My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Finding My Place Near the Manger


"They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh."  
Matthew 2:11, The Message

All of us raised in church know this story. How wise men from the East follow the star in search of the One whom the night skies speak of as the new-born king of Israel. Every year as we unpack our Nativity set they take their place beside the shepherds and the assorted animals of the manger, adoring the baby who has come in the fullness of time to redeem mankind. All the things that have been written about who these men were, what the Bethlehem star may have been or that they very likely didn't arrive in David's town until well after the birth of it's most famous son are interesting bits of trivia and back-story but miss the point. These foreigners in their strange garb who lack the Torah and have only the stars to guide them have greater clarity of the significance of what has transpired in Palestine than the Jewish locals. They have come from a great distance, across the desert and down the King's Highway in search of the child they are certain to find whereas for the residents of Jerusalem the birth of another boy in Bethlehem is a decidedly non-event. Who are the real wise men, Matthew seems to be asking: the ones with access to the scrolls of Holy Writ and the accrued knowledge of the scholars or these queer pagans who follow what revelation they have divined in the stars above?

I think of these Magi as they arrive in Bethlehem. They enter the small home of Joseph and Mary and at long last lay eyes on him they have come so far to see. The mere sight of him is awe-inspiring and they bend their knees and lay before him their precious gifts of gold, spice and perfume. Their act of worship is visceral not something well-worn and practiced as my own. But it is not gifts alone that they bring. I suppose they could have sent their gifts via the first century's version of FedEx but worship is not something you can affect that way. To really adore is to engage all that you are. So they brought precious gifts and themselves to the Child acknowledging his lordship even in toddler-dom. They are a reminder to all of us who know the story backwards and forwards that the most precious thing we can bring to Jesus on the celebration of his birthday are our very lives yielded to him as an offering. I think this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to a group of believers in Rome "...Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering" (Romans 12:1, The Message). As crowded as my Nativity set seems to be this means there's room for me there, too. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Ever-Quotable Lewis

I've been reading C.S. Lewis' Miracles lately in my devotional reading. As those things go, it's pretty heady stuff (for me). It's philosophical yet with his unique touch of using such things as flamingos and German generals, for example, to prove a theorem if called upon. While I don't pretend to follow his argument line by line (the book is properly considered apologetic), I manage to hang on through some rough patches and generally get the gist of things. His argument is plain and simple: one either by disposition (not by logic) rules out the supernatural (what he would refer to as being a "Naturalist") or must accept that there exists something outside of nature which from time to time interrupts or interferes with the normal course of events. There is no logical middle ground on the matter.

This morning in chapter 11 entitled "Christianity and 'Religion'", I was trying to keep up with him as he demonstrated with his usual deftness the shallowness of those who consider themselves "Pantheists"; i.e., those who affirm that there is a god but he is not personal but a "force" permeating all that there is. About mid-way through the chapter my mind was becoming muddled with the deluge of words I was having to run through when suddenly I came in out of the rain and read this:

"Men are reluctant to pass over the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection of traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist's God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed. It is with a shock that we discover them to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters - when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. 'Look out!' we cry, 'it's alive.' And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back - I would have done so myself if I could - and proceed no further with Christianity. An 'impersonal God' well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads - better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap - best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband - that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion ('Man's search for God'!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?"

"So it is a sort of Rubicon [an expression meaning, the point of no return]. One goes across; or not. But if one does, there is no manner of security against miracles. One may be in for anything."

Wow. His adeptness of putting the argument in proper perspective always amazes me. I can be one thing - a person who believes in a benevolent being of an indeterminate nature - or another - a Christian commited to the revelation of God as presented in the Bible - but I can't be one while pretending to hide behind the other.

The Last Song of Jesus

"When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives." Matthew 26:30, NIV

On the night of his arrest, after Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples, their Seder meal closed with the singing of an anthem. This was not an innovation of Jesus. This was following an ancient custom that had been passed down through the generations. This hymn was the Hallel, a Hebrew word for "praise", and it involved a verbal reciting of Psalms 113-118. By most accounts, Psalms 113 and 114 would have been sung before the meal and Psalms 115-118 afterward. In Jewish fashion, they would have been sung antiphonally in which the host of the gathering, in this case Jesus, would sing out a line from the psalm and his guests would respond with "Hallelujah!" To sing that part of the Hallel that would follow the Passover meal involved a chanting a total of 68 verses in our English Bible. A simple reading of these psalms took me about 5 minutes so if I factor in time for the disciples to respond the whole thing probably took 8-10 minutes before they gathered their things and headed out into the now dark streets of the city.

