Search This Blog

Friday, December 6, 2019

Superman and Jesus

 Luke 23:33-43    Christ the King Sunday

          We watched the re-runs at dinnertime when I was growing up. I can still hear the announcer’s voice, introducing the program:
"Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way."
Superman had all kinds of abilities and powers. Kryptonite was his major weakness, but unless some alien visitor brought some of that from his home planet of Krypton, Superman could save the day no matter how evil the bad guys or seemingly hopeless the situation.
In his book Hunting the Divine Fox, biblical scholar Robert Capon writes that the image of this heroic Superman is the perfect popular image for Jesus, too: meek, mild-mannered, humble and unassuming, with secret super-human abilities that give him power beyond anything we can imagine. An unassuming character in his own right, who bumbles around for 33 years doing good, and finally gets himself strung up and “done in on a Kryptonite Kross”.
But then, this Super-human Jesus “struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up into Planet Heaven.”
It may seem like a funny analogy, but before we laugh, think about it. Doesn’t this image of “Superman Jesus” align more closely to the long-awaited messiah, than the Jesus who did something as foolish as suffer and die on a cross?
Today is Christ the King Sunday: a day on which we remember and celebrate the fact that no matter what the future holds, no matter the powers of the world that claim supremacy… ultimately and eternally, Jesus is the ruler of the world who will one day draw all things to Himself. Jesus is the king who will one day return, bringing this imperfect and incomplete kingdom into perfect alignment with heaven.
Today is the day we as Christians declare that Jesus is our king, and that even today, he rules over our lives and that he is, was, and always will be the power of God to heal, unite, and save.
It’s no wonder, there are many in the world who would prefer the alien Superman to the vulnerable, human messiah as their Savior; because then they could understand him. Then they could get onboard worshiping him.
But here’s the thing: our vision of “king” has never aligned with God’s vision of the relationship God desires with and for us.
Back in about the 11th century Before Christ, the people of Israel looked around and saw that the nations around them had kings and they decided they wanted one, too. No longer did they want God to lead them, they wanted a victorious militaristic leader who would conquer lands and bring them wealth and prosperity beyond anything they could imagine.
God warned them that a king would demand everything of them, destroying them in the end, but still, they wanted a king. There followed a series of imperfect kings then some of them good and God-fearing, at least for awhile. But ultimately the kings abused the people, took everything from them and abandoned them. The kingdom was destroyed, the people were exiled, time and again they went from conquering force to subjugated conquered land.
Finally, God promises new life and salvation through a messiah that he will send, the anointed one who will usher in a new age of hope and redemption.
The people of Israel began to wait for the Messiah – who through the prophetic descriptions was expected to be a mighty Lord, Wonderful Counselor, and King of Kings. Strong and victorious, powerful and wise, the messiah would usher in the perfect kingdom of God.
Today, as we read through this Gospel from Luke, we might well assume that something has gone horribly wrong. On this Sunday when we declare the Reign of Christ and confess that he is our Lord, our God, our almighty King, the Messiah, we read of events that seemingly defy that reality.
Because today, as we celebrate the Reign of Christ our King, we do so with a reading of his crucifixion.
What is happening here? Why has the Church, in all its wisdom, paired this story with this day? If Christ is King, how does he manifest that reality hanging, suffocating, and suffering on the cross to die? And, how does this story serve as good news for you and me – and for the world?
The crucifixion is the paradox of our faith.
