Message for November 27, 2022

Read Matthew 1:1-17 (see also the previous post with “Matthew’s Begats.”

Note: This message is for a baptismal worship service. Where names have been elided, that is to protect the privacy of the family.

Well, that was a weird reading, right? No matter how much fun Andrew Peterson’s song was, it’s still a strange text for today. Dry and dusty history from three thousand years past. Names that are foreign to our ears and challenging for our tongues.

It’s like looking at someone else’s family pictures. You do your best to appear politely interested. All the time you’re thinking to yourself, “Who are these people?”

And yet, these days, genealogies are big business. All of us baby boomers are afraid we’re going to die, and no one will remember us. We have ancestry.com accounts. We’ve spit in a tube and waited for our genetic profiles. We watch celebrities in shock as they discover some hidden branch of their family tree.

I’ll bet a quarter of the phone calls we get at the church office start out like this. “I’m doing some research on my genealogy. Do you have any records on my relatives?”

Where do I come from? Who are my people? What’s my story? Am I part of a bigger story?

These questions matter to people. The answers help tell us who we are. The answers tell us where we belong. And the answers might give us some clues about where we’re headed.

It’s interesting to read a genealogy on a baptism day. … is the newest addition to your family trees. He carries the history and hopes, not only of his parents, but of generations of ancestors.

As he grows, you’ll probably tell him some of those stories. They will help him know who he is. And they will help him imagine who he might become.

I think of those stories in my family tree. A couple of my ancestors lived in one of the first sod houses in western Plymouth County. A young mother, six months pregnant, snared and slaughtered a hog to feed her children. She did that because her husband had stayed too long in town with his drinking buddies.

A young man left Germany to escape the gathering clouds of war. He became a Lutheran school teacher in my home church. Another young man couldn’t obey the rules. So, he became a farmer instead of a preacher. I often wonder how that story has shaped my own relationship being a preacher.

My family tree has its heroes and saints. My family tree also has its rogues and sinners. So does every family tree. My family tree has a large number of rebels and skeptics, investigators and inquirers, and no small portion of atheists. All of that explains a lot of who I am now.

Now my grandchildren are the leading edge of that larger story. … is the leading edge of the larger story in his family. I suspect that his family will spend some time today telling that story. That’s what happens when families gather.

Genealogy is about beginnings. It’s about origin stories. Matthew launches his gospel with Jesus’ origin story. “The book of the Genesis of Jesus, the Messiah,” Matthew writes in verse one, “son of David, son of Abraham.”

I know that’s not how the NRSV translates it. But that’s what it says.

That word, “genesis,” means “beginnings.” If you connect Matthew’s sentence to the first book of the Bible, give yourself a gold star! That first book is named “Genesis” because it’s about beginnings. It’s about the beginning of Creation, the beginning of humanity, the beginning of Israel.

Matthew wants us to hear Jesus’ story as part of that great big story.

Jesus’ family tree has heroes and saints. But Jesus’ family tree leans heavily toward rogues and sinners. Abraham plays fast and loose with the truth. Jacob is a trickster and thief. David is more like a mob boss than a wise king. Jesus’ family tree has cowards and cheats, frauds and fools, liars and losers.

We find a few heroes in the list. But they are the exceptions.

A close look at any genealogy produces humility. We like to highlight the heroes and saints. We brag up our successful and prominent ancestors. We try to claim a bit of their past glory for ourselves.

But for every hero or saint on the list, I have five stinkers slinking in the background. The genesis of Jesus makes me feel a bit better about my own ancestral line.

Maybe you noticed the women in that list of male ancestors. The women make the list even weirder. Not because the women are weird. But ancient family trees hardly ever mentioned the mothers. So, mentioning the women means something. Matthew has a trick up his theological sleeve here.

You may not recognize these women. Maybe you’ll check them out this week. The women are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. These four are outsiders. They’re not Israelites. They don’t have respectable jobs. The men in their lives use and abuse them, neglect and abandon them.

They’re on the list because these women are smart, courageous, desperate, and persistent.

So, watch Matthew’s story for outsiders. Watch Matthew’s story for those who have to buck and battle the system. Watch Matthew’s story for those threatened by the powerful. Watch Matthew’s story for those who threaten the powerful. Watch Matthew’s story for those who won’t take no for an answer.

These are the heroes and saints in Matthew’s story. These are the heroes and saints in Jesus’ story.

The real hero, after all, is Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God. The genealogy begins with Jesus. The genealogy ends with Jesus. The story goes from blessing Abraham to crowning David. It goes from the triumph of Solomon to the tragedy of the Exile. It goes from the depths of despair to the hoped-for Messiah.

But what about those numbers? Does Matthew have a side-hustle as an accountant? If so, he’s not very good. Abraham to David – fourteen generations. David to Deportation – fourteen generations. Deportation to Joseph – thirteen generations. Did Matthew miscount?

No, Jesus is the fourteenth, the fulfillment, the completion, the goal. This is Matthew’s story. God’s people have waited for that final name. That final name is Jesus.

Today, … becomes part of that big story. Today … is baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. Today … is baptized into the love story of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today … is named Child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit. Today … is marked forever with the cross of the Messiah.

Today is the beginning of that new life for …. Today is his “genesis day.”

As … grows, his family will tell him stories about his bigger story. And we – parents, sponsors, congregation – we promise to tell him the biggest story of all. We promise to tell him God’s story of salvation in Jesus.

You heard and made those promises a few moments ago. We promise to walk with … as he learns God’s story of salvation. We promise to sit with him in worship as we celebrate that story.

We promise to put the Bible in his hands and teach him to make that story his own. We promise to teach him the faith in the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Commandments. We promise to help … love his place in God’s story of salvation.

That’s why this congregation has Sunday School, Bible School, and confirmation instruction. That’s why we do preschool and youth activities and Christmas programs and music. Because we promised.

Because we promised to help each and all of our children to love their places in God’s story of salvation. So, we volunteer as teachers and helpers and sponsors. We support ministries of nurture and education. We offer these gifts to anyone’s children – because they are all God’s children.

God’s big story has a goal. And it produces results. We carry out these promises so … can fulfill his baptismal calling. That calling is to let his light so shine before others that they may see his good works and give glory to his Father in heaven. We all have that calling – to live in such a way that the world will know God’s big story of salvation and our part in that story.

Our part is to trust God in all things. Our part is to tell the big story in what we say and do. Our part is to care for all God’s kids and the world where they live. Our part is to work through the story so that no one is left out or left behind. When we do our part, we help …, and all of our children, grow in faith and life.

Today is a day of beginnings. It’s the beginning  of a new church year. It’s the beginning of a new church season. It’s the beginning of our journey through Matthew’s story. It’s the beginning of …’s part in God’s big story of salvation in Jesus.

So, today is not about endings. Baptism is a launch pad, not a landing spot. Our place in the big story lasts a lifetime.

Parents, thank you for allowing us to be part of …’s beginning. Thank you for bringing him into God’s story and God’s family. Thank you for your promises of love and faith. We promise to continue what we’ve begun together. Let’s pray…

Text Study for Matthew 24:36-44 (Part Two)

Our text has two different Greek words for “to know.” In verse thirty-six we read, “But concerning that day and hour, no one knows – neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son – none except for the Father” (my translation and emphasis). The verb here is “oida.” The verb appears again in verse forty-two. “Be on watch, therefore, because you (plural) do not know on what day the Lord is coming to you” (my translation and emphasis).

In verses thirty-nine and forty-two, the verb is “ginosko.” “And they did not know until the Deluge came and they were completely swept away; thus also shall be the coming of the Son of Man” (my translation and emphasis). Both verbs appear again in verse forty-three. “But know this (ginosko): that if the master of the household had known (oida) at what watch of the night the thief was coming, he would not have permitted his house to be broken into” (my translation and emphases).

