A Message of Hope from a Minor Prophet (Christmas Eve Sermon, 12/24/13)

Luke 2:8-14

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

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“…That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” It’s OK to admit it, you were probably hearing that passage in Linus’ voice. I was, too. The American public first heard Linus van Pelt recite those words of scripture as part of  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in December of 1965, when I was just five years old. Believe it or not, I actually remember watching that show that very first year that it aired, and I think I’ve seen it every year since.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” hit television at a crucial time in this country. At that time, we were still living in the fear and uncertainty of the Cold War. We didn’t know anything about “Duck Dynasty,” but we knew about “Duck and Cover” – when we kids were taught that if the Russians dropped the bomb on us, we were supposed to crawl under our antiquated old school desks, and those wooden tops with the little hole for the inkwell and the cast iron side legs were supposedly going to shield us from the effects of thermonuclear holocaust. 1965 was also the first year that a large number of families in this country were facing a Christmas with a loved ones shipped off to some faraway, unknown place called Vietnam; in March of that year there were only some 5,000 soldiers in that little country, but now, in December, there were more than 200,000 of them there. It was a time of great social upheaval – many of our social norms and traditions were beginning to be questioned and challenged as we moved deeper into the decade of the 60s. And while Christmas celebrations in America had always had some commercial component, the commercialization of the holiday really seemed to explode in the late 1950s and 60s. It was a time of real uncertainty and worry, and questioning where everything was really going.

And in the midst of all these things, in December of that year a little round-headed boy trying to make sense out of that uncertainty and inner turmoil he was feeling, and all the ways that consumerism was cheapening our souls, seemed to be speaking for so many people when he finally threw up his hands and asked, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”

And then, of course, Linus, the minor prophet with a security blanket, stepped into the spotlight and recited those same simple, beautiful lines of scripture that we just heard. It was a message of God’s hope, and love, and peace, not just to Charlie Brown, but to a whole country of anxious people. And not just to them, but now, almost 50 years later, those words of scripture speak hope and love and peace to us, too – since, unfortunately, we still have many of those same worries and fears. These days, we don’t do silly things like ducking under school desks to protect us from nuclear bombs; we do silly things like stripping off our shoes in airports to protect ourselves from shoe bombs. Thank goodness the TSA didn’t take the same approach after they caught the underwear bomber. And these days, we don’t wonder when our kids will come home from Vietnam, but we do wonder when they’ll get home from Iraq and Afghanistan. And we do still worry about the damage that commercialization and consumerism do to our society. Then and now, those beautiful words from Luke’s gospel remind us all of the message of hope and love and peace that Christ’s birth is all about. The message that the God of all creation loves us so much as to put all that divine power and glory aside to become one of us, in the flesh. And not to enter our world as a person of power or riches or status, but as one of the lowest of the low. The crying little child in the manger came into the world to show us that God is truly with us at all times – in our laughter and joy, and also in our pain and sorrow. God is with us when we’re mistreated and abused. When we’re tired and hungry and afraid. When we’re sick, and suffering. When we’re dying.

Christ’s birth is the message that God will seek us out, wherever, however, to let us know that we are loved. And the message that God’s way is the way of love and peace, for all people – peace for every one of us here in this country. Peace for every person in Vietnam, and Iraq, and Afghanistan. Peace for every person in Syria and South Sudan. Peace in our cities, our homes, our families. Peace in our own hearts. God truly loves us and wants us all to know and enjoy love, and peace. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. And those truly are tidings of great joy to all people that make the angels sing – and that tonight, make us sing, too.    

Amen.

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The Greatest Commandment versus the Duck Commander

At the moment, it’s hard to avoid the dust-up over Phil Robertson’s comments made during a recent GQ interview. Setting aside the questions of why Robertson would ever even want to be interviewed by GQ, or why GQ would want to interview him, his comments have unleashed a torrent of criticism, and a corresponding torrent of criticism of his critics. Robertson’s opinions led to his being placed on indefinite hiatus from participating in Duck Dynasty, the A&E “reality” show that’s made the Robertson family famous beyond merely those looking to buy a good duck call. In return, the Robertson family has said that they aren’t sure they can, or will, continue with the show if patriarch Phil isn’t part of the process.

