Sunday, December 29, 2013

First Sunday after Christmas

Isaiah 63
7 I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
    the deeds for which he is to be praised,
    according to all the Lord has done for us—
yes, the many good things
    he has done for Israel,
    according to his compassion and many kindnesses.

He said, “Surely they are my people,
    children who will be true to me”;
    and so he became their Savior.

In all their distress he too was distressed,
    and the angel of his presence saved them.[a]
In his love and mercy he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them
    all the days of old.

It’s really just a date on the calendar—January 1st—but if you read the paper or watch the news, you might think it’s actually news.

To be fair, there is a pause at this time of year: a time when hard news generally takes a break and we are met instead by a series of lists. Call it a ‘summary moment’ whereby we review the people and events that define the passing year and decide what truly matters. In some ways, it raises more questions than it answers:

Just how many mayors does Toronto need?
Does the new premier always talk about herself while jogging?
Is the new pope a reformer or a giant distraction?
When will politicians learn that pointing fingers at each other makes all of them look bad?
How concerned should we be about rail safety, this close to the tracks?

I didn’t set out this morning to create coffee hour discussion starters, but if you have the definitive answer to any of these questions, let me know. My guess, however, is that each of you will have your own series of year-end questions, which only underlines the nature of review.

Back in minister’s school, we were the masters of review. Most of the program was based on what we called the action-reflection model, meaning do something and then talk about it. Well, it might have been slightly more complex than that, because it also included goal setting, then doing, then reflecting on what you did, in the context of your goals.

Of course, even in such a tightly structured program, there were variables that no one could predict. I volunteered to do my first bit of practical training with the padre at CFB Kingston, wanting to learn about something completely new to me. What followed was eight hours a week of listening to the padre tell old peacekeeping stories while my classmate and I ate Timbits. Twenty pounds and two semesters later, my only action-reflection was getting to the gym.

Now, the year in review is different than the latest adult learning assumptions. We don’t set societal goals, or international goals, and no one is compelling us to do a review, since it is something that can easily be ignored. In fact, when we do set goals—such as a reduction in child poverty—the news is generally how we failed. Maybe Parliament should simply stop adopting unanimous motions, if there is no unanimous direction for achieving these goals.

If we had to find the best example of ‘year in review’ or ‘era in review’ in the Bible, we can look no further than the Book of Isaiah. God has created a series of goals for the people, the people have been found wanting: the people are punished, then the people are redeemed, and then they are finally restored. It’s a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, and the book alternates between the themes of punish-redeem-restore with some rapidity.

By the time we get to chapter 63, not only are the people worn out, but there is a sense of the overall direction of this story. And this, of course, is why we find this reading on the first Sunday after Christmas. Our short passage this morning is one of those moments when God is ‘speaking tenderly to Jerusalem’ and says, “Surely they are my people, children who will be true to me.” It is then the author who adds the summary that follows: “and so he became their Savior.”

Call it incarnation in a single thought: recognized as God’s people, and blessed with a Savior. The passage shouts “Christmas!” to Christian readers, even though we share the Book of Isaiah with Jewish readers for whom it says something else. So we tread carefully, engaging what Walter Brueggemann calls “the canon and Christian imagination” to see what we see in the text but resisting the urge to claim a definitive reading.

The irony of finding Christmas in Isaiah 63 is that the action of redemption is long past. Isaiah 40, the ‘comfort ye” passage that we read in Advent is the moment when God decides to redeem the people, when the fire God has for punishment is ended and the desire to comfort begins. Isaiah 63—again noted by Brueggemann—is about managing the restoration, learning once more how to live in Jerusalem, and more importantly, how to live with God.

Now, if our theme is celebrating the incarnation once more, then perhaps learning how to live in Jerusalem is the correct lens for us. We know we can’t completely enter the mindset of Christmas each year, because it happened for the first time on only one occasion. More then, it is a continual reminder: God entered our world long ago and each year we need to make it new again. And this is very much like living as people restored to the Holy City: it happened, and now we need to live with the implications.

Both the return to Jerusalem and the birth of our Saviour can be accurately described as second chances. God felt compelled to exile the people, to punish them for their disobedience, and gave them a second chance in the form of return. In the same way, God entered the world in Bethlehem and gave us a second chance to reconfigure our relationship with God, to see God in a new way, and to respond accordingly.