Read from the comfort of our recliner or sofa, the psalms are upbeat and replete with holy boasting.
   "Our God is in heaven
         doing whatever he wants to do.
   Their gods are metal and wood,
         handmade in a basement shop." (Psalm 115:3,4 Msg)
   "GOD is gracious - it is he who makes things right,
         our most compassionate God.
   GOD takes the side of the helpless,
         when I was at the end of my rope, he saved me." (Psalm 116:5-6)
They are the kinds of verses fitting for a gathering where the worshiper sounds more like a cheerleader officiating at a pep rally:
    "Praise GOD, everybody!
    Applaud GOD, all people!
    His love has taken over our lives;
    GOD's faithful ways are eternal.
    Hallelujah!" (Psalm 117, Msg)
A "U-RAH-RAH" seems like it would fit in perfectly here.

Charismatics like to sing "Jewish-sounding" songs because they are sung in the minor key (e.g., "Jehovah Jireh" and "The Horse and the Rider" to name two) and they get people clapping in rhythm tempting them to start dancing a jig if they could only shed their Lutheran upbringing for a moment. I have no idea how Jesus and his companions would have sung these psalms but based on their content I can't imagine they they sounded like solemn Catholic monks chanting the Benedictio.

I'm cognizant of the fact that I read them as an American who has never known the reality of being a resident of an occupid country longing for freedom and liberatoin. Sung in that manner, however, they are not just psalms of praise. They are songs of protest against the status quo, their words barked out almost with military-like cadence.
    "GOD's now at my side and I'm not afraid;
            who would dare lay a hand on me?
    GOD's my strong champion;
            I flick off my enemies like flies.
    Far better to take refuge in GOD
            than trust in people;
    Far better to take refuge in GOD
           than trust in celebrities.
    Hemmed in by barbarians,
           in GOD's name I rubbed their faces in the dirt..."
          (Psalm 118:5-10, Msg)

The Jewish people had been waiting hundreds of years for the promised son of David who would arise and lead them to a new era of peace and prosperity. Singing the Hallel had to be an act of hope and trust in Yahweh as well as a way of quietly thumbing their nose at whomever was their present ruler be it Babylonian or Persian king or Roman Caesar. In the Seder they revisited the ancient salvation story of their deliverance from Pharoah in Egypt. As they sang the words it was a prophetic act that collectively turned their focus from history past -
     "After Israel left Egypt,
          the clan of Jacob left those barbarians behind;
     Judah became holy land for him,
         Israel the place of holy rule.
     Sea took one look and ran the other way;
        River Jordan turned around and ran off." (Psalm 114:1-3, Msg)
- to a future glorious victory over those who would defy the rightful rule of God -
    "Hear the shouts, hear the triumph songs
        in the camp of the saved?
    'The hand of GOD as turned the tide!
    The hand of GOD is raised in victory!
    The hand of GOD has turned the tide!"" (Psalm 118:15, Msg)

On that night that Jesus celebrated his last Passover with his friends they were not aware of how violently the hours that followed would become. But he did. He knew the hour had come for "the Son of Man to be glorified" (John 12:23). He knew that the hand of him who would betray him was dipping into the same common bowl as he was. And he knew from Scripture that his ending would be painful beyond description. That being the case, the words of the song must have given him some measure of strength especially as he sang,
   "I will not die but live,
      and will proclaim what the LORD has done..." (Psalm 118:17, NIV)

The irony of verses 22-24 of Psalm 118 is palpable for he is the very one they are about:
   "The stone the builders rejected
   has become the capstone;
   the LORD has done this,
   and it is marvelous in our eyes.
   This is the day the LORD has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it." (NIV)

And now the song is nearing its climax. Earlier he had sang, "In my anguish I cried to the LORD, and he answered by setting me free" (v. 5, NIV) but now he affirms what the crowds had chanted only a few days before as he had entered Jerusalem:
   "Blessed is he who comes in the name of
      the LORD.
   From the house of the LORD we bless
     you." (v. 26, NIV)
They are words that speak of the ultimate triumph of God over all his enemies.

