Grace Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2021, Epiphany 2B
The One Who Knows
When I was a young lad in Sunday school, one particular part of our learning somehow involved learning a series of particular attributes of God. In this case the attributes were summed up in three words, each of which began with the prefix “omni-,” which of course roughly translates as “all-.” The first was “omnipotent,” or all-powerful. I was a geeky enough child that it was fairly easy to figure out, because I somewhat knew the word “potent.” The next was “omnipresent,” a fancy way of saying God was everywhere and even easier to figure out.
The third word required a little more work to understand and was therefore (to me at least) the most fascinating of the bunch. God is, by this description, “omniscient.” I had to work a little harder for this one, as my teacher kept conflating the ideas that God is “all-knowing” (which would be the approximate translation of the world) and “all-seeing,” which to my still-developing mind was a different, if related, thing. Even so it’s clear enough that (especially speaking of God) the two things – knowing and seeing – do go together quite well.
Something along these lines is clearly what is going on in the psalmist’s mind in Psalm 139; a God who knows all and sees all, with all that knowing and seeing trained specifically on the psalmist.
It’s not hard to see how this psalm was appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary for this day, given the readings from Hebrew scripture and from the gospel of John already in place. The passage from 1 Samuel tells of God’s calling of the boy by that name, who had been dedicated to the Lord from birth and worked and lived in the Temple in service to the priest, at this time a corrupt old man named Eli. It took a few tries to get through Samuel’s youthful ignorance and Eli’s absence from God, but at long last Eli remembered his calling and taught Samuel what to do the next time the Lord spoke.
In the gospel reading, the “all-seeing” and “all-knowing” nature of God in Jesus is made even more explicit, as the recalcitrant Nathaniel is gobsmacked to learn that Jesus saw him under a fig tree before Philip had even come to tell him (Nathaniel) about Jesus. This extracts a great confession from Nathaniel about this Jesus he was just meeting, to which Jesus replied in essence that if you thought that was big, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Indeed the idea of God (again, in Jesus) as all-knowing and all-seeing is made explicit here, and even suggested as kind of a “no big deal” attribute – there are far more arresting and magnificent things yet to be seen.
For the psalmist, though, things are more personal. That is clear from the very first verse: “you have searched me and known me,” the psalmist sings. It is a staggering thought, that one’s very words and thoughts are known to God even before they are known to the psalmist. The psalmist admits as much in verse 6: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”
It is at this point that I must confess that I regret not having Russel Rumenik read the intervening verses here as part of the psalm reading. The developers of the Revised Common Lectionary had their reasons for keeping them out, I am sure, but I have come to believe that we can miss the fullness of this psalm if we don’t take in verses 7-12, if we don’t acknowledge that there are times when such knowledge, knowledge of just how completely God knows and sees us, can seem something less than “wonderful”:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
This begins, at least, to sound a little more ominous. There is nowhere to go, the psalmist muses, where God is not. Even Sheol (a Hebraic concept of the underworld, not to be confused with the later concept of Hell) offers no escape from the Lord, in the psalmist’s understanding. There is even no darkness from which one can be hidden from God, if “night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light” to the Lord.
Let this sink in.
Nothing about us is hidden from the Lord. Nothing.
That’s all fine and good when we are, say, gathered like this, even in this virtual space, for scripture and proclamation and prayer and song. We’re good with showing this to God. We feel all righteous and proper and churchy and we want to make sure God sees us like this.
But that doesn’t apply to our whole lives, not as long as we’re human beings.
There are times when our thoughts are more like those expressed by the psalmist towards the end of the psalm, the other part left out of the lectionary:
O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me – those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
No, no human being is immune to the violence of thought and attitude captured here in this, in which the psalmist is in the position of becoming what he says he hates. No wonder the psalm ends with words of chastised confession and petition:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
It is a challenging spot to be in.
Even for those who would cloak their evil actions or desires in God-talk – like the man charged in a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, who claimed (according to court testimony Wednesday) that God had given him permission to kill – cannot hide their corruption and hatred from God. God isn’t fooled by fervent-sounding prayers and churchy-sounding songs and t-shirts full of “God” this and “Jesus” that. God sees the darkness and knows it.
But even those of us who aren’t plotting an attack on one Capitol or another can’t claim to be without those darknesses and petty sins we would hide from God. We can’t, not from the all-seeing and all-knowing God. Politicians who hide their true motives behind calls for “unity” and “healing” cannot hide their sinfulness from God. Those who indulge in hatred disguised as fear cannot hide their sinfulness from God. None of us can hide our sinfulness from God, no matter how great or small by comparison to the sins of another.
This is a tremendous challenge in clouded and divisive times such as these. It is still imperative that we do justice, as Micah and Amos and numerous other prophets (not to mention, oh, Jesus) demand throughout scripture. That call cannot be overruled by anything else in scripture. We are not, however, free to “go dark” ourselves in pursuit of those things necessary to bring forth justice. We are not free to be ungodly in the name of God. We are not free to be ungodly even when opposed to those being ungodly in the name of God. God knows and God sees.
Indeed, we truly have no recourse but to plead with the psalmist, for God to “see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” We cannot claim to be unblemished in God’s eyes; God sees and God knows.
For the God who has searched us and known us, from whose presence we cannot flee, who made us fearfully and wonderfully, and who leads us in the way everlasting; Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #686, God of Our Life; #634, To God Be the Glory
 “Man charged in alleged plot to kidnap Michigan governor says God gave him permission to kill,” Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-01-14/man-charged-in-alleged-plot-to-kidnap-michigan-governor-says-god-gave-him-permission-to-kill (accessed 1/14/21).
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2021, Epiphany 1B (Baptism of the Lord)
Psalm 29; Mark 1:4-11
Psalm 23, the most famous psalm ever, contains a brief phrase which turns out to be illuminating. It’s early in the psalm; verse 2 declares “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters…”
It turns out that in ancient or biblical times, the people of Israel weren’t terribly fond of the water. While ancient peoples such as the Phoenicians proved to be adroit at travel across the seas, the Israelites…didn’t. Aside from the fisherfolk like several of Jesus’s disciples, going out on the water, whether the grand Mediterranean Sea or the smaller inland “Sea” of Galilee, wasn’t a preferred activity or vocation.
