June 1, 2014 Sunday After Ascension
Isaiah 33:5-6, 17, 20-22, Psalms 21:1-6, 24, 1 St. Peter 4:7-11, St. John 15:26-16:4
The guy in the cartoon always sported long, stringy hair and a beard. He invariably wore sandals. His sign shouted, “The end is near.”
Then came some events that included the Cuban missile crisis and the cartoonists didn’t give this character so much work any more. A guy proclaiming doomsday approaching at the gallop somehow wasn’t quite so funny now.
St. Peter and the other New Testament writers still provoke a few laughs, however; they harped and harped on the Apocalypse, and what has become of their dire warnings? Two thousand years have crept by and the planet is still spinning.
Before we dismiss those moldy old prophecies out of hand, though, we might pause to ponder whether Peter and the rest had a different perspective. This same Peter did write, “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 St. Peter 3:8).
When one operates on eternal time, on God’s time, the world looks very different – and that’s to say nothing of the creatures who populate it.
And so Peter yodels down that 2,000-year corridor to us today, declaring, “But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers.”
He’s serious. His is a hard-earned wisdom. Some 30 years before he wrote, his Lord posted him on sentry in a garden one dark night and gave him a charge: Be watchful and pray. Peter slept. That failure seared in his mind the need to remain ever vigilant.
He passes down to the scattered Christians of the first century, and to us, the command his Lord gave him. The day after Peter fell asleep on duty in the Garden of Gethsemane came the beginning of the end. Men nailed God to a cross.
The end of the end could arrive today. Peter and those other writers pound us with the message to remain alert for we know not when our Lord will return. Five virgins stood their watch at the ready with sufficient oil for their lamps.
Five other virgins came unprepared. When they went to find more oil, the bridegroom arrived. After he entered the wedding banquet, the doors were closed. When the foolish five returned, they were not allowed in.
The end of all things is at hand. Because it is, be serious and watchful in your prayers. What a curious instruction to deliver to Christians. We’re serious, aren’t we?
Let’s think about this. What is it to be serious? The Greek word that underlies the English appears to be a bit slippery. The first six translations I looked at rendered the phrase six ways: “be serious,” “be self-controlled,” “be sober,” “be of sound judgment,” “be clear-minded,” “keep sane.”
If a precise translation is hard to pin down, we have no trouble seeing the sense of it: keep a clear head, think straight, live a measured and ordered life. The idea of sobriety lurks within, but avoiding intoxication is only part of the definition.
It may be precisely because the end is near that Peter tells us to keep our wits about us. In these last days God’s people encounter shock, trials, affliction, doubt. As the maelstrom swirls about you, don’t get caught up in the frenzy. Be serious.
The New Testament writers contrasted this word to one meaning “manic,” which, in English, anyway, rhymes with “panic.”
Are we serious? Belay that question. First, are the enemies of Christian seriousness serious? Are those committed to a life rooted in this world, a life that leaves God out, intent on achieving their ends?
Some years ago I spent a month in North Africa visiting missionaries. One of them took me to a city on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, on the border with Algeria.
West of town, we come upon men at intervals along the highway. Each one has a donkey tethered nearby and a collection of battered tin cans. My host explains to me that Algeria has oil and Morocco has none; these are gasoline bootleggers.
A car stops abreast of one of them and the driver gets out. Cash changes hands and then the smuggler inserts a funnel into the gas tank and begins to pour. It all happens in the open and my friend says the illegal trade has gone on in this way for years.
Not long before, however, the trade had suffered an interruption. The Algerian authorities weren’t bothered about the indigenous Berber people smuggling gasoline across the Atlas Mountains and into Morocco, but when radical Islamists began entering the country by way of those mountains the army cracked down – hard.
It was “shoot on sight” and the petrol profit wasn’t worth risking the wrath of machine-gun fire. The flow of gasoline dried up like the Sahara . . . until the day the light bulb flipped on in the noggin of one inspired black marketeer. His donkey had crossed those mountains hundreds of times, he realized, and could easily follow the track over and back by himself.
Of course, being a donkey, he would need occasional motivation. The smuggler bought a cheap cassette player and recorded the words “keep going!” in the regional Berber dialect, which is the language donkeys in that part of the world understand.
He contacted his source in Algeria to make arrangements. Then he secured the payment among the empty tin cans in the rigging on the donkey’s back, clamped a headset attached to the cassette player over those donkey ears and sent the beast down the trail to shoulder his burden.
And that donkey did keep going. When he returned with full cans, other smugglers followed suit and the bootlegging business was thriving again.
The enemies of seriousness are resourceful, motivated, undaunted. They spare no effort in pursuit of their worldly ends. Why should they? Then can conceive of no higher purpose. A life of moderation and order holds no allure for them.
In Colorado, the state of intoxication, we will see this summer the formation of the first organization for women in the marijuana industry. The Denver Post reported that this group, called Women Grow, will present educational symposiums and monthly events for women engaged in the world of weed to network, mentor and be mentored.
