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November 24-30, 2010–Waiting for the Second Coming

Contributed by Bill King, Blacksburg, VA

Warm-up Question

Share a time when you anticipated a special day or event and were disappointed?

Waiting for the Second Coming

They believe he will some day return and are waiting patiently.  They are the tribesman of Tanna, one of 83 islands that make up Vanuatu, formerly the Anglo-French territory of the New Hebrides.  The person they are awaiting is Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II.  For reasons that are not entirely clear, the people of this South Pacific island believe Philip is a descendant of their spirit ancestors and for the past half century they have worshipped him as a god.  The adulation began in the 1960s and is believed to be a synthesis of traditional religion, the idea of a returning messiah figure introduced by Christian missionaries, and respect for the royal family dating from colonial days.

Philip’s birthday, June 10, is celebrated on the island every year, but there was special anticipation in 2010 because many believed this was the year he had promised to return.  The tribesman prepared a traditional bamboo hut, with dirt floor and thatched roof for him.  Siko Nathuan, the village chief, said, “I’ve been preparing this place for when he comes to live among us.  I know that in England he has a palace and servants. But here he will just live simply, like us.”

Whenever Philip returns (he did visit the New Hebrides on the royal yacht in 1974) the islanders anticipate amazing events.  Kirk Huffman, an anthropologist familiar with the cult writes about the expectations, “At the very moment that he sets foot ashore, mature kava plants [from which an intoxicating spirit is brewed] will sprout all over the island; all the old people will shed their skins like snakes and become young again; there will no more sickness and no more death … a man will be able to take any woman he wants.”

For more on this story

Discussion Questions

  • What is the difference between the inhabitants of Tanna’s expectations and the Christian hope of a “Second Coming” of Christ?
  • How do you the think the inhabitants reacted when June 10, 2010 came and went without the return of Philip to Vanuatu?
  • The return of a hero is a common motif in both religion and literature (think The Return of the King); why do you think we find that hope across many faiths and cultures?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 28, 2010 (The First Sunday of Advent)

Isaiah 2:1-5

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Did Jesus expect a “second coming” to occur before the first generation of Christians had died?  That is a question which provokes lively discussion among biblical scholars.  What is not debatable is that popular culture tends to get the priorities of this week’s text exactly reversed.  Matthew’s Jesus calls us to focus on faithfulness in the here and now, but too often we get distracted by pointless pondering about what the last days will be like.

Jesus could not make it any clearer, “Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”  But that does not keep bad literature such as the Left Behind novels from promoting lurid, morbid obsession with the final days.  The problem with focusing on the last days is that we become pessimistic spectators to the world’s pain rather than engaged disciples of Jesus who are concerned with easing that suffering.

We periodically read about a small group of fanatics who believe they have discerned the date the world will end.  They gather on a mountain top and wait for the cosmic fireworks to begin.  Such folks are simply the most bizarre example of an attitude which can take root in any Christian community, an attitude which says, “This world is so bad, let’s just hunker down in our holy bunker—safely apart from the sinful corruption of society—and wait for God to make everything right.”

Such thinking is 180 degrees from what Jesus desires from his disciples.  In God’s good time all will be made right, but in the mean time our calling is not speculation about the future, but faithful ministry in the spirit of Jesus.  If we are serious about following Christ, our concern is not just who will be “left behind” on a distant judgment day, but who gets “left behind” every day as the despairing fail to hear of God’s love in Christ, the poor go to bed hungry, students are bullied because they are somehow different, and good educational opportunities go only to those lucky enough to live in affluent suburbs.

There is no need for us to worry about the specifics of the last days.  If we live faithfully in each present moment the future will take care of itself.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think novels such as the Left Behind series are so popular; what longings or fears do they tap into?
  • If you knew the “second coming” was tomorrow, how would it change how you spend today?
  • Jesus says we must be ready at all times, what would being ready look like in your daily life?
  • Who are the people most likely to be left behind in our world—out of sight, out of mind?

