It’s the End of the World as We Know It

its the end of the world as we know it

Luke 21:25-36 NRSV

December is here. The Advent Season has arrived. As Luke says, it’s time to “be on guard.” “It’s time to be alert.” “The Son of Man is coming!” It’s time to get ready! It’s time to make some preparations! It’s time to get our homes, this church and this city looking more like Christmas!

In just a few weeks, wherever we are, standing in line at Wal-Mart, sitting in the office or sitting in church, people will start asking us the question, “Are you ready?” “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Of course, what they mean is: “Have you finished all of your Christmas shopping? Have you purchased all of our groceries? Have your wrapped all of your presents? Is your house decorated?”

But the question that we probably should be asking, and especially be asking here in church is: “Are we ready for Jesus?” “Are we really ready for the Advent of the Messiah? Are we really ready for the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ?”

“The gospel”—that’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it?

The problem is that it is this word, “gospel,” is one of those words that we have heard and used so much as Christians, that it’s meaning has been distorted, diluted and even lost.

For some the word “gospel” only means some kind of individual, private relationship. It means the forgiveness of personal sins. It’s an individual’s ticket to heaven. It means that a personal transaction can be made with Jesus to avoid going to hell.

For others, the word “gospel” means the “right thinking about the Christian faith.” When some say “gospel,” they mean the body of doctrine that a person is expected to believe to be a true Christian. It’s a list of things we are supposed to be against as Christians, and most of it is individual, personal things.

However, the truth is that if we take the Greek word, evangelion, the word we translate “gospel,” many theologians agree that the word would best be translated as “revolution.”

In Jesus’ day, it meant “good news.”  But evangelionwas not just any good news. And it was never understood as individual, personal good news. But was good news that had political and social significance.

When one nation was at war with another, fighting for its civic freedom, evangelionor “gospel” was what was the report that was brought to the General. “Good news, the battle has been won!”

Or when a son was born to the king, ensuring the political stability of the kingdom, evangelion or “gospel” was what they announced to the public.  “Good news! A child has been born to the king. Our reign is secure.”

Mary’s gospel song at the news of Jesus’ birth is an example of such good news proclamation. “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” The good news, the evangelion continues: kings are being cast down from their thrones, the hungry are taking over, and the rich are being sent away empty.”

Her song is nothing less than a battle cry!

The song of her kinsman Zechariah at the birth of his and Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, is a similar gospel song: “as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…”

And when that baby grew up, when John began his own preaching in the wilderness, Luke literally described it as “gospeling.”  And what was the nature of his gospel or` good news? “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire.”

“And the crowds asked him, ‘what then should we do?’  In reply he said to them, ‘whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food, must do likewise.’”

In his very first sermon, Jesus proclaimed, in terms almost identical to John’s, that “the kingdom of heaven is near,” and then more precisely, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And by the way, this year of the Lord’s favor, this acceptable year, is what is called in Leviticus “the year of Jubilee.”

According to Leviticus, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.

It would involve turning the world upside down, the redistribution of wealth and power.

Do you detect a pattern to this good news?  When God comes into the world, when God moves against the present order, it is always good news for the poor and the oppressed, and bad news for the proud and the powerful—it’s political, economic, social good news, much more than individual, personal good news.

Evangelion means the end of the world as we know it.  Evangelion is what is described in our scripture lesson this morning: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations.” Our Savior is the one who saves the world by disrupting the old order of things and bringing a brand new order. And his reign, his dominion, is going to be so adversarial toward dominion of the powers-that-be, that his work among us is nothing less than a revolution.

No wonder that there were many in Judea that thought that good news really didn’t sound that good news at all.

No wonder John the Baptist ended up dead shortly after his sermon.

No wonder Jesus himself found himself hanging on a cross between two thieves just three years after first announcing this good news.

This is the good news of the gospel. This is the good news that John and Jesus, Mary and Zechariah proclaimed. It is not individual, personal good news that changes our hearts saves our souls. It is revolutionary good news that changes everything and saves the world!

