What Does Heaven Look Like?

Heaven

Sermon written and preached by Dr. Jarrett Banks and Rev. Shannon Speidel for All Saints’ Sunday, Central Christian Church, November 6, 2016 to remember church members who died since our last service in May, 2016.

Revelation 22

To be honest, the promise of going to heaven one day, as heaven is often stereotyped, to live forever and ever and ever has not always appealed to me. Floating on some celestial cloud playing a harp for all of eternity does not sound like good times.

Furthermore, I have always been leery of Christians who seem to make going to heaven one day the whole point of what it means to be a Christian. It sounds rather selfish to me. And when I consider the selfless mission of Jesus, that type of theology seems to miss the whole point of what Christianity is all about.

I have also never desired to live in a mansion or walk on streets of gold. Again, because of what I know about Jesus’ identification with the poor, such opulence seems contrary to the words and works of Jesus.

However, there is one description of heaven in the Bible that I do find rather interesting, even attractive.

The most vivid and perhaps the best description of heaven may be found in the last chapter of our Bible.

What does heaven look like?

Although the description is certainly symbolic, it is nonetheless beautiful. There is a holy city, and in the middle of the city’s main street, there is a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

What does heaven look like?

On both sides of the river, there is the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, and the leaves on the trees have the power to heal the nations.

What does heaven look like?

Nothing accursed will be there. There will be no more hate; no more bigotry; no more ugliness; no more racism and misogyny, no more poverty, no more war, no more politicians and no more elections, no more of anything that is vile, foul or evil.

There is nothing accursed in heaven, because the throne of God, the compete rule of God, and the Lamb, who is Jesus the Christ, will be there.

And here’s my favorite part. There is nothing accused in heaven, because all of the servants of Christ will be there; together, gathered around the throne worshipping the Lamb face to face,

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Ed Wedel.

Paul urges the Christians in Galatia to take responsibility for doing the vey best that they can with their life” (Gal 6:5).

In Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation we read that for this generation, “responsibility was their juice. They loved responsibility. They took it head-on.” Responsibility was something that was what really got ‘em going.”

This is why I believe we will remember Edwin Wedel the epitome of the “The Greatest Generation.” Responsibility and faithfulness was his juice. Ed was responsible to his country, serving in WWII in the United States Navy, to his family, especially to his widowed mother who needed his care, and to this, his church he was so very faithful.

What does Heaven look like?  Heaven looks like Delcea Batterman.

In the story of the prophet Elijah in 1st Kings, coming into a struggling woman’s world and asking her to have faith, so that she may be given all that she needs, Delcea had faith. We can never deny the steady and firm faith of Delcea Batterman.  Delcea, didn’t just hear the word of the Lord in her life, she acted on it.  Delcea shared her gifts with others and uplifted all those she met. Delcea found herself in a blessed life because of all she was and all she believed and did.  She practiced an active faith, one of sharing, giving and presence.  Heaven must indeed look like Delcea Batterman. (1st Kings 17:8-16)

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Iris Butts.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that God loves a “cheerful giver.” The entire creation speaks to the generosity of God. Iris Butts certainly had the heart of a cheerful, generous giver as she was continually looking for special projects here at Central Christian Church to support. Worth Bracher remembers being constantly contacted by Mary Beach calling to relay a message from Iris to find another project for her some of her money.

What does Heaven look like?  Heaven looks like Ray Feightner. 

The apostle John said: Love is of God, for God is Love.  And in this sense we can see the light of God in the life of Ray.  We can see the love he had for God’s people when he saw a man in his nursing home cafeteria, who happened to be black, and he had multiple people walking away from him because they refused to sit with him at a table.  Ray, having seen this, sought out this man’s table, shared his meals alongside him and they became fast friends.  Ray was willing to seek out what was right and act on it in welcoming ways.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Bob Shaw.

Jesus said there is no greater love than this, that one is willing to lay down their life for their friends (John 15:13).

After serving in the United States Army, Bob worked as a lineman for an electric company. One day, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, Bob was on the ground while a fellow lineman was high in a bucket truck working on an electric line. Not knowing that the line was live, his co-worker grabbed the line. The electricity immediately grabbed him, not letting him go until Bob says he could see smoke appear to come from the top of his head. Without hesitation, and putting himself at risk, emulating the sacrificial love of his Lord, Bob climbed the pole and pulled his co-worker off of the line, saving the man’s life.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jane Adams.

