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Monday, December 24, 2018

“Glory to God…”

A meditation based upon Luke 2: 1-14
Preached by Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Christmas Eve, , December 24th  2018 
This sermon adapted from Ed Markquart

On this most holy of all nights I have a simple question for you: Why did the angels sing?  Why did the shepherds sing? Why do we sing the Glooooooooria, in excelsis deo?

Enjoyment of singing is one of the gifts that God has given to almost all of us.  You don’t even have to have a good voice in order to enjoy singing.  A person can have a very ordinary, or even an absolutely lousy, terrible, awful voice, and can enjoy singing too.  Others might not enjoy it, but you still can.  Singing is a gift of God for everyone to enjoy. 

A young, young, man, so madly in love, would take his fiancĂ© out and go for walks.  His heart was so young and so romantic and he would sing to her, night after night, as he walked along hand in hand.   One evening, as she was listening to him, she said:  “I love to hear you sing, but it doesn’t sound very good, but I know that you are happy.”  Well, that’s the way it goes.

Now, aspect of singing almost everyone enjoys is the singing of Christmas carols.  Some of the most crusty, ornery, hard nosed people, who would never open a hymn book or would never open a mouth in order to sing, when it comes to Christmas and those Christmas carols, they, you start singing songs like Silent Night.  You hear this, or another familiar Carol and your heart melts, your vocal cords loosen up and you want to sing.  My question today is simply:  why?  Is it because we love the words?  Is it because we love the familiar melodies?  Do we love the emotional lift that certain Christmas carols give us?  Why do even non-singers like to sing at Christmas?

One favorite carol of almost everybody knows is the carol, “Angels We Have Heard On High.”    Perhaps it’s such a favorite carol because people, like it or hate it, everyone knows the chorus.   If you are out caroling with a group of people, and you are staggering through the lyrics, when you finally get to the chorus, everybody can sing: “Glooooooooooooria. In Excelsis Deo.”  When you get to the second stanza, things start to fall apart and only the better singers know the words and the words go like this:  (sung) “Shepherds why this jubilee, dadadadadadada. What glad tidings so we bring  dadaddadadadadada.”  Then finally, everyone can join in again belt out the chorus:  “Gloooooooooooooria.”  We all do it.    And it is the third stanza that is even worse for non-singers, but we love it when it comes to the Gloria because we know the chorus of the Gloria very well.  We go for the Gloria.

It is with this mood that tonight; on this very special, holy, sacred, wonderful night, that we ask this one important question:  why did the angels sing ‘glory to God in the highest?  Why did the shepherds sing too?  Why do we sing ‘glooooooooooooria, in excelsis deo, which means ‘glory to God in the highest?  Why?
Well, we are told in the text that ‘there were shepherds out in the fields, watching  over their flocks by night, and an angel of the Lord came to them, and the glory of the Lord was all around them, and the shepherds were very much afraid.  And the angel said to them:  Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all people, for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign for you, you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  And suddenly, there was with that angel, a multitude of heavenly hosts, hundreds of thousands of angels together, singing: (women singing) Glooooooooooooooia, in excelsis deo.

Now, finally, why?  Why were those angels singing ‘glory to God?  Why did the Shepherds finally start singing too Why?   Because they had been told that the Christ child was born for them.   As the traditional text says:  “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, which is Christ the Lord” (11).  Understanding that the Messiah was born for them, personally, they sang.    Initially, the shepherds did not fully understand.  They did not, at first understand that the Christ child was for them, so they did not sing, but listened to the angels.    But after the shepherds went to the manger, to the place where Jesus was sleeping in the straw, and Mary put the precious little child into the shepherds rough and calloused hands,  and then Mary repeated:  “For you, …for you is born this day.”  And the Shepherds took baby Jesus into their arms saying:  For me?  For us?   It is right there, when the shepherds finally understood that the Christ child was to be theirs, their very own holy child too, that the Bible goes on to say, that as the shepherds where returning home, they were glorifying God singing (ask the men to sing) “Glooooooooooooooria. In Excelsis Deo.”

So, tonight, on this holy night, can you imagine the angels appearing to take us, you, and me,  right up to the manger and where Mary picks up the baby, the Christ child, the Messiah, our LORD, and the baby Jesus is placed into your hands, and you take the Christ child and you hold the Christ child close, and you look into this baby’s eyes, and you realize, deeply, that the Christ child is ‘for you’.   When you fully and finally realize that this Christ child is yours; you very own, you too will start to sing, not just with your lips but from your heart: (pastor sings) “gloooooooooooria. In Excelis Deo.”

The word, Gloria, comes from the word, glory. The glory is what the Jewish rabbi’s called ‘the Shekinah glory’, which comes from Deuteronomy 33:16: ‘to dwell in the bush’, SHAW-KAN SEN-AH (Hebrew), thus the Shekinah’, the Shekinah ‘KAWBOD’ (glory).   This term from the Rabbi’s refers to The Divine Presence of God.   As you know, in the Old Testament, the Presence of God, the glory of God, first appeared in the bush that burned, but did not burn up, and then that Divine Presence was the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. You could see the pillar of fire; and you could see the cloud.   The glory was ultra-bright.  The glory is fiery light. The glory was the glow-ria of the angels that appeared in dark of their night.    

We are told that as they, the shepherds, were ‘keeping watch over their flocks by night’
 ‘the angel appeared’ and this ‘glowing’ angel reflected the ‘glory of the Lord’ which allowed  God’s ‘glory’ to shine around them’.  It says: And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. (Lk. 2:9 KJV).   At first it looked like God’s glory ‘surrounded them’ or, as one Spanish translation says, ‘enveloppa’; it enveloped them.   This ‘glory’ was so definite, so distinct, and so distinct that it made them ‘sore afraid’;  that is, so ‘frightful’ that it started to hurt them physically.  We would say ‘it made my skin crawl’.    But that was only a split second, because the very first words out of the angels mouth was, “Fear Not!”  “Don’t Be Afraid! I bring you good tidings of great joy’; GOOD NEWS (2:10).

So, here is why the singing started:  The angel said, “FOR I BRING YOU GOOD NEWS… FOR YOU IS BORN THIS DAY…  THIS SHALL BE A SIGN FOR YOUYOU SHALL FIND THE  BABE…   THIS CHILD IS BORN FOR YOU.    When you realize that JESUS is for you, your very own, you then begin to sense the glow-ria, an inner glow, a glow-ria in one’s heart.  And when there is a glow-ria in one’s heart, one begins to sing ‘gloria’ on one’s lips.  

I would like to ask you a question:  How many of you have Christmas trees?  Do you have Christmas trees at your house?  Would you raise your hands to show me you are awake tonight?  Good.  Now, I need to ask you another question:  How many of you have Christmas presents under the Christmas tree with your name on it?  Could I see your hands?  How sad it would be for you if you didn’t have a Christmas present under the tree with your name on it, which was your very own present. 

Some four hundred years ago, Martin Luther, the one who invented the Christmas tree, wrote these words that are the right ‘key’ to singing Christmas.  He wrote:  “Of what benefit would it be to me if Jesus would have been born a thousand times and it would have been sung daily in my ears that Jesus Christ was born, but that I was never to hear that Jesus Christ was born for me?”    The right key of Christmas is that Jesus is born to be my very own.  

