Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God
Mark 1:9-15
            Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his ministry, his coming out party if you will.  He appears onstage for the first time in Mark’s gospel.  John is still the center of attention, but Jesus is moving toward center stage.  He is ready to announce his message to the world.
            Or is he?  Mark tells us (as do other evangelists) that Jesus is immediately whisked away (Mark says driven by the Spirit) into the wilderness.   This is his final preparation.  Can he stand up to the tough times? 
Native American tribes call this experience the vision quest.  In order to be accepted as an adult by the tribe, a young man must go off by himself and spend time in solitude.  Alone with his thoughts, he is free to explore the breadth and depth of his mind, to determine what he is made of.  Can he take on an adult role in his society?  Can he contribute something of value to that society?  Can he stand up to the tough times in his life?  In the life of the tribe?
            In a similar manner, Jesus is alone in the wilderness.  Mark (and others) says he is tempted by Satan.  Will he be able to stand up to the difficult days that lie ahead?  Will he be able to contribute something of value to his society?  We know the answer.  Satan is no match for the Son of God.  Jesus’ follows God’s plan to the bitter end.
            Jesus emerges from the wilderness declaring that the kingdom of God is at hand.  The kingdom has broken into the world and is about to be fulfilled.  People are called to prepare by repenting and believing the good news of the kingdom.
            We know the story:  the message, the miracles, the torture, the execution—the resurrection.  In the person of Jesus Christ the kingdom of God had indeed broken in to the world, and the world would never be the same.  Two thousand years on, the kingdom is still breaking in to the world, although we often despair of its complete fulfillment when we see the evil around us.
            But did the breaking-in of the kingdom begin with the baptism, or the wilderness temptation, or Jesus proclamation?  Was this the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, or did it begin much earlier?
            The kingdom of God broke in to the history of the world in the person of the child in the manger.  The Christmas story declares it in no uncertain terms.  Luke describes the angels’ appearance to the shepherds, who were told a Savior, Christ the Lord, had been born.  The Messiah was here!
            Matthew tells us wise men—magi, priests—traveled from the east, perhaps from as far away as Persia, to seek the child born king of the Jews.  This news so upset the ruling king, Herod, that he sought to murder his rival in his crib.  The kingdom of God had broken into the world, and the world would never be the same.
            Before Jesus called his first disciples, before he worked his first miracle, before he uttered a word of his message, before his wilderness experience and his baptism—before he could speak a word, the kingdom of God had been declared by angels, shepherds and magi.
            Jesus Christ entered the world, not as a conquering king, not as a military leader, but as a tiny baby, helpless and without official pomp or recognition.  The kingdom of God has indeed broken into the world, and the world will never be the same.
            We inherit the message from angels, shepherds and magi.  Go into the world and spread the good news.  The kingdom of God is here!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Transactional Christianity

Transactional Christianity
Philippians 2:5-11
            One of the topics I find it difficult to preach on is heaven.  Too many (most?  all?) of the things we say about heaven are human constructs.  We’ve taken the very little information we find in the Bible and created a view of heaven that reflects what we imagine would be an ideal life on earth.  If you think about the jokes we tell about heaven you’ll see what I mean.
            I also find it difficult to talk about heaven because we tend to emphasize the eternal life aspect of Christianity at the expense of the earthly life aspect.  As William Booth said, we become so heavenly-minded that we’re of no earthly use.
            I’ve begun to think of this mindset as transactional Christianity.  Many are into the religion for what they can get out of it—for the reward at the end of the journey, not for the journey itself.
            Think of the occupations we follow.  Would we go to our job day after day, year after year if we didn’t get paid for doing so?  Perhaps there are some people who find their work so rewarding that they would show up every day just for the joy of a fulfilling task; or jobs that are so meaningful that we’d be glad to do them for free; but those people and those jobs are a small minority of the workforce and the job market.
            Too many Christians, I believe, approach their religion in the same way.  They endure it so (they believe) they will be able to walk around heaven for eternity, enjoying the hereafter more than the here. 
I don’t believe that’s what God intended for us.  I think God had something quite different in mind.
            God made the universe and everything in it for the pleasure of the creatures that inhabit it.  Right now, as far as we can prove, those creatures are limited to the ones on earth, since we have not yet found extraterrestrial life. 
We’re not supposed to view our life here on earth as a slog to drudge our way through until we die.  Yes, I know, life is not an unending bowl of cherries.  We all face the potential problems of disease, serious physical conditions, aging, job loss, family disappointments—so many potential hardships that it is easy to let them overwhelm our enjoyment of life.  Surely, this is not the way God intended it; but we know it’s the way life is.  God has given us this life, this planet, this universe to enjoy, and enjoy it we should.
            God has given us work to do—not the job where we earn enough to buy the things we need for survival and want for pleasure, but the work we are called to do for God.  It is this work which should give us the greatest pleasure of all.
            I believe this is part of what Paul had in mind when he wrote these words to the church at Philippi.  Jesus didn’t empty himself because at the end of the road he would become Lord of the universe, with every creature acknowledging the superiority of his name.  Jesus emptied himself because it was the right thing to do.  It was his work assignment from God, the Father.  Was it always easy?  Of course not!  Was the ending of his life painful and degrading?  Of course it was!  Life wasn’t perfect for Jesus any more than it is for us—perhaps, in some ways, less so than for many of us.  Jesus’ relationship with the Father was not transactional.  It was a relationship of service.
            This is the life we are called to, a life of joyful service to the God who created us, who loves us, and sustains us.  If Jesus fulfilled his Father’s will can we do anything less? 