Robertson’s controversial comments were twofold. In one direction, reflecting on his early life growing up in Louisiana, he makes incredibly insensitive and inaccurate comments about the status of African-Americans before the civil rights movement:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

 Of course, it doesn’t take Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock to notice that, if his self-described status as “white trash” meant that he was being treated more lowly than other whites – even as  lowly as blacks, for goodness’ sake – then by definition, he most certainly did see, with his own eyes, blacks being mistreated. But to be so culturally oblivious as to not understand why, as a white man in Klan-saturated, Jim Crow Louisiana, he may never have heard blacks put voice to their problems and discrimination is a bit mind boggling. Phil Robertson may or may not be many things, but he didn’t become a multi-millionaire by being stupid.

In the second troublesome direction of his comments, Robertson offered his opinions regarding homosexuality:

“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Sin becomes fine.”

 What, in your mind, is sinful?

 “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

According to Robertson – a self-described “Bible thumper” who strongly stands for his fundamentalist version of the Christian faith – homosexuality is a core factor in the godlessness and immorality plaguing this nation, by definition in the same category with all manner of sexual promiscuity, even bestiality, along with a shopping list of other moral deficits. This opinion is hardly unique to Robertson. In varying degrees, it’s an opinion held by a large number of Christians in the world – at least, according to the official doctrines of the various strands of the faith, if not the actual beliefs of their individual members, it’s the belief of the majority of Christians worldwide.

But this is by no means the only view within the Christian faith. There is a substantial minority within the faith, both in terms of official denominational doctrine as well as individuals’ beliefs, that this traditional understanding of homosexuality has been wrong – and not just wrong, but  the cause of terrible human tragedy, the justification for the spiritual, emotional, and physical abuse of millions of gay and lesbian people over the course of the past two thousand years, inside and outside of the Christian Church. This traditional interpretation of the Bible – arising out of only a handful of verses across both Old and New Testaments – has been used to justify the shunning, public humiliation, scorn, discrimination, violence, and even the murder, of countless people merely on the basis of their sexual orientation. Even the mildest of expressions of this traditionalist view – the cliché “hate the sin, love the sinner” – really does nothing but offer this same type of discrimination, only in warmer, fuzzier terms to make it more palatable to the hearts and minds of those doing the discriminating. To tell people who are by their very nature drawn to love those of the same sex that they are inherently disordered, and therefore, in a significant way inferior in their very being to others, is a devastatingly harmful thing to claim. It isn’t just harmful; it’s an utterly un-Christlike thing, and a thing contrary to the Christian belief that all human beings, in all of our many variations, are created in the very image of God. As James V. Brownson, Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary writes in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, “[T]he emotional burden imposed explicitly or implicitly by traditionalists on contemporary gays and lesbians – not just to avoid same-sex behavior but to renounce their own persistent impulses and desires, even when those desires are not excessive, simply because they are “objectively” disordered – creates a profoundly difficult and duplicitous message of acceptance interlaced with rejection.”

Indeed it does. All that a person has to do is to sit with a group of LGBTQ people and have them share their personal stories, and you’ll hear a near-universal thread of rejection, abuse, and damage caused to them by their respective religious bodies. You’ll find that LGBTQ people are at least as spiritually and religiously inclined as the general population, if not more so – contrary to the stereotypes and twisting of scripture that paint them as godless, immoral idolaters. And in that spiritual journey, they have, almost to a person, been horribly harmed by their churches. The spiritual carnage caused in the lives of LGBTQ people by traditional church doctrine is appalling, gut-wrenching.

