Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Luke 24:36-44
This sculpture, "Swords Into Ploughshares," is in the north terrace of the United Nations Plaza.
The season of Advent begins today and it ends on Christmas Eve. It’s the season of the Coming, the coming of God into the world, the coming of the Son of God into history. His First Coming was his Nativity, as the Son of Mary. His Second Coming will be as the Son of Man, when he shall come again to judge the living and the dead. The Second Coming is what we mark today.
The season of Advent is sort of backwards. It begins with the ending, today, and it ends with the beginning, on Christmas Eve. Advent is such a time-warp because it’s all about prophecy, and prophecy sees the future and the present in a single view. The future is the future and the future is now, and we live our lives today in the light of the future. That’s the premise of Advent.
The Son of Man is going to come again to judge the living and the dead. That means some sort of closure, that means there is some sort of boundary ahead of us. We don’t know how far off that boundary is. As for the form that it will take, the Bible gives us only metaphors. Some people say that the boundary is set for a specific date, like there’s a cosmic alarm clock, but I doubt that, because God is outside of time and not compelled by time. Other people say that the boundary will be triggered by a sequence of events, but I doubt that too, because God is not so mechanical, the God of the Bible is free. Some people have made a whole industry of books about the second coming. These are worse than worthless, except to their own bank accounts.
We do best to keep it bare and simple, that "he shall come again to judge the living and the dead," with the emphasis on the who shall come instead of the how or the when. Yes, God has a grand intention for the world, yes God has an end in sight, but we are not told it, we are not told when the end of the world will be. Not so much because we do not need to know it, but more because there is really nothing more to tell us.
I mean the plans of God are not like human plans, with certain sequences and "if-thens" and "what-ifs". I mean that God has told us everything comprehensible there is to tell about the second coming, that there is nothing more that God could say that we could comprehend. I mean that God has told us everything we need to do in order to be ready for his coming, and everything we need to love in order to greet him joyfully when he shall come to be our judge, and everything we need to believe in order to experience the boundary as a threshold and not a barrier.
How do you like it that Jesus Christ will come again? Does it do anything for you? I imagine it would if you were living in great suffering or being persecuted for your faith. It’s hard for us, with our lifestyles, to have feelings for the second coming. We are so materialistic, such consumers, so focused on things that are immediate, just in order to participate in our culture and economy, and the horizon of our lives is so foreshortened. So, what does that have to do with us, that he shall come again. It may be true but really we are numb to it.
It’s one purpose of the church to sharpen our longing for his coming by helping us be less fixed on the immediate, and by quickening our desire for his judgment, even in our lives right now. Not that we should feel guilty, but that we feel challenged and convicted. That we be less loyal to the reigning understandings of the world, whichever understandings might attract us, and that we should not be threatened when everything we understand is made questionable again. There is a boundary on all the regnant ideologies of the world today, there is a limit and an end to all the forces that have a grip on us, they don’t have the last say. The Lord Jesus does, and what he says at the closure confirms what he’s said from the beginning. His judgment quickens our discontent, not as the bitter discontent that gives license to self-indulgence, but a humble and generous discontent that stimulates our interest in prophecy and prayer.
It’s one purpose of the church to hold in trust the prophecies for you to love and long for. Here’s one: "For out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." To be a Christian is to love this vision and long for it, as the end that God has in sight, as God’s intention for the world. We long for it precisely because it seems so impossible. But what else is Jesus for?
The peace among the nations in this prophecy is not a function of the nations themselves, no matter how noble or advanced those nations may be. It is a function of the rule of God among the nations, the instruction of God and the judgment of God. God instructing us, God judging us, that is what makes for peace in the world. And a purpose of the church is to be a medium of God’s instruction and the witness to God’s judgment. The community of Jesus, scattered through the world, is a house of God to which the nations stream for their judgment and instruction.
The judgment of the Son of God is not by the manipulation of events, not through earthquake or famine or war, nor the secret dispensation of rewards and punishments, but simply in and through the Word, the public word of God, as we announce it in church and interpret it together, with the invisible inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yes—we can believe that our reading and responding to the scripture in our community is how the Son of God is lovingly and graciously judging us and judging the world through us. Judging as reckoning, as discerning and clarifying, as rectifying and reconciling, as declaring what is true and shedding light. What a privilege to be judged like this. The nations and peoples long for it.
