Mark 1:21–28 (NRSV)
The Man with an Unclean Spirit
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
There are several things in life that I cannot explain. For the most part it does not bother me one bit, but then there are times when I feel like I should be able to explain something yet I cannot. Those are the times that I have trouble with. I would love to be able to clearly explain heredity and genetics since I spent so much time studying this in school, yet unfortunately I cannot even remember the terms. Of course since most of you probably do not care to talk DNA I am probably safe in my igrorance. But then there are things like this passage that we read which I cannot fully explain, and frankly it scares me a bit. It scares me because there is something just under the surface that I know is happening both in this scripture and all around me, but I do not necissarly have the vocabulary to explain it. Scares might not be the proper term, because I do know if I am truly scared, but I am uncomfortable and nervous.
There is a reason I remain guarded because there are several different theories around this passage and other like it that cover a broad range, I cannot fully support any of these theories fully because each do not fully explain what is happening, while others from a theological standpoint contradict everything I hold to be important. So I am left in this akward state, of not wanting to diminish what is happening while not wanting to perpetuate heresy.
When it comes to the spiritual realm I hope each of us are just a bit uncomfortable, because it is a realm of the unseen. Do not get me wrong I belive that there is a spiritual realm, I believe there are benevolent and malicious spirits at work around us. I believe this not only because scripture tells us that they are present, but also because things happen around us that cannot be fully explained. As I first read this passage though I am struck by continuing evidence of a continuing battle that has raged since the heavens and the earth were created. A battle that is both seen and unseen that is fought in physical and spiritual ways, and that throughout the centuries has never let up. There is evidence of this continued battle in the various understandings and explainations that various doctrinal traditons and interpreteatons have given us about ancient observations of demon possession, some of the cases can be clearly explained as mental illness yet others passages do not lend themselves to this. I hear the stories that our missionaries tell of the spiritual wars that they have fought with Christ and they amaze and unnerve me, so just when I think I begin to have an understanding everything twists again and I am left wondering what is really going on yet again.
I admit this failing because I want us all to be honest with ourselves. Things happen and we cannot explain it. We can simply say that it is spiritual and leave it at that or we can look deeper. There is a risk in either approach, because one thought process can give more power to spiritual forces than scripture allows while the other approach leave can cause us to question the authority of scripture and leave holes in our faith. There are forces of good and evil in our world. There is a spiritual battle that is being waged, and yes we are caught in the middle. But as I wrestle with this scripture I do not want us to look at it from a different perspective than we are used to looking at it from. Not to detract from the power of Jesus and the first miracuouls feat that Mark records in his Gospel, but I want us to look at this through a different set of eyes.
To begin I want us to admit that there is evil in this world. It is not hard to see. We can watch on the news, read in the papers and on the internet story after story about revolting and inhumane activities that occur within our nation and around the world. We can turn back the pages of history and see ghastly deed that have been performed for various reason which can nauseate us and cause even the strongest among us to weep. I could say the word ISIS, Nazi, or slavery and each of would be able to say yes there is evil there. But then there are other terms that we use where the line between good and evil is blurred words like drones, Wall Street, waterboarding, Israel, Palistine, or genetic modification and we may begin to argue because some see these as evil while others may see them as justified. The blur occurs when we as humans define and redefine what evil is, what right and wrong are, and what actions are culturally acceptable. Do you sense the danger in that statement?
There is evil in this world that much we can all agree on. It does not matter what faith or lack thereof we have, every human being on the planet knows that there is evil. But where that evil rears its head can often be surprising.
I have read this passage countless times as I have walked along the pathways of faith, yet each time I have seemed to overlook something. Something that is so simple yet causes the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. It is easy visualize in our mind’s eyes Jesus preforming a maricle. We are drawn to it and begin to imagine the convulsing man from which an unclean spirit emerges. But how often do we actually consider and contemplate where this man actually is? He is in the synagogue. The place of worship. He is participating and involved in the very same activities that we ourselves engage on a regular basis. The church as we know it emerges out of the synagogue.
