Incarnation: Messiah and King

The King is coming!

That’s the theme of Advent. The word Advent means “coming.” Advent is our season of preparation for the coming of Jesus. It’s a three-dimensional season. Its three dimensions are past, present and future.

First, we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. That was 2,000 years ago, and we’re still celebrating. Second, we pray for the spirit of Christ to be reborn in us today, both as we prepare to celebrate his birth and – this is that third dimension – as we look forward to that day when he will return to establish his kingdom in full.

Three dimensions: First Coming, rebirth in us today, Second Coming.

So often we celebrate the First Coming with gusto but somehow miss having Christ reborn in us – and, as to his Second Coming, we either ignore the possibility altogether or we focus so closely on it that we lose all contact with our present reality.

A truly three-dimensional Advent balances all three. We want to celebrate that event in Bethlehem two millennia ago, but we also want to make room in our hearts for Jesus to be reborn today, and we want to stay open to the possibility of his return at any moment, aware that we cannot know that moment ahead of time.

We sure need Advent and the promise of Christmas right now, don’t we?

Have you noticed? Even before Thanksgiving, a lot of people put up their outdoor Christmas lights and had them blazing away every night. We need those lights to shine hope into the darkness of our days and nights.

Think of all that has happened in the last month alone. On Nov. 1, we turned the clocks back an hour. I’m still not used to it being dark at 5 o’clock. The nights seem so long already! Is that what lies ahead this winter?

Two days after changing the clocks, we had local, state and national elections. But our current president, whom some call the sorest loser in American history, still insists that he won, still insists on sowing chaos and discord in everything he does.

As if we didn’t have enough of that already, thanks to the global pandemic! Strangely, some people still deny its reality. Yet more than 261,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 or its complications, and the toll of infection and death continues to spiral ever higher.

So many of us just celebrated Thanksgiving without seeing beloved family members, and we wonder if Christmas will be the same. And because Thanksgiving falls so late this year, Christmas will be upon us even faster than usual. Our life today is like riding a roller coaster that keeps speeding up!

Don’t you think it’s about time for our King to make an appearance? Don’t you think it’s high time for our Savior to show up? Don’t you think it’s the right time for the Light of the World to shine his light brightly over all creation?

Our King is coming! We know that. We place our trust in that promise. But are we ready for it? Not likely. Advent is the time we have to get ready.

Our guide to Advent this year is Adam Hamilton’s book titled Incarnation. Sadly, we won’t be able to offer a small group study of it, but I will try to represent it fairly in my messages, though you know I’ll go my own way when I feel prompted.

What does it mean to say that Jesus is God incarnate? How does God become embodied, enfleshed, in Jesus? How is Jesus both divine and human? Ultimately, Adam says, the how is a mystery. It’s something beyond our comprehension. Yet we can celebrate the mystery of how while we explore the why of it. Why would God come to us as Jesus? What is God’s purpose in doing this?

Adam explores these questions in terms of seven titles given to Jesus in the Bible. The first two are Messiah and King.

We call Jesus the Christ. What does that mean? Christ is the English version of christos, which is the Greek version of the Hebrew word mashiach, or Messiah.

Mashiach Yeshua, we say – Christ Jesus, or Messiah Jesus.

Messiah means God’s Anointed One. In the Hebrew Bible, both priests and kings are anointed with oil as a sign of commissioning to their office by God.

You may remember the story from 1 Samuel chapter 16. God sends the prophet Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new king of Israel. One by one, seven of Jesse’s sons pass by, and each time God tells Samuel, “Nope, not him.”

Finally Samuel asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And Jesse says, “Well, there’s the youngest one. He’s out keeping the sheep.” “Fetch him now,” Samuel says. And God tells the prophet, “Anoint him. He’s the one.” And, our narrator says, “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:1-13).

David became Israel’s greatest king. He was the standard against whom all later kings were judged and found to be deficient. Yet God promised that one greater than David would one day rule Israel, and David’s throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16).

The prophet Jeremiah writes: “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. In those days I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David” (Jeremiah 23:5).

Jesus is that righteous branch. He is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah speaks: “A child has been born for us, a son given to us. Authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

It is really hard for us to imagine a king, let alone a king of peace. Happily, our experience with kings and other strongmen is mostly second-hand. But we’ve seen the damage they do in other countries. How would you like to live under the rule of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, or Kim in North Korea, or Putin in Russia?

The Jews of Jesus’ day wished for an ideal king, but what specific ideals he would embody were widely debated. Some wanted a military hero like David who could free his people from domination by the Romans. Some wanted a poet and philosopher like David, someone who was close to God’s heart, as David was said to be, and would lead his people to spiritual freedom, if not political freedom as well.

Jesus could not fulfill all expectations, and he did not even try. As Adam says in his book, he didn’t campaign for lower taxes, more jobs and a chicken in every pot. He never promised to make Israel great again.

He stayed true to himself and to his Heavenly Father. He avoided flawed human conceptions of power and authority. He spoke of welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick. And for these things he had to die, because he was a Messiah nobody wanted.

