Sunday, November 28, 2010

“AN UNEXPECTED HOUR”

Matthew 24: 36-44
A Sermon based upon Matthew 24: 36-44
by Dr.  Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Partnership,
First Sunday of Advent, Year A
November 28th, 2010

On January 27, 1986 my wife and I were headed from Shelby to Chapel Hill for a medical consultation.  We had the radio on in the car as we traveled down I-40/I-85.  The whole nation was in expectation and it was a special moment.  It was suppose to be a great day.  As we were listening to the radio, the eyes of most people were on their Television.  We had the first school teacher as an astronaut.    It was supposed to be a great moment in American history.  We loved the very human stories about all those astronauts headed into orbit that day.   There was the countdown, the ignition, the liftoff as all the power of that rocket lifted them up higher into the air.  Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the rocket exploded.  I couldn’t believe my ears.  Most couldn’t believe their eyes.  It wasn’t until we stopped to eat that we were able to see the truth of what we did not want to believe.  All the dreams, hopes, prayers and efforts of NASA, those families, and these astronauts were blown into smithereens.  It all came at such a sudden, unexpected moment.  No one anticipated it.  No one saw it coming.

WE WON’T SEE IT COMING
So shall it be with the coming of the Son of Man, says Jesus.  This is how the end will come.  It will come suddenly, unexpectedly, surprisingly, out of the blue, we say, and like a flash of lightening.   It will come like that thief who crashed into the Amish store on Windsor Road.  The owner tried to get out, but he didn’t have a key for the back door.  He could not escape until the thieves entered and beat him on the head.  He did not see it coming. No one will see the final end coming, there will be signs, but the end will come suddenly, at an “unexpected hour”. 

It will be something like that stampede in Cambodia last week.  No one saw that coming either and no one is sure why it happened.  During a festival to mark the end of the rainy season in Phnom Penh, a crowd of people walking on a suspension bridge suddenly panicked, and 375 people were trampled to death.   It was horrible.  There were depressing scenes of suffocation and desperate cries for help.  Someone thought people were being electrocuted and others shouted the bridge was collapsing.  But it appears that the cause was panic, not electricity nor collapse.   Relatives were weeping over the pile of bodies, which included their loved ones.  It came suddenly and no one knew what or why it happened.

When the end comes, Jesus says, it will come in an “unexpected moment”, says Jesus.   But the moment Jesus describes here is more normal, and much less dramatic.   “For as the days of Noah….as in those days…they were eating, drinking, marrying, giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark.  They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away….” (24: 37-39).  It will be so sudden, so unexpected, “two will be working in the field… one will be taken, the other left…. Two will be grinding meal….one taken, the other left. Keep awake…YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT DAY YOUR LORD IS COMING…. (24: 40-42).
  
What Jesus wants to do with this “word” of warning, is not to be frightened into a panic, but to be prepared, to get ready, and to keep our eyes wide open, in a world where it seems more and more have their eyes “wide shut.”

Just the other day I visited a man in the hospital and his wife was there.  She said, we were just going through the day and suddenly, unexpectedly, without warning everything changed.   In the next moment he was in ICU.  We know how quickly everything can change.   Endings are happening all around us and in every moment.   Someone is being born, but also someone’s world is coming to an end.   I’ve worked in a hospital and I’ve been in the center of life and death all my life.  You don’t have to live at the end of the world to face the end of your world.  Be ready.  Be alert.  Stay awake.  This is the very “true”, but often “denied” or “ignored” wisdom of the Bible and the wisdom of Jesus.  YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT DAY YOUR LORD will come for you.  BE READY!

GET READY, THE END WILL COME!
But what does it mean to “get ready”, to “stay awake” and to prepare for a moment in time we cannot predict, and even Jesus could not predict?  Our text begins with this very “disclaimer” about predicting the end:  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (vs. 36).  How do we get ready for what “no one knows”, even Jesus didn’t know?

A couple weeks ago, when we considered a very similar text from Luke, I spoke about the wrong and wayward use of the Bible, which is very popular these days, to turn the Bible into some kind “crystal ball” for reading into the future.   If you’ve read the Hebrew Bible, God didn’t like King Saul calling upon a witch of Endor to call up the dead Samuel to make predictions.  It is not good use of the Bible or the words of Jesus to make them some kind exact detailed account of what the end will be like.  Jesus is not telling us “what” will happen, but he is telling us “how” it will happen.  He wants us to know that it will take place suddenly, unexpectedly, surprisingly, and unpredictably.   Again, as I said in the sermon a couple of weeks ago, most of the imagery Jesus uses refers to the Fall of Jerusalem, like invading armies entering the fields grabbing up certain people to make them slaves, but leaving others behind.  The terrors of the end will be random, unpredictable and without logic.  “One will be taken…the other will be left.”  Remember Jesus has already told people, “If someone asks you’re your coat, give him your overcoat also. …. If someone asks you to go one mile, go with them two.”   The imagery here is much the same.  It is random, unexpected and unpredictable.  When the Roman armies came to Jerusalem, people were randomly grabbed and taken, while others where left alive.   Jesus says this is the unpredictable and random way the end comes. 