Jesus goes into the synagogue in Capernaum, and begins to teach and among those in the crowd is this man. But before we discuss the man it is important to expand on the scene. There are similarities and differences in the first century synagogue to our contemporary expressions of worship. They did offer prayers, they did sing hymns, and read scriptures which occurs throughout the world in houses of worship, but the difference is in the interpretation. In the first century the approach to the sermon or the teaching portion of worship was different. That is alluded to in this passage of scripture. Mark records that, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus began to teach and it astounded them, because he taught with authority, and not as the scribes. This is profound because in the first century there was a deep focus on orthodoxy. One did not speak during the teaching portion of worship without having been trained in the oral traditions of the faith. Those that spoke, spoke giving reference to the rabbi from which they learned. It was unusual for someone to speak without making some reference. Jesus spoke without referencing the teacher that trained him. He spoke as his own authority, He moved away from the oral traditions they were used to and began speaking an interpretation of his own.
Now I say that this is a difference between the first century synagogue and the church, but in actuality is not all that different. Our pastors today do not merely reiterate the sermons presented by others most write their own, but often they are filled with theological teaching they have learned from others. This in and of itself is not wrong. Each of us do this, we learn one way and when we are asked to teach we teach out of what we have taught. But what happens if someone challenges our understanding, what happens when we hear a different perspective. There are only two choices really, we are either open to the teaching or we reject it. There is a growing number of people that accept the teaching of an end time rapture where those in Christ will be gathered in the air removed from this world just prior to the last days. Many of us accept that teaching, we believe that that is exactly what the scripture teaches, and when we hear something contrary to that teaching we can become defensive. But that was not the teaching a century ago, in fact that teaching was not mainstream until after World War II. Why is it that so many of us belive that teaching as the true interpretation, because it is what we have been taught. That interpretation was not widely accepted until after the nation of Israel was reestablished, and along with that interpretation is cultural baggage from the Cold War. We as Americans were taught that Russia was the one that was going to lead the war against Israel and therefore that interpretation of scripture was correct because Russia was allied against us and Israel. We have been taught that. That of course is only one example of the teachings we have been taught. The teachings that often times are challenge as cultures shift and emerging generations begin to focus on different aspects of faith.
What is our reaction to the teachings that differ from what we have always been taught? Ultimately each of us are like those first century worshipers in the synagogue of Capernaum, we are astonished. And sometimes we are defensive. Sometimes we may even cry out a challenge. At times we may even demand for the removal of a minister or teacher because they are not holding true to the traditions. We may even consider someone to be evil because of a difference of interpretation.
Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, He was teaching with authority unlike that of the scribes, and someone cries out from the congregation, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” I stop there because I want us to be very aware that that very same spiritual battle that possessed this man still rages to this very day. What we have known can be challenged and often we can cry out like this man, “Have you come to destroy us?” I stop there because we as humans define for ourselves what is good and evil, we justify in our own minds what is right and wrong. We base our understanding on many factors but sometimes we can be led astray. “Have you come to destroy us?”
We see this man as being a man possessed with an evil spirit, someone who was indwelled by a demon and far from God, but again he was at the synagogue. We know nothing about his past or his future but we do know that he had great concerns. Was Jesus there to destroy everything that he and others had worked so hard to create? Was Jesus there to change the direction that this faith community was going? Was he and those like him going to lose their influence if the community saw Jesus’ authority as being greater than theirs? Do you see why this passage makes me uncomfortable? Do you see why I admit to being just a bit scared while I read it? I am unnerved because I have cried out at others very similar things. I myself could be this man. I could be the man Jesus is telling to shut up! And I do not want to be that man. I do not want to be a man that is so influence by evil that I cannot accept the authority of Jesus. I do not want to be the man that is afraid that if I were to listen to Jesus that everything I thought was important would be destroyed.
This is the very place that many of us are at today. There is a raging war all around and within us. And we are afraid that everything we have struggled to keep alive is about to be destroyed. Jesus said to that man, “Be silent…” Be silent. Yes I know he commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man as well. But first He said be silent. There is something important there. Something that we used to know but have forgotten. Be silent, be still, close your mouth and let Jesus speak. Admit that maybe just maybe we have been influenced and led astray by various things and maybe we might have focused on the wrong things. Maybe in our struggle to keep things going we have forgotten what is really important. Maybe we are that man. A man or woman sitting in a church listening yet being led by something else, something unclean, perhaps something evil. What is evil? What is sin? These questions have been asked before, we might say that it is a transgression of the law, but I think it is more than that, I think sin is anything that detracts and distracts our attention from God and the people that God loves so much that He gave his very life to redeem. Evil is when we consciously decide to live a life of sin. We cry out with this man, “Jesus, Have you come to destroy us?” The answer is absolutely yes! Yes he has come to destroy anything and everything that hinders reconciliation. Yes He wishes to destroy this illusion of self-justification of evil that keeps us from loving him and or neighbors. Yes he wants to destroy you and me, so that He can then redeem and restore each of us to being who we deep down know we are. He wants us to be individuals and a community that is defined as loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. And that all begins with us being still and letting His authority direct our paths.