Some of you children who are here tonight, do you remember your first trike?  Or how about when you grew a little older and you were given our first bike, your first bicycle? Your own bike?  Not your neighbors.  Not your friends.  Not your brother’s or sister’s but your very own bicycle?  Do you remember the thrill, the ‘glow’ that you felt about that?  Or, do you remember your first car?  I bet you do.  Do you remember the feeling inside when you drove that first car?  I keenly remember that ’70 Plymouth Duster.   I can still see it and smell it from so many years ago, because it was my first, very own car.  Or, how about your first home, your first crumby furniture, where you could do what you wanted to do with that place whichyou’re your space?  Wasn’t there an inner glow, a feeling of peace and satisfaction?   Or do you remember your first child?  That first child which was born or adopted as your very own, and the glow that was inside of you?  How can you forget the inner glow that accompanied your first child.?  

It doesn’t seem that long ago.  It is as clear as yesterday.  It was Christmastime 1989.  Why do I remember that Christmas?   We were trimming the tree, and a little girl was climbing up and down the steps on our carport.   Once, she fell and hit her chin, and Teresa picked her up and comforted her in her arms.   Then, Christmas came, and were all playing with the LITTLE TYKES slide, with water in our kitchen.   She was crashing, splashing, and laughing as she came down the slide time after time.   We had to mop the floor, time and time again, that evening, but it was so much fun.  That evening, we put our own little girl in her bed, realizing that now, this child was our very own child.   There was an inner glow deep within us, that this was a moment God had given, just for us.

When you finally realize this ‘baby’ is your very own, not only for all the world, not only for all the shepherds, not only for all the angels, but when you realize that Christ is your very own, then your heart will glow too. You too can sing ‘gloria’.    When there is the glow of God inside of you, the ‘glory of God’  ends up on one’s lips.   GLOOOOOOOOORIA!

But this is not a given.  If you study Luke’s gospel closely, you can decipher 7 times when something like ‘gloria’ was on people’s lips.   But it wasn’t automatic.   Do you remember the story of the ten lepers in the Gospel of Luke?  All ten lepers were healed, and all ten lepers left Jesus.  None of them sang ‘gloria’.  Not one of them sang this glorious song with their lips.  They had all been healed, but only one leper, when it finally dawned on him, not just what was done for him, but who did it for him,  went back when he fully realized that this gift of healing love had come from Jesus.  The healed leper went back to Jesus with a glow in his heart.  He said to Jesus, “Thank you.”  And according to the Scriptures, he left Jesus, singing with all his heart: “Glooooooooria.”  When the glow of God is in your heart,  and when it hits you, when the light shines around or in you, you will begin to sing Gloria too. 
There are other stories of God’s glory being felt in the Gospel of Luke, but the concluding story was about a crusty soldier from Rome, thousands of miles from his home, living out in a desert, in the Middle East.  And there outside of Jerusalem, there in charge of executions, a crummy job if one ever had one, a man so very far from home, seeing the execution of what was a common criminal, seeing the ground starting to shake and knowing that there was something happening to him and inside of him, and he saw the glory of God as never before, and that centurian said, “Certainly, this man was righteous (KJV).”   Other gospels are even more specific, saying ‘the was God’s Son’.    Through the death of this innocent man,  he came to realize that this righteous man,  was the Son of God for him, and in the very next line you hear him sing (bass):  “Gloooooooooooria.”  

Do you see?  Do you understand?  Do you finally realize that the Christ child is for you, …that the gift of eternal life is for you, …that the gift of God’s healing is for you,…that the gift of God’s forgiveness is for you, …that the gift of a new birth of love is for you.   When you finally understand that Christ is for you, you take Christ into heart and you hold him close.  You hold him because the glow-ria in his heart, is now transferred into your heart, and you begin to sing glooooooooooria.    

Let’s conclude by singing the Gloria all together:  Glooooooooria.  Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018


A sermon based upon Luke 1: 39-56
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
$th Sunday of Advent C, December 23rd,  2018 
(4 of 5 Sermons on Luke’s Gospel Texts)

Excitement fills the air.  We are almost there.  Christmas Day is only two days away.   And what biblical story is any more fitting to express the excitement and expectancy we feel, than two pregnant women who are both about to give birth to their first child? 

When Teresa and I were learned we were about to adopt our daughter, we also were filled with all kinds of excitement.  Realizing that in just a matter of weeks, our lives were about to change forever, we made a quick trip to ride bikes in in the early Fall of 1998.  We were overjoyed, but we were also realistic.  This was an answer to prayer.  This was after a long time of waiting and wondering.  Our lives were about to make a major adjustment.

As we think about all our expectations of Christmas 2018, on this 4th Sunday in Advent, it is the ‘feeling’ of all this expectancy, that Luke’s gospel brings to us today. 

Here, we have a wonderful story of two women; Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who was six months along in her pregnancy, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, who had just been visited by an angel, who informed her that she had been chosen to give birth to Jesus, who was the ‘Son of the Most High’ God (1: 31-32).  But even take out the fact this is about the birth of John the Baptist or Jesus, this still is an amazing and fitting story, filled with all kinds of energy, expectation, and excitement.  Folks, each of them were about to give birth to a life.  They were ‘going to have a baby!’

When Elizabeth heard Mary say she expecting too, the first words out of her mouth were “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear!” (42). That’s a good way get to the heart of Christmas, isn’t it?  BlessedBlessed are these women giving birth.  Blessed are all women who give birth.  Blessed is the child who receives the gift of life from their parents. Blessed, Blessed, Blessed!

Blessed’ is a word that points us to the work, favor, and presence of God in our world.  “Have a Merry Christmas” means that we hope that everything is happy for you, but “Have a Blessed Christmas” or as we often hear it in everyday life, “Have a Blessed Day”, is a special kind of greeting that has newly surfaced in recent years.  It’s a greeting that not only wishes for good fortune or good things, but it’s a greeting or expression that acknowledges Israel’s God as the source of all that is good about life. 

To use the word ‘blessed’ in conversation is fast becoming a secret, hidden, Christian expression—a sign that the person you are talking to lives with an understanding of knowing the presence of God in their life, and wishes the same for you. Thus, ‘Have a blessed Christmas’, means more than have fun or have a good fortune, but it is a wish for faith, for fulness, and is recognition of the faithful promises and purposes of God.

But this wish or acknowledgement of ‘blessing’ often goes against the grain of what is happening in our world or our lives, doesn’t it?  Life does not always feel blessed, just like births and giving life a child is not always easy.  Complications come.  Babies can be stillborn, deformed, and having children, even in the best of circumstances, can make life complicated.  Mother’s have died giving birth.  A woman is still in a very serious, risky, physical condition when she is giving birth to a child.  

In addition, as we all know, having a child means giving away a part of yourself that you will never keep in the same way.  Blessed, yes.  You are giving life and gaining life, but this is also a blessing that can take as much as it gives.  A ‘blessing’ of new life brings all kinds of new responsibilities, challenges, and even problems into our lives, but even in these burdens the blessings that come give us meaning and purpose.  We’re blessed.