Which begs the questions: Is this our idea of good news?

I suppose that the main difference between good newsand bad newsis where you happen to be standing when you get the news.

Here I stand. My life, my world is not too shabby. It’s a pretty good world, a pretty good life. I’m benefiting fairly well from the present order. I am pretty well-fixed, fairly secure, quite cozy. I have warm clothes, a warm home, a warm car, and warm food to eat and drink. I have never felt oppressed, hated, or discriminated against. I don’t need a revolution. And I don’t really want a revolution, especially if that revolution will come cause me to sacrifice something in my life, if it is going to mean the end of my world as I know it.

No wonder the meaning of the word gospel has been changed over the years from revolutionary good news to merely individual, personal good news.

“Good news!  The Messiah’s coming and he’s going to finally set right what’s wrong with this world!  He’s going to do justice where injustice has been done!” “He is going to change everything! He’s turning this world upside down. “It’s the end of the world as we know it!”

“Well, please forgive me for not rushing over to Bethlehem for the party!”

When Jesus was born, according to Luke, people like me missed the whole thing. The angels’ heavenly message of evangelion came to none of them. Rather, the heavens split open, songs filled the air, and an angelic army appeared to who?  To lowly, poor shepherds out in the fields working the night shift.

And the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those with whom God is well pleased.” Did you know that this phrase is almost a direct quote from the decrees of Caesar Augustus, one of the world’s most powerful and ruthless dictators?

When Augustus made some imperial decree to support Roman occupation of the Near East, the following were the words which opened the decree: “Glory to the most august Caesar (who was otherwise known as God in the Highest), and peace on earth to those with whom the god Augustus is well pleased.”

Do you see what’s going on here? Christmas angels now sing the Emperor Augustus’ imperialist words. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a royal decree: “Glory to God in the highest. There’s a new king on the throne, and Jesus Christ is King!” Therefore, Augustus is not.

Love is King. Selfishness is not.

Generosity is King. Greed is not.

Humility is King. Pride is not.

Social justice is King. Inequality is not.

Mercy is King. Putting yourself first is not.

Grace is King. Judgment is not.

Selflessness, sacrifice and self-expenditure is King. Self-protection and self-preservation is not.

Being a church that is about feeding the hungry is King, coming to church to get fed ourselves is not.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

It’s good news.  I guess.

Let us pray together.

Come Lord Jesus. Expectantly, eagerly, we await your advent among us.  And when you come, give us the courage to receive you, to open our doors to you, and to open our hearts.  Give us the grace to receive you as you are, not as we would imagine you to be.  Give us the strength to step up, to let go, to move out, and to become citizens of your reign.  Amen.

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Actin’ a Fool

Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone
Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 NRSV

As some of you know, I am taking an online class on the history of our denomination. It has been exciting to read how the forbearers of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stirred up thousands of people in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with their writings and sermons.  Some people estimate that when Barton Stone held his revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, nearly 30,000 people showed up—10% of the entire population of Kentucky at the time. [i]

What were these folks preaching that started a movement that would later become one of the largest denominations in North America?

They simply had the audacity to preach messages that called for a return to taking the message of the Bible seriously. They denounced all man-made creeds and confessions and committed themselves to following Jesus at all costs. And in so doing they were continually bucking the system, going against the doctrinal grains of the Church.

They preached against slavery, preached for the inclusion of all Christians at the communion table, stood against the power of the clergy over the laity, the power of Bishops over the clergy and anything that did not jive with Jesus. And for doing so, many were excommunicated, labeled heretics, radicals and fools. In fact, The Fool of God is the title of a novel based on the life of our forebear Alexander Campbell.[ii]  

But here’s the thing, people responded to these fools. And by 1960, the movement they started had grown into a denomination with 1.6 million members.

Now here’s some troubling news. In 2012 we only had 625,000 members. Since 1960 our denomination has had a 60% decline in membership.[iii]

There are many complex reasons for this decline. However, this morning, I want to suggest what I believe is at least one of the reasons, and here it is: We stopped actin’ a fool.

