Proper 28 – Series B
We have come to a little unofficial season within a season which focuses our attention on the end of the world and the doctrine of eschatology. The theme could be said to have started on All Saints Day and been picked up on the Sunday which followed but hits its stride today.
1. November 25 is the ultimate/last Sunday – focuses our attention on the glorious reign of Christ.
2. November 18 is the penultimate Sunday – focuses our attention on the processes of the ending of the world.
3. If you are interested in obscure nomenclature, November 11 is the ante-penultimate Sunday ☺
We have come nearly to the end of it, this year B of the lectionary that is. Of course we may have come to the end of the whole world too, for that matter, I just don’t know. It might be the end of this mortal life for any of us. We are but the thickness of a cranial blood vessel wall away from death at any given moment. We are at that time of the year when thoughts turn that way. The leaves are falling, winter storms are brewing, the garden has been put to sleep, the nights are long, etc.
In coming to the end of Year B, we come to the thirteenth chapter of Mark. We will not retell the passion narrative, we did that in the Eastertide. We end the regular Sundays after Pentecost with Jesus sitting on a hill side looking across the Kidron valley toward the temple, one of the great wonders of the ancient world, and he will tell us that this too is coming to an end. Not one stone will be left on top of another. The disciples ask him when this will be and he launches into a discussion that has the potential to set your hair on end, a litany of woes and terrible things. It won’t be just the temple which will be overturned, but all the things we hold dear and which we think are so permanent, the cosmos itself will be overturned.
We are getting ready for the end of the world. Next week we will celebrate the Sunday of the Fulfillment. That day is really Easterlike in its holy joy. This week we have the unpleasantness of the days leading up to our Lord’s revelation of himself on the last day. Like going to the dentist when you know something is wrong with your tooth, the anticipation, the dread, the waiting, is often worse than the actual visit, or at least it can be. People who are anticipating surgery often are terrified, and will tell you that the waiting was worse than the actual procedure, likewise those who are waiting for the results of some test.
But here is the really strange thing about all this. Mark wrote these words, and Daniel too in the Old Testament lesson, to people who were already afraid. They were being persecuted. They did not need to be made afraid, in fact, these words were written to make them less afraid. Yet, we often hear them as texts which are intended to make us afraid, and perhaps they should. Our comfort and lack of fear may be for all the wrong reasons. But if the original intent of these 2
books has any meaning, the preacher will faithfully preach these texts if he is trying to make his folks less afraid.
How do we come to the end of the world? Luther is famously attributed with the line that if he knew it would happen tomorrow, and he was scheduled to plant a tree today, he would plant the tree. We don’t know if he actually said it, in fact most Luther scholars doubt it, but the sentiment is right on. Luther in fact often referred to the end of the world as “the eagerly anticipated end.” The Christian is not terribly worried if tomorrow is the end of the world. Christ has made amazing and beautiful promises to us of eternal life, forgiveness, righteousness, and heavenly mansions.
But forgive the odd and occasional Christian, even all of them, if they don’t come to this end of the world with a bit of trepidation too. Jesus uses a marvelous image, an image that Paul will also use in his letter to the Thessalonians, “birth pangs.” He says that the end of the world can be compared to the labor which is the greater part of a woman giving birth. This is helpful. Consider just a few of the things we can say about it.
- • It is frightening – many women will tell you that they come to the day of their labor with a bit of fear. And they should. Women and their children sometimes die in labor. Complications happen.
- • It is painful. Having been present at the birth of my three children, I can tell you that my wife nearly squeezed the fingers off my hand at a couple of points. It hurts. It hurt her a lot more than she hurt me.
- • It is work, they call it labor for a good reason. My wife remembers reading an article before the birth of our last child in which the author said that a woman giving birth has expended as much energy as a person running a marathon. That’s labor!
- • But it is also a time of holy and beautiful joy. When a baby is laid on the breast of its mother and they look at each other for the first time, the fear, the pain, the fatigue are all still there, but they are not the primary emotions which the woman feels. She knows joy.
- • There is life on the other end of this, not death. While we all know that complications in this sinful world sometimes mean that children and mothers die in childbirth, for the vast majority of pregnancies, the ordeal ends with a mother holding her new baby in her arms. There is life on the other side of all the pain, work, and peril.
- • This is simply necessary. There is no way around this. If all women insisted that they would not go through the ordeal of labor, we would die as a human race. There really is not another way to engender the next generation. It has to be this way.
Labor might not be the only metaphor for this. Would a member who has endured a successful surgery or even simply passed a kidney stone perhaps say many of the same things? 3
Think about the end of the world in these terms. The end of the world frightens us. It should. We do not say that this will be easy, safe, or even pain free. But we also can point to the other side, to the life which is born on that day, to the joy which we will know, to the necessity that this old world pass away that a new one may be revealed and we may take our joyful place within it.
