Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 8, 2013 (Second Sunday in Advent)

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”  “Even now he axe is laid to the root of the tree!”  “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Sounds like John is predicting the end of the world and the arrival of Judgment Day.  And yet here we are, almost 2,000 years later, still awaiting the final judgment.  Should we disregard John’s warning?  Many so-called prophets have showed up over the course of those 2,000 years, claiming to know when the end will come.  Harold Camping is one of the more well-known false prophets who have dared to predict when Judgment Day will happen recently.  We’re still here, more than a year after his most recent prediction was supposed to happen.  Is John simply an ancient version of the same sad story?

Well, John really is predicting the arrival of God’s Kingdom.  The kingdom is where the king is.  God Himself really had arrived on earth.  In fact, it was nearer than anybody had thought.  John had met Him personally already, in his mother’s womb, and rejoiced to see the day.  The King was already among His people.  The fire had already been kindled for the eternal burning of those who would not repent.  The axe really was ready to chop down the unfruitful tree and throw it into the eternal fire as well.  John’s prediction of Judgment Day was not at all inaccurate or premature.  The kingdom had already arrived.

What nobody understood at the time, and what far too few understand in our own day, is that the King was also the tree which would be chopped down.  The winnowing fork would cast Him into the fire.  Judgment Day really was at hand, but the sentence of death would be borne by the King Himself.  The sky would be darkened.  There would be earthquakes.  The dead would be raised.  Judgment Day itself had come upon the world.

And yet, God in His mercy has allowed the world time yet for repentance.  The fires of hell are kindled, and those who refuse to accept that the King died in their place will still suffer them eternally.  This world was already carried down to destruction on Good Friday, but it still staggers on, giving us time for repentance and faith.  But the time really is limited.  Harold Camping may have been wrong in his claim that the world would end in 2012, but for a vast number of people, 2012 really was the end.  Even the day he had set really was the last day for a great many people.  Every day, including this day, many die or are killed, whether due to sickness or old age, whether due to intentional or accidental events, whether due to natural or man-made violence.  Even to those who try to pretend that the end isn’t coming, it comes.  Even those who think that they’re too good for death or destruction, are laid low by the axe of death.  Even the outwardly pious brood of vipers, who offer us the same temptation as the serpent in the garden to try to become like God apart from Him – even those vipers will share in that serpent’s fate.   The end comes to all of us, sooner or later, and beyond that point our eternal destiny is fixed.  We live in a world that is dying, and thus we are dying.  Just as it will eventually die, so will each of us, on that day if not before.  The kingdom of heaven is near, and we dare not be casual or careless about that fact.

But carelessness is not the same as hopelessness.  To heed John’s warning is not to panic or to despair.  Because, even though the world continues to stumble along blindly toward its own destruction, the King has already brought into existence the new heavens and the new earth.  While many die rejecting Him, and thus become rejected and dying eternally, He calls all to join Him on the other side of the grave.  The world’s fatal wounds became His wounds.  The world’s scars became His scars.  The world’s death became His death.  Which means that His resurrection is the birth of the world to come.  His presence now indicates the presence of the new heavens and the new earth.

And so, the kingdom of heaven is near.  It’s right here, in fact.  The king comes to us, and brings with Him forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  The crucified king crucifies us with him so that we may join Him on the other side of the grave.  We drown in the water connected with and comprehended in His word, and rise again, our robes washed clean in the flood of His blood.  He gives us Himself as He is both host and meal at the victory banquet which has no end.  We hear with our ears, and eat and drink with our mouths, Him who is the great King who comes as judge of both the living and the dead.  The kingdom of heaven is near.  We eat and drink with the King Himself.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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