Blessings are always this way, aren’t they?  Blessings are blessings precisely because they are heavy, become burdens to bear, but are also full of promise, possibility, potential and hope.  The particular blessing that Elizabeth alludes to in her response to Mary is the ‘blessing’ of Jesus.  This is somewhat a surprising response from her because Elizabeth is of ‘old age’ and her pregnancy is quite physically amazing in, and of, itself. 

But what Luke wants us to know is that while Elizabeth’s pregnancy is marvelous and amazing, Mary’s pregnancy is of even more amazing.  It is much more than a physical or personal miracle, because, we are told, that Mary’s child will be born the ‘holy one’ who ‘will be called the Son of God’ (v. 35).  This is not simple the fulfilment of a mother’s hope to have a child, because this is the fulfillment a hope in THE CHILD.  This child will be named Jesus (31), the long-awaited and promised one who will finally ascend to and assume David’s throne (32).

Of course, such ancient language is hard for us to grasp, since we have rejected simplistic, royal, answers for our complicated lives.  Can there still be a message of such a ‘royal promise’ for us? 

When I see photographs of those royal children in England, George and Charlotte, I see beautiful children who have born with great pedigree, privilege, and wealth.  Even as an American, who understands the weaknesses of royalty and monarchy, I still can’t help but connect those small children with both the good heritage of the English past, and the hope of the English future.  Even though the ‘royals’ are mostly figure-heads in our modern world, they still command respect when and if they rightly take on the burdens and responsibilities to represent the needs of everyday people to the elite and the power-brokers of the world.  When a royal uses their position, power, and privilege to shoulder the burdens of their people, even royalty can still have and find a meaningful place in the world.  

So, for a ‘royal’ to take their proper place, they must shoulder the greatest needs of their people, and this is exactly where this ‘blessing’ of Christmas is going.  This blessing is not simply a blessing for goodness, well-being, or good fortune, but Elizabeth refers to Mary and her child being ‘blessed’ with the burden of bringing hope to a broken, sinful, and discouraged people.  Jesus is to be the ‘royal’ who opens the door of hope for the world, because he is the ‘blessed’ one who bears the burden of hope.

What is perhaps most important about this ‘blessing’ is not just who it comes to (Mary), but how it comes through Mary to all of us.  Elizabeth’s second greeting says: “Blessed is she who believes that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her! (45).  Here, the acknowledgment is that God’s blessings are released through the trust, the belief, the faith, and the discipleship of a simple, common individual who gives their own life, body, soul, and strength to be used of the Lord in the world. 

Mary is indeed blessed, but not simply because she gives birth to Jesus, but because she is the first person who is gives herself to God to allow Jesus to be born through her.  This is how God’s blessings come into the world; they don’t just come to us, they must also come through us.  If there were no ‘blessed is she’, there could be no blessed are we!  All great blessings begin in the human heart and come through the individual who allows God’s goodness to flow through them.

In thinking about how big things begin with individuals, and often start with very small things and very simple ways, I was reflecting recently about women now having the liberty to drive in Saudi Arabia.  No doubt, this is a ‘blessing’ for many, including Saudi men, who now have women driving them around.  Not everything has changed in that Arab world yet, but an opening, a beginning, and a place has been made, and now the blessing of freedom can be tested and perhaps will spread, through this freedom and blessing women who are allowed to drive.

Isn’t this a picture of how God’s blessings always work, when they are release through a few, or given to an individual, so they can finally be understood and shared with the many, and bring greater blessings?   Isn’t this how salvation still comes and is spread in the world?  You can’t convince or win a world, until you start with touching, winning, and convincing one heart.  You can’t change a community, until you change an individual.  God’s love can’t be released into the world, until that love is felt and shared by and through one single person, who in turn, passes on that blessing to others.  The greatest blessings spread when from one blessed heart, others begin to see not only what God has done, but what God still does.

This is still how the ‘blessing’ of Christmas spreads through the world.  When the work of God’s saving blessing began, it began through a specific people, Israel.  Then, through Israel, and through one woman’s life, God send his son into the world to touch the whole world.  The saving work of God always works from the particular to the many.  God’s saving message can’t simply be ‘broadcasted’ like on the news, nor just show up on the calendar, but the blessing of Christmas must still be released through the individual—who is blessed, loved, nurtured, and released into the world with fresh hope, goodness, and love.  

I don’t think it’s an accident that Christmas gravitates toward blessing and showering children with good things.  When the story of St. Nicolaus first arose in the world, he was a patron saint of children, giving gifts and blessings to those who were most vulnerable and susceptible to the dark powers of the world.  Today, the blessing of children by St. Nicolaus, has become one of the main events of Christmas, as children wonder at what  Santa will bring.

This early ‘blessing’ of sharing, giving, hoping, and receiving gifts is wonderful blessing for a child to experience, and they do understand what is happening very quickly, don’t they?  But as the child grows, matures, and comes to understand that the world does not revolve around them, but that life and love should also flow through them, healthy and stable children becoming adults, learn that to receive the greatest gifts and blessings of life, means they should give them back and also become a blessing to the world.  It is the child who receives and understands source of all blessings, who learns to return the blessing back into the world.

Isn’t this what it means to understand that Mary, by being the first to receive the great blessing of this child, naturally becomes the first to believe, and then to turn her own life over to the glory of God.  “My soul magnifies the Lord!”  She sings and confesses. because she, Mary allows God’s blessing to flow through her, not just to her, so that her own life become a channel, a conduit, of blessing back to God, which now, still comes not just to us, but can also flow through us to someone else.

What is most notable and remarkable is that the blessing given to Mary, and the blessings flowing through Mary, are not understood as the things God will do, but what God is already doing and has already done.

Can you hear the flow of Mary’s song of praise, known as the Magnificat? 
Observe her observations: “He HAS been mindful of his servant…The mighty one HAS done great things, He HAS performed mighty deeds,  He HAS scattered the proud, he HAS brought down rulers and lifted up the humble,  and He HAS helped his servant Israel… (46-54). The only thing that is in the ‘present tense’ is Mary’s own experience of God’s eternal love and power; everything else is spoken of as if it is has already accomplished and continues to be known and experience in the world.  The blessings that come from God, now continue to flow to and Mary and through Jesus, to have lasting repercussions until we all enter the world that is still to come.  As Mary concludes, she praises God because, through the promise of Jesus’ birth, God has remembered ‘to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants FOREVER, just as he promised… (55).

At the heart of everything Christmas meant in the world then, it still means in the world now.  To Mary, through Mary, and now to us, God’s mercy is still being extended to our world.  We too are called to be both recipients and participants of God’s great mercy.  This is the blessing of the child, through the child, and the blessing that that should flow to us and through us this Christmas.  This world, perhaps more than ever, needs to know, experience, and acknowledge the living and abiding presence of the God who is filled with helped and mercy.  To experience God’s blessing is an experience we can’t give ourselves, and it is the blessing that life itself can’t give us alone, without also knowing and experiencing God’s help and mercy.  Not long ago, I heard a professional astronomer quote a writer who once wrote that when he gazes into the heavens, he must always choose one of two possibilities: “Either we are alone in the universe, or we aren’t  He said, either of them are for him, equally terrifying’. (

Christmas is the good news that at the center life is another reality.  The good news of Christmas, is that life is ultimately blessed by the God who has revealed himself as mercy to all those who will seek help and hope in him. 