How shall we preach this? How shall we give folks the reality and the hope at the same time? We are walking on that knife edge again and like the drunkard who keeps falling off one side of the horse or the other, we may slide of into either excessive fear or Pollyanna predictions. Somewhere in there is a great and good promise from Jesus that this is all in God’s capable, powerful, and pierced hands.
In years past we asked the question: What do we say about the end of the world? What do we want the folks to whom we preach to believe, trust, anticipate, dread, or expect, about the end?
1. Joyful anticipation – Jesus is coming.
2. The Gospel enjoins us to be prepared for Christ’s day? But what is the prepared person? Do I pray that Jesus comes when I happen to be reading my bible? What if he finds me reading the Sunday Comics or surfing the web?
3. What about the church as a whole? How is that different, is it different from the preparation of the individual?
4. We expect to meet the judge who comes, but we are not afraid of that because he is the one who died for us – the verdict is already known, uttered in his own words, “It is finished.”
5. The last day is unknown, the dating types are all wrong, contra all the folks worked up about the Mayan calendar, the Dan Brown’s, William Miller, and Harold Camping, and the many more. The early Christians had their own bunch of these guys, one named Montanus.
6. Jesus wins. So we do too.
7. Like the pregnant woman who knows that her labor will come, we too know this comes, but we look forward to what is on the other side!
Collect of the Day
O Lord, by Your bountiful goodness release us from the bonds of our sins, which by reason of our weakness we have brought upon ourselves, that we may stand firm until the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I used to serve the congregation in a community named “Bountiful, Utah.” The name actually came from the Book of Mormon but it was great to pray this prayer with a little emphasis on that adjective. I think I even preached a sermon on that once. 4
The preacher might well want to start by asking what the bonds of our sins are. How would we talk about that to people today? I am not sure that anyone except perhaps the addict understands their sins as a trap or bondage of some sort. Indeed, the divorcee probably understands his or her divorce as a release from a sort of bondage. The psychologist may well tell us that something which the Bible calls “sin” is actually releasing some pent up psychological issue.
Our culture has done a very good job of portraying virtue as bondage. It is the person who keeps the rules whose life is bound up in some sort of psychosis or constricted by an overdeveloped sense of righteousness. It is the sinner who is often labeled as “liberated.” The citizens of Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and other states are portrayed as more liberated because they have legalized recreational marijuana. Is that liberty? Really? Are the people of Ohio who rejected the legalization of marijuana stuck in a puritanical prison? Some would certainly cast them in that mold.
Do we need to rediscover or re-use the language of Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 6-7. Baptism frees us to new life which is not bound. Chapter 7 speaks of a war which is raging in our members, we don’t do the thing we want; rather, we do the very things we don’t want. Paul ends that conversation with the question and an answer – who will free me…Praise to Jesus! But perhaps we have some more metaphors and language that makes this work. We speak of our lies as a “web of deceit” which catches us and constricts us.
There is no real denying the fact that sin is bondage. That can best be seen in its effect: Death, both the temporal death we see around us and the eternal death in which we are condemned as sinners. This is a bond, a chain, which we cannot escape. We are stuck with this reality. Addiction could certainly qualify as another. Fear is a bond which cripples our ability to move about and serve freely. Are all these things really a form of idolatry? We serve these things and become like them. Is money a sinful bond or is it the greed which worships the money? Money is a tool, it is our love of money which is a problem. Are we bound to our cell phones? To the blue tooth in our ear which we cannot live without? Are we so bound to texting and tweeting that we cannot listen to a sermon or even drive safely for that matter? What has bound us? Are we bound to our meals and are we constrained by the layers of adipose tissue which masses around our middles. Do we simply amuse ourselves to death? Are we bound to the need for entertainment and will we loose even the bond of our church membership in order to pursue a better praise band?
After noting the release from our sins, the prayer starts us off with a very Augustinian point to make. Our predicament is our own fault. Rather like children who have broken the family heirloom vase and are simply waiting for mom and dad to come home, we know that we are in a situation of our own making. They had told us not to play in the dining room, but we were caught up in the moment and now the only actual memory of great-grandma Matilda lies shattered on the floor and there is no way to fix it.
God must release us from this reality, or we are stuck with it. It will take a miracle, and that miracle is provided by Christ on the cross. As God’s pinnacle creation, as his very children, we 5
should be leading the whole creation in a glorious song as God descends in glory to tread upon this miserable little planet. Instead we cower in fear, like the seven year old in the scene I just painted. He should be out there giving his mom and dad a hug when they come through the door, but he won’t. He will hide in his room or he will greet them with tears streaming down his face. He might even blame them for putting the vase in a place where he could break it.
But Christ releases the bonds. The sinner who should shrink from the presence of God, can stand firm, can lift up head and voice at the thunderous approach of God. He can set aside the tool for what it is, whether that is money, his cell phone, or anything else. He can heartily raise his alleluia and join his voice to that of the angels, archangels, and whole company of heaven in the song which has always been sung around the throne of God, and which he has sung regularly in worship.
