[Jesus said,] “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
They got us in Y2K. Harold Camping tried on May 21. Now it’s supposed to happen again this year. Here’s my take on all of this ‘end of the world’ business (be it digital malfunction, Mayan calendar, walking undead, or ‘biblical’ prophecy).
Good job by a kid in the UK, regardless of the fact that he looks like the love child of Harry Potter and Justin Bieber.
It’s almost always a dangerous thing to mention presidential politics from the pulpit. At no time in recent history has this been truer than it is right now, when sanity and civility are so conspicuously absent from all ends of the political spectrum in our country. I sometimes fear that our centuries-old commitment to a democratic government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is quickly degenerating into a spectator sport where each side cheers for their favorite team and boos at the other side whenever they score a goal. Accordingly, I will choose my words carefully. I begin with a disclaimer: this is not a sermon about presidential politics, nor is it a political speech that should be misconstrued as an endorsement or denouncement of any particular party or candidate. I’ll be using some of the buzzwords that factored highly in the last presidential election, but I do so in order to draw attention to the words themselves, not to the people with whom those words were associated.
Now, with that awkward business aside, the buzzwords to which I want to draw your attention are hope and change. We heard a lot about hope and change in 2008. Some people got really excited about those words. They liked the idea that things could somehow be different (i.e. better) than they already were in this country. In the years since then, some of the people who were initially excited have begun to feel frustrated because things still seem to be pretty much the same as they were before. We’re still living in the same country with the same old problems. This frustration has led other public figures to ask (cynically), “Hey America, how’s all that hopey-changey stuff working out for you?” The hard lesson that people are (re)learning is this: without real change there is no real hope. And the change necessary to inspire hope is beyond that which any political candidate, party, or ideology can offer.
In the absence of real hope, there are basically two responses that people can make. First, they can jump on board the bandwagon with whatever big idea comes along next with flashy presentation and inspirational rhetoric. Like bumblebees, they float from flower to flower, collecting whatever small grains of hope they can find to sustain their meager faith in the system. Second, people can give up hope entirely. They can sit back and cynically fold their arms saying, “Nothing ever changes. Just give me what is rightfully mine and then leave me alone.” I would argue that neither of these responses is wholly adequate to ease the pain we feel when our hopes are frustrated (in life as well as politics). There has to be another way to preserve hope, even when our favorite human institutions have failed us.
The earliest Christians, just as much as (if not more so than) us, lived in a time of extreme political tension and unfulfilled hopes. The land of Judea was occupied by the Roman Empire. The people longed for some sign of hope that things might someday be different, but they were divided amongst themselves over what that hope should look like. Some Jews, like the Zealots, picked up swords and sought to take back their homeland with divinely inspired military might. Other Jews, like the Sadducees, worked with the Roman government to maintain order and preserve whatever religious and cultural freedoms they could.
Eventually, these tensions came to a head in the year 66 when war broke out between the Jewish people and the Roman Empire. The government dedicated itself to crushing this rebellion and eventually did so with its might as a military superpower. The ultimate symbol of Jewish defeat came in the year 70 when the Roman forces invaded Jerusalem and their sacred temple, the ultimate symbol of their national and religious life, was burned to the ground.
It was around this same time that Mark’s gospel was first written. The Christian Church was just emerging as an independent movement within Judaism. Christians wondered among themselves, “What should we do? Should we fight the Romans or try to work with them? Should we put our hope in each new self-proclaimed revolutionary leader that comes along or throw our hands up and admit that nothing (not even God) can defeat military juggernaut of the Roman Empire?”
The author of Mark’s gospel saw both of these options as deficient. Neither the false hope of revolution nor the cynicism of collaboration embodied a faithful response to the very real hope that was made manifest by God in Christ. So the author of Mark’s gospel made sure to include in chapter 13 of this book a particular story about Jesus that might provide some helpful guidance for the Christian Church in that day.
It begins as Jesus and his disciples were walking out of the great Jewish temple one day. One of the disciples stopped to admire the architecture of the building. Jesus responded in words that would ring eerily true to the Christians in Mark’s day, who would see this very thing happen in their own lifetime: “Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus said, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
He was speaking of the temple of course, the cultural icon and center of religious devotion. Jesus’ own ancestors had fought and died to preserve everything for which it stood. How could he, a Jew, speak so glibly about its destruction? He didn’t stop there either. He went on to speak so insightfully about the coming crisis that some later regarded his words as a prophetic prediction. Instead of glorious victory and freedom, he spoke of war, earthquake, famine, and persecution. What’s even worse is that Jesus then told his followers to do the exact opposite thing that their brave and faithful ancestors had done when Israel was threatened. “[W]hen you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be,” he said, “then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” In other words, Jesus ordered them to run and hide rather than stand and fight to protect that which their nation held most dear.
