Sunday, December 30, 2012

Not Our Doing

Only one person deserves the title, 'self-made man...' -- a sermon for Christmas 1

Christmas 1 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

One occasionally hears stories of a person referred to as a “self-made” man. Perhaps it is some poor immigrant who managed to scrape together enough money to start a small business, and the business grew and prospered and he or she ended up a millionaire. And while in no way wanting to diminish the rightful admiration for such a person’s industry, inventiveness, skill and hard work — I challenge the notion that such a person is truly self-made.

Before, behind, and along with every such successful person, there is a cloud of investors, clients, collaborators, and customers, without whom success and wealth would have been elusive or impossible. Even the inventor who comes up with a clever new device needs an attorney to help file a patent, a manufacturer actually to produce the item, marketers to advertise and merchants to sell it, investors to pay for all of this, and — the inventor and investors firmly hope — customers to buy it. You’ve probably seen the ads on TV offering help to inventors — and help is surely what even the brightest inventor needs in order to succeed.

So it is that few if any of us become who we are on our own. I’m bold enough to say this absolutely: no one becomes who they are on their own. For whatever else we may make of our lives, there is at least one unavoidable point at which we cannot and do not do it for ourselves: at our birth itself. We come into being because of something our parents did nine months before we were born. We simply did not exist at the point at which we came into existence. In this earthly birth we are born of blood, of flesh, and of the will of a man and a woman. We do not make ourselves. We become ourselves — become selves at all — only because of others.

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And, as our Scripture texts for this Sunday after Christmas remind us, we most certainly do not redeem ourselves. Just as we had no say in our first birth, so it is that we have little say in our second birth — though that second birth is something in which we may very well cooperate and be aware of as it happens. For in our second birth, through receiving Jesus Christ into our hearts and believing in his name, through baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, we become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man — or of woman, for that matter— but of God.

Saint Paul uses the image of adoption for this wonderful transformation — and just as a child does not conceive or bear him or herself neither does an adopted child achieve adoption on his or her own — both birth and adoption are something that happen to us. We become ourselves through others. No one is self-made.

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In this, as in so much else, Jesus Christ is utterly different. Even his beginning is different from ours. We are not aware of our own beginnings, conceived by actions of our mother and father, when we yet were not — but Jesus had no beginning: when the beginning was, he was — he was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning, and had no beginning himself. There never was a time when he wasn’t.

And as God, and as Son of God, unlike any of us — who do not even exist at the moment of our conception, since that is when we come into existence — unlike any of us, Christ knew what was to happen, and what was happening when, as Saint Paul says, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” If there ever was any such thing as a self-made man, it was and is Jesus Christ — and only him.

What is truly wonderful, however, is that Christ, although self-made in every important sense of the word, also makes use of others to cooperate with him in this grand invention of salvation. God sent the prophets to prepare the way for his coming. God sent his angel to Mary of Nazareth, and her obedient consent to the angel’s greeting, her choice to do as God asked and become the mother of the holy Child, realized the Incarnation itself. In this, and in this alone, Jesus in his human nature, is not a self-made man — he is made of the substance of his mother Mary.

And then God sent that man named John, the last and greatest of the prophets, as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. And so it is that Jesus Christ, the self-made man, as God the Word made flesh, came to live among us and cooperate with us in our salvation. And he further commissioned the Apostles and disciples to spread that word of grace and truth, down through the ages.

This was not out of any need or lack on his part; it is all a gift, it is the Christmas gift, the greatest gift ever given — for he gave us himself in order that we might give ourselves to him and become his brothers and sisters by adoption. He sent his Spirit into our hearts crying out “Abba, Abba, Father,” to God our Father — our Creator by our birth, our master through his Lordship, but “our Father” by adoption through his Son. This is no more our doing than any adoption of a child is the child’s doing; this is no more our doing than the liberation of a prisoner is the prisoner’s doing; this new birth in the Spirit is no more our doing than our first birth in the flesh — we do not make ourselves, and we do not redeem ourselves; thanks be to God.

But we cooperate in this work of salvation when we give praise and thanks to the one who saved us, who adopted us as his own children, and sent his Spirit — the Spirit of his Son — into our hearts, leading us by his light, and from whose fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. We cooperate with God by our celebration of praise and thanksgiving, for the greatest gift ever given, the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And so may this grace of God the Father, the love of God the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us now this Christmastide and abide with us — Emmanuel — for ever more.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cave Man

Light filled the cave... a sermon for Christmas Eve 2012

Christmas Eve • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.

