Monthly Archives: December 2010

A Gathering of Crumbs from the Web: What I’ve been reading

  • Perfect Power Casts out Love, from The Mockingbird Blog
  • “The interesting thing is that, even though God reveals Himself in suffering in the cross, clear revelation doesn’t register at all. We are still so impressed with power and assertion that we turn the Christian insight, which is clearly the opposite of our idea of power, into power. If we could only convert Congress to Christianity, then everything would be OK. We would have the power brokers on our side. If we could only get people to behave a certain way, everything would be OK. So, we’ll really earnestly engage in behavior modification.”

  • The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas Sermon
  • “The story of Jesus is the story of a God who keeps promises. As St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘however many the promises God made, the Yes to them all is in him’. God shows himself to be the same God he always was. He brings hope out of hopelessness – out of the barrenness of unhappy childless women like Sarah and Hannah. He takes strangers and makes them at home; he brings his greatest gifts out of those moments when the barriers are down between insiders and outsiders. He draws people from the ends of the earth to wonder – not this time at the glory of Solomon but at the miracle of his presence among the humble and outcast. He identifies with those, especially children, who are the innocent and helpless victims of insane pride and fear. He walks into exile with those he loves and leads them home again.”

  • Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted, by Malcolm Gladwell. In this piece Gladwell comments on the claims made for “social media” (as though there’s really any other kind):
  • Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

  • Still the Best Congress Money Can Buy, by Frank Rich, from the New York TImes
  • For Stewart, the hyperpartisanship of the modern news media remains the nation’s curse. “The country’s 24-hour politico pundit panic conflict-onator did not cause our problems,” he told the throngs at his rally to “restore sanity,” but it “makes solving them that much harder.” At Beck’s rally to “restore honor,” the message seemed to be that America’s principal failing is a refusal to recognize that God “is our king.” If Stewart’s antidote was more civility, Beck’s was more prayer.

    Stewart’s point is indisputable as far as it goes. Beck’s, not so much: If prayer hasn’t cured this highly prayerful nation by now, it may be because our body politic has long since developed an immunity to it. But both rallies, for all the commotion they generated, have already faded to the status of quirky historical footnotes. The reason is that neither addressed the elephant in the room — or the donkey. That would be big money — the big money that dominates our political system, regardless of who’s in power. Two years after the economic meltdown, most Americans now recognize that that money has inexorably institutionalized a caste system where everyone remains (at best) mired in economic stasis except the very wealthiest sliver.

    The Great Depression ended the last comparable Gilded Age, of the 1920s, and brought about major reforms in American government and business. Not so the Great Recession. Last week, as the Fed’s new growth projections downsized hope for significant decline in the unemployment rate, the Commerce Department reported that corporate profits hit a record high. Those profits aren’t trickling down into new jobs or into higher salaries for those not in the executive suites. And the prospect of serious regulation of those at the top of the top — the financial sector — is even more of a fantasy in the new Congress than it was in its predecessor.

  • Ross Douthat on the Partisan Mind, from the New York Times
  • Imagine, for a moment, that George W. Bush had been president when the Transportation Security Administration decided to let Thanksgiving travelers choose between exposing their nether regions to a body scanner or enduring a private security massage. Democrats would have been outraged at yet another Bush-era assault on civil liberties. Liberal pundits would have outdone one another comparing the T.S.A. to this or that police state. (“In an outrage worthy of Enver Hoxha’s Albania …”) And Republicans would have leaped to the Bush administration’s defense, while accusing liberals of going soft on terrorism.

    But Barack Obama is our president instead, so the body-scanner debate played out rather differently. True, some conservatives invoked 9/11 to defend the T.S.A., and some liberals denounced the measures as an affront to American liberties. Such ideological consistency, though, was the exception; mostly, the Bush-era script was read in reverse. It was the populist right that raged against body scans, and the Republican Party that moved briskly to exploit the furor. It was a Democratic administration that labored to justify the intrusive procedures, and the liberal commentariat that leaped to their defense.

