Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Comfort His people . . .

Peace is like a candle shining in a dark place. We speak this season of Advent in terms of Peace, of Hope, of Joy, of Expectation in terms of small, but powerful lights in the surrounding darkness. Certainly, those who heard the words of the prophet Isaiah knew darkness. Certainly he spoke to a people who had lost hope. For generations they had been taught and come to believe that they were God’s chosen people. Such a selection and understanding should have come with some significant perks. If God really was God, and if the idols were dumb and mute as He taught, they had nothing to fear. No God could fight Him in the heavens and win, and nobody could fight His people on the earth and win. Yet, Israel found itself in Exile, seemingly abandoned by God. Part of why Israel could not be overthrown was that the Temple of God was in their city. The only thing more important to God than His people, so the thought went, was His Temple, His home. God would obviously defend His home against any who would attempt to sack it. Life, seemingly, had taught God’s people they were wrong. They could be defeated. His Temple could be destroyed. They could be scattered from the Land He promised to their ancestors.

We don’t have to work hard at imagining how Isaiah’s audience likely felt. Stunned would be one feeling. Regret would be another. Can you imagine the feeling of having been part of God’s people only to realize that you broke the covenant and drove God away? After all, if they kept the torah, God would bless them; if they did not keep the torah, He would punish them. The prophets had certainly been reminding them that God kept His promises. They sinned; He punished. That was the deal. And, in the midst of this cosmological/theological struggle of their place in the world and in God’s covenant, life events were still happening. There were questions of provision. How will I feed my family? How will I pay for the doctor? Where will I find work? There were questions of health and disease. There were questions of relationship. Imagine being scattered and trying to find a spouse for your children.

We find ourselves, I think, empathetic to the the plight of the exiled Jews. We proclaim the Holy Mystery, Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again., every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. But in the midst of the day’s or week’s trials, do we really remember that? Do we really believe it? How are we going to keep the lights on? How am I going to afford medicine and food? How am I ever going to straighten out my kid? How am I ever going to be able to care for my parent? Throw the worldly anxieties in there, such as Ebola or Typhoons or mudslides, and mix in a few tragedies from the lives of our friends and coworkers, and we have a real understanding of the psyche of the people to whom Isaiah was writing. After all, we are those people, and they are us! If God raised Jesus from the dead, why is all this crap happening to us? If God is for us, why are we suffering? Over time, we begin to buy into the myth that God is not real, that we are not loved by Him, and that (if He is real) He really is not able to change the course of our lives.

Notice the words today from Isaiah. They are words of Advent, words of reminding. Comfort, comfort My people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term. She has received the double for all her sins. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed! Part of the truth revealed by God is that we do sin and we do suffer as a consequence of those sins. The pain, the hurt, the toll are real. As real as they are though, they do not signify that He has forgotten those who call upon His name as Lord and as Savior. As real as they are, they are not above Him or His power to redeem.

We talk often about how our behavior is meant to glorify our Master. I cringe when I hear moralistic sermons — particularly when I give them! —, when I hear a televangelist or radiovangelist tell the widow to give him or her that last $1000 so that God will finally bless her, when Christians tell those suffering at the deaths of a loved one that God needed another angel, when Christians argue that good enough is representative of God’s love to the world. When we fall short of His calling upon us, we dishonor Him. We do the opposite of glorifying Him to the world.

But have you ever considered that this honor relationship works both ways? Whatever happens to us, sullies Him, besmirches His reputations, makes Him seem impotent to save? Why do you think those in the Old Testament could wait patiently on His vengeance rather than seeking their own on their enemies? They knew that their dishonor was His! What was done to them was really done to them, one who was created by Him and among His chosen people! You and I can live our lives, and all the circumstances which work their way into our lives, because we know that He will redeem us. We have called upon His name. We have accepted the sacrifice of His Son and picked up our crosses to follow Him. We have asked that we be given the grace to die to ourselves and to live only for Him! And in that amazing act, He binds us to Himself. He reminds us that whatever we suffer, He suffers. Whatever pains us, pains Him. Whatever mocks us, mocks Him. And one day, one glorious Day, He will come agin with power and glory and angels to judge the living and the dead. One Day, one glorious Day, He will come with recompense and repay all humanity in judgment. Those who claim His Son and His sacrifice will be judged as holy, as righteous, as sheep of His own redeeming. And, best of all, He will scoop them up into His arms as a shepherd who gathers his lambs to his bosom. He will feed them, and He will gently lead them. That is the promise of this season of expectation and of our Lord!

