Saturday, February 6, 2021

Dating the Advent

This is an article I wrote for the Green Lake Church Gazette. Published in April, 2013.

Dating the Advent (or Not!)

John McLarty

April 2013 GLC Gazette

In the summer of 1994 I spent a week preaching at a Midwestern campmeeting.  Halfway through the week, a genial couple invited me to lunch.  Food out of the way, we got down to the real reason for their invitation: they wanted to share with me the good news that Jesus would return before the end of the year.

A couple of years previously, they had moved out of the city and purchased an ostrich farm where they could protect their children from the chaos that would engulf America's cities as we entered the final months of earth's history.  They were enjoying the quietness and serenity of country life and the extra time with their children. But the conversation did not focus on the benefits of country living.  We talked about the good news that within a matter of months Jesus would be here! They showed me charts of jubilee cycles. I heard complicated mathematical calculations.  But most of all I sensed their excitement that Jesus was coming . . . and soon! 

My hosts were gracious and courteous.  They didn't demand that I agree.  But they just

had to share the good news with me.  Jesus was coming.  Without setting a precise day, they

were absolutely convinced by the signs and chronological charts that Jesus was coming before

the end of the year.  

They won my heart.  I liked them.  I was drawn to their obvious sincerity and sweet

Christian spirit.  But there were a couple of problems with what they had to say.  First, they were Adventists, and Adventists should know better. Our history teaches us the folly of focusing on even approximate schedules for the Second Coming. Second, they were ignoring the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24 and 25.

Adventist History

Date setting is our blood as a denomination. Our most famous date for the Second Coming was 1844.  Oops. Groups of Adventists have predicted the Second Coming 1847, 1851, 1964, 1994, 1998, and 2000. Most of us are coy about our date setting now. We are like Billy Graham, who was asked by reporter in the early nineteen sixties, “When will Jesus return?” Graham's reply some forty years ago, “We can't know the exact date, but I don't see how it can be more than five years from now.”

I’ve known people who actually lived out their belief that the end of time was very soon, people who decided not to pursue advanced education because time was too short for them to be able to complete their degree, people who married precipitously because they wanted to experience conjugal bliss before the possibility was snatched away by the second coming, people who failed to plan and save for retirement. In every case these Adventists lived to regret their decisions. 

Once, I asked Marvin Moore, an Adventist expert on the end times, “What decision have you made in the last five years that was guided by your knowledge of end time events?” His reply, “None.” Moore has written books about end time events, but those books offer no help for his real life. They are pure theory.

If the dates we set are always wrong, if acting on the belief that time is short leads to regrettable decisions, if the experts on end time events can offer nothing helpful for our actual lives today, maybe it's time to take another look at the passage in the Bible that is most frequently cited in support of the idea that we can know the approximate time of the Advent.

Signs of the Times, Matthew 24 and 25

Adventist preoccupation with “signs of the end” is frequently based on a few verses in Matthew 24. This chapter and chapter 25 are an integrated literary unit. At the beginning of Matthew 24, Jesus and the Twelve were leaving the temple in Jerusalem. The disciples called Jesus' attention to the exquisite artistry and massive solidity of the temple buildings.  Jesus responded, "Do you see all these things?  I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." The disciples were startled.  How could God's temple be destroyed? Surely the destruction of the temple could be accomplished by nothing less than the end of the world. 

A little later, when they were sitting on the Mount of Olives across the valley from Jerusalem, the disciples asked about Jesus' prediction. They had one concern: when is it going to happen? They wanted a chronology.  Jesus began answering their question:

Watch out that no one deceives you.  For many will come in my name, claiming, I am the Christ,' and will deceive many.  You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. . . .    (Matthew 24:4-6).

Given the disciples' question and these opening words, I half expect the next sentence

to say something like: “These events prove my return is just around the corner.  Sell your houses, cash in your stocks and bonds. Give everything you have for the work of spreading the gospel before it is too late!”  

But what in fact did Jesus actually say?  

. . .  You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.  Such things must happen, but the end is not yet (Matthew 24:4-6).


When we see civilization in turmoil and the environment disturbed we long for the Second Coming.  The worse things seem around us, the more intense our desire for Jesus to come and make everything right. Often, it's a short step from our desire for the return of Jesus to being seduced by theories purporting to predict the schedule of the end of the world. Jesus described chaos, then cautioned, the end is not yet.

In Matthew 24, after describing trouble and evil and stating that these are not proof of the end, Jesus launches into a series of seven parables. The first parables teach us how to think about time with respect to the Advent. In the final two parables a concern for end time events or schedules are shown to be essentially irrelevant in spiritual life.   

Parable one. In Noah's day, people were eating, drinking and getting married.  Life went on as usual right up until the very day of the flood.  Then catastrophe overtook the world.  In the same way, in the last days life will go on as usual.  Nothing will seem to be out of the ordinary until suddenly Jesus appears in the clouds of heaven.

Parables two and three. Two men will be in the field, working . . . as usual.  Two women will be grinding grain . . . their everyday routine.  Nothing out of the ordinary . . . until one is taken and the other left.  

    We don't have to guess what these parables mean; Jesus Himself tells us. 

"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. . .  You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him" (Matthew 24:42-44).

Parable four.  A servant left in charge of an estate in his master's absence imagines the master will be gone forever and begins to mistreat his fellow servants, only to be surprised by the Master's unexpectedly early return. The message: Don't imagine the day of accountability is off in the misty future. It will arrive sooner than you think.