In Advent, we prepare to welcome him as our King. But before we do that we need to get something straight in our heads. Jesus is King, and no other.

Adam says that Advent puts all our political wrangling into perspective. “Whatever Christians think about their president,” he says, “and whoever we voted for in the various elections, we are meant to know that there is only one King. It is to him we give our highest allegiance.”

He continues: “Advent beckons all who consider themselves Christians – regardless of whether they are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians or Independents – to come to the stable and there fall on our knees as the shepherds surely did, yielding our allegiances, our hearts and our will to the newborn king.”

Jesus is king, and Jesus alone. No president is, or ever can be our king, and no president can ever claim our highest allegiance.

We hear a lot about “Christian nationalism” these days. It’s an idolatrous mixing of loyalties. There is no such thing as Christian nationalism because elevating nation above all else is simply not Christian.

“Follow me,” Jesus says. That’s all he asks, and he does ask all. If Jesus is not first in your life, you’re not a follower of Jesus.

If you are American first and Christian second, you’re not Christian. If you are Republican first and Christian second, you’re not Christian. If you are Democrat first and Christian second, you’re not Christian. If you are anything first and Christian second, you may be a something but you’re not Christian.

If your highest loyalty is not to Christ your King, then you’re a traitor to Christ. You cannot claim Christ as king if you serve any other master. For, as Jesus says, you cannot serve two masters. You’ll always hate the one and love the other. You’ll be devoted to one and despise the other. (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13)

Now do you better appreciate what it means to say Christ is my King?

Our King is coming! That’s what this Advent season is all about. Our King is coming. He came once, he is coming again today in our hearts, and one day he will return. Our King is coming. His name is Mashiach Yeshua, Messiah Jesus, Christ Jesus, King Jesus.

He’s our King. He’s the only King we’ll ever need. He’s the only true King we’ll ever have. If he’s not your King today, I invite you to make him so. Lift up Jesus as your King. Welcome to new life. Welcome to true life. And on this first Sunday of Advent, we say, Maranatha, come King Jesus!


This message was delivered remotely November 29, 2020, on the First Sunday of Advent.   

Giving thanks giving

As we approach Thanksgiving 2020, many people are asking, what in the world have we got to be thankful for this year?

The holiday itself will be much different than any other in memory. So many gatherings have been canceled. So many of us will not see family except by FaceTime or Skype or Zoom.

The deadly virus that has stalked us for nine months did, briefly, appear to be tamed, but now it has roared back with a vengeance. Such an unsettling year – so many dead, so many still sick, so many jobless because our economy is in tatters, so many people hurting in so many ways.

On top of this layer a bitterly contested election season, and a president who lives in a bizarre fantasyland and won’t peaceably pass the baton to his duly elected successor.

The election results only certify what many of us have known for a long time – that we are a divided nation. We may occupy the same physical space, but we live in different worlds. Such division cannot be good for our future. There is talk of civil war – both among those who don’t want it, and among those who do.

Meantime, the clock of global warming ticks on. We are in the midst of the most active hurricane season on record. Drought and gigantic forest fires threaten the landscapes we love. Every day we don’t act to stop it, catastrophe moves closer – and we may already have reached the tipping point, beyond which only more bad things happen.

We have so many losses to grieve – loss of friends and loved ones to the virus, loss of confidence, loss of feeling secure, loss of hope.

So we have to ask, what in the world have we got to be thankful for this year?

At the risk of stating the obvious, let’s start with the obvious. Let’s start at home. I presume that all of you viewing or reading this message are doing so from a snug, dry and warm house that is connected to a safe water supply and a good wastewater system. I also presume that you have enough to eat, that you are not seriously ill, that you have some source of income, though you may feel sorely stretched at this time.

All told, that’s a pretty good foundation for thankfulness, don’t you think? Millions of people around the world would be deliriously thankful if they had even half those things.

Let’s dig a little deeper. We’ve heard a lot of speculation recently about the possible presence of water on the moon and on the planet Mars. Water is one of those things that makes life as we know it possible. Whether there is – or at one time was – life on the moon or on Mars, we should be thankful that the conditions have been right for life to flourish on planet earth.

Beginning with the creation stories in the book of Genesis, the witness of the Bible is that we humans are not a random accident but the gift of a generous Creator who has fashioned this world with us in mind and gives us the resources to survive and thrive in it. That doesn’t mean that life isn’t sometimes difficult, but that it’s always possible, and that purely because of the grace of God.

For these things are others, we give God thanks and praise. In a common table blessing, we say “God is great, God is good.” We give thanks because of who God is – God is great – and because of what God provides for us – God is good. We conclude that prayer by saying, “Let us thank God for our food.” It’s a table blessing, so we usually we don’t bother to mention everything else that God gives us.

We give God thanks for what God gives us. For us, giving is always an act of thanks, and thanks is always an act of giving.

