Thursday, November 19, 2015

Discernment, Patience and Hope

This is the message I preached on Sunday, 11/15 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church.The text is Mark 13:1-8. 
Our world seems to have gone right off the rails. Crazy and awful things are happening everywhere; we have massive swings in the weather, huge hurricanes and typhoons, a giant el nino in the Pacific, unprecedented climate change and upheaval in the middle east;  the latest of which is the 3 simultaneous terror attacks last Friday in Paris, France. When we see such images, don't we sometimes think, "Here we go again. When will the madness stop?" 
It seems that today's gospel reading with its apocalyptic overtones is exactly what we need to hear. Apocalyptic describes the style of writing where the heavenly and earthly worlds seem fused. It's like the curtain in a theater being drawn back--and suddenly we see things that until now were hidden from view. Imagine a cosmic curtain, drawn back by an angel of God, that suddenly reveals the world as God sees it, the world as it should be, the world as it will be in the future when God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Grieb).
The Jerusalem temple, which had been newly reconstructed by Herod the Great was impressive. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The temple complex was twice as large as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis with its Parthenon. Today what remains of it are the huge retaining walls that supported the temple. The enormous Herodian stones are as long as 40 feet, some of which still stand as part of the Western or Wailing Wall.
Leaving the temple, one of the disciples said, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Don't the disciples remind you of country boys coming to the big city and can't you hear John Denver singing "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy" in the background? That's who they were. We can certainly understand why the disciples would be so impressed and why Jesus' words that there wouldn't be one stone left on another, were so puzzling and seemingly impossible. After all, this was the dwelling place of God in the center of the known world--the symbol of God's presence with Israel.
In today's gospel, three facts are pointed out. The first is that God's people need a spirit of discernment, the second is the church's precarious situation demands incredible patience. The third is perhaps the most difficult, the church is invited to be hopeful.
The first fact is that God's people need a spirit of discernment. The disciple's very public statement about the glory of the temple is followed by private time together with Jesus at the Mount of Olives. There the inner circle of disciples ask Jesus two questions: "When will this be and what will be the sign" when all this will happen?Jesus' response is not what they were looking for. Those come later in the gospel. Jesus said, "Beware that no one leads you astray" (v. 5).
Those who would come in Jesus' name may not claim to be Christ, but they claim to speak with his authority. Not only was Jesus warning his disciples, but the church of Mark's time and our own were also being warned against such false prophets. Sometimes what they say sounds so good and seems like the right formula, but at heart, they worship at a different altar. They offer a religion without the cross, something Martin Luther called a "theology of glory."
False prophets are still around. Remember Harold Camping who declared the end would be May 21, 2011? When that didn't happen, he changed the date to October 21st of the same year. Can you think of other false prophets that have been prominant over the last 10-20 years? Throughout the ages there have been false prophets. This is just as Jesus predicted. The point is that the wars, famines and earthquakes are not the signs of the time (as the false prophets proclaimed) but only the beginning of the last period of history. As Christians, we should be skeptical of anyone who claims to have inside information when our Lord Jesus didn't even have it.
There is a psychological phenomena known as "the Jerusalem Syndrome." People that seemed perfectly normal at home would make a trip to the Holy Land. While there, especially in Jerusalem, they would see themselves as prophets. I saw a number of such people while living in Bethlehem. One man we referred to as the karate prophet. He would stand by one of the gates of the Old City, dressed in a white outfit that looked just like karate gear and proclaim his message.
There were others as well, like the woman who would sing at bus stops in the Jewish part of Jerusalem. She carried an autoharp and would repeatedly say "Brrrrrrr" as she strummed away. There were many other odd people that one could not avoid in Jerusalem. The funny thing was, they were perfectly normal once they returned home.
A spirit of discernment is so important. We can nurture one by listening carefully and thinking clearly.
The second fact in today's teaching is that the church's precarious situation demands of it incredible patience. Rather than being alarmed, we are to take the long look, to be patient. The calendar is in God's hands. As Peter wrote, "...with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day" (2 Peter 3:8). If Jesus didn't know when the end would come, what makes us think we can figure it all out?
Whenever there is a new major world crisis, books appear describing these events as evidence that the signs in the book of Revelation are being fulfilled. Do you remember the Left Behind series that was popular about 10 years ago? It's great fiction, thrown in with a little theology, but still it's great fiction. The desire to use apocalyptic prophecies about the end time to make sense of traumatic upheavals in the world remains a significant temptation for many Christians.
Our one concern is to give testimony to the gospel. Apocalyptic prophecies do not constitute the testimony about which Jesus speaks. 
The third fact in today's teaching is that in spite of all that transpires,  the church is invited to be hopeful. Wars, threats of wars, earthquakes and famines are nothing new and are not unique to our day. History is riddled with a list of wars too numerous to mention, and natural disasters such as the destruction of Pompeii in 77 A. D., the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, and the San Francisco earthquake of 1904, not to mention the plagues that ravaged Europe come to mind. The readers of Mark's gospel found themselves living in such chaos. All of it was and is to be understood as "the beginning of the birth pangs" (v. 8).
Mark's gospel does not discount, but takes seriously the reality of present suffering. Suffering's purpose is to signal the end of a long time of waiting and the coming birth of new life. It is not meant to lead us to despair, but to hope--to the anticipated dawn of God's new day.
So, do we still live in an apocalyptic world? Natural disasters, which seem to behave more and more erratically are warning us that as Hamlet said, "the times are out of joint." And we have the massive displacement of people longing for a stable and peaceful life. They flee violent, oppressive regimes. It is difficult to comprehend the terrors that human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another (Grieb).
Church historians and those who watch the culture say we're on the edge of an end time for the church's traditional role in society. It may be the beginning of what God plans to do with his church. Church in the rest of the 21st century may look radically different, but there will still be God's people gathering to worship. Jesus has warned his followers to be aware and watchful for the signs that accompany the changing of things. "Mark 13 warns against confusing religious institutions with the Kingdom of God or thinking God's future is tied to their success or failure (Williamson, Mark, 241).
The feelings of fear and anxiety are the birth pangs of something new. It is not something we should fear, but embrace, as the in breaking of God's truth and justice into our world (Smith).
The Christian life is not about stones and bricks. What goes on inside is what really matters. The life giving waters of baptism are splashed, stories of faith are told, the meal of bread and wine are given to all, and we gather as a community of faith, to build each other up, to spread God's love in the community and to worship our Creator by  bringing God our sorrows and joys. The stones and bricks may fall, but God's church, the community he has called together, will continue on--living and breathing in the unconditional grace of God.