There was, of course, a bit of a false start at Calvary, but it was also part of the unfolding second chance for us. Jesus, then, in every iteration—lived, died, and lives again—is part of this unfolding second chance we have all been given: to re-imagine our life with God and the extent to which God wants to renew and redeem us. And it happens every year, the very reason we structure our Christian lives around the cycle of birth, teaching, cross and empty cave.

The key question for us, then, is do we want to be renewed? Do we even want a second chance, or a third chance, or wherever you find yourself on the new chances cycle? I expect the answer is ‘yes,’ since why else would you be hanging out here? Maybe it’s time for a little confession, just to spice things up.

When my loving partner is away visiting with her family, I watch the most boring television I can find. Boring to her, of course, but not to me—since I’m the one watching and in full control of the remote. This week I’ve been watching a six-part series called “The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track.” As I said, boring to some, but not me.

Each episode looks at a different part of the country and the unique challenge faced by railway staff in keeping Britain on track. And I can say that the greatest single challenge to keeping Britain on track is the British. Rude, belittling, mean-spirited, disrespectful, messy: and that’s before people even get on the train.

And it’s not just the British: watch the people around you at the bank, or returning something at the customer service desk, or on the telephone with a whoever provides your cell phone. It’s not that we want to be rude, it just seems to happen every time we interact with seemingly faceless institutions or businesses that in fact do have a face: the poor person tasked with taking our call or meeting us in the midst of our complaint.

I know, I promised you a confession. Every few weeks, for nearly six years now, I have received a phone call here at the church to goes something like this: “This is an important message for—Iman Amadi—you need to call regarding an overdue amount at 1-888-etc.” And so I called back. I spoke with someone who understood that the church was not Iman Amadi, and they would take us off the list. Six weeks later: “This is an important message for—Iman Amadi.” I have learned that impressing them with my fancy titles doesn’t work, nor getting angry, nor being as rude as I can possibly be. Every six weeks: “Iman Amadi.”

Part of me, of course, just wants to escalate the situation. Until I remember that the person on the other end of the line didn’t wake up with a desire to torment me, and certainly didn’t start out life with the goal of working for a collection agency. They are there because they need a job—any job—to survive in our time of low wages and limited opportunities.

So, I need to be renewed. I’m not going to love the collection agency, or Iman Amadi, but I will try to be more patient in 2014. Or change the church phone number. What will you do differently in 2014?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve, 7 pm

Isaiah 9
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.

Since I have no idea what plague this Sunday will bring—snow, ice, frogs—I thought I should get a jump on the year in review.

For this, we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary, and their ‘word of the year’ announcement: a linguistic moment-in-time that reveals which new words we used more frequently this year and how we used them. They say they’re tracking the 150 million words we commonly use (if you have a good vocabulary) and bless a handful each year as new and noteworthy.

Before I get to the winner, you can only truly understand 2013 if you look at the runner-up words as well: binge-watch, watching every episode of a program back-to-back via the internet; bitcoin, a new form of digital currency; schmeat, hamburger grown in a lab; twerk, something related to moving ones posterior, and showrooming, checking something out in store before buying it online. All fine words, and no doubt worthy of an entry in the OED, except maybe twerk.

And the winner—the most noteworthy word of 2013—is ‘selfie.’ What’s a selfie? The Oxford definition says “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” You know, a selfie. Barack Obama took a few with Prime Minister of Denmark recently, and one newspaper described this as the best sign yet of the fall of western civilization. And teenagers seem to have embraced the selfie as a favourite form of self-expression, something that further adds the decline and fall theorists.

But is it really so bad? If the Man of the Year (Pope Francis) popped in this evening to say ‘hello,’ I confess I would be the first to employ the word of the year (selfie) to mark the occasion. It says ‘hey look at me,’ but not always in the worst possible way. It can also be ‘hey look at me visiting somewhere important; or ‘hey look at me doing some noteworthy thing’ or ‘hey look at me, I’m with someone famous’ and I want to mark the occasion.

