Sunday, December 1, 2019

Life You Can't Leave Behind: Matthew 24:36-44 - First Sunday in Advent

[Jesus said to the disciples,] 36“About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (NRSV)
Antique Pocket Watch by Kim Carpenter on Flickr. CC BY 2.0
On the whole, I consider myself to be more patient than impatient.

But nothing sparks my impatience more than time windows: when the plumber or the cable guy tells you that they’ll arrive at your home some time between eight and four. So, I’m stuck at home, waiting, all day—each passing moment a reminder of all the important things I could be doing, but cannot.

To me, what adds to the stress of the waiting is remembering the time the tech rang the doorbell while I was washing dishes. I couldn’t hear it over the sound of running water. On another occasion, the tech went to the wrong house. Then they say that you must wait another week and go through the process again—and there’s still no cable or internet; seven more days of sponge baths.

I can’t help but hear Jesus’ warnings about his return in the same way—as an indefinite time window. Why can’t he just make an appointment, and I’ll pencil him in, set reminders on my phone, but post-its on the refrigerator? Then, I’ll be ready!

But my unreadiness for this Advent season highlights my general state of unreadiness for Christ. If I’m this bad at preparing for something that comes at the same time every year, how much less am I prepared for Christ—even if I knew the hour and the day?

That’s exactly Jesus’ point in today’s Gospel—“As it was in days of Noah,” people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, right up until the floods swept them all away. We know from Genesis that the people were consumed with wickedness, but Jesus warns us that the peoples’ lives were consumed with feasting, celebration, and the normal cares of life. That is how sin takes hold: not as a conscious decision to disobey God, but instead a slow fade into apathy towards God and God’s purposes—because there’s “more important things” to do…

At no time is this problem more abundantly clear than in December. I’ve come to think of Advent as a Season of Contradictions—as if to say, “don’t bother me with Jesus, I’ve got to get ready for Christmas.”

There is no mistaking the high sense of urgency in Jesus’ words today—especially as Jesus describes people living their lives—two persons working in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. “Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left.” Here begins the apocalyptic drama of the Left Behind novels: true and faithful Christians are instantly snatched up into heaven; sinners and unbelievers remain.

But is that really the message Jesus is communicating to us? God is not going to all the trouble of taking on human flesh in Jesus Christ, then taking upon himself the sin of the world, in order to catch people of guard. All this rapture theology appears as some demented game God is playing with humankind, when it is God’s will to leave none behind. Jesus makes that crystal clear.
After all, what Jesus describes isn’t so much God leaving people behind, but instead people leaving God behind, caught up in the stresses and spectacles of life.

We can’t know the day or the hour of Christ’s return. What we do know is that “this is the day that the Lord has made.” Jesus isn’t like the cable guy or the plumber, who fixes your problem and goes on their merry way. Jesus is your Lord—and he is determined to live in daily relationship with you by faith. Yet, Jesus has a way of showing up in unexpected ways. Readiness means being disciplined in prayer, Scripture, worship, and fellowship—so that you will recognize him in all the unexpected ways he shows up: to delight you; to defend you; to deliver you.

Think of the disappearing people this way: they’re living their lives and doing what needs to be done, but their minds and souls are prepared to respond to Christ in an instant, because they are living in daily communion with him. They recognize that daily life is holy ground, and that daily life is worship. Christ can’t catch them off guard because they are connected so strongly to him.

If you’re asking, “what do I need to do to make sure I’m not left behind?”, you’re asking the wrong question. The right question is, “will I stop leaving Christ behind?”

Make no mistake about it, this is a call to discipline—but not to root out unworthy Christians from the worthy. This is discipline so that you don’t leave behind the graces Jesus brings into your life; and the opportunities to give and receive Jesus’ love. Jesus wants nothing less than for his grace and goodness to be the driving force in your life, even when you have to go to work and attend to all of life’s responsibilities.

Imagine that—every day becomes a little Christmas. Every day, Jesus acts in some way to give you comfort, to give you hope, to give you purpose. Every day, Jesus uses you in some way to reach the lost and show them how much they matter to God. This is life you can’t behind.

If Christmas is going to have any meaning or joy, ask yourself: how lost would you be without Jesus? How much does your neighbor need Jesus? How dark would the future be without him?