Brian K. Blount & Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices.
M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary.
M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary
Rev. Scott McNally, pastor, Lutheran Church of Hope, Broomfield, Co.
Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible: Mark.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Unlikely Places and People

This is the message I preached last Sunday, 11/8 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The text was 1 Kings 17:8-16.

Fear is a powerful motivation in our world. Fear is used by politicians to obtain our votes, by the media to get our attention, by advertisers to sell us what we don't need. It's even used by TV evangelists to get our donations.

What are some of the fears we face? One is scarcity, others could be hunger, thirst, loneliness, infirmity, homelessness and war. Scarcity can be described as the fear that we won't have enough or won't get our share. This false belief that having more money and stuff will save us, actually makes us slaves. Often, having less can free us to live by faith.

The book of 1 Kings narrates history with the theology that God will bless the righteous and punish those who are unfaithful to the covenant. This is the promise that God will be the God of the Israelites and they will serve him and him alone. The prophets take center stage as the monarchs of Israel and Judah are untrustworthy heirs of King David. Elijah prophesies during the reign of King Ahab, with whom he is in constant conflict.

God works in unusual ways through and for his prophet, Elijah. There was a drought in Israel, which was God's punishment for the evil ways of King Ahab. In fact, Elijah went to Ahab and told him there would be a drought because of the sin of the people.

Initially, God sends Elijah to the Brook Cherith, in Jordan, so he can hide from Ahab and his men. Elijah drank from the river and the ravens brought him food. Then the river dried up because of the drought. Now what? God directs him to go to Zarephath, which is about 85 miles away, where a widow will feed him.

I want to pose a food for thought question and based on the context of today's reading, there's no pun intended here. Don't you think that it's odd that Elijah doesn't argue with God when he tells him to get up and go to Zarephath? Couldn't God have continued to provide for his prophet through the ravens? God could have replenished the brook with water. Why did Elijah have to travel all that way to Zarephath? God had something special in mind.

Before Elijah was very far inside the gates of Zarephath, he found the widow God was directing him to. This encounter between Elijah and the widow seems interesting on several levels.

First of all, widows in that time were not well to do. This one was really struggling. She was just about out of food and was going to prepare the final meal for her son and herself. That she had a young son who was dependent upon her tells us something about her age. She is not old and feeble. Without a husband, she had little means of support and it's likely the drought made things even worse.