Terry Anderson was one who sought the Lord in the most difficult and darkest place.  Terry Anderson was held hostage for 6 ½ years in a foreign land. He was serving as a Chief Middle East Correspondent for the Associated Press when he was kidnapped in Beirut on March 16, 1985... and he was held captive until his release December 4, 1991. He had been a hostage for almost seven years. It was an incredibly difficult ordeal. but Terry Anderson came through it all with amazing strength.

After his release, Anderson was interviewed a number of times... and his answers and responses have been inspirational. Let me remind you of three of his most powerful comment, which remind us, even in the darkest time, and in the darkest places, of God’s forever presence and mercy.
1. First, when he was asked what had enabled him to survive this awful experience, he answered without hesitation, “My faith, my companions, and my stubbornness.” (Which is another way of saying, trust in God.)
2. Second, one reporter said, “Terry, you have said that you don’t hate your captors. Can you help us to understand that?” Terry Anderson replied, “It’s really very simple. I’m a Christian. The Scriptures teach us to forgive. I don’t hate anybody.”
3. And the third, he was asked, “Terry, did you ever lose hope?” Terry Anderson said, “Hard question... Of course, I had some blue moments, moments of despair, but fortunately, right after I became a hostage, one of the first things that fell into my hands was a Bible. Over the last 6 ½ years as a captive, I have spent a lot of time with the Bible... and that helped me so much because it’s about hope; it’s about trust in God, and that’s what gave me the strength to make it through each day.” And then Terry Anderson said, “You do what you have to do. Faith helps you to do what you have to do. I spent a lot of time with the Bible and it reminded me to do the best I could each day... and to trust God for the future.”

Some years ago, there was a captain on a Mississippi riverboat. He had been on that job for over 35 years. One day a passenger said to him, “After all these years of navigating the river, I guess you know by now where all the rocks and sandbars are.” He answered, “No, but I know where the deep water is!”

That’s what Elisabeth, Mary, and Terry are saying, isn’t it?  They didn’t know how to avoid all the sandbars and rocks of life, but they knew where the deep water is. We all know, that at Christmas as in all of life, there are some rocky places out there, but we can trust in God’s mercy to bring us through.

God mercy is the ultimate blessing that comes from the very God of Jesus, who is the hope of Christmas.  He still ‘extends mercy’ to our world, to those who will trust him, no matter what else we may experience.  Jesus is the blessed child, who was blessed to not only be blessing to us and to bear the burden of the blessing for us.  He is the child who is the savior who can still fill the ‘hungry with good things’ as we trust in the ‘promise’ and in the ‘forever’ of God’s mercy.  This is the blessing of the child of Christmas. Amen. 

Sunday, December 16, 2018

“Good Fruit?”

A sermon based upon Luke 3: 7-18
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
3rd Sunday of Advent-C,  Dec. 16,  2018  (3 of 5 sermons from Luke)

In my early elementary years, my mother had an important story to tell each Christmas.  When my mind was on sugar plums, presents and toys I might get for Christmas, my mother would remind me of ‘fruit’. 

My mother would tell me stories of how during the Great Depression, the six children in her family would only get some kind of fruit, like ‘oranges’.  They just had no extra money for toys.  If they did get any kind of other gift, it was clothes. But no matter how little they got, they all appreciated it. 

The ‘fruit’ lecture, mom believed, was for my own good.  She wanted me to appreciate the value of getting my presents at Christmas.   In our text for today, John speaks of ‘fruit’ too.  By lecturing on the the need for ‘good fruit’, John takes us straight to the heart of what makes Christmas, Christmas.

But when you hear how John’s sermon begins with, “You brood of vipers!”, it definitely doesn’t sound like Christmas.  He doesn’t start with “Ladies and Gentlemen”, “Four Score and Seven Years ago”, but John opens with “YOU BUNCH OF SNAKES!”  Certainly, John had not ever read Andrew Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People!”  This isn’t how you should begin a sermon ‘anytime’.  John couldn’t and perhaps good shouldn’t be a pastor with preaching like this.  What was God thinking when he chose John to ‘prepare the way’ for Jesus?

Even if John was a revival speaker or an evangelist, he wouldn’t be invited back after this, would he?  John would have been a one shot, one sermon preacher, like the fellow who after preaching had a woman come out the door telling him how terrible his message was; how she hoped he never come back, and how the pastor shouldn’t have invited him.  Then, after all the congregation had left, the speaker asked the pastor about the woman’s negative words. “Oh, don’t worry about her, she just repeats everything she hears.”

So, what’s up with such negative preaching?  If you want to talk about ‘snakes’, it seems that John is the one spewing venom that scares, shocks, stings and kills.  He’s definitely not trying build a fan club, or have people give him a good love-offering or tell him he preached a nice sermon.  After calling his listeners a ‘bunch of snakes’ he basically informs them that if they don’t bear ‘good fruit’ they will be thrown into the ‘fire’ of hell. 

Furthermore, he adds that if they think they can rest on their laurels, that is, if they think they can think that because of who they are, what family they are in, what church they belong to, or because of what they have done or been in the past, that they are ‘safe’ or ‘saved’.  There is no such thing as any doctrine of ‘eternal security’ in the preaching of John.  It’s all ‘burn, baby, burn!’  It’s all about who’s about to get the ‘axe’.

With preaching like this you understand why we don’t have any John the Baptist figurines around the manager.  John is just too negative, too direct, and sounds too mean for Christmas.  John’s way of preaching was the worst way to say anything, except that what he was saying was the truth.  John was telling the truth about how bad and corrupt everything and most everyone had become in Jerusalem.  This is why he’s preaching in the wilderness and the people are going out to him.  John was not as much a wild man in the wilderness, as he was man of integrity and truth.  If John had been preaching like this ‘downtown,’ he would have lost his head even much sooner than he did.  And he did.

Still, even if it’s the truth, it’s still hard, harsh language.  John not only calls people ‘snakes’, he also speaks of God’s anger and coming wrath.  He talks about trees, to speak about people being be ‘cut down’ and thrown into the fire.   It’s fire and brimstone preaching.  It’s not polite.  It’s certainly not like ‘Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire.’  Why would the Bible or the Lectionary demand that we include John in Christmas? 

What is most ironic and interesting about this whole story about John the Baptist and his preaching, is that Luke tells us, as he concludes this section, that with ‘exhortations’ and ‘preaching’ like this, John was bringing ‘good news’!   With ‘friends like this, who needs enemies?’ Right?  His preaching sounds much more like extortion than exhortation, doesn’t it?  How in the world could Luke get ‘good news’ out of harsh talk like this?  How can all this ‘bad news’ be God’s ‘good news?’ 

While there’s no doubt that John’s message is very ‘fiery’, there are two kinds of fire that he is preaching.  Do you see it?  John not only speaks of the coming fire as judgement and destruction, but John also speaks of God’s coming and even more powerful fire,  being brought by the coming one, the Christ whose fire with purify hearts with both hope and healing: “I baptize you with water… but … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

We know that when God’s fire came into the world, through the birth of Jesus Christ and through the coming of the Holy Spirit, it was a very different kind of fire.  The Spirit is a different kind of fire.  God’s fire was, and still is, a fire that purges, cleanses, and purifies.  God fire is the kind of fire that gives the energy for life, not death. 

