Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Family Reunion on Judgment Day

A Family Reunion on Judgment Day

Zephaniah 3:14-20

There is a certain tension between Advent hymns and Christmas Carols. Advent songs are somber and sad. Christmas carols are fun and happy. No wonder most Christians prefer Christmas carols instead of Advent hymns. Let's look at the contrast between Advent hymns and Christmas carols. For there lies a truth that is the key to understanding the prophet Zephaniah's message to us today.

First, let's ponder the Advent hymn called "O come, O come, Emmanuel." The first thing we may notice is the somber tune of the hymn. Listen to the tune as I hum the first verse:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

Note the lyrics:

"Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

The rejoicing in this Advent hymn is a muted response to a future tense deliverance.

In contrast to Advent hymns, Christmas carols are fun and joyful in the present tense. Even the tunes are more joyful. For example, listen to this tune: (Hum tune to "Joy to the world!")

Now listen to how the lyrics burst forth with unrestrained joy:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come:

Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room,

And heaven and nature sing,

And heaven and nature sing,

And heaven and heaven and nature sing.

As you can hear, Christmas carols have it all over Advent hymns when it comes to joyful expression of a present reality. I suppose that is why Advent hymns are like the advance party that goes forth into the promised land of Christmas. The Advent hymns are necessary precursors that let us know how bad things really are.

In a similar way, the prophet Zephaniah begins his brief, three chapter prophecy with a sad review of the way things are. I will use Eugene Peterson's Bible translation called The Message for the scripture references this morning. Listen to God speaking about a day of darkness at noon through the voice of Zephaniah in chapter 1.

"The Great Judgment Day of GOD is almost here.

It's countdown time: . . . seven, six, five, four . . .

Bitter and noisy cries on my Judgment Day,

even strong men screaming for help. (v. 14)

I'll make things so bad they won't know what hit them.

They'll walk around groping like the blind.

They've sinned against GOD!

Their blood will be poured out like old dishwater,

their guts shoveled into slop buckets. (v. 17)

Zephaniah begins his prophecy with what sounds to me like an Advent hymn on steroids. Strong stuff. Tough message. Fiery images. No prisoners taken. Hard words of judgment.

That is where Zephaniah begins but that is not where he ends. Somewhere toward the end Zephaniah makes a shift. After one last warning of doom to the rebellious city, the home of oppressors--Sewer City! (3:1), God turns the corner in chapter 3 and says:

So sing, Daughter Zion!

Raise the rafters, Israel!

Daughter Jerusalem,

be happy! Celebrate! (v. 14)

Did you notice God's movement from judgment to hope? It is similar to the movement from Advent hymns to Christmas carols. There is no doubt that Christmas carols are full of joy. And if you listen to the lyrics of the carols you'll hear a hopeful message.

Several Christmas carols focus on the nativity scene. Visualize a nativity scene. There is the manger looking like a small squat house like structure. There are the characters gathered around the stall: Shepherds, wise men, angels, cows, sheep, Mary Joseph and baby Jesus. A nativity scene looks a little like a family reunion. And I think that is a good way to think of a nativity scene -- as Jesus' first family reunion.

Jesus family is made of love and not blood. Think of the nativity scene. Only two of the characters are surely related by blood and that is Jesus and his mother Mary. The other nativity characters are related by their love of Jesus: The angels, the shepherds, the wise men, the donkey, the cow, the sheep, the stars above -- all of creation that is present in the nativity is related by their love of Jesus.

Advent hymns move from expectation and longing to fulfillment and joy in Christmas hymns. Many of the Christmas hymns present a nativity scene full of characters that are united as a family by their love of Jesus.

The truth that Zephaniah would teach us is that on judgment day the family of Jesus, composed of all who love him, will be ... well, let's let God say it in his words, as spoken through the prophet Zephaniah in chapter 3:

On Judgment Day

I'll bring you back home--a great family gathering!

You'll be famous and honored

all over the world.

You'll see it with your own eyes--

all those painful partings turned into reunions!"

GOD's Promise. (v. 20)

Our final family reunion will be one of great singing and rejoicing as all who love Jesus are reunited, forgiven and heavenward bound. God will bring us back home--a great family gathering of all those who love Jesus! We'll see it with our own eyes--all those painful partings turned into reunions! This is God's promise. In the meantime, we have work to do.

