Lent 1: Fasting

christ-in-the-wilderness-the-scorpion

by Stanley Spenser

 

 February 26, 2012    Lent 1  Year B

Mark 1

Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days. The ancient practice of Lent invites us to do the same. Of course, in reality most of us are not going on a 40 day retreat anywhere. We will do well to have a few hours here and there out of the hustle and bustle of responsibilities. We are going to have our Lent in the thick of things. But the challenge is to take the coming 5 weeks and within the usual, to pay attention to our Spiritual health.

There is a time for everything, the writer of Ecclesiastes assures us, but usually the urgent fills our calendar and there is no time left for what we still want to claim is important. Steven Covey offered an exercise. Write down the values that define and guide you in life. Having done that he asks us to show on our calendars the time we give to those important values and relationships. What really soaks up our time?

When our girls were toddlers I remember being struck by the advice. “Youngsters spell love, T-I-M-E.” Maybe love gets real according to the time we give to the things we love.

Now I know some of you are pulling back. “What is he trying to get us to add to our schedule? What else do I need to do, or read, or pray about?” I know sometimes it seems that we are in situations that we don’t have much say over, stretched by demand and duties that we feel no right to ignore. I may have had the same 24 hours as everyone else, but it felt like most of them had been spoken for before I got a choice. What I am going to suggest is the first step to a holy Lent is, before you add any day for meditation, or times for prayer– before adding– subtract.

Give up something for Lent.

We have all heard of giving up for Lent.

What is it all about?

A few weeks ago I noticed my tires were riding rough and even more annoying- they were getting noisy. I got out and inspected them and noticed that they were wearing unevenly, which was one reason for the noise and the shaking. Going faster only made it worse. And I have heard it can create long term problems and lessen fuel efficiency. Goodness know nobody needs lower fuel efficiency. My tires were out of alignment.

And I thought, that is what Lent is all about. Our lives get bumpy and noisy and going faster only makes it worse. Get things straight. Lent calls us to get our lives realigned. “Turn to me, O man and be saved.” Return, turn, refocus.

There are three things Jesus prescribed for people who are serious about the spiritual life, about staying vital in their faith. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus lists them as three things that we ought to do as a matter of course: Prayer, Alms, and fasting.

Jesus says of all three that they are to be done in secret– that is they are to be done without regard for applause or congratulations. Without any thought to impressing other folks. They are to be done for ourselves and for God.

Publicity is terrible corrosive of virtue. True, we are not hide our light under a bushel. But the point of having good done where folks see it is not so we will get accolades, but so that others “will see your good works and give thanks to your Father in Heaven.”

Pray alone, do good behind the scenes, and when you fast don’t go around groaning about it and moaning. Look cheerful. Keep it between you and God.

So what is fasting.

We see an example of it in Mark’s lesson. Jesus went into the wilderness right after his baptism. The Spirit drove him there. The wilderness is empty. It is quiet. There is no excess of water or food or comfort. There are few distractions. The wilderness is fasting from distractions and comforts of everyday life.

What is the purpose? For Jesus not having the usual distractions and amusements created a space for looking inside. He really was able to look into his heart and ask “Who am I? What am I to do?”

A mother camel and her baby are talking one day and the baby camel asks, “Mom why have we got these huge three-toed feet?” The mother replies, “To enable us trek across the soft sand of the desert without sinking.” “And why have we got these long, heavy eyelashes?” “To keep the sand out of our eyes on the trips through the desert ”replies the mother camel. “And Mom, why have we got these big humps on our backs?” The mother, now a little impatient with the boy replies, “They are there to help us store fat for our long treks across the desert, so we can go without water for long periods.” “OK, I get it!” says the baby camel, “We have huge feet to stop us sinking, long eyelashes to keep the sand from our eyes and humps to store water. Then, Mom, why the heck are we here in the Toronto zoo?”

Modern life sometimes makes one feel like a camel in a zoo. And like camels in a zoo we need sometimes to go into the desert in order to discover who we truly are. Lent invites us to enter into this kind of desert experience.1

As we read about the temptations in the other gospels we see that they are about Jesus examining what does it mean to be a beloved Son of the Father? What are my motives for what I shall do? What links am I willing to go to to accomplish those goals? Is it possible to use means that will undermine my purpose?

I know parents who have worked to hard to provide for their families materially, that they have no time to provide for them spiritually or emotionally. Do my means undermine my goal?

Fasting, giving up the everyday hustle and bustle provided a space for considering his life and realigning his life to the Father’s call. But fasting was not only the necessary context of the wilderness, it was the content.

  1. Notice that answer to each temptation was a kind of self-denial. Jesus giving up an option. “No, I cannot, will not, do that.” Self-denial is part of having a real self at all. A person who cannot say no to themselves goes in all directions and gets nowhere. There is no effective “yes” you can say unless you can say several important “no’s.”

One of the first buddings of self is when a child learns to say “no.” The discovery that she has a will that is not the same as her parents’ fills her with delight. About the time the child learns to say “no”, they are discovering others things they can do for themselves. She can walk. Use the potty, put up toys, fetch mommy a towel. But pity the child who does not learn to say “no” to herself.

Self-Denial is exercising the muscle of self- control. A person who is driven by urges and impulses is a scattered person.

Jesus said “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” Self-denial is not for the sake of self-denial. It is so we can be self-aware, focused, purposeful.

  1. Simplification. Fasting is about the discovery that less is more. When I take out stuff my life actually becomes larger. There are shows on TV now about folks who have an addiction to stuff. It has killed people.

One of the most famous cases involved the wealthy and reclusive Collyer brothers. In 1947, their bodies were discovered in a crumbling New York City mansion packed with more than 100 tons of junk. Last year, a resident of Shelton, Washington, was smothered when a massive pile of clothes toppled on her. And a few fatal fires have even made headlines. Hoarders tend to fill their homes with flammable material and often block hallways and exits in the process, which can make escaping a fire impossible.2 There are many types of categories of hoarders: food, trash, clothes, antique furniture, even animals.

Our lives can be smothered by all the things that we have packed into them, so that we are caught in a prison we made.

So fasting means taking things out of my life till I am free.

Non-possessiveness is a key part of spirituality in many religions. We have lost touch with it in the West, because we are so materialistic as a culture.

I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself, and though he still may have a family, one can at least say that he has not got a fatherland.3

But you don’t have to go to a Yogi to hear a different path. It is right in the gospel, much ignored, but there all the same. “A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of thing.”

Moses knew the peril of prospering, the perils of life beyond the wilderness. “Beware lest when you come into the land of promise and become blessed with all its material blessings that you think ‘I have done this’ and cease to think of God.”

Possessions betray us when we hold them too tightly. “Have as if you did not have.”

Fasting is a way of practicing letting go and discovering how much more there is to us than what we have been clutching. To discover trust for grace, rather than dependence on grab.

Jesus said we worry about food and clothes and how tall we are and what people think of us. Fast. Give up worry.

  1. Now there are other things that we can give up besides our chocolate treat. Basically it involves giving up those things that we think we have to have.

Try this. Give up TV or Cell phone. See people at restaurant sitting across from each other and googling on their blackberries, texting on their cell phone. They can’t be here until they give that up.

Ultimately God calls us to give up stuff so we can give ourselves. Let go of what we are padding our lives with so we can pay better attention to the people around us.

My first experience of Lenten fasting was at  Duke Divinity where I took the time I would have spent in the dining all to visit a nursing home. I discovered in my weakened state, I slowed down and was more attentive to the residents’ aches and pains and weakness. The best use of Lent is what we use it to do or others.

Isaiah 58 speaks of fasting but fasting that God is not pleased with.

“I will tell you why!” I respond.

“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.

Even while you fast,

you keep oppressing your workers.

4 What good is fasting

when you keep on fighting and quarreling?

This kind of fasting

will never get you anywhere with me.

5 You humble yourselves

by going through the motions of penance,

bowing your heads

like reeds bending in the wind.

You dress in burlap

and cover yourselves with ashes.

Is this what you call fasting?

Do you really think this will please the Lord?

6 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want:

Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;

lighten the burden of those who work for you.

Let the oppressed go free,

and remove the chains that bind people.

7 Share your food with the hungry,

and give shelter to the homeless.

