What Is God Creating?

(sermon 11/17/19)

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Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

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Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

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Taken together, these two scripture texts confirm two things. First, God is well aware that there’s a lot wrong in this world, and there will be times when the bad will get so bad that things will feel hopeless – that God isn’t able to do anything about it, or that God doesn’t care, or frankly, that maybe God doesn’t even exist at all. And second, that there will come a time that God will indeed step in and set things right.

What isn’t said in these texts directly, but what I think is just as true, is that while they may point toward some final re-creation and re-setting of the world, once and for all, the additional truth embedded within them is that many times before that final, forever correction, this will be a recurring, cyclical scenario. Things will get bad, and then God will work to make them better. And then we’ll find a way to mess things up again, and make the world a dark place, and then God will work, in ways chosen by God, to improve things; over and over again throughout history.

It’s this continuous cyclical divine working of things that I believe God established the church for. If you look at history, you’ll see many of those dark times – and often enough, each one of them spawned people in the church who thought this was it – the end times, and Jesus was ready to reappear at any moment. And you’ll also see some significant part of the church that enabled, encouraged, even participated in, that darkness. It’s happened again and again.

But at the same time, looking at those dark times, you’ll see something else, too. You’ll see another significant part of the church that didn’t buy into the darkness. That fought against it; that worked to advance the gospel and the Kingdom of God in spite of the darkness. That saw itself as a model, the illustration of an alternative way of living, thinking, believing, being. In each of those dark times, and in the times in between, too, you’ll see a part of the church that stood out and stood up as different, and that with God’s help, helped the world find its way out of that darkness, and into a brighter existence, one more in keeping with God’s intentions, through its acts of love, and mercy, and peace, and justice, and truth.

I really believe that’s a big reason why we, the church, are here. God has drawn us together and called us to be that model, an agent of whatever God is creating next, to stand up to the darkness and fight against it. And if I’m right, if that’s true, then we’ve got our work cut out for us, because there is certainly no shortage of darkness in our world today that we need to fight against and offer an alternative model to.

If we’re called to be that kind of co-creating agent, that kind of church, we’re going to have to work together. It’s going to take all of our efforts, and all of our compassion, and all of our commitment.

And it’s going to take all of us being financially committed, too. It isn’t any mystery that to be the disciplined individual believer, and the collective church, that Christ has called us to be, it’s going to cost us something. Just think of our own congregation. Of course, there are the hard costs, the relatively fixed costs – salaries, building & property costs, and so on – the things that enable us to do all that we do, and that enable us to be a worshiping body at all. And then there are the direct costs of those ministries and mission, whether they’re directed internally or externally. It all costs money.

Right now, we’re in the middle of our annual stewardship campaign, which will help us to budget for our congregational needs for the coming year. You probably got your stewardship package, including your pledge card, in the mail the other day. This week, we all need to deeply, prayerfully consider how we can financially support our church family in the work that God has called us to. And next week, during the service, we’ll turn in our pledge commitments for the coming year. In a perfect illustration that God is calling us onward into a new and vital future, in that same service next week, we’ll receive two more new members, and have one baptism; and then we’ll all go down to Grace Hope church and enjoy a Thanksgiving meal together with them. This is evidence of increasing congregational vitality; this is what being a Matthew 25 congregation is all about. This congregation, in spirit, in word, and in deed, is moving in the right direction. Do you see the new thing that God is doing here? Can you see it? Can you feel it? But yes, to put it as bluntly as I can, that all is going to take money.

So I ask you today to consider: How is God speaking to your heart? How is God leading you to financially support this congregation, our congregation, to help lead it into that future that God has in store for us – a future where, yes, everything, just as it is with our own households, is going to cost more next year than it did this year?

God is continuing to create something new in our time, and is calling us to be a part of that, and to move into a new and exciting future for our ministry. Won’t you please be a part of making it financially possible to follow that path that God has laid out for us?

Amen.

 

In That Land

(sermon 11/10/19)

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Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

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I was online the other day and I saw a guy who was trying to stir the pot in some conversation. That isn’t all that uncommon; if you’re online finding someone like that takes maybe all of about fifteen seconds. This particular guy was commenting on something another person had written – but he wasn’t really all that interested in addressing the first person’s actual point; instead, he was trying to twist that comment into something different, something almost completely unrelated, just so that he could talk about one of his own pet issues. And even if he were successful at turning the topic in that direction, it was pretty clear that he didn’t even really want to have a real discussion, an actual dialogue about that issue; he just wanted a soapbox to stand on while he spouted his own favorite talking points for probably the umpteenth time.