But these words are not just true to invading armies, but they are true to how the end can come to any of us.   We just don’t know who will be here in worship next week.  We don’t know who will have to go to the doctor and not come back home.  We don’t know who will lose their job.  We don’t know who will die of a heart attack.  We don’t know who will lose their health or worse, lose their mind.  I don’t know whose funeral I will have to do next, or whether or not you will be making arrangements to bury me.   Be ready!   We just don’t know!   This is undeniable wisdom of the Bible and of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

But again, what good is it in considering this information, this reality that we all spend so much time in our lives avoiding, denying, and putting off as long as possible.  What good is it to be ready, to stake alert, to wake up and know the end could come any minute.  Isn’t this like those poor people in Cambodia, like shouting “fire” in crowded building, or shouting “collapse” on a crowded bridge?  Isn’t this just a tactic to get us to make our will or to get us to “straighten up” and live our lives for God?   Well, yes!  Maybe it is, or maybe it’s more than that.   To realize, recognize, admit and face the coming ending of our life and of our world can shake us into living the way we should.

Let me tell you two things “facing the end” can do for you.  First it is only when we face the end, can we invite true meaning into our lives.   Consider this.  Walk about into a cemetery and look at all the tombstones.  I did this just the other day.  I was headed for Statesville on a back road and stopped at Snow Creek Methodist Church Cemetery, not far from my home.  It was a beautiful day and I needed to get out of my truck and stretch my back a moment.  I thought I might look around to see if any of my ancestors were buried there.  It’s one of the oldest cemeteries in Iredell County, pre-dating the church and dating back to the Revolution.   When I pulled up a woman and her small children came up to my truck, telling me there had been some vandalism and they had called the sheriff.   She walked me to the one broken tombstones, out of the many hundreds in that cemetery with names such as Millsaps, Gaither, Robertson and others.  Of all the stones, the one laying on the ground had the familiar name on it: T-O-M-L-I-N.   In other words, it was a “stone” with “my” my name on it.   I looked at the woman and exclaimed: “Hey, It looks like somebody has been attacking my ancestors.”  Fortunately, a neighbor walks up and tells us that there was no vandalism, but that they were reworking some of the oldest tombstones.  It just so happened that the one stone they were working on in that moment had my name on it.

There’s actually a “stone” with “all” our names on it.  The end is coming, says Jesus.  What are you doing to get prepared?   One thing you can do is look at those “stones” and the date.  You see between the date of birth and the date of death, a simple dash.  What are you filling that dash with?  What kind of “meaningful”, “purposeful”, and positive things are you doing with your life that will matter when your date of “death” gets added to your date of birth?   You might think you’ve got forever, but there are “book-end” like dates already, with a specific date labeled on your life.  You don’t have forever.  The coming end urges us to do something we need to do, we should do, we ought to do, we must do, now!  Have you done it?

But there is something else that comes from knowing about the “end” that can suddenly, unexpectedly come.   Not only are there no promises about tomorrow, there are also no guarantees about today.   All our lives, even our world has a “boundary”, a “limit” and a “constraint”.    But this “constraint” or “boundary” can help us know what we should do now, and how we should live our lives.  The question is not just what are we doing that is worthwhile, but what are we doing that gets us ready for the endings that are already coming all around us, and will come to us, one day in a final way.

One thing for sure, Americans have not been thinking about “endings” lately.  Most American have been living, spending, risking, and owing so much that they have acted like this day of reckoning will never come.  But it appears, an kind of “ending” has come and there is no real way back.   Republican Senator Alan Simpson has recently told the NY Times that the day of reckoning has come and that debt is driving our nation and our government into the ground.   “There Will Be Blood”, he says.   The day of cutting and reckoning is here and everyone is going to get hurt   (NY Times Article by Columist Paul Krugman, Nov. 22, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/22/opinion/22krugman.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=There%20will%20be%20blood&st=cse)

There is truth in what the Senator is saying, but are we ready?    Are we ready for the changes, the shortfalls, the time for the payment of the debt we now owe?   Whatever this means, it means that a certain kind of “ending” has suddenly come, and the truth is, that no one saw it coming.  No one saw it, but it came anyway.  And the “end is still coming and no one knows who will get hurt or when the “ending” of the “end” will be, or even whether the “ending” will be the end of everything we have known so that there is no way back.  Are you ready?    

JESUS IS STILL COMING
How do you get ready, when you don’t know “when” or “how” it will end?   There is a way.   Jesus says that you need to be able to look into the middle of everything that is ending and “see the Son of Man coming on the Clouds of Glory.”   That very thought, used to scare me to death.  I used to look up into the sky at night and wonder what it would be like when Jesus “splits” the eastern sky.  But, then I remembered.  Jesus was trying to tell us that you nor I will see “it” coming, but you and I, who trust in him, will see “him” coming.  Do you know what that means?  It is not about scaring us, but it’s an image about saving us.

Last week Weatherman Austin Caviness gave us an amazing account of how the “end of his world” came when his parents divorced.  It crushed him and he pretty much lived out of bitterness and rebellion until the Fall of Trade Towers on September 11, 2010.  Then he saw, in that “ending” what he needed to do with his life.  He saw in the “ending” a new beginning.  He realized that he didn’t need to hold on to his “root of bitterness”.   More than anything else, he saw Jesus standing their forgiving and restoring his life, his family and his faith.  In the “ending” he saw the Son of Man coming in glory into his life.

What do you see coming?  Can you see Jesus coming?  I don’t just mean do you see him coming in the sky one day.  That is certainly a very “unpredictable” part of this text, but it’s not all Jesus is saying and it’s not what happened at all.  Jesus expected the “end” to come when Jerusalem fell, but the end of all things did not come.   What did come into the “ending of Jerusalem” was the coming of Jesus through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal power of truth, power and glory.   Jesus came into the world through the rising up of the church and it gave the world that was broken apart a word of redemption, promise, salvation and hope.  

