Monday, November 16, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 25 - Mark 13:1-13

Pentecost 24
Mark 13:1-13
“Saved in the End”

You see this fancy temple? It's toast. You see these tall pillars? They're coming down. The Holy Place? Scrap it. The Holy of Holies? First they'll tear it down, then it will become a trash heap, then a shrine to a false god, and then, along with every other once proud and impressive location – everything will be destroyed. Not even one stone left on another.

Are you impressed by the things of this world? The Sistine Chapel? The Great Wall of China? Mt. Rushmore? None of it will last. Even the Pyramids, which have stood perhaps the longest – they'll be gone, too. Your house, your neighborhood, the Taco Bell. Your school, your workplace, even your church building.

It's that time of the year again, the end of the church year, in which the lectionary, for several weeks, sets before us these readings which point to the end. Call it the judgment day, the last day, the second coming of Christ. Or use the fancy term, “eschatology” from the Greek word “eschatos”, which means, simply, “the last things”.

Here in Mark's Gospel, were are again in Holy Week. Jesus is with his disciples in the temple, like so many others who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Jesus has already been welcomed on Palm Sunday and greeted with “hosannas”. He's turned over temple tables, and his teaching is overturning the hopes and expectations for Jewish national glory.

Not only is Jesus not the military messiah so many expected, here to run out the Romans. He's the bearer of bad news: This place is going down. And so it came to pass. In 70 AD, not even 40 years after Jesus speaks these words, Roman general Titus puts down a rebellion in Jerusalem.
And he destroys the temple. Jews still mourn this event every year. Titus would go on to become Roman Emperor, and the arch which tells of his glorious victory in Jerusalem still stands in Rome to this day. But the temple, the temple into which so many Jews put their hopes for the future, has been reduced to one lone exterior wall.

So how can Jesus say “not one stone will be left” if, in fact, a whole wall remains? Because the prophecy isn't finished yet. The destruction of the temple was but a foretaste of the final destruction for which this corrupt world is destined. All of it will pass away. Vanish like smoke. Be rolled up like a scroll. Scripture tells us, and Jesus tells us, of a time to come when he will bring about a new heaven and new earth, and the old will pass away entirely. For us it is a day of victory and celebration.

But before that day comes, he has more bad news. There will be other calamities. And what a list it is! Wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes. Famines. And maybe worst of all, false teachers.
Do not be led astray! Jesus warns us to watch out, especially, for those who would falsely come in his name. But this isn't just about crackpots who claim to be Jesus in the flesh yet again (though surely there have been quite enough of those!)

This is also about all who would come and teach falsely concerning him. Anyone who teaches against his word. Anyone who points you to yourself for your own salvation. Anyone who teaches you that his grace is not enough, and that you need to add your own work, your own decision, your own acceptance to the mix. Anyone who teaches you to despise his gifts given in water and bread and wine, and not receive them as he intends, for the forgiveness of your sin. Anyone who would teach that Christianity is all about Gospel apart from Law, or vice versa. Anyone who adds the teachings of man to the revealed Word of God. Even those who would cheapen God's grace in Christ by claiming that this sin or that sin doesn't matter, or isn't that sinful, and who call good evil and evil good. Beware! Watch out! Do not be led astray! Many will come, teaching all this and more, but they are not Christ. And it is not yet the end.

He warns the disciples of persecution. That they would be arrested and beaten and delivered over to death. Even families would be torn apart in all of this. And all who are with Christ will be hated for his name's sake. What an uplifting picture of the future Jesus paints for them, and for us.

Church history tells us that all of the 12 Apostles met a martyrs death, except for John – who was also persecuted and imprisoned. Jesus rightly prepares his disciples for the trouble that would follow them, even unto death. But these disciples, too, are but a foretaste of the persecution of the church and the birth pains of creation that would continue from then until the very end.