It occurred to me when the OED first noted that use of the word selfie was up 17,000% in 2013, that this may be the sign of the new age—not the end of the world—but a new age. BIMD (back in my day) kids tended to appear in groups, because there were so many of us, and because parents banished us from their presence for long stretches of time and said ‘go see your friends and leave us alone.’ Photos from the time show big groups of kids, all long-haired and awkward, with ne’ery a grown-up to be seen.

Now, there is more solitude. Kids come in single-packs, or pairs, and the pictures are self-taken, or selfies: more a product of loneliness and the need to express the idea that even without being surrounded by a big group of peers, I still exist.

If we extend this our present occasion, we might say Christmas is God’s first selfie, and like this modern age we inhabit, it relates to solitude. For you see, the most compelling argument I have heard for God’s incarnation—God desire to be with us in a new way—is based on loneliness.

God made the heavens and the earth, and all that inhabits the earth, sea creatures and those on land. But God felt alone in the universe, no doubt entertained by creating the first version of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, but still alone. And so, God made us: to fill the earth, and have dominion over the creatures of land and sky and sea—and God was much less alone.

In time, and through much trial and error, God began to understand this leading creature, and the consequence of making the first law of humanity a little troublesome thing called free will. People were disobedient, and willful in their treatment of God and others: which seems a very natural consequence of something as profound as free will.

God began to tinker around the edges. Smoting here and chiding there, flood the earth, don’t flood the earth, liberate a people, give ten laws, anoint some kings, trouble them with prophets, send everyone in exile—or at least the ones that mattered—and lead them back again. Help them rediscover the Bible, send more prophets, and sit back to reflect on the experience so far.

And then something changed: God began to realize that watching from above was different than standing arm-in-arm, and that being entertained or disgusted by humans is not the same as understanding humans. It occurred to God to have a much more intimate sense of human living would be required if God was ever going to feel complete—if God was ever going to be reconciled to this creature at the head of the stage.

So it happened: God decided to enter our world, to come as one of us, to begin small and insignificant in the world’s eyes, only to grow into the visible image of an invisible God (Col 1). God chose to stand beside us, not over us, and marvel at the extent to which we are created in the image of God. It called for a selfie, and Christmas was just the first occasion where God stood with us to have a picture. The first was a humble one, taken in the dim love-light of a stable, few to see but all to adore. And more came in time, but this was the first, and the most unique, a self-portrait to begin a long journey together.

May we stand and smile as God draws us close. May we feel the warmth of God’s embrace, and may we find in this season the hope that is ours to claim. Amen.

Christmas Eve, 11 pm

John 1
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

Sure you have a favourite Christmas carol—we all have a favourite—but which one is the best?

Since you are here at the 11 o’clock service, and since you will soon stand in a circle and light your shiny new Christmas candle, some of you will no doubt argue that “Silent Night” is the best. Just a few short days ago the children reminded us of the broken organ at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, and the lullaby for guitar that fit these new and wonderful words. I have no doubt that more than one church in this city will recreate the scene tonight in the absence of electricity.

Now some of you are patriots, and will no doubt claim that the Huron Carol is the best, written by a Canadian saint, at a Canadian pilgrimage site, describing the idealized Canadian birth of our Savior “in a lodge of broken bark” and “wrapped in a robe of rabbit skin” ready to receive “fox and beaver pelts” which we seem to have in great supply. It would be an excellent choice for best carol.

This is the point, of course, that us anglophiles and bibliophiles would sharply disagree, and insist that Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” is not only a great carol but one of the finest poems written in the English language. Rossetti, who struggled throughout her life with melancholy, tells us that ‘as poor as she is’ she can still find hope in this scene of ‘maiden bliss,’ and give her heart to her beloved Jesus.

But I want to make another case, this one by another English poet, who—oddly enough—lived a century earlier in the same part of London as Christina Rossetti. Charles Wesley, John’s younger brother, give us what I’m going to argue is the greatest carol of the lot: “Hark! The Herald Angel’s Sing.” Before I make my case, however, you need a little background.

