the hotel management, broke out a little strong drink, and rejoiced together, both for Win’s life, and for the joy of being together to remember in that moment. Many stories were told, and some deep theological questions discussed, but overall, we just were present to each other. In those moments—ones we usually associate with mourning—that Holiday Inn was truly transformed into a Holiday Inn. Just like that stable in Bethlehem, it was more about the company that came together, and the “eternal” nature of deep love, than the actual occasion. 

 

Thanks to those motel-hunting trials of my childhood, THIS GUY doesn’t go ANYWHERE without a reservation! Now, this means some planning ahead, and in some ways it does put restrictions on how serendipitous a trip can be, but it is so nice to know there is a hotel room out there waiting for you with your name on it. As yet another Christmas Eve is upon us, and while theologians may continue to argue over the efficacy of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and to whom it may benefit, I want to remind you that God TAKES RESERVATIONS! It’s called “salvation,” and by acknowledging that you want a room reserved with your name on it, you can get one booked right now, by trusting in the forgiveness, grace, and love of Jesus. Trust me, you don’t want to wait until the last minute to find your Holiday Inn!

 

One final thought from poet, Ann Weems:

 

"The Christmas Spirit"

 

The Christmas spirit is that hope

which tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful

and announces

in the face of any Herod the world can produce

and all the inn doors slammed in our faces

and all the dark nights of our souls

that with God all things still are possible,

that even now

unto us a Child is born!

 

Amen, and Merry Christmas, Dear Ones!

Friday, December 16, 2022

Joe...

 

Joe

 

Matthew 1:18-25
1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

1:23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,

1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 

I’ve known a lot of folks named “Joe” in my life. Two were good friends from high school. One “Joe” was a Polish Catholic who loved to ski. He was much smarter than I, and had hoped to become a doctor (I actually believe he wound up marrying one). This Joe had a great sense of humor, and a winsome smile. Having just seen him this past Summer at our 50th class reunion, I can clearly see he has not lost any of his “fun-lovingness,” nor has that great smile faded one iota. The other high school “Joe” was Jewish, and the son of a prominent attorney in our town. His mom was one of my wife’s schoolteachers. This Joe was also much, much smarter than I (do we see a pattern here?)—in fact, I believe he was the top student in our class. He had similar interests to mine in science and the space program, and played trombone in the band, right behind us trumpets. He, too, had a wonderful sense of humor, but one much more sophisticated than any other “Joe” I ever knew. He was a master punster, as well, and had a flare for drama. In ninth grade, he was a detective in a poorly-written play our class performed, but he pulled it off, unlike the rest of us, who acted, well, like NINTH graders. I saw this Joe, too, at our 50th class reunion. In fact, Dara and I had dinner with him and his wife (I believe they are both attorneys) at our table. What a blessing it was to spend the evening with them, just catching up. This Joe has lost some weight, and looks great for our age. He has always been an inspiring individual for me, the “real deal,” as some would say. 

 

Interestingly, none of the “Joes” I have known have lived “down” to the popular moniker, “Average Joe.” Don’t you wonder where that came from? I’ve known some “Average Dicks,” a few “Average Bobs,” and quite a few “Average Bills,” but no “Average Joes.”  And now, we have the 46th President of the United States—the first one named “Joe.”

 

One of my favorite “Joes” is the one this weekend’s gospel lesson tells of—the Joe who was betrothed to young Mary, who would become the mother of Jesus Christ. The text says he was a “righteous man.” What a loaded phrase! What does it mean to be “righteous?” We know that the word can be parsed as “right living,” and that the judgment “right” has something to do with a person living in a way that is pleasing to God. How might we know this? One could say that living “righteously” means living according to the law of God. Our Jewish siblings would most likely have this as part of their “formula” for right living, and well they should. After all, the “law” of God was designed to help God’s people live in a way that pleases God, advances the community of faith, and helps the individual “grow” into a mature child of God. In Judaism, this law that defines righteousness includes “welcoming the stranger” as one would welcome a citizen of their own people, or in other words, accepting them like they were already part of the family of faith, even before knowing their religious pedigree, their politics, or their behavioral history. A right-living Jew—or Christian, for that matter—also loves her or his neighbor as themselves. They are not judgmental, but instead are compelled to err on the side of including and affirming “new” residents or immigrants. The righteous man Joseph was just as “chosen” by God as was the humble Mary, and we often forget that. God’s angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, affirming how he was to embrace Mary and respect her in a “new” way, other than what he had planned, namely to “dismiss her quietly.” 

