Here We Grow Again

Statistically, January 1 is less likely to occur on a Monday than on other days.  Why? I have no idea.  But that means that we don’t have the chance to end the year in worship on 12/31.  In 2017, we did just that, and thought about the nature of time, and what it means for us to be creatures who are called to inhabit time, but who may also live beyond time.  Scriptures for the morning included Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and Luke 13:6-9.   

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the media player below.

Don’t answer this out loud, but think for a moment… What is your first thought upon awakening on a typical day? Not that groggy, in and out, half asleep stuff, but the first moment that your YOU is present… what fills your mind?

I could be wrong, of course, but I suspect that most of us fall somewhere on a spectrum… there are occasions when we find ourselves sighing, resignedly, “Well, here we go… another day in paradise… Same stuff, different day…” And there are, presumably, some people in the room who wake up delighted with the prospect of spending another day circling the sun, full of hope and purpose for the hours that lay ahead… “A whole new world…”

Or do you even think about those kinds of things? How important is time to you? Do you need to know what day, what hour, what minute it is? Are you always early, or chronically late? Do you feel as though you have to be doing something – you have to be productive all the time?

And how do you see yourself in the midst of time? I have a hunch that many, if not most of you, see yourselves as following a certain chronology… That could be a daily thing (“Hmmmm, well, I have to be to work by four, so that means that I’ve got to finish the shopping by three…”), or it could be expanded into a longer view (“Yep, I’d better purchase that 2018 fishing license now…” or “Yikes, it’s time to clean those carpets again…”).

I’m walking around the edges of this relationship that you and I have with time at what I perceive to be an opportune moment. My hunch is that there are not as many times in the rhythm of our lives when we are as apt to say something like, “Oh, we always do such and such…” as we are around the holidays. We always buy a real tree… Grandma always makes the gravy and the stuffing… she always visits the cemetery on Christmas Eve…

Oh really? Are those things that, in fact, always happen?

I could say that I always spend time with my brother and sister around Christmas. And, in a way, that’s true. I mean, photos don’t lie, right? Here we are – late December back in ’63, and then again on Friday evening of this week… Yet is this the same thing? In what ways is this “always”? I mean, how many people are there in those photos? Are there three people on the screen? Or six? Obviously, the good-looking kid on the right is me. Or was me. But is the child the same me?

I mean, you think about this kind of stuff long enough and your head starts to hurt, doesn’t it?

I suspect that a part of the conundrum that we experience when we seek to think about and relate to the passing of time is the fact that we are, in some ways, bound to the passing of minutes, hours, days, and weeks. And yet in some very important ways, we are designed to transcend that.

British theologian and writer C.S. Lewis put it this way in his classic book The Screwtape Letters:

Humans are amphibians…half spirit and half animal…as spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time, means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation–the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.[1]

This inbetweenness – sometimes feeling lost in eternity and other times feeling gripped by the moment was captured in an old Far Side cartoon by Gary Larsen:

We are, each of us, always, in both places. We are near to eternity, and we are stuck having to remember that garbage collection is delayed a day this week due to the holiday. And that is precisely why we sometimes find ourselves singing “A Whole New World” even while we’re muttering “same stuff, different day” under our breath. In some way, both are true. There are things that we have always done, but the we who have done them are different every single time, aren’t we?

I not only use time, keep time, spend time, save time, waste time… I am affected by time. I live within time. I am shaped by time. And, in some way, I am called to shape the times in which I live.

I’m preaching all this, of course, because today is the first time in eleven years that New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday. In our culture, we think a lot about time on December 31. We look back at the year that has past, and we anticipate what is to come. Some of you, no doubt, are hard at work crafting your list of New Year’s Resolutions…

Are we, waiting and watching for the beginning of another year, different than we were last year?

Well, yes and no.

How do you view time? A casual reading of Ecclesiastes might lead you to the conclusion that time is circular: we do this, and then we do this, and then this, and lo and behold we find ourselves back to the beginning again. It really is just the same stuff on a different day…

You’d be hard pressed to prove different by looking at our church calendar: there’s advent, then Epiphany, ordinary time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, ordinary time, and Advent… It does seem as though it is circular.

Yet when we remember that we are always moving, always changing, and always being given the opportunity to grow, we confess that time is not merely circular, but rather, it has a structure and a movement that may bring us around to similar places, but not the same place. I like to think of the rhythm of the year like those ramps at Heinz Field or any other stadium. They are built in a circle, and as you get closer to the nosebleed seats, you’ll find that you have several opportunities to be looking North, East, South, or West… but when you get to “that” spot again, your vantage point is a little different because you are thirty feet higher than you were the last time around.

Ecclesiastes does say that the seasons come, and go, and repeat… but a careful reading will also indicate that they are not the same – because we are not the same. The landscape, and our perspective on it, changes as we mature and, well, encounter more and more seasons.

The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Which brings me to December 31 and the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. Allow me to make several brief observations about these verses as we worship together for the last time in 2017.

First, let us note that in all likelihood, the central figure in this story – the landowner – is supposed to remind us of God the Father. And what do we note about this landowner? His main business is the vineyard. That’s the way that he describes his property. And yet growing in this vineyard is a fig tree. The figs are not this man’s main interest. They are a hobby. They, for some reason, occasion his interest or even his delight. He doesn’t need the figs. He wants them. He is eager for them.

The landowner’s central concern is, of course, fruit. He is not interested in the fig tree for the sake of the lumber or shade or the quality of leaves it may or may not provide. No, he looks at it and he wants to know if it is bearing fruit. If it is, in fact, doing that which fig trees ought to do. Is it blessing him or others? Is it bringing forth richness and nutrition and, well, delight? At this point in the story, of course, it is not.

And yet there is a profound sense of patience, and hope, or at least tolerance on the part of the landowner. His servant – whom I would identify as the Christ-figure in this parable – has an eye to the future and an awareness of the fact that things can and do change. The gardener convinces the landowner to care more about the tree, and to invest it with the special attention and other conditions that are likely to result in the appearance of some fruit. Interestingly, the verb that the gardener uses when beseeching the landowner is the Greek word aphes. In our translation here, it is rendered “let the tree have another year”. Aphes – “leave it be; let it alone…” – is also translated as “forgive”. In fact, the One who told this story, Jesus, would use that same word on the day that he was killed – and he looked up to his Father and said, “Father, aphes – forgive; let them alone – they don’t know what they’re doing. Give me time here…”

Here’s my point: somehow, against all odds, you and I have survived another year. That is to say, we’ve lived through 2017 (so far!) and we’re still speaking to each other. We got out of bed this morning – maybe singing, maybe mumbling. We’ve got today. We are not the same people as we were 365 days ago, and yet many of us are in the same place… What are we supposed to do with that?