We need Jesus to sing that song that day. His bountiful goodness is our only hope, or we will be with all the other miscreants, hiding in the caves and calling for the mountains to fall upon us and hide us before God’s great and fearsome glory. Those sins which entangle us, those fears which debilitate us, that great corruption of our heart, mind, and body would make dust of us again. Dust does not stand. Just as death inexorably stalks us, cruelly snares us, and devours our helplessly fragile bodies, so too our spiritual life, our moral life, our worship and prayer life, is subject to sin and its depredation. Dust cannot stand on the last day without Christ’s resurrection help. The morally corrupt, the spiritually bankrupt, the craven worshipper and the wheedling prayers cannot stand on the last day either unless the sins be forgiven, the spirit re-given, the worship restored and the prayers joined with the groans of Christ on that cross.
1 “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. 4 But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.”
This text, for only being three verses, makes some amazing statements/promises:
1. There is someone charged by God to take care of you. Michael the leading angel is given a command to take care of you.
2. There will be a time of trouble. It will be bad, worse than any other.
3. But we shall be delivered from that time of trouble. (Do we remember this part?)
4. There is a book with our names written in it, God will not forget any of us. There are no anonymous dead, no unknown soldiers, and no faceless mass. God knows them all by name.
5. Death itself is no hindrance. God will raise the dead. If someone is snatched by the dragon and devoured by death, he or she is not lost, not to God.
6. There will be a discernment/judgment – some are raised to life, others to shame.
7. The wise – presumably the reader – us – shall shine like the stars and the brightness of the sky.
8. There is a possibility of turning some to righteousness. Our ministry has significance.
We thought that number 1 might surprise people. We don’t think much about angelic care of us, and then we imagine that they are all doing this. Michael seems like a rather personal thing, there is one guy who has a charge to care for the people of God.
Do our people look through the tribulation to the rest of this material, or do we tend to get stuck there? Is that a preaching opportunity for us?
Do we look forward to shining like stars or do we simply dread the tribulation?
Do we even think about this at all?
Our culture is filled with apocalyptic/end of the world sorts of language. Asteroids slamming into the earth, global climate chaos/change, oceans rising, hurricanes getting stronger, etc., are all couched in terms of end of the world. But we have removed the divine connection from this. It is not an act of God, but it is an act of mankind foolishly poisoning and killing himself. We have become self-idolatrous – even our death and destruction is wrought by God, but we are the god who kills us.
The figure of Michael has intrigued Christians and Jews for a very long time. If you look at Jude 8-9 you will hear an allusion to a fascinating story of how Michael and Satan contended for the body of Moses. Because this story is found in the anti-legoumena part of the NT and because it is found nowhere else in the Bible, we cannot tell our people to believe it, it is not an article of faith. The story actually comes from the book of Enoch, a wildly popular apocalyptic tale attributed to the antediluvian Enoch. (You have to know that I have been itching to use “antediluvian” in a sentence. It means: “before the flood.”) We have at least four different versions of the book of Enoch from around the time of Jesus and the centuries prior. Michael figures highly in all of them.
When I was at the seminary, John Johnson walked into systematic class and announced that the topic was “angels.” Then he said, “They’re good, and there’s a whole bunch of ‘em.” And that was all he could say. Michael is little more than a name and a title for us. He is an archangel which simply means a ruling angel. He is called the general of God’s army and he is, here, said 7
to be the protector of God’s people. But what does that entail? What does he do? What power does he wield? We can answer none of those questions.
He will arise. We have no idea what that means, do we? He will do something, but what is it? it will be at a time of trouble for the people such as was never seen. The end of the world? The great tribulation? Is this a message of hope for the people of God in this time, powerful forces will be working on our behalf?
The next part seems to be much clearer, or is that just because I am more adept at importing what I want to find there? The people will be delivered, everyone whose name is written in the book of life. The resurrection, some to eternal life, some to shame and death this seems to be the sermon which makes the most sense to us from this text. If we want to pick up on the “birth pang” metaphor of the Gospel, this text would suggest that we are being born. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the sky and those who turn others to righteousness like the stars. This clearly is one of the places that Paul has in mind when he speaks of the Philippians shining like the stars.
In every way this is a passage of hope for the folks of Daniel’s day who were going through something of a time of persecution. If you hold to the traditional authorship of Daniel (probably the best way to read this), it was a Babylonian/Persian thing. If you think that Daniel is a reworked text from a later time in Israel’s history, this may refer to the time of the Seleucids in the second century BC. In any event, it was a pretty tough time for the people of God. For the fearful folks of his day and our day, Daniel has a message of hopeful expectation.
1 Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. 2 I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”
3 As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.
4 The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips.
5 The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 6 The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
7 I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. 8 I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. 8
9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. 10 For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.