    This role reversal is a case study in the awesome power of the partisan mindset. Up to a point, American politics reflects abiding philosophical divisions. But people who follow politics closely — whether voters, activists or pundits — are often partisans first and ideologues second. Instead of assessing every policy on the merits, we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing. Our ideological convictions may be real enough, but our deepest conviction is often that the other guys can’t be trusted.

Will Willimon: Thoughts on Children’s sermons

I had someone approach me earlier and comment that, in the past, priests at this congregation have done children’s sermons on Christmas Eve (indeed, I was invited to give one last year, before I became priest-in-charge of the congregation).  The unspoken question was why I had not.  To be honest, I am uncertain what I think, finally, about the idea of a children’s sermon.  On the one hand, I think it demonstrates the fact that we don’t give enough credit to children while on the other, I think it short-changes the Gospel by assuming that every truth should be able to be communicated best in a way that young children will understand.

It’s an appropriate theme given the season. Children often understand more than we give them credit for, and, unfortunately many of us who preach regularly have a hard time grasping the fact that if a sermon doesn’t have anything for the children to understand, then most of the adults aren’t going to get anything out of it either–not because they’re slow or unintelligent, but mostly because we’ve failed to communicate in a clear and understandable way.

So, the jury is still out, but I find these observations by Bishop Will Willimon, former dean of Duke Chapel, now Bishop of the North Alabama conference of the UMC, to be quite convincing and in line with my experience.  One of my favorite parts of the article follows, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:

I fear that children’s sermons tend to backfire, saying to parents and children that which we do not intend to say. We wouldn’t interrupt the congregation’s worship with, “And now I would like all those of you who are over 65 to come down front while I say something sentimental and sappy to all of you old folks.” That would be ugly. So why do we single out the children saying in effect, “Boys and girls, I know that you are bored stiff by Christian worship, that you can’t get anything out of what we do when we praise God, so come down front and I’ll take a few minutes to try to make this interesting for you.”

{Read it all}

Birth of Christ

Glorious Strangeness

On Christmas Eve Christians come face to face once again with the inescapable strangeness of our faith.  Try as we might to cover it up by focusing on other things; thinking of parties, presents and sweets, shops, malls, and people-packed streets–we just can’t accomplish it.  The truth comes out.

Maybe we start to hear it as a whisper, but it ends, tonight as a shout.  Maybe a quiet shout.  But a spirit-filled shout as we come to this place, beautifully decorated and carefully arraigned, to hear again the story at the heart of it all.  The truth proclaimed by those angelic messengers in the skies above Bethlehem all those centuries ago:

Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).

Luke does amazing things in this section of his Gospel, in setting up a clear contrast between the greatest of earthly powers, and the power and authority of God.  The chapter begins in the very halls of power: a decree went out–literally from the side of–Ceasar Augustus that all the world should be registered/enrolled/taxed.  One man.  The emperor, who claimed divine privilege and ruled an empire that believed itself the center of the world (as empires usually do).  This is power.  To announce a decree and have it go out into the whole world–or at least all the parts of the world that counted.

Luke takes us from the seat of imperial power and traces the lines of authority.  This command went out when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  So great is the power of the Emperor that because of his declaration, “all went to their own towns to be registered” (Luke 2:3).

This is authority.  The emperor says jump and the people of the empire say “how high?”  There were even inscriptions in honor of Augustus that praised him as a savior “who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in order” (NJBC p. 683).

But something else is happening here.  Joseph is brought to our attention.  Joseph, a simple man.  But maybe not completely so.  He is traveling to his ancestral city, Bethlehem, the city of David, the legendary King of Israel.  The associations called forth by the mention of King David, of the house and family of David are strong.  Whenever these names start being thrown around, it’s a sure sign that something related to Israel’s future is transpiring.

So Joseph, a descendent of David, comes to David’s city.  Unlike Augustus, he has no power or authority to speak of.  He can’t even get a room in the inn for his pregnant bride, Mary.  He is not a man who makes decrees.  But he doesn’t have to.  He and Mary are faithful and Jesus is born in Bethlehem, in a manger, according to the word and decree of God Almighty.  With Christ’s birth, far away from the center of political power, a different sort of authority is exercised, and the Angels of God–his messengers–appear not to the great men of the age, but to simple shepherds tending their flocks.  This is a different sort of proclamation, with a different sort of authority.

