New Exile, New Creation

Third Sunday of Advent
December 15, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10

It was just about as bad as you can imagine. It was summer, presumably hot. The soldiers were ragged, exhausted, spent after two years of constant warfare. Their mighty defensive walls had crumbled under the continuous assaults of their enemies. They knew it was over, time to cash in their chips, surrender to their enemy. Believe it or not, it got worse from there, it went from bad to catastrophic.

And so the Babylonians came storming into Jerusalem in July of 586 B.C. The king in Jerusalem at the time, Zedekiah, fled to the hills, only to be captured by the enemy. Zedekiah’s sons were killed before his eyes, then the Babylonians blinded him and dragged him off to Babylon. Parents, this is not one of those bible stories you should read to your children at night. 

But would you believe it, things actual got worse. From catastrophic to calamitous. All the other fortified cities in Judea were burned down by the Babylonians. The wealthy people of Judea were dragged off through the wilderness to interment camps in Babylon, the poor were left behind to tend to the land, and the rest were killed. Over the course of seventy years, the population in Judea would plummet from two hundred and fifty thousand to twenty thousand (Bright, “A History of Israel: Fourth Edition,” 344). The exile of the Jews into Babylon was just about as bad, or worse, as you can imagine.

The exile of the Judeans to Babylon is one of the defining moments in the Old Testament and in the history of God’s people. 586 B.C. is the watershed event, when everything changed. It was so disruptive, so mind-bendingly awful, that the prophet Ezekiel says the Spirit of God just up and left. If you think that the Old Testament doesn’t have anything to do with your life today, think again. Because you know the story.

You’ve had these days, these weeks, these years, this life. Everything is circling the drain and headed down the tubes. Woe begets woe. That family member starts drinking and doesn’t stop. You pay tens of thousands of dollars on your student loans and still have tens of thousands to go. One event in Columbine, Colorado years ago becomes a near weekly occurrence today. It goes from bad to worse to catastrophic to calamitous to game over real quick. It’s exile. Those are the heart-rending episodes that define our lives. When the Spirit and the hope just up and leave and we are cast into the outer darkness. Exile.

That’s precisely where the prophet Isaiah picks up this morning. All throughout Isaiah, the prophet is warning the people that this day of doom, this exile, this expulsion from their homeland is coming. Isaiah knows that things will go from bad, to worse, to soul-crushing. But that is not it for Isaiah.

Like that first shade of pink on a cold morning’s sunrise, Isaiah excitedly prophesies about something else, something new. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Isaiah says that God has not forgotten, God will take care of the Babylonians. And that one day the Israelites will go home. There will be a highway, Isaiah says, stretching from Babylon back to Jerusalem straight through the desert. And on the journey back, you won’t have to pack any water, because the desert will be flowing with streams. You won’t have to worry about lions or tigers or bears because God will have shut their mouths. And if you have a terrible sense of direction, Isaiah says, even if you are fool, you will be able to find your way home again. Home from exile. The people will go straight from the internment camps in Babylon, through the wilderness and then home again.

On the surface, this fits so cleanly with our neat, tidy, little ideas about God in modern Christianity. Things were bad, so bad. But God was good, so good. God fixed it so I’m happy now. But this sounds awfully cheap to me. 

Think back to those Jews, on the long road from Babylon back to Jerusalem. They’ve been gone for seventy years, it’s probably the children and grandchildren of those who were exiled who are going back. They don’t know what it’s like in Jerusalem and Judea, they grew up in Babylon. And what are they going home to? The villages and towns have been burned. Their fields are now tended by strangers. Their Temple, their capital, Jerusalem has been destroyed. Though Isaiah is shouting about a crocus blossoming in the desert, the people are going home to a land of ash and rubble. 

And you, you know this is true. The credit score never seems to rebound. Even if you’ve gone through cancer, that fear will always be lurking at every doctor’s visit. The emotional, physical, and psychological damage we do to ourselves and to our families will be with us forever. The locked doors at schools and the security at airports snaps us back to land of ash and rubble. Like Zedekiah, horror upon horror will be seared into our memories. Nothing will ever be the way it was before the exile. 

And notice, that Isaiah never says it will be like the way it is. No, Isaiah says, it’ll be better. The blind, they’ll see. The deaf will hear. The voiceless ones, they’ll sing for joy. Isaiah is not telling the people of Judea that they will go home and everything will be just the way it was. Oh no. The people of Judea will go home and God will make something new out of it. The only way to the empty tomb is through the cross. Jesus is risen from the dead, but he still has the scars to show what he came through. 

