Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Of Heaven and Earth!



AS WE begin the new liturgical calendar year, a season of expectation begins. For the First Sunday of Advent we encounter a refrain that is read from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. The text speaks plainly concerning that which comes upon the Christian church working in the world…

“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
 But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” (Luke 21:25-36)

Heaven and Earth?
Our text we read from Luke, echoed into this gospel from Mark 13:3-37 (likely written c.65A.D.). The words radiated from Luke across the Roman Empire during the same decades of time as its contemporary reading Matthew 24:4-36 (c.85-90A.D.)
 We need more fully to comprehend this prophetic text that was given to the early church, so we may yet derive direction for our own day. Let me offer to you that we first must note that our lesson is a historical word picture painted. The picture comes as illustrated directly by our Lord. The portrait was about the desolation to be immediately expected… and the eventual, and ultimate delivery of the Christian people. The church would be founded and include all who are baptized and live in faith. Therefore since the lesson includes those of us living today, the text rightly needs be understood by us from the prediction that Jesus gave to the apostles.
 The discussion began as the young rabbi taught his disciples while sitting across from the temple in Jerusalem. He told them that the time was coming upon them soon, when one magnificent stone of the temple would not be sitting on top of another. Now we believe that these words came to us from either an oral tradition or a pre-Markan writing directly from the apostles. We know that the Mark’s more concise gospel is thought written shortly after the desolation of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. Mark related that our Lord had indeed predicted the event when Jesus sat with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. Jesus also forecast, as told both in Mark and Luke’s gospels… that the disciples who were not yet the church when hearing the message, would receive persecutions and be beaten. They would be ridiculed concerning him.
 Our Lord taught them that when they saw the desolation of that great temple, great trouble would be rapid in coming upon all. The Christians living at that time in the Roman Empire, would even be blamed for its destruction. As described, students of the Jewish prophets were keenly aware that this mirrored events prophetically spoken about from centuries before. (for reference, see Isaiah 13:10)
 The text written here in Luke thus echoed the warning first given by Jesus to the disciples and the earlier readers of Mark. The readers living in the latter days of the first century, were then immersed in times of actual foreboding for the church. For Luke's churches the temple had already been plundered and destroyed. The desolation of Jewish symbols was a historical fact.
 Because of the occurances, the Jews had become very hostile toward Christians. They used the latter as political scapegoats, turning them in as hostile to the Roman authorities. Tumultuous, confusing events of the day certainly made it seem to the Christians that the sun and moon no longer showed the church the way to safely navigate into the future.
 However, Jesus had also told them to realize that astrological signs were not to be trusted . The sun, moon, and stars and planets seemed not to guide the steps of those who were supposed to be soothsayers and prophets. Yes, the people of God traveled though darkness and tumult. The stars we might guess metaphorically described many leaders of the Judaic religion, ones who had seemed so solidly fixed in the heavenly realms. They had fallen. The synagogues were therefore considered as in darkness and blind as the candles of the altars were extinguished.
 Note especially here what our Lord told us. Jesus had predicted that heaven and earth would pass away, but his words would not. We examine this radical statement and find the Truth. For each of his disciples then living, the heavens and earth did pass away for them as each died. The church thus in the time of Luke approached the new, second century facing persecutions and hard ground without the leadership of those apostles. But offsetting the losses, the promise of Jesus presence was yet upon them. He had said that his words would not pass away. In fact, as proof I offer that you read them yet today.

Keep Awake!
Miraculously a brightness was thus beginning to shine forth even before the gospels were written. I consider that Luke’s community was truly realizing the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ working among them. Through this revelation given in the written Word they realized that the Son of Man who had described the turmoil was still with them. As the Spirit guided the writings of Paul, Mark, Luke, Matthew, John, Clement and others, the church came to know that they were not abandoned and Jesus Christ was coming again.
 Take note here! The disciples, the later church of Mark, and then Luke’s readers… were told in simple agricultural analogy that these things would unfold as predicted. Jesus had instructed that the divinely-directed progression would occur until the saving gospel went out in all directions. The example of the fig tree taught us that from the first speaking by our Lord on the Mount of Olives, rooted events were already unfolding. His followers knew by the time of the writing of Mark that they were to do exactly as instructed. They were to “watch” in an active way. Consequently, anticipating the end times, they watched and they preached. The Lord said that “this generation shall not pass away” until they saw the desolation described.
 As told to them, the prophetic words were true. But out of those dark hues and colors painted by our Lord’s words… out of the ashes of dispersed Judaism… the eternal Christian church arose. And even now, repeatedly as years pass, through the scriptures rightly interpreted the church is told to actively watch. Therefore, I believe that we are still in the growth stage, called to watch as more Christians appear… rising up as baptized in nations around the earth.
 I offer to you that the fig tree still springs forth and is flowering. Those who watched faithfully in the days of both Mark’s writing and Luke’s writing... saw just the beginnings of what would come to be. Through these words from two diverse faith communities, though writing some 20 years apart in time, we know that this lesson echoes forward even to our own day. As sinful people saved only by grace through faith given in Christ Jesus, neither our predecessors nor we have even yet come close to seeing the marvelous fullness of the kingdom.
 Each new day for the church in the sinful and dirty earth, while we plant a new liturgical year of the church at Advent, receives newness as the gospel is proclaimed. As a pastor I say to you… watch actively… work out your future in faith! Proclaim the scriptures in both Law and Gospel... knowing that our Lord shall come again. When the end does comes to us in finality we shall stand together with those who have gone before us. We most certainly together shall see our loving God as he is… as truly revealed in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Temporal or Absolute?