Give clothes to those who need them,

and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

8 “Then your salvation will come like the dawn,

and your wounds will quickly heal.

Your godliness will lead you forward,

and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.

9 Then when you call, the Lord will answer.

‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.

“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.

Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!

10 Feed the hungry,

and help those in trouble.

Then your light will shine out from the darkness,

and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.

11 The Lord will guide you continually,

giving you water when you are dry

and restoring your strength.

You will be like a well-watered garden,

like an ever-flowing spring.

12 Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.

Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls

and a restorer of homes.

In the desert Jesus encountered beasts and angels. There are wild beasts and angels in everyone of us. Sometimes, owing to our superficial self knowledge, we fail to recognize the wild beasts in us and give in to vainglory, or we fail to recognize the angel in us and give in to self-hatred. But in the silence and recollection of the desert we come to terms with ourselves as we really are, we are reconciled with the beasts and the angels in our lives and then we begin to experience peace again for the first time. Lent is the time for the desert experience. We cannot all afford to buy a camel and head off for the desert. But we can all create a desert space in our overcrowded lives. We can set aside a place and time to be alone daily with God, a time to distance ourselves from the many noises and voices that bombard our lives every day, a time to hear God’s word, a time to rediscover who we are before God, a time to say yes to God and no to Satan as Jesus did.4

Amen.

1Munachi.

2BURIED ALIVE WITH 250 DOGS: Extreme Hoarding

Abilene : TX : USA | Dec 12, 2009 at 12:54 PM PST

3Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Ed. J. P. Mayer. Trans. George Lawrence. New York: Anchor, 1969, 692.

4Munachi

 

Advertisements

A Glimpse of Glory: Transfiguration

wp-1470480258239

Transfiguration by . Sieger Köder

March 6, 2011

Year A

Transfiguration

Matthew 17

Transfiguration is a strange story. This event comes at a pivot in the gospel account. Up till now Jesus has gathered followers, selected 12 to be “the twelve”, he has taught and healed, and fed thousands in a deserted place. His fame has spread and the crowds have grown.

When we get to chapter 16 Jesus has taken the twelve on a retreat far from the pressing crowds. There with just his closest followers Jesus asks, “Who do people say I am?” All sorts of things have been floated. Maybe a prophet, a teacher, Elijah come back.

Then Jesus asked them, “Well you have been closest to me;  who do you say that I am?” I don’t know how long they looked at their sandals before Peter finally blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the special chosen one of God.”

Jesus did not deny it. He said it was not something a person could deduce without help from God.

Having said that, Jesus let the other shoe drop. “I need to tell you. I am headed for Jerusalem where I will be arrested and executed and the third day rise.” [Maybe we should note that “third day” was an expression that could mean ‘in a little while’]

Peter pulls Jesus aside to correct him, “Master, you can’t say that. The Messiah is a victor not a victim. He is not treated like a criminal, but greeted as a conqueror.”

Jesus’ response was hard. “You are thinking the way most of the world thinks. not like God. That is Devil talk. Not only must I suffer, anyone who follows me has to be prepared for a hard time. But it is the way to gain real life.”

All of that had to be hard to take in. But then, “six days later,” comes the transfiguration. Jesus surrounded by a brightness, glowing with glory, conversing with Elijah and Moses. Why those two? Maybe because their mission had been like the one Jesus was on. Moses confronted Pharaoh, liberated God’s people and taught them the way to live as God’s people. Elijah confronted Ahab and brought showdown to force the people to chose the real God. Jesus was confronting the powers of this world to liberate and teach the ways of God. Jesus was going to force people to choose between their idols and the real God.

What is this all about? I feel this mysterious, strange event, gave them a glimpse of the majesty of who Jesus is.

Sometimes it happens to people today, maybe in a less grand way. Somehow they feel as if they have had some kind of confirmation from God that firms up a decision they made. Or maybe something came over them that they can’t exactly explain except they felt a strength in a time of need or a peace in a time of loss. Or someone popped up in their mind with this feeling that they were meant to go see what is happening.

I suspect more people brush against the divine than talk about it. A divine nudge, illumination, or inspiration. And while not quite the degree of Transfiguration, they get a peak behind the veil. Elisha prayed for the eyes of his scared servant to be opened and in a sudden flash the young man glimpsed an army of angels around them protecting them from danger.

Lately some of you have mentioned two books about folks who had neared death experiences and say they glimpsed heaven. One is about a little boy brought back who describes people who died before he was born. Another is by a preacher who had a wreck on the way to church and who doctors thought they had lost a couple of times on the operating table. He also talks about glory he saw.

We don’t know what to do with these stories when other people tell them. And truth be told if something like that happened to us, we might not talk about it for fear someone will think we are hallucinating or bragging.

Paul wrote about a vision he had and seems shy about it. “Whether he was in the body or out of it I cannot say.”

I guess in one way what you do after those visions, what you do as a result of those visions is the real question.

Peter’s first instinct is to build lean-to’s and to stay there. Digging in and mark the spot of the vision. The holy land is cluttered with churches and monuments to mark the supposed place of almost every event in the Bible. And a gift shop not too far away. But whether Moses on Sinai or Jesus on Tabor of Elijah on Horeb, the vision is meant to charge the battery for a mission somewhere else.

II Peter gives one example of how the experience was used.[ Ostensibly we can track this down to the way Peter told it even if II Peter is not actually something he dictated, as I Peter is. ]

In II Peter the author is combating professional religious circuit riders . He accuses them of using faith as a way to make money. Of living as if they would never face God as their judge. They could do this because they openly or covertly had concluded that they had seen all of Jesus they would ever see. Maybe, since he had not come by then, he never was coming back at all. Maybe we live in a God-forsaken world. Some folks see it that way today.

The author argues, God doesn’t count time by years and hours the way we do. To God a thousand years is like a moment, and eternity can be in the flash of a moment.

But he pulls out this event, this transfiguration, as the thing that proved it for him. We do not make these things up. We saw it with our own eyes, Jesus was transfigured with heaven’s glory. And for him it was the assurance that all the prophecies could be trusted, that all history is bound for a rendezvous with glory. What he had seen in that flash was still with him.

And the bottom line is: we ought to pay close attention to Jesus.

Why this is exactly where the gospel story takes us.

Will Willimon said there is an icon of the Transfiguration– I have not seen it– in which there is this huge hand coming out of the clouds with a finger pointing to Jesus.

That is the purpose of the event. What is going on with Jesus is connected to all God was doing through law and prophets. And when God pulls back the curtain to give a moment of clarity, He says “What I have to tell you is what Jesus is saying– listen!” Jesus alone sums up God’s self-revelation. Stop babbling and listen to what Jesus is saying.

Listen to what has Jesus just said. Jesus is the Messiah– that the disciples came up with, but what Jesus said is that the Messiah is also the Suffering Servant. And to follow him means not just glory but hardship and maybe death too.

But listen also to what Jesus say next! What does God want us to catch?

When the voice came out of heaven they fell on their faces in a fright. But Jesus comes and touches them and says, “Do not be afraid. Arise we must be going.”

We come aside to just be with the Lord today. Whether we ever have the vision, we can know something of his presence. With no clouds and vision and blinding glory, we still can feel sometimes his touch that takes away our fear and makes us feel his presence giving us deep peace that passes understanding.

II Peter says, “You have the words of Jesus. You have scripture. And all of it is given by God. We ought to pay attention to it as to the one light in a midnight world. Hear it till somehow the day star arises in our heart that assures us that there is more than this darkness. The morning star that gives inner assurance that dawn is almost here. There is more to this life than grief and failure.

A day coming in which we will see.

The use of transfiguration is so we will go on to serve in hope. That we follow knowing that behind all that ever happens there is a glory

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

If we had finished the Sermon on the Mt, we would have read the conclusion about houses built either on sand or rock. Jesus offered that only live built on this words would stand through all the storms of history, all the dreadful crises of life. And a life is built on his words not by praising him but by following him. Not approving of his words, but practicing them. Not hearing only but doing also.

