Advent is surely coming, says the Lord

Luke 21:25-36

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Read the whole passage)

The days are surely coming, says the Lord.

The first words of the season of Advent begin with Jeremiah, speaking words from the mouth of God to the people of Israel facing destruction by Babylon. An oracle that begins us immediately with the promise of God to a people who feels as though they are surrounded by oppression, suffering and darkness.

We have flipped the calendar today, and are about to begin a new season of the church year. Advent might be the only time the church is ahead of the rest of the world… and even then, we don’t really do this time of year the way most do. We begin by talking about the end, we begin by pausing and stopping and waiting for what comes next. In Advent, as in the Church, beginnings and endings often go hand-in-hand.

Advent is a peculiar season. The church decorates with blue or purples, we generally hold off on singing Christmas Carols (although it is sometimes hard to resist), we patiently and almost quietly count down the days until Advent ends on Dec 24th… all while wondering about what all these stories of John the Baptist and a pregnant virgin actually mean for us.

But on the first Sunday of Advent, we don’t quite get into those stories just yet. We begin instead with the end. On this first Sunday of the church year we begin with visions and promises of the end, the great reconciling of all creation that God promises to God’s people.

For the people of Jeremiahs’ day, their world was surrounded by war and destruction, the Babylonians were threatening to conquer much of the Middle East. And Jeremiah prophesied the coming destruction, the people of Israel awaiting what was to come next for them as warring nations around them sought control of the region.

And for the people of Thessaloniki, St. Paul writes to them hoping they are well in the midst of trials and tribulations because the Romans around this small fledgling Christian community are blaming them for upsetting the social order.

Two communities who are wondering what comes next for them, what will happen to them in the midst of tension, chaos and uncertainty in the world.

And then we hear from Jesus as he preaches to his disciples about the end. Visions and signs of the coming Son of Man. Words from Jesus spoken to his disciples in the middle of Jerusalem during a time of great tension and uncertainty – during the days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.

The tension and the uncertainty sounds oh so familiar to us doesn’t it?

Whether it is closing GM factories, new trade agreements that don’t end suffocating steel tariffs, or climate change warnings that again weigh us down with a problem seemingly too big to handle.

Or perhaps it is things closer to home… the death of those who seemed too young die, families struggling with job loss or illness or conflict.

(Or perhaps it is the thing that we are contending with today. What comes next for Good Shepherd and Interlake Regional Shared Ministry at the end of this chapter of ministry together as pastor and congregation? )

We know what it means to live under a cloud of uncertainty and to wonder what comes next for us… even if most of the time we would rather not think about it. And yet, as the rest of world tries to ignore all the tensions and uncertainties with Black Friday shopping lists, baking and decorating and all the other things that come with the holiday season… here we are as the church, starting a new church year and forcing ourselves to pause and sit with this hard question of what comes next for us.

And here is the thing about Advent, here is the thing about Jesus and all his talk of signs and visions of the end… there is no answer for what comes for us. That is not the answer we get to today, nor really any day in Advent.

Instead, Advent arrives with an answer to a different question. And it answers it with the very first words of the season.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord.

Advent’s answer for us is not to tell us what comes next, but who.

Messiah.

Messiah is coming.

The righteous branch of Jesse to save all of Judah.

The one sent by our God and Father, the Lord Jesus

The Son of Man coming in a could.

The Messiah.

And no, the promise of the Messiah’s coming did not stop the Babylonians coming to destroy the Jerusalem and exiling its most important citizens.

And no, the promise of Messiah’s coming did not stop the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.

And no, the promise of Messiah did not prevent the ugly ending of Holy Week with a public execution on a cross…

But God’s promise of the Messiah was that none of these thing would not be end. Not the end of people of Israel and nor the people of Thessaloniki.

And the cross… well the cross was no ending at all, but rather the beginning. The beginning of God’s new reality for creation, the beginning of God’s new promise of Resurrection and New Life come to fruition for us all.

And then after the cross, that Son of Man coming in the clouds also walked out of the tomb. But that story is not for Advent to tell.

Instead Advent points us again to the promise of Messiah coming also for us. This Messiah whose coming means that all the things of our world which bring tension and uncertainty, conflict and suffering, sin and death… they will not be the end of us. Rather the Messiah’s coming means that we are not alone, not forgotten, not abandoned to the present nor to the future. Messiah’s promised coming means that our world is already transformed now, because a world with the Messiah on the way is a world designed for salvation, rather than a world destined for destruction. And that changes everything.

And as the Messiah is coming, the Messiah also walks along side us. No matter the outcomes of all those things that cause us tension and uncertainty, no matter the outcomes of things that feel too big to control and too much to bare. No matter the uncertainty of trade deals and closing car part factories, no matter the chaos of that we may encounter in our families and community… Advent points us to the Messiah who shows us that God’s new world is right around the corner, coming into view, breaking through into our world right before our eyes.

Breaking through to us in the things that have always been before us, that have always been the signs of God’s love and mercy for us here in this place.

