Saturday, December 31, 2016

“After the Wise Men Had Left” - January 1, 2017

Matthew 2:13-23

There’s something about the way we currently celebrate the Christmas season that invites people to forget – or, worse, ignore - why Jesus was born in the first place.  It has to do with the way that we extract the good news from its setting in normal life.  The way we treat the story told by Matthew and Luke, covering it with snowflakes and tinsel and surrounding it with a moat of eggnog, turns it all into a fairy tale and makes it seem “once upon a time”.  To someone like Luke it was news – dateline: Bethlehem, in the days of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  We also take that one part of the gospel and treat it as a stand-alone event, when it represents the account of the beginning of a life that included a whole lot more. 

Miss that and you miss the true power of a proclamation that has to do with you and me.  This happened; so what are you going to do about it?  Or maybe that’s why we do such a good job of distancing ourselves from the grittiness of the stable – it leaves us off the hook from the deeper questions about why this baby was even born.

The example I use is a nativity scene that I’ve seen in multiple settings.  It’s put out by “Precious Moments” and all the figures are cute.  There’s a cute little Mary and a cute Joseph, both of them looking like third-graders in a Christmas pageant.  Ditto for the shepherds.  The angels are cutest of all.  Everything is in pastel colors, of course.  Got the picture?  Now, imagine, if you will, a Precious Moments crucifix.  You can’t do it, can you?  Not without a sense of sacrilege.  That should tell you something.

The birth of Jesus is not a sentimental moment.  It’s a profound matter that changes everything and is a threat to business as usual.  It’s so much of a threat that the powers-that-be try to put an end to it, precisely because it shows them to be powers-that-aren’t. 

Herod tried to put an end to Jesus in a direct way, as his son (also named Herod) would help Pilate and the Romans and the religious authorities to do again about three decades later.

“And he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”  [Matthew 2:16]

That was the real war on Christmas.  It had nothing to do with the wording on a Starbucks cup.  It was a brutal attempt to kill the Messiah before he had even learned to walk.  It didn’t work, because God gave a warning to the wise men and to Joseph:  “Scatter!  Now!”

“Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  [Matthew 2:13]

That saved Jesus’ life.  The time would come for him to die, like all people, but not then and not that way.

            In the course of this confrontation, innocent children died.  The Herods of history are notorious for that.  How many children died in Aleppo this year?  How many, in fact, were in hospitals specifically targeted for bombing?  How many children in Flint, Michigan were damaged by lead contamination that was caused by the conscious choice to cut resources for public utilities like water?  How many boys are sent to war as soldiers or girls are caught up in human trafficking?  How often does a modern Herod drag a child into the narcotics trade to addict yet other children?  And all for what?   So that Herod can stay in power and do it all over again because that fear of losing power is stronger in him than respect for an innocent child’s life.  Make that a village of children.  No, make that a world of them.

            The gifts of the wise men, given to Jesus, speak to the way that God handles a world of Herods, because we all have some of him in us.  Traditionally, these gifts are seen as honoring three aspects of Jesus’ mission that Herod is bound to find threatening, with each gift offering hope to the weak and to those that he and his successors would intimidate and control.

            Gold.  Wealth is what so much of the world spends its whole life scrambling to get and keep.  It’s what oil companies use to buy politicians’ silence about climate change, and it’s why they do it.  It’s what leads people to turn a blind eye to corruption of all types.  The wise men gave it to a poor baby instead.

“Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.”

It’s a recognition that our resources are at Jesus’ service.  It’s a gift, if you will, of defiance because the money is going to Herod’s opposite, and (as Jesus himself would later observe)

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
[Matthew 6:21]

            Frankincense.  It was burned in ancient temples to honor the gods.  Even today, in Catholic and Orthodox churches, it is used as a way of announcing the presence of the holy.  Along those lines, one scholar of Roman liturgy writes,

“The offering of an incense is a generous and beautiful rite. The bright grains of incense are laid upon the red-hot charcoal, the censer is swung, and the fragrant smoke rises in clouds. In the rhythm and the sweetness there is a musical quality; and like music also is the entire lack of practical utility: it is a prodigal waste of precious material. It is a pouring out of unwithholding love.”[1]

When the wise men presented it to Jesus, they were saying that this child was holy, as God is holy.  Sorry, Herod, but you don’t fall into that category.  You don’t get to say what is right and what is wrong, especially since for you that generally is a matter of expedience.  I remember a man, a devout Quaker who used to teach math at Penn Charter, commenting, “Honesty is not the best policy.  It can never be just a policy.  It’s a principle.” 

