Monday, November 30, 2015


"In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety."
--Jeremiah 33: 15-16a

"And may Christ so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."
--I Thessalonians 3: 13

"Jesus said, 'Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in a cloud" with power and great glory.  Now when these things being to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near...Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away...Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.'"
--Luke 21: 25, 27-28, 33, 36

I love walking into churches this time of year.  I love that, as the crazy, busy world is throwing up decorations and publicizing Christmas sales, the church stands apart.  The church stands quiet with little decoration, save a wreath with a single candle lit.  There is an air of hopefulness, an air of expectation that doesnt exist out there in the world.  It is Advent.  And it is my favorite season of the church year. 

As a little kid I loved Advent because it meant Christmas was right around the corner.  I dont know how many of you have seen the YouTube video of the young boy receiving a Nintendo 64 on Christmas morning; he claws at the box screaming, O my God and Thank you, Santa and over and over again. Yeah,  that was me.  Thats how excited Advent made me.  The excitement wasnt really about Advent itself, but about the morning of presents toward which the season seemed to be pointing me.

Me getting excited during Advent. (Not really, it's the Nintendo 64 kid.)

Each of our readings today points us toward something.  Jeremiah speaks of the day when the Branch of David will sit upon the throne; Paul prays for strength through holiness in preparation for Jesus return; and Jesus himself paints a picture of what it will look like when the Son of Man comes in his glory.  Each is pointing toward this same moment, but what exactly is this moment?  For what exactly are Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus urging us to prepare?

Biblical scholars agree we are being urged to prepare for the eschaton, the completion of all things, the day when Gods work is done and Gods reign on earth begins.  I talked about the significance of such a time and the relevance of apocalyptic literature a few posts back.  Something similar is happening here, as Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus are all pointing us to this day of fulfillment. All three Abrahamic faiths speak of this day. The Church in Pauls time waited with great hope and expectation for this day,  thinking, of course, that it was coming very very soon.  They believed whole-heartedly that they were living in Christ's second Advent, awaiting the day of his return.  We can hear that hope and expectation in Pauls writing to the church in Thessalonica. 

Brothers and sisters, we, like the folks in Paul's day, are living in the second Advent.  We too are being urged to prepare for nothing less than the reign of God here on earth.  Like them we prepare for this day with prayer, with quietness, with hearts that skip with anticipation.  It is the tension of already and not yet, which is a major piece of our lives as Christians. Gods reign has both already come in Jesus earthly ministry and the continued ministry of his body, the Church, but it has not yet met its full completion.  Thus our hearts and minds live in the already but are fixed on the not yet.  This is what Advent is all about, preparing a place into which God may enter, preparing our hearts, our minds, and our very lives for the reign of God to come breaking through, born once again, year after year.  This Advent period is the time for us to make ready a place in our own lives for God to break through in some new way.  As God broke through human history in the Palestinian wilderness, God is about to do it again.  But how exactly?  And how will we make our lives ready for that break through?  Thats why we have Advent, a period for stepping away from the madness of the world and quietly, reflectively ask ourselves those questions. 

Each year it seems Christmas gets here earlier and earlier.  I walked into Rite Aid just before Halloween and saw Christmas decorations on the shelves.  The world around us hardly leaves any space in which we can remain still or quiet.  

There is something seriously wrong with this picture!

Forget a war on Christmas, theres a war on Advent.  The world wants to jump straight to the manger, straight to the presents; the hopeful anticipation, the prayer, the preparation, get lost.  The celebration of Jesus birth comes and goes and were left wondering how it happened so quickly. We do not prepare for God to break into this world by pushing Christmas earlier and earlier.  We do so with patience, with calm spirits, with prayer, with reflection, and with open hearts and quiet minds.  Personally, I'm someone for whom patience is not a virtue, and I am not particularly comfortable with quiet.  Yet Advent invites even me to sit with that discomfort and wait for God to break through. 

 So for the next four weeks let us take time to prepare a place within our hearts and within our lives for the Christ child to be born.  Hold on to both the already and the not yet.  Be mindful of where we are, but always be looking with great hope and anticipation of Gods reign coming among us in the wilderness of Bethlehem, and of our lives, both as a community and as individuals, as we are changed once again.  