It was the kind of fire that moved the church out the door into the world to witness to the healing and saving God wants to do for those who will believe.  Even though people still choose evil, choose death, and choose self-destruction, the God of Jesus Christ is the God who offers healing, saving, and hope.  God doesn’t choose the fire of destruction, but God reveals, clearly and concisely, that we still choose it.  John’s preaching is a warning, not a foregone conclusion.  But when people refuse to produce ‘good fruit’ with their lives; good fruit which is defined as ‘fruit in keeping with repentance’, the destruction that will come, will be our choice, not God’s choosing.

I think Luke Powery said it best when he explained that John’s harsh, hard preaching becomes ‘good news’ because only the ‘slaying word can become the ‘saving word.’  (From his sermon preached by Luke Powery at Duke Chapel, Dec. 16th, 2012).  John’s language was ‘strong’ because strong people were hurting weak people. John wanted the greed, the violence and the abuse to stop.  John warned that such bad behavior would eventually bring destruction and judgment down on the whole nation: ‘If you do not bear ‘good fruit’, he warned, ‘YOU will be like trees that are cut down and thrown into the fire.’  What John wants people to know is that the threat is real.  If they don’t ‘produce fruits in keeping with repentance’ (8a) they will seal their fate in the most destructive way.  But John is not saying this merely to ‘scold’ or ‘preach’ to people, but John is preaching to calls people to ‘repent’; that is, to change their lives by changing their ways.

This is hard, sharp, and very direct, but don’t we need a John the Baptist these days?  We live in a world filled with people daily images of violence and hate, with divisiveness and dissention growing, with people caring less about anything important, and too many innocent people getting hurt.  We live in a world where even our own young children can’t even go to school without having to think and worry about what might happen.  We live in a world where churches have to think about safety and security.  We live in a world, where you can’t go Christmas shopping, without wonder whether or not you will come home.  And this in only scratches the surface of the moral and civil decline that goes deep.  What we all know is that life should not be this way.  Such increasing hate, violence, and crime can bring a nation down.  When people don’t bear ‘good fruit’ with their lives, life can become even more worthless and hopeless. 

Hearing God’s call to ‘repentance’ by ‘producing good fruit’ with our lives, here and now, reminds us that God is not only concerned about getting our ‘souls’ into heaven, but God is also concerned about saving our souls and our lives while we are here, on earth.  This means that God’s concern is not only spiritual, but God’s concern is also earthly, social and even political. 

The God of Israel and Jesus Christ is not only the God who wants to save us from ourselves, but God wants to save us for ourselves, and for the good of the world in which we live.  John the Baptist’s preaching reminds us that God’s is just as concerned about justice, righteousness, and change happening now, in us and through us, as God is concerned about forgiving us to get us into heaven.   John’s stern message means the kind of world we need can ‘come down here, right now, at least around us and through us, if we ‘produce’ the right kind of ‘good fruit’.

I remember growing up in a church, where preachers often got it wrong when it came to the ‘social’ side of the gospel.  Some of them meant well, believing that Jesus would soon come, so they thought Christian don’t need to worry about seeking justice or doing righteousness in this world.

In fairness, a lot of their preaching was in response to all the social unrest that was going on in the 60’s and 70’s and they felt that the solution would be to turn inward toward our hearts, our souls, and our spirits.  Nothing wrong with that, but we should recognize that that is not a correct understanding of the gospel, because Jesus did not come, and it is wrong to divide the gospel into either a spiritual (conservative) or exclusively social (liberal) gospel.  “Salvation is not just the saving of the soul, but it is just as much the socializing of the soul” is how the great Baptist preacher Walter Rauschenbusch, once put it.  He spent 11 years as pastor a part of New York City that was once known as “Hell’s Kitchen.  After working with some of the poorest, neglected, hard-working, and disadvantaged people in the city, he realized that a gospel that did not address physical and social needs and issues, was not a true gospel.  He understood that a spiritual Christianity must also be social, that is concerned for not just justice for all, but also for righteousness in all.  Rauschenbusch understood, like John did, that the good news of the gospel, is that at its core, the good news becomes ‘flesh’ in this world, and has social, political, and sometimes even ‘revolutionary’ implications.  (See William Powell Tuck’s ‘A Revolutionary Gospel).  

So, again, with all this in mind; that John’s preaching is to push us to change and to ‘producing’ ‘good fruit’ here and now, can we see how this can also become the most important kind of Advent-Christmas message?

Haven’t we often wished that the ‘spirit’ of the Christmas season; the giving, the caring, the sharing, and the visiting could happen the rest of the year?  Haven’t we often wished that ‘peace on earth’ and ‘good will to all people’ could happen now?  John’s preaching challenges us to see that it can, at least on a small scale, happen now. 

This is why the ‘response’ to John’s preaching came with a very practical question: “What should we do then?”  The thinking about the coming of the Christ then, was much different than the thinking is now.  In that time, people believed that since God was holy, and the Christ was holy, Christ would not come until people prepared themselves and made the world ready for the righteous one to come.  Today, people think the world must get worse for Jesus to return.  But the thinking in John’s day was that if they wanted God to show up and the Messiah to come, they had to ‘prepare the way’  by ‘making the rough ways smooth’, and ‘making the crooked ways straight.’  This was something people had to do first, before God’s kingdom would come.   This is why this kind of question came not only from the crowd, but it also came from some of the Roman soldiers and from some of the greedy ‘tax collectors’ who were collecting much more than enough.  Through John’s preaching they realized that they were not doing their part, the most practical ways, to bring God’s new world into being, here and now.  

What the spirit of John’s preaching still asks us, as we approach this most ‘wonderful time of the year’ is ‘what should we do’ so that the spirit of Christmas, which is the spirit of good will, of hope, and of sharing, could help to overcome the negativity and maliciousness of our own world?  John’s message challenges us to ask ourselves, right here and right now: ‘What Should we Do?’  While we don’t ask ‘what should we do’ so that the Christ can come, we ask what we should we do’ because Christ has come, because we have to have prepare ourselves too, for that day when Christ will come again with purifying fire, with the fire of final judgement which will prove the kind ‘deeds’ we have done.

How do we know what we should do?  ‘What we should do is discovered through what God has done and is doing’. It is the ministry, the calling, and the work that was proven and answered for us, when God became flesh.  For you see, God became flesh not just to get into your heart, but to also get into your hands.   The whole gospel, the true gospel is both personal and social, it’s both spiritual and physical, and it’s just as much what you should do for God, as it is a message about what God has done for you.  

Getting back to John’s challenge to ‘produce fruit in keeping with repentance, the idea here is that true repentance costs you something. It costs your whole life. That is, if in this advent and Christmas season, and in this ‘sin-sick’ world,  you desire to live with integrity and you want to live a life that is not in vain, then hear this more recent advice from the great African American mystic and preacher Howard Thurman, who express the true ‘fruit’ of Christmas, when he said:
“If I can help somebody As I travel along
If I can help somebody With a word or song
If I can help somebody From doing wrong My living shall not be in vain. “
(As quoted from Luke Powery’s sermon noted above)
Wouldn’t that be a wonderful gift to give God this advent? Christian integrity—where our words and our celebration matched our desires and our deeds.  So what should we do? We heard three responses from John.
        He says we should ‘share’ what we have with those who don’t.
John also says we should show ‘care and compassion’ in how we live.
       Finally, John says we should be ‘content’ and not be accusing or exacting with those around, or under us.
And there are so many other things to do to invite God’s purifying Spirit into our world here, and now. But whatever you decide, for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, for your witness’ sake, for the world’s sake, for the sake of the poor the helpless, the cold, the hungry, the oppressed, the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and unloved, the aged and the little children, for the sake of each fallen rose, whatever you decide, do something.  In a world where judgement still threatens, do something.