John 1:43–51 (NRSV)
Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
One of the most quoted statement in our contemporary culture is that people love Jesus but hate the church. There is something powerful in that statement that should make each of immediately stop whatever we are doing at that moment, turning our attention to the one making the statement, and engage that individual in conversation. I say this not because we need to proceed to argue with them and attempt to convert their souls with our craft use of the most advanced apologetic techniques, but because that person is saying something very profound about the life of the church. “I love Jesus but Hate the Church.” For probably most of us this statement causes us to cringe, like we had just licked a 9 volt battery on a dare. Our first reaction is to prove them wrong to lash out, but what they are actually pleading for is not an opportunity to engage in debate but to be listened too.
That statement speaks volumes about the church engages our culture. Somehow and somewhere along the course of this individual’s life the witness of the church has separated from the testimony of Christ. Somewhere along the line the gospel of Christ was separated from the assembly of believers. That is a damning statement, one that is painful to even contemplate let alone speak among one such gathering, but a statement that must be considered. How can someone say that they love Jesus yet hate those people that follow the Him?
This is the reality of the situation that the house of Israel was facing during the revelation of Jesus during the first century. Of course they did not know the reality of Christ at that point but they were very familiar with the concept of a people set apart for the glory of the one true God. That is the very reason that John was out in the wilderness baptizing the people of Israel and encouraging them to repent for the kingdom of God is drawing near. That is the reason that it was proper for Jesus to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan to reveal the opening of the floodgates of heaven to a new and more intimate relationship with God. One that was not devoted to the shadows of the temple but the very passion and blood of humanity.
Jesus rose from the waters and the Spirit of God spoke as the water drops fell from the locks of Jesus’ hair, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God made flesh, the divine living among the created, and the holy living with the depraved. John the Baptizer looked out as Jesus walked by, and spoke to those around him, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Imagine for a moment that scene, the confused looks of the followers and disciples of John as their teacher the one that was calling them to turn around and live for God in a different and more real way stood in awe of this retreating man. As Jesus walked away these men watched this bold preacher dramatically turn into a meek and submissive servant, gladly submitting to this man. The confusion, and the utter awe of the situation. A couple drop what they have and they follow this man. Among them was a man with the name Philip. If you were to look at the history and origin of this name you would find that it is not a name originating from Semitic roots but is a name of Greek origin meaning lover of horses. The meaning does not really give any real enlightenment but the origin loudly proclaims where the faith of the parent is rooted. Though Philip was Jewish his parents gave him a Greek name. That very fact gives us a vast understanding at the state of first century Israel. They were occupied they were blended and influenced by outside cultures. John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness because the faithful of Israel were not completely separated and devoted only to God but were as much a part of the world as we are to ours. There were people walking in the dust of the Holy land saying similar things as many are saying today. We love the idea of God, but we hate the Temple. John himself by baptizing in the Jordan was saying that there was a separation, or a disunity between the actions of the nation and the reality of their spiritual existence. They needed to repent to turn back to God.
Philip is there near the banks of the Jordan listening to John, yet feeling like an outsider do the heritage given to him by his parents. He did not run after this man whom John said was the lamb of God, he held himself back possibly feeling removed and excluded from the hope of Israel. He waited while the others Andrew and Peter, followed but the very next day Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow Me.” A Greek Jew was nearly as bad a straight up uncircumcised Gentile in the eyes of the zealots. He would have been rejected by the majority of rabbis simply because his parents were not devout enough, his heritage may have even been questioned yet Jesus come to him, looks him in the eye, and offers him the greatest opportunity every human truly want the opportunity to know and be known.
This man could have lived his entire life rejected, constantly having his faith questioned by the very people that should have been encouraging him, finding acceptance only from a crazy preacher out in the wilderness, and then the teacher he respected looks to another in holy reverence and that man comes to Philip accepting him and giving him a chance to be involved in something more. Philip immediately understands that everything has changed. Something different has emerged, he begins to see that the kingdom has opened up and become available to all people. So he runs to speak to his friend, telling him we have found the one spoken of by Moses and the prophets, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth.