Clarence Jordan once asked his brother, Robert (who became a state senator and a justice on the state Supreme Court), to be Koinonia’s attorney. “I can’t do that. You know my aspirations. I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.” Clarence said, “We might lose everything, too.” “It’s different for you,” Robert responded. “Why? You and I joined the church the same Sunday as boys. The preacher asked, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ What did you say?” Robert replied, “I follow Jesus – up to a point.” Clarence: “Could that point by any chance be the cross?” “I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.” “Then I don’t believe you are a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus. You ought to go back to that church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer, not a disciple.” Robert: “Well now, if everyone like me did that, we wouldn’t have a church would we?” To which Clarence applied the coup de grace: “The question is, Do you have a church?” Later, Robert saw the light, became a disciple himself, and boasted that his brother was “the greatest Christian I have ever known.”

The Lord still comes to all who earnestly follow in his way.

Peter offered to build three tabernacles and stay where thy had had the inspiring vision. I know God uses temples and churches and schools and broadcasting and all the other institutions we use in an attempt to hold on to God. Unfortunately we sometime substitute the these things that are suppose to be about Jesus, for Jesus himself.

The sole way to hold onto the presence of Jesus is to keep up with him as he leads you to the next place. That is to say, Jesus becomes an abiding presence to those who are obedient.

Once upon a time a group of disciples asked an elder, “Does your God work miracles?”

The elder said, “Well, it all depends on what you mean by a miracle. Some people say it’s a miracle that God does the will of the people. We say, it’s a miracle when people do the will of God.”1

AMEN

 

Glimpsing Glory: Transfiguration

 

b4e9be00f32ed618e160621d1ee939d3-foi-japanese-art

by Wanatabe

Transfiguration Sunday, Year C

February 10, 2013

Luke 9:28-36

2 Corinthians 3:12 – 18

My grandson Samuel’s favorite books right now are two pop-up books. You know the kind of book: when you turn the page characters or animals mushroom up into 3-D figures that are larger than the book they came from. Add to that, his dinosaur and sea animal books have sounds. Maybe you have seen the Hallmark cards that play music when you open them. (Some even let you record your own message to be played.) So there is the book that moves as you shift the page slightly, makes sounds, with insides larger than the covers.

I think the transfiguration readings have that quality. Once you open the page you are facing something that will not lie flat, that looms up larger than the text.

Now, there are plenty of stories in the gospels that are not like that. Human-scale stories about Jesus with which we can identify. Jesus beckons little children to come unto him. We have done that. Jesus had compassion on the hungry and the hurting. So do we, usually. Jesus befriended the outcast. We can at least imagine doing something of the sort. When the gospels tell about his trial and execution, we know that that is an old story, how people suffer unjustly and cruelly. History is littered with those sad stories. The Jewish artist Marc Chagall pictured a Russian Jewish village being set upon in a vicious pogrom, homes burned, people fleeing in fear, and in the midst he painted a large image of Jesus on the cross, wrapped about with a prayer shawl. He is saying, Jesus knows what this suffering is.

And such human-size stories we have little trouble crediting.

Back in the 1980’s a group of scholars called the Jesus Seminar, began going through the gospels and grading each story according to how close it was to the actual word of Jesus or the actual event.

Adapting the convention of the “red-letter” gospels, in which every saying of Jesus is in red ink, they voted for each passage with colored marbles. Red would mean “this is verbatim Jesus’s words,” pink would indicated it was mostly his words, gray would mean something Jesus may have intended, but not a direct quote, and black was something that was made up later. Perhaps piously but not with journalistic purity.

I do not quibble that many of these scholars are earnestly seeking the truth. My largest problem is that their conclusions are predetermined in many cases by their presuppositions.

Some freely admit that they doubt miracles really occur. Since miracles do not really happen, according to them, most of the wonder stories in the gospels are, they conclude, embroidered if not totally invented.

You will not see what you refuse to see. We can excuse all evidence to the contrary of our assumption, if we are not open minded to the possibility of things being otherwise than we expect. If we cannot allow for being surprised.

Needless to say such scholars for the most part do not believe something like the Transfiguration, or Resurrection, ever happened.

They want the gospels to lay flat, when, as I see it, there is at the heart of scripture the irreducible beyondness, a transcendence. A God who does in fact pop out of creation occasionally.

What do I mean by “transcendence”? Basically I think it means that the world we live in and experience and do business in has more to it than our senses and reason can simply point to. There are things that are higher that we do not see.

You will remember that our vision is limited to wavelengths between infrared and ultraviolet. There are energies higher and lower and some other creatures navigate by them. We are just not made to see them with our senses. We can infer them from what we come to understand. Just so there are sounds too high and too low for our ears, though a dog on the high end or a whale on the lower notes may hear them quite plainly.

The same is true of concepts and emotions. We must be apprenticed from childhood and mature in body and mind to understand feeling of others, theories of a higher sort.

Among modern developments has been a tendency to deny the reality of “the higher.” To attempt to scale everything down to its elements. “X is nothing but….” So some will say that Valentines just boils down to chemistry, love is really just hormones and instincts doing their thing in us. But most of us will know from experience that love is not really grasped if we think that is all there is to it.

I watch my older grandson attempt reading. He knows the letters, but cannot always catch the word that they make up. And even when you know a word, it takes something more to know what it signifies.

This is not to deny the reality or necessity of the lower, but just to say that is not all there is.

John Polkinghorne is an Anglican priest as well as Nobel-prize winning physicist. He has a wonderful illustration of how both higher and lower explanations can be true at the same time.

If you come to my kitchen and ask “Why is the water boiling?” I can tell you that the heat source underneath has been conducted through the metal and the energy added to the water molecules has excited them to the point that some of the water is changing state from liquid to gas, that is boiling.”

That would be accurate.

Or I could answer, “I’m making tea. Would you care for some?”

The higher explanation may depend upon the lower, but is not explained by it. The higher explanation reveals intention and purpose behind the lower process.

Karl Marx once said that if we just don’t ask about transcendence may of our intellectual problems won’t matter. You may go ahead and make the world as you wish without bother of asking about its “Being.” Reduce everything to a materialism and you do not have to worry about a higher principle, But as a great scholar pointed out (Eric Vogelin) this is an “intellectual swindle” for how can a philosophy be really serious about truth if it says, “don’t ask this question.”

The truth is that if any person really begins to ponder their life they will be led to ask the questions Marx forbade. For I know that I have not always been. I am not my own explanation. I am here because I had parents. And they were because of their parents and so on till even a primitive man can wonder, “Why is there anything at all?” What explains this universe.

Secularism is in part an attempt to numb such questions. “It is just… ”

But still, I think, such questions will arise even if repressed for an age.

And it opens us to the possibility that the presence of God is above and beyond and around us.

Anthony De Mello has a parable of a little fish that came to the old turtle, “You are the oldest creature I know and wise. Will you help me find an answer?”

Of course, little one. What is your wonder?”

Tell me where I can find the ocean.”

Dear heart, it is all around you. You are in the ocean.”

No, this is only water. I want to see the ocean!”

What keeps peeking through the seams of scripture is that there is something all around us and beneath all that we see.

Beneath what appears to our mind and senses there is a light everlasting.

In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God…” That is true. In Exodus 33 Moses asks to see God. It is not enough that he has experienced the voice of God; he wants a vision. God tells him it is impossible. This is not because God is jealous of his space. Humans cannot see God for a similar reason to why they cannot walk on the surface of the sun. We lack the equipment to take that in.

But God does allow to see the Divine glory after God passes by. Moses is hid in a clef of the mountain, sheltered by God’s hand until God has passed by and then the hand is lifted and Moses saw the “departing glory,” he saw where God had been.

I tell you, there is more in those words than may be apparent. Where is God in your life? Perhaps we see God best looking at where we have been rather than where we are. For what are you thankful as you look back on your life? There is where you may see the glory has brushed past you in your life. We may see God at work better when we look back than we can glimpse it in front of us.

But back to John 1:18. “No one has seen God, but the Son has made him known.”

There are radio waves, cell phone communications, television programs passing all around us in this room right now. We do not see them. We do not hear them. Don’t tell anyone if you do; that would make us wonder about you. It takes a radio being turned on and tuned to translate those waves into the music or speech that is floating around. The cell phone communications require the right equipment turned on for the energy to become available to our mind and senses.

God has transferred himself into frequencies that we can receive through Jesus Christ. In Christ we see God “Face to face.”

