“Cower no more” Luke 21:25-36

“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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Okay, we get this.  Maybe this Advent we get it a little too clearly.  Signs in the Sun, moon, stars,… and on the earth distress among the nations.  We got it.  The world is in a world of hurt, domestically and internationally.

And if we don’t get the first part of the picture of a world in distress, we surely get the next part.  “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”

That is the line that really jumps out at me this year because I’m watching it happen.

I’m watching it happen in my Facebook and twitter feeds.

I’m watching people talk about being fearful, and fainting into silence in my conversations with friends and family members.   As we reflect together and talk, people simply trail off speechless at the events unfolding.

I’m watching fear and fainting play itself out in the news media, on the campaign trail, and at every large gathering of people in what used to be joyous events.  There were armored vehicles and police in body armor on the sidelines of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, which of course was a really festive addition!

 “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”  Yes, we get this.   We live it!

But we miss an important distinction if we think that the Gospel writer is just warning us about the “end of the world” in calamity and peril at the hands of others.

It is not the signs in the heavens that we should be concerned about.

It’s not the “usual” distress amongst the nations that should cause our concern.  Wars and battles over kingdoms are par for the course in this world, and no one knew that better than little Israel who had been the stomping ground for every other major player in world history for the past 700 years.

No, the Gospel writer is talking about people fainting in fear and foreboding not because this world is out of control from forces at play within it, but rather because the fundamental powers of this world that are about to be shaken because something new is about to be exerted.  A new order is about to be ushered in, that of the promised Kingdom of God.

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

This is what should cause fear and fainting, the return of Christ in glory.

God is about to stride in and do the work of redeeming this world, and when that happens, the old forces at play should begin to shake and quake because they know they cannot survive.   “Business as usual” for this world is about to end.

Powers and kings and princes who have built their kingdoms with blood and extortion and playing upon the fears of humankind are about to be shown the door.

Those who have been a part of playing to fears and preying upon the weak and the fearful should be shaking in their boots, because when the Son of Man comes he will have scores to settle with those who trafficked in or succumbed to the use of fear and intimidation to meet their goals.

So this is part one of this Gospel for Advent and what it has to say to us.   When God sets about the work of redemption, there will be plenty to be afraid of if you’ve been wrapped up in using the tools of this world to make your way through it.  Bullying and imposition of will, even in the course of noble causes, is not the way the Kingdom works.

But there is in this Gospel some really good news that I don’t want you to miss; because it has power to transform your life right now.

“Now when these things begin to take place (Jesus says), stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Do you catch that shift?

If you’ve been complicit with the “business as usual” of this world, you’ve got plenty to be afraid of when Jesus comes in Glory.   You ought to be afraid to the point of fainting!

But, if you have been among those who have rejected the world’s mode of operation, then all this apocalyptic stuff becomes incredibly good news!   You can stand up, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near!   Things are about to change in ways that you have been looking for, hoping for, longing for!

This, oh people of God is the part of the Gospel that we so easily miss because the allure of this world is so powerful!

We are ever tempted to believe that in order to make a difference in this world, we must adopt the methods of it.

We end up trying to use power and influence for what we think is the “greater good.”

We are told by this world that we should be afraid of the stranger, the sojourner, the foreigner, and so we are!  We join right in with the “business as usual” of this world.  We are told that it will keep us safe.

But then we wonder why the promised Kingdom seems further and further out of reach the more we try to protect ourselves.

We reason that we should keep ourselves safe, or keep our community free of threats, or at very least minimize the threats that are legitimate out there for the sake of order and common good.  We can afford to be more trusting when Jesus comes back, not now.

Then we wonder why it is that Jesus’ return seems farther and farther away.

We forget the command of God found throughout the scriptures of how you are to welcome and care for the stranger, the sojourner, and the foreigner in your midst.

We are told by this world that we should be afraid of the other, that you cannot trust them, that you cannot know for sure if you will be safe, if they will be peaceful, … whoever the “they” might be that we happen to put in there.