It is a tender image. You and I are promised that one day our Lord will appear. Like a shepherd, He will gather us in His arms and hug us tightly to Him. He will feed us, He will lead us, He will love us. Can you imagine the feeling? Those of us who miss the loving embrace of a loved one will be embraced even better than that! For all the good parents and grandparents who loved us, for all those wonderful embraces we have experienced in the arms of someone who truly loves us, even those will pale in comparison to the tender embrace of the Creator, our Father in heaven, who loved us and redeemed us! It is that message you and I are given to proclaim! Why can we face cancer with hope and peace? Because we know one day He will hold us to His bosom! How can we face questions of provision in our lives with hope and peace in our lives? Because we know one day He will feed us, He will lead us to water, He will serve us at the Wedding Feast to which He has called all humanity! How can we face ridicule and persecution with hope and peace in our lives? Because we know one day He will come with recompense before Him! How can we face death with hope and peace? Because we know He will conquer even death’s apparent victory over all His people!

How do we know all this? I mentioned last week that we are a remembering people who are called to look forward, especially during Advent. We are called to remember that the Babe that will be born that Silent Night when all creation sighs at His coming will suffer the Passion and Death that makes possible our own salvation. We are called to remember that His Resurrection that Sunday reminds us not only that He has power even over death in our lives, but that He has power to keep all His promises. Since He has promised, He will come again. Nothing, no power of Hell, no distance, no time, no earthly philosophy, no death, no disease, no doubt, no single thing can prevent Him from keeping His promise to each one of us. And that promise, as we were reminded this morning from Isaiah, is one of comfort, one of hope, one of peace.

Brothers and sisters, to you have been given the words of eternal life. To you have been given the words of comfort. Our Lord loves us. Our Lord will one day come for us. Our Lord will one day take us to where He is, gently like a shepherd leading mother sheep, that we might dwell with Him for all eternity. And to remind people of that love, of that hope, He has planted that burning spark in each one of you and sent you back into the world as laborers. He has sent you bearing crosses that others might see your testimony, that others might hear your words, that you might lead them to His Son. Now go! Go and comfort His people! Just as He has comforted you!



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The time is at hand . . .

