Thursday, December 17, 2009

Third Sunday in Advent Year C 2009

03 Advent C 09
December 13, 2009

Zephaniah 3:14-20
14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Isaiah 12:2-6 (psalm)
2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. 5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Philippians 4:4-7
1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Luke 3:7-18
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." 10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The Hidden Truth

As Liz and I were driving toward Gloucester along Route 14 I happened to notice that church up on the hill, which is for most of every year more-or-less invisible. But in the season of Advent, this little church has a tradition of putting a star in the front yard and lighting it with a big spotlight, so that a large shadow is cast on the fa├žade of the church. It’s quite dramatic and beautiful.

I then began to notice along the road the lights decorating houses, yards, trees, bushes, fences. Of course there are also the figures that are all lit up, Santas and angels and deer and nativity scenes and even pink flamingoes.

And I I thought of all this illumination as a kind of revelation, as if all these things had been here all along, like that church on the hill, but somehow invisible, hidden behind the ordinary world we usually see, and that as Christmas approaches, and the darkness of winter falls, these things pop out of hiding and shine before us. Heavenly beings stroll around in people’s yards. Ordinary little homes shine like palaces. Forest creatures light up with holiness. The space-time continuum slips and behold, first-century Bethlehem pops into the front yard.

“You brood of vipers” is not my favorite first line of a sermon. But as we read on in John’s diatribe, we get the sense that he is addressing a certain group within the crowd that has gathered around him. I can imagine the scene. John’s preaching had probably first attracted the radical element, and maybe those who were poor and oppressed in the culture of the day. But as the crowds grew around him, word reached the cosmopolitan centers, the seats of power, and some of the upscale people thought they’d go out and check him out.

His words for them were shocking. A wrath is coming, and they are its main target. John takes on their complacent belief that their status as Jews is all that’s necessary for their salvation. It seems that cheap grace was a problem for the Jews as much as it seems to be a problem for us. We’ve all heard preachers singing that sweet lullaby, “God loves you just the way you are.” We drift off to a pleasant sleep, secure in the knowledge that all is well.

But John shakes us awake. “Do not tell yourselves, you are children of Israel. That doesn’t mean a thing. Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

“Nobody’s perfect.” You’ve heard that haven’t you? Maybe you’ve even said it. It’s that nice little dismissal we like to give to our sins. “Ah, well, nobody’s perfect.” But John is not settling for such half-hearted repentance, the kind of repentance that admits sin but does nothing about it. The Messiah is coming, you see. What is hidden, what is already there but invisible, all of it will be revealed.

And so Paul says, “Rejoice.” And Zephaniah says, “Rejoice.” And the psalmist says, “Rejoice.” And that wonderful sentence, “The Lord is near.”

Getting ready for the revelation, when things that are hidden will be revealed, is what repentance is really all about. And the revelation itself is what Christmas is really all about.

There is a veil, you see, that most of us call “reality.” It’s the whole system we have of figuring out what is true and what is not, what is good and what is evil, what is great and what is small. But hidden behind this system, behind what appears to be, is the truth. This truth is very close by, though most of us don’t know it. We’ve been talking throughout Advent about the kinds of things that disturb the veil, that rip holes in it and give us a glimpse of the truth that’s working behind it. Disasters, crises, sudden transitions, anything that disrupts the flow of our expectations of cause-and-effect, events that rip up our assumptions and preconceptions, this is the stuff of revelation.

We can, without a single crystal ball, predict that such revelation will happen, and within our lifetimes. The whole nature of the demonic is to convince us that somehow we have things under control, that God’s in his heaven, safely distant and pleasantly irrelevant, and all’s right with the world. The complaints of those who disagree are regarded as unreasonably negative and probably self-serving in some way. But then somehow everything blows up. Riots, rebellion, war, plague, attack, murder, the superpower loses the war, the shuttle blows up, the towers come down, the man in the tower shoots. You mean, we’re not indestructible? You mean, the whole world doesn’t love us? You mean, millions of Americans don’t think the economy’s fine? You mean, we’re actually bloodthirsty and cruel, and not a thousand points of light?

