Saturday, December 06, 2008

Yeah!

For the second time this week, the unranked and rebuilding Ohio State men's basketball club faced a ranked team away from Columbus. And for the second time this week, the Buckeyes won, beating Notre Dame 67-62 today. I am psyched!

Go, Buckeyes!

Caroline Kennedy for Senate?: Royalty Lives On

Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg has spoken with New York's governor regarding the Senate seat which may be open soon, should Hillary Clinton's nomination for Secretary of State go through.* Her cousin, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., has confirmed that she is interested in the post.

Kennedy may be qualified for the US Senate. For one thing, unlike Clinton, she's actually lived in New York. In fact, she's played an important role in raising money for the public schools in New York City.

But if Kennedy were, say, Caroline Smith, do you think that Governor David Paterson would have even taken her call?

For that matter, do you think that Hillary Rodham Clinton, late of Illinois, Arkansas, and Washington, D.C. could have decided on the brink of the 200o senatorial election in New York to move to the Empire State and run to take the place of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a lifelong New Yorker and thinker on public policy who became one of the best senators in the history of the Republic? (That, by the way, is an assessment shared by conservative columnist George Will regarding the late Democratic senator.)

And would George W. Bush have had a shot at becoming governor of Texas in 1994 and then, President of the United States?

Dynasties, whether at the local, state, or national levels, have not been unknown in the US, of course. Right now, I'm reading Francis Russell's 1976 book, Adams: An American Dynasty, telling the stories of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and their progeny. The Adamses produced two presidents and a vice presidential nominee, not to mention a few business magnates and historians. But each worked long in the vineyards of public life before running for major offices.

Bushes, Clintons, and possibly, Kennedys, don't need to bother with such pedestrian pursuits. But is royalty the way we want to go in the United States?

If Paterson appoints Kennedy to the Senate seat, it might be applauded by those who think that the person who takes Clinton's place must be a woman or must have star power. It might even keep New York Democrats from going to war with one another; arguing against Caroline Kennedy in the Senate might, for Dems, be a bit like arguing against Santa Claus appearing in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving parade.

But what are we saying to young people about folks who get elected or appointed to office merely because they have the right last names? Parents might say something like: "If you work hard, commit yourself to what's best for the country, and undertake a lifetime of service to others, good daughter or good son, you'll get to watch others get the senate seats and the governors' chairs."

Is that the message we want our kids to receive? Or do we want this to be America?

[I've discussed this subject before. See here, here, and here.]

*That should probably be an iffier proposition than it is in light of Clinton's problem with the emoluments clause of the US Constitution.

More on Kennedy's interest in the NY Senate seat can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

"People Get Ready": A Look at This Sunday's Gospel Lesson (December 7, 2008)

[This week, to help people prepare for worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, the congregation I serve as pastor, and at other churches that use the lectionary associated with the Church Year, I'm not going to discuss all the appointed lessons. You might want to read all of them, linked below. But my focus here will be on the Gospel lesson only. I hope that you find it helpful.]

Bible Lessons for the First Sunday in Advent (Year B):
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

The Prayer of the Day:
Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming strengthen us to serve you with purified lives; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

A Few Comments:
1. For background on the Gospel of Mark, go here. For background on the Season of Advent, go here.

2. The first lesson, from Isaiah, was likely written by the person scholars refer to as "Second Isaiah" (or "Deutero-Isaiah), a prophet schooled in the teachings of the original Isaiah. Second Isaiah, the scholars tell us, began committing his prophecies to paper just before Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon. The Babylonian empire had earlier conquered God's people, taking many of them into slavery. For more, go here, looking under the section dealing with last Sunday's lesson from Isaiah.

3. Advent is not just a season anticipating Christmas, of course. In fact, it originally had nothing to do with Christmas. The season mainly anticipates that the God Who entered our world in Jesus Christ has said that He will come back. The question is, "How do we wait?"

Last Sunday's lessons dealt with one aspect of how we should wait for Christ's return. The lessons for this week further address that question, pointing to repentance.

The earliest Christians, as evidenced by the writings of Paul and Peter in the New Testament letters, had expected Jesus' quick return. In last Sunday's Gospel lesson, Jesus said that all of the world conditions requisite for His return already existed during His earthly ministry. We need look for no further signs for the Second Coming. The perception of a delayed parousia was a source of consternation to the first Christians. It broke the faith of some. Others saw it as license to commit sin. Still others either claimed that Jesus wasn't returning or that His return would be symbolic rather than actual.