Activity Suggestions

Look at the list of those who are most likely to be “left behind” which you generated in response to the last discussion question.   Plan an action which you can do within one week which will show Christ’s concern—then do it.

Closing Prayer

Lord of History, all time is in your hands; the future belongs to you.  Preserve us from fears which lead us to despair, apathy which saps our resolve, and speculations which have no purpose.  Instead, focus our eyes on the example of our Lord Jesus Christ that we, like him,   may bear witness to your abiding love in all we say and do.  Amen

August 4-10, 2010–Blow Out, Blow Up…Have No Fear

Contributed by David Delaney,  Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, Virginia Synod, Salem, VA

Warm-up Question

Think of the most unexpected thing that has ever happened to you.  It could be anything:  a good surprise, a horrible tragedy, school suddenly canceled, a public disaster, a family event – anything.  Were you ready for it when it happened?

Blow Out, Blow Up…Have No Fear

Spring and Summer 2010 have been dominated by one news story more than any other:  the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  It began in April, when a BP oil rig caught fire and collapsed, destroying the pipe that led from the rig on the surface of the water down 5,000 feet to the opening on the sea floor. It produced such a visible and disastrous effect on the environment that it was still a daily headline near the end of July, even when the leak was successfully capped. 

Public accusations, calls for justice, and pleas for help stand alongside a  host of “should haves”– the United States government should have exercised more regulation, British Petroleum should have been more careful, the oil industry should have been less greedy, solutions should have been thought of sooner, everyone should have tried harder, environmentalists should not care so much.  

As soon as the spill happened, everyone had an opinion about what was wrong and how to proceed.  And yet, before the spill, few people outside of the oil and gas industry could have said how much oil drilling goes on in the Gulf of Mexico.  Even fewer could have identified the specific risks associated with deep-water drilling.  The American public has received quite an education during these days, and Christians have been faced with an additional series of questions that derive from our faith and the witness of the scriptures. 

Discussion Questions

  • What in human nature and need allows a person or company, in the name of profit, to ignore the risks of endangering the environment, workers, and those living near the work area?
  • Is it right for people to suddenly pile-on to BP about this spill when they have been ignorant and uncaring for decades regarding the risks of deep oil drilling?
  • What part of the story bothers you the most – The apparent carelessness of BP?  The effect of the spill on sea life in the Gulf?  The effect of the spill on Gulf Coast residents in general and on the fishermen whose very lives depend on the presence of sea life?  The apparent dismissal of the scope of the tragedy and lack of empathy for those affected by BP executives?  The grandstanding and political opportunism practiced by those in the American government as they argue about what action should be taken? Something else?
  • How (if at all) is the Gulf spill any different from the smaller moral and ethical decisions we make every day?  How prepared are you for a disaster that might strike close to home and affect you? 

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, August 8, 2010 (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)

Genesis 15:1-6

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Luke 12:32-40

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

This passage consists of a huge string of wisdom sayings from Jesus – so many that each one by itself would be topic enough for a whole discussion. These sayings, along with those in surrounding passages, are all oriented toward anticipating the future with clear certainty about God’s sovereignty over, not only the inhabitants of this world, but the events of history.  Jesus advises us first to know our priorities, making sure those are carefully sorted out, so that being recipients of the grace granted to us by  God holds first place in our lives.  If we have that clarity of orientation, then we will also be ready when Christ returns. 

Jesus does not call us to prepare by focusing on that final event – the return of Christ and judgment of the world – but rather by focusing on him, sent by the Father to bring humankind to faith.  Even today we hear Christian people fret over the second coming of Jesus, proclaiming that they know the date for the so-called “rapture of the church.”  This passage rejects such speculation.  We are not to look far into the future, calculating the “profit” we will make in figuring out God’s timetable.  Instead, we are to be about our daily work – loving Jesus, sharing the good news with others, and bringing whatever gift we have been given to the service of God’s people.  