And the good news announced to those shepherds; simple people, representatives of all those who great people presumed to use as pawns, to manipulate and oppress, was a challenge to the claims of Caesar.  Not a challenge to his earthly rule, but a challenge to the presumption of claiming to do things which only God can do.  Bringing order may lessen the occurrence or brutality of war, but it certainly doesn’t end it; and may only result in greater effectiveness at the task.  No.  Caesar cannot end wars.  The people of the day may have believed that it was Augustus who would put everything in order, but those who hear the story that Luke shares, know that it was not Augustus and is not any of those who claim such authority today who can make such promises or hope to live up to them, but that it is instead the babe born in a manger, with livestock bearing witness, who offers true peace, and true salvation.

This is why, when the Angels had given the shepherds their message, suddenly the Heavenly Host–the Angelic Armies of God–appear in the night sky and declare peace rather than war.  In Christ, God has declared peace with humanity, and in Christ, we can be truly at peace with God.

So tonight, we cannot hide from the strangeness of our faith–that God sought us out in the form of a little child.  That the ruler of the universe was born in a stable to a young woman of flesh and bone.  That the Almighty was once a little baby without ceasing to be God.  That as a babe he needed the care of his mother and the protection of his father.  And that as God he offers us salvation.

Tonight, on this eve of the anniversary of his birth as one of us, we celebrate his purpose for all of us.  And that is a truth, no matter how anyone might try bury or ignore it, that comes through loud and clear.  Tonight we take up the declaration of the Angels all those years ago: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”  Amen.

A Purified Conscience

[This is a brief reflection for the 4th Sunday of Advent]

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

(Collect for the 4th Sunday of Advent)

Over the past several weeks, as we’ve observed the season of Advent, we’ve reflected on the theme of waiting.  We’ve been reminded of the need to practice patience and considered what it means to proclaim on the one hand that the Messiah has come, and on the other, that we await the consummation, the fulfillment of his work in the Kingdom of God.  Like Lent, Holy Week and Easter (the Paschal Cycle), Advent, along with Christmas and Epiphany (the incarnational cycle of the church year) highlights the great tension at the heart of Christianity.  It highlights the tension in a different way from Lent and Easter, but it highlights it nonetheless.  We proclaim that the Messiah has come but are forced to admit that the world is still broken.

JesusOver the past weeks the lessons appointed in the lectionary have provided us with an image of what it is we’re awaiting.  On that first Sunday of Advent, we rejoiced to hear God’s promise in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, that all nations would stream to his holy mountain, and dedicate themselves to learning his ways.  On the second and third Sundays Isaiah directed us to consider what it is we are awaiting during this advent season.  We considered that, like Isaiah, we still await the coming of the righteous judge, the one who will judge not by what his eyes see or his ears hear, but with righteousness and equity.  But recognizing the ways in which Jesus exercised his authority and judgment during his earthly ministry demonstrates to us that we have seen the righteous judge and await his return.

Last week we considered the fact that it is not only the Righteous Judge that we await, but the one who will being healing to the afflicted, relief to the suffering–indeed, the one who will restore all of creation.  We again heard the promises of God in the words of Isaiah, and felt the concern and the frustration of John as he languished in Herod’s jail cell.  Then, we heard the words of Christ to John, echoing the promise of Isaiah, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt. 11:4-5).

Today, on this final Sunday of the Advent season, we shift gears.  We move from hearing the Gospel stories of Jesus ministry, to hearing of the circumstances of his birth.  We transition from the theme of self-preparation for the second coming, to the theme of celebration for the first, for the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, in a babe in a manger.  And as we make this transition we are challenged: have we prepared ourselves?  Have we been able to quiet our hearts and minds in the midst of the season, not only for the coming return of our Lord, which may occur at any time, but even for the appropriate celebration of his birth?