In our second lesson, Peter says that the perception of delay was based on impatient human measurement, not the timetable of God. He says, in fact, that God's supposed slowness gives more people time to repent, that is, turn from sin and turn to God. (By the way, it also affords Christians more opportunity to spread the Good News about Jesus.)

This all dovetails nicely with this Sunday's Gospel lesson.

Verse-by-Verse Comments on Mark 1:1-8
v.1: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God": Mark's Gospel begins with a sentence fragment, which I believe, serves as a title for the entire book. The account of Jesus' life, death, and the report of His resurrection--more on that phrasing in a moment--which Mark presents is just "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ." This is so in two ways.

First: Mark, and the other Gospel writers, Matthew, Luke, and John, aren't just telling a story. They're telling the true story of what happened when God came to the earth in Jesus Christ. (By the way, contrary to one of the popular urban legends going around today, Jesus' life is more well attested by more disparate sources than were the lives of many ancient figures whose existences are not questioned. The assertion that Jesus never existed may be around because Jesus is a greater threat to our self-driven life styles, including my own, than someone like Alexander the Great. We can look at someone like Alexander and keep him safely in the vaults of history. But Jesus, the Savior Who wouldn't stay dead, will change us from the inside out if we give Him access to our lives, psyches, and thinking.)

The story of Jesus will, if we let it, change our lives for eternity. His time on earth is only the beginning of Jesus' story. It can continue in us and can continue forever.

Second: Many modern scholars believe that Mark originally ended his Gospel account of Jesus with Mark 16:8. There, we're told simply that on the first Easter, the women to whom Jesus' resurrection was announced fled from the tomb in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anybody because fear overcame them.

That would seem, from Mark's vantage point, to be a good coda for his writing. Mark's first readers, like you and me, were people who hadn't seen a dead man rise to life. Their call, like ours, was to step into this mystery, letting it take hold of them while the Holy Spirit built faith in them.

The sentence fragment in verse 1 immerses us in the mystery of Jesus. Mark doesn't try to win you over with factoids. Instead, in rapid succession, he gives you vignettes from Jesus' earthly ministry and the report of His resurrection to nudge you toward faith, rather than bludgeoning you to it.*

"good news": The word is a Greek compound, euaggelion (pronounced you-ahn-gay-lee-own). The eu- prefix means good. Aggelion means message. (It's related to the Greek word for messenger, angelos, in English rendered as angel.)

In ordinary Greek usage, the singular form of this word, as it shows up in our lesson, never appeared. It was always used in a way that seems awkward in the English language, a plural that, if translated literally, would mean "good newses."

It was a term used of the victories achieved by great kings. The Romans, who it should be pointed out, regarded their emperors as gods or sons of gods, hailed the good newses of their victorious god-kings.

You can see how, first of all, Mark's use of the singular of this word would have been jarring to those who hadn't really heard the word in that way before. More than that, it would have been a gauntlet thrown down at the worship of emperors, military heroes, or little deities. There is really only one thing that we can speak of as good news, of true victory, Mark was saying, and that's the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

"Son of God": This also would have been a provocative designation. The emperors were called "sons of gods." Mark is saying that Jesus is the Son of the God.

In using these terms for Jesus though, Mark was, in essence, setting his audience up. Jesus wouldn't be a king who conquered through military, economic, or political muscle, but as a suffering servant who dealt with the real problems of the human race, sin and death, by sharing our deaths and rising to give new lives to those who surrender to Him.

vv.2-3: Mark wastes no time in telling his story. He dives in.

He also claims that the whole of what he cites from the Old Testament comes from Isaiah. Actually, only v. 3 does, specifically Isaiah 40:3. V. 2 actually references Exodus 23:20 and the similar Malachi 3:1. The Exodus passage, from the Old Testament account of the Hebrews' journey from Egypt, where they had been slaves, to their promised land, finds God promising "an angel," a messenger, would guard them on their way in order to take them to the place God had prepared for them.