Without getting into the detail that a discussion of biblical interpretation of the handful of so-called gay “clobber verses” would require, the reality is that the very best of biblical scholarship today indicates that these texts that have traditionally been used to condemn homosexual orientation and action have been misunderstood – by inaccurate translation from the original languages, as well as an incorrect understanding of the historical context and actual intent of the original authors. These supposed condemnations are actually referring to a number of types of same-sex activities that were considered wrong because

  1. they were quite often forced, non-consensual situations, often between slaves and their owners, or between adults and adolescents;
  2. they were expressions of out-of-control lusts, perpetrated by those who were not by nature homosexual, but who were by nature heterosexual, acting contrary to their own nature;
  3. they were examples of prostitution, or expressions of actual worship of pagan deities or other expressions of idolatry;
  4. they were seen as denigrating the patriarchal, male-dominated society of the time in which females were seen as something less than males, so anything that supposedly made a man more like a woman was seen as shamelessly “degrading” the man and the entire patriarchal structure of their society; and
  5. the pre-scientific culture in which these writings occurred did not have the understanding that we now have, regarding the inherent and unchangeable nature of human sexual orientation.

According to contemporary biblical and historical scholarship available to us now, and not available at earlier times in the history of the faith, these few New Testament passages that Robertson and others use as a basis for their beliefs (for a Christian, the Old Testament snippets regarding this issue are so clearly no longer applicable that they really don’t even merit discussion here) are really not referring at all to the issue that we face today – that of people whom we now understand are, by nature, oriented to be drawn to those of the same sex, and, extending the issue to the question of marriage, who wish to engage in loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.

Of course, this is only the latest, but certainly not the first, time that Christians have erroneously applied scripture to a social/cultural issue and caused great harm to many people. Usually (but not always) with the best of intentions of honoring God by honoring the scriptures as they understood them, we Christians have royally botched our understanding of the meaning of scripture any number of times. Certainly, we see this in past issues of slavery, women’s equality, and civil rights, and there are other examples as well. In each of these cases, Christians have eventually learned the error and terrible harm caused by their misapplying scripture to these situations, and we have adjusted our scriptural interpretation accordingly. The current situation regarding homosexuality is just the next issue regarding which Christians are gradually learning to adjust their beliefs.

And it can’t come a moment too soon. While Phil Robertson’s form of anti-gay rhetoric seems relatively mild on the surface, it’s actually the exact same rationale used to justify laws in Uganda calling for life imprisonment for being gay. It’s the exact same rationale offered up by nearly every person who has beaten the crap out of, or even killed, a gay person in a hate crime. It’s the exact same rationale offered up by nearly every person who discriminates against an LGBTQ person in employment or housing, or even as silly a situation as refusing to sell them a wedding cake. Phil Robertson might not personally treat someone badly because of his erroneous views, but given his near omnipresence in our culture at the moment, and his general likeability, his words will only encourage those who would indeed harm others in ways small and large.

Phil Robertson’s being smacked by A&E for his hurtful words is not a limitation of his First Amendment rights. He has the right to his beliefs, and no one has imprisoned him since the interview. But he has been criticized, rightly, for the harmful nature of his words. Neither is this a battle for “the Christian point of view,” since there is no single “Christian point of view” regarding homosexuality. But related to both of those issues, hateful, harmful speech is properly subject to criticism and condemnation, regardless of whether it stems from a person’s religious views or elsewhere. I’m sure that Bull Connor justified the evil of his actions against African-Americans as part of his religious views. If he didn’t, countless Klan members, skinheads, and Neo-Nazis certainly have. In perfect parallel with the Robertson dust-up, many people in the past who were denounced for their pro-slavery, anti-woman, or anti-civil rights beliefs claimed the right to those beliefs as a matter of their religion. But that didn’t get them off the hook. Simply claiming that hate speech is part of one’s religious views doesn’t earn that speech a free pass from criticism, consequence, or rejection.

Of course, the rub here is that the Robertsons’ TV show is very popular. For my own part, I can only take the show in limited doses – I’m not a fan in general of supposed reality TV – but in those doses, I’ve usually enjoyed most of what I saw. And if I met them in person, or were their house guest, I think I’d genuinely like the Robertsons (I’m not sure about Phil himself, though; he seems to have that scary, “something’s not quite right” intensity in his eyes that you see in, say, old engravings of John Brown, for example). And I want to like a show that espouses morality and a strong sense of family, along with healthy helpings of comedy.