And so it is that on an occaison of many distractions we hear the story of how Joseph overcame his own anger, frustration and distraction in order to become a husband to Mary and an earthly father to Jesus.  The circumstance that Matthew treats in a few words could hardly have been more frustrating and even volatile.  The New Revised Standard Version unhelpfully uses the term “engaged” to refer to Mary and Joseph’s relationship.  They were betrothed, and though the term may not be used today, it had a specific meaning at the time: namely it meant the couple were married in every way except that they had not yet (usually) taken up residence together.  The relationship was as binding as marriage, and would’ve taken a divorce to break.  Joseph would doubtless have been frustrated at the news that Mary was pregnant, even if they had not been betrothed, but the fact that they had been said to him that she had broken their contract and shamed them both.  Joseph demonstrated something of his character in that, while he planned to divorce Mary, he planned to do so quietly, so as not to damage her reputation too badly.

With the aid of a welcome angelic messenger, Joseph is able to put these thoughts behind him and to commit himself to caring for his new wife and her child.  Joseph could have disregarded the message, but he did not, and as one preacher put it:

“He looked after her, loved her, and struggled down that road from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her. Once the child is born and reaches maturity Joseph just fades away and is mentioned no more. If Mary is extraordinarily faithful in accepting God’s calling to be Mother of the Eternal King, the Messiah, in his own way, Joseph shares in that faithfulness to a remarkable degree.

It is not too late to get Christmas right this year, to stop, reflect, realize that all you have done since Thanksgiving has maybe been many things, but it isn’t Christmas. This year, perhaps in the next few days, you can stop thinking that all depends on your presents and your cooking. It all depends on God’s giving.”

It all depends upon God’s giving…

That’s the message for us on this fourth Sunday of Advent.  Earlier in the season we’ve considered what we’re awaiting.  Today, we focus on being prepared to receive it, on purifying our consciences to welcome the coming Lord.  The good news is that even in this we are not left to depend solely or even primarily on our own strength, but instead we pray for God the Father’s “daily visitation,” to make us worthy mansions for his Son.

So indeed, the season’s preparations at their heart do not depend upon our presents or our cooking, and the preparations of our hearts do not depend upon our own feats of spiritual asceticism, but instead, we are taught to depend upon the grace of God in all things.  And being in a place to understand that is perhaps the best form of Advent preparation.

A word on the Jewish-Christian Schism

I thought I might have use for this observation in my sermon, but it didn’t really fit.  Be that as it may, I wanted to share this remark of Martin Buber’s:

“Premessianically our destinies are divided. Now to the Christian, the Jew is the incomprehensibly obdurate man, who declines to see what has happened; and to the Jew, the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man, who affirms in an unredeemed world that redemption has been accomplished. This is a gulf that no human power can bridge. But it does not prevent the common watch for a unity to come to us from God, which, soaring above all of your imagination and all of ours, affirms and denies, denies and affirms what you hold and what we hold, and that replaces all the creedal truths of earth by the ontological truth of heaven, which is one.” (Martin Buber, “Two Foci of the Jewish Soul” The Martin Buber reader: essential writings, p. 113)

Fresco of Nicea

St. Nicholas: Defender of the Faith

As demonstrated by the number of stories surrounding St. Nicholas of Myra, as well as the traditions surrounding Santa Claus, Nicholas certainly had an impact on people, and his memory—though clouded by myth and commercialism—is alive and well. One of my favorite St. Nicholas stories doesn’t necessarily fit in well with the image of

“Jolly old St. Nick” but it is, interestingly enough, befitting the reputation of keeping a list of who’s naughty and nice.

In the fourth century, you couldn’t get much more naughty—theologically speaking—in the minds of orthodox Christian leaders than Arius of Alexandria. As Archbishop Rowan Williams has argued, Arius (who was a priest of the Alexandrian Church) was actually a theological conservative. He didn’t like the idea of Jesus being seen as God’s equal, and so, he argued that the Word of God (the Logos) was not co-eternal with the Father and that Jesus was not divine. Instead, the Word was the first among God’s creations—therefore, having a beginning and being somehow less than fully God. In contrast, the position that became enshrined in the Nicene Creed was that the Word/Son is co-eternal and of one substance with the Father, and that Jesus Christ is divine. The Bishops and priests at the Council of Nicea debated this issue hotly.