Jesus must have had a beautiful singing voice. In my mind, there would be something incongruous about the Messiah of God who couldn't carry a tune in a paper sack. As he prepared himself for the agony ahead these words sung in faith of a Day of victory coming must have buoyed him in some visceral way. There he stood with his friends with sandals and cloak on reenacting their forebears who partook of the first Passover in like manner, singing his last song in the shadow of imminent suffering and death.

   "The LORD is God,
       and he has made his light shine upon us.
   With boughs in hand, join in the festal
       up to the horns of the altar."

   "You are my God, and I will give you
    you are my God, and I will exalt you."

   "Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
      his love endures forever" (vv. 27-29, NIV)

This isn't whistling past the graveyard, living in denial of the trial he is about to go through. This is seeing the graveyard in its proper perspective, as God sees it, and agreeing with the truth of what the Scriptures affirm: "I will not die but live." It is a credo of faith and trust flung in the face of despair "mixed with gall" his enemy tempts him to swallow on the eve of the most difficult day of his life.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Wednesday Night Wonder

"Everyone was excited and confused. Some of them even kept asking each other, 'What does all this mean?'" Acts 2:12, Contemporary English Version

Last week at The Focus, the youth church held on Wednesday nights at Refuge, something out of the ordinary happened. It's not the first time that our mid-week gathering has taken an unexpected turn  (see, for example, my post from March 22 of this year entitled, "What does this mean?") but the fact that it did makes it no less memorable. In fact, when things transpire in such an unusual way it should make those of us who attend Focus regularly to sit up and, at the very least, ask, "What gives?"

Here's what happened. It had been a pretty normal night at Focus. Kayla and team had led worship for maybe 40 minutes or so. Some of those gathered were purposeful in their worship. Some were (as far as I could tell) just sitting there while others were using the "down" time to catch up with their Like I said, it was a pretty normal Wednesday night. After worship we circled up at the front of the sanctuary and shared announcements, God-stories from the week past and prayer requests. Trisha shared a prayer request for a friend of hers I'll just call Jane. (Anyone who was there and reads this will know who I am talking about. I only change her name because people are always in process and making pronouncements about a person who hasn't "gone public" themselves is always an act that teeters on presumption. But it's such a good story, I'm going to forge ahead anyway). Jane and her family have been going through a very difficult year or so. Her dad is battling cancer and has already exceeded his doctor's expectations for his lifespan. But that doesn't make it any easier to bear for a young woman who loves her father and has already lost her mother. In any case, Trisha had bumped into her the night before at a basketball game and they had ended up talking together. At the end of the conversation, Trish invited Jane to Focus. That was the long and short of it. We had moved on to other requests and the like when Trish received a text from Jane informing her that she was, in fact, on her way to group as we speak. Cool coincidence, right?

A modern day "high place"
The weekend before, Troy had taken a car-load of kids from Focus down to the International House of Prayre in Kansas City, MO, just to "soak" in the prayer room as the saying goes. The plan of the evening was to have these kids share a sample of their experiences with the group. While they were down south they encountered God in various ways. One fell down in the presence of the Lord during ministry time (apparently more than once). One received a dramatic healing. A few were used to pray for someone suffering from asthma and God touched that person in a demonstrative way and healed them. One experienced the joy of the Lord in the manner that the "King James'" folk describe as "joy unspeakable and full of glory." And one smelled unusual and beautiful aromas in different settings the end result of which was to heighten their hunger for the Lord. Jane showed up about 10 minutes into the story-telling time. We paused and welcomed her and the sharing continued unabatedly like popcorn kernels going off for another 20 minutes or so. I think to the unitiated it would have all sounded very weird but given that many of these same kids have made the trip down to KC for one event or another over the last several years it sounded "typical" KC/IHOP: God shows up and people fall down or shake, rattle and roll and return from the high place like Saul among the prophets. If Jane was weirded out or perplexed by the sharing her body language didn't giver her away. She sat and listened politely to the stories like everyone else.

