Anticipation

Matthew 24:36-44

Birth

Six years ago, I was on pins and needles. My spouse was in the final stages of building the human life that would be our second child, and I was engaged in the perennial-yet-challenging, husbandly task of not getting murdered by my spouse before the baby was born.

I kid of course [shake head “no”] but we were EXPECTING.

This was going to be our second child. Yet experience did little to abate anxiety, in our experience. As we moved into the season of awaiting the coming of the Christ Child—as well as the return of Jesus—we settled into ourselves as we awaited the birth of our own.

But “settling into ourselves” doesn’t mean we holed up and waited. Those of you with children know that anticipation drives you to action. There’s cleaning, prepping, shopping, thank-you card writing, painting, furniture assembly, schedule-coordinating, babysitter arranging, hospital bag packing, and more conversation and planning that you could ever imagine. When you adopt a posture of anticipation, you naturally position yourself offensively in order to attend to all the myriad of tasks that come your way.

This Advent season, we will be reflecting on posture, exploring the ways that we position ourselves on account of what we are thinking and feeling. In other words, how do we think, or feel, or change when we experience things like anticipation, challenge, questioning, fulfillment, and promise? How do we hold our bodies? How do we move? Do our senses sharpen? What happens in our relationships? How does experiencing these things change the way we engage the world?

Angela

I have a friend from seminary named Angela. And Angela always encouraged us to offer our whole selves in worship to God, claiming there is much more to offer than our intellectual attention and our voices. I believe she is right—and to many she proved this by studying all the words used to describe acts of worship in the OT. As it turned out, every single one of them had to do with moving your body: raising hands, kneeling down, lifting your face to the sky, lying prostrate on the ground, and so on.

Our Advent texts have me thinking about Angela. When we are expecting—when the birth of a child is immanent—when we posture ourselves in response to anticipation—we change our bodies. We change our attitudes. We change our engagements with one another. We physically respond to the increased anxiety, joy, fear, stress, hope, and all the other mixed-up feelings that go along with anticipation.

Matthew 24

This morning’s text—Matthew 24:36-44—is one that should evoke anticipation in us. Jesus, speaking here to his disciples, anticipates the Day of the Lord, which his fellow Jews believed would be the day the Messiah would appear and reign on earth forever. It may be worth noting that Matthew 24:3 tells us that Jesus is sharing these words “privately.” Most of the time, Jesus speaks out loud and in public, relying on the symbolism of parables to make his point in a covert manner. That Jesus speaks “privately” here may explain why these verses sound more radical and intense than the Jesus who urges the crowd to “consider the lilies of the field” in order to see how much God loves them.

There are four pieces—four elements of Jesus’ teaching that are intended to collectively draw us to the edge of our seat in eager, fearful, excited, and momentous anticipation about what God will soon be doing. For God (Jesus reveals) is going to break into the world in a more real, tangible, complete, and permanent way than even the very real, tangible, and complete incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Unexpected

The Day of the Lord of which Jesus speaks will first and foremost be unexpected in terms of timing. Here, he says that “no one knows the hour or the day, not even the messengers in heaven, not even the Son. Only the Father knows” (Matthew 24:36 VOICE). The unexpected timing of the Day of the Lord always seems to be the first thing Jesus refers to, whether in teachings (like this one) or parables (like that of the ten bridesmaids in Matt 25).

I think Jesus keeps insisting about the unexpected timing of the Day of the Lord because that is the part we humans have the most trouble with. When we know something is going to happen but we don’t know when, our anxiety goes through the roof.

Imagine the last time you had service personnel out to work on your internet or cable or whatever. You know how it is: you call and they assure you a service person will be at your home sometime between 8:30 Tuesday morning and next March. As you piddle around the house catching up on chores, complaining about it on Facebook, and looking out the window every 10 minutes, your whole being changes on account of anticipation—your attitude, your actions, your interactions, your perspective—everything!

