Sunday, March 27, 2016

“Look Beyond Today!”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 16: 1-8, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Easter Sunday,  March  27th , 2016

An American novel from the early 1930’s tells of a man who life ends tragically.   But the tragedy is not unexpected, because the man destroys his own life prematurely by doing some really stupid things. 

In order to point to the inevitability of self-destruction, the author retells ancient story from the Babylonian Talmud about a merchant in Baghdad who sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions.  Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells his master that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death.  Death made a threatening gesture at him. 

Borrowing the merchant's horse, the servant flees at top speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles, where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why ‘She’ made the threatening gesture toward his servant.  Death replies, "It was not a threatening gesture, I was only a startled in surprise.  I was astonished to see the servant in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appointment_in_Samarra#cite_note-1

Maybe death can be startled, but it can't be fooled.  None of us will fool nor escape the visit from death.  The Easter story in all for gospels begins ‘while it is still dark’ (Jn. 20:1), with the women walking toward the tomb.   Isn’t this the ‘walk’ we all have to make--not just walking toward the death and burial of our loved ones, but also walking toward our own coming death that will end everything we’ve ever known?  How can we human beings, who are capable of reasoning, contemplation, or making plans for the future, have any real hope when we know that ‘death’ is the same direction of ‘darkness’ in which we are all walking?  

“THEY WENT TO THE TOMB” ( 16:2)
Mark’s gospel tells us that when the three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, finally arrived at the tomb to ‘anoint the body’ of Jesus, ‘the sun had risen’ (16.2).  I find it interesting that the conversation they were having along the way was not about how ‘dark’ it was or how depressed they were.  For these women, who had been active in the ministry of Jesus, the problem death first presented to them was not philosophical, but practical.  They were wondering ‘who would roll away the stone at the door of the tomb’ (16:3) so they could 'anoint' the body with spices and perfumes.   Only in the gospel of Mark, the shortest, most brief telling of the gospel story, which most always gives us less details, does the gospel to take the trouble to elaborate on what was going on in the minds and hearts of these women as they approached the ‘stench’ of the tomb.   Perhaps Mark was also reflecting upon what goes on in most minds as we also move closer  to our own inevitable encounter with our mortality.   And while not many of us may make an effort to wonder about the philosophical ‘why’ it is coming, like these women, most of us do wonder about ‘how’ will we ‘deal’ with and try to get through it.

By having these women ask ‘Who would roll away the stone’, Mark is keeping it practical.  These women were wondering how they could gain access the decaying body of their beloved teacher so they could him a proper burial in the midst of such humiliating circumstances.   We also need to ask the most ‘practical’ questions.  We must ask and answer those questions like, “which kind of casket do you want?”  “Do you want metal or wood?”  “Do you want to be buried or do you want to be cremated?   “Who do you want to be the Pallbearers?”   “What Scriptures to do want to be read?”  “Do you want the music to be up tempo and celebrative, or slow and reflective?”   We certainly understand all this, but when the grieving family goes to the funeral home it still almost sounds ‘sacrilegious’ when the funeral director comes to ask,  “Are you ready to go pick out the casket?”  Of course, you’re not ready.  How can you get ‘ready’ when you are still wondering how you can get through the loss, hurt, and the loneliness?

When I returned to the United States, after serving as a missionary in eastern Germany, as an ‘only’ child I had to return to care for the most practical reason of caring for my own ‘dying’ parents.  In that first year of re-entry, I had took a job at a large cemetery in Greensboro, where I spent most of my time ‘cold calling’ on people in Guilford County, Greensboro, and High Point, trying to get them to think about ‘pre need’ burial plans.  Having been a pastor and missionary gave me needed skills for trying to ‘sell’ such a hard ‘product’ that few wanted to talk about.  But I still met much resistance.   In a High Point neighborhood, going to the door of a very nice gentlemen, who, when I introduced myself and why I was at his door, politely told me, that he “didn’t want to talk about no cemetery plot.”  When I told him that we all need to think about things we don’t want to think about, he explained to me again, “I still don’t want to talk about no cemetery.”  Finally, when I asked him to just tell me why he didn’t want at least ‘talk’ about it, because it would save him money, if he would at least start to make some plans, his final word to me was,  “It doesn’t matter,  I just don’t want to think about no cemetery!”  

As much as it ‘hurts’ to think about the ‘practical’ things we ‘should’ do to prepare for dying or death, we still should.   We should think, not just about the ‘deep’, relational, or philosophical, but we also should think about the ‘practical’.  We have to ‘make our wills’ and we ‘have to think about the ‘what if’ of our own death or how we might have to ‘live’ without those we love?   In another period of history, families and friends would have had to ‘drop everything’ else when death came.  They had to care of their own all on their own, by tenderly washing, dressing and preparing the body, or by having to dig the grave with our own shovels.   They might even have to make their own coffins too, or they would have come from their own community---who ‘stopped everything’ to share the questions, the grief and loss together.  

But our own ‘practices’ around death, seem to isolate us more and more from the ‘real’, and most practical matters concerning death.   As pastoral theologian Tom Long has recently written: “It used to be that burial was a major funeral event. The whole community attended the funeral—including the deceased.  Funeral rituals were built around picture of a baptized saint traveling from this life into God’s presence.” At the funeral, Long continues, “funeral goers mourned publicly, raised a fist at death… praising the God who raised Jesus from the grave… and honored the body and life of the saint who died.”  “Now more people attend visitation than the funeral.  Memorial services even happen without a dead body”, which, to one ‘undertaker’ (Thomas Lynch), “seems like…having a baptism without (a baptism candidate), or having a wedding without the bride.”   Long concludes, “Services are often brief, simple, highly personalized and improvised. They focus on the life and lifestyle of the deceased, emphasizing the joy, celebration, and goodness of the person instead of the grief and somberness of death,” forgetting, I might add, about the ‘victory’ over death only God can give.  (http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/christian-funerals-going-to-be-with-god/).

Whereas, funerals and burials will continue to reflect changes in our culture, for good or bad, the most practical reality does not change.  It is a reality also evident as the women almost seemed to be asking “who would roll away “this ‘stone-cold reality’ of death?

“HE HAS BEEN RAISED” (16: 6).
What interrupted this ‘hard’ reality that first Easter morning was more than just another beautiful sunrise, but it was the angelic assertion of the promise of a ‘risen’ son.  We are told by each of the four evangelists that as these women arrived, they discovered with amazement that ‘the stone was rolled back’ (Mk. 16:4, Matt. 28.2), or even more expressively, ‘rolled’ (Luk 24.2) or ‘taken away’ (Jn. 20.1). 

While each gospel tell us this stone either ‘moved’ or ‘missing,’ it is only Mark who gives such an emphatic description of a stone was still ominously present which they ‘looked up’ to see ‘was very large’ (Mk 16.4).  In order to look into this ‘tomb’ had to pass this enormous obstruction to get to what they ‘might’ or ‘might not’ see inside.  According to Mark, there was no ‘greeter’ outside sitting ‘on’ that stone (Mt. 28.2), but the angelic messenger appeared inside as a ‘young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe’ (Mk. 16.5).  After bypassing the stone, and entering the tomb in bewildering amazement, this ‘young’ stranger becomes a messenger of an even stranger irony: While these women have come ‘seeking this Jesus who was crucified,’they hear an improbable message with an even more unexpected invitation, declaring: “He is not here, for he is risen, see the place where they laid him” (Mk 16.6).