It’s hard to argue this was unjustified, to be sure. The sea was a dangerous place. It was easy to die out there, and many sailors lost their lives. (See another psalm reference, Psalm 107:22-32, for a particularly vivid description of the hazards of the deep.) So Psalm 23’s reference to “still waters” is thus revealed as a sign of the utter safety and peacefulness of God’s provision and care for the sheep in that psalm.
The author of Psalm 29 takes a different view of the waters – no safety here. Indeed the psalmist appears to take the kind of storms that would blow in from the Mediterranean across the northern reaches of Palestine, slamming into Lebanon and crossing into Syria, and ratcheting them up, oh, a thousand times or so. (Of course we n Florida are familiar with how the waters that surround us can spin up or intensify storms that then rumble across the Peninsula or into the Panhandle.) The rhetorical coup de grace of the psalm is to place God at the head of the storm.
Verses 3-9 of this psalm are a storm scene, the likes of which would trigger bad flashbacks for many storm victims. The voice of God thunders; the voice of God breaks the mightiest trees of the forest, the cedars of Lebanon and ravages the mountainous regions; the voice of God flashes lightning and triggers fire and sets the oaks to whirling as if caught up in a tornado, shaking the wilderness. All of this time, at the beginning and the end of this psalm, we are reminded that “the voice of the Lord is over the waters” (v. 3) and that “the Lord sits enthroned above the flood” (v. 10). The storm is the dynamic rendering of the voice of God, and (in the psalm at least) all of those in the temple cry “Glory!”
Here’s where I come to doubt the psalmist.
I’m not always so certain that people cry “Glory!” at such a sight, not all of them anyway.
I know darn well, from observation, that people cry, “I want that power.”
We saw that this week, those who want that power. They attacked the Capitol building on Wednesday. People “to whom,” in the words of Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri, “being more real than others is so important” peformed an act of terrorism and violence that would have gotten any other class of people in this country shot on the spot, without even a fraction of a second’s hesitation.
They want that power, to exalt themselves and to destroy others.
And they’ll even claim God’s blessing to do it, carrying Bibles and crosses and singing churchy songs and prayers while rioting and breaking things. Mind you, this is a God who bears much more of a resemblance to John Wayne, or maybe Bravehart William Wallace, than to what most Christians would think of God resembling. Certainly not the gray-bearded old God of cartoons and comic strips, or the shining, beneficent light of paintings.
And most emphatically not the God-with-us who comes to the Jordan in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel.
Let’s be clear: Jesus does not need to be baptized. Why does a sinless person need to be baptized for repentace and forgiveness of sin? Why does Jesus need to be baptized by John, who has already foreseen him as “the one who is more powerful than I,” and the one who John is “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals”?
Water is powerful. History records river baptisms – with their symbolism of dying in Christ – tragically ending in more literal death, as baptizer or baptized or both are swept away by the mighty, uncontrolled waters. Even modern-day baptisms can end that way; a quick Google search reveals deaths during baptism due to drowning, heart attack, and in one case a pastor being struck by lightning. The Jordan River doesn’t necessarily have a lot of raging rapids, but it could still take you under.
And yet Jesus (Emmanuel, God-with-us, remember) submitted to this risky and kinda needless exercise. Jesus stepped into the Jordan and submitted to the baptism for the forgiveness of sins of which he had none, at the hands of one not worthy to untie his sandals. The possessor of all that power as described in the psalm submitted, and was baptized.
Coming up from those waters, Jesus (and only Jesus, as Mark describes it) saw just a flash of those mighty powers – the heavens “torn apart” – and instead of breaking the cedars and ravaging the mountains, the heavenly voice announcing Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved” and saying to Jesus “with you I am well pleased.”
If you’re going to call yourself a follower of Christ, this is your response to the temptation of power. To grab and terrorize and threaten and wreck and break, all because you did not get your way, cannot be reconciled with Christ. Period.
The temptation to indulge in the power of self-importance and domination of others runs rampant these days. Do not be deceived. No matter how many crosses are raised, no matter how many prayers are prayed or praise and worship songs are sung, that grasping of “power” or “strength” or “might” is not of Christ, and pales pathetically in the face of the God who sits enthroned above the flood, who breaks the cedars and causes the oaks to whirl and makes the mountains skip like young cattle or oxen. The One who submits to the lot of humanity in baptism is not the one who demeans or destroys some so that others can live in gratuitous privilege to exploit and abuse and destroy.
The power of the waters of baptism is the power of God, and God alone. To submit to these waters, for once and for always, is the true fellowship of Christ, the powerful One who submitted to weakness for the sake of all of us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #259, The God of Heaven; #480, Take Me to the Water
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 27, 2020, Christmas 1B
Last week’s scriptures offered up a couple of examples, on that last Sunday of Advent, of two important figures – the king David and the priest Zechariah – who, in their own ways, failed to get it right when it came to waiting for the Lord. Their shortfalls – David trying to rush ahead into a thing God had not called him to do, Zechariah dismissing even the possibility of what God told him through Gabriel would happen – left only Mary, the young girl from the sticks in a more modern vernacular, as the example of waiting and being ready to respond with acceptance and affirmation to God’s wild and crazy plans for her.
Fortunately for those of us in the AARP crowd, today’s lesson from the gospel of Luke offers a pair of better examples of those who wait upon the Lord and are ready and able to do their part and play their role when their awaited appears, no matter how big a scene they cause.
The scene that plays out in this latter half of Luke 2, after all of the dramatic events of the Nativity, has the feel of a mid-credits or post-credits scene in some Hollywood blockbuster, particularly in superhero movies and other serialized films or television shows. The scene doesn’t necessarily alter the basic story, but it does suggest there might be new directions for the characters or new plot twists ahead, setting up the next movie or episode in the series. In this case, the words and actions of Simeon and Anna point towards, ultimately, the opposite end of Jesus’s earthly life, as well as much of what Jesus was to face over the course of his earthly ministry.
Mary and Joseph are doing what they are supposed to do according to Jewish law. It’s possible that Luke might be mixing up a couple of different rituals meant to be performed on a child, particularly a first-born son. Nonetheless, they are at the Temple to fulfill this law and custom, and frankly it should have been a fairly boring affair. It is worth noting that the offering that the parents brought to be sacrificed for the event, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” tells us something about the couple; that provision was in the law as an option for those who were not able to afford the preferred offering for the occasion, a young lamb. Jesus was not born into wealth, if we needed any reminder.