Discussion Questions

  • What has been your experience with so-called “neo-dispensationalist” readers of the Bible.  (These are Christians who spend most of their time trying to figure out exactly what Jesus said to avoid speculating on – the date and time of his return.  The “Left Behind” books are examples of this.)  How do you understand the promise of Jesus’ return, and that in all times we are to believe that it will be soon?
  • The Bible presumes throughout that the future is in God’s hands, which means that human worry and exertions to create security are not to be trusted (see Ecclesiastes 3 and Matthew 6:19-34).  On the other hand, some Christians in New Testament times were so convinced of this that they made no positive contribution at all to their community (see II Thess. 3).  How does one balance the absolute trust that “God will provide” with realism about the need to work and plan?
  • The first part of the gospel passage speaks of your “treasure.”  This can be defined as the things that pull on you when you make your decisions, things you want to protect.  They do not have to be material objects!  What are those things for you ?

Activity Suggestions

Leaf through scripture and see if you can identify people occupied doing their ordinary work.  These are people who are often the very ones whom “the master finds alert when he comes.”  God often calls just such to be great instruments for God’s purposes in the world.  What is your ordinary work?  How do you focus on Christ day-to-day and so make him your first priority?   Does it help your walk of discipleship to imagine what Christ might find you doing should he return at some point today?

Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus, we recall your command to your disciples to proclaim the gospel to the whole world, and we hope to make it our own by our obedience to this calling.  We pray for all who have been affected by natural and unforeseen forces.  Help us find words to console those whose mourning includes the frustration of a disrupted life.  Let them, with us, keep our focus on the work to be done in the present, so that you may find us faithful servants and good stewards of these gifts you have given us – the lavishness of grace and the beautiful abundance of creation.  Amen.

November 25-December 2, 2009 – Angel bus driver

Contributed by Connor Early (10th grade student), Clive, IA
and Angie Larson, Clive, Iowa

Warm-up Question:  What would you do to help people in need? Are there limits to what you would do?

jorge-munoz200Jorge Munoz may sound like the name of a typical New Yorker, but he is much more than that. He is a school bus driver! But more importantly, Jorge Munoz, 44, has supplied over 70,000 meals to the homeless over the past four years.

Every night he pulls up in his white pickup truck and unloads as many as 140 meals with hot food, coffee, and hot chocolate. Both food and gas costs are estimated to be about $400-450 a week, which he pays for with his $700 a week paycheck. People of all backgrounds come to receive a meal, usually their first and only for the day.

Jorge says that seeing these people remind him of when he first arrived in America in the 1980’s. He was born in Columbia and his father had died when he was young. His mother had moved to Brooklyn to earn money to support him and his sister, and he soon followed. He achieved citizenship with his mother and sister in 1976. He stood on the streets not looking for work, but as an immigrant, much like the people he serves.

Jorge began his now non-profit meal program in the summer of 2004, naming it “An Angel in Queens, Inc.” His work has consumed much of his time, money, and space, but he or his sister carries the work on every night of the year. When asked why he spends so much time helping people he doesn’t even know, he replied:

“I have a stable job, my mom, my family, a house… everything I want, I have. And these guys [don’t]. So I just think, ‘OK, I have the food.’ At least for today they’re going to have a meal to eat.”


Discussion Questions

  1. How is Jorge helping to make a difference in the world? What steps is he taking to reduce hunger?
  2. How do you think the people feel towards Jorge’s generosity? What is something they might say to him?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 29, 2009. (first day of Advent)

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Scripture Reflection

In the 1st Thessalonians text, Paul writes about increasing and abounding in love. In Luke, we are reminded to not be weighed down by the worries of this life. Both texts spread news about living a life of abundance instead of a life of scarcity. Often we think that we do not have enough. We do not have enough money. We do not have enough material goods. We do not have enough of whatever it takes to fill our need or want.

The good news is that love abounds and God provides. Jesus tells us that the kingdom is near. The kingdom is within us.

In the Gospel, we are warned against things that lead to a life of scarcity. Jesus tells us to look out for those things that get in the way of living the abundant life that God has planned for our lives. When we look at life as short and precious as it is, we can adopt an attitude of gratefulness; abounding in love.