We do this, Paul is quick to say, nor by our own ambition and cleverness, but by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which makes us able to receive what Jesus would reveal. The Father reveals himself through the Son; the Son reveals himself to us by the Spirit working within our spirit. Faith is our consent to this Divine self-revelation. We no more create God than a radio creates a newscast. But we do decide whether to turn the radio on!

Glory! The world is surrounded by glory. “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”

And even when the glory fades or we cannot see it or sense it, we have, as did the disciples, “Jesus only.” And the divine word is “Listen to him.”

To follow that voice, to come along the way Jesus goes, will take us finally to where “faith becomes sight.” And to follow Jesus is to begin to reflect him even as he reflects the Father. It does not happen all at once, but as Moses glowed from being with God. As Jesus was bathed by glory of everlasting light on that mountain, so we will be changed by our contact with God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. From glory to glory.

II Corinthians 3:18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

4:6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

AMEN.

 

Jesus Confronts Demons

1371252_10201976831894455_1189944952_nJanuary 29, 2012

Year B Epiphany 4

Deuteronomy 18,   Mark 1:21-28

Don’t you wish you could have been there that Sabbath? For one thing to hear what Jesus sounded like this first sermon. Of course there would have to be subtitles, since our Aramaic isn’t too good. But the voice and face would have conveyed what the others got. After all, Mark doesn’t even mention the content of the sermon. Just that everyone who heard this new preacher was astonished. He spoke as one with authority not as the scribes and Pharisees.

What is authority?

A DEA (Drug Enforcement Authority) officer stopped at a ranch in Texas and talked with an old rancher. He told the rancher, ”I need to inspect your ranch for illegally grown drugs.”

The rancher said, “Okay, but don’t go in that field over there…” as he pointed out the location.

The DEA officer verbally exploded saying, “Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me!” Reaching into his rear pants pocket, he removed his badge and proudly displayed it to the rancher.

See this badge?! This badge means I am allowed to go wherever I wish… on any land!! No questions asked or answers given!! Have I made myself clear?! Do you understand?!!”

The rancher nodded politely, apologized, and went about his chores.

A short time later, the old rancher heard loud screams, looked up, and saw the DEA officer running for his life, being chased by the rancher’s big Santa Gertrudis bull…

With every step the bull was gaining ground on the officer, and it seemed likely that he’d sure enough get gored before he reached safety. The officer was clearly terrified. The rancher threw down his tools, ran to the fence and yelled at the top of his lungs…

Your badge! Show him your BADGE!!”

Exousia is the word that Mark uses. Authority. The power to do something. Literally it means out of essence or being of something. There was something in the essence of Jesus that radiated this sense that he could make things different.

I wonder what he preached about? Did he use the text from Isaiah 61 that Luke says was his scripture when he preached for the first time back in Nazareth.The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Did he offer some of the teachings we have in the Sermon on the Mount that in Matthew is his first teaching? Did he talk about how the upside down kingdom of God? Or maybe a parable? Did he tell the outrageous story of the loving father who received his bad son back into the house when he came broken and needy. Did he talk about how there was a place in God’s kingdom for people who had been lost like that?

Whatever he said he did not hide behind what other “authorities” had said. He spoke with his voice and authority. And what he said or how he said it or both threatened to change how they had understood things, threatened to make things different. Was that it? Was that what provoked a member of the congregation just then?

There was a commotion and someone in the crowd stood up and started talking, right in the middle of Jesus’ sermon, mind you. You assume that this was someone the people probably knew. It might have embarrassed them for the sake of the man, for the sake of the guest preacher, for the sake of the service. Why didn’t the deacons usher him out? Did they know this man? Did he come to church often?

Martin Copenhaver, a pastor in Illinois, writes of having a man named Bernie in his congregation and choir with Tourette Syndrome, who exhibits his condition by barking without warning. Bernie’s disability has kept him from holding down a job, and in fact his family couldn’t handle it and turned him out. But Bernie was a gifted musician and one day he joins the choir in this church that has accepted him. Sounds great when he is not barking. Most times Bernie would turn the bark into a coughing fit to try to cover it. People in the church get used to it. First time a visitor hears it they may ask, “did someone just bark?” They look around and the rest of the congregation doesn’t react. it happens again. And the visitor wonders “what kind of place have I wandered into?”1

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”Now the unclean spirit does not lie. It knows Jesus’s home address. It accuses Jesus of having come to “destroy us”, to undo evil permanently. And calls Jesus the “holy one of God” .

But Jesus does not seem to miss a beat. He zeroes in and addresses not the man but something in him. “Shut up and leave him!”

The man is convulsed momentarily, but then he is in his right mind. And now the congregation is really impressed. This is some kind of preaching, if the preacher is able to command demons out of people and the demons obey!

Word got around that Jesus had power, authority, could make things happen by just saying the word. In a dramatic way we see that Jesus’ preaching about the effective rule of God is not just words. It is backed up by real change.

What are we to make of the unclean spirit? I don’t know if you feel comfortable with talking about possessions. People can get possessed about possessions, poltergeists, haunted houses, Ouija boards. Charles Williams warned in Witchcraft that one of the great ironies of church history is how people who got passionate about exorcising evil ended up doing Devil’s work. The Inquisition is only one example of people going to such extremes to fight the Devil, that they ended up acting like him. Devil wins when we fall into using the devils methods. Mark tells us Jesus wrestled with temptations 40 days before he began his ministry. Matt and Luke tell us one of those was over whether Jesus was willing to use the Devil’s skill set to accomplish his holy purpose. Jesus saw right through the offer. If you use devil’s tools, the devil has won. Getting too fascinated with evil may be just the thing to loop us into giving evil too much power in our lives.

As someone said, whether you believe in the devil or not, watch out for people who talk about keeping his company.

But on the other hand we can dismiss evil as a chemical imbalance or a neural flaw, or some other “it’s only”, with the result that we can surrender responsibility of the evil person and even our responsibility to address it. As if evil was just there and nobody could do anything about it. “You can’t change the way things are.”

Doubtless many times we need to be humble about how much we are going to be able to change the world.

A young minister complained to a church mentor he was frustrated that he had not been able to change the people in his congregation. The old man offered, you don’t understand. God didn’t put you there to change them but to love them and minister to them. Do that and leave changing to God.

But sometimes we have seen people get so stuck in sick behaviors, self-defeating lifestyles, we just get jaded and lower our standards and our hopes to maybe just things not getting any worse.

Sometimes the problems we are stuck in are so intractable we think nothing we do or say will make any difference.  Think how Wilberforce faced the evils of slave trade, 2

William Harrison was the offspring of prosperous slaveholding Virginians, despite his attempt to present himself as a country boy who had come out of humblest conditions to be a great Indian fighter– “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” When the issue arose whether to allow slavery in the new Western states, Harrison waffled. He did not think slavery was something that ought to be spread, but he was swayed by folks who said if you don’t allow rich plantation owners to bring their slaves, they won’t move here and invest in our territory. Can’t ask people to just let go of so much of their resources like that. Can’t change things.

When the civil rights movement was building in the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower responded to a church sermon on the need for civil rights legislation by saying “You can’t legislate morality.” Morality only changes gradually. Martin Luther King responded that while Eisenhower was correct in one sense, he was missing something else: “A law may not make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me.” Law can never make a society perfect, but it can make its rules a little more just. The law can’t change hearts, but the law can lead.

Years later, Dr. King wrote in his marvelous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” of the   cost of waiting. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.'” 3

I think sometimes we need to hear this gospel lesson so we can know that Jesus is more than talk. Jesus has the power to alter the way things are, Jesus can change the status quo.

Walter Wink has done a great deal of work exploring what unclean spirits and powers of evil meant and mean.

Paul writing about meat offered to idols says he can see the point of those who are superstitious about eating anything connected to the old gods they recently worshiped. But he himself shares the opinion of those who think that there are not such things as those gods to begin with, so their existence is not an issue in eating the meat– it is just meat. On the other hand as Paul continues, my eating such meat in front of someone who still has superstition about those gods might nudge them into doing something against their conscience. So Paul says he will give up eating the meat like that –but not because there are such things as pagan gods or demigods.

On the other hand, Paul writes in Ephesians 6, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

There are forces at work in my life and your life that are “superhuman” they are greater than any one of us. It is what is going on when decent people do terrible things because they are caught up in some immoral system?  Call it “the system,” the spirit of the times.  Racism, hatred, fear, panic– all can be powerful forces that have a transpersonal reality– they are bigger than an individual- they are principalities and powers.