That statement is a little dense, so let me unpack it. First, giving is always an act of thanks. We give in gratitude for what we have to give. You might think that if we had more, we would give more. But sadly, that’s not necessarily so. Those who have the least are often the most willing to give the most to others, while those who have the most often give the least, and then begrudgingly.

It’s a matter of gratitude, of being thankful for what you have. Somehow living in plenty can dull your sense of gratitude. It’s as if the more you have, the more you think you deserve it all. And the least you have, the more you understand that everything you have is a gift from God.

It’s like grace itself, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:9. It’s a gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

Yes, your hard work may have something to do with what you have, but please don’t live in the delusion that you are a self-made man or a self-made woman. So much of what you have is pure gift, a matter of time and circumstance over which you had no control.

If giving is always an act of thanks, then thanks is always an act of giving. So many people find it hard to say a simple “Thank you” that it’s a major act of self-revelation and self-giving for them to do so. Whereas, so many of us say “Thank you” so glibly, so easily, that you wonder if we really mean it, even when we do.

Last week I read that in Korean churches, people have the habit of giving not only their tithes and extra offerings but also special offerings to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, job promotions – whenever something good happens in their lives. It’s like the “happy dollar” that members of Rotary and Kiwanis and other service clubs give to celebrate things that make them happy. Such giving is truly an act of thanks.

That’s the human dimension of thanksgiving. The divine dimension is different. God’s giving to us comes not from thanks but from love, the source of all things. And God does not thank us for our giving, though surely God exults in it. Every time we give freely, God must shout, “Hey, he gets it! Look, she understands!”

The whole witness of Scripture is that we ought to give thanks to God.

A clear refrain runs throughout the Old Testament.O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” You’ll find that multiple times in the Psalms especially, but also in the Chronicles and in the books of the prophets.

Give thanks to God, for God is good and God’s steadfast love endures forever. In the New Testament, Jesus models behavior that affirms that saying, and the Apostle Paul encourages it in his letters to various churches.

To the Thessalonians, he writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Note especially two things. Note first, that Paul says we should give thanks in all circumstances. No matter how good or how bad things are for us as the moment, we should give thanks for all the good we have been given.

Note second, that Paul does not say “give thanks to God for all circumstances.” He says we ought to give thanks in the midst of all circumstances, but he does not say that we should give thanks for all circumstances.

Paul is no masochist. He recognizes that good things come from God but not all things that come to us are good or from God. You’d think that would be obvious, but some Christians deny it. Some Christians are trapped in an awful theology that says that God controls everything, God determines each and every event, so that every act of pain in your life and mine is God’s doing, and we ought to thank God for it, good and bad alike.

You can believe that if you like, but I think it’s absolute rot. I do not believe that God causes us pain to teach us spiritual lessons. It is true that God teaches us spiritual lessons through our pain, because God always works to produce good from bad. But God does not micromanage our lives, and God is no more a masochist than Paul is.

There is one place where Paul appears to say that we ought to give thanks for everything. That’s Ephesians 5:20, but I think here he’s talking about giving thanks for everything for which we ought to give thanks – that is, everything that’s good.

I think that’s the attitude he shows elsewhere. In Colossians 3:16, he says: “With gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” In Philippians 4:6, he says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

I think the best statement about gratitude comes from James the brother of Jesus. In James 1:17, he says: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…”

Every good and perfect gift is from above. The bad stuff comes from elsewhere. The good is a gift from God. Or, as Amy Grant says in her song titled “Hope Set High,” “When it all comes down, if there’s anything good that happens in life, it’s from Jesus.”

For sure, 2020 has been a crummy year. God may yet work some good from it, as God works for good in all circumstances. But overall this has not been a good year. Can we still say “thanks” on Thursday? Yes! Because we truly have so much to be thankful for. If nothing else, we have so far survived this crummy year. And because we have survived, we have learned that we can still give God praise, even in the midst of difficulty.

O give thanks to the Lord, for God is great and God is good, and God’s love endures forever. And if anything good happens in our lives, it comes from Jesus.


This Sunday was delivered remotely on November 22, 2020, the Sunday before Thanksgiving.                

To hell and back

Even before it was an Audie Murphy war movie or a Maven Morris country song, the phrase “to hell and back” had a certain meaning: “I’ve been to hell and back, and I survived, so don’t mess with me.”

Well, I’ve been to the gates of hell, not to mention the battlefield at end of the world, and I’ve lived to tell the story. My story is part travelogue, part history, part geography, and all gospel, though maybe not the distorted gospel that you may be used to hearing.

Before we go to hell, let’s go to the site of what some people think is the battle at the end of the world. It’s mentioned once by name in the book of Revelation (16:16). It’s Armageddon. In Hebrew, that’s Har-Megeddon. It means Mount of Megiddo.

Trouble is, there is no mount at Megiddo. There are several mountains visible in the distance, but the ancient city of Megiddo is on a large flat plain. The only mountain here is a tell, a pile of ruined cities 20 or more deep. Why would anyone think that a decisive battle would be fought here?

This is where geography comes in. Here’s a map of the ancient Near East showing the Fertile Crescent. This is where human civilization begins because here the conditions are right for large-scale agriculture.

