The Holy Family – Zechariah – Advent 1 2021

Luke 1: 5-23, 57-80

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home…

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

Sermon Text

 Today begins a new year in the Church. While our secular calendar turns over from the 31st of December to the 1st of January, the Church begins its year with advent. The celebration of Christ’s coming to the earth in flesh, and the celebration of Christ’s eventual return in the glory of his Father to set the world right. As we make our way through the next few weeks celebrating Christ’s presence with us, we will be looking at the people who raised Jesus up in the faith. Jesus was blessed to have two loving parents, Mary and Joseph, who we will talk about in later weeks. However, before Jesus was born, his mother was cared for by his cousins, the parents of his other cousin John the Baptist, and today we have heard the story of Zechariah. Comical as it is wonderful, terrifying as it is comforting, we look to a silent father from long ago to learn what God can teach us now.

We are introduced to Zechariah as a priest in the temple. Though practice shifted from time to time in the temple’s history, priests were ideally members of the tribe of Levi. These Levitical priests would take on their role based on a rotating shift, and our story opens when it is Zechariah’s turn to serve. He is described as “blameless,” not to say that he never sins, but that he is a reputable person and that he is by all accounts a “good and faithful servant.” This is important, because the first readers of this story might try to blame him or his wife for the next detail we learn, that they have no children.

While we now know that much more goes into fertility than a person’s morality, the ancient world saw fertility as a gift from God given to the righteous. Specifically, deities were described as “shutting wombs,” as punishment for sins. In the general pattern of the New Testament, Luke takes time here to remove this stigma from infertility. It is not a moral failing to not be able to have children, and Zechariah and Elizabeth epitomize this reality.

God still has power to bring the impossible to pass. Zechariah goes in to offer incense, a visible and fragrant representation of the people’s prayers, and finds an angel standing beside the altar of incense. The angel, later revealed to be Gabriel, brings him the good news that he will have a child. Zechariah, like Abraham long before him, cannot believe that someone as old as he and his wife would be able to have a healthy child. Gabriel responds by taking away Zechariah’s speech. While I’m not sure exactly how much public speaking Zechariah did, I can only imagine that a mute priest would have trouble with certain aspects of their job – not even considering how exhausting daily life would suddenly become. We only appreciate how easily we can communicate with one another when our ability to do so it suddenly snatched away from us.

Nine months pass with no one being able to know what Zechariah saw in the temple. His child is born and only after he affirms Elizabeth’s naming of the child “John,” (which means “God is gracious,”) does his speech return. The mouth which had been glued shut for that time now ran over with praise of God. Zechariah was now able to show the world just what he thought about God’s gift of a child. He calls on Abraham who God had also promised a child to, and like him lifts up his son and asks for God to bless him. Zechariah sees the future of John, to be the one who would clear the way for God’s redemption in the world, a source of hope and repentance unrivaled since the days of Elijah.

While it may seem that this is just a historical account of the time before Jesus’s birth, I think we can take some lessons away from Zechariah and what happened to him. Firstly, we must see that God kept a promise. We talk a lot about the promises of God, we just sang a bit ago about how we “Stand” on God’s promises. However, in our daily life the promise of God is not always at the forefront of our minds. Perhaps, in part, because we do not have angels telling us that we are going to receive the full benefit of God’s goodness.

If our scripture today proves anything, it’s that even the truly miraculous cannot always convince us God keeps God’s promises.. Zechariah spoke to Gabriel, a literal angel, and his response was still to be uncertain. “You may say I’m going to have a kid, but how do I know that I will have a kid?” The answer for him was, of course, “When you hold John, you’ll know it’s true” For us today, in the times we find ourselves waiting for God, the answer is not always so clear. With rare exception, we live into general promises of God, not particular. What I mean is that God promises to meet our needs, to save us from sin, and to love and care for us. We are seldom given a word from God that a specific event will happen, or a specific gift will be given to us. Because these promises are more general, we sometimes lose track of them.

When we wake up in the morning and find food in the cupboard, we might not think of God as being the one who put it there, and so we forget we are taken care of. When we get a call from a friend that uplifts us, we may forget that God has given us the gift of one another’s support. When we can go to sleep at peace that we are loved with an eternal love, we may forget just how amazing a thing that is. The promises that we live into everyday are commonplace in how they appear, but that does not make them any less spectacular. The problem becomes that we only notice how important our daily provision is when suddenly it becomes endangered.

