Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sermon on Mark 13:33-37

In the name of Jesus, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading. As we begin this new season of Advent, we begin a new year in the church. A new cycle in the ongoing remembrance of Jesus Christ’s life and His working for our salvation. Advent is when we remember Jesus’ coming for us, in the past, present, and future. As the church moves toward Christmas, we call to mind Christ’s first coming to us in the manger—to enter humanity on our behalf, to redeem us from sin. We also call to mind the daily, weekly coming of Christ to us in His Word, and in His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. And finally, we call to mind the future second coming of Christ to us, on that Last Day we call judgment day. The Day when Christ will usher in a new heavens and a new earth by His Almighty power.

We’ve been jolted to alertness by the signs of the end. Like an unexpected shock we’ve been awakened by the images of horror on the daily news. Destruction rains down on the world from all sides, as the world continues its slow decay in sin. The creaking bones of creation groan with the pains of childbirth, as this old creation is dying away with its corruption and evil. Making way for something new. But we don’t always perceive the coming of the new. Still oppressed by sin, both ours and that of all humanity, we are pressed in on all sides by wars and rumors of wars, terrorism, and crime. Still bound to this earthly flesh, we suffer the effects of sin as natural disasters and the onset of aging, disease, or death tries to choke out our hope.

Sometimes, when we look at the state of the world around us, we want to shout out like the prophet Isaiah did, saying “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence!” We long to see the Lord’s coming, to release us from this decay and suffering. Sometimes we wish that He would come thundering down, the heavens split open, as rocks and mountains quake from His glory and might. Yes, to make His name known to His enemies, so that the nations would tremble at His presence. To see God acting in His unrestrained glory and power, to bring us to relief from this groaning, dying creation. And it’s not a bad thing to wish for this coming. Isaiah did, long before Christ first came, not in power and glory, but in humility and weakness, born in a humble straw bed. Born to swallow up sin in His body and to put sin to death on the cross, once for all. Born to rise up from death that we might have life.

But Christ will come again, and this time it will be like Isaiah predicted—the heavens rent open, Christ descending from the heavens in the plain sight of all humanity. The powers of the heavens will be shaken, and the Son of Man will come in power and great glory (Luke 21:26-27). But when shall we see His second coming? Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading that we do not know when the appointed time is. So what does that mean for us, who are still waiting for the relief of His coming? Well, for starters, it means that we should be aware of the signs of His coming. As I mentioned earlier, most of us have been jolted awake by these signs, especially in the past few years.

There seems to be an increasing amount of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and general lawlessness. Perhaps these things seem distant from us here in the Midwest, in Detroit, Michigan. But it’s not just the dramatic global events that are signs of the end; persecution and hatred of the Gospel are also warning signs Christians have faced through the ages, and this can strike anywhere, even within our own families. Jesus said that even the members of one’s family could become their enemies on account of the Gospel. And if we have been hearing God’s Word and His preaching, we should recognize all these as signs that the end is near. But these signs are not new. They have always been present from one generation to the next in varying degrees. So we also need to watch that we do not become lulled into forgetfulness or complacency while all these signs circle us constantly.

But it is also important that we do not become obsessed with these signs of the end. The point is not the signs themselves, or when the exact time will be…but rather the signs remind us that this world is and always has been dying…in preparation for something new. But it is possible for us to become so focused on the collapsing world around us that we lose sight of the promised hope of Jesus Christ—a promise that will not fail us. For in Christ’s coming is the coming of that new creation, the new heavens and new earth.

Indeed, sometimes we do see Christians who get wrapped up in the warning signs of the end. They try to read current events into the book of Revelation or other prophetic books, like some cryptic timeline, and lose sight of Christ’s saving work in the process. Certainly the current events are signs of the end that have been prophesied in Revelation and other books. But it is foolish for us to try to predict or guess when Christ will actually return, as if we could catalog these signs like an end-times checklist, “Now X, then Y, and Z…and Jesus will return!” No, the hour of His coming must remain unknown to us all. Christ says it could be anytime, “in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.”

Though this expression isn’t familiar to our ears, it would have been for Jesus’ first century hearers. Evening, midnight, the rooster crow, and dawn were the times when each of the four Roman night watches ended, at 9, 12, 3, and 6 o’clock. But the significance for us is that Jesus calls us to be ready for His coming at any time. It is also significant that He pictures His coming at night, which shows that the second coming will be when we least expect it. Jesus said that His coming will be sudden, like the days of Noah, when people were eating and drinking and marrying. Think of times when His coming would be completely unexpected: when things seem peaceful or at rest, like at Thanksgiving dinner, or during a young couple’s wedding. But Jesus’ sudden and unexpected coming will not be a fearful thing for those who are watchful and alert in faith, but only for those who are spiritually slumbering. Rather, for us it will be the kind of sudden and unexpected joy like when a long separated friend returns home to his loved ones, or when a parent first hears the news that they are going to be a grandparent!

Spiritually, it already appears that it is now night, as the darkness of the world and sin try to cloud out the Truth. As I said before, we can fall into the danger of dwelling on the darkness and grim signs of death around us in the world, if we let them obscure our faith in Christ. It is possible for us to succumb to despair, and lose sight of our hope, or become forgetful of Christ’s promised return. But the Holy Spirit tells us “you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thess. 5:4-5).

Since we are all children of light, therefore, we should be watchful and alert, so that the day of the Lord will not “surprise [us] like a thief.” This watchfulness is what the Lord calls His servants to in the Gospel reading. He uses an illustration of a man who goes away on a journey, leaving His servants in charge of their own work. And He specially instructs the doorkeeper to stay awake and be watchful, but He also extends this instruction to all people, that they be watchful. For we do not want to be caught sleeping when the Lord returns to His house. So how do we as Christians remain watchful, and not be caught sleeping?