Malachi may have been a title, rather than the name of the writer of the Old Testament book that bears that name. It's the Hebrew word for messenger. Malachi says that a messenger is coming from God and it has been seen by some to refer to both John the Baptizer and Jesus.

Mark's use of the Exodus passage is particularly interesting. John's ministry happened at the Jordan River, which the Exodus people crossed to get to the promised land. Without a relationship with God, without forgiveness of sin, we wander in the wilderness, far from God.

"the wilderness": Interestingly, as pointed out by Pastor Ed Markquart, wilderness was always a place of promise, a place through which God's people travel to be shaped by God and ushered into his presence. John the Baptizer's place of ministry was fraught with promise.

v.4: "John the Baptizer": It's better to refer to John in this way. "Baptist" as in "John the Baptist" creates confusion. John the Baptizer had nothing to do with the Baptist movement within Christianity, which started in the 16th.-century.

"a baptism of repentance": This contrasts with the baptism instituted by Jesus. John's baptism was a rite of commitment to repentance on the part of the person who came forward to be baptized. In the baptism of Jesus, a sacrament, God acts; the baptized is the passive recipient of God's act of grace and salvation in Christ.

The word in the New Testament Greek for repentance is metanoia, meaning change of mind. Repentance, turning away from sin, is an essential response to the grace God offers in Christ. God will not force Himself on us. God will act when we turn to Him, willing to be changed from an enemy to a friend of God.

The Biblical teaching on repentance flies in the face of the pop psychology of our day that claims that people can't change, that they're the hapless victims of genes and experience, nature and nurture. The Bible says that in fact, people can change, and a rich history of thousands of years' worth of changed lives supports the teaching.

In Christ, God calls us to live in what Martin Luther called, "daily repentance and renewal," daily submission to God's power to change us. If we're willing to change for the better, away from self-centered and destructive behaviors toward lives of love for God and neighbor, we can become what Luther also called, "the Holy Spirit's workshop."

This process of gratifying change, which the New Testament calls sanctification, isn't easy and none of us will be fully reformed this side of the grave. But repentant people can be changed by the grace of God.

"sins": The word is the plural form of the Greek word, 'amartia. It has the idea of "missing the mark," of failing to be what God has made us to be and which, when we are honest, we want to be. This is what Paul spoke about in Romans 7:15.

"forgiveness": The word in Greek is a form of the verb, aphiemi, meaning release. When we repent, turning to the God we know in Christ, He lifts the oppressing load of sin off of our shoulders. We're freed to be God's people again, entering "the promised land" of God's eternal reign.

v.5: "confessing their sins": This is how we prepare for Christ coming into our lives, not just at the end of history, but every day we confess our sins to God.

"baptized": There were baptisms practiced as religious rites of purification by some Jews and by people of other faiths. But those rites were self-administered, particularly among the Qumran community who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. John's baptism was unique in that it was administered by someone else and was a public act of repentance and commitment.

v.6: "Now John was clothed...he ate locusts and wild honey": God often uses people the world considers weird and marginal to proclaim His message. Maybe weird and marginal people are the best candidates for this because they're not concerned about what the neighbors think. They only care about what God thinks.

John's attire was similar to that of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, who it was thought, might come back to be the forerunning announcer of the Messiah.

v.7: "more power than I...I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thongs of his sandals": John emphasizes the surpassing greatness of the one "coming after" him.

v.8: "I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit": John again underscores the contrast between his baptism and the one to be instituted by Christ. John's baptism is water only, a symbol of repentance. Jesus' baptism brings the Holy Spirit's power into the life of the baptized. Just as Jesus came into the world at Bethlehem, in Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit comes into our lives. Every time Holy Baptism happens, another advent, a coming of God into our world, happens.

[For more, see here. You might also like N.T. Wright's readable, insightful, and fun commentary.]

*Most scholars today believe that the accounts of Jesus' resurrection appearances that make up the rest of Mark 16, were added later. That doesn't mean that they're inauthentic though.

[Background on the Church Year and the three years of the lectionary cycle can be found here.]

"Conservative" Anglicans Form New Church Body

See here.

