Matthew 24:15-27 – Everything Will Change

“The prophet Daniel said that the disgusting thing that will cause destruction will stand in the holy place. When you see this (let the reader take note), those of you in Judea should flee to the mountains. Those who are on the roof should not come down to get anything out of their houses. Those who are in the field should not turn back to get their coats.

“How horrible it will be for the women who are pregnant or who are nursing babies in those days. Pray that it will not be winter or a day of rest, a holy day, when you flee. There will be a lot of misery at that time, a kind of misery that has not happened from the beginning of the world until now and will certainly never happen again. If God does not reduce the number of those days, no one will be saved. But those days will be reduced because of those whom God has chosen.

“At that time don’t believe anyone who tells you, ‘Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’ False messiahs and false prophets will appear. They will work spectacular, miraculous signs and do wonderful things to deceive, if possible, even those whom God has chosen.Listen! I’ve told you this before it happens. So, if someone tells you, ‘He’s in the desert!’ don’t go out looking for him. And don’t believe anyone who says, ‘He’s in a secret place!’ The Son of Man will come again just as lightning flashes from east to west.” (God’s Word Translation)

Midwest American summers can be brutally hot and humid. And the winters can be terribly frigid and full of snow. 

Having lived in various university towns and worked with many college students, every Fall there are always new international students, and students from the American Deep South, that have never experienced a Midwest winter and snow. 

I might tell them, repeatedly, of the need for a sturdy winter coat before the snow flies. Yet, having never known sub-freezing, let alone sub-zero temperatures, it’s difficult to imagine such cold when the weather is warm. 

There is little belief that everything around them will change in a few short months to the point that it will be felt down to the bone.

At the coming of winter, I, or someone else, helped ensure they had a suitable coat. Even then, those students often bodily shake all winter and never take their scarves off.

Since none of us have yet experienced it, it might be difficult to imagine that someday Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. 

So, in order to help the disciples to grasp the coming future, Jesus told them to use discernment. Although it may seem improbable now, a time is coming which will be loaded with cosmic and cataclysmic changes. 

Sometimes, even for myself who has lived through many hard winters, it’s incredible to know that the landscape, as it is right now, will be completely different in another six months.

Seasons come and go. Eventually, the sky and the earth as we know it now will pass away. However, the words and ways of Jesus Christ will endure for all time. 

If we are attentive and alert, we will be ready. We will have a warm winter parka on hand.

For now, it means taking off the old clothes of fear, insecurity, hopelessness, and hate; and putting on the new clothes of righteousness, peace, and love in the Holy Spirit. 

You may not think winter is coming. But it is. It may even be here sooner than you believe.

Do you feel that chill in the air?

Almighty and everlasting Father, we long for the coming of your kingdom in Jesus Christ our Lord. We lament before you the signs that your kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. The signs of brokenness and divisions, oppression and abuse, poverty and loneliness, are everywhere present in this present world.

So, we cry out from the depths of our being for you to come and bring us humility, wisdom, discernment, comfort, and hope. Dispel the shadows of the night and turn our darkness into light, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord who with you and the Holy Spirit reign as one God, now and forevermore. Amen.

Romans 7:14-25 – Our Existential Angst

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
 
So, I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
 
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. (New International Version)
 
We can relate to the Apostle Paul. We, along with him, have many times said to ourselves, “I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do what I know is right. I do the things I hate.” 
 
Paul’s existential angst is a timeless description of our common human condition. There are times we seem completely unable to follow our conscience and do what’s right. It can be maddening, even to the point of experiencing a continual low-level discouragement and/or depression which underlies almost everything we do.
 
The prescription for dealing with this mental, emotional, and spiritual malady does not include the law. That’s right. Putting our willpower and effort into obeying commands gets us nowhere. Even if we obey laws and rules and commands for a time, our efforts eventually break down. We fail to do what we want and do just the opposite.
 
The law isn’t bad. It just doesn’t have the capacity to transform us. The law’s purpose is to show us how bad off we really are in this world, to give us an awareness of our true condition so that we will seek help. 
 
We humans are a bundle of contradictions, doing good, then bad, and flip-flopping back and forth – all with great frustration.
 
In our abject misery, what then, shall we do? Who will help us? Is there anyone to save us from our plight?
 
Sheer willpower and obedience will not help us; it won’t work. It will only give us a false hope. Any success in using such willpower only deludes one into believing they have the answer… until they yet fall again into the abyss of their own inner darkness.
 
The good news is that there is a Savior, a Redeemer, a Rescuer who has the will and the power to deliver us from our predicament.
 
The grace of God in Christ is the operative power that changes lives, not the law. Freedom from the tyranny of our “should’s” and our misplaced desires comes from Christ’s forgiveness through the cross. 
 