Parable five, “The Ten Virgins.” In a 180 degree shift from the previous parable, the fools in this story are those who imagine time is short. The foolish virgins are foolish precisely in their certainty that the bridegroom will return real soon. Just like people who failed to pursue their education or to plan for retirement because they knew for sure Jesus was coming soon, so these virgins came to grief because of their utter confidence that their wait would be brief. 

In each of these parables, Jesus presents the same message: If you imagine that you know God's schedule you will find yourself embarrassed. Actual time will inevitably, inescapably, unavoidably, ineluctably, necessarily (have I used enough adverbs yet?) be different from your expectation. Theories about the schedule of the end always mislead. Always. 

Parable six, “The Investors.”  A master calls in three servants, announces he is leaving for an extended period of time and entrusts to each of them some money to manage while he is gone. You might think this is going to be another parable about time. But time plays no role in this story. The master leaves. The master returns. Nothing is mentioned about whether he returned sooner or later than expected. Instead when the servants are audited by the master, the crucial factor turns out to be what they thought of the master's character. The two servants who trusted the master, made bold and successful investments. The servant who did not trust the master, buried his money and was harshly condemned. 

Parable seven, “The Sheep and Goats.” On judgment day, humanity is divided into two groups. The blessed group is commended for showing compassion to Jesus. The cursed group is condemned for neglecting Jesus. Both groups protest they never saw Jesus at all. Jesus replies: What you did for the nobodies, you did for me. Ultimately theories about the schedule of end time events will prove irrelevant. Even theology, our high-flown theories about God, recedes as the most important question. This section of Matthew begins with the disciples asking about the calendar: when is the temple going to be destroyed?  When is the end of the world? Jesus answers by steering their minds to questions of character: what do you know of the character of God? What character is revealed in your response to human need?  Get the answers to these questions wrong and even the most accurate end time schedule will do you no good. Get the answers to these questions about character right, and time is of no concern. 


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Be Strong and Courageous

Strong and Courageous
Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists 
March 15, 2020


Psalm 46:1-7, Joshua 1:1-7, Matthew 14:22-27

Hymn: O God Our Help in Ages Past. 

God is our refuge and strength, 
always ready to help in times of trouble. 
Therefore, we will not fear 
when earthquakes come 
and the mountains crumble into the sea.

Let the oceans roar and foam. 
Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge! 

There is a river that brings joy to the city of our God, 
the sacred home of the Most High. 
God dwells in that city; 
it cannot be destroyed. 
From the very break of day, 
God will protect it. 
The nations are in chaos, 
and their kingdoms crumble!  . . .

The LORD of Heaven's Armies is here among us; 
the God of Israel is our fortress.  
[Psalm 46:1-7 NLT] 

We are in a time of trouble. And we need a refuge. 

If we were wealthy, we could put our family on our private jet and fly to some remote island somewhere seeking a refuge. But we can’t do that.

So where can we turn for refuge?

God is our refuge and strength.
An ever ready help in times of trouble.

This conviction, this confidence-that God is on our side and that God is active on our behalf--this is what it means to be a believer. And the question naturally arises at times like these: How does this conviction, this confidence become operational in our lives?

If you’re watching the news or reading Facebook or talking with your friends, it is natural to feel utterly overwhelmed. What are we going to do? How can we find a place of confidence and quiet. How can God be our refuge and strength?

Psalm 46 offers a helpful poetic picture.

God is our refuge and strength, 
An ever ready help in times of trouble. 
Therefore, we will not fear 
when earthquakes come 
and the mountains crumble into the sea. . . .

There is a river that brings joy to the city of our God, 
the sacred home of the Most High. 
God dwells in that city; 

The great cities of ancient civilization were built on rivers. Babylon, Damascus, Ur, the great cities of Egypt. Then you come to Jerusalem. What was the river of Jerusalem? The Jordan River? No. That was many miles away and thousands of feet lower in elevation. Jerusalem had no river.

So what is this river that the Psalmist speaks about? Jerusalem’s river was a tunnel carved through solid rock. A tunnel that still exists to this day. Called Hezekiah’s tunnel. It brought water into the city from a spring that was outside the walls. Before that, women had to go outside the walls to supply the daily water needs of their families. The people had dug cisterns. So they had some capacity to store water during the winter rains. But they could not store enough water to see them through an entire dry period. So during times of siege, they were vulnerable. An invading army could simply surround the city and wait for them to run out of water.

Then Hezekiah built his tunnel, a river that ran underground, hidden from enemies. And the city had a steady secret supply of water.

There is a river that brings joy to the city of our God, 
the sacred home of the Most High. 
God dwells in that city; 

The poet imagined God as that secret river, that everlasting spring.

God is our refuge and strengthAn ever present help in times of trouble.

How do we access this sweet water? Through regular times of devotion.

We shape our souls by what we give attention to.

This coming week, the news will attempt to occupy all of our attention. We will anxiously watch the numbers. How many new cases? Where? We will fret about testing. We worry about the stamina of our medical professionals. And what about all the families impacted by school closures. And all the businesses, especially small businesses, that suddenly have no cash flow? Even time we look to the news there will be more trouble to occupy our attention. And what holds our attention will shape our soul.

Even if we were one of those people who could fly away to some remote island in our private jet, because the US is so deficient in testing capacity, if there are Americans on the plane or on the island, you’ll be terrified that someone close to you has brought the virus with them. 

So what to do?

Let’s take ourselves to the secret river. The river that brings joy to the City of God. Let’s give ourselves daily to the contemplation of the promises of God.

We can refuse to let the news occupy all of our attention. You can learn everything you need to know in ten minutes or less. Check out the Seattle Times coronavirus information page and in just a few minutes you’ll have all the information you need. All the information you can act on.