Jorge Munoz adopts this way of life. He does not let his career as a bus driver or that he’s an immigrant keep him from giving in abundance. Instead, he realizes that he has much to give from his abundance. He is not weighed down by what he lacks, but gives from what he has. We can do the same.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what area of your life do you feel like you have scarcity? What is scarcity?
  2. Realistically, do you think you would be like Jesus, James and John, or the other ten disciples?

Learn more about: 

Activity Suggestion

Everything I have

Ask your group to write down everything that they own all over a huge piece of paper. Or do it as a huge collage of photos, pictures, and drawings.

  1. Step back and look at all the things listed.
  2. What’s your first impression?
  3. What are your first thoughts about your life, generosity, need, decisions you make, lifestyle, and how you will live life?

Closing Prayer

Blessed Savior, thank you for serving us. Help us to remember to serve others. We know that at times we look towards power and prestige; we ask you to help us redirect ourselves during those times. Bless those who serve others with their lives. Enable us to learn and live extraordinary lives of service. In your name we pray. Amen.

November 18-25, 2009 – The end is coming… hang on, folks!

Contributed by Pastor Jay Gamelin
Jay is pastor of Jacob’s Porch, an ELCA Campus Mission to The Ohio State University

Warm-up Question:  Do you worry about the end of the world? If so, what’s your worry? If not, why not?

bomb-blast_PART2_180On November 13, movie theaters across the country premiered the film “2012” to fill the eyeballs of theater goers and pockets of the producers.  A big budget eye-candy movie brings to public consciousness the prediction by ancient calendars (or we should say calendar) that the world will come to an end on December 21 or 23 of 2012. Discovered in the Tabasco region of Mexico, the Olmec or Mayan calendar is based on cycles of 5,125 years, the current period to end in 2012.

Most serious scholars give very little credence to the theory, but this has not stopped a burgeoning business based on the 2012 legend. The numbers of books offering proof, theories, research, and even survival guides has exploded. Blogs are now offering proof and advice as well as others critiquing the theories. Some preachers are beginning to preach apocalyptic message and are asking parishioners to prepare for Jesus’ second coming.

It seems that the end of the world sells and we all have our theories as to what makes the world end. Apocalypse and post-apocalypse films have always been a popular theme in movie theaters this year. Terminator 4 followed the story of John Connor into an apocalypse by mutant robots. The Road, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, follows a man and his son through a post-nuclear holocaust world and is soon to be a motion picture released this winter. Zombieland is a comedy following road-trippers through an apocalyptic world of zombies.

It hasn’t been since 1999 and the Y2K worry that we have seen such hype over the purported end of the world. Or 1973 before that. Or 1911. Or 1844. Or 1266… or…

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think there is validity to the claim that the end comes in 2012? Why or why not?
  2. Why do you think people are so interested in the end of the world? What fascinates us about this subject?
  3. Do you think it is possible to predict the end of the world? Why or why not?
  4. What, if anything, do you think is most likely to create an end of the world scenario? What is not likely, in your opinion, to do this?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 22, 2009.

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

It seems there is always someone predicting the end of the world. If it isn’t cataclysmic ice storms suddenly freezing New York then it is a giant meteor flattening New York, or an infectious disease infecting New York, or a giant bomb blowing up in New York. The point is, stay out of New York. (Just kidding!)

Seriously, what people like to deal in is fear. And what is more powerful for creating and stirring up fear than the unknown? It is just like us that we want to have the very date pinned down when the world goes to heck in a handbasket. We want to sell books about it, show movies about it, read about it, convince others about it. Seriously, if the end of the world is coming, why are they selling a survival guide for $49? What are you going to do with the money?

It feels good to be able to stand on a street corner and shout, “the end is near!” and be so sure that all the signs point to biblical codes and secret texts that tell a special truth that others are not aware of. We just want to know.

