Monday, November 15, 2010

Sermon on Luke 21:5-28, for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, "In the Word"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we’re drawing near to the end of the Church Year, and next Sunday will be the Last Sunday of the Church Year. At the end of November, the readings always focus on the end of times and Jesus’ return for judgment and the redemption of the world, just before the Church’s calendar rolls into the season of Advent and Christmas. This continual cycle of the Church Year keeps us watching and waiting with faith and hope, and returns us to the life and times of Jesus and the Church as another year passes and our waiting is renewed. Today we also remember the work of the LWML or Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, and their commitment to continue the work of spreading the Good News until Jesus returns. Their theme for this year, “People of God—in the Word”, is a good reminder of how we are to be ready for the end of times that Jesus describes in our Gospel reading from Luke 21. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

As people of God, we’re to be in His Word by making regular use of His Word—listening to it in worship, reading it in our homes, studying it together with fellow Christians. His Word calls attention to our sins that we can turn away from them, and shows us His forgiveness that we might turn and be saved. His Word is a Lamp to our feet and a Light to our path. So how much more will we need the Lamp of the Word when times of darkness come on the world? How much more necessary will it be for Christians to hear the Word of Christ and pay attention to His warnings? So listen: in the Gospel reading today, someone points out to Jesus how beautiful and impressive the Temple in Jerusalem was. Isn’t it a magnificent place to worship? The beautiful stones and the offerings presented there adorn the Temple with beauty, don’t they, Jesus? Jesus’ reply was not what the person expected. He said all of these stones would be thrown down, and that magnificent Temple laid to rubble. Jesus then gives a lengthy prophecy about what will soon take place, and the events that will follow until His second coming.

As people of God in the Word, we should know and understand what these things mean. First of all, in the section that we read today, Jesus’ prophecy unfolds in three basic stages. First, the destruction of the Temple, second, the destruction of Jerusalem, and finally, the destruction of the world. So that we don’t get lost, it’s important to note that the first two of those things have already happened in the few decades after Jesus spoke these words. So you might ask, “Well, what does that mean for us then, if most of this prophecy is already fulfilled?” It means a great deal for us in knowing that Jesus’ Word is reliable and accurate, and one would do well to pay attention to the warnings He was giving. Several times He repeated the warning for people to flee Jerusalem and not go to the city during those times, because of God’s judgment facing that city. According to the historian Josephus, nearly a million died in Jerusalem when it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Some 35-40 years after Jesus gave these warnings, people saw them dramatically come to pass. Such a dramatic fulfillment of Jesus’ predictions is but one important reason why we should take His Word with the greatest seriousness.

The destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem that Jesus warned about, was something that seemed so terrible to the people, that they would actually think the end of the world had come. The wars and rumors of wars would cause them to be terrified. But Jesus warned them, “Do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” There were many frightening things, but the end of the world had not yet come. Today we sometimes face a similar kind of fear and anxiety about the end of the world. It certainly seems to many that the number of wars and catastrophes seems to be growing greater and more frequent. These certainly are signs of the end times, as Jesus said there would be wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes. In the last 10 years alone, we’ve seen earthquakes and tsunamis that have killed hundreds of thousands in a single blow, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have overshadowed numerous smaller conflicts in unstable 3rd world countries. Many people choose to simply turn off the news, because there is so much “doom and gloom” in the media.

But if we hear the Word of Jesus, we shouldn’t be terrified or afraid at these events. Neither do we need to have a morbid fascination with them, to know every terrible thing that is happening. But as times grow dark, it’s all the more comforting to have the Light of God’s Word to bring us comfort and peace. Apart from knowing God’s Word, it could be easy for a believer to think that things are falling apart or that evil is prevailing over God’s Church. But the message of Jesus, and the message of the book of Revelation that we’re studying in Sunday adult Bible class, is to tell us that God is still in control of all these things, and that God will finally have the victory in the end. Jesus will return in power and great glory at the end, and He’ll come bringing our redemption. So don’t be afraid, but read and watch the signs as confirmations of what Jesus said would take place. Trust His Word as you walk on His path.

Jesus’ warnings about what would precede the destruction of the Temple included strong persecution against the disciples of Jesus, and facing trials and even death. These prophecies shortly came to fulfillment in the book of Acts, when many of the disciples faced intense trials and persecution for proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus. They saw firsthand what Jesus meant about the betrayals of family members, sometimes even leading to their death. It became clear why Jesus had taught that our faith in God needed to be much stronger even than family ties of blood, and why Christians would find a greater tie or bond of fellowship with those who hear the word of God and keep it (Luke 8:19-21; 11:28). . If for some reason our faith in Jesus means rejection by our family, or difficulty or enmity, then there is a closer fellowship and a truer family that we have as brothers and sisters in Christ. So being “People of God—In the Word” gives us what is lost through family ties broken by betrayal or alienation. And what a joy and privilege when our very own family members also share in that fellowship of God. That is something we should fervently pray for.