Then turn your attention away. 

Take yourself to the secret spring. Memorize some of these reassuring passages in the Psalms.

Psalm 62:5-8 NLT
Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. 6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. 7 My victory and honor come from God alone. He is my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me. 8 O my people, trust in him at all times. Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge. 

Psalm 23:.

The Lord is my shepherd,I will lack nothing.He makes me lie down in green pastures.Leads me beside still waters.He restores my soul

Don’t “study” these passages, savor them. Don't analyze them like you would if you were going to write a paper or critique. Lose yourself in them. Rehearse them. Memorize them. Give yourself to them in contemplation. Turn the words over in your mind, tasting their sweetness.

God is our refuge and strength.An ever present help in trouble.

So we don’t have to freak out.

Let’s do the prudent, responsible things, of course.
Practice social distancing.
Wash our hands.

And let’s accept the reality that some of us will die. This virus is likely to kill someone we know. I’m in one of the high risk groups--in my late sixties with a history of asthma. We have friends who are in their nineties and hundreds. The virus may kill us. But let’s be realistic. If the virus doesn’t kill us, something else will. We do not live forever here in this world.

Our hope is the secret river. The promise of resurrection and a better land. 

There is a river that brings joy to the city of our God, 
the sacred home of the Most High.

If you have children at home, this would be a perfect time to work with them on memorizing some of the sweetest passages in the Bible. Helping your kids or grandkids memorize is probably the very best way for you to improve your own memory of Bible passages.

God has another way of speaking to us. Go outside. Yesterday, after working on my sermon, I got on my bike and rode for an hour. It was 36 degrees and raining. And the wind was blowing. At one point I was pedaling downhill and had to be in low gear because of the force of the headwind! Obviously, this was not the kind of weather that smilingly beckons one to go outside. But as I rode and my body warmed up, I felt the bracing exhilaration. So, especially in this time of plague, get yourself outside. Taste the rain. Enjoy the sun. Pay attention to the daffodils. Marvel at the crab apple trees lining the streets. The blossoms on the plum trees. Taste the secret rivers God has provided.
And then . . .

Then . . . 

Be strong and courageous.

Joshua 1:1-2, 6-7 NLT:

After the death of Moses the LORD's servant, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses' assistant. He said, 2 "Moses my servant is dead. Therefore, the time has come for you to lead these people, the Israelites, across the Jordan River into the land I am giving them. ... 6 "Be strong and courageous, for you are the one who will lead these people to possess all the land I swore to their ancestors I would give them. 7 Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the instructions Moses gave you. Do not deviate from them, turning either to the right or to the left. Then you will be successful in everything you do.

Don’t let fear dominate your life. Or frustration. Or anger. Yes, the US has massively bungled its response to this epidemic. We can point fingers. But it will do us no good right now to do that. This is a time for us to be strong and courageous. To act. To do something. I have a particular request:

Pick up the phone and call people. Imagine you are sitting in your Sabbath School class. Now, in your imagination look around the class. Can you remember the name of each person?

Good. Try writing down the names of everyone in your class. If you get stuck, call the class teacher. Make a list. Capture it in writing. Then once a week while we are in quarantine, call every person in your class. Say, “I am  calling just to let you know I was thinking of you.”

You don’t know their phone numbers? That’s why we have a church directory. I hope you have the directory on your phone. Many of you have paper copies of our directory. Make list of people’s names and phone numbers and once every week between now and when we resume regular weekly services call everyone on your list. And every day, pray for everyone on your list.

What if you and your teacher cannot recall everyone’s names? Call me. Maybe I can help you with a name. 

Next assignment. Imagine you are sitting in church. My guess is that you sit in approximately the same place every week. And the people in the room in front of you and the row behind you are the same people every week.

Who are they? Do you know their names? Call them.

Don't know their names? Call me. Let's see if we can figure out who they are.

People are going to get sick and need to stay home. We can provide meals. Or pizza. Or soup. Or groceries. And not just for our fellow church members, but also our neighbors.

The world is full of fear and anger.
We don’t have to be.

God is our refuge and strengthAn ever present help in trouble.We have a secret river.

The world is wild and scary.
God calls us to trust in him.
And then . . .
be strong and courageous.
Let’s do what we can.

We have been to the river.

Now, go. Be strong and courageous. As the people of God, can we do anything less?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Sweet Water

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

February 15, 2020

Texts: 2 Kings 2:19-22 1-22 NLT.  Luke 10:1-3, 8-9 NLT 

The Prophet Elijah shows up in the Bible without any introduction, seemingly out of nowhere.

Elijah, who was from Tishbe in Gilead, told King Ahab, “As surely as the LORD, the God of Israel, lives—the God I serve—there will be no dew or rain during the next few years until I give the word!”


The prophet showed up unannounced. Delivered his message, then disappeared. Three years later—three years of devastating drought—three years later Elijah showed up again. This time he summoned King Ahab to a dramatic confrontation on Mt. Carmel.

Some years later, King Ahab used his royal power in a grossly unjust way for his own personal advantage. He had someone framed and executed so Ahab can expropriate the man’s property. Again, Elijah showed up and delivered a stern message of doom.

Then we come to the end of Elijah’s story. By now he had an associate, a man named Elisha. Elijah, the old man, and Elisha, the young man walked down to the Jordan River together. The old man pulled off his mantle, rolled it up and slapped the water. The river stopped flowing and the two men walked across.

On the other side, the old man, Elijah, said to the young man, Elisha, “I’m old. It’s time for me to go. What I can do for you before I am taken away."