            Then there’s myrrh.  That’s a perfume that was used for anointing a dead body.  It recognizes that Jesus would confront death.  Although he escaped it as a child, and would escape it again and again throughout his years on earth, those years would be numbered.  One day, in fact, three women would find their way early in the morning, carrying spices (perhaps including myrrh) to treat his body for proper burial.  The amazing thing would be that they would never get to use the spices, because his body would be gone.  Jesus’ death would bring life, and his life would bring death to the old ways of fear and intimidation and hatred.

That means that the chief means of Herod’s control is no longer effective, at least for followers of the baby who escaped his clutches.  One of those followers, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, was arrested two weeks ago for protesting the latest in a string of highly questionable moves by the governor and legislature of North Carolina.  While in the Wake County jail, he wrote an open letter that began, “Dear King Herod,” and finished with these words:

“…as I watched Speaker Moore yesterday evening, I saw a sadness in his face that I suspect you too must have felt. Absolute power, they say, corrupts absolutely. But it also makes people lonely. It’s one thing to know you can get away with murder. But it’s something else to have to live with it.
You did all you could to kill the nonviolent revolution of love that was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, King Herod. And your heirs are doing all they can to abort the Moral Movement that is still a toddler in North Carolina today. But we celebrate Christmas because Jesus showed us that when a light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it.
And that, my dear brother, gives me hope for you. The good news of Jesus is that there’s room for everyone on the winning side. I can pray for Speaker Moore and his colleagues, so enslaved by the grip of fear. We can love them and hope they will join us, even as we stand to insist that what they are doing is wrong.
And in the meantime, while the struggle continues, we can rejoice that we don’t have to suffer the loneliness that plagues our enemies. There’s good company over at the jail house. And at the state house here in NC. If you could, I’d love for you to join us.
Merry Christmas,


[1] Monsignor Romano Guardini, cited in Matthew D. Herrera, “Holy Smoke: The Use of Incense in the Catholic Church” (Tixlini Scriptorium, 2011).
[2] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “Open Letter to King Herod: Why I Was Arrested at #NCGA” at Red Letter Christians (December 16, 2016).

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"A Decree Went Out from Caesar Augustus" - December 24, 2016

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken
while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

In twenty years I’ve had eleven posts,
in every corner of the Empire.
I’ve seen the forest where it meets the coast
of the North Sea.  I’ve traveled the entire
length of Roman roads until they stop
halfway to Persia.  I’ve climbed the icy top
of mountains that look down on Italy
from summer snowfields, and the Pyrenees
where Gaul becomes Iberia.  The sea
has been no stranger, nor the tyranny
of sun in Africa in afternoon.
My enlistment will be over soon.

We’ve had some skirmishes from time to time
with villagers or tribesmen who thought Rome
was growing distant and who crossed the line
between resentment and defiance. Some
decided not to pay their taxes.  Wrong.
Augustus’ reach is far; his arm is strong.
It’s sad when these provincial yokels think
that they know better than a Roman.  We
it is who pull them from the constant brink
of local strife and tribal jealousy.
The peace of Rome alone ensures that grain
can travel where it’s needed, and the rain

itself is channeled via aqueducts
to where it’s needed. Roman engineering
conquers native ignorance, and Luck
herself gives up her domineering
way.  For that it’s only fair they pay
their taxes.  That is the imperial way:
to pay your taxes and to sacrifice
to any gods the Empire permits.
Nobody cares what other foreign vice
or funny kind of mumbo-jumbo spirits
you get mixed up with, just don’t interfere
with revenue.

                   That worked till we came here.

This province is a mess. I blame their priests
who won’t give them a statue of their god
or let them even at the very least
have someone draw a picture of just what
he looks like.  How can they learn the decent fear
authority relies on or revere
the emperor the way they should without
a concrete image in their heads of who
they bow to?  That alone, without a doubt,
explains the strategies we have to use
to make them pay attention to the law,
and fear the legions that enforce it all.

