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Detectives for God

Isaiah 65: 17-25
Luke 21: 5-19

Stewardship Sunday

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

O God, your pattern of faith and life is clear enough among us.
You give and we receive.
You give far more abundantly than we can ask,
or imagine, and we receive.
You give life and breath to the world and we receive.
You give rain and sunshine and food and we receive.
You give yourself in the strange person of Jesus, and we receive.
And so we give thanks,
with our words
our songs
our study
our prayers
our lives.
Inspire our speaking and our listening this day. Amen

“I’ll tell you what keeps me coming to this church.” The man who spoke was responding to the Stewardship Campaign and the invitation to think about what the church meant to him. He was waving his pledge card in the air as he spoke.

At a time when more and more people stay away from church, when there are a multitude of competing activities for a Sunday morning, when it is not fashionable to say to a colleague at work, “I’m a Christian, I go to church”, I was interested in what he might say. I could see that he was getting a little worked up, and then there was a hesitation, as if he was uncertain of his own thought, but he pushed on. “It’s strange, I know”, he said, “ but what keeps me coming back to this church, is the feeling I get here, like nowhere else, that something is about to happen.”

The feeling that something is about to happen. A strange notion, and yet the earliest Christians would have recognized it instantly as one of the truest marks of the church. They were convinced they stood on the edge of history, and that something, indeed, was about to happen. For the world, time rolled on, day after wearisome day, moving toward who knows what. But for the early Christian community, something was about to happen.

What was it that was about to happen? The attempts to describe it push at the boundaries of our imagination. Luke tries to give it words as we heard in the Gospel reading this morning. He talks of false messiahs, wars and insurrections, famines and plagues, arrest and persecution. We just read 14 verses from the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, but the whole chapter, all 38 verses, go on in this fashion, talking about signs in the sun, moon and stars, distress among the nations, the roaring of the sea, and the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and glory. Read the whole chapter for yourself sometime. It is poetry and a colourful picture of the end of time.

Now this kind of writing is called Apocalyptic writing. It was a very popular kind of writing around the time of Jesus. You might equate it with the popularity of science fiction writing today. At the time of Jesus, stories about the apocalypse were all the rage. There are two books of the Bible that are apocalyptic writing – The Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament book of Revelation. However, there are many, many Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, which have been found, dating from about 2000 years ago, and are available today. Now this is not meant to be read as fortune-telling, but as imaginative descriptions of God’s triumph over evil and God’s reign of justice on earth.

Apocalyptic writing often appeared during times of persecution and uncertainty. This was certainly the case for Luke’s church. This second generation of Christians, the ones to whom the New Testament was originally addressed, were suffering severe persecution and uncertainty. They are a tiny band of Christians, hanging on by their fingernails on the fringes of the great Roman Empire. They are experiencing purges, persecutions, mocking by their pagan neighbours. They are a tiny insignificant sect. What gives them the strength and courage to carry on? You see, they believed that Jesus would return soon and bring in the era of God’s reign of peace and justice on the earth. But time kept rolling on, the days kept passing by and there was no sign of the in-breaking of God’s realm. The living memories of Jesus faded, the first generation of Christians had died, and while the church prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus, come”, it was the Roman soldiers who came and who brought intense suffering.

Apocalyptic writing not only offered hope and comfort, but also served as protest literature. They were a protest against the prevailing worldview of the dominant culture. Apocalyptic writers encouraged their hearers not to accept the beliefs and lifestyles of the world around them, but remain true to their convictions. They insisted their readers not give in to the culture around them, but remain faithful to God. They urged their hearers to believe that God was up to something and it would be fulfilled in God’s good time.

It is hard to believe that God is up to something when we hear of wars and insurrections, we hear of great calamities and famines and plagues, we hear of injustice and persecution, we hear of rape and murder. Our news channels are full of the bad news; we hardly ever hear of good news.

How good are you at noticing things? Did you know that a group of scientists and psychologists have devised a game that proves how hard it is for us to notice something when we are expecting something else. Here is how it goes. They sit you at a table in front of an ordinary deck of cards and they flash six cards at you, asking you to identify them as fast as you can – nine of diamonds, three of hearts, jack of clubs – whoops! What was that one? Then they repeat the exercise, slowing it down a little so you can get the ones you missed the first time. This should be easy for all you card players!

The third time is so slow that you think you must be an idiot because there is one card you simply cannot identify. You think you know what it is, but you are not sure, and it is not until the cards are all laid face up on the table in front of you that you can see what the problem is. The mystery card is a six of spades, only it is red, not black. The deck has been fixed. Someone has changed the rules, rules that prevented you from seeing what was there. You could not see a red spade because spades are supposed to be black.