Finally, when I summarize all John’s warnings, and the necessity John’s preaching, especially in the season of Advent, I realize that John was a realist.  John told it like it was.  John believed that God not only wanted to save people from the world, but God wanted to save people while they were living in the world.  John believed that people could do better.  John believed that the people in charge could do better.  John believed a nation, as a whole, could do better too.  John believed people who had enough, should share, and do more. Merely preaching ‘good news’ was not enough. Merely waiting on the Christ to come was not enough. People had to live the good news too.  People who wanted Christ to come into the world had to ask the right kind of questions, not just give answers.  They also had to live the answers that brought God’s healing and hope into the world.  This was the slaying, but also saving word from John that still brings to us, the ‘fire’ of Christmas that would ‘baptize’ us all with God’s Holy Spirit.   Amen.  

Sunday, December 9, 2018

“God’s Salvation…”

A sermon based upon Luke 3: 1-6
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Second Sunday of Advent C,  December 9th, 2018  (2 of 5 Messages from Luke)

On this second Sunday of Advent we want to talk about a really big topic, from just a few verses of Scripture in the early part of Luke’s gospel.  Specifically, I want to focus on what Luke names in verse 6 of this text as ‘God’s salvation’.  

Isn’t this why we have Christmas?  There would have never been the Advent season, nor would there have been Christmas had Christmas not been about God’s salvation being announced through the birth of a Jewish child named Jesus; a name which means “God saves”. 

But it is possible, in the midst of all the activities, festivities and fun of this season, to lose track of what the season is about. Once a little boy who was trying to pray the Lord’s prayer accidently prayed: “Lord, forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.”   There is something accidently and also ironically true about that little boy’s mistake.   We can get all sentimental or we might even serious about Christmas, but still miss what God’s salvation should mean for us, in our lives and in our world right now. 

The story of John the Baptizer’s is an important part of the Christmas story exactly because John and his preaching helps us prepare our hearts the gospel of Christmas.   For Christmas is not just about God’s salvation that once came into this world, but it also about the salvation we need now.

What might be surprising to some, is that God’s salvation is a story that preaches Jesus and worships Jesus, but God’s salvation did not originally begin with Jesus.  

John’s preaching reminds us that even before Jesus was born, voices were already announcing that one day ‘all people will see God’s salvation’ (3:6).  The words John preached were not his own words, but they were combined quotes from two different Hebrew prophets, who both envisioned that someday soon God’s salvation would not just be for a few people, meaning it would not just be a salvation only for Israel or for the Jews, but they predicted that one day God’s salvation would extend to ‘all people’ everywhere: “All people will see God’s salvation (v.6).”

This is a big step, isn’t it---to understand how one people’s God would become another’s people’s God, meaning that the God of one particular people, tribe or nation, would become the God of everyone?  But this ‘universalizing’ of God’s love and God’s salvation is exactly the direction the Bible takes us at Christmas. 

Christmas is the message that Israel’s God, who is also the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is big enough, great enough, powerful enough and true enough to be the God of everyone.  What came to be fully and finally realized in Jesus, is that only the God who is big enough to save everyone, is the God who can save anyone. 

This is the ‘flow’ and direction of the ‘salvation story’ in the Bible, but can we still ‘go with this flow’ with our modern minds and our scientific hearts?  For many people today, even in the churches too, Christmas is more about family and traditions than it is about salvation.  It is getting harder and harder to wrap our minds and our hearts around what the Bible claims; that in Jesus Christ, ‘all people…see God’s salvation’.  And if we still do believe this, that ‘God’s salvation’ is for all people, what does it mean ‘see’ God’s salvation realized in our own world today, not just the world that existed on that first Christmas, some 2,000 years ago?   

To put the question in John’s own language, what does it mean for us to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ today?  How can we ‘make straight paths for him’ in our time, in our own lives, and in our own celebration of Christmas?

If you want to get to Christmas, you have to go through John” (Fred Craddock).  The preaching of John not only points us to Jesus, but John gets the world ready for Jesus because John helps us ‘see’ and ‘understand’ how God’s salvation begins in the world. 

God’s salvation begins when we begin to pay close attention to what is ‘crooked’ in our world (and in our lives too) that needs to be made ‘straight’ and to what feels so ‘rough’ that it needs to be made ‘smooth’.  The word John uses for making spiritual preparation for God’s salvation is the word ‘repentance’.  John came preaching ‘a baptism of repentance’ because ‘repentance’ is the way that goes through the heart of everyone, because only our hearts can God’s salvation be fully released into the whole world.  Repentance is important for the Christmas story, because it is only through ‘repentance’, that is the turn away from our own sins and limitations, that we turn toward the hope of God’s universal, saving love.

My favorite story that taught me what our repentance means, comes from when my friend and I were riding in my car, and we entered a very narrow gate into a small village. As we were about the turn through that gate, a old, dilapidated pick-up meet us head on.  We stopped. The pick-up stopped.  We didn’t move. The pickup didn’t move.  There were three long-haired hippies in the truck. They just sat there. I wanted to back up, but my friend reminded me that we were there first. I thought there might be some road rage, or something. But after what seemed an hour went by in a minute or so, one of the fellows stuck his head out the window and politely asked: “Would you guy minds backing up?  Our truck doesn’t have any reverse.”

What ‘repentance’ means is that God ‘does not have a reverse.’   God doesn’t have any reverse just like time can’t be reversed and truth can’t be reversed. Time is time and truth is truth.  You have to make a friend of time, just like you have to learn to live the truth.   There is no reverse.  There is no other option for this world.  When you see yourself on the wrong side of truth and time, you have to turn.

What we need to understand about John’s preaching of repentance, is that John is not preaching ‘repentance’ to make us ashamed of ourselves, to make us feel guilty, or to force us to do only what God wants us to do.  This is not what biblical repentance means.  You can feel sorry about something and ashamed, but still not change.  Repentance is about ‘change’ and ‘turning’ toward God’s healing, not toward more hurt. 

Repentance means that we get real with what is real and we come to accept what is true about life, about God, and about us. God’s salvation comes to us in our lives, when we make the move toward the truth.  Through the Word, through the prophet and the preacher, through the Holy Spirit, and through the message of truth, when we see, hear, and understand what is real, and we turn toward the truth, the ‘truth… sets us free’.  As Derek Flood says, repentance is God’s way of healing and saving because repentance is how we acknowledge ‘what we didn’t know before…and how we open ourselves up new, fresh, and deeper ways of knowing’ the truth. “Repentance is how we turn from self-destruction toward the life God offers. Repentance is how we participate in the salvation God gives.
When we talk about repentance, real, true, biblical repentance, we must always keep in mind is where repentance is going.  Repentance is going where the Bible is going and it is going where God’s salvation is going, as it is revealed universally and ‘once and for all’ through Jesus Christ.