And so even as pastors come and go, even as the world continues to be a place full of tension and uncertainty, Messiah is coming to us bringing God’s new world.

Coming to us in word, water, bread and wine.

Coming to us in the gathering of this community, a sign of the Body of Christ.

Coming to us with the promises of God, made and fulfilled.

Messiah is coming and Messiah is here. This is the story of Advent, the story that begins today, even the in the midst of all of uncertainty and endings about what comes next.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord.

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An Unlikely Coronation

This sermon was co-written with my partner, The Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker (Twitter @ReedmanParker). It is her family with the collection of royals plates and spoons.


John 18:33-37

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

A couple of weeks ago my mother was visiting from BC. And while she was here she had us watching the documentary series “The Royal House of Windsor” on Netflix. One thing you should know about my, mostly British family, is our fascination with the royals. As far back as I can remember the royals were a thing. A big thing. Growing up, there were books of Prince Charles and Princess Diana that I would thumb through, mostly to look at the magnificent gowns and jewels the princess wore. There were plates and spoons with the faces of her royal majesty the queen among others who adorned my grandparents living room wall. My grandfather even researched how the queen takes her tea so he could perfect the methodology – in my family we truly believed that the queen could, in fact, drop by at anytime and visit. So best be prepared.

Throughout my childhood my understanding of what it meant to be royalty was rooted in these picture perfect images from glossy pages, or screened onto bone china. To be honest, the idea that these were real people, with real problems, didn’t sink in until August 31, 1997, the night Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car accident in France. A week later I watched Prince William and Prince Harry – both the same ages as my younger brother and I – walk behind their mother’s casket. They looked so very human and normal, and powerless, and average.

To be a member of a royal family means to be set apart – there are protocols and procedures, customs and traditions, expectations and entitlements that are reserved for a small group of people. This becomes clearest when watching the archival footage of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. The pomp and circumstance. The regalia. The grandeur. The diamonds! This is how many of us perceive the royals. All glammed up for their royal tours or grand parties and celebrations. Many of the criticisms over the years has been how removed the royals are far removed from day life… from us.

So when we come to this festival day, Christ the King or the Reign of Christ, when we lift Jesus up as our king, as we recall not the kingdoms we create for ourselves, but the kingdom God creates for all of creation, we might anticipate the same kind of pomp and circumstance. The same grandeur. Maybe not the diamonds…

Our Old Testament reading from the book of Daniel as well as our Psalm are coronation readings, they conjure up familiar images of what it means to be royal: “dominion, and glory and kingship” (Daniel 7:14), and “robed in majesty” (Psalm 93:1). And to be honest, it is strange that in this year of Mark, that we would be presented with such images. Mark, who spends the majority of his gospel avoiding talking about Jesus’ kingship. Jesus’ identity is kept secret for the better part of Mark’s gospel. Which is maybe why, on this last day of the church year, of the year of Mark, we don’t hear from Mark’s gospel but instead from John. We find ourselves with Jesus before Pontius Pilate who asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” This is, of course, a loaded question.

Because in the Ancient Near East, the king was the Messiah. They ruled under a theocracy in which the king had the ultimate authority and power, and ruled from the top down. It was the king, and the king alone, who had the power and authority to keep everything and everyone safe and rescue them from harm or danger.

But Jesus doesn’t look or act like a king. Pilate is in the power position, and he knows it.

“My kingdom,” Jesus tells Pilate, “is not from this world”. In other words, what you think and expect of kings and kingdoms is nothing like what I have come to do, or who I have come to be.

Jesus comes into the world and completely redefines what it means to be royalty. And from the very beginning – especially as told through Mark’s gospel that we have heard throughout this last church year – Jesus has been pushing and prodding us to think differently about the kingdom of God. Jesus has been pushing and prodding us to understand God and God’s reign differently than what we think or expect.

There is part of us that like the idea of a royal who is far off, doing royal things with royal people. And it’s easy to depict Jesus as a king – crown him with many crowns, lift high the cross – the hymns we sing, the stained glass windows we commission.

But this is not the Jesus we encounter in the gospels. Certainly not in Mark. Jesus’ king-ship, his reign is one that was played down. Jesus himself who walked alongside the disciples teaching, healing, eating… time and time again we encounter a Jesus who keeps showing up in spite of people not knowing who he is – his own disciples not getting it again, and again, and again. And likely because of this not getting it, Jesus, in Mark’s gospel, is kind of a grump. We’re not any more comfortable with grumpy Jesus than we are with a king who looks and acts nothing like how royalty is expected to look and act. Even when artists depict Jesus on a cross it is often with a regal air, and when its Jesus walking down the road with his disciples, there is the suggestion of a king walking through the royal garden with courtiers. No one is commissioning a stained-glass window of a mug-shot Jesus, or Jesus covered in road grime and old clothes wandering the countryside with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells.