But Paul says “Rejoice,” and Zephaniah says, “Rejoice” and the psalmist says, “Rejoice.” This is the victory of our God, this is where the hidden and cosmic truth bursts into our safe little bubble of delusion. This is where the blind suddenly see and the deaf suddenly hear and the paralyzed stand up and run. This is the day of the Lord, and it is coming soon.

The veil is pulled back. We see the mighty Caesar on his throne, deep within his monolithic palace, surrounded by servants and ministers and generals. We see his thousands and his ten thousands, their finely polished swords gleaming. But the veil is pulled back and we see a festering cesspool of greed and violence and domination. We see a backwater town in a backwater region, a little stable behind an inn, a working poor couple, the girl pregnant out of wedlock, a wet and bloody newborn they could most likely barely afford to feed. But the veil is pulled back and we see the Lord of creation, surrounded by angels, singing “Glory, glory, glory.”

What should we do? What should we do to be ready for the veil to be pulled back? What should we do to be ready to be exposed as part of the problem or part of the solution, part of what is destroying God’s creation or part of what is saving it?

It depends, doesn’t it, on who we are, who we really are, behind the veil of appearances. Each one of us asks the question, and each one of us gets a different answer. To those who are ready, to those who know already what is behind the veil, to those who have been given the vision of the coming kingdom of God, to those who have embraced it and given themselves to its coming, the answer is “Rejoice.” Right now, such folks look ridiculous, unrealistic, foolish, weak. But when the veil is pulled back, they will be the multitudes robed in white, the holy ones of God singing joyful praises to the victory of God.

But for others, who hide their wickedness is denial and self-delusion, who secretly hate and condemn and thirst for blood, who covet and crave what doesn’t belong to them, who practice deceit of themselves and others, who willfully strive to dominate and exploit those who are weaker than they, the answer is “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” It is not enough to say, “Nobody’s perfect,” because when the veil is pulled back it will be shown that someone is. That one is the baby in the manger, the Christ, and all who are in him on that day.

On the other side of the disaster, on the other side of the turmoil, on the other side of that day, there is a glorious vision of God’s new creation, a world of peace and justice, a world without weapons, a world without hunger, a world without violence, a world in which those who grieve will be comforted, and those who are weak will be cared for, and those who thirst after the justice of God will drink it in full measure.

God, in the new covenant that is coming, promises this. But every promise of God comes with a warning. Some will be there, and some will not. To those who are ready, God says, “Rejoice.” To those who are not, God says “Repent.”

What should we do?


Friday, December 11, 2009

Second Sunday in Advent Year C 2009

02 Advent C 09
December 6, 2009

Malachi 3:1-4
1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Luke 1:68-79 (psalm)
68 "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Philippians 1:3-11
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Luke 3:1-6
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

The Whack of Peace

A preacher named Scott Black Johnston, in a sermon on this morning’s text, mentions a story by Flannery O’Connor about the wife of a pig farmer named Ruby Turpin. Ruby is an appalling racist, who has no awareness of her racism, regards it in fact as a great virtue. She delights in more or less constantly thinking about and talking about the relative bigoted rankings of this race and that race, of rich people and poor people.

One day, while she’s waiting in a doctor’s office for her appointment, while she’s going on about how grateful she is that she isn’t black or poor, a young woman in the waiting room walks up to her with a copy of a book called “Human Development” and whacks Ruby in the head with it. The young woman then calls Ruby a “warthog from hell.”

Interestingly enough, Ruby does not interpret this as an attack by a rebellious teenager, but as a message from God. She goes home and while she’s hosing down the pigs she asks God some questions. “How can I be a hog and me too?” she asks God. “How am I saved and from hell too?”

And Ruby has a vision. She sees a ladder on which people are ascending to heaven, walking together in the groups that she had placed them. She and racists like her are bringing up the rear of the procession; they are the "last," following all of those whom they have despised for so long. But as she looks at the ones at the head of the procession, she learns something even more remarkable. O’Connor writes: "…she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away."