Think about someone you know who was about to be a first-time parent. Those last weeks, they know the baby is coming; they just don’t know when. So every single bump or shift or change sends at least one partner into a blind panic. Anticipation winds us up—tightens and heightens our reflexes—so when that awaited event occurs, we are ready to spring into action without a moment to waste.

We have such a hard time waiting—especially when we know something is about to happen. I think that’s why we humans have been so fixated on trying to prove Jesus wrong here. Though Jesus says that even he does not know the timing of the Day of the Lord, folks have been naming dates since at least before 500 AD. We come up with theories based on the dimensions of the Ark (Hippolytus of Rome, Sextus Julius Africanus, Irenaeus), horrible misreadings of Revelation (Pope Sylvester II, Sandro Botticelli, Tim LaHaye), random mathematical coincidences and calculations (Michael Stifel and others), visions and dreams of cult leaders and would-be prophets, and astrological phenomena.

Over and over we try to connect dots that lead to nothing, to ascertain something we cannot know, because—just like the first humans in Eden—we are not content to let God and God alone be God.

Sudden

Second, Jesus emphasizes that the Day of the Lord will come suddenly. What’s the difference between unexpected and sudden? It’s a matter of awareness.

When a spouse goes into labor, it’s unexpected in that the timing is uncertain but the approaching reality is certain and prepared for (one hopes).

In contrast, with suddenness both timing and the approaching reality are unanticipated in any way. Sudden is a car accident. Sudden is being blindsided.

The suddenness of the coming Day of the Lord is made clear by allusion to the story of Noah and the flood from Genesis 6-9. Now I’ve heard sermons from these verses that claim Jesus is talking about how evil the world will be when the Day of the Lord takes place, but that’s not it at all. Look at verses 37-39 (of Matt 24 NIV) again:

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

These people are about the normal business of life—eating and drinking, marrying and giving their children in marriage, and so on—when they are blindsided by the flood: “They knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” Jesus gives us no clues whatsoever about their character, morality, or faith; but he is quite clear that they were unaware of the dramatic events about to transpire.

So, Jesus says, it will be on the Day of the Lord, “at the coming of the Son of Man.”

Unequal

Moving to the third element of this teaching of Jesus, we see that the coming Day of the Lord will not be experienced by everyone in the same way. The unexpected timing combined with its suddenness means that its impact will be uneven—unequal perhaps—as it affects the entire human race. Jesus says in vv.40-41:

Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

Now one of these days I’ll preach a whole sermon on these verses, because they are among the most misunderstood verses of the Bible. If you’re the type that likes doing homework, write this down in your bulletin to look up later: Luke 17:34-37.

Those verses tell Luke’s version of the exact same teaching, describing two people doing the same thing but one being “taken.” Tim LaHaye and others want you to fear being “left behind,” but Jesus makes it pretty clear we want to be the ones “left behind.” In Luke 17:37, Jesus’ own disciples don’t understand where the “taken” folk are going, so they ask Jesus. His response?: “where vultures circle over rotting corpses.” Those taken are taken by death. You don’t want to be taken; you want to be left behind.

The point of these illustrations by Jesus is to show that just because the timing of the Day of the Lord is uncertain, we are not without the ability to do something about it. What’s the difference between the one taken and the one left behind? The one left behind was paying attention. The one left behind adopted a posture of anticipation.

What to do?

If there was ever any doubt about the difference being a matter of attention, Jesus moves to that fourth element of this teaching section, commanding his disciples to “keep watch” (v.42). And what does “keeping watch” look like?

Well, imagine your house is going to be burgled. If you knew it was going to happen, you’d have adopted a posture of anticipation: you’d have locked all your doors and windows, stayed up late, peeked around the curtains, had your phone pre-dialed to 911, and you would have been ready to respond—immanently!—to the slightest suspicion. You, my friend, will be left behind—you will remain.

But without adopting that posture of anticipation, what happens? You get taken. You become a victim……a statistic……a story used to warn future generations about the dangers of leaving windows unlocked and of being caught unawares.

