[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]
As Lutheran Christians, we follow what’s known as a lectionary, an appointed set of Bible lessons for every Sunday of the Church Year.
We have the freedom to break away from the lectionary, to be sure. But, over the course of a year, it provides a balanced diet of God’s Word for us to grow on as disciples of Jesus.
Oddly enough, the gospel lesson for this Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church Year, is the same one we had for the first Sunday of the Church Year when we kicked off Advent last December 3. Do the scholars and church leaders who put the lectionary think that we’re slow learners?
Well, speaking for myself, that’s probably the case.
But I think that there’s a more important reason for having the same gospel lesson bracket the Church Year.
A lot can happen in our lives over the course of a year. When I consider the twists and turns that our lives--Ann’s and mine--have taken the past twelve months, I have to say that not everything that has happened was expected.
Some things have been good.
Some not so good.
I know the same is even truer for many of you. You’ve experienced joys and successes, grief, loss, good news, encouraging news, bad news.
And now, at the end of one Church Year, on the cusp of a new one, which will start next Sunday, we encounter Jesus at the same place we met Him on the First Sunday of Advent, Mark 13:24-37.
Our lesson falls in the same chapter of Mark that absorbed us last week.
I’m thankful for faithful Christian Bible scholars who agree in upholding the main tenets of our faith. But even they can disagree when it comes to Mark, chapter 13.
It begins, you’ll remember, with Jesus talking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Some scholars say that that’s all that Jesus talks about in Mark 13. Others say that Jesus only talks about the end of this world.
Others say basically, and I agree with them, that Jesus, God incarnate, was capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.
As I read His words in Mark 13, I see Jesus talking about both the destruction of the temple--an event that would happen about four decades after He was crucified and rose from the dead--and the end of the world.
Jesus talks about the end of the temple as a way of telling the early Church, that when those still living four decades later saw the destruction of the temple and all the things He told them that would lead up to it, they would know, if the resurrection wasn't proof enough, to trust what He told them about the coming of His kingdom in its fullness when He returned, bringing an end to this world.
Jesus was also saying that now eternal life and a relationship with God don’t come to human beings through temples made of stone, but solely through faith in Him. In a way, Jesus is here reiterating what He said at the end of last Sunday’s gospel lesson: “...the one who stands firm [in Him] to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13:13)
How firm are you standing today?
Confession: I’m feeling a bit rocky. There are new challenges in our lives. And my dad was hospitalized this past week, coming home with a new friend, an oxygen tank. And there are other things going on in my life, just as there is in yours.
Here’s something God has been working overtime to teach me in the past year: If I try to stand firm in my own power, I will surely fail. I'm learning the truth of Jesus' words, "Without Me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5). And I'm also learning what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, "I can do all [things] through Him Who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).
As surely as I am saved from sin and death, not by my attempts at being a good person, but solely on the basis of what God has done for me in the crucified and risen Jesus and the faith in Jesus the Holy Spirit has given to me, I am also filled with God’s strength for living by this same gracious God revealed in Jesus.
I’m able to face life’s uncertainties, and grow as a person of faith ONLY because of the faith in Jesus that He keeps pumping into my life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I can stand firm in this life and be ready for the end of this life or the end of this world because Jesus Christ has taken up residence in my life, just as He did in Your life the day you were baptized.
Through Isaiah 40:31, God promises: “...those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
This is the essential message Jesus gives to us this morning in the gospel lesson. We’ll focus on the first few verses, then survey the rest of the passage in which Jesus undergirds His message. Take a look at the lesson, Mark 13:24-37. “But in those days [the days Jesus spoke of last week, the days of the world being the world, full of earthquakes, famines, and wars], following that distress, ‘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.’”
Jesus speaks of a world in “distress.” That word in the Greek in which Mark wrote, which is translated as distress is thlipsin. This word originally referred to the pressure people feel when trying to slide their bodies through narrow slits between two rock formations say in a cave. That describes, I think, the pressure we all can feel in the daily uncertainties and challenges of life.
