Sunday, November 27, 2016

“Sleepless Nights” (Matthew 24:36-44 and Romans 13:11-14)

What keeps you up at night?

You have probably heard the Leo Tolstoy’s story about Martin the Cobbler.  Martin is a lonely shoemaker who is promised in a dream that Jesus will come and visit his shop.  The next morning he rises early, gets his shop ready, prepare a meal and waits.  The only one to show up in the morning was an old beggar who came by and asked for rest.  Martin gave him a room he had prepared for his divine guest.  The only one to show up in the afternoon was an old lady with a heavy load of wood.  She was hungry and asked for food.  He gave her the food he had prepared for his divine guest.  As evening came, a lost boy wandered by.  Martin took him home, afraid all the while he would miss Jesus.  That night in his prayers he asks the Lord, “Where were you?  I waited all day for you?”

he Lord said to Martin:

“Three times I came to your friendly door,
Three times my shadow was on your floor.
I was a beggar with bruised feet.
I was the woman you gave to eat.
I was the homeless child on the street.”

As we enter into the season of Advent we need to remind ourselves exactly what the season of Advent stands for.  Advent is a season which kicks off the start of a new liturgical year in the life of the “church” . . . it is the “beginning” of a new year.  It is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the nativity of Jesus at Christmas.  The term, advent, is a version of the Latin word meaning “coming”.  Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used to refer to the second coming of Christ.  For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Jesus from two different perspectives . . . the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah . . . and to be alert for his second coming.  Thus the season of Advent is a time to prepare and to remember . . . everything points to the “coming” of the Holy on that Christmas Day and in the future.

Or so it would seem.

The season of Advent always seems to begin with apocryphal readings . . . “end times” scripture; and, our start to the Advent season is no different.  This morning we begin with Jesus sharing a familiar bit of scripture about the “end times” and the second coming . . . “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father . . . Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come . . . So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Jesus warns that the time will come . . . so, you better be prepared.  The only problem with the warning is that Jesus never tells anyone when that time will be.  It is a lot like that teacher who tells his or her students that they had better do their homework because there just might be a pop quiz at any time.  Now, that is enough to keep anyone up at night . . . sleepless.  That is enough to create more than a little anxiety in anyone . . . never knowing when.

I seriously doubt if Martin the Cobbler slept much after he was told in his dream that Jesus was coming by to visit him the next day.  I imagine that his mind must have been racing with making a plan to be prepared for Jesus’ arrival at his little shop.  I imagine that he must have thought of a thousand scenarios as to how he thought his encounter with Jesus would go . . . how he would welcome him, treat him, speak to him . . . a million things must have raced through his mind knowing the news that Jesus would be coming to visit him.  Yeah, I doubt if Martin slept a whole bunch that night with all the anticipation that was building up in him.

Anxiety has a tendency to create a lot of sleepless nights in our lives.  I think that we all can share stories of sleepless nights that we have endured in our lives.  I know that I can.  As a parent I can remember the many sleepless nights I put up with when my children were teenagers.  Someone once told me that they were just teenagers and not to worry about it . . . then I remembered my teenage years . . . it created even more anxiety and sleeplessness.  But the fact is that we all know how anxiety and anticipation about something that is to come or to happen can keep us awake at night . . . especially when we have no idea of when it is really going to happen.  It is no fun.  I never knew anyone who enjoyed the suspense of waiting for a pop quiz.

Yet that is the impetus that drives the season of Advent . . . be ready . . . be prepared.  In our remembrance we recall and retell the story of that very first arrival of the Holy . . . of that very first Christmas.  In our preparations we prepare ourselves for what is promised to come . . . we look to the future and all that is promised.  We situate ourselves between the past and the future during the season of Advent.  There in the middle we understand that what is promised in the past can happen at any moment . . . and, thus we are filled with a sense of anticipation and anxiousness . . . anxiety.  An anxiety that can cause us a lot of sleepless nights as we wait for a surprise that we do not know when it will happen . . . but we are suppose to be ready for it.

So, a big chunk of Advent is looking back and looking forward; but, in doing this we forget.  We forget that ours is a living God . . . a God of the present . . . a God who is with us right here and now.  We forget that we are in relationship each and every moment of life . . . that God is always with us.  Because of this there actually is a third possibly for the season of Advent.

What if the real surprise is that when Jesus returns he was always here to begin with?

In the story of Martin the Cobbler, when he questions the Lord about not showing up, he is told quite the opposite . . . he is told that Jesus actually showed up three times . . . in the beggar, in the old lady, and in the lost child.  Three appearances, that in the mind of Martin were nothing more than three everyday occurrences and encounters with the world around him.  The truth was that Jesus was closer to him than he ever realized.  He had entertained the Holy without realizing the Holy was in his presence.  And, without realizing it . . . he was prepared.