 

Joseph was a man who clearly trusted God’s word to him. Joseph married the young girl, trusted that the child entrusted to her was via the Holy Spirit of God, and purposed to keep her “pure” by refraining from sexual relations with her until Jesus was born. Do we really have any idea how rare these qualities would have been in a first-century man? (Or even if this story were to happen in OUR time?) We might even draw the conclusion that by doing all of these things as the angel told him in that dream, by showing the ultimate respect for the woman, Mary, by following the words of the prophets, and especially by trusting in the “Holy Spirit of God,” Joseph was the first true “Christian,” as the doctrines of the Holy Spirit wouldn’t begin to form until after Pentecost in the Christian Era. Note that Joseph does not question any of this, but simply obeys? Indeed, he was no “Average Joe!” In fact, he showed himself to be an “Extraordinary Joe.”

 

If Joseph can be seen as a kind of “first Christian,” then might he also be a model for the modern Christ follower? Why not! Think of the ways he demonstrated “righteousness”—trusting, believing, following the Word of God to him, respecting Mary when 99% of the men of his era would have thrown her out on her ear at best, and possibly even accused her of the capital sin of adultery. And what of his willingness to not “claim his marital rights,” as the Matthean author relates to us? This is huge, as the “angel” did not make this part of the deal, but Joseph heard the word “virgin” in the prophecy and apparently decided on his own that this should be kept as Mary’s status until after Jesus was born. (Our Roman Catholic siblings SO venerate Mary that they make both her perpetual virginity as well as HER virgin birth a characteristic of the “Mother of God,” but these have never been supported in the Protestant faith.)

 

The Joe of Mary and Jesus was not a “macho man.” There is an idea out there in our time that a “true man” is tough, “masculine,” and has testosterone to spare. There are even “Christian” teachings that advance this false idea of what a “righteous man” is. Remember the “Promise Keepers”? This was a Christian men’s movement started by a football coach years ago, and while some of its values were OK, it tended to help advance this more “macho” idea of what the Christian man was supposed to be. Our biblical Joseph was more in the mold of the Joseph (son of Jacob) we read about in the Hebrew Bible—finding himself in a place he never expected, having to “swallow his pride” to be obedient to God, and yet elevated to a position of prominence and “power.” He, too, was a “dreamer.” And yet, like the Old Testament Joseph, the figure Matthew tells us of did not let any of this “go to his head.” Joseph of Egypt forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery in the far country and warmly welcomed them and saved them in a time of famine. Matthew’s Joseph accepts and celebrates Mary and her predicament, obeys God’s prophetic word and the angelic dream, and with what little more we have of the biblical record of him before he disappears, he appears to keep this righteous track record intact. 

 

O that more of us “Christian men” would resolve to be more like the humble, obedient, and apparently “nurturing” Joseph, and lose the rough, testosterone-laden exterior that often masks our human fears and inadequacies! The New Testament’s Joseph is a somewhat “unsung” hero of our faith, a model for us all to live righteously, respect persons across the spectrum of human sexuality, and welcome the strangers we encounter in life, rather than pick fights with them or offer them the wrong-finger salute!

 

This Advent, as we anticipate the continued “second coming” of Jesus, as Jesus continues to be born anew in each of us, may we “men” look to Joseph as a role model, not as some kind of “superhero,” but as a humble servant of God. And may we respect and love the “Marys” in our lives with the love of the living God. 

 

In honor of our sibling Joseph, I conclude with this wonderful poem by the late Ann Weems, about “Getting [Joseph] to the Front of the Stable”:

 

Getting to the Front of the Stable

  By Ann Weems

 

Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?

Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,

And told him to stand in the back of the crèche

background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?

God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful

in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,

in spite of the danger from Herod.

This man, Joseph, listened to angels

and it was he who named the Child

Emmanuel.

 

Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway

guarding the mother and child

or greeting shepherds and kings.

When he wasn’t in the doorway,

he was probably urging Mary to get some rest,

gently covering her with his cloak,

assuring her that he would watch the Child.

 

Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms

and walked him in the night,

patting him lovingly

until he closed his eyes.

This Christmas, let us give thanks to God

for this man of incredible faith

into whose care God placed the Christ Child.

As a gesture of gratitude,

let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable

where he can guard and greet

and cast an occasional glance

at this Child

who brought us life.

 

Amen!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Proud Mary

 


Proud Mary

 

Luke 1:46b-55
1:46b "My soul magnifies the Lord, 

1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.