We have all had times in our life where something upsets the balance of our life. Someone dear to us dies, we get a bad diagnosis, a bill comes in we simply cannot pay, an endless litany of problems stands just in the wings of our relatively blessed and privileged lives. In those moments, we suddenly realize how good the mundane things of life are. The cupboard that is suddenly sparce, the phone that does not ring with a loved one on the other end, the cold night where we cannot find any rest. In those moments we realize that we live each day by the grace of God, and that that same grace has to sustain us even when material comforts seem far away from us.

Zechariah experiences a particular promise at the same time he loses something he had always taken for granted. God tells him he will have a child, despite all logic to the contrary. God also robs him of his speech, making him suddenly much more dependent on others than he had been before. I described Zechariah’s story as comical in some ways, to think of how he would possibly describe, only by gestures, that his wife was going to have a baby. However, there is also something scary about it. The fear in that same man’s eyes as he realizes just how long the next nine months are going to be.

For many of us here, we have probably had these sorts of moments. We are going about life normally, and then all of a sudden, we have something snatched away from us. Maybe its mobility, maybe its dexterity, maybe our sense of hearing or taste or sight. In that moment we realize that we have been blessed up to this point simply to have these things. More than that, we realize just how little is done to make the world accessible to people with disabilities. Next time you’re at a store, see what is being done there for disabled people – do they have braille? Ramps? How can people reach things on shelves if they lack mobility? The same thing is important to ask here in this sanctuary.

As part of our next year of ministry, the trustees and I are going to do an audit of this church to see how accessible it really is. We have some things in place, but I know we aren’t doing all we could be. We all know that. The steps we take to make this sanctuary more accessible will be more than just clearing walkways and marking entrances and exits, it will be making this sanctuary more welcoming and useful to all people. Imagine, more accessible audio recordings of services that we could distribute to those who want to hear the service but don’t have internet. Better written and formatted text documents for us all to navigate more clearly. A cleaner, more carefully put together Church to gather and worship in.

Beyond accessibility, Zechariah’s story brings to mind some of the events of these past two years. When the pandemic set in, and all of us locked ourselves away to prevent viral transmission, we saw what it was to lose community. We could not gather in-person, we could not celebrate or mourn together. While our lips were not sealed as violently as Zechariah’s, we lost a large part of what it meant to be the community of God. We were forced to adapt, to improvise, and to trust that God was still working even when things seemed different than we expected. Good things came of being forced into this place: more care for shut-ins developed as we realized the struggle that comes from living apart from one another, we realized the ways we neglected online ministry opportunities, we proved the Church exists beyond our buildings, but, silver linings aside, the difficulties we faced also made it clear how blessed we were in more normal times.

Unlike Zechariah, I don’t think God sent this particular trouble to wake us up to our blessings. That would be cruel, to cause so much trouble and death simply to make a point. No, I think our awareness is a consequence of the pandemic, not its purpose. To find purpose in a disaster that widespread would-be dangerous thinking. Instead, I think that what Zechariah gives us in this story is an example of how to respond to the loss of something and to its eventual return. There was a particular promise to Zechariah, that he would have a child. While there is no specific or general promise from God that we will retain all our bodily autonomy in all aspects of life, we trust God generally seeks our good, and so even in the loss of some ability we have, we trust God will answer our needs somehow.

I believe that provision can come in multiple ways. Sometimes it is in the full restoration of our faculties, sometimes in those around us making the world more accessible to us in the face of our disabilities. Regardless of how relief comes our way, we are shown just how precious everything we enjoy is, when we are able to experience some measure of it after having lost it. God’s goodness, God’s commitment to promises, is shown most clearly on the return from trouble.

When Zechariah speaks after his long bout of silence, he has nothing but praise and prophecy to offer. Likewise, we should freely praise God whenever we can, even in the midst of trouble. We do not do this to deny the trouble we are in, or to pretend that it does not matter. We do it because regardless of the particular circumstance we are in, God has promised to take care of us, to save us from the darkness and from death. That promise sustains us even in the moments we are deprived of its benefits, and it sees us to the other side. In the same way that we make the world more accessible, we must also make it more grace filled. Those of us who are able must support those who are suffering, to make God’s sustaining presence clearer through the love and support of the Church.