The danger is when this nostalgia has crept into every other part of our lives. The real spiritual danger is if we tell ourselves that we are going back to Jerusalem and everything will be just the way it was before. It’s now part of our culture, that we believe that the past was better and that our whole life together should be an attempt to reclaim the way it was before.

But God holds up for us an incredible vision, a promise, of the whole creation being made new in the future. God’s vision, Isaiah’s vision, is that we will stream out of our Babylonian captivity to be healed, restored. The vision is that even the heaven and the earth will be made new again in the future. We believe in a God who says that the way things were in the past and the way things are now, are not how it will be forever. So why do you and I long for a time gone by? Rather than hoping in the future why do we settle for the past?

In short, we refuse to believe that God will make something new out of us. We’re stubborn, we’re obstinate. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – nostalgia is a form of atheism because it shows that we are refusing to trust in God’s promise for the future. 

Look, you walk into church during Advent and this is what you are going to hear. It’s what we have to hear. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. Not that God would help us become what we were, but that God would lead us into something better. Because Advent is a time in which to prepare for the future.

We need look no further than our parish church to see this in full relief. In 2014 you envisioned a bold new future for our church. It was crazy, that an Episcopal parish in this current day and age would dream of building a new church. Yet here we are, because you refused to settle for the past and because you believed in God’s dream. And so again we will pray, commit, engage and ponder anew what God has in mind for us. We will have the courage to take one step forward on the holy highway, one step with the Lord Jesus so that we fully embrace what God is creating anew among us. 

My friends, wherever you are in this journey of life, there is only one way forward, and that is forward. Wherever you are in exile right now – if it’s physical, if it’s a relationship, if it’s financial – take that first step forward on the highway that God has made for you so that the rebuilding can get under way. You can walk out of the Babylon you are in and as Isaiah says, “the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” We, as the church, as the people of Jesus Christ, have one way and only one way to go, and that is forward into God’s future.

Locusts and Honey

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday of Advent
December 8, 2019
Matthew 3:1-12

Way out in the desert, in the wilderness, among the shimmering heat waves on the horizon, stood a sign. It was more than a sign, it was a symbol; a symbol that told me there was safe haven, there was sustenance, there was respite from the withering heat and the miles and miles of endless nothing. On those long family car trips from Dallas to Los Angeles in my childhood, there was one constant, one sign, one symbol, that offered hope – the McDonald’s golden arches.

Out there along I-10 between nowhere and next to nowhere the golden arches meant much more than a McDonald’s. They meant hot chicken nuggets, a cold milkshake, and a clean restroom. I see those golden arches today and I can smell the hot asphalt on a New Mexico afternoon. I can see the Gameboy that I played for hours in the car. That ubiquitous logo symbolizes my family, my summer vacations, my childhood; it’s so much more than a fast food stop on a tedious drive across the desert.

Out there in another desert, in the wilderness, along the muddy waters of the Jordan River, we stumble across a whole world of symbols. Symbols that conjure up all sorts of meaning and beliefs and thoughts and memories. John the Baptist is out there, in the wilderness, baptizing, preaching, giving hope to the powerless, antagonizing the powerful. He’s talking about wheat and chaff. He’s talking about snakes and stones and trees. He’s eating locusts and wild honey. Locusts and wild honey. 

Remember, throughout the Old Testament, from Exodus to Joel, locusts were signs of God’s judgment. The locusts descend upon Pharaoh and his hardened heart. The locusts destroy crops as signs that the people of Israel have been unfaithful to God. Symbols of judgment. Then there is honey, and we ought to immediately think of God’s promise to the Israelites, a promised land flowing with milk and honey. A symbol of promise. Taken together John is symbolizing both God’s judgment and God’s promise. Eating locusts and wild honey isn’t some version of a Mediterranean diet. I think it’s a sign. 

Prophets of old were always doing odd things to symbolize greater meanings – Ezekiel ate bread baked over dung to symbolize the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. Jeremiah buys a plot of land to show will return to Jerusalem from exile. Ezekiel gives a sign of judgment; Jeremiah gives a sign of blessing.