From St. Paul’s letters, we learn that being watchful includes casting off the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light (Rom. 13:11-12); praying at all times for all the saints and for pastors to boldly proclaim the mystery of the gospel (Eph. 6:18-19); and to be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation (1 Thess. 5:6-8). So what does being alert and watchful have to do with wearing all this spiritual armor, and being in constant prayer? Are we going into battle or something? Yes! We are constantly engaged in spiritual battle, and we need the armor of light for protection. For we are to be watchful and alert especially of our adversary the devil, who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Every day that we wake, we face new attacks of temptation. Not even the home is a safe haven from temptation, as the Internet and the television can be like pipelines of junk pouring right into our homes if only we open the floodgates.

In a world filled with darkness, Satan is always prowling, seeking to pounce on a slumbering Christian, or a Christian who is not dressed in their spiritual armor of faith, love, and hope. So we are easy targets for Satan when we drift away or ignore God’s Word and Sacraments, which arm us for the fight by creating our faith, building up our love, and sustaining our hope. And prayer! Every Christian should constantly be about prayer, as St. Paul tells us—praying for all the saints and also for the pastors, who need to boldly speak God’s Word. For we are all in this battle together, keeping watch for Satan, building each other up by prayer.

It is seriously difficult for us as Christians to always maintain this watchfulness. Like when Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, and told them to watch and pray. Jesus told Peter to “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mk. 14:37-38). Like the disciples, we too have a willing spirit, but our flesh is weak. We are told to be watchful and alert, but how easily we fall asleep. We are told to pray constantly so that we do not fall into temptation, but how easily does our prayer-life disintegrate, as other priorities push prayer out of the way? All too often, we are not the watchful servants that Jesus calls for, but instead we fall into spiritual slumber.

But thanks be to God that Jesus forgives our sinful spiritual slumber, and constantly calls us to watchfulness in faith! When Jesus came to earth He was ever-watchful for temptation and constantly alert to Satan’s attacks—and thanks be to God He resisted them all! And Jesus lived a life of constant prayer, for His disciples and His followers. Jesus prayed for all believers, that they would have eternal life by believing in Him, and that the Father would guard and keep them in His Name (John 17). In praying this, Jesus did not ask that we be taken out of the world, but rather that we be protected from the evil one—Satan (John 17:15). So that when we feel besieged by the world, and assaulted by the dark images of death and decay in these latter days, that we would not lose hope, and that Satan would not harm us. For God wakes us through His Word from our spiritual slumber, and calls us to faith in Christ.

For Christ our Lord has died on the cross to take away death’s sting, by destroying sin. And He has risen and ascended to prepare the kingdom of heaven for us and all believers in Him. For by His first coming to die on the cross, Jesus has made possible His second coming, to reign in glory. And He will take us home to the Father’s side, where all the darkness and suffering of this world will be a forgotten memory, as we dwell in eternal blessedness. And at that second coming, Christ will indeed come down as the heavens are rent open, and the mountains will quake at His presence, just as Isaiah foretold. And we will all see Him of whom Isaiah said: “No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for Him.” God surely does act for those who wait for Him, and for His saving action, we watch and wait and pray. And for we who believe, His coming will be one of joyful surprise. Amen.

The peace which passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

2005 Student Advent Devotional

For anyone that is interested, the 3rd and 4th year students of Concordia Theological Seminary Fort Wayne have written a Student Advent Devotional booklet with daily readings, prayers, and devotions for this coming season of Advent. If you are interested in reading them for your Advent devotions, they are available in PDF format at the CTSFW website. Look for the link in the upper left hand corner titled "2005 Advent Devotions" or here is the direct link. I hope they are a blessing to you this Advent!

P.S. There is an error that we are working to correct, a reduplication of the Dec. 2nd and 24th devotion.

****Updated 11-29-05, the error on Dec. 2nd is corrected.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Consistent or not?

I came across this article about a recent letter that the 65 bishops of the ELCA sent to Congress regarding proposed budget cuts. Here is the relevant portion:

"For example, all 65 synod bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have signed a letter to members of Congress vehemently opposing the proposed budget cuts, saying in part, "The Biblical record is clear. The scriptural witness on which our faith tradition stands speaks dramatically to God's concern for and solidarity with the poor and oppressed communities while speaking firmly in opposition to governments whose policies place narrow economic interests driven by greed above the common good.""

Now what I find peculiar about this is how willingly and in fact vehemently the bishops of the ELCA will take a stand on this political issue and claim that The Biblical record is clear on this matter. Does anything strike you as odd about this? I certainly agree with what they say about God's concern for and solidarity with the poor, and that God speaks firmly against tyrannical governments. No problem there. But what I find odd about this is that the ELCA is willing to say the Biblical record is clear. What about the clarity of the Biblical record on homosexuality or gay marriage? What about the clarity of the Biblical record on women taking positions of authority in the church (i.e. pastors)? And there are certainly other things where the ELCA has departed from the clear Biblical record, suggesting or even expressly stating that the Biblical record is in fact not clear on these matters. How can the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America step to the plate so quickly on social/political issues, and hold up the Scriptures as authoritative and clear, and then on doctrinal and ethical issues, the Biblical record is somehow obscure or open to our reinterpretation? You can't have it both ways, in my opinion.

I'm not addressing the concern of the budget cuts here, as I'm not well enough informed of the situation, or whether it actually qualifies as being an example of the tyranny of government and the oppression of the poor. I just want to point out the inconsistency of using the Scripture as your 'weapon' only when it suits your own purposes. If we are to submit as Christians to the Bible as the inspired and authoritative Word of God, then we must hear what it says concerning all matters, not only those of our interest.