But despite their personal likeability, and my wish for a fun, morally healthy show, I can’t give their patriarch a pass when he espouses outdated beliefs regarding race or human sexuality, especially when claiming to base either or both of those beliefs in the Christian faith. We’ve all learned a number of things at our parents’ or grandparents’ knees that, while not diminishing our love for any of them, we’ve come to realize have been mistaken and that we’ve rejected. The same is true of some of the earlier traditions of our faith that we’d been taught. As we move forward, we discover the truths of our faith more deeply, in ways that differ from earlier understandings, and applied to situations never dreamt of by the original authors of the scriptures. And I believe that it’s quite clear that that’s the situation here. The older, traditional understanding of homosexuality in the Christian Church has been wrong, and harmful, and needs to be rejected – not because spiritual beliefs are supposedly being diluted by godless secularism, but because we simply understand more about the realities of the situation now than people did 2,000 years ago, and we can see how to apply the principles taught by Jesus himself to these newer realities. Surely, this process is occurring more quickly now, with more and more people within our own families and close circles of friends who are finding the courage to come out as LGBTQ, allowing those around them to recognize that this is not some abstract theological issue. Rather, it’s one that for most people, has a well-known name, and face. It’s a brother or sister, or aunt or uncle, or parent or grandparent, or maybe even one’s own self. And it’s obvious that the people in question aren’t godless, immoral, shameful, idolatrous, or destructive to society. And they certainly aren’t an “abomination.” Odds are, they’re just as moral, and good, and upstanding, and spiritual, as anyone else. It’s time we Christians stopped villifying LGBTQ people, and started asking forgiveness for the damage our earlier misinterpretations have done.

So people shouldn’t “stand with Phil” just because they like the TV show, or because they feel the family, or the faith, is being attacked. They shouldn’t stand with him when he says things that, even if he didn’t personally intend them as hurtful, nonetheless are very hurtful – potentially even physically dangerous – to others. No matter how likeable the show is, or the family is, Phil Robertson’s views on race and homosexuality are simply outdated and wrong. Every day, more and more Christians are coming to realize this truth. If there is any redeeming value to this whole situation, I hope that would be that even more faithful Christians would think about this issue and would come to realize that we need to reject the traditional positions of the church regarding homosexuality if we truly want to be more faithful to the teachings of the bearded man that we follow and call Lord, the one who calls human beings – not the bearded man who calls ducks.

What Do You See? (sermon 12/15/13)

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When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. – Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)

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There’s a beat-up old desk that sits in the library of Pittsburgh Theological seminary. The finish is half worn off, and the veneer is missing in places. Along the back edge of its top, there’s a console full of little pigeonholes and drawers and recesses to hold all sorts of accessories. There’s really nothing very remarkable about the desk at all; under different circumstances, it would have been carted off to the dump years ago But what makes this desk so special is that it used to be the writing desk of the great theologian Karl Barth, who lived and worked in Germany in the years leading up to World War II – and who was arguably the most important theologian of the 20th century. This ratty old desk has become a kind of a shrine, with people sometimes traveling for miles just to see it and get their picture taken with it. This was the desk that Barth used to write volume after volume of deep, profound books. And his essays denouncing Hitler and calling for the church to stand up against the Nazis. And the amazing confession of faith that’s part of our own Book of Confessions, the Barmen Declaration. All these works that changed the landscape of modern Christianity were written on the leather-padded top of this old desk. You can just imagine Barth, and his younger protégé, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others, sitting around this desk, their glasses of beer leaving water stains on its top, while they discussed deep matters of the faith. For my own part, when I was attending seminary there in Pittsburgh as a commuting evening student, I’d drive into town, and if I had a little time before classes began, I’d try to catch a nap in the library. There was a little loveseat that actually sat right up against the desk, and I’d usually grab it to catch a few Zs. But the loveseat was too short for my 6-foot frame to stretch out on, so sometimes, if no one else was around, I’d actually stretch my legs out and prop my feet up on the desktop. I suppose if any of the staff had caught me doing that, they’d have expelled me, or maybe even dragged me out into the quad and burned me at the stake.