And we, too, live in those times. Yes, we are in the end times. The times of the birth pains. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. We see earthquakes and famines and false teachers. We see families torn apart and Christians hated for Jesus' name. The church has always faced these things, in one measure or another, in fits and starts, just like a woman in labor. When the birth pains come, then they recede, then they come again in greater force, then recede. We know how this goes. We know that the end is coming, it's on the horizon, it's getting nearer. But we can't say exactly when.

But Jesus doesn't tell us all this to scare us. He knows well enough that we have enough fear living in this fallen world. He's not simply trying to get us to wake up and shape up, and live a good life with the short time we have left. As if threats of the law could do that anyway.

But it should drive us to repentance. Repent of your attachment to the supposedly impressive things of this world, which is passing away. Repent of your adherence to anyone who teaches falsely in Christ's name. Repent of your fears of what may come, of who may oppose you, and your lack of trust in Christ. Repent, and believe in Christ!

And hear that Jesus is also speaking words of comfort to his dear flock, not one of which he means to lose from his hand.

“The one who endures to the end will be saved”. In other words: have faith. Have trust in me. For I have come to save. No matter how bad it gets. No matter what troubles may come. No matter what armies march into your backyard and destroy your homes and burn your churches. No matter what natural disasters befall you. Though the earth shakes it all down and the fields dry up and waste away. I am with you to the end. So endure to the end. You will be saved. I won't let you fall. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies. And he who lives and believes in me will never die.
Jesus endured all of this and worse, for you, on the cross. He knows what it is to suffer all, and to see your world come crashing down before you. He suffered the wrath of God for the sins of the world. Every injustice against every innocent. Every violence, every cruelty, every hatred – this man of sorrows carried it all on that wooden cross. And his sacrifice was for it all. The sins of the world. To save the world.

Though false teachers will come and give false words about him, his word, and his work. Yet he promises that his faithful people will not be without his Spirit. And that Spirit will give us even the words to speak before councils and synagogues and even before governors and kings. That word never changes. That word of the Gospel which shows Jesus Christ crucified for sin, to save the world. And that Gospel must be preached to all nations.

So rather than worrying about when all this will happen, it is enough for us to know that it will. And that Christ knows it, and is still going to save us. No matter how bad it gets, no matter what you must suffer now or in the future – Jesus suffered all, and has gone before you to save. He faced death, but conquered it. And now you share in his victory. He has saved you. And he will save you, even for all eternity. Cling to this word. Even to the end. Believe it for Jesus's sake. Amen.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 24 - Mark 12:38-44

What About Widows?
November 8th, 2015
Mark 12:38-44

Today's Gospel reading comes from Jesus' teachings in the temple during Holy Week.  In those days, he taught many things recorded for us in the Gospels.  But today, we focus on two main ideas – both which set before us the widow.

In the first, Jesus warns against the Scribes, who “devour widow's houses”.  And in the second thought, Jesus commends the widow who offered her mites, or small coins to the temple treasury.

Let's take a closer look at how the widows fit in to Jesus' teaching in today's reading.

For starters, some background on what it means to be a widow.  By definition, a widow is someone who has faced death, up close and personal.  Some of you, even here today, know what this means.  You've lived it.  To be a widow, then, as now, means weeping and mourning.  It is to face sorrow and grief, which may dull over the years but will hardly be forgotten.

The fact that we have husbands and wives who are separated by death after years of life and love together – is another dread reminder of the fallen, sinful world in which we live.  Without the sin of Adam and Eve, which we inherit and perpetuate, there would be no such thing as widows, for there would be no such thing as death.

In ancient times, far more than today, to be a widow also meant financial disaster.  As if the sorrow of losing one's husband wasn't enough, a widow was left without a source of income and support.  She was forced to turn to others for such help.  If she had sons, they would take her in.  But if not, a widow's grief was then compounded by her financial ruin, as she joined the beggars and lived her sad days out in destitution.  Widows and orphans are grouped together, then, as the poorest of the poor, and the most in need of the kindness of strangers.

Our Lord God has a special concern for the widow.  The term is mentioned almost 80 times in Scripture. But not everyone shared such a concern for these vulnerable individuals.  Instead, some, like the Scribes who Jesus warns against, even preyed upon the widows.