And yet – this is our king. Jesus comes to us not with pomp and circumstance, but in the most unlikely of coronations. Through the humblest of beginnings, in a manger to an unwed mother. The kingdom of God isn’t behind royal gates that remain locked to those outside. The reign of Christ is not filled with protocol and procedure, but rather the dismantling of the very things that keep us from hearing and seeing and experiencing God’s love and mercy in our lives. Jesus spent his life walking with and talking with the opposite types of people that any king would be expected to hang around. Jesus’ rule, Jesus’ reign, is so far from what royalty would look like. Instead, all of the examples we have of Jesus’ reign, of what God’s kingdom looks like, are in the ordinary.

And so today, as Christ the King Sunday with readings of royal coronations follows a year of Mark downplaying the kingly side of Jesus, we are left two sides of Jesus seemingly at odds with one another.

But as these two images blend together, Jesus is showing us a Kingdom of Heaven that is breaking into our everyday, mundane and earthly existence. Jesus is showing us a King of all creation who is walking along side us fashioning, forming and shaping us for the kingdom.

And all of a sudden, Christ the King and the Kingdom begin poking and prodding through the veil… and Jesus shows us that the Kingdom has been all around us the whole time.

The Kingdom of God breaking through in words of mercy and forgiveness

The Kingdom of God being glimpsed in the words of eternal life spoken in our midst.

The Kingdom of God revealed in the peace and reconciliation shared between friends and neighbours.

The Kingdom of God that tears open the the boundary between heaven and earth allowing the body of Christ of all times and places to worship as one.

And all along Jesus has been shaping and transforming us for life in this kingdom, in this kingdom that Jesus has been bringing near to us the entire time.

In our world that still looks for royalty to live up to regal expectations, to hold fast to customs and traditions, protocols and procedures, we celebrate the reign of the One who looks nothing like what the world expects. Who holds fast to the rule of love, who encounters us in bread and wine at the table, in the water and word at the font, in reconciliation with family and friends, freedom through forgiveness of sin to life eternal.

On this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus is never the King that we expect, nor the One that we deserve, but always, always the One that we need.

The Kingdom of God in the Birth-pangs

Mark 13:1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”

It is coming close to the end of the church year. Next week it will be Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year. And then we will flip the calendar over to Advent, and begin again. Today, we hear from Mark for the final time this year. Mark who has been aggressively pushing the disciples and calling us to let go of all the things that hold us back, our selfish desires, our want of comfort and security, our habit of putting ourselves ahead of others. And Mark has been showing us a Jesus who wants us to see the Kingdom of God, to see the transforming world around us and to witness the work of God in the world.

Of course, it has not been easy and nor have we been all that successful. And Mark seems to get this. From beginning to end, Mark’s gospel recognizes that the disciples never figure it out and neither do we. And yet Jesus sticks with them and sticks with us despite that.

Today, we pick up from last week, from the story of the widow’s mite. After watching the widow give everything she had to the temple, in an act of resignation, Jesus and his disciples leave together. On their way out, the disciples begin remarking on this grandness of the Jerusalem temple. And indeed the temple was a sight to behold. For the people of Israel in that day, the temple was the centre of their world. It was the dwelling place of God, the place from where their history and identity flowed, as well as power and privilege.

Yet, Jesus will have none of it. He grumpily declares that all of it will be thrown down. Which is akin to saying that all of Israel will be thrown down, the power and history and religion of the Israelites will be crushed. Of course, it was only about 40 years later that the Romans did indeed raze the temple to the ground. But for the disciples and the rest of Israel at that moment, it probably seems unimaginable.

Finally, on the Mount of Olives looking down on the temple, after the disciples look around to see that no one is listening and eagerly ask Jesus just when the temple will be destroyed. Presumably the are imagining something even greater coming in its place. If their teacher and master really is the Messiah, he will certainly usher in a new age of prosperity for the people, which includes a new temple. The disciples can only imagine more of what the temple attempts to portray — they can only imagine a greater symbol, a more influential centre of society and culture, an even grander source of meaning and a more potent history for the people of Israel.

The disciples, despite all that they have been through with Jesus are still marvelled at the prospect of power that the temple represents.

As we prepare to turn our calendars over the Advent and begin telling the story of Jesus again new, we do so knowing that we carry the same struggle as those disciples. We don’t really want imagine all the birthpangs or really any part of the pregnancy. We want the Christmas moment, the angels and shepherds, animals and drummer boys. Whether it is in our personal lives or at work, we dream so often of the time when everything comes around for us. Whether it is in our communities or around the world, dreams of peace and harmony abound (as long everyone buys into our vision of peace). Or whether it is the church, the longing we carry for different circumstances, for the easy abundance of our fond memories.

And just how do we know that we feel just as the disciples did? Just listen to regular church goers on Christmas Eve… when the church is often full, full of friends and family we so often hear or say ourselves, “Wouldn’t it be nice if it could always be like this?”

We like the idea of the birth moment, the time when all the work comes together, when all the waiting is over, when the uncomfortable, achy, growing pregnant body is finally done with being pregnant and the new miracle is birthed (of course we know that pregnant bodies don’t just go back to normal but are forever changed by childbirth).

We love the magic of Christmas, the powerful symbol it represents in our minds and hearts – much like the Jerusalem temple for that disciples.