How could Jesus be so offensive toward his patriotic Jewish audience? The answer lies in verse 26 of the passage we read this morning. He makes reference to “’the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” This would have been a familiar image to his educated Jewish audience. This phrase is taken from the book of the prophet Daniel. In 7:13, Daniel describes “one like a human being (i.e. ‘son of man’) coming with the clouds of heaven.” According to the vision, God would one day take the corrupt and destructive empires of this world and place them under the authority of this human being (son of man). The powers that be would be divinely transformed and made to serve real human interests rather than their own animal-like greed. Real change was bound to happen in this world, not because of violent revolution or political cunning, but because God wills it. God will establish true “liberty and justice for all” regardless of what goes on in the halls of power. The temple could be destroyed and the battle lost and God would still see this vision through to its fulfillment. This is the source of Jesus’ hope. It is a prophetic vision embedded deep within his Jewish heritage. It transcends ideology, victory, even history itself. Prophets and visionaries in every age have held onto this inexorable and eternal vision. Many have laid down their very lives because of its promise. Dr. Martin Luther King reiterated its core principle when he said, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Archbishop Oscar Romero proclaimed, “If they kill me I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.” Jesus himself willing went to his cross while trusting in the final victory of God’s vision over the powers that be.
Change is coming, therefore there is hope. Real change, lasting change, God’s change. It won’t come through any particular candidate, party, or ideology. It won’t come through military might or violent revolution. It won’t come about through our diligent plans or valiant efforts. God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray for this and proclaim our faith in this vision every Sunday. Jesus had faith in this vision. He was willing to stake his life on it. That’s why the thought of Jewish defeat or the temple’s destruction didn’t bother him that much.
The author of Mark’s gospel was impressed with Jesus’ faith in God’s ultimate vision. The early Christians needed that faith as well. The Church needed an anchor that would hold them steady while the storms of war and persecution blew over the deck of their boat. If they cut the line, they would drift and drown with their neighbors. So it was that the early Christians took these words to heart and refused to fight in defense of Jerusalem or the temple. They ran for the hills when the invasion came. This was an unforgivable sin to their Jewish neighbors. Christians were branded as cowards and traitors within the Jewish community. Relations had been strained up to that point, but from then on, Christianity was cut off from the rest of Judaism.
As we meditate on these events this morning, we find ourselves at the first Sunday of Advent. Thanksgiving and Black Friday have passed and so we now begin our preparations for Christmas. For most people, this takes on a decidedly nostalgic tone as Bing Crosby dominates the radio waves. There is a lot of talk about “peace on earth”, “the light of the world”, and “hope”. But we start this season on an intentionally apocalyptic note. We know that hope cannot exist without change, yet we know that change is coming, therefore we have hope. None of the powers that be in Washington or on Wall Street can claim to be the fulfillment of God’s vision, yet neither can they stop God’s vision from being fulfilled.
In the absence of real hope, people tend to embrace false hopes or else bitter cynicism. I believe that Jesus offers us a third way. We can hold onto hope that transcends the fleeting promises of ideology and history. We can live as prophets of hope in a hopeless world. Like Jesus, we can look deep into the heritage of our faith and cling to God’s vision of a world that can be changed… that will be changed.
There is currently a beer commercial on TV that features “the most interesting man in the world”. At the end of the advert he looks into the camera and says, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” As he said to them, so I say to you: Stay thirsty, my friends. I can think of no better way to sum up the call to action that arises from Jesus’ vision of hope and change. While other people are dying of their thirst for hope and cursing the sky in cynicism, I say to you, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” While others around you are desperately trying to slake their thirst for hope with things that will only lead to more despair, I say to you, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” Stay thirsty for hope. Stay thirsty for change. It’s coming. God will not let us down. “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The text is John 14:1-14.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
These are good words to hear from Jesus on the morning after the end of the world. According to Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, the Final Judgment of humanity was scheduled to begin last night (May 21, 2011) at 6pm. Mr. Camping came up with this conclusion using a combination of literal and symbolic interpretations of certain biblical texts and then combining those interpretations with some fancy mathematics. Judging from the fact that so many of us are still here today, I think we can safely say that Mr. Camping’s calculations were (at least) slightly off.
This is not the first time someone has made such precise predictions about the Apocalypse. In fact, Mr. Camping himself previously insisted that the end of days would arrive promptly on September 6, 1994. Before him, there was the very famous case of the Millerites. This sect of believers followed the teachings of one William Miller, who predicted that Christ would return and the world would end before March 21, 1844. After this day came and went without incident, the deadline was extended to April 18 and then October 22. After his third failed prediction, Miller’s followers gave up on him. However, several of them went on to found the Seventh Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness churches in subsequent years.