We forget how much scary stuff Jesus pushed his disciples into doing.

We forget how he sent them out as refugees themselves, moving from town to town to proclaim the good news, with nothing to call their own.

We forget how Jesus took his disciples to Jerusalem, to the regions of Tyre and Sidon, across the sea to Genessaret into Gentile territory.  We forget how the Apostles were sent to Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the world.

We forget how many times the apostle Paul was stoned, jailed, run out of town.

We forget the heritage we have of being the ones who will go for the sake of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, to tell others about a God who does not work as this world works.

We succumb to the temptation to be of this world, and hunker down and keep our eyes on the things of this world telling ourselves that when Jesus comes, then we can live up to the call to be disciple.  Then we can love our neighbor, or our enemy, when it’s safer, easier.  Then we can afford to let our fears go, when Jesus makes things “safe” for us.

But Advent reminds us that it was not a safe world that Jesus entered, and a safe world was not his interest.

No, Jesus was interested in a transformed world.

Jesus was interested in bringing in a Kingdom where the old powers that terrorize would be put to rest at last and the new life free of fear would emerge. The Kingdom is offered here and now to those who are willing to risk living into it and bringing it in.

It is not safe, it is daring!

The Kingdom is not about seeking your own safety, for that will only weigh you down and bring about all kinds of worries in this life.  Seeking your own safety ends up being like a form of drunkenness, it dulls you to the needs of others, and makes your heart heavy.   Can you not feel it?

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down… “ Jesus warns.   He warns, but then offers a promise.   As sure as life returns to the trees, you can see the Kingdom coming.   When the trees green up, you know that summer is near.

When people begin to act in ways that threaten the powers of this world,  the Kingdom comes near.   The sign of its coming will be hope in the midst of this very threat filled world.  The sign that it is near will be looking to Jesus in the midst of the fear that seeks to have you succumb to it, and choosing another way.

Now, (when the world is screaming “cower in fear!”) is the hour for those who long for the Kingdom to look up.

Now, when the world says “live in fear of the other and protect yourself,” is the hour for you to do what Jesus showed you how to do.   Love your enemy and pray for your persecutor.

Now is the time to open your heart to the enemy, to the one the world would have you live in fear, and in so embracing that “other” begin to bring the Kingdom you seek a little closer.

Now is the hour, when fear and foreboding seems everywhere, to instead show that you will trust and have faith, faith in a promised Kingdom, and the Lord who promised that he would bring it about through your actions of following where he has led the way.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of living in fear.

I am tired of playing the games of this world, in life, in the church, thinking that by exerting my influence or protecting my own interests the world will get better.

It will not.

Only the Kingdom of God has the power to transform this sin-sick world.  To be a part of that transforming work I will need to stop ducking and covering and instead begin to stand up for others, and to lift up my head in love and trust.

Trust in God.

Trust in my neighbor.

Trust that by caring for others, they will in turn care for me.

And if they do not?   What if those whom I meet in this world disappoint and plunge after the ways of this world?   Well, then I will die with the Kingdom’s promise on my heart, but I will die with head lifted high and my stand for the Gospel taken.

This is Advent.   Christ is coming, and I will cower in fear and fainting no more.

“Pilates, One and All” John 18:33-38

Curious, isn’t it, of all the biblical characters to be remembered by name week in and week out, it is Pilate’s name that comes regularly to our lips.

As it turns out he is the character with whom we have the most in common.

He is a Gentile, an outsider to the Jewish faith and all this talk about Messiahs and kings and prophecies holds little interest for him.

Pilate is also in a position of authority and power, and that’s where most of us find ourselves in this society, whether we recognize that or not.

Oh, you may not feel particularly powerful, but you make your own decisions most of the time.   You enjoy the privilege that comes from citizenship in the United States, and from your particular position in this society.  Even if you don’t have an occupation that puts you in a place of decision making and authority, you have the right and responsibility to vote.  You have the ability to choose what you will become, and what you will support, and with whom you will associate, and that is power.