Some of you may remember the story of a friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic who is now living a productive and sober life. He likes to remind himself of a particular day, back when he was drinking. He was homeless, and wandering the streets of a major city. It was winter, terribly cold, and he spent the day collecting dimes and quarters from sympathetic strangers. At the end of the day, he had collected enough for a big bottle of Mogen David 20/20, or Mad Dog as he used to call it. He took his bottle to a Salvation Army clothing bin, climbed in, buried himself under the clothes, opened his wine, and as he took his first delicious sip, he said to himself, “This is the life.”

Human beings naturally tend to look at the bright side of life, to consider any focus on the down side as negative and unproductive. “Count your blessings,” we are often told, and we do. Here we live in a lovely peaceful hamlet on a beautiful body of water that is often dotted with the sails of expensive boats. The people are friendly and easy-going. The homes are attractive and neat. The cars are mostly new and clean. Almost everyone is comfortably well-fed, many a little on the tubby side. Life is good. If we have any longing at all for peace, we don’t have to look far to find it.

Every Advent, we lectionary preachers insist on all this minor-key, somber stuff in the four weeks before Christmas. Some of us find it’s a real downer. “This is Christmas for crying out loud, a happy time for parties and feasting and shopping. When will those bleeding hearts stop moaning about the poor? When will those commie peaceniks stop complaining about war and violence? We’re sending out Christmas presents to poor children aren’t we? Leave it alone for God’s sake.”

Many of us would call the last three hundred years of world history “the Age of Reason,” or “the Modern era,” or “The Enlightenment.” We are accustomed to believing that these three hundred years have been a unique time of progress and enlightenment. We term the ages before it as “Dark” and think of those who came before as ignorant and backward and even brutish. And yet in these same three hundred years, from 1700 to the present, over 250,000,000 people have been murdered by violence or by intentional neglect, more people, either in numerical or in per capita terms, than have been murdered in all of recorded history prior. Right this minute, thousands are being murdered in various parts of the world.

What does all this violence have to do with our peaceful, pleasant, prosperous village by the water?

In the twelve step fellowships, there’s a saying. “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Denial is a survival mechanism that works very well in terrible situations from which there is no escape. I’m fairly certain that slaves in the American South in the nineteenth century didn’t get up each morning and think, “I’m in a terrible situation. I’m owned by an oppressive and racist bigot who will torture or murder me if I try to escape.” No, in order to survive, the slave probably had to say to himself, “Well, it’s a lovely morning. Not so hot today. We’re going to have grits this morning, and that’s my favorite breakfast. This is a good day.”

Denial is a subtle and insidious process. Denial is a reflex, an instinctive reaction to negative things. We ignore the violence and injustice that buys us our peace and prosperity, our privilege and opportunity. The land we build our neat little homes on is soaked in blood, but we don’t want to think about that. The Christmas gifts we buy are made affordable by the homelessness and hunger and exhaustion of millions of poor workers, but we don’t like to think about that. What point is there in being so negative? What can we do about it anyway?

It’s a good question. And the answer is “Not a thing.” We’re as trapped in our situation as that slave in nineteenth century Alabama. We’re as without options as my friend with his bottle in the Salvation Army clothing bin. We’re as clueless as old Ruby about what is good and what is not. So why think about it? Why not just let it go?

Because the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. It didn’t come to Tiberius Caesar. It didn’t come to King Herod. It didn’t come to Caiaphas the high priest. It didn’t come to Obama, it didn’t come to Palin, it didn’t come to Oprah, it didn’t come to O’Reilly, it didn’t come to Sam Walton or Warren Buffet or Dr. Phil or Joyce Meyers. It came, as one theologian put it, “to a nobody, son of a nobody, in the middle of nowhere.”

Whack! Comes the smack upside the head. Whack! God got my friend out of the Salvation Army bin. Whack! God got Ruby out of her prejudice and ignorance. Whack! God delivered the Hebrew slaves out of their bondage in Egypt. Whack! God gave Sarah a child in her old age. Whack! God gave his word to a nobody, son of a nobody, in the middle of nowhere, and the word of God was:

“Repent and I will forgive you.”