Sunday, December 8, 2019


Isaiah 40:1-5
            A company famous for condiments had a ketchup ad campaign that featured the song Anticipation by Carly Simon.  In one ad a man set a bottle of ketchup on the edge of the roof of a building with the bottle open and the neck hanging over the side.  Then he ran down the stairs with a hot dog on a bun and arrived just in time to catch the first drops.  Clever.  You got the idea that the ketchup was so rich, so thick—and so flavorful—that it was worth waiting for.  I guess you weren’t supposed to ask if the hot dog got cold while you were anticipating.
            “All good things come to those who wait,” we’re told; and maybe it’s true.  But are some of the things we want really worth the wait?  That, of course, is something every person must decide.  It’s an individual choice.  What’s worth waiting for?  What’s not worth the wait?  I can assure you, there’s not a ketchup in the world that I’d wait even a second for.  Yuck!
We know what a child goes through waiting for Christmas—or a birthday, or any other day when presents are received.  They say they can’t wait, even when they know they must.  The anticipation drives them—and us—nearly crazy.  We devise ways of making the time go faster.
Someone invented Advent calendars, I think, just for this reason.  Each day a tiny door is opened, or a figure is hung on the calendar.  It probably doesn’t make the time go faster, but it does give the child something to do.  He/she can see the time passing, even if it’s a slow passage. Some Advent calendars have an activity for the child to complete each day.  This occupies more time, and gives the child something useful to do as well.  Those of you with children who are so antsy you can’t stand it might give this kind of calendar a try.
            Isaiah knew the Israelites were anxious for the arrival of a figure who would end the long years of exile and lead them back to their homeland.  They anticipated a military hero who would free them from their captors and let them return in victory, with honor and dignity.  Isaiah used words and images that were usually reserved for royalty.
            “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he thundered, giving the people the image of a herald announcing the coming of a king.  He described a wilderness road, rutted and full of rocks, and perhaps so twisted that the ride would not only be bumpy but dizzying.  The herald announces:
            “Raise up the low places!  Flatten the hills!  Level the uneven ground and make the rough places smooth.  If you do this, the glory of the Lord will be seen by everyone.”  By what authority was Isaiah making this announcement?  The Lord himself had given the command.  The king was coming, and the work must begin immediately.
            We can imagine that people received the news with joy and great anticipation.  They had been waiting nearly seventy years.  Many of those who had begun the exile were no longer alive.  Many now present hadn’t been born when Babylon carried their families away.  Now salvation was coming.  They would be free!  Free to return, and the king would lead them over smooth, well-tended roads.  No crossing raging rivers for them.  No trackless wilderness.  Even if they must go through wild areas there would be a clear, easy path for them to follow.  Meanwhile they had work to do.  The preparation was up to them.
            John the Baptist, the new Isaiah, came to prepare the way of the Lord, to announce that the people’s cry had been heard, but they had work to do—the work of repentance, of changing their lives. 
We have the same work to do today.  God calls us to prepare the way for the Lord’s return—not for a short royal visit, but to rule the new creation. 
How will we spend the time of our anticipation?

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Coming King

The Coming King
Revelation 1:5-8
            As I post this, it is the first Sunday—the first day—of Advent, 2019.  Not every Christian church celebrates Advent, but for those who do, today is the first day of the Christian year, which begins with the preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world.
            On a secular level, the preparation for Christmas has been going on for weeks.  The official beginning is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when every retailer tries to get a jump on every other retailer by opening its doors at some unreasonable hour (I’m a night person) and offering what they advertise as once in a lifetime sale prices on all the items you and your loved ones must have for Christmas. 
            Unfortunately, the official beginning isn’t the beginning at all.  Well before Thanksgiving stores advertise pre-Black Friday sales with even better prices, while the TV channels are full of Christmas ads.  It amazes me how many car ads we see, with new cars sitting in snow-covered driveways, huge bow attached to the roof, as some family member or other jumps up and down.  I wonder…how many people actually give automobiles as Christmas gifts?  I’ve not met any.
            Under the heavy bombardment brought to us by our capitalist society, we might find it difficult to locate the Christ child.  Look closely.  He is there, waiting for us to discover him and welcome him.
            In a sense, we’re play-acting during Advent.  We’re pretending that the Christ child hasn’t been born yet, and we’re waiting for his birth.  We know the birth occurred over two thousand years ago, but it means so much to us—means so much to the world—that we try to experience it again for the first time, enjoying the anticipation, the buildup of excitement, the pleasant tension this waiting brings.
            But the celebration of Christ’s birth is only part of the reason for Advent.  As pleasant and thrilling as this is, there is another component which is just as important.  Jesus speaks of it in the gospels.  Paul speaks about it in some of his letters.  Another good source is Revelation.
            Revelation was written to encourage Christians to stand firm during a period of intense persecution by Rome.  “Don’t give up,” the author says.  “Jesus is coming.  We don’t know when, but we know he is coming.  And when he comes all will be well.  Meanwhile, believe his promises.  They are true.”
            Although written specifically to the seven churches in Asia Minor, Revelation has a much wider application.  Read what the Spirit has to say to each of these churches (chapters 2-3), and see how much is applicable to today’s congregations. 
            Even before these chapters, the writer speaks directly to us.  He tells us Jesus loves us and has freed us from sin.  He tells us we have been given a kingdom and made priests in that kingdom.  He tells us glory and dominion should be given to Jesus, not just now, but “forever and ever.  Amen.”
            And then comes the second reason for Advent.  Jesus will return, and every eye will see him.  There will be no way to miss him, no way to avoid him.  Matthew 25:31-46 speaks of the final judgment which will occur when Jesus returns.  We are told all the nations of the world will appear before him, and he will reveal to each person the reward or punishment that awaits.  No exceptions; we will all stand before Jesus, the righteous judge.
            “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” Jesus says, “who is and who was and is to come…”  Our response is found at the end of Revelation (22:20).
            “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!”