It is hardly surprizing that three Wesley brothers become priests, but not because of father Samuel was priest. It was Susanna, their mother, who from an early age spent time day with each of her children engaging in what we would now call spiritual direction. Both John and Charles experienced the conversion that created our tribe the Methodists, and while John turned to preaching to share the message, Charles wrote 6,000 hymns.

Before I say more about a hymn we won’t actually sing tonight, just a little more background, this time closer to home: I’ve been channelling my own inner Susanna Wesley over the last few years, attempting to share the core of the Christian faith to a group of intrepid learners, some of whom are here tonight. Last winter, in a class on advanced systematics, I tried to convince them that Easter was really a happy add-on, and that all we need for our salvation and spiritual completeness happened on Good Friday. As I’ve said from this space before, I was selling and they weren’t buying. So tonight I’m going to try again, but with a twist. First, a verse from Charles:

Hark! The Herald Angels sing,
"Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"

So, greatest carol ever and key to our salvation: Clearly I like to challenge myself while preaching.

In traditional atonement theology, the human condition means separation from God. How, then, can we become one again with God, how can we realize the ‘at-one-ment’ that is God’s greatest hope for humankind? In most theories it happens on the cross of Jesus: God’s willingness to suffer and die that we might have life. An exchange of sorts: dying for our sin and purchasing for us new life. It’s all true, but it disturbs us, as only such theories can.

So what happened on May 24, 1738 at 8.45 in the evening while some bloke read aloud Luther’s preface to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans? Yes, yes, John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed. But what few remember is that Charles experienced the same conversion as John, but three days earlier on the 21st. Already a priest, he was reborn and experienced the kind of joy that would allow him to write the line: "Till we cast our Crowns before Thee, Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise!”

The same wonder, love and praise that typifies “Love Divine: All Loves Excelling” compelled him to reconsider the birth of Jesus, to re-imagine the meaning of this event in the life of believers, to see the coming of the light in a new light: one that has consequences beyond the birthday of the one who would someday die for us.

At the moment of his birth, we were reconciled with God. This is no mere baby, and ‘king’ falls short as a description of his meaning. This is life itself, “born that [we] no more may die” and ‘born to give us second birth.’ The earth is reborn, we are reborn, and we live in the radiance of this divine light: made new, reconciled with God, ‘who works in us and others by the Spirit’ to share this message of new life. And for this we say ‘Thanks be to God.’ Amen.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Second Sunday of Advent

Matthew 3
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[a]
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

You could argue that he was a cross between George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rosa Parks, with MLK thrown in to complete the picture. I think it is safe to say that we are unlikely to see another Nelson Mandela any time soon, and his death gives us a clear sense that a moment in history has passed.

We, of course, have been privileged to witness this unfolding story. Imprisoned and seemingly rendered powerless, only to become the moral conscience of an age. Released and expected to reverse the fortunes of the people, only to work for truth and reconciliation. Governing and expected to govern for as least as long as his prison sentence, only to retire and work for peace.

You might argue that his passing comes with unexpected timing, with churches around the world this morning reading Matthew 3 on this second Sunday in Advent, and hearing an echo of this modern story:

This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness.”

From the wilderness of a lime quarry on Robbins Island to the halls of power, Mandela maintained the same dignity and sense of humanity that allowed him to speak with such authority. No longer crying in the wilderness, now among the saints in light.


Whenever we try to understand one thing in light or another thing, we are making an analogy. It is a look at similarities, in an effort to case some light on the thing we seek to understand. Two ‘fathers’ of their country (in my comparison) may be separated by 200 years, but thinking of one in light of the other helps us put them into perspective.

Two weeks ago I spoke of John the Baptist as the new Elijah, drawing a comparison between the righteous anger these two men expressed. And closely related to analogy is typology, trying to understand things by putting them in categories, organizing them by types. Both John the Baptist and Elijah fit in the angry prophet category, that is their typology, and we can stop there if we wish, but it seems Matthew wants us to see more.

Typology here extends beyond a type of people or the type of role they undertake, and includes the type of story we read, the goal of the story, and how we can understand later events more clearly if we categorize them with earlier stories.