When it was clear that the sharing had pretty much run its course, I felt it would be appropriate to summarize Acts 2:1-21. For those of us from Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, its familiar territory. The disciples were waiting on God during an important feast of the Jews and while they were waiting He shows up in wind and fire. They are so filled with the Spirit that their behavior defies reasonable explanation. In fact, to some who gather their only grid for understanding what's going on is to conclude that they must have started pretty early in the morning to go on a bender. But there are others who raise the more sensible question, "What is the meaning of all this?" Peter seizes the moment and with an unfamiliar boldness proclaims that what they are all witnessing is, in fact, Scripture being fulfilled. The last days have begun just as God had said they would by pouring out his Spirit on everyone - young and old, men and women, rich and poor, Jewish and Gentile - and now is the day of salvation. It seemed logical then that just as Peter and the disciples ministered to the crowd that gathered outside their prayer room on that day, these kids and Troy newly returned from the prayer room in Kansas City should pray for any and all who wanted it. And, as it is our usual custom, we designated chairs for just this purpose and several pepole responded, Jane among them.

The worship team reassembled and began to lead in a song and the kids, Troy and I began to pray for those who had sat themselves down in the chairs. I joined Trisha and Sarah and the three of us began to pray for Jane. It seemed that the Lord began to thaw her heart as all three tissue boxes were called into service (not just by her but others who were sitting in the chairs). I read Psalm 27 over her and asked Cody to pray behind her since it seemed to me that she needed a taste of the joy of the Lord. He knelt behind her and was convulsing quietly (it's an odd juxtaposition, I realize) in the Spirit as he prayed for her. After awhile I moved over to Mary (another pseduo name), a young woman who has been a Christian for several years now and has recently returned from an extended missions trip overseas. Mary was weeping as if she had just lost her mother or father. In the meantime, Troy took my spot with Jane and began to minister to her. At some point during this time, the song of the Lord came upon Kayla and she began to sing and play a spontaneous worship song upon the keyboard. It was a simple song as those things usually go but beautifully sung.

Now, here's where things took an unexpected turn. While Troy and Trisha are ministering to Jane she tells him that she is hearing something in the song that Kayla is singing. But it's not the words that she's singing which are speaking to her but the notes she is playing upon the keyboard. "They're telling me a story that I need to hear" is the gist of what she told Troy. He speaks prophetically into her life and she confirms the stuff he is saying but more than anything else it's the story in the notes that has grabbed her attention. Scintillating, to say the least. Later, Trish moves on to Mary and joins Troy who has been ministering to her now for awhile. But Jane gets up from her chair and joins the small circle as well and places her hands upon Mary and begins to prophesy over her. I don't want to overstate it. She didn't say, "Thus saith the Lord, etc., etc." I don't even know if she realized what she was doing. In fact, I suspect she didn't. But as Troy listened to her pronouce a very simple "word" over Mary to his amazement it was "spot on."

Artwork from the Prayer Room in KC
So what does it mean when a person whose commitment to Christianity is uncertain but shows up and hears a story in random notes played upon a keyboard under prophetic inspiration and then proceeds to deliver an accurate "word from God" to a disciple of Jesus who at that present moment (unbeknownst to Jane) is resisting the Holy Spirit? It's a sign and a wonder, that's what is. It's a sign that God is in our midst (see 1 Corinthians 14). It's a reminder to all of us that we are, indeed, living in those days spoke of so long ago - days of God's Spirit who like cascading waters is being poured out upon all people and demonstrating his wonders in the skies above and leaving signs on the earth below that he "will save everyone who asks for his help" (Acts 2:12, CEV). It means that God can use any means he chooses to deliver his good news to people be it rustic shepherds "keeping watch o'er their flocks by night" or an undergraduate student who just happens to show up at a worship gathering and becomes both the recepient and the conduit of God's grace and truth.