The fertile crescent stretches from the Nile Valley in Egypt to the fertile lands around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia. At both ends of the crescent, great kingdoms flourish – Egypt to the south and to the east Sumer and Babylon and Assyria and Persia.

As they grow larger and jostle with their neighbors, these kingdoms often clash. They have no common border, only some space in between that’s occupied by a small kingdom called Israel. When they come to Israel to fight each other, they follow a road along the Mediterranean Sea called the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea.

The road is guarded by the fortress city of Megiddo, shown here by a red dot. Given its location, Megiddo is of great strategic value to any superpower in the Mideast.

Thutmose III and The Battle of Megiddo – Battle of Megiddo Facts

It is said that more battles have been fought here than at any other place in the world – 34 battles, by one estimate. The earliest recorded major battle in history took place here. About 1,500 years before the time of Christ, Pharaoh Thutmose III of Egypt led 1,000 chariots and 10,000 foot soldiers to a decisive victory over a coalition of Canaanite armies.

That was just the beginning. Joshua attacked Megiddo during the Israelite conquest of the Holy Land. Israelite heroes Gideon and Barak and Deborah fought major battles here. Israelite kings Solomon and Ahab built up the city’s fortifications. Israelite kings Ahaziah and Josiah died in battles here. Napoleon fought here in 1799, and remarked that it was a splendid place for a battle. British Gen. Edmund Allenby defeated the Turks here in 1917. Israelis used it as a base during the war of 1948.

Twenty times the city was built, and 20 times it was destroyed and rebuilt, one city on top of another. One day people said, “Enough. It’s just not safe to live here.” By the time of Jesus, Megiddo was a ghost town. But it was a symbol of great battles – a symbol like the Alamo, like Waterloo, like the beaches of Dunkirk and Normandy.

Today it’s a popular tourist destination. Here are a few photos from my trips there. The tell is an oval covering about 15 acres at the top. It rises 70 feet from ground level. The ruins of 20 cities are compacted into that 70 feet. You begin your ascent along an ancient stairway.

From the top you can see the vast plain of the Jezreel Valley and the mountains beyond. Jezreel means “God sows.” The Jezreel Valley is a vast and bountiful cropland. The road at the base of the photo here follows the route of the ancient Via Maris, the Way of the Sea.

You can see the ruins of the stables where a thousand or more horses could be kept, and some of their stone feeding boxes.

If you’re sure of foot and don’t mind enclosed spaces, you also take a stairway 120 feet down to a long horizontal tunnel leading to a spring. This secure water source is the reason Megiddo is where it is, and it was carefully protected from enemies who might try to block it during a siege.

Looking out over the Jezreel Valley where God sows, you can see why it was such a storied place, and perhaps understand why it’s favored as the site of a final epic battle in the book of Revelation.

Though the name is mentioned only once, the battle itself is mentioned several times in Revelation. That’s because Revelation is not, as is so often thought, a straightforward, continuous, narrative. It’s a narrative that circles back on itself several times to tell the same story over and over again from different viewpoints.

And the reference to a final battle is not necessarily to be taken literally. In fact, very little in Revelation should be taken at face value. It’s all symbolic. That’s what John of Patmos announces in the very first verse of his account. He says that God made everything known to him through symbols. God “signified” the message to him, the best translation says – that is, relayed it through signs and symbols.

If you read Revelation carefully, you’ll notice how carefully John says that what he sees in his visions are “like” this or that. Not that they are this or that, but that they are like them. They are symbols of reality, but not literally that reality.

Though Revelation mentions it by name in chapter 16, the battle at Armageddon isn’t narrated until chapter 19. The armies of evil line up against the armies of good led by Jesus on a white horse – but there is no battle. Jesus simply declares victory. There’s evidence of a great slaughter, but no battle. Jesus conquers by the sword of his mouth, the sword of his word.

Whatever it may mean for the future, this story has a personal meaning for all of us. Armageddon is symbolic of all battles between good and evil that we all fight every day. Armageddon isn’t just a battle at the end of time. It’s an everyday battle of everyday people. God wins when we recognize that Jesus is on our side, and any victory belongs to him.

Now it’s time for us to go to hell. I’ve been there, too. Well, to the outskirts of it, anyway – the gates of it, you might say.

The word “hell” does not appear in the Bible. It may appear in your Bible, and if it does, it’s because of a serious mistranslation. I don’t care how many sermons you’ve heard about hell from fire-breathing preachers, the word “hell” was invented long after the Bible was written.

Jesus never said a word about hell – not one word. What Jesus refers to several times is Gehenna. That’s a way of saying the Valley of Hinnom. It’s one of the many valleys in and around Jerusalem.

Here’s a photo of what it looks like today – a rather pleasant place, don’t you think? This is as close as I’ve gotten, and as close as most tourist guides will take you. But there’s a small part of the valley that has been cursed for thousands of years.

On a narrow ledge above a rock cliff is the Convent of Onuphrious. It was built in 1892 on the site of the Akeldama, the Field of Blood. It’s called that because it was purchased with the blood money paid to Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus.