It is still ‘troubling’ to some modern readers, that the earliest ‘broadcast’ and first ‘breaking news’ from the empty tomb came to us with such vivid variations; wavy lines, apparent distortions, or even with some blarring static sounds.  But shouldn’t we ‘observe’ such broadcasting challenges when the raw, the real, the unrehearsed breaks ‘new’ into time?   Most of you have experienced the ‘unpolished’ almost amateur-like camera angles of ‘reality TV’, that seems closer to ‘reality’ than traditional Hollywood.   I’m even enough to remember those small, black and white, rabbit eared, ghost-imaging televisions, only promising what amazing quality images that have come.  In comparison, shouldn’t this first fresh message of ‘resurrection’ have rough edges exactly because it was so ‘new’ is must seem also so ‘surreal’ to us?  What should you see when you look straight into a story that is promising “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” of which “God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:9-10 NRS)? 

Easter is the specific day on our own calendars that we are still asked to celebrate this very  ‘spiritual’, dynamic, but also historical moment, when God vindicated Jesus by raising him up and releasing the power of his ‘life’ into the world.   It was this very affirmation by early Christians that “He is risen” being proclaimed every Easter, which according to Athanasius of Alexandria, ‘freed Romans from their own feverish fear of death’ affirming that even ‘death’ must bow this ‘Living Lord.’  (As quoted in Kate Sonderreger, “The Doctrine of God, Fortress Press, 2015, Kindle Edition, Location 2941). Since this ‘affirmation’ Easter was written into their ‘Roman calendars’ which were foundational to our calendars,  we are still invited at least once annually to hear and to affirm this angelic message, that indeed, “He is risen!  

This day we call “Easter” should still be most important to us, because as God raised Jesus from the dead, God has promised one day to raise us from the dead, by that same power that can be released to us through faith in Jesus Christ.   Even though most people have more sentiment about Christmas, when you finally realize that babies are not just born, but that all babies are born to die, Easter becomes the most promising celebration.   While Christmas reminds of us with past ‘dreams that come true’, it is only Easter that holds the promise of the ‘dream’ that true and still to come.

“TERROR AND AMAZEMENT HAD SEIZED THEM” (16:8).
But how to you celebrate what hasn’t yet happened for us or to us; is perhaps a hope that is obvious, but is also an oblivious ‘reality’?  For like no other gospel, Mark tells us that after hearing the announcement of this angel and being charged to ‘go tell his disciples …. that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him…. (Mk 16.7), we read the most frank, raw, and realistic response of all.   Mark tells us that these women, rather than doing immediately what they were commanded, “….fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mk. 16:8 NRS).

Afraid of what?  What were these women ‘afraid of’ when they had just heard that Jesus had been raised and they could ‘see him’?   Well, as the late Karl Barth once asked, how else would you react or recollect the pure presence of God?’...  The content of Easter is not that the disciples found the tomb empty, but when they had lost Him through death they were then sought and found by Him as the resurrected…living Christ (As quoted by Wiliam Placher in “Mark”,  Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible,  WJK, 2010, p. 244, 245).    

Their 'strange' reaction to the resurrection is same kind of ‘shock’ which Abraham and Sarah had when they were told by their own ‘strange’ visitors that “Sarah” was a 90 year-old woman about to have a baby.   It is also the reminiscent of that moment after Joseph’s brothers had sold their brother into slavery, only to find out later, that their own brother Joseph is, next to the Pharaoh, the most powerful man in Egypt.  What might they be afraid of?   It is also the same kind of language used when “Moses, Elijiah” appeared with a ‘transformed’ Jesus on the mountain we call, Transfiguration, and when suddenly, Jesus was the only one left,  with a heaven from heaven saying,  “This is my beloved Son, Listen to him!   Is it also not also the same ‘terror’ which called Moses to ‘take off his shoes’ on holy ground, and not ‘approach’ the God of Sinai without an invitation?   This might all sound strange, to say or think that a loving God who can save is also not always safe.  It's kind of like the experience a comedian once joked about while flying in an airplane: "Do you realize that you are sitting in a seat up in the air, suspended in clouds in the sky?”  It's a miracle, but are you safe?    

Most Bible scholars will tell you that the ‘terror and amazement’ that ‘seized’ these women, left the ‘hope’ of resurrection exactly as it must still passed on to us.  Although these women did hear the angel say “He is Risen!”, as Paul later wrote, the ‘terror’ is that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Cor. 15:50).  Even though Christ is raised, they, and we, remain ‘suspended’ in ‘terror and amazement’  because hope in this world, in our flesh, remains ‘open’ ended.   Because our hope is Christ is still unrealized,  it still has unanswered questions which demand our faith and our life,  before all that will be can be realized. 

Like those women, we still live between an ‘empty tomb’ that can’t  be the  full answer as we wait for Jesus,   who is God’s only final and full answer to life and in death.  As John wrote: “Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 Jn. 3:2-3 NRS).  It is this kind of open-ended hope that not only ‘saves’ us, but should also ‘purify’ us while we remain suspended between what once was, what is, and what is still to come.  

The ‘answer’ to hope is guaranteed, but it still remains unfulfilled until we are fully in Christ, so what we must now do is to live into it, and to live toward it, just like steering your sliding car into a skid, so you can straighten it up.  Having hope in Christ while ‘leaning’ into death goes against all ‘logic’ in your mind just like ‘steering’ your car in the wrong direction doesn’t make you think you’ll end up in the right direction.  But when God’s new ‘logic’ of hope gets into you, it will seize you, just like it seized these women.   Then, you will can keep on living and believing,  even without all the answers, because in Jesus Christ, you have found a life that matters because in him, you have found the only true hope.   Amen.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

"Bear the Cross!"

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 15: 12-15; 25, 29-39, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fifth Sunday of Lent,  March  13th , 2016

There is a comical scene in Clyde Edgerton’s “Bible Salesmen” where a young man is trying sell a Bible to a nice lady.  When selling anything you hope to catch people in a positive mood but this lady’s cat, affectionately named “Bunny”, had just died.   She thinks it died in its sleep. 

In hopes of winning her confidence, the salesman offers to bury the cat, but as he squats down to get a closer look, its head is swollen with a large copperhead snake its mouth, which also died in the scuffle.   The salesman knows that if this lady sees this sickening sight, he’ll never make a sale.  So he does everything in his power to keep her from finding out.

After succeeding at getting the cat buried (with the snake) without her seeing them,  then the lady decides he should have buried the cat in something.   “You want to rebury her?”  He hesitantly asks.   Tearfully speaking of her brother Walter, who was lost in the war and was never properly buried, she finally asks, “Would you mind?”  While the lady goes inside to get a shoebox, you’re left wondering whether the Bible salesman will be able to keep her from seeing what really happenned to her cat  (Adapted from Clyde Edgerton, The Bible Salesman, Back Bay Books,  2008, pp 15-20).

In a similar way, Even if you a good salesman of the good news of the gospel, ‘sooner or later…. you will have to answer the question about what happened to Jesus’.   Even as you are trying to convince somebody that the Christian life and Christian faith is a wonderful way to believe and live, you still have to get to what happened to the first man who ever lived this way---“they hung him up to die on a stick” (Fred Craddock).   You just can’t hide this to make a ‘sale’.  Each gospel is written to ask you look straight into what really happened.  The gospels are at their ‘best’ when they are telling you the ‘worst’.   They make everything point toward the cross.

Why can’t the Church have a more ‘optimistic’ enlightenment religion like Buddhism, or a religious faith where God always has to dominate like Islam?  Why do Christians alway have to gain their ‘true bearings’ by looking straight at the cross?  “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light….,” the song goes.  Why the cross?  Why can’t we have, as one theologian (Reinhold Niebuhr) complained, “a God without wrath, bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a Cross?”  Why can’t we just sit around telling nice stories, asking little of anyone, doing only what we want, whenever, or however we want? 