In fact, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has been labeled by many as “a moderate, mainline, mainstream protestant denomination in North America.”[iv] Did you hear that: moderate, mainline, mainstream! 

Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell would roll over in their graves!

token

While Alexander Campbell was studying at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, the time had come for communion at his Presbyterian church. Communion was only observed a couple of times a year, so it was a pretty big deal. His church had a custom, like many Presbyterian churches of that day, to pass out these “communion tokens.” You would line up, present yourself to the minister. If the minister believed that you were worthy that day to participate in communion, he would hand you a token, a little coin. This was your ticket to the table. When you arrived at the table, you would present your coin, and then and only then, could you receive communion. If the minister did not think you were worthy, he would not give you a token, and thus, no communion for you. It also implied there may be no heaven for you either!

With his communion token in hand, Alexander Campbell approached the communion table. When he was handed the plate where he was to place his token, it is said that Campbell, “threw” the coin onto the plate, publically refused the bread and the wine, and then walked out of the sanctuary as a “free man” in Christ.[v]

Now, does that sound mainstream, mainline and moderate to you?  

Alexander Campbell was anything but a mainstream Christian. He would say that he was an upstream Christian, swimming like a salmon against the mainstream currents of his day. And many said he acted a fool.

This is what I believe we must regain as a church. We need more people like Alexander Campbell who are willing to humbly walk with Jesus, kindly love all people and do the justice of Jesus even if it makes them look foolish.

The Apostle Paul very clearly and outrageously writes:  “The way of the cross is foolishness” to the world.  We proclaim “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

But this is a hard message for us to get. Because there is a part of all of us that does not want to look foolish. When I was trying to help a family at Christmas, someone asked me, “Are you sure they are a deserving family?” She didn’t want me to do anything foolish.  And it did make me pause, because I didn’t want to do anything foolish either.

A recent survey by Bill McKibben reveals that three-quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.”[vi]  However, that statement is from deist Ben Franklin; not the Bible.[vii] “God helps those who help themselves” is in fact one of the most unbiblical ideas. It is Jesus who made the dramatic counter assertion: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But, deep down we prefer Ben Franklin don’t we?  Doesn’t sound so foolish.

There is a large part within all of us that yearns to be moderate, mainline and mainstream. However, when we stop actin’ the fool in the eyes of the world, I believe we stop being Christian, we cease being disciples.

Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, writes: “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd. Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them. It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry.” He goes on to name a few of Jesus’ shocking and absurd assertions: “Blessed are the meek; love your enemies; go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.”[viii]

And you know the others: “forgive seventy times seven, turn the other cheek; someone takes your coat, offer them your shirt, pray for those who persecute you; blessed are the poor; visit the imprisoned; to save your life, you must lose your life, take up your cross and follow me.”

And then there is the entire foolish story: The foundation of his arrival was laid by a murderer with a speech impediment and a bad temper named Moses; his advent was promised by prophets who did not deserve to be prophets; he was born to ordinary peasants in a cattle stall and laid in a feeding troth; worshipped by loathsome shepherds; his family on the run in Egypt like illegal immigrants; a triumphant ride into Jerusalem to liberate the world on the back of a donkey—and then there is the most foolish part of it all—the arrest, the trial, the desertion of the his friends, the cross and those shocking words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Then to add audacity on top of audacity, foolishness on top of foolishness, Jesus is resurrected by God and given right back to the very ones who nailed him to a tree.

There is nothing moderate, mainline or mainstream about this thing we call ‘Christianity,’ this thing we call ‘church.’ It is all so radical, so reckless, so shocking, so undeserving, so unconditional and so inclusive. It is a love that is so socially unacceptable, that it can only be described as foolish.