The Greek philosopher Plato, in his dialogue The Republic, described human existence as being like that of prisoners who lived in a cave, chained to the wall for their whole lives. They don’t know they’re living in a cave, any more than fish know that they’re living in water. This is just the way they have always lived and it is all that they know — which is to say, they know nothing of the outside world. They do see, however, shadows on the wall of their cave, before them, cast on that wall by the things that are going on behind and above them outside the cave. The chains do not allow them to turn to see those things going on there behind them — they know only the shadows, and for them, these have become the only reality. They spend much of their time talking about the shadows, developing theories about the shadows,

but without any sense that the shadows are just that — shadows of a reality beyond their capacity to see.

In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates wonders what it would be like for prisoners who have lived like that to be allowed to turn and see the shapes — the real people and things — of which up to that point they have only seen the shadows. Would they even be able to recognize them? And if they were dragged out of the cave into the bright light of the sun, wouldn’t it be kicking and screaming as they clenched their eyes shut like Gilbert Gottfried and said, “What are you trying to do to me?!” Slowly, however, as their eyes adjusted to the light, they might even be able to look up at brightness of the sun and then and only then appreciate how much they had missed in thinking that the shadows were the reality and the light the illusion.

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We are now in a dark time of the year; although the days slowly growing longer since last Friday. And longer they will continue to grow on into the spring, the world not having ended as some thought the Mayans thought it would last Friday. And in this dark time of the year, each year, we celebrate a kind of emergence from the cave. For it is about this time of year long ago that people who walked in darkness saw a great light. Luke the historian gives us all the facts and figures. And I want us to pay close attention to Luke’s account, for as even the pope has recently pointed out in a book on the subject, few stories have gotten as muddled over the years as the account of how Jesus was born.

You will notice that there is no stable mentioned in Luke’s account; although there is a manger, which is to say, a feed trough. But no stable; the image of a stable out back behind the inn — the inn in which there was no room for the Holy Family — that is something supplied apart from the gospel itself. It’s logical, but the gospel itself doesn’t say anything about a stable. And there are other old accounts of the Nativity, such as the Infancy Gospel of James, recording that the place where the Holy Family found shelter, complete with a manger, was not a built up stable, but a natural cave — though a cave used as a place for animals to shelter. And James’s gospel records that that cave — at the moment of the miraculous birth — was full of light.

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So it is, at least according to the Gospel of James, that Jesus was born as a cave man. But he was not like Plato’s cave dwellers, for Plato’s prisoners saw only shadows and were blinded by the light when finally set free; but Jesus no prisoner: he was the light and he came into the cave of his own free will. He came to us in our darkness, at the dark, cold time of the year — and so he comes to us each year in our celebration of his birth, as the light that shines in the darkness — and the darkness can never overcome it. This cave, this cave that is full of light, is no world of shadows, of chains and imprisonment — this is the womb in which was birthed the world of light, and freedom and joy. For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And he is also Light from Light, God from God, True God and True man — not a shadow projected by some other light, not a half-way shadow of the substance of God, but God the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth — so help me God — he is the realest reality there is; though not a thing among other things, but the one through whom all thingswere made.

You likely know the old rebuke that goes, “Have you been living under a rock?” Humanity to a large extent had been living under a rock, or in a cave, until Christ came to lead us out into his light. He did not do it as the philosophers Plato or Socrates would do, pointing out the error of our ways and gesturing us towards the brilliance of the sun. No, he would call us to himself who is the light, who is the sun of righteousness, and the son of God. What is more, he would come to us, bringing his light into the cave itself.

He became a cave man to save all us cave dwellers — it was the only way to get to us, you see. He gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. He came to give us knowledge of reality, the Truth of what really is — the knowledge not just of good and evil which the first Eve gained from the fruit of a tree that she shared with her husband — but the knowledge of the greatest good and its triumph over evil, of God’s love for us in coming to be with us as one of us through Mary, the Second Eve who in doing so helped undo the curse on Adam — Jesus brought us the reality of that light and truth and life, brought it all into the cave to lead us forth into true freedom that is prepared for us as his brothers and sisters.

