Sunday, November 18, 2018

Keep Planting Those Apple Trees

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Mark 13:1-13
During our recent trip to the Reformation Era places in Germany, a small item for sale appeared in several shops. It was a figure of a smiling Martin Luther, holding an apple in one hand and a shovel in the other. The trinket draws its inspiration from a quote, probably falsely attributed to Luther: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Although Luther likely never said this, it sounds like something he would say. Luther never concerned himself very much with the end of this world. He was certain as a Christian disciple who believed in Jesus, he was safe in the hands of Christ, no matter what might happen in this world. (Luther was also fond of trees, although it was usually Katy, his wife, who took care of the planting and the farming.) 

More importantly, these words attributed to Luther could serve well as a summary of what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel lesson, Mark 13:1-13

As you know, many people get hung up on questions about when the world will end and how we’ll know that it’s about to happen. Today, Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, tells us, “Don’t give any of that a thought. Just keep trusting in Me and focus on what I am calling You to do.” 

In other words, even if you and I knew that Jesus was returning to close the book on the life of this dying, sin-riddled world today or a half-hour from now, we should, each of us, in our own ways, keep at the life and calling of a disciple of Jesus.

Let’s consider exactly how Jesus makes that point and what it means for how we live today by looking at our lesson, starting at verse 1. “As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’”  

Many ancient accounts say that the not-yet-then-completed temple was one of the most beautiful and imposing buildings in the world. But Jesus was unimpressed. Verse 2: “‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’” 

In Old Testament times, you'll remember, people in the city of Babel decided that they would build a gigantic skyscraper to “make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). Of course, people still do that kind of thing, building monuments to their egos, individual and corporate. (I think of all the stadia with the names of one corporation or another splattered across them.)

Even congregations do this, erecting elaborate buildings designed to wow and impress people with just how wonderful their church is even as they forget altogether what a church is, a fellowship of disciples of Jesus built on Word and sacrament, and forgetting that buildings are just tools churches can use to pursue their mission of being and making disciples. 

When buildings or busy-work or happy hours become the end-alls and be-alls of a congregation’s life, the mission of the church--the reason for the building--gets forgotten. I’m glad to be part of a congregation that hasn’t forgotten its mission!

Jesus tells the disciples: “Take a good look at this place. One day it will be rubble.” In 70 AD, when the Romans violently suppressed an armed rebellion by the Judeans, the temple would be smashed to bits. The second temple built by Herod was little more than a monument designed to impress and win over the people over whom he illegitimately ruled. 

The apostle Peter, who was with Jesus when He spoke His prophecy about the temple, later told the first-century churches in Asia Minor, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). I can’t help thinking that Peter may have been remembering this very moment in the temple when he cited those words.

Verses 3 and 4: “As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?’” 

Four of the apostles approach Jesus on the QT. They probably had been disturbed by Jesus’ prophecy of a destroyed temple. So they ask: (1) When will this happen? (2) What will be signs that it’s about to happen? The apostle Paul would later say that “Jews demand signs” (1 Corinthians 1:22). He clearly knew his own people. 

But it’s interesting to note that while Jesus tells the apostles the signs, He doesn’t tell them when things will happen. There’s a good reason for that...and we’ll talk about that in a moment. But for now, I want to make sure you keep listening; so, I’m going to leave you in suspense.

Verse 5: “Jesus said to them: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.” 

In the two-thousand years since Jesus died and rose, there have been many fake messiahs and false gospels. Jesus says that we have to watch out for the deceivers, lest they waste our time in this life and rob us of the life to come because we’ve placed our trust in someone or something other than in the God revealed to all of us in Jesus.

During my quiet time a few days ago, I was struck by Jesus’ words in John 10:5. He says, “...they [His sheep, His disciples] will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” The charlatans of this life--the devil, the world, and our sinful selves--will always try to sell us on false gospels:

  • “Follow your heart,” says one false gospel. 
  • “Follow your mind,” says another. 
  • “Follow your desire,” yet another. 
  • “Get what you want,” one tells us. 
  • “Work hard to be worthy of God’s love,” says another. 

But these are all worldly lies and not the gospel. And those who put their trust in Jesus, who know Him and seek to follow Him each day, will never follow a false gospel or a stranger who pushes a false gospel.

Of course, picking Jesus’ voice out from all the noise of the world isn’t always an easy proposition. The false gospels of this world can twist or drown out the call of Jesus to humbly follow Him if we don’t daily acclimate ourselves to listening for His voice

That’s why a daily quiet time of reading God’s Word, seeking His will for us, praying in repentance, dying to ourselves so that we can rise anew each day as God’s children, and soaking up the grace God makes available to us through Jesus is so important

As Luther did say, “We need to hear the gospel everyday because we forget it everyday.”

Jesus goes on to describe the signs of the end: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” 

The signs Jesus describes were going on then; they’re going on today. Jesus may as well have said, “When you see the sinful, dying world hurtling along just as it always has, take it as a sign that the end is near. The new creation I will bring in its fullness when I return is in labor pains until then.”

Jesus goes on to say that the days before His return will also be filled with persecution and arrest for those who dare to follow Him. There has never been a time in the two-thousand years since Jesus spoke these words that the Church hasn’t faced persecution somewhere in the world. You and I are fortunate that we don’t face persecution in the United States, although some people ridicule faith in Christ. 

As the apostle Peter also wrote to the churches in Asia Minor, then under the threat of persecution: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) For disciples of Jesus, persecution is SOP, standard operating procedure.

For human beings not yet experiencing the love and grace of God received through faith in Jesus Christ, the entire idea of letting anyone be the Lord of their lives, even the God Who created them and took on flesh and died and rose for them, that idea is repulsive. Many call faithful submission to Jesus weak. They call trusting faith imbecilic. 

All human beings are born in sin and so, we’d rather be our own gods. When Christians, by their lives, words, and deeds remind folks of human sin and the need we all have of the forgiveness and new life that only comes to us through surrender to Jesus, we will not be universally popular

And sometimes, we will face outright persecution, even death, for proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. This too is merely a sign that we’re living in a world that’s going to die.

But it should also remind us of something else. Verse 13: “Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” 

You can breathe now. I’ve ended the suspense. We’re not to worry about when the end will come or what the signs will be

Through Christ, we have been saved from all the world’s thrashing, hating, self-glorification, and death. Our call is simply to stand firm with Jesus

As Jesus says elsewhere, “...whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:26). That’s a promise that can sustain us through all circumstances!

I once heard a speaker ask, “What would you do if you knew you could never fail?” Jesus’ words to us today pose a different question: “How will you live knowing that in Jesus Christ, you will never die?” 

Well, for one thing, you’ll probably be bolder in following Jesus and telling others about the new life He gives to those who believe in Him. 

You’ll be less spooked and fearful of the world. Every time you read a bad headline, you can say, “There’s the world being the world again.” 

And you may have--I hope that we all will have--a greater sense of urgency about the mission of Christ’s Church, the mission of this church: to be and to make disciples who... 

  • reach up in worship, praise, and awe for God; 
  • reach in to grow together and lovingly, prayerfully support one another in our life with Christ; and
  • reach out to make new disciples for Jesus. 

We don’t know when Jesus will return. We don’t know when our lives on this earth will end. 

Until either or both of those events occur, keep planting your apple trees, living your life in the light of God’s love for you. 

Keep trusting Jesus! Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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