I don’t know whether or not Jesus is coming very soon.  I do know things are falling apart in this world.  It will never be the same, at least not any time soon.  No one knows what kind of ending is coming, but it is coming.   But what we also can know is that even when “endings” come Jesus also comes every time, to those who will make themselves ready and will prepare their hearts, minds and souls.  Just as Jesus is here now, in your heart, he doesn’t just come and bring some unexpected, fearful future, but he is already here, living in the middle of your heart and helping you get through this “ending” that must come.  A homebound member of one of my churches suffered a stroke a few years ago, and recently discovered she had breast cancer.  She told me that when the doctor told me, I first told myself, “Oh no, not again and I asked the Lord, why me?   Then, it was like another voice came inside that also asked, “Why not me?”  She had the strength to say “why not me?” because she knew the Lord would “come” and be with her, no matter what she had to face.   

As I conclude, I want you to hear some sobering words from a Lutheran Pastor  Edward Markquart in Seattle: Who is this passage of Scripture addressed to today? It must be the old people, everyone who is sixty and over, receiving ARP advertisements, on social security or getting ready to die. Those people think more about mortality and death; these Bible verses are for them.
I don’t think so. Life changes so quickly. The totality of life moves by so quickly. …  I look at an infant, and the infant today is a two year old tomorrow.  And you blink and the child is thirteen.  And you blink, where did time go, and the kid is now a young adult. I blink my eyes again and you are now married.  I blink my eyes again and you have children.  I blink my eyes again and those children are gone and you have an empty nest. I blink my eyes again and you are grandparents. I blink my eyes again and you are a widow or widower. I blink my eyes again and you are ready to die. That’s the way life is.
Who is this passage for? It is for all of us because it, life, moves so quickly, doesn’t it? …I was a baby and suddenly (snap) I was two years old; and then suddenly (snap), I was ten, growing up in Jackson, Minnesota. And before I knew it, (snap), suddenly I was twenty and at college; suddenly I was thirty and a pastor in Eugene, Oregon; (snap) suddenly I was forty and a pastor in Seattle, Washington; and suddenly (snap) I was sixty and thinking about retirement; and suddenly (snap) I was eighty and getting ready to die. Suddenly (snap) there was an explosion in the sky and the astronauts were gone; and suddenly (snap) there was an stampede and 350 people were gone; suddenly (snap), a woman who was healthy today is gone tomorrow. 
Suddenly, all of life happens too quickly, too suddenly, and so unexpected, doesn’t it? And Jesus said to all people of all ages, the end will come so suddenly (snap); live today as if you were going to meet God face to face tomorrow.   (From SermonsfromSeattle.com) 


But the last word, Jesus gives us in verse 44 is himself.   He will be there when the end comes.  When “endings” suddenly come in that “unexpected hour” he will “come”, even when everything else falls apart and goes away.   You can’t know when or how the end comes, but you can know that Jesus will be there to help us make it through the ending that comes; whether it is the ending of how things were, the world’s end, or your own end, whichever comes first.  The most important question not “how will you escape, like my Mormon neighbors used to have all kinds of canned goods ready for that time.  You can’t get ready for a time you don’t know how or when.  But what you can “get ready” is your heart.  This is what Jesus asks:  “Are you alert, awake and ready?”   “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when “HE” arrives.  (vs. 46). Only those “standing” and “working” with Jesus, will have anything left to “stand” on when that time comes.   Keep standing with him!   Amen.     

Sunday, November 14, 2010

SIGNS IN THE SUN

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 21: 5-28
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock Zion Baptist Partnership
November 14, 2010   Proper 28C

Loren Rosenberg was struck by a car while attempting to cross a busy Utah street as her eyes were glued to her BlackBerry. 

Rosenberg is suing Google, blaming the Google Maps service she was accessing at the time of her accident.  It told her to walk along state Route 224, never warning her of high-speed traffic or the absence of sidewalks. She claims Google Maps should have more readily equipped her for her surroundings. 

In this case, the lawyers for Google might have a very simple defense: She could’ve looked up from her cell phone
(From Homileticsonline.com).

During difficult times we all need the ability to “look up.”  

Toward the end of the gospel story for today, Jesus is trying to teach his disciples this very skill.  As the passage reaches its pinnacle in verse 28, Jesus instructs his disciples to “stand up straight” and to “lift up their heads” even when some while very some bad events take place.  

How could Jesus expect those following him to “look up” when it was the end of their world?   Having this kind of resolve is not easy.  It could feel quite absurd, not at all fitting the reality we experience.  

Jesus has just spoken of wars, earthquakes, starvation and spreading diseases.  He also speaks of religious persecution, family betrayal domestic disputes which may end in murder.  Jesus concludes the “end time” scenario with the image of invading armies surrounding Jerusalem, people “heading for the hills” and “running for their lives,” not only from human conflict, but because the wrath of God is being poured out.   

Even the high places are shaken, as the wealthy and powerful, who are usually immune to life’s daily struggles, find themselves stressed out with fear.  Only then, as if waiting to the last minute, does the “Son of Man” come to the rescue the faithful in full power and glory.  The picture seems like an old Superman movie, where Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen were wondering, what in the world took God’s man so long?   But this is not a movie, nor is it a comic strip.  This is how the end of will feel.

There are only three encouraging words in the entire passage.   Jesus says it’s going to be bad for “this people” (vs. 23) and many will “die by the sword” (v. 24); you too will suffer persecution and hate( vs. 12-17), but “not a hair on your head will be harmed” (vs. 18) and if you “endure” “you will save your souls”  (v. 19).  A final word of hope sounds just as out of place as the other two, when Jesus says:   28 “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (Luk 21:28 NRS).    Does all this falling apart sound like “salvation”  and redemption to you?  With stuff like this in the Bible, is there any wonder most people don’t come to church?