This may seem a bit nerdy and in the weeds. But I think this matters for interpretation. Most of the time, I find out what I’m thinking by typing it here. And sometimes I’m as surprised as you may be by what comes out of the process. We could conclude that the Matthean author is just sloppy with vocabulary. Or we could conclude that in the Matthean community the verbs were relatively interchangeable. We could, but I don’t.

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

I don’t think either conclusion is warranted in this text or in the Matthean account in general. Instead, this variation in verbs describes different responses to the events described in this section of the gospel story. And this variation in verbs can challenge us to reflect on the kind of “knowing” we bring to our lives as disciples, especially in challenging times.

“Oida” generally means to “know about” someone or something. It’s really the perfect form of the Greek stem, eid–. “Perfect” here refers to a verb tense, not a state of purity or completion. And the stem describes the action of seeing or observing. “Oida” describes knowing the externals of a person, thing, or event. Not knowing, in this context, means something like to be unacquainted with that person, thing, or event.

“Ginosko” generally means to “know” someone or something from the inside. In relational terms, it describes an intimate connection. Therefore, for example, the Matthean author uses this verb to describe the sexual relationship (or lack thereof) between Mary and Joseph prior to the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:25). In my final translations of Matthew 24:39 and 24:43, therefore, I use the English verb “to comprehend” to render “ginosko.”

“But no one knows about that day and hour,” Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 24:36. That is, no one except for the Father knows about the details of the calendar or the actual events of that coming. This is quite remarkable since the day and hour in question refers to the coming of the Son of Man (see Matthew 24:29-31). The Son himself won’t know the details of that day and hour until things come to pass in the moment.

“For just as were the days of Noah,” Jesus continues, “likewise will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37, my translation). In those days, life appeared to go on as normal. Then Noah entered the ark. Those outside the ark didn’t comprehend the significance of what was happening until it was too late for them. They clearly “knew about” Noah’s boarding of the boat. Otherwise, there would have been nothing to comprehend or understand.

The “knowing” that is at stake here is not “knowing about.” It’s not knowing the Divine timetable or charting the progress of events as the world moves toward some sort of “end.” That is precisely the knowing that is not available – not available even to the angels of heaven or the Son. If the people in Noah’s days are an accurate example, then many are likely to get it wrong if the focus is on knowing about the daily details.

In order to interpret our text accurately, I think we need to read closely the preceding “Lesson of the Fig Tree” (Matthew 24:32-35). “But from the fig tree learn this parable,” Jesus says, “whenever you observe (oida) its branch becomes tender and it puts forth leaves, you understand (ginosko) that summer is near…” (Matthew 24:32, my translation).

The two verbs show up in connection and contrast here. You “know” the condition of the branch and the presence of the foliage by observing. On the basis of that observation, you can get a deeper understanding of what’s happening – especially of what the season is. “Likewise, you also, whenever you see all these things,” Jesus continues, “you understand that he is drawing near, upon the gates” (Matthew 24:33, my translation and emphases).

In verse 33, we get a clear juxtaposition of oida and eidon, the verb for “to see.” Seeing events leads to an observation and awareness of those events. The wise observer will then understand more than meets the eye. The wise observer will conclude that the seasons are changing.

I think Jesus is quite intentional in the use of his imagery here. Some of the vocabulary in these verses shows up in the Matthean account of the Triumphal Entry in Matthew 21. We get images of trees and branches, like the branches laid on Jesus’ path as he draws near to the gates and enters the city. The coming of the Son of Man, Jesus tells his followers, has commenced with that triumphal entry. The tree branches are sprouting leaves, and the season is changing.

The lead-in for the Apocalyptic Discourse in the Matthew account comes in Matthew 23:39. Jesus pronounces woes upon the scribes and Pharisees. He declares in Matthew 23:36 that these messianic woes will come upon that current generation. Jesus then laments over the fate of Jerusalem, when the Temple (the “house” in Matthew 23:38) will be left desolate. And he connects “seeing” him with the declaration the crowds shouted in Matthew 21:9.

This generation has “seen” Jesus as he approaches the gates of Jerusalem. They have not comprehended that the season is changing for them. But that won’t keep things from happening to them. “Truly I am telling you,” Jesus solemnly declares in Matthew 24:34, “that this generation shall not come to an end until all these things have happened” (my translation). I think there’s no question that Jesus is speaking, albeit in veiled terms, to those around him at that moment.

Jesus makes clear the meaning of his actions. The season is changing for the Jerusalem establishment. Nothing can change that fact. “Heaven and earth shall come to an end,” Jesus concludes, “but my words shall certainly not come to an end” (Matthew 24:35, my translation). This is the introduction to our text.

The conclusion is equally as stark. In the parable of the faithful slave and the wicked slave, Jesus describes the incomprehension of the wicked slave: “the Lord of that slave will come on a day when he is not on watch, and in an hour which he does not comprehend (ginosko)” (Matthew 24:50, my translation). The pragmatically wise and reliable slave is blessed. The Lord finds that slave engaged in the ongoing work of the household. The wicked slave is cut up and cast out.

The pragmatically wise and reliable slave is in a position to see what’s happening. That slave comprehends that the Lord’s delay is not a sign of the Lord’s faithlessness. Rather, that delay is a call for greater faithfulness on the part of the slave. That faithfulness consists of continuing to do the work in which the slave has been employed all along. That will put the faithful slave in the best position to comprehend what the Lord is doing.

This may all have been cryptic and to some degree unfulfilled for Jesus’ listeners. The Matthean audience, however, is in a different position. So are we. Stanley Saunders offers helpful words in this regard in his workingpreacher.org commentary.

“We can, however, lift up the defeat of death in the cross and resurrection, which dramatically alters how we approach ‘the end’ of the biblical story: the defining moment is not Jesus’ triumphal advent at the end of history, whenever that might be, but the moment of his revelation of God’s true power on the cross. The point, for those who know this much, is to live in the light of this transformed reality.”

We Jesus followers trust that Jesus is coming. We look for that coming in our daily lives and experience. We look for that coming as the culmination of God’s Creation/New Creation project. We can observe the events of our lives. We can regard them as more of just one damn thing after another. Or we can comprehend these events as opportunities to meet Jesus as wise and faithful servants, part of the fulfillment of God’s project.

For those in liturgical traditions, it’s a change of seasons. It’s also a change of seasons in the natural world, toward winter or toward summer – depending on our hemisphere. Is it a change in the season of my life? Is it a change in the season of our congregation? Is it a change in the season for our tradition or denomination? This first Advent text raises those questions for us. And it challenges us to comprehend the depth of what we see.

Message for November 20, 2022

Christ the King Sunday

Luke 23:32-43

Loving Power

Christ the King, 2022

Luke 23:32-43

Today is Christ the King Sunday. The issue is power. How will that power get used? Will Jesus save himself? Or will he use his power in another way?

Here is the gospel in today’s Gospel. Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

Bruce Almighty is a 2003 comedy film starring Jim Carrey. Bruce Almighty is my favorite theology movie of all time. The film wrestles with the connection between power and love.

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a television reporter in Buffalo, New York. Bruce is whiny, selfish, and irritated about everything. On a particularly bad day, Bruce rages against God. He makes fun of God and demands an explanation for his troubles.

God shows up. God tells Bruce that if Bruce can do any better, then have at it. God, played by Morgan Freeman, then leaves on a long-overdue vacation.

Bruce discovers that he suddenly has the power of God. He walks the streets of Buffalo accompanied by Snap’s 2003 hit, “I’ve Got the Power.”

Bruce blows the top off a fire hydrant with a wave of his hand. He steals a nice outfit from a store window by thinking about it. He gets revenge on his enemies. He makes his competition, played by Steve Carrell, look foolish on live TV.