Henri Nouwen was a priest and brilliant teacher at places like Harvard and Yale. However, wanting to truly follow Jesus before he died, many say that he did something absolutely foolish. He left the Ivy League to spend the last decade of his life serving as a chaplain within a community of people with severe emotional, mental and physical disabilities.

L'Arche Community
L’Arche Community in Edmonton

In one of his many books, Nouwen tells a story about Trevor, a man in that community who was dealing with such severe mental and emotional challenges that he had to be sent to a psychiatric facility for an evaluation. One day Henri wanted to visit him, so he called the hospital and arranged for a visit.

When those who were in authority found out that it was Henri Nouwen, the renowned author and teacher from Yale and Harvard who was coming, they asked if they could have lunch with him in the Golden Room—a special meeting room at the facility. They would also invite doctors and other clergy to the special luncheon. Nouwen agreed.

When he arrived, they took him to the Golden Room, but Trevor was nowhere to be seen. Troubled, he asked about Trevor’s whereabouts.

“Oh,” said an administrator, “Trevor cannot come to lunch. Patients and staff are not allowed to have lunch together. Besides, no patient has ever had lunch in the Golden Room.”

Henri Nouwen with another resident
Henri Nouwen with Linda Slinger

By nature, Henri was not a confrontational person. He was very meek and gentle—much unlike Alexander Campbell—but so like him in many ways. Being guided by the Spirit, here was the thought that came to his mind: “Include Trevor.” Knowing that community is about inclusion, Henri thought: “Trevor ought to be here.”  So, Henri swallowed hard, turned to the administrator and said, “But the whole purpose of my coming was to have lunch with Trevor. If Trevor is not allowed to attend the lunch, I will not attend either.”

The thought of missing an opportunity for lunch with the great Henri Nouwen was too much, so they quickly found a way for Trevor to attend. When they all gathered together, something interesting happened. At one point during the lunch, Henri was talking to the person to his right and didn’t notice that Trevor had stood up and lifted his glass of Coca-Cola.

“A toast. I will now offer a toast,” Trevor said to the group.

Everybody in the room got nervous. What in the world was he going to say?

Then Trevor, this deeply challenged man in a room full of PhDs and esteemed clergy, started to sing, “If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass. If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass…”

No one knew what to do. It was awkward. Here was a man with a level of challenge and brokenness they could not begin to understand, yet he was beaming. He was thrilled to be there. So they started to sing. Softly at first and then louder and louder until all of the doctors and clergymen and Henri Nouwen were practically shouting, “If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass.”

Henri went on to give a talk at the luncheon, but the moment everyone remembered, the moment God spoke most clearly, was through the person they all would have said was the least likely to speak for God.[ix]

This is what the entire Bible is all about. This is what the cross, the gospel and our faith is all about. God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.

This morning, after the hymn of commitment, we are going to install our officers that you have elected for 2014. We are going to ask them to commit themselves to following Jesus. And as Frederick Buechner writes: “In terms of human wisdom, Jesus was a perfect fool. And if you think you can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring not under the cross, but a delusion.”[x] So we are going to ask them, in the name of First Christian Church, in the name of God, to act a fool, to shock this community with the grace of God revealed in the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.  And then we are going to promise them our support which makes us just as foolish.

Are you ready? I hope you are. If this church is to continue to grow and thrive in this community, continue to make a difference, continue to be the church God is calling us to be, I pray you are.


[i] Duane Cummins, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2009.

[ii] Louis Cochran, Published October 18th 2002 by Wipf & Stock Pub 

[vi] Bill McKibben, “The Christian Paradox,” Harpers Magazine, July 7, 2005.

[vii] Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that a supreme natural God exists and created the physical universe, and that religious truths can be arrived at by the application of reason and observation of the natural world.  Deists generally reject the notion of supernatural revelation as a basis of truth or religious teaching.

[ix] John Ortberg, in the sermon, “Guide.” Preachingtoday.com.

[x]Frederick Buechner, as quoted by Joe Roos, Sojourners Magazine, “The Foolishness of the Cross,” Aug. 2007.