The glory of God is revealed in weakness. The power of God is displayed in the vulnerability of Jesus on the cross. The almighty grace of God is declared by a criminal, hanging and dying beside our Lord, the deservingly convicted man who recognizes the divinity of Jesus.
Where is the pomp and circumstance generally reserved for kings? Why does the cross serve as a throne for Our Lord? Where are the adoring, ecstatic crowds that surround royals, hoping to be noticed, hoping for a little glitz to fall their way?
Instead, as we proclaim Christ our King, in this crucifixion scene we have mockers spewing hate and words of derision and condemnation thrown his way, while he, between agonizing breaths, speaks a word of blessing and promise to someone even less fortunate than he.
God is about to change the entire trajectory of the world in the contradiction that is at the heart of our faith. This is the paradox of the kingship of Christ. Jesus, crucified on the cross is Good News for the world, because at the cross, power is laid down. Life is given in order to save a broken, hungering, thirsting world.
Through the cross of Jesus, majesty is displayed not in a show of power or in the might of the sword, nor in shining jewels and hordes of earthly wealth, but in Jesus’ abiding love.
Note that as the Son of God dies on the cross, he remains in character—
-         noticing and reaching out to serve the marginalized
-         he sees those whom others ignore or cast aside
-         he offers hope, delivers love, and promises a place in his kingdom to a sinner.
God reaches down and grants new life to the hopeless.
Jesus dies on the cross but three days later the Empty Tomb stands open.
In Jesus Christ, God enters our story in a profound new way. God enters our suffering and gives us true hope. The real power of Christ is his willingness to endure the same suffering we ourselves experience and endure, and through his death and resurrection to reveal that sin, suffering, evil, and even death itself will not have the final word. Instead, by God’s grace, life in Christ is the final determinant.
God is here claiming each one of us through baptism. In this time and place, as part of a world often marked by greed, selfishness, bitter conflict, and blatant disregard of the value of human life and God’s creation, what does it mean to honor Christ as our King? What does the cross of Jesus mean as we live out our lives as part of this broken world?”
Through the cross of Jesus, God answers this question as God shapes our lives. To live in the Reign of Christ, then, means to have humility, and to surrender, serve, offer sacrificial love and expansive mercy to the least, the last, the lost, the lifeless, and the longing ones in our world.
Superman had a lot of Jesus-like qualities. His strength was not on display when Clark’s coworkers were mocking him or teasing him. He didn’t break out the suit whenever he wanted to be noticed or to enrich himself. He didn’t use his powers to humiliate or subjugate his detractors. He became Superman when someone else was in danger, when lives were at risk, when the powers of evil swirled a little too closely to the vulnerable and helpless ones around him.
The path of glory for Jesus wasn’t in saving himself, it is in saving us. Jesus never performed a miracle to secure his own comfort or prosperity, and he illustrated absolutely no patience or tolerance for those who were contemptuous of those who needed assistance. Even his final prayer spoke of who Jesus is and what he does, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
As Jesus does for those who persecute him, as he does for the dying criminal, Jesus does for us. In his forgiveness of us, he has already brought us a taste of the heavenly kingdom, thereby freeing us to worship him and to go and do likewise for those with us in the world.
Brian Stoffregen writes, “Perhaps, at the end of the day, many of us would be would be happier and feel more justified with a powerful King who got even with his enemies, rather than forgive them -- because that's what we want to do -- and we want Jesus to help us do it. But, celebrating Christ as king, means believing in his kingly power when he is on the cross and unwilling to save himself. It is letting this belief make a difference in our lives, especially when it comes to how we relate to "enemies" even when the enemy is us.”