We find Bruce standing atop the highest building in Buffalo. The sky is dark with flashes of lightning. Thunder rumbles and the music builds to a climax. “I am Bruce Almighty!” he declares. “My will be done!”

We would all like to be Bruce at that moment.

The issue is power. On that first Good Friday, Pilate had the power. He could execute this inconvenient imposter. Everyone knew it. Power over death means power over life.

Power is the path to privilege, pleasure and protection. Powerful men, for example, presume ownership of the female bodies around them. They grab whatever is handy. They then hide behind political and cultural machinery designed to shield them from consequences.

Bruce Almighty makes a prediction about that use of power. Bruce moves the moon to impress his girlfriend, Grace, played by Jennifer Anniston. He changes Grace’s body to suit his preferences. Bruce thinks he can use his power to manipulate Grace.

But for a while, Bruce loves power more than he loves Grace. That love of power nearly costs Bruce everything that really matters to him. For a while it costs him his relationship with Grace. The love of power will destroy us in the end. The power of love will save us in the end. The movie asks whether Bruce can learn that lesson or not.

For Jesus, the purpose of power is love. Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

“The God we know in Jesus,” writes David Lose, “is revealed…not in power but in vulnerability, not in might but in brokenness, not in judgment but in mercy.” That is the God who comes to us in Jesus. Will we act as if that King is returning? Will we recognize Jesus where he chooses to be? He chooses to be the King who rules by serving, who conquers by dying.

Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

Who has the power? Jesus, the Crucified and Risen Lord. He turns power inside out and upside down. He inaugurates a new order governed not by fear, force, and judgment, but by love, mercy and justice. Jesus is the King, reigning from his unlikely throne. He is the king the grave cannot contain.

Paul writes these words in Colossians one: Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.

Jesus showers that power on his body, the Church. Paul’s words are nothing short of astonishing here: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

For a while, Bruce is lost in his power. Habitual power produces spiritual blindness. This blindness is more than an image. It is a physical reality.

In an article in the Atlantic magazine, Jeremy Useem reported that “Power Causes Brain Damage.” “If power were a prescription drug,” Useem wrote, “it would come with a long list of known side effects.” He shares the results of various studies that demonstrate the corrosive and corrupting effects of power on human behavior and perception.

What grabbed me was a study that showed actual shrinkage in brain tissue among those accustomed to power. The brain tissue necessary for empathy and understanding was atrophied in such folks. Exercising habitual power makes us less human.

The historian, Henry Adams, puts it this way. Power, he writes, is “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.”

Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

Habitual care, on the other hand, makes us more human. Bruce comes to the end of his rope. He has lost his way. He has lost his friends. He has lost his job. And he thinks he has lost Grace. In desperation, Bruce kneels down in the middle of a highway. He pleads with God to make it all right again. As he prays, he sees a brilliant light coming toward him.

Unfortunately, that light comes from a semi-trailer. Bruce finds himself in heaven. “Why,” Bruce asks God, “Why, just when I understood things, would you let that happen to me?” The answer is practical. “Bruce, you can’t kneel down in the middle of a highway and live to tell about it.”

God asks Bruce what he really wants. Suddenly, all that lust for power is gone. All that greed for gain is gone. All that fever for fame is gone. Finally, what Bruce wants is Grace. No, not Grace. What Bruce wants is what’s best for Grace – whether that makes Bruce happy or not. God smiles and says, “Now that’s a prayer.”

The love of power will destroy us in the end. The power of love will save us in the end. The movie asks whether Bruce can learn that lesson or not. Bruce learns that lesson. And they all live happily ever after. Well, what do we expect? After all, it’s a movie.

For Jesus, the purpose of power is love. Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

The love of power will destroy us in the end. The power of love will save us in the end. The daily question for us is whether we can learn and live that lesson.

We are powerful people. That is the economic, political, social and racial truth. We are Americans. We are mostly white. We have enough money to live. We are educated. We are powerful people. The only question for us today is how we will use that power. Will we love our privilege, pleasure and protection? Or will we use our power to love?

Jesus loves the lost, the strayed, the injured and the weak. Jesus loves the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Jesus loves them enough to be one with them. Do we? After all, we’ve got the power – the power of Jesus’ love.

Let’s pray…

Text Study for Matthew 24:36-44 (Part One)

1 Advent A; November 27, 2022

“Be on watch, therefore, because you don’t know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42, my translation). The verb in Greek is “grehgoreo.” The BAGD lexicon (page 167) gives us two meanings for the verb. The first is the “literal” meaning – to be or keep awake. The lexicon attaches that meaning to Matthew 24:43. The second is the “figurative” meaning – to be on the alert, to be watchful, to keep one’s eyes open. The lexicon attaches those meanings to Matthew 24:42.

I’m hard pressed to discern why the lexicon makes this distinction between two verses in our text. In fact, the TDNT entry reverses these applications. That discussion makes the verb in verse 42 the “figurative” meaning and the usage in verse 43 the “literal” meaning. The TDNT entry suggests that there is some linguistic slippage between the meanings in those two verses.

That makes sense to me. I think it’s more helpful to allow the Matthew author to use both meanings in both verses. The Matthew author takes advantage of this range of meaning to slide back and forth between the idea of “being awake” and the idea of being “on the watch.” Given the imagery in our text of the householder whose home security system failed, I think the imagery of being “on the watch” is the more central word picture in the text.

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Stanley Saunders has a helpful discussion of these images in his workingpreacher.org commentary. This is not advice for crisis moments,” Saunders writes, “but a call to perpetual, normative readiness, regardless of circumstance.” Being awake to and alert for the presence and power of God in Christ is the normal state for Jesus followers. This is not an emergency posture. This is not a personal stance that’s just dialed up in crisis moments. This alertness to the presence and power of God in Christ is standard operating procedure for those of us who claim the name of “disciple.”

“Watchfulness or wakefulness is here not a defensive or preventive posture, but heightened attentiveness,” Saunders writes, “attuned both to the signs of God’s presence and power, as well as the signs that the powers of this world are doubling down.” Like the audience for the Matthean account, we know how the story turns out. We’re not like the disciples in the story. We’ve read to the end already.

We have no business being surprised by the presence and power of God in Christ – unless, for some reason we’ve fallen asleep at our posts. This is where the sense of “being on watch” is important in our understanding of the verb and of the text. We have moved from the eschatological discourse in Luke on Christ the King Sunday to the Matthean version of that discourse.

We can find the particular Matthean emphasis in that discourse in Matthew 24:12-14. “And through the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who is patiently enduring toward the End, that one will be saved. And this good news of the Kingdom shall be proclaimed in the whole inhabited world, for the purpose of testimony to all the nations, and then the End shall come” (my translation).

It’s not that the Matthean community is lazy or lackadaisical. Instead, they’ve endured some real hardship over the past generation. They’ve lived through the Year of the Four Emperors that nearly destroyed the Roman regime. They’ve survived famines and earthquakes (and probably disease as well). They’ve experienced persecution that has divided the community and driven some to betray their own family members. They’ve witnessed the horrors of the Judean war and the destruction of Jerusalem. They’ve had to sort through the false prophets and religious opportunists that such crises always produce.

The Matthean disciples aren’t lazy or lackadaisical. They’re tired. They’ve been through a lot.

What they’d like more than anything is some rest. Just a little bit of normalcy would be most welcome for them, I imagine. They’re not in danger of sloth. They’re on the verge of a kind of spiritual anomie. That’s the Greek root of the word translated as “lawlessness” in Matthew 24:12. The English equivalent of that word these days means something like the social instability that comes from a breakdown of norms, rules, standards, and values.