Quoting Derek Flood’s ‘The Healing Gospel’ once more, Flood reminds us that ‘Our repentance is in response to God’s love, not the condition for it.’ His point goes all the way back to Augustine, one of the first theologians of the church who wrote: “Our being reconciled through the Son, is not in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us.”  No God already loves us.  God in his love is what is calling us to repent so we will turn our hearts toward God and his loving truth.  (From: Flood, Derek. Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross (p. 27). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Isn’t this what John tells us when he says it is the preaching of the ‘baptism of repentance’ that releases the ‘forgiveness of sins’ into our lives, here and now?  God’s salvation always begins with the ‘repentance’ of sin because only repentance prepares us to know the true God of love, who has revealed himself to the whole world, just so that he can forgive us from the destructive and disastrous results of our own sins.

When I was in college, fellow student Randy Kilby, now deceased, told us one of the most important stories I’ve ever heard about understanding what God wants to do for us, then and now.  He told a story about two siblings, Tommy and Susie, who went to spend the summer with their grandmother on the farm.  They loved to spend time with Grandma on the farm, and this summer started out great, but then something bad happened that almost spoiled it all.  Tommy was skipping rocks on the farm pond and accidently killed one of Grandma’s prize winning ducks. 

Tommy was afraid to tell his Grandma about it, so he kept it a secret.  He thought it was a secret, until one evening, after supper, his sister Susie informed Tommy that she had seen him kill that duck and that she was going to tell Grandma, unless he did her chores, as well as, his own.  Tommy agreed and went through week after week, miserably doing whatever his sister wanted.  “If you don’t do this, I’ll tell Grandma.”

Finally, it was the final week of the summer, and Tommy was tried of being enslaved to his sister’s beck and call.  He finally went to his Grandma to tell her the truth; that he had killed her duck.  When he was prepared to have Grandma scold him, instead Grandma told him how she had seen him, because she was getting her clothes in off the clothesline.  She said she also saw how he lived under his sisters’ wishes, and he was just hoping and waiting for him to come and to admit his mistake, so that she could forgive him and set him free. 

As Randy finished that story, we all understood what the story meant, because we’ve all been there.  We’ve all enslaved ourselves by refusing to admit our failures, mistakes or sins.  We’ve all allowed sin to enslave us, when all it would take to set us free, would be to turn toward the God who came into the world to set us free through the love he gave to us all through Jesus Christ.  

This is what Christmas means; really means.  Christmas is about the only faith that could ever really matter to everyone, coming into the world.  It is a faith that comes to see the truth, the greatest truth, God’s truth that through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has offered us a way to see the salvation that only love can bring.  It is a salvation that comes from the God of loves and waits for us to turn our hearts toward the love that has ‘first loved us’. 

When we see what God’s sees, when God loves, then we all will see God’s salvation.’  Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

“At That Time…”

A sermon based upon Luke 21: 25- 36
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
1st Sunday of Advent,  December 2, 2018  (1 of 5 Advent messages based on Luke's gospel) 

I listened with great interest to the words the pardoned Tennessee woman Alice Johnson used to describe her time in prison.  In a CBS interview last June, she said: ‘I didn’t want to just do time, and I didn’t want to let time do me, but I wanted to try to make use of my time, and the only good use of time is to serve others”   (From CBS Broadcast, June 7th, 2018).

And the real good news is that you don’t have to ‘do time’ to learn how to be wise with your time.  The Bible reflects this kind of wisdom when it says we should ‘redeem the time, because the days are evil’ (Eph. 5:6).  The NIV translations says ‘make the most of every opportunity’.   In life, not just at Christmastime, we must learn how to best use the time we have, rather than to allow time to use us.

Time is on most everyone’s mind as we start the countdown toward Christmas.  In the reading for this first Sunday of Advent, we read how time was on Jesus mind too. 

As Jesus and his disciples were walking through the center of Jerusalem, the disciples looked with great awe and wonder upon the shiny, massive, and imposing temple structure and complex.  This second temple and complex, took King Herod 46 years to construct and was the most massive structure in Jerusalem.  The rebuilding of the temple was started the Jewish governor Zerubbabel back in 515 BC, but in 20 BC, Herod the Great finished the project in a very costly, but magnificent way.

But while the disciples were ‘starstruck’ in amazement, Jesus reminded them that ‘time’ can do a number on just about everything. Jesus said to them: “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”(21:6).  What Jesus was trying to teach his disciples then, and what Jesus can still teach those who follow him, is that there is simply no true wisdom of life, for life, or in life, until you reckon with time.    

When we start to grapple with time, as it was with the disciples too, the natural beginning question to ask is ‘when’.  When will these things be?’  When will things change for the better?  When will things get worst? When will the end come or as the poet asked, when the ‘bell toll’ for us?  The disciples wanted to know ‘when’?  How much time, or perhaps, how little time do they, and do we, have?  We may try to avoid this question ourselves, because it so easy to be captivated by all the glitz and glamour of life.  The limits in time can be hard ‘to get our minds around’ too, but we all wonder about when, or how, or what will be?

To gain wisdom for ‘the living of these days’ we need perspective too.  I think that’s really what Jesus was trying to do for the disciples.  I don’t think Jesus wanted to make his disciples depressed about the future by filling them with all kinds of negative expectations.   Those times were negative and fearful already.  Jesus was a realist, not an alarmist.  Jesus gave them an honest, realistic assessment of their time, and where they world was headed, but Jesus was also surprisingly and unexpected positive in the perspective and outlook he gave.  

When Jesus spoke openly about ‘endings’ he also pointed them toward ‘beginnings’—toward new opportunities for ‘testimony’ (13) and for new visions of ‘glory’ (27) and even for the nearness of ‘redemption’ (28), to use Luke’s word, which means to find especially in the hard times that were ahead.  To be clear, even in negative times, Jesus wanted to give them an indestructible perspective of hope---hope for their time and hope for any and all time, including our own time of life. 

A Lutheran Bishop tells about visiting a South Dakota rancher during the disastrous winter of 1997 with its many blizzards and ice storms, and its record losses of cattle.  The older rancher was welcoming several helping professionals to his ranch, who were assessing the extent of his losses from these disasters. The rancher led them out to a hill in the pasture not far from his ranch and told them they were standing on the grave of his once, very large, herd of cattle. All but a small number had been frozen to death in an early April storm.

All the visitors were stunned by the enormity of his loss, and by his matter-of-fact manner in relating it.  They questioned and probed a bit for some sense of his feelings about all of this, until he responded... as many South Dakotans did, in the face of such disaster: "Well, it could have been worse."

The visitors were even more sure that this man must be deep in denial to have such an attitude about losing his life's work in one weekend storm. They questioned and probed a bit more. How could it have possibly been worse? Having been pushed to explain himself, and probably having sized up the visitors as city folks, he finally responded by pointing down to the hill or grave they were standing on and said, "I could have been down there."