Many have trusted these prophecies in the past. Over and over again, prognosticators have combed through the Bible and seen the signs in the stars and the current political climate and determined that the time of the end of the world has come. It happened throughout the first 4 centuries of Christianity. It happened after the fall of the Roman Empire. It happened when the year 1000 hit. It happened during the Crusades. It happened in 1844 when William Miller proposed he knew the end of the world, was wrong, and people formed a church about it anyway called the Seventh Day Adventists. (Note: Today’s Adventists do not believe this, it is just a part of their history.) It happened during World War 1, World War 2, during the Oil Crisis, during Y2K, and now 2012. We love to fear what we do not know, and thus we try our best to know and predict the future so that we are not caught off guard.

Usually when we read the books of Daniel and Revelation, we instantly turn on our freak-out meter. Both describe crazy animals and demons and destruction and wars. They talk about signs and seasons and desolating sacrileges and numbers and beasts. These “apocalyptic” texts, as they are called (add that to your SAT vocabulary), seem to be about pointing to perfectly knowable and predictable signs that become a road map for our understanding. But is this really what they are about? Is God that easy to understand?

The texts this week seem to be about establishing Jesus as a king. Both point to Jesus as our heavenly ruler, a king who is in charge. And again in John, Jesus continues this prediction with an unusual tete-a-tete with Pilate about kingdoms and rulers. The story here is about establishing who Jesus is and where his authority comes from… and this is good news!

Instead of focusing on trying to decipher the mystical meanings of all the stories in Revelation and Daniel, it is good to focus on the end results — the good news.

No matter what is described, in the end Jesus is king and God is victor. What is described, whether as a historical prediction or a beautiful allegory, is not a thing to be feared but a thing to wonder about and expect and rejoice in. The whole story God shows us from Genesis to Revelation is that God was there in the beginning loving us, God was there throughout history loving us, God sent a Son — Jesus — to show how loved we are, and God will come again to love us still.

We don’t need to fear the end, whatever or wherever or whenever that may be. We instead can rejoice that our king is Jesus, a Jesus who loved us while we were yet sinners, who redeemed us not when we deserved but solely out of love and grace, and who is resurrected so that we may live to love and serve God and the world freely.

As the angels said when the disciples saw the tomb rolled away, “fear not”, for this is good news.

Activity Suggestion

Surviving the Second Coming

(Note:  This activity is to be done in fun and jest. While it is not my intention to be irreligious, in an effort to shift our hearts and minds from fear of our Lord’s coming to joy, we can allow a hint of fun and laughter to dispel what could be a very scary subject. I invite you to let your hair down, or loosen the tie, or perhaps both, and have fun with this activity.)

As a group, work together on a “Surviving the Second Coming of Christ Manual”. Some things to consider:

  • What are the necessary items you want with you at all times, in case Jesus should suddenly pop up? (suggestions: Bibles with every verse underlined to prove you read it, a piece of the true cross, a “Jesus is my homeboy tee”, any indulgences previously purchased, and a corroborating receipt, etc.)
  • What sort of résumé and documents do you need to prove your worthiness? (suggestions: baptismal photos and certificates, confirmation certificates, number of times in church attendance documentation, any extracurricular activities within the church — remember, softball doesn’t count… etc.)
  • What are some important steps to consider in preparation? (suggestions: get a letter of recommendation from a pastor or a high ranking official like a bishop or the head usher or Mel Gibson, destroy all copies of any CD from America Idol Alumni so that “we have no other idols”, keep an autotuner ready so that when you sing with the heavenly hosts you’ll be in pitch, research angel wing care, etc.)

Process:  Think of all the pictures we have in our heads already about what things “are supposed to look like.”

  • Where do these images come from?
  • Where do these thoughts come from?

Some images and thoughts are based in scripture, others in legend or fiction. But to be sure, if we can imagine what it will be like, it is likely that description probably still comes up short. No matter what we say or do, it is God who justifies us and makes us whole. So no matter what we do to “prepare”, in the end none of it matters to the incomparable love and redemption of Jesus. This is not just good news, it’s great news! Thanks for having fun!

Closing Prayer

God, thank you for loving us to the end. Help us to let go of our fear and anxiety and learn to watch and wait with joy. Your kingdom come! Amen.