Conclusion

Sisters and brothers, Jesus will come again. As we move in this season toward our remembrance of his first coming, we walk a traditional path of anticipating his second coming. We anticipate the Day of the Lord, when our Jesus returns to reign as king of the new earth, as foreshadowed in Isaiah, Revelation, and so many other places. The day is coming when we, as subjects greeting our returning king, will “meet the Lord in the air” and usher him to earth as its rightful ruler, as Paul himself anticipates in 1Thessalonians 4:17: “And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

What I think God wants us all to think about this week is how our thinking and our feeling and our whole being might change if we entered fully into anticipation of the Day of the Lord.

What might happen if we believed as fully in the reality of the coming Day of the Lord as we did in the immanent birth of our child? Or even just as much as we believe that the AT&T repairman will eventually work his way to us?

What might change among our priorities and commitments if we took an honest look at ourselves and our world and believed—truly believed—that Christ’s return could and would blindside us when we least expected it?

I hear a lot of people talking about’s wrong with the world…… About what’s wrong with churches…… About what’s wrong with religion…… But you know what I want to see?

I want to see Christians take this following Jesus thing seriously.

I want to see folks step up to the self-denying, no place to lay your head, sell all you have and give to the poor, take up your cross and follow me kind of life to which we are all called.

I want us to take Jesus seriously enough that we recognize an urgency about his mission of liberation and life.

I want the world to know the resurrection power of God’s love.

As proclaimed in Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (NIV11). I want to see that power in your life.

We begin Advent by looking both backward and forward, appropriate as we live in the now-but-not-yet Kingdom of God. As disciples of Christ, let us consider: what would it look like for us to live in very real anticipation of his return?

Stay awake, lest you be taken, caught unaware, blindsided. Pay attention and prepare yourselves, for you know “the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again.

Amen.

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Sheep Betrayed

Jeremiah 23:1-6

“Sheep Betrayed”

Jeremiah–here in the 23rd chapter–catches a glimpse of God’s future. It’s a powerful vision for ancient Israel, but it is also a powerful vision for us today.

Jeremiah–bless his heart–is trying to stave off disaster. As we read elsewhere in his oracle, Jeremiah has realized that God’s people are no longer taking refuge in God. On account of their special status as descendants of Abraham, they believe God will protect them no matter what. So they manipulate the politics of the region, and their religion turns into a cultural phenomenon. They still do the right things, of course–they go to their version of church, appear to be living a moral life, and generally follow the rules. But those things have nothing to do with being a faithful follower of the One True God–at least, they’re not the things that God places a very high value on.

What does God value the most? Well, we can see that in the previous chapter of Jeremiah, chapter 22, verses 3-5 (ESV):

Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants and their people. But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.

It couldn’t be much clearer: do these things and good things happen; do those and bad things happen. And what does God require here?

First, to “do justice and righteousness”–which I hope by now I have taught you means to pursue the rights of those whose rights have been taken away. Throughout the bible (as in these verses from Jeremiah 22), these words are applied to women, children, orphans, widows, foreign nationals, illegal immigrants, the poor, and others who were most vulnerable to the powerful of the world.

Second, to “deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed”–again, God requires that we stand up for victims against the people and structures that do them harm.

Third, to “do no wrong or violence…nor shed innocent blood”–All that we do, our actions and our inactions, everything has the potential of harming others, and God has repeatedly demonstrated concern for all of humanity (cf. 2Peter 3:9 usw.). Jesus challenges us in Matthew 6 to realize the homicidal power of even our words, which through anger or selfishness may slaughter the innocent and bring God’s righteous judgement on our own heads.

What does the Lord require? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God, as another prophet summed it up (Micah 6:3).

Jeremiah, with God’s aid, hopes to help the Israelites see that they are lemmings running towards a cliff to meet their doom. Their leaders–their “shepherds”–have only their own best interests in mind. And so they wield fear and vague threats of violence that destroy and scatter the people. They know that people divided against themselves cannot stand against tyrannical leadership (cf. Mark 3:24).