Zechariah speaks to the promises of God by showing us that they are still true even when we cannot speak to them. Zechariah was not willing to believe God meant what he said in promising him a child, but over the course of his nine months of silence, God revealed truth above and beyond his initial promise to him. In the same way, the hard times between a promise being made and a promise being fulfilled, can make it even clearer how robust and wonderful God’s promises are. Does that baptize our suffering to make it good? Of course not, but it does mean that in the midst of silence a great deal more can be said than in the heights of celebration.

So, as we welcome Advent. Let us close our mouths, let us look to the troubles we presently face. Let them be a lesson to us about what God will remedy in all the world. Let us also try and lessen the troubles of those around us, so that when the time of our troubles is over, all of us may celebrate the birth of something new and the fulfillment of all God’s promises. – Amen.

King of Truth – Lectionary 11/21/2021

John 18:33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Sermon Text

Today we celebrate the kingship of Christ. We worship a God who saw fit to become like us, a human being who knew all pain and weakness despite the eternity before where he knew only power and majesty. That God came and lived the life of a slave so that we might be freed from death and out dependency on sin. What a wonderful God that is to take such a great step down from the heights of heaven into the depths of the earth. Yet, in death and in resurrection Jesus’s majesty overcame the pall of his earthly life and saw him light up the skies with his glory. Jesus the slave, Jesus the servant, was now known to those who would look and listen as Christ the King.

The kingship of Christ is something Jesus was careful never to take on in his earthly life. As his interrogation by Pilate shows in our scripture we read a moment ago, Jesus did not claim to be king of the Jews. If he was to be God’s anointed, God’s messiah, then he was not going to let his name be association only with Judah. Christ, as the incarnate Son of God, was entitled to a title above a single nation. As Jesus says, his kingdom is not of this World, Christ is the King of the world to come, of a resurrected and rejuvenated universe that is made for God and that lives directly alongside God.

Jesus came to earth to tell us the truth. The reality of this kingdom which was not like the one’s we are all accustomed to. There would be no powerplays or political machinations. There would be no wars that deprived people of life and livelihood. There would be no suffering or strife because all people would be devoted to serving one another fully and sharing the abundance God had given to them equally. There was going to be a kingdom, and that kingdom was going to begin with a feast just like Jesus’s ministry had, and that kingdom was right around the corner and that kingdom was somehow already here.

The world, unsurprisingly, was not quite ready for this reality. The province of Judea and its surrounding area had been split between four kings, the sons and relatives of Herod the Great. The entire Mediterranean world was under the leadership of Tiberius Augustus Caesar. There were kings and governors and prefects all around to take on the title of “leader,” apart from Jesus. When Jesus came, not with an army but with a community, the leadership around him mocked his attempt to claim authority. When Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin they accused him of seeking to overthrow Rome or take the throne of David for himself. Herod Antipas asked Jesus to perform a miracle to prove his worth, and when Jesus refused even to speak, dismissed him as a nuisance. Pilate, the governor who Jesus speaks to in our scripture today, was the most sympathetic to him, but even he could not understand a King who made no claims to a throne.

Pilate builds up his questions of Christ, trying to understand what Jesus is doing in a court of law when he obviously has committed no crimes. Jesus remains resolute that his accusers misunderstand him, and that whatever they have laid at his feet are their own words, their own inventions and misunderstandings. Jesus stands only for God’s kingdom, the world that is to come, and the truth that frees all people – the truth of God’s salvation. Pilate responds to Jesus’s assertions about the character of God with a question straight out of any discussion of philosophy, “What is truth?”

This line of thinking is formally called, “Epistemology,” how do we know the things that we know? More cynical thinkers see truth as the consensus of a body of people. In this line of thought, anything can be true as long as enough people agree that is the case. Others who are more idealistic will see truth as something higher than any of us can alter. There is the truth, absolute and beautiful, and then there is the attempts to repeat the truth which we muddle.

The Church has long leaned toward the latter definition. There is something definite about truth in this world. This truth is not empirical – you cannot measure it or conduct experiments to prove it – it is experiential, we know the truth of God and of the Gospel because it has manifested in our lives and shown itself to us. We embody the ultimatum of Paul in Romans 3:4 “Let God be true and every person a liar!” The truth is made most manifest in Jesus, God living among us, and is reflected then in our teachings about Jesus and our imitation of Jesus. We understand all things as secondary to the presence of Christ in our life to inform us of what truth really is.