1:50 God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.

1:51 God has shown strength with God’s arm; the Lord has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy,

1:55 according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." 

 

 

Last Sunday, Dr. Eric Bryant, Lead Pastor at my daughter’s church, Christ Church in Louisville, said something I always wished someone would finally say. During his Advent II sermon, he mentioned that one of the popular Christmas “solo” songs asks questions of Mary, the mother of Jesus, such as “Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?” And Pastor Eric said emphatically, “Yes, Mary DID know, because the Angel Gabriel had clued her in!” I almost broke into applause, but didn’t want to embarrass my family. Thanks, Eric!

 

Mary was a lot of things, as we have all learned over the more than two thousand Advents that have come and gone since that historic first one. She was probably a very young woman, possibly between 13 and 15 years of age. She was “betrothed” to Joseph, who was probably much older (that is why he is gone from the scene by the time Jesus launches his ministry). She was chosen by God for a unique assignment, and would be a cultural outcast because she accepted it. (I’m not actually sure it would have been easy to say “no,” given an actual angel of God had broken the news to her, but who knows? God gave us “free will,” remember.) But of all the things that Mary was, clueless was not one of them.

 

I’ve gotten myself in trouble numerous times throughout my ministry because I lifted up the prowess and superiority of women over men. Men don’t tend to like to hear this reality, but it is true. I believe God created man, took one look at how HE looked and acted, and said, “OH, I can do better than THAT!” And then God created women. Everything about women is better than the male of the species. They think quicker, act quicker, and are able to multi-task right out of the womb. They bear our children, rear them, educate them, and send them “out of the nest” proudly. AND they are able to hold down complex careers at the same time, AND they are typically the leading “domestic engineers” throughout the cycle. The male of the species is generally a bellyacher. When he’s sick, he jettisons every responsibility and expects to be catered to by the nearest female. He can be so deliberate when making a decision that paralysis would be a better fate than waiting for the outcome of his deliberations. They say that men are better at math, but I’ve never really seen it. If women see it as important, or it is a part of their job, they are superior even at calculations. Have you ever seen “Hidden Figures”? There you go. When given the chance—and they still rarely are, if there is a pig-headed man around—women run circles around us, guys. They. Just. Do.

 

I won’t go there, regarding the superiority of their design. God knocked Godself out on that one. The one I’m blessed to be partnered with is almost 72 years old, and when she walks across the room, I give glory to God. Her body, mind, and spirit make mine look like a dead carp on a hot beach in mid-August. She is so beautiful, graceful, smart, discerning, crafty, articulate, professional—AND she bore two incredible children and raised them to near perfection. You should see her with the grandchildren, too! She puts me to such shame that the best I can do is love her with all my heart, and so I do, and if I put all of my energy to doing so, I may be redeeming myself at least a bit, but it is far short of the love she deserves, believe me. I’ll bet I’m not alone in this, am I gentlemen? If you are one of those men out there who still feels men are in any way superior to the women God has created, please get counseling…or a frontal lobotomy. They are WAY out of our league.

 

Do you think it was an accident that God chose to be BORN into this world through the human agency of a woman? As late Ohio State coach Woody Hayes used to say about why he ran the football so much when he had such great running backs, “When you have a big cannon, SHOOT IT!”, so God chose to “shoot” the “big cannon” God had in the women God crafted. Obviously, God could have chosen to “beam” into the world, or just shown up. Why, God could have just walked down from the nearest mountain, or rose up from the still waters of the Jordan. God could have even gone a bit Hollywood and just walked out of the Holy of Holies in the Temple on a high holy day! But instead, God chose Mary. Proud Mary, to be the “Mother of God.”

 

Today’s lectionary passage is the famed “Magnificat” of Mary—“My soul magnifies the Lord…” And it certainly did! It’s significant that we have this narrative reported by Dr. Luke, who wrote what some Bible scholars call the “Gospel of women.” Women do great things in the Book of Luke, and they are always attentive to the presence and pronouncements of Jesus. We have these wonderful “women” stories, thanks to Luke’s recall and inclusion. And today, he gives us this “Magnificat,” an outpouring from the heart of Proud Mary, who said “yes” to God in a way that changed the whole direction of human history. It’s a pity that we Protestant Christians have given Mary such short shrift, instead focusing so intensely on such simple truths as “salvation by faith” and “repentance,” when Mary did most of the heavy lifting. And it’s doubly a pity that our Roman Catholic siblings venerate Mary for her obedience and servitude to God, but then turn around and don’t let women do almost anything important in their church! No women clergy? Seriously? And I love their answer as to why they don’t—“Jesus didn’t call any women.” Horse-hockey. Fact is, the women NATURALLY followed Jesus. It was the MEN who had to be “called” because had they not been, they would still be minding their nets and tax ledgers! Jesus called the MEN because they needed coddling, babysitting, and “potty training.” The women already KNEW how to please God, and tackle the tough assignments, as evidenced at the cross and the tomb, afterwards. Who showed up? The women. Who ran off and hid? The men. Get it? If it weren’t for Proud Mary and the other women who ran to the tomb, we’d still be licking our wounds, gentlemen.