That is the part of Advent that is forgotten . . . that the Holy is with us, always with us.  Because the Holy is with us we are called upon to embrace those opportunities and those moments when we can be about the business of kingdom building.  When we give shelter to the homeless, feed the hungry, and guide those who are lost.  The presence of God . . . the presence of Jesus . . . the Holy . . . is all around us.  And, not only do we prepare for the Holy, we live and dance with the Holy because the Holy is with us.

Years later, that is what the Apostle Paul is telling the faithful in his letter to the Romans . . . Paul encourages them not to live stuck between the past and the future, but to live in the present moment.  In this he encourages them to not fall into the trap of idleness . . . those moments that pull one into doing things that shouldn’t be done; but to instead embrace the moment to follow in the footsteps of Jesus . . . to love.  Paul writes: “. . . whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.”

Embrace the Holy that is here, says Paul.  It is all around.  Thus he says, “And do this, understanding the present time.  The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”  And, with that declaration, the surprise of Advent is that Jesus is with us . . . Jesus is here . . . and we are called upon to live in this moment.

During this season of Advent, it is good to remember the stories of that first Christmas . . . good to remember the stories of the faithful of that time.  Also, during the season of Advent it is good to look to the future and to embrace the hope of what is yet to come . . . God’s Kingdom.  And, at the same time, during the season of Advent, it is good that we realize that the presence of Jesus is with us . . . that God is with us . . . that the Kingdom of God surrounds us like a reality waiting to be exposed for the world to see.  Because that reality is there we are called upon . . . not to sit back and wait with great anxiety and anxiousness, but to embrace the Holy that surrounds us in the daily lives that we live.  As the Apostle Paul says . . . “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”

Our faith cannot change what happened yesterday.  Our faith cannot jump ahead and live in the future.  All our faith can do is to be exhibited and lived in the present moment.  Only in the moment do we encounter the Holy in such a way that it is exposed to the world around us.  Life is going to deal us sleepless nights, but when it comes to our faith . . . well, when it comes to our faith let us embrace the presence of God where we are in this time and place.  Let us use the season of Advent to build the Kingdom of God.  Let us always be prepared to love . . . to love the homeless, the hungry, and the lost . . . to always love.  Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2016

“The Day Shall Come” (Isaiah 65:17-25)

We are creatures of habit.

In one of the congregations I served as pastor, I received a call to go and visit a member’s adult son who was in the hospital.  The middle-aged man was in the hospital because his liver had started failing him . . . he was losing weight, his abdomen was swollen, he was jaundice, tired all of the time, and he was felt terrible.  In the hospital he told the doctor that it had to be some sort of virus or flu bug, and that with a couple of days rest in the hospital he would bounce right back.  No, said the doctor, you’re killing your liver with your drinking.

Of course, the man denied it.  Sure, he liked to drink, but not any more than the rest of his friends.  In the community this man and his friends were known as the town drunks . . . and, the doctor just shook his head at the man’s denial.  He showed him the pictures . . . pointed out the signs . . . and, then, told him that if he kept it up he would be dead in a year.

Well, that caught the attention of the man.  He didn’t want to die.  We talked, and he agreed to go to a treatment center and get his act together.  And, he did.  He did go to a treatment center for 90 days.  He came home sober and looking healthy.  It seemed like one of those miracle stories that had been bolstered by a lot of prayer from those who loved him.  There was hope . . . at least for a little while . . . and, then . . . he got back with his old friends.  He started hanging out at the bars in town . . . hanging out with his friends in their homes or his home . . . started drinking.  Within a couple of months he was back in the hospital again.

Again, he feared for his life . . . he didn’t want to die.  So, he went back for treatment a second time . . . another 90 days.  Got sober, got healthy . . . and came back promising he would find new friends.  Well, that lasted a couple of weeks before he was back at it again.  This time the family stepped in.  Their solution was to send him back east to live with his sister and to start a new life in a new place with new people.  

It seemed like a good idea . . . and, in the beginning it worked out great.  But then something happened.  All those old familiar feelings came back into his life . . . and, with those feelings came all the old familiar patterns of responding.  He started to drink again.  His liver started to fail him again.  I heard that he even tried treatment for a third time . . . but, the treatment didn’t do him much good, he was still drinking . . . he was drinking his liver to death.