            Despite the experiential nature of our faith, I would argue that an earnest belief in Christ naturally leads us to respect more concrete definitions of truth as well. As you all know by now, my undergraduate degree is in two things – religious studies and chemistry. To this day I remain a scientist at heart. Sometimes at war with my more spiritual and mystic experiences of God are my objective and empirical tendencies toward how I explore truth. I try not to say anything from the pulpit I do not have evidence for, preferably in writing from a reputable source that fits neatly into a footnote.[1] I am skeptical of claims people make of amazing, otherworldly events, unless they back it up with real evidence and not just hearsay. Most importantly, I try not to take anything someone tells me as Gospel, if they are reporting it second hand.

Some of you may have noticed this about me, but I am not quick to answer questions I am unsure of. Sometimes people will ask me, “How is so-and-so?” or “Do you know about this?” While I naturally filter my answers through confidentiality and appropriateness of the question itself, I also am clear where I got my information. “I have heard that they have some trouble with something, but I’ve not heard anything directly from them.” “My understanding is this, but I would need to read more about it before I said anything definitive.”

As simple as these steps are, they are a commitment to something that goes beyond my role as a teacher of spiritual truths. To stand where I do, I believe it essential that I do not lead anyone astray in anything. I’m not perfect in this, I’ve had to correct myself many times in the course of my ministry. However, by seeking to tell the truth and putting guards around what I do and say to represent just how confident I am of anything I am speaking about, I am not just covering myself for accusations of deception. I am respecting the concept of truth in itself. Truth, as high and inviolable as it is when we speak about things like the Gospel and Christ’s divinity, is a fragile thing when we get to our earthly explanation of the same, or our attempts to live in the same reality as those around us.

I firmly believe that we as Christians have a duty to tell the truth. This does not mean that we have a duty to speak as we like, we’ve talked about that before. Instead, it means that we must be proactive to prevent the proliferation of lies in the world around us. Jesus spoke out about Gossip, not to put a damper on after church breakfasts, but to prevent his people from becoming the source of slander. Jesus advised us to be careful of those who would try and mislead us, because the Church is meant to defy liars, not join their ranks. Jesus wanted us to protect the truth, in all its forms, because truth is a fragile thing, and when it begins to be broken down, then trust and even reality itself can begin to follow it.

Last week we briefly talked about what I call the “End Times Industry,” the people who make money by bending the scriptural teachings about Christ’s return to something they can market. Whether that is marketing of books or movies, or survival equipment does not matter because it is the twisting of a truth, “Christ will come again,” to the detriment of that truth’s real power in this world. That is just one example of making money by twisting the truth and I’m sure that we can list many more just by thinking a little while longer.

I also revealed to you last week my love of conspiracy theories, and my disbelief for all of them. Part of my love of this field of study is the reality that studying how people lie to make the world seem more sensible, helps to inoculate you against those tactics when people try to lead you astray. Because I have read as much as I have about supposed plans for depopulation written in some random rocks in Georgia, I know when people come to me talking about “depopulation,” what they’re really saying. When people tell me some hyped-up story about rich people collecting children and drinking their blood, I recall accusations against Jews of the same thing and know that it is all the same set of lies. This stands true for conspiracy after conspiracy after conspiracy.

The problem in our modern day, and for people like me with this strange hobby of studying lies, is that more and more often the line between mainstream belief and fringe conspiracy theory is beginning to erode. One of the chief targets for my regular study of nonsense is the media network Infowars, and more specifically the Alex Jones Show a proud peddler of conspiracy theories for over twenty years. That program has alleged all kinds of madness – fish chimeras with sad human eyes, alien law codes dictating human life, secret satanic shadow governments, false flag attacks, MMR vaccines as a means to control population or introduce a surveillance state, stories of stolen elections dating back to well before the Bush era.

Suddenly though, fish human hybrids aside, some of those crazier stories are now making their way into my Facebook feed. Reasonable people, lulled into a sense of security and willing to chase after the headlines that make their worldview fit reality a bit more clearly, are suddenly spreading the same lies that have been aired on repeat for the past twenty (and really longer than that,) years and applied, mad-libs style, to anything that fits. We are a people for whom truth has become a commodity, something we buy from the people with the best offer and sell to people who are willing to believe us. There is nothing sacred in something that is so easily trafficked, and if we take seriously the idea that our God chose “Truth,” as one of the divine names, then we must fight earnestly to preserve truth.