Judas hanged himself here. Originally a field where potters dug for clay, it became the burial ground for those who had no one to bury them.

The place was cursed a long time before that. Down in the valley below was Topheth, where children were burned to death as a sacrifice to pagan deities.

How do you remember a thing like that without honoring the memory of it? It’s a question we ask ourselves today when we think about the horrors of slavery in this country and statues honoring those who fought to maintain slavery.

The great reformer King Josiah knew how to mark the memory of murderous idolatry. Before he got himself killed in a battle at Megiddo, Josiah turned this place into a garbage dump. This is, as Jesus later said, the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where “the worm never dies and the fire never goes out” (Matthew 8:12, Mark 9:48).

Got some refuse that you need to dispose of? Haul it to the ledge over the Valley of Hinnom. Over it goes! Got some sewage you don’t want to pour out in the street? Take it to Gehenna, and over it goes! Got a corpse you don’t want to bury? Off to Gehenna, and over it goes!

That’s probably what happened to the bodies of the two criminals who were executed with Jesus. It’s probably what would have happened to Jesus’ body as well, if Joseph of Arimathea hadn’t sought permission to bury it. This is also where the bodies of thousands of residents of Jerusalem were thrown after the Romans destroyed the city 40 years later.

Gehenna was a horrible place with a horrible reputation. I have some friends who were stationed in Japan while in the military. They say Tokyo once had – may still have, for all I know – a burning dump like Gehenna, and when the wind is in the wrong direction, life us, uh, hell.

The fire has gone out, but Gehenna is still a nasty place today – almost impossible to get to, guarded by a tall chain-link fence, and a depository for filth from the cliff above.

This is where you’re bound, Jesus says, if you call someone a fool. This is where you’re bound if you don’t rid yourself of a hand or a foot or an eye that causes you to sin. Don’t fear those who can merely kill your body, he says. Rather, fear God, who can toss your body and your spirit into fiery Gehenna. (Matthew 5.22, Mark 9:43-47, Matthew 10:28.)

Jesus often speaks in colorful, exaggerated metaphors, and sometimes it’s hard to know how literally to take him. One thing’s for sure. Whether it happens in this life or the next, you don’t want to go to Gehenna.

Sometime a few hundred years after Jesus, the idea of Gehenna got mixed up with pagan notions of Hades and Tartarus, and we wound up with the notion that when you die you either go to heaven or to a place of everlasting torment that’s called hell.

As I said, hell isn’t in the Bible. If you’ve ever heard a sermon about hell, probably very little of it came from the Bible. Probably most of it came from The Inferno. That’s a vivid and perverse 14th-century epic poem by Dante Alighieri. Many pastors preach Dante thinking it’s the Bible. It’s not. Many pastors use the notion of hell to scare people into faith. That’s theological and pastoral malpractice.

Like Armageddon, Gehenna is a metaphor for a spiritual reality. We condemn ourselves to Gehenna and live in outer darkness when we fail to love as we were made to love.

We could talk about that a lot more, and maybe will somebody, but now it’s time to bring to a close this travelogue that’s a lesson in history, geography and gospel.

Have you heard the gospel in it?

Don’t you know that the armies of good and evil march with you every day, and the place where you struggle is called Armageddon? Don’t you know that bad decisions can

And don’t you know that the key to victory is keeping your eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1)?

Well, now you know. Don’t say you haven’t been told.

This message was delivered November 15, 2020 at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas. After four months of in-person worship, the church now closes until at last the end of the year because of a surge in coronavirus infection in our area.

Event horizon

Unsure of the outcome of the election and unsure of what to say in any case, I turned to the lectionary for guidance on what to preach about today. The lectionary is a list of carefully chosen texts that guides many preachers week after week. I find its chief value is that it keeps you on track with the progress of the Christian year.

The start of the season of Advent is still several weeks away, but this is very much an Advent text because it speaks of the coming, or advent, of Jesus. Specifically, it speaks of the Parousia of Jesus, what we often call the Second Coming of Jesus.

It’s significant that this is one of the earliest writings in the New Testament. Paul first writes to the church at Thessalonica somewhere around the year 50, or only about 20 years after the death of Jesus. Expectation is high that Jesus will return any day, and believers in this Greek port city have a concern.

Some of their loved ones have died since giving their hearts to Jesus. Does this mean they’ll miss out when Jesus returns? Because they have died before Jesus returns, will they miss the benefits of resurrection life that he brings with him on his return?

Paul writes to reassure them about their hope for eternal life. He doesn’t want them to grieve like those who have no hope. You have great hope, he says. You need to understand that when Jesus returns, he’ll bring with him all who have died trusting in him.

I’m not just making this up, Paul is quick to say. This is an authoritative teaching. This is “a message from the Lord.” How Paul received this message, he doesn’t say. But he’s confident to say that it comes from Jesus.

He’s also confident that he’ll be around to see it. He speaks of “we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming.” Paul is sure he’ll be alive to witness this Second Coming.