And Matthew makes it simple. In fact, all the Gospel writers want us to see that John the Baptist is fulfilling the role that Isaiah defined so eloquently 500 years earlier:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, saying,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

This quote that we sing and say with such frequency is found in Isaiah 40, the transitional chapter in Isaiah, the beginning of the latter half of the book that some have called the ‘fifth Gospel.” So important is Isaiah that when we stop to count, 27 of the 37 Old Testament quotes found in the letters of St. Paul are quotes from Isaiah.

You will remember how chapter 40 begins, because George Frideric Handel wants you to:

Comfort ye,
comfort ye my people,
saith your God.

This is the comfort promised as the exile in Babylon ends, as pain is ended, and the people are allowed to return. And the words of comfort continue:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

There is loving regret here, similar to the regret that we spoke about last week with our old friend Noah. God promised that never again would the earth be destroyed, that the rainbow promise would stand for all of time. Likewise, the path for exiles to return has been carefully set, hills made low and valleys filled, as the glory of the LORD has been revealed.

So the story of John the Baptist is a retelling of Isaiah 40, the exiles are leaving corrupt and sinful lives in the cities and towns and making their way into the wilderness, to hear this message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Through John’s baptism they are cleansed to return and serve God, and prepare for the coming for the one for whom they wait.

But there is still more. The Bible continues to sing and make meaning, this time pointing back further still:

There's a voice in the wilderness crying,
a call from the ways untrod:
prepare in the desert a highway,
a highway for our God!
The valleys shall be exalted,
the lofty hills brought low;
make straight all the crooked places
where the Lord our God may go!

Scholars tell us that this is a reference to the Exodus from Egypt, taking us back in time again, and that, in fact, much of Isaiah is a retelling of the foundational story of the Jewish faith. Listen to Isaiah 43:

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.

The path from Babylon to the new Jerusalem will not be just another passage through the desert, it will be a reenactment of the Exodus itself, and God will once again lead them, and protect them from peril, and give them springs of water to drink. Once again, everyone will know that the people belong to God, their strength and deliverer.

Now, some or all of you are aware of the miniature degree in theology we have been working on here at Central, for nearly six years: the same informal degree in theology that Dr. Jim among others is still wondering if it will turn itself into something useful like a clergy parking spot, or an abundance of foolish titles and letters.

Way back on the first night of our look at the Bible, I suggested that there are in fact only three key themes in the Bible, and that mastery of these three themes will unlock the Bible like a key or what Dan Brown would call a code. The three themes—exodus, exile and Emmanuel—not only begin with the same letter but are fully present in the third chapter of Matthew.

A voice in the wilderness says prepare the way of the Lord’s coming: Emmanuel
The glory of the Lord will be revealed as those far from home will return: Exile
A path in the desert of now clear, a highway from bondage and sorrow: Exodus

We are reading the greatest collision of Biblical themes found in the Bible. And it has all come down to this moment in time: captives are free from sin and death and ready to witness to the Lord’s coming. Make a straight path for him, make a straight path, prepare the way of the Lord.

May God continue to lead us on a journey that defies time and place and can only bring us home. May God bless us through the rest of our Advent wandering, until we find rest in the little town of Bethlehem, Amen.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Advent 1

Matthew 24
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,[a] but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day[b] your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I confess I’m much more likely to buy something if it includes a bit of poetry on the box. This, from Fisher-Price:

Noah, using all he knew,
built himself a floating zoo
With lots of animals, all times two,
ready to come and play with you.

“The ark includes Noah, two elephants, lions and zebras and giraffes – all pieces store inside. Look for more Little People animals to fill the ark. (sold separately and subject to availability).” Okay, so the last part kind of falls flat.

66 customer reviews on give the Little People Noah’s Ark five stars, and at $29.99 it seems like a pretty good deal. Of course you have to scroll through all the positive reviews to finally learn that this ark doesn’t actually float, which seems to undermine the overall message of the toy.

Now, perhaps Fisher-Price is a bit too pedestrian for you, so I might recommend Playmobile with 13 sets of animals and a working crane for $249.99 And just in case you are wondering what Warren Buffet’s grandchildren can look for under the tree this Christmas, I give you Hansa’s Noah’s Ark with the tag line “24 plush animals in total rocking in a mechanical ark!” It costs a mere $6,200. It’s hand sewn, and includes more exotic animals like a marmoset, but sadly the animals come one-by-one. Seemingly the rich don’t trouble themselves with the point of the story.

