Sermon - December 3, 2017

There’s no time like the present, the saying goes. But on the First Sunday of Advent: there’s no time like the end of the world. We begin a new church year, not with champagne toasts, party hats, and a countdown. But with apocalyptic imagery about a darkened sun and stars falling from heaven.  It’s about time. The end of the world. The end fascinates us. And sometimes terrifies us.

Time goes by extraordinarily fast when you want it to take its time or painfully slow when you need it to move forward as fast as possible. There are moments that seem to suspend time, as if the world itself is circling your own orbit.

I find myself using all sorts of expressions about time: “time heals all wounds;” “all in good time;” “time will tell;” “stand the test of time;” “time is of the essence.”

It’s about time. The end of the world. The beginning of the world. The end of time. The beginning of time.

Speaking of time, reading this week’s edition of Time magazine and studying the scriptures for today, felt a lot the same.

The readings in both scripture and the magazine seem to fit how the world can feel right now. The cover of the magazine has the headline:  “We’re not frayed at the edges – we’re ripped at the seams”.  Then there is in the corner of the cover:  “Plus – the Fall of Matt Lauer” In the inside we read that 2.6 million in the US died each year from heart disease,  a picture of a torn American flag flying over a blue collar shop in Youngstown, Ohio, said to be a place that both Trump and Clinton rallied supporters with the words “civil discourse suffers from both the echo and the chamber which walls us off from diverse opinion from ideas that might disturb us in healthy ways.”  The cover story tells how the military especially Special Operatives are stretched thin and chasing around the world taking a toll on commandos and the country.  There is the story of the “Big Melt” where snow skiing in the Alps has dried up due to such warm temperatures.

Then we read in Isaiah 64 today:  We have all become like one who is unclean, All our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. …you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. And Jesus talks about the sun darkening, the moon hidden, stars falling, and the powers of the heaven shaken.

Physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking wrote the popular book A Brief History of Time. In 1962 Hawking was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease like ALS. He was given two years to live. He is still alive. It is no wonder his relation to time and human mortality influenced his obsession with the scientific questions that shaped his career. He remains an atheist, but he reminds us that we have one life to appreciate the grand designs of the universe.  The end of the world. It’s not always cosmic. When life becomes too much to bear, it feels like the end of the world as we know it.

With sex abuse revelations in the news daily. Violence from one mass shooting to the next and in the violence in the home. Political gridlock and crony crimes.  The threats of missiles and the threat of nuclear war. It is dizzying and can feel like the powers of the heavens is falling many days

Sadness and cries for justice. The longing for reforms in the justice system and for elected leaders.  For equity and freedom from abuse.  When hope dims. It’s about time. When our dreams falter. It’s about time. When God seems far away. It’s about time. We join the Israelites in their lament. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”   We feel helpless before the problems of the world. Oh, if only a Facebook post. Or a financial donation. Or a protest. Could save us. Could save our earth. And yet, act we must. Speak out, we must. Yearn and pray, we must. It’s about time. Come and save us, O God.

This first Sunday of Advent is a reminder that our time is not our own. We like to pretend that it is; that we can manage it efficiently, plan accordingly. That by our sheer determination we can will it to bend to our needs and desires. We strive to turn it back: to re-experience time with someone we love, to relive time with someone we’ve lost, to recreate a moment in time we want to remember again or that we wish we had handled differently. We wonder if we can alter time in some way, change the course of time.

The charge to keep awake during this Advent season is not just about waiting and anticipation. It is not just about getting ready or being ready because can you ever be ready for Christ’s coming?

The answer is no, and Advent will never be long enough. That’s the point. God arrives, regardless of our readiness. God shows up, despite our determination towards our own destiny. God will come, no matter what kind of stipulations or conditions or provisions we make to persuade God of our timeliness.

Our time is oriented by God’s time. God entered into our time, forever changing it. God lived time with us, forever altering what time really means.

Ultimately, God’s entering into time disrupts time, displaces time, disorients time. Not always comfortably. Not always helpfully. Not always desirably. And never expectable. Because divinity took on mortality, eternity entered temporality, and love eliminated death.

