Sunday, November 24, 2013

You Have To Serve Somebody

November 24, 2013 –– Thirty-fourth (Last) Sunday in Ordinary Time
Solemnity of Christ the King
2 Samuel 5:1–3 / Colossians 1:12–20 / Luke 23:35–43

You Have To Serve Somebody

Back in the late 1970s the folk-icon Bob Dylan went through an Evangelical Christian phase, during which he wrote a song with this refrain: You're gonna have to serve somebody.... Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Yet there’s a protest. There is something in us that does not want to serve. We want to be “free” to make our own choices. There is a brokenness in us that incites us to what Scripture and the Church call “sin,” and that brokenness makes us want to serve ourselves. When the ex-Beatle John Lennon (who esteemed Bob Dylan) heard Dylan’s song, he became so angry that he went into the studio and vented his rage into a long, long song called "Serve Yourself." The power of darkness (using Paul’s term when he writes to the Colossians) loves it when we think we are free to follow our self-interests. It only means we are spurning the rule of God’s kingdom.

Today we come to the final Sunday of the Church year with the Solemnity of Christ the King.  Kingship seems to be an almost universal concept in human history. Earliest civilizations exhibit the phenomenon of divinized kings. This suggests an innate desire in humans to be ruled for the common good––an imprinted recognition that we are not sufficient, by ourselves, to take care of ourselves. We were created to live under a king. Dylan was right: You're gonna have to serve somebody.... But it makes all the difference in the world––and for eternity––who we serve. We live in a world where self-love and abuse of power cause fear and pain and death. Spiritual rebellion is real, and we can be so blind to the real cause of the evils in our world.

Jesus is truly the Messiah of God––the King of the Jews promised in the OT, and ultimately all the earth will bow to the King of kings and Lord of lords (see Philippians 2:10–11 and Revelation 19:16). Ironically, in today’s Gospel we hear those who do not believe––Israel’s rulers, Roman soldiers, and a criminal dying alongside Jesus. They taunt and revile him. They can only see a man who claimed to be a king who is nailed shamefully to a cross. Surely a king would be able to save himself! A “crucified messiah” does not make sense; the power of darkness will have nothing of it. But Jesus did not come to save himself; he came to save us. 

It is by the blood of his cross that Jesus reveals his Kingship––not by saving his life, but offering it as a ransom for ours. In this way God the Father transfers us, in the words of the Epistle, to the Kingdom of his beloved Son. Our allegiance is not to self-assertiveness or raw power, but to a King whose name is Love.

We do not have a choice whether or not to be mastered. You're gonna have to serve somebody....  Yet we do have a choice who our master will be.  Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you're gonna have to serve somebody. On this day when we honor Christ the King, invite him to be the King of your heart.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

An Issue Of Heaven or Hell

November 10, 2013 –– Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Maccabees 7:1–2, 9–14 / 2 Thessalonians 2:16–3:5 / Luke 20:27–38
An Issue Of Heaven or Hell

Sometimes we need to be reminded that faithfulness to God is worth dying for. When the Scripture reading gives explicit reference, “sometimes” is now. Faithfulness is an attitude of heart that becomes the difference between heaven and hell. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. They were the aristocrats of Jewish society and collaborated with Rome (the power of the day)––not an unusual response for the wealthy of any time or place. They did not wish to lose their wealth, their comfort, and their “place.” The Sadducees were focused with the here and now. They accepted only the Torah (first five OT books) and rejected the Prophets and Writings. The Old Testament gives progressive revelation, so the covenant blessings of the Torah were indeed focused on temporal good. But limiting faithfulness to the here and now has an inherent danger. Comfort and convenience can suffocate spiritual life. Who feels a need for God if it seems everything is going great? Heaven can seem like a nice fairy tale. Life in this world becomes more important than being accountable to God.

Contrast the Sadducees with the seven brothers and their mother in the Maccabees story. Life certainly was not comfortable and convenient for them. Alexander the Great’s empire had extended into Judea and there was a tyrannical demand that everyone be totally unified in their allegiance to the state. There was no place for a religious commitment that conflicted with the unification of the whole society. What do God’s people do when they are forced to choose between allegiance to the state and allegiance to God? Even after being tortured one of the brothers said, It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him....

Some people want to believe that making God a part of one's life is like investing in an insurance policy that will provide an escape from hard and painful things in life. Prayer is made out to be a direct line to a heavenly Santa Claus. This Thessalonian letter written by St Paul almost 2000 years ago an ongoing reminder to Christians everywhere that the world is a hard place––especially for those who give total allegiance to Jesus.