The Matthean disciples aren’t really in danger of an “eat, drink, and be merry” sort of ignorance. They’re much more in danger of just no longer giving a shit about anything. That’s what long-term suffering and struggle can do to a person or a community. We can put so much emotional, social, and spiritual energy into just getting from one day to the next, that after a while we have nothing left. Perhaps in the Matthean account, the opposite of being awake isn’t sloth. Perhaps the opposite of being awake is being numb.

That description resonates, I think, with life over the last few years. As we’ve lived with and through Covid-tide, we know what it means to be awake and alert. We’ve worn masks. We’ve been tested. We’ve lived through lockdowns. We’ve gotten vaccinated (or not). We’ve stayed away from family and social gatherings (nor not). We’ve wondered who will give us the virus, or who we’ve infected. We’ve worried (at least some of us) about every sniffle, sneeze, and cough. We’ve been hyper-vigilant for so long that it doesn’t seem all that “hyper” anymore.

And now we’re tired. We’re tired of being awake and alert. We’re tired of being on guard. We may not all have Covid, but we’ve all got some degree of Covid fatigue. We’re done with the virus, as Michael Osterholm notes, even if the virus isn’t done with us. I don’t wear a mask much at all, even though I know the threat continues and is real. I don’t wash my hands or disinfect as much as I did. We don’t stay home from restaurants or church or other gatherings. We’ve had enough. We’re moving on with life.

I wonder how much of this describes the Matthean community in the last twenty years of that first century. Apparently, their love had grown “cold.” Were they just getting on with life? This is the same sort of description we get in the Book of Revelation. In chapter three, the writer describes the Laodicean community as “neither hot nor cold.” They, too, had been subject to pressure and persecution. They, too, must have been tired. They, too, perhaps had just simply had enough and wanted to get on with some semblance of life.

The Matthean author responds to this anomic crisis by reporting a series of “keep awake” parables. “Blessed is that slave,” Jesus says in Matthew 24:46, “who, when his Lord comes, will find that one working” (my translation). In contrast is the wicked slave who gives up on his Lord and just gets numb. (I now hear “Tequila Sunrise” playing in my head). Then we get the parables of the bridesmaids, the talents, and the judgement of the nations.

Now is no time to be low on supplies, to be risk averse for the kingdom, or to ignore the needy for the sake of self-preservation. Those are all signs of being asleep.

No one can be alert all the time. It’s just too exhausting. If we try to be alert to threats all the time, we will become physically and mentally ill. We have to take breaks from watching. But taking a break is different from quitting the job. One of the functions of the liturgical year is to remind us of the need to be alert and prepared. We may have gone to sleep at our posts, but it’s Advent. We can wake up and return to duty.

“The vocation of modern disciples is still to watch for the signs of God’s presence in power,” Stanley Saunders concludes, “especially as revealed through the cross and the resurrection, in healing the sick, standing with the broken and suffering, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf.” It’s no accident that this section of the Matthean account concludes with a parable that declares precisely that vocation.

Spiritual numbness leads me to draw into myself, to pull down the curtains, to ignore the world around me. Those behaviors are not effective treatments for such numbness. Instead, they are further symptoms of the condition and make things far worse. The antidote for my numbness is to make my world bigger and brighter, not smaller and darker. The same antidote is prescribed in both the context of and the companion texts for our reading.

The Matthean account always has “the nations” in view. That begins with the Magi coming to the manger, the nations seeing the Lord in Matthew 25, and the gospel being proclaimed to all nations in Matthew 28. We get that antidote in Matthew 24:15 as well. We can see it clearly in Isaiah 2, as the nations stream toward Mount Zion to learn the Torah of God. We can see that in Romans 13 as well.

The opposite of numbness is expansiveness in love. That’s a message that matters in Advent 2022.

Sermon for Luke 21:5-19

23 Pentecost C/November 13, 2022

Lawrence Peter Berra was better known by his nickname, “Yogi.” He was an eighteen-time All-Star catcher for the New York Yankees. He played on ten World Series champion teams. He later coached and managed the Yankees. Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Yogi is famous for many weird and wonderful phrases. They’re called “Yogi-isms.” It ain’t over till it’s over. You can observe a lot just by watching. When come you to a fork in the road, take it. It’s like déjà vu all over again.

Today’s text reminds me of another Yogi-ism. “It’s tough to make predictions,” Yogi once said, “especially about the future.” Ain’t that the truth! We’ve spent a week hearing about failed predictions. Many so-called experts were sure the voters would go a particular direction. But…they didn’t.

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But predicting is what we humans do. What’s the weather supposed to be like today? I’m trying to decide what to wear. Where will interest rates be a year from now? I’m trying to buy a house or manage my business. What training or education do I need to get a job when I graduate? When is the right time to retire – if I can retire at all? Doctor, how long do I have?

Predicting is what we do. Neurologists tell us we use more of our brain circuits for predicting than for any other activity. Even our memories exist for the purpose of prediction. If you’ve ever hit a deer with your car, for example, you will always tighten up a bit when you pass that spot. It happened there once. It could certainly happen again.

In today’s Gospel reading, some of the disciples ask Jesus for a prediction. Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem. They’re watching people come and go in the Temple. Some of the disciples go full-on tourist. They start oohing and ahhing about the Temple foundation stones. I don’t them blame. Some of those stones were the size of railroad cars. They were cut and moved by hand. I’d be pretty impressed too.

Jesus deflates their delight. “As for these things that you see,” Jesus tells them, “the days will come when not one stone will be left on another; all will be thrown down.” That sounds like a prediction to me. And it sounded like a prediction to the disciples.

They ask the obvious question. When? Teacher, when then will these things be? And what will be the signs that these things are about to happen? Jesus answers the questions. But it’s not the answer we want. Jesus doesn’t give a timeline for escape. He gives a checklist for faithfulness.

How do disciples respond when the world is unraveling? I summarize Jesus’ words with three P’s: perspective, perseverance, and prayer. I hope you can take those three words with you this week. This checklist helps whether the unraveling is personal or communal or global. How do disciples respond when the world is unraveling? We seek perspective, perseverance, and prayer.

We’ve lived through some scary times in the last few years. There will always be those try to use our fears against. Us. There will always be those who try to profit from our fear. There will always be those who use our fear to gain power. That’s true even of people who claim to be Christian.

“Beware that you are not led astray,” Jesus warns us. Many will come in Jesus’ name. Some will claim to represent him. Some may even claim to be him – the one chosen by God, anointed by God, speaking for God. Some will declare that it’s time for the End of the World. Don’t pay attention to them, Jesus says. Don’t go after them.

Stop and get some perspective. Perspective is a “seeing” word. It comes from a Latin verb that means “to look at closely.” We can ask ourselves, “Do I see what’s there? Or do I see something that’s not there?”

We humans always search for patterns. Patterns can help us make accurate predictions. But sometimes we see patterns that aren’t there. For example, there was a total eclipse of the moon early Tuesday morning. I wasn’t up, but I’m pretty sure it happened.

The reddish color of this eclipse gives it the name “Blood Moon Eclipse.” This was the first time in history that a Blood Moon Eclipse coincided with an American election. Some people thought that meant something. They thought it indicated a particular election outcome. It didn’t.

We look for patterns to find our way through crises. Crises come, and crises go. Crises matter. Crises are scary. But they don’t mean that God is unfaithful. Instead, the greatest crisis in the history of the universe broke every pattern. The greatest crisis in the history of the universe is also the greatest sign that God is faithful.

That crisis is the cross on Good Friday. That sign is the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. The Resurrection of Jesus means that no crisis is forever. The Resurrection of Jesus means that nothing good will be lost. That’s how we Christians see the world – from the perspective of the Resurrection.

That Resurrection perspective fuels our perseverance as Jesus followers. Because God is faithful, we stand firm. Jesus expects that following him might get us in trouble. You don’t get hauled in front of the authorities for being polite. We may need to speak truth to power for Jesus’ sake. If that happens, Jesus will not leave us on our own. So, we can persevere.

