“Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”

Ascension of Christ - GBOD

The Ascension of Christ. Late 6th century illuminated manuscript (c. 586). Public Domain. via GBOD of the UMC

Talk about a cliffhanger! “This Jesus…will come…” Some TV shows do a good job of leaving you on the edge of your seat at the ending of a season finale. One of mine & Carrie’s favorites is ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ in which the character Barney is notorious for saying, “It’s gonna be LEGEN… wait for it… DARY!” In fact, they ended one season just as Barney said, “…wait for it…” The purpose of the “…wait for it…” or the “…to be continued…” is, of course, to hopefully increase ratings, but in terms of the story, it’s to pique your interest and heighten your sense of expectation of what is still to come.

Today is the Feast Day of the Ascension (for we who are in the Western Roman Catholic/Protestant traditions of the Church), in which we remember that, as the Creed says, “…he [Jesus] ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead…” In terms of the holy days remembered throughout the Church year, Ascension Day is for many Protestants among the lowest on the totem pole, if it’s even present at all. But Christ’s ascension is a vital part of the story of God’s redeeming us and the world. Christ’s bodily departure prepares the way for the Holy Spirit to fill Jesus’ followers, empowering them to be the heralds of this new king whose heavenly reign is breaking in on earth.

And in this, for those of us who wish to be aligned with Jesus the Christ, we are beckoned to bear witness to God’s coming kingdom, that we are still waiting for in its ultimate fulfillment. For now, the remnants of darkness and death still plague the creation, but the rays of light and new life have shown through and we have a confident hope that the good work that has begun will be brought to completion.

So as we herald this news of greater things still to come, we face the (often) gut-wrenching task to “…wait for it…”; to, in patience, work for the kingdom until Jesus comes in final victory. Happy Ascension Day!

“Everliving God, your eternal Christ once dwelt on earth, confined by time and space. Give us faith to discern in every time and place the presence among us of the One who is head over all things and fills all, even Jesus Christ our ascended Lord. Amen.” (from UM Hymnal, #323)

As I have reflected further upon the topic of Advent as a season of aching, longing emptiness, which I wrote about in the last post, I have been taken back to the realization of the important role of music during this time of the year. During the time around Christmas, our hearts and lips are tuned to sing more than most other times of the year. In Christmastide (Christmas and the days thereafter), our songs are those of hope arrived, joy fulfilled, peace on earth, and love’s dawn. But in Advent, our songs express the various sentiments of preparation: feelings of longing hope, expectant joy, wishing for reigning peace, and yearning for lasting love. Advent is meant to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming…not just in the past as the Infant of Days in the manger, but also in looking forward to his return as triumphant King. As each year we step backward in time, into the shoes of an exiled people, a group who was feeling out of place, whose home had been taken from them, I realize that Advent adequately portrays our current place in time and space, and I’m drawn toward the songs that describe the longing for the coming of a promised deliverer. Not “deliverer” in the sense of one who will “Take me outta this earth!” but as one who will deliver the things longed for, the fulfillment of hope and joy, the bearer of peace, good will, and agape love. In this way, Advent, its themes, and hymns are meant to tie together the first (already) and second (not yet) comings of Christ on earth. Hence, Advent is about yearning for Christ’s “kingdom [to] come…on earth as it is in heaven.” One of my favorite of these hymns of longing was written by Charles Wesley, called ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,’ which is often sung during this season of longing and preparation.

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Advent’s songs are about this yearning. It’s like the prelude to a kiss. When captured in a picture, the moment right before the couple’s lips meet brings out this sense of longing for the kiss to be fulfilled.

almost kiss

In the Incarnation of Christ, divinity and humanity come together & meet in one person. In the coming kingdom, that which is already and that which is yet to be fulfilled are drawing nearer to one another, yearning and waiting for the completion of the union between earth and heaven. May we echo with Charles this season of Advent, “Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.”

Have you ever noticed that in the Apostles’ Creed, there are only five persons explicitly named? The Father, the Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and Pontius Pilate. At times, I’ve found myself wondering why it is so important to make mention of Pilate in the confession of our Christian faith. Certainly it makes sense that the Persons of the Trinity are highlighted as the Creed announces that at the heart of our belief as Christians is that the deity we worship, who is at work in the world is (three-) Personal. Hence the primary question is not so much “What is God?” but rather “Who is God and how do the Persons of the Godhead relate to creation and the course of history?” And it is certainly appropriate, even for non-Roman Catholic Christians, to draw attention to the blessed Virgin as she is the mother of our Lord, the one in whom Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. But why do we find it necessary to point out that it was under the governorship of Pontius Pilate that Jesus suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried?

[Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”), Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pilate presenting a scourged Jesus to the people of Jerusalem. Per: wikipedia.org]

Here are a few reasons that come to mind:

1. In the statement, we affirm our belief that Jesus was (and is) a real human person and not a fictional character. Ancient historians other than the authors of what would later be canonized as Scripture also wrote about the leadership of Pilate as the Roman governor over Judea in the first century. Most notably, Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, wrote about Pilate’s cruel treatment of the Jews in and around Jerusalem. As the Creed is traced back to the end of the 2nd century (over 100 years prior to the adoption of the 27 books of the New Testament as canonical), including the reference to Pilate may have served to combat any notions or rival accounts of Jesus that had him as a mere character in a moral story (imaginary or otherwise) or thought that the Evangelists behind Matthew, Mark, Luke and John embellished some of the stories of the man’s life into legends of miracles, prophetic teaching, etc. of a figure who really wasn’t quite so radical as these “gospels” claimed him to be.

2. In the statement, we affirm the importance of Jesus’ location in the course of history during the Roman Empire. This is, of course, related to the first reason as it recognizes Pilate’s relationship between Rome and Judea, but more than that, it directs us to a theological point made by St. Paul in Ephesians 1 & Galatians 4 about what he called the “fullness of time” with regard to the Incarnation of God’s Son. This statement in the Creed makes it clear that the suffering and death which Jesus endured was during the time of and by the tortured means of a government whose empire had dominated the known world at the time. Those who make the confession that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate” hail and acknowledge Jesus as the true sovereign and make this bold claim to pronounce that their sole and complete allegiance belongs to King Jesus, whose “kingdom is not from this world.” As Jesus told Pilate at the trial, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

3. In the statement, we affirm that Jesus really did suffer, really did die, and as the rest of the Creed affirms, really did rise again bodily from the dead. Though this reason is less about Pilate himself, and more about the suffering, Pilate’s role in Jesus’ suffering cannot be denied. As the Creed was being drafted, various accounts and doctrines about Christ were being proliferated, including one idea that claimed that Christ was not actually human, but only “appeared” to be so. (See this article about “Docetism” for more info.) Among other reasons that some made this claim was their belief that the physical world, including the body, is evil and hence God could not really take on  human flesh. Much less could they come to terms with a God who would enter suffering to such a degree as to taste death. Against this sort of understanding lay the tradition handed down from the apostles to the days when the Creed was drafted and adopted and through the course of history to our present day that affirms that Christ was really and fully human and really suffered to the point of death on a Roman cross in Jerusalem, under the gubernatorial direction of Pontius Pilate.

4. In the statement, we affirm that the means by which Jesus saves the world is what the world would be least likely to expect. I really like the way N.T. Wright describes Pilate’s exchange with Jesus (as recorded in John 18:33-40) in John for Everyone:

Pilate, of course, can only see things from a this-worldly perspective. As far as he knows, the only place you get truth is out of the sheath of a sword (or, as we would say, out of the barrel of a gun). Political ‘truth’; my truth against your truth, my sword against your sword, with those two meaning much the same thing. And ultimately, for a Roman governor, my truth against your truth, my power against your weakness, my cross to hang your naked body on.

Ah, but that’s the truth. The truth that belongs with Passover. The truth that says that one man dies and the others go free. Barabbas, the brigand…faces the gallows as well…[but] the Truth stands there in person, taking the death that otherwise would have fallen on the brigand.

Pilate didn’t see it at the time…This is what the cross will mean. This is what the truth is and does. Truth is what Jesus is; and Jesus is dying for Barabbas, and for Israel, and for the world.

And for you and me.

The question in our court is that which was also implicitly asked in Pilate’s: how will we respond when faced with the Truth of a kingdom breaking into this world from another, but which bids us not to take up our swords, but to take up our crosses and be willing to suffer with our Lord in this world?

Text: Matthew 6:25-33

Have you ever met a killjoy? You know that person who just sucks the energy, enthusiasm, and life right out of you. Some of you may want to call such a person a “Debbie Downer.” But since my mother-in-law’s name is Debbie, I could get in hot water if I use that term. (And if your name is Joy, please know that no harm is intended toward you in this post!)

A killjoy is that person who whenever they speak up, you want to grab a trombone or tuba and play, “Wah…wah…” Like when you’re having a party or sharing some good news of something terrific that happened to you, a killjoy will hop in and spoil it with saying, “Well it must be nice to be you. Let me tell you what happened to me…” or will go all doomsday on you and say, “Just wait until next week when that good thing is taken away…”

As an example, Thanksgiving is a time of year when I am tempted to play the role of the killjoy at family gatherings because, in case you weren’t aware, I am allergic to poultry. Now just picture me at a great Thanksgiving meal with the turkey being carved and everyone gets asked the question: “White or dark meat?” and there I sit, feeling sorry for myself, that I don’t get to fully participate in this marvelous feast. I could tell my family as they share in the joy of eating holy bird, “Well, it must be nice to be able to thank God for your ability to eat this feathered friend.”