Well, the truth is we can, but if we do we can’t call our faith what the apostle Paul called it; ‘the preaching of the cross’ (1 Cor. 1.18).  Paul says he could have preached with ‘lofty words or wisdom’, but he was ‘determined not to know anything… except Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2.2).  Does this look foolish?  Once a young man entered my study, marveling at all my Bible commentaries and then said, “Don’t you ever read anything else?”   “The preaching of the cross is foolishness to those that are perishing,” Paul wrote, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1.18).  

Did you catch that Paul does not say this cross is God’s power for those who   ‘have been saved’, or ‘are saved’ (KJV), but Paul says the message of the cross is God’s power that is still at work for those of ‘us who are being saved’?  This is not a trick translation, but it’s a constant reminder that the cross of Jesus is not just for believing, but it’s also about living your own life in the shape of a cross.  It is this cruciform way of living Paul refers to when he wrote to the Galatians, “…I have been crucified with Christ;
 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:19-20 NRS).  This is Paul’s way of saying we cannot have the life of Jesus without also having his death; we cannot say we have his faith, without living the way of the cross.

What does it mean--not just to read about or worship at the cross, to adorn our Churches, our Bibles or our jewelry with the cross,--but what ‘sense’ does it make if we would ‘take up’ this ‘cross’ (Mark 8.34) and make it the method of living our own faith?   

Love Freely 
There is certainly still a ‘sense’ that this cross is just ‘foolishness’, as it was suggested to Paul.  Even as we consider the crucifixion story right here in Mark’s text, think about where Jesus was when he was killed?  He was is Jerusalem, right?  Was this his home?  Did he live there?  No, he was from up north, in Nazareth, about 68 miles away.  He had even moved away from there and had been living in Capernaum, some 120 miles away.   If Jesus found himself in troubled in this big town, why didn’t he just ‘get out of town’?  He did all his good ministry of teaching and healing and then went to Jerusalem.  When things got tough, his followers scattered, but he stayed there in the middle of all that danger.  Why didn’t he just ‘pack up’ and leave, at least until things settled down?   He was a smart man.  He knew about all the threats.  How ‘foolish’ can you be? (This point well made by Fred Craddock in “Why the Cross” from Collected Sermons, WJK Press, 2011, p. 236-240).

Even after the governor, Pilate, tried to give him a way out (15.4-5), and the whole crowd is calling for crucifixion, Pilate questions, “Why, what evil has he done (vs. 14)?  The whole scenario still makes no sense.  It appears so foolish that Jesus walks allows himself to be betrayed, arrested, denied, and now ‘handed over’ to be killed (15.15), when there should have been another, better, even more humane way of accomplishing God’s will and work.  He does consider it, and even prays about it, but he still goes through with it and he does not walk or run away.  What was he thinking?      

The truth in this story about the cross is that Jesus was not thinking as we might, but Jesus had to be thinking what God would think.  How can we know what God was thinking?  Everything in the story of Jesus’ willingness to stay turns out not to be so foolish after all---“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son….  “But God demonstrated his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us….”   For the love of Christ constrains us,… that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself….”   What looked like ‘foolishness’ was not foolish at all, but Jesus stayed in Jerusalem to show us the stuff that life is really made of---the good stuff that can the hard’ stuff we call love.

Many things can be called ‘love’, but the death of Jesus on the cross narrows the definition and keeps it real.   “God loves us in freedom” (Karl Barth).   In other words, the whole gospel story was ‘free’ to go another way, but being true to the Father, Jesus freely stayed in Jerusalem, because living does not make sense unless you choose love.  What else could Jesus choose, even when the world rejected him?   Jesus chooses the cross because Jesus chose to serve, to give, and to love: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:45 NRS).  In Jesus Christ, we discover that God’s free choice is to love us and to love the world, even when we are at our worst.

To say that the cross means love does not mean we are to love the cross. ‘The cross is not and cannot be loved’ (Jurgen Moltman).  When you understand what the cross means and ‘take up your cross’ to follow Jesus you ‘bear’ the cross to love, even when it hurts, even when they hate you, and especially when you know that what you are saying and doing what is right.  There is no ‘right’ without freely choosing this ‘cross’ that freely loves.  But of course, there have always been those who want to try to ‘preach’ another kind of right, who have tried to turn the cross into a way to dominate, a way to hate, or a way to hate.  We know about the ‘twisted thinking’ of the  KKK who dared to put hoods on their heads, and set fire to a cross burning in people’s yards so that children could be heard screaming blocks away.  We know about people who fly ‘cross bone’ flags because they are really inspired by hate, not love.  We also know about armies that marched with a shield of a cross, claiming to be able to conquer the world with a cross and a sword.  Or what about the kind of crossed up religion which says if you give God your nickel, he’ll give you back a dime?  There are so many ways to try to try to rewrite, reshape, or avoid the truth of the cross, but if the cross is to the same, true cross--the cross that has the power to save---it must be a cross that ‘freely loves’ so that it stands ready to bear the hurt, to suffer and die to itself, rather than demand to hurt, bring pain or to cause loss to the one it loves.

Forgive Fully 
How do we do this?  How do we bear a cross that freely loves, when others have not loved us as they should, or when they have hurt, despised, or done wrong to us?   The answer is that this is exactly the ‘cross’ that Jesus lived and died upon.  It is exactly this kind of ‘cross’ of love that cannot be lived freely unless we live fully into the ‘mystery’ of forgiveness.  In other words, as Jesus loved freely, he also forgave fully (“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing., Luke 23.34), for there is no love that does not also bear the burden of forgiveness.

Perhaps we are looking straight into the full mystery of forgiveness in that Cry of Dereliction as Jesus cried out:“My God, Why have you forsaken me!”  (v. 34).  A lot of ink has been spilt trying to decipher exactly what Jesus felt or meant in that moment.   What we know is that when Jesus quotes Scripture (Psalm 22:1) he also fulfills it.   These mysterious words point us directly into the mystery of the atoning work acknowledged by the apostle Paul when he wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).  

Some interpret these mysterious words of ‘forsakenness’ by concluding that while God the Father looked away, Jesus the Son had to be abandoned to die this very violent death of suffering and shame on the cross just so that the Father’s holiness or wrath could be ‘satisfied’ and forgiveness made possible.  What we must keep in mind however, is that in this very same passage Paul also says “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:20).  In this great ‘atoning sacrifice’ (Rom. 3.25, 1 John 2.2; 4:10) we should not consider God another god demanding appeasement, nor is God the kind of Father that would turn his back on his own Son.  Scripture says that it was through Jesus’ obedience (Roms. 5.9; Hebrews 5.8) as the ‘only begotten Son’ (Jn. 3:16) that God himself bears the burden, bears the difficulty and bears the forsakenness that is needed to forgive sin.   In Christ, God himself suspends his wrath against us (Rom. 5.9) and reconciles us with him (Rom 5:18-19), while remaining holy, just and right.   

It is important to understand that in Jesus, God himself experiences the ‘forsakenness’ of forgiving, because in Jesus, God not only redeems us from sin, but through Jesus, God is also modeling for us the very kind of humble example of forgiving love (John 13.14) which is required of those who follow Jesus (Mark 11.25; Luke 11.4; Matt 6.14).   To ‘fully forgive’ as Christ commands, we must do the most difficult thing imaginable: we must forgo own feelings of wrath and vengeance by suspending our own sense of what is right, what is fair, and what is just.   This is the very kind of ‘forsakenness’ that we too must enter, so that we can forgive the sin that has been committed against us.   Isn’t this the kind of dark ‘forsakenness’ that the Amish community entered when they forgave that Pennsylvania man who murdered their 5 daughters?  Isn’t this also the kind of hard, difficult ‘forsakenness’ Mother Immanuel church entered when they forgave that evil young man Dylann Roof, who came to a church Bible study and killed nine of their own?  True forgiveness, is not easy, but requires from us the most demanding, difficult act of forsakenness---that very same kind of forsakenness similar to what Jesus himself experienced on the cross.