Something very similar is going on in today’s gospel text. In this case, it’s the Sadducees who are playing the part of the internet troll, setting up a hypothetical situation for Jesus to wrestle with – a situation that they didn’t really care about per se, but that they wanted to use as a springboard to one of their own pet issues. As the text says, the Sadducees were a group who didn’t believe in resurrection and an afterlife. Their attitude was basically YOLO – you only live once, so make the best of it. Now, just as is the case with people who believe the same way today, that attitude can go in one of two directions. The first option is to live your life grabbing all you can get for yourself, and without regard for or caring about the needs of others. The second is to live your life being kind and compassionate to others, because that’s actually the definition of living this life well – it’s just the right thing to do, not because you’re trying to score points to get into heaven down the road.

So the Sadducees tried to set Jesus up with this weird, elaborate hypothetical. But rather than get mired down in all the potential rabbit holes in that hypothetical, Jesus just swats the whole thing away and pretty much says OK, you want to talk about an afterlife? Fine, let’s get into it. And then he makes an argument to them about the existence of an afterlife, using an argument based on logic and language that admittedly was probably more compelling to the Sadducees’ ears than it is to our own. But at the end of it all, Jesus’ position was undeniable – he was telling them that there is indeed a resurrection and an afterlife.

To be honest, the church hasn’t always done a good job with that teaching. We’ve either come up with bizarre, limited ideas of what the afterlife will be like – you know, robes, harps, angels’ wings, sitting around on clouds, a musical background that’s all Bach, all the time. St. Augustine writing that in heaven, we’ll all have the body and appearance we had when we were thirty years old; which would seem to trigger a whole new set of questions about people who died when they were ten. At the same time, we’d messed people up by trying to literally scare them to death, and setting up a burdensome set of checklists that they’d have to comply with in order to stay out of hell and get into heaven. We’ve messed things up when trying to understand the afterlife, probably most of all because we’re just finite, flawed human beings, and the very concept of life after this life is something far larger and more transcendent, more infinite, than our finite brains can really get around.

But none of those mistakes take away from the fact that the existence of an eternal afterlife is something that Jesus taught about unambiguously, and repeatedly. Yes, we can still mangle understanding that teaching with Fundamentalist four-step programs to guarantee that we’re part of the in-crowd, and to look down our noses at others who aren’t. And yes, it’s true that there’s a whole sub-genre of Christian literature written by people who have had near-death experiences and returned to write a book about their experiences. Heaven is for Real. Ninety Minutes in Heaven. Twenty-Three Minutes in Hell. My Half -Hour Stuck on the On-Ramp to Purgatory. Well, no, I made that last one  up, but the others are real books. And it isn’t my point here to demean these people’s stories, because I really do believe that there’s something real, and meaningful, and important in their experiences – but it does seem strange that each of them ended up experiencing a heaven, or hell, that was pretty much the kind of place they’d been taught about as a child, whether they continued to hold those beliefs or not as an adult.

One of the outcomes of these stories has been to continue to reinforce an overemphasis on the future eternal life in the sweet by-and-by, over against the current eternal life to live in the here-and-now. And honestly, a lot of people have come to feel awkward, a little squeamish, to think about resurrection and afterlife. I mean, we’re all intelligent, educated, enlightened people. We understand at least the basics of the laws of physics and how the natural world works, and doesn’t work. So we can get a little nervous thinking about miracles, and let’s face it, the idea of resurrection and life after death are really the mother of all miracles. I’ve talked with a lot of people who feel that awkwardness, who ultimately throw their hands up and say “I don’t know if heaven is real or not; I just care about being the best person I can be right now, and honestly, that’s all the reward I really need.” And you know, on one level, I absolutely agree with them. As a follower of Jesus Christ, my focus is completely on living in this life, and being in relationship with God and with people in ways that would please Christ. Pleasing him pleases me. I don’t need anything else. I’m not doing acts of kindness or compassion to earn any future reward or to get some golden ticket into eternity.

But the reality is that we worship a God of extravagant overkill. We don’t need any more reward for a life well-lived in Christ, but according to Jesus, God chooses to give us one anyway.

And whatever the actual details of that life to come really might be, we know, based on Jesus’ teaching, that it’s going to be amazing. When we reach that existence, when we arrive in that eternal land, it’s going to exceed our wildest, most extreme, unreal imaginings. Every wild, crazy, irrational thing that we could imagine as being the ultimate of happiness, contentment, shalom, reconciliation, reunion, peace, justice – that’s what it’s going to be like.

So yes, keep living and loving, and working in this world because you’ve been called to do that. Work to bring compassion, and justice, and peace, and truth, and healing to people in this life, wherever there’s hatred, and fear, and ignorance and injustice, and lies, and brokenness, because we know that the world certainly needs that kind of help. Yes, live this life well in the ways that Christ teaches us, because it’s sufficient as its own reward. Go ahead and live your life as if there’s nothing more to come, as if there’s no afterlife – but still enjoy the assurance of knowing that there really is.

Thanks be to God.