 

The ”Magnificat” might also be known as the “Theme of God’s Women.” Mary was the trailblazer of a long heritage of women who stepped up, down through the ages, and right up until our time when women answer the call to ordained ministry. They must be both proud like Mary and courageous like her to do so, as the church—in the case of United Methodists—do not make their job easy, or even possible, as in the case of the Roman Catholics. Read between the lines of these verses in Luke Chapter One:

 

*God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed. Mary got it. She offered God her availability, not her ability. She also believed, as evidenced here, that she would be remembered for this. She has been remembered, but it seems to often be forgotten that she was also a WOMAN, as the church has not kindly dealt with woman in positions of power or authority.

 

*…For the Mighty One has done great things for me. Even Proud Mary knew from whence her bread was buttered, as they say. God was the source, as well as the voice that called her. Too often in the history of Christianity, when things go well, there is no end to the people lined up to take credit for it, but when stuff hits the fan, the blame is spread far and wide. Mary trusted; God delivered; then Mary delivered.

 

*God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation…Mercy comes to those who understand they need it. It is conspicuously absent from those who believe they can save themselves—a truth just as true today as it was in Mary’s day.

 

*…the Lord has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…I call her “Proud Mary” because she understood that all she did was OBEY God, and it was this deferral about which she was “proud,” not anything else that she did. We can learn from women in this regard. Very often, they know “where to quit” and “where to draw the line” and cut their losses. Men rarely do. I remember years ago, when one of my church youth was being taught how to water ski, he was told, if you go down, let go of the rope! But this strong, young, and proud male would simply NOT let go of the rope when he went down, and resembled a human torpedo, during numerous runs. When asked why he didn’t let go of the rope, he said, “I thought maybe I could pull it out and get back up.” Cwazy Wabbit, Tricks are for kids… This is the problem with us men—too often we ignore good counsel because we think “we are different.” We are—not too bright.

 

*God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…Again, this goes to the question of knowing when to yield versus when to use one’s abilities to “fix” things. While there is a time for both, in the Body of Christ, yielding to the agency of God and the Holy Spirit is so often more productive than taking matters into one’s own hands. The “Proud Marys” of the church get this. Their “pride” is in the knowledge that God is with us, not in what they, themselves, can do. God will always offer “food to the hungry” (the humble who present themselves before God as needy) and “turn away” those who can pay their own way. This is just a statement of fact, not necessarily judgment. The rich often CAN fare for themselves, while the poor need a leg up. Of course, how wonderful it would be for the “rich” to share their largess with the needy! Oh, there’s another thing women generally do better than men—share!

 

I think the thing that made Mary most proud was recalling in her heart the story of what God was able to accomplish through her because she offered her servanthood TO God. Sometimes the bravest and most powerful thing we can say to God is simply, “Yes.” What resulted from Mary’s “proud” obedience was what one of our greatest theologians once labeled as “God’s ‘YES’ to the world,” Jesus Christ. That God chose to enter human existence through this humble woman is a testimony to greatness through simple obedience. Thanks be to God for Proud Mary, the Mother of our Lord and Savior, Jesus! Amen.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

What is Your View of the Nature of God?

 


What Is Your View of the Nature of God?

 

Romans 15:4-13
15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

15:5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,

15:6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15:7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

15:8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,

15:9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name";

15:10 and again he says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";

15:11 and again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him";

15:12 and again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope."

15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

We all know the story of the three blind persons examining an elephant: one feels the trunk and says the animal is like a snake; one feels its massive underbelly, and says it is a huge beast like a buffalo or a whale; and the third, feeling the tail, says it is a tiny, wiggly thing, like a lizard or a snail. So, what is your view of the nature of God? 

 

Those of you going through a particularly tough or challenging time right now may say that God is like the EMTs that arrive with an ambulance at the sound of a siren. God shows up when you most need help, and scrambles to perform triage at your disaster, in an order to offer the best care at that moment in time, and to stabilize you before things get worse. 