The first disruption of the routine came from Simeon, described as “a devout man” who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” We aren’t given a specific indication of how long he had been waiting for the fulfillment of this promise, with the Spirit “resting on him” as in verse 25,, but we are led to suppose it has been many years. The Spirit had prompted Simeon to come into the temple, and he didn’t wait upon seeing Joseph and Mary with the child Jesus. While today it would be a major incident if a stranger took a child right out of the arms of his mother, here Simeon doesn’t bolt and run with the baby; instead, he sings out an exclamation to God. You might recognize this text; it is commonly used at the conclusion of a Service of Witness to the Resurrection in PC(USA) churches and of memorial services in other denominations as well. You can see why. We have no idea what happens to Simeon after this moment, but it is not hard to imagine that if he died soon after this, he did so about as contentedly as possible. To be able to say, after all of the waiting, that “my eyes have seen your salvation” is a profound and overwhelming thing, and Simeon sings it out for all to hear and rejoice.
But Simeon doesn’t stop there. After his acclamation to God, he has things to say to the parents, and these words are a little less cheering. That first statement to Mary and Joseph catches the ear and eye with its seeming backwardness, doesn’t it? We tend to speak of the “rise and fall,” whether it be of the Roman Empire, the Third Reich, Civilizations or any number of other things. Here, though, Simeon invokes the reverse: “this child is destined to be the falling and rising of many in Israel…” and also “a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed.” At the minimum, Jesus was to be a turning point. His own earthly life would indeed play out as falling (in his execution at the hands of Rome) and his rising (in resurrection), and his ministry became more and more opposed over the course of his three years in public life. Most of his immediate followers would experience a similar trajectory as well. As if that weren’t enough, his final words to Mary leave no doubt that this life would know sorrow – “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Most likely Mary had no time to recover from those words before the second interruption arrived, in the form of a prophet named Anna. We are told that she was “of a great age,” and had lived many years beyond the death of her husband, and now waited and worshiped in the temple “night and day” (another reversal) awaiting … it isn’t exactly stated what. Simeon had barely spoken his last words before Anna took up her exclamation.
Their exclamations are presented differently. While both praise God, Simeon speaks to the parents (mostly Mary), while Anna begins to bear witness to all the others in the temple, and indeed to “all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” It’s a needful call and one that we future generations after Anna are encouraged to emulate. One might even be tempted to call Anna the first evangelist, even more than the women at the empty tomb.
This pattern reminds me of one of the elements of a pastor’s ordination. It’s been almost six years, so I don’t expect you to remember two of the climactic parts of an ordination service: the charge to the candidate and the charge to the congregation. One addresses the man or woman who is taking up not only a new job but a new vocation, indeed even a new life; the other speaks to the congregation about their opportunities and responsibilities in welcoming this new minister into their church. In this case Simeon addresses Jesus’s parents about what they are facing, and Anna is speaking to a congregation that doesn’t even know it’s a congregation, much less that they have any interest in this child being brought to the temple by these Galileans, one out of who knows how many children brought to the temple for this purpose in any given week. To be blunt, most passers-by probably wondered what this old woman was going on about.
The last verses give us only the tiniest of peeks into the childhood of Jesus. Luke will in the last portion of this chapter give us the only reliable story we have from Jesus’s pre-adult years, another story that takes place in the temple when Jesus is twelve. But for now we are left with the parents returning home with their child, minds and hearts overwhelmed by what they have heard from these two strangers, masters of the spiritual practice of waiting and being ready.
For the time of waiting, and for the Simeons and Annas who show us how, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #119, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; #148, Mary and Joseh Came to the Temple (sung to tune BUNESSAN); #134, Joy to the World
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 20, 2020, Advent 4B (recorded)
Waiting Until the Coming of the Lord
So here we are, almost there. Come this Thursday, Christmas Eve will be upon us, and Christians all over will, whether online or in outdoor services or even “drive-by” observances, mark the birth of Jesus in that feed trough in Bethlehem. The season of Advent will meet its culmination, or at least one of them.
Advent is, as we have observed already, a two-faced season after a fashion; even as we look back and remember that birth, we also look forward, anticipating the longed-for return of Christ. While it’s not at all impossible that such could happen between now and Christmas Eve, it’s not something we can predict or count on. We’ve been reminded many times in scripture that nobody but God knows that hour (not to mention reminded many times by the failures of those who tried to predict those events). As far as we know, we will be continuing to wait for that “second Advent.”
The readings we just heard offer us some examples of waiting, both done well and…not so well. The account from 2 Samuel finds its place in Advent as a reminder of and connection to all those other texts of the season that point to the anticipated Messiah as being of the line of David; that “house” is evoked at the tail end of verse 11. This account also serves, however, as a good example of how not to “wait upon the Lord.”
Let’s be clear: King David wants to do a good thing. He sees the magnificent palace he has built for himself and at least has the decency to notice that the tent in which the Ark of the Covenant is housed is rather meager-looking by comparison. David also has the decency to realize that, as the king, he can do something about that. Meanwhile the prophet Nathan, apparently without hesitation, agrees with the king’s insinuated plans. God does not agree, however, and gives Nathan a substantial bit of instruction to relay to David, which might be summed up as “did I ask you to do this? I’m the one who builds around here…”
However well-intentioned, David’s plans were not God’s plans. This is an easy trap. We mean well. We want to do a good thing, or at least what seems a good thing. Yet it isn’t the thing God wants us to do. On the other hand, there are those who think that by their moves and machinations they can manipulate God into giving them…oh, so much – wealth or power or whatever gets covered by the social media hashtag #blessed. Or there are even those who think they can hasten “the day of the Lord” by their political or religious or financial machinations. All of these things fail to meet the criteria of good Advent waiting. God is the one who initiates, and we are to follow.
When God does initiate, though, it’s our job to be ready to jump in and cooperate with God’s action. This is where Zechariah falls short in the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Zechariah served as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, so you’d think he’d be ready for something to happen while on the job, but even the priesthood could apparently have a numbing repetitiveness to it. He is performing his service when an angel appears, and his first reaction is to be frightened – Luke says that “fear overwhelmed him.” The angel, who later identifies himself as Gabriel, pronounces a shocking thing: the old priest and his old wife will have a son, and not just any son at that; one who will be “great in the sight of the Lord” and who “will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” Zechariah’s response – again, out of fear – is one of incredulousness, pointing out that he and Elizabeth are quite old. Gabriel’s response, which really seems to need a deep breath or sigh before it, is to point out that “look, I’m bringing this straight from the presence of God,” and to pronounce the old priest mute until the promise is fulfilled.