These Scribes were a piece of work for many reasons.  Jesus paints them as pretentious showboats who love the attention and adulation of others.  Who make a great show of their grand religious extravagance, fancy robes, long prayers, and the like.  But all of this is window dressing.  It hides the wickedness behind the robes, the evil that they do.  They exploit even the vulnerable widows for their own greedy gain.  Their religion is really a sham.  It is self-serving, not neighbor-serving.  Not only should we watch out for people like this, but we especially should not be anything like them.

But are we?  Isn't there a little scribe or pharisee in every human heart that loves to make a show of our own righteousness?  If not to others, then perhaps to ourselves?  Or even in our own mind, or we imagine, before our God?  Maybe we're not so bold as the scribes, but the temptations to tout our own spiritual achievements abound.  But it's just as much of a show.

Where God would have humility, our hearts are filled with pride.  Where God would have us serve others, we are only too happy to be served.  After all, we tell ourselves, we deserve it.  Where God would have us sacrifice of ourselves for the vulnerable and needy – we find twisted ways to take advantage, and shirk our responsibilities, neglecting those who need our help.

So then Jesus sat and watched all those who came to offer their gifts toward the temple treasury.  And it seems many made quite a show of it.  The rich, especially, who put in large sums for all to see.  Look at me.  Look at my good works.  But Jesus is not impressed.  Until we see the poor widow.  She comes with two small copper coins, worth only a penny.  Who knows if it was even enough to buy a single meal.  But it was all she had.  Her entire net worth.  And she gave it all.

Jesus commends her, and points his disciples to her example.  The others gave out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Again we are condemned.  Maybe we escaped the accusation of the law, and could make the case that we're not as bad as the scribes, those showboating predators.  But who among us can live up to the standards of this widow?  Who can give all they have?  She puts us all to shame.  Like the rich young man who went away sad because he had great wealth, are we not also condemned in comparison to this widow who gave all she had to live on?  How could she do that, anyway?

The text doesn't spell it out, but the answer must lie in her faith.

Man does not live by bread alone.  And surely this widow didn't have enough, even to buy bread.  But she was rich in faith, for she generous gift confessed her trust in the one who provides for our needs.  The one who cares for us, body and soul.  The one in whom we have life, and have it abundantly.

Jesus doesn't need your treasures, but he desires your heart.  Jesus doesn't need your mites, your dollars, your wealth or inheritance.  But he wants you to belong to him entirely.  And he would even give his all to make it so.  He purchased and won us from sin, death and the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.  That you and I may be his own...

Jesus, a man well acquainted with grief and sorrow.  A man who knew the weaknesses and burdens we carry.  One who knew poverty from his humble birth in Bethlehem, and as a man had no place even to lay his head.  He who was stripped of all belongings, even the clothes on his back which they divided among themselves.  He who was deserted by his friends.  He who was forsaken by his Father.  He who was born of a virgin, and whose death pierced his own mother's heart.  But even in his death he cared for her, a widow, “woman behold your son, John, behold your mother”.  Just as he cares for all widows and orphans and beggars and all the bedraggled masses of sinners that ever looked to him for salvation.  He gives it.  He gives it all.

Elijah, a prophet of God, once cared for a widow and her son at Zarepeth.  She first showed her faith by hospitality, giving the last of what she had to live on to provide a meal for this traveling man of God. “Let's eat the last of it, and then die” she said.  Through a divine miracle, she was given food to eat, daily bread and oil that didn't run out.  So far our Old Testament reading today.

But the very next verses go on to tell how the woman's son died anyway.  Then she turned her anger on this wandering prophet.  But an even greater miracle was afoot.  For now the Lord would raise her dead son through this prophet.  Her weeping would be turned to joy.

Jesus is the greater son of a widow, and the greater prophet than Elijah.  His sustenance never fails or runs out.  Our sins never exhaust the supply of his merits, won a the cross.  He never fails to invite us to his table, giving bread and wine that are the very body and blood of God for poor, grieving sinners to eat and drink, and live.