In first Peter, we are told to… “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, Service on another with whatever gift each of you has received.  Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ”.  These beautiful words so accurately paint the picture of Jane Adams.  Jane was a faithful servant of Central Christian Church, but also for all of God’s people in all areas of life.  Jane’s generosity of spirit spread throughout the lives of those who surrounded her.  Jane was passionate about the work of God, often serving silently without recognition and without complaint.  She opened her heart wide upon marrying her husband Paul and becoming a mother to his six children.  And this is definitely not shocking to anyone… they became hers and she became theirs.  Jane had a way of doing that in all her life, she became ours and we all became hers.  Heaven must indeed, look like Jane Adams.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Karolyn Bruner.

In Colossians we read that we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…forgive each other. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col 3:12-17).

Karolyn will always be remembered by those who knew her for her kind and beautiful spirit, her big heart and generous attitude, for her talents in serving others, and as a very caring and compassionate person.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Johnny Matthews.

The Psalmist declares for us “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the god’s I sing your praise.”  And very few people had as much thankfulness as Johnny Matthews.  Johnny lived a life borrowed, having survived a bus accident as a young adult, he became keenly aware of the gift of life and the thankfulness for more days to enjoy before finally being called home.  Because of these things Johnny lived life to the fullest extent.  His family, was a highlight of his life, always expressing a willingness to do anything for them.  Johnny was graciously thankful, never letting the truest fulfillment of life, escape him.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Gayle Lewis.

Isaiah prophesied:

Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint. (Isa 40:30-31)

We will never forget and always be inspired how Gayle kept the faith, persevered to fight the good fight, even in the midst of adversity, pain and suffering. Although the great storms of life—death, divorce, and disease, would come and sometimes knock her off her feet, Gayle’s faith in God would always propel her to get back up and continue with perseverance the race that was set before her.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jan Newkirk.

The Apostle John writes these words “believe in God, believe also in me.  In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also”.  Jane Newkirk was rocking in a cradle in the church nursery of Central Christian Church and treated this church as her home.  She treated it as a special welcoming body that existed in the midst of God’s loving care.  Jan would actively prepare the worship space for God, even making sure the candles for communion were freshly bronzed or silvered out of respect for its reverence.  And just as she prepared a place for us all in this experience of worship, we can be assured she is in a place especially prepared for her.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Phyllis May.

The Psalmist declares that the steadfastness of the Lord endures forever. We got a glimpse of this steadfastness in Phyllis. As part of the Caregiver ministry team, she continued to telephone people in our community who needed calling on even when she was unable to physically visit with them.

Call it pride. Call it a strong will. Whatever you call it, Phyllis had it. She had this steadfastness, this relentless persistence about her. Yet, one hesitates to call it stubborn or obstinate, or hardheaded, because, with Phyllis, it was more aptly described as a gracious persistence, a steadfast love.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Helen Chisum.

The apostle Paul writes that we are to Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Helen Chisum embodied all of these attributes through the many mountains and valleys in her life.  Helen always persevered through the lose of spouses and raising her seven children throughout the immense lost and grief that accompanied her pain and struggle.  Helen was steady and present.  She was someone who was flexible with her dreams, always willing to walk the paths afforded to her and relying always on an ever-present God, who never gave up on her strength and always encouraged her perseverance for the journey.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Joan Ingmire.

When Jesus sent his disciples into the world to be his hands and feet, welcoming little children and caring for the sick, Jesus sent them out without a purse, without money, as examples of selfless self-giving. As a faithful disciple of Christ Joan volunteered over 6,000 hours at St. Mary’s hospital caring for the sick. And while she was a member of the Christian Church in Billings, more than anything, Joan loved teaching children about this sacrificial love in Vacation Bible School.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jim Butler.

In Genesis we are taught very clearly about hospitatlity.  In Chapter 18 we hear this story The Lord appeared to Abraham[a] by the oaks[b] of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.  This story of humbling oneself before God is followed by Abraham giving him the best of everything he had in true hospitable fashion and there has been such hospitality offered here, in the life of Jim Butler.  There wasn’t a time when a visit with Jim wasn’t started by seeing the biggest smile and “Boy am I glad to see you!”.  And you know what, he truly meant it!  Jim was a beacon of hospitality and welcome in a world that often struggles to find it’s way.  Jim knew what it meant to welcome others as the lord welcomes us all and made you feel it each and every time you were together.  Jim’s genuine love and welcome for all people has to be what heaven looks like.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Inez Fisher.