When one of my sisters called to say that my dad had been taken to a hospital ER, I didn’t know what to say. I'd just had dinner with him a few days before and he'd eaten like a horse. I wasn't prepared for him to be so sick. I was taken by surprise and felt the pressure of uncertainty. So much so that my sister asked me at one point, “Are you OK?” Here's the deal: I am OK not because I’m OK, but because of Jesus living in me.
Jesus borrows Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah to talk about the judgment God is going to bring on the unrepentant after the pressure of this uncertain world has been felt by those who trust in Him. The stars will fall from the skies. And, as one commentary puts it, “those great unseen forces of nature by which the universe is now held in equipoise” will be shaken. Jesus says that life in this world can sometimes be confusing and scary. Have you noticed that to be true?
But we have Jesus’ promise that God will never cease to act in and on the lives of those who turn to Him. He won’t let chaos, confusion, or uncertainty have the final say over our lives.
Verse 26: “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.”
Jesus, the Son of Man, will return and bring an end to sin, death, futility, and uncertainty and to finally establish His eternal kingdom to all who have trusted in Him.
“Great,” we may think. “Someday, Jesus will make everything right. What are we supposed to do in the meantime? And what’s He going to do for me until then?”
At this point, the preachers of religion would tell us that now it’s up to us, that we need to get busy, do good, be good. That, in some form, is what every religion of the world will tell you, from Scientology to Islam, from Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness to Hinduism and Shintoism. “Work hard,” they all say, “to please God, to please your ancestors, to please the forces of the world.” And, I have it on the authority of God's Word that all of these preachers of religion are dead wrong!
The preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (and the disciples of Jesus Christ) will tell you, “Stop trying to be good. Let Jesus live in you. Let Him enter your life, trust in Him, and He will work good in and through you.”
“The work of God is this,” says Jesus, “to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29)
Even more radically, the preachers of the Gospel say that even our faith isn’t something we do, even our faith is a gift from God. It’s a simple matter of daily letting Jesus into our lives. “Here I am!” Jesus says in Revelation 3:20, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
Disciples know that when the goodness and grace of God given in Christ go to work in us, God will accomplish things in and through us that we can’t accomplish on our own.
As my colleague Pastor Steve King writes in the latest issue of Connections magazine, “The hammer does not pay back the carpenter by doing its own work, apart from the carpenter's hand; the hammer is used by the carpenter to do his work. In the same way, we are simply a tool in the Carpenter's hand…”
God isn’t looking for us to do good works to pay Him back for the gift of His Son Jesus. And He isn't looking for you to undertake good works to be ready for Jesus' return.
He’s looking for access to our hearts, minds, wills, and lives. He wants to take up residence in our lives to daily re-form us in Christ’s image, to ready us for eternity, and to bring His gospel to the world through us. He wants us to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10). He wants to daily love us into a life of being made ever new by His grace.
This really is the crux of Jesus’ message for us today, a message I need as much at the end of this Church Year as I did at its beginning.
When Jesus tells us to, “Be on guard! Be alert!” and “...keep watch” and “...do not let him find you sleeping” and “Watch,” what He’s really telling us is this: Don’t let the pressures or the pleasures of this world, don’t let anything, prevent you from turning to Him for the strength, the peace, and the life only He can deliver and that we need to live each day.
Don’t let the guilt you may feel for past sins keep you from turning to Him.
Don’t let the pride that may lull you into self-sufficiency keep you from turning to Him.
Don’t let life’s uncertainties frighten you so much that you forget that you can always turn to Him.
Don’t let the disapproval of others keep you from turning to Him.
Whatever the coming twelve months may bring, turn to Jesus, God the Son, the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last.
Moses confessed, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2).
This is the God Who, in Christ, claimed you as His child in your baptism and Who wants to be with you now and forever. Let His love and strength fill you each day. Let Him in and keep watching for Him. He will always show up and He will never let you go. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]