The late ethicist Lewis B. Smedes, tells of Michael Christopher’s play The Black Angel, which tells the story of Herman Engel, a German general in World War II, who has just been released from prison, having completed
the 30-year sentence imposed by the Nuremberg Tribunal.  Now that he has served his time, Engel hopes to build a new life. He and his wife have gone to Alsace, on the French-German border. There they have built a woodland cabin, where they hope to live out their years, at peace and unrecognized.

However, they have not counted on Morrieaux. Morrieaux is a French journalist whose family was massacred by Engel’s army. When the Nuremberg court failed to sentence Engel to death, Morrieaux vowed to do it himself, no matter how long it might take to accomplish, no matter
how long he might have to wait.  Now the time is ripe. He’s found the hiding place, and has stirred up the village people. That very night, they are going to enter the woods, burn down the cabin, and kill Engel and his wife.
Before this happens, however, Morrieaux wants to do one thing. He wants to talk to Engel. There are still some gaps in the story that his journalist’s mind wants to resolve. And so he goes to the cabin, confronts a very shaken Engel, and spends the afternoon grilling him.

It turns out he’s confused by the interview. He’d come expecting to find a monster, but instead finds a feeble old man. Not only that, but he’s having trouble piecing the story together. There are gaps – doubt creeps into his mind. His hatred, clear and bright for so long, now begins to grow fuzzy around the edges. And so, as the sun is setting, Morrieaux finds himself doing the unexpected. He blurts out to his adversary, “The villagers are coming! They plan to kill you tonight!” And then, “But it doesn’t have to happen – I will lead you out of the woods and save your life!”

Engel pauses for a moment. In the course of the interview, he’s begun to have some doubts of his own. Finally he says, “Okay, I’ll go with you – on one condition.” And what condition would a man impose for the saving of his own life? “I’ll go with you – but only if you forgive me.”  Forgive? In his fantasies, Morrieaux has killed Engel thousands of times. Now, after an afternoon’s encounter with the man’s humanity, he’s prepared to call it off. He’s prepared to save the life of his enemy. But forgive him? No. Never!

That night, because Engel asked for forgiveness, Morrieaux allowed everything to go on according to plan.  Villagers appear with sacks over their heads. They burn the cabin down, and they shot Engel and his wife dead.  Saving Engel’s life was one thing, but forgiveness was the ‘forsakenness’ that Morrieaux was able enter into again and bear (From “Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, Harper & Row, 1984, pp 24-25).

Keep The Faith 
You, nor I, can bear a cross to love freely or to forgive fully until we keep the faith that will keep us.  This kind of faith isn’t just any kind of faith, but it is ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 2.16, KJV) which the Centurion encountered as he watched Jesus dying, seeing how he died and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!" (Mk. 15:39 NRS)?    

Over and over, it is the witness of the New Testament that through the faith OF Jesus Christ which brings faith IN Jesus Christ (Gal. 3.26) we are empowered to bear the cross of love and forgivness (Rom. 1:5; Eph 3:17, Col. 3.13) as we remain ‘rooted and grounded in love (Eph. 3:17).  Certainly, you nor I can keep or be kept by such a great ‘faith’ unless we abide or remain connected to it’s source (John 15:4ff).  We receive this ‘faith of Jesus’ Christ as a ‘gift of God’ (Eph 2.8) but we must also continue to ‘abide in his love’ to know that “God abides in us” (1 Jn. 1:16).   This kind of living and abiding ‘faith in Christ’ that ‘takes up the cross’ with Jesus, can’t be in our own strength alone, because it is a living ‘faith’ that based upon this ‘righteousness from God’ that is not our ‘own’ (Phil 3.9, Rom. 10.3). 

Several years ago a fine writer and novelist named Jack Abbott was in federal prison in Atlanta.  He wrote an article and sent it in to a New York literary journal.  It was published and acknowledged as one of the most beautiful things written in that generation.  There was a beautiful line that went something like, “Over the wall, the smell of magnolia, and peach, soft, late evenings.”  When some of the powerful people in New York read it, they said, “Anybody who can write like that should not be in prison.”  They got his sentence reduced and a few weeks later he got out. 

Before long, Jack Abbott was working and writing in New York, “over the wall, the smell of magnolia, and peach, soft, late evenings.”  He had just dined in a fine restaurant and after the evening of eating and drinking, he came out with friends to the parking valet, requesting his car.  “Bring me my car!”  The valet said, “Just a moment.  There is someone in front of you.”  Abbott then demanded impatiently, “Bring me my car!”  and the valet said,  “You’ll have to wait your turn.  We’ll bring it in a few minutes.”  Abbott then pulled out a long knife and killed the attendant.  “Over the wall, the smell of magnolia, and peach, soft, late evenings.”  And he killed again.
(From “Why the Cross?” by Fred Craddock, WJK Press, 2011, pp 238-239).

As we conclude we need to be reminded ‘why’ we need to bear not just any cross and not just any form of righteousness, but we need to bear the cross of faith in ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’.   Just because a person has religion (even Christian), or talent, has been to school, has a nice income, lives in the best neighborhood, or even when they come from a good family, they can still fall into ugliness and cruelty. 

But the death, and also the resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, invites us to receive and to live the ‘gift’ of a life and a ‘faith’ that is ‘not our own’At the cross God invites us to love others, as God loves us (1 Jn 4.10-12).  On the cross this Jesus who died for us is the one who commanded us to pray to ‘forgive as we have been forgiven’ (Luk 11:4).   It is here, we see the ‘bleeding heart’ of the one whose faith must be received into our own hearts. For only when we bear his cross of love and forgiveness are we empowered to keep a faith that also keeps us.   Amen.







Sunday, March 13, 2016

Stay in the Fight!

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 14: 32-42, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 13th, 2016

Winston Churchill is considered one of the two or three greatest political leaders of the Twentieth Century.   When he arose on June 18, 1940, to speak to the House of Commons, the weight world was upon his shoulders.

It looked as if Britain was to stand alone against the German Juggernaut that had crushed Poland, Denmark, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, The Nether-lands, and now France. The morale of the nation was at all time low. The fate of the free world hung in the balance.

The Nazi dictatorship was poised for the final kill, and Winston Churchill made this statement: “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands; but if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.” (Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, pp. 663-664).

We could say that beginning with the garden of Gethsemane, was also Jesus’ finest hour.  But I'm not sure he felt like it at the time.   This fourteenth chapter of Mark presents a ministry ‘seemingly’ falling apart.  We are told that religious leaders are looking for a way to kill him (14.1).   A woman has anointed Jesus for his burial (14.3-9).  Sitting around the table for a meal with his disciples, Jesus knows it will be his last supper (14.12-16).   At that table and after the meal, Jesus predicts those of his own who will turn their backs on him (14.17-31).  It's a tragic, depressing, and disturbing picture of increasing evil and approaching darkness.  It is the kind of situation that brings fear, dread, and the threat of great physical or emotional pain to Jesus and those involved with him (14.19).

How Jesus faced this coming darkness should be as important as anything he accomplishes in it.  That is quite a lot to say, but how Jesus lived and died is just as important for our hope of salvation as why he came to die. 

