Thieves who Predict the End of the World


A sermon preached on May 15, 2011 based upon John 10:1 – 10 on the occasion of Harold Camping declaring that the world was going to end on May 22nd.

Yesterday Mariahna  sent me a copy of the words she intended to share this morning in her moment of gratitude.   She didn’t need to do that.  I trusted her to speak from the depths of her heart from that place where God speaks to her.  But since she gave me her words in advance, I’m able to quote her now in my sermon.  I think Mariahna captured the essence of why we need church:  She said,

“Being a stranger in a strange land, you not only feel out of place but also depressed. You wish you had someone to share your problems, someone who will listen or may be someone who could help.”

A stranger in a strange land. Even those of us who were born here can feel that way.   It is so easy to feel isolated, abandoned — like a lost sheep in the wilderness.

Mariahna went on to say,

“I think church is not a place, a building or denomination, it is the people — God’s children who are the church. They come together not only for the purpose of worshiping and hearing God’s word but to also have a fellowship with other members of the church by breaking the bread together, praying for each other and strengthening one another in times of trials and tribulations.”

Lovely.  We need each other.  I want to return to this in a few minutes.

There are these peculiar connections that some times come up between the scripture readings assigned to a given week in the lectionary and the events that are going on in the world at large.  For instance, this morning we just heard Jesus contrast himself as the Good Shepherd who comes to give life and to give it abundantly, with the thieves who come to steal and kill and destroy the sheep.

The striking connection for me is the stir Harold Camping has created by declaring over the airwaves that this is the week in which judgment day finally arrives.  With a confidence equal to that with which Camping declares the world will end this Saturday, I want to declare to you this morning that Camping with his 100 million dollar television and radio empire is a thief who comes to steal and kill and destroy God’s sheep

Back in 1988, when Camping wasn’t getting the respect he figured he was due in churches, he declared that what he called “the age of the Church” had come to an end.   Over the air waves he instructed his followers to stop attending their local church because, he said, the churches were now all under the control of Satan.

He told his listeners, that they should not go out and share in that worship and fellowship that so many of us, as Mariahna expressed so well, find truly life sustaining.

“No, stay shut up in your homes,” Camping declared.  “Don’t worry about fellowshipping with other people of faith.   Just turn on your radio or tv, open up your Bible, and listen to me, and I’ll tell you all you need to know about God’s word and all you need to know about how to be saved.”

Now I would be the first to admit that churches are pretty flawed institutions, because we are made up of pretty flawed people like me and you, but heck — Jesus knew this from the outset.  He knew what he had in folks like Simon Peter and the rest.

He knew we needed one another in a holy fellowship through which His unseen presence could be experienced. “Where two or three of you are gathered in my name,” he said,  “there I am also.”

We are here with one another to laugh together and cry together and even argue together and sometimes get mad at each other and to forgive each other and somehow through the whole messy process to learn what it means to truly love one another in the manner Jesus loves us all — to be here for one another the way Jesus was here for us.

But since the church wouldn’t say, “Well, yes, Brother Camping, you are the one who knows better than anybody else what the Bible really means – we realize now that we should listen to you above all others” well, Brother Camping decided to take all his marbles and go home, working out his own twisted Biblical interpretation to justify his infantile behavior.

I sound angry, and I am.   Thieves shouldn’t try to pass themselves as good shepherds.

Despite the fact that Jesus said that no one, not even he himself knows the day or the hour, Harold Camping began predicting the day and the hour.   He first did this back in 1994, and when the day he had predicted came and went without any bells or whistles, well, it didn’t seem to humble Camping much.

We live in uncertain times for sure, with plenty that can easily make us anxious. But the truth of the matter is that every time in history has been pretty uncertain and anxiety provoking in it’s own particular way, because that’s the nature of life on earth.  Over the past two thousand years there’s always been people who’ve predicted that the end of the world was about to happen, only to proved wrong.

In this age, one thing that is different from all previous times is the speed with which information travels through the internet and such, so that we hear about all the earthquakes and floods and wars and other trials and tribulations on every corner of the earth, and the sheer quantity of it all can make it seem like it’s all coming to a head.

And so, over the past seventeen years Brother Camping has been feeding off our uncertainty and anxiety.   He’s got plenty of money, so that no matter where you happen to be you can find him every night on the radio and on TV.   The format is always the same, something he calls “Open Forum,” the name of which is deceitful in itself since there’s nothing “open” about his forum at all. It consists of unseen caller after well-screened caller asking him about some passage of scripture, to which Camping gives what is understood to be the definitive interpretation. There is no dialogue – no give and take – no “sharing” even though Camping brings each call to an end with the very same words: “and thank you for calling and sharing. And may we take the next caller, please.”