Jesus said that when we give, not to sound trumpets and call attention to ourselves, but we should give in secret, and our God who sees what is done in secret will reward us. Inez was one of those ‘behind-the scenes” church worker. For years she could always be counted on to put mailing labels on the Visitor the church newsletter. She was the reason that many of you received your newsletter, and you never knew it. Several of you were bothered that she did not have a memorial service. But that was who she was. Full of humility, she never wanted to call attention to herself.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jimmy Johnson.

The gospel of Luke shares with us all that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  No greater words can be said in regards to Johnny Johnson.  Johnny was a man who was bigger than life.  He lit up a room with his joyous personality and his humor.  He was a jack of all trades and kept busy, but as a family member states, he will be most remembered for is unconditional love for all people.  Johnny was a man who truly loved his neighbors, near and far.  He sought out the opportunity to help people who needed it, showed up for people, and held them all within a caring heart that he carried with him everywhere he would go.  As a man who embodied Jesus’ only commands to the fullest, it is without a doubt that Heaven must look like Johnny Johnson.

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks like a river of life, bright as crystal. Heaven looks like a tree of life with branches of healing. Heaven looks like the rule of Christ, the Kingdom of God. And the good news is that heaven looks like the servants, of God, members of this family of faith who have gone before us, who are now and forever worshiping the Christ.

They all taught us that heaven looks like the words and works of Jesus. Heaven looks like who God is calling us to be as the church. Heaven looks like extravagant grace and unconditional love. Heaven looks like the selflessness of Jesus, the mission of Jesus.

So, maybe living forever is not so bad after all.

 

Thank you O God for the way the saints who have gone before us still teach us how to live, how to serve, how to follow our Lord to be the church you are calling us to be. Amen.

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The Main Thing Is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

flounder

Sermon delivered at Providence Baptist Church, Shawboro, North Carolina for their 190th Homecoming Celebration.

Luke 5:1-11 NRSV

Everything that I ever needed to know about how to be a minister, how to love my neighbors, how to preach, how to lead a congregation, how to administer pastoral care, how to pray for others, and how to have a covered-dish luncheon, I learned from my church family at Providence Baptist Church and from my family that raised me in Shawboro.

My fondest memories include Bill Dawson and Steve Saunders taking the youth group to Caswell. After seminary, I continued to take youth to Caswell, and in the early nineties, Kyle Matthews taught us a song at Caswell that continues to inform my understanding of what church is all about.

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Growing up in this very special corner of the world surrounded by water, I learned that the main thing that the church should keep the main thing has a lot to do with going fishing.

I guess you could say that because I enjoyed going fishing so much with my Nana and Granddaddy in Oregon Inlet, all of those stories Mr. Wellons taught us about Jesus going fishing with his disciples really had an impact on me.

Like the one when Jesus is having church down at a place where every pastor in land-locked Oklahoma dreams of having some church, right on the beach. The congregation gathered that day is so large (the dream of every pastor), they keep “pressing in on him to hear the word of God,” almost pushing Jesus into the water.

Jesus sees two boats belonging to some fishermen who are out washing their nets. He climbs into one of the boats belonging to a fella named Simon and asks him to put it out a little way from the shore so he could teach the crowds on the beach from the boat, setting up a little pulpit on the water.

After the benediction is pronounced and church is over, Jesus says to Simon, “Let’s move the boat to some deeper waters and go fishing.” And this is when, for Simon and all of us, that church really begins.

Simon says, “Jesus, we’ve been fishing all night long and haven’t caught a thing. But, if you say so, I’ll cast my net one more time.”

It is then that Luke tells us that they catch so many fish that they had to call in re-enforcements and a second boat. The nets begin to break. Filled with so many fish, both boats begin to sink.

Now, notice Simon’s reaction to this glorious catch: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow for this miraculous catch of fish!”

Nope, not even close.

Scared to death, Simon says the almost unthinkable: “Go away from me Lord!”