Then remember: this is the day that the Lord has made, for you to live through Christ. Don’t just give him a time window; open the door to him, throw away the key, and let him be Lord of everything. Christ is life you can’t leave behind.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Endtimes and Meantimes: Luke 21:5-19 - 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19
By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (NRSV)
The Milky Way by Diana Robinson on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What would you do if today if tomorrow is the end of the world?

Twenty years ago, it felt like the end was near—because of Y2K.

The fear was that the computers of our computerized world would fail, because they were unable to process the calendar dates in the new millennium. This would unleash apocalyptic chaos upon the world: jet planes would drop out of the sky; nuclear weapons would explode, and the world would end as we knew it.

My dad, who was a computer programmer, put in unspeakable amounts of overtime to make sure he and his company were prepared—what the industry called Y2K compliant.

While he was doing that, some people were stockpiling canned foods, bottled water, batteries, gasoline, and even weapons and ammunition.

We laugh at this now, but our infatuation with the end times has hardly subsided. The sixteen volumes of the Left Behind series have sold eighty million copies worldwide, spawning four feature-length films, forty children’s books, two video games, and even two spinoff series. A nearby congregation blanketed the community with mailers about its prophecy ministry, to help you to know the signs and get yourself ready.

Then, you consider the chaotic state of the world—and you wonder, how can we NOT be in the end times?

Think about what Jesus says: There will be false prophets, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines and persecutions. Christians will be handed over for imprisonment, torture, and execution—often by their own families.

But before we try and draw the lines between Jesus’ teaching and current events, let’s try and put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ followers, hearing these things for the first time…

Jesus warns that the great Jerusalem temple will be destroyed. Given its size and splendor, it would’ve been impossible to imagine it being destroyed. This was God’s dwelling place. Wouldn’t God protect it from destruction?

What’s even worse than that is the betrayal of your own kin because of Jesus. We all know how divisive partisan politics can be within families. That’s nothing compared to how divisive Jesus will be. There are worldly loyalties powerful enough to break apart even the closest of relationships—and abandon all reason.

But then, Jesus really pulls the rug out from under you: he says, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and wisdom.” Imagine that: the doomsday prophets tell you how to interpret the signs and what you need to do to get ready; Jesus says, “don’t prepare your defense in advance.”

That point is fundamental when considering the end times—because planning and preparation give you a sense of control. I believe that to be the number-one reason why we’re so fascinated with the end-times: we want to gain inside knowledge so that we can be in control of our destiny. Self-preservation is the objective; survival, the ultimate goal. The problem with this mindset is that you become inwardly focused.

It’s no accident that people in doomsday cults become isolated and cut themselves off from their families and the outside world. That’s the power of fear and the natural human instinct of self-preservation.

But Jesus’ reason for speaking these things is to warn you that you will see things and experience things that will cast serious doubt on everything you’ve ever believed about God. But when the unthinkable happens, Jesus will be there. By his faithfulness you will endure. By his grace, you will overcome—even if you die. Not a hair of your head will perish.  What is the most important thing you can do to prepare for the end times? Trust God!

In light of these promises, our focus should not be on the end times but the mean times.

Self-preservation turns you inward; hope turns you outward.

“Do not grow weary in doing good,” the Apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonian Christians. What good comes out of combing the bible for clues to connect dots between prophecies and current events; or trying to convince someone that the politician you don’t like is the Antichrist? You can’t control the future—but you can help to make the future more promising for others. You can bear God’s love, mercy, and grace into the tragic realities people find themselves. Through words and actions, you can help bring someone into a relationship with Jesus Christ. What is hope, but a confidence that no matter what trials or calamities the future brings, that you are a child of God?

Truth is, we don’t know when the end of the world is—and that’s for the best, because we’ve clearly shown we can’t handle that truth. Living in fear for the future, you forfeit the gift of the present. Focus too much on heaven, and you cease to be any earthly good.

In Christ, you need not fear the end times. His faithfulness will carry you through. What matters is the mean time. And you have the power of the Holy Spirit to make the love, peace, and justice of God’s kingdom a reality today.

Will Jesus be returning today? I pray that it is so. But whether he returns today or a thousand years from now, his call is the same:

Let every thought, word, and deed proclaim that God is love and Jesus is Lord. Trust Jesus. And do not weary in doing good, no matter how hard it gets.