You know people probably who are decent, responsible, and caring people until they get drunk. And then the restraints that keep ugly possibilities at bay break down and the demons get loose. Domestic violence, gambling away security of your family, road rage–addictions of every sort– it is as if something else has come in and taken control. Yanked the steering wheel out of your hand and you can’t fight away from this possession.

Matthew 10:28: And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Our freedom is real, but we are never isolated. We are influenced and we are an influence. If we are good, there have been influences which helped you do right. If you have gone wrong there were influences that paved the detour from the straight path.

When we choose what is right, it is with God’s help, though the choice is ever our own. and in doing what is loving and right we become freer still.

When we chose what is wrong we become more tangled in web of lies, a slurry of confusion, less free, emptier, co-opted. Fear that which can destroy body and soul.

We cannot blame the Devil or our genetics for our mistakes. They may have helped tilt us in the wrong direction but they did not push us into it. When the serpent strikes up the conversation with Eve he directs her attention to other things than her duty. But he does not force the fruit into her hands or into her mouth.

If we are defeated we bear some responsibility.

But we may not be able alone to right the wrong, to regain our freedom.

It make take a lot of steps to get back to where life can be what it should again.

Maybe 12 steps is one way:

THE TWELVE STEPS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

What a healthy balance of doing what we can and asking for God’s help for what is too much for us alone!

That “higher power”, we know it is personal. You can address that higher power. The God who comes close to us in Jesus is able to come closer still in the Spirit.

But David, do you believe in the devil or unclean spirits? Do you believe in the powers of evil? Are such powers personal?

I do not know how to speak of such things. They are hidden.

Karl Jung suggested that these dark possibilities are in fact the shadow of our own self. The shadow I could say of our freedom. For if you are free personally, then it is surely possible that you could do wrong with that very freedom. So that in you lies the seed of good and evil.

But sometimes it seems that that “evil urge”, as the Jews speak of it, is other than me– is something opposed to me, against me. And at that moment it is possible to speak of it as a foe, a force that is intentionally against me, attacking me.

Luther felt the devil trying to push him into despair and depression. He wrestled with those temptations and threw his ink well at the devil. But he wrote:

A mighty fortress is our God

a bulwark never failing;

For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;

His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,

On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;

Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:

Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;

Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;

The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;

The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,

His kingdom is forever…

Did not Jesus teach us to pray, “Deliver us from evil”? … or as the Greek says “from the evil one”

For thine is the power… the authority…

When the disciples were sent out Jesus gave them a message to preach, and the power to heal and cast out unclean spirits. They returned amazed and Jesus said, (Luke 10) “17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” 18 He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 4

Oh, the battle is on.

John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. (KJV)

I John 3:8 The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

1 Peter 5:8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith,

Jesus said to his disciples before ascension, his life transcended earth– “all Power is given unto me (by the Father) all power in heaven and earth.

Therefore– Go into all the world making people into students of the way

And lo I am with you always.

Jesus has the power to command evil to let go of us, to come out of us, to come out of families and churches and communities, and let us be free.

Salvation is more than a word, it is a deed. Jesus heals the whole of who we are– body, mind and soul. The goal of Jesus is to redeem us not so much from punishment for sin but from the power of sin over us and in us.

In the epilogue to his book The Powers that Be, Walter Wink wrote: “The passion that drove the early Christians to evangelistic zeal was not fueled … by the desire to increase church membership or to usher people safely into a compensatory heaven after death. Their passion was fired above all by relief at being liberated from the delusions being spun over them by the Powers [and principalities]. Being thus freed determined them to set others free.”5

The passage in Mark’s gospel does not focus on the origin of demons or disease; or the spiritual or medical origins of demon possession and the presence of diseases but rather on the ability of Jesus to effect both conquest and cure. 6

Thanks be to God. Amen

1This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers

By Lillian Daniel, Martin B. Copenhaver, 98.

2“In our culture, if we don’t accomplish something in six months or a year we will often abandon it and move on. But Wilberforce relentlessly put this bill on the floor of Parliament — year, after year, after year for seventeen years. He fought for this thing until finally it was passed on February 23rd, 1807.Then he turned around and spent the next twenty-five years fighting for the abolition of slavery itself. British Parliament passed that bill in 1833 and then three days later Wilberforce died. Before his death, William Wilberforce heard that slavery was abolished.

3Mark Byrnes,” The Past Is Not Past,” blog, March 13, 2010.

4Barnes’ Notes on the Bible

I beheld Satan … – “Satan” here denotes evidently the prince of the devils who had been cast out by the seventy disciples, for the discourse was respecting their power over evil spirits. “Lightning” is an image of “rapidity” or “quickness.” I saw Satan fall “quickly” or rapidly – as quick as lightning. The phrase “from heaven” is to be referred to the lightning, and does not mean that he saw “Satan” fall “from heaven,” but that he fell as quick as lightning from heaven or from the clouds. The whole expression then may mean, “I saw at your command devils immediately depart, as quick as the flash of lightning. I gave you this power – I saw it put forth – and I give also now, in addition to this, the power to tread on serpents,” etc.

52 Walter Wink, The Powers that Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998)

6Gino Geraci 05/15/11

 

Advent 3: Rejoice

 

divinemercyDecember 11, 2011

Year B Advent 3

Isaiah 61; I Thessalonians 5

The third Sunday of Advent has a special name, “gaudete” which is Latin for “Rejoice!” An imperative, a command, “Rejoice.”

If you remember the readings of Advent thus far have had other imperatives, “Stay awake!” “Be prepared” “Comfort my people.” The imperative today pivots around to a new focus “Joy!” With this clue we can see joy in every text.

Isaiah 61 starts out with the speaker saying that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to bring joyful news. God’s year of Jubilee. Now is the time for things to get reset economically, spiritually, socially.

Suffering people who have been through discouraging and difficult losses are going to get relief and then they will be able to rebuild Jerusalem and Judea which have lain in ruins for these 70 years of exile and absence. What a challenging thing to rebuild after fire or flood, tornado or earthquake.

Doesn’t the passage speak to our times?

Those who suffer, if given a second chance, a new beginning, are the very ones who can rebuild their lives, their family, their community, the world. The devastations of many generations.

As the renewal is undertaken we hear the promise: “God swaps flowers of celebration for ashes of grief. He gives healing oil for our broken hearts. And God dresses us up for the future with the same excitement that a groom and bride dress for their wedding. Not is tux and gown, but in righteousness and salvation.

Psalm 126 is about coming back to Jerusalem and the wonder and excitement of coming home after long exile. Reflecting back on it the psalmist says, “Isn’t that the way God worked: We went out with tears and come home with laughter. Like sowers who go out sadly and a bit fearfully, planting the last seeds they have– look just a few weeks later they come home rejoicing bringing in sheaves of grain.

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Or Luke 1 and Mary’s song. Her heart is swollen with joy in God her savior. Because God has proven he noticed her, a nobody. And now because of what God is going to do through her she will be called blessed by generations to come.

God turns things upside down like that

Powerful get tossed out

Weak ones win

Greedy folks lose it all.

Hungry people have enough to eat.

Revolutionary things. And Mary rejoices at it.

I Thessalonians 5.

Paul spends a lot of time in this letter reiterating Jesus will return and receive the faithful of the earth. But Paul has to correct some mistaken conclusions that have been drawn about what we should do with that hope.

First, people who have died before Jesus returns will not miss out on heaven. They are with Jesus. We are always going to be with Jesus

Secondly, Jesus is coming, but you should not quit your job an idly wait for it all to end. So end spends many verses talking about what sort of life you ought to lead in view of the coming of Jesus.

It is roughly parallel to the secular carol, “Santa Claus is coming to town.–He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake he knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” The Lord is aware of how you are doing. So be about the things that God has for you to do till the end comes.

Three imperatives line up in verse (15?) Rejoice, pray, thank.

In a funny way the first tie together. Rejoice is chara and thank is eucharista . So the blessings of God causes joy to spring out of our hearts which in prayer give thanks to God and the giving thanks increases our joy.

This is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

God wants you to have joy.