Judgment and blessing. Locusts and honey. Now, we’re good, kind, earnest Episcopalians. We can get behind the blessing, but this whole judgment thing disturbs our genteel senses. We’ve been so spiritually wounded and scarred by the language around judgment, that we’ve discarded the whole idea. Granted, I know that God’s judgment has been used by Christians as a threat, and a pretty convenient one at that, to raise money, to grow their numbers, and to keep people in their churches. That’s not at all what I’m talking about it. Judgment, in its proper theological context, is something that we hold dear, because judgment, properly taken, is a good thing. 

See, throughout the New Testament, God is not so much represented as a criminal judge, sentencing criminals to their punishment. Rather, God is represented as a justice of the peace, the one who maintains the safety and security of a community. God is the one to whom we bring our cases – our complaints, our prayers, our laments, our hopes, our dreams – and God weighs them on the great scales of divine justice. As the Virgin Mary says, God casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly. That is judgment, and it is good. It is good to know that God does listen, that God hears the cries of the anguished and wishes to alleviate their pain. It is good that God is enraged, wrathful even, at the evil that stalks about this world. This is a good thing, that God’s blood would boil at the sight of injustice, oppression, and treachery. It is good that God wishes to make things right and just, because it shows that God cares.

The crowds flock to John the Baptist in the wilderness because that is exactly what they want to hear. The people of Jerusalem and all Judea, living under the boot of the Roman Empire, want justice for their cause. Corruption, greed, and wanton violence are the hallmarks of the empire, and the people out there with John are sick of it. That crowd out there has a complaint they wish to bring before God as judge, and they want God to make things right. To those who have come out to see John in the wilderness, confessing their complicity and being baptized by water, John himself must been a powerful symbol, shimmering on the horizon. Because it’s not about John the Baptist, it’s about what he represents from God – hope, healing, redemption, and justice.

But with this hope comes a warning. For the Pharisees and the Sadducees, John has stern words, not about bugs but about snakes. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” John snaps at them because John wants them to know that God has been paying attention; God has not forgotten their hardened hearts. John knows all too well that the Pharisees and Sadducees have colluded with the imperial forces of Rome. They have taken the convenient option of going along with the Romans and their brutality. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. This is not anti-Jewish in any way. Rather, John the Baptist’s absolute loyalty to the God of Israel means that he is willing to call out anybody who has compromised their allegiance to the Lord (see, N.T. Wright, “Jesus,” 324). What is a word of hope for some, is a word for warning for others. Locusts and honey. Judgment and blessing.

So there we have it – a complex tableau of powers, peoples, and symbols from the ancient world. And what of us? Where do we find ourselves on this great divide that John lays out? Do we deserve hope or judgment? Do we need a locust or honey? Are we confessing our sins or are we complicit with the powers of this world? The truth is, we are both. The line between good and evil runs straight through our hearts. Like that crowd that went out to see John in the wilderness, to both hear a word of hope and to confess their sins, we come to this place. To hear a word of hope and to confess our sins. To clamor for justice and to receive a blessing. It’s never just one or the other. 

That’s the hard edge of the Christian life, and that’s the unsettling part about Advent. We live in the gathering darkness of December, acknowledging that darkness in our own lives, yet knowing full well that the joy of Christmas is just around the corner. Acknowledging that we, even this gathering of kind, earnest Episcopalians, need blessing and we need judgment. If anything, we need God to sort out the good and the evil that resides right here. For we have eaten both the locusts and the honey. 

We want to work hard and provide for our families, but we have to confess that we also work for our own greed. We are proud of what we have accomplished at work, at school, we ought to be proud of what we have accomplished in this church, but we have to confess that pride easily becomes ego. We want to be charitable, especially during this holiday season, but how much of our giving is rooted in smugness, that we have the time and the money to give something away to those poor people who don’t. This is Advent. Locusts and honey. Judgment and blessing.

As we make our way through the wilderness journey of Advent, we come to one last symbol, the one that stands far above and far ahead of us. John the Baptist was not preparing us for honey and locusts, for wheat and chaff, for axes and trees. Oh no, John knows that something much more powerful is coming after him. The ultimate sign of judgment and blessing. Sometimes it is our saving grace, sometimes it is our shame. We cling to it at moments of triumph and despair, of celebration and desolation, of judgment and blessing. The final sign is nothing less than the cross of Jesus Christ. Think of it, under that cross in this church, we celebrate the joy of the Eucharist, we bury our dead, we celebrate weddings, and we come here to confess our most grievous offenses. All while beholding the cross. It is never one or the other, it is always both.

