Sunday, December 9, 2018

Highway to Hope: Luke 3:1-6 - Second Sunday of Advent

1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
 “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
 ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
  make his paths straight.
 “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,   make his paths straight.5Every valley shall be filled,
  and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
 and the crooked shall be made straight,
  and the rough ways made smooth;
  and every mountain and hill shall be made low,  and the crooked shall be made straight,   and the rough ways made smooth;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
Bridging the Bridge by Jon Dawson on flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

How hard can it be to build a highway?

Extremely difficult-- if you’re in Western Pennsylvania…

You have mountains and valleys; rivers and streams. There are bridges and tunnels to be built; towns and historic landmarks to be built around. And even when you’re done, your highway shall still be subject landslides, sinkholes, and floods.

Take Pennsylvania State Route 28: I cannot remember a time that this highway has not been under construction. And still, this road is dangerous and prone to rock slides and apocalyptic traffic jams.

But is it any easier to build a highway to happiness?

According to television and social media, happiness means getting everything you want—in terms of accomplishments, relationships, possessions, and experiences. Every Christmas, I cringe at the TV commercials where one spouse surprises the other on Christmas morning with a brand-new luxury car, complete with a big red ribbon on the hood. For 99% of the population, that’s out of the question—and the people who make these commercials know this.

They make it seem like happiness is so easy to get—but in reality, there are so many roadblocks. You have mountains and valleys; rivers and streams—and all kinds of landslides, sinkholes, and floods to get in your way. Is it even possible to build a highway to happiness if you’re in poverty? If you’re lonely and depressed? If you’re seriously ill? If you’re stuck in an abusive relationship? If you dreading what tomorrow may bring?

I love the way Luke begins the story of John the Baptist: by naming the rulers who held God’s people captive in tyranny and oppression. Some of the names we know because we’ll hear them again: King Herod who will behead John the Baptist and hand Jesus over to Pontius Pilate for crucifixion; Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests who conspire to put Jesus to death. The mere mention of these names would’ve brought fear and dread into the hearts of faithful Jews and Christians alike. These were not happy times for the children of God.

But in that very time, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He is the one whom Isaiah foretold, crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

Out in the wilderness, where it’s even more difficult to build a highway than in Pittsburgh, a highway is prepared for the Lord—and not by the backbreaking and time-intensive labors of people, but by the Word of the Lord. God is bypassing the halls of power and oppression; clearing away all the obstacles, and going directly to people.

Imagine that: we think of religion in terms of us finding a path towards God—when God just shows up of God’s own accord. God, in Jesus Christ builds a highway directly to you, wherever you may happen to be in life. God traverses all the distance between heaven and earth so that you can see and behold the salvation of God.

Your Advent and Christmas will be eternally meaningless if you’re desperately trying to hack out your own highway to happiness. Advent is all about preparing for Jesus to show up and invite you to journey on a new highway that leads towards renewed life.

One of the major themes of Luke’s Gospel is that of cosmic reversals. This is what happens when Jesus shows up. For you, this means repentance: your heart and mind are radically re-oriented towards God and God’s purposes. All the stuff the world regards as so essential to happiness lose its importance to you. Sin and despair lose their hold on you. Then God sets you upon a highway to hope.

Happiness is so inwardly-focused. Hope is outwardly-focused: towards God, towards the neighbor, towards the future. Walking with Jesus along the highway to hope, you see salvation happening as these great reversals. You aren’t merely feeding the hungry, forgiving sins, or sharing your faith. God is moving mountains. God’s promised future is breaking upon the present. Once Jesus leads you down the highway of hope, there’s no turning back.

The presents you get and the posts you make on social media are not what will make this a December to remember. What will is this amazing promise: In December of 2018, when Donald Trump was President of the United States and Tom Wolf the governor of Pennsylvania; even though it’s first Christmas without Grandma; or you’re praying it’s not your last because of what the doctor said; Jesus Christ is in your life. He has broken through all the chaos, fear, and disappointment and calls you beloved. And no matter what 2019 holds, Jesus will be taking you down his highway of hope—where you will see his salvation at work and where you will be his salvation at work as his beloved disciple. God makes a way when there is no way. The valleys shall be filled, and the mountains made low, so that you will see, with all flesh, the salvation of God.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Redemption in Real Time: Luke 21:25-36 - First Sunday of Advent

[Jesus said:] 25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34“For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be 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.”

miracle on main st. by Drew Snyder on Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

Fall may be my favorite season of the year, but my favorite season of the church year is Advent.