A still of “Debbie Downer,” a character from Saturday Night Live, right after she’s just rained on someone’s parade. (Photo credit: daviddust.blogspot.com)

But see, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be a killjoy because killjoys take away your desire or ability to enjoy life.

And one of the premiere killjoys that plague our lives is something that we just read about in this passage: WORRY! Worry is a killjoy. Worry consumes all your energy, all your enthusiasm…worry drains the life right out of you. And there is plenty of worry to go around during the holidays. Toward the beginning of  ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’ Charlie Brown, notorious for seeming to see the downside of everything says, “Great, we have ANOTHER holiday to WORRY about!”

But as we listen to the words of Jesus, we see and hear that kingdom living calls us not to worry in life. And perhaps this is one of the most challenging aspects for kingdom living at this time (2012), in this part of the world we live in (the US). Living without worry sounds as impossible to some people as living without breathing. Many of us are addicted to worry. In fact we may be so addicted to worrying that if we discover that we don’t have anything to worry about at the moment, we worry that we’re forgetting something. When Carrie and I sold our house last month, I found myself continually worrying: “Did we sign all the papers just right? Did everything get fixed on the inspection report? What if we forget to sign something or to call someone?”

As I kept frantically worrying about making sure all the t’s were crossed and all the i’s dotted, I missed out on some of the joy of actually getting the house sold. You see, as a killjoy, worry takes the joy of living out of us because worrying blinds our eyes from seeing every good and perfect gift that God has given to us. Worry shows that when it comes down to it, (and this might sting a little) we really don’t trust in the God who has brought us this far. 

When we worry, someone has said, we act like atheists. This is true at least with regard to the present and future. It’s as if we say, when we worry, “Maybe God brought me to this point, but I’m not sure that God’s gonna get me through this…or what’s coming around the corner.”

As worrying shows that we don’t really trust in God, it is one of the worst forms of ingratitude, and that’s why we need this message from Jesus, especially around Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving: a time to look back and say, with Thomas Chisholm, the great songwriter who wrote these lyrics: “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father. There is no shadow of turning with thee. Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not, as thou hast been thou forever wilt be. Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness; morning by morning, new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

If it is true, God, that “Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not, as thou hast been thou forever wilt be…”  and if it is true that “All I have needed [God’s] hand hath provided” then we need not worry!

But, how many of us will go back to the worrying life less than a handful of hours after being thankful? I’ve seen it put this way in one particularly well-worded quip: “Black Friday: Because only in America, people trample others [worrying that someone else will beat us to that deal] for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.”

Or, if not held captive to Black Friday, we often find other ways to worry, like getting prepared and always worried about what’s next: the next holiday, or the next event, or the next crisis we think is coming.

Or, maybe we start (or get back to) worrying about the basic stuff, the necessities: where our next meal is gonna come from, or where we will get water for our everyday living, or if we’ll even be able to keep paying the mortgage or rent to keep a roof over our heads.

Now, when Jesus says not to worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear, he’s not saying that food, water, and clothing aren’t important…he’s making a statement about worry and priorities. If you’re always consumed with worry about “what’s next” you’re robbing yourself of the joy and gratitude you can experience now!

As N.T. Wright has said it, in thinking through what Jesus meant in saying in “seek first the kingdom of God”: “Put the world first, and you’ll find it gets moth-eaten in your hands. Put God first, and you’ll get the world thrown in.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Brothers and sisters in Christ, in the kingdom of God, there is much joy. And to seek God’s righteousness, I believe, means that we recognize that there’s more than enough of God’s grace and provision to go around. And what this means for Thanksgiving is this: “Gratitude toward our Creator cannot but produce benevolence to our fellow-creatures.” – John Wesley

I don’t want to be a killjoy, but I want to express that if we want to know an even deeper sense of joy and thanksgiving, let us learn the joy of sharing in God’s faithful providence with those around us. Have a joyous Thanksgiving, y’all!

In the sermon yesterday, I mentioned a bit about the story of Cairo, Illinois, its turbulent history of racial tension and its dwindling economic plight, as well as its difficult conditions today. More than 55 arsons have occurred since 2007 in the town of (now) less than 3,000 people. The most recent fire occurred last weekend, which you can read about here. And here is an image of the building engulfed in flames:

Photo of the fire at old King Tut’s Tavern on Ohio & 8th in downtown Cairo. (Photo credit: WPSD-TV)

Carrie and I took the kids to St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, and drove through Cairo on our way. As we drove slowly through the downtrodden city, my heart was broken by the signs of poverty, abandonment, desolation, and destruction that was seen on almost every block. Soon, I began to wonder about those in the town’s midst who have been and are fighting an uphill battle for the cause of justice, praying the town is not deserted, hoping against hope that there is a positive future for the city, that it really can thrive again. I’m not sure where they are, but my prayers have gone up for these warriors, that more support would come their way, that they might see signs of resurrection hope in the city of decay.