During the debate Nicholas became particularly frustrated with a proponent of Arianism (some claim Arius himself) and, being “overcome with Apostolic zeal,” smacked him.  Nicholas is on several reconstructed lists—including the best—of those Bishops who were present at Nicea and who agreed to the orthodox formula, but he is not on all.  While some maintain that this means he was not actually present, the more likely scenario is that later copyists wanted to limit knowledge of what was seen as an embarrassing outburst.

It is said that Nicholas was censured for his action, and deprived of the honor of wearing the ornaments of a Bishop—which is why Nicholas is usually depicted without a mitre in Eastern Orthodox Iconography.

This event is enshrined in a fresco depicting the Council of Nicea at Soumela Monastery in Turkey. Notice the lower left of the scene:

Fresco of NiceaHere it is in more detail:

There’s no doubt that St. Nicholas was a generous and holy man. Just remember the part about him making a list and checking it twice.

Isaiah's called

The Righteous Judge

He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear… (Isaiah 11:3)

Isaiah's called
The Prophet Isaiah's Call

A common tool in the storyteller’s art, whether in comedy or drama, is to rely on misunderstanding to advance the plot.  One only has to think of stories such as Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in which the drama is often driven by misunderstanding or deception.

I’m sure all of us could think of any number of instances where a fragment of conversation, or a glimpse of activity out of context have been the basis for severe judgments and accusations.  But while these things may be just the thing for the storyteller, they can be very damaging in everyday life.

The fact of the matter is that we have a tendency to see what we want to see, or what we fear to see.  The human mind does not like the unexplained, and failing a clear explanation, we will often insert our own.  This happens in basic and complex ways.  For example, some of you may have seen those spelling games or chain emails where people intentionally misspell words and get people to read them in order to demonstrate that spelling is optional.  Well, of course, spelling is not optional, but placing things in a context primes the brain to see what it expects to see.  For example, just this week a friend of mine posted a comment on Facebook and made a reference to several different Dioceses/regions of the Episcopal Church, including Eastern Oregon.  In a comment after his initial post, he corrected himself writing that he, of course, meant “easterN” Oregon, emphasizing the N that he had left out of his initial post.  Of course, I myself read “eastern” and not “easter” as did others.  A simple example of our brain seeing what it wants to see, of inserting something to help something “make sense.”

This desire to fit things into categories has a great affect on our memories.  Our memories are central to who we are and our self understanding.  St. Augustine wrote at length about it, describing it:

“Great is this power of memory, exceeding great, O my God,–an inner chamber large and boundless!  Who has plumbed the depths thereof?  Yet it is a power of mine, and appertains unto my nature; nor do I myself grasp all that I am.  Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself” (Confessions, 174).

The power of memory helps to hold us together, connecting the past to the future, providing a sense of continuity.  But memory is also malleable, and subject to the failings of human nature.  Rather than being set and unchanging, we now know that our memories are constructed on the fly.  This construction is what accounts for the variance in the way two people can recall the same events.  Even with something as simply as color, for example, studies have shown that our brains often run what we see through a sort of mental “photoshop,” seeing what we expect.  This type of process is is the foundation for the unreliability of eye-witness testimony, for example, despite our necessary reliance on it in our legal system.

And here we get to the point of what misperception and the malleability of memory have to do with us in this second week of Advent.  It has to do with the understanding of what exactly we are waiting for.

As I reflected on the scriptures for this week I was struck by some of the distinguishing characteristics the Prophet Isaiah assigns the Messiah, the Son of Man:

He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. (Isaiah 11:3-4)

It’s intriguing that the Prophet sets up a dichotomy between judging by what the eye sees or the ear hears and judging with righteousness.  But perhaps this distinction makes sense when we consider the role of the prophetic tradition in Israel.

In ancient Israel, the prophets, unlike the monarchy or the priests, were not given authority by virtue of position or institutional structures.  The prophets were the wild cards–they were the people who heard directly from God and who, as part of their responsibility, challenged those in power to remember the commands they had been given by God–not only the letter, but the spirit.  As such, they would speak God’s judgment on Kings and the ruling classes.  Many times they ended up as martyrs for their efforts.  Remember Jesus’ prayer, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets…” (Luke 13:34).