So yes, apocalyptic enthusiasts are nothing new to Christian history. In fact, Jesus even warned us to watch out for folks like this. When the disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world, he told them in Matthew 24,
…if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’ —do not believe it. 24For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Instead, Jesus comforts his followers with these words from today’s gospel reading:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
When it comes to this “end of the world” business, Jesus is essentially saying, “Don’t worry about it” and “Trust me.” Nevertheless, there always seems to be someone out there who claims to have the inside scoop on when and how the world is going to end. They claim to know “the way” to secure one’s eternal destiny in light of the coming devastation. Well, Jesus had a thing or two to say about that as well. He reminded his followers they already knew “the way” to God.
“Wait a minute,” one of them said, “what ‘way’ are you talking about, Jesus? I don’t remember you saying anything about a ‘way’!”
“Sure you do,” Jesus said, “It’s me. I am the way.”
Now, if you’re still feeling confused as you read this, don’t worry. It’s supposed to be confusing. This is another classic example of Jesus talking right over the heads of his disciples. He uses these cryptic images in order to shake people out of their normal way of thinking. Jesus wants to expand their (and our) minds to operate on a spiritual level, far above that of ordinary reasoning.
With this famous phrase, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”, we are venturing into territory that makes Christianity unique among the religions of the world. In many world religions, there is usually founder or other figurehead who acts a messenger for the Divine. That person is given a message that will guide the world toward salvation or enlightenment. Moses received the Torah, Muhammad received the Qur’an, and the Buddha received the Eightfold Path. In each of these cases, it’s the message, not the messenger, that’s most important. The unique thing about Christianity is that the messenger is the message. God is not revealed through a book or a teaching, but through a person, namely, Jesus of Nazareth. To know Jesus is to know God. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.
This makes people uncomfortable. A personal God is too unpredictable and too intimate for most people. The only way to be in a relationship with a personal God is to come to know, love, and trust that person. Most people (including Christians) feel much more at ease with a God who can be contained within a body of teaching (like the Bible) or an institution (like the Church). Protestants do it just as much as Catholics. So-called “liberal” Christians do it just as much as so-called “conservatives”.
Let me give an example:
Many people in our society are quite familiar with the traditional evangelical presentation of the Christian message: Jesus Christ was born, so they say, in order to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of humankind so that people can go to heaven when they die. The way to God is through the cross of Christ.
On the other hand, many people are also quite familiar with the progressive and “liberal” presentation of Christianity: Jesus Christ was an inspirational activist and philosopher whose teachings offer humankind a system of ethics that will lead us toward a more spiritually enlightened society. The way to God is through the teachings of Jesus.
I think both of these perspectives fall short of Jesus’ intention. Both the cross and the teachings of Christ are of paramount importance in the larger scheme of things, but they are only parts of the whole. It’s the person of Jesus Christ who is the final revelation of God to humankind. Jesus is the way. If we want to get to know God, we must get to know Jesus.
How do we do that? I don’t have an answer to that question. Sure, I could hand you a list of activities (like reading the Bible or going to church) that are supposed to help you get to know Jesus, but that would be just another way of putting God into a manageable box that can be unlocked with the right formula. The fact is that there are as many ways of getting to know Jesus as there are ways of getting to know any other person.
Think about the last time you were really in love or had a crush on someone. What did you do? You spent a lot of time thinking about that person. You hung on his or her every word. You gazed longingly over your shoulder whenever that person walked by. You studied every feature on his or her face. You spent as much time as possible with that person. Your friends probably got sick and tired of hearing you talk about it.
In the same way, getting to know Jesus is more like falling in love than signing a contract. The only difference between us and his earliest followers is that we don’t get the luxury of his physical presence with us. We have to get to know Jesus in other ways. I can’t tell you how it’s going to happen for you, because it’s different for everybody. However, I can offer you some ideas about how it might happen.
For some people, getting to know Jesus happens dramatically and suddenly, like falling head-over-heels in love. For others, it happens gradually over a long period of time, like sharing a cup of coffee with an old friend. For some people, it happens through conventional channels, like going to church or reading the Bible. For others, it happens in very surprising and unconventional ways.
My favorite story of an unconventional encounter with Jesus comes from the autobiographical work Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. (I should warn you that this vignette will be edited for content, as Anne is known for being a somewhat foul-mouthed saint.) This scene opens with Anne living on a houseboat at the end of a dock, deep in the throes of her addiction to alcohol and drugs. One week prior, she’d had an abortion and was still bleeding profusely. During this time, she would occasionally visit a Presbyterian church near her house, but would always sneak out before the sermon. Anne continues:
Several hours later, the blood stopped flowing, and I got in bed, shaky and sad and too wild to have another drink or take a sleeping pill. I had a cigarette and turned out the light. After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my [late] father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there—of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.
Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.
This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.
And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.
I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “F**k it: I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”
So this was the beautiful moment of my conversion.