Then, as it usually is with the stories of Jesus, we learn there is much more going on here than a few folks going fishing. This is really not a story about catching fish. It is a story about catching people. It is a story about bringing new people aboard. It is a story about the main thing.

And, like Simon, it is this main thing about being church that scares us to death.

Growing up in Northeastern North Carolina, I quickly learned that there are basically two types of fishermen.[i] First, there’s the fisherman who really doesn’t care if he catches anything at all. He’s perfectly content sitting in his boat with a line in the water. He couldn’t care less if he gets a nibble all day long. Enjoying the sunshine, taking in the salt air, brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes, he’s so comfortable, he is so at peace, so at home, he might even doze off and take a little nap. He’s just happy to be in the boat. He’s got a bag lunch, some snacks and a few cold beverages, and a bumper sticker on his truck that reads: “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.”

And besides, if he did catch anything, which by the way would be by sheer accident or dumb luck since he’s not paying any attention whatsoever to his pole, that would just mean for some work for him to do when he got back to shore. And one thing that fishing is not supposed to be is work!  At the end of the day, these fishermen reel in their line to discover that their bait is long gone. As my Granddaddy used to say, the poor souls were out there “fishing on credit.”

I am afraid this is the problem with many of us in the church today. We’re perfectly content just to have one line in the water, not really caring if we ever bring anyone else aboard. Because bringing aboard others always involves work. It involves sacrifice. Because you know about others? They are just so “other.”

So, the main thing about our faith is reduced to making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is happy, peaceful, and comfortable. If we catch something, that’s well and good. But if we don’t catch anything, well, that might even be better.

Then, there’s the fishermen who are really intentional about catching fish. Nana and Granddaddy were definitely of this type.

On the water with Nana and Granddaddy, I didn’t know whether to call what we were doing out there “fishing” or “moving.” Because oftentimes, as soon as I could get some bait on my hooks and drop it in the water, I’d hear Granddaddy say, “Alright, let’s reel ‘em in. We’re going to this place over there where the fish are more hungry.” I remember spending as much time watching the bait and tackle on the end of my line fly in the wind as we moved from place to place as I did watching it in the water. But guess what? With Nana and Granddaddy, we moved a lot, but we always caught a lot of fish!

Mr. Wellons also taught me a little phrase that continues to inform my ministry today. I remember him saying it every time I would go to his house. Which we would almost always do around this time of the year to see their Christmas tree. Mr. Wellons would proudly call my parents to let them know that he and Mrs. Wellons were one of the first in Shawboro to get their Christmas tree up, and we would head on over. Every time before we left, Mr. Wellons would always say the same thing: “Come back when you can’t stay so long!”

To be the church that God is calling us to be, we have to be a people on the move. The danger with many churches, is that we can get in a rut of staying too long in some comfortable and contented place, like, let’s say, 1955.

In the 1950’s, we as the church grew accustomed to people coming to us. We didn’t have to move. For variety of social and cultural reasons, all churches had to do to attract a big crowd was to open their doors and turn on the lights. There was a great church construction boom in the 1950’s, as the prevailing church growth mentality was “if you build it, they will come.” And people came. Some came because they had nowhere else to go. Most people stayed home on the weekends. Going to church and to Grandmama’s house afterwards for chicken pot pie and cornbread was the highlight of their weekend, if not their entire week.

However, here in the 21st century, hardly anyone stays home. People are constantly on the move, on the go. So, in order to share the good news of Jesus with others today, we have to get up and intentionally be on the move. We have to constantly reel in our lines to go to meet people exactly where they are, especially in those deep, dark places where people are hungry for love and starving for grace; where they are thirsting for liberty, justice and equality. And when we meet them where they are, we need to seriously meet them where they are, not where we may want them to be.

The problem is that too many churches today are sitting back, half asleep, with one pole in the water. They are not moving, not going out. They not only could not care less if anyone comes to them. But if by sheer accident or dumb luck someone new does happen to come aboard, churches expect them to come aboard in a manner that measures up to their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come aboard who look like them, behave like them, and believe like them. Many churches claim their doors are opened for all; however, they really do not mean “all.”

I will never forget that Nana used to go fishing with this special pocketbook. It was leather. And she must have lined with plastic. Nana always went fishing with this pocketbook, because when Nana was about the business of catching flounder, Nana did not discriminate. What I mean by this is that Nana very graciously welcomed all flounders aboard the boat, even if they did not measure up to the expectations of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.

