Monday, November 23, 2015

With Great Expectation

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Revelation 1:4-8:

When I was growing up, every Thanksgiving my brother and I would wake up and then go curl up with our parents in their bed and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television.  Santa making his triumphant entry at the end was always the best part because that meant we could “officially” start listening to Christmas music, and so we would all climb out of bed and my mom would get out the Christmas records, and it’s nice with this group because we all know what a record is, and then we would begin getting ready for the trek to my grandmother’s house for dinner, although since it was Phoenix, it was not over the river or through the woods  Being curled up in my parents’ bed watching the parade is one of my fondest childhood memories.  In working to create our own family traditions, by tapping into the traditions that Linda and I had as children, we too watch the parade each year, and when we lived in Boston we twice went down to New York to see the parade in person.

But watching the parade live is very different than watching in on television.  When you are there in person, there is a lot of waiting.  First there is the fact that in order to get a good spot to watch you have to show up by at least 6:30 am in order stake out your location.  The parade itself doesn’t start until 9, and then doesn’t get to where we are sitting until 9:30.  That means we have at least three hours of sitting or standing on the streets of New York waiting for the parade to arrive.

Our first year the crowd was singing songs, and led by the police officer “guarding” the route, he had each side of the street chanting back and forth to each other.  It was a lot of fun.  Our second time there, the crowd was more subdued and there was no police officer to keep up under control, so we were left to our own devices to occupy our time.  But, of course, the longest period of time seems to be once you can see the beginning of the parade, you know its right there but it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer.  The anticipation and the excitement build and you know the end is in sight and yet it’s not there just yet, there is still a delay of time, and it is in times like this that we realize we have to hurry up and wait.

Like many of you, I don’t like waiting in line.  Sometimes it seems like I’m the jinx.  I choose a line at the grocery store, and I find this happens to me the most at Costco, that seems to be moving just fine until I step into it, and then suddenly it becomes as slow as molasses and every other line seems to speed up.  Has that ever happened to you?  And I find myself quoting from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “you have chosen… poorly.” I have even been known to walk out of someplace if I think the wait is going to be too long.  I have better things to do with my time then wait, because waiting can be hard and long.  I don’t actually know what Einstein’s theory of relativity says, either the general or special theory, but here is how I understand it.  The first is that all of us have relatives that drive us crazy, especially when we have to spend time with them, and when we are with them time slows, which is the second part of relativity and that is that time is relative.  There are times when time flies, usually when we are doing something we enjoy, and time when the minutes become hours, or even seem like time as stopped, especially when we are dealing with that special relative.  And when we have to wait for something is when things especially seem to slow down.  Do you remember as a kid how long the wait was from Thanksgiving to Christmas?  Remember when school year’s lasted forever, and summer only seemed to be a couple of days.  Now it all just seems to fly by.

But there is also a push for instant gratification.  We can’t wait for anything.  Benjamin Moore just named the 2016 color of the year.  We’re still more than a month away from 2016, but the color race is already over, and in case you’re wondering, the color is “simply white.”  Apparently layering white over white will be all the rage in 2016, although I can’t quite figure out how you could tell if white was layered over white.  The thing that no one pointed out in the stupidity of the outcry over the red Starbucks cup, apparently they didn’t get the message that white is the new it color, was that it started on November 10 when Christmas doesn’t start the day after Thanksgiving, but instead Christmas starts when? December 25.

Why wait for that thing you desire, we are told, when you can have it right now using your credit card?  Why wait to lose weight gradually, when you can start this diet which promises to take off twenty pounds a week?  In fact, it seems the only time we are told to wait, is when the infomercial tells us not to call yet because they have yet to tell us all of the incredible features that the widget that we absolutely must have has.  Stores on Black Friday used to open at 7, then 6, then 5, then 4, and now they open on Thanksgiving.  And while everyone seems to be up in arms about it, huge numbers of people still show up to shop.  And I’ll admit my part, for me Halloween is when I start listening to Christmas music, if I can even make it that far.  We don’t want to wait and yet we also have to wait, and for us as Christians we have an even stranger dichotomy as part of our waiting when it comes to Jesus Christ.  We have an already happened and a not quite yet happened.

We say that Christ has come and yet proclaim that Christ will come again.  We give thanks for what Jesus has done for us and also say “Come Lord Jesus.”   John Petty, who is a Lutheran pastor in Colorado, recounts a time when he was at a street festival and came across a street preacher, whose basic message was to get right with God because Jesus was coming soon.  One old man walking by heard this message and yelled out “what in the blazes are you talking about?  He’s already here.”  That is to say that Jesus is already present in our lives, the kingdom of God is already present, and yet all we need to do is to look around and we quickly realize that the kingdom of God is also not yet present.   Already and not quite yet.  We have to hold that in tension with each other, and that’s encapsulated in the passage we just heard from Revelation as well as from what today represents in the Christian year.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day in which we celebrate the kingship of Christ, or at least intentionally celebrate that as hopefully we have a portion of that every Sunday and hopefully every day in our lives.  But today also represents the last day of the Christian year, which is why the gospel readings are about the trail of Jesus, and yet also about Jesus coming again, because with every ending comes a beginning, and thus the end of the Christian year also represents moving into the beginning of the coming year.  We start all over again, beginning with Advent, of which the first celebration is next Sunday.  Advent has several meanings, one of them related to the Christian year, but the church got the term because it originally meant the coming of a notable person or event, which we mean in the second coming of Christ, but also the celebration of the coming of Christ through the birth of Jesus.