This is the light of Christmas, shining even in the midst of a dark night — the light of Christmas and of Christ — and we who have walked in darkness have seen it; we who lived in a land of deep darkness — on us light has shined. My beloved sisters and brothers, may you be blessed to live in that light and walk in it all your days. Merry Christmas.+


Monday, December 24, 2012

A Lot Like Christmas

Jesus takes after his mother in his human nature... A sermon for Advent 4c

Advent 4c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

It really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and that is only to be expected since it’s just two days away — even closer if you count as the Jewish people did from sundown on the night before: Christmas will begin tomorrow at sundown, and we will welcome Christ’s coming with worship at 6 PM.

So it is no surprise the scriptures resound with such a Christmas spirit: that first reading today reminded us of the little town of Bethlehem — no doubt this was the Scripture that inspired Phillips Brooks to write that famous hymn; and it’s nice to know that that preacher, Phillips Brooks, himself once stood in this very pulpit when he preached at the wedding of the third rector of this church, with whom he had worked up in Boston.

However, lest we jump the gun and get too deeply into Christmas before it has actually arrived — even though it is awfully close — our gospel passage today forcefully puts us further into the sacred backstory, shortly after Mary had herself received the archangel’s greeting, “Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with you.” It has been a year since we heard that passage — on Advent Four last December; it has taken us a year to move from Gabriel greeting Mary to Elizabeth greeting Mary; from the Annunciation to the Visitation. John the Baptist, who will announce his Lord’s coming in the wilderness, even though he is still in Elizabeth’s womb, cannot suppress his excitement that his even more recently conceived Lord has come near — and he leaps up and moves in Elizabeth’s womb, and she is herself inspired, filled with the Holy Spirit, to call out that cry of joy and acclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

You will of course immediately recognize that between the archangel’s greeting last year and Elizabeth’s greeting this year we have the entirety of that very ancient prayer, the Hail Mary, or Ave Maria. I say the whole of it, that is of the original version of that prayer before the Roman Catholic Church chose to add the additional words asking Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” — that was a late addition from the stormy years of the Reformation, and one which, to be frank, has always struck me as a bit of a downer in the midst of the joy of those initial greetings of blessing and favor. As we did last year, we will conclude our worship this morning with the Angelus, a traditional way of reciting this beautiful scriptural prayer in its original form.

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But there is something far more important to note here than even the most beautiful prayer. And that is both the leaping up of the unborn John the Baptist and the affirmation that Elizabeth pronounces over Mary — that is, the reason she is blessed among women: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary is blessed in so many ways, from beginning to end: almost the first words the Archangel said to her affirmed that she was full of grace, or as some translations have it, “highly favored.” She is blessed in her obedience, in her willingness to accept the promise of the Lord and all of the embarrassment it might bring. She is blessed in having a husband like Joseph — a loving husband — a man who could have had her stoned to death when he discovered she was pregnant and not by him; a man who chose instead to heed the word of the Lord when it came to him as well, telling him not to take offense, but to accept the work of God, the working out of God’s purposes, that had been promised, promised for so many centuries, and yet were coming into reality even there and then.

Mary was blessed in having a cousin like Elizabeth, herself no small miracle, for she was, as our translation very politely puts it, “getting on in years,” and was considered barren, because she had never borne a child — and yet God’s same archangel Gabriel visited her husband Zechariah and assured him that his wife would bear a son who would be great, who would be the one to go before the Lord and announce his coming, to make ready a people prepared for coming of their Lord. The news struck Zechariah literally speechless, but for Elizabeth it was a blessing, a blessing that she shared with Mary when that child, so unexpected, moved for the first time, in her womb, leaped up for joy — beginning his ministry of announcing the Lord’s presence even before he was born.

And of course, Mary responded to that acclamation with her own song — the song we sang as our psalmody this morning, and in a metrical version as the Gospel hymn, that magnificent outpouring of thanksgiving known as the Magnificat: My soul magnifies the Lord.

In a way, that song is a culmination of all the blessings — blessings such as only a poor and humble person who is suddenly given incredible honors could possibly understand. It is the song of those who were cast down being raised up, the song of the hungry being fed, the song of rescue and release from captivity. These are the blessings that Mary knew in her heart of hearts, as she stored them all up.

And there is no doubt that she drew on that store — that store of blessing — and shared it with her child, Jesus, as he grew to maturity. She passed these things along to him — the one who would go on to preach release to the captives, to challenge the mighty on their thrones, to lift up the lowly by healing the sick and the suffering; by filling the hungry with bread from heaven; and by counseling the rich to give up all that they have, that their hands might be open to receive the true blessings that come from above, the blessings of life and salvation. It is easy to see that Jesus takes after his heavenly Father in his divine nature; but also very easy to see how he takes after his earthly mother in his human nature.