Given this tradition, it’s unsurprising that Isaiah would oppose judgment based upon what is perceived with judgment that is based in righteousness.  In that time–and perhaps more than is comfortable to admit, in ours–the poor and the meek did not have justice to look forward to.  Those with the authority to judge them may very well have been basing their judgments on “objective” facts.  On what they saw or heard.  But Isaiah and the other prophets knew the truth that it has taken a few thousand years to support scientifically: people see what they want, even when they don’t do so consciously, and because of this, the only hope for true justice is in the future, with the coming of the one who will judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity.

This is not meant to say that the poor and the meek are the only ones to be judged righteously, but to emphasize that, unlike those with more power and authority, or even those that are more visible to society, they need to hear the truth that God is on their side, because no one else is.

Today, we can celebrate the ways in which we have achieved a closer approximation of justice, while striving to do even better, but as Christians we have to recognize that in the end, there is only one righteous judge.  This judge is the one Isaiah prophesied, and the one of whom John warned the Pharisees and Sadducees:

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

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:9-12).

In this season of Advent, as we approach Christmas and the celebration of our savior’s birth, it can be easy to loose sight of what exactly we’re waiting on.  As we wait, we proclaim that the one who can judge the hearts of men and women has indeed come, and exercised his judgment and mercy from the throne of the cross.  We testify also, that he will come again, and that finally, we will no longer have to trust in the frail abilities of human magistrates.  The lesson to whole onto is twofold: to make sure we are bear fruit worthy of repentance being prepared for a righteous judge; and to remind ourselves that good fruit is the result of receiving the mercy and forgiveness of the God who loved us too much to leave us to our own devices, and who instead came to us all those years ago in a humble village, offering us forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life.  Amen.

Living in the Already, awaiting the Not Yet.

People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord
-Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield wrote these words the year after the 1963 civil rights march on Washington DC.  In a 1993 interview, Mayfield said that the song was a product of “the preachings of my grandmothers and most ministers when they reflect from the Bible.” As often happens, something distilled from the scriptures can serve as a means for us to reflect back on their meaning.  They can serve as a lens.  The most significant examples of this, of course, are the Creeds themselves; distilled from scripture, they serve as a lens through which we read and interpret scripture.   But similar things occur in popular culture, as the work of those shaped by the faith reflects its impact.  In the case of Mayfield, these lyrics reflect an uplifting hopefulness, but this is not always the case.

Biblical prophecy can be a confusing and complex subject that attracts a lot of well-meaning but misguided interpretation. Jesus recognized this when (as we talked about a few weeks ago) he warned his disciples not to trust those who would gain a following for themselves by spreading a message that capitalizes on anxiety and fear–to not trust those who say “I am he” and claim that the end is at hand.

In the section of Matthew’s Gospel that we consider today (Matthew 24:36-44), Jesus puts further emphasis on the futility of attempting to calculate when the end will come, saying “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).   And yet, despite such warnings within scripture itself, there have always been those who attempt to peg the day and the hour.  One of the more colorful examples of this phenomena comes from the book O Lost by Thomas Wolfe (the “original” restored version of Look Homeward, Angel).  At this point in the book, the main character and his brother are outside their home in Pensylvania when a column of Confederate troops come marching past, some of whom ask for water.  As they march by, the boys hear someone calling out:

“Hit’s a-comin’! As sure as you’re livin’, hit’s a-comin,” he shouted cheerfully. And, seeing the two boys, he shouted his strange message happily to them, smiling kindly with pleased idiocy. “Hit’s a-comin’, boys. Tell yore folks.  Armageddon’s here.”

“You don’t need to tell ‘em Stinkin’ Jesus is here,” a mountaineer shouted. “They can smell him already.”