This is how it will happen, he says. The Lord will descend from heaven with a shout from God’s top-ranking angel and a blast from God’s trumpet. Those who have died in Christ will rise from the dead. We who are living will be taken up with them into the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. Thereafter we will always be with him.

Knowing that this Advent is truly coming, we should not only feel encouraged as individuals, Paul says, but we should actively encourage one another. These are encouraging words, but they are easily misinterpreted, and they have been frequently and greatly misinterpreted, especially in the last 200 years.

Note, first, that this passage is not about anybody going to heaven. This is about heaven coming down to us on earth. This is about Jesus returning to earth and bringing heaven with him.

In other words, this is no Rapture. The Rapture is a purely fictional event in which believers are secretly zapped up to heaven so they’ll escape some coming tribulation. Note that Paul speaks of no coming tribulation and no zapping up to heaven. What he says is that when Jesus comes down from heaven, we will meet him and be with him forever.

That’s why we call it the Second Coming. It’s the second time he comes to earth. But he doesn’t take people back to heaven with him. He stays on earth, as Emmanuel, God with us, forever.

The Rapture, the notion that we’re zapped up to heaven secretly, is a story that was cut from the whole cloth in 1830 by a one-time Anglican priest named John Nelson Darby. His teachings are followed today in Dispensationalist, or “Left Behind” teachings. Sadly, those teachings have infected a lot of otherwise sound minds.

Funny thing about this “secret” Rapture. If there’s a shout from God’s top-ranking angel and a blast from God’s trumpet, how can anyone miss that? How can anyone sleep through all that noise? There can be no bumper sticker saying, “In case of Rapture, wake me up.” The noise of Jesus’ return will be tremendous. You won’t be sleeping throuogh it.

This passage offers no notion of anyone leaving or anyone being left behind. What we have here is a very loud and hard-to-miss event that Paul describes as a Parousia. What’s a Parousia? In first-century thinking, it’s the celebration that happens when the emperor or a king or some other high authority comes to town.

The king arrives in a colorful parade, with an impressive entourage. He rides a magnificent white horse or maybe a chariot pulled by four magnificent white horses. Trumpets blare and soldiers march in precision formation. The whole city goes out to view the spectacle and to cheer and welcome the king, then follow him into the heart of the city for a big party.

That’s the kind of thing Paul envisions, only he stages it in the clouds. When Jesus returns, he says, we’ll all go out to meet him and welcome him home to stay. You don’t have to take Paul’s imagery literally to understand or accept what he’s saying. It will be a celebration like no other.

Talk of meeting Jesus “in the clouds” is familiar picture language. Throughout the Old Testament, when God makes a spectacular appearance similar to what happens in this scene, God does not ride a two-wheeled chariot pulled by horses, or anything like it. God rides the clouds.

During his mock “trial” before the religious authorities, when the high priest asks Jesus if he is the Messiah, Jesus answers, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62-62).

Again, it’s stereotyped language not meant to be taken literally. It’s unlikely that the high priest ever did see Jesus seated at the right hand of God or coming with the clouds. But he understands perfectly well what Jesus means by saying that he will, and he is outraged. God rides the clouds. Here humans don’t.

In fact, Paul got the timing all wrong. He was sure Jesus would return in his lifetime. It didn’t happen, at least in the way Paul thought about. Jesus is with us today, not in physical form but in a form that Paul knew about, the form of the Holy Spirit. Read Acts chapter 2 for the story of the Spirit’s Parousia at Pentecost. There were plenty of wind and fire pyrotechnics on that day to announce the Lord’s coming.

In many ways, we are like those believers in the church at Thessalonica. We believe Jesus is coming someday. We are encouraged by Paul’s assurances that it will be a great event. But we have no clue as to when it will happen, and we’re really not too sure what will happen when it does.

Sure, lots of people say they know when it’s going to happen, and they’re mistaken. Lots of people also say they know precisely what’s coming next, and they’re most likely mistaken, too.

In physics there’s something called an event horizon. When you approach a black hole in space, you near a horizon that once you cross, there’s no going back. Beyond this horizon is nothing. There are no more events. Beyond this point, everything gets sucked into the black hole. Even light disappears.

Many people think that death is an event horizon, beyond which there is nothing. Believers in Christ, though, know that the horizon of death is like any other horizon we are familiar with.

When you watch a ship sail out to sea, it gets smaller and smaller and then, in an instant, it pops over the rim and disappears. It’s still there, but you can’t see it anymore. Same thing with a sharp corner in a forest or the mountains. When a car goes around the corner, you can’t see it anymore. It’s still there. It’s just gone around the corner. Same thing when a door closes, or you just can’t see beyond it for some reason. Death is not the end. There is an event beyond the horizon of death. We just can’t see it from here.

Heaven isn’t the end, either. Heaven is the abode of God. It’s where God “lives,” to use language that’s very misleading because God actually “lives” everywhere, not just in one place.