Now if you go to the end of this chapter, you’ll see that all does come right in the end; Elizabeth does conceive and bear a son, and Zechariah, despite being unable to speak, does prevail over those who somehow had taken it upon themselves to decide the baby would be named after his father, despite Elizabeth’s protestations. He apparently manages to write forcefully “His name is John,” and his voice is restored, and he gets to have his own prophetic moment, paraphrased in the first hymn we sang today. But that first moment of fear did cost Zechariah, at least several months of being able to speak and to do his job for that matter.
I’ve never been able to shake the thought that Gabriel decided, after his experience with Zechariah, that he was better off going directly to the potential mother for these exchanges, and so next appears to Mary herself instead of going through Joseph. And Mary, as it turns out, manages to do what Zechariah could not: she responds to Gabriel without fear. Let’s be clear: she’s not unaffected by the event – Luke describes her as “perplexed.” Furthermore, it’s not as if she doesn’t have her own question for the angel – “how can this be?” But there’s a way of questioning that makes it clear you think everything is ridiculous, and there’s a way of questioning that makes it clear you’re trying to understand, and Mary apparently found the latter. Or maybe Gabriel simply had more compassion for an uneducated, frightfully young woman from nowhere in particular being thrust into this impossible situation than he managed for a priest who by all rights should have known how to react to a word from God. Whatever the case, Mary’s response is ultimately on target: she asks her questions, but she listens and ultimately answers “yes” – “let it be with me according to your word.” She then goes to visit her old cousin Elizabeth, sings a Magnificat, and ultimately, in chapter 2, delivers that promised Son.
All of the watching and preparing that we associate with Advent has a purpose: to help us to be ready to respond when God calls us or comes to us or appears before us or begins to move in the world. Not to jump the gun like David and try to do what God has not called us to do; not to shrink back in fear and slip into disbelief like Zechariah. Instead, we listen like Mary, we even ask questions, but we respond in the end with acceptance and obedience and readiness to do what we’re called to do, no matter how crazy it sounds.
I’m pretty sure Tom Petty didn’t mean his song “The Waiting” to be an Advent song (certainly not based on the verses), but the chorus does get it right:
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
And so we wait, watching and preparing, so that when the day comes and we behold the Lord’s action in the world, we respond in faith and obedience. May God so prepare us to respond to that call.
For the waiting, and for being ready to act in obedience, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #109, Blessed be the God of Israel; #—, To Our God Who Holds You Strong; #83, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 13, 2020, Advent 3B (recorded)
Waiting With the Joy of the Lord
Last year the church’s worship committee added a new element to the visual adornment of the sanctuary for the season of Advent. A series of four banners was commissioned (made by one of our nursery workers, Carmen) each bearing one of the calls of the Advent season. You’ve been seeing these banners during these broadcasts, at the beginning and end of each service. The first week’s banner reminds us to “watch”; the second week, “prepare”; and the fourth week’s banner, to be seen next week, commands us to “behold.”
Meanwhile, the banner for week three, seen at the beginning of today’s recorded service, calls us to “rejoice,” an appropriate call for the Sunday with the pink candle in the Advent wreath being lit. In some circles it’s known as Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin for “rejoice”). As these banners were being developed last year, someone (I can’t remember who) wondered aloud why the “rejoice” banner and Sunday came before the “behold” command. I don’t remember what answer I gave at that moment, but if I had been thinking properly it would have been easy enough to point to the scriptures of the day for the answer – and that holds true no matter which liturgical year we’re talking about.
You begin to get the idea in today’s readings from the prophet Isaiah, who in this particular oracle declares that he is, under the leading of the spirit of God and the anointing of the Lord, called to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” The oracle continues in a similar vein for several verses, adds in the pointed declaration on behalf of God that “I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing,” and finally climaxes in a section of rejoicing, or seems to do so, at verse 10. Even here, though, there is a bit of a head-fake; the rejoicing seems a more personal moment than the rest of the passage, a suspicion that seems to be confirmed by verse eleven’s return to future tense. “For as the earth brings forth its shoots,” says Isaiah, “and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” The “will” of verse 11 echoes the “shall” of verses 3-4.
Things look slightly different in the prophetic words of Mary, the impending mother of Jesus, in her song in Luke 1 (echoed in our first hymn today). It also begins, like Isaiah’s oracle, with a personal statement of call or commission, and launches into what seems to be a statement in the present tense – “he has” comes up a lot. Thing is, though, it’s not uncommon for prophetic oracle to appropriate present tense for God’s future action (which I suppose makes sense in light of last week’s statement from 2 Peter that in God a thousand years are like a day, and vice versa; perhaps in recounting a vision from God it’s hard to avoid slipping into the language of God’s “eternal now.” Again, here in Luke 1, the prophetic statement (from a teenage girl, yes) is one of God’s actions to come, or to be brought to fulfillment.
In neither case is rejoicing foresworn because of the not-yet nature of the proclamation; indeed, both statements point to something about the rejoicing that is part of Advent. Although John the baptizer, showing up again this week in our gospel reading, doesn’t seem like a bundle of joy here, he nonetheless wraps himself in the words of Isaiah (last week’s reading, actually). His proclamation here is in service of the promises described by Isaiah and other prophets; as such, he is also bound up in the rejoicing of the day.
Even as John is proclaiming the imminent coming of this Promised One, it is still as yet an unfulfilled promise. As of the end of this reading Jesus – the one greater than John, the one for whom John isn’t worthy to tie his shoes – still hasn’t shown up yet, hasn’t presented himself. The Promised One is still just that: promised.
And yet the day is “Gaudete” Sunday, “Rejoice” Sunday, pink-candle Sunday. You see, our rejoicing is not contingent upon promises granted; we rejoice in the promise itself, or even more in the God who promises. Notice how both Isaiah and Mary place it that way: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord” in Isaiah 61:8, “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” in Luke 1:46. Joy is rooted in God, the God who has the whole history in here of faithfulness and provision and care and love for God’s people. The God who has done is the God who will do, and our rejoicing is in that God.