More often than not, like Pontius Pilate, you are also find yourself questioning Jesus’ power in this world.   You wonder from time to time and what his presence might mean for you.

Oh, that skepticism isn’t something we profess out loud.   No, it just creeps in on us from time to time.

“Where is your kingdom, Jesus?” we ask, in so many ways.

Illness strikes and we remember how Jesus went about healing infirmities and casting out demons, and we wonder why that part of the promised Kingdom doesn’t come and establish itself permanently?  Why is there still suffering in this world?   Why do I have this disease?   Why does my co-worker suffer with depression, or my family member spend time in hospital or hospice.

Where is your Kingdom, Jesus?   The one promised that would take away pain and suffering?

When terrorist events rock our sense of security we long for what we thought was promised in the Kingdom, peace and stability where everyone would “gets along.”

“Where is your Kingdom, Jesus?”

We thought the Kingdom Jesus promised would be “of this world,” for that is where he starts to proclaim it.   We watched in the Gospels and in Acts as the whole world seemed to catch fire for God, and we began to believe that this world would be a place where everyone would believe in Jesus.

When that happened, (we told ourselves) then we wouldn’t have Islamic terrorists, or Hindu separatists, or repressive communist regimes.  We would have “Christendom,” a world where every “knee would bow and every tongue confess…” Why don’t we see it?

Indeed, the world of Christendom seems farther and farther away now, as institutions decline, churches seem to weaken.

In what sense anymore do we believe that Christ is King?  Where is this “Reign of Christ” advancing?   It looks to us more and more like Christ’s reign is melting with the polar icecaps.

And so, we find ourselves in a sense questioning Jesus.  Where is this promised Kingdom?

When we start to question Jesus like that, that is the Pilate in us speaking.  “Why haven’t I heard of, experienced your Kingdom in my life, Jesus?”

And to it is important that we listen closely to what Jesus has to say to Pilate, for what he says to Pilate might just be what he continues to say to us.

This is the “truth” that Jesus speaks to Pilate. His Kingdom is not of this world, and that makes us exceeding nervous, because you see, time and time again, we really thought it would be!

That was the expectation of the Disciples, why they follow Jesus.  Now we are followers of the “Great Teacher”, and so we read stories of them arguing amongst themselves as to which of them is “the greatest.”   Surely if we have Jesus, we get special privileges!

That was the expectation of the people in Jerusalem when Jesus enters it triumphantly.   Now we get a King back like David!   Now we get OUR turn at this world!

That was the expectation of Mary and Martha when Lazarus got sick.   Call for Jesus, he will rush right over and take care of it.  He surely won’t let his good friend Lazarus die!  How good for us to have this close and special relationship with Jesus, it makes our life right here and now so much less worrisome.

That is the tacit expectation that we build up in our minds, ever so subtly.  If we follow Jesus, this world gets easier, it gets better, it begins to conform to our wishes, our ways.

And so, along with Pilate, it comes to us as a shock to hear Jesus flatly tell us that his Kingdom is not of this world!   He comes to testify to the Kingdom’s coming, and it does start here, but the ways of this world are not what Jesus came to bless and prop up.

No, he has quite another agenda.

“…for this I came into the world, (Jesus says) to testify to the truth.” 

When you start to look back over his years of Jesus’ ministry, you begin to recognize that Jesus did an awful lot of “truth telling” into the face of this world, and the truth goes something like this.

We are way too preoccupied with the things of this world most of the time.

Think about all the points of conflict in Jesus’ ministry, the places where he hits a raw nerve, and you’ll being to notice that he most often gets in trouble for telling the truth to those who do not want to hear it.

 “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. (Pilate says) What have you done?”

Short answer, Jesus has told the truth time and again.

To the Scribes and Pharisees who are enamored with their law and the keeping of commandments in a way that strictly orders the community but leaves people suffering, he has said time and again that God is more interested in mercy.   It’s the truth, and it makes those who want the world their way sting, so they have handed him over to get rid of him.