The famous "Praying Hands" picture was created by Albrecht Durer, the son of a Hungarian goldsmith. He was born in Germany in 1471 and died in 1528. As is the case with nearly all men of genius, fact and fiction become interwoven and created the legend of the artist as we know him today.

It is said, that while studying art, Albert, as he was called, and a friend roomed together. However, the meager income they earned on the side as they studied did not prove to be enough to meet their needs for rent, food, clothing, and other living expenses. Albert suggested that he would go to work to earn the necessary income for both of them while his friend pursued and finished his art studies. When finished, the friend would then go to work to provide support while Durer would finish his studies. The friend was pleased and happy with the plan, except that he insisted that he be the first to work and that Albert continue his studies.

This plan was followed and in time Albert Durer became a skilled artist and engraver. Returning to his room one day, Albert announced that he was now ready to assume the burden of support, while his friend studied art. But, as a result of his hard labor, hi friend's hands were so swollen that he was no longer able to hold and use the paintbrush with skill. His career as an artist was ended.

Albert was deeply saddened by this disappointment which his friend had suffered. One day when he returned to their room he heard his friend praying and saw his hands held in a reverent attitude of prayer. At this moment, Albert received the inspiration to create the picture of those wonderful "praying hands." His friend's lost skill could never be restored but in and through this picture, Durer felt that he could express his love and appreciation for the self-sacrificing labor which his friend had performed for him. Durer also had another thought that such a picture could inspire a like appreciation on the part of others who may also be willing to sacrifice and give on the behalf of someone else.

The story is now legend. I cannot verify if this is factual or not, but it sounds wonderful. Self-sacrificing is a brand of love that is not too often seen in our too-busy kind of a world. Yes, in the act of sacrificial love we have identity as being part of the family of Jesus Christ, otherwise known as the Church. (Robert Strand, Moments to Give, Day 1)

You may notice Albrecht Durer's painting "Praying Hands" painting is on your bulletin cover. It reminds us of the sacrificial love of Christ for us. That is the same kind of love we are to have for one another. As Jesus said, "Greater love has no man, than a man lay down his life for a friend."

Somber Advent hymns remind us of the darkness and desperation in which we find ourselves in our separation from God. We await the joyful Christmas carols that signal dispersal of darkness as the light of the world is born anew into the world and into our hearts. Christ in us is what ties us to the rest of Christ's family. No matter how grim or drear we will have no fear. For we await a family reunion on judgment day and there will be no tears. Christ has come. Christ is here. And Christ will come again.

- - - 

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on December 13, 2009.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Universal Revelation Guaranteed

This is the second Sunday of Advent.  The season of anticipation.  Waiting, waiting and hoping.  The question is, who is this God for whom we wait?  Who is this Emmanuel, this God with us, for whom we long?  Return to the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Comfort, comfort my people says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Israel needed the word of comfort of hope.  They were in exile from their homeland, suffering in captivity, homeless, homesick, heartsick.  Israel had been defeated by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and exiled to Babylon which is the land we call Iraq. In the midst of their exile comes a word of hope from Isaiah: "Hey, Israel, lighten up. You've served your time in a foreign land. You are going home!" 

Perhaps you still cannot relate to the idea of exile. The opening fantasy did little to excite you. The talk of Babylon seems irrelevant to your life. But exile is not so strange a concept as all that. Perhaps you are like one of the older members of this congregation who talks about how much Houston has changed in the last 50 years. "It's not the same place it used to be," she says. "It's changed beyond all recognition." It is possible to live in the same place your whole life and still be living in exile.
I sometimes feel an urge to return home. The problem is that home as I knew it no longer exits. I drive by the house where I grew up at 640 7th Avenue, Morton, Mississippi. The house is still stands but my family doesn't live there anymore. I walk over to the old high school gym. It is abandoned. I walk over to church I grew up in and everything has changed. There is a new pastor. The faces are unfamiliar. I walk over to my first grade playground. The slide that seemed 3 stories high when I was a First Grader now stands just a couple of feet higher than my head. The slide is the same but I am different. I look around the empty playground. Where are my childhood friends? They don't live here anymore. I go home only to discover that my childhood is gone. And so is yours. I have some idea of what it means to live in exile and so do you.  