Again, it falls to the epistle reading to draw things into perspective. You might think this sounds vaguely familiar, and it is indeed a portion of the same passage that was featured in a sermon about a month ago, on November 15. For today, the key words are the very first two in verse 16: “Rejoice always.” I mean, the rest of the passage is good too, but here this simple reminder from Paul to his beloved Thessalonians, reminds us that our joy is not contingent. When our rejoicing is in God, rather than in some particular thing we think about about God or some particular thing God has done or we expect God to do, that joy is sustained even in times when joy might not seem the most obvious reaction.
But to put it bluntly, “joy” or “rejoicing” that is contingent is not joy. It might be happiness, or it might be pleasure, but it is not joy. Happiness and pleasure are not bad things themselves, but they are not joy, no matter how often we might confuse the two.
Our joy, our rejoicing, is in God, because God is God. We see the work of God; we read the fulfillment of what God has done, as witness the Son of God revealed in a low manger, and we read the promises of what God will do, keeping us “sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”; we rejoice, however, because…God.
For the time of waiting, and the joy of waiting, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout; #—, Rejoice! Rejoice in Every Time; #96, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 6, 2020, Advent 2B (recorded)
Waiting in the Way of the Lord
The verses given in today’s reading from the book of Isaiah, or at least the first five of those verses, are almost painfully familiar to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the oratorio Messiah, by George Frideric Handel, which in a normal year would be getting performed so frequently and so many places this month that you wouldn’t be able to heave a brick without hitting at least three such concerts. The first two of those stand out to me as the only pieces for which I got to be a soloist in a big classical concert work of that type, way back in college more years ago than I can count. Even now, more than thirty years later, it’s almost impossible to read these verses aloud without breaking into song – (sung) comfort ye, comfort ye, my people or every valley – every valley shall be exalted. It’s a good thing that Lois was reading the first reading this morning and not me.
As if that weren’t enough, the reading from Mark echoes that passage in its first verses, at least part of it very directly – you could be forgiven for wondering whether Handel was using Isaiah or Mark for setting (sung) The voice – of him – that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord… This reading also introduces us to the figure of John the Baptizer, presented here as enacting the “crying out” in the wilderness described in Isaiah. Again we are reminded that there is no nativity story in Mark, and John’s appearance in this messenger role is where the whole story starts in this gospel. Conveniently enough, before the end of this first chapter of Mark Jesus shows up in the flesh; the wait is not a long, protracted one. If you take Isaiah’s oracle as forthtelling of someone like John, the wait is much longer – centuries so.
Again this week, though, it is the epistle reading where “the rubber meets the road” for those of us living on this side of the first Advent, with the second seeming like little more than a distant and fading dream. Unlike last week’s reading from Paul’s letter to Corinth, written around mid-first century, this letter given the name 2 Peter was far more likely to have been written somewhere around the *end* of that century – as much as sixty or seventy years after the physical life of Jesus on earth. Particularly with the rise of hardcore scoffers mocking the very idea, it was getting hard to hold on to any particular hope of any kind of second Advent or reuniting of any sort.
The author of this particular missive takes two different approaches to this creeping sense of despair among the churches here. The first approach is something different, not necessarily kin to such answers in other epistles such as Paul’s. Even as Paul was approaching the end of his own life he was prone to stress that Christ’s return was imminent, even if he didn’t necessarily expect to live to see it himself. You may remember some of the letters to the churches at Philippi or Thessalonica, recently read and proclaimed in these services, for Paul’s differing degree of imminence in speaking of Christ’s return and judgment.
Today’s author takes a different tack; trying to hold God to human timetables is fruitless. If you’ve ever wondered at the source of that old saying on how “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day,” well, there it is in verse 8. It’s the verse behind that final stanza of “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” – you remember, “a thousand ages in thy signt are like an evening gone, short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.” One might even dig up the old gospel song “When the roll is called up yonder,” which begins “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more…” to remind ourselves that our linear time is not like God’s eternal now.
In short, we need to drop the idea that God is bound to our concept of time, or to any concept of time at all. As C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “If you picture time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn.” Linear time is our limitation; God is not bound by it, and we will be less frustrated when we learn this.
Our author’s second point makes a virture of what looks to us like delay: perhaps it is a form of grace, as verse 9 suggests. God doesn’t want anybody left out; God desires all to come to repentance. God is, in unbounded now, patient with us recalcitrant humans. What to us feels like interminable slowness is grace, opportunity, and patience.
Finally, our author wants us to be ready, not unlike other epistle writers. Our waiting, as this letter would have it, calls upon us to live “lives of holiness and godliness.” No small goals there. Verse 14 also encourages that we be found “at peace, without spot or blemish” when the “day of God” comes (shades of Paul’s “day of the Lord”).
This is where things get challenging. These verses looking ahead to “the day of God” or “the day of the Lord” have a nasty little habit of catching us being very comfortable with the way things are. We live…good enough, perhaps? Not really “lives of holiness or godliness,” not really “at peace” or “without spot or blemish,” and when we are pressed hard enough we end up having to admit to ourselves that we’d just as soon see the “day of God” keep on being delayed. We are plenty comfortable where we are, and don’t need the “day of the Lord.” We’re good, thank you very much.
Or perhaps this is the year that puts the lie to that sense of comfort and security. Maybe now in time of corona we get that what we think of as security really isn’t, and our safety isn’t what we thought it was. Maybe we are in fact the ones who are most in need of God’s patience, as we are slow to rouse ourselves from our contented slumber into the life of holy waiting to which God calls us in this and every Advent.
Perhaps the great lesson of Advent that we need to hear and remember is that in Advent, “to wait” is not a posture of passivity and helplessness. We don’t do anything to make God speed up the timetable for second Advent, but we live – actively and deliberately live – lives that point to and show the One for whom we wait. We don’t run away to a mountaintop to try to be first in line; we take on the task of living lives like Jesus showed us how to live, of being transformed by the power of the Spirit into true witnesses of the good news to all. We don’t just wait; we wait out loud, showing the Lord’s death until he comes.
For the time of waiting and the way of waiting, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #87, Comfort, Comfort Now My People; #—, It Was Written By the Prophet; #104, O Lord, How Shall I Meet You
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (revised and enlarged edition. New York: Macmillan, 1952), 147.
Grace Presbyterian Church
November 29, 2020, Advent 1B (recorded)
Waiting for the Day of the Lord
The liturgical season of Advent, which we mark beginning today, tends to start off with a bang.