11 You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Like many of the psalms, number 16 is a psalm of emotional content – here confidence. The psalmist (David) faces sheol and death (10) and so he turns to God alone as his protector (1). His hope is well founded. The boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places for him. As the heirs of the people who received their family’s allotment in the land by “lot” this phrase would have had a special resonance for the children of Israel. The boundaries lines really did fall for them, perhaps in pleasant places, perhaps not so pleasant.
The choice is stark for the psalmist. The one who chases after other gods will end miserably and so he refuses their blandishments (4). He will instead delight in the saints of God (3). The Lord is his chosen lot and portion (5).
The preacher will likely be attracted to verses 7-11 if you are inclined to preach this. Here the psalmist expresses his confidence and what that means for him. He sets the LORD before him always. With God at his right hand he shall not be shaken. Even death is conquered. In God’s right hand is life and blessing and the Psalmist can stare down his fears with confidence and joy.
This is the emotional state that both Mark and Daniel are shooting for, as well as Revelation for that matter. We too often make it into the opposite, talking about the last days as if they are supposed to make us afraid. Should a good sermon on the last days leave us in the emotional place of Psalm 16? If that is so, how do we preach that way?
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,”
17 then he adds, 9
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The writer to the Hebrews is the master of first century rhetoric and argumentation. People at the time held that a comparison made in small things was likely to prove true in large things too. It was a technique called from the lesser to the greater and it was a powerful tool in the time of this letter. What works potently to convince our people today? I bet if we knew that we would all be much more wealthy and famous than we are. At least I bet you would not be reading these notes, you would be writing them! And I would be eagerly reading them.
As it is, we will have to muddle through this together. Here the writer to the Hebrews wants you to know a few things. Jesus, being the Son of God, offers a much more potent sacrifice than the priests who served in the temple of God. They had to repeat their sacrifices continually, but Jesus offered a sacrifice once and for all time. In Christ, God has forgotten all the sins. Jesus has taken his place God’s right hand and wields all the power.
When God forgets the sins and remembers the lawless deeds no more, then there is no more need for the sacrifices to be made. Yes, there is a comparison to be made between the work of Christ and the priest, but his is infinitely better.
That is the argument, but It is the result of this that I think we will want to focus on here. We have confidence. We can enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus. That is a truth which is true no matter what we have done, no matter how great the sin. This entrance is through a curtain of his flesh, presided over by a great high priest who is Jesus. Our flesh is sprinkled clean by the water of baptism, our evil conscience assuaged by the reality of his blood coursing our veins and his flesh comprising our flesh. This “extra nos” reality, true no matter what we are or have done, this gives us confidence to draw near to God with a true, a manly heart, confident that we will not be rejected but accepted by our loving God. The basis for that confidence is Christ and his work, not us.
What is this drawing near? Is it not simply the act of prayer? Is it not the act of worship and the turning of attention and thought toward God, acknowledging his presence? Is there another drawing near? 10
The second element, is that we hold fast to our confession. This is enough to make a Lutheran’s heart grow warm just reading it. This is the sort of thing that the Confessions mean when they call themselves the Confessions. We don’t waver, we hold fast, again the basis for this steadfast confession is Christ. He is faithful, we cannot make the claim, but are inspired to acts of confessional faithfulness. I think this same sentiment is what makes Psalm 16 so attractive to me.
The third exhortation to which the writer calls us is that we spur one another on to good works. Jesus has come into the flesh, and that means that the flesh is really important. Christianity has never been a “spiritual” religion which escapes this world, at least not when it is faithfully reading its own Scriptures. God made this physical creation, he called it “good” and he has entered into it that he might save this whole world. The Christian who has experienced Christ is spurred to good works and works of love. Those are not ethereal, mushy, emotive things, but love is a deed of the hand and life. It is an action, a concrete thing, just as concrete and real as the red blood which spattered the stones of Golgotha.
This love is expressed as meeting together, worship itself, the community in action. If you are needing to preach about worship, this is the week to do it. The writer to the Hebrews has couched the discussion perfectly for us. Worship is privilege. We approach God here, there is something transcendent about this experience. We approach God on the basis of the Blood of Christ with assurance and heart. We have confidence in worship, we even have joy. Fear is banished, the day is drawing near, but that does not diminish the joy or the confidence. We hold to our confidence without wavering and we value what we have here. The fellow Christian is nothing less than a manifestation of Christ.
Rooted in the sacraments, this is a great day to talk worship.
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
3 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. 11
9 “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Jesus makes four promises to his followers in this Gospel reading:
1. Persecution is coming and it is often the method of the kingdom – vs 9 says that the persecuted will bear witness even to their persecutors.
2. The Gospel is at the heart of the kingdom. Even when we are being persecuted, that is the reason for this whole time we are in.
3. The Spirit has never abandoned you, no matter how bedraggled or betrayed you are. Even if your own family betrays you, the Spirit of God never does. He will go with you into that courtroom and be there with you as you speak. He will speak for you, giving you the words you need.