On Luke 21:15, Jesus assures us of his help. “For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, “Jesus tells the disciples. Jesus remembers the story of Moses in the book of Exodus. God calls Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Moses says, “I won’t know what to say!” God says, “Don’t worry. I made mouths – including yours. When the time comes, your mouth will work fine.”

As a preacher, I experience this every week. I don’t just show up on Sunday mornings and say whatever pops in my head. I spend ten hours a week preparing a sermon. I spend most of that time listening for Jesus amidst all the noise in my head. If I wait, if I persevere. Jesus gives me the words to share with you.

Perspective, perseverance – and prayer. Jesus ends his speech with these words. “Pay attention in every critical moment,” he says in verse 36, “asking to be strengthened to get away from all these things that are about to happen…” This is another version of the Lord’s Prayer – “save us from the time of trial.”

If we’re following Jesus, we don’t have to look for trouble. Trouble will find us. But we can pray for Jesus to keep us out of the trouble we cause ourselves. And we can pray for Jesus to get us into the trouble that will do some good for God’s kingdom.

Yogi Berra also said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” I think that’s what Jesus is telling his disciples. We think we know how things are supposed to go. But Jesus is doing something new. When Jesus dies and is raised, everything will be different.

The most common question I get as an interim pastor is, “What’s next?” I’m here to help you think through that question. I’m here to help you walk Jesus’ path to the future. That path is perspective, perseverance, and prayer. We’re currently in the “perspective” phase. I’m here to help you look at how you’re taking a look.

Maybe you think this is simple. Pastors are like machine parts. You take one out. You put the replacement in. Easy-peasy, and on we go. But that’s now really how it works.

We’ve all been through some stuff in the past few years. Churches are not the same. Churches are not going to be the same. There’s no going back to the way things were. Churches that try to do that probably won’t survive. They certainly won’t thrive.

Thriving churches see things in new ways. We’ll see church as more than an hour on Sunday mornings. We’ll see that Sunday attendance is smaller, but church impact is bigger. We’ll see that both face-to-face and online church are necessary and good. We’ll see that personal connection is critical in an impersonal world. We’ll see that ministry is about partners, not competitors.

That last sentence describes our conversation this afternoon in Red Oak. I hope you’ll be part of that conversation.

Mamrelund can thrive in the future. That’s true even if the future ain’t what it used to be. This congregation has numerous strengths. Worship and music. Facility. Children and Youth. Community involvement and engagement. History and heritage. Love and compassion. Mamrelund is poised to thrive. So, let’s see together where the Spirit wants to lead you.

What’s next? It’s a journey of perspective, perseverance, and prayer. You can help with that third one right now. Let’s pray…

Text Study for Luke 21:5-19 (Part Four)

“A crisis,” the Stanford economist Paul Romer once said, “is a terrible thing to waste.”  Romer’s oft-quoted quip is a play on the 1980’s advertising motto of the United Negro College Fund – “a mind is terrible thing to waste.” A crisis requires us to think about, talk about, and bring about changes that we would not think about, talk about, or bring about in so-called “normal” times.

In our text, Jesus points to a coming crisis for the Temple, for Jerusalem, and for Israel as a whole. By the time the Lukan author tells the story, that particular crisis has come and gone. But it is likely that the Lukan communities are facing their own crises. Our text serves, then, as teaching, warning, and encouragement for Christian communities facing and responding to their own crises.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

It is a well-worn cliché to refer to the Chinese ideogram that represents the English word, “crisis.” The cliché is that the ideogram is composed of two characters. The one represents the idea of “danger.” The other represents the idea of “opportunity.” This rendering of the character was noted in English as early as 1938 and was adopted by Lewis Mumford in 1944.

The cliché gained its current status as a truism when John F. Kennedy referred to it in campaign speeches.  After that, the cliché has appeared everywhere, especially as a way to encourage organizations to consider constructive change in the face of challenges. In fact, linguists say that the character is not quite so optimistic. It really refers to something more like a precarious inflection point.

That doesn’t rule out the idea of “opportunity.” But it does remind us that a “crisis” can go either way – toward constructive change or toward inaction. The truth of the cliché remains important. It’s not the presence of the crisis itself that matters. What matters is how we respond to it.

A crisis can make constructive responses possible because the system has loosened up a bit. I’ve always appreciated Kurt Lewin’s three step change management model. I’ve taught it to church groups and applied it in my own thinking. There are moments when an organization, especially in the face of severe challenge or disruption, “unfreezes.” That is, the normal structures, procedures, priorities, assumptions, and values of the organization can be called into question.

This unfreezing doesn’t last forever. But it is a time when real change can be made. As the challenge or crisis passes, the organization tends to “refreeze.” If no changes have been made, the organization refreezes into something close to the previous condition. That’s what we mean when we say that we want things to “go back to normal.” If constructive changes have been made, then the organization will refreeze, but in a different configuration. Hopefully the new configuration is better adapted to the changed environment.

The pandemic has challenged Christian congregations to “unfreeze” in order to deal with the challenging and changed environment. In a matter of weeks, congregations shifted from face-to-face worship to online interactions. Church leaders became content producers and managers. The reach of many congregations was multiplied many times over. Religious communities made changes and accomplished tasks that would have been unimaginable in “normal” times. Organizations were fluid, experimental, and innovative.

That was exhausting for those tasked with exploring and executing those changes. The consequences of that exhaustion continue to surface and impact congregations and church leaders. Clergy in particular, and especially in small and medium-sized congregations, are exhausted to the point of burnout. Yet, there is also a surprising amount of vitality and hope coming out of this crisis.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research has been studying and continues to study how the pandemic has impacted and is impacting congregations. I’d recommend the YouTube talk by Hartford Institute Director, Dr. Scott Thumma. It’s an interim report but offers some interesting insights into both the challenges and the possibilities within and coming out of the Covid crisis.

Thumma argues that we need to see the “Pandemic” as “endemic.” When a disease or condition is endemic, it is an ongoing reality rather than a finite feature of the moment. While the coronavirus will at some point fade into the background at some point in the future, the impacts of the pandemic experience will not go away.

Those who spend time with American religious communities know that these communities have been changed in ways that are not reversible. No matter how much we would like it, there is no “going back to the way things were.” Thumma argues that the pandemic experience has not introduced new elements into the lives of those religious communities. Instead, the pandemic experience has accelerated changes and amplified challenges that we had been, to some degree, ignoring up until March of 2020.

Those changes and challenges include declines in median worship attendance numbers among American congregations. That median moved from 137 in 2000 to 65 in 2020. Notice that this median was measured prior to the pandemic experience. In mainline congregations, that media in 2020 was fifty. Therefore, half of the mainline American congregations in 2020 had fallen below the threshold of being sustainable as solo institutions. Some one hundred and fifty thousand congregations fit this profile.

It’s not that those small congregations are destined to disappear. However, the model for ministry that sustained those congregations for the last two centuries will not work. Those congregations and leaders who have embraced the crisis as a chance to change, will likely continue to serve their communities. Those congregations and leaders who plan to go back to “business as usual” will not.

Thumma enumerates the likely challenges that are endemic as congregations and leaders face the future here in America. In most places, face-to-face attendance numbers will not return to pre-pandemic levels. Virtual participation in congregational life is no longer regarded as optional by many people. The needs for physical space for congregations is changing. Alternative uses for the space should be explored. New patterns for both professional and volunteer ministry are needed.

In the face of these demands, leaders and volunteers will be challenged with exhaustion and burnout. And a number of congregations will face the realities of closure in the next five to ten years.

On the other hand, the pandemic has unfrozen many congregations. New ways of doing things have been adopted. And congregations have realized not only that they must change but that they can change. New models and methods are in place and being used. Congregations have been forced back to first principles in order set priorities and form practices. Partnerships with other congregations and other organizations have been forged and are bearing fruit.