Do not be distracted by the other signs and symbols this world offers. Because I’ll tell you what – they won’t get you very far, the chicken nuggets and the milkshake under the golden arches will only leave you hungry and empty again. Rather, keep your eyes fixed on that great sign. In the darkness, you will find the cross shining brightly, leading you home to God no matter how far off you have wandered. When you are lonely this holiday season, the cross will be your solace, a remembrance that Jesus died alone. When you are surrounded with family and friends, the cross will be a symbol of God’s delight in you.

Look to the cross and see the Lord Jesus, stretching wide his arms in a perfect love, embracing both your pain and your joy. Look to the cross and you will see more than a symbol, you will see your whole life with God, judgment and blessing.

Negligences

First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 2019
Matthew 24:36-44

A truly astonishing thing happened last night. I packed up the leftovers from dinner and put them in my refrigerator for lunch today. Amazing. I set my coffeepot to turn on automatically this morning. I brushed my teeth. I said my prayers. I read a book in bed. And I fell asleep. Now, don’t tell me that isn’t that most amazing thing you’ve ever heard. It boggles my mind that this, this amazing wonderment is my evening ritual. It’s almost inconceivable to me, and in fact, it is inconceivable to the vast majority of humans who have ever walked this earth.

First, I can hardly fathom that there is such an abundance of food available to me that there would even be leftovers. And then comes the mind-boggling idea that I can cook food without worrying about botulism. My biggest concern is whether that cold pizza will look appetizing the next morning, not whether it will kill me. Then, I can prepare a beverage that is made from a plant grown in South America, shipped to Seattle, roasted in a factory, packaged, sent to HEB, lands in my grocery cart, all in a matter of weeks so that I can wake up fresh and ready to go. I can turn on the faucet in my house, put water in my mouth, and not have to worry about dysentery. That’ll blow your mind. I can flip on a bulb, made out of light emitting diodes, that burns a fraction of the amount of energy a normal bulb does, giving me a soft, radiant glow, to read a book that was printed on another continent. Long gone are the days of whale oil lamps and kerosene. Then, I can fall asleep not really worrying too much about someone sneaking into the house, thanks to modern safety, security, and of course, my dogs. Isn’t it all terribly and wonderfully amazing? Think about any part of your day, and I bet you can think of something that would have been unthinkable just one hundred and fifty years ago. And is still not possible to billions of people today. We may not have flying cars but life is pretty good.

The fact that disease and dying do not haunt every corner of our lives is an aberration from the human experience over the millennia. This is a gift. My insulin pump itself is a witness to this – just a couple of generations ago, I would not have lived past the age of twenty-one. But here I am, thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of humans and their little gadgets. Living used to be a life or death affair; now, for the most part, it’s quite mundane.

That’s why these words from Jesus this morning sound so odd. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” This season of Advent is all about expectation, waiting, living in the darkness while hoping for light. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and Jesus warns us to stay awake, to keep alert, to be on the watch for something unexpected from God. In this season of Advent we assess the darkness in our own lives, we come face to face with the reality that though we know we are beloved children of God, we do not live up to what that means. We’re caught between the already and the not yet of God’s promises. Advent is a stark warning, a reminder that life is short, and that every minute we draw closer to The End.

Over the years, the message of Advent has been softened. Recently, Advent has become more about getting ready for Christmas. We come to Advent and it’s almost like we have to forget that Jesus was born so that we can be surprised again on Christmas Eve. Oh look, a baby! I mean, Mary knew she was with child, y’all have read the story, right? 

Or, just two weeks ago, we were going over the children’s Advent wreaths. We decided to go with each Sunday representing “faith, hope, peace, and love.” But in reality, the four Sundays represent, “death, judgment, heaven, and hell.” Merry Christmas. I mean, can you imagine opening your Advent calendar every day, eating your little milk chocolates for twenty-four days, milk chocolates not shaped like little reindeer but like little coffins? Yikes.

We laugh, because we’re uncomfortable. Because in this modern life of convenience and safety, we don’t have to think about death every day. But this is a wake up call from Jesus. To keep awake, to stay alert, for we do not know when our days will come to an end. 

In this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, it’s important to note that Jesus is warning against carelessness. Jesus has in mind more of the sins of omission than the sins of commission. The warnings he offers, the examples he gives, they’re about normal people doing normal everyday things. Marrying, eating, drinking, plowing the field, making food. In the midst of their daily lives they have lost track of the big picture and become careless. It’s negligence that’s the problem here. 

