Tag Archives: waiting

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.

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We are not Messiah

John 1:6-8,19-28

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,'”  (Read the whole passage)

I am not.
No, not Elijah.
I am not the Messiah.

Three Advent statements on this 3rd Sunday of the season.

We are into the the third week of Advent, the third week of our period of waiting and watching. Of wondering and mystery about the coming of Messiah. Advent began by speaking of the end, speaking about our waiting for the Son of Man to return and bring about the great cosmic setting to right all of creation. Last week Mark introduced us to the coming of Messiah, first in the words of Isaiah who spoke to exiles longing to return home to God’s care and compassion, and then in the words of John the Baptist’s warning of the Messiah coming to offers us a swift kick in the pants!

Today, John is back again. Preaching this time to us from the gospel of John. And John has a curious conversation with the priests and levites – the temple authorities.

They want to know who he is, but the way John tells them seems roundabout, almost backwards.

John identifies himself by who he is not.

Imagine coming to a church for the first time, you might introduce yourself to the first person you meet,

“Hello, my name is Erik.”

“I am not the Pastor.”

“Okay, then what is your name, are you the usher?”

“I am not the usher.”

“Well, then who exactly are you?”

“I am the voice of one crying in the narthex, prepare the bulletins and hymnbooks.”

That would be a pretty weird interaction.

Yet, John isn’t being as strange as it may sound. In fact John is doing something we do often too. As Canadians we often identify ourselves as not being Americans. As Lutherans was have often identified ourselves as not Catholic.

So when John says he is not the Messiah and that he is not Elijah, it means he is identifying himself by who he is not. To know he is not Elijah means to know that he is not the return of the great prophet. To know that he is not the Messiah means he knows that his purpose is to point to the Messiah, to know who the Messiah will be and what the Messiah will do. John knows that he is not the Messiah, but that his identity and his purpose are tied closely to Messiah’s.

I am not.
No, not Elijah.
I am not the Messiah.

John tells the priests and the levites that he is not the Messiah. John hasn’t come to save the world.

What John demonstrates is that the priests and the levites, perhaps obviously, don’t know who the Messiah is. And they wouldn’t know the Messiah if they were to see the Messiah. But shouldn’t they know? As the religious leaders of the people who have been waiting for the signs of Messiah’s coming for generations, shouldn’t they know?

The same could be said of us. As Christians in a long line of people preaching about and waiting for Jesus to return, shouldn’t we be more clear on who the Messiah is?

And yet, because we wonder what God is doing with us and wonder when Messiah is coming, we have become unclear about who we are too. Are we communities of the faithful, gathered around the same core things that have given Christians meaning and purpose for centuries, the Word of God and the Sacraments? Or are we community centres? Social clubs? Culture clubs? Music appreciation societies? Social justice groups?

If we could be a little flashier, a little more attracting of the crowds, if the glory days of old could come again… if we could just go back to being the confident churches we once were, then we could be confident in knowing what God is up to in our world and up to with us.

But we have just as many questions as the priests and levites. Struggling under decline and aging, feeling out of place and irrelevant in our world, waiting for things to change… we have forgotten who we are, and we wouldn’t know if God was working in and through us, even if we saw it.

John the Baptist speaks with clarity and certainty about who he is not. He is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet.

And because John knows who he is not, he knows that he is not the one who will save God’s people, nor does he carry that burden.

He knows that he is not the return of Elijah, the embodiment of Israel’s greatest hopes, and he doesn’t have to live up to the impossible standard.

He knows that he is not the prophet, the one calling the people back to God, and he doesn’t need forge a new path for them.

And John knows this because God has given him an identity. John is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’

John is a witness, a preacher, a disciple, a follower. He is not the one coming to save, but the first to admit that he needs saving.

John’s clarity is rooted in the identity that God has given to him. He is not the Messiah, but deeply connected to the Messiah… John is a witness to Messiah, a sinner forgiven by Messiah, the dead one raised by Messiah, the lost one saved by Messiah.

I am not.
No, not Elijah.
I am not the Messiah.

The identity that God has given to John, is the same identity that God has given to us.

Even as we forget and become unclear about who we are, and therefore who God is, the Messiah reminds us again and again where our identity is given.

In the waters of baptism, God names us as God’s own.

Forgiven yet sinners,
made whole yet broken,
reconciled yet estranged,
found yet lost
alive once dead,

God names us in the waters, and reminds us of who we are, week after week as we receive forgiveness and mercy.

God gives us an identity rooted in the stories told here week after week, as we proclaim anew the coming of Messiah into this world.

God joins us together as one, at the table of the Messiah, we become that which we eat, the body of Christ.

And this identity that God gives to us, allows us to know who we are not. Just as the identity that God gave to John, allowed him to clearly know who he was not.

We are not the ones called to fix everything, we are not Messiah.

We are not the ones called to restore the glory days, we are not Elijah.

We are not the ones called to point out everyone else’s flaws, we are not the prophet.

We are not.
No, not Elijah.
We are not the Messiah.

We are the baptized, God’s children made alive through water and the word.

And because the identity given to us in the waters of baptism tells us who we are, it also allows us to know and to see the Messiah coming amongst us.

The Messiah who is the one, coming to forge a new way and a new path for God’s people.

The Messiah who is the one who embodies our greatest hopes, but also who brings to fulfillment God’s hope for us.

And the Messiah who is the one coming to save. The one in whom children of God, the sinners and broken ones, the broken and estranged ones, the lost and dead ones… the Messiah in whom people waiting for light and life discover who God has named them to be.

Waiting to Prepare the Way

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Read the whole passage)

Light two candles to watch for Messiah, let the light banish darkness… or so the song goes.

