Thursday, November 11, 2004

Sunday's texts, worship issues and preaching

This upcoming Sunday (24th post-Pentecost, Nov. 14) is the beginning of the end, at least for the church year. Our lectionary readings are all apocalyptic in nature. Even the 2 Thessalonians text is. There Paul speaks out against those who would not work because the end is coming. The Malachi and Lukan texts are much more explicitly apocalyptic. I am drawn to the Malachi text for my sermon, although I suppose that the gospel text will make an appearance or two there.

The carving out of the Malachi text is interesting. I wish the RCL committee had just included the whole fourth chapter of Malachi. It was only four more verses. Anyway, it would seem that the context of Malachi's prophecy helps us with this text. Malachi wrote after the second temple had been built, following the homecoming from exile. In a time that should have seen an outpouring of faith and sincere worship, Malachi sees Israel once again turning away from Adonai. In Understanding the Old Testament, Bernard Anderson writes,
[Malachi] accused them of dishonoring Yahweh by placing polluted food on the altar and by offering sacrificies -- blind, lame, sickly animals -- that would not have been accepted by their governor. The people were going through the motions of ritual but clearly they found the whole thing boring and wearisome... The priests were not guarding the true torah, men were divorcing their Jewish wives to marry foreign women, and social injustices abounded. (pp. 522-523)
In a time that should have been getting better and better, people were becoming more and more disillusioned. Their worship suffered. They wandered, and they began mistreating their neighbors. Everything should be going better for them. But God doesn't seem to be paying off the way that they expected him to.

Sometimes I wonder if this isn't the same situation that the church faces now. The twentieth century was to be the Christian Century. If only we went to church, lived good lives, and did what we were told, things would only continue to get better and better, especially since most in America expected to be able do that more freely since they had thrown off the shackles of the terrible state churches that held much too much authority and power in the old country. But that positive outlook didn't last long. The World Wars and the Great Depression, helped lead to a realization that not much had changed. What good is God if his promises weren't going to be kept? It is the echo of Malachi 2:17, "Where is the God of justice?" People didn't (and don't) feel that there is any tangible benefit to being a Christian. Non-Christians could be just as succesful as Christians.

There doesn't seem to be any tangible benefit to marriage for Christians. The divorce rate is just as high as the rest of society. Neo-pagans can be just as succesful as Christians in the business world.

So now what? Now comes the apocalyptic texts. Normally, I talk about apocalyptic texts in terms of bringing hope to a community living through a crisis. But these texts also work to strip us of our notion that we might make things better on our own, by following certain proscribed routines or programs. When apocalyptic texts arise, we see communities that can't go down any further.

Apocalyptic texts speak to us to help reorient not just our behaviors, but our whole mode of thinking. We are not promised success in marriage or business if we are Christian. What we should strive for is success in our witness. And we don't witness to gain new members in our congregations. We witness because we know that ultimately everything is in God's hands, even if our witness should lead to martyrdom.

We remember that God is the one who will heal all of our brokeness. In fact, Malachi talks about the sun of righteousness rising with healing in his wings. For us, the Church, we cannot help but see Jesus as our sun of righteousness. It is in the Church that we find that healing. We find it in the water of baptism. It is in the body and blood that we find healing and a glimpse of the age to come.



Phillip said...

After church tomorrow our parish is dedicating a Hinoki Cypress, planted recently on our grounds in memory of a beloved member who passed away this year. We will form a procession after the dismissal and huddle around the smallish evergreen along the sidewalk for a psalm and a prayer and the chance to give thanks for Lou's life. Grow, little tree, grow! In a Spirit-inspired twist of irony, the photograph that appears on our pre-ordered Augsburg Fortress bulletin for this Sunday (Proper 28) includes two huge evergreen trees that have been toppled down and uprooted, most likely a snapshot from a tornado's aftermath. The words "All will be thrown down," taken from Luke 21, appear above the ruined trees. While the contrast of these images--trees shattered by natural destruction and our delicate new cypress--may seem to cast a cynical light on our dedication ceremony, I find that holding them in close tension actually proclaims the good news quite well. As Jesus reminds us, the time of strife, struggle, and the impending destruction of the "things that are" is not a time to fear, and it is certainly not a time to give up and become apathetic. Rather, we witness with even bolder confidence to the love of God and the power of Christ. These are times to work and build, even if "all will be thrown down." If the world sees the church still planting trees in the midst of struggle and strife--in a crime-ridden neighborhood with a declining population and little hope on the horizon--the world will see a faithful people that knows God stands by his promise to bring all creation to the fullness of His love, that "not a hair of our head will perish." We, in fact, will be pointing to the hope on the horizon, the hope we have now.

Brian said...


I can't help but think of (apocryphal?)quote from Luther in response to the question of what would he do if he knew the world would end tomorrow... his answer, "Plant a tree."

I think you are right regarding the continued witness of the church in the midst of things going to hell. Our hope is in God's promises.


WonderingLuth said...

I was wondering . . . .

Apocalyptic writings foretell the end of the world. But the phrase "the end" needs to be clarified. We normally think of “the end” with negative connotations – the end of a life, the end of a relationship, or then end of a movie. The end, in this light, means it is over . . . done with . . . . gone . . . . it is finished (If Christ had not said these words, where would we be?)! However, if viewed in a more positive light, “the end” is just “the beginning.” "The end" can mean the purpose for which something was intended (e.g. you have reached “the end” of a job) or “the end” can make the present endurable (e.g. knowing at “the end” of a long car ride, you will be at your chosen destination makes the journey bearable).

Isaiah saw "new heavens and a new earth," a world without crying or catastrophe. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (Is. 65:25). He envisioned God’s people living in peace and blessing.

When Martin Luther responded by saying, “Plant a tree,” he was not looking at “the end” as a negative thing. Quite the contrary, he was viewing it as a new beginning. Isn’t that what happens in “the end” of time – Christ sets up His Kingdom on earth? I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a good thing to me!

I was just wondering . . . . .

Phillip said...

...and I can't forget my favorite part to "the end":

God reaches the end of his patience with sin and human injustice.

That's a great end!