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Sunday, November 18, 2012

How Should We Live?

We may sometimes feel surrounded by all the signs of the end times Jesus gives us, but we live trusting our access to the Triune God through the work of the Son, holding onto our hope of forgiveness, and encouraging one another to love.  

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost 33, year B; texts: Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

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

There’s a lot of interest in the end of the world these days.  People see wars and famines, natural disasters, shifts in global climate, and think the end must be near.  As a result, many Christians are buying into a deadly theology of destruction, Christian triumphalism and exclusion, such as that portrayed in the “Left Behind” series, as a way of dealing with fears the end times can inspire.  Some of this reaches into our political life, where these Christians believe that the end times demand that our government become an instrument of God’s plan, even if that means inciting war in the Middle East to bring about the end times, which makes the tension in this week’s news from Israel all the more concerning if such a political view would ever hold sway here.  However, a brief overview of history indicates that throughout the history of the Christian church, such fears and concerns are not a new thing.  Generation after generation seems to see their times as reflecting the approach of the end of the world.  Both Martin Luther and the Apostle Paul believed their own generation might see the end.

That all should give us a little perspective as we consider Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel.  It’s part of a large chapter of warnings and visions of the end times.  The perspective we find comes from two directions.  First, since virtually every generation has felt the anxiety ours seems to feel, perhaps we can set our fears aside a bit: we may be wrong, too.  And second, Jesus consistently asks just one thing of us whenever he talks of the end times: not that we anticipate the end and try to predict it, but simply that we live lives that are always ready.  So even if you’re someone who isn’t terribly anxious about the end times, there is still a call to live and be as a disciple that these readings give to us all.

What’s helpful about the reading from the letter to the Hebrews today is that this section not only gives us a way to calm our fears but also a very simple plan for living as “the Day approaches,” as the letter says.  In fact, the writer to the Hebrews essentially gives us the outline for an old-fashioned three point sermon, offering three simple encouragements for living in such times, regardless of when the end comes.

The three points are built on one of the key arguments of this letter: that Jesus has made a sacrifice once and for all that brings God’s people to perfection, that saves us, and that gives us forgiveness.  Jesus throughout this letter is portrayed as the great high priest, the one who brings us permanently into God’s presence.  There is no longer need for Temple sacrifice, atoning sacrifice, or any sacrifice anymore, because Jesus, our great high priest, in his death and resurrection has made all right with God.  In Jesus, as the writer quotes today, the prophecies of Jeremiah are fulfilled, that God will make a new covenant, a new promise with us, a covenant of forgiveness written on our hearts, a covenant of divine forgetfulness where God remembers our sins no more.

And then the writer says, “since.”  “Therefore, my friends, since” we have this confidence because of Jesus, we can do three things.  And that’s our context today.

First, let us approach God with a true heart and full assurance of faith, our writer says.

Because Jesus has opened the door for us to God, we can walk through it.  We don’t need a high priest to do this for us anymore, because the Son of God has opened this access for all.  So we can confidently approach God in prayer, in life, in all things.

And as we consider whether we might be in the end times, this is good news.  There is now nothing between us and God.  I think we sometimes take this for granted.  But it’s a tremendous gift.

Consider that no matter what happens in your life, in this world, nothing can separate you from God’s love in Jesus, as Paul says in Romans.  Not even wars, or natural disasters, or human evil, or anything that is terrifying.  Not even our own sinfulness.  We now have access to God.  I remember as a child that the thing I needed to know about my parents was not that they could fix everything that happened or could happen.  What I needed to know was that they were there for me, that I could come to them if I was in need.  This is the gift Jesus gives us, that God will always be open to us.

We can pray, knowing that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit hear us and promise to be with us always.  We come here in worship knowing that the way to God is open to us, that here in this place we will be filled with the presence and grace of almighty God because of what the Son of God has done.

So sisters and brothers, since we have this access to God, let us indeed approach God with a true heart and full assurance of faith.

Second, let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the one who has promised is faithful, our writer says.

You see, not only can we approach the Triune God, we know that God will never abandon us.  Our hope is based on this work of Jesus, that we are made clean and forgiven and have life with God now and in the world to come.  So we can approach God not only because Jesus has opened the way, but we also know what our reception will be.  We know we will be welcomed into loving arms every time.

It’s our hope and promise – a promise made by a faithful God – that we belong to God forever.  As the writer to Hebrews reminds us today, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is no longer any offering for sin.  God will remember our sins no more, and that is assured, a promise.

And no matter how difficult the world gets, no matter if we think it’s the end of all times or not, God will be faithful to this promise.  We don’t have to worry that the door will be closed, or that anything can take us away from our access to God in Jesus.  Our trust is in a faithful God who keeps promises.  And a God who knows all we’ve done and still claims us as beloved, as forgiven, as restored children.

So sisters and brothers, since we have this access to God, approaching God with faith let us hold fast to this confession of our hope, because God will always be faithful.

And third, living in these first two ways, let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, the writer says.

This, then, becomes the center of our life: living connected to God, holding fast to hope, we provoke, irritate, exhort, encourage each other to loving actions.

The legend is that when Luther was asked what he’d do if he knew the world was ending tomorrow, he said he’d plant a tree.  Whether he really said that or not, that would be living as Hebrews suggests.  No matter what time is left, we live encouraging each other and ourselves to be loving.  We live doing good for the sake of God’s ministry to the world.  There is nothing else we need do, or are called to do.

This is consistent with the rest of the message of the Bible, that love of God and love of neighbor are the shape and focus of our lives.  And if it does happen to be the end – as the Day approaches, as Hebrews says, or even just the end of our individual lives – what does it matter?  We’ve got access to God, we’re forgiven by God, and now we’ve got plenty of good to do, plenty of God’s love to share.

We’re commissioned in our baptism to be agents of God’s love in the world.  To give all this Good News we’re talking about, all this perspective, to the rest of the world, so that the “us” we’ve been talking about now includes everyone.  And we can now help each other, remind each other, provoke each other to such love, such good in the world.

So sisters and brothers, since we have this access to God, approaching God with faith, holding fast to our hope, let us indeed consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.

Here’s the truth: our Lord Jesus teaches us we need not be afraid, whether we’re near the end or not.

We have access to God in Jesus, we can approach God with confidence, holding fast to the hope of God’s love, and encourage each other to love and good deeds.  This is a way of life to live that gives us rich, abundant life.  We belong to a God who will be with us in this life and in the next.

What more do we need to know?  Well, just this, our writer says: it is in this place where God strengthens and fills us as we gather together.  So the way the writer says we encourage and provoke each other is by not neglecting to meet together in this place, this place where we are filled with God’s Word and Meal, and where we support each other.

That’s why we gather here week after week: it is here we are fed, strengthened, empowered, forgiven, loved, encouraged, by God and by each other.  That’s why it is fundamental to our life here that we welcome the stranger and sojourner here, and invite them into our worship life, our gathering, that they might also have assurance and hope.  Here is our life and hope, together, and here we are fed and sent to the rest of the world, until that day when our Lord does return.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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