Go here for extensive background information.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

LP Cover Parodies and Self-Deprecation

I was in a Virgin Records Store earlier this week. (It's a place through which I sometimes peruse, although I can't remember ever buying anything there.) As I looked around, this CD cover caught my eye:


Imitation is, of course, if not the highest, one of the highest forms of flattery and obviously, this LP cover art from Def Leppard, a band I have managed to totally avoid through the years, pays homage to the Beatles. The Sparkle Lounge, I've since learned, was released in April of this year.

In case you don't know which Beatles LP it mimics (How have you managed to avoid the Beatles all these years and why would you want to?), here's the cover for their 1967 release, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band:



One of my favorite knock-offs of this landmark LP's cover was on the 1973 release by Beatle Ringo Starr. It looks like this:

The Beatles always had a healthy sense of humor, concealing pride in their musical legacy beneath a willingness--most of the time--to deprecate and parody themselves. This was true of them from the beginning of their careers, when the Four Moptops appeared on a British variety show mocking their own then-signature, "Wooh!" while singing Moonlight Bay:



In later years, George Harrison appeared in the Eric Idle-created mockumentary, The Rutles.

But when it comes to LP covers, one of my favorite Beatles send-ups came from Beatle Paul McCartney. It mimics the cover that may be even more famous than that of Sergeant Pepper's: Abbey Road. Again, for those who've been living under large geological formations for all or parts of the last forty-five years, the original looks like this:

And here's Macca's send-up, a concert LP released in 1993, called Paul is Live:


The Paul is Live cover manages also to allude to at least two tidbits of Beatles lore. First, it hearkens back to the resilient rumor, which started in 1966 and was still going strong in some circles as late as 1970, that said that McCartney was dead. The Abbey Road cover was introduced as evidence for this assertion. (One probably believed by the same folks who think that UFOs are here from other planets, the Cubans or the Mafia killed Kennedy, and Milli Vanilli were talented.) The four Beatles crossing the street by the EMI studios where they'd recorded from the beginnings of their careers, were said to be forming an Indian funeral procession with Lennon as priest and Starr as undertaker. The bodies of the dead in India, we were told ominously, were always left shoeless in such processions. Note: Paul is barefooted! Harrison, in his jeans, was also said to represent lower-caste mourners for the departed. No, in fact, Macca was saying in 1993, "Paul is [a]live and performing live." (As he told Chris Farley in one of those wonderful faux talk shows Farley used to do on Saturday Night Live, "I wasn't really dead.")

On the 1993 cover, McCartney is being pulled along by an English sheep dog like the one he owned in the 1960s, a dog named Martha. Martha gave its name to the Beatles' 1968 tune, Martha My Dear.

Self-parody is the best way for celebs to inoculate themselves against others' putdowns and from the usually-plausible charge of taking themselves too seriously. (This was something George Harrison tried, to no avail, to teach Madonna and Sean Penn when he produced a movie in which the then-married couple starred for him.) JFK was a master of self-deprecating humor and the Beatles, who conquered America five months after Kennedy's assassination and who were not short on ego, have been as well.

Here and here are sites that display LP covers imitating Sergeant Pepper's and Abbey Road.

I suppose that the real question about these and other parodies or all artistic imitation, for that matter, is why it happens. There are probably several reasons. One is that some works of art, whatever the idiom, are touchstones. They grab us by the lapels--assuming we have lapels--and won't let go. Musically, Sergeant Pepper's and Abbey Road did that, as did their cover art. Both were celebrated and are viewed as iconic.

Secondly, not everybody is as creative as the Beatles or the LP cover artists with whom they closely worked once Beatlemania hit. The Beatles' monstrous success allowed them to roam like kids in the candy shop through the entire musical process--production, arrangements, packaging. Before Beatles LPs like Revolver or Rubber Soul, album covers were fairly boring and predictable. The Beatles changed that.

But, of course, few can match the Beatles for creativity or the freedom accorded them by the suits. For four-and-a-half decades now the Fab Four have been imitated and parodied, but never matched.

[Also see here.]

[UPDATE: Go here to see something totally unnecessary: a live webcam transmission from the Abbey Road studios, now seventy-seven years old and still a site that attracts artists from around the world.]

YOURS

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Making Our Relationships Work: Covenant

[This was shared during the first Midweek Advent Worship of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier tonight. It was inspired by a sermon from Reverend Roger R. Sonnenberg, although it bears no resemblance to his work. So, don't blame him!]