But we do not like what it takes to get there, we do not like the hard work and messiness that is required for something to be refashioned, to be reclaimed, to be renewed, to be reborn.

Or as Jesus calls it, the wars and conflict and earthquakes and famines.

The birthpangs.

The disciples want to know when things will be accomplished, but Jesus is concerned with what it takes to make the journey.

For you see, at this point in the story, Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem hailed by the crowds as conquering king… and will in hours, be arrested, tried, and executed. All by the great powers of the temple of Jerusalem and by the great powers of Rome.

Jesus knows that despite our desire to skip the messy stuff and go straight to magical moment, the Christmas moment, that we tend to spend a lot of our lives in the mess. We spend much of our lives waiting, wishing for things to be different, wading through imperfect and flawed places of the world, through the chaos of just making it from one day to another.

But Jesus also knows that it is in the birthpangs, in the human mess that God is at work. That even as Jesus is about to enter into the darkest valley of human sinfulness, that God is doing that hard work of refashioning, reclaiming, renewing, rebirthing.

Refashioning sin on a cross.

Reclaiming death as New Life.

Renewing the bond between creator and created.

Rebirthing all of us into Kingdom as beloved and forgiven children of God.

These are the birthpangs.

This is work that God is doing in the messy places, that bottom, common, ungrand, powerless, unremarkable places. In and through people like those nobody disciples out in the far and forgotten corners of the world. And also in and through people like us, in the far and forgotten corners of Manitoba and the Interlake.

While we are waiting for Christmas. Hoping that the end of the struggle comes soon, that everyone is resolved and wrapped neatly in bow. And that the Christmas magic will become our new everyday…

God comes to us in the real places, comes to real human life. Real life that happens in the messiness of families and communities and places of work. Real Life that happens in the never ending, monotonous day to day. Real life happens in all those other Sundays when it seems like there are too few voices for the singing and too few hands to greet and share the peace with.

These are our birthpangs, the places where the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world to refashion, reclaim, renew and rebirth us.

It is not about temples being crushed or conquering Messiahs or making church feel like Christmas every Sunday… Jesus is telling us today that he has come for the real thing… the real and messy parts of life. Because that is where we are and we know it.

Jesus comes in the birthpangs because we are constantly being stretched and pushed by life for what comes next. And in the midst of all that, of real life, Jesus comes to us.

Jesus comes to give us a glimpse of the Kingdom being born right here, right now.

The Widow’s Mite: Resigned to Death

Mark 12:38-44

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

We are coming near to the end. The end of the church year in just a few weeks, the end of the year of Mark. Mark who has been squeezing hard to make us squirm, trying to get us, along with the disciples, to let go of our baggage so that we can just maybe glimpse the Kingdom of God that Jesus is bringing near to us. The last two weeks we got a bit of a reprieve from Mark, as we observed Reformation Sunday and All Saints. Yet, even today, as our nation take times to remember the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, Mark still presses to look forward to the coming Kingdom of God.

In fact, Mark has been making us ready for months. It began last June, and throughout the summer and fall, Mark has been challenging the ways we understand the world by telling us the stories of the disciples’ failures. Peter is called Satan, James and John conspire to sit at the right and left of Jesus, the whole group argues over who is the greatest.

And now in this moment in the days and hours before Jesus is betrayed, put on trial and crucified, he is in the temple teaching. And then Jesus watches as a widow comes and puts her final two coins into the treasury. This is no moment of great faithfulness, rather a moment of tragedy Jesus tells his disciples. While widows are not obligated to give to the temple, but rather receive alms from the temple, this woman puts her last two coins, two nearly worthless pennies into the treasury. Not an act of sacrifice, but of resignation. She is preparing herself for the end, for someone who cannot afford food or shelter is certainly destined soon to die.

It is a story connected deeply to the story of the Widow of Zerephath and Elijah. A story that could have very well been picked out of our nightly news.

Elijah has just been told by God to flee his homeland, and God provides for a starving Elijah with dry creek bed and a raven who brings him food. Finally God sends Elijah to a foreign land, to a widow who will feed him.

Now imagine the widow, already a woman struggling to make ends meet and to feed her family. And here comes a foreigner, a refugee from a war torn country asking for help. Certainly we have heard that story in the news, we have even lived here in Selkirk with the refugees families that we have been a part of sponsoring.

Yet, the widow of Zerephath, a woman who is not a Hebrew, who worships a different God and is of a different people than Elijah, responds curiously to his request. She says that she only has enough grain and oil for one more meal for herself and her son. One last meal before they will go hungry and die. Elijah has barely survived escaping his homeland, only to survive with the minimum provision. And God sends him to a woman in the same predicament.

People who are not just facing scarcity, who have not just experienced decline and loss, who are not longing for what they once had… but people are resigned to the end, who can see death on horizon. There is no perspective change or reimagining of ways to use the resources they have, no pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, no visioning program or stewardship drive that will help. No amount of resumes sent to prospective employers or unpaid internships will turn this around.

For the widow and her son, and for Elijah this is the end. The greatest fear of scarcity has become reality – scarcity has led to death.