Now this passage is not about the rapture. Remember, the rapture is not a Christian doctrine. Often times this passage is read as if on some supernatural day in the future all the good people will be sucked away to heaven and all the bad people will be left behind on earth. The better way to read this passage though, is that those who are unprepared, those who have been careless, are the ones who will be dragged away to judgment and condemnation when the Romans come storming back into Jerusalem. Jesus is using that as the image of what the return of the true King will be like. Those who have stayed awake, kept alert, are the ones who will be left behind and not dragged away. No matter what those terrible books and movies say, in this example, you want to be left behind. That means you’ve been prepared.

So the message for today, the message of Advent, is simple – keep awake. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t be negligent in your duty as Christians. The Church has a word for this, it’s called, “acedia.” A-C-E-D-I-A. It’s a fancy word for negligence. And the Church is right. Carelessness, laziness, and negligence will creep into your life when you least suspect it. From the gospel passage today, I doubt you will be plowing the fields or grinding your meal. But the lesson is the same. Carelessness will creep upon you when you’re just going about your daily life of work, school, driving the kids here and there, catching up with Facebook, watching TV. None of those are inherently bad things, but just the mundane nature of life can lull you to sleep. And it is just then, when you have grown lax in reading of holy scripture, when your prayer life has lapsed, when your worship becomes second choice behind brunch, when you have forgotten about the shortness and uncertainty of life, that something will come storming into your life like a Roman Legion and you will be taken away in sorrow and anguish. Keep awake. Stay alert. Say your prayers, day by day. Read your bible, not sometimes but always. Worship. Serve. Be prepared for whatever life will throw at you, even death. And I do not say any of this to try to frighten you into coming to church more. I don’t traffic in fear. And the Church isn’t warning against carelessness because it’s good for the Church. No, I’m talking about it because it’s good for you. Staying awake, keeping alert, being mindful of the brevity of life is for your sake. Not mine or the Church’s. The Church will keep on going whether you’re careless or not. This is about your preparation for The End.

When I’m dwelling on all of this, I’m often drawn back to the wisdom of Bishop Jeremy Taylor. He lived a life none of us would envy. He was a clergyman in 17th century England, a tumultuous time. He was thrown into prison twice for being on the wrong side of the political upheavals of the day. He had a large family, but buried seven of his sons. He’s known for saying, “it’s a good thing life is short, because life is miserable” (“As our life is very short, so it is very miserable; and therefore it is well it is short.” “Jeremy Taylor, Selected Works,” edited by Thomas K. Carroll, 486.) And though we probably wouldn’t agree with him there, surrounded by our modern conveniences and our relative political stability, he does have something else to say that we should mind. He said that Christians aren’t living until we are ready to die. Christians aren’t living until we are ready to die (“The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying”).

In this season of Advent, during these four weeks given to us by the Church, wake up to the reality that modern life and modern conveniences can delay, but not stop the inevitable. Bruce Springsteen probably said it best, “everything dies baby, that’s a fact.” Take these four weeks and get your house in order for whenever that Day may come. Start today, because tomorrow is not promised to you and, if you are careless, these four weeks will be over before you know it. And after Advent, then goes Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and soon enough, our whole lives slip away and we will stand there at the end, and wonder where it all went. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. And once you are ready to die, you can start living with Jesus.

A Cross and a Throne

Christ the King Sunday
November 24, 2019
Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place the that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right hand and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

I’ve often wondered about those soldiers. Those soldiers with the grisly task of nailing criminals to a cross. Did they ever get used to it? When they tried to sleep at night, did they hear the cries of agony of those they crucified? Were their dreams haunted with those awful scenes? Call it shell shock, combat fatigue, or PTSD, soldiers have never truly been able to walk away from it all. Siegfried Sassoon, the English trench poet of World War I, writes of his own experience, an experience shared across the ages. He writes, “you’re quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home…you can hear the guns. Hark! Thud. Thud. Thud…Those whispering guns. I’m going crazy; I’m going stark, staring made because of the guns” (excerpts from “Repression of War Experience” by Siegfried Sassoon). I’ve often wondered about those soldiers with that “terrible duty” of crucifying Jesus and so many others. Jesus asks that they be forgiven, but do they keep on doing what they do? Next Friday, do they set about another round of crucifixions?