But the language here is as “strange” as real life.  “Truth is stranger than fiction”, they say, and maybe that’s just the point.  The Bible is not idealistic, fictitious gibberish, but Jesus is very much a realist.  Life is hard.  People get hurt (even the good ones).  God seems to show up “almost” too late.  Sometimes we wonder if he will show up at all.  Talk of salvation and redemption can seem useless and senseless.   However you want to interpret this passage, the “end of the world” certainly isn’t for sissies, is it?  

Three women were discussing the travails of getting older. One said, “Sometimes I catch myself with a jar of mayonnaise in my hand, while standing in front of the refrigerator, and I can’t remember whether I need to put it away or start making a sandwich.”
        The second lady chimed in: “Yes, sometimes I find myself on the landing of the stairs and can’t remember whether I was on my way up or on my way down.”
        The third one responded, “Well, ladies, I’m glad I don’t have that problem. Knock on wood,” as she rapped her knuckles on the table. Then she said, “That must be the door; I’ll get it!”

The “end of the world” comes in many different forms, doesn’t it?

My Father was a Sunday School teacher all my life, until he passed away 11 years ago this Christmas.   His Sunday School class was larger than my first Church, without almost 75 regular attendees.    Dad taught and believed that things were getting so bad in this world, that the ‘rapture’ was going to come before he died.  And Dad was no sissy either.  He was a veteran of WWII and the European Theater.  He landed in North Africa and fought his way into Italy, Southern France, and finally through the Netherlands and into Germany.  He almost lost his feet in the Battle of the Bulge.  Even though Dad saw bad things then, he still believed things were getting even worse and that Jesus was going to come back soon.   I grew up living in the “shadow of the second coming” he hoped for and taught about all my life. 

But Dad did not get to go up in the “rapture”, as least not as he envisioned or hoped.  He had to face end of “his” world with a Doctor telling him, “Mr. Tomlin, you’d better get your things in order, because you have an aggressive cancer on your thyroid and you have 2 - 6 months to live.”

How do we keep our “heads up” in this world that eventually hands us the worse news of all?   

What might be shocking to some is that Jesus doesn’t really address our individual questions and concerns, as much as he is talking to us all together, as the church, the community of faith and as his disciples who live as the people of God.  You might surmise that Jesus never expected us to try to face the troubles of this world alone.  There is very little “lone ranger”, or individualized advice about facing the end of the world.  The assumption appears that we wouldn’t be stupid enough try to go it alone.    

DON’T LET THEM FOOL YOU!
The first piece of wisdom Jesus gives about facing our very “bad news” world, is not to let these end times deceive us.  Before anything else he says, “Beware that we are not led astray” (vs. 8).

To explain the “deception” Jesus references, there appears to be two kinds going on in this text.  The first comes when the disciples are marveling over the grandeur of the temple, all the glory of human construction and ingenuity, assuming that this “greatness” will last forever.  To such a deception of permanence Jesus says, “the days will come when one stone will not be left upon another.”   These are 40 foot square stones Jesus is talking about.  Can you imagine the shock of hearing that they will crumple?   The temple seems invincible, indestructible, and imperishable.   The truth was, however, that within 40 years of Jesus’ warning, the temple was completely destroyed by a Roman invasion in 70 AD.

When we are young, healthy, and busy with life we all feel invincible, don’t we?   That’s exactly what Loren Rosenberg must have felt when she went walking into traffic with her eyes on her Blackberry rather than on the cars.  How many accidents happen because people don’t really think something bad could happen?  How many people are heard to say when the unexpected does happen, “I can’t believe this is happening to me?”  But it can and it does!  The real world has both beginnings and endings.

The other great “deception” Jesus mentions is both political and religious.  Jesus says, “Don’t be led astray” by those who go around saying “the end is near!?  In another place Jesus reminds us that nobody knows when the end will come, even “the Son doesn’t know, only the Father”(Matt. 24.36).  Jesus also says elsewhere that when the hour of the end does come, it will come “like a thief in the night” (Matt. 24.43), when people aren’t expecting it at all.    

I’ll never forget how in the 1980’s, a book appeared creating quite a stir when it boldly declared that Jesus would return in 1988.  But it didn’t happen.  Amazingly, using some strange Bible arithmetic,  Charles Taze Russell founder of Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed that Jesus returned invisibly in 1874 and most of us missed it.   His followers now revised that to 1914 and we didn’t see that either.  The world has been filled with people who predict and project the end is near.  Some of these would-be prophets are just profiteers on people’s ignorance, but others are down-right dangerous, like a David Koresh or a Jim Jones.  Jesus says to us, before he says anything else: don’t pay any attention to any of them.   None of them know what they are talking about because only God the Father knows.  

The core problem with such “prophets of doom and gloom” is not just what they tell you, but what they don’t tell you.  They use all these “biblical words” like Armageddon, Second Coming, Mark-of-The-Beast, or Anti-Christ to sell their fear-tainted ideas, but they tell you nothing about what these words meant when they were first used.  They are more interested in making you think the Bible is filled with all kinds of magical, crystal ball, secret, decodable information that they can decipher for you if you will buy their book or fund their radio program.   The wit of the late G.K. Chesterton relates well to such “false prophets” when he once quipped “There are all kinds of strange creatures in the John’s revelation, but none of them are as strange as some of his interpreters.”

How do we read the signs, the worries and face the tribulations of life and death, realistically, and not allow ourselves to get suckered into all the hype, shenanigans and charlatanism that can go along with it?  

Here, I’m reminded of what Mark Twain once said when someone misunderstood news about his sick cousin and mistakenly printed Twain’s obituary in the Newpaper: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”   We “greatly exaggerate” these words of Jesus when we misuse them to decipher what only God knows, and what Jesus says he didn’t, and what many prophecy preachers they can. 

