Sunday, November 22, 2015

Isn't It a Little Early to Talk About Christmas?

Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37


        Today is New Year’s Eve. Let me put this a little differently. Today is Christ the King Sunday, which happens to be the last Sunday in our liturgical year. Next week a new liturgical year begins with Advent. I don’t preach many sermons on Christ the King because this is the Sunday we usually celebrate Thanksgiving. But recent events in our world have left me in a less than thankful mood. Therefore I ask you to join me in turning to a couple of New Testament texts which promise that the Kingdom of God lives among us, even when the evidence might suggest otherwise.

        Surely the most complicated and misused book in the Bible is the last letter in the New Testament. If I should announce next week the Sunday School class will begin a study on the marvelous book of Second Isaiah, only those who come faithfully every Sunday would attend. But should I announce a four week study of the Book of Revelation, we would have to build a new fellowship hall. It amazes me how much interest Revelation creates. Most of the curiosity stems from its misuse by excitable yet barely biblically literate charlatans who want to fill your heads with predictions about the End Times. Such exploitation has caused many a brilliant mind to reject the book entirely. Martin Luther deemed the book to be utter nonsense. Calvin refused to preach from it.

The Book of Revelation was written about 60 years after the death of Jesus to a group of churches located in what today would be southern Turkey and Northern Syria. Jerusalem had been destroyed by Roman troops. Pompeii and its neighboring towns had been demolished by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Each of these events weighed heavily on the hearts of the inhabitants of this particular region. Some Christians were convinced the eruption was God’s reaction to the destruction of Jerusalem. Many Romans believed Christians were secretly plotting to overthrow the Emperor Domitian, the same emperor who demanded everyone address him as, “Our Lord and God”. Failure to do so was considered an act of treason.

The recipients of the letter of Revelation, commonly known as the seven churches of Asia, were faced with a difficult decision. They could leave the church, fight Rome, lie about their faith, water down their beliefs, or die.  These people desperately wanted to know what to do. They were citizens of the Roman Empire, they were raised in a culture vastly different from Rome, and they had been recently converted to a religion which often stood over against their citizenship and their culture. In their anguish and confusion they listened as the letter began, “I know things are looking bleak, but heaven will reveal a different truth. Take heart. Christ is the Alpha and Omega. Trust in God’s future, not your past. The Holy One will arrive soon.”   I wonder if these words left them comforted ………… or disturbed?

Religion, culture and citizenship often make strange bedfellows. The brilliant novelist Marilynne Robinson, in a recently published essay, points to the contradictions that arise when the three are blended. She writes, America is a Christian country. That is true in a number of ways. Most people living in the United States, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may only mean they aren’t something else. We are indentified in the world with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but rather enthusiastically.  As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, we might think a little longer about associating our precious Lord with the ignorance and intolerance often associated with our faith.

My difficulty with claiming that America is a Christian country is that contemporary America is full of fear and fear is not a Christian discipline. As children we learned, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me.” Before and after his resurrection Jesus told the disciples, “Fear not, I will be with you always.” When we forget this, or place the words of Jesus to the side, fear rules our lives, making us unable to make the distinction between real threats and irrational responses. Our anxieties and prejudices are channeled into the emotions of those who misuse words like courage or patriotism. Ultimately this translates into our lives being ruled by fear, as unchristian as that may be.

I know Robinson wrote the last sentence with her tongue fully pressed against her cheek, but her point is valid. What we confess on Sunday morning is often in conflict with what streams across our televisions on Monday morning. Forgiveness, grace and mercy play well in sermons but not against headlines which make our blood boil. Are we first Christian, American, or citizens of the world? How can we be all three and not exist in a paradoxical conundrum?

Jesus stood before Pilate. Can you imagine the headache the governor must have been having? Who was this guy? He looked like a peasant. Some claimed he was a rabbi though the Temple swore he wasn’t. The accusation was treason. Pilate must have thought somebody was really frightened of this guy if those were the charges. Jesus had no Army, we had no weapons of mass destruction, and he certainly didn’t have that crazy look in his eyes that would have the betrayed a sickness in his brain.

Pilate was in a pickle. Jesus might have been guilty of something but it certainly wasn’t treason. But releasing Jesus might result in a riot and the last thing Pilate needed was word getting back to Rome that he couldn’t control the affairs of Jerusalem. So Pilate posed a question. “Are you the king of the Jews?”

The answer Pilate got was hardly what he expected. Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Pilate probably thought he needed to check Jesus’ eyes a second time. “So you are a king?”

“Yes, I was born to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate then uttered the line that too often falls from our own curious or frustrated lips, “What is truth?”

I am not so sure “The word of the Lord” as it came in a letter to the Seven Churches of Asia was all that comforting. A thin reading of the text would be, “Here is the truth. This world doesn’t really matter; just don’t lose sight of heaven. God has a plan.” Yet a deeper reading of the Book of Revelation becomes complicated. It addresses the “things of this earth” by promising the destruction of Rome or any other hegemony that places itself above the one true God.

 So what is God’s truth? Does it only pertain to things of heaven or does the Bible have something to say concerning immigration, inner city turmoil or terrorist threats? One thing for sure, “Fear not” preaches really well on Sunday but usually falls on deaf ears by Monday.

What a mystery we have? Consider the complexities from a theological perspective. Our first declaration of faith is God created heaven and earth. If heaven and earth are the dominion of God, should we be so quick to flee the plight of earth for the promises of heaven?

What about good and evil? Can this only be answered from our perspective? If Jesus demanded we love our enemy might that mean we are to at least attempt to see the world through their eyes?

        More than a handful of you have spoken or e-mailed me this week asking if I might take a moment and offer some wisdom concerning the horrific tragedy in Paris. After session meeting I spoke briefly with Dave Lawson, who as you know is one of the “real radicals” in our congregation. Dave wisely said, “I am not one of those people.”

        I applauded Dave’s wisdom, mainly because any word I might offer is certainly flawed by my limited perspective. Imagine my surprise when Dave sends an e-mail which included the following poem.

What if we awoke one morning to find ourselves

        A member of a different race?

                One despised by our neighbors.

What would it be like if we went to bed

in a comfortable home,

        Only to wake in some cold hovel

                Without running water and no plumbing?

What if we went to bed in a peaceful valley

        And were jarred awake in the morning

                By automatic weapons just outside our door.

What would it be like to fall asleep

in Virginia as Presbyterians,

        and awake in Syria as Muslims?

What would it be like?


If we claim to be a people of faith, shouldn’t we be open to the claims our faith makes. Is God loving? Is God vengeful? Is God merciful? Is God judgmental? Are God’s people limited to a select few, or is God’s grace universal?

Does faith mean we blindly follow God or can we be blinded by faith statements which are ungodly? Can faith be flexible and open us to transformational moments? How can our faith journey be kidnapped by culture, intellect, fear or antiquated beliefs?

Today is New Year’s Eve, Christ the King Sunday. Next week we begin the season of Advent, a season of self-examination and expectation. It is a season when we wrestle with Godly intentions. Why did God send Jesus? Why did God become involved in the waywardness of humanity? What is heaven? Can there be heaven on earth? How expansive is the idea of being a child of God? What is truth?

        The beginning of fear is when we are too fearful to examine the world through the lens of our faith or when we are too fearful to examine our faith through the lens of the world. Tomorrow a new year begins. Have the courage to plunge into the mysterious and revealing essences of God’s Word. Use Advent Season to wisely address your hopes and fears. Pray unceasingly that new answers and perhaps new questions might arise as together we search not only for truth but a deeper trust in the one we call Alpha and Omega.  

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