Again it is important to note that Nazareth was not a significant location. It was not a major metropolis, it was not on any major trade route, but it had a reputation. It was most likely a city of labor a city that cut and mined limestone rocks, and like most blue collar cities it probably had a hardened reputation. If we were to compare it to a city today it might resemble the economically challenged areas of Detroit, once having a thriving economy while the stone was being gathered for the great building projects of Herod but now that the construction had fallen off is now just a hardened and impoverished. People that once focused their attention on their careers now unemployed and angry. Nathanial says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” because this area was filled with rouge rebels and bandits looking for a fight that could line their pockets with ill received gains.
Nathanael curious at what could have gotten his friend so excited decides to respond to Philip’s invitation to come and see. As he approaches Jesus, Jesus says, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” This greeting has always been odd to me, especially when one considers the fact that he was close enough friend to Philip, the Greek Jew, for him to be the first person Philip wanted to find after his encounter with Jesus. True Israelite is not exactly the term that one would say to someone who hung out with an impure outsider. But that was the greeting, “here is a true Israelite.”
This got me thinking, why would Jesus single out Nathanael as a true Israelite? What about him was different from the others Jesus had asked to follow Him at this point? Was he more devout or more righteous? Again we must consider the company that he kept. I keep bringing up the Greek influence of Philip’s name because of the way that the Jewish people treated the people of Samaria the half breeds the ones that did not keep pure lines within the tribe. How could someone be called a true Israelite when they keep the company of on similar to this?
Who is Israel? This goes back to the very beginning of the tribes when Jacob received a new name, Israel, from God. He gained this name because he spent an entire night wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. He would not give up until this Angel, of whom most would say was a manifestation of Jesus prior to his birth, blessed him. So Jacob received the name one who wrestles with God. Nathanael was a true Israelite, or one that is of the follows the line of God wrestlers. He did not simply sit back idle but he wrestled with God. Nathanael was not simply content or fatalistic but he actively pursued an understanding or relationship with God. This greeting alludes to the possibility that Nathanael was not afraid to question the status quo and would struggle to make sense of the emerging culture around him and where God was in it. He struggled, he pursued, and he sought the relationship even if the religious norm around him seemed to go a different way.
Nathanael then ask Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” This is just as odd of a response to an odd greeting. But fitting if we look at the greeting from the perspective I just mentioned. If Nathanael was the wrestler as I described then to be considered a true Israelite in that case Nathanael could have taken the greeting very negatively. Which is the response he gave. Basically he is telling Jesus who are you to judge? Yet Jesus answers that he saw him under the fig tree. There is a traditional saying that rabbis would go into the shade of a fig tree to do their studying. Making this place under the fig tree a very intimate place for one to wrestle with the things of God. So it is clear that though Nathanael may not be one of the religious elite of Israel he was actively pursuing the relational aspects of God, and Jesus met him there in the shade and knew what was being said. Chances are very high that for Nathanial to respond by saying, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” whatever was being wrestled with under that tree was revealed in some manner, and that probably had something to do with his friend Philip.
So back to the all too common statement of, “I love Jesus but Hate the Church.” A statement that is so easily thrown around in our culture today. We have a parallel at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus at that moment was unknown but obviously there was something about him that attracted these men’s attention so early. Something simple yet very profound. Each one was drawn into discipleship through a very simple conversation, come and see or follow me. They were moved by an invitation to a conversation, and invitation to know and be known, and invitation to wrestle with God and be accepted even if the challenge goes against the perceived cultural norm. John the crazy preacher testified about Him, and sent his followers to Jesus. Andrew on of John’s disciples followed Jesus and brought his brother to also see him. Jesus went out to find Philip the Greek Jew and gave him the opportunity enter into a relationship which quite possibly was often neglected do to his heritage, and then Philip brings in Nathanael the one that wrestles. None of these first disciples would have been people the contemporary culture of the day would have considered worthy of the attention of a Rabbi, yet Jesus invited them to come and see, to follow, and to wrestle. Jesus accepted them where they were and he lifted them up to see and experience greater things.
Jesus is still calling and inviting people to come and see, to follow, and to wrestle. This is where the statement “I love Jesus but hate the church” comes from. People are still interested and intrigued by Jesus, but the church has not always been accepting of those that are invited. We have separated Christ from the gospel to such a degree that people no longer see Christ in the Church. You cringe and rightfully so because that is something to cringe about, something to wrestle with and challenge to take on. Each of us who take on the name of Christ are involved in that challenge. They love Jesus, they love the acceptance and the grace of Jesus but they hate us. That is profound. Why? We can puff ourselves up and say that it is because we are righteous and people do not want to be righteous, but why then are there charitable and humanitarian organizations that do the work that Christ calls us to do that have nothing to do with Christ? We can say that it is because they reject God, but that then leads us to ask what God or image of God are they rejecting? They are rejecting our image of God, the image of a judgmental and wrathful God, the God that demands the blood of all that reject him. But that is not the image of God that is revealed through Jesus, the image of God that would lay down His life for the ones that were his enemies.
