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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sermon from November 14, 2010

“Unwearied Confidence”
Ordinary Time 33 C + Texts: Luke 21:5-19; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I need to confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I find the prevalence of apocalyptic literature in modern Christianity tiresome. Certainly millions of dollars have been made on book series like “Left Behind” and movies of the same ilk, and clearly they’re touching a nerve of anxiety in our culture about where this world is heading. But I notice that connected to this obsession with the end times is some pretty unhealthy theology and preaching, including increased judgmentalism and hateful speech toward those who are deemed “not saved,” jingoistic attitudes toward those of other faith convictions, and almost an eagerness to talk about Armageddon and the end of all things. This kind of focus usually leads to fear and anxiety, which tends to cause bad decisions and unfaithful actions like these.

It’s not that I don’t understand a little anxiety about the times in which we live. This world does look in particularly bad shape, and with war, terrorism, global economic difficulties, widespread hunger and disease, well, we could be forgiven for thinking it was all coming to an end soon. Until we read the apostle Paul, or Martin Luther, or Jesus himself, and we see that they thought the same thing about their times. As did any number of people of faith over the centuries who believed that they saw in their time and circumstance all the signs that the world was coming to an end. It seems it’s a common human tendency.

So as we stand before God today, smacked by winter yesterday and clearly seeing in the weather the mood of the age, we hear apocalyptic warnings in God’s Word. And we think, “here we go again.” The thing is, if you listened carefully to Jesus today, the message is very different from some of today’s purveyors of apocalyptic. Instead of calling for fear, Jesus invites trust. He seems to be saying to us today, “Yes, it’s going to get bad around here. But don’t worry – it’s all good. You’ll be fine.” And that’s a message that sounds like it’s worth hearing.

The way Jesus is talking, apocalyptic warnings might actually serve a helpful purpose of focusing us on what really matters.

This is kind of a comic scene in the Gospel today – the disciples are the rubes in the big city, and they crane their necks up at the Temple and ooh and ahh. “Isn’t it big? Isn’t it beautiful? Look how solid it is!” Once more these followers stand in for us. Because that’s our tendency, to put our trust in things we do, things we make, things that seem permanent. These aren’t necessarily bad things – but if we trust in our own ability to make our future, to connect with God, to do all that is necessary, we’re building on sand. Or as Psalm 127 reminds us, unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain whatever we do.

So, for example, think of this building, this house of faith. Beautifully designed, carefully planned, lovingly taken care of for 75-plus years. It would be easy to rely on this place, and all we do here, all we are here, and to do what the disciples did and say, “We’ve got it together here, and we’re solid. We’ve got it all taken care of. Good to go.” Because that’s our tendency, isn’t it – to trust in ourselves? We’re all that way – it’s easy to think it all comes down to us to secure our future. But this building and all we have could be gone in a moment, as people around the world constantly discover. That magnificent Temple would be destroyed in only 40 years.

Apocalyptic speech reminds us of an important thing – all flesh is grass, all of this can go in a heartbeat, and we would be wise not to rely on our own doing of anything. But these warnings are not intended to cause anxiety and fear, or to lead to destructive theologies or behaviors. We know this from Jesus.

Because he’s almost calm as he describes what is to come for these believers. When you hear of wars and insurrections, he says, don’t be terrified of them. Yes, nations and kingdoms will fight, earthquakes, famines, and plagues will be all over, and dreadful portents. But don’t be afraid. And yes, even before this, you’re going to be arrested, and thrown in prison, and you’ll have a chance to testify. But don’t plan out your speech – I’ll give you all you need at that time. And yes, you’re going to be betrayed even by family and friends, even hated. But not a hair on your head will perish. By endurance you will gain your souls.

Isn’t that interesting? Instead of fanning the flames of anxiety, fear, hatred, as we often see today, Jesus just matter of factly speaks of the end times, and then invites us not to fear, not to worry about what to say, and not even to be worried about being rejected by those who love us. As always, he invites us to a relationship of trust with him, and so with God. That even though, as we sang on Reformation Day, the earth shakes and mountains fall into the sea we will not be afraid. We’re to be realistic about what’s happening, so that we can learn to live in trust and faith in God instead of ourselves, and to live in trust and faith instead of fear and anxiety.