This is not just so big a thing as advocating for scientific and political literacy, it manifests in the everyday interactions we have with one another. Think of the times in your life where you’ve said something, which someone else tells to someone else, which someone else says to someone else, and then suddenly people are asking you to explain comments you never said to people you haven’t talked to in weeks. Think also of the times you spoke too soon about something you thought you knew about, then found out that you were dead wrong, and all the fallout that came from failing to follow up what someone else told you about.

We worship a king who is not of this world, so why do we sink to the tactics of this world? We should be people who champion the truth, yet we so often get caught up in gossip and lies. Let us all, each of us gathered here, commit ourselves to be more honest people – not just by passively refusing to lie, but actively fighting to end the misrepresentation of truth around us however it presents itself. It is not an easy calling, but it is a necessary one. We worship a God who came to testify the truth, and if we do not deal also in the truth then we will become like Pilate and not like Christ. We will be asking “Whose truth? Your’s or mine?” Rather than pursuing the truth which God has given to all of us for the sake of all people. Tell the truth always, and let us do our best to stop a lie before it finds roots in our hearts. – Amen

[1] Like this one!

Do no go Astray – Lectionary 11/14/2021

Mark 13: 1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Sermon Text

             Have you ever noticed how fascinated people are with the concept of the “End Times?” Books, movies, thousands of bible studies, all capturing a shared interest we all have in what the world will be like at the close of human history and the beginning of God’s eternity. As someone who came of age in the midst of the supposed, “Mayan Apocalypse,” End Times speculation in the secular world and the Church are by no means foreign to me. Growing up I lived in the strange anticipation of some interplanetary event that would wipe the world clean and the expectation of Christ’s immediate return and whatever that might bring.

This phenomenon is not new. We are always interested in the End of everything. Since someone first put forward the idea that the world might not be eternal, people have wanted to know more or to speculate about what its ending might be like. For our faith in particular, this kind of thinking first appears in the book of Daniel and effuses all of the New Testament. While many of the prophets put forward an idea of the “Day of the Lord,” they only ever did so in terms of this side of eternity. Daniel alone in the Old Testament suggests a break between the world that is and the world that will be. It is in that tradition, that Apocalyptic mindset, that Christianity was born.

Between the time that the book of Daniel was finished being written and the time of Jesus, a great many books were written speculating what the end of history would look like. I have here, two large books, which contain the majority of these Apocalypses we know about. You will probably have never heard their names: The Apocalypse of Abraham, the Life of Adam and Eve, 1 Enoch, the Testament of Job, and many others. These were all examinations of history as it was at the time of the author’s writing, and history as they imagined it would eventually be concluded by God’s intervention in the world. The world of the New Testament was a world many felt was on the verge of collapsing into a new era under God’s rule.

Jesus was not the first Apocalyptic preacher to walk the Judean highways, but he was certainly the most impactful. His preaching, elaborating on the Apocalyptic teachings of John the Baptist before him, were clear in their message. The era of human evil was coming to an end. God was going to topple every king, every billionaire, every well-to-do statemen, and bring about a kingdom where slaves were kings, where the poor were richer than all other people, and where love rather than ambition and birth determined a person’s worth. Jesus’s vision of the world required an overthrow of what presently was, and it began with the death of its rightful ruler under the oppressive thumb of Rome. This death was not an end, but a beginning, and the subsequent resurrection of Jesus proved the message he preached.

To live a Christian life and not believe something about the End of History is largely impossible. We are, at our roots, and apocalyptic offshoot of Judaism. While we today are distinct from our Jewish roots, sometimes in natural ways and sometimes through our own malicious actions, to remove the apocalyptic heritage we have received would be to deny our core identity. We are people who are living for a purpose, and that purpose is not defined simply by the end of our life, but the end of the current world and its rebirth into something new, something eternal and good.

The problem emerged, relatively soon into Christianity’s history, that we were not very good at listening to Jesus. This manifested in our way of life, in our quick willingness to seize power when it was offered to us, our general abuse of other people, but also in the way we discussed the end of history. While the earliest writings of the Church see God as overthrowing the powers of this world and establishing a kingdom separate from all of them, we could not resist taking our political alignments and forcing our vision of the future upon them. When Rome transition from being the biggest enemy of the Church to its biggest source of influence and money, then we no longer saw the Kingdom of God as God replacing worldly power, but God supporting the powers we were aligned with.