It is all about the blessing, you see, the blessing that came upon the one who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. It was not just the fulfillment of her pregnancy and the miraculous birth. It was as well the fulfillment of the life of that child who lived out all of those promised blessings about which Mary sang.

It is a song we too can sing, not only with our lips but in our lives — to let our lives be canticles of thanksgiving, shouting blessings and multiplying them in the way that good things do when they are shared; for one good turn does not just deserve another — one good and gracious act can give rise to so many others; one act of kindness and generosity and grace can change someone’s life — and that life can become full of grace and yet more grace, abundant and amazing.

So let us give thanks for Mary the mother of our Lord, for Elizabeth her cousin, for John the Baptist and Zechariah, and for Joseph — this holy extended family who formed the loving and blessed environment into which the holy child was born, in which he grew to manhood, and through whom he fulfilled the purposes for which God had prepared a body for him — not just his own body, but the body of a faithful and loving and believing family, who trusted and believed in the fulfillment of what the Lord had promised. “Blessed is she — and all — who have believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken” and who do the will of God. Bless you all, my sisters and brothers , and may you — like them — be a blessing to others. We too can begin to look a lot like Christmas when we do God’s will.+


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Light and Shadow

In spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t: a sermon for Advent 3c

Advent 3c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
With many other exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people.

Our gospel passage this morning ends with the assurance that John the Baptist proclaimed “good news” to the people. In light of recent events, we sure could all use some good news. I have to say I am heart-broken, right now, as I know many are, at the terrible tragedy that took place last week in Connecticut. But our other Scripture readings sound like good news, no doubt about it. The prophet Zephaniah urges daughter Zion and Israel to shout out and rejoice, and to make thanksgiving for the redemption of the Lord and God who is coming to rescue and restore that kingdom and that hope. God will restore their fortunes, the prophet promises; God will give them the victory of a triumphant warrior; God will rejoice over them with gladness and renew them in love, exulting over them with loud singing as on a day of festival. Fling out the banners and light the fireworks; strike up the brass band and start the parade!

Those sentiments are echoed in the First Song of Isaiah that we used as our psalmody this morning — words full of assurance that God the Savior is at work and that God’s work is trustworthy and solid. If there were a theological “Angie’s List,” this would let us know that God gets an A-triple-plus rating — God is someone you can count on.

Saint Paul continues the celebration in his Letter to the Philippians, beginning with that word that gives this Sunday its name, “Rejoice Sunday,” or as it is known in Latin, Gaudete. What we heard as our second lesson today would have been the first words you heard on this Sunday in the Western church right on up into modern times: not only an assurance of reasons to rejoice, but a command to rejoice. We follow that tradition by using these rose-colored vestments on this day — lightening up from the somber purple of the Advent season to a brighter and more cheerful hue.

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By this time these warm-up acts have got us ready for a celebration in the gospel. But what are the first words we hear from John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It seems the parade has come to a screeching halt. As if a gunman has broken into a classroom and opened fire. As if the pink of the vestments were not a celebration of life but about breast cancer awareness, awareness of that terrible disease that strikes so many; it’s as if someone in the brass band has hit a very sour note, or even worse, that a sniper has opened fire on the band, and all of the instruments have fallen silent. The towering figure of John the Baptist points with his gnarled hand at the crowds who have come out to hear him preach — like the ghost of Christmas yet to come. And if the crowd wanted something other than fire and brimstone, they are in for a surprise, for he calls them, a “brood of vipers.” And yet the Gospel goes on to say he encouraged the people with such good news. I don’t know about you, but being called a viper is not the best news I’d like to hear.

So let us look more closely at what follows that initial stern rebuke. There is good news, thank goodness. For after this powerful condemnation and threats of axes and fruitless trees being chopped down and thrown into the fire, when it gets down to brass tacks and the fate of the crowd — no doubt shivering in their sandals by that point at the prospect of what is about to be demanded of them — when the terrified crowd gets up the courage to ask what they can do to be saved, what does John tell them?

“Whoever has two coats must share with whoever has none, and whoever has food must do likewise. You tax collectors just collect the tax, and you soldiers don’t blackmail or abuse people!”

