Monday, November 26, 2012

Sermon for the Sunday of the Fulfillment: "Endings and Beginnings"

+ Sunday of the Fulfillment – Nov. 25th, 2012 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series B, Proper 29: Isaiah 51:4-6; Jude 20-25; Mark 13:24-37

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

            Today is a day of endings and beginnings. The Sunday of the Fulfillment. The end of the church year. Next week Advent begins a new church year. Both point us to Jesus’ second coming, to the last act of the play. The final movement of the symphony. The closing chapter of history. The end and yet also the beginning of the greatest story ever told. Endings and beginnings.

            Today, Jesus sets His church on end-times red alert: “Watch. Keep awake.” While the rest of the world is spiritually asleep, Jesus would have His believers alert and ready, like a little child waiting by the door for mom or dad to return home: da! da! da!. She doesn’t know when, so she’s always alert, always ready, always watching.

            But after 2000 years of waiting, Jesus’ call to end-times alertness begins to sound like the boy who cried wolf. It doesn’t mean anything to us anymore. The press of our work and social calendars crowd out the significance of any end of the church year, end of the age considerations. We may have constant lurking notion that the world will end some day, but we also have false confidence that it isn’t likely to end today, tomorrow, or the next day. We live foolishly like those bridesmaids who thought that a little oil was enough; they never expected the groom to show up at midnight. We’re either too complacent or too fearful.

            No wonder, from the mouths of sensationalistic pastors, or the media frenzy –Mayan calendars and end-of-the-world predictions - you might get the impression that the only reason people talk about the Last Day is to excite fear and fill their wallets. Deception. Hysteria. Confusion. Chaos. Such are the devil’s tools in these Last Days. And if Jesus’ end-times teaching has left you in a panic, hiding in a bunker, like a Zombie apocalypse movie, well, you’ve missed the point.

            To be sure, Jesus warns us – as he did the disciples: “Keep watch. Stay awake. Be on guard. You neither know the day nor the hour.” Our natural reaction is dread, terror anticipating destruction. And while that’s certainly true, it’s not the whole truth.

            For when Jesus speaks of the end, he uses the sign of the fig tree – not with its shedding leaves and dormant, dead-of-winter hibernation - but with its sap rising and its leaves budding: summer is near! Where our world sees nothing but destruction, Jesus points us to the End with signs of life.

            St. Paul calls these the “birth pangs,” the labor contractions of the new creation that arrives with the coming of Christ. Labor and childbirth is painful (or so I’m told). Yet the outcome is so joyous and wonderful that the pain is soon forgotten, or the memory is at least diminished, otherwise we’d all be only children.

            But for the baptized Christian, Christ’s return isn’t a Day for chaos and confusion, but comfort and consolation. Search the Scriptures, Lutheran Confessions, Small Catechism, the rich hymns in our hymnal and you’ll hear the same message. They too speak of endings and beginnings: Of Adam’s death and Christ’s triumph over sin. Of your sin and guilt and Jesus bearing it for you. Of your drowning and your resurrection in the waters of Holy Baptism. Of the Paschal Lamb who gives his life to feed you with his own. Of a two-edged sword that kills and makes a live. Of those who die in Christ and yet are asleep awaiting his final word to the faithful: Arise!

            For the old creation, dead in sin is passing away – indeed it has already begun in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In these gray and latter days – days filled with overwhelming sorrow and sickness, helplessness in the face of economic, family and personal troubles, grief at the death of loved ones, not to mention our own burdens of sin and guilt. That’s why in these Last Days we confess: I believe in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church; the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. For we do not yet see the church or our lives or creation as it is should be. But we cling to Jesus’ promise: “Never will I leave yo,u nor forsake you. Behold, I am coming soon. I am making all things new. It is finished. I am not dead, but living.”

            Endings and beginnings.

           So it was for our sister in Christ, Pauline, called to the church triumphant this past Thursday. Thanksgiving Day took on a different and better meaning for her. The same is true of the Last Day for all the faithful departed who have fallen asleep in Jesus, whether our end comes at Jesus’ return or our own death. Earthly life ends but so does sin and death. Resurrection and a new creation awaits. The end of all labors. The end all suffering. The end of sin and death once and for all. And the beginning of Christ’s new life for his kingdom which has no end.

            Yes, the Day of Jesus’ coming is a day of judgment. But judgment cuts two ways: one can be judged guilty and sentenced to punishment; or judged innocent and set free. But take heart, you were already judged on Jesus’ judgment Day, the day He came not to judge but to be judged. The day when He took your place on a cross, took your sin into His sinless life, embraced your death in His death, was condemned with the condemnation you deserve. That Good Friday when the Son of God died for the sins of the world was a Day of the Lord. And we know where that Day led – to resurrection, to life, to glory at the right hand of God.

            And that same verdict is pronounced over your head in your Baptism, where you were united with Jesus in His death, His life, His glory. You were clothed with Christ. You were put “into Christ,” made a new creation. “The old has gone, the new has come.” In Christ you are already glorified, already in the new creation. What we wait for is to take possession of this in our own bodies raised and glorified. And so the end of all things old also means the beginning of all things new. “I am making all things new,” Jesus says. A new heavens, a new earth, a new you.
            But how do we live in these Last Days?

            Jude exhorts us to “build ourselves up in our most holy faith.” Not by staring at our navels or  our believing, rather, by being immersed in what we believe and why. Keep watch over your study of the Word. Not like a last minute cram session for an exam, but like your favorite book, cover-worn, pages highlighted and falling apart. Like a little child reading books: Again! Again! Read. Mark. Learn. And inwardly digest His holy Word. Catechesis is life-long; not just until confirmation. What greater word is there than Christ and His Word as we prepare to meet Him face to face?

             Along with the Word comes prayer. “Pray in the Holy Spirit.”  The Last Days are a time for holy conversation with the One who is coming. To pray “in the Spirit” doesn’t mean to pray incoherently or without understanding. We pray recognizing that we don’t know how to pray, knowing that the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs and groans beyond words. He delivers God’s Word to our ears, and our words to the Father’s ears.

             “Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.”  To keep in the love of God receive receiving His love toward us – hearing His Word, receiving Christ’s Body and Blood, taking in the words of forgiveness and life. As He comes to us now by Word and water, body and blood, we are being prepared for His second coming. Divine Service is your best preparation. We go to the Lord’s Supper as we go to the Last Day so that when the Last Day comes, we go as we would go to the Supper. Enter with joy; depart in peace.

             Lastly, Jude says, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” He turns us to our brother. Doubt and faith always run together because we believe in things unseen. The church is a body; there’s safety in numbers. The isolated believer is always vulnerable. We need one another, sometimes to stick out a rescuing hand and pull us from the fire of error and unbelief. That hand may leave a temporary bruise, but if someone were about to be run over by a truck, you wouldn’t worry about a black and blue mark, would you? We’re called to watch out for each other, care for each other, support and even rescue each other, loving each other as Christ loved us.

             And that’s the comfort here, on this Sunday of the Fulfillment. Jesus is the One who keeps us from stumbling and presents us blameless at the end. Not us. Not our religious efforts, our works, our piety, or anything. Jesus keeps us blameless in the robe of His righteousness; Jesus keeps us from stumbling by His steady feet that have trampled sin, death, and devil. Christ is your beginning, your end, your Alpha, your Omega, your life and your salvation: yesterday, today and tomorrow.

            “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

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