Do you know what kind of prayers God always answers? It's those which are aligned with his will. It is a natural tendency to focus our prayers on things which affect our own convenience.  The Sadducees would have prayed like that. We need to learn to pray for what God wants. Here is the Apostle Paul––the great missionary, a man who knew the power of the Holy Spirit––and his request to the Thessalonian Christians is for them to pray for him and other believers. Prayer is critical for all Christians because all of us are in a spiritual war and we need God's power and protection. So St Paul identifies three things people committed to the Lord should pray for.

First, Paul says, pray.... that the word of the Lord may speed forward and be glorified (v1). Christians are to be witnesses (the root meaning of “martyr”). If we seriously embrace our profession of faith, we are saying that we believe that Jesus Christ is the one way to escape eternal banishment from God and punishment in hell, and thus we will live as if hell is something to be seriously avoided. One common slogan I used to hear at missions conferences was This generation of Christians is responsible for this generation of lost people. When Paul asks for prayer that the Gospel will spread, he is calling us to give attention to what is eternally important to God and us.

The next thing to pray is that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith (v2). When people give Jesus total allegiance––when Christians have a passion for the Gospel to extend to the whole earth––there will be obstacles to keep it from happening. It is not happenstance that so much of the world is closed to Christian witness today. Think of the millions of people under totalitarian governments who are hindered from hearing the gospel. Think of false religions. We are in a spiritual war. 

It’s not only human opposition, though. There is also direct opposition from Satan himself. There is a promise here here that implies a prayer: he (the Lord) will strengthen and guard you from the evil one (v3). I wonder how many Christians take Satan seriously as a spiritual foe. It seems that Satan has been reduced to a joke: "the devil made me do it." Satan wants us to be distracted. Satan is happy when we think the most important things are being comfortable and entertained. Or if Satan can bring God's people into shame and ridicule and disrepute, then the spiritual war is going his way. Think about the many priests and other ministers whose failures have been nationally publicized so that Christian Faith itself is ridiculed and dismissed.

When Satan cannot distract or discourage Christians, or keep the Church in scandal, he pours all the power of hell, literally, into the fight. One way he does that is by manipulating wicked people to oppose Christians––even to the point of persecution and death. It’s been that way throughout history. God’s people have sometimes paid for their faith with their lives. More Christians died for their faith in the 20th Century than all previous centuries combined! It is estimated that in the two millennia of Christian history, 70 million faithful have died for the Faith, and 45.5 million––65%––were in the last century. Satan is real. He does not want the love of the Lord to prevail in Christians’ lives. We are in a spiritual war.

In such a world, what can keep us faithful? How can we not succumb to the numbing effects of seduction like the Sadducees? Well, we have examples of faith like the seven brothers and their mother, and we have the martyrs of the Church. Most of all we have Jesus affirming a life that goes beyond this world because the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is not God of the dead, but of the living. And Paul tells the Thessalonians that the Lord is faithful (v3).

The one thing that remains is for us to live in true faithfulness––to give total allegiance to Jesus. Paul's final exhortation is for the Thessalonians to do two things––two things we need to do as well. The first is to direct [our] hearts to the love of God. That's what Christian living and witness is all about. We're not called to witness to something we don't live, and we're not called to live something God hasn't provided. If we know Jesus Christ today it is because we have come to know God's love. And knowing that love, we are to show love the same way....  to our wife or husband.... to our children.... to our neighbors.... to the people at work. We are to give witness to the love of Christ everywhere we go. When we do that, we are being witnesses of the gospel. When we witness to the love of God, we show that there is something more important than our own desires––our own comfort and convenience.

When Christians live like that, there will inevitably be opposition of some kind, so there's a second thing here. We must always be prepared to direct [our] hearts to the endurance of Christ––to share in Christ's sufferings. Luke sets this Gospel reading with Jesus on the way to the cross (starting in 9:51). Maccabees tells the story of faithful people who paid the ultimate price. We are all called to “martyrdom”––laying down our lives in selfless love. Sometimes it’s “red martyrdom”––laying down our physical lives for Jesus’ sake. More often it’s what the Church calls “white martyrdom”––dying daily to our selfish desires so that the life of Christ in us can grow. We do that through total allegiance to Jesus Christ. We are to pray for that. We are to give our time and our money and remember, if necessary, our physical lives for Jesus Christ. It’s an issue of heaven or hell.

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