Like a lover enamored with his beloved, our desires become oriented toward Jesus for his indescribable gift to us. That is the strength of grace. Transformation is relational; it is found in a person, not a program. And the only person and relationship which has the ability to change us is, I believe with all my heart and mind, the Lord Jesus Christ.
 
Why? Because I myself have been transformed and changed by such a relationship with Christ. I, along with the hymn writer John Newton, can say, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
 
“Self-help” for all the good it really can do, is in many ways an oxymoron. There is no Bible verse which states that God helps those who help themselves.
 
Yes, we have an incredible capacity for good and vast internal resources within us which we lack awareness of for which we can tap into. Yet, when it comes to an outright metamorphosis, we need a new heart – and we can no more simply decide to change our lives any more than we can perform heart transplant surgery on ourselves.
 
People need the Lord.
 
Whenever the foundation of a house is about to crumble, it won’t do to rearrange the living room furniture and do a bit of spruce up painting. And we deceive ourselves if we believe that all our efforts at landscaping the property and having a great curb appeal will do the trick.
 
If the foundation crumbles, the house implodes, and nothing else will matter.
 
Jesus is our cornerstone. Without him, we are at risk, about to fall and without hope. With him, true restoration and renewal happens. And then, when the house is repaired and in order, we set about the task of being good stewards and maintaining and caring for the wonderful changes which were made.
 
If we want freedom from self-loathing and to experience peace and contentment, calmness and confidence, satisfaction and settled peace, then we will grow ever closer to the Savior who exudes all those qualities, and more.
 
For the Lord not only saves and delivers; he also sanctifies and encourages. And the existential angst becomes forgotten.
 
Saving God, I thank you for delivering me from sin, death, and hell through your Son, the Lord Jesus. May your Holy Spirit apply the work of grace to my life every day so that I can realize practical freedom from all that is damaging and destructive in my soul. Amen.

2 Samuel 1:4-27 – Express Your Grief

“What happened?” David asked. “Tell me.”

“The men fled from the battle,” he replied. “Many of them fell and died. And Saul and his son Jonathan are dead.”

Then David said to the young man who brought him the report, “How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan are dead?”

“I happened to be on Mount Gilboa,” the young man said, “and there was Saul, leaning on his spear, with the chariots and their drivers in hot pursuit. When he turned around and saw me, he called out to me, and I said, ‘What can I do?’

“He asked me, ‘Who are you?’

“‘An Amalekite,’ I answered.

“Then he said to me, ‘Stand here by me and kill me! I’m in the throes of death, but I’m still alive.’

“So, I stood beside him and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive. And I took the crown that was on his head and the band on his arm and have brought them here to my lord.”

Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.

David said to the young man who brought him the report, “Where are you from?”

“I am the son of a foreigner, an Amalekite,” he answered.

David asked him, “Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?”

Then David called one of his men and said, “Go, strike him down!” So, he struck him down, and he died. For David had said to him, “Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you when you said, ‘I killed the Lord’s anointed.’”

David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
    How the mighty have fallen!

“Tell it not in Gath,
    proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
    lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

“Mountains of Gilboa,
    may you have neither dew nor rain,
    may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised,
    the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.

“From the blood of the slain,
    from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
    the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
Saul and Jonathan—
    in life they were loved and admired,
    and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
    they were stronger than lions.

“Daughters of Israel,
    weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
    who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

“How the mighty have fallen in battle!
    Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
    you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
    more wonderful than that of women.

“How the mighty have fallen!
    The weapons of war have perished!” (New International Version)

Character is revealed by both attitude and action. It seems likely the Amalekite would have lived if he had any, at all.

But instead, the Amalekite tried to act as if he knew David. It became very apparent, he didn’t really know David, at all.

By claiming responsibility for King Saul’s death, the Amalekite sealed his own. David spent months outrunning and outwitting Saul, trying his best to stay alive, while at the same time, carefully avoiding killing Saul. In assuming Saul’s death would be good news to David, the Amalekite went full braggadocio, looking to impress, as well as get a reward.

He got a reward, alright.

David’s attitude could not be any more different than the Amalekite’s. Whereas the Amalekite had a small and selfish attitude, David had a magnanimous attitude. David had suffered much because of Saul, and yet held firm in his commitment to God and to the king.

Our attitudes and our actions truly reveal what is in our hearts.

Because David had an attitude which reflected that he knew God, he therefore genuinely grieved and lamented the deaths of both King Saul and Saul’s son, Jonathan.

Bereavement, grief, and lament are, unfortunately, scarce words in the English language. But those words were not strange or stingy with David. He shows us the good path to follow in facing significant loss and change.

David’s grief was not only personal but public. He crafted a lament and had everyone learn it and say it. Indeed, grief may be intensely personal, yet it most definitely needs a public outlet.

Tears, questions, sorrow, anger, anxiety, and sadness are all the normal and necessary expressions of working through the death of someone close to us. The only bad grief is unexpressed grief. It sits idle, deep inside one’s personhood. Over time, it becomes gangrene of the soul.