Heaven may be where we go immediately or shortly after death, but it’s not our final destination. Our final destination is resurrection life. That’s life after we are resurrected – after we are raised from our graves, as Paul describes in this passage.

After Jesus returns, we’ll be with him forever, here on earth – or, as the book of Revelation says, on a transformed earth. We can’t imagine what such life would be like, and I think that’s just fine. Our imaginations are often outrageous but altogether too limited when it comes to such things.

As Paul says in Ephesians 3:20, God is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Whatever you can ask or imagine, it’s not good enough. Whatever you can ask or imagine, God can do better. Whatever you can ask or imagine, God will do better.

So don’t worry about when it’s going to happen. Jesus will return in God’s own good time, and God doesn’t need you to waste time and effort speculating on when it’s going to happen. Just know that it will happen. When you approach that horizon called death, know that there is something beyond. And one day Jesus will return across that horizon, riding the clouds in triumph. We will all hail his return, and we will be with him forever and ever.


This message was delivered November 8, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.      

Saints I have known

On All Saints Day, we celebrate the saints we have known – those followers of Jesus, living and dead, who have shown us by their example how to live a Christian life.

As I thought about what message I would bring to you today, I kept being nudged – no, not simply nudged but pushed, even compelled – to talk about some of the saints I have known.

These are people who have richly influenced my walk with Christ. I won’t tell you about all of them because I’m sure that some who are still alive would be deeply embarrassed if I named them in public. There are so many more I could name, but I have only so much time, and you have only so much patience.

Let’s start the name-dropping with a woman named Cam. Actually, her name was Mrs. Camden, but Cam was about all my younger brother could pronounce at the time she was our babysitter. Cam taught in the children’s Sunday School of her church. Knowing that my family did not go to church, she brought us leftover Sunday School materials every week.

I loved the handouts that told Bible stories in comic book format. In those comics, the Bible sprang to life for me. It’s one thing to hear Bible stories. It’s another to experience them in vivid color, comic book style. I sure wish I had kept some of them.

Also dear to me was my cousin Patti, who lived nearby. We would do summer ministry among neighborhood kids. I think she was the most enthusiastic Christ follower I’ve ever known. I think she would have made a great pastor, but her faith tradition doe not allow women to act in that role, so she became a great pastor’s wife. They continue their ministry even in retirement.

In the fundamentalist Baptist that church Patti and I attended teenagers, the youth group leader was Dave. For our junior year college exploration trip, Dave packed three of us into his VW Beetle and drove us to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. The trip itself was memorable because Dave drove according to different rules of the road than we were used to, especially on narrow mountain roads.

I was interested in Bob Jones because it had a film program, and I wanted to make movies. I quickly discovered that the film program was not what it was cracked up to be, and I could not live under the restrictions of this ultra-fundamentalist and ultra-racist “fortress of the faith,” as it called itself. It’s a fortress of something, all right.

Dave was sympathetic to my concerns. It was one of those things that made him a good youth leader, though I don’t think it endeared him to his bosses.

I wound up at the University of Illinois, which did not have a film program but did offer a major in radio and TV. I had moved away from church by now, but I got connected to InverVarsity Christian Fellowship. It offered a special theology class taught by John Warwick Montgomery of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. He was a giant in conservative theology circles, and his teaching made a liberal out of me.

A few years later, I met this woman named Linda. She was a United Methodist, so it was inevitable that we would marry in a United Methodist Church. On our wedding day we discovered that the pastor, Bill Laughlin, had gone to high school with my mother, though they hadn’t seen each other in years.

A few years later, we moved to Traverse City, Michigan, where we met Bob and Ellen Brubaker. Bob was pastor of Central United Methodist in Traverse City. Ellen was pastor of the smaller Old Mission United Methodist Church on Old Mission Peninsula. Once a month they exchanged pulpits. It was no surprise to us that a few years later she was one of two women who became the first female district superintendents in Michigan history.

Our first child and five northern Michigan winters drove us closer to home. In Kansas City we became part of another Central United Methodist Church. The pastor was Elbert Cole. He was one of the most visionary and energetic church leaders I’ve ever encountered. We were saddened when his wife Virginia faded away before our eyes because of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Central had what it called a “bishop in residence.” That was retired Bishop Eugene Frank. I especially valued his support later, when I moved toward ordained ministry. At Central we also met a young associate pastor fresh out of seminary – Adam Hamilton. It was his first appointment before he founded Church of the Resurrection 30 years ago.

I won’t mention names here, but one of the greatest spiritual influences on us during this time was the Mariners Sunday School class. It was such a tight-knit group that though most of us are far apart physically, a half dozen of us still keep in touch.

A move to Kansas eventually meant a change of churches, and in Roeland Park we found a jewel in our own back yard. Wally Proctor was pastor of the Roeland Park church then. When he encouraged me to go into ministry, he became my mentor and later my boss when I joined the church staff as student intern.

Among the congregation,Larry Krueger was especially welcoming and accepting. Several years ago I had the privilege of presiding at the wedding of daughter, who had been in my youth group years before. Larry died shortly afterward from pancreatic cancer. That dread disease also claimed the life of another friend from Roeland Park, Denise Johnson.