And he who died for all scribes and widows and orphans and pharisees and even for you – also rose from the dead for you and for all.  He gives hope to all who mourn the wages of sin, to all who have tasted the bitterness of death, to all who are poor.

Therefore love one another.  Give generously to those who need.  Care for the least among you, even the widow.  And give thanks to him who gives hope even to the hopeless, and has comfort for all who mourn, even widows, whose Son died and rose to make it so, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Sermon - All Saints Day - 2015

All Saints' Day
Revelation 7:9-17
November 1st, 2015

Our text this All Saints' Day is from John's vision in Revelation – to be more clear, what Jesus Christ revealed to St. John. Revelation uses these word pictures to show us eternal truths of God's kingdom. Like the angel flying overhead with the eternal Gospel – which we heard about last Sunday. When did that happen? It's always been God's way – to send messengers who bear his message – and it will be that way forever.

Today, we read John's vision of the great multitude clothed in white. It is another anchor of comfort in the sometimes stormy clouds Revelation paints. A moment to exhale and be comforted by a picturesque promise of the blessings that His people enjoy in Christ. Blessings we enjoy now, and will enjoy fully in the age to come.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,

This is the church, of all times and places. It is a grand reunion into one body, now one visible multitude, of the many who on earth were divided by national borders, lines of lineage, and mother tongues.

They are innumerable. Like stars in the sky and sand on the seashore, the multitude cannot be counted by any of us (though certainly God knows its exact number). This is the final fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, for all his children by faith are now gathered into the final family reunion. Here, in glory, the church is one.

Sin, which had divided us in so many ways, is now behind us. No longer is the judgment of Babel enforced, in which the languages were confused and the people scattered – for God knew that if we were united in our sinfulness, no sin would be too great for our human pride to accomplish together. So just as he punished Adam and Eve with exile, for their own good, so they wouldn't eat of the tree of life and live forever in their sin, so he scattered the nations at Babel to prevent us from joining our wickedness as one.

But now, in the church's final glory, all is right again. Any rifts of division are washed away in the blood of the Lamb. All the national distinctions and ethnic tensions melt. And the language becomes one again. Just like it did at Pentecost. When each heard the wonders of God being declared in his own tongue. The Apostles preached the Gospel of Jesus to all people – and all people heard it as the Spirit gave them utterance.

So today, the church speaks and hears the same language – the language of the Gospel. That in Jesus Christ, all are one, all are holy, all are saints.

standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,

Palm Sunday peeks its head out today, too. But this is a far better Palm Procession. For these branch-wavers are no longer crying “Hosanna”, that is, “Save us Now”, but they are singing to the one who HAS saved them. They are are not anticipating the one who rides the donkey just might be the Son of David come to save. They know full well he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The Passover in Egypt pointed to him as a shadow. John the Baptist said it clearly. And Jesus fulfilled it fully, when on the altar of the cross, he made the perfect sacrifice of... himself. He is the perfect and spotless Lamb without blemish, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Lamb who once was slain but now lives forever enthroned in glory.

For they stand in his throne room. They are before him in his place of honor. And he rules there, from his throne, for their benefit. He is their advocate with the Father. He is the one intercessor of God and man. And he, the Lamb that was slain but now lives – is both true God and true man to eternity. He is one of them. He is one of us.

and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

They shout the triumph call. It's worth saying and worth saying LOUDLY. Salvation belongs to the Father and the Son. Our God who sits on his throne, and his Son, the Lamb. The Father sent the Son, and the Son completed the Father's mission. He died for all and rose again for all. He paid the price, fought the good fight, and conquered death once and for all. And the victory – it's ours. He doesn't keep it to himself. We share that in the triumph he won on our behalf. By pure grace, all that He has is ours.