Elisha said, "What I want more than anything else is a double share of your spirit and to become your successor."

"You have asked a difficult thing," the old prophet replied. "But, if you see me when I am taken from you, then you will get your request. But if not, then you won't."

As they were walking along and talking, suddenly a chariot of fire appeared, drawn by horses of fire. It rushed between the two men, separating them, and Elijah was carried by a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha saw it and cried out, "My father! My father! I see the chariots and charioteers of Israel!" And as they disappeared from sight, Elisha tore his clothes in distress.

Elisha picked up Elijah's mantle, which had fallen when he was taken up. He walked back to the edge of the Jordan River. “Here goes,” I imagine him saying to himself. “Let’s see what happens.”

He hit the water with Elijah's mantle just like Elijah had done and cried out, "Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?"

The river divided, and Elisha walked across. It was a great start to his work as the successor of the great prophet Elijah.

Not long afterward, the elders of the town of Jericho visited Elisha. "We have a problem, my lord," they told him. "This town is located in pleasant surroundings, as you can see. But the water is bad, and the land is unproductive." Elisha said, "Bring me a new bowl with salt in it." So they brought it to him. Then he went out to the spring that supplied the town with water and threw the salt into it. And he said, "This is what the LORD says: I have purified this water. It will no longer cause death or infertility." And the water has remained pure ever since, just as Elisha said.

Note the contrast between the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah appeared out of nowhere announcing doom. “The sky is going to be closed. There will be no rain until I say so.” And there was drought for three years.

When Elisha moved into the role of prophet of the nation, he was already well known. They knew him as the kid, as the assistant. Now he was The Prophet. The national spiritual leader. So they brought to him a giant problem, a problem so big only divine power could solve it.

And Elisha did solve it. He brought sweet water to a place haunted by bitter water.

Jericho was in a desert. Nothing grew there without irrigation. But the springs which supplied the available water were bitter. I’m guessing the water had alkali or salt in it. When you irrigate with water like that after awhile the ground itself becomes toxic to plants and you can’t grow anything in it. The water was miserable for drinking.

Then Elisha worked his miracle and the water became pure.

It is easy to get infatuated with Elijah. We can imagine ourselves denouncing evil, rebuking wicked people and oppressive systems and structure. Sometimes denouncing evils makes feel good.

But God calls us to something much higher, much more noble, and much more difficult. God calls us to heal the waters. Healing the waters is partnering with God in his grand mission. 

Adventists have historically focused on the Second Coming of Jesus. We have painted the picture of all God’s people being swept up to heaven at the end of time. The fiery chariot will come for us all and we’ll fly away to a place of sweetness and light, justice and truth, peace and love.

We have developed pet theories about just how it is going to happen and when it is going to happen. We have studied the Bible and the newspaper looking for signs that that glorious day was just around the corner.

It’s time for us to quit looking at the sky and turn our attention to the city that needs our help. Let’s leave the wilderness and the vision of the heavenly chariot and come back to Jericho and heal the waters. 

On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil sat down at a lunch counter in Woolworths Drugstore in Greensboro, SC. Four college students sitting at a lunch counter would hardly be remarkable--except that these four young men were black and Woolworths--following the custom through the South at that time, had a strict policy of serving only white people at their lunch counters. 

The young men asked for coffee and were refused service. They stayed sitting at the lunch counter until closing time. The next day they were back and other students joined them. By February 5, some 300 students showed up, paralyzing the lunch counter and other local businesses. 

Fortunately, allies had arranged for television coverage of their action. As the video went nationwide, the Greensboro sit-ins sparked a sit-ins in college towns throughout the South and even in the North, as young blacks and whites joined in various forms of peaceful protest against segregation in libraries, beaches, hotels and other establishments.

By the end of March, the movement had spread to 55 cities in 13 states. Though many were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, national media coverage of the sit-ins brought increasing attention to the civil rights movement.

At the end of July, when many local college students were on summer vacation, the Greensboro Woolworth’s quietly integrated its lunch counter. Four black Woolworth’s employees—Geneva Tisdale, Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones and Charles Best—were the first to be served.

The world shifted. The waters were a little less bitter. 

Late this week, Dana sent me an article about one other young black man who was there. He was an employee of Woolworths, working behind the counter. He said in the world he grew up in racial discrimination was common. It was so common that his parents and other adults around him just accepted it as “the way things were.” They dreamed of escape to heaven. They never dreamed things could change here on earth. It took young people with new dreams, new fire, to take the bold actions needed to drive the change.

My appeal to you young people, and really to all of us: In your times of prayer, include a prayer for wisdom and courage to make some difference in the place where you are. At school, at work, in your neighborhood, in the church, in the city, in the nation.

Let’s resist the urge to go backwards.
In the church people talk about going back to the pure faith of our ancestors. But this is wrongheaded. If their faith had been all that great we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.
In politics, a current slogan is to make the nation “great again.” A dangerous notion because it congratulates our ancestors and blinds us to the continued work before us to secure a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.
Let’s go forward to be even greater, more noble, more compassionate, more equitable, more just.
Let’s heal the waters.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Holy Defiance

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
February 8, 2020
Text: Daniel 6

Sometimes the right answer is, “No. I won’t do it.”

When I first started out as a minister, the Adventist Church conducted an annual fund-raising drive called Ingathering. This was not an internal program. Rather, church members solicited money from the public to support the denomination’s humanitarian efforts in disaster relief and development. As a kid, I went door-to-door with other church members. My speech was, “Hi. I’m John McLarty and we are collecting money for the poor, sick, and needy.”