Jeremiah 33:14-16
A woman told me, during a conversation several years ago, about her marriage, then entering its fourth decade. With humor, she recounted some of the trials she and her husband had weathered, including some that might have torpedoed other relationships.

Seeing an unspoken question on my face, she asked me, “Do you want to know how we’ve made it this long?” “Sure,” I told her. “It’s simple,” she said, “Before we even said, ‘I do,’ we made a promise to each other. No matter what, we would stay together.” She laughed and went on. “I also promised my husband that if he ever made me miserable, because of my commitment to him, I’d spend a lifetime making him miserable in return.”

She meant that last part as a joke, you should know. But the takeaway from my conversation with that woman was that the commitments, the promises, she and her husband made at the beginning of their relationship is part of why they remained together.

Now, we all know that not all marriages stay together. Things like infidelity, abuse, or other things can tear marriages apart. But in an age when people end their marriages on the flimsiest of pretexts, that woman’s words to me were telling. This couple decided at the outset that no matter how rocky things got, divorce was not an option.

Whether stated explicitly or simply believed internally, all relationships—marriages, friendships, or those between parents and children—are built on commitments or promises to hang in there together. Those two words—commitment, promise—really help to define the word that is the focal point of tonight’s worship, the first essential ingredient in good relationships: covenant

Covenant isn’t often included in the lexicon of the world outside the Church. (Sometimes, I think that we ought to hand visitors to our churches dictionaries so that they can understand the strange words we Christians use.) But covenant is a fundamental concept for we Christians…and for anyone who wants to have healthy relationships.

It won’t surprise you that as we develop a few thoughts about covenants and the part they can play in keeping our relationships together and strong, we have to start with God.

One reason for that is that God is the inventor of covenants. The God you and I know in Jesus Christ makes and keeps promises. A few examples:
  • God promised Adam and Eve promised protection from the elements after they fell into sin.
  • God promised to protect Cain from murder after Cain killed his own brother, Abel.
  • God promised never to destroy the earth by water after He sent the great flood in response to human sin.
  • God promised to make a great nation from the descendants of a couple who shouldn’t have even been able to produce children, Abraham and Sarah.
  • The Ten Commandments begin, as all you good Catechism students will no doubt remember, not with God’s commands of His people, Israel, but with a promise: “I am the Lord, your God!”
  • God promised that one day, He would send a Savior Who would give His life on a cross and rise from the dead in order to offer forgiveness and everlasting life to all with faith in Him.
  • After this Savior rose from the dead and before He ascended into heaven, He made another promise: “I am with you always…I will never leave you or forsake you…”
Our Old Testament lesson, given by God through the prophet Jeremiah, is one we especially cherish during the Advent and Christmas seasons:
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’"
In Jesus Christ, the baby born at Bethlehem, we see in flesh and blood, evidence that God keeps the promises God makes! “No matter what,” God tells us in His promises—His covenants for both His Old and New Testament peoples, “divorce is not an option. You may choose to walk away from Me. But I will never walk away from you!”

In the resilient toughness of God’s covenant promises to the human race, we see an important key to making all of our relationships work, making promises, making commitments to tough it out no matter what.

But, of course, there’s a problem with promises. I once read the story of a young man living in 19th-century England. As you know, that was what's called the Victorian Era. It was a time when young men were expected to write love poems or flowery letters to their girlfriends. So, this young man tried to write a love letter to his fiancĂ©.

“I would cross the widest ocean for you,” he told her, “I would climb the highest mountain, walk through the greatest desert. I would do anything for you.” After that set of commitments, he added a PS: “I’ll be over tonight, if it doesn’t rain.”

Our promises are only as good as our willingness or our ability to follow through on them. And follow through on our good intentions isn’t generally a strong suit of we human beings. I don’t know about you, but I can so identify with the apostle Paul, when he writes in Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.“

Among the things I’ve done that I hate, more often than I care to remember, is hurt my relationships with friends, colleagues, neighbors, and others by my failure to love others as God has loved me, to forgive others as God has forgiven me.

I should know better. More importantly, I should live better, in part because I’ve been the beneficiary of such great examples of people who live out their covenants, their promises, of love and concern for others.

Back in 1984, I graduated from seminary in May and still didn’t have a call to my first parish by August 11, the date on which Ann (then expecting our daughter, Sarah), Philip, and I had to be out of seminary housing.