In 1999, Annie Dillard thought about the significance of the changing of a millennium and wound up writing a wonderful book entitled For the Time Being. In it, she challenges us to consider who we are as creatures who can only exist in and through time. Listen:

Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is? —our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations, our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes? No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other….

There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God…. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture. Purity’s time is always now.[2]

I think that the point is this, and simply this: thanks be to the grace of the landowner and the love of the gardener, we have everything we need. As we stand on the brink of 2018, we are able to do that for which we have been created: we can bear fruit in the place we’ve been planted and the season we’ve been given. Let us, therefore live and move in these days as those who are interested in producing fruit of love, grace, hope, and peace. It’s who you are. It’s why you are. Thanks be to God, it’s the reason you’re here and now. Amen.

[1] MacMillan publishing (1942, chapter 8).

[2] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (Knopf, 1999) pp. 30, 88-89.

Rain and the Helping

For more than a quarter of a century, I have written an original short story each Christmas season in an effort to express the deep and eternal meaning of the incarnation in terms that are accessible to those in the room for a candlelight service.  Many of these stories have been published in a volume entitled I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas. Information about purchasing these stories can be found by clicking here. This year, I tried to write a story that would make sense to the entire congregation but use a couple of characters that I’d invented to help my four year old granddaughter deal with some of the joys and concerns of growing up, becoming a big sister, and dealing with things that make us nervous.  Our text included the well-known account from Luke 2:1-20. I hope you enjoy it!

To hear the story as told in worship, please use the audio player below.

This is the story of a brave, strong, kind, child whose name was Rain. Like all children, Rain enjoyed many things: she liked fishing, and cooking, and taking walks to look for special things outside. But among Rain’s most favorite things in the whole world were the times when she got to climb into her Grampy’s lap and listen to his stories. They didn’t get to do that often, but whenever they were together, it was something that they shared.

Tonight was a special night, because Grampy had promised to tell Rain one of the most important stories ever – the story about the night that baby Jesus was born.

They had a book with some pictures, and there was a pretend stable with a little manger that was sitting on the table, and Rain looked at these things while Grampy talked about the man whose name was Caesar Augustus who made a rule that everyone had to go on a special trip just to pay some money and sign their names.

Rain interrupted. “But Grampy”, she said, “Why would he do that? That just seems really mean – especially to Joseph and Mary.”

Rain had been with her own momma and daddy when her little sister was born, and she knew that it was hard work being pregnant and helping to take care of someone who was pregnant. She went on to say, “If it was me, I wouldn’t have done it. I’d have just looked at old Caesar and said, ‘Hey, buddy – we’re too busy to travel now. Sorry, Pal.”

Grampy laughed at this, and then said, “Well, sometimes even mommas and daddies have to do things that are hard. But one of the things I’ve learned is that God always sends helpers. No matter where you are, God will always send helpers.”

Rain frowned and said, “Well, it sure doesn’t look like that now. I tell you what, Grampy. I’m going to keep an eye on God.”

“That’s a really good idea,” responded Grampy.

They got to the part of the story where Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, but couldn’t find anywhere to stay for the night. Once again, Rain burst into the story:

“But where are the helpers now, Grampy? Mary is going to need someone – and the only person in the story is a mean old innkeeper who wouldn’t even let them stay!”

Rain had a barn at her house, and it was a real mess – filled with bugs and snakes and bees. She would never ask anyone to sleep there!

Grampy helped Rain to see that maybe not all barns were like her barn, and maybe since the house was already full, a clean, warm, dry barn would be better than nothing.

“And,” Grampy said, “maybe a group of women came out of the house and helped Mary. The story doesn’t say that she was all alone.”

“Well,” Rain said, “If I was there, I would have waited with Mary. I would have helped her.”

Grampy went on with the story, and he got to the place where the shepherds came to visit the little family.

Rain didn’t know much about sheep, but she knew a lot about goats. She looked at her Grampy and her face squinted a little bit, and she said, “Wait – the shepherds came on the night Jesus was born? Weren’t they muddy and dirty from being outside with the animals all the time?”

Grampy smiled and said, “Oh, sweetheart, I’m sure that they were very dirty. But God wanted to include them in this special night.”

Rain thought about it for a while, and she asked a great question. “Did the shepherds come to help with the baby?”

“No,” her Grampy said. “They didn’t really come to help. They came to celebrate the fact that Jesus was born, and to say ‘Happy Birthday, Jesus.’ And maybe, in some way, the shepherds saw that Jesus’ birth was a reminder of the fact that God had promised to send them help in their lives.”

Now, this just sounded foolish to Rain. She had a new baby in her family, and she knew that babies could be great in some ways, but she also knew that mostly, babies are loud, and messy, and not really very helpful to anyone. Ever. So Rain asked her Grampy another very good question. She said, “Grampy, how can a baby ever help anyone?”

Grampy held little Rain very tightly in his arms and said, “Oh, Rain. You will know more about this when you get to be a little older, but any baby – and especially baby Jesus – can always be a reminder of how good life is supposed to be, and what special gifts God gives to each one of us.”

“Think about it,” Grampy went on, “This group of shepherds was probably pretty poor, and they were often lonely. Most of the people in their world didn’t pay any attention to shepherds – they didn’t want to be friends with them, they thought that shepherds were not as good as they were… Maybe the shepherds could have felt as though God had forgotten about them, and that God’s promises of help didn’t include them.”

“But then all of a sudden, on that special night, what happened to the shepherds?”

Rain knew the answer to that question! “The angels came, and sang just for them, and then sent them to see baby Jesus.”

Grampy asked Rain, “How do you think that the shepherds felt when the angels were there? Do you think that they thought that God had forgotten about them?”

“Of course not!”, Rain replied. “There were angels, singing in the sky, telling them to go and visit the baby! God did not forget the shepherds.”

“So then listen, Rain, because this is important: before Jesus ever grew up, before Jesus did any miracles, or healed anyone, or forgave anyone… before the baby Jesus even knew how to stand up by himself or say his own name, he was already a reminder to people who felt poor and alone and forgotten. Before Jesus could say anything with his own mouth, God used the baby Jesus to remind people that God keeps his promises and that his help will always find a way to reach us.”

That seemed to get Rain thinking for a little bit, and the room got quiet for a while. Grampy was looking at the lights on the Christmas tree, and then he looked out the window and saw that it was snowing again, and then he started thinking about the fact that pretty soon he would have to get out of that nice soft chair and start to shovel the walks again.

And while Grampy was thinking all of these big and important and grown-up thoughts, Rain was just sitting in his lap, turning the pages in the picture bible they were holding.

After a minute, Rain stopped looking at the pictures and looked at her grandfather. She thought he was very special, but she had an important question for him.

“Grampy,” she said, “do you know how to do miracles?”

“What?” He wasn’t sure that he heard the question right.

“Grampy, you know, like in the Bible stories. Jesus cured people who were sick, and he walked on water, and one time he even fed a giant crowd with only a few loaves of bread and a little bit of fish. Can you do any of those things?”