What strikes me most, as I read this long list of worldly troubles is not that they are signs of the “end”, but that the story line here is not that much different than what happens any and every day in this world.   These are signs of a fallen world keeps ending and beginning over and over again as life goes on.  Every day our lives are threatened with the “end”. One day the end does come for us, for other people, for nations and finally, it will come for the world.  The threat is always with us.  Though the end never comes, it is always coming, and it comes again and again.  The world is a glorious but also a very dangerous place and it is that way from the very first day until our very last. Don’t get carried away or be led astray.  The world is ending, but the “the end will not follow immediately” (vs. 9), says Jesus.  It is as the poet T.S. Elliot wrote in his poem Hollow Men:  “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, (not all at once and not with sudden “bang” but with a slow, unnoticed “whimper.”      

TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO DO GOOD.
Since the world is always ending, but won’t end when you think it will, Jesus gives us a second important word of wisdom about the “endings”:  We must be careful not to miss the “opportunity” (vs. 13)  we have in this very moment, while we are here, living today.

The word here in verse 13 literally carries the idea of a “circumstance,” an “outcome” or some negative happening that could “turn” out in a positive way.  Paul uses this word to share with the church at Philippi how God has“turned” his suffering and imprisonment into a positive “result” for the gospel (Phil. 1.12) and for him (Phi. 1.19). The particular negative Jesus has in mind is not good.  Jesus is talking about “religious intolerance” and “persecution” of the faithful.  He’s talking something we all know about,  how during hard times, people tend to “scapegoat” or “lay blame” on other people, whether they are guilty or not.  

When they killed Jesus too, we can recall how the religious leaders made up the excuse that “it was good that one man die for the nation.”  That is a very old myth that claims that by doing violence to a certain person or a certain group of people, you will bring redemption or salvation for others.   The Jews tried it.  Hitler tried.  The South and the KKK tried it.  The Communist tried it.  Al Qaeda keeps trying it.  It just doesn’t work, but that doesn’t keep people from believing or trying it.  In hard times people will try just about anything.

What I think Jesus wants us to do, is not to succumb to the trap of negativism and so called “redemptive violence,” but to take the negative moment as an opportunity to be a positive witness to our faith.  We are called upon to keep doing the right things, no matter what happens, because the odds are, the “end will not come immediately.”   Jesus doesn’t want his followers to cave into all the negativism around them, because, if we are not careful, we could create a “self-fulfilling prophecy”--- believing something into reality that only happens because we give in to it.   Because the end of the world may not be “immediate”, it is much wiser, healthier and smarter to keep sharing, showing and living our faith and to realize that the “light” can shine brightest when times are the darkest. 

Someone once asked a great teacher what he would do if he knew the end of the world was coming.  His answer was that he would go and keep tending his garden.  In the book of Jeremiah (32.9); when the Prophet knew that Jerusalem would soon fall, he went out and bought a piece of land in the city from his uncle.  It wasn’t a business deal, but it was a down payment on hope.  Jeremiah knew the end was coming, but with God, even the endings have a way of “ending” and everything doesn’t end immediately.

The other day in Leadership Meeting at Flat Rock, we were discussing some ideas for ministry and I shared about a church in Winston-Salem, that last summer planted 4 community gardens which were being worked by adult and youth mission groups on behalf of the community, especially the poor.   I suggested that maybe next Spring we consider try doing something similar.  It could be the most constructive thing we could do, in these difficult days, as we roll up our sleeves and bear witness to both our hope and our help.   Use your “opportunity” to witness and to testify, says Jesus.   “By your ‘endurance’ you will gain your souls.”  There is no better time to be alive, than when you’ve just been told that you have only a few days left.  If you get a reprieve, and who knows, one might come.  If so, even ‘endings’ could be good for your spiritual health.  There is no better time to "turn on" the Light of the world, than when it gets dark. 

KEEP LOOKING UP AND DON”T LOOK DOWN
“Don’t be deceived!”   “Seize the Opportunity!”  That is the wisdom of Jesus, but there is one final piece of wisdom we must not miss.   A saying goes that “it is always darkest just before the dawn”  but what Jesus is saying to us is much more than this.  When things appear to be “ending,” Jesus would have us ‘look up’ and see the “redemption coming near” which is nothing less than the new beginning God will bring about.     

Let me explain that this rather “strange” word specifically concerned the destruction of the temple which took place less than 40 years after Jesus’ life.  The gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, as Luke 19 tells us, he literally saw “the handwriting on the wall.  As Luke 19:41,  has Jesus weeping while speaking these fateful words: “If you had only recognize this day, the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.”  That was the great tragedy as Jesus saw it.  The city of Shalom, God’s peace, did not know peace when it “was right in front of them.”  Jesus had preached peace.  He had told them not to pick up arms and try to resist on the world’s terms.  He told them to “turn the other cheek,” to “love their enemy” and not to pick up the sword, especially against a strong adversary like Rome.  He knew, as he warmed them over and over again, that those “who pick up the sword, will die by the sword” and here, they are doing just that;“falling by the sword” (vs.24).  

Interestingly, when the Roman army came, there was a Christian community that did not pick up the sword, but did exactly as Jesus instructed.  They did not pick up arms.  They did not fight against their enemies, whether Jewish or Roman.  They did not resist, but they witnessed to the truth and when the armies did come, they weren’t cowards, but they ran for their lives and they escaped, helping any who would join them also to escape.  It was a day of terror, but it was also a day of redemption.  While thousands of Jews died trying to defend Jerusalem in a useless battle, the little, defenseless Church escaped with “not a hair of their head harmed” and moved out to survive in the desert.  (See Ray Summers Commentary on Luke, p.   