And thus in his greetings to the seven churches in Asia, modern day Turkey, “grace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come.”  It’s that already and not quite yet.  John says that twice in just these few verses, and then reminds us, or really tells us the first time, that God is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.  That means that Jesus is like that Thanksgiving parade that we have known for our whole lives, and yet it’s also just right around the corner and we sit in expectation waiting for it to come again, but how do we do that?  How do we remain vigilant for something for a long period of time?  Can we remain vigilant for a long period of time?  We want that thing to happen and we want it to happen now, and yet sometimes things seem to keep getting farther and farther away and so our vigilance slips over time.  Our watching and waiting is not quite as strong as it was before.

After 9/11 the new Homeland Security Department came up with a new color coding system to keep us aware of the threat of another attack.  It ranked from green, which meant everything was fine, to red, an attack was eminent..  Homeland Security has now moved away from that for several reasons, the most important one being that it didn’t work because they wanted us at a heightened level of vigilance, and so we normally sat at yellow, which was elevated.  But the longer we sat there, the less serious it became, and so yellow in actuality became green.  We became desensitized because we couldn’t keep waiting, or at least not like we were supposed to.

Jesus tells a similar story of a group of ten bridesmaids who are waiting for the groom to arrive.  They begin their waiting during the day, and so some of them aren’t prepared for the length of the wait and don’t have any oil available to light their lamps when it becomes dark.  As a result, they have to leave to get oil, versus those who were prepared and already had oil in their lamps, and so they are still there waiting when the groom arrives, whereas those who didn’t have oil have not yet returned and are locked out of the wedding celebration.  This is a warning to be prepared, to metaphorically always have oil in our lamps, to be prepared.  To focus only on one thing, and that is to be ready for Christ to come again.

There are certainly people who want to emphasize, and it wouldn’t take us very long to find someone today who was preaching that Christ was coming back soon, and so we better be ready.  The problem is that people have been preaching that since the time of the resurrection, and it hasn’t happened yet.  Does that mean it’s not going to happen? No it could happen at any time, but if we keep looking for the parade coming and think that it’s just around the corner and it doesn’t come and it doesn’t come and it doesn’t come, either we are eventually get complacent in watching for it, or we’re just going to walk away. So what do we do to keep our sense of expectation up?

I believe the answer to that is found in the emphasis of today, and that is to remember our allegiance to Christ as Lord or King.  Jesus tells us that we are to pick up our cross and to follow, how often? Daily.  We can’t worry about what we did yesterday, and we shouldn’t worry about what is going to happen tomorrow.  Instead, all we need to do is focus on today, and our relationship with God right now.  How are we living out our proclamation that Christ is king today?  Because that’s what this is all about.  That’s what the book of Revelation is about.  Where are we going to put our trust? Where are we going to claim and pledge our allegiance, to Christ or to something or someone else?  There are lots of things which want to claim our allegiance, ideologies, leaders, sports teams, nations, flags, restaurants, hotel chains, schools.  But Jesus says you cannot serve two masters.  If there is anything that is competing with your allegiance to Christ then there is a problem, because we are to strive first for the kingdom of God, and what does every kingdom have? A King, and it is that king to which our allegiance is due.

That’s why Pontius Pilate is asking if Jesus is a king, because there can only be one king of a kingdom, and for the Romans at the time, that is the emperor.  That’s why Jesus and his family become refugees fleeing for their lives to another country when the wise men come, because they ask Herod where is the king of the Jews?  But Herod’s official title is King of the Jews, so there can only be one.  You can only claim allegiance to one thing, for everything else has to take second place, or a step back.  One commentator said the call of discipleship “is for radical trust and single-minded service.  That which is uncompromisingly primary is orienting one’s life to the approaching reign of God.  After all, life is qualified by what one seeks.” It’s like the people who say their families are the most important thing in their lives, but then spend very little time with them because they’re working or doing something else.  Their words may say it, but their actions say something else.

Just like the bridesmaids who didn’t have the oil for their lamps.  They said that waiting for the groom, waiting for Christ, was their priority but their actions said something totally different.   So how do we keep vigilant in waiting for Christ to come, keep ourselves ready to meet Christ, keep ourselves from slipping into complacency? We wake up every day and we pledge our allegiance to Christ and we simply focus on doing the things that Christ has called us to do that day, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, giving a drink to the thirsty, visiting those who are sick and in prison and welcoming the stranger, which is how we strive first for the kingdom of God.

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks.  Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  And then Pilate asked him again, “So you are a king?” and Jesus said, “You say that I am a king…”  Who do you say that Jesus is? That’s the question that we must all answer.  Of course Pilate didn’t understand, maybe couldn’t understand, but just like with Pilate we can’t make any assertions based on what others have told us.  We have to answer for ourselves? Who do you say that Jesus is? But even more than saying who Jesus is, how do we live that out?  Do we proclaim allegiance to Christ, but live out allegiances to something else?

Walter Bruggeman says that “Jesus ministry takes place between the clinging and the yearning,” We cling to what we have and we yearn for what is yet to come.  But let’s not let our clinging abolish the sense of expectation, the excitement, and the promise. We prepare for the coming of Christ the same way Christians have prepared for millennia and that is first by proclaiming that Christ is king, and then picking up our cross and following how often? Daily. Not worrying about yesterday, and not being concerned about tomorrow, but focusing on today and our allegiance to Christ and doing what Christ has called us to do.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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