As I was doing some reading about the town last weekend, I soon found out that Chris Tomlin recorded most of the video, “I Lift My Hands” in Cairo. Most of the images you see convey, in part, the decline that Cairo has suffered.  The opening lyrics of the song gripped me: “Be still, there is a healer…” The language of healing is one that is apt to describe what I pray for Cairo. This 5 minute video is very good and helps convey the message of the power of belief and hope. So give it a watch & listen!

My heart was stirred in watching this. But I must also admit that often the difficult part of this prayer, is the recognition that the harder the decline and the deeper the hurt a person or a town or a nation or a world endures, the more patience, the more work, the more difficult decisions, the longer amount of time is needed for healing. But maybe, just maybe, God will stir in the hearts of more people to reflect on the coming kingdom, whose tree of life produces leaves that are for “the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2) and will do whatever possible to bring the life from those leaves to the decaying and despairing parts of the world around us.

“Our Father in heaven…your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.”

In the midst of what is honestly a rather mediocre movie is a scene that has remained embedded in my memory ever since the only time I’ve watched it. Well I’ve gone back and seen this particular clip a time or two, the rest of the movie was “meh” so I haven’t sat through the whole thing again. The movie is Red Planet, starring Val Kilmer, Carrie Ann Moss, Benjamin Bratt and The Mentalist…er, I mean Simon Baker. (I had to be sure that I wasn’t confusing it with the movie Mission to Mars, since they were released about the same time. Ya know, kinda like Armageddon and Deep Impact were released the same summer, only the two movies about Mars were far less memorable.) Since there isn’t a good set of clips that tells everything you need to know, let me set up the scene for you…

Like most other movies that have their setting on “Mars,” this was set in the future when earth was running out of space and resources needed to sustain the life of our planet’s inhabitants. After a prior mission had gone to Mars to set up a large greenhouse of sorts to establish life through vegetation so that oxygen could begin to be introduced on Mars, the plot of the film involves the second mission, which involved the first humans to check up on the project and its progress. As the majority of the group took a smaller shuttle to the surface from the larger craft, which remained in orbit around Mars, they ran into some difficulty and realized that they would be in need of the oxygen that was present in the greenhouse. As they are moving toward the location of the greenhouse, they see the reflections of the sun against the shiny frame from a distance and their hearts immediately grew with excitement. However, their joy quickly turned to dread as they drew nearer and discovered that the greenhouse had been utterly destroyed and the frame was all that was left. To their knowledge and by the evidence of lifelessness before their eyes, they were without oxygen and thus, without hope of making it out alive. Some interesting things happened when they discovered this, including a fight that breaks out where one man gets thrown from a cliff to his quick demise. But the rest decide to just sit there and allow their oxygen tanks to run out and the question is asked right before this clip of what symptoms they would be experiencing as they were going to suffocate to death by lack of oxygen…

What happens next is Kilmer’s character realizes that he’s able to breathe Mars’ air and he quickly tells his colleagues that they can take off their masks and keep living. That raised the question of mystery: where did this air come from? And the rest of the movie is their search for where there might be some green things and life on the planet, which they discover not too long thereafter.

The metaphor always gripped me of the sufficiency of what was unseen in the air around them. We’re sometimes told of another world, another kingdom which is breaking in and invites us to participate, but there is sometimes difficulty in trusting the grace of what (or Who) is not seen. Earlier today, I was with a group of men praying over a friend and his daughter. One man asked that God’s grace would “flood” their lives. I began thinking about the issue of breathing and the impossibility of doing so underwater. Why would we pray for this? But I soon remembered the message of trusting that God would enable us to breathe in this new life. And my mind was brought back to this scene in the movie.

As far as they knew, the world in which they were stuck was full of aridity and lifelessness, or at the very least, an atmosphere to which their lungs could not possibly adapt. In one act of desperation (or perhaps it was mere luck or accident), one person took the leap and discovered that there was life in the midst of a seemingly lifeless world…that there was hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless world. (Hitting near home yet?) And that unlocked the door for the search of where this was coming from. The goal became, in a sense, “Let’s get to the source of this Life.” That’s part of what I understand when thinking about the Kingdom of God: now & not yet; already inaugurated but still waiting to fully realized until the end; and hence, this search marks the race of kingdom living. Or, as I recall Robert Mulholland in chapel once paraphrased the request in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”: “Nurture us today for kingdom living.” Lord of heaven and earth, enable me to breathe in your life as your kingdom continues to come on earth as it is in heaven.