So what is the point of the story? The Fisher-Price version comes with a little Noah with a little dove perched on his shoulder, which seems to underline the end of the story. In spite of the mass destruction of all of humanity, Noah and his family, along with four sets of animals (other sets sold separately) survive the flood and repopulate the earth. In other words, buy the toy but please, share the story later.

For me, the most remarkable part of the reading this morning is that this story, this mythic narrative, is being quoted by Jesus and recorded by Matthew nearly 2,000 years ago. And a thousand years before that it’s an important bit of oral history, finally codified some time in the pre-exilic period, perhaps 800 years before Christ.

So here’s a story that’s been with us as long as our forbears have been sharing stories in an organized way, recorded in scripture, cited by Jesus, and still resonating in our culture quite apart from the religious meaning. Few stories can make the same claim, and few stories generate so many additional symbols, such as the rainbow, the dove and the olive branch.

So how is a mythic narrative and not history? I imagine the first few chapters of Genesis to be something akin to a set of answers that might be prompted by a child’s questions. Think of the Seder meal, and the tradition of the eldest child asking ritual questions such as “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And then imagine what might prompt Genesis 1 through 11:

Who were the first humans?
How did the animals get their names?
What was God’s response to all that wickedness in the world?

Okay, that last question might be a stretch, but it illustrates the idea that much of this pre-history is written to explain something, and while it may not be factual, it can certainly be true. In other words, the point of the story can ‘ring true’ in our hearing without being verifiable or scientifically valid. Of course, in one of the great ironies of history, the earth’s response to the wickedness of manmade climate change may be a great flood.

So why does Jesus share this story in a farewell conversation with the disciples? It more-or-less falls in the middle of the last two chapters before the passion story begins. Chapters 24 and 25 begin with the predicted destruction of the temple we looked at a couple of weeks ago, and conclude with the remarkable description of “what you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters you did also for me.” In between, is a lesson in watchfulness, waiting for the end of the world.

So the moon will perish and the stars will fall, and like in Noah’s day most will be unprepared. And when will this happen, this thing for which we need to prepare? Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

I think you see the problem. Beginning shortly after these words were written down, as that first generation of believers began to depart this world, the story of the end of the world become a story of disappointment. Not disappointing for those who ignored Jesus’ teaching—but a disappointment for those looking forward to Christ’s return. And this theme has continued down to this day, some waiting, some no longer waiting, and some puzzling over the meaning we can find in these words.

Maybe it’s time for a little more poetry, this time from T.S. Elliot:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Maybe “The Hollow Men” is about the Gunpowder Plot, or the end of the First World War—whatever the meaning—it inspired another poem a couple of generations later:

It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

This update is by Michael Stipe of REM and seems to get us closer to the point of our lesson this morning: while Jesus tells us to prepare for the end of the world as we know it, it may not happen precisely as planned. And without dipping too far into “what did he know” and “when did he know it,” I think it’s fair to say that the real world-ending activity, the real ‘end of the world as we know it’ comes once a year.

In other words, in the absence of the end times, we are still confronted by the world-altering and life-changing reality of the incarnation. Even as we listen to the farewell discourses recorded in these last chapters, a small voice says ‘yes, but the real end of the world as we know it happened at the beginning of the story,’ when God chose to enter the world in a new way. Jesus is the flood that swept away the wickedness of humanity, overwhelmed by forgiveness and love. Jesus is the melting moon and the falling star, ending everything we thought we knew about the cosmos. Jesus is the ‘end of the world as we know it,’ and for this we feel more than fine.

The rainbow promise, that never again would God destroy the earth, still stands as one of the few constraints we know binds the hand of God. How God acts in human history is a mystery to us all, but we know that the rainbow covenant is perpetual legislation. And so it happened that God would need to find new ways to deal with our inevitable disobedience: giving the law at Sinai, sending prophets major and minor, giving us the gift of scripture as comfort and guide.

But then something else happened, and the impetus remains as much a mystery as providence itself: a young woman, a baby, and the growing sense that God is with us. May we continue to explore this mystery with open hearts, now and always, amen.