I remember measuring a flounder: “Ah man! This flounder is a half inch too short, I guess I need to throw him back.”

“Oh, you will do no such thing!” Nana would say with her English accent and a savvy British giggle. “He’s ‘pocket-book size!’”

Last week, I called to share this story with mama, to which she responded: “Jarrett, you better not tell that story!”

But as I told my Oklahoma congregation last week, “If following Jesus does not get you into some trouble, you’re probably are not doing right.”

The reality is that as a pastor, I am constantly getting into trouble. And what’s crazy is that I get into the most trouble when I preach sermons on unconditional love. People in my congregations have become livid when I preach against hate and discrimination and for loving and including people who do not measure up to our cultural, societal, or religious expectations.

I once heard someone say that he was downright ashamed to be a member of his church, because it was becoming a church for “those people.”

Here’s the thing, this person he truly believes that the main thing that the church is about is making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is contented, comfortable and happy. He does not have a clue that the main thing is actually about bringing others aboard without discrimination and leading them to make the life-giving, world-changing confession that “Jesus is Lord.”

And God help us when the church embarrassed to stand up to our friends and family and shout with the Apostle Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation!”  What’s the rest of that verse? “For everyone…Jew and Gentile. (Romans 1:16). Everyone.

I am afraid that there are people in every church who remind me of fearful ol’ Simon, who upon looking at all those different fish in the boat, responded to Jesus with those unthinkable words: “Lord, go away from me.”

And the sad truth is: when a church begins discriminating, denigrating, and alienating others, when a church starts running away others because they are so “other,” then I believe that church also runs the Spirit of Jesus away, as it ceases being the church. It ceases being the body of the Christ who loved all, welcomed all, and died for all, and it becomes the worst kind of club.

As the church, as the body of Christ in this world, the main thing is to make sure that we are only excluding those whom Jesus excluded, and that is no one, even if it gets us into some trouble.

Before Jesus left this earth, I believe his final words were to remind us that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, how to be a church where the Lord is never sent away, but always present.

In Matthew 28 we read what we call the Great Commission: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go (be on the move) therefore and make disciples of all nations, (All. Without discrimination.) baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Late Disciples of Christ pastor Fred Craddock loved to tell the story of a local church that functioned more like a club. They failed to understand that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Although their sign out front read, “A church that serves all people,” when all people would show up to be served, the grumbling became so intense that it continually drove the newcomers away.

“Would you look at how long his hair is? Do you see all of those piercings! Oh my word, how those children are dressed! He sure is odd. She’s certainly strange. Don’t tell me we are now going to be a church for those people!”

About ten years went by. When, one day, Craddock was driving down the road where that church was located when he saw that the building that once housed that church had been converted into a restaurant.

Curious, he stopped and went inside. In the place where they used to be pews, there were now tables and chairs. The choir loft and baptistery was now the kitchen. And the area which once contained the pulpit and communion table now had an all-you-can-eat salad bar. And the restaurant was full of patrons—every age, color and creed.

Upon seeing the sad, but very intriguing transformation, Craddock thought to himself, “At last, God finally got that church to serve all people.”

I thank God today that all I ever need to know about how to lead a congregation to be the church, I learned not in the hallowed halls of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but right here in the Providence Baptist Church of Shawboro and in a boat on the waters of Oregon Inlet.

Well, Providence, it has been 190 great years, but the question before us today is: “Do we want this church to still be sharing the good news of the gospel, still making disciples who will love all people, still baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit 190 years from today?”

If we do, we must never forget, and teach our children and their children to never forget, that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

[i] I heard my friend Rev. Jesse Jackson allude to these “2 types of fishermen” at the Oklahoma Disciples of Christ Regional Men’s Retreat at Camp Christian, Guthrie, Oklahoma, 2016.

For God So Loves the World

earth_heart

Luke 21:5-19 NRSV

Since the presidential election, I have heard many predict the end of the world. And before the election, TV evangelist Jim Bakker even said that if Hillary Clinton won, next month we would be celebrating our very last Christmas. I have heard Rev. Billy Graham say more times than I can count that he believed the end of the world was coming in his “lifetime.” That’s rather scary coming from a man who celebrated his 98th birthday this past Monday!