Many deaths are bittersweet. It may be an end of suffering for the deceased, but it is also the beginning of suffering for those left behind. Sometimes Christians forget that death is a result of humanity’s fall. There is nothing to rejoice over with death; it is something to mourn over.

We need to become comfortable with talking about death, bereavement, and all the emotions that come with it. Methinks this is a chief reason for so many improper attitudes, like that of the ancient Amalekite with David.

Unexpressed grief neither disappears nor goes away. It eventually comes out sideways, usually harming both ourselves and others.

To grieve and lament simply means that we tell our story – which requires someone to listen without criticism or invalidating our feelings.

David was able to respond the way he did because of his closeness to God. For even and especially God grieves over significant losses. It is the proper and right attitude.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night but find no rest….

He did not despise or abhor
    the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
    but heard when I cried to him….

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
    and I shall live for him. Amen.
(Psalm 22:1-2, 24, 29, NRSV)

John 21:1-19 – Breakfast in the Liminal Space

Miraculous Draught of Fishes by John Reilly, 1978

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So, they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So, Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again, Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (New International Version)

The Miraculous Catch of Fish by Belgian artist Erik Tanghe

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, it takes a bit of time to wrap both our heads and our hearts around a new reality. After all, if you’ve been used to operating a particular way for a long time, it can be hard to come around to embracing something different – even if that change is really good.

Good ol’ Peter, bless his heart, you’ve got to love him. The Lord Jesus is risen from death and he, along with some of the other disciple fishermen, are not quite up to speed on resurrection. Christ is alive, the disciples have already seen him on two separate occasions, yet they seem like a dog who has chased a rabbit and now don’t know what to do with it once they’ve surprisingly gotten it cornered.

So, Peter goes fishing. Yep, when all else seems upside-down and topsy-turvy, just go fishing. The problem is: Peter and the boys are going back to a life that doesn’t exist anymore. And that’s pretty much what we all tend to do when we are stuck in a liminal space (to be at the threshold of something new, but not quite there yet) caught in a situation of uncertainty without much of a clue what to do. We simply go back to what we’ve always done and hope we catch some fish.

But we can’t catch fish. It isn’t the same anymore. There’s a new reality. The resurrection of Jesus has completely upended the world. There is no going back to any sort of pre-resurrection days. All has changed. I’m not sure if the disciples believed they were going to catch any fish, or not. Seems they just had to go do something familiar.

Unbeknown to them, the rules changed. The old way of fishing won’t work, anymore. While they’re off trying to live from the familiar confines of the old life, Jesus shows up on shore. The disciples don’t realize its him. So, they don’t anticipate that when Jesus calls out and encourages them that they’ll end up with a nice haul of fish.

While the old life yields nothing, the new life with Christ brings abundance, blessing, and fellowship. After the big catch of fish, here are the disciples now eating breakfast with the King of Kings, yet they’re still scratching their heads. What’s going on? Who is it? Well, of course, it’s Jesus, but is it? What’s the plan? I’m so confused.

In the passage and through the journey from one reality to another – the place of familiarity to a place of a future we’ve never seen – there is both the shadow of doubt which makes everything feel so uncertain and the confidence of faith which keeps us going forward.

In this middle passage, this liminal space, there is a continual vacillating between doubt and faith. Rarely is there ever a black-and-white existence. Instead, it’s wise to become friends with the gray because most lessons we learn come while inhabiting this weird in-between space.

When the disciples encountered Christ in today’s Gospel story, it was an experience of Jesus in the middle – a six-week time between resurrection and ascension. It was also an experience of the disciples in the middle. There was no going back to a pre-resurrection time of walking and talking with Jesus as they had done before. And there is also no future where they can live in the past or pick up the fishing business just like before.

Although we have the advantage of knowing how the story shakes-out with Christ’s ascension, the giving of the Spirit, and a robustly bold group of disciples going out to change the world – the disciples cannot picture that future in their present liminal space on the beach.

This is why Jesus helps and coaxes Peter along with three consecutive questions – enabling this Rock of a disciple to move through his own liminal space to a new place of the bold and confident apostle that we find in the book of Acts.

We, too, inhabit a middle space. We are in-between the two advents of Christ. This truly is an awkward time in which we, along with disciples, experience a mix of belief and doubt because we are not yet at the end of the story.

So, a strange combination of worship and wondering exists in the here-and-now. Jesus did not chide the disciples for sometimes believing and sometimes not. And, what’s more, our Lord isn’t exasperated with us. That’s because one of the certainties for the Christian is that grace overcomes and overwhelms literally everything. Sitting down with Word and Meal creates a new space where we can begin to make sense of our sometimes very nonsensical lives.

Great God of Resurrection, help me to embrace both the meaning and the mystery of faith as I negotiate and interpret every situation in my life through the light of Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.