4. And a fourth – the one who perseveres, that one sees eternal life – salvation.
How will we express this today? Can we avoid the reality that the world is filled with dysfunctional politics, terrorists, and threats at home and abroad? Can we ignore the drought which may have crippled our town’s economy and pinched many folks severely? Can we economic forces which has left some members of our community, perhaps our congregation, under-employed or partially employed?
Mark is writing to people who are going through these sorts of things right now. The preacher will want to point his people to the current reality. We see an old friend who has Alzheimer’s and we see the whole world turned upside down for them. They are reduced to helpless children. We look around us and see familial structures disintegrating just like Jesus said.
It is critical to remember that this is the process. The kingdom of this world is coming to an end. This end of time started the day that Christ rose. The signs of which Jesus speaks are applicable to every age. That said, the signs spur us to a sense of urgency.
Does Jesus really return? Perhaps the better word for this is God’s “revelation.” The end of the world is not a return of an otherwise absent God, but a revealing of the immanent God who has always been there. The last day is not really the return of some absent king, but the revealing of the king who has always been here. Jesus did promise to be with us until the end of the age. Do we really believe that? Are the wise virgins, who will shine like the heavens in Daniel’s text the ones who perceive that? 12
Advent, which is right around the corner, will focus our attention on the fact that Jesus not yet revealed. We look forward to the day when we shall see him as he really is. Right now his glory and his presence are often hidden from these physical eyes and we cannot see Him as we would like to see him.
Luther says some interesting things when he explains “how does God’s kingdom come?” God’s kingdom comes when the word is taught, when the devil’s plans are undone, when good things happen, when we lead lives according to the word of God, etc. The kingdom coming is not a distant future reality or at least that distant future is not a reality until it is also the present reality. It is both a now and a not yet sort of thing.
In the text, Jesus comes out of the temple and the disciples are looking at the temple and marveling. They see the great buildings, the institution, but Jesus sees it for what it is: a tool that will one day be discarded.
The disciples are, however, hung up on that temple, and understandably. The temple was the center of their universe. Likewise we can look at church buildings, Sunday School, LWML, and parochial schools and be convinced that this is the way that it has to be. We can believe that if we don’t have Sunday School we don’t really have a church any more, that the maintenance of the building is the work of Christ in this place. But was Jesus really trying to get them to see that the temple was a shadow? The real intersection of heaven and earth was the incarnate Logos who was talking to them. He is the real temple, the real manifestation of God, the real intersection of creation with its Creator.
Peter, James, and John, more than likely a little disturbed by what Jesus said, ask him when this will take place. They are worried about it, but Jesus takes it as an occasion to answer a whole raft of questions which they are not verbalizing but which they should be concerned about. His multifaceted answer perhaps is easiest heard in a list.
1. Don’t be deceived, there will be lots of people claiming to be the one, but don’t listen to that. The wise Christian is a discerning person, aware that there is a tempter out there who wants to deceive us. He or she is a little like an email reader today. If they are offering Nigerian millions, don’t believe it.
2. Wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. Tumult will mark this time. It will be unsettling. Don’t be surprised at this. It is not a sign that God has lost control. He is aware, he knows it. His kingdom still comes in its own way and at its own pace.
3. These are the birth pangs. If you have not read the opening essay, do so now.
4. Be on your guard: Persecution will attend the people of God.
5. The Gospel must be proclaimed to the nations. Some have said that this is all that God is waiting for, but that is more than this text says. Jesus simply seems to be saying that the whole purpose of all this is that the gospel be proclaimed. God will end it all when he
sees fit, but the delay is a Gospel proclamation delay. On the day of Christ there is no more time for the proclamation of a message to be believed.
6. When you are persecuted personally, brought to trial, don’t be worried about this. The Spirit will give you words. Those who have been in this situation and survived it have told me that it is so.
7. Even families will turn on each other. In the ancient world the bond of family was the strongest societal bond. I am not so sure that this particular metaphor carries the same weight it once did. This is Jesus’ way to say that the whole social fabric will be undone. All the things we think are safe and eternal are but tools, temporary things. Only God is eternal.
What are we to make of this? Jesus in Mark is clearly speaking a word of sober warning, but also a message of hope. Don’t put your faith in the things that cannot stand, but in the one who stands forever. The trust located in him shall not be disappointed, and the one who trusts in him shall be helped in this time too. Again, we are back to that remarkable Psalm 16. The preacher may just want to have the congregation read it at the end of the sermon.
1. The world is coming to an end, either personally or cosmically and I am afraid of that. I am afraid of death, I am afraid of the whole thing going up in smoke. I am afraid of global warming and economic meltdown.
2. That dying of the world is painful and laborious. It often means that things do not go like I want them to at all. Worst case scenarios involve persecution, humiliation, even death. But even when I am not persecuted, the institutions which bring me comfort are seemingly always shown to be shallow and unworthy of my trust. I am weary with it all.
3. It is very confusing. There are lots of folks out there who tell me they have the solution. This pill, this program, this procedure, this charity, this supplement, this, that, and the other thing. I don’t know what to do.