 

Others are in a better place, rejoicing in the season, experiencing the joy at the mountaintop, or at least enjoying a crisp trail hike in the pleasant woods of life. For you, God is the Emmaus Road companion, revealing Godself in a hearty meal and through free and stimulating conversation around the table. 

 

The God of those deep in grief is like a divine pillow, able to absorb the denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance without losing patience with the sufferer. Better still, your God “gets it,” and fully joins you in the experience. Regardless of what comes later, you will always have this “fully present” God view as at least part of your picture of the Divine. People who experience God’s presence during grief never forget it.

 

What about the perennial doubter? Her or his God is one able to be rejected, even scorned. This God is responsible for the world’s suffering and pain, as if God really were God, these things would be stopped immediately, with only happiness and joy left in their horrid wake. But since this isn’t happening, the doubter draws the conclusion there IS no God, or at least not one they can believe in. But most doubters (atheists, agnostics, etc.) I have met want to believe in a divine presence that is at the heart of creation. They rarely revel in the idea of humanity as nothing but an “accident” of the mechanisms of the universe, but thankfully they do find some joy in the fact that we ARE here. This reality often spurs them to acts of human kindness and community-based benevolences—many times even more than those who claim to believe in the “love of God” or that they are called to love their neighbor!

 

The God of the dutifully religious is a God of rules and precepts that must be kept, even if doing so leads to more human suffering. Acceptance is “free” from this God, provided all the jots and tittles are cared for. For this God, there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to worship, a “right” and “wrong” way to respond to the challenges of life, and a “right” and a “wrong” way to love one another. And there’s clearly a “right” and a “wrong” way to be the church, given that it is to be the Body of Christ, who always did what his “Father in heaven” said was “right.” This God fits very nicely into a tabernacle or a book.

 

Jesus turning over the tables in the temple is an image relished by those whose God is—first and foremost—in the corner of those seeking justice. On one hand, this view of God keeps an eye out for the oppressed and the exploited, using sometimes radical means to encourage—even force—change in their favor. On the other hand—the really evil hand—this view may lead to extremism, or even terroristic methods, using fear in an effort to accomplish its goals. The thing that the folk who hold this view should keep in mind that in the case of Jesus turning over the tables, the tables AND the temple actually belonged to him. He was free to use them as a prop for his anger over injustice. This is rarely true with the stuff justice seekers may mess with.

 

While these are just a few examples of views of the nature of God, they do cover some of the basic “natures” of God people experience: love, anger, justice, order, even aloofness or apathy. The biblical record is full of accounts of people—sometimes a “whole” people—exhibiting behaviors or pathologies resulting from their view of the nature of God. As a “disciple” and co-worker of Rev. Ron Hoellein’s during my two sojourns at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, this is one of the most valuable questions—and lessons—I learned from him. The question was, “What is your view of the nature of God?”, and the conversation was about owning up to how this view colored how you treated God, others, and even yourself. It certainly impinged upon how you interpreted scripture, or whether you even took it seriously.

 

In so many of the Apostle Paul’s words—including today’s from Romans--we find him offering guidance as to the nature of the God of the Bible. Realized, of course, that even Paul’s guidance, while led by the Holy Spirit, are shaped by his view of the nature of God, too! First, as a rabbinically-trained Jew, next as a Christian-hating crusader, then as a traumatized “victim” of the direct intervention of the Divine, Paul’s views changed radically. Later, as the seasoned missionary, he morphs once again. In Romans, Paul is trying to collect his “views” of the nature of God into one stabilizing, guiding view that the early church can life with, hopefully in peace.

 

Here are a few of the key thoughts put forth in today’s lectionary passage:

 

-God is a God of steadfastness and encouragementSteadfast may include patience, but in my understanding, it is more the “solid rock” imagery of Jesus. We all know what encouragement is, especially because it is something we all need, even crave. The encouraged soul is the empowered soul. At our highest level of Christian functioning, we are enable to turn and be a “rock” for others and a source of the kind of encouragement that first boosted us.

 

-God is a God of welcoming, even as Jesus welcomed the “least, the last, and the lost,” as we are fond of saying. The United Methodist Church that is about to split in two, thanks to competing and adversarial views of the nature of God, used to have a slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” Unfortunately, all three of these core elements of a functional community of faith are now quite in question, as the denomination fights over who goes where, who gets what, and who is “right” vs. who is “wrong.” But Paul makes clear that Jesus—if you want to truly follow HIM—is the welcoming aspect of God, incarnate. He opened doors that religion had closed, touched people it had declared untouchable, and loved those (especially the Gentiles) that religion said where quite unworthy.