Secondly, this encounter was happening outside the borders of Israel. The social support for widows prescribed in the Old Testament was probably not applicable in Zarephath. She had great needs and yet Elijah asks this foreign woman for help.  God is teaching us that it is harder to recognize that those who seem to have less, just might have more than we do. And it may not necessarily mean material things, but gifts of faith, the Spirit and the heart.

Are you taken aback by the way Elijah asked the widow for help? Putting it mildly, he was outright rude and he doesn't sound very nice about it either. In fact, Elijah is very demanding. He does not say please. He does not offer to help the woman. As she responds to his request for a drink of water, he says, "Bring me a morsel of bread..." Elijah has his nerve, doesn't he? It seems like this widow has more than enough on her plate. How could she be expected to do more?

Remarkably, the widow does what Elijah asks. In an unlikely place, God provides for Elijah through an unlikely person. Her response was not because she was mesmerized by the fact that Elijah was so charming, suave, sophisticated and debonaire. The important point here is that there is a small, easy to overlook phrase in God's command to Elijah. "...for I have commanded a widow there to feed you" (v. 9).

God was already at work before Elijah even got to Zarephath. Don't we need to remember that God is not just with us, but that he has gone ahead of us and is working before we arrive?

I'm sure that those who have gone to work in Honduras or other mission fields have experienced this. We go thinking we're going to bring Jesus to those needy people, as well as all kinds of material help. We give, but we find that the recipients of our giving, give back to us in so many ways.

The relationship between Elijah and the widow really works both ways for the two of them. The woman not only shared with Elijah out of her own need, but Elijah, too was able to share in a different way with the woman. God's prophet speaks a life-giving word in a situation of famine and death. By helping Elijah, the widow is helping herself and her son. God provided for the widow through an unlikely Jewish prophet.

The widow had not been passive, despite her great need. She had been actively engaged in her survival. She foraged for fuel to cook her last meal with her son. We only get to see the widow placing Elijah's need above her own and those of her son as a test in her faith in the god Elijah serves.

We all love stories with a happy ending and this one does not disappoint. The happy ending is, the jar of meal was not emptied the jug of oil did not fail, and the widow and Elijah ate for many days.  Have you or someone you love ever been down to the last bit of resources and somehow, they are multiplied in such a way as to meet the need?

When I lived with my family in Bethlehem, in the Holy Land, there were times when we too saw God's miraculous provision. Annually, we had a Christmas Feast for Muslims, which lasted three days. We would share the Christmas story and of course lots of food. At times, the pot of rice seemed to be nearly exhausted when more and still more people would show up. One wouldn't dare say at such times, "Were almost out of rice, but you can eat cookies." So we would serve and serve and serve still more people. We always had more than enough to feed everyone.

When Elijah arrived in Zarephath, he too, had exhausted his own resources. At that time, the widow actually had more than Elijah did and she was willing to share with Elijah. Sometimes we hesitate to ask for help from people that are as busy as we are, that seem to have more needs than we do. Isn't it presumptuous of us to assume that the vulnerable are unable to help? We may be challenged to more meaningful engagement with various members of the human community who seemingly have nothing to give.

So how does this story of the relationship between Elijah and the widow speak to us today? How far are we wiling to go to answer God's call? God's call does not come with a guarantee or an instruction manual. Rather, God commands us to go forward in faith and to leave the rest to be revealed along the way.

I have been amazed as I have seen the supply of things grow for our auction tonight to benefit the Honduras mission. I'm sure it wasn't like this the very first year you had this fund raiser. So many people have answered the call in so many ways to reach out to the families in need in Honduras. This has been God's call for us here at St. Timothy.

Many have gone on trips to Honduras to work and bring supplies with them. However, we don't have to travel to Honduras or another mission field to accomplish what God wants us to. Sometimes the distance God calls us to is to our next door neighbor or the next community. We never know where following God will take us.

Where do we see ourselves in this story? Are we like the widow, nearly despondent and unsure of where our next meal will come from? Do we worry about our children and how we will care for them?

Maybe, we are like Elijah, with his own problems. God may want to use us to bless others, even though we have needs of our own.

Whoever we identify with, let us hear what God is saying to as wejourney together as a community of faith.


Juliana Claassens,

Pastor David Westphal

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

ALL Saints

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches on Sunday, 11/1, All Saints' Day. The text was Rev. 21:1-6a.

Our reading from Revelation is one of the last chapters in Revelation. It is like the unexpected twist at the end of a good mystery story. After all our talk and concern about "getting to heaven," in the end, heaven comes to us. Should that really surprise us? After all, in Christ "the Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). God is the God who always comes down.