This began in Rome, but it continued throughout all of history. Rome inevitably fell and splintered into the many kingdoms of Europe, most of whom swore fealty to the Holy Roman Emperor in what would eventually become Germany. Apocalyptic writers would appear in every generation to write about who was the most likely candidate as God’s true enemy. Early on it was found in the German tribes that destroyed Rome, then in the Muslim empires that grew around Byzantine Christians, then in Protestants and Catholics, then in those people, then in them over there! Every generation formed its opinions on who the anti-Christ was, what country they were the leader of, and why their own country was the good guy in the book of Revelation.

I said a moment ago that we were not good at listening to Jesus, and I believe that manifests in our insistence to constantly sit and speculate about the End of History. Jesus gives us very little to work off of when we are imagining what the beginning of God’s eternity will look like. We know it will be sudden, that the wicked will suffer and the righteous be lifted up, and we know that Christ will be at the forefront of whatever happens. More specific details developed in Paul’s writings, and Revelation, as confusing and often metaphorical as it is, gives us a bit more of an understanding of what God has revealed to us about this climax to the present age. Yet, we are also assured that no one, not even Christ, knows the day nor hour. Likewise, in today’s scripture we are assured that those who claim to know what is happening are usually not looking out for our best interests. When we hear of wars and rumors of wars, of famine, of disaster, we should not be deceived – none of these things are the end in itself.

What stands out to me about that list of signs that we will see before the end, is that they are not rare events. Wars happen constantly, earthquakes happen every day, even the more specific signs of red moons and solar eclipses mentioned elsewhere in scripture happen somewhat regularly. Jesus is clear that the signs of the end are not things that you can easily intuit, they are run of the mill in the course of human history. Even the destruction of the temple, something that happened two thousand years ago, is lifted up by Jesus as something that – while world shattering – should not be mistaken as the end of all things. Jesus teaches us here in Mark 13 that while there is an end to this present world, we are not to be sitting around worrying about it, nor should we be overly interested in those trying to sell us on it.

I have talked to some of you already about my love of conspiracy theories. I do not believe any of them, well except for maybe one or two of the more rational ones, but for the most part my interest is purely recreational. What strikes me about most of the conspiracy theories that find their home among Christians is that they play into our expectations about the End. We like stories where we are the brave underdogs and the evil forces of the world are starting to get an advantage over us, but we have some secret weapon. The Satanic Panic of the 1970s and 80s, the idea that UPC codes were the Mark of the Beast, the environment that birthed another run of Left Behind media and God’s Not Dead movies, stories of microchipped vaccines and Q-Anon visions of a still living JFK Jr, these all play into our hope to be on the right side of the Apocalypse.

Jesus goes out of his way, several times, to warn the Church against people deceiving them. He does it in a financial sense in Luke 16, in a more general moral sense numberless times across the Gospels, and in a very specifically apocalyptic sense whenever he discusses the Temple. Jesus knew that revealing the end of history to his followers put them at risk of being taken advantage of. When someone comes to us and tell us that the signs are all there, that cable news is not just telling us what happened today, but revealing how near Christ’s return is, then we hate to oppose them for fear of sounding like a nonbeliever. Tie this into books and monetized videos that prove it, or to radio shows that need your contributions to get this news out, or food buckets that you need to stock up on to survive, and the motive behind the preaching sometimes becomes a bit more clear.

So, am I your minister denouncing the apocalypse and telling you there isn’t going to be an end to the era? No. I said earlier that you cannot be a Christian and not grapple with Jesus’s apocalyptic teachings in some way. I do believe in an end to history, and while we might have different views if we sat down and talked it out long enough, I live my life like all of us do – in anticipation of Christ’s final victory in this world. I do, however, proudly denounce speculating and fixating on the end of history as if it excuses us from any of our present responsibility. Christ told us to be watchful, warned us that the end was near, but Christ was also clear that we could never plan out when it would come. Two thousand years later, if we believe the end was near in Jesus’s day and is still near to us today, we have to understand what “near,” means differently.

I have always been fond of understanding time as a knife’s edge. We stand here, not quite in the eternity God is bringing into being, but not quite in the present age of sin and death either. We are waiting for the flip from one era to another, but that flip is no closer today than it was two thousand years ago. We are always, inescapably, on that liminal edge of what is to come. We are no closer to the end of days than Paul was, not because it is impossibly far away but because it is always right next to us. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That is the mystery of our faith proclaimed for two thousand years, and it is just as true now as it was then.