The rapper and activist Prince Ea expresses his fears and hopes in a piece called “Why I Think This World Should End”:

The world is coming to an end 

The air is polluted, the oceans contaminated 

The animals are going extinct, the economy’s collapsed Education is shot, police are corrupt Intelligence is shunned and ignorance rewarded 

The people are depressed and angry 

We can’t live with each other and we can’t live with ourselves 

So everyone’s medicated 

We pass each other on the streets 

And if we do speak it’s meaningless robotic communication …. 

Race is still an issue and so is religion 

Your God doesn’t exist, my God does and he is 


If you disagree with me I’ll kill you  

Those who first heard the gospel of Mark read aloud had lived through the end of the world as they knew it—the destruction of Jerusalem. Yet they waited for Jesus’ promised return. The apocalyptic imagery instilled in them hope for a brighter tomorrow. Several biblical scholars calls the New Testament a “survival manual for those living at the end of the world.”  Violence. Destruction. Despair. Maybe it’s always the end of the world. Maybe it’s always about time.  For Mark, this end of the world talk is linked to Jesus’ death. The true apocalyptic event of all time. We are to be alert through the night, even though the disciples fell asleep in Gethsemane. The darkened sun? It happened at the death of Jesus, Mark tells. Like the sky torn open at Jesus’ baptism, now the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom.  Keep awake. Watch. You do not know when the Lord is coming.   Yet our Lord comes even today in places of suffering, vulnerability and need. Watch there for God. Watch there for the unexpected sign. The unexpected gift. The unexpected hope.

Quaker, folk singer Carrie Newcomer has a song about what always lies just below the surface of things:

There it is in the scar healed over what was broken, In the branches, in the whispering, in the silence and the sighs, 

And the curious promise of limited time.  

Darkening sun. 

Dimming of the moon’s light. 

Stars falling from heaven. 

The end of the world as we know it. 

Not meant to be a downer as things are beginning to look a lot like Christmas. But a startling wake-up call to face the truth. The stark truths of climate change, racism, terrorism, world hunger, disease, and injustice. Things that threaten life as we know it.  It’s about time.

That’s the message of warning and hope this day.  It’s about time for a new beginning. In our end is our beginning, in the words of T.S. Eliot.  Or as Prince Ea ends his piece:

Each of us can work to change a small portion of events 

And in the total of all those acts 

Will be written in the history of a generation 

So yes, the world is coming to an end, 

And the path towards a new beginning starts within you  

It’s about time, Advent begins. The curious promise of limited time. There is no time like the present. Keep awake. It is the end of the world. Christ is coming soon.


October 22, 2017

You may be an ambassador to England or France,

You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,

You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.


But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,

You’re gonna have to serve somebody.

It may be the devil or it may be the Lord,

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” was the lead song on Bob Dylan’s 1979 album and was his last hit single. It won the Grammy Award for best male rock vocal for 1979.

This song also marked Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity.

The Herodians were local sympathizers with the Roman rulers. The Herodians supported the Imperial Tax, they benefited from it. The Pharisees, also a political party as well as religious scholars, did not have much use for the Imperial Tax, but they probably grudgingly supported it since it also helped keep them in power. And, as far as Matthew was concerned, the Pharisees would do anything to try to trap Jesus.

Some didn’t even think you should touch the coins and filthy lucre. What are the Pharisees doing with one of these coins? Trying to trick Jesus, it seems. It’s a no – win situation. Whatever Jesus says — he’s trapped. Jews owe taxes to the pagan, gentile, Roman occupation forces. If Jesus says to pay the tax, he is endorsing idolatry. If Jesus tells them to ignore the tax, the Romans will attack him.  Jesus’ answer: Give to the emperor  the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s. What exactly that does mean? As much as we may wish this passage could argue for a clean division between politics and religion, in that day they were seen as one and the same. But what belongs to the government?  Rights, property, responsibility, control, money or do they belong to the individual?… And what belongs to God?  The church, the tithe, the sacraments, the trees, the oceans, our lives, everything.

It is a bit of a false dichotomy to always separate out the two kingdoms of God and the kingdom of emperor because we live in both.  In fact, Luther called it “one cake” meaning that the one bread of Jesus is God’s incarnate presence into the reality of our lives now.  It means that Jesus stands in the center to be trapped between the Pharisees and Herodians to the cross for our sake.  On the cross, Jesus stands to bridge rich and poor, and our divisions of violence and nations, our divisions amongst and in ourselves and between us and God.  This “one cake” of Jesus means that we too become the Body of Christ.