Which leaves only one more question: what are we supposed to be doing in the meantime?

That seems to be key to all of this. How should we then live, given what we now know?

Or as the Prayer of the Day asks today, that “with God as ruler and guide we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.”

I’ve already described one way that seems popular: circle the wagons, keep the outsiders away, don’t worry about the earth because it’s going to be destroyed anyway, and make sure you’re one of the insiders. Given that goes against everything Jesus taught about how we were to follow him, I think we can safely move on.

Another option is the one Paul faces in Thessalonica. There the attitude among some of the believers was that if the Day of the Lord was imminent, why should they work at all? So they were mooching off of others, relying on others for a living, because why be involved in temporary things? Paul puts the kibosh on that pretty quickly, so that’s apparently not an option we can use, attractive as it might might seem at times.

But if we look at Jesus’ parables of the end times, we find a third way, and one that not only has integrity as disciples, but is deeply rooted in the faith and trust we’re invited to seek. Again and again Jesus tells stories where the master returns at a surprising time and the ones who are honored are the ones who are at work when the master comes home. In other words, again and again Jesus says – just be about what you are called to do. Then, when I come, when it all ends, you’ll be doing what needs doing.

Because of these parables, I’ve realized that I have absolutely zero interest in knowing when the world will end – tomorrow, a thousand years from now, I couldn’t care less. Because there’s a lot of work God needs to be done, and we’re the ones to do it.

People are hungry today – so even if it’s all over tomorrow, they need to be fed now.
People are broken and hurting today – so even if it’s all over tomorrow, they need to know about God’s love and grace now.

People are dying, physically, spiritually, emotionally, today – so even if we’re all going tomorrow, they need to know about God’s gift of life now.

People are sick, and in prison, and strangers, and thirsty, and homeless today – and even if the King returns tomorrow in the way of Matthew 25, they are Christ to us right now. And we are Christ to them. And things need to be and can be done.

So it’s a good thing as we end this Church Year that we are focused these two weeks on what we are called to do here to take care of what needs taking care of. We’ll be making pledges to each other today to the ministry God has called us to do here. Because there are needs, and we have God-given resources, and we can do something about that, in God’s name.

There are children in India who need care and God’s love – and through our brothers and sisters at Bethania, we can do something about that.

There are partner ministries throughout the ELCA which are struggling for funds and are doing vital work for all sorts of people in need of the Gospel of grace – and through our tithes and offerings we can do something about that.

There are hungry folks at Our Savior’s shelter, and people from here are doing something about that tonight, and we can help.

And there is ministry here in this place that needs doing next year, vital work of bringing the Gospel to this place in our worship, in our neighborhood ministries, in our teaching and serving and working and caring – and through our gifts we can do something about that.

Stewardship is all about being good stewards – we’ve been given great resources which belong to our God, and we’re to care for them as best we can. So while we know this all won’t last, in the meantime we’ve got things to do and we want to be about doing them. That’s why we pledge to each other what we will do – so we’re committed together to this work.

And next Sunday will be a celebration of opportunities for service in our ministry – willing hearts, hands, feet, and voices are needed in so many ministries here. So we look through a brochure, and we check boxes for what we feel we can help with, because we know that God needs us to be about our work while we wait for the fulfillment of all things – and this is a way we can organize and connect people’s gifts with particular ministries here. Because there are lots of things that need doing to bring the Gospel in this place, and we all can do something about that.

It can get tiring, all this living under the shadow of what might be in the future, and doing what needs doing. So Paul today invites us not to be weary in doing what is right. It is the grace of God which fills us in this place that helps remove our weariness, strengthens our trust and faith, and sends us out again to serve.

Yes, the world seems to be a frightening place at times. It might even get worse. But our Lord, risen from the dead, tells us we don’t need to be afraid.

And that’s pretty great news. We’re in God’s hands and cannot be harmed, even if it all comes down. We’re in God’s grace and forgiveness, and that covers all we have done or haven’t done which has hindered God’s work in the world. We are in God’s love, and that’s what sends us out in love.

And now that we know that – let’s figure out what each of us can do to be of service to our God here, even while we wait the fulfillment of all things with trust and hope.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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