Jesus promised that if we face trials and persecutions because of our faith, God will give us words of wisdom to respond. This is actually an opportunity to bear witness, Jesus says. God will turn even these difficulties we face into a chance for us to give witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus, and stand up for His Word. When you face challenges that seem insurmountable and unexplainable, when you face hopelessness or despair, it may be precisely in those hardships that God will best use you to show His grace. Where you are emptied of all your power and ability, God’s power is most clearly seen. Jesus said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). It may be precisely in those moments that others are able to see how much we lean and depend on Jesus. For those who faced persecution, Jesus encouraged them that by your endurance you will gain your lives. It reminds us that Jesus said that if a person were to gain the whole world, but lost their soul, they would lose everything. But if we lose our lives, we will save them. Simply put, if we trust in Jesus and have His eternal kingdom, our soul is secure, even if our life should be taken away from us.

After Jesus warned about the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, which were vital warnings for the people of His time, He talked about Jerusalem being trampled underfoot until the “times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” Today we’re living in those times, and indeed many or all of us are Gentiles. We’ve been brought into His grace. But notice that He doesn’t here or elsewhere predict the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which is a popular End Times teaching today. Why not? Because His prediction that the Temple would be destroyed was in part because the Temple had become obsolete. Sacrifices would never need to be offered again after Jesus’ perfect death on the cross became the perfect completion and end of the sacrifices. No more sacrifices need to be made for sin. The only sacrifices that we continue to offer are the living sacrifices of committing our bodies and lives to God’s service, and sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving and good works.

Finally Jesus comes to His predictions about the end of the world. He describes the same physical signs in the earth and the sky, the nations being in distress, and the people fainting with fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world. As we said before, we can recognize these things happening today. Because no one can know the day or the hour, we can’t say for sure when these things will reach their full height. But there definitely is a sense of foreboding or dread among many people, while others are unconcerned. Some people are doomsday prophets who see gloom in every wrong turn of society, while others feel as though all is well and things can always return to normal. Jesus’ closing words show us a way between the two extremes. We’re neither to be scared and fainting with fear, nor are we to be oblivious and carefree to the fact that anything is wrong. Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

When things seem chaotic, and we’re anxious or distressed, let your hearts be calmed as you put yourself in the Word. Let God’s Word speak to you and assure you that in the midst of all this, God remains in control, and that Jesus will come again in a cloud with power and great glory. The Son of Man, risen from the dead, the ruler of heaven and earth, will shatter all the earthly powers and evil that have held creation and humanity in their grip for so long. The oppression, warfare, injustice and cruelty of this world will meet its end. It will be fearful for the wicked and ungodly, but Christ calls believers to straighten up and raise your heads. Don’t hang your heads and cower in fear, but be assured and confident that the redemption of our bodies is drawing near. Jesus is coming to bring us home to eternal peace and rest. He’s coming to usher in the full realization of His kingdom, where evil and injustice and death are destroyed and gone. The redemption that is now ours by faith will become ours by sight.

This is the hope and confidence that we as People of God—in the Word carry, because in this dark times we have a shining light of God’s Word. We’ve seen and known that Jesus’ Word is trustworthy and reliable, and that it calls us away from fear. This helps us understand the remarkable contrast, for example, in the Old Testament reading from Malachi, between how evildoers will react to the coming of the Lord, and how those who fear God’s name will react. For the wicked, the judgment will have come. But for the believers, they will rejoice at seeing Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness rising with healing in His wings. We’ll greet that day like calves leaping from a stall. Like a young calf leaps and bounds with untamed energy and enthusiasm, so will our hearts and bodies be lifted to amazing outbursts of joy. On that day we will greet the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with laughter and singing, and tears of joy, that the warfare is over and our redemption has come. We pray: “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly, Amen.”

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. The Christian Church Year does not follow the calendar year, but begins in early December/late November with the season of Advent, in preparation for Christmas. As we draw to the end of the Church Year, we hear Bible passages that talk about the anticipation of Christ’s return to judge the living and the dead. Reflect on how the yearly cycle of the Church Year draws us into continual remembrance and expectation.

2. In the “end times” that may seem dark and chaotic, how important is it for People of God to be In the Word? Psalm 119:105. How does it give us light in a dark time? Why are Jesus’ words about the end deserving our full attention?

3. One of the most significant dates in Jewish and Christian history is 69/70 AD, when the Temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans. Jesus had dramatically predicted this in Luke 21 & Matt. 24. What might some of the people feared this meant? (Luke 21:9)

4. What signs of the end that Jesus described, do we see today? Why do we not need to be terrified or afraid? What is the over-arching message of the book of Revelation, that speaks about the end times? (hint: who is ultimately in control?)

5. How does the persecution of Christians and their betrayal even by their own family members help to make sense of Jesus’ teachings that faith in Him must come even before family? Lk. 8:19-21; 11:28; Matt. 10:34-39

6. How can hardship or persecution be something that God turns into an opportunity to witness? Luke 21:12-15; 2 Cor. 12:9

7. How should we as Christians react to increasing fear and distress about the end of the world? Luke 21:28. How is our redemption drawing near, and what will come when Jesus returns?

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