Jesus, Fig Trees, and the End of the World

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The season Advent, however, seems to throw a wet blanket on all the jingling bells and decked halls. Scripture readings (Luke 21) turn to images of the end of the world and collapse of heaven and earth. Not very festive, it seems. That makes the preacher a bit of a buzz kill until we see that Jesus proclaimed a word of great hope in the midst of the destruction and death of this world. The fig tree puts forth leaves declaring summer is at hand and a harvest is on the way. Jesus is that fig tree, and our salvation is at hand.

Advent 1 – Holy Trinity Lutheran Church – December 2, 2018

Me? A Saint?

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons… (Philippians 1:1 NRSV)

Paul addresses his letter to the “all the saints” in Philippi. As the letter unfolds, it is clear that not everyone is well-behaved or “saintly” in this congregation. In fact, he seems to suggest some people should know their place and be humble when he mentions the “bishops and deacons” after everyone else. It also becomes clear that he is not speaking just to some of the “good folks” at Philippi and ignoring the bad ones. Paul’s address is for everyone, equally.

So, what have they done to deserve such an accolade? After all, “saint” is reserved for special people, right? “Saint” must refer to those who exhibit godliness and righteousness in a special was and give the rest of us an example.  According to my Greek lexicon, the word Paul uses, which is regularly translated as “saint,” means, on the one hand  “to be holy, morally upright, pure.” That’s a high bar I’m not sure I ever clear. But the word also means, “to be set apart to or by God, consecrated.”  It is the word used to identify the covenant people of Israel – all of them.

Paul was talking to all of the Philippians. Paul is talking to you. Martin Luther taught that we humans are, in Latin, “simul justus et peccator.” That means we are saint and sinner, simultaneously, often not knowing which. We have been set apart for God, consecrated to be a holy presence in the world. And we screw up just as much as anyone else. Through God’s mercy and grace, we always get invited to get up, turn back to the way of Christ, and be saints.

Servants Wanted

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons… (Philippians 1:1 NRSV)

The apostle, Paul, writes to the congregation at Philippi from prison. The place of his imprisonment is debated. I agree with those who say he is in Rome awaiting trial before the Emperor – likely, Nero. As we know, Nero was, well, nuts. A pathological narcissist who sought only to aggrandize himself. Paul is in real trouble here. Instead of writing a “woe is me” tale from his cell, Paul is filled with joy and concerned about everyone but himself. What is up with that? Seems his serving has landed him in jail.

In many of his letters, he began by reminding the people of his calling — an apostle, one called by God. There is a certain authority that goes with that claim. With the Philippians, however, he says his title, his calling, is simply “servant.” The Greek word is doulous. It is usually translated “servant” or “slave.”  In either case, the word implies ownership, being subject to a master, working at another’s direction.

I don’t know about you, but when I was trying to decide on a career, a path in life, being a servant or slave was not what I had in mind. I wanted to be in charge. I wanted to be served. That is one reason I hate buffets – I like the food brought to me. The real world however, taught me that I was always going to be serving somebody. Bob Dylan even wrote a song about it” You Gotta Serve Somebody, in which he sings “it may be the Devil, it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” We do get a choice in whom we will serve.

That’s what Paul knows. As a servant of Christ, and in turn, a servant of the Philippians, he is serves in complete freedom. It is as Luther taught in The Freedom of a Christian:

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”

See, Christ has set Paul free. As Christ’s servant, Nero had no hold over him; death would have no hold over him. In fact, later he will say that he prefers death – except that he is better off serving the Philippians because they need him. (Philippians 1:21 ff) Christ’s mercy and grace allow Paul to seemingly risk everything to serve Christ, serve the Philippians, serve the world. Yet, it is no risk to him at all, for Christ is a gracious master.

If you could be free of worrying about what others think; what passes for conventional wisdom; what you might lose – because you have gained everything with Lord Jesus, would it make a difference? Would it bring joy like Paul has as he sits in prison?

 

copyright © Timothy V Olson, 2018

 

Election Day 2018

The 2018 mid-term election is finally here. Like most of you, I can’t wait for the cessation of political advertising. The campaign season has not revealed our best selves, but our worst. It leaves me with the feeling in my gut like I’ve just done something or seen something shameful. We can’t blame the politicians for this completely. We’re the ones who respond to the fear mongering, the tribalism, and misinformation of a campaign season far too long for anyone’s good.

Beyond the campaign itself, tomorrow’s election will be claimed as a victory for some and a loss for others. The losers will cry out over the state of the union, and the victors will declare that their vision, and even manipulative tactics, have been vindicated, even endorsed. Neither response will be true. As divided as we are, the results of the election are likely to leave all of us losers, because the gridlock and incivility that have become habits will still rule.

That said, we must vote. It is a civil responsibility for every citizen. People have died for your right to vote. It dishonors their sacrifice to discard your duty. All the rhetoric I hear that demonizes the “government,” that makes “government a necessary evil” or worse, the enemy, is cynical to the point of evil. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressman and government officials, but the voters of this country.”

As a Christian, we have a spiritual duty as well. Some folks think that separation of church and state means that Christians should leave faith at home and not bring it into the public square. That’s nonsense since the separation only applies to the government’s establishment of religion, not my application of faith to my citizenship. God works through the imperfect rule of government to sustain order and some modicum of justice and peace. The “left hand” kingdom of this world is still part of Divine providence, even if not an eternal one. Cyrus of Persia was seen as an instrument of God’s deliverance of God’s people, even though he worshipped other gods. Luther is credited with saying that he would “rather have a just Turk (Muslim) for a ruler than an unjust Christian.”

As Christians head to the ballot box, I think there are a few things we should remember. First, it says in Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul means that while we have citizenship in some nation (he was a Roman citizen), our primary, our ultimate citizenship is not to a nation that will pass away but to a reign, initiated in Christ, that will not. That means, for me, that my allegiance to Christ stands above, and sometimes against, my allegience to party and nation.

Second, we should never make the mistake of thinking that the candidate we are selecting is ordained by God or some manifestation of the truth. Government on this earth is always fallible and broken. There are no leaders who are saviors or our superiors. Democracy does not establish elected kings. As C.S. Lewis says, “The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

Third, no one we elect will save us. No one we elect will ruin us. Only God has those powers. In the end, God will prevail. That means that the reign of God revealed in Jesus Christ is what will ultimately come to pass. This reign cares for the poor, establishes peace, reconciles people, brings enemies together and sacrifices for the sake of neighbor. Seek candidates who do these things.

When I vote, I give my vote away, because that’s what Jesus teaches. By this I mean that I will not allow my own fear and self-interest to sway me – no matter how hard the candidates try to scare me. Freed in Christ, I use my vote to vote with those who have the least power, the smallest voice, and the biggest struggles. If I pray for the sick, imprisoned, oppressed, hungry and hated, then I have to vote with them.

May God grant us peace in the face of change – or the lack of it. May this election somehow, someway move us toward our better selves.

copyright © 2018, Timothy V. Olson