And is not that precisely the fear we carry with us, the mindset that pervades our world. Things are tight, resources are scarce, there is not enough to go around. It is the loudest message being told in our world these days. It is the message of advertising, of politicians, struggling institutions, and even often churches. And underneath this warning that there is not enough is the fear that running out will mean death. That caravans will cross borders and take what is ours. That people with different skin, who worship God differently, who speak a differently language will steal our way of life. That technology is taking our jobs, employers are taking our time, sports and Sunday Shopping and a host of other activities are stealing our numbers in the pews. That we are taking the life the planet to drive more cars and make more plastic things. Everything is being taken from us… that is the message of the world. And if we are not careful everything will be taken from us until there is nothing left to give… until we are dead.

Then Elijah responds to the widow. “Do not be afraid.”

Elijah speaks with words usually reserved for divine messengers. Words from Angels, and Arch-Angels, Cherubim and Seraphim.

“Do not be afraid. Go and do as you have said.”

And she does it.

This woman who has nothing, decides to give a refugee her last morsel of food, surely not because of her faith, but because all is lost for anyways, so why not feed someone who has a chance to go on living.

And all of a sudden there is enough. Enough for her, for her son and for this strange Hebrew man who will become the greatest prophet of Israel.

And the widow in the temple does the same, puts her last two morsels in to the treasury in order to maybe feed someone who has a chance to go on living.

And all of sudden there is a cross followed by an empty tomb – and life goes on. Death is no longer the end, but the one who raised Lazarus, lives as well.

“Do not be afraid. Because even where there is never enough in this world, even when all roads lead to death… in Jesus Christ is there more, there is enough, there is life.”

Of course this is what God has been promising to us all along. That when all roads lead to death there is more.

When the world tells us to fear others, people with the wrong language and religion and skin colour who might come and take our way of life, Jesus says to us come and hear my promise of forgiveness, come and be reconciled, come and receive mercy.

When jobs and economies and trade deals makes us wonder how we are going to pay our bills, fill our pension plans, and care for our families Jesus says, come and be washed, come and be named, come and be welcomed into my body.

When the threats of violence and war, catastrophe and danger consume our minds and hearts, and makes us wonder about the future of this planet for our children and grandchildren, Jesus says come and eat, bread and wine, body and blood that never runs out, food that will fill your empty hearts and longing souls.

When we look to the past and long for what once was, when we feel shame as though we have failed those who have gone before us, when there seems to be no future but death for churches and communities of faith Jesus says, you are my body and my body has an abundance that you can never imagine. An abundance of life that overcomes sin and death.

These two widows and Elijah and Mark are all preparing us for this reality about to be glimpsed. The reality that scarcity and death cannot imagine… the reality of God’s Kingdom coming into the world. The reality that in the very moment when we have nothing left but to simply die, God will show up and say,

“Do not be afraid”

Reformation 501: Don’t forget about Jeremiah

John 8:31-36

31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

A Reading from Jeremiah, the 31st chapter (31-34)

31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Today is Reformation 501… not as dramatic as Reformation 500 last year. We haven’t be preparing for this day like we did for Reformation last year. In fact, it has been a pretty quiet year for Reformation after we spent much of 2017 talking about it.

And in some ways, I think that Martin Luther would have mostly hated all the hoopla last year if he was alive to see it. A quiet Reformation might have been more his style, not because he was a quiet and subdued person, but because he wouldn’t want something about him or about our history as Lutherans to get in the way of preaching the gospel.

And in many ways, I think Luther would have been much more excited to celebrate with us here in the Interlake, the thing we are celebrating next week on All Saints. Congregations and people coming together in order ensure that the ministry of gospel goes on in our shared ministry congregations and communities would have been the kind of thing that Luther would have probably been in favour of.

Luther always wanted to defer to the gospel, to turn us back to the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection that saves us from sin and death.

And on this 501st anniversary of the Reformation do we ever need good news. North America is reeling once again from stories of terrorism and violence. Bombs in the mail being sent to the leaders of the Democratic Party and then another mass shooting… and another in a place of worship – this time in a synagogue in Pittsburg with 11 people dead and more wounded. Like the Reformation 501 years, this day does not come without violence.

And so in the midst of darkness, in order to do our best to follow Luther’s desire for gospel clarity, we hear again the same foundational texts of the Reformation. Romans 3, the part of St. Paul’s writings that sparked Luther’s imagination towards God’s radical gift of grace. And John’s declaration that the Son sets us free, the promise of freedom in the gospel. And of course, Psalm 46, the basis for the most famous of Luther’s hymns – A Mighty Fortress.

But what about Jeremiah, the somewhat familiar, but often overlooked reading of the bunch? If is perhaps appropriate to focus on these words from the Old Testament, words read in synagogues all over world that speak about the history of the people of Israel…

Jeremiah’s prophetic words written for the people of Israel during the violent times of Babylonian exile. Words about the covenant… the covenant that goes all the way back to the beginning. To Abraham and Sarah, to the promise of land, descendants and a relationship with God. And while usually a covenant is an agreement that places conditions on both parities, all the people of Israel had to do was not refuse. All the promises were coming from God, none from Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.