I spoke with Mary just the other night. She looks like her "old" self, her eyes revealing the new joy of the Lord within her. We talked about what had happened at Focus the week before and she recounted how much she had been resisting God these last few months. Sometime during the gathering, however, her will began to soften and during ministry time she sat herself in one of those chairs and suddenly could not hold back the flood of tears that came. But when Jane spoke her word to her she needed no more persuasion but came running home like the prodigal she really was. Coincidence? No, sign - a sign to all of us  - Jane, Mary, Troy, myself - that now is the day of salvation and truly "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (NIV).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Leaving us a breadcrumb trail to follow

A trail to follow
On the way, Jesus told them, "Tonight all of you will desert me. For the Scriptures say,
      'God will strike the Shepherd,
        and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'
But after I have been raised from the dead, I will go ahead of you to Galilee and meet you there."  
Matthew 26:31-32, New Living Translation

On the night of his arrest, after celebrating Passover with his disciples, Jesus leads his small band out of Jerusalem and back up the road to the Mount of Olives. He is pensive and it seems as if he has retreated into some deep place of quiet preparing himself for the violence that awaits a short time from now. Around him he can hear the heavy breathing of his followers as they plod their way up the hill, their mood reflective of his own. Somewhere along the way he makes the announcement that this night they will all fail him, that when push comes to shove they will cut and run instead of standing with him in his hour of need. Think of the impact of the same words being spoken to you by a close friend or revered minister and you relate to Peter's protests to such a prediction. "Others may do that but I never will," is the sense of how they reply to his dire words.

How quickly we run
All of us who consider ourselves friends of the Savior have made similar vows before. New Year resolutions, promises wept out at an altar, declarations on our return from a retreat are all samples of this same sort of thing: "From now on, Lord, I'm keeping myself pure"; "Others may backslide but I am determined to follow you"; "never again, Lord; I promise I won't do that ever again" - they are all echoes of Peter's denial, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will" (v. 33, NIV). But despite our profession of unending devotion, all of us have broken promises and turned back or turned tail (to our own chagrin) at different points in our journey. When faithfulness was called for, we were fickle. When courage was needed, we backed down. When sacrifice was required, we lost our spiritual backbone and caved to peer pressure. And what makes our denial worse than than that of the disciples is that we have the means for courage, for faithfulness and sacrifice in the Person of the Holy Spirit who resides within where they did not. Yes, we, too, have failed him, our proclamations of undying affection all the same.

Follow the breadcrumbs
But in his prediction there is hope. Yes, they will scatter to the winds when he is accosted by the authorities but when all this is over, they will reunite in Galilee. If Jerusalem is the place where every time Jesus shows up there he gets into some kind of controversy, Galilee is where he rides the waves of public approval. In Galilee, people want to join him. They want him to touch them or their loved one. Houses get packed when he teaches and villages and towns know joy because of the remarkable works of God that are done within them by he and his followers. Galilee means fellowship, sharing together in the work of the kingdom, being close to him and enjoying his friendship. “But after I have been raised from the dead, I will go ahead of you to Galilee and meet you there” (emphasis mine). In his dour announcement he was leaving a breadcrumb trail out of the thicket of the despair they – and us – would find themselves following their duplicity. That they would scatter was a given – the Scriptures foretold that they would. That we from time to time in our life as Christians “discreetly distance” ourselves from the One we profess to love and follow is a pretty sure thing as well. Why else would one who knew well enough about deserting Jesus write to later followers (including us) these now time-worn words of hope:

         If we claim that we're free of sin, we're only fooling ourselves. A claim like that 
         is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast 
        of them—he won't let us down; he'll be true to himself. He'll forgive our sins and 
        purge us of all wrongdoing.  
       (1 John 1:8-9, The Message)

No need to keep cowering in fear and shame in a Jerusalem upper room. Make your way back to Galilee, make your way home to the old stomping grounds of faith where you enjoyed a pleasant closeness with him and enjoyed better days as you led “a great procession to the house of God,singing for joy and giving thanks amid the sound of a great celebration!” (Ps 42:4, NLT) Instead of scorn and a scowl you fear to find upon his face, more than likely he'll be working on breakfast and look up at you and smile. 


Friday, December 3, 2010

Advent Meditation: Do I See What He Sees?