Now it was Grampy’s turn to be quiet. Finally, after a few moments, he said, “No, Rain, I don’t suppose that I can do any of those things.”

Rain nodded, and held her Grampy’s hand, and said, “That’s all right. I don’t think that I can do any of those things either.”

“Well,” said Grampy, “what do you think we can do?”

Rain said, “Look, I’m not a baby any more, and I can’t do miracles. So I can’t act like the baby Jesus, and I can’t act like the grown up Jesus. So I guess the best way for me to be like Jesus this Christmas is to try to do that reminding thing. You know, you said that this story is about how God always sends helpers. Do you think that you and me could be the helpers? I want to be a helper and a reminder.”

And so that’s what they did. They got up from the chair, and Grampy decided that he did have to go outside and shovel. But Rain came along with him, and she helped. And then they went across the street and shoveled the snow away from two other houses.

When they came inside, it was time to do arts and crafts. Instead of just making projects to hang on her own refrigerator, Rain decided that she would make some special cards for people in the hospital who might be feeling alone at Christmas time. Grampy even helped her put them in some envelopes.

Late that night, Grampy was tucking Rain into bed, and he asked, “Well, Rain… was it a good Christmas?”

She said that it was, but then she added, “But I have a a question.”

“What is it?”

“I know that now, Christmas is over. But I still want to be one of the helpers. I still want to be one of the people who reminds other people that God promises to be with them when they feel sad or alone or hurt.”

Grampy bent down and he kissed the little girl right on both cheeks. It looked like he might have been crying a little bit, but Rain wasn’t sure about that. Then he said, “Rain, that is the best answer ever. If we only do helping for a day or two, then we’re not really acting like Jesus, are we? Let’s try to do it every day, all year through.”

And so, that’s the plan. To work, in whatever way an old man and a little girl can, to be in on the helping thing that God is doing in the world.

There’s room for more of that, you know. Thanks be to the God who not only promises us help, but who sends us into the helping. Amen.

After the story was finished, we lit the candles and sang “Silent Night”, and I shared a meditation entitled “First Coming” written by Madeleine L’Engle.

 

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he cameto a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

If At First

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered the wonder of what it means to be in a position to be called by the Lord.  We heard the stories of God’s calling the boy Samuel and the annunciation to Mary and thought about how or when we might be able to respond to God’s call on our own lives.  

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below:

It wasn’t a joyous Christmas for everyone when Mikayla brought home her final report card from the first half of the third grade. Although she had been a wonderful student in previous years, every single subject showed a marked decline. Worse than that, at least for her mother, was the fact that Mikayla’s teacher indicated that Mikayla’s attitude had become really negative. The teacher said, “It’s almost as if she doesn’t care about school.”

Well, as you might imagine, there was a pretty serious conversation at dinner that evening. Mikayla’s mother was appalled by her daughter’s blatant disregard for her concerns. Finally, the child blurted out, “Look, it’s just too hard! Multiplication? Sentence structure? I hate that stuff. I’m just going to quit school.” At this point, Dad tried to take the long view, and asked about her future. Mikayla’s face brightened immediately, and said, “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about there. I have it all figured out. I don’t need to finish school or go to college. When I grow up, I’ll be a Kindergarten teacher. That stuff is easy! I understand all that.”

How frustrating is it when you find yourself in a situation where you are not able to understand what’s going on? Maybe it’s when you walk into a room and everyone is laughing… and you’re not sure why… You’re given an assignment at work or at school, and you just can’t figure out what is expected… You know what it’s like to encounter a situation in which you know that something should make sense, but you have absolutely no idea how to make it comprehensible.

We want the world to make sense, to have order, and to be predictable. We want to know what to expect, and when, and why. And yet all too often, it’s not that way. Especially, it seems, when God is involved.

Eli and Samuel, unknown illustrator.

Each of our scripture readings this morning presents us with a biblical character who simply cannot get a grip on what God is up to in their lives or in their world. In the first reading, we encounter young Samuel, who believes that the most important thing in his life at this point is to help Eli get through his days and nights in service to the Lord at the temple. Samuel respected the old man and he probably felt sorry for the ways that Eli’s sons had turned out. And Samuel probably wasn’t sure exactly why all the other kids lived at home with their parents, and he was here in the Temple, but he was making the best of it.

As you know, he heard a voice, repeatedly, and is finally able to ascertain that the voice belongs, not to the ancient priest, but to the God that they both serve.

Luke tells the story of a teenaged girl named Mary who is, by all accounts, simply minding her own business and planning a wedding. There’s a lot to do, and I’m sure that tensions were high. All of a sudden, her reverie is interrupted by the appearance of an angel who tells her something that she simply knows to be flat-out impossible.

There is not a person in this room who hasn’t asked each of these questions before: “Is that really you, God?” and “How can this be?”

You know what it’s like to ask these questions. How do you respond when you are faced with a situation that is puzzling, or confusing, or heart-breaking? It would seem to me that we could learn a thing or two from the models we have encountered in scripture this morning.

Samuel might tell us that it’s ok to slow down when you are confronting a perplexing situation. “Take some time,” he would say. “Get your bearings and try to discern what is really happening, not merely what is apparently going on.” He would know, since as you heard he didn’t get things right on his first, second or even third try.

Samuel’s willingness to restart, and his acknowledgement that his perception might not be ultimately accurate allowed him to embrace the new thing that God was going to begin in his life and in the experience of his people.

Our sister Mary would add that it’s ok to ask for help. When Gabriel started spouting all of this nonsense about her being pregnant she listened politely, but then she reminded him of the facts of her own life. And then she simply asked a question: “How can this be? I hear your words, but it simply seems unbelievable to me. Can you say more about this, please?” And in response to that, the messenger from God does, in fact, elaborate. He says that the Holy Spirit will “cover” her. The word for “cover” that is used there is the same word that the Greek Old Testament translators used to describe what was happening in the very beginning – when back in Genesis 1, the Spirit of God was “hovering” or “moving over” the water.

Mary’s willingness to ask for support and encouragement brought her to a place where she was able to see herself as a part of God’s creative movement in and through the world. She came to see that this thing was not happening to her, but rather in or through her.

Annunciation, Matthias Stom (c. 1600 – 1652)

In both instances, we see that slowing down, seeking alternative understandings, and asking for help leads God’s people to a deeper self-awareness and greater self-understanding. As young as they were, Samuel and Mary were each in a position (guided, I will note, by a mentor of one kind or another) to step outside of their own hurt, pain, confusion, or bewilderment and in so doing gain a deeper understanding of the roles that were being offered to them in the Divine economy. And in the security of that mentorship, the assurance of God’s presence, and with the gift of faith, both of these young people were able to redefine themselves, first and foremost, as “servants” of the Lord.

Mary, in fact, goes even further, referring to herself as a doulé of the Lord – a “slave”. Singer-songwriter Michael Card notes this in his volume on Luke, saying,

Her final response to the angel is conclusive proof. Essentially she responds, “Look, the slave of the Master.” Of all that she does not know, one thing seems perfectly clear to her. It is a perspective that will help her navigate the deep waters into which the small vessel of her life is about to go. It will be the source of her disturbingly clear obedience… She is surrendering her rights, her hopes and dreams and her own body absolutely to him. Mary seems to know that she is owned by Another. The message that has come to her through the angel is absolute and life-changing.[1]

So when you find yourself up against things – whether you are confronting some of the great existential questions of life, such as “Why is this hurting so much?” or “When will healing come?” or “What next?”, or whether you are encountering yet another situation where it seems as though a colleague is determined to ride your last nerve, to poke and dig at some source of irritation, or to accuse you of that which is not true… When any of those things are going on in your life, it might be helpful to remember the practices enjoined by Samuel and Mary.

Remember that you are still – and that you are always – learning how to live in the life of faith. There is no one in this room who can claim to have mastered that. Some days, you may feel as though you’ve made a lot of progress, and you can think, “Wow! I’m glad I am not where I used to be…” But never forget that each and every one of us has a long way to go on our journey toward maturity and discipleship.

Try to remember what you told your daughter when she was learning to tie her shoes, or what your friend told you when he was trying to teach you how to drive a stick-shift car: Slow down. Relax. Let’s try this again. Watch.

Remember not to take yourself so seriously. In all probability, the situation in which you find yourself is not really and ultimately about you anyway. In any case, the realities of your life at this instant are offering you with an opportunity to come alongside of God and to help conform God’s world to God’s intentions.

You know, that all sounds pretty good. Relax. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Give yourself a break. As God for help. Remember that you are a part of the thing that God is doing in the world.

Nobody would be surprised to show up for worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent and hear the preacher spouting stuff like that. It’s the sort of thing that we think we pay for from the pulpit.

But here’s something that struck me as I contemplated the nativity narratives: actually doing those things is easier for some people than others. I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, Carver goes to school for a hundred and twelve years, and then serves as a pastor for a quarter of a century, and he’s beginning to get a glimmer of understanding that we’re not all alike…”

That’s not what I mean. Look with me at some of the stories you all know about the birth of Jesus – the biggest, newest, most amazing thing that God is doing. The angels are dispatched to the Shepherds – a lowly, marginalized group on the fringes of that culture – with a message of God’s new and amazing thing, and how do the shepherds respond? “Let us go to Bethlehem and see!” The star shines in the East, and a group of foreign non-believers sense that there is something overwhelmingly compelling about this particular event, and they leave everything behind and prepare themselves to worship whoever or whatever they meet at their journey’s end. In each case, you have a group of people who are less invested in the status quo, less tied in with how they think that the story should end, and they respond by saying, “Wow, this is the coolest thing ever. Let’s move into this a little deeper!”

On the other hand, the more entrenched the participants are in their own practices and understanding of the life of faith, the harder it is for them to perceive this new thing that God is doing.

Mary is a teenaged girl who is, from everything we can tell, simply trying to do the right thing: to worship and serve God, to honor her parents and her commitments… she hears word of this astounding plan and raises her hand, haltingly, to ask a clarifying question…

Joseph is a responsible, righteous, well-regarded member of the community. He is afraid of bringing disgrace on his own family as well as that of Mary, and when he is confronted with this impossibility, he decides in his heart that he can’t possibly get behind this and so he plans a quiet bit of legal action to make everything go away quietly.

Zechariah, the priest serving in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the one who was chosen to be the father of John the Baptist – the man who, as much as anyone in this part of the story is an insider aligned with a particular way of understanding God at work in the world – he hears word of what is happening and is so surprised and upset by it that he actually argues with the angel and is struck mute as a result. And although the other priest of whom we read this morning, Eli, does not figure in the narrative of the nativity, it is worth pointing out that he cannot even hear the voice of God speaking when the Spirit announces the intention to do something new.

Could it be that in our quest to consider ourselves “mature Christians” and “growing disciples” that we may be prematurely declaring that we know what God wants and we can take it from here, thank you very much? Could it be possible that in my quest to take care of things and try to impress either you or God with my wisdom or insight or faith or whatever… that I have lost something of my ability to wonder at and seek to join in with God’s purposes?

At the end of the day, both Samuel and Mary are able to adopt a posture that is first and foremost humble, teachable, and trusting.

Samuel says, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

Mary echoes, “I am your slave. Let it be to me according to your word.”

When Jesus’ friend John wrote his account of Jesus’ life, he didn’t tell any stories about when Jesus was born. But he did give Jesus an interesting label: John said that Jesus was the “word” for God. There are all kinds of good reasons for that, I’m sure. Perhaps chief among them for me, this morning at any rate, is the fact that Jesus was the Word that was shaping Samuel (“Speak, O Lord…”. Jesus was the Word that was preparing Mary (“Let it be to me according to your Word…”).

Today, dear friends, and in the days to come, let me encourage you to find some quiet spot. Unplug. Listen. I suspect that the Word which became apparent to Samuel and to Mary is longing to become audible to you in a new fresh way here in Advent of 2017.

And you say, “Yeah, but it’s Christmas Eve! And did you see the news? Taxes! Russia! Cancer! Wildfires! Jobs! Those idiots in congress! How am I supposed to unplug?”

Listen. Seek God’s face for half an hour. None of those things are going anywhere fast. They’ll all be right where you left them when you get back. The question is, can you be different as you consider the questions in your life and in our world? If Christmas means anything, it means that you can. Thanks be to God, we all can. Amen.

[1] Michael Card, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement (Biblical Imagination Series, IVP 2011), p. 39.

What Have I Done to You?

n Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the third Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:14-20 and I Kings 19:19-21.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Not long ago I was driving along and I thought I heard singer-songwriter James Taylor doing an amazingly beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I was so taken with it that when I got home, I searched the internet, but could not find it. I couldn’t find it because, apparently, James Taylor hasn’t recorded that tune. I learned that day that James Taylor has a younger brother named Livingston, and now I’m a fan.

Have you ever found yourself reacting to someone you’d never really met before simply because they remind you of someone else? I’m not talking about “mistaken identity”, like when I’ve been asked for my autograph because someone thinks that I’m NFL broadcaster Dan Fouts; I’m talking about how you might treat someone nicer because she sort of looks like your grandmother, or how your neighbor’s child reminds you of the way your brother acted when he was younger.

When the author of Mark was writing his gospel, he went to great lengths to point out to people some of the ways that Jesus might have reminded them of someone that they ought to have known very well.