We’re stationed mostly in Jerusalem,
their capital.  But when Augustus made
his proclamation of a census, then
they wouldn’t just count off and stay
right where they were.  Oh, no.  They had to go
back to their tribal lands to call the roll.
We also had to scatter to these towns
where tax collectors are a target. We
provide them with protection in the crowds,
since local terrorists occasionally
slip up behind them with a knife and – pow!
Down goes the poor guy in a second.  Gone.
The province costs Caesar another one.

We can’t allow that.  We are in control
of towns like this, and they should shake
every time they see our men patrol
or even hear the sound their armor makes
as they enforce the curfew.  Pleasant dreams
are not what travels with them through the streets.
We have to do that.  A potential mob
has filled this town to its capacity.
The inns are full with people who would rob
us without giving it a second thought
and call themselves a patriot when caught.

They’re everywhere, and keep on coming.  We’re
assigning places where we can.  Some curl
up in some random spot they commandeer.
I found a stable for a pregnant girl,
her husband, and a donkey.  That took work.
Don’t ask me why I did it.  I’m no clerk
of housing for these refugees. And yet
it seemed the thing to do.  And I would give
you decent odds that they will not forget.
Perhaps the child she bears, if it should live,
will prove exceptional, and in the end
might even be a tax-collector’s friend.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

“Whatta Ya Know!” - December 18, 2016

John 1

This week the choir brings us the message through their music, which revolves around the first chapter of John, expressing the way that God came to us through Jesus, a flesh-and-blood human being who was at the same time one with God. 

Not to leave the children out, this meditation on that subject will be offered before the cantata.  Obviously, it won’t be verbatim.

The seed pods are gathered from a tree in the churchyard, pictured here.  Each child will have one.  They are relatively fresh and when the kids inevitably shake them in time with the later music, the sound will probably only annoy their older siblings.

Good morning!  I have something for everybody today, but I’m just going to show one of these to you for now, and give them out later.  This is a seed pod that I picked up from the ground under a tree out back. 

Every fall, when the time is right, the tree produces seed pods like this one.  It doesn’t happen in the summer or the winter or the spring.  It only happens in the fall.  Nobody forces the tree to do it.  I cannot walk up and say, “Tree!  Grow some seeds for us!” and I cannot walk up and say, “Tree!  Don’t grow any seeds anymore!”  It’s in the nature of the tree to produce these seeds.

It’s a funny thing, too.  The seeds are both part of the tree and separate from it.  They come from the tree and, given the right conditions, they grow up into that same kind of tree again.  It’s like the original tree is part of the seed, like the seed is part of the tree.  Without seeds, the tree wouldn’t be itself, and without the tree, the seeds wouldn’t even exist.

That’s kind of one way to think about God and Jesus.

The Bible tells us that Jesus was with God forever, from before the beginning of the world, that he was part of God, like the seed was part of the tree even in spring, back before it even started to form.  Then, when the time was right, he came to be part of the world so that we could know more about God and his love.  He was always part of God and God was always part of him.

           The Bible talks about it by calling Jesus the Word that God speaks, because words are something that come from our deepest heart and say something about what is way down inside us.  It says,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God and all things came into being through him…”
And it says,

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.”

                There’s a lot about God that we don’t understand.  But what we do understand is what God shows us in the way that Jesus lived, which was always the way that God wanted him and all of us to live.  He loved us, and he still does, because that is just who God is.  God is love.

               In a few minutes the choir is going to sing about that, and we’re going to hear more from the Bible about how God sent Jesus to share that love, but let’s beat them to it, and we’ll sing about it before they do.  Do you know this song?

“Love came down at Christmas,
Love all-lovely, love divine.
Love was born at Christmas;
Star and angels gave the sign.”

Now, be sure you get one of these seed pods to take with you as you head back to your seat.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

“What We Have Known and Will Know” - December 11, 2016

Luke 1:46b-55

            Back in April, we went outside together after the second service and stood around a hole that Barry Lee had dug in the churchyard.  Next to it was a tree that was waiting to be planted.  Earlier, he had shared with us the tradition of the Iriquois, who had planted this kind of pine, whose branches grow in clumps of five, as a sign of unity that was to grow among their Five Nations when they set aside the violence and hatred that had controlled them in the past.  We, like them, buried reminders of those ways that we want to see banished from our community and our hearts, and planted the tree to grow over them, as a guardian to see that they are not dug up again, and to replace them with something of life and beauty.  This we did with prayer and with song. 