     I found myself in one of those weeks desperate for a sermon illustration.  We had translated the Epistle and Mark’s Gospel from Greek into English back in my seminary days, so I was very well prepared to preach on either of those passages, but I lacked an illustration.  Then, almost as if God heard my cry, or maybe George’s to get his daughter off his insurance plan, the Lord gave us an engagement.  That’s right, today I get to use Tucker and Maddy as a modern illustration of the eschatological Wedding Feast and the need to be alert!  Ok, Tucker, now that I have panicked you and introduced you to a small snippet of the torment you will experience in the Eaton-Zemek family, I’ll fess up.  We’ll wait and do that when the two of you are not here!  See how that works?  You are uncomfortable and on edge?  That’s what God calls us to be until His return!  We are all doorkeepers, but I get ahead of myself . . . 
     As I was trying to figure out how to approach this Advent with you, I skimmed through a number of commentaries.  One of the threads that is in more than one is the idea that Mark had two different manuscripts from which to work.  One manuscript treated our Lord’s return as an imminent event; the other treated it as a distant event.  Mark, so goes the theory, tried to be faithful to both manuscripts from which he was working and weaved their threads throughout this chapter of the Gospel bearing his name.  While I recognize the need for people to come up with various subjects for their dissertations, I must say I have no idea why some writers felt it necessary to invent this idea of Mark struggling with two texts.  After all, he lived this struggle as an Apostle and disciple of Jesus.
     There is perhaps no greater evidence of that struggle for Mark than in his discussion of the signs of the time.  Like other writers, Mark tells us that all these efforts to figure out the Day of our Lord’s return to be wasted effort.  No one knows, except the Father.  No one.  If I had a dollar every time somebody wrote me, called me, made my Facebook feed, appeared on television, or appeared on radio claiming to have solved the mystery of Christ’s return, I would not be Powerball rich.  But I sure would not be struggling.  From your laughter I can see you all share the same frequency.  Everybody has an idea for decoding when Jesus returns.  And our “modern” culture is not alone in this effort.  In my preparation for the Bible study on the book of Revelation, several commentators described nearly 1000 predictions that gained some public support.  1000 predictions!  Who knows how many were ignored by the public the last 19 centuries!  So, before we get started, the next time someone offers to give you a date of the Lord’s Return, just switch off your hearing aid or check out in a daydream while their mouth is moving.  If Jesus does not know nor the angels who attend Him, I am going to bet a lot of money that some doomsday preacher does not either!
     That being said, there are some hints about the time in the prophesies, but they tend to be events which are meant to sharpen our dulled senses.  There is, I think, a tendency in the human heart to get complacent about His return.  After all, Jesus has not returned in almost 2000 years.  I can imagine that after the first hundred or so false predictions of His Return, the public began to be amused by the Christians’ insistence that He would return, much as are we whenever so guy gets on late night television with the date figured out.  One big difference between them and us is the culture in which they lived.  For the first 2 1/2 centuries or so, the Roman empire was not the best place to be a Christian.  Claiming to be a disciple of Jesus could cost one his or her job, property, freed, and even life.  Christians longed for that day when they would be delivered from their suffering.  While some Christians, particularly those in the Middle East, suffer for their faith in Christ Jesus, most of us in the West are only marginalized, at worst.  People might laugh at us like they do a crazy uncle or aunt at the family Thanksgiving Dinner, but, for the most part, no one is really interested in really persecuting us for our faith.
     And yet Jesus gave signs of His return.  Why?  To remind the faithful and to give them hope.  Whenever the Church heard of famines and pestilence, wars and battles, natural disasters such as floods or droughts or earthquakes, even signs in the heavens such as comets or eclipses, the Church was to be reminded that His Day was imminent.  Those who had grown complacent like lazy doorkeepers about His return would, hopefully, be startled awake and into watchfulness once again.  Our ministry is like that of the doorkeeper who must guard against falling asleep, lest an intruder sneak in or the master return to find us asleep on the job!  Could this be the moment?  Is this the day?  What was that noise?
     Mark, of course, was aware both of His Lord’s teaching and of the pastoral problems facing those whom he served.  Like his Lord, he wished to give his people hope.  Like them, he once needed hope, too.  For all the effort to recreate these texts and traditions which Mark supposedly wove together, I wonder why we miss the obvious tie to Mark’s need for hope and those whom he served.  Look down in today’s passage to the specific descriptions of the time we do not know: evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn.  Think back to where this teaching occurs on the timeline of Jesus’ ministry among His Apostles.  Do those specific times stand out to you?  If I mention that this passage occurs two days before the Feast of Unleavened Bread, would those specific times then ring a bell?