Search engine giant released their 2009 list of Top 10 Searches. With all the news about the economy, collapse of the world's reserve currency, a massive stock market decline, the subsequent largest bear market rally in history, geo-political tension, terror threats, health care, cap & trade, and tea parties, this year's list may come as a surprise to some. 

1. Michael Jackson
2. The Twilight Saga
3. WWE  (World Wrestling Entertainment)
4. Megan Fox
5. Britney Spears

Roughly 80% of Top 10 queries on the internet are related to the entertainment industry, with sports fans  (Nascar and WWE) driving the remaining 20%. It's official. No one really cares about reality. The majority of the population seem to be lost in the wilderness of mindlessness. 

Others of us are searching for answers. Google's proprietary keyword research tool gives us a glimpse of how many people out there are looking for certain types of information or products. The 'searches' amount is based on Google search queries initiated in October 2009. 

Unemployment Searches:11,100,000 
Health Care Searches: 11,100,000 
Inflation Searches: 2,240,000 
Survival Searches: 3,300,000 
Economic Depression Searches:40,100 

To those searching for answers to such questions God speaks tenderly. A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed."

God is coming to find us—in the wilderness. So get ready for action. The earth must be terraformed to prepare the super highway. The valleys must be built up with dirt. The mountains and hills must be leveled out. The swamps must be bridged. The potholes must be filled. For God is coming to the wilderness. And He's not coming alone. He's coming with the armies of heaven. 
There was a time when our nation was living in a wilderness. The time was 1861. The occasion was the Civil War. A woman named Julia Ward Howe visited a Union Army camp on the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. Here is the song Julia Ward Howe wrote that morning in the early days of the Civil War: 

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave, 
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave; 
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave, 
Our God is marching on. 
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! 
Our God is marching on. 

We may be wandering in the wilderness of mindlessness or hopelessness but God is coming to find us in the wilderness. Advent is the time of anticipation of God's arrival. Advent is the time to build a super highway for God—a highway that runs from heaven to our hearts. But Advent is about more than that. Advent is a season when we anticipate the time when Jesus comes back to earth. And this time he won't be coming as a baby in a manger. This time he'll come as God's judgement upon the unrighteous and as God's redeemer for the righteous.  

Why do we have trouble believing Christ will come again? We seem to have no trouble believing that the God who created the world loved us so much that God humbled Himself and took the form of a fetus in the womb of a Jewish woman in Palestine 2000 years ago. We have no trouble believing this baby was born to Mary, named Jesus, worked as a carpenter, taught with authority, healed the sick, raised the dead, took upon himself the sins of the world, suffered and died on a cross. We have no trouble believing that no the third day God raised him from the dead and that he is now seated at the right hand of God in heaven. Every Sunday after the sermon we stand up and say we believe he will come again to judge the quick and dead.  

So why do we have trouble believing that Christ will come again to judge the world? After all, the second coming of Christ will be a gravy train for Christ compared to the first coming. Because this time he's not coming to sow he's coming to reap that which he has already sown. His second coming will be bad news for the unrighteous but good news for the righteous. 

This is the new deal. Christ is coming to the wilderness to save us from our mindlessness and hopelessness. Christ is coming to us in the wilderness to set things right. See the heavenly armies marching toward us in the wilderness. When Christ returns, it won't be as an obscure baby born out in the sticks. When Christ returns it will be as the king of glory.

When Jesus Christ comes to earth this time everyone will know who he is and why he is here. Everyone will know the game is over, the curtain is coming down. Everyone will recognize that this is the last act of history. The unrighteous He will judge. The righteous He will reward. It will be plain as day. Everyone will understand. And every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

Isaiah describes the end result: "Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all eyes will see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." Universal. Revelation. Guaranteed. 