Thumma reported on the importance of optimism for congregational flourishing. While attitudes generally cannot change the physical and fiscal realities of the moment, attitudes can certainly change how we respond to those realities. His talk reminded me of the power and importance of Appreciative Inquiry as a tool and process for organizational change. And it’s a set of practices that I’m bringing to the congregation with which I’m journeying for now.

Appreciative Inquiry reminds us that everything we do as leaders is intervention, especially in times of change. The intention to look at ourselves is intervention. Choosing to look at our reality will begin to change that reality. Inquiry is intervention. Asking questions about our reality will begin to change that reality. Interaction is intervention. Choosing to talk about our reality together will begin to change that reality. And imagination is intervention. Positive propositions about our future will change that future.

What does this have to do with our text? A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. As we face a crisis, we can learn from those who’ve gone before us. God is faithful. The resurrection of Jesus is the triumphant sign of that faithfulness, even in the face of death. There’s more going on than meets the eye, and we can trust the Holy Spirit to be at work.

As a result, we can live with patient endurance. That’s more than just hunkering down and holding on. That’s acting as if the future is already here, and that future is what God intends. It is not our task to predict the future. That’s for others (who will likely get it wrong). Instead, our task as Jesus followers is to discern where God is leading, now and in the time to come.

Resources and References

Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.

Text Study for Luke 21:5-19 (Part Three)

In Luke 21:1-4, a widow gives her last two coins to support the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus commends her faithfulness. He contrasts her total commitment to the limited commitments of the rich donors as they make their gifts. The widow, Jesus says, has “out of her lack thrown in her whole life” (Luke 214c, my translation). That’s the immediate context, for Jesus and/or for the Lukan author, as we move into the Apocalyptic Discourse.

While Jesus is musing about this contrast in commitments, one of the disciples goes tourist, oohing and ahhing about the size and beauty of the Temple. But, Jesus says, even that magnificent monument will be destroyed. Institutions come and go, live and die, are built and destroyed. How does this observation impact the meaning and message of the widow’s gift?

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In other words, how does it feel to put your whole life into something that is destined to fail? That’s a personal question for me and for many Christian pastors these days. I might be tempted to write these feelings off as “retired pastor syndrome.” I always swore that I would not be one of “those pastors.” One of those pastors who said every third sentence, “In my experience…”

And yet, here I am. Too often, I’m one of “those” pastors.

Today’s ELCA, for example, isn’t “my” ELCA. I wasn’t trained for ministry in this century. I wasn’t trained in this century, first of all. And I wasn’t prepared for the realities of life in this century – for the church or for the world.

As an interim pastor, as a further example, I’m serving a congregation that hasn’t moved beyond the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) in their liturgical life. The LBW was “my” hymnal. It was new when I was in seminary. I can lead the Sunday settings without opening a book. I can chant most of the Morning or Evening prayer services from memory. I can lead the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness in my sleep. I can tell you the numbers of favorite hymns without consulting the index. Pastoral colleagues of my vintage can do the same and much more.

The most comfortable thing in the world would be to rest in that familiar tradition – in “my” tradition. But that’s not my job. And it wouldn’t be responsible. I have to suggest and at least gently push for the congregation to move into the current iteration of our worship book (already sixteen years old). I have years of training, experience, use, memories, and love invested in the LBW. That and $2.50 will get you a good cup of coffee in Stanton, Iowa.

It’s in the nature of things that we invest our lives in to be things that pass away. But my feelings are more than the maudlin mutterings of a preacher past his prime. “My” ELCA, my institutional tradition may fade – in my lifetime – into denominational oblivion. There will be pockets of ELCA vitality and growth here and there. But if current trends hold, the ELCA will disappear from the denominational landscape in many places over the next few decades.

I know that in the broad sweep of history, denominations come and go. I was part of the merger of the three Lutheran denominations that joined in 1988 to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I remember that for a while it was considered bad form to even mention the “predecessor church bodies” by name, although that reluctance receded in a few years. But there’s a big difference between old bodies being incorporated into a new body and an old body dying out altogether.

So, I’m not sure how I feel about this state of affairs. It depends on the day. Sometimes I’m angry that I took time away from my family and poured my life into something that now seems so feeble and fragile. But I know that’s mere self-pity. It’s no different for people in a variety of vocations these days. We are all pouring our lives into things that are passing away. In that sense, perhaps, we are all like the widow at the beginning of Luke 21. The question is whether all that pouring was worth the bother.

I wouldn’t advocate that we read all of Luke 21 aloud in our worship services this week. However, I’m not sure in our preaching that we can stop at verse 19. That verse gives the impression that following Jesus is mostly about our capacity to just hang in there in the face of adversity.

“Heaven and earth may go by the wayside,” Jesus says at the end of that parable, “but my words will certainly not go by the wayside” (Luke 21:33, my translation). The widow, I hope, doesn’t give her whole life because she believes in the perpetuity of the Temple. Instead, I think Jesus commends her commitment because she trusts that God is faithful, no matter what, in life and in death. And Jesus’ resurrection is the demonstration of that faithfulness. In the resurrection, nothing good will be lost.

The verb the NRSV translates as “to pass away” is worth noting here. It’s not a word that means to be destroyed or to perish or to die. It has more of the sense of to go alongside something or to pass by something. That’s why I rendered it as to “go by the wayside.” It’s not so much that heaven and earth will be destroyed. Instead, at least in this verse, these realities will just no longer be useful. They will have served their purpose and will yield their places to the New Heaven and the New Earth, as we read in the book of Revelation.

I need to take a brief detour to head off a potential problem. I’m not suggesting that the Church has “replaced” the Temple or that Christianity has “replaced” Judaism. That rank sort of supersessionism has no place in orthodox Christian belief at this point. It has been a prominent feature of such theology in the past. And we current Christians must continue to repent of that perspective and repair what damage we can.

Judaism has not outlived its usefulness for Jews – or for the world. We need to stick with Paul in Romans 9 through 11 on this one. Jews and Christians have different vocations in God’s mission to redeem Creation. Those vocations are complementary, not in competition. When we lose touch with that perspective even a little bit, Jews die. So, we must always be careful in our comments about the Temple and especially about its destruction.

That’s why I focus on our own current Christian institutions. “My” ELCA will outlive its usefulness sooner or later. If it’s sooner, then I will be sad. But I won’t find God any less faithful. “My” hymnal or “my” congregation will outlive their usefulness sooner or later. When that happens, if I’m around, I can give thanks to God for what was good in those things and repent for what was not. Denominations and hymnals and congregations may go by the wayside, but Jesus’ words will not go by the wayside.

In her workingpreacher.org commentary, Debra Mumford reflects on several of these issues. Even though the Temple was indeed destroyed in 70 CE, “neither Judaism nor Christianity was destroyed. The Spirit of God transcends buildings and structures. Both religions continued to grow and evolve over the centuries in new geographical locations, nations, and among people of many ethnicities and races. People can take heart,” Mumford continues, “that though Christianity seems to be declining in some denominations, through the Spirit and power of God, it will continue to live and grow in new forms and new places. Our task is to ask for discernment,” she concludes, “about what God wants us to do and then follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit to get it done.”

Our text, therefore, calls us to have larger perspectives than we might entertain on our own. I serve in an area where the question often is whether “my congregation” will survive for another year or another decade. That question is asked in terms of whether “my congregation” can get “our own” pastor. If that’s the framing of the question, then the answer for many of those congregations will be a sad but firm “no.” People will walk away grieving and angry. That perspective is too narrow to give life at this point in history.