     Evening.  To refresh your memory a bit, this teaching in Mark occurs right before the Last Supper.  The Apostles and disciples are asking questions, and Jesus is teaching them even to the end.  He knows that His ministry among them is drawing to a close.  But do they really understand what He has taught?  Do they understand that He must die and rise from the dead three days later?  By their behavior, I would say it was a safe bet they did not.  What happens in the evening after the Last Supper?  Where do they go, and what does Jesus ask them to do?  They go to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus will ask His Father that this cup be passed.  Though He sweats blood, He is obedient to the end.  And how do the Apostles, the cream of the disciple crop we suppose, respond to His struggles?  Do they stay awake, supporting their Master and friend?  Do they seek to pray with Him?  No.  They fall asleep.  We understand their fatigue, don’t we?  How many of us dozed after dinner or leftovers this past weekend?  We understand how a lot of food puts us to sleep.  But here is Jesus, about to face the purpose for which He came into the world as a babe in a manger, and how do His closest friends support Him?  By sleeping!  Even when He wakes them, telling them the hour is at hand, they nod off again.  Some friends.  And if these were the cream of the crop, can you imagine what the others were doing?  Scripture does not record that Jesus bothered to invite them.
     Midnight.  As the evening wears on, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss at midnight.  You all know the story.  He gathers the Temple police and leads them to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus and earn his thirty pieces of silver.  And how do those closest friends and Apostles respond?  Most flee.  One even flees naked, he is in such a hurry not to be captured by the authorities.  True, Peter cut off the ear of a slave, but Jesus reminds Peter that now is not the time for violence and reattaches the ear for the slave.  Jesus will face His ordeal alone, as God intended.
     Cockcrow.  I am guessing by now that I really do not need to focus on this time.  Peter, who was willing to fight for his Master, denies that same Master two or three times before the cock crows, depending on the Gospel we are reading.  What makes this prophesy so shocking is that Peter is so determined to suffer with Jesus when the evening began.  Peter declares to Jesus that even if no one else will fight for Him, he will not fall away.  Peter was so determined that he took up a sword to protect Jesus from the Temple squad, yet he is unwilling to confess his allegiance to a serving maid or soldiers warming themselves around a fire that night.
     Dawn.  What happens at dawn?  Jesus is turned over to the Romans so that he can be put to death.  The Sanhedrin cannot even agree on the charges, but they know they want the itinerant rabbi from Galilee put to death.  For this, they will need the help of Pilate.  In what can best be described as a travesty of justice and utter cowardice, Pilate sentences Jesus to death, knowing He is innocent of the charges levied against Him.  Pilate has Jesus scourged and mocked by the guards and then led to that hill where He dies for our sins, just as God knew would happen from the foundation of the world.  His Enemy has thrown his best punch.  The forces of evil which reject God as sovereign Lord have given it their best effort to thwart His plans.  His Son has been put to death.  God, seemingly, has been overcome.
     Can you imagine the darkness and hopelessness felt by the Apostles that Friday and Saturday?  Each of them went into what we now call Holy Week with their own expectation of the Messiah.  He rode in on the donkey with the people of Jerusalem waving palms and giving thanks to God for Jesus.  He had arrived, and they were chosen by Him to help lead the people of Israel, or so they likely thought.  Each of them, instead, was shown to be a sinner in need of redeeming.  Mighty Peter denied Jesus three times.  None of Jesus’ friends could stay awake with Him that fateful evening.  All deserted Him when confronted by the authorities.  They objected at the anonymous woman’s anointment of their Master for burial.  A stranger carried His means of execution.  Heck, a Centurion witness confessed He was the Son of God when no Apostles could be found to attend His death.  Even after the reports that He had been raised from the dead from the women and from Peter reached their ears, they still could not believe.  They were skittish and confused and hid behind locked and closed doors.  Still they struggled to reconcile what had happened with their own expectations.  Mark did not need to reconcile two traditions.  He had lived through that process!  Like the other Apostles, he knew failure intimately.  His Lord had taught him that He would die and rise from the dead after three days time.  Did Mark believe Him in the beginning?  Not enough to stay awake; not enough to stay with Him when the cops came; not enough even to carry the crossbeam for Him; not even enough to attend His death with the ladies.
