Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Working for the Future When It Might Be End Times

Preached in Spring 2008 at Eugene Friends and Fall 2008 at Vancouver First Friends
Matthew 23, 24 and 25

When I was a university administrator, I was on the Crisis incident response team—talking about how to deal with avian flu pandemic, potential violence on campus—how to respond to these things. The flu predictions are pretty dire, and our security person at the time, a sweet guy who spent his time off working with youth in trouble, said, “When this sort of disaster occurs, there will be looting.” We looked at him in disbelief; he said, “People will come to get the food in the kitchens; they’ll raid the offices; we may need to secure the perimeter and we may need to be armed.” This is a funny story, really.

It is no slam on security—when your whole life is given to protecting a population and a property, you just think differently. You’ll be glad to know that we decided we would give the food away, we would open the dorms to the Red Cross, and we would not arm our security personnel. For one thing, if the halls are filled with flu sufferers, it keeps the looters away.

Driving home from work shortly after we began dropping bombs on Baghdad, I felt deeply the fragility of the earth and the human life on it and I prayed, Please God, don’t let us destroy what you have made so beautifully.

I grew up under the shadow of the cold war in America and civil war in Burundi, Africa. No one could predict in either case who would die and who would survive and what would be destroyed if things went very wrong.

And here we are in the middle of a global financial crisis greater than anything most of us have ever seen. We know people who are losing jobs, losing homes, losing health insurance, asking for help, angry at government, angry at their neighbors, turning political rallies into mob scenes, hiding their money under the mattress.

Someone called me a pessimist the other day, and that may be a correct assessment. I think I come by that honestly, both from genetics and experience. So it was no wonder that as a young adult I took seriously the evangelical prophets’ prediction that the world would end a generation after the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. At first that was 1968, then you may remember 1988, and now here it is 2008, and we’re still here and wondering what it meant.

I don’t have that answer to the question of when will we face the end of time and what will the experience be like. The question that interests me is the “so what” question. How does Jesus expect me to live when the world can end today or in millennia?

It’s useful to place Jesus’s comments on the “end of the age” into their context. Matthew 24, the apocalyptic chapter, comes after Matthew 23, where Jesus told people to do away with the hierarchies that identified some as rabbi, father, teacher; to serve all if they wanted to be great; to stop shutting the door against those who were entering the kingdom of Heaven; to stop venerating religious traditions above God; to stop trying to buy their way out of being just, merciful, and faithful. Then in the next chapter, the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “what will be the signal for your coming and the end of the age?”

This phrase, “the end of the age” is translated variously, but it does indeed carry with it the idea of apocalypse. Jesus says some mysterious things about the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place, and Matthew advises the reader to be sure they understand this. To the listeners, this likely referred to some form of idol worship in the place that was holy, namely the temple. They lived to see the temple destroyed, just as Jesus predicted, and the holy place desecrated. And yet, the messianic return of Jesus to set up his throne among us did not happen as they thought it would.

Thayer’s lexicon talks about the period of instability, weakness, impiety, wickedness, calamity, and misery that precedes the appointed return of Christ. Isn’t that a great list? And which age from Jesus to now hasn’t seen this as characteristic of some part of our world? Where is that golden age in the past? Frequently, we think from our own lives particularly—I remember when I felt safe, comforted, strong, good, godly and happy—and we think a change to our surroundings means that the world is about to end. So it is possible for someone in the US to talk about tribulation as if it were a future event and someone in Zimbabwe or Myanmar to think it is already here.
Or for someone watching the stock market fall to think this is the end and someone in the 14th century watching half of Europe die from the Black Plague to think that the end was surely near. The Black Plague may have begun in Asia and spread to Europe during the 1340s. The total number of deaths worldwide is estimated at 75-100 million people, 25-50 million of them in Europe—between 30-60% of Europe’s population.

