This week I switched pulpits with Intern Sarah from Zion Lutheran here in Superior. Here’s the message I gave at Zion.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.’
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about two brothers who were terrible trouble makers. They were always breaking things, stealing things, lying, and making all kinds of general trouble. The parents had tried everything to get the boys to change, to no avail. Finally, out of options, they asked their pastor if he could help. He said he would talk to the boys, but only one at a time. The parents dropped off the youngest and went home, promising to return to get him soon. The boy sat in a chair across from the pastor’s desk and they just looked at each other. Finally, the pastor said, “Where is God?” The boy just sat there and didn’t answer. The pastor began to look stern and loudly said, “Where is God?” The little boy shifted in his seat, but still didn’t answer. The pastor was starting to get angry at the boy’s refusal to converse and practically shouted, “WHERE IS GOD?!” To the pastor’s surprise, the little boy jumped up out of his chair and ran out of the office. The boy left the church and ran all the way home, up the stairs and into his brother’s room. He shut the door and panted, “We’re in BIG TROUBLE. God’s missing and they think we did it!”
Knowingly or unknowingly, that pastor sure did put the fear of God in that little boy! Presumably he was trying to get the boy to realize that his awful behavior wasn’t going unnoticed by God so he’d better shape up or else. But the boy didn’t let the pastor’s plan come to fruition before he misinterpreted the pastor’s question to imply he and his brother had somehow stolen God. No, the boy in all his wickedness assumed one more authority figure was accusing him of yet another wicked behavior. Poor kid, so misunderstood! Well, certainly misguided if not misunderstood. He certainly needed a little redirection in his life, both he and his brother, and perhaps a little “fear of God” was exactly what he needed to get it.
Every year we come to the end of the liturgical year and our readings naturally direct us to the “end times” passages in scripture. In a week, we’ll be celebrating the reign of Christ as we head into another advent and Christmas seasons. We will celebrate the lordship of Christ over our lives, how he leads us through and protects us from the evils of this world. He is very much our Lord, ruling over all our thoughts and actions. We answer to Christ in how we think and act. If Christ would disapprove, we definitely ought not think or do it! But before usher in the new liturgical year, we have to properly close out the current liturgical year. Our “end times” passages are logical passages to reflect on this morning.
That said, they are also fearful and cautionary passages, perhaps unnecessarily instilling the fear of God in us the same way that pastor unnecessarily instilled it in that little boy. In our passage from Malachi, we hear the prophet refer to a coming day that’s “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.” Some of us will be so consumed by the burning heat that both our “roots and branches” will be consumed too…maybe even our children and loved ones too! In our passage from Thessalonians, Paul tells us that some of us will starve in our presumed idleness. And in our passage from Luke, we hear how the temple will be destroyed, “not one stone will be left upon another.” As if the destruction of the bedrock of our faith weren’t enough, we will be overrun by wars and insurrections, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” Talk about fear-inducing end times! Arrested and persecuted?! What is going on here, lectionary creators?! Surely there’s a better way to close out the year that doesn’t include such terrifying passages!
Well, as terrifying as these passages may be, they do serve an important and necessary purpose besides simply providing closure to the lectionary year. Yes, they prepare us for the radical change that comes with the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. With Jesus comes justice, radical justice, righteous justice! The justice that we sang about in our psalm for today: “the Lord will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” With Jesus comes justice for all people! ALL are redeemed and saved through Jesus! There is no other justice that is so all-inclusive, so efficient, so powerful! And in order to fully receive it, we must prepare ourselves to receive it. We must get rid of our arrogance and our evil ways, our idleness, our violence, our selfishness. In short, we have to change in a big way! There’s a new day coming whether we like it or not! There’s a new day coming that won’t allow for arrogance or evil or idleness or violence or selfishness. Jesus is coming into the world and he’s going to clean house! For some of us, this is terrifying news. For some of us, this is glad news. Our world needs a good cleaning and Jesus is just the guy for the job!
The “fear of God” is exactly what that little boy needed and it’s exactly what our world needs. At the very least, it motivates us to change and we most certainly need to change. Our sinful selves need to die and we need to have the mind and body of Christ. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17) With the coming of Jesus is the coming of a new creation. All the toils and struggles of this year are coming to an end. All our evils, all our sins, they’re all forgiven by our Lord and Savior! There is new life, a new creation, in Christ! We are radically, fundamentally changed by Christ! Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed.” (15:51) The unrighteous may change in death but even the righteous are changed. They are justified and vindicated in Christ.
So I rejoice in the “fear of God” from our readings for today! It is what we need to prepare us for the reign of Christ. Heaven knows we need to change our evil and wicked ways! We need to change and welcome Christ into our lives as our true Lord and Savior. Though we change, Christ’s goodness and mercy never changes as we hear in Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (13:8) For this we give thanks: thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.