And yet the people consistently turned away. It’s not surprising that did turn away, it is hard to believe in God in the midst of violence and oppression.

Yet, most of what comes before this passage in Jeremiah is a lot of God’s ranting and raving about the failings of the people. And eventually God decides that a new course is needed for God’s people. And so God’s makes a promise. A promise that rang true in the Reformation and a promise that rings true for us today.

So no, Jeremiah is the least famous of the Reformation readings, but it is none the less foundational. There is no radical gift of grace in Romans, no freedom in the Son of God in John, no A Mighty Fortress without Jeremiah.

The problem and struggle of the people of Israel and in Martin Luther’s day is the same as it ever was. A problem that stemmed back to the garden of Eden, and problem that we too bear.

As much as God tries and tries with us to draw us back to God, we continue to turn away. For the people of Israel, God promise of land, descendants and relationship first given to Abraham was always too unbelievable and also never enough. Whether it was Abraham’s own fear that God’s promises wouldn’t come true, or the people of Israel longing for Egypt and slavery as they wandered in desert, or the Israelites losing faith during the Babylonian exile.

During the Reformation it was a church that wanted to control God’s promises, to make mercy a commodity rather than a promised gift.

And today? We too struggle with covenant. It is too hard to trust, even in the midst of chaos and change, seeming decline and dying, that God’s promise are indeed for us too. The promised land seems to unreal, descendants to follow us in faith and carry the torch feels laughable. A God who loves sinners like us? Preposterous. A God who is relevant in a world that has mostly forgotten or doesn’t care anymore? Unimaginable.

It’s no wonder that God might be frustrated with us. We just don’t want to get it.

And so God does a different thing.

God starts all over again.

God brings us to the foundation.

God decides that a new covenant is needed. A simpler covenant. A simple relationship.

When in scripture, a prophet – such as Jeremiah – utters the words “Thus says the Lord” biblical scholars call it an oracle. A message of the divine, a direct speech from God. And so it behooves us to listen, to open our ears and hear what God is about say:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

And with that, a new covenant comes into being. One that even the fickle Israelites cannot break. Or the people of 16th century Europe, or 21st century Pittsburg, or in Manitoba on Reformation Sunday in 2018.

A covenant made manifest in incarnation. In the God who becomes flesh, the God in Christ who comes to bring the Kingdom near to us. The God whom we try to put to death, and the God who rises again on the third day.

This new covenant, this new promise is now unbreakable. It is the promise of mercy, the promise of radical grace and forgiveness, the promise of that sin, suffering and death will no longer control us.

Because God is our God… we cannot be God in God’s place.

And we are God’s people, we have no other identity, nothing else lays claim to who we are, not the world, not ourselves, not guns or violence, not sin… not even death.

We are God’s people, we belong to the one who has chosen mercy and love for us.

And God reminds us of this truth each and every day, week after week, season after season.

God reminds us that we are God’s in the mercy and forgiveness that we hear proclaimed.

We are God’s in the Word announced in this assembly and in places of worship all over the world.

We are God’s in the Baptism that washes and renews us for life as God’s children.

We are God’s in the bread and wine, given so that we become the Body of Christ for the world.

Thus says the Lord, I will be your God, and you will be my people.

This is the foundation of the truth proclaimed anew in the Reformation, just as it is became the new covenant with the people of the Israel.

And this is the precisely what God intends for us to hear on the 501st anniversary of the Reformation and on the day after yet another mass shooting, that we 21st Century Jews and Christians, Lutherans (and Anglicans) still belong to the God of Abraham and Sarah and Martin Luther.

That even when we try to turn away, that God’s promise is unbreakable.

Thus says the Lord, I will be your God, and you will be my people.

Jesus doesn’t decide who sits at the seats of power

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking….” (Read the whole passage)

We have been making our way through the heart of Mark’s gospel for a while now. These central chapters have not been easy on those who have encountered Jesus, or on us. And today it continues, James and John fail to get what Jesus is talking about for the third time. Just before James and John come to Jesus with their request, Jesus predicts his suffering and death for the third time. The first was before Peter’s rebuke, which caused Jesus to call Peter Satan. The second prediction was just before the disciples degenerated into arguing about who is the greatest. And the third prediction is just before James and John’s request today.

It seems that each time Jesus tries to tell the disciples about the true nature and character of God’s mission to the world in the incarnate Messiah, the disciples follow it up by saying something foolish because they have failed to understand what Jesus is talking about. And today is the most colossal failure of all. James and John not only do not see what Jesus’ mission is about, they imagine instead a triumphant warlord. They ask for seats next to Jesus’ throne as he becomes ruler. They imagine having seats next to Jesus at royal banquets. They want to be lieutenants commanding the right hand and left hand of Jesus’ army.

And worse yet, they ask for these positions of power with the intention to cut out the other disciples. They imagine that there is only so much glory to go around, a limited amount that they want to get their hands on. When the ten get angry, it is almost as if they are upset, not because of the audacity of this request, but because they didn’t think to ask first. The disciples look more like the cutthroat characters on Game of Thrones than the disciples of Jesus.

