Saturday, December 2, 2017

Year B, Advent 1, Mark 13:24-37, No one is born giggling

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
No baby has ever been born giggling.
And if we knew what was going on in their minds, I’m quite certain that babies would not vote in favor of birth.
There is something quite comforting about being nestled in one’s mother’s womb with the soothing sound of her heartbeat, the warmth of that environment, and being protected from all harm.
If we had a choice, we might never leave.
But we don’t have a choice.
What happens is that when the time is right, that comfortable soothing world starts closing in upon us and we are forced to make that journey into the next phase of our life, down the birth canal, feeling the force of the contractions all the way, and finally, entering this cold new world gasping for our first breath, and as soon as we can, we lift up our infant voice crying out in protest about this new reality.
And that is the way life begins.
We pass through a period of necessary suffering and only then, discover the new world and new life awaiting us.
A lot will change in the years to come as we grow from infancy to adulthood, but one thing that does not change is the experience of suffering of one type or another as we move from one stage of our life to another.  If it were not for the suffering, we probably would never move on.  And when we move on, we also suffer the grief that comes with leaving behind all that was familiar.
In our book study on Tuesday nights, we have been reading and studying Richard Rohr’s book, “Falling Upward”.  In it he talks about the two halves of life, both necessary, but also very different.
Throughout the first half of our lives we devote our selves to building the castles in which we live.
And then in the second half of life, we begin to discover who it is that lives in that castle.  It is through this process of discovery, this coming to know our true identity, that spiritual maturity is finally achieved. 
But, Rohr maintains, there is an uncomfortable truth.  We will not move on to the next chapter in our life without experiencing a ‘necessary suffering’. 
That ‘necessary suffering’ may involve many different experiences.  It may involve times of intense crisis, such as the loss of a loved one, or the struggle against a major disease.
Or that necessary suffering may be more subtle, such as the process of aging, where our self identity shifts from an understanding about who we are and all that we shall one day become, to a recognition that much of our life is now in the past tense.
We move from “I am” and “I will become” statements, to “I was” statements.  And the result is grieving as a necessary suffering.
But, this necessary suffering is not the end, but a journey that we are led on that leads to a new life experience, a new day, a new reality.
24“In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
We pray “Come Lord Jesus, Come” as a prayer of hope and joyful anticipation.
What we didn’t bargain for, and would prefer to avoid, is that Jesus’ coming into our world follows a period of trials and tribulations, necessary suffering, that must come first before we see the dawn of a new day.
This is a reality pointed to throughout the scriptures.
It is part of the history of salvation.
The people of God labored as slaves in Egypt prior to being delivered and led out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
The people of God went into exile in Babylon, prior to being able to return and rebuild the Kingdom of Israel.
The people of God were again captive and subject to the foreign rule of the Roman Empire, prior to the coming of the Messiah.
And the early Christians experienced tremendous suffering and persecution prior to the establishment of a Christian nation, under Constantine.
Jesus died, before he was raised.
Peter denied his Lord, and suffered guilt because of it, before he became a pillar of faith.
Paul was struck blind, and only then could he see.
The early Christians would suffer a loss of all things, as a preparation for the new life in Christ.
And again, I will say, no baby has ever been born giggling.
But the suffering that we endure is the necessary pathway to the new life that is promised in Christ.
There is another dimension to this ‘necessary suffering’ that so often accompanies the dawn of a new age—and that is that you never know when it is coming.
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
We live at an epic time in the Church’s life.
Some have described this time as the end of Christendom. 
Ever since the time of Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, we have enjoyed a favored status in the world, and the nation and the church were basically one and the same.
But the times are changing.
Europe and North America, long established centers of Christianity are now becoming increasingly secular.  Christians are now becoming a minority in those countries, especially if you understand being “Christian” as having an active faith and being part of the Christian Church.
The center of Christian is actually shifting South, with major growth taking place in Latin America, Africa, and also in Asia.  Russia and China are becoming Christian Nations.
And yet here in North America, being part of the Church is no longer a given in our society.
Even weddings and funerals are becoming increasingly secular, with no faith component at all in many cases. 
In our congregations we see the ramifications of this every week as we gather for worship.
There is a reason we do not have hundreds of people in worship here at Peace, and it’s not because you are a bad or unfaithful congregation.
And it’s not that there isn’t the potential.
There are 18,000 or so people living in our service area, Otis Orchards, Liberty Lake, and Newman Lake.
18,000 people.
If the traditional percentages held true, there would be approximately 500 to 600 Lutherans in that 18,000—more than enough to have a vibrant and healthy congregation.
But instead, the Church suffers.
Not only us, but the Christian Church throughout this country.
What is happening?
What looms on the horizon?
One of the most depressing things I’ve done as a pastor was to travel from congregation to congregation doing supply preaching before I came here.
What I saw, in most of those congregations, was a sea of grey hair, so much so that I was struck that in 10, perhaps 20 years, no one who was there worshipping that Sunday would still be alive, and there were not children and young families waiting in the entry to take over.
I have come to believe two things.
First that a new day is coming.  I still pray “Come Lord Jesus” every day.   It is a prayer filled with hope and expectation.
But I also believe that the new day that God has in store for the Church will not just magically and painlessly happen, but rather will involve many trials and tribulations, a lot of grief for what is lost, and only as we pass through this time of necessary suffering will we see the coming of the new day in the church’s life.
This is the thing though.
We’d like to be able to be born again without passing through labor and delivery.
But it doesn’t happen that way.  It never has, it probably never will.
But one thing I do believe very firmly is that God will preserve for himself a remnant from which the Church will be reborn.  And he may do so in miraculous ways.
One modern day example of this is what took place in the Soviet Union during those seventy years that Christianity was banned and the official position of the State was atheism.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg was converted to a “Museum of Atheism” during the Soviet Era, and one of the things that happened there was that in promoting atheism the communists related the stories of faith, and preserved the icons, in a mocking manner.
And yet it was through that art work and those stories, even though they were shared by atheists, that God preserved the Christian faith in Russia.
One of our tour guides observed that 70 years of Soviet oppression could not undo 1000 years of Christian faith.
Russia is re-emerging as a Christian nation, not because they are being converted, but rather because the roots of their faith ran deep and are now rebounding to new life.
I wonder if this is what is happening to us.
We are not being persecuted like the Russians, but Christianity is increasingly being seen as irrelevant to people’s lives. 
Many churches will close.  Others will be greatly diminished, just as happened in Russia.
But out of the ashes, God will raise up the Church to a vibrant new day.
So even as the Church suffers the loss of many things, we pray “Come Lord Jesus, Come”.
Through trial and tribulation we look toward the future in hope of the day of the Lord’s coming.
And at the right time, Christ will come.


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