Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy Beginnings

[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, today.]

Mark 13:24-37
A confession: I’m a sucker for chick flicks. A friend recommended one of them, The Lake House, to me and so, this past week, when I saw that it was going to be on, I set my recorder and watched it the next night.

I don’t want to give it all away if you haven’t seen it. (I loved it, by the way.) But The Lake House revolves around two people, played by Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock who, having realized their love for each other, nonetheless face the impossible obstacle of living in two different time periods, able only to communicate, miraculously, by letters they place in the mailbox of a lake house.

It’s hard for two people to get together under those circumstances. And so, Bullock’s character, tired of the futility and the sense of defeat, tells Reeves’ character that while they had been involved in a beautiful fantasy, they should leave it behind and move on with their separate lives. But Reeves’ character responds with a simple message: “Don’t give up on me.” (I will tell you that there's a happy beginning at the end of the movie, but that's all.)

The plea of Reeves' character, “Don’t give up on me,” is really the message of Jesus to us on this first Sunday in Advent.

“I know that You can’t see Me right now,” Jesus, the groom, is telling us, the Church, His bride. “I know that our only communication is through the printed Words of the Bible, the water of Holy Baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the fellowship of people as imperfect and as needy as you are. There will be tough days when My love for you will seem to be making impossible promises and giving you seemingly impossible hopes. But it is going to work out. With God all things are possible.”

“We will be together one day,” Jesus is telling us. “There will be a happy beginning beyond the world's endings. Don’t give up on Me.” 

This, in fact, is truly the message of the entire Advent season. Don’t give up on Jesus.

Advent, of course, is just a human creation. But it’s a shrewd one. Think about it: Here we are preparing for the celebration of Christmas, the celebration of the birth of God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. You may have noticed, though, that few of our preparations, whether as individuals, families, or nations, includes anything about Jesus.

One reason for that, I think, is that, in our minds, we tend to put Jesus in the past. He lived on this earth in the past. He died in the past. And we Christians believe He also rose in the past.

We seem to live in separate times, the notion of connection between us an impossible, beautiful fantasy. And so, we move on with our lives as though Jesus weren’t even there.

Advent is a gauntlet thrown down before a disbelieving world and an often disbelieving Church and, calling our attention to God’s Word, the Bible, tells us, “The same Jesus Who was born at Christmas, died on Good Friday, and rose on Easter, is coming back and when He does, He will bring a new heaven and a new earth and an end to this world. What good will all your frenzied materialism be then?"

Advent says: “Do not make the mistake of giving up on Jesus. Trust in Him."

We see that message in today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 13:24-37. You’ll find it on page 710 of our sanctuary Bibles.

Now, in this passage, we find Jesus speaking, I think, simultaneously about two different times and events, compressing them into a single narrative.

On the one hand, He’s talking about the invasion of Roman armies and their desecration of the temple in Jerusalem, an event that would happen about forty years after Jesus spoke these words. That event, Jesus asserts, will be the result of God’s chosen people’s failure to reach out with His love and grace to the whole world.

The Temple, the Old Testament teaches, was meant to be a house of prayer and worship for people of all nations, Jews and Gentiles. Empowered by regular encounters with God in the temple, Israel was to be God’s messenger into all the world, teaching people to repent and believe in the God of Israel in order to have new life with God. As God told the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah: "“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Instead, Israel largely chose either to ignore or horde God. But faith in God, just like the manna with which God fed His people Israel in the wilderness, will go bad if it’s horded. It must be given away or it will rot, die, or disappear. Whenever Israel forgot God and its mission to the world, it always led to problems. And in His words today, Jesus is saying, it would ultimately lead to its destruction as it did in 70 AD.

Now, Jesus says elsewhere, that He is the temple that cannot be destroyed and today He sends all who believe in Him into the world to make disciples.

But in today's lesson, Jesus also speaks more generally of the end times, when this world will come to an end and He will establish His eternal kingdom.