But there will always be an audience for this sort of thing, because many people feel this need to have all the mystery removed from religion, to make it all black and white with no shades of gray, like an engineering manual, which, interestingly enough, is what Harold Camping’s training is in.

And so seventeen years after getting it wrong Brother Camping at the age of 89 is declaring once more that he is absolutely sure he has got it right this time.

And there are thousands of people out there who believe him. And this would be just something to laugh off, except for the fact that there are a lot of people out there who have accepted the proposition that there can be no plan B – that to have a plan B is to show a lack of faith in God. (In this whole equation, Harold Camping and God get kind of mixed up together.)

And what that means is that there are people who have quit their jobs and emptied their savings in order to devote themselves to getting the word out that the end is coming, and some of these people have children, and it’s hard to see how this won’t scar their children emotionally and spiritually and even physically, especially when on May 22nd they find themselves homeless and churchless because their parents put their trust in this arrogant old man who refused to admit he just might be wrong.

And that’s why I say with some degree of confidence that Harold Camping is one of the thieves to which Jesus referred.

It’s a pretty sick God that Camping offers to us — one who is intent on unleashing fire to consume the whole billions of people, to condemn to hell for all eternity all those who aren’t what Camping refers to as “true believers.”     This is not the God revealed in Jesus – this is not a God of love who has come to give life and give it abundantly.  This is a God of hatred.

And it’s a pretty sick view of human beings as well that Camping gives us.  We are lost sinners who have no connection to God apart from this supposed Gospel he preaches.   In essence, Camping is saying, without him we don’t have the capacity to hear God’s voice.

But in the passage Bob read, Jesus expresses confidence that we do, in fact, have the ability to listen for God’s voice, and to distinguish it from the voice of the thieves.

“The sheep follow (the shepherd) because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

That if we can just tune out the thieves and tune in deep inside to that place where God speaks to each one of us, we will recognize the voice of God.  It is the voice of love.

In the church calendar, this the Sunday where the image of God as Good Shepherd is lifted up, and it is a powerful image indeed.

Jesus said, the good shepherd will leave the 99 “saved” sheep to go to extraordinary lengths to find the one lost sheep out in the wilderness.  The shepherd Jesus describes will never give up.  This shepherd is absolutely determined to find the lost sheep out there alone – a “stranger in a strange land,” to bring him or her home safely into the circle of Jesus’ love.

The point in all this that is so sorely lacking in Harold Camping’s Gospel is that God loves us far better than we love ourselves.     Camping has taken the self-hatred that so readily afflicts us and projected it onto God, selectively picking scriptures to reinforce this hatred.  But Camping’s God is not the God revealed in Jesus, who sits down to supper with sinners, letting them know that God has not abandoned them.

If you do not know the 23rd psalm, do yourself a favor and memorize it, and pray if every day.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Why?  Because I can trust that God truly knows what I need, even if I’m not sure myself, and God is already at work providing for my needs.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.

Why does he need to make us do that?  Because we don’t love ourselves enough to allow ourselves to enjoy such rest and delight as can be found in lying down in green pastures, because we tend to be so consumed with trying to justify our existence — prove our worth — that we can’t stop and just rest and take in the beauty and absorb the abundant life.

He leadeth me beside the still waters.

God knows our frailty.   God knows how easy it is for us to become parched both physically and spiritually.

He restoreth my soul.

God knows that our inclination is to run ourselves into the ground – to get lost in the anxious rush of this world – to forget who we are – God’s beloved child, precious in his sight.

He leadeth me in the right paths for his name’s sake.

He leads me in the right paths, even though we may be able to see the way forward.   You  may get lost, time and time again, but eventually – you can count on this – God will lead you back to the right path.

At this point the psalm shifts.  No longer are we talking about God – now we are talking to God:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.

There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – neither our failures or our sin, or death itself. The love is that great – that powerful!   We truly are safe in the shepherd’s care.

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Our God is strong and ready to bring us comfort when we are afraid.  Our God is not intent on filling us with fear and self-loathing.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

Wherever we find ourselves, we are invited to the table of the Lord. The present moment becomes communion.   Even in the face of adversity, this moment is precious, this moment is blessed.

He anointest my head with oil.

God cares not just for our souls, but for our bodies as well.

My cup runneth over.

When we return to rest in the Good Shepherd’s loving embrace, we begin to see what before we overlooked – that our blessings are more than we could possibly number.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

That’s what God is about:  goodness and mercy.  This is what broken people found so stunning in Jesus, his extraordinary mercy and grace.

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Forever is forever.  Amen.

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