To the fringe members of community, the tax collectors, the sinners, the prostitutes, and even the children Jesus has proclaimed a world ordered around forgiveness and extending welcome, and they sense the truth of that, that God shows no partiality!

God’s own welcome of “the other” comes through Jesus as he sits and eats and spends time with everyone, and it gets Jesus into no end of trouble from those who have worked so hard to put the world in order.

It is better you see, for this world to have the lie that some are more important than others.

It serves the world to have Kings in palaces, and Governors in praetoriums, and Sadducees in the Temple, and the rabble below.  The world is ordered in this way, that some are more worthy than others.   That is what makes for good borders, and how we sort out immigration policies and wash our hands of responsibility to the neighbor.

That is what justifies pay rates, and a stratified society that competes against itself. You wouldn’t want to just throw things open to treat all as equals!

Sure you wouldn’t want to pay those who just came on shift at the last hour of work day the same as those who struggled and bore the heat of the day?  Or fast food workers a living wage?  Why, there have to be “starter jobs” to incentivize folks to work harder and move up!

Oh, here is the truth, and you and I know it.  We are way too preoccupied with the things of this world.   We will fight for those, and often do!

We are Pilate, all of us, and so on this day in the presence of Jesus we are put in the same uncomfortable position as Pilate.

Today Jesus stands before us all, and takes our questions, and all our accusations, and all of our indifference toward God and toward the people of this world, and those questions of why he doesn’t fix this world are to him like, — well like hammer blows on nails, like thorns pressed down into flesh.  Such questions make him suffer for they are all set on him fixing our world.

Jesus takes them all, all of our questions of “where is your Kingdom?” because that is what he came to do.   Jesus came to take our questions about God and where God is and what God is doing in this world.

He came to take our questions and our arrogance and our self-centeredness.  He came to take our flippant tone and uncaring remarks, which are all the marks of “this world.”

Jesus came and endured it all, so that he could remind us that what God does is, what God has always done, is stand before us, always looking at us in love, hoping that we would begin to see a better way, and a better world than the one with which we are so preoccupied!

This is the kind of God who sends his Son.  It is a God that looks at us in love.

Where is your Kingdom, Jesus?  Well, it’s not of this world, but it’s about truth, and the truth is, God loves you, even when you are acting like Pilate, standing there, so sure of yourself, placing all your trust in your own power, your position and your own authority.

I name you all as Pilates this day, as I rightly name myself.

We are all of us, seeking for the truth, but not wanting to hear it.

We are all of us, looking for answers, but not wanting the kind that will run in the face of the way this world works.

We are all trying to decide what to do with Jesus in our lives, and once we recognize that he is there, and we are trying to figure out just what it is that Jesus would have us do.

If you aren’t asking those questions, you are not seeking, and if you do not seek, you cannot find.

The Kingdom comes of its own accord this is true, but without looking for it, you may not recognize it.  If all you chase after are the things of this world, you will not recognize the living God when he shows up on your doorstep, as he did on Pilate’s.

I can tell you of Christ the King, the Son of God.

I can tell you the bible stories of his mighty works, his teachings, how the Prophets foretold his coming and how the Cross marked not the end of his life, but the start of his reign. I can tell you many things about Christ the King.

But like good Pontius Pilates, there will come a day when it is not the words of others that you will have to sort out.

No, you will have to face Jesus and let your own questions fly.

In that moment, may you see in Jesus that look of love.

May your heart be moved finally not to wash your hands of him, or to send him away, — but instead to follow him and learn the pathway of the Disciple, to begin washing the feet, and serving the needs of others.

This is the truth that Jesus comes to give us.

The world is full of Pilates who question.

And, it is for this world of “Pilates” that Jesus was sent, to make of them disciples.

Birth Pangs – Mark 13:1-8

What shall we say about these things?   Paris is in shambles.  ISIS seems on the rise.  Turmoil continues in Syria and refugees are on the run.   Afghanistan is flaring up. Earthquakes, some of which may be the result human ingenuity of fracking, are rumbling across the plains. The 24 hour news cycle and global communications now make it possible for us to experience worldwide catastrophes, uniting us as one across the globe.   However, those same technologies that have brought us so close together can also be used unite pockets of splinter cells of opposition around the world.