Bacchus Pentland answered their roar of laughter with a good-humored smile. Then, when he could be heard again he said: “Hit’s a-comin’! The kingdom of Christ upon the earth approacheth. He’ll be here a-judgin’ an’ dividin’ by eight o’clock to-morrow moring. I’ve got it all figured out accordin’ to ‘Zekiel.” (O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life, p. 11 )

The irony of the story is that Bacchus Pentland and the other Confederate soldiers with whom he is marching are headed toward what will be the end for many of them, as they move toward the killing field of Gettysburg.  The novel is also illustrative in that the main character runs into Bacchus later on in the story, only to find that he’s calculated yet another date for the end.  Those who try to calculate the end find themselves making multiple attempts when it doesn’t occur.  In fact, several denominations have their origins in the failed speculations of their founders.  But while the attempts of Bacchus Pentland are comical and sad, there are others who inspire fear by playing upon anxiety.

As one commentator has written, when the disciples ask when the end will come:

Jesus does not answer [their] question of when the Temple will be destroyed, nor has he given them an answer to their question concerning the sign that will signal Jesus’ coming and the end of the age.  Rather, Jesus tells them how they must learn to wait in this time between the times. Christians have been unable to heed Jesus’ warning not to try to calculate the day and the hour he will return.  Jesus plainly tells us that only the Father has such knowledge, but the temptation to be God, particularly by those who count themselves Christian, is hard to resist.  Desperate to have a handle on history, Christians have used the very apocalyptic imagery that Jesus deploys to prevent attempts to determine the end of the age to do exactly what Jesus says cannot and should not be done, that is, to try and know what only the Father knows (Matt. 24:36).  (Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 203-204)

On the other end of the extreme are those Christians who would look down upon such attempts to calculate the end, but who nonetheless believe that Christians can somehow shape the direction of history.  While we should never deny the call we have to support progress and to aid others, we must never confuse our own efforts with the salvation of God.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes “Those who attempt to read the ‘signs of the times’ in these two quite different ways have little use for one another, but ironically they share in common the belief that Jesus has answered the disciples’ questions. [...] Both temptations–to employ Jesus’s apocalyptic imagery to predict the end time or to discern the movement of history–betray the character of Jesus’s training of his disciples.  He is trying to teach them how they must live in the light of his coming” (Hauerwas, 204-205).

Learning how to live in the light of Jesus’ coming is precisely what the season of Advent, which begins this morning, is all about.  In the context of preparing to celebrate the incarnation of God in human flesh–the coming of the almighty in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we also remind ourselves to be prepared for Jesus’ return.  It is during this season where we recognize and remember that we live in a tremendous tension as Christians, a tension perfectly distilled and reflected back at us by various messages of Advent and Christmas, both sacred and secular.

We live with the tension of proclaiming the Kingdom of God as something that is already present–and what better way to proclaim that, than to remember God became flesh and dwelt among us–while at the same time, we recognize that we are still awaiting its consummation and perfection.  One might say we live in the midst of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 2:1-5).

Through the spreading of the Gospel, people who would never have heard of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have been brought to faith.  Entire cultures have been formed and fashioned and nations have sought knowledge of God.

As we consider the rest of Isaiah’s proclamation, we can, I believe, see the places where the already fulfilled runs right up against the not yet.  In so many ways, whether through the recognition of human rights, the formation of forums for international dialogue and negotiation, humanitarian efforts–we can see that many areas where war was once the only option have now been dealt with in other ways.  Yet at the same time, we still live in a time when people have not, in fact, beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Likewise, people have been fed and clothed, and many have access to medical care who have never had it before.  But still thousands starve, or die of disease.  We live in the time between.  We can celebrate the accomplishments that have been made, we can put the practices of the Kingdom into action in our own lives, but we must always keep the teachings of Jesus before us.

We are called both to be patient and to anticipate, to be about the work of the Kingdom here and now, and to yearn for the day when it will be fully revealed.  We are called to work within the household of God with the knowledge that the Lord himself could return at any moment, all the while being prepared to wait.  We are called to reflect on the state of our souls, to celebrate the birth of a child who is God, and to anticipate his coming again.  Most of all, we are called to live in hope as we await the full establishment of God’s Kingdom… we’re called to endure the world as it is, hoping, knowing that it will not always be so.

In the end, I think Mayfield’s lyrics ring especially true for this season of Advent and what we are to be about: “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’ you don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.”  Amen.

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