First there is this overarching good news, “God has destined us not for wrath, but for salvation.” I Thess. 5.9 This journey with Jesus is not a dead end. That is the most fundamental reason a Christian can have joy “Always.” Regardless of how dark things may be for us right now, the story is going to turn out for good.

Secondly we can live with each other in such a way that cultivates joy.

Paul’s list is instructive, and not exhaustive. he could have gone on, but look what he told us to work on:

First respect people who are helping God’s work along. Treat them right.

Then he goes on…

Be at peace among yourselves. 14

And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers,

encourage the faint hearted,

help the weak,

be patient with all of them.

15See that none of you repays evil for evil,

but always seek to do good to one another

……..and to all.

Living together like that is one of the ways you get to “rejoice always.”

Some have been concerned that the culture downplays the religious side to Christmas, objecting that Christmas trees are called holiday trees. The truth is our English Puritan forebearers fined people for observing Christmas at all. It was not in the Bible that Jesus was born on December 25, and in their eyes trees and decorations of any sort at all were scandalous and only became popular after German immigrants brought practices here.

We ought not to be so shy about joy.

a. “Be glad then, you children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God.” – Joel 2:23

b. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.'” – Ps 122:1

c. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” – Php 4:4

d. “…singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” – Ep 5:19

Always:

Martin Buber said, “The moment you become aware that you are praying, you are no longer praying.”

Peter Storey, a pastor who helped lead the church’s struggle against apartheid, in speaking of light, said in a sermon, “A candle light is a protest at midnight. It is a non-conformist. It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ!’” When Christians are not intimidated by tough times, but can still express joy, they are saying, “I beg to differ.” The darkness will not have the final word.

Rejoice, pray and give thanks. When we live into those things we are living into the will of God. Such living is probably the best witness we can give to the light of Christ in our lives. St. Francis words on witnessing come to mind. He said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

Amen

For Further Reflection

Kenneth Carter

Laughter is a gift of God, a gift that we need in these days, in these holidays, when in a world of terrorism and road rage, estrangement and outsourcing, all is not calm and all is not bright. The writer of the Proverbs knew about this gift and our need for it: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17. 22)

There is something about humor that brings us to life, and the scriptures for this day hint at all of this:

The prophet Isaiah: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord.

The psalmist: Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.

And the Apostle Paul, writing to the Thessalonians: Rejoice always.

Advent 2: What Changes, What Abides

divinemercyDecember 4, 2011    Year B Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-11

Things change. Sometimes that is exhilarating. Sometime the change is depressing. But one thing you can count on: things will change.

Over the last 100 years physicists have revised their notion of the universe. Before the last century most textbooks would have told you the universe was infinite and some would have argued it had always been. Some said the only eternal thing was matter.

But now scientists talk with certainty about the moment when suddenly the universe sprang into being: about 13.7 billion years ago. And from that infinitesimally small point, the universe has been exploding, growing larger. The universe has a definite mass but the size keeps changing. In fact the universe accelerating in its spreading. The universe is changing.

This planet is changing. My grandson loves dinosaurs. It is sobering to think of how the earth was home to a whole different set of animals. It is also sobering to think what we have and are doing to change the balance of nature. Climate change is something we are going to have to face.

The economy is changing. Once upon a time a person could work for the same company their entire working career. Now so much work is temporary. And people who train for one job may find they need a whole set of new skills by they time they graduate.

Even history changes. In History in the Making Kyle Ward studies history books and texts and discovers that over the years the explanations for what was going on in history changes. “When [history books] are written, the historian who’s writing them – or more likely, the editorial staff who’s writing them – they are being impacted by the current social, political, economic issues that are going on at that point in time.”

…So in the textbook from 1849, the Mexican War is started by Mexico. In a textbook from 1880, it’s an inevitable conflict between the races. In 1911 the books say U.S. has to go into Mexico and start this war because the Mexicans are obviously coming. In 1966 start getting the names of certain individuals who at that time actually questioned the war.1

And we more recently have seen how the history of how we got into America’s longest wars– Iraq and Afghanistan– have altered.

Even history changes.

Techonology is one of the most obvious changes. There is more memory in some thumb drives than was available to computers that took men to the moon. [Wikipedia: ] Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, who described the trend in his 1965 paper.[Moore, Gordon E. (1965). “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits” (PDF). Electronics Magazine. p. 4. Retrieved 2006-11-11.] The paper noted that the number of components in integrated circuits had doubled every year from the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958 until 1965 and predicted that the trend would continue “for at least ten years”.[13] His prediction has proved to be uncannily accurate, in part because the law is now used in the semi-conductor industry to guide long-term planning and to set targets for research and development.[14]

A change that was unforseen only a few years before:

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than one and a half tons.”

Popular Mechanics, Forecasting the Relentless March of Science, 1949

Think what cell phones and social media have done to change the political landscape of the world.

Think what it means that the largest number of English speakers in the 21st Century will be in China. That the largest democracy is India.

That the center of Christianity has shifted from America and Europe to South America and Africa.

Change is around us at every turn.

Changes itself changes. You can’t predict what is next by looking back at change patterns in the past.

One of the first philosophy books I ever picked up was Hegel’s Philosophy of History. It was way above my head, but I pondered then and now the truth of the first pages: Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience and history teach is this, – that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone. Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past.

I did not even know what ‘idiosyncratic” meant. But the sentence asserted that change changes. The changes we are facing today are not like the changes we faced before.

Long time ago when the Southern Baptist Convention was going through the takeover, I heard some old ministers say, “oh, don’t worry. The pendulum will swing back, it always has.” But it didn’t. The pendulum fell off its hook.

Listen to politicians say, “America has always been the leader in innovation ….America will be a moral force for good because that is what we always have been…”

But what do investors say, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

Human nature has perennial themes, but history has infinite variations.

Sir Winston Churchill was once asked to give the qualifications a person needed in order to succeed in politics, and he replied: “It is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.”

Closer home our bodies change. Louis Armstrong used to sing “old Man Time”

he gives you your youth then he takes it away. “He gives you beauty, style, and grace, then puts wrinkles in your face, that old man, Old Man Time”. We grown up without deciding to and we can’t stop wrinkles and aches just because we don’t want them. Our bodies are always changing.

Families change. Every year the people who gather at Christmas are different in some way than last Christmas. Some are missing because of death or breakups, Some are added by marriage or birth or friendships. The people in our lives are always changing.

Ancient Greeks felt life was a whirl of change and they were desperate to find something that was beyond change. Heraclitus supposedly said that you cannot step into the same river twice. 2 Perhaps he meant that when you step into it you are not the same person who stepped into the first time.

The search for absolutes, for the eternal became very important to the Greeks. is there anything that we can rest on as unchanging, untouched by the flux of events, the coming into being and passing away. So Plato speaks of Ideas –sort of ideals that are more real than the world of perception and Aristotle speaks of God as an unmoved mover. God is not changed but as iron filings form a pattern in the presence of a magnet so the universe is affected by the existence of God. We are changed by the existence of an unchanging God.

History is not where you find truth. Truth is in an eternal realm that is untouched by the coming and going of history.

I was once very drawn to that picture of eternity, of truth. But is misses something real about life.

Change changes. There is nothing inevitable about how things will change. It doesn’t have to get better. It doesn’t have to get worse. Change is not predetermined.

So the fact that real change is possible means the world is not predetermined.

And that is good news. Change is the basis of freedom. If things had to be a certain way, real freedom would be an illusion. And here is where it comes back. Freedom is one of the causes of change.

Isaiah 40-55 was written 70 years after the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. Isaiah of Jerusalem lived some 150 years before that. (ministry up till around 700 BC.

Return from Exile around 538 BC).

Jews had been dealt a terrible change. Babylon had deported leaders and workers. The Temple was plundered of all sacred vessels and precious tresausres then burned. Jerusalem was in ruins. And the people were displaced from the land promised to their forefathers.

Life had changed. Read Daniel 1-7 about how Jews survived as Jews in a strange land without the props of land, temple.

For 70 years that had carried on but with a deep grief for what use to be. Some felt God had given up on them. Some felt that their punishment for disobedience meant things could never be the way they once were. They were lost.

The “new normal” was to figure out how to accommodate old faith to new cultural contexts, do worship without Temple, adapt and go on, but as captive, second class race.

70 years.

And then God breaks the silence . The word of God comes to this nameless prophet, a disciple copying, preserving, studying the old prophecies of Isaiah.