FOR THIS Christ the King Sunday we hear from the Gospel According to Saint John. Within this text set aside for our celebration, we encounter the conversation between Pilate as a ruler of this world, and Jesus, the One appointed by God as the divine King of Creation.




Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 
 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”
 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?”
 Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.”
 Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?”
 Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” (John 18:33-38)

By What Authority?
As John had related previously in this gospel, a writing which many authorities believe was created on, or shortly after the turn of the first century, we find that Jesus had been recently arrested. The temple guards brought him in bondage before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish temple high court… to be questioned by the chief priests. There in the temple our Lord did not fare well… for after questioning Jesus about false evidence and charges, the Chief Priest tore his robe in disgust. The leader called Jesus a blasphemer. He called him a liar before God. The priest had declared loudly that Jesus’ punishment should be death. With that statement, the trouble became complex. They were admonished by the jurisdiction of Rome that the Jewish court did not have the authority to carry out the death penalty. Thus the Sanhedrin was forced by their meager authority to take Jesus to the Romans. Hence Jesus was brought before Pilate. It was thought by the Jews that if the Romans would crucify Jesus, crucifixion being a favorite and very public way of heavy-handed death… then the public would not blame the Sanhedrin for the occurrence.
 That other persons were in attendance when Pontius Pilate and Jesus spoke was witnessed rests simply in that we have this detailed conversation in John, which is an expansion of the same conversational scene found in Luke 23:1-5. Truly knowing then the background of this occasion and the verifiable scene, we can now derive several lessons from this gospel record.
 First, note that we hear evidence concerning the inability of the Jews to prosecute our Lord. While over the flow of history there have been many who have blamed the Jews exclusively for Jesus’ death, we see that they cannot be given the whole credit or blame. In the typical dramatic fashion of the Johannine writer, the power struggle of Jews over against Rome set the stage for our Lord’s commentary about divine authority and his death. Jesus’ words would radiate forth in the triumvirate power struggle between the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Rome
Secondly, if we follow the text closely here, we see that Pilate tried to ferret out the cause of the temple unrest. Who was to blame for the civil unrest during Passover, a time considered holy by the Jews? As one certified by Caesar to keep the peace in Israel, the consul sought to quell any disturbances. He asked whether the dispute was because Jesus claimed to be “King of the Jews”. However, Jesus answered his question by not by giving him an answer, but  rather wisely asking Pilate a question… thereby challenging the leader’s civil authority in their conversation.

Say What?
Caught quite off guard by Jesus’ inquiry, though we cannot hear the tone of Pilate’s voice... it seems that he became a little defensive. He countered the question by saying that he was not a Jew, and stated the obvious… that the Jews had legally passed the baton and turned Jesus over to him, While Pilate could have been either bothered or pleased by the responsibility passed to him, the case has been made that ultimately he knew that he was responsible before Caesar for his own actions in the matter. As recorded here, at this point in the conversational confrontation between the two men, a dialectic emerged concerning sinful humans that seek to maintain control, pitted over against the heavenly gift of human freedom given to us by divine grace.
 Think of it! Jesus stood before the foremost world power of that day and said that although he is a king, his kingdom is not of this world. As proof offered, our Lord stated that since there was no uprising in his behalf at the time, either popularly or militarily… no evidence existed that he was an earthly challenge to either Jews or Romans. May we consider this bold statement recorded in John’s gospel was a method for the early church to calm suspicious Roman powers about Christians, those who were alive and peaceful during the first decades of the second century? Possible so.
 Consider this! With this statement spoken by Jesus, Pilate drove for clarity… “So you are a king?” Jesus responded to this last question by making a statement which is both question and fact, by stating that through both the jealousy of the Jewish authorities and guarded nature of the Roman powers... by default they had already recognized his kingship. But then our Lord further explained that his purpose was not to exercise earthly power, but to reveal heavenly grace. 
 Therefore, we see that Jesus would not be trapped by the falsity of human claims. They could not have the ultimate power over life and death. Jesus revealed not just relative and temporal human truth, but indeed showed us absolute Truth. It is by accepting this last statement that we of the church must bow down before the throne of the Almighty. By his being revealed as absolute Truth, we have come to know that Jesus is the Christ, the One who was, is, and is yet to come… the once-for-all-time manifestation of God to the world.
 What then can we derive from this? I say that for those living today who stand shocked as modern kingdoms are shaken because of violent extremism, we can hear this as calming good news. You see, as temporal earthly rulers contend in the temporal powers of both church and state, towers fall and courtyards crumble… but we find ourselves comforted by the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit revealing, God’s beloved Son is shown both here and in the writings of other gospel authors. All of this is told within scripture rightly interpreted. We are brought to believe that God has sent his Holy One amongst us. The good news of the gospel then… is that Jesus is the absolute Truth. Through his Spirit working through the church he gives us saving faith. This Jesus, the man who was rejected by the religious and political authorities of his day, was crucified, killed and buried and then rose again. He now sits as King and Priest at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Revealed as fully human and fully divine; therefore, we shall see him surely and most certainly as he is… the King of all creation.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Giving Birth...?