Live Like You Mean It

Luke 21:5-19
Every now and then Tim McGraw’s song, “Live Like You Were Dying” comes on the radio. Do you remember that song?
It is associated with Tim’s father Tug McGraw, who discovered in March of 2004 that he had a brain tumor. At the time he was told he had but a couple of months to live. He went on to outlive that prognosis succumbing instead in January 2005. That extra nine months gave him time to do some things in his life that he had been putting off.

The song tells the story of a man who, likewise, is given a terminal diagnosis, and he changes his life in light of the news. “I was in my early forties,” the song goes, “with a lot of life before me, an’ a moment came that stopped me on a dime…I spent most of the next days, looking at the x-rays, an’ talking ‘bout the options an’ talkin’ ‘bout sweet time”.
Realizing that no matter what happened, his time would be shorter than he had previously anticipated, the man decides to do the things that are most important to him; he checks off as many of those things on his Bucket List as possible. -those things that he had always put off until “later”.  
The song goes on to name sky diving, mountain climbing, and riding a bull as some of those things. But then, it is the relational things that he lifts up – loving deeper, speaking sweeter, and giving forgiveness he’d formerly been denying the people in his life.
Even as the former activities fade away, the man realizes that it is his behavior – the ways he treats the people in his life – and how he himself engages with them that really matters. It is that realization that leads to, as he puts it, finally being the kind of husband, and friend that he should have been all along. So moved is he by that experience, that he issues a challenge to others, to “live like you were dying”.
Today is the so-called “last Sunday” of the church year, and as they do each year the week before we celebrate the Reign of Christ, the Scriptures we read all have within them an end-times vibe, something is coming, and something is passing away. There is an underlying exhortation to do the very same thing the man in the song advises – live each day as if it were your last, persevering in faithful living.
Malachi warns that the “Day of the Lord” is coming and that the “sun of righteousness” will shine on those who are faithful to God. The message: live as God had instructed you to live.
Paul tells the church in Thessalonica that as they wait for the Coming of Christ, they should continue to “do what is right.” The message: stop messing around and straighten up your act.
Jesus tells his followers that that despite the trials that will come before the end arrives, they should continue to persevere in faith and endure, drawing strength from their relationship with, and the promises of, God. The message: don’t let the trials of the temporal age dissuade you from believing the truth, from following me, and let your life reflect your faith and your identity as God’s own.
 The early Christian church, including those to whom both Paul and Luke are writing, believed that Jesus was coming back any day. But then, the days and the years passed without any sign of the Second Coming.  
By the time these passages were written and delivered to the early believers,  many had gotten tired of waiting, and they were falling into spiritual danger as they began to waver and grow weak in faith.
For some, that meant getting lazy about living as true believers and disciples and apostles of the Lord.
For others, it meant being vulnerable to the false prophets who arose here and there claiming to be the Christ, demanding their loyalty, and predicting the imminent end of the world, as if they had the inner track on these things.
For many, it meant losing hope and losing faith, and being consumed by anxiety and fear when contemplating the state of the world and the state of their lives – especially when things like devastating storms, earthquakes, wars, civil unrest and division, famine and plagues happen around them. So too, when the very thing that had always been at the center of their faith crumbled and fell.
The gospel text is relatively retrospective; at the time in which Luke is likely recording the words of Jesus, this Second Temple, the one some were speaking about and admiring that day and to which Jesus refers, which seemed to be indestructible, had in fact been destroyed.
According to the accounts of historians of the day, the temple had been magnificent, and it was believed to be about as indestructible as the Titanic had been believed unsinkable. Surely, it could never fall, not until the end of the world itself.
This Temple had been newly constructed by Herod the Great (the same Herod Jesus had referred to in another gospel text as “that fox”) centuries after the fall and destruction of the first temple, which had been built by Solomon.
The new temple was an engineering marvel, with retaining walls composed of stones forty feet long. The platform upon which it was built was twice as large as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis. It was huge, imposing, and seemingly invincible!