But there is more to this story.   Jesus told his disciples that when the armies came, it would be right after that when the “Son of Man”, would return in “power and glory”  (v. 27).   In just a few more verses, Jesus says very frankly that “this generation would not pass away until all this happens.”  (vs 32).  Was Jesus wrong to say the “second coming” would come then, when it didn’t?  It could appear so if Jesus had not  clarified that  he did not know when this would take place.

But Jesus did expect, right in that moment of ending and great darkness, some kind of “visitation” from God (Luke 19:44).  Shouldn’t we expect the same?  What Jesus knew for sure, and we must know for sure, is that God will show up, somehow, someday, and in some show of power and glory in the worst of times.  When endings come, here or there, the new beginnings also come, and more important than anything else, we can be sure that God is also here, there, and everywhere.  Whether we are facing an ending or a new beginning, God gives us the strength to keep going, keep believing, and keep hoping, because he promises to show up through Jesus’ glory, his power, his spirit, and through our witness to Jesus and to the truth.   Don’t give up and get drunk, Jesus implies (Luke 21: 34-36).  God always remains as close as our desire, our  willingness and our ability to live soberly, expectantly, and faithfully until he will “make all things new”(Rev. 21:5).

Can we trust God, even when “endings come”?  Writer Philip Yancey confronts this very question when he asks, “What good is God?”   What good is our faith when the hard times come?  In his most recent book, “What Good is God?” Yancey writes about several terrible recent events he was close to in his own writing ministry; the Virginia Tech massacre,  the Mumbai hotel bombing, Apartheid in South Africa, and of course, the aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers in New York. During the crisis at Virginia Tech, a Christian Church, which loss 9 people in the shooting, invited him to come and share some words of comfort.  Yancey was recovering from a neck injury and spoke with a neck brace.  He spoke to those troubled and broken students, whose world up until that time seemed invincible, until 33 of their companions and faculty were senselessly murdered by Korean student, Seung-Hui Cho. 

Yancey began by reminding them, that when God walked in this world, even he was not immune to suffering.   But he went on to ask, in a world that is so broken, what is God good for, if he doesn’t take away our pain?  Yancey told them, that for him, our faith in God tells us, even in a time of great hurt, great pain, great suffering and even death, that with God, “nothing is irredeemable” (as quoted in Philip Yancey, Faith Words, 2010, pp 27-34).

As the Apostle Paul wrote, “God can work all things for the good of those who are called according to his purpose…” because “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus….nothing.   Only with God can a “dark Friday” be turned into a “Good Friday!”  The real question, said Yancey, is not “where is God when it hurts”, but “where is the church?”  When that great evil fell upon those innocent Amish children in Nickel Mines Pennsylvania, that grieving Amish community knew what good God was, and they knew the “good” they had to do, even when everything was bad.  They had to forgive and they had to trust that God could bring new beginnings even out of bad endings. 

J. R. R. Tolkien once spoke of the “joy beyond the walls of the world more poignant than grief.”  Can we speak of our hope for joy even in a world that comes apart at the seams?   Jesus did. And he wonders if we can see, through the eyes of faith today, what he saw---and what he wants his disciples to see then, now and always.  With the eternal God by our side, there are no absolute endings, only endings with new beginnings.   If we will trust him on this, he will help our fearful hearts discover where hope and faith can lead.  Amen.         

Sunday, November 7, 2010

THE BEST IS YET TO BE

A Sermon based Upon Haggai  2: 1-9
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
November 7, 2010, Proper 27C

Halloween is past, but there is a verse in this passage that still haunts:  “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? (Hag 2:3 NRS).

Haggai is not only talking about a place that used to be, but he is talking about the temple, a place of worship that used to be, but is no more.  

I saw the same thing, not once but several times over in Europe.  Beautiful, huge cathedrals with bell towers, religious paintings and all kinds of elaborate furniture, but many of these buildings were also in decay and many of the churches were empty, some were even left bombed out after the war; never repaired.   Today, some have been remodeled, but still function more like museums than places for worship.  As far as their intended purpose, they are abandoned churches, and still in many cases, reflecting a church in ruins.

I had the same kind of feeling when I visited Turkey the mid 1990’s.  This was a land where some of the very first churches were birthed.  The churches of Ephesus, Sardis, Colosse, and many others were once vital, functioning, living churches, but no more.  A land that was once Christian is Christian no more.  What is an even more frightening truth to consider is that wherever the church goes, it eventually moves toward decline.  But everywhere Islam goes, it is still thriving, growing, and alive and seems only to grow stronger.   How does Christianity look in many lands, many places where it used to be---in Europe, Asia Minor, in Jerusalem and even in some major cities in America?  How do the churches look now?  As you think about their “former glory” in the 1950’s?  How do the churches look now? 

The church I remember in my 60’s and 70’s childhood was often a “thriving” church.   I don’t think everything was perfect, nor do I think that everyone went to church for the right reason, nor do I think it was a world better than today.   What I do remember is that there was a certain ‘glory’, ‘hope’, or ‘anticipation’ that seldom exists today.  I remember full churches when revival time came.  I remember everyone coming together for special occasions.   I remember the whole church coming together in times of loss, crisis or celebration.   I don’t see as much of that today.   The church as an institution, like most other institutions, is in serious decline.  “How does it look to you now?”   Will it soon be “as nothing?