Philip was most likely rejected by the religious elite, Nathanael was most likely put off by the religious elite, Peter and Andrew were seen as simple uneducated men not worth the time of the religious elite, yet each was actively pursued and asked by God himself to follow him. Each of these men walked along side of Jesus and saw Jesus open the gate of heaven in ways that were never before imagined. As we enter into this time of open worship consider the statement often repeated “I love Jesus but hate the church.” Consider if we as follower of Jesus are adequately reflecting the image of God within us as revealed by Jesus. Are we accepting of the rejected and encouraging to the discouraged, are we inviting those around us to come and see and to walk with us as we follow Christ? Or are we just possibly participating in something totally different and quite possibly devoid of Christ? Jesus taught and showed us a rhythm of live that revolved around worship, prayer, and service. He is calling each of us into that life as well, a life of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. To be people devoted to that lifestyle it requires us to entrust every aspect of our life into his hands, it requires us to cling to him and wrestle even when we do not understand what he is doing. It requires us to embrace the unlikely and to encourage them to walk beside us as they respond to their personal invitation from Christ to come and see.
Mark 13:24–37 (NRSV)
The Coming of the Son of Man
(Mt 24:29–31; Lk 21:25–28)
24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
(Mt 24:32–35; Lk 21:29–33)
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
The Necessity for Watchfulness
(Mt 24:36–44; Lk 21:34–36)
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
This time of year is probably the most exciting, it is the holiday season! It begins with Thanksgiving and for the next month we look forward with the anticipation of the coming of our Savior. There is much to celebrate when we look toward God. Yet often times we get caught in despair and hopelessness. So as we start off this Advent season I want to take a look at some of the traditions that many of us have held so dear.
The Christmas tree is probably one of the most memorable tradition in most of our houses. Most of us have memories of the excitement we had a children of putting up the tree. It has become so engrained in our cultural celebrations of Christmas that it is hard to imagine a time where Christmas trees were not popular. The use of a tree to assist in our celebrations in America is younger than the concept of our nation, but the roots go deep into history.
Winter is a very dark and sometimes scary season, especially if you lived in the far northern areas of the world where during the winter months the sun barely peaks over the horizon if it rises at all. People that settled in those northern places, in countries we now know as Finland, Sweden, Norway and others often lived their lives in fear because there was very little light, and the weather was fiercely cold. But they saw something that gave them hope, a tree. During the winter everything seemed to die, the plants died, animals died, and even people because it was just too cold, but there was one thing that did not die the fir tree. This tree would stay green throughout the harsh winter months so it became a beacon of hope for the hopeless. They would hang a fir tree from their ceilings with the hope that whatever power kept it dying during the winter would be poured out on the family living in the house. We know this to be superstition now, but we must remember that this was a dark time. So the evergreen tree made its debut as a holiday tradition in the homes of the Vikings or Norsemen, but it was redeemed by God like some many things.
The redemption came when a monk named Boniface was called by God to travel all over Europe to share the Gospel and build churches. On one of his journeys he came across a group of men who were about to make a sacrifice according to their traditions, but Boniface ran up to them to save the life of the one they were going to kill. Of course they did not want to listen to him but God has a way to turn hearts to Him. The legend says that Boniface punched the trunk of an oak tree that they were going to use for their sacrifice rituals, and the oak tree fell to the ground. Then when the dust from the fallen tree settled a lone fir tree stood, Boniface then used the illustration of the Fir tree to teach the Vikings about the everlastings hope and love of God that is offered through Jesus Christ, and like St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Irish people of the Trinity, Boniface used the triangular shape of the fir to teach the Vikings. It is said that those men converted and the hope surrounding the fir tree was shifted from pagan superstitions to the hope we have in Christ.
I tell this story because the evergreen firs gave hope in a dark time. In today’s passage Jesus is telling those that will listen that there are dark times in the future. This is not exactly a passage most of us would associate with this holiday season, but it provides us with the reason Jesus came to dwell among mankind.