While the liturgical season is framed as both remembering the coming of Jesus the first time and looking ahead to the return of Christ, the structure of the season tends to move backwards. That “looking ahead” part of the season tends to be confined to the first Sunday, while later Sundays move backward from there – presenting the proclamation of John the Baptizer in advance of Jesus’s public ministry, and finally working back to the events before the birth of Jesus such as Gabriel’s announcement to Mary or other events, depending on the gospel of the year. (With this new liturgical year B focused on the gospel of Mark, there is no pre-birth narrative to work from, so bits get borrowed from the gospels of John and Luke; but that’s a few weeks ahead.)
The texts for this first Sunday of Advent B do bring the fireworks. The gospel selection for today brings us Mark’s “mini-apocalypse,” a spectacle to taunt even the flashiest of Hollywood special-effects types. Those first verses are the stuff of more hellfire-and-brimstone “rapture” sermons than you can shake a stick at, with the sun and moon going dark, stars falling from the sky, and “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with angels scattering in all directions to gather in the faithful. The verses that follow turn to encouraging disciples to “be alert” and “keep awake” with all sorts of sign-watching and being prepared thrown in. It’s a nerve-jangler of a passage, to be sure.
The reading from Isaiah cuts a surprisingly similar profile, although from a different perspective; rather than foretelling the coming of the Lord, the prophetic oracle is practically begging for it. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” – that would also be a Hollywood-worthy spectacle, but here the tone is of longing rather than of warning. Speaking from the midst of a people who have fallen away from faithfulness and have lost touch with God altogether, the prophet pleads for God to return – with as much drama as necessary, one might say.
So it’s no surprise that these two passages get most of the attention on this day, to be sure. However, it might just be that in this time of Advent, particularly in this year of all years, the most important or needful statement out of today’s readings might just be in the one passage that quite possibly no preacher ever has preached to inaugurate this liturgical season: the epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth.
This is at least the second letter Paul has written to this church, although it is the first we have in scriptural canon. Apparently some things have gone off the rails since Paul last wrote, and the Corinthians have gotten to be a bunch of folks rather pleased with themselves, for all the wrong reasons. The backhanded complimentary tone of this “thanksgiving” points to the trouble spots; it turns out the Corinthians are rather proud of the “knowledge” mentioned in verse 5 and the “spiritual gifts” noted in verse 7, as if, somehow, they were themselves responsible for them or had somehow earned them. Paul gently rebukes that idea, reminding the Corinthians that both of those were gifts of God; to put it in a modern idiom, Paul reminds the folks in this church that, apart from the gifts and the grace and the strengthening that comes from God, you aren’t ‘all that.’
But the key phrase, really, is the seemingly offhand line that comes after that spiritual gift bit: “…as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (emphasis mine)
The word to the Corinthians, as it is to any church that thinks it is ‘all that,’ is: you do not hasten the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” by your knowledge or your spiritual gifts or your money or your votes or by any thing you do. As Jesus says in that mini-apocalypse passage in Mark, nobody knows when that day will be, not even the Son, only the Father. And you can’t do anything to change that or hurry it up. What you do is wait.
Waiting is not passive. Waiting is doing the work the church has always been called to do. Waiting is ministering to one another and to the world around us as Jesus showed us how to do.
That’s why we keep going with things like St. Francis House and Family Promise even in this time. That’s why you are still making your pledge commitments to the work and ministry of this congregation (you are doing this, right?) Because waiting, in this case, means doing the work.
If we’ve learned anything in this pandemic tide, it is that we live in a society that is abhorrently bad at waiting. Had we had leadership and citizens who were willing to do the hard work of waiting back when this virus first appeared, we wouldn’t be the world’s official coronavirus petri dish. (For evidence of this claim I offer basically every other country in the world.) We have proven ourselves incapable of or unwilling to wait, to the point of hostility and threat of violence. Apparently, the numbers of those dead and sickened cannot hold a candle to the right – no, imperative – to have exactly what we want and to have it right now. We have utterly failed at waiting and it has cost us.
Guess what? When it comes to the “day of the Lord,” that is our main job: to wait. We do the stuff Jesus called us to do, and we keep doing it, and we keep doing it. We don’t get to ‘force the issue’ or hasten the timetable in any way. We don’t get to negotiate an accelerated schedule. We don’t earn our way to a quicker second Advent. We don’t manipulate Jesus into an early return.
We do our job, and we wait.
For the time of waiting, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #347, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; #—, I Thank My God for You; #348, Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending
Grace Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2020, Reign of Christ A
This has been a year in which it has seemingly become impossible to keep track of the passage of time.
Days stream by without any seeming differentiation. Weeks feel like months, months like years. Our calendar says it’s November 22nd, but honestly it feels like the calendar never has flipped and today is actually March 267th. It feels as though Covid-19 has been spreading forever (the satirical website The Onion refers to its “first 15,000 years of coronavirus coverage), but in fact the first known case was diagnosed only a year ago this past week.
Within the life of the church this same sense of disorientation can be found. Do you remember we were just a short time into Lent when the first shutdowns were put in place? The church made it through Lent and Holy Week and Easter mostly online (with a few foolhardy churches meeting in person and spreading the virus even more), and then came the season of Easter and then Pentecost and finally the long, winding stretch of what it just seems wrong to call “ordinary time.”
Finally we approach the end of that stretch; having observed All Saints’ Day three weeks ago, we have finally arrived at the final Sunday of the liturgical year. Yes, next Sunday really will be the first week of Advent, with purple vestments and Advent wreaths and all that. But for today we observe the final Sunday of Year A of the three-year cycle known as the Revised Common Lectionary. And as with all three years of that lectionary, the scriptures appointed for the occasion point us toward not an event in the annals of scripture or the history of the church, but to a particular tenet of the church’s belief: the exaltation of the resurrected Jesus as the ruler of all, for all eternity.
For decades, even centuries, this date has been known as Christ the King Sunday, which is a logical enough and seemingly straightforward name. You can read the concluding verses of today’s reading from the epistle to the Ephesians, as it practically sings of how God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” and it makes pretty good sense to speak of Christ the King.
Recent years, though, have seen a move toward a slightly different label for the day. In some resources you will see the day labeled as “Reign of Christ” Sunday. For some folks this probably sounds like some kind of political correctness run amok, but I’ve frankly come to believe that the change of label is probably a good idea.