Another saint from that church was Jane Lynch. She fought multiple sclerosis valiantly for several years until it finally wore her out. Jane’s spirit may be summed up in a statement of her philosophy on raising two teenage boys. She said, “I don’t want to be the meanest mom in the world. But I want to be a contender.”

Then there’s Jean Austin. She was the church’s “Amen corner.” At the end of the choir anthem or some other event, she would shout “Amen!” Then one day she announced that she was going to have to devote all her time to her ailing mother, so someone needed to replace her.

I had recently become a Lay Speaker, so when I first spoke in church, I said I would take Jean’s place. I was very shy and insecure in those days, but when the time came, I managed to croak my first “Amen!” and nobody thought it was weird, and I knew I’d found my calling.

Saint Paul School of Theology is thick with saints, so I’ll mention only a few.

First there’s Young Ho Chun. I was able to take only one class from him, but it was a foundational event. He was my academic adviser, and when I had to choose where to go for what’s called a contextual immersion experience, he told me I should spend a week at the Trappist monastery in Ava, Missouri.

He said it was just the kind of spiritual experience that I needed, and he was right. That week may be the most formational event of my life. Part of the reason for that was our instructor, Paul Jones. He was a United Methodist minister then. Now he’s a Catholic priest. He is simply one of the deepest spiritual advisors I’ve ever had.

Let me also mention three of my favorite seminary teachers: Tex Sample, Hal Knight and Warren Carter. Oh my, what these men taught me and what they conveyed to me simply by being who they are! Linda had Hal as a teacher, too, and we are part of a reading group he leads – lately by Zoom.

My first appointment after seminary was a two-point charge, Lansing and Fairmount. Lansing was a church in turmoil when I arrived, and we had some tense times over the years. Myrtle Parsons was part of the old guard defending the status quo. I remember the morning when she waved a skinny, arthritic finger in my face and said, “I won’t let you drive me out of my church!”

But we became friends and allies, and when she was close to death, she invited me back to her farmhouse to say goodbye, and she asked me to do her memorial service.

Let me tell you about Ernest and Nancy Jones. They lived down the street from us, and every Tuesday evening five or six families from the neighborhood would gather at their house for a potluck. It was our way of supporting Nancy in her role of caretaker for Ernie, who had Alzheimer’s.

He could still run through the preflight checklist of a B25 bomber, but most days he couldn’t remember his name. Nancy had to tell him that every morning when she went through a series of flashcards with him. When Ernest died, Nancy took up volunteering in earnest. (Pun intended.) She helps run a food pantry in Leavenworth and has been named volunteer of the year several times.

Ray and Gail Miller were stalwarts of that church. At about the same time, Gail had tests for lymphoma and I had colon surgery, and doctors were sure that the mass they removed was cancerous. I have always said that if these things were decided on merit, she would have gotten a pass here because she was a far better Christian than I was. But my tests came back negative, and hers were positive. After extensive treatment, she went into remission, for several years. But it came back, and five years ago she died. Some things are just not right in this world.

I might name a few live saints in Paola, where I served next, but I’ll mention only two who have passed on. One is Dick Gilman, a KU grad who still holds passing and pitching records from his days playing football and baseball. Dick was Lay Leader at Paola for many years. He was as quiet and unassuming and generous a man as I’ve ever met.

Another Paola saint was Herb Fickel. He was proud to say that he was a Marine, but he never said much about the fight for Iwo Jima. A one-time furniture salesman, Herb never met a person whose ear he couldn’t talk off, and he told a lot of people about his love for Jesus.

Next comes Central church in Lawrence, the third Central church in my life. Most of the saints there are still alive, so I’ll not put them on the spot by naming them. But I must mention Dottie Knetsch, wife of Piet Knetsch, my copastor at Central. She was a United Methodist pastor forced into retirement by the disease that eventually killed her.

The only saint I’ll mention from here is Ted Jones. Ted was well known for the cards she made for people on special occasions. It was her gentle way of reminding them that they mattered to her and to God.

Until she died nearly three years ago, my mother sent store-bought cards to relatives and friends. That’s how one of my distant cousins learned of her death. He missed getting a card on his birthday, and he couldn’t reach her by phone, so he found my number on the internet and called me.

I haven’t gone into a lot of detail here, and I’ve skipped a lot of people, but I hope you get the idea I’m trying to convey. You are surrounded by saints. They are everywhere. They are woven into the fabric of your life, and they have helped shape your life. They had a role in making you who you are today.

Please pause to remember them today. If you sit down and make a list, as I did, you’ll be amazed at some of the names you come up with, and the more you think about it, the more names you’ll recall.

We are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses. It’s not the kind of cloud that obscures your vision. No, it’s the kind of cloud that makes everything clear. It’s the kind of cloud that makes the love of God working in your life so crystal clear.

This message was delivered November 1, 2020, All Saints Day, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Hebrews 12:1-2 and 1 Peter 1:3-5.