4. Confused, afraid, weary, I don’t make a very good servant of God. In fact, I am something of a failure at that. Is he angry at me? He seems so distant, so far away from me.
5. This whole life sometimes seems meaningless to me.
1. The world is coming to an end, but the eternal life which God gave me in Christ in my baptism does not end. The dying of this world is really the revealing of the good he has already worked in me, a good work he will bring to completion on the day of Jesus.
2. I can always trust Christ, even when the institutions fail me. The personal relationship which he has established with me, which he has fed in me, which he has created and
sustained in my life, that relationship is based not on the state of my life or anything else which I have done, but it rests securely on his gracious action.
3. Yes, it is confusing sometimes, but he has given me his holy Word, his Spirit, and his presence. There will be lots of times when I am confused about what to do or who to trust in this or that situation. But there is one whom I may trust in every situation, and that simply does not change because I have made a mess of things.
4. God calls me and equips me to be his servant. Though I am beaten and hauled in front of some persecutor, he will give me words to say. If I am lonely and afraid, he will open the doors and give me the words which enable me to be an instrument of hope to another lonely and fearful person. My very weakness becomes the instrument of his grace. He is near, that is what incarnation is about. He has taken up flesh, my flesh, and given me his own.
5. And though I may not be able to see all the patterns in the seed I sow, I may not be able to discern every moment’s significance, I can trust that my life is in his capable hands. Who knows, the act of charity which I express may be the very thing which changes the next man I meet. He may use some off-hand comment I have spoken to change a life. Meaning is not mine to see or give, but his to effect in Christ.
1. Birth Pangs – putting it all into perspective (Gospel – That the hearer would view the end of the world with hope and even expectation, the same sort of expectation which a pregnant woman feels as the day of delivery approaches.)
Delivery and deliverance have some interesting meanings for us. They mean rescue and help. If I speak of my deliverance from a terrible thing like cancer or an auto accident that would mean that I have been rescued from danger and peril. But delivery can simply be what the UPS man does. He is making a delivery, handing over a package which contains perhaps the latest article of clothing I ordered on-line. I can even talk about delivering a sermon and the pitchers in the World Series are often analyzed for their “delivery.” But ask a pregnant woman what delivery means, and she probably will have a very specific meaning in mind for that word. She is talking about labor and delivery, the day when a baby will be born, delivered, her baby. The doctor who delivers a baby can hardly be compared to the Fed Ex guy who delivers a package, can he? Yet our language does just that.
What sorts of emotions are stirred up in her as she approaches that day? Is there a little fear? Probably it is safe to say that more than a little. Is there some good reason for that fear. But I would guess that if you asked pregnant women, while confiding that they have some fear, fear is not the only emotion they feel. They also have a measure of joyful, 15
even eager expectation. They are expecting a child. They are looking forward to holding that baby in their arms, delighting in him or her, a life which they have been part of creating. It is one of the most precious and beautiful moments in a human life. She is afraid, labor is really an event that is beyond our control. She is losing control over something that is very personal, her own body. It suddenly will do something and she has no control over that event, its timing, or its severity. Once labor starts, that baby is coming. But she is also joyful, she is probably a little weary of carrying this child around for the past several months – there is a light at the end of the tunnel. She is anticipating seeing this baby, she wants to look into its eyes and hold it in her arms. I highly recommend that if you are thinking of this sermon that you talk to some women about their feelings before you ascend the pulpit on Sunday. Try to understand what they think and feel about giving birth, the fear and joy of it.
Jesus urges us to look at the end of the world as birth pangs today. He wants us to see these events like a pregnant woman might see the whole process of labor and delivery. This is a helpful comparison. Women don’t have any control over when their labor will start, at least without the administration of some drug. Her body just knows and labor has a way of starting only when it is ready. Some are very late, others come at inopportune times, often it is early in the morning, when all is dark. Do you have a story of when your children were born? We have all heard of the child who was born in a taxi cab. I heard an interview with a guy who was born on a train somewhere just over the Idaho border from Oregon.
Labor is also frightening. Bad things happen sometimes in labor. The end of the world is a frightening time. People will die in the dying of this world. There will be suffering. But it is not only frightening. If fear was the only emotion women felt when coming to labor, I would guess the species would soon die out.
There is also much work in labor. Women work hard, their bodies exert a tremendous amount of energy. God calls us, because the time is short, to be energetic. The Church works, it is hard, it is not always simple, easy, or direct. Sometimes we breathe hard and nothing seems to be happening. Women in labor often feel this way. Things are really happening, but they don’t perceive progress.
There is pain. Some Christians are persecuted. Today, in India, in Africa, and even to some extent here in the U. S. Christians are persecuted. But there are other pains too. There is the pain of seeing someone you trusted let you down. There is the pain of seeing your children walk away from Church and the faith you tried to nurture in them. There is the pain of watching congregations grow old and die. There is the pain of grave sides and hospital rooms and treatments for cancer and the lack of treatment for those suffering from Alzheimer’s. The ending of this world, both collectively and individually, is painful.