And God’s first word is repeated twice “Comfort, comfort” (nachmu nachmu).

tell her tenderly that her struggle is over, she has served her sentence, her sin is forgiven her.

The second word is “prepare” – make a road in the wilderness, your God is coming in a way so spectacular that the whole world will witness the glory.

Prepare the way in the desert. In the desert… Does that ring a bell for them? Wasn’t the desert where they path led from Egyptian slavery to the promised land?

The unpromising desolation, the forbidding scarcity had become the way through which God had brought them first to himself and then to the promised land.

Get a road ready in the wilderness. God is coming to fetch you back home, back to himself.

The announcement is sudden. The prophet doesn’t’ know what to do with it.

You tell me “shout it out!’” and I say “Shout?! What have I got to shout about?

All flesh is as grass. All beauty passes away like flowers in the hot sun.

The people are like dying grass. It is over. Do you hear, I’s is over. Things have changed forever.

That what he feels. But then from somewhere– memory? The Spirit whispering? And old scripture verse? (As he says later- have you not heard? Have you not known?)

From somewhere comes the answer.

Yes, everything passes away, but the word of the Lord abides forever. Get up! Climb on the hill. Cry out in a loud voice. ‘Behold God!’ Tell Jerusalem, that ruined city to rejoice. Tell Jerusalem to spread it to all the other villages”

The prophet is down in the dumps along with all his people about the changes that have destroyed so much that was precious to them. Everything falls apart. Everything dies. Beauty passes away.

But then he thinks of something that has not changed.

It isn’t that God doesn’t change. In one sense I think it is clear that God changes. For one we read that God changes his plans in reaction to what happens in human history.

We read that God is willing to change his plans in reaction to the prayers of Abraham.

Look God is changed by history in this simple way. God becomes the God of Abraham, and then Isaac comes along and now God is also the God of Isaac and then Jacob is born —-the story of God adds chapters.

God is living you know. He is more than an abstract principle. And the God of Abraham has become my God and your God. In a sense God does change, but what doesn’t change is God’s word.

Hebrew word for “word” dabar means “word as something spoken but it also carries the meaning of “deed” something we enact.

The closest thing I can think of in English where word and action overlap is what is know n as a performative utterance.

For example when you say “done deal” you are actually doing something– you are committing yourself the terms of an agreement. When you say “I Jake take you Sophrina to be my wedding wife,” you have not just said something you just got married.

When you take an oath of office you have not just said pretty words, you taken office and its responsibilities.

When you truthfully say for the first time, “I love you.” something is different. Something is changed. The word does something.

There can be this overlap between deeds and words. And this is what Isaiah is talking about.

What Isaiah says is not that God doesn’t change, but that his word doesn’t change. He doesn’t take back what he has promised. He doesn’t cancel out his purpose and commitment.

John’s gospel begins with the words. “In the beginning was the word.” Logos. It means “word,” but is more. Logos means – idea, thought, plan, purpose, the sense of words. Not some signs on paper, not even some forumla of verbal expression. Word in the deep sense of what God means to get across to us, what God wants to do.

That doesn’t change. It has been there since before the beginning. That word is God.

And what our scripture discovers for us is – the hope we have in all the changes of our lives is that word of God doesn’t change.

And that is why everything else can change.

Preacher told of a homeless person who was always turning up and asking, “Preacher, is this the way it is suppose to be?” A bright person caught in the mess of life, working temp jobs and fighting to keep from losing sanity too. “Is this the way it is suppose to be?”

The truth is so much about the world and about ourselves is not the way it is suppose to be. So much about the world and about us has changed from what God intended. There are rough places, there are steep mountain climbs. There are pot holes and wash outs.

But the way things are will not cancel God’s desire to claim us and bring us home.

Change isn’t always negative. Sure the flower fades. But listen the ones who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will begin to work on the avenues to smooth the way for the approaching God.

The two tasks of Advent is amidst whatever changes are in your world,

1. Change ourselves to be more in line with God’s way for us

2. Change our world to be more like the kingdom where justice and grace, peace and integrity become one.

A pastor had had a bad week. On Sunday he was very frustrated and he began his sermon, “Everyone in this parish is going to hell if they don’t change their ways.” One man in the back began to laugh. So the pastor said it again louder. The man continued to laugh. The pastor went back to him and asked him why he was laughing. He answered, “Because I don’t belong to this parish!”

World is always going to change. New carols will be written. Old one may be forgotten. But the God who became incarnate in Jesus will still be the God of 3,000 AD or 30,000 Ad. Just as in 587.

Get up

Look around

Behold your God.

Rejoice, the Lord is coming.

And all the changes that we work on now will be finished.

Kenneth Carter writes

I live not far from the mountains of Western North Carolina, and I try to spend as much time there as I can! Ruth and Billy Graham were traveling through these same mountains one afternoon, and they encountered several miles of road construction. There was one-lane traffic, there were detours, it was a little frustrating. Finally, they came to the end and they saw a road sign. Ruth Graham turned to her husband and said, “Those words, on that road sign, that is what I would like to have printed on my tombstone.” The words on the road sign read:

End of construction. Thanks for your patience.

We are in a time of transition. We wait with a sense of promise. Do not be demoralized if the world does not seem to be a very peaceful place. Do not be discouraged if anxiety rules within your heart and confusion pervades your mind.

2Although, as Encylopedia of Philosophy has it this may be a misinterpretation. If this interpretation is right, the message of the one river fragment, B12, is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism–as Aristotle for instance later understood it. On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all).

 

Advent 1: Waiting, Working

divinemercy November 27, 2011

Year B Advent 1

Mark 13:

The disciples are leaving the Temple area where Jesus has been in extended debate with religious leaders, who are trying to find grounds for discrediting him before the people or even better, grounds for arrest. All to no avail.

And yet they will arrest him in a matter of hours.

Perhaps all that is weighing on Jesus’ mind when one of the disciples pipes up, “Lord, isn’t that temple beautiful?!”

No doubt it was quite a sight. Josephus the historian whose life overlapped Jesus had seen it. Listen to some of it.

Now the magnitudes of the other gates were equal one to another; but that over the Corinthian gate, which opened on the east over against the gate of the holy house itself, was much larger; for its height was fifty cubits; and its doors were forty cubits; and it was adorned after a most costly manner, as having much richer and thicker plates of silver and gold upon them than the other. These nine gates had that silver and gold poured upon them by Alexander, the father of Tiberius….

Now the outward face of the temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men’s minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white. On its top it had spikes with sharp points, to prevent any pollution of it by birds sitting upon it. Of its stones, some of them were forty-five cubits in length (67.5ft), five (7.5 ft) in height, and six (9 ft) in breadth.1

No wonder the disciple exclaimed, “Isn’t that wonderful?!”

Jesus looked past the splendor. He speaks it seems of what lay ahead, something which would happen before their generation were all gone. We see it foreshadowed a few years later when Emperor Caligula proposed a statue of himself as Zeus Incarnate be set up in the holy of holies. It would have happened except he was assassinated.

And then a revolt began in Caesarea in AD 66, was provoked by Greeks sacrificing birds in front of a local synagogue.[Josephus, War of the Jews II.14.5] The Roman garrison did not intervene and the long-standing Greek and Jewish religious tensions took a downward spiral. In reaction, the son of the high priest Eliezar ben Hanania ceased prayers and sacrifices for the Roman Emperor at the Temple. Protests over taxation joined the list of grievances and random attacks on Roman citizens and perceived ‘traitors’ occurred in Jerusalem. Fearing the worst, the pro-Roman king Agrippa II and his sister Berenice fled Jerusalem to Galilee. And in just a few years we read Titus came sweeping into the land and slaughtered Jews in the thousands and when there were no more to slaughter, they began to destroy what was left of the temple.

When you see signs of these things flee to the countryside, Jesus warned.

All that splendor become a waste. Here we have no abiding city. No eternal temple.

The destruction will not just be real estate. “You will be persecuted,” Jesus says.

But “after that tribulation,” beyond all that, there will come a cosmic upheaval. Stars leaving their position, the sun going out, the moon vanishing in darkness. And the son of man will appear in glory and all the elect, God’s people from all the corners of the earth and all the corners of heaven will be gather together.