I love everything about the season: the lights, the music, the anticipation, the hope, the color blue…

The only trouble is that it doesn’t last very long. Twenty-three days is all we’ll get this year—and much is going to happen in that time.

For many, Advent time will be consumed by shopping, decorating, snow shoveling and snow delays.

For many, Advent time will bring pain. Painful memories may resurface. You’re facing your first Christmas without a loved one; without a job; without a safe place to call home. This particular Advent time may be coinciding with the worst time of your life. This is true for the thousands of refugees stranded at our Southern border; the people in California who’ve lost their homes in the wildfire; or people spending their first Christmas in a nursing home or in prison; parents telling their children there’ll be no presents this year.

We are not far off from what Jesus describes in today’s Gospel: we’re seeing signs in the sun, moon, and stars… There is distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves. People are fainting from fear and foreboding at what is coming upon the world.

Perhaps Jesus is about to appear and put an end to all of this—and may it be soon! But even if he does not, now is not the time to be discouraged…

When God took on flesh in Jesus Christ, God was literally bending the arc of time towards God’s own self. Time marches on—and it marches towards Christ. Jesus is the one who was, and is, and is to come. The God who took on human flesh has been active in creation since its beginning. God’s faithfulness is recorded in Scriptures and celebrated in the remembrance of all that God has been doing in your life and in the saints who’ve gone before you. These signs in the heavens and the earth not only foretell his coming, but they are signposts revealing where Jesus is. Distance has become nearness. Ancient promises are being fulfilled. Redemption is happening in real time. In this Advent time…

So what does this mean for your Advent time?

Jesus warns you to “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” There is no other time of year when you are presented with more stuff to draw you away from the nearness of God than at Christmas. Just consider the impermanence of all that we fuss over. We decorate and then undecorate. We put up and take down. We buy things, enjoy them, and throw them away. We gladly assume all of the pressure to do everything in our power to make the season bright.  And why? Because you’ll be a bad parent if you don’t give your family the perfect Christmas? Because a happy holiday will cure the pain and pressures of daily life? Because the perfect gift will make you happy?

Jesus cannot and will not be found in presents and pageantries—because these aren’t the reasons why he was born. He will, however, be present in the pain. He is born where people hunger and bread and belonging. He lives where death does its worst. Christmas happens were human brokenness meets God’s graciousness.

Advent time is all about standing up and raising your heads to welcome the one who breaks upon your time. Things that come and go are giving way to the eternal. Greed and hate; chaos and death are all passing away—because they cannot coexist with God. They have a definite ending—and the last thing Jesus wants is for you to meet your end with them. Jesus wants you to greet his coming not as a threat but as a delightful surprise.

Jesus is coming into the worries of your life. He will either banish away the things that cause you worry—or, God will answer your worry with amazing grace. He will take your worry and transform it into hope. Either way, your worries will have a definite end.

Jesus will invite you to the birthplaces of his presence. These aren’t found in department stores, gift certificates, or dreams of a white Christmas. The birthplaces are where God’s children are helpless and vulnerable, just like the baby Jesus. He will be found where people fainting with fear and foreboding. Just the same, he is there where radical love and self-sacrifice destroy death and evil, just as we see it at the cross. Salvation begins where forgiveness brings reconciliation; where companionship ends loneliness; where love and charity eradicate hunger. Resurrection dawns from on high like winter gives way to springtime.

Advent time is the time to be where the action is—and welcome in God’s future in your time.  It’s the time when Jesus becomes the Lord of your hours and days. It’s the time when eternity breaks in and refuses to go away. So stand up and raise your heads: your prayers are being answered. Your worries will end. Christ will wipe away the tears from your faces. Salvation is come. There, among the least of these who are members of God’s family; where life and love banish darkness and death—lasting peace and joy is found.