My folks still had two teenagers living at home. Ann’s mother had just been through a divorce and was living in a tiny apartment. We couldn’t move in with family, then.

On top of that, my only financial contribution to our family came from what I made working part-time as a janitor. Ann, who I had torn away from a decent-paying position with the Greater Columbus Arts Council, so that I could do my seminary internship in Michigan, was working as a low-level coordinator with the special events office of Lazarus Department Store. We couldn’t even afford an apartment.

That’s when my friend Tom called me. Tom had just been through a divorce himself. It was a time when it would have been easy and understandable for Tom to be turned in on himself, licking his wounds. But Tom knew the jam I was in and asked if Ann, Phil, and I would like to move into his house with him.

Over a decade before, Tom and I had become friends. But then, he lived out the promise of friendship in a way that I could hardly fathom.

If you asked Tom how he was able to do that, you would eventually come to the real reason for his tough covenant love: Jesus Christ is his Lord and Savior. When Christ lives in you, you find it possible to walk the talk of loving relationships.

Of course, it isn’t just with friends that we’re called to love as we’ve been loved. For several decades now, Pastor Mike Slaughter has challenged the people of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, located near Tipp City, Ohio, to adopt an impoverished family, usually from inner city Dayton. “Whatever you spend at your house for birthdays and Christmases,” he tells them, “spend the same amount on your adopted family.”

I’ve heard Slaughter talk about how hard that was for him initially, even after he'd convinced people in his church that it was the thing to do. But for decades now, the church’s members have been adopting families. The congregation has swollen to thousands of members precisely because of its commitment to living out covenants of love in Christ's Name.

The other day, Ann pointed me to an article in the most recent issue of Woman’s Day that, in part, profiled a woman who had been among the church's adoptees a few years back. She was a single mom finding it tough to make ends meet. But a giving family from her church helped get her through, and more than materially. Today, she’s an active member of the congregation herself. A few Christmases back, she heard Pastor Slaughter say that the congregation should send a million-dollars to help the refugees from the genocide in the Darfur region of the African nation of Sudan. He suggested that each household add to what they were already giving to attain the goal. “I could never do that,” this woman told herself. But at that moment, her young son leaned over and whispered to her, “We ought to do that.” And that’s exactly what they did!

God's #1 ingredient for relationships is covenant, giving and living the promise to love as we’ve been loved and not only our friends, neighbors, co-workers, spouses, children, parents, and classmates, but also all of the people Jesus was born to save: the whole world.

During this Advent season, let’s pray that the God Who long ago made a covenant to send a Savior, a branch of David Who would give His righteousness to all who turn from sin and follow Him, will give us the courage, tenacity, and openness to make and keep our own covenants of love for others.

How to Wait

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on Sunday, November 30, the First Sunday in Advent.]

Mark 13:24-37
Near the beginning of C.S. Lewis' classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four children from our world enter, by way of a wardrobe, into another world. They find themselves in a place called Narnia, then living under the spell of a White Witch who has made it “always winter, always winter and never Christmas.”

But the hope of spring comes into Narnia when Aslan, the Great Lion, the son of the Emperor-over-the-Sea, returns to Narnia. I’ll say no more for those who haven’t yet read the book, but this: I suspect that the moods of many people in our world today can be described as Narnia is described at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. For them, life is “always winter and never Christmas”: drudgery without joy, longing without fulfillment, fear without encouragement, and for some, sorrow without hope.

Each of us know what it is like to yearn, as Lewis puts it in another book, for "another country," a better place. I imagine that at their root, every longing you and I have ever known, goes back to our desire for something better, which we’re all prone to mistakenly imagine can be fulfilled by some one or some thing here on earth: a new love, a new car, a new job or career, a new baby, a new house, a new drug, a new exercise, a new buzz.

When I was a boy, this time of year seemed to drag on endlessly. The sun sank early, the nights lasted forever, and it felt like Christmas would never arrive. And while I was usually quite happy with my gifts, they didn't give me a joy that endured.