Jesus and his first Advent
"Saints before the altar bending, watching long in hope and fear.
Suddenly the Lord, descending, In His temple shall appear.
Come and worship! Come and worship! Worship Christ the new born King."
4th verse of "Angels from the Realms of Glory" by James Montgomery

In the closing chapters of Matthew, we encounter Jesus pensive, on edge, thoroughly aware that the last week of his life is upon him. Matthew 23 almost reads like a precursor of Luther nailing his protests upon the door at All Saints Church in Wittenberg as he denounces the religious authorities who have corrupted the Scriptures and have turned God into something that he isn't. I like the rawness of The Message which captures the bite of Jesus' polemic against the Pharisees and teachers of the law:

Pulling no punches
  "Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper? It's on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation - and generation after generation you treat them like dirt,
  greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse."

  "You can't squirm out of this: Every drop of righteous blood ever spilled on this earth, beginning with the blood of that good man Abel right down to the blood of Zechariah, Barachiah's son, whom you murdered at his prayers, is on your head. All this, I'm telling you, is coming down on you, on your generation" (vv. 33-34).
Clint as a picture of Jesus?

Talk about not mincing words. In my mind, substitute whatever face you imagine as the countenance of Jesus at this moment and insert Clint Eastwood's from Pale Rider. Judgment Day for them is fast approaching.

As he leaves Jerusalem for Bethany, apparently some of his disciples had never been to the city before or why else would they marvel over the structures they saw here? Herod's Temple alone was forty years in the making and so any previous visitor to Jerusalem would already be familiar with the great construction projects going on there. But like awed sightseers in D.C., a few of them come up to Jesus thinking he will share in their wonder. Instead he responds with prophetic words that quickly dampens their enthusiasm. "One day, in the not-too-distant future, these impressive structures will be nothing but a heap of rubble" (see Matthew 24:2). There must have been something in his voice that sent chills up their spine for later some of them come to him and ask when this cataclysmic event would happen and what other signs would accompany his coming.

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives
He begins a long, somber dissertation that has been dissected and discussed ever since. He doesn't paint a picture of things getting better and better but ultimately worse and worse. Wars, famines, natural disasters and the like are all the stuff of routine history. Every tsunami or tornado we experience is another spike on the monitor that tells us that a new world is closer to being birthed. But in the process everything that appears permanent will be shaken and many who profess devotion will betray him and one another. " will be dog-eat-dog, everyone at each other's throat, everyone hating each other" (v. 10, Msg). At this point, things are falling apart - preachers are deceiving, people are turning away or ratting each other out to the authorities. It's not just the terrain that is no longer certain (e.g., "earthquakes") it's who you can trust and depend on. Your nearest and dearest may stab you in the back because they fear for their life. "Because of the increase of wickedness the love of most will grow cold..." (v. 12, NIV). Such are the conditions that will prevail immediately before his return.

What is required of disciples (says Jesus) is persistence in the face of great adversity and pressure to bail out. As he continues his soliloquy, Jesus is painting in broad strokes of believers running for their lives, seeking refuge outside the city and of travail never known in the record of history. These times will be so difficult that it will be a mercy that heaven cuts them short. "End-times" people - people who like to study these things - have come up with a myriad of explanations, charts, graphs and what have you to tell us when exactly these things will happen. Other than my first two years of following Jesus (1980-81), my interest in this stuff has pretty much waned. Every other year or so, a new prophetic guy arises professing greater insight than those that have preceded him. They can cause a bit of a stir and for awhile they are the "end-time" guru but as time goes forward it is easy to disregard their "sky-is-falling" mentality. Jesus, however, counsels against a "Que sera sera" attitude. On the contrary, he warns us to be ready to run, to flee lest we get consumed in the coming conflagration that is certain to come.

We are now in the season of Advent and just the other day at our monthly ministerial gathering, Pastor Norm reminded all of us that the word, advent, means "coming." Most of this month we pastor-types will spend a lot of energy in our sermonizing looking backwards reminiscing about his first coming replete with its pastoral images of shepherds and wise men and a star. It's a story that needs to be retold at least once a year. But instead of hanging out in Luke 2 or Matthew 2, we might do a better job of preparing the members of our parish for Christmas by turning their attention to Matthew 23-25 or Mark 13. If "coming" is what the season is all about whatever else Jesus may mean by such things as "the abomination that causes desolation" (24:15) and the lesson from the fig tree (24:32) watchfulness among his disciples is called for as his Second Advent draws ever closer.
Jesus at his second Advent