And as we watch this self serving behaviour from afar, there is a certain comfort for us in the persistent failures of these disciples. We can rest comfortable in the fact that there is always someone who understands what is going on with Jesus less than we do. We know that we would never be so presumptuous as to ask Jesus for such glory, to be at Jesus’ right and left hand. At least want to believe that about ourselves, despite the constant and blatant behaviour to that effect by politicians and other people of influence these days.

Of course our world governed by the same attitudes, by the desire to take the seats of power and privilege for ourselves and for our self identified tribes. We live in a world that sees that there is not enough to go around. Not enough power, not enough glory, not enough control. Not enough food, money or things we can own. Not enough jobs, toys, entertainment.

Those who sit atop of the pyramid of power, the most privileged people of our world have all but given up the charade of pretending that their lust for power isn’t the most important thing to them. Politicians who will do anything to get elected, billionaires who will spare no expense to influence governments and elections, celebrities whose fame is measured by social media followings, corporations who make more money than many of the world

We live in a world that tells us to greedily soak up whatever resources we can. Whatever comes along to comfort us, satiate us, make us feel better. And we try to get these things before anyone else can, before we run out.

And of course as people of faith, we too have a hoarding problem. And we try to hoard things that we really have no right to. We try to hoard God’s love. Out of one side of our mouths we say that God’s love is for anyone, for everyone. We say that it is free and abundant. And out of the other side we judge and condemn. We judge those who are different than us. We condemn those fail to be tolerant and accepting of what we find tolerable and acceptable. We cry out against those who don’t agree us, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. We claim, regardless of the issue, that opinions, ideas and perspectives different than our own are a threat to us and to God’s love being proclaimed among us.

And we do this out of fear. Fear that we could be wrong. Fear that God might think differently than we do. Fear that if God accepts and loves people different than us, that we might be the ones who God doesn’t accept and doesn’t love.

When James and John ask for the two seats of honour, Jesus is unable to give them what they want. Jesus doesn’t say no, rather Jesus admits something surprising. The places on Jesus right and left have been reserved for others. And Jesus is not the one who has made these reservations.

Like James and John, we probably quickly run through list of potential candidates. Moses? Elijah? They stood next to Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. Caesar? The Generals of the Roman Army? They ruled the known world at that moment. Herod? Pilate? They control Israel. Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau? They are the most powerful people in our world and our country right now.

We cannot keep from imagining that the places next to Jesus are seats of power. But the spots at Jesus right hand and left hand are not divinely chosen places of honour. It is not God who has prepared these places. It is the mobs. The roman officials. The temple authorities. The spots next to Jesus are not chosen for the powerful, but by the powerful. They are not seats of honour, but places of condemnation.

James and John do not know what they are asking. The throne that has been prepared for Jesus is a cross. And it is has been prepared by us. By humanity at is most fearful. By humanity seeking to be God in God’s place. Humanity seeking to put God to death.

Yet, God has chosen to make our symbol of weakness and shame, a place of glory. God turns our condemnation and judgement into mercy and forgiveness. God meets us at our place of death and turns it into the throne of life.

James and John, the disciples, our hungry and insatiable world, we who presume to know where God’s love begins and ends, we fail to see that God chooses a new way for creation.

But God chooses to give life rather than take it.

But God chooses to be weak and lowly in order to come near and close to us.

But God chooses to give love away for free, for nothing, for those who do not earn it or deserve it.

But God chooses to grant us pardon and grace, where we only seek to hold keep what we have, away from others.

God’s glory is found on the cross, God’s glory is found in Christ who hangs dead at the hands of humanity. God’s glory is finds us at our worst moment, at our grandest attempts to be God, and God’s glory is opposite of what we expect. We expect power to the be the power of life, to choose who live and dies. But God’s glory is death turned into life, God choosing to give life freely to all of us.

And surprised we might be as much as James’ and John’s when Jesus says no, he cannot give us the seats of power because it is not up to him. But what God does is turns the order of our world upside down. God gives when all our world does is take. God forgives and makes right, even as we condemn and destroy.

And finally as we pursue power over and over again yet finding only destruction and death, God shows us true glory, the glory of the cross , the glory of New Life.

Can Jeff Bezos inherit eternal life?

Mark 10:17-31

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Read the whole passage)

We have just come through Thanksgiving, a time to celebrate the end of the harvest, time of abundance before the scarcity of winter. A time of rest following the hard work of keeping and tilling the land and animals through spring and summer. 

Most of us don’t orient our lives according to nature’s seasons. We are far removed from the subsistence lifestyle… we don’t depend on our own hands to grow our own food. 

And it is of course, still important for us to remember where our Canadian society came from and to give thanks that there are those who still do provide our basic needs… yet, how we do that by hosting a fancy meal for ourselves is a good question. 

Thanksgiving is a holiday that survives mostly on tradition, but as we take the time to give thanks each year and to reflect on our own blessings… we might discover an uneasiness with our wealth and possessions much like the rich young ruler in the story we hear today. 