This holy season prepares us for so much more than a morning of presents.  So much more than the arrival of the new Nintendo system (or in my case a new Transformer or new Star Wars film).  Advent prepares us for Jesus to be born again and again into our lives, pushing through the static of the world that often deafens us to the sound of his voice.  Each year there is a hope that is stirred in us at Adventa hope that God will once more change the world as we know it, so that it looks a little more like the Kingdom.  Christmas is the time when that hope is realized.  Advent is the time for us to prepare for it. 

How will you prepare?

Monday, November 23, 2015

What Is Royalty??

"Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"  Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"  Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  What have you done?"  Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world.  If it were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from this here."  Pilate asked, "So you are a king?"  Jesus answered, "You have said that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."
--John 18: 33-37 

What does royalty look like to you?  Do you imagine royalty decked out in splendor, with long flowing robes, maybe a scepter and a crown?  Chances are your image of royalty reflects power, strength, prestige.  Today is our last Sunday of the church year, which we call Christ the King Sunday, or Reign of Christ Sunday.  That’s the reason we’re wearing white today.    The reason this day exists is that, as we get ready to start a new year next week and begin our Advent journey, we end the year with the reminder of Jesus’ sovereignty and kingship over the whole universe. 

We express Jesus’ kingship in a number of ways.  In the church I serve there is a beautiful Christus Rex (which literally means, 'Christ the King') on the wall behind the altar.  It shows Jesus adorned with a crown, decked out in lustrous robes. We don’t see the wounds that were inflicted upon him, we only see his majesty and his glory.  It’s a strikingly beautiful reminder for everyone who comes into this space that Jesus reigns over all. 

The Christus Rex on the east wall at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Asheboro

In the 8th century there was a fella named Bede who wrote an Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the first account of Anglo-Saxon England ever written.  For this we call him the Venerable Bede.  But his contribution is even greater because he adopted the regular use of using BC and AD to date things. It was a method originally used by Dionysius Exiguus in relation to the dates after Easter, but Bede said that we should use it for all dates after the earthly birth of Jesus.  His reason?  Since we generally used the reign of monarchs for dating—this event happened in the blank reign of king what’s his face—human history since the time of Jesus should be differentiated from the time before him since Jesus, after all, is the king over the whole universe, and his reign shall never end.  Thus, he regularly used BC—Before Christ—for the years prior to Jesus’ human birth and AD—Anno Domini, or Year of Our Lord—for the dates since his birth.  So we are living in the Year of Our Lord 2015.  You have the Venerable Bede to thank for that. 

An artist's depiction of the Venerable Bede, whose promulgation of BC and AD led to their regular use in chronology.

Jesus’ kingship is one that has literally changed the world in a multitude of ways.  So you might expect our Gospel to reflect that.  But instead of Jesus giving us images of him riding the clouds or judging the world or seated at the right hand of God the Father, we have a very different image today.  In this year, Year B, we have been walking with the communities of both Mark and John, who have been continuously reminding us that it is the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Rome, that has the supreme authority in the universe.  And with that in mind, today we find those two kingdoms staring each other right in the face in the forms of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. 

The meeting between Pilate and Jesus, as seen in The Passion of the Christ.

Pilate was the governor of Judea and a visible symbol of the might and power of Rome.  Earlier in the week, as Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey—a symbol of humility—he was riding in on the other side of the city in a grand Roman parade.  He lived in a palace in the northwestern end of Jerusalem, and the authority that he exerted was granted to him by the world’s greatest superpower Rome and its emperor who laid claim to the title Son of God—which went back to the days of Julius Caesar.  Surely this is what royalty looks like.

 Standing in front of him is Jesus.  A homeless son of a refugee family living in a land occupied by a foreign power.  His clothes are rags.  He stands physically beaten and broken, abandoned by his friends and scorned by his own people, accused of heresy and treason, awaiting his execution.  Surely, surely, this cannot be the face of the kingdom of God.  Oh but it is. 

Our Christian faith is really quite radical when we think about it; it's crazy!  Our faith flies in the very face of our human instincts and what the natural order would have us believe about the way the world works.  Our faith tells us that this homeless guy, this dirty pacifist who hung out with the most notorious of sinners is the face of true royalty, not this guy with the palace and the riches and the fancy title and the army at his back.  Crazy!