Is this the end?

That’s also the question Jesus is speaking to in this little apocalypse from Mark’s Gospel.

The disciples are marveling at the Temple in Jerusalem, built by Herod the Great.  It was quite a showpiece, using what came to be known as “Herodian Construction”, massive stones, some 6×6 feet by 10 feet, deftly set in such tight construction that one could not even slip a knife blade between them.

It was clearly an impressive sight to the Disciples.   The Temple signaled permanence and stability in an often unsteady world under Roman occupation.  How wonderful a building this is, it will surely stand forever!

But as the Disciples are gawking at and praising the Temple, Jesus begins pointing forward to a time in the not too distant future when not one of those huge stones will be left standing on another.

Jesus then goes on to talk about false prophets, wars, and rumors of wars.   Jesus talks about earthquakes and famines and nations rising up against nations.  Jesus talks about all kinds of scary stuff here that we don’t like thinking about it, or hearing about it.

Why does Jesus bring all this stuff up?

We like things to stay just the way they are.  We long for stability and permanence in an unsteady world.

So did Jesus’ disciples.

When Jesus started talking about the scary stuff, the end of the world, or the way of the Cross, the disciples were eager to find out when all of this would all take place.  I suppose it was their way of trying to figure out, “Hey, am I going to have to deal with this?  Or will this happen long after I’m gone?”

To that worry, Jesus responds with these words, “do not be alarmed…this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Yeah, thanks Jesus.  Birth pangs!   That is an image that for every male in this room probably sounds quite poetic.  “Ah, birth pangs….”

But for every woman who has ever actually given birth, the phrase conjures up quite another image.  Birth pangs, while you are in them, are quite intolerable.  They are what you want to be simply “over.”

So, I don’t think that Jesus is using this image of “birth pangs” as just a poetic phrase.

I think he understands that this matter of bringing in the Kingdom is going to be intolerably painful for him, and for all who follow him.

This little apocalypse comes just before Jesus is about to go to the cross.

Jesus is about to become the sacrifice for sin, once and for all.  On his way to do this, he walks through the great Temple of Jerusalem, which has been the place where people have come to perform sacrifice, over and over again throughout the centuries.

For people to understand what Jesus is about to do, the Temple will have to go.  Not one stone left standing on another, so that people will begin to look to him, instead of looking to their own constructions.

There will be wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes….do not be alarmed.”  Jesus says.

Has there ever been a time when these things didn’t happen?   They will come as they have before, but they do not signal the end of the world in cataclysm.  They are rather only the ‘birth-pangs,” the signs of groan and travail of a world that is trying desperately to find a new way of dealing with age old issues.

Nothing great is ever born without risk, conflict and change.  Jesus knows that.   And so, now comes the “Way of the Cross,” which will be a new way of dealing with things in a world that only seems to know about dealing with things through power, victory and winning.

Jesus’ way will put him in direct conflict with everything this world stands for and thinks is true.

Through the “Way of the Cross,” Jesus will confront all the powers and kingdoms of this world with a bold assertion:  It is not by becoming more powerful than your opponent that you effect change.  No, rather it is in taking the form of a servant that change is made.

Jesus will win not by exerting greater force, greater violence, and sweeping his enemies away by the might of his hand, but rather by choosing not to oppose force with force.

He will conquer, but not by assembling the greater army, or coming up with the more clever weapons, or by making surgical strikes to the opponent, but rather by choosing the way of servanthood for the sake of the other.

He will triumph by giving his life for others, not by trying to save it.

This “Way of the Cross” that Jesus chooses is meant to make everyone re-think how the world works.   It is meant to raise that comment from the Roman soldier at the foot of the Cross in Mark’s Gospel, who will see this way unfold and will make the pronouncement, “surely this was the Son of God.”