When you live close to the earth; close to other living and dying things by staying in touch with the reality constantly around each of us.  And when we do this by staying close to God, no matter where we are on the ‘timeline’ of life, we gain an invaluable viewpoint.  This is to ‘keep in view’ and to keep a realistic perspective of time—real time, your time, and the time we each have for life.  This is what that South Dakotan farmer understood and it is same kind of perspective Jesus wanted to give to his disciples then, and the Spirit of Jesus can give us now.  By grasping the limits of our time, in these times too, we gain an understanding of life that gives an invaluable perspective. But what kind of ‘perspective’?  

”BE CAREFUL, OR…” (34)
As Jesus’ spoke to the ‘times’ in which he lived, he spoke to ‘things’ that would be ‘fulfilled’ (KJV) or would ‘happen’ (NIV) during his time, before ‘this generation’, that is, before his generation, ‘would pass away’ (32).  
This means that everything Jesus refers to in his words, would come true, happen, or take place, in one way or another during their lifetimes. 

In that time, his own disciples, were facing unmistakable and almost unbearable difficulties.  Jesus warned how deceptions would come (8).  Earth-shaking destruction and diseases would come (10-11).  Defamation of their character and faith would come, meaning religious persecution (12-19), as well as, the full demolition of Jerusalem, their most holy place, would come. 

You can hardly imagine anything worse than what Jesus foresees.  Quoting the book of Daniel, Jesus named this cataclysmic event not only ‘desolation’ (20) as Luke does, but Jesus also named this ‘the desolation of desolations’ (KJV) or the ‘desolation that causes desolation’ (20-26, cp Dan. 9.27, Matt 24.14, Mark 13.14).   Most everything that Jesus envisioned for their immediate future was not pretty picture, but was filled with depressing, frightful, and dreadful images of human trouble, pain, and suffering.

It’s easy, not just to lose your faith, but it’s also easy, Jesus points out, to lose heart, and to lose your head with such realistic perspectives of the times.  This is why near the conclusion of his words, Jesus challenges his disciples to ‘take care’ (CEB), to ‘be careful’ (34) or ‘take heed’ (KJV).  Jesus says if we are not ‘careful’ the times can make our hearts so heavy, we can turn to carousing, drunkenness, and worry, that we end up ‘trapped’ by the times rather than still being able to find a way to ‘escape’ (34-38).

What I find most uplifting about Jesus’ own perspective about the future, is that even in the worst of times, his disciples always have a ‘choice’.  This is actually what Jesus’ perspective comes down to.  All the ‘hell’ that was turned loose on the world then, because the Jewish people where unwilling to follow Jesus, and all the hell that can be still be turned loose on the world now, because people are still unwilling to follow Jesus, does not mean that there is no way left to escape.  God always makes a way of escape in every situation and circumstance of life, but we still have to choose.  The difference in living in despair, or having courage to face the times, is that we choose to ‘take care’ with our hearts (34) and that we stand firm in our hope to ‘win life’ (19).

This is choice for ‘life’ against all odds, is exactly what happened in the life of a British man named Robin Cavendish, who back in 1958, at the age of 28, was stricken with polio, so that he was paralyzed from the neck down and could not even breathe without the help of a respirator.  He was told by doctors that he would not live more than 3 months and would not see his 29th birthday. 

Robin’s story is told in the movie entitled “Breathe” which tells of how Robin, played by Andrew Garfield, at first was greatly depressed, feeling like his life was over.  But with the love and help of his family, he was able to come home, though he was still restricted to having a respirator.  Once, the respirator cable came loose, and he almost died, but he made clicking noises to get his wife’s attention. 

But the great part about Robin’s story is that when he was only given a few months to live, he not only defied the odds, but that friends helped him to create a wheelchair with a respirator build-in, and he traveled to Spain, Germany, and elsewhere around the world with his family.  When he was in Germany, Robin made a presentation to German doctors on how to make life better for their patients, for which Robin was given a standing ovation because his example gave inspiration for a greater quality of treatment for victims of polio and paralysis.  But Robin’s life continues to inspire, because instead of dying before his 29th birthday, Robin lived to be 64 years of age.

It’s certainly never easy to have the right perspective, nor make the best ‘choices’ in the difficult times we also face.  We may or may not be facing the end of all times, but times are always ending in some way and for someone.  

This is why the words of Jesus still capture our imagination, not because they predict all the specifics of our own time, but because they always predict the realities in every time.  We may not be, invaded or surrounded by armies, and we aren’t yet strapped to a wheelchair or to a respirator, we are all ‘strapped’ to living in these times. These times, like their times, can also be a struggle, a challenge, and a threat.  Even at Christmastime, and maybe especially at Christmas, it’s so easy fall prey to our own negativity or to get lost in the nostalgic about how life used to be, rather than to find the redemption and the perspective of hope God can give us right now in this time when we live, and right here in this place where we live.

Maybe the only true way to find hope, for us, is the same way Jesus said people in ‘his generation’ would find hope: ‘At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’ (27).  Only by ‘seeing’ Jesus in that situation, or in our own, can people gain the perspective of hope and make the choice to hope---even against the darkest night or in the most difficult times.
In another midwestern story, in town of Spencer South Dakota, a devastating tornado hit the area.  The day after community and church leaders walked through the remaining rubble.  It was an unbelievable sight. A grain elevator twisted and fallen, a water tower toppled, vehicles and other heavy items strewn around like toys. Whole buildings just gone from their foundations. Even those who knew the lay of the town well had to get their bearing when all the trees and buildings and landmarks are gone.

The town leaders finally made their way near the site of the church, St. Matthews Lutheran, and were looking for signs of where it had been.  They might have been a half a block away when someone called out "there's the statue, there's Jesus!"   And sure enough, the pastor in the group recognize it, there it was -- the traditional white statue of Jesus that often stands at the altar of many small churches in the Midwest, with his arms outstretched and loving demeanor.

There it, or He was, a beacon to what had been the site of a 100-year congregation's place of worship. The white paint on the statue was nearly gone, and someone later said that its arms were broken, but that wasn’t even noticed, because it was just so remarkable, so moving and so fitting to look up from the chaos around us and see Jesus, arms outstretched, welcoming, and loving his people.

The survey group initially thought that the statue of Jesus had somehow stood through it all, the wind, the hail, the rain, the total destruction of the building all around him, somehow he had stayed upright.   They learned later, however, another story. Two young girls, helping clean up for a family member in a nearby home, had taken time to come over to where the church had been and set aside a few items of church property they found scattered in the area. They saw the statue lying in the rubble, and figured everyone in Spencer needed to see that Jesus was still there, so they stood him up for everyone to see. (See also:

What those young girls showed the town leaders in Spencer South Dakota, is what we all must know to gain, have, and keep the perspective of hope, even when days get darker, or when life gets hard.  But we, in this generation too, are the one who have to choose to ‘stand up’ and ‘lift up’ our own heads and hearts too.  We too have to lift up Jesus with our own hands and hearts so that God’s redeeming presence can be felt and Christ’s sustaining hope can be seen. 

Isn’t this what the Advent season is all about-- lifting up Christ again and again, so that no matter what situation are in, we can still find true and everlasting hope?  Advent’s promise is that no matter what time it is, we never have to ‘do time’ nor must we ever let ‘time do a number on us’.  Instead, we can always use time, and gain wisdom over time, because when we stay close to Christ, we can always choose to ‘stand up and lift our heads’ and our ‘hearts, because our redemption never leaves our side, but is always ‘near’.  Amen.