Jesus says that even he did not know when the end would be, even though he knew hard times were coming for Jerusalem and the Jews. What he did know is that it would be in the midst of things. The lesson is Matthew 24:44, “Be ready because I will show up when you are not expecting me.”

And here’s the so what: What does it mean to be ready?

1) parable of the misbehaving servant: a delay is not an excuse to do whatever you want; do what you know is right in your job and relationships (45-51)

2) parable of the 10 virgins: be prepared for the return, be prepared for a long wait.

3) parable of the talents: invest what God has given you so that there is a return on it; don’t hoard it or try to protect it in hard times.

4) parable of the sheep and the goats: make your neighbor’s life easier not harder; give food and drink to the hungry and thirsty; a home and clothing to the homeless and naked; comfort and presence to the sick and imprisoned.

Whatever you do for another, you do for Jesus, he says. That’s how close he is to us.

So, when we hear of wars and rumors of war, earthquakes, famines, global financial meltdown, how are we to respond?

Do NOT buy duct tape and plastic and lay in a supply of water.
Do NOT buy more guns and set up survival caves.
Do NOT hoard.
Do NOT take advantage of those in need.
Do NOT panic.

What Jesus teaches us to do in response to misery, war, famine, crisis—global, local, or personal:

Say YES to generosity
Say YES to responsibility
Say YES to hospitality
Say YES to loving the world around us
Say YES to loving our neighbor
Say YES to confidence in God’s love and goodness

Stay alive while we live—give it our best effort—work to make the world better—Jesus is always near, Jesus is also coming.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fear of the Overwhelming Enemy

Fear of the Overwhelming Enemy
Preached 2/1/09 at Vancouver First Friends

One hot and windy August night, my husband Mark and I were awakened at 11:30 p.m. Our neighbor drove up our driveway, honked his horn, and, shouted, “There’s a car on fire across the road.” Then he left. We went into the living room and looked across the road by our mailbox. There was indeed a fire. The summer had been dry in the Northwest, marked by forest and brush fires. Our new puppy had chewed up every hose we owned but one. Mark went outside. I stayed inside with our sleeping children and called 9-1-1.

While I watched, I saw the fire suddenly flare up. The pine tree at the end of our driveway seemed in imminent danger. All the vegetation was dry. The wind was blowing sparks onto the road, where Mark and neighbors were directing the little water that came through our 5/8-inch hose. In the interval before the fire trucks arrived, I felt panic rise in my throat. I knelt and prayed for the safety of our children, for the preservation of our property, and for protection for Mark.

It was a reasonable fear. It took hours to completely extinguish the fire, but no one was hurt and, except for our mailbox and the car, no property was lost. I do not believe that God was grieved over the fact that I was afraid in an emergency.

But that moment of panic was nearly immobilizing for me. And I think that my more chronic fears are similarly immobilizing. One spring when I was afraid at a fairly low but constant level, I suffered from a burning esophagus and hid out in my house.

Because our fears inhibit our ability to live the abundant life Jesus promised, we do well to examine them in the light of Scripture, which is filled with God’s instruction to us: “fear not.” This command runs throughout the Old and New Testaments, showing the recurring need of God’s people to be reminded not to be afraid. The Psalms show the various psalmists’ need to remind themselves that they will not fear. Psalm 46: 1, 2 “God is our refuge and strength, a well proved help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change …”

The word fear includes the meaning of “reverence”; what we chronically fear, we bow down to. In fact, what we fear becomes a rival to God in our lives. We let our fear take from us our gifts, our callings, our health, our children, and our principles. At the same time, the Bible is full of reassurances that we need not feel panic, paralysis, or self-hatred in response to God: “Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus tells us, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Central to our understanding of our relationship to God should be this principle out of Zechariah’s hymn of praise on the birth of his son John: “that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1, 74-75).

The Bible shows us one way to deal with fear in the story of King Jehoshaphat of Judah, 2 Chron. 20:

Jehoshaphat is one of the good kings. He has destroyed idols, instituted a system of justice, and set his heart to seek God.