The book of Revelation uses apocalyptic or end time imagery to express the terrifying situation of the early churches at the time when the Roman Empire required the worship of the emperors as gods. It also conveys the faith that God is their ultimate salvation.

God's action of renewal includes 3 aspects: Location--the new Jerusalem, the presence of God with God's people and the demise of death itself.

The first aspect of God's action of renewal is the new Jerusalem.
The new Jerusalem was the fulfillment of all human dreams for the community and security of life in an ideal city. Authors of scripture, like John, relate their experiences of what they "saw." However, the portrayal of the new Jerusalem is not like that of a news reporter. John's literary composition is the means of expressing, in symbolic theological terms, the meaning of the revelation of the nature of God's goal for the world.

We might have expected God to return everything in the end to the way it was in the beginning, before humans messed it up with sin. However, instead of the Garden of Eden, God dwells in a holy city. Instead of abolishing history, God redeems it. A city represents communal life together. This end of the age existence is not individualistic, but a community. New  doesn't mean that God destroys the previous creation and starts all over again. Rather it refers to the end of the age renewal and fulfillment of creation. That this newness comes down from heaven (v. 2), demonstrates that it is not a result of human effort. It is the gift of God that brings the goal of history.

John tells us that "The sea was no more" (v. 1). The sea was considered to be the frightening domain of monsters. It is the depths from which the dragon arises to torment the earth--the opposite of what our creator God does. The sea represents the chaos over which human beings have no control. Evil will have been irrevocably overcome. A city replaces a garden.

Another way to consider the imagery of the sea is that earlier in Revelation (4:6), it is part of the heavenly worship scene, part of God's good creation. The sea separated John from his churches while he was on the Isle of Patmos. In the end, however, there is no more separation.

In the end, we don't meet a cataclysmic event, but a Person--the Lord Jesus Christ. All the statements in Revelation about the end are statements about God.

The second aspect of God's action of renewal is the presence of God. Despite the great celebration of the new Jerusalem, the central promise of the vision is "the home of God is among mortals" (v. 3). God is not distant, but lives with God's people in the city. For John, God is not merely one thing in the new Jerusalem, God is the end of the ages reality who embraces all things. John's words echo that of the prophet Ezekiel who declared, "The name of the city...shall be 'the Lord is there;" (Ezek. 48:35).

For God's people, there are no more tears in the Father's presence. This would particularly be true for the martyrs mentioned earlier in Revelation (7:17). But one does not have to be a martyr to be at home with God. Everything is wiped clean and made new. Regrets belong to the old order of life. I love the image of God wiping away our tears. God isn't telling us, "Don't cry," but he is telling us it is ok to cry and he will wipe our tears away. It will be even better than being able to have a good cry with your very best and closest friend. Almighty God promises us, that all things that rob us from having a fulfilled, joyful, vibrant life will be gone from the transcendent reality into which God leads us.

We have God's promise that he will use us--our talents, abilities, interests--our whole being--to further God's will. This not only gives our lives meaning, but also conveys tremendous significance upon our daily routine. These roles are where we take our stand as God's co-workers and partners to literally do God's holy work.

The third aspect of God's action of renewal is the demise of death itself.
Like taxes, death is one of the certainties of our life on this earth. Not only will we die one day, but we experience its pain as those dear to us die. But death does not have to terrify us. It does not have the last word. We are promised a share in Christ's resurrection. While we may mourn the death of loved ones, we can also celebrate their triumph and victory as they now rest from their labors and live with our Lord in glory.

Our reading from Revelation concludes with these words of triumph, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end" (v. 6). God stands at the beginning and the end, not only of human lives, but of history, and of creation itself (6a).  The work of God is completed full and final.

What awaits us at the end of all things? God. The new Jerusalem is God's home with God's people. God makes us his own in our baptism and he is with us forever in eternity.

Today, we remember and celebrate all the saints--those who have joined the church triumphant and those of us who are still living bearing the name of Christ. We remember the acts of Christian martyrs and the deeds and works of "canonized" saints. We also celebrate the lives of all the faithful, living and dead, for whom the new Jerusalem is their ultimate destiny.

The good news for us as we celebrate All Saints' Day is that no matter how much we mess up, we still belong to the Lord and he calls us saints, holy ones because of what Jesus did on our behalf on the cross. The good news at the heart of Revelation-that God is making all things new-is already going on in our troubled world today. We don't have to wait for the end of time. God comes down to us everyday--in scripture, in the waters of baptism and at the table. All we have to do is join him.



M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary.
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, Year B.

Carl R. Holladay, Preaching Through the Christian Year B,