In this perfectly set scene, which is only in the Fourth Gospel, we see the Kingdom of Humanity and the Kingdom of God face to face.  Preston Epps, who was a Greek professor at UNC, once wrote about the differences between these two kingdoms.  Some of the things he wrote include:  the kingdom of humanity says assert yourself, the kingdom of God says humble yourself; the kingdom of humanity says retaliate, the kingdom of God says forgive; the kingdom of humanity says get, accumulate, the kingdom of God says give, share.  It is a truly crazy thing to actually live our lives as though we are citizens of the Kingdom of God because all around us is the Kingdom of Humanity telling us otherwise.  And it is a truly crazy thing for us to really believe that our King is the one standing there in rags preparing for his execution.  But we Christians are a crazy lot.

All summer long we have been talking about these two kingdoms and how the gospels remind us that it is the kingdom of God that has the final say.  What they also say to us, especially in this day and age of accumulation and wealth and material possessions is that if we look to the rich, the powerful, the armies with their might, and the elite politicians spewing their rhetoric, and expect to see the kingdom of God, we will be sorely disappointed.  You want to know what the kingdom of God looks like?  Walk down the street and see someone standing on the corner with a cardboard sign for a testimonial.  Go to a soup kitchen like Our Daily Bread and see  the faces of those who are hungry, homeless, jobless. Visit Randolph Correction and spend time talking to prisoners and hearing their stories. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like.  It looks like the marginalized.  Because that is what our king looked like when he walked this earth, when he stood against the greatest political and military power the world has known.  Yes, he reigns in glory with all of his radiance as seen in the Christus Rex.  But we must never forget that as he walked among us he walk as one of the least of these, as an “other”, an outsider, and someone who pushed so hard against the establishment that they crucified him.    This is true royalty.  This is what our king looked like, and brothers and sisters, I’m telling you, we still see him day after day after day.  And we still hear him calling us to love him and serve him and make his kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven.

Because it's true what Isaac Watts wrote in that old, beautiful hymn.  Jesus indeed shall reign wherever the sun doth its successive journeys run.  His kingdom stretch from shore to shore until moons shall wax and wane no more

Monday, November 16, 2015

On the Apocalypse, Fear, and God's Love

"The Lord spoke to Daniel in a visioin and said, 'At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall rise.  There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.  But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book.  Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.'"
--Daniel 12: 1-3

"And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
--Hebrews 10: 25

"When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 'Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?'  Then Jesus began to say to them, 'Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!" and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.'"
--Mark 13: 3-7

Lets talk about the Apocalypse!  Sounds fun, doesnt it?  Well, thats what all three of our readings have in common today:  Apocalypse. 

What do you think of when you hear that word?  Do you think about John writing his Apocalypse on Patmos (Revelation was, after all, originally called Apocalypse in Greek).? 

Landscpae with St. John on Patmos by Poussein

Do you think of the villain Apocalypse from the X-Men comics?  

I can't be the only person who thought of this guy on Sunday, can I?!

Do you think about the Left Behind series and its made-up theology of the rapture and tribulation, which arent actually in the Bible?  

Please tell me you don't think of this.  IT'S NOT IN THE BIBLE!!

Odds are, whatever you think of when you hear that term Apocalypse is probably not rainbows and unicorns and lollipops. 

The term apocalypse means simply unveiling.  Apocalyptic literature is mean reveal or unveil a hope for the future in the present reality using language that is loaded with image and symbol.  The literature almost always speaks of a time of great suffering, which is followed by divine deliverance.  It is not meant to be a blueprint for the end of the world.  Instead, it takes the current sufferings of the present age and gives them a hope and purpose that will be revealed in time.  If yall are reading the Daily Office right nowas I am sure that you areyoull notice that were knee-deep in the juicy bits of the Revelation to John.  His visions of dragons, plagues, and disasters are not intended to tell his audience what the end of the world will look like, instead they are meant to give them hope that the sufferings of their present time will all have meaning when the old earth and old heaven are wiped away and humanity returns to live with God in paradise.  Thats what apocalyptic literature is about.

