Friday, May 27, 2011

Sermon for May 29, Easter 6: The Sign of Love

Acts 17:22-21, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
I had not planned to say anything at all about this Harold Camping “end-of-the-world” thing on Family Radio. I haven’t felt the need to address it since none of our congregation have asked me any questions or expressed any concern about it. The simple response to the whole fiasco is that Our Lord said very clearly that the time of his second coming would not be known to anyone.

But today in our first lesson we have some verses which are depended on by Mr. Camping and others of his ilk. Acts 17:30-31: “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Mr. Camping would say that this is what he meant, that the day has been fixed, and that he figured out it was May 21, and if we think the whole thing is a joke, then the joke’s on us. And there is judgment on us too.

I have three friends from college who were members of the church where Harold Camping was an elder forty years ago, the Christian Reformed Church in Alameda, California. That church belongs to a denomination which seceded from the Reformed Church 150 years ago, and in that denomination some of us have relatives. Mr. Camping is not a pastor, but a civil engineer. He reads the Bible mechanically, like it’s engineering specs. He has no emotional intelligence. They say that talking to him is like trying to talk to a computer. He left that church in 1988 because the other members would not agree with him. He belongs to no church now, he says no church is good, that no church has the gospel, and that God has left the church. Just like Mr Camping did. Mr. Camping projects a god who is a lot like himself. (Don't we all?)

It would be funnier if he did not play on the hopes and fears of vulnerable people. One of my cousins figured he’d be raptured, so he went off on a spending spree in Europe, and now he’s got nothing left. He’s got to hope the world will end in October, or else he’s going on welfare, or whatever’s left of welfare.

To be fair to Mr. Camping, the media mistook what he was saying. He never said that May 21 would be the end of the world. He always said that the end of the world will be October 21. He said that May 21 was judgement day, the beginning of the end, with physical signs and manifestations, like earthquakes and suffering and the rapture. Last Tuesday he admitted he was wrong on only that. He says he was mistaken on the signs and manifestations, that they are not physical, but spiritual. There’s a dodge! Ah, the “spiritual” card. He still says that judgement day did happen on May 21, so that if you did not already repent by then, too bad, it’s over, there is no more chance for repentance. You can repent all you want till October 21, but it’s too late baby now, it’s too late. Family Radio is still in business, but they’re just comforting the true believers for another five months of spiritual tribulations. So what will they broadcast on October 22? The Mets in the World Series. That would comfort us true believers in our spiritual tribulations.

Harold Camping is just an extreme version of so much current Christianity, especially on the right. They claim to speak for Jesus, and they quote some of his words, but they distort the gospel as they shout it. They stoke our anger and they stroke our fears. They turn love of country into lust, and freedom into greed, and independence into self-indulgence. If St. Paul were to visit America today he’d say how extremely religious we are, and also how many idols we have. American idols. The projections of what we want for our ourselves. Not just of talent and good looks and greed, but also of military power and economic power and materialism, and of the loss of power, the idols of fear and anger, which we are indulging in America today. But our epistle tells us, “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

I wish my cousin had prepared for his being raptured by selling all his possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor. He’d still be disappointed by May 21, but he wouldn’t be ashamed. I wish Harold Camping had told all of his listeners to do the same. He’d still be wrong, but we would all honor him anyway. As our epistle says, “do it with gentleness and fear, so that when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”

Yes, we certainly do believe that Our Lord will come again, and we say so in our Creeds. We say that he is seated at the right hand of his Father and so we certainly believe that he is the righteous judge of all the world. But here’s the difference from the distortion. His judgment is not just at the end, he has been doing it all through human history since his resurrection. He does it by his Word and Spirit, as his Word is pronounced among us and as we obey him in the Spirit. He doesn’t do it by sending earthquakes or disasters, but only and always openly, that we may love him and keep his commandments. He doesn’t do it by starting wars and rumors of wars, those are always all our fault. He only and always judges lovingly—that’s how we know it’s him.

His judgement is right now, and active—active in the world, as the words of his gospel take effect within our lives individually and in our cultures corporately. Look at the desire for freedom and democracy in Libya and Yemen, that is the long term fruit of the seed of his gospel and the impact of his judgments. He chooses justice not only for those who believe in him, but for all the offspring of his Father, Christian or Muslim or Jew or Hindu or pagan. He is Lord not only of those who believe in him. He is Lord of all, no matter whether they know him; in him “they live and move and have their being.” His judgment is for life and being. It’s not for the destruction of the world but for the saving of the world.

So now let me give a better translation of our text: While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he summons everyone to turn from their ignorance, because he has fixed a day by which is intending to judge the civilized world in justice, by a man whom he appointed, offering assurance to all by having raised him from the dead.

We have a great mission, bringing the justice and righteousness of Jesus Christ to all of human civilization, the love of him, and the doing of his commandments. I don’t know how long we have, I really don’t care. I don’t know how long we have before he comes again, it wouldn’t matter to me if it were 10,000 years, or at least long enough to let us change our ways enough to cool the globe back down a few degrees and bring back to life the coral reefs. We have a lot of sins to own up to and confess, and a lot of righteousness to learn. I have an idea that Jesus tends to take his time.

The self-giving love of Jesus is the judgment of the world. Whenever you follow him in that love, you judge the world. And this is a judgment that does not condemn the world, but saves it. To have Jesus as your Lord will give you some success, some real success, but it will also be the cause of suffering. With Jesus as your Lord, you can expect to be misunderstood, you can expect to be doubted, you can expect to be abused, if not physically or even mentally, then socially, you may be called foolish or naive, quixotic or unrealistic, disloyal or unpatriotic, whatever.

Look, everybody suffers. Americans have to suffer too, and we ought not increase the suffering of others in order to decrease our own. To accept the suffering of the world with love is what Jesus has commanded us, and if that’s the command that we obey, then we love him too. We love him because he first loved us. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the future of the world, but I can certainly rule out a lot of options and hope for some others when I consider these two things: the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus, and how much God loves us.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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