Ascent of the Prophet Elijah, Northern Russia Icon (c. 1290)

One of the most important characters in the entire Bible, and in our own faith story, is a shadowy figure named Elijah the Tishbite. He was widely regarded as Israel’s greatest prophet. He arose, seemingly, out of nowhere and called an unrighteous monarchy to account. He pushed the leadership of the people and the people themselves for purity in their spiritual lives. Elijah is one of two people mentioned in the Bible who did not die – rather, he was “taken up into heaven” in a fiery chariot.

Because of his reputation as a prophet, and because of the story of his having been taken directly to heaven, the people in Israel began to speak of Elijah’s return as the time when God would come and really set things straight once and for all. Four or five hundred years after Elijah’s death, the prophet Malachi wrote that Elijah would return at “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). When faithful Jews observe the Seder meal at Passover, it is customary to set a place at the table for Elijah – the one who comes to announce the presence of the Lord.

Mark wants us to remember Elijah. The prophet himself will figure prominently in the gospel in later chapters, but even here at the beginning, our narrator intends for us to see echoes of the Elijah story. Here’s a bit of that story to jog your memory.

As I mentioned, Elijah’s concern was defeating the idolatry that plagued his people. One day, he challenged the priests of Baal to a showdown of faith – one that ended very badly for them and for their “god”. While that may have been a very good thing for a number of reasons, the fact is that the King and Queen of Israel were Baal worshipers, and when he humiliated them, they put his name on their “public enemies” list. He fled to the wilderness, where he spent 40 days and 40 nights bemoaning his fate. At the end of that time, God came to Elijah when Elijah was alone, and spoke to him as to what to do next.

The old prophet leaves his mountain hideout and re-enters the community, where he encounters Elisha. He places his mantle on the young man’s shoulders, and in so doing, invites him to come along. It might not seem like it to our 21st-century ears, but placing the prophet’s mantle on Elisha was a very concrete invitation. It would be as if I asked Lydia to come over here, and I took off my robe and stole and put them on her – it would be an indication of what I thought her future might hold, wouldn’t it?

And Elisha doesn’t miss the message. He goes through a very public display of leaving his home, his family, and his career and then follows Elijah.

The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew, James Tissot (in 1886-1894)

In last week’s reading from Mark, we read of another man who wandered into the wilderness. Jesus left Nazareth and found John the Baptist; after their encounter, Jesus alone hears a voice and sees a vision that directs him. He then spends – how long? Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, following which he engages in his ministry. The first thing he does when he leaves the wilderness, according to Mark, is to come into Galilee preaching and teaching. Simon, Andrew, James and John all see Jesus and make a very public display of leaving their own homes, families, and careers in order to follow Jesus.

Do you see how the reading from Mark is set up to parallel the story of Elijah? Why would he do that? What does that mean to us?

You may remember that a couple of weeks ago when we began this study we noted that Mark invented the genre we call “Gospel”. Chapter one, verse one: “The beginning of the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” So far, we have encountered John the Baptist and seen Jesus. Now, in verse fourteen, we actually hear the Gospel: “The time has come! The Kingdom of God has come near! Repent and believe the good news!”

The first announcement of the Gospel as recorded in the first Gospel to be written consists of two announcements (“the time has come” and “the Kingdom of God has come near”) and two imperatives (“repent” and “believe”). The thing that God has long-intended to do is here! Pay attention. How do we pay attention? We repent. The Greek word that Mark uses is metanoia, and it means, literally “change of mind”. It speaks of being transformed, and re-orientation. And once we become open to this transformation, we live into it by believing. Pisteuete – have confidence in this thing; act as if it were true; depend on it – in short: believe!

Ah, but how do we do those things? What do “repent” and “believe” look like in our world?

Too often in modern and post-modern American culture, the word “repent” is used as a guided missile. An “evangelist” (literally, someone who is entrusted to carry the Good News) encounters a “non-believer” and hurls the invective: “You! Yes, you! Turn or burn, baby. You are so filthy, so miserable, so sinful… well, you make God sick! You better straighten up, buddy! You’d better get with the program like the rest of us holy people!” Yep, Good News all around!

And if that is how “repent” is interpreted, then the second part of the pronouncement to “believe” can often be heard as a call to abandon the intellect, turn your back on science, and just accept whatever I tell you to be true, you ninny.

Yet when we place those words in the context of Jesus (and Elijah, for that matter), we see that there is an entirely different mood and outcome.

Elijah places his mantle on Elisha, who asks a question. The old prophet immediately responds by saying, “Look? What did I do to you? This is between you and God. It’s not about keeping me happy. You do what you need to do.”

Jesus stands on the beach and calls out to the fishermen: “Come, follow me…” According to Mark, this is one of only three times that Jesus uses this particular word. It’s not the regular word for “follow”, but more appropriately “come along with me”, or “join me” or even “share this journey with me”. In other words, the call to repentance and belief is an invitation that is extended by one who wishes to share in the process, not browbeat some helpless people into theological submission.

I had a great example of this kind of invitation earlier this week. I was at my desk when I got a text from Marla (I’m still not sure how I feel about people who are in the same building, or even the same room as I am who send texts rather than simply walking over and conversing, but that could simply mean that I’m really old). The message read, “Come down to the side door. You’re gonna want to see this.”

That brief message had so much good in it: there was invitation, intrigue, presence, and anticipation. There was no sense of a threat; there was no scolding. My friend was inviting me to join her in a place she thought I would appreciate. So you know what I did: I got up and hightailed it to the side door – because I trust Marla. If she said I would want to see it, then I wanted to see it.

She showed me the back of her car, filled with nearly 300 brand new books that had been donated to the Open Door for distribution to the children of this community. She was right! I did want to see it. She had good news, and she showed me the good news. She also made me help her unload the good news into the church, but that’s another sermon I suppose).

Jesus, fresh from the vision and voice of God, fresh from his time of testing in the wilderness, walks over to the edge of the water and calls to those who are working hard: “Hey, fellas! Check this out! Come and see!” He walks a little farther, where he encounters a couple more men who are nearly finished with their daily tasks and says, “You’re gonna want to see this…” And they do! They get up and they follow.

I want to note at this point that the calls from Elijah and Jesus do not come at the time of optimum convenience. Nobody shows up at the house, or stops by the beach on a day when you are just hanging around with all of your stuff done, wondering “I wonder if anyone has anything interesting they’d like to show me? I mean, I’ve got a lot of extra time and energy right now. Maybe someone will invite me into a new place to serve…”

The call to walk with Jesus (as with Elijah) rarely seems to come when people are feeling exceptionally well-rested, well-funded, or well-equipped.

The call to walk with Jesus often requires a leaving of sorts. Sometimes this is dramatic, as when we are invited to battle through an addiction or interrupt an occupation. Sometimes it is disappointing, as when we are encouraged to let go of a relationship that we treasure, but we know to be toxic. Oftentimes, it is frustrating, as we think about getting up earlier on yet another day, or spending time at one more meeting… And we realize that leaving what we have known and come to love and trust is always filled with some kind of grief, even when we are pretty sure that we are moving into something that is better for us (that’s why we cry not only at funerals, but at weddings: we hope for what will be, but we kind of love what is…).