Even before this nasty presidential campaign, the Barna group found 4 in 10 Americans, and 77 percent of evangelical Christians, believe “the world is now in so called “biblical end times.”[i]

So, in spite of what we may think about this subject, this morning, perhaps more than ever, we need to hear what Jesus has to say about the end of days.

About “the destruction of it all,” in verse 7, we read where they ask Jesus: “When will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

In verse 8 we read Jesus’ answer: “Beware that you are not led astray.”

Then Jesus specifically warns us to stay away from those who claim to be holy and say, “The time is near.” Jesus says, “Do not go after them.” Do not follow them. Do not listen to them. Do not pay them any attention!

Well, glory halleluiah! Because with all the troubles in this world, I really don’t want to preach about the Zombie Apocalypse today. So, Amen Jesus! Let’s move on to some more pleasant things!  Let’s get onto a happier, more cheerful subject! Enough of all this gloom and doom, misery and woe!

Ok, now let’s listen to what Jesus has to say next! Hopefully, it will be something much more uplifting than World War III! If it’s not the end of the world, perhaps he still has something to say that will turn our eyes, if just for fifteen minutes, away from the suffering of this world.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you. They will bring you before synagogues and governors.”  “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; you will be hated by all because of my name; and they will put some of you to death.”

Come on, Jesus! Are you serious?

But I guess if we have been reading and listening to Luke, we should not be that surprised. It is as if Jesus is saying:

“Do not worry so much about the tribulations that will come with the end of the world; because, if you are following me, if you are faithfully living as my disciple, if you have fully committed yourself to carrying a cross, if you are truly serving those I call you to serve, if you are working to build my kingdom on this earth by building safe communities that preach good news to the poor, and speak truth to power while defending the powerless and standing up for rights of the marginalized, welcome the foreigner while respecting other faiths, provide quality and equitable education for children so they can one day earn a fair wage, take care of the sick and advocate for those with exceptional needs, if you are working for my justice and my wholeness in this fragmented world, then there is no need for you to fret over the end of days. . . because you are going to stir up plenty of trouble to worry about today!”

“Because you are truly living for me by loving this broken and suffering world as much as I love this world, you will sacrifice much. People will try to break you, and you will suffer. Organized religion will resist you. The state might arrest you, and you will certainly be hated. You will be defriended by friends and disowned by family.”

Matthew remembers Jesus saying on another occasion: ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Matthew 6:34).

Then Jesus adds: “But this will give you an opportunity to testify.”

Jesus seems to be saying here: “Don’t focus so much on the end days. Don’t dwell on the impending doom and demise of it all, but instead, focus on the opportunities that you have today in this hurting world ‘to testify,’ to selflessly and sacrificially serve me by serving others.”

I believe Jesus is saying: “It might be ok to think and dream about leaving this troubled world behind one day. It is fine to have the hope that someday, somehow, some way there’s going to be no more evil to fight. It is wonderful to know a time is coming when there is going to be no more mourning, crying, pain, presidential elections, and death. However, if avoiding Hell is the only reason you are Christians, then you have missed the whole point of who I am and who you are called to be as my disciples.”

I believe Jesus is saying to us today: “Don’t go to church looking to avoid a suffering world. Go and be church bearing the sufferings of this world. Don’t go to church looking for some fire insurance. Go and be church allowing me lead you into the fire! Don’t go to church to escape a world going to Hell. Go and be church committed to loving the Hell out of this world, even if it gets you killed.”

This is exactly why I believe so many Christians are tempted “go after” those who love to preach about the end of days, especially those who say that it is coming in our lifetimes. For it is far easier to believe that God has already given up on this world.

It is much easier to look at the nastiness of this past election and believe that it is all a part of God’s divine plan, a preview of things to come! It is easier to believe that earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes and poverty and war, political corruption and terrorism, amplified racism and sexism, a divided country, are all part of God’s apocalyptic will; it is easier to accept that God has already given up on the world, so we might as well give up too; than it is to believe that God calls us to selflessly suffer alongside those who are suffering.

It would be much easier to believe that Christianity is only about getting a ticket to heaven to escape this troubled world and its problems, than it is to believe that our faith is about serving those who are troubled in this world.