The peace of the world, the shalom of God, begins with an amazing strategy. God offers forgiveness to those who are willing to admit they don’t have a clue, that they don’t have any options, that they are out of ideas, that they are ready to do whatever God asks. The peace of God begins with surrender.

We said last week that the coming of the Lord is not a peaceful evening of family joy, but a shocking and marvelous intervention in the disaster of our broken world. It is the God of eternity entering the flesh and blood world we live in right here and now, and bringing about miraculous transformations through ordinary nobodies, the children of nobodies, in the middle of various nowheres. We said that to get ready for his coming is first to face the darkness in ourselves so that we can see the darkness in the world around us.

On this second Sunday in Advent, we take the next step, to open our arms to the forgiveness of God. God is offering us peace, peace with God. He is willing to come into our world, but he is asking us to prepare his way, to surrender our helplessness to him. He promises that if we do, he will do in us that which we cannot do in ourselves, he will do for our world what we cannot do for our world. He will scrub us with the kind of soap that takes off layers of skin. He will refine us in a fire that will burn most of us away.

If we let him, he will bring his peace.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

First Sunday in Advent Year C 2009

01 Advent C 09

Jeremiah 33:14-16
14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

Psalm 25:1-10
1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD! 8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. 11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21:25-36
25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

The Buds of Spring

Jesus is coming. Look busy. So reads one of my favorite bumper-stickers.

It’s obvious we all have end-of-the-world anxiety. Left Behind, the 2012 movie, the TV series about the aliens that arrive to change the world. And of course, Jesus’ message this morning sounds like a modern news broadcast. Why are we fascinated with disaster?

What is it that we pay attention to when a disaster strikes? When Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the world watched while the federal government seemed to do nothing. Meanwhile, stories of heroism and grace competed with rumors of chaotic violence. Sean Penn, the bad boy of Hollywood, might not be someone you’d think of having a spiritual center. But while the National Guard was nowhere to be seen, he was in New Orleans driving a boat around saving people. Who knew?

Religious leaders weighed in on the cosmic meaning of the event, some rather superficially, and others with real depth. A disaster reminds us how fragile we are, how temporary our seemingly indestructible institutions, how vulnerable we are to forces far beyond our control.

In the aftermath of 9/11, while the country was whipped up into a vengeful bloodlust, a very sick man murdered a number of Amish schoolgirls. The reaction of the Amish community, the forgiveness they extended not only to the deceased murderer but to his family as well, was an amazing contrast. Disaster has a way of revealing the truth. The Amish were ready for theirs, but I don’t think we were ready for ours.

A lot of us remember the landing on the Hudson. The word I’d use to describe the pilot would not so much be “heroic” as “prepared.”

In my own life, it wasn’t until my mental illness nearly destroyed me that I was able to see it for what it was. It was only in the midst of a personal disaster, the disaster of my broken life, that I was able to see the truth that was hidden. To paraphrase an old saying from the twelve-step fellowships, “Evil is the disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease.” Or as old C. S. Lewis said, “God doesn’t make demons out of fleas; he makes them out of angels.” What I had passionately believed was my salvation turned out to be a total sham, a demon in a nice suit. Such is the nature of most evil, and we can’t simply trust our conscience to recognize it.

These forces are bigger than the individual human will, incomprehensible to human reason. We can analyze them all we want, we can illustrate how they developed and describe them with great insight, but we can never master them on our own, anymore than we could have said to Hurricane Ida, “Be quiet,” and expect her to listen.

Jesus saw the coming of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem some forty years before it arrived. Some say this is simply the author reading back something he’d experienced into Jesus’ language. But most serious scholars believe that the prediction of the destruction of the temple was a significant part of the reason Jesus was arrested and tried for heresy. Did Jesus have a vision? Was he granted some supernatural insight? Well, as Willis might say, “maybe yes, and maybe no.”