Sometimes we can forget where the famous sayings of our language come from, and today we are reminded. As Jesus speaks with this wealthy young man and challenges him to give up his possessions, we hear familiar sayings. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven” and “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. 

Jesus seems to be coming down hard on the rich today. And this might make us uncomfortable. We know that we are the world’s wealthy. Anyone with an income over 34,000 is in the top 5% of income earners on the planet. And Jesus says that if you are rich, it will not be easy for you to enter the Kingdom of God. That means most of us. Ouch. 

But for those who have been here week after week listening to a difficult year of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus has been uncharacteristically harsh, calling people dogs, or Satan, or telling them they would be better off dead or that they have hard hearts…

Jesus might just be letting us off the hook for our particular wealth today. 

This story about the encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus is all about absurdities. So let’s put it into modern terms so the point can be made. 

Extremely wealthy folks are often in the news these days. The world’s wealthiest person  Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is in the news for deciding to pay his employees a minimum of $15 an hour, yet also planning to open 3000 cashier-less retail stores because what better way is there to add to 156Billion in personal wealth than owning 3000 stores that don’t need staff… wealth carries power and prestige in our world, just as in Jesus’ world. 

And what do the extremely wealthy have to do with today’s story? Well, when we hear about this young man coming to Jesus, we aren’t meant to think of a nice young middle manager at the bank. We are meant to imagine someone like Jeff Bezos pulling up to Jesus in an expensive sports car with loud base booming in the air long before you can see the car and that neon glow coming from underneath. And then Jeff steps out to ask this wandering, near homeless street preacher named Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It is easy to get bogged down in Jesus’ criticism of the rich… which may be warranted. But the point is not to hear Jesus criticizing us for trying to be faithful citizens, spouses, employees, and parents by providing for our families. 

We are meant to see the absurdity of someone as rich a Jeff Bezos thinking he has fulfilled all the rules of righteousness and done enough to get himself into heaven. 

The point isn’t the problem of heaving a certain amount of money or having possessions. The problem is thinking that being rich is a blessing from God. 

When the rich young man walks away from Jesus unable to give up his possessions in order follow Jesus, the disciples want to know what is up too. 

And that is because like our world, they live in a world that thinks being rich is a blessing from God. They have been taught that being rich and wealthy and healthy is a sign of God’s favour. Just like so many of us have heard on TV or from pulpits or from well meaning friends and relatives. Our world thinks that God is in heaven dolling out the cash to the good people and suffering to the bad. That’s until we see a person who is rich but not a good person. or we see a good person struck by illness or tragedy. And then we wonder what is going on with God. 

Over the past month, I have been humbled to attend the deathbeds of a few people. Some have been people I know, others have been complete strangers. 

Attending to the beside of a person who is dying is moment where all other things in the world stand still. Where all of life and death is contained in small hospital bed with close family and friends. 

In those situations it is my practice to pray the commendation for the dying, or what used to be known as last rites. 

In the commendation, a section of the litany goes like this:

By your holy incarnation,
deliver your servant. 

By your cross and passion, 
deliver your servant. 

By your precious death and burial,
deliver your servant. 

By your glorious resurrection and ascension,
deliver your servant. 

By the coming of the Holy Spirit,
deliver your servant. 

You will notice that we don’t pray:

By all the money he made in this life,
deliver your servant.

By all the good things he did,
deliver your servant. 

By all the rules he followed and commandments he kept,
deliver your servant. 

When all there is is a hospital bed, and a ventilator and tearful loved ones – 

money, rules and good deeds don’t mean a thing. 

And this is what Jesus is trying to make the rich young man understand. A camel could never pass through the eye of a needle. And even a rich man cannot enter heaven by his own effort. 

Rich or poor. 
Healthy or ill. 
Sinner or saint. 

The only way we get into heaven is by God’s mercy. 

The only way the Kingdom of God is opened to us, is because Jesus died on the cross for us. 

The only person who earns our salvation is God. 

God is the one who does the work. 

We do not inherit or earn or achieve eternal life. 

God gives it to us. 

Jesus accomplishes it for us.

And maybe, just maybe that is what Jesus means when he says the first shall be last and the last shall be first. 

Those who are relying on their own righteousness, their own goodness, their own faithfulness, their own achievements, their own riches and health and wealth, those who are relying on those things to get themselves into heaven will be incredibly surprised when they find out none of that stuff mattered. They might go from feeling first to feeling last. 

But those who feel like sinners, like wretches, like unworthy and unloveable people. Those who know that they don’t measure up, that they aren’t good enough, or powerful enough, or important enough, or rich enough, or pious enough for God to show them mercy… won’t they be shocked when they find out that none of that stuff mattered. That God gives grace and mercy even to them. They might feel like they have gone from last to first. 

We might feel like we have gone from last to first… because we have. 

Because, thanks be to God regardless of our blessings, possessions, wealth or lack thereof, God has decided to give us mercy, to show us grace, to grant us eternal life through Jesus.

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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