            Since then I’ve been watching the tree take root and grow.  I hope you’ve been paying attention to it, as well.  What starts out small grows big in time and spreads its branches wide.  When I was small, there was an enormous pine tree in my aunt and uncle’s yard.  I don’t know how many times different relatives pointed to it and told its story.  It had been a seedling that someone dug out of the ground in the Poconos one summer and that year it had found its way onto a table inside as a Christmas decoration before it went outside again and took over most of the front yard.  When I look at our peace tree, I think about what it will be in thirty years.

            You do know, don’t you, that trees aren’t the only things that do that?

            There’s a man whom I’ve met twice, very superficially, but whom I admire greatly, who is the Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett.  While the tree has been growing, I have been reading (not as steadily as I should, I admit) his book about the historic interaction of European and Native Americans and also the intersection and interaction of Native American spirituality and European Christianity.  It’s called Giving Our Hearts Away, and in it he reflects on the sort of experience that Mary’s song of praise looks forward to as well.

“He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.”
  [Luke 1:51-53]

God takes the small, the lowly, the poor and dispossessed, and overturns empires.  God uses the hurt and the ill-treated, the lost and the insignificant, to establish justice and peace. 

            Since the planting of that tree out there, we have seen something unprecedented.  Out on the plains, the Sioux stood up to an oil company and the Army Corps of Engineers and said, “This patch of land and river matter to our souls as well as our bodies.  Do not cross it.”  In times past, and we all know this to be true, the Army would just have shot them or moved them on.  This time it didn’t work.  Time will tell whether the decision will hold, but at least for now the more powerful group has had to back down.
            It kind of makes you wonder what we mean by “powerful”, doesn’t it?  Maybe for once power is seen not as force but is seen as the ability to touch the conscience.  Maybe strength is not all about ballistics but is embodied in depth of conviction.  Maybe influence lies in the ability to call upon the things we hold in common when we are at our best, including respect for one another and for the earth.  Maybe there is no shame in backing down when we see we are harming one another.  Maybe there is dignity in being able to say, “I see that I was wrong.  Thank you for helping me do better.”

            Humility is an underrated virtue.  Part of that is that it is most clearly visible among people who have little choice except to be humble.  We discount the virtues of people we do not value the way that God values them.  A young, unremarkable girl living in Nazareth is startled and afraid when God sends an angel to speak to her.  (Who wouldn’t be?)  But Luke tells us that she became “much perplexed” [Luke 1:29] when she is greeted with respect and honor:

“Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.” [Luke 1:28]

I can just picture her saying, “Who, me?”  That wasn’t how a woman was treated, besides which, wouldn’t God be wasting his time dealing with somebody so far out of the loop, so removed from the centers of power, so totally out of everything?

            Then again, wherever God decides to act, that is the center of things, even if it’s in some minor town in Galilee, or in a dark corner of a stable behind an inn, or on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem where they execute criminals.  We’ve seen that.  In fact, God makes a habit of working most wonderfully when you get away from the capitols and the cameras, although they eventually feel the result of what he does.

            Thom White Wolf Fasset again:

“The teachings of Jesus free us from confinement as we recognize God is at work in all things everywhere.  While humankind may loose destructive forces upon the face of the earth, God stands ready to love us unconditionally.”[1]

He speaks from his own experience as part of a marginalized community, and as a Christian. 

“The sacred instructions given to our people by God to revere and preserve in ancient times have been renewed and revitalized in Jesus and the New Covenant.  Love, grace, and forgiveness bring healing and gentleness to the human community as clear signs of a New Promise. …Does not the history of our people teach us of the power of the Holy Spirit?

            We have been in preparation since ancient times to carry this loving ministry and to move among the people of the earth.  We who live in two cultures and those claiming historic Christian creeds need to affirm this ministry and reinforce our commitment to speak clearly and prophetically on behalf of the dispossessed, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the poor, the oppressed and all living creatures who have no voice.”[2]

            The coming of the kingdom begins small and unnoticed, and among the small and disregarded.  But it is God’s kingdom, after all, and the one who knows its ways best of all, Mary’s son, in fact, once observed:

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” [Mark 4:30-32]


[1] Giving Our Hearts Away (New York: Women’s Division of the General Board of Ministries of the United Methodist Church, 2008), 125-126.
[2] Ibid., 126.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

“What We Do Know” - December 4, 2016

Matthew 3:1-12

            We may not know when Jesus will come again, when time will end, when everything will be wrapped up. But if we want to know how to be ready for that, whenever it does happen, maybe we should look at the way we were told to be ready the first time he showed up.  Directions about how to prepare at that time came courtesy of this strange figure, John the Baptist, who was active when Jesus was getting ready to start the three years of his public ministry.