Jesus was born during a very dark time for the people of Israel, not too distant in their history they had returned from exile, gained their freedom, only to find themselves again under the rule of an empire that rejected God. The people were yearning for deliverance yet for centuries they had not seen the answer to their collective prayers. Just prior to this passage Jesus was teaching that in this earnest hope many would be lead astray from the truth by people claiming to be the messiah or a prophet. Most of these prophets were not sent by God and were actually more concerned with profit than being a prophet.
There was tension in the air, everyone knew that something was about to happen, and that excited them. I say excited, but it was not necessarily a joyous excitement. They knew that things were going to change. Jesus is warning them that this change will not necessarily be what they were expecting, Jesus was telling them that there will be great suffering.
Suffering usually proceeds revival. Revival is a compound word that has the prefix “re”, these two letters have a simple meaning when they are attached to a word. Those two letters tell those of us that read or hear the word that whatever the base word means is going to happen again. The term vival is a word that means life, so revival speak of having life again. To have life again, life must end. Suffering, hopelessness and darkness.
The people were looking to the future hoping that someone was going to change the course of their culture but Jesus is telling them that there will be great suffering first. This is not exactly how you draw a crowd. But there is more to this. Jesus uses apocalyptical language, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the heavens, and powers in the heavens will be shaken. These are not the words of revival but the words of exile. Jesus is telling them that everything they hold to be important will be demolished and their world is about to be turned upside down. Darkness is on the way, but the “son of man” will gather his elect from the world.
I want us each to be very careful with how we read this passage. We may be lead to believe that this is a passage about the return of Christ, but that may not be the meaning especially when in other gospel narratives Jesus says that this will all happen within one generation. When we put all our interpretation of this passage on the second coming of Christ we will run into a problem because we are just a few generations away from the time these words were spoken. Trying to make this passage only represent the second coming leads us into error. Do not get me wrong I do firmly believe in the return of Christ.
About forty years after Jesus spoke these words, the culture of Israel was turned upside down. In 70 AD the Romans totally conquered Israel, their temple was torn to the ground and all the vast wealth of the society was taken out of Israel and used to satisfy the whims of the emperor. The sun will be darkened, the moon will fail to give its light, and the hope of Israel will fall. But through all the suffering God will emerge.
I want us to now consider our own time. Throughout our nation we have seen a continual decrease in the influence of God as we know it. The church as a whole has seen a steady decline in attendance, and it seems as if the culture is falling away from God in every possible way. The sun is darkened and the moon fails to give light. The church is left with a crisis, do we continue down the same path, do we fight, or do we withdraw. Consider this for a moment. Are we on the verge of the second coming, or do the signs we interpret point to something else entirely? Change is in the air, and that change has many people crying “how long”!
Jesus did not return in 70 ad, but something definitely shifted. When the Romans tore down the temple it forced the faithful to rethink how they worship and how they engage the world around them. Without a temple what do we do?
Our world is again being engulfed in darkness, the very things that we as the church have held as important for so long, seem to turn people away from the gospel. But does that mean that the time is near for Jesus’ return? I do see that there are signs all around us, but the signs could mean different things. Our culture is increasingly turning away from God, at least away from the church, but does that mean they do not desire a relationship with God? We again must rethink and approach how we engage the culture. Just like the Christmas tree, once pagan icon, was redeemed by the Church to reach out to an ungodly culture, like the shamrock was used to convince the Irish, we too must understand our culture and use the tools God has given us to assist in the redemption of our culture. Some say the church is dead, I say hardly. Some say that our culture is forever lost, I say our mission has just begun. Some have given up hope but I believe we are about to enter into the largest revival the world has ever seen. But how do we get there? We can crusade around trying to force people to act Godly, but is that what Christ has called us to do? We could withdraw and build a colony separated from the darkness, but does that bring hope to those sitting in their houses hopeless? Now more than ever we need to look to Christ, follow in his footsteps and participate in the Holy rhythm of life he showed us. Now more than ever we need to live a life of prayer so that we can be directed by the Spirit to minister to our community. Now more than ever we need to share the hope we have in Christ as we minister to the people stuck in the darkness. God Father sent his son into this world not to condemn the world but to redeem it, so that His will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. The joy of advent, the hope of the resurrection and the return of Christ is just that, the hope of a restoration and redemption the hope of the revival of people, cultures, and our world.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as Friends, I want us each to look at this Christmas tree before us, reflect on the history of this symbol and the memories we have had around such a tree. And let us not forget that God has, can, and will redeem our culture if we are willing to be a person and a church devoted to loving God, embracing His Spirit, and Living the love of Christ with others.