But there is also hope. The mother who enters labor looks forward to that child, that new life which will come into her home and life in a new way. She is looking forward to that, 16
she is hoping for that. We too are given hope. The pain and the suffering, the dying and the death, these things will pass away. The end of the world is really the dying of this old tired world, but dying so that a new thing may take its place. I don’t know exactly what it will look like, just like a mother is not entirely sure what her newborn will look like. (Will she have red hair, her father’s eyes, or grandma’s nose?) But she looks forward to it all the same. We look forward to the new thing that God works on that day and this day, as his kingdom comes even now. Is not forgiveness and the restoration of relationship a taste of the new creation that is heaven?
Jesus makes some very good promises to you today as we think about the end of the world and live through it. He is with us, his spirit attends us. If we find ourselves utterly alone, we know that we are never really alone. If we are in distress, he, who has felt worse distress and will help us. He tells us that this pain and dying is not because God has failed, but it is because this world is dying and dying is painful. God has done something about that, he has sent Jesus. It does not stop the dying but it says that life will replace death. Jesus also tells us that we can trust and listen to him amid the confusing array of voices that would call us away from himself.
Like a pregnant woman who comes to the ninth month of her pregnancy, a day looms on our horizon, a day of delivery, a day of labor and even danger, but a day of new life.
2. Don’t worry about it, it is in his hands. (OT/Gospel – That the hearer would believe and rejoice in the truth that this whole world, including his/her life is in God’s competent and loving hands.)
The end of the world talk which dominates this part of the church year can really make us afraid. Perhaps it should. Our sense of comfort (or is it complacency?) the rest of the year may be misplaced. But fear is not the place in which Daniel, Mark, Jesus, or the writer to the Hebrews wants us to end up today. Their message really converges on this point, that it is all in God’s hands.
The world has a hard time with this. It wants us to think that the world’s end and rescue is really in our own hands. We can send missiles up to blast that asteroid out of the sky. We can hope that the next round of climate talks will come to a resolution and we will not melt all the ice caps and glaciers. We can imagine that if we just save enough, conserve enough, do enough, we can avert the cataclysmic end. But doesn’t that just make us into God?
What does it mean to say this is in God’s hands? That does not mean that everything just goes peachy for us. In fact Jesus is right up front with us in the Gospel lesson today that terrible things will happen to Christians: Persecutions, strife, wars, earthquakes, and famines. It is not an easy thing to be a Christian, it can be very difficult. But we can be sure that his is never because God has lapsed in his care for us or that this situation is out 17
of his control. This is all part of his redemptive work. The dying of the world will be violent, difficult and painful, he wants us to know that, but he wants us to know that no matter what happens, it is all held within his hands, and you are too. And you are precious to him.
But there is more than simply a deist sort of comfort to be had here. Just about any religion will assert the prior paragraph. Judaism and Islam can surely say the same thing. There is more that is in his hands. My life is totally in his hands. That means it is not in my hands. I cannot give my heart to Jesus, I cannot give my life to Jesus, he already has them. By all rights he owns them. He made me and all creatures and it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey him.
But even better than that, my salvation is in his hands. The truth be told I have made a pretty good mess of things. The fear I might feel at being judged by God is real and valid. I have much to fear from an honest judgment of my life, but for one thing. Jesus, because he holds my life in his hands, has died for it. My life is held in the perforated hands of God. When he sees me he sees the wounds which were made when he died for me. When he sees me, he sees the righteousness that Christ gave me on that day when he died and rose again for me.
Daniel spoke of God’s care for his people through a servant named Michael, but he also spoke of God’s individual people shining like stars. They are each a delight to him. I think we often think that while God has the whole world in his hands, he might let a few of us slip through his fingers, the little folks like me. But God’s ways are not our ways, and the dust will give up the dead to his word of life. We are important to him.
My church is in his hands. The folks at the time of Jesus were pretty torn up when the temple was destroyed a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They thought their religion might come to an end. But the Christians were not. The church is also in God’s hands. It might look a little wan and sickly at times, a few congregations might have to close their doors, offerings might be down, but have no fear of this: The church is in God’s capable hands. It has been in much worse places thanks to the sins of men. Just read about the “pornocacracy” in the late 900’s in Rome or the abuses of the Borgia popes at the time of Luther if you want an example or two. God has raised up the reformers and the saints who have called it back to truth and vitality. It is in God’s hands.
Today he is raising up a vital community of people around the world, often in places of persecution and violence and suffering. God will not let his Gospel depart from this earth. He said it had to be preached, and it will be preached. It is the very heart of his kingdom.
Four promises God makes to us today because we are in his hands:
1. The suffering of people is often the means for his kingdom to come. Nothing the world can throw at us will keep us from that or thwart his kingdom.