But Jeremiah’s people cannot hear his voice. They are too afraid. They are too divided. The sheep have been betrayed by their shepherds. Those who have responsibility for the well-being of the sheep are only interested in manipulating their fears for their own gain.

Hope

Now while the chronology of Jeremiah is difficult to sort out in places, it seems this passage comes at a time when hope is lost, when their chances of averting the consequences that await them are slim to none. The people will be conquered. Jerusalem will fall. Life will change forever.

And so into this desperation is breathed a merciful breath of hope by our ever-compassionate and forgiving God. It won’t always be this way. A new day will come. New shepherds will arise. There will be healing, restoration, gathering, and protection. Fear will be no more. There will only be love.

Today

We still live in a world where shepherds destroy and scatter those they are called to lead.

We still live in a world where leaders waste little compassion and care for the ones they are elected to serve and whose safety they are tasked to ensure.

We still live in a world where many are dispersed……many are displaced……many are afraid……and many are missing.

And in our own nation, I think there are more aware of this right now than in ages.

 

What does that mean for us, as followers of Jesus?

What does that mean for “children of the light,” for those who have been redeemed by the resurrection work of the Christ?

On thing is for certain–it means that this word of hope–spoken thousands of years ago by God to Jeremiah and Israel–continues to be our encouragement and our vision. It means our world needs to know that the kind of redemptive work God is interested in doing involves gathering those on the margins, bringing about reconciliation and healing, providing compassionate leadership, and abolishing everything that brings about fear.

The mission of God is not to “infiltrate and extract,” whisking away the few who are sufficiently pure and self-righteous. Instead, the mission of God is to so completely transform the created order that fear, war, and violence cannot even be conceived of. God’s mission is for love to heal the world.

Good News?…or Terrible?

This mission–and the way that Jesus participates in it–is what the bible calls the good news–the gospel. And it is good news, at least for those who are broken and victims of sin.

But there’s a reason that Christ’s return is described as “terrible” as well:

His return is most decidedly not good news for those who, like the divisive shepherd-leaders of Jeremiah’s day, manipulate those around them for their own selfish gain.

Christ’s return is not good news for those leaders who profit from violence.

Christ’s return is not good news for everyone who participates–actively or passively (see Obadiah)–in the oppression of other people.

But you know, I’m not too worried about the folks for whom Christ’s return will be terrible. I pray for them, to be sure, but I try to follow Jesus–and in talking about his life and ministry Jesus said “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12 ESV). Like Christ my savior, I’m interested in the sick. And like God his–and my–Father, my concern and my attention will be focused on the margins.

“The days are coming,” Jeremiah tells us, when the world will be different, when the shepherds of our churches and our nations will be compassionate, unifying, healing, just, and on the side of the victims.

The day is also coming, when our leader will be our redeemer, Christ the King, who will reign forever and ever. To Him be the glory and the honor and the praise. Amen.

The Apple of God’s Eye?

 

Psalm 17:1-9

 

Living Stories

We talk about the Bible being a “living book.” But I wonder sometimes whether we realize what that means.

There’s a piece (in my mind) that is Holy Spirit driven—the Bible continues to speak in powerful ways to each of our lives, today. Unlike some other ancient texts, it transcends time and space to attend to the needs and challenges of this current era. That’s inspiration—happening even now through the work of the Spirit.

But there’s another dimension I see too. There are strong resonances between these ancient stories and our lives. They are our stories, too—told with other names and places, but entirely analogous to what you and I experience each and every day.

In the story of Adam and Eve and the first sin, we find a retelling of every time we choose our own way over God’s way.

In the story of Noah, we see a retelling of every time we think the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we find encouragement that God will be faithful.

In the story of Abraham, we find a retelling of every time we try to force God’s will into being through our own efforts and initiatives.

In Jonah, we have a retelling of every time we try to run away from God.