Well, if you had been there then, wouldn’t you breathe a sigh of relief at those words? After his verbal introduction and assault, John does not ask the people to do anything at all extraordinary — he doesn’t ask them to live like him out in the wilderness dressed like one of the prophets of old with a hairy mantle and a leather belt, living off locusts and wild honey. He tells them to go home and get back to work and do their jobs and live lives of honesty and fairness.

And this is really where the good news comes in — for certainly it is good news, as Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul assure us: that salvation is not something we have to do on our own for ourselves, but something that is done for us by one who is mighty to save. For surely, as Isaiah says, it is God who saves us, and we can trust in him and not be afraid.

And on top of that, John the Baptist, after that initial stern language, gives us the good news that what is asked of us is not impossible — but is really only fair and just and right: to share our resources with those who do not have — our clothing with the naked and our food with the hungry — and to do the work we have to do with honesty and without taking advantage of or abusing anyone else.

And that, my friends, is the good news — that we have been saved by God, and that what God asks of us is to love God and our neighbor.

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And wouldn’t it be lovely if people actually did. If it’s really that simple, why did the prophets have to keep proclaiming it? Why did John the Baptist have to shout at the people and greet them as a brood of vipers? Why did he have to warn them of the coming destruction and the fruitless trees and the great bonfire at the end of time, the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire that will burn up all the worthless chaff and deadwood of unproductive lives?

You know why — because in spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t. Even without the awful example of last week’s shooting, ringing in our ears, impossible to avoid as you turn on any television station at all, we know that people do not do as they ought to do. In spite of the fact that everything works so much better when everyone follows the simple rules of courtesy and fairness and generosity — just common sense — people still try to take advantage — just watch the exit ramp on any crowded highway: someone will have to create a lane of his or her own, or find a creative way to nose in at the head of the line causing everyone else to be slower. In spite of the calls for spare coats to be dropped off at the library or police station for distribution to the poor and cold, the dawning day of the Lord’s Day will find plenty of closets full of clothing that people haven’t worn in years. To my own shame I realized as I wrote these very words that there was more in my closet at home than really needed to be there; and I took that unworn second coat up to the library on Eames Place and dropped it off; how about you?

If nothing else, let this reading today be a reminder to us — to all of us — of a simple command: to check that closet when you get home and find the coat you no longer wear and bring it to the library or the precinct so it can be given to someone who will actually wear it.

We are not asked to do the impossible, my friends. We are asked to do something so easy it would be a crying shame for us to fail to do so. It would be a shame to end up crying in shame when the ax is laid to the root of the trees and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. That’s good news, if we are prepared to hear it, and hearing it, act upon it. God gives us the warning; may he give us the strength to do as he commands.+


Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Obvious Lord

No fortune telling here, just the promise that we will each face the Lord at his coming -- or our coming to him. A sermon for Advent 1c

Advent 1c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
For as long as people have had a sense of time — the past, present, and the future — there have been people who have said that they are able to predict the future. Most early human societies have shamans — wise men or women whom the people of that culture believe have the power to look into the future and tell what is coming. The rise of civilization did little or nothing to stop the soothsayers and prognosticators from plying their profitable trade; if anything it made their services all the more valuable. The soothsayer warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March; the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona, along with the Sybil gave promises and warnings — and sometimes warnings veiled as promises or promises veiled as warnings — to the Greeks and the Romans alike.

Our own tradition is not immune to this desire to want to know the future — about half of our Old Testament consists precisely of the writings of the prophets, and so important was prophecy that the Law of Moses laid out a rule for determining when a prophet was a real prophet or not: if the prediction does not come true, then God did not send that prophet.

Even in modern times, since the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason, you can still open almost any newspaper in the most civilized cities of today’s world and find your horoscope — a form of fortune-telling that dates back four or five thousand years. And you can walk down the streets in almost any city, even in this neighborhood — I know there’s one right up on Kingsbridge Road — and find a store-front fortuneteller willing to advertise in neon lights!