Well, not far from where my feet rested, propped up on top of the desk, was a painting. This painting used to hang on the wall in Karl Barth’s study, overtop of the desk, and he sometimes made reference to the painting in his writing. It’s a picture of the crucifixion; a really grotesque image of an ugly, beat up Jesus nailed to the cross, the weight of his body hanging down. Even the crossbar of the cross is drooping down, reflecting the pull of his body. To the left of the picture, we see Mary and the apostle John, and at the right, we see John the Baptist. He’s looking at Jesus, and his arm is stretched out and his finger is pointing at Jesus hanging on the cross, as if he’s telling us “Pay attention to this. Focus on this. This is what matters – him, and only him.”

Our gospel text today deals with John the Baptist. Brash, loudmouthed, socially unacceptable John the Baptist. He’s spent his life calling people to repentance, and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is about to be unleashed on the world. He’s heard with his own ears God blessing Jesus at his baptism; he’s seen with his own eyes the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Surely, if there were anyone who could be certain, and have no doubts that Jesus was God’s specially chosen one, the Messiah, it would be John the Baptist. But that wasn’t the case, according to this story. During this ministry, John had been kind of a first-century rock star; throngs of people came out to hear him. But now, he’d been thrown into prison because he’d spoken out against the moral shortcomings of King Herod. How could something like this happen if Jesus was really the Messiah? And as far as he could tell, none of the stuff he’d expected a Messiah would do, were happening. The Romans were still in power. The religious leaders were still making a mockery of the religion.

So John sat in his dark, cramped prison cell, frustrated, confused, probably angry, and definitely full of doubt and fear. His mind wandered as he asked himself, over and over again: Had this all been some kind of cruel joke? Had it all been a waste of time? Had he been deluded about Jesus? So he sent word to Jesus, asking for a clear, no BS answer: cut to the chase – are you the Messiah or not?

Maybe it seems a little odd to have a Lectionary passage like this stuck into the advent and Christmas season. We’re looking forward to the birth of Christ, and the hope and joy that his birth brought into the world. We’re all wrapped up in the whirlwind of holiday activities, and continually being reminded of the happiness that the season is supposed to be all about. So why, then, do we look at a gospel passage that focuses on doubt, and confusion, and fear?

Well, maybe it isn’t so odd after all, if you think about it. Even though we’re supposed to be focusing on the joy of the season, every year there’s a measurable increase in people’s feelings of dread, and doubt, and fear in this season. There are more bouts with depression and requests for counseling, and even an increase in suicides. It’s like all the talk of hope and happiness and joy just magnifies the problems that we really have. Most of us have probably felt that way one time or another. We wonder why unexpected negative things happen in our personal lives. Or maybe the life of the church. Or maybe the world in general. And that translates into spiritual doubts and fears. Let’s face it, we’re all modern, scientifically-savvy people. And all this talk about mysterious, magical-sounding events – virgin births, and angels and other heavenly creatures dropping out of the sky singing and scaring the crap out of the shepherds in the fields, and strange stars that move through the sky and then hover overtop a single house – it makes us wonder, like John the Baptist – is this faith for real? Is Jesus the real item? Is it really worth our time and trouble to try to live out our faith? Or have we all just been suckered into believing some fairy tale made up by a bunch of unsophisticated ancient people who were taken in by just one of many would-be messiahs? The time and the setting are different, but in some ways, some days, we can sit in our own prison cell made out of doubt and fear, and feel just as disappointed and cheated as John must have felt while he sat in jail. And, maybe especially at this time of year, our hearts can ask the same question John the Baptist asked Jesus: Are you for real? Are you the Messiah?

But instead of giving John the kind of black and white answer he’d hoped for, Jesus said, “What do you see? The lame walk. The blind see. All manner of the poor and the suffering have received God’s good news and blessings.”

Jesus’ point was that the kingdom of God had actually already begun to enter the world, through him. It was the entry point of hope, and healing, and God’s acceptance of all the weakest and most doubting and fearful and suffering in the world. The message was that God was here, with them and for them and sustaining them through whatever happened to them. That showed that the kingdom of God was at hand, and that he was indeed the Messiah who was ushering it in.

That was the good news that Jesus had for John – that his life’s work and efforts hadn’t been in vain. And it’s good news for us, too. The good news that as we go through this life, and as we deal with its scars and bruises, its setbacks and uncertainties, its discomforts and disagreements and divisions, that God is in the midst of all those situations, walking the path with us, lifting us up, giving us hope, speaking love and support to our hearts.