There was, at that time, a sense of expectation in the air that something was going to happen, or had to happen.  The Jewish people were badly oppressed by the Romans, the political leaders had dragged the priests and the Temple into their own struggles for control and power.  Some of them were clearly trying to use the institutions of religious life not to build up people’s faith or to glorify God, but to keep the Romans happy.  Some did that for selfish reasons, others did it out of fear and in an effort to protect the people.  Either way, corruption had found its way to the top and was infecting the whole system.

Some groups became so disgusted with what was going on that they turned their backs on Jerusalem and the Temple and went to live in the desert.  They built their own villages and communes and lived on their own, waiting for God to send a Messiah, a Chosen One, who would clear things up and set things right, and then they (or their children or their grandchildren) could maybe live decent lives in peace and quiet.  That was their hope?  Was that so wrong?

John the Baptist, scholars believe, lived for at least a time among these people.  The ritual baths that are found in their settlements point toward the sort of ritual that John became known for, although he put a new spin on it.  They emphasized the need for purity and would wash as a sign of inward cleansing, praying for forgiveness of their sins.  John took that idea, but then turned back toward the settled areas, and took it with him.

“Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” [Matthew 3:5-6]

I’ve seen pictures of the Jordan.  It’s not the clean, clear water that the ritual baths required.  It’s muddy and messy and brown, and with crowds of people stirring up the riverbed it would have been even more so.  That was the water that John was telling people to dip into, while at the same time telling them to clean up their lives.

 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” [Matthew 3:2] 

Mark would later tell us that Jesus spoke the same words.

            What John expected of people who had truly repented, though, was not that they should go out into the desert to lead lives of separation, like folks who hold themselves apart from the world, but that in the world they should be a sign for others of what righteousness should look like.  In Luke’s account,

“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.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’” [Luke 3:10-14]

It meant doing their jobs the regular daily work and responsible and in an ethical way. It meant caring for the people that were around them.  Nothing spectacular there, right?  

            The pressure not to live that way can sometimes become strong, though, as at the time of John and of Jesus.  Part of the story of John the Baptist is how he died.  He dared to tell King Herod that there was something wrong with having killed his brother so that he could marry his sister-in-law.  That got him thrown into prison and eventually beheaded.  Speaking up for common decency can, in some times and places, call for great courage.

For people who await the coming of the kingdom, whether soon or late, to live responsibly in the midst of corruption may become an almost heroic deed.  People who do that bear witness that “the way things are done” does not always equal “the way things should be done”.  The people being baptized in the dirty old Jordan instead of the carefully constructed ritual baths knew that. 

Even now, to confess your sin like they did and to ask God’s forgiveness, knowing that you will continue to live in the middle of temptation and trials. is also to witness to the power of God to keep your life in his own hand.  It is to say that Jesus will be the judge and ruler of all things, not the world.  John said,

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” [Matthew 3:11-12]

When Jesus described the Last Judgment, he spoke about people who do what is good and right all the way along, not even giving it a thought, who will surprised at his approval, even gratitude, toward them.  He tells of them asking,

“‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” [Matthew 25:37-40]

If you really want to be prepared, that’s the way to do it.  Just keep on keeping on.  Do whatever is good and right and pleasing to God, simply because it is good and right and pleasing to God.

            There’s a story that’s attributed to Martin Luther, but nobody can find it anywhere in anything written before about World War II, so it’s probably apocryphal, but it’s still a great story.  Someone is said to have asked him, “If you knew that the world were going to end tomorrow, what would you do today?” to which he is said to have replied, “I would go outside and plant a tree.”

Saturday, November 26, 2016

“What We Do Not Know” - November 27, 2016

Matthew 24:36-44

            The Bible readings for the season of Advent, which starts today, traditionally focus on not only the first coming of Christ, as a baby, but also on his second coming, as judge and ruler.  With regard to the Second Coming, there is a lot of bad theology out there that doesn’t actually have a lot to do with what the Bible says about that.  So this is the first in a series of sermons that touch on that whole tangle of interpretations and misinterpretations.  The titles are, in turn: “What We Don’t Know”, “What We Do Know”, “What We Have Known and Will Know”, and “Whatta Ya Know!”