The man was a creature of habit.  Then one day, when he was the sickest he had ever been--knocking on heaven’s door, he had finally had enough.  He was sick and tired of being sick and tired.  Being sick and tired he sought out a counselor and twelve-step program that would teach him new skills to cope with life.  He worked hard at learning these skills . . . worked hard at ignoring his old coping patterns; and, it began to work.  Oh, it is not easy . . . it is a daily struggle, but his life is much better than it has ever been.  He has supportive family and friends . . . a fulfilling job . . . and, he feels as if he is alive for the first time in his life.  

Breaking habits is hard.

In reading the Old Testament we can get a feel of the patterns or habits of God’s people.  God blesses them . . . the people revel in God’s blessings . . . then they begin to forget whose they are, that they are the children of God called upon to do God’s will . . . they begin to do all the things they shouldn’t do, forget God’s will . . . God warns them through prophets to shape up or watch out . . . the people ignore the prophets . . . the consequences are dealt, the people are punished . . . they repent.  Over and over again this happens.  Why?  Because humans are creatures of habit.

Which brings us to our reading for this morning.  We are at the tail end of this habitual pattern of God’s people.  They have returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile . . . a return they have waited 70 years to experience.  They are free and they are back.  After all the partying was done, the reality set in.  Things are not as rosy as they had thought it would be . . . life is still pretty tough . . . not much has changed.  The people are disappointed in their situation . . . it sucks!  And, so, what do you think that they do?  What is their habit when things go bad?

They lament . . . they moan . . . they groan . . . and, they whine to God at how terrible it all is.

Sound familiar?

You would have thought they had learned.  So, once again, God speaks.  God speaks some pretty familiar words . . . a new heaven, a new earth . . . a new Jerusalem . . . life will be good . . . life would be a blessing . . . it would all be new, completely different . . . the wolf and lamb will eat together, the lion and the ox . . . it will be a whole new creation.  It is a wonderful picture that God paints . . . more beautiful than anything anyone could ever dream of.  It brings hope . . . lots of hope.  And, God promises them that the day will come.

But . . . it always seems as if God has a “but” to add to the conversation . . . but, says God to the people, you have to do your part in the meantime.  God wants the people to break their old habits . . . to change their old patterns of coping . . . to start new.  Instead of falling into the depressing situation that they are in and allowing it to drown them, God challenges them to swim . . . or at least dog-paddle.  God wants the people to start living their faith . . . to seek peace and justice . . . to take care of one another . . . to love one another . . . to love God . . . to fulfil the covenant between them and God . . . to do God’s will.  God wants them to break the chains of habit and to set themselves free to live and to love.  In doing this they begin the work of building a new heaven and a new earth . . . of establishing God’s kingdom here on earth.

Sounds pretty easy doesn’t it?  To just quit what we have always done and add more positive and life-giving responses and actions to our lives.  Sounds easy, but we are all creatures of habit.  As creatures of habit we fall back on to that which we are familiar with . . . that which we understand . . . that which makes us comfortable . . . that which is predictable.  In the end, we do what we have always done.

Despite this wonderful picture painted by God . . . despite the hope it brought to a distraught people; we know from reading our Bibles, that the people would fall back into those old familiar habits and patterns.  It is human nature.  It takes lots of interventions to get us to realize how reliant we are on our habits and patterns of coping.  And, it usually takes us being sick and tired of being sick and tired before we change.

I think that God understood that.  I think that God understood that we would all reach that point in our lives when we finally give up with trying to cope on our own with whatever habits or patterns of coping we have.  I think that God understood that we would eventually get tired of being sick and tired . . . that the day would come.  And, God understood that when that day came we would need help . . . we would need a new habit . . . new patterns of coping.  Because God understood, we have Jesus.

That man who went to numerous treatment centers and kept falling off the wagon realized that when he was sick and tired of being sick and tired, that he needed help.  He sought out people who could help him break the old habits with new and positive ones . . . and, then he proceeded to live those new habits and patterns.  He knew he needed help . . . needed fellow companions . . . needed a model to follow.

And, so do we.

In Jesus we are given that model and told to follow him.  In Jesus we are shown the better way of living our lives in faith.  We are shown how to love God with our whole being . . . shown how to love ourselves . . . shown how to love others.  In Jesus we are witness to one who follows the will of God in his life . . . who goes out into the world to establish God’s kingdom in his time and place.  In Jesus we are shown the way to the Kingdom of God.

In each of our lives, that day shall come . . . if it has not already come.  That day will come when we will receive the keys of God’s kingdom through the witness of our Lord and Savior Jesus.  That day shall come . . . for this we have hope of a new heaven and a new earth . . . hope for God’s kingdom.  Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

“Rumors” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17)

Rumors . . .

“Talk or opinion widely disseminated with no discernible source.”

“A statement or report current without known authority for its truth.”

A tall tale of explanations of events circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object, event, or issue in public concern.”