     Yet, the grace of God and the reality of the Resurrection transformed Mark and the rest of the Apostles and disciples into someone quite unlike the stupid cowards they acted that Maundy Thursday and Good Friday so long ago.  Each of those men, through the revelation of God and His redeeming power, was utterly transformed.  Within a couple months of his famous denials, Peter will, with John Mark, evangelize the very Sanhedrin that conspired to put his Master to death.  Philip will evangelize an Ethiopian Eunuch.  James will rise to be bishop of Rome.  Each of those who meet our Resurrected Lord are changed significantly.  Gone is the uncertainty.  Gone is the hesitancy.  In their place are certainty and determination.  All are willing to lay down their lives in the service of the Gospel, and all eventually do.  But none are fearful of what the empire, the world, has in store.  Jesus has conquered the world through His death and resurrection.  Nothing can thwart His plans for them or for those who choose willingly to follow Him.  So, in one sense, the immediacy of the prophesy has been fulfilled in Mark’s account.  The Son has already come into His glory during Easter.
     Of course, there is an eschatological outlook to this prophecy of Jesus.  You and I are to mark the various signs and rouse ourselves, and those whom we love, from slumber.  We are called to rouse ourselves from the complacency, from the belief that we have all the time in the world until we meet Him.  Like a master returning from a journey, He may arrive at any moment.  Like a thief in the night, He might catch us unprepared and asleep.  Like unwise virgins, He may find us unprepared and our lamps dimmed.  It is our responsibility, our heritage, that we keep alert and remind people of the signs.  The world might like the cooing of the Baby, without considering the cost that Child will bear when He grows into the stature of a man.  But we cannot forget.  We are keepers of the door!  That is the job with which He has tasked us!
     How does such understanding play out in our lives?  I cannot think of an better time of the need to be reminded that He will come again in glory to rule.  Brothers and sisters are being martyred in other lands for their faith in Christ; armies are at war in various places around the world; here at home we have witnessed riots over race; terrorists are threatening to make a show on Christmas; politicians are more concerned with their own welfare than those who need help; we minister weekly, if not daily, to those who have been chewed up by the system and spit out: battered women and children, the homeless, the unemployed or underemployed, those addicted; we know the suffering mentioned by Jesus firsthand.  And, living in that darkness, we come to the same realization as Mark: the suffering of God’s people and the advancement of His kingdom are inseparable until that blessed Day when He returns for good!  One day, His kingdom will have arrived, and there will be no suffering.  That is His promise to His Apostles, His disciples, and to us.
     Mark, inspired by the Holy Spirit we believe, places these words in Jesus’ mouth both as a warning and as a promise of hope.  We might like to think that the world will spin on for forever, that we have all the time in the world to “get right with God.”  In reality, we do not.  Both His Return and our deaths can come upon us suddenly, like a thief in the night, and we who were warned might find ourselves unprepared and dressed in robes other than He would have us wear.  For those of us who claim Him as Lord, those of us who have laid down our lives, picked up our crosses and followed Him, these words are the words of ultimate promise.  They are the words of rest, of peace, of joy, and of eternity.  They are the surety that all these things, no matter how bad in our lives, will one day pass away and give way to the eternal shouts of Hosanna and the eternal presence of the Lord dwelling with us.  They are the words of love, true love.  When we could not atone for our sins, He bore the price willingly for each one of us.
     Brothers and sisters, once again we come to that time we call Advent, the beginning of another year in the Church.  Once again the world will focus on the Babe lying in a manger and what’s under the tree.  You and I, however, are called to remember the purpose behind that little Baby’s birth.  You and I are called to remind those in our lives that the Nativity Scene, no matter how peaceful and how beautiful, is already marred by His Passion and Death during Holy Week.    Our attention is drawn forward in expectation even as we look back in thanksgiving.  But just as God had the power to raise Him from the dead that Easter morning, so does He have the power to raise each of us who believes in Him to eternal life.  More importantly, He longs to raise everyone we know, everyone we serve, and everyone we meet.  We are, as Paul says this morning, a people reborn and awaiting the revealing of our Lord.  But as we wait, we are keepers.  We are keepers called to watchfulness by our Master, not just watchfulness for His return or the actions of thieves, but of those who are called to introduce others to the narrow door that is Christ.  No matter the past, no matter the present, the future, our future, belongs to Him!  No matter the time, He has already won!  Keep awake!  That blessed Day is much closer than when you first believed.  One day, at some unknown hour, the Master will return.  Keep awake!