Our expectations, however faithful, may prevent us from seeing what is really there. I have often thought that the second coming of Jesus would be wasted on me, because I have a set notion about how it is supposed to be: the Son of Man, riding a white horse with wings sailing along on the clouds and landing on Parliament Hill, or maybe, City Hall.

But what if he comes as a Guatemalan Indian on a burro, or a Tibetan exile on a yak? Remember Jesus entering Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey! What if he comes out of Pointe Saint Charles on a broken down bicycle? Stranger things have happened, after all. Remember the story of a baby born in a stable!

If we want to learn what God is up to, we can begin by attending to the world around us. There are parables happening on every street corner, and clues to the kingdom of God in every square foot of earth, but most of us are not looking for them. That is what Jesus is getting at in the twenty-first chapter of Luke.

In public speaking we are taught the principle of “end stress”. This is the idea that you leave to the end the most important point you want to make. You say at the end what you want your hearers to remember and take away with them. So if we take this principle and apply to our reading today, we find that the important point is not about war and disasters and persecution, but a call to faithful witness in difficult times. Jesus firmly believed that God was up to something. Something was about to happen, and he wanted his followers to notice and testify about it. He wanted them to be Detectives of God’s activity in the world.

When I was about 10 years old, I used to catch tadpoles in the river and keep them in a birdbath and watch them turn into frogs. One day the minister came to visit and so I proudly showed him my experiment. The next Sunday in church I heard the minister talk about the beauty of God’s creation and our duty to be awed by it. And all of a sudden I heard him telling the congregation of a little boy who kept tadpoles in a birdbath and how his care for those creatures was part of God’s care for the whole world.

It was as if someone had turned on all the lights – hearing that my life was a part of God’s life, and that something as ordinary as a tadpole connected the two. When the service was over, I walked out of it into a God enchanted world, where I could not wait to find further clues to heaven on earth. Every leaf, every ant, every shiny rock called out to me – begging to be watched, to be listened to, to be handled and examined. I became a detective of divinity, collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks left for me to follow. I noticed the caterpillars, who formed cocoons and shed their bodies and transformed into butterflies. I noticed prickly pods of milkweed spilling silky white hair. I noticed the intricate webs of spiders woven around the branches on a bush. I remember one time finding what must have been thousands upon thousands of baby spiders all scurrying around on a woven carpet of web on a small cedar tree.

I began to see how these were all signs of God’s activity in our world. Today however, I try to broaden my horizons to include not only nature, but human activity as well. When I see volunteers delivering hot lunches through the Meals on Wheels Programme, or see people gathering up clothing for the homeless, I see God’s activity in the world. When I hear someone speaking words of forgiveness in the midst of bitterness, or words of love in situations of hatred, I see God’s activity in the world. When I read in the paper about a twelve year old boy raising $10,000 for UNICEF through selling cookies door to door, I see God’s activity in the world. When I see the Free the Children Youth Group raise over $4000 for Haitian relied, I see God’s activity in the world.

I want to offer us a challenge during the season of Advent, which begins in just two weeks. I want us to become Detectives for God. In a world which tells us that God is dead, in a world which says true happiness is found in possessions, not in the life of the spirit, it is a radical statement to say that God is alive and well and active in our world. We have a different message to offer, we just need to have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, or the antennae to pick up the signals.

So, I am going to give you a business card that names you as a Detective for God. I encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open, your antennae attuned to signs of God’s activity in the world. And each Sunday during Advent, we will give people an opportunity to report in on their findings. You might even want to keep a journal of your discoveries. Let’s all be Detectives for God, discerning God’s creative activity in the world.

The man with stewardship pledge card in his hand said, “I get the feeling here, like nowhere else, that something is about to happen.” He said perhaps more than he knew. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that every moment of the church’s life is formed by the expectation that something is about to happen, and this something has to do with God’s activity in the world.

On Stewardship Sunday, we can be a part of that activity in a variety of ways – through our prayers, through our time, through our financial contributions. Through being alert and open to God’s calling to us through people, through activities, through silence.

Yes, we believe that the kingdom is already in the midst of us and that God’s final coming in power will bring peace and justice. We live in the meantime.

The problem is that we assume that God operates by the same rules as we do. We think that God will never slip a wild card into the deck. But what if God’s hand is all wild cards, and not only red or black, but some greens and blues. The only way to wait for a God like that is to look, be on guard, be alert at all times, so that we do not miss the revelations that are being offered every day of our lives. Watch for the street corner parables, the signs in nature, the words and actions of love and forgiveness.

Let’s become Detectives for God. Who knows what we will find? Let’s give thanks to the one who has died, who is risen and who will come again,
and again,
and again,
and again.

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