One reason is this: we human beings do terrible things to the whole idea of having a king. To be specific, we humanize it, in the worst sense of that word.
Take the image that crops up towards the end of that passage, describing how God “has put all things under his (that is, Christ’s) feet.” In its context it’s a vivid enough metaphor for the way in which Christ is installed by God above any authority humanity can muster. We, however, are prone to ramp up the violence inherent in such an image, real or potential. We imagine those feet crushing those under it.
Furthermore, we also presume ourselves somehow worthy to decide exactly who they are who are placed under the feet of Christ. As Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor has observed, “many of the people who need saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way as they do.” We get ourselves excited about the idea that King Jesus is gonna crush those … well, frankly, whoever we don’t like. Jesus the King basically becomes our revenge machine, allowing us to fantasize about all those people we imagine have slighted us or belittled us or mocked us for our faith being routed and ruined the way the villain in an action movie might ultimately be vanquished. Even worse, that revenge fantasy can be awfully prone to getting mixed up in not only professed religious beliefs, but into our civic and social and even political life as well, with disastrous and even deadly results.
That second reason for preferring “Reign of Christ” as a title for the day follows from this first reason somewhat. To put it bluntly, very few people really have a grasp of what the Reign of Christ really looks like, and that’s sadly true of an awful lot of the “good church folk” even more than those outside the church. Maybe we really need to use the energy of such a day to remind ourselves of what that reign really does look like, and our other two readings address this pretty well.
The famous “parable of the sheep and goats” points to exactly how the reign of Christ, the one who will “sit on his throne in glory,” will not conform to our human, power-happy conceptions of kingship. The ones favored by this king are not the powerful, the wealthy, the influential, the important; indeed, none of these even factors into this account at all. The only division between the welcomed and the banished in this parable is how they behaved toward “the least of these,” the ones the king calls “members of my family.” Those who cared for “the least of these” are welcomed; those who didn’t are not. And there’s no indication that our opinion of either group is at all relevant to the judgment of the king here.
The oracle from the prophet Ezekiel puts a different spin on the role of the king. Following a longstanding prophetic tradition, Ezekiel identifies the role of “king” with the work of a shepherd, one who gathers up the scattered sheep, brings them to good pastures and places of safety. That’s familiar enough territory – you can get that out of Psalm 23 – but there’s also this discourse about lean and fat sheep that suggests how this king-shepherd will not only care for, but also judge the sheep as well; those who foul the waters and tread under the grasses of the pasture will be judged, and it’s pretty clear the judgment won’t be kind. Here more than just direct interaction or care for “the least of these” is invoked; the ones who make life unlivable for “the least of these” are under judgment as well.
In short, the Reign of Christ demands a world in which we not only care for one another in the form of direct help to “the least of these”; the Reign of Christ demands that we live with and among one another in such a way that “the least of these” are not dragged down into poverty or hunger or thirst or sickness or homelessness or imprisonment; the Reign of Christ demands that we live in the world without ruining it for others. If we can’t live in such a way, we are not living in the Reign of Christ.
We are living in a world where plenty of the louder Christians are quite willing to scream and holler about Christ the King but show absolutely no awareness of what the Reign of Christ actually looks like. Maybe that itself is a good reason to take this day to reflect upon the alternate name, and to make it our calling to live into it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #363, Rejoice! The Lord is King; #268, Crown Him With Many Crowns
Grace Presbyterian Church
November 15, 2020, Pentecost 24A (recorded)
Who Do We Serve?
We read the beginning of this letter, back in October; it’s only fitting, I suppose, that we take in the end of this, possibly the first of Paul’s letters to the churches under his care, as well.
What we have here in these final verses of chapter 5 is a pretty fair summary of what would become typical for the apostle in concluding his letters to the churches. First we have what might seem a rather random “laundry list” of exhortations to the community; in some later letters these exhortations might become even more compact and broad-ranging. Here the “laundry list” extends from verse 12 all the way through verse 22, and while the initial exhortation about respecting “those who labor among you” is somewhat elaborated, by the time we get to verse 14 Paul really gets rolling.
This “laundry list” is followed by a blessing, a very typical part of Paul’s closing formula. (The blessing I usually invoke at the end of the service is taken from Paul’s blessing at the end of the second letter to Corinth: see 2 Corinthians 13:13.) The letter wraps up with a couple more instructions and a fairly typical closing statement, also applicable as a blessing. The one part of this formula that is a little unusual is the strong instruction of verse 27: “I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.” This would evolve as typical practice in the churches to which Paul wrote, and it may be that at this early stage Paul felt the need to clarify that this letter was for the whole church, not just those leaders laboring among them mentioned above.
So for all that, what’s the point of such a closing?
We can certainly acknowledge the practical aspect of such a list; it’s time to wrap up the letter (some of you remember writing letters, right?), but there are a few last things you need to say quickly before signing. Some of this is certainly at play.
We can also suspect that such reminders are tied to the things Paul instructed the Thessalonians when he was with them in person. Remember, these are still new followers of Christ. As noted in an earlier sermon, most of the Thessalonians apparently came from a Gentile background and did not have the grounding in the Jewish tradition from which Jesus (or Paul for that matter) came. Some basic review was going to be necessary for a while.
There is, though, a more significant function to all of these seemingly varied instructions, and it has to do with how the church at Thessalonica, or any church for that matter, bears witness, and by extension serves the God we claim to serve.
Small as the behaviors listed here may seem, they are visible signs of what the community is about. When the community respects those who lead it, lives at peace with one another, admonishes the “idlers” (not a great translation; probably better rendered as “disorderly” or “disruptive” ones), encourages the faint-hearted and weak, rejoices regularly, gives thanks constantly, and prays always; when the community never quenches the Spirit but always tests everything; when it keeps itself away from evil; these things are not only beneficial to the community itself, but also bear witness to those in the larger city or state or empire as to what kind of people are found here.
And perhaps even more on point, these small things bear witness to the One whom such a community ultimately serves by serving one another. These aren’t “normal” behaviors. To see them practiced with anything approaching consistency and faithfulness will inevitably catch the attention of those around. It is a form of bearing witness to live together in these ways, one that defies the logic of the empire that reigns around any church community, in which the powerful rule and the disposable are disposed of. In the body of Christ no one is disposed of, though some may choose to turn away.