Yet the call from Jesus is personal, genuine, and non-threatening. “Come with me. You’re going to want to see this. Let me show you that for which you are longing. Enter into this new way of life with me.”

I was struck by an example of this kind of invitation to a new way of life as I reflected on the opportunities I have had to travel internationally. Someone says, “Hey, come to Africa!”, and you think, “Wow! What a change that would be!”

There are a whole series of announcements: I’d like to go… I’m getting ready to go… It’s time to go: the trip is at hand!

You find yourself milling around the terminal at Dulles airport, where it seems as though the whole world has gathered. There are voices everywhere, and monitors all around you. Some people hear an announcement that flight #877 is leaving for Addis Ababa, and they get up and go to gate A23. Some people, presumably, don’t want to go to Addis, and they keep on walking. Still others don’t understand the language in which the announcement is made, and so they continue in confusion.

You get to Addis, and you find yourself in an airport that is, to your mind, incredibly crowded, overwhelmingly smelly, and poorly laid out. It is filled with strange sounds, and the PA system seems to work about 1/3 of the time. If you can find one, you settle into a seat, hoping that you’ll be able to make sense of what is going on… and then you realize that the one who invited you to come on this journey is sitting right next to you. What a relief it is to travel with someone who has been there before. It’s still a little scary, but you can catch your breath because you know it’s not all up to you! What a relief, right?

The Gospel – the good news – is this: the time has come! The Kingdom of God is near to you! So come on! Jesus is inviting you and me into the rest of Mark. He seems to think that there are things that we’ll want to see.

None of us are going alone. I know, you think, “Well, it’s not really a great time for me to be thinking about making major life changes.” Yeah. Join the club. But it will never be a perfect time. So let’s see what there is to see. Let’s leave our boats, our nets, our current fascinations and walk a while with Jesus into the nuances of discipleship. It may be that we will find the life of deeper discipleship to be that one for which we are made! It may be that the purposes to which we are called reflect those we were given at our birth.

What has he done to you? He’s invited you. Thanks be to God, he’s invited all of us. May we have the grace to follow with him today. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The First Ordination

In Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the second Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:9-13 and Isaiah 42:5-7. This was also the occasion of the baptism of one of our youngest saints, Lorelai.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

 

Perhaps you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, the number one film from 1998 starring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller and Matt Damon as Private Ryan. Despite the movie’s title, Damon’s character doesn’t speak until page 131 of a 162 page script. Conversely, the 2012 hit The Hunger Games shows us Katniss Everdeen within the first minute of the film. Apparently, there is no “recipe” for character development in a Hollywood story.

Similarly, the authors of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John all take different approaches in introducing the main character of the Gospel accounts. Matthew and Luke give us a build-up in which we meet the parents, smell the shepherds, and greet the Wise Men. Heck, Luke even throws in a couple of blockbuster musical numbers in The Benedictus and The Magnificat.

Mark, on the other hand, brings us straight to the main event. There is a brief prologue, which we considered last week, wherein John the Baptist tells us something about the Messiah who is coming, and then – boom – we see the adult Jesus walk onto the scene. As we continue our study of Mark in the months to come, you’ll come to see that our narrator is always in a hurry, always moving from one point of action to another.

John is in the Judean wilderness, preaching up a storm. In fact, he starts a revival. People are crowding into the desert to catch a glimpse of this prophet – some, no doubt, because they want to see what the fuss is all about; others, perhaps, because they are genuinely hungry for God and they need to change their lives; and still others, presumably, because they are eager to protect the faith and make sure that this newcomer doesn’t mess things up.

About fifty miles to the north, in the town of Nazareth, a carpenter named Jesus sets down his tools and joins the pilgrimage into the wilds where he, too, will encounter John.

Although they are cousins, there is no glimmer of recognition from John as he baptizes the young workman. So far as John or anyone else who was there that day knows, Jesus is just another one of the dozens, or scores, or hundreds of people who heard the sermon and took the plunge.

Baptism of Christ, Dave Zalenka (2005)

And yet when the baptism is over, according to Mark, Jesus saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending. Moreover, Jesus heard the voice of the Lord pronouncing the Divine blessing and presence. In Mark, that vision and voice is reserved for an audience of one – Jesus himself. No one else, apparently, saw or heard anything.

Now, here’s a little bit of a spoiler alert for those of you who are with me for the long haul in our reading of the Gospel of Mark: the author is big on secrets – particularly, on keeping Jesus’ identity a secret. Time and time again, we’ll read of someone getting an inkling of who Jesus really is and what he’s here to do, only to have the Lord shush that person and swear her or him to secrecy. For now, this part of the story is Jesus’, and Jesus’ alone to know.

It begs the question: what did Jesus know and when did he know it? To what extent was Jesus subject to the limitations of his human form, and in what ways were those limitations transcended by his divine nature? When did Jesus know that HE was the Messiah, the savior of the world? On the night of his birth, laying in the manger – did his infant brain possess some kind of supernatural knowledge? When he was growing up, hearing the songs his mother sang, he knew that he was different, of course… but what did he know and when did he know it?

In Mark, the declaration comes right here. “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased…” So far as we know from the Gospel of Mark, this is when Jesus discovers, or at least embraces, his identity.

And it happens during a baptism.

Which would suggest that baptism is, at least in part, about forming one’s identity. Jesus, presumably, grew up memorizing passages such as the one you heard earlier from Isaiah. He knows that he is set aside for God’s purposes… and yet it is here, in his own baptism, where Jesus is told who he is and prepared for what is to come.

And, in true Markan style, he doesn’t have to wait long for what happens next.

Do you remember those advertisements that often air at the end of football season? The ones where the cameraman catches up with the hero of the winning team and says, “Hines Ward! You and the Pittsburgh Steelers just won the Super Bowl! What are you going to do next?” And the answer, of course, is “I’m going to Disneyland!”

In that narrative, one discovers who one is – a champion – and one is ushered into a magical place of beauty and wonder.

There are a lot of people in the Christian tradition who subscribe to that view theologically. “Hey, Sinner! You’ve just been baptized! You’ve been made right with God! What are you going to do next?”

“I’m going to a life full of unicorns and rainbows, where there’s always enough money, never any problems, and healing for whatever ails me.”

The Temptations in the Desert, Michael O’Brien (see more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Interestingly, however, that is not what takes place in Mark. In our reading for today, the result of baptism is that Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness where he experiences difficulty and testing.

