Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Low Sunday Sermon (April 3)

Alpha and Omega
Revelation 1:4-8

Welcome to Low Sunday. That’s the name given to this day in some liturgical traditions– Low Sunday. It wasn’t like this last week. Everybody goes to church on Easter. It’s a reasonable, market driven choice. The show is good. The music is glorious, the flowers are gorgeous. And the preacher . . .well, the preacher senses that he has a one-time shot at a lot of folk who aren’t ordinarily sitting out there. There isn’t a one of us pastors who doesn’t fantasize that he will be so compelling, so brilliant, that all those Easter worshippers will come back next week.

The Sunday after Easter is usually the week of lowest church attendance. In fact, even the clergy are low. A lot of pastors take vacation after the frantic pace of Holy Week and Easter Sunday. Low Sunday. Can you think of anything more depressing? Who would want to come to church on Low Sunday? Can you imagine getting up and saying to your family, “Hey everyone, it’s Low Sunday. Let’s all go to church and worship God and get inspired. What’s that? Well, I don’t feel like going to church either, but it’s Low Sunday–can’t miss that one, can we?” I would pay to stay away from Low Sunday.

Interestingly enough there is another ancient Christian tradition that claims the second Sunday of Easter as Bright Sunday. On Bright Sunday people played practical jokes on each another, drenched each other with water, sang and danced. Early theologians referred to Jesus’ resurrection as The Easter Laugh–God’s supreme joke played on that old imposter death. As one pastor put it, “Easter is the [season] when the Lord laughs out loud, laughs at all the things that snuff out our joy, all the things that pretend to be all-powerful, like cruelty and madness and despair and evil, and most especially, that great pretender, death. Jesus sweeps them all away with his wonderful resurrection laughter.” In the early centuries of Christianity, Easter celebrations went on for days, even weeks.

Let me just ask you this? Is today a Low Sunday or a Bright Sunday for you? Have you come here ready carrying heavy burdens, or have you come ready to celebrate the victory of Christ? Let’s see if we can’t find some brightness to give hope to the Low Sunday’s of life.

Let’s just be honest with each other right from the start. We all experience the “Low Sundays” of life. At one time or another, we feel like we are sinking in the troubles of life. We can use all kinds of bloated rhetoric about resurrection victory and new life in Christ, but that’s not always how we feel. Author Brennan Manning rightly points out that sometimes the church creates the impression that once Jesus is acknowledged as Lord, the Christian life becomes a picnic on a green lawn–marriage blossoms into conjugal bliss, health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar. Everybody is declared to be a winner. An attractive 20-year old accepts Jesus and becomes Miss America. ,a floundering lawyer conquers alcoholism and whips Alan Dershowitz on court TV, a tenth-round draft choice for the Patriots goes to the Pro Bowl. Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, and shy people become outgoing.

For many of us, though, life is more like a victorious limp. More realistically, the story sounds more like this: At some point in our lives many of us were deeply touched by a profound encounter with Christ. It was a mountaintop experience. We swept up in joy, we finally felt peace, and love. We did not become unraveled as we went about the daily routines and occupations of life. But slowly we allowed ourselves to get caught up in the netting of school, or family, or career and all the other distractions that the busy world offers. We began to treat Jesus like an old high school buddy whom we dearly loved but gradually lost track of. It was unintentional. We simply allowed circumstances to drive us apart. Eventually, heightened by inattention, the presence of Jesus grows more and more remote. So our days become more and more trivial. We get caught in a hectic maze. . .Rising when the clock determines. . .Battered by news headlines. . .Tested by traffic. Our concentration is interspersed by meetings and small crises. Eventually we settle in to well-defined lives of comfortable piety and well-fed virtue. We grow complacent and lead practical lives. Our feeble attempts at prayer are filled with stilted phrases to an impassive God.

I guess I won’t speak for you–this is the victorious limp of my life. It is up and down, peaks and valleys. At different times on the journey I try to fill spiritual hunger with a variety of unhealthy substitutes–work, reading, travel, ice cream, TV, music, day dreaming, making lists. Some how, I allowed myself to be hardened to God, and therefore don’t to pay attention to the love he offers. Talk about Low Sundays!