 

-God is a God of confessing, or witnessing. But this is not at all what some think it is. The confessing church, as evidenced by the Barmen Declaration during the Nazi era, was one that stood against the fascism, hate, and terminal persecution of the marginalized. Note Paul’s use of the word here in Romans, where he is addressing the still-present hatred of Gentiles that existed in the early church, thanks to the Jewish influence. (Note here that I am using “Jewish” as a cultural reference to an “exclusive” religious population of that period, speaking not of believing, practicing Jewish siblings today.) Paul is referencing Jesus’ words, where Jesus is preaching inclusion of Gentiles by the gospel, and telling the “religious” in his audience that they, too, must be willing to include them, if they wanted Jesus to “confess” them before God. A “confessing” God is not one that confesses rules, dogmas, or even specific, agreed-upon interpretations of holy writ, but a God who includes ALL, who preaches (witnesses) this inclusion, and “praises” and “confesses” others who do the same.

 

-God is a God of hopejoypeace, and powerThe nature of this God is that God is a uniter, not a divider, to borrow a quote from a 21st century politician. Hope, joy, peace, and power, for Paul—and Jesus—were central to God’s actual nature, as was the love that empowers and binds them all together. 

 

Paul is trying so hard to accurately frame the nature of God as evidenced by Jesus Christ, for only in seeing and believing that this IS the nature of God, can the church truly become the Body of Christ for a hurting world in need of redemption and reconciliation. Where did we go wrong? Was it in believing that the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” was an accurate view? Or when we burned heretics at the stake? Or is it what we are doing in the current “United Methodist Church” where we are choosing sides and bringing a meat clever down on something that has labored for decades now to confess its unity?

 

If Paul were alive today, he would be heinously disappointed with what we have done to the church he worked so hard to healthily launch. Jesus IS alive today, and I’ll be he’s not happy, either. Jesus gave his life witnessing to the loving, hope-filled, peace-enabling, and empowering nature of God. In his resurrection, he conquered the power of death, but unfortunately, he was not able to take away the deadly pain with which we continue to inflict each other, in the name of religious purity. Paul couldn’t accomplish this, Jesus has yet to bring it about, and one has to believe the Holy Spirit is grieved with the current “confession” of the church, in this regard.

 

As Advent week two is before us, may we celebrate the return of Jesus by resolving to recapture the first lessons he brought to us! May we adopt a healthy, uplifting, loving, hopeful, and biblical view of the nature of God! And may the people who call themselves the “people of God” resist turning the pruning hooks back into spears, and strive for peace with one another, instead! Amen.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Nobody Knows...



 

Matthew 24:36-44
24:36 "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,

24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

24:43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.

24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 

I was in seminary before I learned that Advent was the beginning of the liturgical year, and that its focus was on the “second coming” of Christ. The two United Methodist Churches I attended as I was growing up--and later served on part-time lay staff in one of them--didn’t really follow the lectionary, nor did they observe the liturgical year very closely. We celebrated Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost (sort of), but that was pretty much it, in terms of the church year. Hence, my initiation to the liturgical year in seminary was a real education! I was most interested in the “second coming” emphasis of Advent. As a kid, Advent was nothing but a ramp-up to Christmas, and adulthood didn’t do much to add to this, on my part. I must admit, it still seems strange that in the traditions of the Christian faith, celebrating the idea of Christ’s return before we herald his birth, is the ”appropriate” order of things. I also must admit that the further I got from my seminary years, the more I tended to revert to the ramp-up-to-Christmas Advent motif, over the second-coming stuff. Why? Wanting to please the “customers,” I guess. And I have never gotten over the excitement of the Christmas season, personally. I love all of the atmosphere of Christmas—lights, sounds, treats, presents--and so why deprive my people of it by delaying the “Joy to the World” until December 25? I know, I know, liturgical purists go absolutely gorilla-ape over singing Christmas hymns “prematurely,” and even judge us for mentioning Christ’s birth until “December Five and Twenty, Fum, Fum, Fum…” Still, I kept letting “Christmas Creep” become a bigger and bigger thing. And the “customers” were much happier, as were the children, and my spirit, that was vexed by the occasional liturgical police. Fum, Fum, Fum…

 