But the wintry state of our souls can be seen in more than little children with their Christmas lists. I spoke once with a man who told me that his teenage son, formerly an honors student and a great athlete, had gotten involved with sex outside of marriage and with drugs and destructive patterns of behavior. When a psychologist asked the young man why he had taken his life in this direction, he said, “Look, either the terrorists, or global warming, or some natural disaster is going to get me anyway. We’re all going to die soon. So, I just want to live while I can.” For this young man, it was always winter and never Christmas.

But it doesn’t have to be that way for any of us! We can live with joy, even in the midst of the humdrum. We can have our deepest yearnings for wholeness met. We can face each day with a hope that knows that one day all our sorrow will be turned into laughter and dancing!

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new Church Year. Advent is a season of anticipation, of waiting. It coincides with the ebbing days of fall and the first stirrings of winter. But unlike that Narnian winter, our winter of waiting looks forward with the confident assurance that Christmas will come.

And it’s more than the celebration of Christmas, that day long ago when God came into the world in the person of the baby Jesus, that makes our Advent winter waiting bearable. In Advent, we also remember that one day, Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the King of kings, the Son of God the Father, is coming back. He, Who once died and then sprang to life again, will return. All the dead who have hoped in Him will rise again and all still living who have followed Him will be with Him in a kingdom that lasts forever. In Advent, we remember that the sins of Jesus’ followers are forgiven and so, have a hope that not even death can destroy. That’s why the color of this season is blue, the color of a bright spring sky, when life is new and the possibilities are endless.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus addresses people to whom He has revealed that the massive, sumptuous stones of the temple in Jerusalem will one day crumble and disappear. His fellow Jews can hardly believe it! Like us, the ancient people of God built monuments of faith to God which also, in their way, served as monuments to their own egos. The ancient Hebrew and Judean peoples thought that the Temple would stand forever. If it were to crumble, Jesus' disciples seem to think, then surely the end of the world must be close at hand. It depresses them. They wonder about the signs that will take place before the end.

Jesus goes on to describe events like earthquakes and persecutions of believers, things that are going on today...and that have gone on for thousands of years.

What Jesus is saying is that the end, which will be followed by His reappearance and the establishment of His eternal kingdom could come at any time. All the signs pointing to Jesus’ return and the end of this world had already taken place twenty-one centuries ago. But that shouldn’t depress us. Nor should it be the subject of speculations. Instead, we need to be prepared for His return. Jesus puts it this way:
"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert… Keep awake."
During our season of waiting, of longing for Christ to act in our lives, we’re called to remain awake, alive, tuned in to God, ready for Jesus’ appearance.

But what exactly does that mean? Above all, I think that it means being about the business that Jesus gives us to do, the business of loving God and loving neighbor, even when we feel inadequate to the task.

It seems to me that we can be about that business in two major ways.
  • First, we intentionally spend time with God, seeking God's forgiveness, listening for God’s direction and correction.
  • Second, in looking for ways to share Christ’s love in our everyday lives.
By far, the hardest of these two things to do is to, in the words of the Old Testament, “be still and know [that God] is God.” Lutheran pastor David Stark says that on the first Christmas, the only ones who seem to have gotten the word about the birth of Jesus, were shepherds, men who spent long nights silently watching their flocks.

The saying is true, “If you feel a long way from God, you can be sure it isn’t because God moved.” God is as close as your Bible, as close as a prayer.

As hard as it may be in the busy-ness of this time of year, I challenge you if it isn’t part of your daily routine to take time each day to turn off the radio during the morning drive or to turn off the TV or computer fifteen minutes before you go to bed at night and spend the time created asking that the dear Christ will enter into your life in fresh ways to guide you and fill you with hope. In the stillness, He will come to you. I promise.

When you spend time with Christ in stillness though, don’t be surprised if He then calls you to act in ways you may not want to act.

That’s what happened to Ed Rowell. While working his way through school, Rowell drove a school bus. Among his passengers was a five year old named Ryan. Ryan seemed to warm to Ed right away. One day, as Ryan got off the bus he told Ed that he’d like for Ed to meet his mom. “She’s pretty,” Ryan said. “I’m sure she is, Ryan,” Ed responded, “but I’ve got a pretty wife at home.”