All three of our readings today point to that day, the day when all truly become one with God.  The day has many names:  the eschaton, the Day of Resurrection, the day Jesus returns, the culmination of human history on earth, etc.  The Book of Daniel is written in the days when the Jewish people were held in bondage by the Babylonians. So in our reading from the final chapter of that book we get Daniels vision of Michael, the archangel and avenger, who will battle against the enemies of Israel and eventually set them free.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes in a time when Christians are being pushed out of Jewish worship spaces and driven underground, looked at as pariahs, as outsiders; so the author points to the hope of Jesus return, which everyone thought was happening next week, and encourages the reader to provoke one another to good deeds and to encourage one another until that day comes.  And in our Gospel from Mark, Jesus, speaking on the Tuesday of Holy Week, foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which eventually happened in 70 AD.  Furthermore, when he and his disciples are standing on the Mount of Olives, were told that Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him when and how this thing would take place.  But instead of speaking of the temples ruin, he speaks of the eschaton, of the time when Messiah would appear to judge the worldor for us Christians, the day Jesus himself comes again.  The fact that he is talking about this dayand gives warnings against paying attention to false messiahswhile standing on the Mount of Olives is no coincidence because that hillside faces the temple mount.  He and his disciples would have been looking right at the temple and particularly at the southern gate, the gate through which, tradition says, Messiah will walk through on that Last Day.  Thats why people pay top dollar to be buried on the Mount of Olives, so that they get to greet Messiah first in the Day of Resurrection.   So all of our readings today are pointing us toward this great and terrible day.  Why?

The graves on the Mount of Olives.  You can see the remains of the Temple, including the southern gate.

What is the point for us now to even care about the eschaton?  Those folks who thought Jesus was coming back next week were wrong, after all.  Lots of other folks since then have tried figuring out when that day was coming, and of course, theyve been wrong too.  Not only that, but when they try to convince us that hes coming they do it from a place of fear.  Jesus is coming, look busy!  Jesus is coming, are you ready to meet him!  Jesus is coming, you better put that beer away!  Jesus is coming, and he aint gonna be happy! 

One of the MANY Apocalypses that we've survived in my lifetime.

This is fear mongering.  And it is not what our readings today are about.  Its not what apocalyptic literature is about.  Daniel is not warning folks to be afraid of Michael the avenger, rather he reminds them that God is on their side and that God will bring them from their Babylonian captivity.  The author of Hebrews doesnt mean for the audience to be scared of the day of Jesus coming, instead they should build one another up and love one another until that day comes, whether its next week, next month, or next millennium.  And Jesus does not prophesy about the temples destruction or his own coming again to frighten people, instead he does so to redirect their attention to God and Gods goodness and Gods command to take care of one another.  Focus on Gods goodness and you wont pay attention to false prophets and false messiahs.  Focus on Gods goodness and you wont have anything to fear. 

Apocalyptic literaturewhether its from Daniel, or Revelation, or words from Jesus himselfare meant to give us hope.  Hope for a future in which we have come through all the pain and disappointments and fear of this present age.  In the end of all apocalyptic literature we are given a glimpse of a world in which the powers of evil are defeated and Gods light and Gods love reign supreme.  With that in mind, apocalypse isnt such a scary word, after all. 

In church yesterday we baptized a little girl named Dolly. Im sure her family wondered why I would preach about the apocalypse on what is meant to be such a joyful day.  Well, thats kind of the point.  When we baptized Dolly we did so in the hope of the apocalypse, the hope of the eschaton, the hope of Jesus coming again.  Because when those waters washed over her and she was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christs own forever, she took her place in that hope, which isnt really hope, so much as it is certainty.  Certainty that God reigns supreme.  Certainty that on that great and glorious day that we call the apocalypse, the eschaton, thewhatever, Dolly will, along with the rest of us, take her place in the loving arms of the God who created her, redeemed her, and will always bless and sanctify her.  As we welcomed a new member of the household of God we rejoiced because we knew that whatever this world throws at uswhatever this world will throw at Dollythe Christ light never fades and when all is said and done, God wins.  Love wins.  Always.   

After the events of this past weekend, when evil had its say in Paris, Beruit, and Iraq, we need to know that love always wins.  Fear and hatred will not rule the day.  God's love, God's mercy, God's goodness always prevail in the end.  That is the hope we get from Daniel, Hebrews, and Mark.  We need not give in to fear because God always wins.

So the next time you hear someone talk about how awful it’ll be at the End of Days, the Apocalypse, the Second Coming, maybe you won’t give in to the fear.  Instead, maybe you’ll rest in the promise that no matter what, nothing can vanquish the love God has for this world and for God’s people.  Thanks be to God for those revelators—for Daniel, John, the author of Hebrews, Jesus—and all those who remind us of that promise.  A promise into which we baptized Dolly.  A promise that we need to hear.