The “wilderness”, in biblical tradition, is a place that is home to forces that are hostile to God. In Mark, especially, we can see that it is, in some ways, the opposite of the Garden of Eden. Instead of a safe retreat filled with friendly animals and the presence of God, the locale to which Jesus is ushered is inhabited by wild beasts and in which he encounters the testing of Satan. The purpose of this testing, apparently, is to discern an answer to the question, “Is Jesus really who God has just said that Jesus is?” Again, the author of Mark handles this question with brevity, and there are not many details, but that seems to be the point of our reading from this morning. In his baptism, Jesus is told who he is, and in his temptation, that identity is immediately questioned.

So what?

I mean, really: all of this happened nearly two thousand years ago. What difference could it possibly make to Christians in 2017?

Well, the early church thought so much of this event that they made baptism normative for anyone who would call himself or herself a follower of Jesus. Within the first generation of its existence, the apostles had decided that pretty much anybody could get into the church. It didn’t matter if you were male or female, slave or free, Roman or Palestinian or Greek or Ethiopian; you could be a prostitute, a soldier, a politician, a fisherman, or a magician…as long as you got baptized. Baptism was a huge deal for the early church, and that emphasis continues up to this day. In fact, in our little corner of the church, we say that there are only two sacraments – two divine rites in which we share: communion and baptism.

What’s that about?

For starters, we embrace the idea that in our case, just as it was in Jesus’, baptism is about confirming your identity. Just as Jesus was told who he was when he rose up from the waters, so our own baptism informs our understanding of who and whose we are.

Those of you who have been around a while know that it’s my practice, as often as I can, to hightail it out to the hospital when a baby is born so that I can read Psalm 139 to our new sister or brother. And, when Lorelai was a day old, that’s what I did – I wrestled her out of her grandmother’s arms and started reading her the lyrics to a song that is 3000 years old.

Why do I do that? For the same reason that we baptize babies: because we need to be working each and every day to teach children who they are. The world would very much like to lay its own claims upon the children of humanity: we are taught that we are consumers, or warriors; we are told that we are defined by what we do or what we own; we are being sold the idea that the most important thing about us is our gender or our race or our nationality. And while the Church of Jesus Christ would surely say that some of those things matter a great deal, first and foremost, we are children of God who are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are baptized. That is the source of our prime identity.

In addition to being formative to this concept of the self, baptism is a preparation for that which is to come. Just as the vision and the voice from above at his own baptism prepared Jesus to engage in ministry with and for the world around him, so we are called to and prepared by our own baptisms to bear witness to the presence and authority of God in our world.

Jesus was sent – no, he was driven – into the wilderness. The language in the Gospel of Mark is strong and emphatic. There, in the place of desolation, he is tested by Satan and ministered to by angels.

And since that is the case, God’s people ought not to be surprised when we find ourselves in the midst of testing and trial. After all, like Jesus, we have been baptized.

And so, like Jesus, we are called to point to and work toward the Divine purposes in a world that is, more often than not, hostile to those purposes.

You and I, this week, are called to point to reconciliation even when there is a lot of money to be made by creating alienation and selling security. In the last month, there have been 19 people killed and 88 wounded in mass shootings in the United States.[1] And do you know what happens every time there’s a mass shooting? More guns, more ammunition is sold. We have been told that security and safety are to be bought from companies like Remington or Smith & Wesson. And that is a lie.

You and I, this week, are being called to point to trust, even where there are entire industries built on cultivating fear. We are called to point to love that is genuine and self-giving, even when our world tells us that love – and people – are commodities to be bought and sold.

You and I, this week, are called to continue to point to hope even when it seems so dim that we can scarcely see it ourselves. A couple of years ago, when the most recent horrifying violence was breaking out across South Sudan, I attended a conference of church and government leaders who were considering what we could do. The most poignant moment of that meeting was when my friend Michael looked out at the room after having been asked, “Well, what do we do?”, and he said, “I have to hope. I don’t have any good reason to have hope; and I don’t see much incentive to hope, but I have to hope, because hope may be all there is right now.”

In other words, we who are baptized are called to live and move and breathe in places where, oftentimes, the purposes of God are neither apparent nor valued.

After worship, we’ll have a really quick congregational meeting at which we’ll elect a few officers. In our tradition, elders and deacons are ordained – they are called to the side where they are prayed over and prepared for some special work. I was ordained as a Deacon when I was 16 years old, and I was ordained as a Pastor when I was 33. Neither of those occasions, however, marks the first time I was ordained.

Stained Glass Window from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Port Clinton, OH

My first ordination came on December 25, 1960 in the Presbyterian Church of Dansville. In that drafty old building in Western New York a man with rough hands and coffee on his breath held me over the water and did to me what we’ll be doing to Lorelai in a few moments…and what, in all probability was done to most of you a lifetime ago. I am wearing the handprints of some of you that can prove it…

Baptism is a setting apart, an acknowledgement of God’s reign and rule in your life and in our world; it is also a preparation for the testing that will surely come. Earlier this week, I was given a book of poetry by some of the inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, and inscribed on the cover was a remark attributed to CS Lewis: “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

You who are baptized should not be surprised when you find yourselves in places that are challenging or even apparently hopeless. That’s where the baptized are sent.

There’s a little line near the beginning of the baptismal liturgy to which I hope you’ll be attentive this morning. I’ll say, “Let us remember our own baptisms as we celebrate this sacrament.” Some of you can clearly recall the event as it happened. You were old enough to appreciate and remember it. Whether that is the case for you or not, each of us is called every single day to remember that it happened.

This morning, may you remember your baptism – your first ordination. And may you press on in the midst of whatever wilderness you find yourself; may you find angels there to minister to you in your weakness; and by the grace of God, may you seek to become an angel as you encounter someone else in pain. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/mass-shooting

What’s the Plan?

On the first Sunday of Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the day included Mark 1:1-8 and Psalm 85. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

When I was eighteen years old, I was supposed to be on top of the world. In August of that year, the grown man across the street from my home stopped me and said, “David, congratulations on finishing high school. Now, you’re going to college! This is the best time of your life! I’d give anything to trade places with you!” And by November of that year, I was in college. I was “free” from all the limitations that come from living at your mom and dad’s home. My family, my church, my friends – they all sent me off telling me that wonderful things were in store for me. All of us had some pretty high hopes.

And yet, in spite of that, two weeks before Thanksgiving I found myself in a dark place. I was lonely, a little afraid, and overwhelmed with schoolwork. I missed my old life and, well, let’s be honest – I was already starting to worry about what in the world I’d do with an English Major… My reality seemed miles away from the expectations we’d had.

My hunch is that you know something about real life not matching up with what you’d thought it might be. Maybe you spent years, or even decades, in loneliness, wondering if you would ever find a life partner – and now you’re beyond frustrated because of the arguments you’ve been having over Christmas bills… Perhaps you’ve worked for months to bring the family together for a vacation, but then when you get to where you’re going, everyone is bickering about schedules or lost on their phones for the whole time.