But then when I was in grad school, it was found out that the denomination was not, in fact, spending the money for the poor, sick, and needy. It was blending these monies with general church funds. We were not being honest with our members or with the public.

My congregation lost its taste for participating in the program.

So, the man at the conference who was in charge of the program called me into his office. “John, you and I are friends. So I don’t want harsh, but I see you are quite a bit behind on raising your Ingathering goal this year. I know you can do better.”

“Glen,” I said, “I understand your position. You have someone above you asking about how you are doing reaching your goal. And that person has someone above him urging him to reach his goal. We’re all in this together as a church system, right?”

Glen nodded and smiled. Then I said, “So the guy up at the top puts pressure on the guy beneath him and he puts pressure on the guy under him and he puts pressure on you and you put pressure on me and I’m supposed to pass that pressure on to my church to be diligent and raise their Ingathering goal, right?”

Glen nodded again. “That’s right.”
“Well, Glen,” I said. “I won’t. My congregation will not know that we have talked. I refuse to pass along the pressure. The church is using dishonest advertising for this program. I cannot in good conscience participate.”

Sometimes, the right answer is, “No. I won’t.”

Christians often celebrate the virtue of obedience. A popular devotional book is titled, “My Utmost for His Highest.” The author writes with great eloquence and fire about the importance of absolute, unquestioning obedience. But sometimes, disobedience is the righteous path. Sometimes you have to say, “No.”

Through the book of Daniel, one feature stands out: the path of the righteous is marked by adamant defiance. In Chapter One Daniel and his friends refuse to eat the food provided for them by their royal overseers. In Chapter Three, Daniel’s friends reject the king’s loyalty test. They will not bow. In Chapter Six, Daniel refuses to cooperate with the royal decree about prayer. In the Book of Daniel, the fools swagger and boast of their greatness and the greatness of their kingdom. The righteous refuse to play along. They do not believe the protestations of greatness and demonstrate their disbelief by their actions.

Here’s Daniel’s story:

Darius the Mede decided to divide the kingdom into 120 provinces, and he appointed a high officer to rule over each province. The king also chose Daniel and two others as administrators to supervise the high officers and protect the king's interests. Daniel soon proved himself more capable than all the other administrators and high officers. Because of Daniel's great ability, the king made plans to place him over the entire empire.

Then the other administrators and high officers began searching for some fault in the way Daniel was handling government affairs, but they couldn't find anything to criticize or condemn. He was faithful, always responsible, and completely trustworthy.

So they concluded, "Our only chance of finding grounds for accusing Daniel will be in connection with the rules of his religion." So the administrators and high officers went to the king and said, "Long live King Darius! We are all in agreement--we administrators, officials, high officers, advisers, and governors--that the king should make a law that will be strictly enforced. Give orders that for the next thirty days any person who prays to anyone, divine or human--except to you, Your Majesty--will be thrown into the den of lions. And now, Your Majesty, issue and sign this law so it cannot be changed, an official law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be revoked."

King Darius signed the law.

When Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God.

The officials went together to Daniel's house and found him praying and asking for God's help. So they went straight to the king and reminded him about his law. "Did you not sign a law that for the next thirty days any person who prays to anyone, divine or human--except to you, Your Majesty--will be thrown into the den of lions?" "Yes," the king replied, "that decision stands; it is an official law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be revoked." Then they told the king, "That man Daniel, one of the captives from Judah, is ignoring you and your law. He still prays to his God three times a day." Hearing this, the king was deeply troubled, and he tried to think of a way to save Daniel. He spent the rest of the day looking for a way to get Daniel out of this predicament. In the evening the men went together to the king and said, "Your Majesty, you know that according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, no law that the king signs can be changed."

So at last the king gave orders for Daniel to be arrested and thrown into the den of lions.

The king said to him, "May your God, whom you serve so faithfully, rescue you."

A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den. The king sealed the stone with his own royal seal and the seals of his nobles, so that no one could rescue Daniel. Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night fasting. He refused his usual entertainment and couldn't sleep at all that night. Very early the next morning, the king got up and hurried out to the lions' den. When he got there, he called out in anguish, "Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God, whom you serve so faithfully, able to rescue you from the lions?"

Daniel answered, "Long live the king! My God sent his angel to shut the lions' mouths so that they would not hurt me, for I have been found innocent in his sight. And I have not wronged you, Your Majesty." The king was overjoyed and ordered that Daniel be lifted from the den. Not a scratch was found on him, for he had trusted in his God.

Then the king gave orders to arrest the men who had maliciously accused Daniel. He had them thrown into the lions' den, along with their wives and children. The lions leaped on them and tore them apart before they even hit the floor of the den.

Sometimes, the right answer is No.

In 1892 Homer Plessy bought a first class train ticket for travel from New Orleans to Covington, LA. He boarded the train and settled into a seat in the first class car. It was a “whites-only” car, but since Mr. Plessy looked white (he was seven eights white according to law), no one thought anything of it. But then the conductor came in and challenged him: “Are you colored?”

“Yes sir.” Plessy answered.

“Then you’ll have to leave this car and go where you belong.”

“I will not, sir.” Plessy replied.

“Then I’ll have to call someone and have you arrested.”

“Yes, you will, sir.”

The conductor called a private detective who was on the train. The detective arrested Plessy and turned him over to local police who took him to jail.

It was a crucial day for America. It could have been the day we turned back toward greater equality or plunged deeper into oppression and injustice.

You see, this whole episode was a deliberate set up to challenge the new Louisiana law that mandated segregated train cars.