However, if one preaches from the lectionary—as I have purposed to do for these retirement sermons—Advent texts are about the second coming of Jesus, such as today’s passage from Matthew 24. The good news is that all believers should be excited about the prospects of Jesus returning, because that’s a good thing, right? The bad news is that some of these texts make it sound like he’s coming back in a bad mood, and some poor souls get “Left Behind,” (alluding to a popular but theologically lame book and movie series that scared the pants off people a number of years ago). Oh, and no one knows when this “second coming” is going to happen—not us, not angels, not Jesus himself. Today’s text says only “the Father” knows. What? If Jesus IS God, how is this possible? The “persons” of the Holy Trinity keep secrets from each other? Is Jesus kept in the dark as a kind of incentive to do better work saving the world? What about the Holy Spirit? Does SHE know when Jesus is returning? About these things, it appears nobody knows, except “the Father,” which seems to indicate a hierarchy in something in which we don’t believe one exists. Can we make any sense of this?

 

Let’s take a stab at it, shall we? You have probably heard the allegory used occasionally to explain the Trinity by saying something like this: 

 

I’m Jeff, but I’m also a son, a husband, a father, and now a grandfather. I’m still just one person, but I have several ‘roles’ or identities within my personhood. And each has its own rules and boundaries. 

 

Might the godhead be like this? While all three “persons” of the Trinity are really one “person,” each has a unique role to play in fully actualizing God and God’s work in the world. And within these roles, different “rules” may apply, such as the rule that only “the Father” knows the date of the endgame for Christ’s final reconciling of the world, as empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit in that world. If there is to BE an endgame, some “part” of God must know when that is, however the other “parts” that are integral to redemption and reconciliation of the creation to God aren’t privy to that day or hour, as it might severely affect their efforts to accomplish this goal, and may add a note of unfairness to it. For example, many years ago, a “B-grade” science fiction movie (“When Worlds Collide”) hypothesized that if scientists knew that a cataclysmic end is close on the horizon for Planet Earth, they might steer resources toward rescuing a human remnant. And, knowing they could only transport a fraction of the human population off world, they might exclusively choose the brightest and best to preserve, leading to a monumental unfairness on the part of those left behind. Likewise, if Jesus knew the schedule for the Parousia, might he, too, seek to rescue only the most “holy” or most “obedient” disciples? Or might the Holy Spirit kick in a heavy dose of power (“signs and wonders”?) to quickly convince people to get their act together? These are difficult questions, aren’t they? And I’m pretty sure some of my allegorical “explanations” are heresy. The truth is, in terms of what the real answers are to these questions, nobody knows (again, except “the Father”).

 

Of course, all of this is highly theoretical, which is something I like to dabble in, but you, as my “listeners” this week may have no interest in. So, what practical spiritual guidance can we glean from this Matthew text? 

 

The text says that the days leading up to the return of Christ will be “like the days of Noah.” I think that means that many will be clueless, eating, drinking, marrying—basically just going on with life—without knowing the flood is coming. My first reaction to that is, “Of COURSE they will be doing that!” If not even Jesus “knows” when this will happen, why should John or Jane Q. Public? While the Bible says that the “days were evil,” and that God was choosing to “punish the earth” for it by sending the great flood, we should remember that history is written by the winners—in this case, the “deserving” remnant that was rescued. What if God knew a flood was coming, and just chose Noah as an example and spokesperson to show the world how to keep from being swept away by it? Is this just another colorful story we find in the Bible designed to tell of God’s continuing desire to save the world, even if only an alert remnant makes it each epoch? If so, the Matthew 24 text is another in these cautionary tales about how to be part of “the remnant.” None of us wants to be the “one left” in the story, presuming the ones who are “taken” are the ones being rescued by God. 

 

Here we have another paradox, however. If people are being snatched away in God’s rescue effort, then why is Jesus returning to the earth? Is he coming back merely to judge those left behind? This interpretation presupposes an angry, judgmental God, a much broader “clueless” human residual, and a precious few who find redemption. This does not sound like the loving, forgiving, accepting Jesus we find elsewhere in the Gospels, and looks a lot more like something predicted by those who believe they are inseparably part of the redeemed (the “winners”). If this sounds needlessly complicated, then you are beginning to be enlightened. Which “voices” in these apocalyptic texts to give credence to is a key “filtering” question one must ask in interpreting them. Where is the good news here?