WHEN LIFE FALLS APART
It may be “hard” for us to imagine this first word from Haggai, not because we can’t imagine it, but because we don’t want to.  But we all know parts of our own lives that are not as “glorious” as they used to be or that feel like they are in ruins.  We all know not just churches, but also towns and villages around us that are in decline.  We even know of the decline of our own nation with its increasing crime, decreasing civility, and decline of morals along with the fall of what was once a great, optimistic economic engine.  Where we are headed as a nation and as churches is difficult for us to imagine?   

But, if this is any consolation at all, it must have looked the same way to the first Israelites who returned from exile to Jerusalem.   This is exactly where Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the rest of the returnees were.  They are coming home, but home is in complete ruins.  They all have sick feelings in their hearts.   Maybe it is something like Thomas Wolfe’s words, “You can’t go home again.”   Even when you return to the place you came from, it doesn’t remain the same.  You change, people change, life changes, time changes.   The “glory” of a given moment doesn’t last.   We all have to learn to “deal” and to “cope” with that.

This is how I sometimes feel when I visit Statesville, the town where I grew up.  Statesville today is not the Statesville it used to be.  So much has changed.  So many buildings and businesses are gone.  So much is in decline, as in most small towns in America.  Statesville is “home,” but the reality is, there is no “home” like it used to be.   I still love life, but sometimes, I suddenly get a sense of being “lost in the cosmos”.  And I don’t think I’m the only one.  One of the most popular TV carries a title many relate to: “LOST”.     

But there’s more than just a feeling of ruin and loss.   Even the “former glory” of Israel was not that much compared to the new “home” these exiles had gotten used to in Babylon.  Comparing to how Union Grove looks compared to Charlotte or New York?  Can Union Grove appear so glorious?  But of course, most of us would rather be in Union Grove.  Dorothy told us that “there’s no place like home” even if its Tornado ally in Kansas.  In other words, home might not ever be able to compare to the glamour of Oz, but the truth is, Oz is not real as it claims to be either (Remember the Wizard was all smoke and mirrors).  Home is real. Home is family.  Home is what’s familiar.  Even in ruins, home is still home.  It might seem like nothing to some, but it’s sure something to us.  

Last week there was a tragic attack on one of the oldest churches in the Middle East, which is located in Baghdad---the Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church.  At last count 58 people were killed while worshipping in the church.  It is reported that when Terrorist began to assassinate   hostages, police raided the building and three attackers detonated their suicide vests which left 58 dead and the building in ruins.  One woman who survived, but had to lay for hours in her own blood, said that she thought she was going to die, but she was at peace, because she realize there was no better place to die than in her church.   Maybe, albiet for different reasons, the Exiles who returned to Jerusalem felt that their cause was also hopeless,  but even to die trying to rebuilt their temple in the ruins of home was better than to die in extravagance and splendor of Babylon.  They must have felt all was lost, but at least they were “home.” 

MY SPIRIT ABIDES AMONG YOU
It was in such a moment of “homesickness” and “lostness” that God spoke a new word through the prophet Haggai to those who felt that all was hopeless:   Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.   6 For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; 7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts….
9 The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts. (Hag 2:4-9 NRS)

How do you believe such a word of hope when you are still standing in ruins?   How do you “take courage” and know God is with you, when God still seem hidden, absent or far away?  How can we believe that the shaking of our world is God at work, and not simply the unfolding of our own destruction?  How can humans like us, who always have death hanging over our heads, teach our hearts to sing the hopeful song that “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former?”  Can we believe God is building something new, something to live toward it, or something worth waiting upon in our own time of economic ruin, religious, moral, and social collapse?   Can we find a way to build hope?   

Once in my ministry I helped to lead a building program.  Building programs can bring people hope and optimism.   The “strange” thing about the building program I was leading as Pastor is that I had voted against it.  The church wanted to build a Family Life Building, which included new classrooms for children, youth and a gymnasium that was also a much larger fellowship space.  I was for the building, but I wasn’t for the timing of it.  I thought we should spend our available money on hiring staff and developing ministries before we built the building.  I didn’t think we should rush into debt.  But I was “overruled” by the building committee.  The philosophy in that moment was that “if you build it, they will come.”  It was the “building” not the “ministry” that they wanted to bring them hope and they had no patience to “wait”.

We all know times when we become “desperate” for hope.  Sometimes seek “buildings”, “signs” , “words” or “people” whom we believe can bring hope.   But examining Haggai’s words carefully, we might recognize that he does not give so much a detailed “prediction” about the specifics of a “building” or “temple” to bring hope.   I’m sure Haggai would have loved to look ahead and see how the Temple Building program would work out.  He would like to have told  the people precisely how wonderful it would all be---one day.   They couldn't rebuild or recreate the splendor of the past, which was David and Solomon’s temple, nor can could they ever hope to match the grandeur or excess of Babylon’s pagan temples, nor can we today match the thrills of what Fenway Park or Dallas Cowboy’s Stadiums might sell or advertise.  But, what Haggai wants them to know this one central truth he knows: “If they will build, God will come!”  The prophet doesn’t know buildings, but he knows God.  “But knowing all the details of the future wasn’t Haggai’s job, but knowing God was” (Idea from Susan Bond at, www.goodpreacher.com).   

Neither Solomon’s Temple nor Haggai’s Temple still stands today.  But what Haggai preaches and promises is not so much about a “building” as much as it is about God’s presence.   “Take courage….for I am with you” (vs. 4)….”My Spirit abides among you, do not fear (v. 5)…. I will shake the heavens, the earth, and the nations, so that the treasure will come…..  (vs. 6-7)… “I will fill this house with splendor” (vs. 7).   What else does God “fill” his house with except his own presence?  This is the foundational and abiding hope and in the beginning, as much as the end.   To know God’s presence is our only true and abiding hope.  Our ultimate hope is not in a building, a nation, a religion nor even in the life we now have.  Our only real hope is that when we keep trying, keep believing, keep building and keep working, God’s will make his presence known.  