Verse 24: “But in those days, [Jesus says] following that distress [times of persecution and hardship He has been talking about in earlier verses], the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light;  the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ [Here Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament book of Isaiah.] At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

The first time Jesus came into our world, He did so on a silent night in an obscure village of which the world would not have heard. God sent His angels to announce the birth only to shepherds, people on the bottom end of the economic and religious food chain. Jesus lived and died and rose again in a backwater country that had spent most of its history under the thumbs of foreign powers.

But when Jesus returns, there will be nothing obscure or silent about it.

The whole world will know at once, “in the twinkling of an eye.” And, He will send His angels out to gather together His elect--those chosen for salvation not by fiat, but because they have believed in Jesus Christ. They are elect because God has saved them by His grace through their faith in Jesus.

Interestingly, that word that we translate as elect is, in the Greek language in which the New Testament was originally written, eklektos. It literally means "called out from." But it's transliterated into the English as eclectic, a word that can mean, diverse.

The elect the angels will gather on the day of Jesus' return from this world will be diverse, eclectic. They will come from "every nation, tribe, people and language," formed by the Holy Spirit into a single family through their faith in Christ.

The elect are the people who refuse to give up on Jesus.

They face tragedy; but they don’t give up.

They face death; but they don’t give up.

They face opposition for their faith but keep believing.

They wrestle with the will of God, but keep holding onto Jesus.

They’re the people who believe that it’s always too soon to give up on Jesus, the conqueror of sin and death.

They trust the promise of Jesus in Matthew 24:12-13: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

Verse 28: [Jesus goes on] “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Two messages come to us from Jesus here, I think:

(1) Most obviously, be ready for His return;

(2) And you never can tell when His return may happen because every condition necessary for His return has already happened while Jesus was still on the earth.

It’s such a silly waste to look for “the signs of the times.” The world was already full up on those signs, full up on sin and death even before Jesus went to the cross. It was ready for the end even then.

So, our focus shouldn't be on speculation. It should be on being ready for Jesus to return.

And how we do that is to keep repenting for sin and to keep trusting Jesus, the Way and the truth and the life, to cover our sins with God’s forgiveness and to fill us with life eternal.

We get ready for Jesus’ return by following Him now and into eternity even when the world wants to tie Him down to the ancient past.

That’s why the words with which Jesus closes in today's lesson, found in verses 32 to 37, boils down to one word alone: “Watch.”

The One we try to tie to the past is actually our future and through the eyes of faith, we need to keep focused on Him.

One Bible scholar has observed that, “Modern Christians often think, ‘Since the time [of Jesus’ return] is unknown, it could be hundred, or thousands, or millions of years from now…[But Christ’s words for us this morning should cause us to think]...’since the timing is unknown, it could be today! Maybe this evening, or at midnight, or when dawn breaks.’”

The scholar goes on to ask: “But does anyone actually think that way? Does anyone go through every day, wondering at morning, noon, and night if now is the time that someone long gone might return?"

"Yes," he says. "People who are in love do that.”

Are we in love with Jesus enough to take Him at His word that one day He will return and make all things right?

Because of the love God has shown us in Christ, because of the cross and empty tomb, because the Holy Spirit has given us faith in Christ, we know that we are loved and we know that it’s safe to love Him in return. We're on solid ground in loving Him back. Christ’s love is one that will never let us down.

And so we wait for His return.

We wait with eager anticipation.

We ready ourselves while we wait by attending to His Word, worshiping with His people, receiving His body and blood, sharing His love and His message with others.

This Advent season, may Christ teach us to look forward to a lot more than Christmas day.

May He teach us to live lives spent in active attentiveness to Him.

May we learn to watch for Him and, in the watching, be ready for anything in this life or in the one to come.

When we watch for Jesus and trust in Him to return, to dry our tears and to make things right, we can be assured that beyond all the endings--beyond the end of this world, beyond the ends of our own lives, He will bring us a happy beginning that never ends. Amen

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