May 25, 2011

When Jesus will Return

My sermon from Sunday at St. Stephen's Church, Brewton, AL

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here with you this morning. I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ in Foley. They also send their regrets that their patron saint, Saint Paul held coats and looked on approvingly while your patron saint, Saint Stephen was stoned to death becoming the first to follow in Christ's footsteps and die at the hands of his persecutors. We hope there are no hard feelings.
I'm actually quite relieved to even be here this morning. I don't know if you heard, but the world was supposed to come to an end in a series of massive earthquakes yesterday. An eighty-nine year old, former Civil Engineer turned Christian radio preacher named Harold Camping thought he had stumbled upon a truth that even Jesus himself had missed: the exact date and time of the Second Coming of Christ. I tried really hard all week to avoid the press that Camping was getting. To be quite honest, it grieved me that honest to goodness news organizations like CNN and The Washington Post would even bother to pick up the story. I shouldn't be surprised, I guess. The media seems all too excited to jump on a story that makes Christians look silly. I was also sad for the folks who follow this radio prophet, especially the children whose faith might be irreparably broken by the fact that Jesus didn't return at eight pm Pacific Time on May twenty-first, Twenty-eleven. I was avoiding all the hoopla out of silent protest for the scores of ways this man and his math made my life's vocation harder.
But on Thursday morning I caved. I followed the link on CNN.com to an interview with Mr. Camping in which he declared that he knew “absolutely, without any shadow of a doubt that May twenty-one will be the day.” I read with sadness the stories of people who gave away everything they had, walked away from jobs and family and friends to drive RVs around the county declaring the end of the world. And assuming that Camping isn't lining his wallet, a generous assumption, considering his family radio group is worth over one hundred million dollars, I prayed that God would somehow redeem the mess that one well meaning follower was managing to make. And then I went back to work, looking over the scriptures for today, asking God what he wanted me to share with the good people of Saint Stephen's in Brewton on the day after the world was supposed to end, and I realized, as if in a flash of lightning, when the world would actually end. Well not really end, what I came to understand is when Jesus would actually return. or perhaps better said, when Jesus will return again.
The funny thing about the Great Fifty Days of Easter is that we very quickly run out of resurrection stories. On Easter Day we get the empty tomb. On Easter Two we hear about the upper room on Easter Evening. Easter Three we met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. And then, by Easter Four we were back in pre-crucifixion days listening to Jesus interact with his disciples. This morning we are back on Maundy Thursday in John's Gospel. Jesus and his disciples are in the upper room, the Last Supper has been served, feet have been washed, Judas has left to finish the deal that will cost Jesus his life, and Jesus has predicted Peter's denial. The mood in the room is so heavy with grief that even now we can taste the sadness, and yet Jesus looks at his disciples and says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God and Trust in me. In my Father's house there are many mansions, and I'm going to prepare a place for you. I'll be back to get you, but in the meantime, you know where I'll be.” Jesus will spend the next four chapters, roughly twenty percent of John's Gospel, helping his disciples understand how to live as a people “left behind.”
Good old Thomas isn't having it. He speaks up as the rest of the group stands in bewilderment, “What do you mean we know where you are going? We don't have clue? How can we know how to go somewhere when we don't know where it is?” He wants seven habits, ten commandments, or twelve steps. He needs Google Maps to tell him to swim the Atlantic Ocean to get to England. Thomas wants a date and a time to meet Jesus. But Jesus doesn't offer concrete details. Jesus is soon headed off to be at the right hand of the Father. He'll be the firstborn of the dead. He'll be in that great by and by. And not even his disciples can join him there just yet. Their job is still on earth.
Jesus dangles heaven in front of his disciples, and then proceeds to tell them that the journey is the more important part for now. That's so hard for us humans to handle. That's why Harold Camping got all sorts of press this week. We don't really want to die, and we certainly don't want the world to end, but if there was a way to have heaven right now without the perceived bad stuff, we'd take it in a heartbeat. My friend Scott from Michigan puts it this way, “If you tell your child that tomorrow you're getting in the car and heading to Orlando to spend some time at Disneyworld, the kid will have a mighty tough time enjoying the trip along the way. Suddenly, she will want to be there yesterday. It would be a foolish parent who would dangle Disneyworld in front of a kid as the final destination but who then also told the child, 'But now, Janey, we're going to take our time getting there. There is a neat museum in Ohio where President Rutherford B. Hayes was born which I want to visit first as well as an excellent fabric store in Kentucky where your mother will be picking up quilting supplies. And then...' And then nothing, as far as Janey is concerned! You can't get to Orlando fast enough from her point of view. Everything else along the way is either just a delay or flat out a waste of time.”
That's where Philip is. “Just show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” In a culture where you couldn't even say the name of God, lest you would die, seeing him would be instant death. Not even Moses got to see God face to face, he had to hide the the cleft of a mountain while God passed by. Philip wants to jump to the end, but Jesus asks his disciples to wait. He's got to leave them behind for now, but in doing so, he is giving them a gift.
“You'll do greater works than what I've done because I'm going to the Father.” In essence, Jesus says, “With me out of the way, you're going to be God Incarnate on earth. You'll be his hands, feet, mouths, and ears. You'll do the work of declaring the Kingdom of God, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free. To put it bluntly, as the note in my HarperCollins Study Bible does, “Believers are Jesus' successors and Jesus 'returns' through their work.” Jesus returns through the work of those who trust in him. Jesus returns through you and through me.
Jesus Christ did return yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before that. Jesus will return today, and tomorrow, and the next day. Jesus returned several weeks ago when this parish called to reach out to a former member after the tornadoes, sparking a vibrant relationship between Brewton, Trussville, and Cullman. Jesus returns in the chaos of tornado debris and in hospital rooms. In pulpits and around dinner tables. In search committees and Youth Sundays. Everywhere his commandment of love is lived out in word and deed, Jesus returns to earth incarnate in his bride, the Church.
This morning we gather as a people left behind. Maybe the Rapture did happen last night. Maybe it didn't. There was about 30 minutes on my way up 31 this morning that I thought maybe it had, but still, we are still a people left behind in the same way Jesus' disciples were left behind. He is still with the Father, preparing a place for us, and he is still the way, the truth and the life. Do not let your hearts be troubled, there is trouble enough to go around. Instead, trust God and trust Jesus and keep up the good work. Keep reaching out to those in need. Keep visiting the sick and infirm. Keep sharing the good news that the Kingdom of God is available to everyone. Keep raising your children in the knowledge and love of the Lord.
Jesus Christ is coming back: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It doesn't mean the world is going to end, but I does mean that heaven is coming to earth, if only for a moment, in the faithful work of a faithful disciple. May God bless you as you take part in that work. May he make you his very hands a feet. May he show you the need and give you the means to address it. And may you do it all in the love commanded us by his Son, who is the way, the truth and the life. Amen.