Sunday, November 9, 2008

Trinity 25

Sermon on Matthew 24:15-28
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
November 9, 2008 (The 25th Sunday after Trinity)

As we read the Scripture lessons that have to do with the end times, Judgement Day, and all of that, sometimes it can be a bit confusing as to what is being talked about. Sometimes it sounds like Jesus is talking about His own death, sometimes it sounds like He’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., sometimes it sounds like he’s talking about the struggles and trials that we will endure leading up to our own deaths, and sometimes it sounds like he’s talking about the struggles and trials and tribulations that the world must endure leading up to the final judgment. In fact, sometimes it sounds like He’s talking about September 11th, or about the struggle between the Palestinians and Israelis, or about the war in Iraq, or any of a thousand other world-changing events. Sometimes it sounds like one of the hurricanes or wildfires that have happened recently. Pages upon pages have been written about passages like the one which serves as our Gospel lesson this morning. What is Jesus saying? What is he predicting? Was he referring to something in his own time period or the end of the world? Or something in between? Was He, in fact, speaking of something that has happened or will happen during our own lifetimes? There is no end of such questions among academic students of the Bible. And if the “experts” can’t come to an agreement on what these texts are really saying, what these words from our Lord’s lips really mean, how can we?
My answer to the problem of these end-time texts is simply to say “yes.” Is Jesus talking about the final judgment or is He talking about His own crucifixion? Yes. Is He talking about the destruction of Jerusalem or the destruction of the world? Yes. Is he talking about the end of the world or the end of each of our individual lives? Yes. You see, there are a number of different points on the time-line of this world’s history which really are all one event. For example, when you were baptized you traveled back in time to 33 A.D. to die with Christ on the cross and rise again with Him a few days later, as well as going forward in time to your own death and even to the end of time for your own resurrection. Christ’s death, your death, Christ’s resurrection, and the resurrection of everyone at the end of this old world, all these things are really one event, an event that happened to each one of you when your old Adam was drowned in the baptismal water so that the new Christ in you could come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. And so it doesn’t really matter all that much whether Christ was speaking of the end times or of His own death and resurrection, or of your and my death and resurrection, or for that matter of those believers who are caught up in the wars and violence and disasters we see around us.
In this particular Gospel lesson, Jesus warns us that life in these end times is not going to be easy. The world is the Church’s enemy and will seek to destroy the Church by whatever means possible. In one sense, Jesus is warning the people of his day what would happen to the city of Jerusalem because of their rejection of Him; 35 years later, in the year 70 Jerusalem would be besieged and conquered by the Roman armies, the population either killed or driven away, and the city itself destroyed so thoroughly that not one stone would remain on another. The Romans would do this because, during the time after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there would be a series of rebel leaders among the Jews proclaiming themselves to be the promised Messiah, and urging rebellion against the Roman overlords. The final destruction of the city would be the punishment for that rebellion, and indirectly, punishment for refusing to accept the true Messiah, whose message was not one of rebellion against earthly authorities but of eternal life in a heavenly kingdom. The Romans, whose emblem was the eagle, would gather around the dead carcass of Jerusalem even as a few of their soldiers gathered around the carcass hung on a cross outside Jerusalem on Good Friday.
But Jesus wasn’t only talking about Jerusalem. What happened to Jerusalem because of its rejection of the Messiah was only the beginning of a much larger process of destruction and dissolution of the whole world. It was the whole world that rejected its Creator, and thus the whole world is subject to destruction and futility so that the new heavens and new earth in which we will spend eternity can be put into its place, just as our old Adam must be drowned daily so that the new man in Christ can come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. The world itself is suffering under the mortal illness of sin, just as each one of its inhabitants is. We don’t know for sure when this time will come to an end, but we see the signs all around us, signs which have been with us since Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem, signs which will continue to be with us even until that day, whether that day be two days or two millennia from now.
And, just as was the case with those caught up in the siege at Jerusalem, living as a Christian in a sin-filled world isn’t easy. There are false gods, false saviors out there. Some of them even go by the name of Jesus Christ. There is the false Jesus whose proponents claim that He came to be primarily a moral example to us rather than the one who saves us graciously through the forgiveness of all our sins won by His death on the cross. There is the false Jesus whose body is locked up in heaven and not present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. There is the false Jesus who comes to us through feelings and visions and spiritual experiences rather than through the objective and real proclaimed Word and administered Sacraments. There is the false Jesus who is not God at all but just a good man and a fine moral teacher. There is the false Jesus who is only one path to the Father among many, a Jesus who is willing to share the stage with the false gods of the Muslims, the Jews, the Hindus, and the Buddhists. There are all sorts of false Christs out there today, even as there were back when the true Messiah spoke these words. It is extremely easy to be misled by them, especially in the face of the overwhelming hostility of those who would kill and destroy in the name of their faith rather than seeking to persuade and convince with words. However, to teach falsely about Christ, even if you say nice things about Him at the same time, is to misrepresent Christ, to tell lies about Him. And those lies can eventually destroy people’s faith and cause them to rely on their own works for salvation rather than trusting that His sacrifice on the cross is sufficient for them and that He comes to them to give them Himself in His Word and body and blood. Of course, to say other people are wrong in the area of religion isn’t exactly the most popular thing to say these days, as our culture seems to want to react by lumping us in with those who would use violence to convert people, but unlike the more radical forms of Islam, for example, we believe that faith can’t be coerced but must be created in the heart through the Word. But the world doesn’t understand that.
God has promised that He will not leave us stranded. He will not give us more temptation and affliction, even in these times, than we can bear with the help of His Word and Sacrament. And he will not leave this world run on so long that the Christians will be unable to hold on to their faith any longer. There will be an end to it. That is the promise of Christ’s return in glory. The end of all things is not a day to be feared, it is a day for rejoicing. It is the day when we who believe in Christ will begin to experience the eternal life in which we have already become partakers by water and the Word. It is when we shall begin to fully enjoy the feast of victory for our God in which we already share through the Sacrament of the Altar. For some of us, that day will come sooner than for others. That day of salvation will come for the world as a whole on when Christ returns in glory, but it will come for each of us on the day of our deaths. God cuts short our lives in this world because this world simply is not a pleasant place to be for those who believe. Those who have gone before us no longer face the trials and troubles of this world, and he will not let us face those trials and troubles longer than we can bear them, either. Our salvation is sure, and, as we are strengthened by the Word and Sacraments, nobody will be able to take it away from us. Amen. ✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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