In the first reading, God uses King Cyrus — a Persian, pagan ruler — to bring about divine purposes. Cyrus is declared, God’s anointed. An important concern in these texts is idolatry. “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.”

What matters? “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor, and give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus says. Yet, what things are God’s? What or who is our God? Theologian Paul Tillich is known for saying, whatever is your ultimate concern, that is your god.

Maybe we need to do a value inventory to figure that out. It has been said that look at your check book register to determine your values, but how many keep a check book register today? What if there were an app that could compute all the stuff on our calendars and how we spend our time. All our withdrawls and how we use our money. The websites we visit and the stuff we read. What if the app could summarize all of that and tell us what we value most. What would be on the list?

In other words, what matters? What are our gods? What are the idols that we think will bring us happiness, but leave us empty, more wanting than ever?

We have idols — they aren’t the golden calves of long ago. We may idolize someone, but since when do we worship idols? Researcher Martin Lindstrom has used brain scans to examine the similarities between some of the world’s strongest brands and the world’s greatest religions. They found that brain activity was similar when people looked at consumer images — like the Apple brand and Harley – Davidson — and religious images like rosary beads or picture of saints. There is a flurry of brain activity in the insular cortex of the brain associated with feelings of love and compassion.  It was already clear that many forms of technology have the same addictive qualities as gambling, alcohol, or drugs. The subjects in the experiment responded to their phones in the same way they would to a romantic partner, or a family member. In other words, we love our technology. The research is still being debated but Lindstrom concludes: “As we embrace new technology that does everything but kiss us on the mouth, we risk cutting ourselves off from human interaction.”  We’re no different than people in any age. We make out with idols out of things. Instead of worshipping God, we give ultimate value to all manner of substances, gadgets, and stuff that often leave us more empty, more wanting than we were before.

It’s a question we ask at certain times of our lives. What really matters? What is most important in our lives?  Martin Luther said, “Whatever you would sacrifice your daughter for, that is properly your God.” Our money may say, “In God, We Trust.”  But in any age, love of country can soon become nationalism, another kind of idolatry. Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor ’s. Give to God the things that are God’s. We have to wrestle with what that means. As we take stock of our lives and what we give our attention, our love, our money, our worship.

You can tell what matters to Paul as he begins his letter to the Thessalonians. He thanks them for their work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfast hope. Faith, hope, and love. Paul commends the community for turning from idols to serve the true and living God. For becoming imitators of the Lord and an example to others. As a community, they are attending to things that matter.

If we bear the divine image, offering to God the things that are God’s means offering everything. All that we are and have. Holding nothing back.  But if we are created in God’s image, and everything belongs to God … how do we offer the worship of our entire lives?

Research continues to show that when defining happiness, spending money on ourselves barely moves the needle, so to speak. But investing ourselves in others, in a cause we believe in, in something that truly matters, helps us to move beyond being mere bystanders of life, or victims of circumstance. We bring our values to the ways we use what God first gives us: time, talent, treasure, and tissue.

Our talents differ. Our passions differ. Our roles differ. We need all of them. We cherish all of them. We can’t be and do everything. But as a community, we are always more.

Maybe one of the things we do on Sundays is to cast idols off their thrones and then come to receive communion with our hands empty.  Like beggars.  No money. No cell phones. No feeding our addiction.  Hands wide open, for God fills us with a joy that is deep, a peace that abides, a confidence that we can face tomorrow. And by receiving the gifts of God, and giving to God what is God’s, we see the divine image in one another.  We become the Body of Christ.

And, if we believe this and live this, God will shape all that we say and do and how we live. We belong to God. We are God’s beloved children.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,

You’re gonna have to serve somebody.

It may be the devil or it may be the Lord,

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody. And, with Bob Dylan, we know who we serve.

All of life is God’s. This text tells us that we are to “Render unto God the things that are God’s.” And, since all of life is God’s and since you gotta serve somebody, we – you and I – we serve and love and live in the love and rule of Jesus Christ. We belong to God. We are God’s children. Our task is to believe that and live it.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody.

© 2017 Gethsemane Lutheran Church
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