The ‘how’ of Jesus’ death is well known, but it is the ‘fear’ and ‘dread’ of it that becomes especially visible in today’s text (14.33-34).   As Jesus prays for the Father to “remove this cup” from him (14.36, what becomes clear is that he must drink “all” of what is to about to come!   Jesus must take the cup of betrayal, the cup of rejection, and the cup of suffering, exactly as it has been dealt to him.  If Jesus doesn't drink of this cup of pain, suffering, and death, then he will not be able to release the ‘saving grace’ of God’s love.  It is only by going through ‘all’ of it that the doorway will open up to the fullness of God’s grace and glory.

While Jesus must go through this moment alone, there is something we still have to learn from his “Gethsemane”.  For we too will have to go through the ‘press’ (Gethsemane means ‘oil press’) of life and come to our emotional limits to find ourselves crying out to God in prayer.  As someone has said, “everybody prays”.    You may not get on your knees, or you may not even go to church or believe in God, but sometime in your life you will face will struggle to find a way keep going.  As Churchhill is reported to have said during his ‘finest hour’: “When it seems like you’re going through Hell, keep going!”  It was this prayer of Gethsemane that enabled Jesus to ‘keep going’ and it is prayer that can also empower us to find the fullness of God’s grace even when we face the hard struggles in our lives.  

AWAKEN
As Jesus approached Gethsemane, he asked his disciples to ‘sit’ (32) and to ‘keep awake’ (34) while he prayed.  Of course, when he returned he found them ‘sleeping’ and then scolds them, demanding that at least Simon Peter should have been able to “keep awake” (v. 37-38) to avoid the weakness of his own ‘temptation’. 

What Jesus is warning Peter about is not about his sleeping habits, but it’s about his poor praying habits.  For Jesus ‘prayer’ is the only way to remain vigilant, to ‘watch’, to remain ‘awake’ or  ‘alert’ to all that can confront and challenge our lives and our faith.  Prayer the only way we can prepare ourselves against the ‘weakness of the flesh’ to develop the ‘willingness’ of our ‘spirits’ for facing both the opportunities and the disappointments of life.

This challenge to ‘keep awake and pray’ (v.38), or ‘wakefulness’ is foundational to what prayer means. While prayer is also about ‘asking, seeking, and knocking’ to receive all God has for us, we become most aware to what we need to ask for by becoming fully awake and aware of  what is going on around and within us.  Prayer is foremost about facing squarely both the good and the bad in our lives, so that we become ‘honest with God’ and as we are honest with ourselves and others.   Living a life in ‘denial’ of what is really happening can become the most destructive tool against us when our ‘flesh’ is weak and under threat.   This is why Jesus is constantly admonishing his disciples to ‘watch and to pray’.  Developing a spirit of wakefulness is precursor to all that prayer means and is. 

Peter Kreeft gives a powerful image of what ‘wakefulness’ means for prayer, when he says that the beginning ‘method’ for developing wakefulness are is the simple phrase, ‘stop, look, and listen’.  “This is what you do at a railroad crossing. God is like a great train crossing the tracks of your life.  BUT YOU WANT TO GET RUN OVER BY THIS TRAIN!”  You have to become fully awake to God by right now stopping your worry about anything else except your relationship with God, by looking at God with the eyes of faith, and then finally, by listening for that voice that is different than any other.  It is the ‘still, small, voice’ that you can only hear when you are fully awake, alert, and aware that you are not alone; God is speaking through nature, through his Word, and through your own heart when you are make yourself still enough to be true to yourself (From Peter Kreeft,  “Prayer for Beginners, Ignatius, 2000, pp. 25-30).

Unfortunately, too many people are not ready to ‘awaken’ their souls by being ‘still before the Lord and waiting patiently for him’ (Psa 37:7).  There is a novel by Charles Williams, All Hallows Eve, that opens with an account of two souls who are hovering over a city where a car accident has just taken their lives.  They cannot return to earth and yet they do not feel able to leave it either.  They are confused, not knowing who they are or why they have lived.  They are not only confused about themselves, but are also numb and oblivious to the human needs that surround them.  They are close to the condition of being in George Bernanos’ description of Hell, which is ‘not to love anymore’.  They are not ready to die.  They never really found out how to live.  They are adrift, because they were never really fully awake to the purpose, calling and meaning of their life.  If they had only let themselves be ‘run over by His train’ then, and become awake, they might not now be adrift, having lived before they died. (From Doulas V. Steere’s, Dimensions of Prayer,  Upper Room Books, 1962, p. xiv).

So, with this powerful image of a Freight Train coming down the tracks that you are told to ‘get run over by’ so you can become fully awakened to God and to what is happening in your life, would you hear Jesus tell you, as he told his disciples, to ‘keep awake and pray’?  It’s not easy to want to become fully awake to this God who invites us to be awake to having everything in our lives ‘run over by this train’.  Is there any wonder most people want to find distractions to make them too busy to pray?

WRESTLE
The second aspect of ‘praying through’ the difficult moments of our lives is that it not only means ‘wakefulness’, but it also means ‘wrestling’.  Whatever we see in Jesus’ agonizing prayer at Gethsemane, we must become ‘awake’ to the struggle going on in Jesus’ mind, his heart, and in the deepest part of his soul.  As Jesus realizes his arrest is near, it does look like God is coming toward him ‘like a great train crossing the tracks of his life’ and that he will be ‘run over’.  But when his ‘flesh is (so) weak’, as Jesus says it is, why is His ‘Spirit’ still willing’ (v. 38)?  Can you see the ‘struggle’ of Jesus’ heart?  Have you ever felt such a ‘struggle’ within you—a struggle between what know you must do, but which you feel you can’t or don’t want to do?

The second great lesson of praying through our pain is about the human ‘struggle’ to have all kinds of possibilities in life, but also having to live within our own limits.  While we know that it dangerous to push our limits too far, we also know that it is even a worse kind of life or death to live with the regret of settling for less than what God has enabled us to do or be.   Here we need only to recall the first ‘wrestling match’ in the Bible between Jacob and the unnamed ‘man’ in Genesis.   This story has ‘dreamlike’ qualities, for it happened in the middle of the night, as Jacob was about to face everything ‘deceitful’ he has done in his life, trying to be ‘blessed’, that he now finds himself wrestling with a strange ‘person’ all through the night.  He is determined not to let this person go, even though the struggle is causing him pain and his hip has been put ‘out of joint’.  In spite of the pain, he will not let go until this person blesses him.  Jacob is wrestling to gain some kind of ‘approval’ which all his conniving and scheming would not attain.   It was, and still is the ‘blessing’ that only comes as a ‘gift’ of gracefully undeserved and unearned (See Genesis 32). 

The story of Jacob is the story of Israel, and the story of Israel now comes to the forefront in the life of Jesus, as he too struggles and wrestles within himself and with God.  While Jesus has already received the ‘blessing’ as God’ beloved son (Mark 1.11), Jesus struggle is to be and reveal the ‘blessing’ for his  people according to the purpose God has called him to fulfill. 

But what we also see in Jesus is also a ‘reflection’ of the ‘struggle’ that goes on in all of us, if we are fully awakened to God purpose and presence in us.  ‘As long as there is one person left on earth,’ someone has written, ‘Jesus is still suffering with and for us’  (Author Unknown).  Jesus struggles to do what is right, because we struggle to do what is right, which requires that we also pray through our own struggle until we find the strength to do must be done.   Only by doing what we must do right does the true ‘blessing’ come.  It doesn’t come when we avoid the struggle, or run from the pain or the ‘train’ of God’s purpose and presence, but it only comes when we pray and go right straight ‘to it, and through it,’ with God’s help, of course.  To throw ourselves fully into this ‘way’ that is not just our way is the struggle that never ends until it is fully resolved within in our own hearts.

