Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Real Promise

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

We are a week away from the beginning of the Advent season, yet the lectionary prescribes Luke's account of Jesus' final moments on the Cross, a reading we might think more appropriate for Lent than for Advent!  What strikes me more than anything is the supposition we all probably share in the traditions of the Church; that Jesus was born, He preached, He was killed, and then He was resurrected - BUT - only in the "appropriate" calendar season!  Because frankly, these "seasons" are the only times we give these events much thought.

There is, however, a perpetual element of Advent since the Resurrection of Messiah, a component of its life the Church is compelled to always be mindful of.  It is our Lord's Word in The Revelation in which He declares: "I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me to give to everyone according to his work" (22:12 NKJV).  This is the very spirit of Advent itself which means "arrival".  We are "expecting" the return of Messiah.  But are we really?

Small children can afford to use the calendar to count down to Christmas Day which means little more to them than when new toys and games may be found under the tree - that is, children whose parents have means to indulge a child's every whim.  Grownups, however, - and particularly the Church! - are charged with the responsibility of preparing children, young and old, not for a rebirth of the Christ Child nor a visit from a jolly ol' elf but rather living in and for the Covenant and the Gospel in preparing for the Coming of Messiah.  The vast and empty pews across the churches of America suggests we've dropped the ball.

So the placement of Jesus' final moments would be appropriate for the "season" such as it is so we are mindful of what lies ahead for the Church and for all of humanity.  A manger, dear friends, is not in our future - but there is a KINGDOM; a Kingdom of untold riches which beckons us beyond ourselves and the consumerist mentality that has overwhelmed our culture, poisoned our children's minds, has invaded the Church, and has essentially come to define Christmas to the point that the Promise Fulfilled by our Lord has become an incidental afterthought - and the Promise Forthcoming; no thought at all.  We must be constantly mindful that Messiah came once to call us and to redeem us.  He will return to judge us - perhaps especially we who constantly throw His Name about so casually or give the jolly ol' elf a more prominent place in our children's hearts during this particular season.

The evidence of what I submit Christmas has become is revealed in a demographic study which shows a vast majority of those who live right in Magnolia's zip code area who are firmly entrenched (and enslaved!) in a "high- or very high-risk" debt ratio  situation.  This means the vast majority lives well outside its own means; and while these individuals must take personal responsibility, the Church cannot afford to ignore the dominant social message that demands personal satisfaction and instant gratification even if it means walking willingly into the shackles of debt.  This is NOT the message of the Cross or Advent - and certainly not Christmas.

We will have our month-long fantasy regardless of what is written in Scriptures or spoken from pulpits, but the Church cannot - must not - ignore the reality which exists the other 11 months of the year.  There are so many who live in constant fear and uncertainty, enslaved as they are to a merciless task master who virtually owns them, the many who are perhaps only one paycheck or one catastrophic illness away from financial disaster and even perhaps homelessness.  These many cannot possibly live up to their fullest human and spiritual potential, bound as they are to the merciless and utilitarian world which measures human value according to social usefulness.

So the placement of Messiah's final moments on this earth is a good way for the Church to get real, a good way for the Church to reconnect to the essential promise from our Lord that for all we are willing to faithfully endure for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel, this is what lies ahead; an utter rejection by the world in which we live, a rejection of the Eternal King and His call to repentance and the fullness of life.

It is not the Cross itself that is before us in that final moment - or should not be - because we should already be freely and joyfully burdened with the Cross Jesus charged us to take up in choosing to follow Him.  It is the burden we should freely share together as the Body of Christ.  Instead, the moment which is ahead for the faithful is the Assurance from our Lord that "you will be with Me in Paradise".  As I pointed out last week, this Assurance is the one we like and have no problem with.  It is those pesky "other" promises and commandments we have flatly rejected, oftentimes in the very name of Jesus - the One whose Name we so carelessly and incidentally - rather than purposefully - toss about.

I have often wondered how many of those "thousands" recorded in Acts would have come to Christ if they could have known, really known, what was ahead for them and what would come to be expected of them in spiritual growth and accountability.  Of course we always have to remember that, like Peter's confession of Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of the living God", these confessions cannot come from human sources. 

Humans cannot make such a convicting argument that other humans are compelled to believe. No human person possesses that capacity alone.  In fact we should recount St. Stephen's speech in Acts 7 in which he tells "The Story".  There is no record of any coming to faith in that moment.  Rather the crowd which heard him reacted angrily and aggressively in their rejection, and St. Stephen was murdered.  The crowd clearly heard the words, but they refused to listen to their own Story!

There are two points of interest in that story; the reaction of those "convicted" (or accused), and St. Stephen's vision just before his life was taken from him.  No one likes to be "accused" of anything, and no one likes to be told they could be wrong or misguided.  Those who "accuse" us of anything will not find themselves endeared to us, and we often react very strongly when we stand "accused" - and we react rather aggressively when we are "convicted".  In this it is very hard to distinguish ourselves from the crowd that took Stephen's life.

St. Stephen's vision, on the other hand, is the essence of the Promise our Lord has made to His people - to Joshua as he was preparing to lead Israel into the Promised Land, and to the Church itself by Jesus just before He ascended into Heaven: "I will not forsake you", and "I am with you to the very end of the age".  Both statements are unquestionably conditional (and I know many Christians grind their teeth at this statement!). 

We must be following and obeying and doing and living faithfully in His Name and not exclusively for our own sakes - for our Lord says plainly, "I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me to give to everyone according to his work".  St. Stephen's vision in his final moments on this earth was the fulfillment of our Lord's Promise, and Stephen was granted the vision he would need to endure his last painful moments on this earth, to remember he was not standing alone, that his faithfulness had not been forgotten.

The common connection between these two points is, ironically, the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit certainly gave Stephen this vision, this strength to endure what we can only imagine as excruciating - if we can imagine this at all.  Those who were unwilling to listen, unwilling to repent, unwilling to change were as ignored by The Spirit as the crowd ignored Stephen. 

It is actually a lot like how modern white America reacts to the genocide of the Native Americans and slavery in the earlier days of this republic.  There is no denying the truthfulness of these events as these are matters of historical record, yet it is very hard to hear because we simply cannot wrap our minds around the human capacity evil and cruelty in our innate need to dominate our world.

St. Paul's prayer and wish for the Colossians, however, is what calls us to look higher and beyond our present moment, beyond our own "world" as we know it.  St. Paul does not suppose bad things will not happen as so many modern "prosperity gospel" preachers do (though it is hard to imagine Paul or our Lord would wish persecution and torture on the faithful!).  Rather St. Paul offers a prayer of support and encouragement that the people of The Church be granted Divine strength in the present reality, and "be prepared to endure [rather than fight against] everything with patience" (Col 1:11) - just as our Lord did in His final moments.

Then when we arrive at "The End" of our time, the end of our mission, the end of our journey we will utter the simple prayer offered by the thief on the cross, "Jesus, remember me."  The assurance from our Lord as we stand bloodied and broken for our faithfulness by a fallen world? "Today you will be with Me in paradise."

"Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus."  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.