In the 1870s in New Orleans, when Plessy was growing up, New Orleans had enjoyed a significant measure of racial integration and equality. The city had a large population of both former slaves and people who before the Civil War had been called “free people of color.” Blacks could attend the same schools as whites, marry anybody they chose, and sit in any streetcar. There was a large population of French-speaking, mixed-race Creoles, many of them originally from Haiti. They were educated and wealthy and enjoyed a measure of freedom even before the Civil War. But as the 1880s white supremacy movements began gaining strength across the South and in 1890 the state legislature passed the Separate Car Act, requiring separate train cars for blacks and whites.

Plessy was a member of a local civil rights group, Comite’ des Citoyens (Citizens Committee) that worked to protect the rights of people of color. They decided to challenge the law in court. Plessy volunteered to be the provocateur.

He appeared to be white. So when he went to the train station to buy a ticket in the first class whites-only car, the ticket agent willingly sold him a ticket. But by the definitions written in Louisiana law, he was black.

The conductor who challenged him was actually part of the plot as was the detective who arrested him. The civil rights group arranged for the detective to make the arrest to make sure that Plessy was charged with violating the state law and not some other misdemeanor.

The local court upheld the law. And the Louisiana State Supreme Court upheld the law. Then it went to the United States Supreme Court. The fate of the nation hung in the balance. Just five men needed to stand up and say no. No, that is not right. Just five.

When the Comite’ des Citoyens started on this legal challenge in 1892, they had real hope that the Supreme Court would overturn the Louisiana law. But over the four years between Mr. Plessy’s arrest and his day in the Supreme Court, the makeup of the court had changed and become more conservative. Plessy’s attorneys were not sure they could win, but as a matter of principle they pressed on with their appeal.

In one of the most lamented decisions ever by the Supreme Court, the Louisiana segregation law was upheld. It became the basis for legal segregation across the country for the next 58 years. Only one judge stood up and said no. And one wasn’t enough. The nation entered the dark ages of Jim Crow laws that systematically and legally oppressed Black people across the country.

It was a legal precedent that stood until Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954 when school segregation was declared unconstitutional. It was so unnecessary. If just four more judges had had the courage to stand up against injustice the course of our nation would have been different.

Another story.

On December 1, 1956, Rosa Park was on the bus headed home after a long day at work. She was sitting in the “Blacks Only” section of the bus. The white section of the bus filled up with several people standing in the aisle.

The bus driver noticed this. He stopped the bus and went back to where a sign marked the separation between the black and white sections. He moved the sign back one row and ordered the blacks sitting in that row to give up their seats.

The way city code was written, the bus driver had full authority on his bus, like a captain on a ship at sea. Passengers had to obey. But Mrs. Parks refused.

“No, I won’t.”

The bus driver called the police and had Ms. Parks arrested.

The day of her trial, December 5, 1956, the Black community of Montgomery boycotted the busses. And again on December 6. And again on December 7. The boycott lasted 381 days. The leaders of the boycott were threatened with death. Black churches and the homes of Black leaders were bombed. But the Montgomery Improvement Association did not break. Instead they broke the bus company.

And when Ms. Parks attorneys argued her in the Supreme Court, the Court ordered the City of Montgomery to end segregation on its public transportation.

It is right that we celebrate the Black heroes who stood up against injustice, who said, “No, I won’t.” It is right that we admire their courage, venerate their clear moral vision. But most of us here this morning are not black.

And it is time we stood up. Our black and brown brothers and sisters should not be standing alone. We are called to stand with them.

In the words of the old children’s song,

Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone.

Dare to be defiant. Guided by wisdom and righteousness. And tempered with humility. (After all, maybe it is we who are wrong.)

Let us practice holy defiance. Let’s us be righteous rebels.

Let’s say, “No!”

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Baby Jesus, Baby God

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For December 21, 2019

Baby Jesus, Baby God.

That's the way I learned it in Kindergarten in Sabbath School. And in Primary. We learned the story of Baby Jesus. I liked the shepherds first. People who were outside. With animals. That was cool. And because the angels sang, they were the very first to see the baby Jesus and kneel and worship the baby who was God.

And then the Wise Men showed up. Three Kings from Persia. Guided by the star. They brought gifts. And they, too, knelt. They bowed to the Baby who was also God, so the bowing was okay.

And then there were Simeon and Anna in the temple. Old people who recognized that this baby was no ordinary baby. Instead this peasant kid, born to peasant parents, was Savior of the World. Was Immanuel, God with us. God.

Somehow in the telling of these stories I got the idea that everyone should have recognized the specialness of this baby, this One and Only. It was scandalous that the savior of the world, the baby who was God, the infant who was born to rule the nations, was born in a stable. We told ourselves that if we had been there we would have given up our room for the Christ child. No barn for our baby Jesus!

But I, remember, even back then, when I was not that far from babyhood myself, I wondered, how would people have known? Sure, the shepherds knew because they were ambushed by angels. And anyone ambushed by angels would know something special was going on. And the Wise Men knew because they had their own private star. And if you have your own private star, that should be pretty impressive. But what if you were just a person, a regular, ordinary person? What if you have been an innkeeper? How would you know? How could you know?.

I looked around at all the kids I knew and wondered, what if one of them was Christ? Especially, what if one of them that I didn’t like, one of them who was obnoxious, what if one of them was the Christ? How could I tell?

And then what about all the millions of kids around the world, how could I figure out the one special kid? The only one to save the world?

That was ages and ages ago. Generations ago. Back then I was young and grandma was old.

But I am old now, old enough to be a Wise Man.

And I have seen the star.