If, on the other hand, the question is whether God’s mission will continue in that area, the answer most certainly is a joyful and firm “yes.” The ways we’ve done church in the past one hundred and fifty years in those places have “gone by the wayside.” And it’s not just worship styles or preaching methods that have outlived their usefulness. It may well be that a new kind of “church” is coming to birth in those places. And some of us may have a hand in the birthing.

I think it’s worth sharing some or all of Carey Nieuwhof’s “10 Predictions About the Future Church and Shifting Attendance Patterns.”  It’s not a new article, but it continues to be relevant to the conversation. I think church leaders and congregants should read and discuss this article as we seek to discern what time it is among us and what the Holy Spirit is up to in our midst.

In my setting, some of the “predictions” have more bite than others. “Churches that love their model more than the mission will die,” Nieuwhof writes. “Attendance will no longer drive engagement,” he argues, “engagement will drive attendance.” Even as some churches go back to exclusively face to face worship experiences, Nieuwhof argues that “Online church will become more of a front door than a back door.” These three items will be more than enough challenge to shake up the folks I serve.

And that, I say with a smile and a big sigh, is my job at the moment.

Resources and References

Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.

Text Study for Luke 21:5-19 (Part Two)

This morning we experienced the last full lunar eclipse for two and a half years. We will have a variety of partial and penumbral lunar eclipses in the next thirty months. But another complete blackout will not occur until March 14, 2025.

“A lunar eclipse occurs when the Sun, Earth, and Moon align so that the Moon passes into Earth’s shadow,” according to the moon.nasa.gov site, “In a total lunar eclipse, the entire Moon falls within the darkest part of Earth’s shadow, called the umbra. When the Moon is within the umbra, it will turn a reddish hue. Lunar eclipses are sometimes called ‘Blood Moons’ because of this phenomenon.”

We experienced such a “Blood Moon” here in the Midwest of the United States between 4:17 and 5:42 a.m. this morning. I’m using the royal “we” in that sentence. I was struggling to adjust to the change from Central Daylight Time back to Central Standard Time. But I’m sure many folks got up to witness the event.

Photo by Alex Andrews on Pexels.com

The reddish color of the moon is an expected result of the nature of light. Visible light consists of a variety of wavelengths. We humans see those different wavelengths as colors. The blue light is more easily scattered by the earth’s atmosphere – which also accounts for why the sky is blue. The red light penetrates the atmosphere more readily. Thus, we get red sunrises, red sunsets and Blood Moons because the blue light is reflected back into space by the atmosphere. “It’s as if all the world’s sunrises and sunsets are projected onto the Moon,” according to moon.nasa.gov.

In previous ages, this event would have been seen as a sign and portent in the heavens. Eclipses of all kinds could produce mass panic at many points in human history. The prophet Joel refers directly to a blood moon eclipse in the Hebrew scriptures. “I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke,” the prophet writes, “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30-31, my emphasis).

Lunar eclipses are not as fear-inducing as are solar eclipses, but historically the meaning was often the same. Matthew Bell offers a nice little summary of the emotional and social impact of such heavenly portents. Even in the last part of the nineteenth century, people were convinced that an eclipse could be a sign of the end of the world – the return of Jesus and the onset of Judgment Day.

One might think that such responses are now a thing of the past. And one would be wrong.

The intersection of the Blood Moon and the United States election day has produced excited speculations. For example, an article in New York magazine offers the analysis and predictions of astrologer Aliza Kelly. Kelly notes that the sun, the earth, and the moon “will form a powerful cosmic trifecta” during the eclipse. She notes that eclipses have been associated with political chaos and governmental collapse in the past.

“And while we no longer use eclipses to portend bad omens,” Kelly writes, “it is at least notable that this lunar eclipse is happening during the midterms, you know?” No, Ms. Kelly, I don’t know. Please tell me more.

When the moon reaches these points in its orbit, astrologers associate these positions with fate and destiny. “Because they always involve these highly sensitive points,” Kelly observes, “eclipses are known to catalyze powerful events with long-lasting impacts.” The relative positions of the sun and earth and of the constellations Scorpio and Taurus are in opposition.

As a result, that’s the astrological theme of the moment. Opposition will be at work, in this astrological framework, in events of personal, social, and national importance. Additional planetary factors are also at work. “Basically,” Kelly advises, “Be extra gentle with yourself as you navigate this thorny lunar eclipse.”

Most important in Kelly’s analysis, “there are no coincidences.” This happens to be the title of a “Manifestation Deck and Guidebook Cards” created by Kelly and available on Amazon.com this month. I don’t want to be flippant here. Everyone is entitled to produce content that matters to them and to be compensated for that work.

Her advice today is to adequately prepare for the rigors of in-person voting and not to “obsess over the results prematurely. The key with eclipses,” Kelly concludes, “is to expect the unexpected.” I’ve gotten worse advice in my life.

Not to be outdone, some Christian pastors also see the Blood Moon eclipse as a prophetic sign regarding the midterm elections. Given the prominence of the quote from Joel 2 in Christian scriptures, sermons, and theology, such apocalyptic speculation is inevitable. As Thomas Kika reminds us, “This is the first time in U.S. history that such an eclipse has coincided with an election, and it will not happen again until the 24th century.” That assumes, of course, that the United States will continue, elections will continue, and such elections will continue on the same November day. But, you get the point.

The conclusions drawn by various Christian pastors range from boring generalities to humorous particularities. Some of these conclusions echo Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. There’s gonna be trouble, trouble, trouble, right here in River City. Since there’s always going to be trouble somewhere, it’s hard to miss with that one. Others conclude that, as the Lukan author says, “your redemption is drawing near.” In that perspective, Jesus might return by the close of polls this evening. I’d be ok with that.

Blood moons have been associated with bloodshed and warfare for about as long as we have records about eclipses. So, it’s not surprising that some pastors would connect the eclipse to events in Ukraine. And it’s even less surprising that politically right-wing Christian pastors would see this blood moon as a sign of the “red wave” in the American midterm elections. Of course, the eclipse will be visible in places without red waves and midterm elections. But let us not get bogged down in details.

Before we “modern” and “informed” people get too haughty about such supposed foolishness, let’s reflect on our own mania for prediction. Public opinion polling has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Yet it seems that the more we spend on polling, the less we know. Data-gathering techniques and statistical analyses have never been more advanced and sophisticated. Yet, in light of previous elections, we Americans are left wondering if public polling still works.

The higher the stakes, the more we demand accuracy in our predictions. If I’m staying indoors today, I’m not too troubled if the National Weather Service misses on their temperature and precipitation forecasts. If, however, I’m headed out for a picnic or some outdoor venue that costs a bunch of money, then I expect the NWS to be spot on with their estimates. In fairness, the NWS is right far more often than they’re wrong – thanks in large part to the supercomputers that now crunch massive amounts of contemporaneous data to give us our hourly and daily forecasts.

Elections have become existential dramas for many Americans. I’m not suggesting that this is an unwarranted over-reaction. It may not be. The future of American democracy may well be on many ballots today. My point is that when we see elections as such high-stakes events, our demands for predictive accuracy increase exponentially. The number of polls seems to increase at the same rate. Given the probabilistic nature of polling, we end up getting predictions that cover pretty much every logical eventuality.

When forecasts predict everything, they predict nothing. It would seem this year that we might do as well consulting chicken entrails as consulting opinion polls about the election forecasts. So, I’m not about to throw stones at astrologers (although I think the Christian commentators should know better).

“Teacher, when therefore will these things be, and what shall be the sign when these things are about to be?” (Luke 21:7, my translation). Jesus doesn’t give his disciples all that much help in the way of predictive power. The things that did happen – the Jewish War, the destruction of the Temple, the siege and sack of Jerusalem – happened without producing any cosmic changes. That wasn’t the end of the world, or even the end of the world as we know it.