2. The Gospel will be proclaimed
3. The Spirit will never leave us – even when everyone else leaves us. God is faithful to this promise.
4. The one who perseveres will be saved. Death has no hold of us – Jesus has conquered that foe!
3. Confidence to enter the holy place (Epistle – That the Spirit of God would inspire the hearer with a holy confidence as they love one another and this world, all of which Christ has rendered holy with his life’s blood.)
The end of the world talk in today’s lessons and the constant refrains of the world the rest of the year can easily leave us with the notion that we are really not good enough. After all, the world is filled with rules, one can hardly walk out the door before we confront them. The rules which govern our driving, our homeowners association tells us what flowers we can plant and what color to paint our house. The tax man is there with rules about how much we owe. The list goes on. But rules, especially a steady diet of them really serve to beat down the human being. So does fear.
That means quite often we are too afraid even to pray, too overwhelmed to do the basic tasks of being a Christian. We waver in our confession of Christ, becoming silent about our love. And then we stop living out the life he has given us. We bury in our respectable but otherwise ordinary lives, anonymously content to just be here. But Christ has called us to much more, and through the words of the writer to the Hebrews he equips us as well.
The remedy to this fearful weariness is a confidence which comes from Christ, a confidence that does not admit that the rules have the last word, a confidence which looks forward to the last day, even the death day, with trust and hope because on the other side of that day is Jesus, the same Jesus who shed his blood for me on a cross long ago.
We have to start with that blood today. By his death in the flesh, brutal and horrific, and by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus has declared a new reality in which we get to live right now. This is a new kingdom, a new order of things, a new power, a new rule. He uses all those words for it. That reality simply inspires us with confidence. The old order, the one we see with these eyes, is passing away. It is dying and that frightens us, but it does not cause us to despair.
This confidence then gets expressed in three very important ways.
1. We draw near to God. We are not afraid of him. Yes our sins are real, but we have been washed with pure water, our consciences have been cleansed by him. That means we can stand in his presence, speak our prayers, and he hears us and smiles upon us.
2. We are bold to confess his name. We do not waver in the face of those who might persecute or ridicule us. This new reality transcends the old – its threats and its standards are simply out of date and impotent.
3. We are energized – stirring one another up to good deeds, to the community of action and love. This is rendered urgent because we know the day comes when all we will be able to do is praise him in perfect joy. The opportunity to tell another, to love another broken person, to be the presence of Christ to a sinner, that opportunity is fleeting. When I die, when Jesus comes, those opportunities are over. So I am urgent, not because I have to do this, or because God won’t be happy with me if I don’t, but because the day draws near when I cannot do this.
4. God does not come – he is already here! (Gospel and OT reading – That the hearer would confess that God is not absent, but he is here all along.)
This sermon would recast the last day, the day of our Lord’s “coming.” The world imagines that God arrives on the scene after a long absence and sets things aright. But the Christian has never walked a day without that Jesus as his or her side, dwelling in word and deed. Paul said that Christ dwells within him (Galatians 2:20) and Jesus promised to be with us to the very end of the age. This is not really news. But it sometimes feels like he is far away.
The Christian cannot be faulted for looking about and wondering where Jesus is. Here the preacher will want to be honest and open with his own struggles. It is not always easy to see Jesus in this life. When sorrow and affliction, trouble and pain come our way, it is the tempter’s goal to close our eyes to presence of our Lord Jesus. It is easy to do.
But the preacher this day reminds his hearers that Jesus has spoken another promise to them. Jesus is not absent, but he is really here. Surely we will want to speak of a presence in bread and wine/Body and Blood which results in Christ quite literally within us. But we also want to speak of a Jesus who dwells within our vocations as spouse, worker, neighbor, citizen, parent and the like. We are the masks of God in this world. Through us he is doing beautiful and good things. Every interaction with our neighbor is laden with the potential of God at work right now.
This recasts our expectation of the last day. It is not that we look for something or someone to come who is not here, but we look for a clearer revelation of the one who has been here all along. That day we will see, all will see, the Jesus who has kept his promises to his people, including the promise to be with us always. (Be ready with I John 3:1-3 for a great cross reference at this point.)
As a result, when we watch the news, looking at the birth pains of this world, it is not that everything is falling apart, but rather it is coming together. Be gone Chicken Little and Al Gore with your dire warnings about the sky falling and all life coming to an end. It is 20
Jesus who is here right now and will be more clearly seen that day whom we look for. He does not come to usher in death, but life, a life which he began in our baptism (Philippians 1:6) and which he will bring to completion on that day, a life fulfilled and fulsomely lived in him. We are not looking to the end, but to the beginning. Our view of the here and now changes. We have hope and joy in the midst of terrible and fearful things. This hope and joy the enemy and the world simply cannot take away.
This is God doing his upside-down thing again. It is theology of Cross, it is beatitudes – blessed are you when… There really is no explaining it to the world, but to the one who believes, it needs no explanation, but we need simply to be reminded. We have known this all along. But it is good to hear again.