British scholar Lesslie Newbigin comments: “In an age of impending ecological crises,” with the “threat of nuclear war and a biological holocaust” Christians everywhere have “sounded the trumpet of retreat.” They have thrown their hands u and have given up on the world. Their faith in Jesus has become merely a private, spiritual matter. Faith is only something they possess, something they hold on to, to insulate them from the sufferings of this world and to someday use as their ticket out here.

In the meantime, they withdraw into safe sanctuaries looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth. And they listen to angry sermons by angry preachers condemning the current world to Hell in a hand basket.

And giving up on this world is really nothing new. At the turn of the first century, Jews, called Gnostics, had a similar view of the world. Everything worldly, even the human body itself, was regarded as evil.

And maybe they had some pretty good reasons to believe that way, because regardless of what some may believe, things in the world did not start going bad with this presidential campaign. The truth is: things have been pretty rough in this world ever since that serpent showed up in the garden.

At the turn of the first century, Jews were a conquered, depressed people, occupied the Romans. And they were terrorized daily by a ruthless, pro-Roman King named Herod—a king who would stop at nothing to have his way, even murder of innocent children. The Gnostics looked at the world and their situation and came to the conclusion that they were divine souls trapped in evil bodies living in a very dark, God-forsaken, God-despised world.

However, the good news is that the Sunday after next begins the season of Advent, the season that we remember that it was into a very dark, and seemingly God-forsaken, God-despised world, that something mysterious happened that we call Christmas. A light shone in the darkness proving in the most incredible and inexplicable way that this world is anything but God-forsaken or God-despised!

The good news is God loves this world so much that God emptied God’s self and poured God’s self into the world. God came and affirmed, even our fleshly existence as God, God’s self, became flesh. And God came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world. For so God loves the world that God came into the world and died for the world.

Thus, the message that we all need to hear today is not that the end is near as God believes the world is worth destroying, it is that something brand new can happen, a light can still shine in the darkness, because God believes this world is worth saving. God believes this world is still worth praying for, working for, fighting for, suffering for. God still believes that this world is worth dying for.

As the body of Christ in this world, we are not called to retreat from the world and its troubles, but we are called to love this world, to do battle for this world, to even die for this world. We are called to be a selfless community of faith in this broken world. And, no matter the cost, we are called to share this good news “for God so loves this world” with all people.

And the good news is: though we might be arrested by the state and get some push back from organized religion, though we are betrayed by family and friends, though we are hated and could even be put to death, God promises that not a hair on our head will perish, and by our endurance, we will gain our souls. Thanks be God.

[i] Read more at http://www.wnd.com/2013/10/billy-graham-sounds-alarm-for-2nd-coming/#Y8RpIeMpqqHd8uRF.99

[ii] Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, 113.

Election Day Prayer

vote

Good and Gracious God,

We thank you for the freedom and right to vote, to elect people who will work on our behalf and on the behalf of our communities to lead our districts, states and nation. May we always be reminded of the holy responsibility that comes with this privilege.

We thank you for your love for the people of all nations, languages and faiths and for the way that you revealed this boundless love through the words and works of Jesus. May this love always inform our principles, our actions, and our vote. In this and in every election, may we vote for people and state questions that will better our communities and our world reflecting the values Christ taught us in the scriptures.

Help us create communities that seek to build your kingdom on this earth: communities that will protect the poor, stand up for rights of the vulnerable, support fair wages, care for the sick, provide quality and equitable education for all children, advocate for those with exceptional needs, and listen to everyone’s voice.

As Christians, may we never be ashamed of the gospel. May we never shy away from the good news of Christ that continues to inspire our nation’s pledge of liberty and justice for all.

We pray for a nation that is deeply divided. Give us the grace to love all of our neighbors as ourselves. Help us to respectfully listen in love and to learn from even those with whom we most disagree. Help us to come together with mutual respect for the common good of all and be the people you have created us to be: acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly. May every decision that affects our neighbors come from love, mercy, and justice rather than from pride, arrogance or fear.

O God, continue to guide us to love this world as you love it. Unite us to pray together for places suffering from violence, that they may know peace. Help us to pray for communities struggling with inequality, unrest, and fear, that the may know hope.

Give us the strength to do all that we can do, to give all that we can give, even our very lives, to make this world a better place. Help us to commit all that we are to rebuilding the ruins, repairing the breach, restoring the streets, and raising the foundation for generations to come.

Amen.