Luke 21 is all about living between the times. It’s not about discerning the end of time. The first thing about living between the times is resisting calls from those who say the end is here. “Be careful that you are not led into wandering,” Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 21:8 (my translation).

The word for “wandering” here is the Greek verb from which we get our word “planets” (Greek = planehtehs, “wanderers”). If “there are no coincidences,” then perhaps the Lukan author is warning the audience away from relying on astrology to predict the future and guide present actions. I don’t really think that’s the case here. But it does illustrate what happens when we over-read texts (or events) and see patterns that may not be there.

More to our point is the rest of Luke 21:8. “For many will come upon the basis of my name saying, ‘I am [Jesus]!’ and, ‘The appointed time has drawn near!’ Don’t go after them” (my translation). If we’re looking in our text for descriptions of the current moment in American life (especially in politically conservative Christian nationalist circles), we need look no further than this verse. That verse provides enough material for some preachers to build an entire message for Sunday.

Resources and References

Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.

Text Study for Luke 21:5-19 (Part One)

November 13, 2022

23 Pentecost C

“It’s tough to make predictions,” said that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, “especially about the future.” In our text for Sunday, Jesus makes a prediction about the future state of the Temple. The Jerusalem Temple was, in the first half of the first century CE, regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in the Roman Empire. To suggest that not one stone would be left upon another was, to say the least, an audacious prediction. Some of those stones were the size of railroad boxcars.

The disciples were, predictably, confused and concerned. They inquired of him, saying, “Teacher, when therefore will these things be, and what shall be the sign when these things are about to be?” (Luke 21:7, my translation). The disciples want to be prepared for such a cataclysm. If Jesus can predict the end of the Temple as they know it, Jesus ought to be able to offer a few more specifics to his inner circle of followers.

Photo by Enrique Zafra on Pexels.com

Like all living things, we humans are creatures of the present moment. We live in that neurological space between the reception of sensory input and our processing and evaluation of that input. That brief time is the real “present” we inhabit. Any other sense of the “present” is at best a construction. Much of what we would call “the present time,” for example, is really in the past. It is only “present” to us because we hold it in memory and find it familiar.

Because we live on this ever-moving line between the past and the future, we are, like all living things, prediction engines. Predicting is what we do. It’s what kept us alive on the savannahs and in the forests when we were still hunters and gatherers millennia ago. Accurate prediction is what keeps us alive and healthy now. Accurate prediction keeps us in relationships and communities.

“The main task of brains,” David Christian writes in his book, Future Stories, “is to think about and model likely futures with just the right balance between precision and generality” (page 102). We use large parts of our neurological capacity to create maps of the world around us. Those maps contain numerous cause and effect relationships rooted in our memories. We discern patterns in those relationships and make predictions based on what we have observed. “Prediction,” Christian quotes the philosopher Patricia Churchland as saying, “is the ultimate and most pervasive of brain functions” (see Christian, page 102 footnote).

I serve people for whom accurate prediction makes the difference between economic flourishing and financial ruin. American farmers must be experts at forecasting the future – at least for the next growing season and preferably for the next few years. Farmers make predictions about which crops will produce the greatest net revenue in the next year. They make predictions about the future costs of inputs and the future prices of commodities. They make predictions about weather and climate, about equipment and techniques, about interest rates and land prices.

Like any dealers in commodities, farmers often work with “futures markets.” These markets are organized bets about the directions of supply and demand in the coming months and years. Farmers will “contract forward” to lock in prices on grain and livestock. Or farmers may use some of their production to go into day trading and ride the ebbs and flows of the spot market. It’s no different than the petroleum market, the markets in precious metals, or the market in financial securities that we call the stock market. Accurate prediction can reduce risk and lock in profits. Inaccurate prediction may produce disaster.

It may be that the Lukan author is engaging in post-diction rather than prediction. The Lukan author composed this account for Theophilus as much as twenty-five years after the destruction of Jerusalem between 66 and 70 CE. Therefore, the descriptions we have in our text are not predictions as such. Instead, they are reports of what actually happened to the Temple and to Jerusalem during the Jewish War for independence. We have extra-biblical sources which also describe what happened during that time. We know that the words of Jesus are fairly mild descriptions of the horrific suffering and death that occurred.

On the other hand, Jesus had more than sufficient information about what might happen to the Temple and Jerusalem if the Temple leadership continued to pursue their current trajectory. David Christian outlines the general principles for anticipating and managing futures. The first of those principles is that we have no evidence from the future. He quotes the idealist historian and philosopher of history, R. G. Collingwood, who reminded us that the future leaves no documents for us to check.

Therefore, the only evidence we have for likely futures lies in the past. How we view and evaluate that evidence, however, can shape how we behave in the future. In order to make more accurate predictions, we can investigate the intentions others have about the future. And we can study past trends and make projections. Jesus could certainly see that the combination of elite collaboration with and rural resistance to the Romans was going to result in a crisis at some point. In the past such crises had resulted in the destruction of a previous temple. The pattern was about to repeat.

It seems to me that the Lukan author has a tradition of Jesus making these predictions. That tradition appears in the other synoptics with some differences. But each of the synoptic writers uses that apocalyptic tradition to make somewhat different points. For the Lukan author, part of the point is that the end of the age has been delayed. Some may announce that now is the time. Don’t listen. Terrible things may happen, but that’s only the beginning. Other things have to happen first.

The time of delay, according to the Lukan author, is the time for testifying. This is stated clearly in Luke 21:13. This time of disruption and destruction will lead to opportunities whose purpose is “martyrion.” That Greek word can mean suffering and dying for one’s convictions. It will come more and more to mean that in the succeeding generations. But it’s basic meaning is to bear witness, to testify, or to give evidence. That’s what the delay is “for.”

The Lukan audience is painfully aware that Jesus’ predictions in the text came to pass, and much more. That crisis, however, is in the past. It seems clear that the Lukan audience members are facing their own crises in the present. And the Lukan author wants to remind them that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Just as it was a time for testimony in the first Christian generation, so it remains for succeeding generations.

I encourage you to imagine that you are in that Lukan audience. You listen to the text being told aloud. Perhaps you want to read the text aloud to yourself to really get a feel for that. Notice that Jesus is addressing “you,” the audience members. This is not an arms-length, third-person, report. These words are being spoken to you, right here and right now. The text is filled with commands. Beware that you are not led astray. Do not go after them. Make up your minds. These are things that the Lukan audience members need to do right here and right now.

Jesus does not hedge his bets with conditional verbs and percentage predictions. All will be thrown down. Nations will war. Natural disasters will come. Signs will appear. You will be persecuted. You will be betrayed. Some of you will be executed. Imagine that you’ve experienced at least some of these things in the recent past. You know people who’ve been arrested, tortured, put to death. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “It’s not even past.”

“By your patient endurance,” Jesus promises, “you will have gained your very selves” (Luke 20:19, my translation). This is how disciples respond to the crises all around us. “Patient endurance” is such a wonderful Greek word – “hupomoneh.” Literally it means to “remain under.” It means to bear up under the threats and burdens of life, to refuse delivery on despair, to push back on panic.

It is a counterintuitive response, given all the description up to this point. But the punchline of our text is in verse eighteen – “and not a hair on your heads shall perish.” It’s not that no one will suffer and die. Remember, we are the folks who save our lives by dying. But we are also resurrection people. In the resurrection, nothing good will be lost. The crisis is only one point on this journey. It’s not the end of the line. The most important fact to pull from our recollections of the past is that God is faithful.

And that will be the most important conclusion to draw from the “future” as well. Remember that our text comes in that crisis time between the Triumphal Entry and the Crucifixion. Next week we will be reminded that not even death itself can overcome the faithfulness of God in Christ. It is to that power that we Jesus followers will be called to testify. We’ll reflect more on several of these topics in the posts to come.

Resources and References

Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.