We all know that we should not believe rumors . . . we also know that we should not perpetuate rumors . . . we should not retell them to others . . . primarily because they escalate to the point where they take on a life of their own.  Despite knowing this, it is difficult for us not to get caught up in rumors that circulate around us . . . that pull us in . . . that dictate the way that we respond to the world and people around us.  It is human nature to get caught up in rumors.

The Apostle Paul, in this letter to the congregation in Thessalonica, is having to deal with rumors that have set that congregation on edge at what it is hearing.  These rumors are confusing the people . . . scaring the people . . . and, generally disrupting the life of them all.  What exactly is it that they are hearing?  End times . . . the second coming of Jesus . . . and, it has shaken up the congregation.

Now, remember, this is early in the existence of the church . . . they are babes in the faith.  They have been taught to follow in the footsteps of Jesus . . . to do as Jesus did . . . to love God and to love others . . . to have lives of ministry that witness to the love and grace of God as demonstrated in Jesus.  Suddenly they encounter a new teaching . . . a teaching about the end times . . . the second coming of Jesus.  There is an urgency to this teaching . . . an anxiousness . . .  a mystery and unknowingness . . . that shakes the very foundation of all they have already been taught.  They are not sure what to believe . . . uncertain in how to act.  It paralyzed them.

It was in the early 1970s that I encountered my first “endtime” prophecy.  My mother gave me a book, The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey.  It was a fascinating book that captured my imagination as it used current and historical events to describe what the end times would be like . . . used a lot of readings from the Bible to tell how we were--at the time--on the brink of ending it all . . . and, for a young teenager it was a frightening book.  I have to admit that at the time, it shook up my little world.  At the time I was not a church-goer, but it made me think that I had better get my act together.

That was my first encounter with the rumor of the endtime.  Since that time I have discovered that there have been hundreds of rumors that the “end is coming.”  It seems that every generation has had its fair share of these endtime rumors.  Also, since that time I have survived several endtime rumors that have come and gone without the end happening.  Did you know that the most recent endtime prediction to come and go was on July 29th, 2016.

There was a viral video from the YouTube channel, End Time Prophecies, that claimed the world would end on July 29th, 2016.  They predicted that the earth would undergo a “polar flip”, which would apparently cause the earth’s atmosphere to be pulled to the ground as the surface reeled like a vacuum, causing a “rolling cloud” to cover the planet.  They also claimed that a worldwide “mega quake” would ensue.  A little over three months later . . . we are all still here.

And, yet, the rumors persist.

With this thought in mind, tell me of a generation that has not dealt with the rumor of the “the end” and it's coming?  Even Jesus dealt with these rumors of the “end” coming.  In Matthew 24, verse 6, he said, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.  Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”  Then, further down in the same chapter, in verse 36, he says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  I would think that if anyone knew anything about the end times happening, it would have been Jesus . . . and, even after hundreds of rumors and predictions . . . we are still here.

The Apostle Paul did not want the Thessalonians to get hung up on the rumors that were seemingly contradicting his earlier teachings . . . he did not want them striking fear in them and causing them to become paralyzed . . . paralyzed to the point that they could do nothing.  Paul did not avoid teaching about the “end time”.  For him the “end time” was a source of encouragement . . . there was no room for fear in Paul’s understanding and teaching about faith.  He attempted to correct the rumors that were spreading, but ultimately he chose to focus on something else . . . something more important.

Paul wrote: “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.”  Paul encourages the people to focus on the love and grace of God in Christ.  In focusing on this love and grace there is hope and strength to be found in the way that life is lived through every good deed and word.

It is a simple argument, maybe too simple in the way that I describe it; but, God is still here . . . still loves us . . . still desires relationship with us . . . still desires us to love others just as God loves us.  This is what we are called upon to focus upon in our lives . . . our relationship with God and with others.  It is here that the Kingdom of God is discovered and lived . . . each and every day no matter how the world around looks . . . no matter what the rumors are that are swirling through the air.  True, it may look like the end is coming, but through it all . . . God is still there . . . always there.  Thus Paul desires for those hearing his words to not get caught up in rumors, but to listen to the will of God as demonstrated in the life of Jesus.

The apostle wants us to find strength in this knowledge of God’s love and grace as demonstrated in Jesus.  The apostle wants us to find strength to continue on in faithfulness no matter what the rumors are that are swirling around . . . no matter what the world around us throws at us.  The apostle wants us to grow in faith that is shown in how we live our lives.  This does not come from rumors but from the sure and certain understanding that God never abandons us . . . yesterday, today, or tomorrow.  God is always with us.    That is no rumor . . . that is a fact.  Amen.