Do you have time for such wrestling match?  We seldom choose it, most often it chooses us.   Jacob didn’t choose his ‘deceptive’ life, but his mother did.  Israel didn’t choose to struggle by going through the wilderness, it came with the ‘territory’ and the ‘geography’ of being God’s chosen people.  Also, Jesus didn’t choose the path suffering, but it was written in Scripture, in the rebellion of evil powers, and it was according to God’s will to accomplish the saving work Jesus was ‘begotten’ to fulfill.  

Life’s struggle will find us too, because we live in a world that God created out of the ‘void’ and ‘chaos’ of emptiness or nothingness.  For life to mean something and for us to become someone, we must also ‘jump’ into the ring and take on the physical and spiritual forces God had to wrestle with to make life possible at all.  To be co-creators with God we have to ‘speak’ and ‘wrestle’ against the darkness because Jesus wrestled, endured and overcame.

This is ‘heavy’, I know, but in Mark’s gospel, we are headed toward the cross---the cross that brings suffering and death, but also brings new hope for redemption, salvation, and everlasting life.  While we can’t ‘earn’ this kind of ‘redemption’ for ourselves, we do have to follow and join in the ‘ring’ with Jesus by ‘accepting’ his ‘yoke upon us’ for ourselves.  Jesus says after we take this ‘yoke’ upon us, the ‘yoke is easy’ and the ‘burden is light’   (Matthew 11), but how can he say this, after what happened to him or what can happen to us?

In the sports movie Southpaw,  Billy Hope is a left-handed, but very gifted boxer, who, because of an eye injury must retire while he is at the top.  But early in his retirement, his wife is accidently shot and Billy is sent into a downward spiral using drugs and alcohol as he surrenders to his pain.  After proving to be unfit to care for his daughter, Billy is encouraged to get a job at a gym.  While working at that gym, with the help of an experienced trainer  named ‘Tic’, Billy  regains  his fighting spirit, and his lightweight title, which he does in one last dramatic fight (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southpaw_(film) .    

While movie critics rightly complained that Southpaw was only held together by great acting, since the movie was so dull and the ‘script’ too predictable, we also know that this ‘boxing’, or ‘fighting’ theme is a well-worn storyline because it is ‘true’ to all our lives: There is no life without the struggle, the match, or the fight.  What ‘wrestling’, ‘boxing’, or any kind of sports competition does, sometimes poorly and a few times greatly, is to ‘project’ or bring out the ‘struggle’ we are all in as we live in ‘hope’ to ‘win the prize’ of our ‘calling’ in life.   This prize can only be won, when we stay or get back into the ring and continuing to wrestle, to struggle and to stay in the ‘fight’.

When Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his twenty-five year old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident, he was distraught, suffering through all kinds of emotional anguish and grief.  As a trained theologian at Yale, he also wrote his feelings down, keeping a diary of his own ‘struggle’ with his grief.  As you get to the end of his “lament’, Wolterstorff writes more deeply about ‘what’ he has learned in his struggle, reflecting on ‘why’ God must calls us to struggle and allow us to suffer together with Him:
God is love.  That is why he suffers.  To love our suffering sinful world is to suffer.  God so suffered for the world that he gave up his only Son to suffering.  The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see his love.  God is suffering love…Suffering is down at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is…But mystery remains: Why does God not end his agony by relieving ours?...  We are in this together, God and we, together in the history of our world…Our struggle to for joy and justice is our struggle relieve God’s sorrow… “Put your hand into my wounds”, said the risen Christ to Thomas…The wounds tell us who Jesus is….   (From Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 1987, pp 90-97).  And I would add, that to accept the wounds, to take on the hurts, to wrestle with the pain, the problems, to grieve, to pray, and to suffer through and wrestle with the ‘wins’ and ‘losses’ of our lives, will also ‘tell us’ who we are, and as Wolterstorff, must  also finally observe, “Suffering may do us good---may be a be a blessing, something  to be thankful for” (p. 96).  Looking at the world through blood, sweat and tears,  he adds:, “I have become a better person….p. 72-73),…. I have seen things that ‘dryed-eyed I could not see’ (p. 26).  

WILLING
This brings us to a final lesson from Gethsemane about praying through our struggles, our disappointments, our very difficult decisions, and praying through our despair.    Of course the ‘yoke’ of God’s will for Jesus wasn’t easy, just as it isn’t easy for us,  but something did change, at least within Jesus himself, after Jesus finishes ‘wrestling’ with God in his prayers.  We see this after Jesus returns to his disciples ‘a third time’ to find them still asleep, but it is this time that Jesus resolves his own ‘time of trial’ all by himself, by surrendering and saying: ‘Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners…” (14:41).

When Jesus says ‘enough’, he doesn’t mean enough sleeping, or enough praying, but Jesus means that now he is willing and ready to face ‘the hour’ that ‘has come’ by resolving to do what ‘must’ be done (Mark 8.31).  By ‘awakening’ fully to this moment through prayer, and having ‘wrestled’ with the Father in his heart, Jesus is  ready to ‘get going’ and to face what and who is ‘at hand’ (14:42).  

What we must say about this final aspect of praying, is that prayer is never finished until we are ready to say ‘enough’!  After we ‘wrestle’ with what has or must happen, we must willingly resolve to accept and to act for God’s will to be done.  True prayer goes ‘exactly’ in both of these directions at once; both accepting what must be done, by acting toward what still can be done.  In praying through the hurt, pain, and struggles of our lives, Jesus “enough”  will also become our ‘enough.’  There is no real ‘acceptance’ unless we also willingly move toward the purposes of God.  There is also no enduring act, unless we are willing to move with God where he leads.   This is at the core of what it means to be ‘willing’ in Spirit even when we are still ‘weak’ in our ‘flesh’ (vs. 38).

So, we’ve come full circle with Jesus in Gethsemane, as he prays through this ‘oil press’ moment in his life.  When he prays, as we should also pray, through the ‘press’ and ‘struggles’ of and for life, we too become ‘awake’ to who God is what life means.  When we ‘pray through’ our tears, our fears, our hurts, and our pains, we also learn what it means to ‘wrestle’ and to suffer together with God for the ‘blessing’  of genuine, unconditional, but costly love.  This ‘blessing’  and ‘abandon’ to love  becomes  ‘enough’ when we are also ‘willing’ to accept in ‘trust’ and then act upon our ‘faith’ in life to keep moving toward God’s perfect will and redemptive purposes. 

Are you awake, are you in the fight for right and for life, and are you willing to accept and to act upon the ‘trust’ that only comes through being in this struggle ‘together with God’?   If you live, if you are awake, you will ‘struggle’ and you will ‘wrestle’ for something.  Why not be willing to give yourself for something that matters now, and forever?  Why not find out that only God’s ‘enough’ is ever truly ‘enough’ because it’s the only true ‘blessing’  that can come through the ‘curse’  which will be finally transformed through God’s unconquerable love and redeeming grace.  

God’s suffering and redeeming love is the ‘enough’ that  brought him off his knees and back on his feet  to say,  “Enough!  The Hour has come…Get up, let’s get going…” (14.41-42)  Jesus was willing to ‘get up’ and  face what was to come because he was in constant communion with his loving Father.  Only the God who is love can affirm that suffering, evil, or death will never be ‘all there is’ or could ever dare to suggest to us that ‘what is’ is never ‘enough’.  It is this living relationship with our loving Father who will also grant us this ‘enough’ to ‘get up’ and to ‘get going.’   Communion with him will awaken us to God’s presence,  in whom we can find the strength to be willing to keep wrestling for the good, because it know God suffering love is also the source of  our  own ‘enough’.   