So there you have them. The soldiers, representing the might of the Roman Empire, representing sin, death, and evil, pitted against the Kingdom of God. And the powers of darkness seem to have the upper hand. They have swords, crosses, and tools of executions. And what does God have? Jesus is stripped naked. His friends have abandoned him. He has no weapons, no might. How can it be that this is Christ the King Sunday? How can it be that this is the coronation of our King? How can it be that from his royal throne, the cross, Jesus prays even for those callous, brutal soldiers tasked with his execution? This doesn’t look like kingship. I mean, have you ever seen somebody in a position of ultimate power forgive their enemies? Have you ever seen a ruler among people open wide their arms in vulnerability? On the surface this is sheer lunacy, that a man being crucified would pray for those with the hammer and nails. It’s lunacy, that Jesus would speak words of kindness to men so accustomed to curses. Indeed, to the world, this looks like lunacy. 

But to us, to us who find all our lives and meaning in Christ, this looks like grace. These hardened soldiers are just about going their day of nailing criminals to a cross outside the city gates. Yet Jesus sees something in them. He sees that with every pounding of the nail, with every swing of the hammer, those soldiers are actually hurting themselves. With every cry of agony on the part of the crucified, the crucifiers are only deadening their own souls. The true cost is not what those soldiers are doing to others, but what they are doing to themselves.

Jesus understands them more than they understand themselves. He understands what they are inflicting upon themselves. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” These are the first words from his royal throne, words of grace and mercy. No vindictiveness, no retaliation comes from the lips of our king. I’ve often wondered about those soldiers, if they could hear those words of love above the hardness of their own hearts.

But it’s not about them, is it? It’s about me. Can I hear those words of grace from the cross? Can I hear mercy when it is my heart that has been hardened by sin? Do I know that the true cost of my ego, my anger, my greed is not just the hurt I cause others but the hurt I do to myself? When I peer up to the cross, do I see just another criminal dying at the hands of some ruthless soldiers, or do I see my gracious master and my king?

I ask so many questions this morning because the cross asks questions of us. Questions about our own sin, about our hardness of heart. Questions about who we are and what we believe in and why we believe it. 

Look, I get it. We much prefer to talk about the teachings of Jesus, how he broke bread with sinners and outcasts, how he healed the sick and fed the hungry and raised the dead. We talk about it  so much that it’s almost as if Jesus Christ came, not to die for us, but to enact a new social program. I praise God for the whole of Jesus’ ministry. And yes, Christians are called to imitate the example of Jesus in the world, no doubt about it. But none of that makes sense unless and until we behold the power and the scandal of the cross. Everything else in the Christian life flows downhill from the cross, flows downhill from that terrible hill outside Jerusalem called, “the Skull.”

And it is a scandal. See, the religions of the world are full of good teachings. They are full of miraculous stories about good people doing good things. There are other stories about other gods who overcome death. The religions of the world are full of wisdom, but they do not have the cross. This, this thing, this instrument, this royal throne, is what sets us apart. It is a scandal, because gods are not supposed to die naked and alone. I mean, if you were creating a religion this is not how you would write the story – about a powerless, suffering, god. 

But praise the Almighty, that is precisely why we are here this morning. We are here for the cross. It’s always been that way. Think of Saint Paul, who wrote powerfully about being reconciled through the blood of the cross. He’s the individual who contributed the most to the New Testament. A man who turned his back on his whole way of life, his family, his people, his heritage for the sake of Jesus. I am certain that Saint Paul did not go through persecutions, betrayals, prison, shipwrecks, hunger, and beatings because Jesus was a nice guy who said nice things and offered a path to spiritual enlightenment. Saint Paul knew one thing and one thing only – Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

This passage, the crucifixion itself, is too often skipped over in American Christianity today. Because we would prefer stories of kindness, of wisdom, of fulfillment; we much prefer to talk about meditation, or to squabble about what kind of vestments the priest should wear, what kind of wine we should use. We get all in knots about the most controversial question of the day – what color candles should we use at Advent? But that is a pale shadow of Christianity. We have been lulled to sleep in our modern comforts and our modern privileges. We want God to make us happy, to give us wealth, to be our friend. I give thanks to God that I live in a society like ours, where I am free to worship. But I also know that this means I’ve never really had to sacrifice myself, to truly sacrifice myself, for the sake of the gospel. I’ve never really had to carry a cross. When the hardest thing a Christian has to do is roll out of bed on Sunday morning and drop a few bucks in the offering plate, do we really know the power and the scandal of the cross?