The prophecy of Isaiah 2 is both a gift and obligation for us. So after the holidays I’m going to start a new series of sermons on "Thy Kingdom Come." I will be asking the scripture lessons each week what they have to tell us about such issues as social justice and Christian action and Christian witness in public life. The Kingdom of God, the Reign of God, the Rule of God, the Lordship of Jesus, the Sovereignty of God: thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
My motivation for this series of sermons is not so much trying to be relevant or even trying to make a difference in the world, but giving full honor to the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ, and opening ourselves to the fullest wideness of his instruction and his judgment.
We confess each week that "He shall come again to judge the living and the dead." We’re confessing what we have not yet seen. But we can learn to see how he is judging the world right now in many subtle ways among all those who are humble to receive it. It’s one purpose of the church to help us look out for these ways and interpret them and hold them up and participate in them as best we can. One such way is our own repentance and forgiveness under his judgment, and our humble self-awareness helps see better all the other ways, and long for them the more. Our discontent is one of love and joy.
There is a unity between our personal salvation and the larger salvation of the world. Your own feelings for yourself, and your feelings for the world. Your personal tithing and the global economy. Your personal psychology and the global ecology. The word of God for your life and your relationships, and the word of God for the nations of the world.
Let this passage from Isaiah inspire you and lift you up from your fatigue and your disappointment and your despair. It’s a beautiful picture—all the nations as pilgrims coming together side by side. "And the nations shall stream to it, and many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up the mountain of the Lord, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’" Is that on this side of the boundary or on the other side? There is no difference. We are not there yet but we live in it already. If that’s what the end of the world looks like, then the end is a goal, and not a doom but an invitation, and the boundary is not a barrier but a threshold, and each day we are able to walk through it, and to receive it with gratitude and quiet joy.
Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Monday, November 15, 2010
I'm finishing up my manuscript,
"Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)". I am claiming the Biblical case that we take St. Paul literally, that "the wages of sin is death," not hell. I am claiming that no one goes to hell, certainly not in the way that people think of it today.
This summer I discussed this with a pastor friend of mine. He disagreed with me. He said that he agrees with C. S. Lewis, as he pictures in The Great Divorce (a book I certainly love), that some people will spend eternity in a total separation from God, even if it's a total separation of their own design and prejudices.
I imagine that the damp and chilly hell of C. S. Lewis is not as horrible as the torturing hell of Dante, so maybe it's more attractive to Christians. Well, maybe it's not as cruel in terms of pain, but I think it's no less cruel in terms of God.
As I understand it, the only way fully to be separated from God is to not exist at all. To imagine hell as a somehow less cruel eternal separation from God does not hold up. Psalm 139 says, "Though I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there." Now I know that's a poetic statement, and not to be forced, either theologically or philosophically, but it confirms something about God, and the impossibility of any existing thing being "separated" from God.
C. S. Lewis' hell is a passive aggressive hell, more hypocritical, I think, for being cooler. You spend eternity in God's cold anger, God's distant anger, and it's not eternal separation from God (because that is not possible with this God), it's eternal suspension in the chill of a jealous God. The hot hell is actually more honest (if wrong), because at least it's an honest anger.
But to not exist---that and only that is eternal separation from God.
Yes, yes, I most certainly believe in eternal life. I believe in the "resurrection of the body and the life everlasting." I don't believe in the immortality of the soul. Neither did the Apostles.
So I take the Apostle Paul literally: "The wages of sin is death." That's it. You're dead. Dead dead. It's over. No hell. No eternal punishment.
Thursday, November 04, 2010
Haggai 1:15b-2:9, Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38
Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday. Our guest preacher next week will be our new missionary in Oman, in the Persian Gulf. I think you will enjoy him very much. And on this Sunday beforehand, it’s always my job to preach a sermon about tithing. So let’s dig into it.
Tithing in the strict sense is taking the first ten percent of your income and giving that back to God, before you spend a penny on anything else. In the broader sense the size of the percentage is less important, as long as it’s off the top and not the bottom. Tithing is both mathematical and spiritual, both economical and ethical. It is a financial expression of a spiritual reality.
Tithing in the broadest sense is the Christian discipline of money. It’s the Christian practice that helps you deal with all of your money in general. Tithing is good for you in general, it gives you an attitude toward all your money which benefits you in the totality of your economic life. Yes, tithing helps you give the proper value to your money in general, tithing helps to free you from the power of money by helping to give you power over your money. Tithing is one way to sanctify the whole of your economic life. You set aside the top percent to sanctify the rest of it. The many benefits of tithing, however, are not immediate, while the cost of tithing is immediate, so the practice of tithing has to be an exercise of faith.
It means testing God. Sort of like in the gospel lesson, where the Sadducees tested Jesus. He did not spurn the test, he accepted their testing him, and he passed the test beyond their expectation. You can test God. And God will test you back. Tithing is a mutual testing of God and you.