The gold Herod used to cover the outside walls was reportedly blinding when the sun was reflected off its surfaces. To look directly at the temple, it was said, risked being blinded.
And yet, Jesus makes the chilling prediction to those gathered around admiring its splendor; “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down,” he told them.
A mere forty years after the death of Christ, those walls, those stones, indeed came tumbling down as Jerusalem was once more devastated and the temple destroyed.
This picture is one I took a couple of years ago; the stones lying in heaps around the fa├žade of what is known as the Temple Mount today, are the remnants of that once-glorious Temple. These are some of the stones comprising the temple they looked upon that day – the disciples seeing grandeur, Jesus seeing death and destruction.
Throughout the eras that have passed between the 1st century world of Jesus and today there have been world-altering events, wars, changes, and threats.
While mankind is always progressing through new inventions and technological progress, we have, in every generation, also witnessed fragility, not permanence; loss, not glory; change, not stasis.
There are many fearsome aspects of life in our world today; wars, rampant corruption, populism rising around the world further distancing the haves from the have-nots; climate change creating ever-more-powerful storms and weather extremes; famine.
Not even the church has been spared, as we experience vast decline and abysmal forecasts for the future.
Looking around our world today is an anxiety-producing exercise, and when people are anxious and fearful. Relationships crumble and we cling to hope wherever and whenever it may be found, even if the hope is false and the prophets heretical.
Predicting when the world will end, or how it will end, or what will happen when it ends has always been a hot topic. It has been the inspiration for wayward religious cults, and the setting for many creative works.
Jesus reminds us that speculating about and trying to predict the end of time, really isn’t how we are to spend our time and our energies. Rather than wondering or worrying about when the end will come or what calamity and devastation will mark its advent, Jesus says beware. Such speculation leaves us vulnerable to hopelessness and to charismatic or powerful false prophets.
Rather, Jesus says, “have no fear” – just live, continuously and faithfully in my name.
Jesus predicts that things will get hard before the end—but he says not to be afraid.
Despite the trials and tribulations, the tragedies and hard situations, rather, in the midst of heartache and sorrow, the eternal presence of God is shining through, and we are not alone.
And the presence of God’s eternity is indeed in every moment, in every event, in every sorrow and heartache, of this present life.
For whenever we discover God’s hope in times of despair, whenever God’s strength leads us to seek forgiveness for the wrongs we have done, and whenever we offer forgiveness to one who has hurt us, we’ve tapped out of our temporal time, into God’s eternal time.
Whenever we extend God’s understanding and hospitality to the stranger, whenever we witness to God’s peace and justice, whenever we stand on the side of those in need, we’ve tasted eternity.
For faith, hope, and love are the realities of a life lived within the eternal presence of God.
Rather than sit and wait, Paul commanded the Thessalonians to get up and work—to do the work of Christ’s church on earth, to be a part of the Kingdom on earth.
Rather than predict and wait and try to guess the end of time, Jesus commanded his disciples to get up and testify, right now, to His work in the world.  Rather than sit and wait for death, the man in Tim McGraw’s song chose to get up and live …he chose to forgive, he chose to love, to enjoy relationship with others…to participate, little by little, in the good things of the Kingdom on earth.
To live like we are dying is to bring the light of Christ into darkness—through a reassuring hug, a warm meal, or perhaps a listening ear. It means to speak a word of hope and healing to those bound by despair—to speak a word of forgiveness, of reconciliation, a word of love.
To “not be weary of doing what is right” means to live our lives joyfully serving Christ, in the here and now in whatever vocation and place we find ourselves. We do this trusting that the life of Christ will conquer the power of death once and for all, and we will live eternally with God in heaven.
In Jesus Christ, God will see to the ultimate end of things, but today is the day for us to live and to act in the way of God’s kingdom on earth.
Today is the day to witness to our faith knowing the God is with us, empowering, strengthening and guiding us.
Today – and every day – is the day to live like we are dying – because we are! Dying in Christ, daily dying to sin, dying in order to be raised to new life that is eternal life. Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Storms and Stillness