In Job and Ecclesiastes, we have a retelling of our struggle for answers in the face of senseless tragedy or injustice.

And so on. These stories are our stories. Part of why they have become scripture and Bible is because for so many hundreds and thousands of years they have lived in us—they have spoken the truth of who and how we are, and of what life in the world and with God is genuinely like.

Such is our story for today. In the episodes from the history of ancient Israel that we will look at this morning, we do not read ancient history, but current events.

Reflecting on a nation of God’s favored people, we find application for our own, oft-called “Christian,” nation.

Examining the hearts of ancient people of faith, we find our own hearts—and sin—revealed.

Living stories of a living book coming alive.

Psalm 17

While there’s much in the Psalm that could be applied in this way this morning, I want to focus on two adjacent lines, which have captured my imagination, mediation, and prayer of late: “you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes” (v.7) and “keep me as the apple of your eye” (v.8).

You see, there is a connection between seeking refuge in God, being saved, and being “special.” These elements are interdependent, kind of like our Baptist churches. They are distinct from one another, yet also reliant on one another to form a functional whole.

And yet our propensity—as Baptists and as humans—is to emphasize the individual and neglect the whole; to amplify our independence and silence elements of interdependence. And when this happens, things never go well for us.

When we do seek refuge in God, we are saved, and we feel special. Perhaps, as we read here and other places in the bible, we are special—friends of Christ and children of God.

And yet…… The testimony of scripture is that when we associate too strongly with our specialness—when our whole identity is wrapped up in being “the apple of God’s eye”—when we are most convinced that God is on our side——that is precisely the moment when the bottom falls out, because that is also the moment when we stop actually taking refuge in God. That is the moment when we trust our identity for our protection instead of trusting God. That is the moment when our expectations of God actually become idolatrous.

History of Israel

There are no better illustrations of this than can be found in the history of ancient Israel. As descendants of Abraham, the people of ancient Israel know they are special. They are without a doubt “the apple of God’s eye.” Centuries of covenant relationship have proven to them that God loves them and pays them particular attention.

They were saved out of Egypt.

They were given the Law at Sinai.

Their battles for control of the Promised Land were fought and won by God alone.

For them God raised up righteous leaders—”judges”—to get them out of binds with the Canaanites.

And during generations of kingship, they were protected by God from invading powers.

But they began to think themselves invincible. They began to see God as a totem of protection—a cross to wear around your neck to ward off evil spirits, like the bloody lintels of Passover night in Egypt. As long as they maintained the symbols, they believed they could wield God as a weapon for their protection and benefit. Jerusalem could never fall, because God would never allow it.

Captivity of the Ark

Back in 1Samuel 4, there’s an interesting story along these themes. It’s one of those stories that should have stood as a warning against this kind of thinking to later generations. But like so many of the lessons of the past, we choose to repeat our errors instead of remember and learn from them.

In 1Samuel 4, the Israelites are once again at battle. If you read their story from the beginning, it seems like they’ve been at war for generations now. War appears to be something they’ve gotten good at, from the strategic brilliance of folks like Joshua and Gideon to the mundane brutality of others like Jael or Ehud. The Israelites are a force to be reckoned with, and they have dominated the Philistines for some time. And so, at this point in the biblical story, the Philistines are revolting, trying to escape the destiny of becoming “slaves to the Hebrews,” as we read in v.9 of 1Sam 4.

At the beginning of this chapter, however, a battle is fought, and the ancient Israelites are defeated (v.2)—four thousand Israelites die that day. But defeat doesn’t seem possible—How can they lose with God on their side? They are the people that God favors; it is inconceivable that any human power could triumph over that!!

But then some astute person recognizes a pattern. Patterns are our salvation and damnation. Sometimes patterns show us the rhythms of life that we must recognize to succeed. Other times, such correlation does not equal causation—what we see as a pattern obscures the real causes.

This story is one of the latter times. This astute person realizes that when they carry into battle the Ark of the Covenant—which for the Israelites (and their enemies) was a visible representation of their God—they won. Every time. Never fail.