Philip Yancey tells of an event that happened in Afghanistan back in the 70’s.   It was right before the Russians invaded the area, and the UN was there along with many other American workers and their families.  Because these families were away from home, a Church Youth group was going to go on a mission trip to hold a Christian concert and worship service, just for them.  No Afghans would be invited.   But still it was a very dangerous job, because anything the group did, which was not sanctioned by the Muslim government, or appeared to be making a direct witness for Jesus could get them in trouble.  

The Youth leader made all the group write out their lines.  They meticulously planned every word, every testimony, every song and every move.  When the time came they were well prepared to “be careful” and “cautious” for Jesus.  But then, during the concert, following the Spirit felt in his heart, one of the youth decided to break from the prepared script.  What made matters worse is that Afghans were curiously close by leaning against the wall to hear ever word.  The Youth Leader was a nervous wreck.

Sure enough, after the meeting, the Minister of Culture for Afghanistan, summoned the Youth leaders to his office.  They feared the worse, but when the Culture Minister began to praise their “Youth” work, they couldn’t believe their ears.  He said, “We’ve had all kinds of youth come through this land, looking for drugs and causing all kinds of problems.  But your youth are different.  Our own Afghan young people need to hear such a witness to love and faith.  We want you to travel all over this country and share this message of hope.

They couldn’t believe their ears.  After they came back to travel throughout the country side sharing their witness, not just to American expatriates, but also to Afghans, the headmaster of an American Christian school took them on a tour of a local cemetery.  He first showed them the grave of the first missionary who came to that area.  He worked for 30 years. Not one single convert.  Then they went to another grave, where a man died who had worked for 25 years and only had one convert.  Finally, they found another grave, where a man had worked for 25 years, just moving rocks.   Then, the Headmaster turned to the youth group and said: “All these years’ people have worked and moved rocks waiting for God to show up.   They were building for 55 years.  All this work has been done to get to this moment, where you have a chance to bring in a harvest.  (From an article in Christianity Today, Nov. 2010).   

THE TREASURE OF ALL NATIONS
That harvest in 1970’s Afghanistan did not last long.  Today, the Church where that youth grouped worked has been demolished and buried in a deep hole so no one can find out it ever existed.  That moment, that temple that church, now stands in ruins as do many lives in Afghanistan.  Will the hope return?  Will God show up again?  How do we respond to the “ruins” and the “waits” we all encounter in life?   What do we do when things fall apart and how do we keep our faith?  How do we “wait” for God’s presence to show up?   

Bob Phelps, pastor of Providence Presbyterian in Fernandina Beach Florida, tells of a tragedy that hit his small community where he once was pastor, when 5 people were all killed in a plane crash on a vacation trip to Europe.  The church where they attended was between pastors so Bob agreed to help a family member plan and perform the funeral.   The little church would not hold all the mourners who came, as 3 caskets were lined in front of the sanctuary in one service and 2 for another.   As the people came together from different churches and different denominations, to share their grief and support each other, there was no question that in this moment as everyone came together to pray, to mourn, and to hope, that God was with them.  Even in the worse of moments, amid all the ruins, they still found their hope in the promise of Jesus who is the promised “treasure among the nations” that has come to give us hope against all hopelessness. 

Sometime after the service, when the community learned to live and to laugh again, the “brother” who helped plan and perform the funeral, came to visit with Pastor Bob.  He had even made up a calling card with a motto for this “business” they hoped they never would need again.  The calling card read: “We’ll baptize you, we’ll marry you, we’ll bury you, decently and in order, all amidst splendor!” (From www.goodpreacher.com).     

Can you imagine “splendor” in the midst of all that can happen in life?  It’s almost sacrilegious and ridiculous to imagine such a thing?  But Haggai could.  And he is right about this: we can only imagine true “splendor” in the “ruins” of our lives when we know God is still with us.   And we can only know God is with us, through the “treasure of the nations”, which is Jesus, and his living Body, the Body of Christ.   Only in knowing God’s presence, can we keep believing in the midst of the “impossible.”   John Adams, a founding Father of our nation once wrote Thomas Jefferson these words about his faith: "Without religion (speaking of faith in God and particularly the Christian faith),  this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I man Hell."   To Alexander Hamilton, he wrote in a similar fashion, "without religion and the hope of the afterlife, everyone would be well advised to take opium....for I am certain, there is nothing in this world worth living for but hope, and every hope will fail us, if the last hope, that of a future state, is extinguished."  (From Jon Meachan's "American Gospel", Random House, 2006, pp 28, 30).


 Sometimes, like Jesus on his cross, we are “covered up” in ruins, or must be “buried in splendor” and we can’t see God anywhere and hope seems to fail.   But God is still here and so is hope.  This is the promise of the Christ on the cross and his resurrection.   As Scripture testifies, in the darkest moment of the cross, God was there, “reconciling the world to himself.”   Through the Resurrection power of God, 3 days later, the splendor returned and it was more than ever before. 

Today, we too must take Haggai’s word for it, even amid the ruins we experience.   Even in the worse that can happen, God will make his presence known and his future is still coming.   We can keep building against the odds and trusting, when we build it, “He will come.”  We can believe this because “treasure of nations” has come, and through Jesus Christ and the promise, he has made to us; through his teaching, through his dying on the cross, and through his resurrection and his promise to return and bring God’s kingdom, no matter the ruins we go through, the ups, the downs, the detours, the delays; with Jesus, the best is yet to be.   Amen.