Now please hear what I am not saying. These are not behaviors or “tricks” to “grow your church.” There may be some who are attracted to the fellowship by seeing such community in action, but that is not the point of such counsel as Paul gives here. Paul would likely be quite befuddled by the church growth strategists of today; even Grace Presbyterian, small as it is, is probably larger than some of the church communities Paul worked with, and he largely didn’t concern himself with how large or how small they were. Their faithfulness, their compassion and service to one another and to the Lord were paramount, and anything that interfered with those things was to be put aside.
If there is such a thing as a gift for discerning the future, God didn’t give it to me. I have no idea what Grace will look like on the other side of this pandemic. Already some of our members are discovering that their lives need to change; one has already decided to move away to live with a family member for health reasons, and others may do so as well. On the other hand, someone who came upon this church in this time of streaming and pre-recorded services may decide to give us a live look when it becomes non-hazardous to get together in worship again. We don’t know. God makes no promises about getting bigger.
God makes promises about being faithful, such as those Paul invokes in his blessing: to sanctify us, and to keep us “sound and blameless” against that day when we are, at long last, reunited with our Lord Jesus, whatever way that happens.
That’s harder than ever to feel, particularly in this time of distancing and mask-wearing. It’s so tempting to feel cut off and isolated, confined and maybe more than a little stir-crazy. Yet we are not abandoned; we are still under the care of the Lord who first called us into this life, and will not abandon us whether we live or die, as was talked about in chapter 4. We hold fast, we continue to care for one another, we admonish those who try to break up this communion, we both respect those who lead and teach and test what they say against the witness of Christ. All of these things and more are not only part of serving one another, they are part of serving our God and bearing witness to that God who loves us and saves us.
It’s not always easy, and there’s no guarantee we’ll see big obvious tangible results from it. But it is part of being the body of Christ, and yes, it is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #667, When Morning Gilds the Skies; #548, May God Support You All Your Days (Psalm 20)
Grace Presbyterian Church
November 8, 2020, Pentecost 23A
Who Do We Wait For?
After his words to the Thessalonians about those members of their community who had died, Paul picks up in this next portion of his letter by moving from the what of that coming resurrection and reunion to the when. That particular answer is not Paul’s point – he blows by almost dismissively without even a pretense of a specific answer; rather, this becomes a opportunity to talk to the Thessalonian church about just how they should comport themselves in the time of waiting.
More than a few preachers in the church’s history, particularly in this country, have failed to follow Paul’s wise course of non-action. Perhaps the most famous recent example of such rashness remains the multiple predictions of radio evangelist Harold Camping, who predicted first a series of dates in 1994, then dates first in May and finally October 2011 that would bring about the Rapture and destruction of the earth. Camping lived long enough to repent of those predictions and even to call them “sinful,” something which few of his predecessors ever did. Perhaps the largest-scale such event in US church history revolved around the predictions of one William Miller, a Baptist preacher who forecasted the second coming of Jesus in October 1844. Many followers even went so far as to get rid of all their possessions in anticipation, only to be in difficult straits and great disappointment when the day passed without incident.
Paul is having none of that here. He will be drawn into speculation about something Jesus claimed not even to know himself (see Mark 13:32).
His message to the Thessalonians is not complicated; stay alert, don’t get “drunk” on the distractions of the world, wear the faith and hope and love God gives us (echoes of 1 Corinthians 13!), remember who is in charge, and encourage one another (echoes of 4:18 of this book). The way that Paul gets to this message, however, includes some images and metaphors that have, in the years since, been twisted and tortured into positions and theologies quite the opposite of Paul’s intent. For example:
- “like a thief in the night”
Here Paul intends to suggest the suddenness of this event of the Lord’s return. Particularly when combined with the description of “peace and security” in verse 3, giving way to “sudden destruction,” it’s a striking and dynamic image. However, more recent generations of Christians (like, um, ours) tend to be all about peace and security, whether it comes in the form of a politician we trust to give us (the church) what we want, a big bank account and a big building with no debt, or even simply some measure of “status” or “respect” in the world (whatever those words mean). Somehow we manage to forget that Jesus largely rejected such claims for us in this life – recall his proclamation in Matthew 10:34 that he came “not to bring peace, but a sword”. This description of a “thief in the night” turns bleak and threatening in our souls, when Paul makes clear in verses 8-10 that’s exactly how we’re not supposed to react. But we fear losing our “stuff,” and we get scared, and we follow leaders who prey upon those fears.
- light and darkness
In a culture with no artificial lighting or no lighting at all outside of towns or cities, darkness was a fearful and dangerous thing. This metaphor was for Paul’s readers and hearers extremely accessible and vivid. However, when these images of “light” and “dark” get twisted in later centuries to suggest that the qualities of sinfulness and inferiority are found in persons of darker skin color, this is nothing less than a theological crime. Yet such imagery here and elsewhere in scripture became useful to those who wanted to defend, for just one example, the enslavement of Africans and persons of African descent. This is completely alien to Paul’s message.
In this passage Paul is not overly concerned with those outside the church, not yet joined to the body of Christ. Aside from the encouragement not to be like those who sleep or are drunk (images that aren’t developed here at all), Paul has nothing to say about such persons. Again, however, the later church has presumed that Paul’s talk of “us” must be balanced by some kind of “them,” and “them” must be an enemy against which we are called to wage war. That language is easily found in corners of today’s church, and many times over the centuries (like, oh, maybe the Crusades, for example).
All of these represent more than just seeking excuses for hatred or cruelty, which is bad enough to be sure. More damning, though, is that all of these distortions of Paul’s language here are nothing less than a rejection of the provision of God and the redemption that is ours in Jesus. We cling to our earthly “peace and security” and threaten the recalcitrant with the threat of the “thief in the night”; we trust in our own “light”-ness and demonize and oppress the dark; we go to war against “them” (sometimes literally) and trust in our own strength instead of God’s salvation.
Our call to keep awake and to show faith, hope, and love doesn’t leave room for taking matters into our own hands. Waiting faithfully for Jesus isn’t about conquering everybody else or pushing the right buttons to manipulate some Rapture into happening. It involves waiting, living faithfully, doing the stuff Jesus told us to do and showed us how to do, and encouraging one another along the way. Sometimes the job is simply, to borrow from the parable in Matthew 25 and today’s first hymn, to “keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” It’s not easy for impatient people like us, but it is the only faithful way.
And yes, it is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #350, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning; #358, Steal Away