When we find ourselves asking the same question John asked, Jesus answers us the same way: What do you see? What do you hear? Look at God at work in the lives of my followers, and in the life of the church. The hungry are being fed. The naked are being clothed. The homeless are being sheltered, the sick are being treated, and the persecuted, oppressed, and discriminated against are all being lifted up and welcomed into God’s unconditional love. All this is confirmation to us that no matter how difficult things may look or feel, God is truly at work in this world. And God is with us through all of our difficulties. This isn’t some fairy tale; it’s real – and Jesus is at the center of it all.

So when we wonder, in the midst of our toughest times, if we’re just kidding ourselves, or if Jesus is truly God’s chosen one, the one worthy of our faith and loyalty – we can look to John the Baptist for advice. The fiery prophet, the take-no-prisoners preacher, the great martyr of the faith – who, even himself, faced these same kinds of doubts. We can look to him, pictured there in that painting over Karl Barth’s desk, and we can follow his bony finger, stretched out and point straight at ugly Jesus on the cross, and him saying “Look to him. Always look to him. What do you see? What do you hear?”

Thanks be to God.

Hope for Us Whack-a-Moles (sermon 12/1/13)

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 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” – Matthew 24:36-44

Every Advent season, the Lectionary readings begin with some dramatic passage relating to Jesus’ second coming. This particular passage, from Matthew’s gospel, is part of a longer story, where Jesus’ disciples have asked him for some kind of sign so that they’ll know when he was about to return and bring in the new age. This kind of speech and writing about the end times is what we call “apocalyptic” writing. The term comes from the Greek word for revealing, unveiling, uncovering, and this style shows up a number of places in the New Testament. The purpose of these passages, whether it’s Jesus or someone else making them, is not to literally scare the hell out of people, contrary to the way they’ve often been used in the history of the church. Actually, it was just the opposite. The New Testament scriptures were written during the first and second generations after Jesus’ ascension and his promise to return. And after a short period of the believers thinking that Jesus was going to return quickly, his followers had to begin to come to terms with the reality that his return was apparently going to take longer than they’d thought, and that, in fact, things weren’t always going to be easy for them while they waited. All of these apocalyptic passages were meant to remind the believers of two things.

First, whenever Jesus returned, it was going to be at a time, and in a way, that no one will know or expect – not the angels, not even Jesus himself, and certainly, not Jesus’ followers. So forget about trying to calculate when Jesus is going to return; quit trying to shoehorn every current event into some supposed biblical prophesy road map that will give us the date and time that Jesus is coming back. That’s all a silly waste of time, Jesus is saying to the disciples. Instead of getting worked up over an unanswerable and unimportant question, Jesus tells them that they’re supposed to always be ready for his return, by living their lives faithfully, lovingly, and compassionately; always being grateful for the love and grace that God showed them – and to do it every single day, whether Jesus took five thousand years to return or if he came back next Tuesday at 3:00.

The unexpectedness of Jesus’ return is an important thing for us, because it isn’t just the second coming that’s unexpected. In fact, while I’m sure that we all wonder about when it will happen, Jesus’ second coming probably isn’t a burning question at the top of our concerns in our day-to-day existence. But the whole idea of unexpectedness in our life is something that gets a lot of our attention. And maybe that’s an even more important reason Jesus’ words in this passage are important for us.

We try to insure ourselves and insulate ourselves from a lot of that unexpectedness. But no matter how much we try, we all encounter unexpected things – often, negative things – in our lives. Maybe we suddenly lose a job, when we’re supposedly in the peak of our earning years – and suddenly, we’re in the job market for the first time in thirty years, and our competition is some whiz-kid who’s half your age and is willing to do the job for half your pay. Or maybe we receive an unexpected diagnosis from our doctor when we just thought we had a routine ache or pain, and overnight, our whole life is turned upside-down while doctors run tests and don’t have many answers, and the ones they have aren’t very good. Or maybe we have to suddenly deal with the same thing happening to someone we love. Maybe something happens to unexpectedly hurt or even destroy a relationship that we have with a loved one, and we have to learn how to continue on after losing that important relationship.