“O Lord, who teaches us to pray not our will, but thy will be done, awaken us to your loving presence and strengthen us when we are down and out so that we can get up and keep going toward the hope that is ‘enough’.  Amen.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

“Live in Hope!”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 13:14-23, CEB
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 6th, 2016

Back in the 1970’s, the southern gospel group known as the Oak Ridge Boys,  made a song written by R.E. Winsett very popular among many evangelical churches.   You probably remember the catchy chorus which went:  
        “Jesus is coming soon, morning or night or noon
          Many will meet their doom, trumpets will sound
          All of the dead shall rise, righteous meet in the skies
          Going where no one dies, heavenward bound.”

As a young gospel singer myself, I recall singing this song in our ‘homespun’ men’s quartet.  Although I liked the tune, did I really consider the words I was singing so joyfully?  “Jesus is coming soon….Many will meet their doom?”   Now, it seems quite odd, if not cruel, and I’m not aiming at political correctness either.   It’s more about human civility and sanity.  How can you find ‘hope’ in a song that finds joy from ‘many’ meeting their doom?  Of course, I was young, but now I’m older and I understand very well how strange it all sounds.  

I have a similar feeling of ‘bewilderment’ when it comes to today’s text in Mark 13.   This text has Jesus himself predicting “gloom and doom” for people of his ‘generation’ (13:30), along with a vision of ‘the Son of Man coming with clouds of glory’  (13:26).  It is a text filled with predictions of the temple in Jerusalem crumbling, along with all kinds of other signs that predict the beginning of the end (13.7).  The whole scenario ends with the sun being darkened, stars falling, and angels coming to snatch away God’s elect, just in the nick of time (13:24-27).  If you take this dramatic ending literally, it almost sounds better to have ‘all heck break loose’ than it is to have ‘all heaven break loose’.   I know some folks, even folks who believe the Bible, who just don’t like to hear preaching on these kinds of troubling, apocalyptic texts. 

Today, what I want to suggest to us, is that when Jesus originally spoke these words, he was not trying to scare people, but he was trying to encourage his disciples and give them some hope in their own ‘troubled times’.   For even though this text does present us troubling pictures of unending wars, false religious leaders, natural and man-made disasters, and untold suffering,  Jesus also inserts into these gruesome descriptions some very ‘hopeful’ words.   Jesus’ own words and woes about these kinds of ‘days’ (13:17) can remind us that, no matter what comes unglued and falls apart, either today or tomorrow, God’s redeeming grace and power will  maintain the advantage and have the ‘upper hand’.  

AUTHENTIC HOPE
Perhaps the most pressing question on everyone’s mind is ‘when’ is all this going to happen.  Let’s deal with that first, because to understand this is the first step toward finding hope in this ‘frightening’ chapter.  

What we need to understand, more than anything else, is that Jesus was predicting ‘these days’ in ‘those days’ (13:17); the day of his own disciples in their own time and place.  I realize we all want the Bible to speak directly to US, to OUR times, so it will tell us about OUR OWN future, but before anything can be applied to us, we need to understand what it was saying then.  This is important, because the Bible is the “Word of God” for all times, and is not to be used as a crystal ball or for fortune telling.  Besides, if Jesus had been specifically talking about ‘our time,’ these words would have made no sense to them.    Interestingly, these words still wouldn’t make much sense to us either.   Let me explain.

Just consider how this whole discussion began with Jesus answering the amazement of one of his disciples about the beauty of the temple building complex.   In response to seeing all the grandeur around them, Jesus says quite shockingly: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13.2b).  Later, while sitting right across from these temple grounds with four of his best disciples, Jesus is asked privately (13:3b) about ‘when’ these things will be, and about ‘what will be the sign’ of them being fulfilled which they can observe.

Already, we can see that Jesus is being specific about ‘their’ time, not ours.   This even becomes clearer as Jesus speaks of the ‘desolating sacrilege being set up where it ought not to be’ (in the temple) so that ‘those in Judea must flee to the mountains’ (13:14).  Now, it should be most obvious, that Jesus is specifically talking about the ‘ending’ (13: 7, 13) of that particular country before that ‘generation’ passed away.   It was before that generation died that ‘all these things’ did take place (13:30).  As any reader of history knows, less than 40 years after Jesus made these predictions, Jerusalem was invaded by the Romans and the Second Temple fell and was burned to the ground in 70 AD. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1990/issue28/2808.html).  

Now, that we can say with certainty that Jesus words were about ‘them’ and not specifically about ‘us’ now, that puts us all in the clear, right?   Well, not exactly.  As we should already know, any and all of the Words in the Bible are considered ‘sacred Scripture’ because they can have, ‘double meanings’ or ‘multiple applications’.   While these “signs” are historically specific, they can still have general implications for any and all time.   This does not mean we can ‘force’ these predictions upon us, as some false prophets did then, and still do today, but they can provide a general picture of the ‘horrors’  that are always present during times of natural or political catastrophe. 

When I was a living in Brandenburg, Germany, I read two British authors accounts of the “Fall of Berlin”, which was one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read.  What made the book so real was that I was living in the very area where some of the battles of between the Russians and Germans took place.  One of those places was Seelow, where 10,000 Russian soldiers marched on flatland straight into 800 Germans embedded with large artillery on a hillside.  It was one of the most costly allied battles of the war.  Living near that battlefield made the story on those pages push out of history into that moment and made me much aware that this was not only a ‘history’ story, but it was a very ‘human’ story that now belonged to the whole world for all times https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1573997.The_Fall_of_Berlin).   

The predictions Jesus gave belong to the whole world too because they were true.  That generation did not pass until these things were fulfilled. What Jesus predicted was not mystical, religious, or political guesswork or nonsense.  These are graphic, dramatic, and very intense ‘earth shaking’ images which cannot and must not be ignored or overlooked.  But here’s my point: because these words can still give us warning about the real dangers of our world too, can they also bring us hope in the midst of these same kinds of dangers.  What we must never do with these images, is to try to put these ‘predictions’ into a single ‘religious’, ‘political’, ‘historical’ or apocalyptic-scenario-like ‘straight jacket’.  Only when we let them show us the truth of Jesus’ day, will these words become lessons of authentic hope that can still come through for us for our own.

WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM GOD?
So, understanding that these words were specific to Jesus’ day, but might still have applications for us, and also for times still to come, how do we find a message of ‘hope’ where there is so much apocalyptic drama?  

I find it very intriguing, that in the middle of all this catastrophe and chaos, we have Jesus saying, “And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations” (v.13:10).  This is a very ‘strange’ word in the midst of everything that was happening, isn't it?  What would the ‘good news’ be in a world that was falling apart?   I know that later on Jesus says that ‘for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days’ (13:20), but how can it be ‘good news’ for ‘the nations’ when only an ‘elect’ will be ‘saved’?  Again, here we must know what happened in history to understand how this text can bring hope now.   What happened in history is that bad things did happen in and around Judea and Jerusalem, exactly because religious and political leaders had rejected Jesus’ way of peace and had taken a violent stand against Rome.  When they rejected the way and wisdom of Jesus as preached in the Sermon on the Mount, they put themselves into the crosshairs of Roman wrath and power.

But besides the disasters that unfolded, Jesus words tell us something else.   They tell us that even in those distressful and disastrous moments of religious, political and moral failure, God was also working through those who would repent and follow Jesus’ way, so that the promise of redemption and hope might increase in the world.  The ‘elect’ God ‘saved’ where those very first Christian followers who did live through the ‘end’ of their world to ‘preach’ good news to the ends of the earth..