Some days later, his run completed, Ed noticed that Ryan had fallen asleep and missed getting off at his stop. As Ed turned the bus around to take Ryan to his house, he asked when Ryan had discovered he’d missed the stop. "Back at Kim's house," Ryan said. Why hadn’t he told him then? Ed wondered. Because, Ryan told him, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

Soon thereafter, Halloween came and Ed, suffering from a headache, wanted just to get the kids delivered to their stops, his bus parked, and go home to get a good night’s sleep. He scanned the bus for any sleeping kids and took off.

Ed slept in the next morning, a Saturday, and had just settled in for a cup of coffee, when an item in the newspaper caught his eye. At the local YMCA Halloween party, there had been an accident. A five year old boy was crushed to death by some overturned gymnastic equipment. It was Ryan.

He didn’t want to, but Ed went to Ryan’s funeral visitation. “I’m so scared,” Ed thought. His greatest fear was that he would say something wrong, that he would add to the grief of Ryan’s family with an ill-chosen word.

When Ed arrived, he found Ryan’s “pretty” mom. As Ed saw Ryan’s body in his half-sized casket, he thought he detected a little bit of Halloween make-up on his left ear. “Don’t cry, you idiot,” Ed told himself. In a moment, Ed was standing in front of Ryan’s mother.

“I was Ryan’s bus driver,” he said. Her eyes began to mist and Ed was fearful that he was making things worse. Ryan’s mother then grabbed Ed and began to sob, which in turn set him to sobbing. Ed writes, “I held this young mother I'd never met before, and wished I had something to say that would turn…attention away from my tears and runny nose.” Ed thought he should say something. He didn’t know what it would be, so he just blurted out the first thing that crossed his mind: “Just remember, God knows the pain of losing a son, too." That made the crying worse and Ed got out of the funeral home as fast as possible.

A few months later, Ed’s wife took him to the hospital ER. He was experiencing an appendicitis. As he lay there on a gurney, a pretty woman walked in. It was Ryan’s mother. It turned out that she was an ER nurse.

"Hello, bus driver," she said with a smile. "I want to thank you for being there that night,” she said, as she gave Ed a shot. "I can't tell you how much your words about God understanding have helped me over these past few months. But the fact that you cared enough to cry with us meant more than anything."

This Advent, let God teach you how to wait God’s way.

We wait by taking time to spend with God so that He can forgive us and fortify us for whatever life brings our ways.

And we wait too, by reaching out to others, however unqualified we may feel, with the love, comfort, hope, and peace of God.

For the Christian, filled with God’s Spirit, even in the midst of the challenges of daily living, whether winter, spring, summer, or fall, it can always be Christmas, always a celebration that the Savior born in Bethlehem has died and risen and is always with us. Amen

WOW!

I've been out of state for several days and more or less, insulated from the world. Yeah, I heard that someone named Clinton will be nominated by President Obama for Secretary of State. And, yes, I heard that the Big Three automakers have presented new business plans, along with a request for loans totaling $34-billion for the lot of them. And, yeah, I know that recession has been officially declared as the condition of the economy since last November.

But having gotten home just a few moments ago, THIS was the item about which I hadn't heard and which, in the past half hour, has ROCKED MY WORLD.

Now, it's back to work.

YES!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Simple Question for Big 12 Fans

I don't ask this impudently. My favorite conference, the Big 10, has its problems. I'm willing, in fact, to admit that the Big 10 is down this year.

But really, how do fans Big 12 teams expect their favorites to do in the post-season BCS bowl games? This weekend's five matchups in the Big 12 saw a total of 371 points scored, 102 of those in what was supposedly the elite game of the day, Oklahoma at Oklahoma State. What do you make of a conference where the average total points per game was 74? Or how do you explain that one Big 12 team, Oklahoma's Sooners, supposedly the third best in the country, gave up 41 points to the 12th-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys in a winning match with no overtimes?

I tell you what I made of it as I watched about a quarter of the Sooners and the Cowboys. "Where are their defenses?" I wondered. The two teams' offensive squads moved up and down the field for scores, with the Cowboys showing greater talent on offense. But watching them, I was reminded of nothing so much as one of those unrealistic football video games.

Can teams from the vaunted Big 12 South win against elite competition from other conferences?

I don't know.

But based on the points that teams like Oklahoma State and Oklahoma give up, if I were a betting person---and I'm not---I wouldn't be inclined to bet more than a couple of bucks on them.

I'm probably missing something.

Someone show me what it is.