I am a shepherd, too. I know the angels’ songs. We sing them every year at this season.

And because I have seen the star and heard the song, I have found the child.

It comes with being a grandpa.

Like other grandpas I know, I study kids with intense delight and fascination. Often with astonished wonder. I study the one who looks like me and calls me Bapa. And I study the ones who use different words and eat different food and have different hair . . . but have hearts and eyes just like my own.

I study them. Tuesday night I watched them in the Christmas play at Cypress Adventist School. They were dressed up in eye-catching costumes. They were backed by a beautiful, well-crafted set. But it wasn’t the costumes and set that held my attention. It wasn’t even their well-delivered lines that captivated me. It was their faces. Their eyes. There was such intensity of life in their faces. I was mesmerized.

I watched their parents watch, holding their phones over their heads to capture the dazzling performance. I watched the pride on their parents' faces. I tasted their parents’ delight and fierce love and ambition. Every parent in the gym was dreaming of their kids’ future. Their little ones would grow up to doctors and judges and builders and musicians. They would make the world better. These little ones were on their way to save the world. To be in some small way, Messiahs. That’s what I saw in those parents watching their kids on stage.

When I looked I saw messiahs all across the stage.

One and Onlys

Baby Jesuses, baby gods.

I see them every morning waiting for the school bus on the street outside my door. Every child the incarnation of the hopes and fears of their parents.

I see a Baby Jesus in the girl on the cover of Time magazine with her ambition to save the planet. And in the young people in this congregation in law school or  medical school or taking engineering or waiting for surgery to open the door of their life and their potential just a little more. We would think their ambitions preposterous except that they are our kids.

Age has fogged my eyes. I don’t see so well with my eyes any more. But the years have taught my heart to see. And I see clearly now. I have seen the star. I have heard the song. I have found the child, the special one.

As a grandpa, I see with vivid clarity the truth shining from the Christmas manger: The special one is everyone. Every child, seen clearly turns into a baby Jesus, a baby god, an incarnation of the life God, an agent of God’s salvation.

To those of us who are long past childhood, the call comes to do all we can to help them in their mission. We must push back against other old people who would mock them or belittle them.

Another story from the Bible about a baby who would become a savior:

The Hebrew people were immigrants in Egypt. As their numbers increased the Egyptians became afraid of the Hebrews and finally outlawed them. Every baby Hebrew was supposed to be killed.

If the face of this law, Amram and Jocabed still had a child, Moses. What were they thinking? The Bible reports that “his mother saw” that he was a “goodly child.” Other translations put it: He was a beautiful child, a special child, a fine child.

And I thought of the parents and grandparents I watched at the Christmas play. Monica watching Marc. Mesfin watching Nathan. Liz and Matt watching Megan and John. Flavia and Donovan watching Jacob. And each parent being astonished that their child was the most amazing, beautiful, talented child on the stage.

Moses mother saw that he was a fine child. So she decided to break the law and save his life.

She hid him, nursing him in secret for three months. But finally she could hide him no longer. At the end of her resources, she placed her child at the mercy of the richest, most powerful person she could think of--Pharaoh’s daughter. Jocabed “abandoned” her baby in a basket near the princess’ bath. When the princess spotted the basket, she ordered it brought to her. The basket was opened and the princess saw an ordinary peasant baby, an illegal child. And she faced the terrible choice: Would she obey the law and push the baby away or deliver it to soldiers for proper disposal or would she save it?

Baby Moses.
Baby Jesus.
Baby Saviors of the world.

Will we join in mocking them?

Will we approve of excluding them and killing them?

Or will we save them and become partners with them in their mission to save the world?