Then as I read it, Jesus goes back to speaking of the terror close at hand when he speaks of the fig tree and the disaster happening within their generation.

And then back again to the final end which is not so predictable, it won’t have the same signs of warning. And about that end no one can know the exact time.

Despite this clear word from Jesus that we could not know the time, an awful lot of folks have spent good time trying to predict when it would all be over.

Harold Camping, president of Family Radio first predicted the End of Days September 6, 1994/ When that proved wrong, he said his calculation was off and he declared the end would be May 21, of 2011, when nobody got raptured he changed it to read mankind entered into the Day of Judgment. This “day” will last for 5 months (153 days) until October 21, 2011. I don’t know what Mr. Camping is saying now.

Charles Russell who founded Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the return of Jesus would be 1914. Since then the JW’s have predicted 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994.

I guess there is more than a little self-deception with some of these predictors. Mary Bateman, who specialized in fortune telling, had a magic chicken that laid eggs with end time messages on them. One message said that Christ was coming in 1809. The uproar she created ended when she was caught forcing an egg into the hen’s oviduct by an unannounced visitor.2

Instead of playing 20 questions with the date the world will end, Jesus said we should be expectantly alert, while we work.

It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

It is as if we have been put in charge of the Christ’s business and we each have our job in that, we are to be about that work as part of being ready for the return of the master. And we are to expect that at anytime– night, midnight, dawn, or morning.

Treating the Bible like some kind of Da Vince Code is just a big mistake. There is more important things to do than looking for clues to secret timetable that doesn’t exist. There is kingdom work to be done.

There is a movement Tony Campolo is promoting called “Red Letter Christians.” A secular Jewish country-and-western disc jockey in Nashville, Tennessee first suggested that title. During a radio interview with Jim Wallis, that deejay declared, “You’re one of those Red-Letter Christians – you know, the ones who are really into all those New Testament verses that are in red letters!”

When I think of the job Jesus had in mind for the disciples and for us till he comes in glory, I think mostly of the verses in red. The sermon on the mount, the parables. I have to think Jesus had in mind living humbly, caring for the unfortunate, visiting the sick, making room for the outcast, practicing forgiveness, receiving little children, praying and giving and going. We will not run out of things to do if we are about the work of Jesus.

Paul says in our reading from I Corinthians, “1.7…..You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1:8 He will also strengthen you to the end….” We have not only been given an idea of the work to do but the resources and power to get on with it. That is how we wait for the coming of the Lord.

Richard Cavanaugh reminds us that beyond doing some small deed for someone in need, part of the proper work of those who wait is to tackle the deeper causes of problems. 3

But there is more. Jesus said not only work, but wait.

We must not read these as opposites. Waiting means that our work is within our sense of God’s work. We are listening for God to give direction. We will pray about what we should do and when. We are striving in everything to keep in step with the Lord.

Waiting means I shift the emphasis from what I am doing to what God is doing. It means being open to God. Something that Isaiah 64 says the people were lacking: There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you (64:7).

Waiting:

Psalm 27:14 “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.”

Psalm 37:7, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.”

Proverbs 20:22 “Do not say, `’I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you.”

Isaiah 30:18: “For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!”

Isaiah 40:31, “They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Johannes Brahms took up the text of Psalm 39

4 LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am.

5 Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah.

6 Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.

7 And now, Lord, what wait I for? (passionately, desperately) (then peacefully:) my hope is in thee.

Waiting means to pray:

Psalm 106:13, “They soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel.”

God may tell us to be still as he told Moses to just watch as he delivered Israel through the Sea of Reeds.

In Acts 1, the disciples are ready for Jesus to bring the kingdom to fullness right now. Instead, Jesus tells them they will be involved in that process, but first– “Don’t do anything yet. Go back to Jerusalem and wait there until the Holy Spirit comes.” “I’m sure this must have come as a major surprise. Here’s a crucial insight: When God wants to reach the world, his first step is to tell his people to slow down and wait for him.”4

Isaiah 30:15 the Lord says, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” And you would not, but you said, “No! We will speed upon horses,” therefore you shall speed away, and, “We will ride upon swift steeds,” therefore your pursuers shall be swift.

Or God may tell us as he did David “Go up and engage for I am with you.”

In 2 Samuel 5:19, when the Philistines were pursuing David, it says, “David inquired of the Lord, ‘Shall I go up against the Philistines? Wilt thou give them into my hand?’ And the Lord said to David, ‘Go up. For I will certainly give the Philistines into thy hand.’”

Please note that to acting under God’s guidance is a way of “waiting on the Lord” for the simple reason you are not doing it without dependence on God.

Proverbs 21:31, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.”

Psalm 33:16–22: A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save . . . Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield. Yea, our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let thy steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in thee.

Sometimes waiting on the Lord means I do not act, but as God may lead me, I leave it in God’s hands how things will turn out. But waiting sometimes means I act. But whether the action is engaging the enemy, building, visiting, creating, debating, studying, struggling, we do it relying on the Lord. That is what it means to wait on the Lord.

All our actions must await God’s completion.

I do my little deeds till God sweeps our work into his great Deed of Redemption. We work waiting for how God will finish what we cannot complete.

Niebuhr’s great prayer:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

And so we come to that brazen prayer “O that you would rip the heaven apart and descend to us.”

It is an acknowledgment that the help that is needed to fix this world is more than our efforts. It is an acknowledgment too that we cannot scale heaven to bring the Lord down. If there is contact between heaven and earth it will be the work of heaven breaking through the barriers.

God “acts on behalf of those who wait for him”… “those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.”

Lord Shackleton was a famous British scientist and explorer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He tried but failed in his initial attempt to reach the South Pole. In fact, he was forced to leave some of his men behind on a remote island in the dangerous Antarctic region. Shackleton promised to return for them. Day after day he tried to reach those marooned men, but always he failed because the dangerous ice would close the channel way between him and his abandoned crew. At last Lord Shackleton determined to make one great attempt at rescuing his men. The channel suddenly opened between the sea where Shackleton was and the island where his crew was stranded. At the risk of his own life, Shackleton rushed in with his ship, got his men aboard, and quickly rushed out, barely making it before the ice crashed together again. The whole rescue operation took less than 30 minutes.

Afterwards, Shackleton turned to one of the crew members whom he had rescued and asked, “How was it that you were all able to get aboard ship so quickly?” Replied the crewman, “Sir, Mr. Wild, the officer you left in command never let a chance slip. You had promised to come and we were waiting for you. Whenever there was the slightest chance of your coming, Mr. Wild would say, ‘Men, roll up your sleeping bags, the boss may be here today.` “Sir,” continued the crewman, “our sleeping bags were all rolled up, we were always ready. We were always prepared.” [From Proclaim (Parish Publications, 1993) ]

One preacher: My wife used to be a manager for a bank. One of the things they were always aware of was the likelihood that a bank auditor would show up. These folks were employees of the federal government who’s job was to ensure that individual bank branches were following all federal laws and security procedures. The key was, nobody ever knew when they were going to show up. As my wife once related, “I came to work this morning and as I was putting my key in the lock, the auditor came up and introduced himself to me.” She only knew it was time for an audit after it had already begun.

(Dr. John E. Harnish:)

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

Yet…yet…yet…in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. (U.M. Hymnal, page 230)

Yet…In the dark streets of our world;

The dark streets of Bethlehem and Baghdad

The dark streets of own personal doubts and disillusionment

The dark streets of our day

Yet…in these dark streets, shines the everlasting light.

One lone candle, challenging the darkness.

One lone candle, lighting the way toward the future.

One lone candle…the gift of hope.

Amen.

1Wars of the Jews, by Flavius Josephus, Book V, Chapter 5

2A compendium of predictions is available at http://www.bible.ca/pre-date-setters.htm

3“During Advent opportunities for works of charity abound calling out for Christians from every side: a sack of food for a needy family, money dropped in a Salvation Army kettle, a donation to an Indian school, a toy for ‘Toys-for-Tots,’ etc. Unfortunately, these works of charity so easily can assuage the Christian conscience, while doing nothing to being about a solution to the root causes of the problem.

Works of justice, on he other hand, follow the road less traveled of Advent’s hope to pursue solutions for difficult problems. Hope comes through works of justice rather than simply performing works of charity.”

4Ray Pritchard, In God’s Waiting Room.