One day messengers come and tell him that a large army is coming against Judah from Edom. Jehoshaphat is afraid. He prepares himself to seek the Lord and proclaims a fast throughout his country of Judah. Israelites come to Jerusalem from all over to seek the Lord. Jehoshaphat leads them in this prayer:

“O Lord, God of our ancestors, are you not God in heaven? Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In your hand are power and might, so that no one is able to withstand you. Did you not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of your friend Abraham? They have lived in it, and in it have built you a sanctuary for your name, saying, ‘If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save.’ See now, the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, whom you would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy--they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession that you have given us to inherit. O our God, will you not execute judgment upon them? For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

The Lord responds through one of the people there: “Thus says the Lord to you: ‘Do not fear or be dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s . . . This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.”

The next morning, Jehoshaphat encourages his people to believe God, and he leads them in the chorus, “Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Perhaps this is the tile of Psalm 136, which begins that way.)

When they arrive at the battlefield, all the army coming against them lies dead already. Two groups had attacked and destroyed the third, and then they turned on each other. It takes Jehoshaphat and his people more than three days to salvage the usable items these armies left behind them.

The fear of God comes on all the kingdoms of the countries when they hear that the Lord has fought against the enemies of Israel. And the realm of Jehoshaphat is quiet, for God gives him rest all around.

What we can learn:
1. Jehoshaphat’s fear is reasonable--the army coming is overwhelming.
2. Jehoshaphat reminds himself and God of God’s previous intervention on behalf of Israel; he does not go into a lot of detail about how big the army is or how well-armed. It is not helpful to repeat to ourselves the horrible, gruesome, painful details about the person or event we fear. In other words, he concentrates on God, not on the enemy.
3. His response is to believe the word of God. He seeks God’s will, fasts and prays, admits his own powerlessness, and goes into danger singing about God’s love.

I think in these times about the economic downturn and how it is too big for us to fix as individuals, how it will change our lives. What do we do? Apparently, we can profitably learn from Jehoshaphat’s example:

We choose to believe the word of God.
We rehearse how God has helped us before.
We seek God’s will.
We fast and pray.
We admit our own powerlessness.
We go on our way singing about God’s love.

Fasting here can be a symbol to us of choosing to depend on God to sustain us, rather than working to sustain ourselves. I don’t like giving up meals, but it’s much harder for me to give up trying to control outcomes. That is a true fast for me.

Let’s link this to a New Testament story from Mark 4.
After spectacular miracles and several parables, Jesus says to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

1. It is reasonable to fear the overwhelming power of natural forces, just as it is reasonable to fear an overwhelming army.
2. This is a picture of our lives: we are a boat crossing the sea; when a storm, a crisis, a potential disaster arises, we are afraid. Though our fear is reasonable, it shows the limits of our faith. After all, Jesus is in us, in our boat, and we cannot be destroyed.
3. Like the disciples, we need to fear (revere) the one who can calm the storm, instead of fearing the storm.

When we are called to let God fight for us, we may discover that God solves our problems so spectacularly that we live in peace because no one wants to mess with our God. Or we may find that, like Jesus, we are crucified with criminals on the way to resurrection.

Being called to let God do the fighting is not the same as setting ourselves up to be victims. In fact, it is fear that turns us into victims: inside we bow down before the overwhelming enemy. When God calls us to let God fight for us, and we are obedient, we are able to go into danger singing. We understand why Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. When someone hits me on one side of my face, I can choose to respond fearlessly--I neither run nor fight. I can stand up before my enemy and turn to that enemy the other side of my face. This is a sign of courage, not of compliance. When I don’t respond to danger with fear, I get to keep my dignity.

“Happy are those who fear the Lord” (Psalm 112:1). “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). “We are being rescued from the hands of our enemies, so that we might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before God all our days” (Luke 1, 74-75). God wants to preoccupy us to a greater extent than anything else in the world. “Happy are those who fear the Lord” (Psalm 112:1).