So sometimes I wonder – do we really want Christ the King or Christ the Genie to grant us all our selfish little wishes? Like those hardened Roman soldiers, we have shut our ears to the words from the cross so that we can go about our terrible little lives. We go about with our deadened souls, stopping the screams of our hearts with with easy credit, fast food, and Netflix binges.

Look, I know this may not be what you want to hear the week before Thanksgiving. And sure, I could have conjured up some platitudes about gratitude. I could have griped that Target has had its Christmas stuff up since Halloween and that Starbucks is already playing Christmas music. I could have refought the much ballyhooed “War on Christmas.” But compared to the cross, who cares? I did not take my priestly vows to God and the Church so that I could stand here as a court jester for a jolly little king. No, I am here, like you, to give myself for the King who reigns from the cross. For, like Saint Paul, I wish to know one thing and one thing only among you – Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

I may not have happy news for you this morning, on this celebration of Christ the King, but I have good news. The Kingdom of God is so grand, that even those hardened, callous soldiers are invited in. Even the hurt they are causing themselves by virtue of their terrible duty, is forgiven. Even those whom the world would deem unlovable, even the people we would regard as unredeemable, are seen and known and loved by God. Even the pain, the hurt, the horror you carry with you day by day is not forgotten by God. And because of that, because of that, you don’t have to run from your pain any longer. You don’t have to numb your pain any longer. You can stop. You can turn around. You can embrace the pain in your heart and in this world with open arms; and as Saint Paul says, you will be crucified to the world and the world will be crucified to you. And when you suffer, not if but when, Jesus will suffer with you. 

I’ve often wondered about those soldiers and all their issues. But more than that, I wonder about us and all our issues. I wonder what it would be like if we truly understood that Jesus is talking to us, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”

None of the Regular Parties

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 17, 2019
Luke 21:5-19

It’s not the cheeriest way to start a sermon, but here it goes. Disillusionment is a part of growing up. As we grow older, our trust in things that we thought we could trust in crumbles. Teachers, clergy, esteemed leaders have been found to be doing awful, unspeakable things. As a kid, I thought I could trust my baseball heroes, but they were all doping. I thought I could trust my body, until my immune system turned on me and I ended up with diabetes. We cannot even trust in the permanence buildings, as we watched the Twin Towers turn to dust on our televisions. Turns out, even our money is fiction as we saw what little we had saved disappear in the stock market in 2008. We trusted that our homes were not in flood plains, but then we were inundated. We thought we could trust churches, governments, institutions to not fail us. We thought we could trust the Houston Astros and yet, it seems, that even they have cheated. They have all failed us. Disillusionment is part of growing up.

With a child-like wonder, the disciples gawk at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. “How it was adorned with beautiful stones dedicated to God,” Luke says. Indeed, in a world of mud huts and thatch roofs, the Temple must have been astounding, other-worldly, magnificent. The theological word would be, “awesome.” Just one of the stones along the Western Wall there at the Temple Mount weighs more than a 747. The whole thing shone brilliantly in the Mediterranean sunlight. The disciples look up at this, their most holy place, and put their trust in it. “Surely, surely,” they think, “this Temple will never come down.” 

Jesus bursts their idealistic little bubble as the disillusionment sets in. “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” The message is obvious. Do not trust in these stones, do not trust in these jewels, do not trust in this gold, do not trust in this place. Because it will not last forever. All, all will be thrown down. Aghast, the disciples clamor, “teacher, when will this be?” 

Now, we need to dive into Jesus’ answer. Many people, many Christians of good faith, have read this passage as if Jesus is talking about the end of the world. And when they mean end of the world, they really do mean that. The end of the space-time universe. The rest of this passage, about wars and insurrections; about famine and plagues; about being handed over and arrested and persecuted; it has become a sort of roadmap to the end of the world. But that’s not at all what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is reading the writing on the wall, he knows that in just a few short years from then the Romans will come storming in and burn the whole place to the ground. Just as it does happen not one generation after Jesus. Stone is not left upon stone. The Romans set up their own gods in the wrecked Jewish Temple. And in that time, because of their faith in the Lord Jesus, those same disciples will be persecuted, arrested, betrayed, and hated for what they believe in. Jesus is not talking about the end of the space-time universe in some distant, far off future. No, he’s talking about the end of the world as they knew it less than forty years from his own day. 