New things do not arise unless the old and the comfortable pass away to make room for them.

The Temple of stone will be no more, — in order that a living temple might be turned to for help, forgiveness, and guidance in this dangerous and troubled world.

Even though we know that this is the way it is supposed to work, we don’t like it much.   It still doesn’t satisfy the question that we have in common with Jesus first disciples.  “When will this be?”  They ask.

Will I have to deal with all of this?

Will I have to deal with change, with conflict, with the loss of beloved structures?

Will I have to suffer through wars and famines?

Will I have to deal with turmoil and uncertainty and questions about what is happening?”

The short answer is “Yes.”   You are a disciple of Jesus.  You will have to deal with all of these things that signal the birth pangs of a new age.

But more than that, you will have to adopt Jesus’ new way in the midst of them, and that will be all the more uncomfortable for us.  For, we really do like strong sturdy walls and marvelous fortifications and the illusion that they will somehow keep us safe from “them”… whoever or whatever the “other” out there might be.

You will perhaps see lovely, tall buildings that we thought signaled our power and strength in this world topple down to the ground, for nothing built by human hands lasts forever.

You will have to live through wars, and rumors of wars, and all the uncertainty of blustering nations, and not give in to the old solutions of building up your military or sending in your drones, but rather come to terms with how your own way of life might be complicit in the sufferings of others.

You will have to deal with famines and earthquakes and all manner of natural disasters, and perhaps come to the realization that you have been complicit in causing them.

And in each of those moments of conflict and turmoil, you too will be tempted to lose heart and hope and go back to your old familiar way instead of looking for the birth pang.   You will be tempted to fall back into the old actions that did not work, have never worked, instead of  seeing that this is perhaps your moment when this world is in transition and something new is about to be born.

You will be tempted as those first disciples were to go back to what seemed permanent, predictable and safe for them.   Back to fishing, back to homes, back to the old job, or blending into the old corporate structure.

The question before us is this. “What will you, will we, be required to let pass away when we sense the birth pangs of a new age beginning?”

This is perhaps what scares us most in an unsteady world of terror and uncertainty.  Will I have to let go of my treasured “thing” for the new birth of the Kingdom of God to begin?

And to that question I can state with certainty that “Yes, you will.”

What I cannot tell you what that treasured thing will be.  I do not know what treasured thing you may have to see pass away, but I do know this.

If whatever you treasure is standing in the way of you looking to Jesus, it will have to go!

It will have to fall, not one stone left upon another, so that you can look to the new thing that Jesus is about to do in your midst.

You know, when you think about it, there are an awful lot of things in this book called “The Bible” that are no more!

You won’t be able to find any of those congregations Paul worked so hard to start worshipping any more.  The congregations in Philippi, Macedonia, and Corinth have all passed away to dust.

You can’t find a Pharisee, or a Sadducee, and those whom Jesus healed and even raised from the dead went once again into the grave to wait for the day of resurrection.  A lot of stuff in here, isn’t around anymore.

But the living Word of God, that which brings life and change and has the power to bring in the Kingdom, — that lives on, long after the particulars of places and people and events have passed away.

Jesus has told us not to be alarmed when precious things pass away or when trouble comes.   Look instead for what is being born out of it all.  Look for the birth, and the life that comes in the midst of what seems like the world falling apart.

Look for the birth, and trust in the Word of God that outlasts buildings and institutions in its power to transform lives.

God’s living, powerful Word will be around with full force and power long after whatever conflicts, controversies, travails and troubles we might see in our lifetime.

God’s Word will be around long after human kingdoms and nations and wars and famines have run their course.

The Kingdom of God is born out of conflict, there no doubt about it.  It is born out of the collision of the values of this world with God’s hopes and dreams for God’s people… all of God’s people.   But the promise of God is that the Kingdom and the Word will outlast all the things this world treasures.   That is something worth giving thanks about.  That is something of a word of hope that lasts.

So, do not be alarmed when things look troubled, look instead for what is being born.  Amen.