Saturday, November 30, 2019

More Than Enough, Thank You

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists November 30, 2019
A slightly different version was published online by Adventist Today on November 28.
My heart is filled with joy.I burst out in songs of thanksgiving.Psalm 28:7
The day before Thanksgiving, I was on a park bench on the west side of Dorr’s Pond, a tiny lake in Manchester, New Hampshire, watching for the sun to rise behind the white pines across the pond. It was cold, just below freezing. I sipped my very dilute, very hot coffee and nibbled on two cookies I had brought. And I gave thanks. I gave thanks for our grandkids, the reason for our cross-country visit. I gave thanks for the clothing that was keeping me warm and had kept me comfortable even on mornings when I sat in the rain. I gave thanks I had a house to go to when I finished my hour of contemplation. Nibbling my store-bought cookies, I gave thanks for the apple pie Karin had made Sunday night and thanks for the pumpkin pie she was going to make this afternoon. And for the whipped cream and ice cream accompaniments to said pies. When I was younger, feast days--Thanksgiving and Christmas--were occasions of eager gluttony. The food was soo-o-o-o, so good I couldn’t help myself. I gobbled everything in sight with wild abandon until I could hold not another bite. Nowadays, I eat slowly. Every bite is a feast whether it's store-bought cookies or homemade pie. Every bite is redolent of the best days of childhood and a foretaste of heaven. Sitting in the wintery grey, I recalled the pleasure of feasts past and anticipated the pleasure of the feast tomorrow. Then I deliberately brought to mind a conversation last week. I was visiting a friend dealing with a progressive disease. He told me he no longer enjoys eating because swallowing has become perilous. For him, eating is an onerous duty, a difficult obligation that sometimes he shirks. I pondered the gulf between us--my eager anticipation of a feast and his dread of the duty of eating--and the friendship that links us. This Thanksgiving I will try to enjoy pumpkin pie with an ardor worthy of two. I had walked to the park with ease. I took extra pleasure in the mile because of an injury this summer that for awhile curtailed my walking. I’m glad to be out and about again, with ease. Sitting there watching the tardy sun, I replayed in my mind the story a friend shared on Monday. He has been coping with a hereditary, degenerative lung disease. Recently, the disease progression lurched downward requiring him to be on supplemental oxygen all the time. Like me, he loves the out-of-doors. He has spent his recreational life hiking and camping. Now, he carefully calculates the length of every trip out of the house to make sure he has sufficient oxygen to make it back home. I contrasted his challenge with my privilege. Yesterday, I climbed a mountain with the family. I did not fret about oxygen. I go places and do things, figuring sufficient air will be there, always. Sitting in the cold, I inhaled slowly, deeply. Exhaled. Inhaled again, tasting the richness of air deep in my core. I gave thanks. For my lungs. For my legs. For my heart. I had--and I have--more than enough.And I give thanks. I cannot comprehend life with the constraints my friends are managing. The limits on their physical capabilities and the constraint on life-span imposed by their diseases. But I do seek to learn from them. I, too, have a limited life span. They remind me to treasure what is available now. My walking and feasting, my breathing and swallowing, are rich gifts, occasions for frequent thanksgiving, available now but not forever. Adventists call ourselves creationists. Most of our institutional energy surrounding this word has been wasted in debates over the dating of fossils. The really useful question in this context is: why is there something instead of nothing? Believers answer the question about why there is something instead of nothing with the word, “God.” God loved, and so God created. God loved, and so God birthed light and space and neutrinos and electrons. God loved, and so God created life. God loved, and so humans exist with our capacity to love and taste and see and smell and hear and touch and create. There is something instead of nothing. And we, seeing clearly, are awakened to astonishment and wonder. And we are called beyond the theological/philosophical question to a Christian practice: gratitude. We see a late November sunrise. We taste an apple pie, hear high-honking geese, and feel the sharp bite of snow on our cheeks. And give thanks. We acknowledge that all this did not “have to be.” There was a time when all this did not exist, and now it does, to our great pleasure. And we give thanks. The foundation of gratitude is seeing, noticing. One of the most basic Christian practices is giving thanks. We notice the gifts that are ours and say thank you. We have enough. We have more than enough. Not more than we can imagine, certainly. Maybe not as much as we would like. But we have enough. Enough for now. Enough to give thanks. Did you notice that theme in our Scripture readings this morning. God sent the manna to Israel. And when they went and gathered, they had enough.

When the dew evaporated, a flaky substance as fine as frost blanketed the ground. 15 The Israelites were puzzled when they saw it. "What is it?" they asked each other. They had no idea what it was. And Moses told them, "It is the food the LORD has given you to eat. 16 These are the LORD's instructions: Each household should gather as much as it needs. Pick up two quarts for each person in your tent." 17 So the people of Israel did as they were told. Some gathered a lot, some only a little. 18 But when they measured it out, everyone had just enough. Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough. Each family had just what it needed. Exodus 16:14-18, NLT

Jesus soon saw a huge crowd of people coming to look for him. Turning to Philip, he asked, "Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?" 6 He was testing Philip, for he already knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip replied, "Even if we worked for months, we wouldn't have enough money to feed them!" 8 Then Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, spoke up. 9 "There's a young boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that with this huge crowd?" 10 "Tell everyone to sit down," Jesus said. So they all sat down on the grassy slopes. (The men alone numbered about 5,000.) 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. John 6:5-11 NLT

Many of us on Thanksgiving had more than enough. Maybe even too much. But the holiday reminds us of the truth, we have enough. For now. Air to breathe. And our air here is cleaner than the air available to hundreds of millions of people in India and China. Food to eat. A bounty. A surplus. Most of us enjoy a measure of health. Our own well-being highlighted by the difficulties faced by our friends and family. We have enough. For now. For today.

And beauty. When I am at Grand Canyon I try to get to the rim to watch sunrise. Which is kind of hard when I’m with a group and sunrise is very early--during June it’s just a few minutes after 5a. There is a natural hush as people watch the spectacular vista. I thought about that on Friday morning and again this morning when I was back to my usual spot for medication in the morning--Ella Bailey Park. The has a vast, sweeping view to the east, from Mt. Baker in the north to Mt. Rainier to the south. I found myself wondering that more people don’t come and watch sunrise at Ella Bailey Park. They travel a thousand miles to Grand Canyon for the sunrise there. And the beauty is worth the trip and the effort to roust the kids out of bed at an unearthly hour and get them out to the rim in time to see the sun rise over the canyon. But the sun rises here, too. I wish more people could taste its glory. But even if you're not an early riser, there is beauty and loveliness in your world, Cultivate the habit of noticing and saying thank you. When I’m outside watching for sunrise on cold mornings, I sip the peppermint tea or dark roast coffee to help keep myself warm. I nibble the cookies. And devote myself to contemplation of the sky, if it is beautiful, or, if the sky is dark and heavy, to the contemplation of beloved people and beautiful places stored in my memory. At the end of the hour, I raise my cup and whisper to God. “I have enough, more than enough. Thank you.” Then embodying my words, I pour out on the ground the last ounce of tea or coffee--the “more than enough.” Some days that final act is a challenge. Sometimes I am keenly aware of unfilled hungers, unsatisfied desires, either my own or in people I love. Some days the “more than enough” has not stilled my restlessness. It has not ended my quest. On those days I push myself to acknowledge the truth. I do have enough, at least for now, for this day, even more than enough. I give thanks, even If not purely and with my whole heart, still genuinely. I have enough. More than enough. Thank you.