So where is the good news for us in all this?  It is that now, just as it was then, that even when things fall apart something new can and will come together for those who don't lose hope or faith.   For even when God’s people are facing difficulties, destruction and death itself, God will show up in all his ‘spiritual’ glory to bring us the power and promise of His presence (13:26).  Just like it was when the world rejected and crucified Jesus, God was right there, at work in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to himself for his glory to bring grace to us (2 Cor. 5:12). Also, even in that terrible ending of Jerusalem 40 years later, God was also at work giving birth to the church so that the gospel of grace, peace and hope could go out to be preached to ‘all the nations’ of the world.

This is exactly the kind of ‘hope’ we can always expect from God, in any and in every situation.   A great example of how God works to bring hope, even in the midst of heartbreak and distress, goes all the way back to the first book in our Bible, the book of Genesis, and the story of Joseph.   It’s one of my favorite stories from the Bible, partly because my middle name is “Joseph”, but mostly because it is one of the most ‘hopeful’ stories in all Scripture.  You know the story, how Joseph was hated by his own brothers, was sold into slavery in Egypt, and thrown into prison, but eventually gained favor of his captures and rose to prominence in Egypt.  When his family had to travel to Egypt to escape a terrible famine, it was Joseph who spared then and also forgave their misdeed.  His words to his brothers is unforgettable, saying what they had done by selling him in slavery they ‘intended for for evil, but God intended it for good’ (Gen. 50:20).

We can hear the same kind of sentiment when Esther was ready to approach the king without permission, which could mean her death or it could mean the salvation of her people.  In that moment as she prepares to risk her life her uncle Mordecai says to her, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).  It is  this kind of “time”, the Bible calls “the fullness of time” which came to fulfillment when “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-7).

The Bible often speaks of “time” which goes beyond ordinary chronological time, but is more of an opportune time to ‘stand still and see the salvation of the Lord’ (Ex.) or a time to ‘look up’ and know that ‘redemption has come near!’ (Luke 21).  As  Paul so aptly described this kind of time which God brings to his people, often, just at the right time, he writes: ‘See, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor. 6:2).  That's precisely the kind of time Jesus is speaking of in this text.  It is not only a time of endings, but at the same time it is also a time of new beginnings, when the gospel is preached, the elect are saved, and when the glory of God is made known in the world.  This is why throughout this dramatic text spotlight is on those who are aware, alert, and prepared to ‘endure to the end’ so they will ‘be saved. Even the end is not the end for those who put their trust in the eternal God of all time.

When the late Pastor John Claypool had to face the terminal illness and death of his five year old daughter, he felt that he could not endure to watch his little Laura Lue suffer and die.  But in a story he told right before his own passing, Claypool tells how exactly in those moments he thought he could not bear, though his daughter was not given the ‘healing’ they wanted, she was given maturity and courage beyond her years in her ordeal, and they were both given gifts of endurance which made them the kind of people they could never have become without God’s grace and help in those ‘times of trouble’ (The Hopeful Heart, by John Claypool, Moorehouse, 2003, pp. 55-61).

HOPE IN WHAT COMES NEXT
Hope in God means that we can ‘endure’ whatever comes, but it means much more than this.  As Jesus surprisingly tells his disciples during his discourse, “…I have already told you everything.” (13:23).

What is this ‘everything’ Jesus has explained to his disciples?  It is certainly not every detail that unfolded then, nor is it details of what will happen next for us or the world.  Most of us would like to know more than we can know and some still claim that they have a ‘map’ of how everything will end.  What is so strange about this kind of ‘wishful thinking’ is that no one can even say how their own life will end, let alone really say how the ‘world’ must or will end? 

The witness of Scripture is clear when Jesus says in this text that even he ‘doesn’t know’ (13:32) and Paul later adds that “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him (1 Cor. 2:9 KJV).  While Paul also says “God has revealed them by the Spirit…” (1 Cor. 2:10), this refers to having ‘wisdom’ (1 Cor. 2:7) and not ‘words’ (1 Cor. 2:13) about the ‘deep things of God’ (1 Cor. 2:10).  These ‘deep things’ are only ‘spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14) ‘in a mystery’ (1 Cor. 2:7) no human can know, but only the ‘Spirit’ knows’ (1 Cor. 2:11).  No matter how many ‘Prophecy’ or “Heaven” books claim to know otherwise, we can’t know what comes next, because our ‘faith’ is in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5) who ‘freely gives’ what only He ‘ordains’ or ‘prepares’. 

If God would have ever let Jesus or any of us, in on exactly ‘what comes next, then God would cease to be ‘free’ and have to work or live by a ‘script’ he doesn’t have to write.   This is exactly why the “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” Alex Malarkey, had to recently admit he lied about going to heaven and coming back.  He had to admit it because God doesn’t let anyone know beyond ‘faith’ about what comes next.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/15/alex-malarkey-boy-who-came-back-from-heaven_n_6483432.html).

The reason we can’t know the ‘what’ the ‘how’ nor the ‘when’ of God’s final redemption is because we are now called to live our hope through the ‘who’ God has sent to save, Jesus Christ.  We cannot decipher beyond Jesus, because life is finally about the ‘who’ we ‘trust’ and ‘why’ we should have ‘faith’, no matter what comes next.  The ‘everything’ Jesus has ‘already told’ his disciples all points to the ‘coming’ of our hope through the  “Son of Man” …. Who will be seen ‘coming in the clouds of great power and glory’  (v.26) exactly at the same time the ‘stars fall’ and ‘the powers of heaven are shaken’ (vs. 25).  The language here is ‘spiritual’ to depict who comes, not what comes to hold the world together, even with it looks like everything in heaven and on earth falls apart.

The most obvious example of how things ‘hold’ together, even when things ‘come apart’ has ‘already’ been made clear in the ‘everything’ Jesus told his disciples of how even their ‘persecution’ (v. 9) will lead to the ‘proclamation’ of the gospel to all the nations of the world (v. 10).  It is even in through the ‘worst’ situation that God brings the fulfillment of his promise. 

The late Will Campbell tells the story of an Anabaptist (Amish or Mennonite) woman who lived in Antwerp of the 16th century.  She had been arrested a few day earlier for proclaiming the gospel of Christ as she understood it from her personal reading of Scripture and from study and discussion with others of like faith.  She underwent the inquisition of the clerics for heresy and the bodily torture of the civil authorities, but she would not buckle under to their pressure.  After six months, she would not promise to stop preaching the word from her own reading of the Bible.  So the authorities did what they thought they had to do: They sentenced her to death on October 5, 1573.  Included in the sentence was the stipulation to the executioner that her tongue be screwed fast to the roof of her mouth so that she might not testify along the way as they took her to the stake where she was to be burned.

The day her teenage son, Adriaen, took his youngest brother, three year-old Hans Mattheus, and they stood near the stake so that her first and last children might be near her at her moment of death.  Three other women and a man were to die that day for the same terrible offense—unauthorized preaching of the gospel.  When the flames were lit, Adriaen fainted.  He could not witness the horror.  But when it was all over and the ashes had cooled, he sifted through them until he found the screw that had silenced his mother’s tongue.  It would not silence his (As quoted by David Garland in “The NIV Application Bible, Mark, Zondervan Press, 1996, p. 512, from Will D. Campbell, “On Silencing Our Finest,” Christianity and Crisis 45 (1985), p. 340).

“I have told you everything” Jesus says.  And as certain as Jesus has told us how the gospel will be preached to all the nations,  he has told us that we can put our trust in the God of this ‘good news’ because the ‘news’ of God will never cease to be ‘good’ to those who suffer, who die, but do not cease to put ‘all’ their trust in the goodness of this God who continues to come to us in the ‘glory’ of Jesus Christ.   


“Father and Lord of all, give us unshakable faith to live in hope of your coming glory, no matter what shakes us in life or in death.”    Amen.