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.
Jesus says, “Don’t worry.” That is harder than it sounds. We worry about food, clothing, housing and a host of other things that seem to matter more than anything else. Thanksgiving seems to provide a one-day break to give thanks for what has gone right in life and suspend worrying about what could happen for at least an afternoon. What if gratitude is more than that? What if gratitude is a means of worry-free living? Listen to the sermon here!
For most folks, “Gentle Jesus” is the image we carry of the Messiah. The whip-wielding, table-turning, angry Jesus who cleanses the temple seems to be an aberration. When Jesus finds that the noise of livestock and clatter of coins is louder than the prayers; when he sees that the name of God is being used for personal gain, he gets angry, righteously angry. We do the same kind of things today. So, what does “cleansing the temple” mean for us?
When most of us think about spiritual things, we think of self-improvement, or happiness, or success. Faith should lead to joy and glory. Religion should help us avoid the “bad things” in life. The scriptural witness however, doesn’t support these notions. Instead, Jesus invites Peter to follow to the cross. Peter doesn’t want to go. Psalm 22 begins with the words, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” – the dying words of Jesus. The psalm answers this lament by pivoting to praise and the promises of God from this heart-wrenching lament. In the midst of our suffering, we don’t reject God, but embrace God all the more.
copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2018
When we hear stories about Jesus casting out demons, I’m not sure we know quite what to do with them. Is this possession as illustrated by Hollywood, complete with spinning heads, shaking beds, and evil voices? Or is it just an ancient way of pointing out what they did not understand – mental illness, convulsions or some other such disease? Those kinds of questions obscure two basic truths of these strange stories. First, evil exists and if we are not “possessed” by the Holy Spirit, we are likely to be possessed by something unholy. When I see a world full of violence, abuse, horrific stories of awful deeds done by humans to humans, even children, I find myself asking “What possesses people to do these things?” And there it is – something that drives us to rob life, liberty and peace from others takes our identity as holy people away. Second, fascination with what is unholy in these stories often leads us away from the central truth – God in Christ, revealed in Jesus has power to cast out the unholy and grant peace and life in its place.
The very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel according to John is a question: “What are you looking for?” Most of us would be able to come up with some kind of spiritual shopping list for Jesus: Prosperity, health, forgiveness, assurance of life after death. The question is, do we really know what we want, what we need? The Jesus presented in John’s gospel knows his followers better than they know themselves. God in Christ, the Word made flesh, invites us to “Come and see.” Maybe what we will see is more than we can imagine. Maybe what we can see is not just God standing before us. Maybe in this Messiah we will see ourselves, our real selves, for the very first time.
Every year I spend time asking folks what they would like to learn about in the adult classes I teach. Every year one of the most requested topics is: “How do I live my faith in daily (real) life?” Part of me rejoices at this, because it is what people who profess to follow Jesus should be asking about. Another part of me sighs. I sigh because, while I have graduate degrees is divinity, theology, and preaching, none of these make me an expert on following Jesus. As a pastor, I’m on the same road you travel when it come to living my faith. In some cases, I may be down the road another exit or so, but I’m still working at it right with you. I also sigh because I know that folks are not always going to like the answer to the question.
This week, in our adult class (which meets at 7:15 PM Wednesdays) we looked at how we live in a world that has trained us to demand quick fixes, easy formulas, and immediate results. Eugene Peterson, in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, observes:
Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments. It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. (16)
The result of the instant, quick fix mindset is that we “play” at living our faith. We make it an extracurricular activity, an option. The phrase, “I’m spiritual, but not religious” is all the rage today. Frankly, I worry that if I hear it again, I’m going to be sick. It is not that I don’t understand that the empty traditions and rote practice of a religion can rob it of its spiritual center. I get that. But, I suspect most often this is another way of saying, “I want to be spiritual in a quick and easy way that does not intrude on my life.”
Peterson thinks that the problem we have in this world where “busy” is the stock answer to the question, “How are you?” is that we have become Christian tourists:
Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. (16)
We go to church, when we have time, to fit in a little spirituality to our already planned and scripted lives. Like planning a trip to the lake, we plan to set aside time to go look at the stained glass and strange people you can find at church. We leave no more (maybe less) affected than a trip to Mt. Rushmore or an amusement park. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.
Following Jesus is not, however, a tourist opportunity. The two words used to describe followers of Jesus most often are disciple and pilgrim. The first denotes a long-term relationship between master and teacher. Peterson notes: Disciple (mathētēs) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. (17) Wow, living faith in daily life takes a lifetime devoted to Jesus!
The second word, pilgrim, Peterson points out, “tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” (17)
Following Jesus, which is what living your faith in daily life is all about, is not a quick, easy, instant process. It is a long-term relationship with a master, a teacher, a Lord named Jesus to whom we apprentice ourselves to be trained to be human beings, created in God’s image.
In the end, living or faith everyday is about loving God and loving others. It is about a lifelong journey that takes us deeper and deeper into the very heart of God.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Being Disciples describes the daily living of Christians, the following of Jesus:
“We follow him, not simply to the ends of the earth, to do his work and echo his service; we follow him to be next to the heart of the Father.” (13)
There are no shortcuts in the journey of discipleship. It is not a quick trip. But, God promises it to be a blessed and joyful journey. Just look who you get to follow!
copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017