FOR THE Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, we find from the Gospel According to Mark that Jesus stood amid a world of monuments affected by sin, and told his followers of the unfolding future.


And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”
 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”
 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?”
 And Jesus began to say to them, “Take heed that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines; this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. (Mark 13:1-8)

Of Human Mortar
From Mark we read Jesus’ appraisal of the temple in Jerusalem. That edifice had been under construction for many years, for the project had begun during the reign of Herod the Great. This was the grand temple for which many persons, rich and poor had given of their substance and treasure. Among the reasons for the building project, many authorities claimed it to be a sign of the economic restoration of Israel. So impressive was the structure that Jesus’ disciples marveled at the great work. To the leaders of both government and religious authorities, the temple seemed to indicate that Israel had attained a rightful place in the political world.
 Today we may consider that the temple was a wonder intended for world admiration. Jesus remarked, however, that before God… the days of its standing were not long. The remark that our Lord made comes to us in the longest teaching in Mark. Apparently the disciples’ comments triggered a long discourse. As a reality check it seems, our Lord seemed rather compelled by the sinful human pride expressed by his followers. He thus revealed the immediate and distant worldly future.
 He took Peter, James and John aside in a scene reminiscent of the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus warned his disciples of the upcoming trials which would befall them. To illustrate the future for the nascent church, he used the imagery of a female who was approaching birth.
 Jesus first warned the disciples against those who would falsely lay Messianic claims. He then warned of wars that were already underway and spoke of rumors of wars that were already in the process of forming. He told of great signs that would be fast upon the earth… earthquakes… famines… and pain. But these last, he continued… were but birth-pangs. The birth of the church was at hand.

In Heaven and Upon Earth…
For certain, during the immediate decades after the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, we see that  Roman rulers came and went in rapid succession. During the harsh rules of Tiberias, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, the church found difficulty to be upon them. The church born during the Jewish celebration of Pentecost became an infant which was often hunted, spoken of as bastardized, and yet they babbled with the joyous  message given by the Holy Spirit. The church thus spread from the cities of Antioch, Damascus, and Alexandria. The gospel spread across Asia Minor to Rome… to even more sites across the far Roman Empire.
 Indeed, the church emerged as a growing entity that, though at first hidden in pain and struggling to worship in house churches, emerged to give clear voice. And alongside Saint Paul, we Christians eventually learned to write! Indeed, during the 6th decade of the first century… some thirty years after our Lord crucifixion and Resurrection, Mark’s gospel reported in writing about the empty tomb. The scriptural Truth written then gave hope in a world that was struggling painfully beneath oppressive structures of temples and sacrificial systems.
 As the so-called “Golden Age” of Rome developed after the turn of the century, spiraling forward as a time of relative peace, the infant church became knit together by the power of the Holy Spirit. The people who for decades had carried the known name of “Christians”, were thus clad in more than swaddling clothes. They spread the gospel message far out into a hostile, but needy world.
 As to the prophecy spoken by Jesus, we know that the Temple indeed fell… destroyed by the Romans. The Jews were scattered. They were not allowed to worship in Jerusalem even as the fortress at Masada was conquered in 70A.D.. Thus an earthquake in faith did swallow Israel’s worship of God as the land fell into a spiritual abyss. The events indeed unfolded just as our Lord had predicted. But thanks be to God, amid turmoil the church grew as guided by the Holy Spirit. As told in Mark and echoed in both Matthew and Luke… the first baby steps of our Christian faith expression matured to a more sure and durable faith walk.

We're In Delivery?
The early church, born from the tumultuous time after Pentecost, began to fulfill the task given by our Lord. After his arrest, crucifixion, and Resurrection… Jesus had instructed his church about how to meet the daunting future. He instructed them to rightly use the spiritual stability that can never be aborted. He instructed us to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to go into all the world, as recorded by Matthew…

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

 With this mandate given, the early church preached, taught, and endured the trials of the first century. As the church today, therefore, we are also called to feel these birth pangs as we minister to persons in this very age. As we various Christian church denominations fret and worry about the wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines which would seem to surround and empty our pews, folding up choir chairs and cribs as demons pursue the persecution of congregations across the globe, let us be reminded once again. We need to view these times clearly as yet birth pangs. We are to rise up and learn to walk in faith. Let the Spirit carry us forward then… pushing us in labor to deliver the good news of God… even in these modern times.