The goal of tithing is the top ten percent. This amount comes from the Torah, from the Law of Moses. But if you are new to tithing, better to start with two percent or three percent, as long as it’s the top two or three percent. You might find even that to be a challenge. It’s meant to be a challenge. If it’s easy, it isn’t tithing yet. It’s a discipline. It means you have to push yourself to do it. It means you’re touching the limit of what you can afford, it means you’re at the boundary of risk, and if you’re not risking, it isn’t tithing yet. But to do so does empower you, financially and spiritually.
Tithing is about your need to give. Not the need of the church to receive. God doesn’t need the money. How much do you need your money? How much of a hold does your money have on you? How free are you of the money that you have? How free are you with your money? Can you be both free and responsible? Usually, you exercise your freedom with your money by spending it on your pleasures. Eating out, seeing a show, buying an extravagance. That’s fine, go ahead. But even greater is the freedom and empowerment that comes from giving it away, and giving it to the service of God? It is paradoxical. The service of God is freedom and empowerment.
So where are you right now? From one percent to ten percent? The challenge is the same, to take a step, one step up, one step more challenging, one step more risky Now if you are suddenly unemployed, or you’ve lost your empowerment, maybe you need to go two steps down, and even that is still risky. But what about the rest of us? Are you tithing at two percent? Well, this year try to make it three. Are you tithing at five percent? Step up one to six. Are you already tithing at ten percent? Then come to me and offer an hour a week to pray for every member of the church, or offer to me administer the Sunday School. Wherever you are, one step up. It is the staircase of risk and challenge and commitment, and the climb is freedom and service and empowerment.
If you’re going to do it, do it in prayer. Prayer is the bridge between faith and action. You cannot go directly from faith to action or from action to faith. In either case you will be disappointed. Your Christians actions themselves will never be as wonderful as you had hoped. Your Christian actions will never accomplish your ideals. Your Christian actions, in themselves, will always disappoint. Christian action is never enough, and it will never satisfy. In the time of the prophet Haggai, after the remnant had returned from exile to Jerusalem, they rebuilt the temple, but how sorry and shoddy it looked compared to the glory of the prior one. How disappointed they were, and they were tempted to give up their labors. So Haggai calls them to faith, faith in the future of the promise, faith that what humble actions they were doing now would have a future benefit, a benefit beyond what they could see, their actions had value only by their faith.
You have to connect the two by prayer. You do your Christian actions in an attitude of prayer. That means the benefits of your actions are not up to you. You leave the benefits of your actions up to God. You don’t have to see the fruit of what you do, you might not see any benefit from what you’ve done, but you do it as a prayer. You say to God, "Here God, I give it to you what I have done, I trust you with the fruit of it, I trust you with the difference it might make in the world, I give my work to you, I’m just thankful I could do it." If you pray this, you are free. Your prayer is your connection between your actions and your faith.
Now yes, there is a clear and immediate benefit to your tithing. You get to have this church. You get to have our Sunday School. You get to have our children’s choirs. You get to have our organ music and our hymn-singing. You get to have my preaching and my pastoring and my support of you. You get to be part of a congregation that is committed to our community, you get to offer hospitality to community groups and to the arts, you get to offer sanctuary to anyone seeking spirituality and hope, you get to keep vibrant one of the oldest churches in America, you get to praise God every week, you get to pray for each other every week, you get to take communion every week, you get many immediate benefits from your tithing, and it’s the duty of this church’s leadership to make this congregation always worthy of your tithes.
But even if this church were not here, you still should tithe. As a Christian action, as an act of faith, and as an act of prayer. As a Christian action, putting your money where your soul is. As an act of faith, investing in whatever use that God may make of it. Investing in the proclamation of the gospel in this neighborhood, investing in the teaching the traditions to the next generation, investing in holding fast to goodness and joy no matter how much shaking the world is going through, investing in the promise of the resurrection, when we shall be changed and our social relationships will no longer be having power over each other, but we will be completely free, your tithing is an act of faith in all of that.
It has to be an act of prayer. Because of the risk you know it means for you. Because of the commitment you know it will cost you. It takes prayer to tithe. Use your praying to convey your tithe. "O God, I am praying with my money now. I am offering my money as a gift to you, I am praying with my money now." And use your tithing ignite your prayer. "I’m going to need your help with this, O God. I’m going to need you to hold me up, and make me able to do this. I’m going to trust you God, be good to me and bless me." My testimony to you is that God does.
Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.