In two weeks, we begin our celebration of Advent, our time of preparation for Christ’s birth into the world at Christmas. It is also the anticipation of Christ’s return at the end of history, when we see the story God has been writing for billions of years completed in a grand stroke of terrible mercy and incredible judgment. It is a time for mounting anticipation, for the incredible celebration of God’s victory! Yet, it is also a time for reflection, to better ourselves in preparation of Christ so that we may be found working and worthy when Christ does return to us. This takes the form, not of buying up all the food we can or preparing a bug-out plan. It comes in attending more faithfully to scripture, in more earnest service toward one another, and in transforming our hearts to be better reflections of Christ who is coming to us.

I want to harp on that first one a little longer, that we should read scripture faithfully. There are few greater shields to the chicanery of people coming to sell us a Doomsday prophecy, or any false doctrine, than knowledge of scripture. Scripture is something that, if we let it speak for itself rather than trying to rush to our own reading of it, will lead us to more goodness than we might otherwise think possible. Study of scripture, of archaeology, of history, all can show us more about God’s work in the world – but the foundation must be in scripture. Let us then read more faithfully together. As iron sharpens iron, let us sharpen one another’s understanding of God’s word, that we might never be deceived.

The end is surely near, but it is no nearer today than it was yesteray, or in the days of Paul. Let us not sit locked in fear of what is to come, but faithfully serve our Lord who is coming soon. Love one another fully, serve one another well, and heed the lessons of God to us. – Amen.

Home with God – All Saints Day 2021

Revelation 21: 1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Sermon Text

 Today we celebrate “All Saints’ Day.” Growing up I was largely unaware of what today meant for the Church. I knew that it was the day after Halloween, so named because it was the day before the feast therefore called “All Hallows’ (Saints’,) Eve.” I also knew that it was in some way tied to the remembrance of those who had died. These two facts were all that I really understood about the holiday. Add in national observances like Dia de los Muertos, and there was a strange mystique to something that should have been fairly commonplace. We in modern America have allowed ourselves to put remembrance on the back burner. We do not think of the dead, and we do our best not to mention them too often in public either.

Why have we done this? Why is it that we cannot take time together and feel that mixed feeling of sadness and joy that comes from thinking about loved one’s that we have lost? I think that a lot of things have brought this to pass. Firstly, we are skittish about our own mortality. To talk about people who have died is to acknowledge we will die one day too, and even with the promise of Heaven, we prefer thinking of life rather than death. We can also be pressured into a sense of shame for feeling nostalgic for times we had with our loved ones. We think that if we have any feelings for those who have died and that impede our life in anyway after the first week or so of missing them, that they are somehow bad. Finally, we have let ourselves believe, counterintuitively, that because our loved ones are in Paradise, that they are too busy to think of us. So, we save their memory for private moments, for birthdays and anniversaries, but never for anything out loud and seldom in a way other’s might hear.

The early Christians were a strange group to be around during funerals. They would cry and mourn like anyone else at the time, but they also had triumphant celebrations on the way to the burial place. They would sing psalms, they would wear white instead of black, they tried to make a celebration out of the act of giving someone over to God. This display was not a denial of the pain that came with saying goodbye, but it was a celebration of the fact that the dead were not gone forever. Christians were also some of the only people in Roman society, Jews being the other, who went out of their way to preserve the bodies of the dead rather than cremate them. Because they believed in the resurrection, the Church preserved the dead as best they could, not out of necessity, but respect for the fact the body would one day be used again.

Recently I took a morning to read The Cult of the Saints, which looked at the development of the idea that Saints are specific individuals set apart from other believers.[1] I won’t go into that particular aspect of the study this morning, but I do want to talk about some of the details it gives about Christian attitudes toward death. The Roman and Jewish societies in which Christianity developed had similar ideas to death that we do. Keep it out of sight and out of mind. Tell the story of your ancestors, but keep them far away from the public eye all the same. Christianity caused a stir when it became a more widely recognized faith in part because we did not have this attitude. Death was at the center of our faith, it was Christ’s death that freed us from our own death. Cemeteries moved from outside of town into public spaces, sometimes even under places of worship. We saw in death, not an interruption or an end, but a continuation.

Nothing has changed about our beliefs, but a lot has changed in our attitudes. Part of this is simply cultural. We are not the same people as who Christianity flourished in two thousand years ago. We are descendants of Scottish, Irish, German, French, Italian, and broadly European communities. We bring with us the practices and ideas of all these cultures as they have slowly meshed together into the particular culture we have here in Appalachia. The way we mourn and remember will necessarily have its own flavor compared to how anyone else in any other region mourns, and our celebrations of life will likewise have their own twist to them.