Do such people really have an “in” on the future? Far be it from me to malign the prophets who were truly inspired by God, and whose prophecies — and their fulfillment — are recorded in the Scriptures, Old and New. But horoscopes and fortunetellers I will not put my trust in, though I admit I don’t mind getting a favorable fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant! But fortunetellers are another thing: I once saw a closed fortuneteller’s shop with a sign on the door that said, “Will be reopening soon.” And I immediately thought, if you’re such a good fortuneteller why can’t you tell us the exact date that your own shop will be open!
This need to know the future — and the abundance of people ready to foretell it — doesn’t stop with such mystical folks. There are modern readers of the future— and I should say those who purport to read the future — the market analysts, the pollsters, and the pundits; and as the recent election showed us, prophets of this sort can be spectacularly wrong in their predictions of what is to come. One might say, given the failures of some of the pundits, it isn’t reading the future that’s the problem, it’s reading the present!
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Which brings me to our passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel. In it Jesus promises that the way to know what is coming is to look at what is already here. He is not advising his disciples to peer into crystal balls, or analyze the constellations and planets, to crack open a fortune cookie, or cast chicken bones on the ground and try to read the future in their pattern; or, for that matter, to take a poll, conduct a study, or interview the electorate.

Jesus tells his disciples — and that includes us — to keep their eyes open and look at what is actually happening around them, to look at what is to see what might be. He gives them an analogy from nature: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” We’ve got a fig tree growing right outside the parish hall and many of you here have enjoyed its fruit from time to time — and you know that when its leaves sprout, summer is not far away. Jesus is assuring his disciples that the coming of the Son of Man will be just as obvious as a leafy fig tree.

The exercise he sets for them is not the complicated task of fortune-telling — no casting of runes or of horoscopes — but the simple tasks of keeping their eyes and ears open, to see and to hear what is happening. The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory — his coming will be obvious, and it will confound the whole world. The point is not to guess when this might happen, but to be ready for it whenever it happens. “Be on your guard,” he warns us, “lest the day catch you unexpectedly like a trap.”

The problem is that people are all too often asleep at the switch, or worse, so caught up in their own preconceptions that they are fuzzy in their perceptions. They cannot see what is actually happening around them because they are so possessed by their own ideology or their prejudices or their desires that they forget or ignore any evidence to the contrary, any fact, any reality that does not fit their preconceived theory. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the way one should think through such things — that is, reaching conclusions on the basis of the evidence; instead some people start with their conclusions and then ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit with what they want the result to be.
I recall seeing one rather tragic sign of this in the midst of Hurricane Sandy just a little over a month ago — a photograph of a beach home half under water, but with a sign on the side of it proudly proclaiming, “I don’t believe in climate change.”

Perhaps an even more striking example is the extent to which the pundits in last month’s election got it wrong. I saw a chart showing just how far off the pundits were in their predictions about who would be elected president. And the more political the pundits were — that is, the more the pundits were committed to the one party or the other — on both sides — the further off they were in the accuracy of their estimation, some of them being so far off as to predict a landslide exactly opposite to what actually happened.
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Surely this is not what Jesus wants for us in this passage of the Gospel this morning — he doesn’t want us to make predictions about his coming at all! When he comes, there will be no doubt that he has come again. The challenge he presents us is to be ready, and when we see his obvious coming — should he come in our lifetime — when the skies are ripped open and the clouds descend and it is obvious that he has come, for us to stand up for him and raise our heads in thanksgiving for our redemption.

And let me place this in a more personal context. Jesus tells the disciples that their generation will not pass away before the coming of the Lord. Clearly that was some twenty centuries ago, and the son of Man did not return in that way during the lifetime of that generation. So some interpret that what Jesus meant by “generation” was the whole human race, all of humanity — “this generation” as it is always “this” generation — and that makes sense both of reality and of what Jesus said.

So we can best understand this not just as a warning addressed to all of humanity but to each of humanity — that is, to each of us, to each and every human being. For each of us faces, at our own death, the “day of the Lord’s coming” as the veil of death is torn apart and the clouds of life are driven back and we behold the righteous judge. We do not each of us in “this generation” “pass away” until we travel that particular passage — the passage into everlasting life. For this passage we have no need of a fortuneteller or a horoscope, of a pollster or a pundit; we have no need of a prediction, because we have a promise. And our passage is booked.

Predictions may fail — more often than not they do. But the promises of the one who is faithful will always be fulfilled. Our Lord has promised that this generation will see him in power and great glory; and we shall, each of us, face him as he executes justice and righteousness in the land, and upon our lives; and we will see him bringing redemption and healing to each of us, caught up in his arms as we pass from this life into his life.

This is a promise better than any prediction, a promise you can count on; and be ready for — so that when it comes, when it is fulfilled, we will see for ourselves, and be able to stand and welcome — and be welcomed by — the one who is our obvious Lord, our Savior and our God.+