Things don’t always work out the way that we think that they will, and, even more often, it’s tough to see how things can possibly work out when you’re in the middle of some crisis. Ask the parents of a newborn who’s got the croup and diaper rash how much time they spend wondering some nights exactly why all of this seemed like such a good idea…

The Ascension, Dosso Dossi (16th century)

The earliest followers of Christ lived in the first century Roman Empire. These people believed with all their hearts that they had seen the ultimate purposes of God in Jesus of Nazareth. They had been witness to miracles and healings. They were sure that the knew what Jesus meant when he said, “the Kingdom of God is among you!” Sure, they had suffered a great deal during the events of Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, but they knew the truth and the power of the resurrection. They had been there, many of them, for the miracle of Pentecost. Most importantly, they believed him when he stood at that mountain and promised to come again. Christ is coming again! He will return! He said so!

Now, normally, we have some sort of context to understand when a person says, “I’ll be back.” For instance, if you’re watching a movie with a friend whose phone keeps on ringing, she might sigh and say, “OK, just a moment. I’ll be right back.” And if you’re a good friend, you’ll pause the movie while your friend is out of the room.

On the other hand, you may go out to coffee with your brother who tells you that he’s been reassigned to the Virginia office, but not to worry, he’ll be coming back. You surely don’t pause the movie for him, but you plan the holidays and birthday parties around the expectation of seeing him again, and soon.

So when Jesus prepared to ascend into heaven on that hill in Jerusalem and said, “I’m coming back”, well, you can’t blame the disciples for saying, “That’s fantastic, Lord! When?” And sure, his answer was a little evasive – “that’s not up to me” – but you know that the Christian community was upbeat. “All right, Lord, you go and do what you need to do. We’ll be over here. Waiting. We’re pretty excited about this!”

And they wait. Five years pass. Then ten. Twenty. Thirty. All this time, babies are born, people get married, people die… The world marches on. Some of the disciples experience conflict and persecution, but still – Jesus does not return. The community began to ask, “Well, Lord? When are you coming? How long?”

And there was silence in the heavens.

On the 18th of July in the year AD 64, a fire erupted in one of the slums of Rome. It spread quickly and raged for three days. Ten out of the fourteen districts of that city suffered damage, and three were reduced to ashes entirely. Hundreds of people died, and thousands more were homeless.

Rumors quickly spread that the Emperor, Nero, was actually responsible for the blaze. In an effort to deflect that criticism, Nero put the blame on the small group of Christians who lived in the city. These followers of Christ were a fringe group who were broadly misunderstood by most Romans. They were called atheists, because they did not believe in the Roman gods and goddesses. They were called cannibals, because they were said to eat the body and blood of their founder. And they were called incestuous, because even spouses called each other “sister” and “brother” and their most sacred rite – an agape love feast – was only open to members of their own community.

Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradski (1876)

This group was an easy target for Nero, and so many believers were handed over to the magistrates and sent to their deaths on crosses, in the arena, or even burned alive to provide “entertainment” in Nero’s gardens.

And at that moment, you know that those who followed Jesus were saying to themselves and each other, “Is this how it is supposed to be? Is this what we are called to?”

In addition to all of that, as the first generation of Christians was dying, it occurred to someone that unless something happened soon, the stories of Jesus that “everyone knew” would be lost. Who would remember them for the next generation?

Taking Notes: Peter and John Mark, Craig Erickson (2014) Used by permission of the artist. See more at http://www.craigerickson.net/home.htm

Around this time, the tradition of the church tells us, the old Apostle Peter was sitting in a Roman jail cell awaiting his own execution for not respecting the divinity of the Emperor (Peter, essentially, “took a knee” when confronted with the claims of the Empire). He was tended to by a young man named John Mark, who was the nephew of one of the most respected leaders in the early movement, a man named Barnabas. John Mark had failed miserably in his attempt to join with Barnabas and Paul in a mission trip, but now comes to the aging disciple and helps him to record his stories of Jesus.

Peter and Mark are not trying to write history here, but rather to deliver a message. We know this because in verse one of the little book that bears Mark’s name, we read arche tou euangellio Iesuo Christu, Huiou Theou – “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The book of Mark is the only piece of literature in the New Testament to actually call itself a “Gospel”. This little booklet can be tough to read, because it’s barely more than an outline. The incidents described are roughly chronological, but there are few attempts at contextualizing them. Sometimes, the Gospel interrupts itself with some detail or even another story. It is a lousy history book.

It is, however, a tender and compassionate pastoral response to a community in crisis. People want to know, “Is God still in charge? Is Jesus coming back? Does faith matter? What’s the plan, Lord?”

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Peter Bruegel the Elder (1565)

This morning, our congregation is going to begin a walk through the Gospel of Mark. We’re not going to rush, and I suspect it will take us most of a year to get through to the end. It’s a curious choice, perhaps, to begin this Gospel during the season of Advent as we prepare for Christmas. After all, there’s not a wise man in sight, and no sign of angels or blessed babies or even genealogies to open this Gospel.

And yet the theme of this morning’s reading – and, in fact, the entire Gospel – is that of expectancy. I think that British author C.S. Lewis captures this sense of anticipation and delight well in his series The Chronicles of Narnia when creatures throughout that kingdom continue to whisper to each other – even in the dead of the winter that has no Christmas – that Aslan is on the move.

Just as John the Baptist appeared in the midst of the desert announcing hope to those who are weary of the oppression of both an occupying army and a religious establishment that had lost touch with its reason for being, so the Gospel of Mark appears at a time of crisis and persecution to say that God has not forgotten his promise. Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again. The Savior who appeared in the Judean wilderness proclaiming that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” is still wandering in the wildernesses of our own lives.

This Advent, as every Advent, is a reminder of the fact that Jesus is alive and active and still on the move. It is a season of profound hope for those who find themselves pinched between expectation and reality, and it is a season of reflection as we are called to consider what it would mean for you and me to repent – to turn around – and live in an awareness of Jesus’ presence in this time and place.

The first Advent of Christ was to a war-weary people living in a land of great injustice and deep fear. Advent of 2017 finds us living in a world that is seemingly on the brink of nuclear conflict… where it so often appears as though some bodies – notably the brown ones – matter less than the white ones, and where the color of money seems to be the most important hue of all… it comes to a culture where we are increasingly aware of the violence that is perpetrated against women and those on the fringes of society every single day.

The Gospel of Mark, then, comes to you and me at exactly the same time it came to its first readers: at the time when we are crying out, “What’s the plan, Jesus?”

And the Gospel – the euangellion – the message is the same: it is Good News in all of those horrible circumstances and more. Our call for this day is to listen to, and then get in line behind, John the Baptizer. To make the paths straight, and to prepare our hearts and our corners of the world for the inbreaking of the purposes of God as we come to know them in Jesus Christ. So let us, dear sisters and brothers, be alert as we enter into this part of the story – for the first, or for the fiftieth time. Thanks be to God! Amen.