Someone who had wrestled successfully with his own demons, someone who understood the history of Israel and God’s relationship to his people, someone who had been carefully observing the interaction of the priests, the Jewish king and the poor and oppressed people of Israel with their Roman overlords would have fairly easily been able to predict that the interaction was not going to end well. Rome held all the cards; Israel suffered all the grief. Sooner or later there would be violence, and Rome would certainly win. It took no supernatural insight to see the destruction of the temple in the near future.

On the other hand, we might also say that this deep involvement in the scripture, this careful and honest observation not only of others but of oneself, this regular prayer and meditation, in other words, waiting and watching for the right time, the moment of truth, filled Jesus with the Holy Spirit of God, so yes, we might say that his vision had a supernatural element.

Jesus teaches us to be alert, to stay awake, to watch. It is not a passive activity, waiting and watching for the Son of Man to come on the clouds of glory, watching for the revelation of God.
The reality is that evil hides, and it usually hides behind good. In the same way, good may be hidden, waiting to be revealed, behind what seems to be evil. As evil works toward its goal of destruction and desolation and suffering, it seeks to hide behind what appears to be good.

It’s hard enough even to discern the evil and disobedience in our own hearts, but once we have, it renders it much easier to discern the evil hiding behind the good in the world around us. If we don’t discern the evil in our own hearts, we are much more likely to be duped. The reason why Christians practice careful self-examination and even confess their sins to each other is precisely so they can identify the shadows that are lurking behind the pretty images the world presents to us. Only with the capacity to see the shadows in the mirror can we possibly discern the shadows around us.

Therefore, honesty, and particularly self-honesty, is supremely important when it comes to waiting expectantly for the Lord. Unflinching, sometimes excruciating self-honesty must become for the Christian such an inborn habit that the recognition of evil, in one’s self first of all, becomes a reflex.

Barbara Brown Taylor once preached: “When things get bad we pound on God’s door: where are you? We need you NOW. The threat is not outside the door but inside us.”

With a clear idea of who we really are, Jesus also calls us to observe the world with the same careful eye. I love his direction to his apostles, “Be innocent as doves, wise as serpents.” Jesus asks us to work toward pure devotion to God in our hearts and a healthy suspicion for all the beautiful things the mob is worshipping. Only with open eyes and the wisdom of God are we ready for mission.

My theory of mission, my practice of evangelism, my whole idea of church community-building, is to seek out people in the moment of transition, in which their anxiety and confusion is at their peak. In social issues, I look for the moments when change is possible, when people have no idea what to do, when the threat is looming most powerfully. I’m looking for the disasters, I’m looking for the buds of spring, because it will always be there that God shows up.

Our church has begun to speak on the national level about a concept of global ministry we are calling “critical presence,” which I think captures this way of relating to God and our fellow human beings very well. Critical presence is considered presence, strategic presence, presence determined by a careful study of scripture and a careful analysis of the situation that pertains in any given place and time. Critical presence can only be practiced among people who are carefully watching and waiting for the buds of spring, who see behind the curtain and understand the forces that are really at work behind them. Critical presence is the presence of the risen Christ, coming on the clouds of glory, the flesh-and-blood entrance of God into a given situation at the level of the deepest and truest need.

As the plots and schemes of evil spirits begin to bear the fruit of destruction, the opportunity arises to call them out and name them, to expose them to the light, to reveal what had been formerly hidden. This requires great strategy and timing, and is simply impossible without the wisdom of God as it comes to us through the Holy Spirit. Try to expose the evil too soon, and it will simply slip behind the good and the world will think you’re crazy. It’s when the work of evil begins to really damage God’s creation in ways that simply can’t be denied that the time is right to point and say, “That’s it, that’s the evil one at work!” And so it is that Jesus invites us to lift up our heads when the going gets not only tough, but disastrous. He invites us to see in wars and plagues and floods and earthquakes the buds of spring.

If we watch and wait with patience and discipline, we will be ready when the moment comes. We will say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. We will do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. God will, through us, march into the world and defeat the bloodiest and most powerful of foes without shedding a drop of blood, except, of course, his own.

This is real hope, in all its terror and majesty. Watch for the buds of spring.