And what of us? Are we serious? Belay that question. Let’s get our bearings.
We are now six Sundays removed from Easter. Since that highest holy day of the Christian year, our gospel lessons have led us into a growing awareness of who Jesus is as Christ and our epistle lessons into a deepening understanding of how we must live in response to His crucifixion and resurrection.
Just last Thursday, we celebrated His ascension as well. In the collect for Ascension Day we prayed that we who believe in Christ’s ascension “may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell . . .”
We now look ahead to the advent of the One who will empower us to live in such a way that we may ascend in heart and mind and dwell with our Lord in His heaven. The kingdom of heaven is open for business this very day . . . open to those who make Christ’s sacrificial life the pattern for their own.
One week from today, if the Lord does not return before, we will celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.
This morning we prayed in our collect to the “King of glory” who has already exalted His Son “with great triumph into thy kingdom in heaven” to “leave us not comfortless but send to us thy Holy Ghost to comfort us and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before . . .”
We hover today in the warp between the ascension of the Son of God and the condescension of the Spirit of God. What should we contemplate?
Contemplate this, says Dr. Cranmer: St. John tells us, “the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.” We need the Holy Spirit to indwell us and guide us.
And St. Peter tells us: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers.”
If we are serious, sober, clear-headed, we will keep all things in perspective. We will give God His proper place and develop an eternal perspective like St. Peter’s. He who has installed God upon the throne in his life will see all else ordered in relation to God.
“Be watchful in your prayers.” One who assigns more value to the things of this world than to God will not pray as he should. A righteous prayer life is not concerned with winning the lottery or getting bailed out of a scrape but in ascertaining God’s will: Take my hand and lead me, Lord; show me Your will for my life.
In seriousness, in proper prayers, is peace. The world says peace comes to those who accumulate enough things so that they need not worry about their tomorrows.
The word says you have peace when you know God for who He is and yourself for who you are in Him. This is the message Christ gave His church to tell forth, the proclamation the Spirit empowers us to extol.
We are not social workers. Social work is an important element in what we do . . . but we are not social workers. First and foremost, we are worship workers. We may help a person with a handout or a hand up but our goal is always to teach him to go to his knees and put God where He belongs: on His throne.
Only when he orders his existence in relation to God will he find peace. Transformation – the change that makes a new man or a new woman of you – comes when you fall to your knees before the King of kings and say, “Bless me, Lord, for without Your blessing I am nothing. Take me by the hand and show me the way to live for You.”
In the kingdom of God, order is everything. If we are to be serious, we will humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. If we are serious, we will get low before God and show others the glory of life on our knees. If we are serious, others will feel the peace that rolls off of us.
Are we serious? On the last two Sundays we read from the letter of St. James. Two weeks ago he taught us, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”
If we are serious, we live according to those words. If we are serious, we offer the firstfruits of our labors to God. If we are serious, our love does not take offense.
The New Testament writers form a heavenly choir, all singing with perfect pitch in the same key.
St. Matthew: “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming” (24:42). St. Luke: “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (21:36). St. John: “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him . . . He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:3-4, 6). St. Paul: “The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12).
These authors present our faith as the most serious thing in the world . . . not a Sunday morning-and-Wednesday night pastime like softball or canasta. Are we serious?
Many in the pulpits and the pews wring their hands today over the church’s difficulty in attracting and retaining young people. As for me, well, I wonder what young people should find compelling in our faith as they see it lived out before them.
The young seek meaning to fill their lives, a cause to give themselves to. When one of them runs face-first smack into the realization that he will find no peace in drugs or sex or degrees or awards or riches and looks to the church, what does he find? Are we serious?
In so many precincts, the church offers a user-friendly religion. It will win them over by sacralizing the static in which they live. Whatever aberration you choose, God affirms. The church serves junk food and applauds as our young people grow fat and empty.
It fills them with what they say they want and withholds what God says they need. They need to know this God named Jesus who says, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
They need what you and I need, a world ordered according not to temporal passions but to eternal truth, not to our wicked ways but to God’s perfect will.
We have begun with a faith grounded in the greatest sacrifice in history and drained it of all sacrifice. Now we scratch our heads and ask one another why the world around us finds it unappealing.
Can anything casual be meaningful? Should a religion that requires no sacrifice be taken seriously?
On 9/11, 19 young men gave their lives for their faith. They thought they offered God service by killing us. That time has come. They died for a lie. But it was the very sacrifice it demanded of them that filled it with meaning for them. What might we, the body of Christ, achieve if we made truth so costly? What might happen if we ever got serious?
Oh, but Preacher, you just don’t want anybody to have any fun. Not so. I’m serious about fun. I play golf. I’m so serious that each time out I play 18 holes in the hope of having fun on two or three.
The church in the West isn’t crumbling before the onslaught of legalized drugs and solemnized homosexuality and normalized killing of babies because her people have hobbies. She is rotting away because her people have made their faith just another hobby.
Be serious. Amen.