I have talked as long as I have about death and mourning and funerals and memorials, because today as we gather to remember those who have entered Heaven ahead of us, we are not remembering people who no longer exist. Secular memorials are made to people who have no consciousness, they have died and gone into the earth and nothing more is said about them. As people of faith, we believe that those who have died are not gone, but that they are merely somewhere other than in their body. We believe that someday there will be a resurrection of all who have died, that God will bring the souls of all who have died back to their body and give them that body as it was meant to be. Like Jesus visiting his friends, familiar but somehow completely different, we will all be ourselves but as we were always meant to be.

There are some in the Church who see the time between death and resurrection as a time of rest. The dead, this line of thinking goes, are not conscious even as they continue to exist with God. To sleep from now till the Kingdom of God is realized fully in all the universe, that sounds well and truly restful. For me, however, I do not hold to this vision of our time between death and resurrection. Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he will be in Paradise, that day. Paul talks about the dead as sleeping, but Revelation gives us a vision of the dead gathered around God worshipping the Triune divinity day and night. There may be a more full experience of God when the resurrection takes place, but to see the faithful dead as simply sleeping till then, it just does not sit right with me. Maybe Paradise is different from Heaven, one for now and one for the end of time, but either way, I trust those we miss are with God now, not just asleep in the ground.[2]

Whenever the Church gathers, we do not gather simply as the people in this room, or even as the whole of the Church on earth. Every celebration that the Church takes part in has an entire congregation of people who are present with God worshipping alongside them. Whenever we sing a hymn, there are those in Heaven singing the harmony with us. Whenever we pray a prayer, there are those sitting in front of God praying just as intently. Whenever someone gives themselves over to God’s plan, the whole company of Heaven – angels and saints – joins together to celebrate. Today as we celebrate communion, we take juice and bread and even for just a second draw near to the eternal bliss that those we love already have begun to enjoy.

The people we miss are able to miss us too. The people who we loved, still love us from their rest in Heaven. There is no end to a person simply because their body has stopped functioning. Though it is hard for us to think of, no matter how holy and prayerful we may be, that there is a life beyond the senses and experiences we know now – we go on beyond this life. That means that, if we really believe that to be true, we do not become a robot after we pass into Heaven, we maintain our personality. I was always told growing up that once I got to Heaven I would never think about earth or my life before I had died. As I grew up, I began to think that could not be the case. I may be praising God 24/7, I may understand my time on earth through the lens of my present Heavenly experiences, but to take away the people and things I cared about in this life completely would be to eliminate what makes me, me.

We are given two powerful visions of what our destiny looks like in Eternity. The first is in Jesus’s appearances to his disciples after the resurrection. Jesus looked different, so different at times that people could not see that it was him they were talking to. Yet, never once did Jesus’s personality or soul change after the resurrection. Granted, Jesus has the advantage of having lived a perfect life before his death, so there would be no disconnect. For us, I imagine the rougher parts of our life will be removed. I will probably be a much nicer person once God has cleaned me when I make my way into Heaven. However, unless our personality is mostly made up of sin, then we do not have to see our Heavenly selves as anything but a better continuation of our earthly selves.

The second image is directly from our scripture today, God bringing Heaven and Earth together so that they can never be pulled apart. Genesis tells a story a lot like this. God was with humanity, walking with them daily in the Garden, then we ran away through our sin and lost what it meant to be with God constantly. God never stopped chasing after us though. All of scripture attests to God’s nostalgia for Eden, God always wanted to be back with us in the Garden. We are all waiting for a reunion. Even creation waits for the day Heaven is back in touch with Earth, for when everything is fixed and nothing is broken anymore. God waits to be back home with us, and alongside God are all the faithful who have left us here, all of them waiting for the day we are together again.

As we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we take time to remember that our loved ones are still with us. Though they know perfect bliss, they wait for the day we can be together again just as much as we do. One day we will all enter the New Jerusalem together, singing hymns and songs in languages we never knew we could know. Then, when the light of Heaven shines bright all around us, we will see the truth we acknowledge today. God is with us, alongside all the saints. – Amen.

[1] Peter Brown. The Cult of the Saints. (Chicago, Illinois. University of Chicago Press. 2015)

[2] John Wesley makes this distinction in his own writings, saying “Paradise,” is the experience of God’s presence before God reconciles all things, and “Heaven,” is only truly known to us afterward.