But when they did not bring the Ark into battle, they did not always win.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? If they bring the Ark into battle every time, they simply can’t lose. All they have to do is bring the Ark into every battle and they will never be defeated.

Except…… this is one of those times where correlation does not equal causation. Bringing the Ark doesn’t lead to victory; trusting God for salvation brings victory. Or, to put it in the terms of Psalm 17, taking refuge in God results in salvation.

The ancient Israelites thought they were the apple of God’s eye, and that God would never allow harm to come to them. But they put their trust in a wooden box instead of into the Creator of the universe, and as a result, 30,000 Israelites died that day, and the Ark itself was captured by the Philistines.

Exile of Judah

Many years later, as the ancient nation of Judah is threatened by foreign powers, it again begins to overemphasize its “special” relationship with God, believing (as I mentioned earlier) that Jerusalem can never fall to a foreign army. After all, God had promised them “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever. And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers” (2Kings 21:7-8).

As a result, they believed they were golden; they were the apple of God’s eye—God’s chosen nation——to quote Psalm 56:11: “what can man do to me?” And so they trusted in their special status. And they trusted in their own political prowess. And they expected—genuinely expected—that nothing bad could or would ever happen.

Of course, they forgot about the second half of that promise: “if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them” (2Kings 21:8).

They remembered the “getting saved” and the “being the apple of God’s eye” part, but they forgot about the “taking refuge in God” part. They forgot that trust needed to be anchored in God, not their status or identity. They forgot that being the apple of God’s eye was a conditional state—favor to be revoked if conditions changed. And changed they did, as Israel took refuge in themselves instead of in God.

Israel’s downfall happened because they thought they were God’s nation and thus could not fall. In doing so, they made their identity into an idol, trusting themselves for their own protection instead of seeking refuge in God.

The Remedy

There is, of course, an easy and obvious remedy. In the words of the psalmist, “take refuge in [God]” (Ps 17:7). Or in the ancient confession of Christianity, live out the commitment that “Jesus is Lord.” The key to continually trusting in God alone for protection is to remember that God and God alone is king. God and God alone is able. God and God alone will save us.

Our allegiance is not to the nation of our residence. We are instructed in Leviticus 25:23 to live as aliens wherever we find ourselves. This is an image Peter develops further for Christians in 1Peter 2, urging us to both “fear God” and “honor the emperor” (v.17).

Our allegiance is not to a president, king, or ruler. The ancient confession that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous confession to make, as it implied that Jesus is lord and Caesar is not. By insisting that we live under God’s watchful eye instead of complying with the government’s demands, many faithful have experienced great suffering and even death, from the time of Daniel on through the present age.

Our allegiance is not to a party or a platform, but to the ethic and life initiated by Jesus Christ, who proclaims “good news to the poor… liberty to the captives…recovering of sight to the blind…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—a Jubilee Year, the year of liberation and forgiveness when everything goes back to the way it was created to be.

As Christians, it has never been our dominance that drew people to Christ. Those drawn by power are those who are always drawn by power, and their purposes have nothing to do with those of the Savior of the world.

Instead, it has been our humble and quiet willingness to suffer for the good news of God’s love that has spread the name of Jesus throughout the world. The cause of Christ has been advanced the most when we genuinely take refuge in God, trusting in God alone for our salvation, whether or not anyone thinks we’re the apple of God’s eye.

Prayer (inspired by Psalm 17)

Hear my prayer, O Lord!

Probe our hearts
examine us and test us
see if there is any evil in mouth and intents.

Where, we ask, have we been bribed by the world?
Where, we pray, have we been implicit in violence against our neighbor?
Where, we implore, have our feet stumbled from your paths?

Remind us of the wonders of your great love.
Remind us of your salvation.
Remind us that you are a refuge from the foes and forces that work against your work of Jubilee.

Shield us from enemies without and within
And make us new again.

Teach us to follow Jesus your Christ. Amen.