This passage, this seamlessly hopeless word from Jesus are a warning. It’s a warning about disillusionment. For you will be disillusioned if you put your trust in such flimsy things as stones and temples and jewels. If you wish to go through this world hurting, and disillusioned, and offended at the drop of a hat, by all means, trust in the things of this world. But I tell you, your disillusionment will become cynicism, and cynicism is a breeding ground for sin. Disillusionment will only drive you farther and farther inward until all you care about is yourself. And even then, you will probably disappoint yourself. 

But you know, the hymnal says it better than I ever can. Here’s the second verse from our opening hymn today:

“Mortal pride and earthly glory,

sword and crown betray our trust;

though with care and toil we build them,

tower and temple fall to dust.

But God’s power, hour by hour,

is my temple and my tower.” 

All our hope on God is founded. It is with God, and God alone, that our trust is renewed. The only thing that will not fail us is the covenant that God has made with us. God’s covenant to stay with us, to abide with us, to give us the words to speak when we do not have the words in ourselves. That covenant, that promise from God is everlasting and can withstand anything that the world throws at it because that covenant, that promise, has been sealed by the blood of Jesus upon the cross. For compared to the cross of Christ, every other thing that vies for your trust will be thrown down.

What this means, what this means is that Christians are to live differently. We live in full knowledge, full expectation that everything in this world will betray our trust. We live in full expectation that even those things we most cherish will fail us. So we choose to live differently and to put our trust in the cross and only the cross. Or as one theologian put it, those first Christians who heard these words from Jesus “will fit into none of the regular parties” (N.T. Wright, “Jesus,” 347).

If we are defining ourselves by the things, the parties, the cliques, the identities of this world, then we have failed to live fully into our Christian discipleship because we have put our trust into those things, parties, cliques, and identities. See, the world tells us one of two things. The world tells us that everybody is so different that we should live separately, and that is how we can be secure. Or the world tells us that we’re not different at all, and that is the way to harmony. Neither are true. True harmony and true security come first from our trust and faith in God. We have to admit it – peoples, cultures, and families are different. That’s been true since the Tower of Babel, it was even true on the Day of Pentecost when the disciples speak many languages, not just one language. But it’s also true that our differences are not irreconcilable. Through the cross, through a shared faith in Jesus, different peoples, nations, and families can live in harmony. So that even when the temples, institutions, and organizations around us fall to dust, we still have one another and God still has us. Because what God has in mind for us is that we would not fit into any of the regular parties of this world. Because God has a different vision for us. 

That new vision, that new world is what my soul is aching for. Because I’m tired of being disappointed. I’m done with not fitting into the world’s lame categories. I’m tired of my own disillusionment and cynicism. I’m tired of one side clamoring for a security that is actually fear and I’m tired of the other side clamoring for harmony that is actually phony.

As Jesus stands there, beholding the gems, the stones, the might of the Temple, he has his eyes on something even better. Something even more beautiful. See, Jesus is talking about the end of this age, and the beginning of a new age. Jesus sees nothing less than the Kingdom of God. Not in heaven, but even here, on earth. He is talking about the end of the old ways – he is talking about the end of sin, of death, of the devil. He is talking about the end of this present age, the great stones of violence, corruption, and fear will be thrown done, not one will be left upon another. He is talking about a new people, a new community. Jesus is talking about us, the Body of Christ, that would not be given to the evils of this age. Jesus is talking about us, the Church, being born again to live in the Kingdom of God. Jesus envisions us, as a people, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in love with one another. And that, is the new age. Good people, our work as the church is nothing short of living as if we were already in the Kingdom of God.

So do not be disillusioned. For the cross is always with us. Just because we have seen a glimpse of that new age doesn’t mean we’re all the way there yet. There will be persecutions and accusations and treachery on the part of the world, because the world does not have the capacity to see the hope that we see. The evil one would want us to hang on to the old world with its lies and deceit. It will be through the cross, through suffering, through sacrifice, through self-denial that we learn the fullness of God’s promise to us. The promise of a new world.

In the meantime, between the horrendous “now” and the promised “then,” when the world around seems to be crumbling; when things you held dear vanish overnight; when your body fails you; when your loved ones fail you; when your trust in the vapid systems of this world evaporate;

hear again this final word from Jesus. Endurance. Endurance. To endure, to stick with this vision, to hold fast to the good news, to not lose sight of what God has in mind, to not fall back into the regular parties of this world. To live differently. For to endure with Jesus is to gain your souls.

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