Today’s reading from Revelation helps me to remember that life doesn’t have to be this way. To begin with, I’m reminded that Jesus is the Alpha. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. We are being told that Jesus is the beginning. In him new life is formed and springs forth. I hear Jesus say, “I am the Alpha. Your life begins in me. You are God’s child, and from the beginning of time, I created you to be at home with me.”

Remembering that Jesus is the Alpha reminds me that behind all the Christian clichés, I will fail. In fact I’ll fall flat on my face. And at those times I have choice. I can skulk away feeling like a shamed loser, or I can remember that I am God’s child. Because my life begins in Christ, my existence has purpose, and meaning. Because Jesus is my beginning point, I can find the courage to risk everything on Jesus. I can summon the willingness to keep growing, and the readiness to risk failure throughout all of life. And the great part is that we can’t lose because we have nothing to lose. With all of our scars, our sins and insecurities, we stand with Jesus, remembering that we are formed by him. Jesus, the Alpha, the First, marks the beginning of our long journey from death to life. Is it hard? Yes. Is it worth it? I know my answer, but instead of being spoon fed some religious pablum, walk the road with me and we’ll find out together.

Before we walk together, though, let me remind us of the destination. Jesus is the Omega is the last letter in the Greek Alphabet. In other words, we begin in Jesus, but Jesus is also our finish. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. In Christ we have received life, and to Christ we must give life back.

We hold back so much on life, don’t we? I mean, isn’t it easier to know that everything is going to be safe. Low risks–or no risks involved? A town gathered in the courthouse for a trial. The prosecuting attorney called his first witness, an elderly woman, to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?” She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy. And, frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a rising big shot, but you haven’t the brains to realize you will never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.” The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?” She replied, “Why, of course I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. I used to baby-sit him. And he, too, has been a real disappointment to me. He’s lazy, bigoted, and has a drinking problem. The man can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the shoddiest in the entire state. Yes, I know him.”At this point, the judge rapped the courtroom to silence and called both counselors to the bench. In a very quiet voice, he said with menace, “If either of you asks her if she knows me, I’ll hold you both in contempt of court!”

Many of us go to great lengths to hide the truth about ourselves. We live behind all kinds of masks that conceal who we really are. So, let’s be honest. Why do you hold back from a life fully yielded to Christ? What are you afraid of?

- Are you afraid Jesus will ask too much? Afraid you might have to actually love some enemies along the way, or even harder, you might have to love yourself?
- Are you afraid that Jesus is going to take away all the fun and joy out of life?
- Are you afraid Jesus might dig around too deeply into your life along the way?
- Afraid of being judged?
- Afraid of being seen as a failure?
- Is it easier to trust in yourself than in some undefined concept like faith in an invisible God?
- Are you holding back your love for Christ because you think Jesus won’t like you? You can’t see any good in your life–what if you draw closer to Jesus and he doesn’t see it either?
Jesus says “I am the Omega.” Jesus says, “I am the End of your hard journey. Come to me.” The question the gospel puts to us is simply this: What are you waiting for? Who shall separate you from the love of Christ?

Are you afraid your weakness can separate you from the love of Christ?
It can’t.
Are you afraid that your inadequacies can separate you from the love of Christ?
They can’t.

Difficult marriage, loneliness, anxiety over the children’s future?
They can’t.
Negative self-image.
It can’t.

Economic hardship, hatred, rejection by loved ones, suffering and sickness, persecution, terrorism?
They can’t.

Mistakes, fears, and uncertainties? They can’t either.

The Bible says, “Nothing can ever separate you from God’s love.” Jesus loves you. His love is our bright hope during the low times. Everything else will pass away, but in the beginning...and the end, there is still Jesus, the Alpha and Omega. He’s the A and the Z, and everything else in between. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. From him we come and to him we must go for everything. I think Jesus says, “You are God’s child and you have a beginning and an end in me.”

Rev. Frank Yates, quoted in Holy Humor, Carl and Rose Samra, ed. (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 1997), 71.

Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters: Multnomah, 1990), 86-87, 178-180, 185.

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