We are fully half way done the season of Advent with only two weeks to go until Christmas. Just as we begin Advent each year by hearing Jesus’ proclamation about the end of the world, the second Sunday of Advent always introduces us to John the Baptist, and his preaching in the wilderness about the coming of Messiah.

As we begin making our way through Mark’s gospel this church year, it stand in contrast to the other gospels. Unlike the start of Matthew or Luke, Mark’s telling of the incarnation – of Jesus coming into the world – is a little different than what we might expect.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

There are no angels, pregnant virgins, shepherds or mangers. There’s no Christmas pageant using Mark’s account. No shepherds in bathrobes awkwardly delivering Mark’s dialogue.

Mark gets straight to the point. Yet, there is a lot being said in the economy of Mark’s words.

The good news starts now. The good news starts with this guy named Jesus. And this guy named Jesus is the son of God.

Then to explain that statement about the good news and Jesus, Mark quotes from the prophet Isaiah. But Mark expects a lot of his readers, and when he quotes from Isaiah, he expects that the first line is enough for us to fill in the rest and get the picture. Fortunately for those of who haven’t memorized the 66 chapters of the book of Isaiah, we read the passage that Mark quotes just a few moments ago.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2)

This passage from Isaiah comes at key moment for the people of Israel. The first 39 chapters told of the story of the exile into the Babylon, when the religious and royal class of Israel was forcibly removed from their home and sent to live in Babylon for generations.

Yet we come into the story precisely a the moment that everything changes. The exile has ended, and Isaiah pleads with God to be gentle with God’s weary people. They have endured a lot and need the time to recover. And now begins the story of the return of God’s people to their homeland. God is no longer the wrathful who has angrily sent the exiles away because of their sins, rather God is now the gentle saviour redeeming the tired and weary people of Israel. The exiles’ experience of God is completely transformed from this moment onwards.

And Mark quotes Isaiah expecting that we know this story well, the story of exile and return from exile. Even more so Mark expects that we will see that he is connecting Jesus to this important moment when everything changes for the Israelites.

Mark is saying, “Hey remember that moment when God changed everything by bringing the exile home? Well, this Jesus guy is changing everything too.”

And then Mark takes another left turn, keeping us on our toes only a few lines into the story, by introducing us to John the Baptist.

John, the rough around the edges desert preacher and prophet, who is attracting crowds and gaining the popularity of the people while drawing the ire of those in charge. John is quite the character dressed in camel hair, eating giant desert insects and preaching from a river.

But perhaps most jarring of all in this short passage of Mark’s, is that John is quiet opposite to Isaiah. If Isaiah is pleading to God for comfort, compassion, and tenderness for God’s weary people, John is warning of the swift kick in the pants to come if they don’t repent.

So is anyone confused by all this stuff in Mark? Good, that is the point.

Not unlike the Israelites, we might know a little something about being tired… about being weary… we might know about longing and waiting for God… for Messiah to show up, to transform our lives. It is exhausting trying to keep the faith and have hope for the future.

These days it can feel like the pressures and stresses of the world are pressing in from all sides.

Maybe it is burdens of work and family, trying to juggle more than we know we can handle and watching as things are dropped, promises unkept, people forgotten.

Maybe it is small towns and rural communities struggling to keep up as government funding is being cut, business not being able to make it anymore, schools and hospitals closing.

Maybe it’s waking up every morning wondering if nuclear war broke out overnight because of some blowhard’s tweet.

Maybe it’s the slow and steady decline of churches with aging members, fewer hands to do the work, and searching for ways to provide pastoral ministry.

Take your pick.

The list of burdens on our minds and lived out in our daily lives is long. It’s no wonder we feel weary. It’s no wonder we wait for God to show up in our lives and in the lives of our family, friends and neighbours.

Here’s the thing about Advent: when waiting for Messiah becomes about things deeper than opening the little doors on advent calendars and collecting our chocolate treat, or counting the days until Christmas, it raises questions. Questions about where this Messiah that we are waiting for is in our world. Where Messiah is in our lives.

We long for the God of Isaiah to come and show us weary people some compassion and tenderness.

We know that we need the Messiah of John the Baptist to come and give us swift kick the pants to keeps from atrophy.

But it’s the waiting… the waiting is what we cannot abide.

Because waiting has no answers until its over.

This is what John and and Isaiah have in common. They are both speaking to the waiting of God’s people. Whether they are proclaiming a tender God who brings comfort or a  powerful God who comes preaching repentance… they both are speaking to people who wait. To exiles whose waiting in exile is about to end, to Israelites waiting under oppression for Messiah.

To 21st century Christians waiting for God again this advent.

The promise is and has always been that Messiah is coming soon.

As Isaiah says:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Take you pick of burdens that cause us to wait,
valleys or hills and mountains,
crooked paths and rough ways,

Messiah is coming for all it.

For people who need the tender compassion of God,
for people who need the swift kick in the pants.
For people who carry the burdens of work and family,
of shrinking rural communities,
of the threat of tweet induced nuclear war,
of aging and declining churches.

Messiah is coming for all of that too.

And yes, not knowing when Messiah is coming, and having to wait is the hardest part of all.

Having to do Advent over again and again, with its questions about where God is in our world and in our lives is not easy. We want to know, how, where, when.

But the only answer is a promise, a promise that we hear every Advent again and again.

Messiah is coming.

Messiah is coming for a world in need.
Messiah is coming for people of faith who hate waiting
Messiah is coming for  you and for me.

Messiah is coming…

Soon.


  • Image credit: http://www.swordofthespirit.net/bulwark/dec08p2.htm
  • This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker Twitter: @ReedmanParker