            So let’s get to it.

            A couple of months ago I was at the bank and the teller, whom I have chatted with in a friendly but shallow way often enough, saw the “Rev.” before my name for the first time and her voice changed tone.  “Uh-oh,” I thought.  “Here it comes.”  There’s a certain look that gives this question away in advance and I saw it.  “Do you think that we’re in the End Times?”

            When somebody asks that I know that they have already made up their mind.  They are sure of it.  Almost.  They have been reading novels by Tim LaHaye or listening to Jack van Impe.  If you don’t know those names, good for you.  Someone who asks whether we are in the End Times already (mostly) believes that to be the case but has a small bit of doubt that they identify as a sinful lack of faith and they want a random authority figure on TV or radio or across the counter to reassure them that, yes, the latest war in the Middle East will lead us to Armageddon.  Yes, they want to hear, the United Nations is the tool of the devil.  And on and on.  Then, reassured of certain imminent doom and destruction, they can breathe a sigh of relief.

            There is something wrong with that.

            I didn’t give her the answer she wanted, though.  I told her, “I have no idea.  Jesus said he didn’t know, either, so I guess we’re in good company, huh?”  She looked a little annoyed at what I am sure she considered my impiety, irreverence, and possible blasphemy, finished the transaction, and sent me on my way.  And you know where she suspects I am going.

            Jesus did say, though, that it isn’t for anyone to know when the world will come to an end and when history as we know it will finish.  It’s right there in Matthew for anybody to read.

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” [Matthew 24:36]
 I’m not sure how he could have been any plainer than that.  A lot of time and effort and paper and ink have gone into people’s estimations or guesses, generally based on misreadings of the books of Daniel and I Thessalonians and Revelation that ignore the writers’ setting, who they were first written for, and how those people would have heard things. 

Jesus had other things to attend to, like healing the sick, binding up the brokenhearted, calling sinners to repentance, and proclaiming the mercy of a loving God.  He said that the kingdom of God is at hand, and taught his followers to pray, “May your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” not, “May your kingdom come, but please give us 48 hours advance notice.”  If we have one foot in the kingdom already, we can step into it more easily whenever the time does arrive.

            To be fair to us human beings, there have been times when it has seemed logical that the end of the world might have been upon us.  I recently read a book called 1816: The Year without Summer.[1]  It was about how a volcanic eruption on Java in April of 1815 set off a series of meteorological events in the northern hemisphere that were so widespread and cataclysmic that the end did seem near.  There was snowfall in parts of Italy that rarely see it, and the snow was red and pink.  All across Europe that summer there were floods that destroyed crops from Ireland to the Balkans.  People barely escaped famine and disease came with physical weakness.  Switzerland saw lightning storms that didn’t seem to end.  On this side of the Atlantic, there was a widespread drought.  New England saw forest fires from the dry weather.  There was snow as far south as Pennsylvania in June and frost off and on into July. 

That year there were many who believed that it was the beginning of the end, and it spurred a religious revival in many places.  While it’s good that anyone confronted with the fact of their mortality should turn things around and pay attention to their relationship to God, it should not take a catastrophe to do that.  The timing of that kind of conversion points to being motivated more by fear of death than by love of God.  I suspect that it’s far better for us not to know the day or the hour (which, I repeat, we do not) because acting out of fear is not what God wants of us.  Have you ever seen that mocking bumper sticker that says in large letters: “Jesus is coming!”; and then underneath in smaller letters: “Look busy!”? 

            It’s better for us not to be able to fall into the trap of saying, “I have time.”  You very well may, but you very well may not.  There is no calendar, no ticking clock, no computer alarm that will tell you when you need to answer the constant call of Jesus to your heart. 

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” [Matthew 24:42]
If you trust God’s timing, and stay awake to God’s grace, the present is the important part, not the future.  The present is where we live, and where even now we can meet Christ through his Spirit. John Greenleaf Whittier put it well:

“I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.

I know not where his islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond his love and care.

And so beside the silent sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.

And thou, O Lord, by whom are seen
Thy creatures as they be,
Forgive me if too close I lean
My human heart on thee.”

            So here and now I am telling you that I don’t know when the world will end or when Jesus will return, but I do know that he is kind and loving and ready here and now to lead anyone who will follow him into the ways of the Kingdom of God without waiting for the last-minute rush.

[1] by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).