Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Evil Empire

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to lead worship and preach while the Senior Pastor was traveling for Thanksgiving. I always love to preach, not just because I love to write and otherwise play with language, not even because the Word is at the center of Congregational worship, but mostly because there's a wonderful space between what I think I've said and what people actually hear. While that could be a frightening idea for most, I have consistently experienced God working in amazing ways within that space. I've lost count of how many times I've felt like I'd delivered a real stink-bomb of a sermon, only to have someone tell me afterwords that it was just what they needed to hear. And just as often as not, they go on to say that they heard something that I don't remember saying. In an earlier post I told a story about my friend Amory and Mr. Rogers concerning God working in that space, so I won't retell it here.

Anyway, I really enjoyed giving the sermon last Sunday. It was the first Sunday of Advent and I talked about Legos and Charlie Brown, and all kinds of happy fluffy things.

Which works just fine if you ignore the lectionary.
[Jesus said:] “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “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. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Luke 21:25-36
Whew. Kinda dark for the Christmas season, huh? But that's actually appropriate, because we aren't in the Christmas season yet, liturgically speaking. We're in Advent—we're getting ready for Christmas. The Christmas season starts on Christmas day and runs to Epiphany. You know the song, The 12 Days of Christmas? Those twelve days start on Christmas day and work their way forward!

As for the scripture lesson from last Sunday, you have to understand the darkness involved in order to see the light that it offers. You have to understand a little bit about the Roman Empire to understand what Jesus is doing here. He is standing in Jerusalem, at the Temple, foretelling the overthrow of both. And if you look at the history of the Roman Empire as it relates to Jerusalem, it wouldn't have been hard at all for his disciples to believe. Pompey had already taken Jerusalem and successfully laid siege to the Temple during the time of Julius Ceasar. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus eventually rose to power. Augustus' rise to power was complicated—laced with war, bloodshed and intrigue. Once in power he completely neutered the Senate—they knew very well that he held command of the majority of Rome's legions and could take power through sheer force.

It was during this rise to power that Herod the Great became the Roman client king of Judea. In fact, the Senate voted Herod into the position... and Judea had no choice in the matter, because Herod conquered Jerusalem with the aid of the Roman army! And he kept the throne through sheer, ruthless bloodshed. It was under the command of Herod the Great that Slaughter of the Innocents takes place. This is the political climate in which Jesus grew up.
Herod the Great's successor, Herod Antipas wasn't any better. Herod Antipas is the one who beheaded John the Baptist. In the face of such impressive violence and bloodshed, is it no wonder that Jesus preaches of a coming apocalypse which is even mightier? I mean, Rome was bad, but Jesus is talking about the destruction of the very heavens!

Now, this illustration did not fit into my sermon, but I thought it would be fun to share it here. Now think for a moment. What other story has an evil Emperor rise to power through war and intrigue? What other story has a useless and neutered Senate? What other story has an equally evil and violent Lord who does the Emperor's bidding?

On the UCC website there's a section that lists the lectionary texts for the day and provides some commentary. In the commentary for last Sunday's Gospel text, Kate Huey writes:
When we recall that the sun was the symbol of Rome itself, while the moon and the stars represented the empire's client kings clustered around it, we can better understand that, when Luke is talking about the "powers of the heavens" being shaken, it's a kind of code: "It is not the end of the cosmos, as Mark has it, but the shaking of the earthly principalities and powers that is referenced here," William Herzog writes in New Proclamation 2006. I wonder if young adults might relate this in a way to the destruction of the Death Star in their own epic, the Star Wars trilogy. The language of empire was also used in that series to describe the terrible might of the evil power that oppressed planets and galaxies. Empires come and empires go, but they rarely come or go gently, or quietly.
The answer is yes, yes we do.

And so the best way for me to explain the hope inherent in Jesus' apocalyptic talk of the heavens coming down is this:

May the Force be with you.
Rev. Josh

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