And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,

All creation joins the church in continual worship. Not even the highest ranking angels with all their mysterious might are immune from falling on their faces in the presence of God's almighty glory. The Elders – the 24 who represent the church's spokesmen in both Old and New Testament times – they too, join this heavenly worship. And the four living creatures – with the head of the man, the ox, the lion and the eagle – show that even the wisest and strongest and fiercest and swiftest of all creation defers to the majesty of its Creator. We are not worthy to even come before him. But he makes us worthy. Always and ever.

saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The content of their praise, a sevenfold (a holy) song:
Blessing – We bless him from whom all blessings flow.
Glory – That mysterious quality of God that shows his surpassing worth
Wisdom – Omniscience – all knowing, all seeing
Thanksgiving – For we are ever-grateful for all his benefits, and he is ever benevolent.
Honor – The highest honor, which no medal can designate and no proclamation exhaust
Power – Dynamic, explosive, thunderous power to destroy and create at will
Might – The Lord of all hosts, or heavenly armies, who serve at his command
He is the superlative of all this and more, forever and ever. But for all the superlatives, we are about to see the most wondrous work he has done. An accomplishment to exceed them all.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

And we have some heavenly catechesis here. “Who is this crowd of exultant worshippers?” John is asked. And like a child too fearful to offer a guess, he demurs, “Sir, you know”. And now the answer.
These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” And let's be clear – this is not some special group of elite believers who've earned a better heaven than you poor schlubs. It's not some particularly faithful and holy subset of Christians who faced trials way harder than yours, and thus deserve a more impressive reward.

We all must face, and daily do face the great tribulation. The great struggles and turmoils of the life of faith lived in a fallen world. Fear and doubt. Temptations of all kinds. Wondering, “how long, oh Lord, until you hear my cry?” Loneliness and sorrow and grief – and all other sorts of cross-bearing that the people of the cross have been given to do. Even the struggles against our own fallen nature – this is all the great tribulation. And we are troubled in various ways at various times. This is the church as a whole. This is the entirety of God's people. So it has always been.

But they are now those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
They have come through the great tribulation. Their robes were soiled – sullied and stained by the stench of sin and death. Torn to shreds and stinking to high heaven, but certainly not fit attire for the very throne room of God. But by God's grace they have come through clean and clear on the other side, through the one who cleanses them, and cleanses us by His blood.

They have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, but with a Good Shepherd to guide them. Some were martyred. Some we cast down by the world. Some were persecuted for righteousness' sake. Some were cut down in youth. Some languished for years in ill health. Some were mourned but the world, but others were forgotten. Some suffered the senseless abuse of strangers, or friends, or even family. But all bear the baptismal seal upon their brow, the seal of him who died. And so they who toiled in Christ's kingdom now have blessed rest from their labors.

They bore crosses, for so did our leader who went before us and paved the way to heaven. But so also will they follow him into glory, and life eternal:

Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs o living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Here we find some of the most precious promises of all Holy Scripture.
These saints, all the saints, and that means you too – will be ever before the throne of God, serving him day and night in his temple. And God will shelter them with his presence.
Friends, there is nothing better than to be in the presence of God, forever. There in perfect communion with our Creator, paradise is restored – and even better. There aren't enough “veries” to tell how very good it will be.

The Elder speaks to John in poetic language of earthly provision: No more hunger, no more thirst. No more scorching heat. In other words, no more physical wants or needs. No more pain or worry about tomorrow. We'll have all that we need and then some. God will shelter us with his very presence. But it gets better.

The Lamb, Jesus, will be our shepherd. And he will guide us, not just to green pastures and still waters, but to the springs of living water. The river of life itself. And so death and all its sorrow become a distant memory for those in his eternal sheepfold.

And this tender promise, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”. Like a loving parent who kisses the child's boo-boo. God will, so very personally, take all hurt and pain away. And can we put on a finer point than that?

Jesus suffered all, endured all pain, cried all his tears for you. He knows your weakness, he knows your pain and then some (and then some!). He has answer to every drop of sadness that wells up and runs down your cheek. And he will wipe every tear from your eye on that blessed day when you re-unite with him and all the saints in glory. This is our hope. This is our future. This is his promise, and what a beautiful promise it is.

Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”