 

The good news is that God in Christ desires to save and reconcile. That some may not choose to receive this free offer is an unfortunate side effect of God’s creation gift of free will, but the will of God is to redeem and reconcile. Who are we to question the power of this will and the breadth of God’s grace in making this happen on a very large scale? There may be significance to the Matthew “left behind” story only talking about a handful of “left behinds.” That one “is taken” and another “left behind” should not be viewed as a poll indicating that only half of the world shall be saved! The purpose of the story is to encourage people to “stay awake,” akin to the parable of the ten virgins and their lamps awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. Both stories are about preparedness for the “journey.” Be ready; stay awake. Doing so may say more about our role as believers to guide and encourage others who don’t yet “get it,” than it does about our own salvation.

 

We should not be anxious about our redemption, if we have come to believe in the saving efficacy of Jesus Christ, and our stage of “readiness” is evidenced by our lifestyle as a Christian disciple. Remember what they tell you on the airplane—in case of a depressurization emergency, put on your oxygen mask first and THEN help others with theirs. As believers, we should see today’s text as saying we should be moving toward the “helping others with theirs” phase of the coming emergency. 

 

I’m intrigued by the twist at the end of the text about “not letting your house be broken into.” Is this a metaphor for maintaining and nurturing your most significant relationships? How many times have I seen Christians—especially those called by God to service or ministry-related occupations—feel they are doing something “good for God” by sacrificing their marriage or their family to their work? As a pastor, the hardest and most hurtful thing I have witnessed is when I see spouses or children of missionaries, clergy, or Christian academics move themselves into the “unbeliever” category for reasons of neglect. Friends, whether you are a lay believer or a called servant of God, “don’t let your house be broken into.”

 

Books have been written, movies made, and countless sermons preached that aim to “figure out” the schedule for the return of the Son of God into the world. A whole “cult” has grown up around a fictional event usually labeled “the rapture.” It has spawned a fatalistic philosophy that basically concludes, “Oh well, we can’t fix it, and Jesus is going to come back, anyway, and make it all right.” This idea is wholly counter to what we read in Matthew 24! We are called to “fix it,” to “put our oxygen mask on first and then help others with theirs,” and to offer the grace of God to everyone we see who is struggling. We are urged to “stay awake” and “live prepared” for Christ’s coming again, fully aware that nobody but “the Father” knows when it will happen. I once heard a suggestion that we should “live as though each day were our last, but plan our lives like we know we will be around for a hundred more years.” That is good counsel, at least according to this text. 

 

As we enter the 2022 Advent season, may you resolve anew to grow your discipleship lifestyle so it becomes increasingly more seamless with “who you are” as others see you. If you want to hasten the return of Jesus, live more like him and encourage others to do so, as well. Keep alert to opportunities to help others don their “oxygen mask.” And together, may we work to fix the world so when Jesus returns, he won’t find a hovel of a planet inhabited by a self-absorbed people. Amen. Oh, and for this First Sunday of Advent, I’m singing “Joy to the World.”

 

P.S. Since I don’t like the depressing Advent hymns in the U.M. Hymnal, this year I wrote my own, sung to the “Hymn to Joy” by Beethoven (“Joyful, Joyful…”, No. 89 in the U.M. Hymnal). You are free to use it, with appropriate attribution to the author! 

 

Advent Song [Tune: “Hymn to Joy” by Ludwig von Beethoven]

1. Joy-filled Advent candle's burning, church folk singing joyfully,
People, come and join the chorus, share our great redemption song!
Children smiling, parents watching, all anticipate the day,
When the Savior's second coming brings God's kin-dom to this place.

2. Hope is why this candle's shining, light that warms the hurting soul,
In Christ Jesus we find comfort, and the will to carry on.
In a world where darkness hovers, Hope gives courage to us all,
To confront the evil powers that oppress and spread a pall.

3. Love is in this candle's brightness, fueling flames of God's embrace,
No one can escape the wideness of God's ever-present Grace!
Hate is vanquished, biases cast down, by a love that will prevail,
Jesus' love is always with us, in our hearts and in the world.

4. In this candle peace burns brightly, promising Gods healing hand,
Jesus, as its Prince, announces peace for all across the land.
War will end and swords and sharp spears all become the farmers' tools,
When Christ comes again in glory, claiming earth for his just rule.

5. One White candle's left unburning, 'til the birth of Christ the Lord,
Even though it's not yet lighted, still its light is shining through.
Joy and Hope point to Christ's Love, which will usher in God's Peace, 
Knowing Christ will come once more, encourages us to live in peace!

 

CopyrightÓ2022, J.D. Sterling

 

 

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