Much of our life – maybe most of it – is actually unexpected, and leads to uncertainty and risk. And obviously, that can be scary. And in an attempt to stave off that unexpectedness and lack of certainty and security, we’ll do all sorts of things. I actually think it’s that fear that’s at the root of most all of the hurt and harm that we do to each other in this life. On a less lethal, maybe even comical, side of this fear, we can see some of the extreme “Doomsday Prepper” people, who have built their bombproof bunkers and stocked up guns and ammo and food and toilet paper, and they’re ready on a moment’s notice to climb down into their shelter and shut themselves off from other people and the rest of the world.

But we don’t have to be one of those extreme people on reality TV to have allowed the fear of the unexpectedness of life to paralyze us, to cause us to turn inward and away from others, and of living life fully in this world that God has made us part of. That kind of fear and paralysis can make us unloving, untrusting. It can harden our hearts, making us think that to put ourselves on the line like that is just too risky. That to stand up for something, to have the courage to keep going despite potential risks, only invites our getting smacked down like we’re in some big cosmic game of Whack-a-Mole.

But this is the second point of Jesus’ words here – I think it’s the most important point he’s making. It’s the message of hope. God has never promised that we’ll somehow be spared from the unexpectedness, the uncertainty and risk of this life. But Jesus is telling his disciples, and us, that whatever does come our way, good or bad, that ultimately Christ will gather all of God’s people together. All will be made right. God will usher in that new age, that new kingdom, where we’ll know the fullness of God’s love and justice and righteousness. Christ’s promise gives us the hope that enables us to live life outside of the bunkers, whether real or emotional. It’s that hope that allows us to continue to step out in faith, to keep living, and risking ourselves, the way Christ wants us to, even though we know that sometimes we’ll end up feeling that big padded mallet pounding us back down. The hope that we get from Christ’s promise that he will return makes it possible for us to keep the faith, and to keep moving forward, onward, even in the face of unexpected setbacks.

He was one of the greatest composers in the history of Western civilization. And surely, his final work, his Ninth Symphony, is one of the greatest and most well-known pieces of music that Beethoven ever wrote. The last movement of that symphony is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the beautiful, inspiring piece dedicated to the joy of life and love and humanity. It’s raised the spirits of countless millions of people worldwide, and it was actually chosen by the European Union to be the official Anthem of Europe.

Beethoven worked on that symphony for seven years. But as he began to work on it, his health unexpectedly began to decline. He suffered what many have come to believe were the long, drastic effects of lead poisoning, which included gradually losing his hearing. Despite this, Beethoven continued to compose his symphony. In fact, by the time he’d completed it, Beethoven was for all practical purposes completely deaf. In spite of that, he insisted on personally conducting the orchestra for its premiere in Vienna in 1824. Incredibly, the man who had written one of the most joyful and uplifting pieces of music in all of human history never heard it performed. His deafness was so profound that at that premiere, after the piece was over, Beethoven was facing the orchestra, and a musician had to turn him around to the audience to see the amazing response and applause coming from the audience – to see the result of his continuing on, despite his unexpected setbacks. 

Beethoven himself was, at best, an unorthodox Christian, if he would have considered himself a Christian at all. But just as is the case today, Christians back then didn’t have an exclusive lock on having the hope and confidence that sees that it’s worth the risk to not hide from the world, to keep moving forward despite unexpected problems and not to be paralyzed by worries about uncertainty – the hope that God will eventually set all things right, and make all things new.

This Advent season, we think about the beginning of God’s making all things new, seen in the birth of the baby Jesus, and we remember the hope that his birth and his promises bring to us. The hope that enables us to face the unexpected in our lives, and to accomplish great things in spite of them. Maybe we won’t write a world-famous symphony. But we can have the courage to answer another job posting, or endure another round of chemo. Or care for a spouse battling Alzheimer’s. Or stand up to help someone who’s being deprived of their human rights, or who’s being discriminated against. And each of those things makes this world a little more like the kingdom of God.  So today, remembering hope, and the light that it brings into our world – God’s world – we light this first candle. The candle of hope.

Thanks be to God.