Psalm 46        Reformation 2019

Since the beginning of the history of cinema, film studios around the world have loved to make disaster films. In the last two or three decades with advancements in technology and computer assisted graphics and images, they have become that much more terrifying for all their realism.
On the big screen we have witnessed volcanoes and tornadoes, hurricanes and floods,  tsumamis and earthquakes. There have been deep impact events, meteors and asteroids crashing into the earth. All of these present lots of chaos and fodder for drama and for having your pants scared right off you. That’s the point. Events like these are terrifying, all the more so because there is nothing you can really do to stop it or control it. Here’s what I mean (video, scene from Twister, of twin sister tornados rising out of the water, cows flying past, and truck spun around helplessly - the image of the chaos from which we cannot free ourselves).
Aside from cows flying around, the scene depicts the chaos that exists in the middle of the storm--a particular type of storm to be sure--a tornado. But to me the deafening noise, the menace of the various elements of the twister, and the helplessness of the people in the scene--as well as their awe--are those elements that in real life are the cause of so much grief in life. 
Whether you look upon that scene as illustrative of what the inside of a tornado might be like (spoiler alert: I'm pretty sure the movie doesn't even begin to get it), or whether we view it as metaphor for the non-meteorological storms we witness and endure, I think we can agree that as over-the-top as that scene seemed as a dramatic event, that movie scene in so many ways describes how life in this world can be experienced. There are literal and figurative storms in our lives and in our world. I think about the times in my own life that I felt the absolute fear and fragility of being trapped in a swirling, malevolent storm in which I felt so small and incapable of changing the course of the storm or its destructiveness. 
I often feel like that when I survey the events taking shape in our world today and mourn the lack of humanity in our church family; or weep for the children who are growing up in a world deprived of safety or hope for the inheritance of a stable and healthy planet. 
I feel sorrow for the vast numbers of people suffering in the world today and for the increasing polarization occurring with so many of the world's societies-that distracts us from taking the meaningful steps to alleviate suffering and provide a good life for most of the world's citizens.
The author of Psalm 46 understood and named both the awesome power and creative genius of God, and the destructive elements that create havoc and heartache everyday.
This psalm is a favorite for many people because throughout the psalm, despite the chaos and destruction evident in the vivid details contained within it there is the insistence on the part of the author that no matter what befalls us, God is present, active, a real help, a refuge, our strength. It's a word of gospel we need to hear when we are faced with the reality of deep pain and suffering in and of the world.
This psalm spoke so deeply to Luther of God’s steadfast presence and mercy, God’s never-failing activity even in the midst of the worst troubles of our lives, that he based the hymn we sing this morning – that great Lutheran ballad “A Mighty Fortress” as we do every year on Reformation Sunday.
As we read through the psalm, what we observe in the first section is a movement between the dark forces of the created world resulting in vast brokenness. The brokenness is named and described, with vivid words that place you right there in the midst of the storm just as these disadter movies place the viewer right in the middle of the calamity; but the, God's presence in the midst of the fray is lifted up:
The earth is moved and shaken all the way from the tops of the mountains to the deepest parts of the sea with all the attendant devastation and destruction you can image, yet the psalmist declares that God is in the midst of it, a very present help in trouble.
As the trouble intensifies and affects not only the natural world but relationships between people and nations, still God is there. Despite the raging of nations and shaking of kingdoms, God speaks, and all that melts away.
The psalmist wrote this psalm during a time of the conquest and destruction and exile of Israel, when the entire world as the people of Israel had known it had been turned upside down, when nothing was as it should be. It was a time of great national and religious tragedy and suffering, yet the psalm declares God's faithfulness amid the upheaval. Yet even in the midst of that trouble, God is there. God is working. God is present. God is acting.
Martin Luther wrote the hymn during a time of upheaval in the world that tore all the established structures asunder. The church, especially, the center of Luther’s world, seemed to be under attack from dark forces that were leading it down dark and dangerous roads.
Where the church went, the nations followed. Life was hard. Vast numbers of people were overcome by poverty, disease, and death. Luther himself, who tried so, so hard to do the right thing yet faced deep opposition from inside and outside himself – who even had a price on his head - found in this psalm the confident voice of affirmation in God’s still presence.
Nothing was as it should be in his world and his concern for the church was great. So he wrote, among so many writings, the words of this wonderful hymn, based on the psalm. It is a song not only of praise and worship, but, just as the words of the psalm itself, written 2,000 years before, also a song of defiance; no matter what troubles and forces rise up, God is with us, protecting, rescuing, and preserving God's beloved people.
Our world today is no less broken. We face the devastation of the created world as nature still afflicts us with earthquake, storm and flood. We face the reality that some of those acts of nature are now intensified through our own sinful waste of resources and poisoning of the earth.
Nations continue to rage as wars rage and turn once vibrant cities and towns into graveyards and rubble. Violence transforms streets into rivers of blood and creates human refuse – refugees who turned away again and again with no safe place to rest, as Jesus himself was once turned away.
Our relationship with the creation is broken and our relationship with one another is marked by the sin that has always destroyed the bond between human beings – greed, lust, hunger for power, and disregarding the needs of the vulnerable and poor.
When we look around the world today, with our deep divisions and the horrific ways in which humans treat one another, with wars and threats of wars always on the horizon, with our persistent tendencies toward bigotry and entrenchment in systemic sin, we might be tempted to lose heart and lose faith.
Yet the good news persists. "Be still and know that I am God!" The creator commands. "The Lord of hosts is with us." it is declared. This persistent, present God is still acting. We need not fear even when the world around us is flailing and crumbling.
"Be still and know that I am God!" In the midst of troubling circumstances, some of which are even mentioned in the other lessons this morning, while the psalm points out and acknowledges the reality of our struggles and calamity without glossing over it, still it declares unequivocally that God still lives.
"Be still and know that I am God!" God, who is the source of our strength, God, who is never-failing.
God continues to be the refuge and strength for all the fearsome events, days, and nights of our lives.The Good News comes to us through God's eternal Word, spoken before the birth of Christ. Then proclaiming the Word of God among us - Jesus Christ, who came to free us from the sins we can never deny or break away from on our own: "Be still and know that I Am God!" 
Good news, indeed.