- - - 
-Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Isaiah 40:1-11 on December 6, 2009 (Advent 2C) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Potter's Clay

One of the first steps in creating a clay pot is to pick up a lump of clay. Hold it up over your head. Throw it down on the table as hard as you can. Pick it up and throw it down. Mash it. Smash it. Work it with your hands until it is softened. Only after it has been beaten into submission is the clay ready to be made into something new and beautiful such as a little Christmas ornament. First you have to work with the clay to soften it up. You have to get the clay ready to become something new.

The prophet Isaiah says we -- you and I and all other earthlings -- are the divine potter's clay. We are like clay in the hands of God. We sometimes feel like clay in the first stages of deconstruction. We feel thrown down, smashed, beaten up, worked over in an unpleasant sort of way. Then we lay in disarray. We wonder what we have done to deserve such foul play. We become keenly aware of our limitations. One little illness can remind us of our mortality. One quick fall and our independence is called into question. We may even wonder where God is when we feel like a beaten up lump of clay. 

It happens to most of us. We go through periods in life when God appears close at hand, but we also experience periods when God seems very far away in the heavens and even cut off from the earth. It is at this point of paradox and darkness that Advent becomes an ever-present need in our lives. Just as ancient Israel under Isaiah's guidance hoped that the Exodus-Sinai events in her memory would be reenacted so life could begin again as it began in the days of Moses, so do we focus our imagination on the evergreen wreath hoping that our collective memories of the coming of Christ to the world so long ago will be reenacted in our midst so life can begin again for us.

Isaiah says, "We all fade like a leaf." (v. 6c) The faded leaf is but one side of the paradox of Advent. To refuse to embrace the dying of the physical, the social, and even the religious, is to ignore the real ministry of the darkness and its rest. Indeed, all our faded leaves of existence and personal darknesses remind us that all the schemes, expectations, and goals we have set -- for ourselves, our world, and our religious organizations -- have yet to be redeemed. There's more that needs to come. We, too, join the longing of Isaiah, Mary, and John for God to break into our isolation. We place our wreath of hope alongside the darkness of our faded leaves. Perhaps the paradox of Advent becomes ultimately our one great hope. It is an irrational, apocalyptic hope, which informs our waiting.

For people like us -- ever thoughtful, ever reasonable, and ever realistic -- the evergreen wreath of Advent, the special music, the candles, the flowers, and the best efforts of the preacher are necessary. All our hopes twisted together make enough hope to live by, hope enough to see beyond the faded leaf and give us the courage to wait for more.

We all fade like a leaf. The mystery of faded leaves being transformed into evergreen wreaths is symbolic of the power of God transforming darkness into light in human lives. This transformation spans the whole sweep of biblical history. Abraham, the unbeliever, becomes the obedient servant of God. Jacob, who cheats his father out of something that wasn't his, becomes the loving father of Israel. Moses the angry murderer becomes Moses the patient father of a nation. Peter -- the cursing, redneck, abrasive fisherman -- becomes the tolerant leader of the church.

At the personal level we vacillate between the evergreen wreath and the faded leaf. Physically our lives march toward the faded leaf instead of the evergreen wreath. The human body has its seasons commensurate with spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The advancing years take their toll. The eyes dim, the hearing wanes, the hair grays, and the muscles lose their tone. The body becomes as fading as the leaf which will one day fall from the tree. We begin our journey this year with the evergreen wreath and words from Isaiah about a faded leaf. We wait for more.

When we get roughed up by life's circumstances we may feel like the potter's clay. First comes the initial thumping. Then we get put on the shelf. Finally, the potter uses a light touch to make us into more than we ever imagined we could become. The prophet Isaiah said it well: "We are the clay, You are the potter, we are all the work of Your hand." (v. 8)

As we begin this Advent journey, may we join with Isaiah in presenting ourselves to God, saying:

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!

Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.

Mold me and make me after Thy will,

While I am waiting, yielded and still.

Let us heed Jesus' words from the Gospel of Luke and "Be on guard" during this Advent season. Let us "Be alert at all times" to what God may be doing in our lives and in the life of the world. The circle of the wreath reminds us of the round sun that sustains life day after day. Let us awaken then to the Word of God planted in our hearts. As Jesus says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will not pass away." It is that Word of God that will gestate in our souls during this Advent season.

The Rev Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Isaiah 64:1-9

on November 29, 2009 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston