24 November 2019

"The Vulnerable King" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
November 24, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 23:33-43
Preacher:  Kate Jones

So today is the last Sunday of the church year – a new year begins next Sunday with the start of Advent.  And so feel free to wish each other a happy new year on the way out the door this morning!

There is a lovely flow or rhythm to the church year.  We begin in Advent – a season of waiting, of preparing, of longing.  And then at Christmas, when that focus of our waiting and our longing becomes real.  God is born as a human, and our humanity can no longer be separated from God.  The season of Christmas lasts for 12 days – almost two weeks of celebrating the fact that God has been born as this tiny baby; and Christmas flows into Epiphany – the day when we read about the Magi visiting the young Jesus and his parents.  In the weeks that follow Epiphany, we read about how Jesus becomes known to the world – we have not only the story of the Magi, but we also read the story of Jesus’ baptism, how he calls his disciples, and stories of his very earliest miracles and sermons.

This season after Epiphany culminates with the story of the Transfiguration – that time when Jesus and 3 of his closest disciples went up to the top of a mountain, and Jesus’ physical body was transformed so that there was a bright light shining out of him, and his disciples hear God saying that Jesus is God’s beloved son.

This Transfiguration marks a turning point in the gospel stories, because it is after that that Jesus and his disciples begin their final journey from Galilee in the north to the city of Jerusalem; and in the church we mirror this journey with the season of Lent.  Lent is 6 weeks when we journey with Jesus towards his death – it is a season of repentance and penitence and self-reflection.

The story speeds up when we get to Holy Week – on Palm Sunday we celebrate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem in a parade; on Maundy Thursday we remember Jesus’ final meal with his friends, and we go out with him to the garden to wait; on Good Friday we remember Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution; and then at Easter we celebrate Jesus’ triumph over death itself with the resurrection.

The season of Christmas lasts for 12 days, but the season of Easter lasts for 50 days – we get 7 weeks of celebrating the resurrection each year after Easter Sunday.  Easter is followed by Pentecost – the time when the Holy Spirit came to the early church in great force, and empowered the followers of Jesus to continue the work that Jesus began.

And then after Pentecost we get a great long season of what the church calls “Ordinary Time.”  In this season, we remember the every-day work of Jesus, outside of the major festivals of Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost.  We read stories of healing, stories of teaching; we tend to get a lot of parables of Jesus in this season as well.

And this season stretches on, from mid-May or mid-June right up to the end of November.  But you may have noticed… in the last month or two of this season of Ordinary Time, the tone of our Sunday morning readings becomes more urgent, more intense.  We get the most challenging parables in October and November each year; we get stories about the end of the world in this season.  And all of that culminates with today, known as the Reign of Christ Sunday, or sometimes Christ the King Sunday.

Today, after a year of looking back to what Jesus did when he was alive and celebrating what the Risen Christ is doing in our world in the here and now; today we get to look to the future and we celebrate the time that is coming, the time that God has promised, when Jesus Christ reigns or rules or governs all of creation; a time when the brokenness of the world is over, and the whole world is living in peace and justice and love.

Now, if you were in charge of putting together the lectionary, this cycle of readings that we usually follow in the church, what readings might you consider choosing for today?

Maybe something with pomp and ceremony and celebration like our Palm Sunday reading with Jesus riding into Jerusalem accompanied by a crowd proclaiming him to be king?  Or if we want pomp and ceremony, we could go back even further to the Old Testament descriptions of the temple with the gold and jewels and singing and dancing.

Or maybe you would pick something from towards the end of the book of Revelation that describes the kingdom of God using imagery of thrones and jewels and the city of gold and the water of life and the tree of life.

Or maybe you’d pick something describing the power of Jesus – maybe when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, or when he walked on water, or when he brought Lazarus back to life.

Or what about the story of the resurrection – Jesus, who will one day rule the world, has defeated even death!

Any of these readings would fit with the idea of Christ the King, with God-in-Jesus ruling over all of creation.  These readings would fit with the words of our opening hymn – “Jesus shall reign wherever the sun does its successive journeys run; his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, ’till moons shall wax and wane no more.”  These readings would fit with our ideas of golden crowns and royal purple robes and a throne high above the heavens.

But look at the reading that the lectionary gives us instead!  Instead of reading about a triumphant and powerful king, we have the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Instead of a golden crown, this king wears a crown of thorns.  Instead of sitting on a gold and jewel-encrusted throne high above the heavens, he is raised up on a cross.  Instead of a purple robe, his clothing is stripped from him.  Instead of being surrounded by courtiers, he is flanked by two other rebels.

God, who embraced vulnerability by being born as a tiny baby who was laid in a manger once again chooses vulnerability when God is nailed to a cross.

And this is the king that we worship – we worship Christ Crucified.  This reign of Christ that we recognize and celebrate today is not one marked by authoritarian power and worldly authority and inaccessibility.  The one whom we proclaim as our king is the one who chose the power of vulnerability, the one who chose to proclaim forgiveness and reconciliation with his dying breath, the one who throws open the doors of the kingdom of God and invites everyone in.

And so when we proclaim Christ as our king, this is the sort of world that we are putting our trust in.  A world where the hungry are fed; a world where the outcasts are welcome; a world where a shepherd searches high and low for one lost sheep; a world where a stranger will help a person injured and stranded beside the road; a world where the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

And when we put our trust in this kingdom of Christ, then all of the struggles and scrambling in this world falls away.  With Christ as our king, all of our earthly kings and leaders lose their power over us.  With Christ as our king, the lure of wealth or fame or worldly power loses its allure.  With Christ as our king, the only things that matter are these lessons from the cross – lessons of love, forgiveness, vulnerability, reconciliation.

And may this kingdom come soon!  Amen.

This likely isn't what the Crucifixion looked like...
... and yet we worship the Crucified Christ as our king.
Image:  Piero di Cosimo, "Crucifixion of Christ" (Public Domain)

18 November 2019

"The End of the World as We Know It?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday November 17, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 21:5-19 and Isaiah 65:17-25

So… isn’t that a "fun" reading that we get from Luke this morning?  It’s full of end-of-the-world imagery – the sort of images that get paintings and movies and stories written about them; the sort of images that scare people; the sort of images that popular culture has appropriated to say, “this is what the bible has to say about the future.”

“Nation will rise up 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.”  (Luke 21:10-11)

This makes me think of the song written by REM, but possibly more famous here in Canada as sung by Great Big Sea – “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”  If you are a CBC radio listener like me, you might have heard it yesterday at the very end of “Weekend Morning”!  If you listen to the words, it’s got a lot of the same imagery as our scripture reading this morning.  “That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, Birds and snakes, and aeroplane. Lenny Bruce is not afraid. Eye of a hurricane. Listen to yourself churn. World serves its own needs, don’t mis-serve your own needs…” and so on.
There have also been books written that take passages like this as predicting the future – before God’s kingdom can come; before God can fully be in charge of the world, all of these things must come to pass.  Nations must rise up against nation; there will be a great earthquake; there will be famines and plagues.  And this in turn has led to frequent predictions of the date of the end of the world.  There were at least 13 preachers or cult leaders predicting that the world was going to end some time in the year 2000.  And does anyone remember the Heaven’s Gate cult?  Their date was March 26, 1997.  Harold Camping, a US Christian Radio broadcaster has successively predicted 6 different dates for the end of the world, between 1994 and 2011.  Different events in history, like Haley’s Comet or the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 have been seen as signs that the end of the world is coming; signs that these predictions are being fulfilled.

And yet the world is still standing.  And even though the media might have you believe otherwise, we are living in what might possibly be the most peaceful era in all of human history.[1]

So if this list of calamities that Jesus gives us in today’s reading doesn’t seem to work as a prediction of the future, how else might we see it?

What if, instead of predicting the future, Jesus is just saying that these things happen.  Stuff doesn’t necessarily happen for a reason, stuff just happens.  The stuff that the original audience of Jesus was most concerned about – things like the Roman Empire oppressing people, things like the Jewish rebellion or war against the Roman army, things like the imminent destruction of the temple in Jerusalem – these things aren’t necessarily the things that we are worried about, but we have our own list of concerns.  Climate change.  Destruction of natural habitats.  Viruses and bacteria that are becoming resistant to the ways that we have to treat them.

And Jesus says, stuff happens.

Let’s step backwards in the text a little bit.  Why is Jesus talking about all of this stuff?  He’s standing in the temple in Jerusalem with his followers, and they are asking him about the end-times.  They are asking him the same question that so many people have asked throughout history, “How will we know when the end of the world is coming?!”  And Jesus replies, “You can’t know; and don’t be led astray by anyone who would tell you otherwise.  All of these things – wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues – all of these things that some people will say predict the end of the world, that’s nonsense.  The end of the world won’t follow immediately after these things.  These things just happen.  So don’t be afraid!”

So let’s step back a bit further in the text – why are the followers of Jesus asking about the end of the world?

They are standing with Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem.  In the timeline of Jesus’ life, we are in the middle of Holy Week.  Jesus has entered into Jerusalem in the parade that we remember each year on Palm Sunday, and he is just days away from his arrest and crucifixion.

Now the temple in Jerusalem was the biggest building that anyone had seen, or could even imagine.  It was built of limestone, and the stones that made up the foundation each weighed over 100 tons, while the regular stones were a mere 28 tons, measuring 2.5 feet by 3.5 feet by 15 feet; or 75 centimeters by 1 meter by 4.5 meters for those of us who think in metric.  The building itself was 9 stories high, with walls that were 16 feet (almost 5 meters) thick.

It was a huge structure, so it’s no wonder that Jesus’ disciples, coming from rural Galilee, were awestruck.  They gazed up at this structure that was more massive than anything they could have imagined, and they commented on the beautiful stonework, and how this whole building was dedicated to God.  Then Jesus goes and bursts their bubble, and tells them that a time will come when all of the stones will be thrown down so that there isn’t a single one left on the other.

Which is a bit harsh.  But through the lens of history, it is true – there isn’t a single building that lasts forever and ever.  A couple of weeks ago when I was in England, one of the places that I visited was the Glastonbury Abbey.  It was founded in the 7th century, enlarged in the 10th century, and rebuilt in the 12th century.  And it was huge in its day.  Standing next to the ruins – and spoiler alert, it is now a ruin – I felt tiny and insignificant, and what is left is only half the height of the original building.  But if you had told someone visiting this abbey in its heyday that some day it would look like this, they would have laughed and said that these stones would stand forever.  But they didn’t.  And neither did the temple in Jerusalem.

Part of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey as they appear in 2019

But when Jesus was looking at the magnificence of the temple, he is seeing it through the lens of God.  Yes, in human terms, it might be an awe-inspiring building, but it doesn’t inspire the same awe that God does.  And yes, the stones might give the impression of permanence, but they aren’t as permanent as God.  And Jesus is able to see that even though the building won’t last forever, God will.  And so the eventual destruction of the building has nothing to do with God’s timeline for the world.

Jesus is able to look at the stone and the mortar, and he is able to look beyond them to God’s vision for the world.  And God’s vision for the world is not built out of massive limestone blocks.  God has promised a world instead like the one that we heard about in the reading from Isaiah.  A new heavens and a new earth where there is no more weeping or distress, where the key words are gladness and rejoicing and delight and joy and blessing.

This is the vision for the world that Jesus is able to see when he looks at the temple.  He knows that stuff happens – that the temple will some day fall, that wars and earthquakes happen – but he knows this vision from the prophet Isaiah is the true ending.  He tells his followers that they don’t have to be afraid of anything that happens in the world, because God is going to create this new heavens and this new earth of peace and joy.  Like with the movies that we watch over and over again, we don’t need to be afraid, because we already know the ending!

The word apocalypse and the word revelation mean the same thing – they mean a peeling back of the surface things to reveal what is hidden underneath.  When Jesus looks at the temple, his eyes are peeling back the things that he and his disciples can see, and he is revealing God’s vision that is the true thing, the thing that we can trust, that is hidden underneath.

This morning, we baptised Temple into the family of God’s church, and choosing baptism is an act of radical faith.  By asking to have Temple baptized, and before him, Avery and Isaiah, Gaby and Mike are saying that they trust in this vision of God.  They trust in God’s vision for the world over the pain and suffering that we see in the world around us.  They trust in this loving God, revealed to us in Jesus, who is building a world where there are no more tears and sadness, but where everything is a joy and a delight.

And so I see our two readings this morning, when we take them together, as an invitation.  An invitation to see the world that Jesus sees, the world that God promises; and an invitation to live as if it is already here.  An invitation not to be overwhelmed by the grief, not to be overwhelmed by the suffering, not to be overwhelmed by the pain and injustice that we see around us, but instead to live in the joy and love that God promises to us.

And may this world that God is promising, this new heavens and new earth, come soon.  Amen.

[1] www.scientificamerican.com/steven-pinker-this-is-historys-most-peaceful-time-new-study-not-so-fast/