Proper 28B Sermon (1997)

Proper 28 (Nov. 13-19)
Texts: Mark 13:1-8;
Dan 12:1-3; Heb 10:11-25


“The end of the world is upon us! Repent and be saved from the terrible destruction! God will visit us with a Day of Judgment!”

No, don’t worry. You aren’t going to have to suffer through a “fire and brimstone” sermon today. But there’s no doubt such words of doom and destruction are issuing forth from many pulpits these days. And, as we come upon the turning of a whole new Millennium, it’s a favorite time for many people to proclaim such apocalyptic days of judgment. I’m sure that as the year 2000 comes upon us, we will be barraged with all kinds of dire predictions and prophecies, and many people will get swept up with them.

These kinds of prophecies break in on all of us from time to time and get us wondering. We are especially ripe at times like these last few days with the frightening prospect of military action again in Iraq. Our gospel lesson this morning talks about “wars and rumors of war,” so we wonder and perhaps even get a bit anxious. Could this be the beginning of the end?

I dare say that one of the most frequent theological questions I get asked as a pastor, goes something like this: “Pastor, I have a good friend that’s really caught up with this TV evangelist who’s always preaching some sort of doom and destruction, the end of the world. He’s really caught up with it, and keeps showing me all these bible passages to prove his point. What do you think? What can I tell my friend?” Often times, this scene involves a family member instead of a friend, someone worried about their cousin, or child, or even sometimes a spouse.

We Lutherans generally don’t talk about the end of the world much, and folks are sometimes curious about why the difference from others. You could walk into Commitments book store later today, for example, and find numerous books full of doom and gloom on the shelves. Perhaps this morning’s a good time to offer at least a few brief reflections on these matters of the end times.

Lutherans stand somewhere near the middle on the matter of end-times. We emphasize God’s grace and forgiveness rather than a terrible Day of Judgment, and I believe we are right to do so. But we generally shy away from talking in apocalyptic terms at all. Maybe we should dare to speak more of end-times — precisely because we have this message of grace and forgiveness! And that’s what I’d like to do in the next few minutes: find some ways to bring our message of grace to bear on matters of end-times.

Groups like the Jehovah’s Witness and the Seventh Day Adventist love the apocalyptic books of the Bible such as Revelation and the Book of Daniel (from which comes our First Lesson this morning). Martin Luther was quite clear in saying that Christians must emphasize the four gospels and the letters of St. Paul in understanding the importance of the cross of Jesus as the heart of our salvation.

Why is the cross so important when talking about the end-times? Well, how do these doom and gloom preachers approach it? They generally talk about God coming with a terrible Day of Judgment in which all the wicked will be punished and the righteous rewarded. But as Christians we need to ask ourselves this very important question: If we believe that the cross of Jesus shows us who God is, then how does this picture of God coincide with a doom and gloom picture of a God who visits all kinds of destruction on us? Is God punishing anyone on the cross? Was God bringing terrible death and destruction upon all the sinners at the cross of Jesus? Clearly not! In fact, the cross seems to show us the opposite. God was willing to take the death and destruction upon himself through Jesus, so that it might be clear to us that God’s way of salvation is not punishment but instead forgiveness. Our second lesson this morning sums it up beautifully:

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us…, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast … all the more as you see the Day approaching.

“The Day” that’s talked about here is the Judgment Day, but the emphasis is decidedly on grace and forgiveness, not some terrible destruction, death, and punishment. So any Christian preacher who wants to talk in terms of such doom and gloom must explain how such a view of God can possibly be squared with the God we see in Jesus, who was willing to suffer the consequences of our sin for us.

Moreover, we need to be very careful when we are talking about punishment at all. For, when we look to the cross, who is punishing whom? Is Jesus taking God’s punishment meant for us? Christians have often talked this way, but where do we see this in the gospel stories themselves? When I read the gospels, I never see God plotting any punishment. It’s the human beings who are plotting punishment! The Jewish leaders and the Roman government. They trump up false charges and then execute Jesus with the preferred form of Roman punishment for its criminals, crucifixion. The only thing the gospels show us is a State punishment for an alleged crime.

We need to be very clear about this: Jesus is taking on a punishment at the hands of human beings, not God. Jesus is exposing, revealing something about who we are as human beings that will not be popular. He is taking away our usual justification for punishing people who we think are bad. We usually rationalize our human efforts at punishing people by saying that God wants us to do that. But Jesus shows us a very different God, one on whom we can no longer blame our violence. And so, if it comes down to a terrible violence at the end-times, we need to recognize that it will not be God’s violence, not a terrible divine punishment. Any violence at the end-times will be our own violence.

And the revelation of the cross goes even further: it shows us why there might be more of our violence in the end-times. This is crucial. And its something that modern Lutherans haven’t talked about as much — not as much, for example, as Jesus does in our gospel lesson this morning. Yes, Jesus tells us that there might be more violence at those times because he knows that he is exposing our violent means of trying to stop violence. Do you see? Exposing our usual means of stopping violence means that we won’t be as effective in containing violence, so there will be more of it.

What do I mean by exposing our violent means of stopping violence? In Jesus day, and in the ancient times preceding him, the means for limiting violence was sacrifice. That’s hard for us to see, because we are so far removed. But all the ancient societies used sacrifice as a means of getting people involved in a little bit of bloodletting as a sort of release valve. This ritualized violence against an innocent victim helped reduce their violence toward each other. And it really worked! We need to understand and respect that.

At the time of Jesus, though, something else was moving in to replace sacrifice in containing violence. Sacrifice slowly became replaced by the Law. Societies have used the law to stop violence now. But both Jesus and St. Paul tried to get us to see that the law is still sacrificial. No matter how careful we are, the law will still chew up innocent victims. No matter how careful we are, there are still innocent people who are prosecuted. Jesus was one of those innocent victims! His sacrifice put an end to sacrifice, as we read in the second lesson (and implied by the destruction of the Temple in the gospel lesson). But St. Paul talked over and over about the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross also puts an end to the Law. It exposes the law as sacrificial, too, by increasing our empathy for the innocent victims. Well, if that keeps happening, and the law gets less and less effective because of it, then what is going to stop the violence? Do you see why Jesus and the early Christians talked about more violence being only the beginnings of the birth pangs of God’s kingdom?

Can you see the effects in our world today after 2000 years of this revelation doing its work? More and more people have become sympathetic to the innocent victim. We see it in our legal system, which, to its credit, goes to such great lengths to try to make sure that it doesn’t chew up innocent victims. Many people are frustrated, in fact, because it often seems to ignore the innocent victims of the crimes themselves. But our legal system has been under the effect of the gospel not to make innocent victims under the law — in other words, not to prosecute innocent people. Many complain that this has weakened our legal system to the point that it is no longer effective in stopping the crime itself. We don’t know quite what to do, though, because we are so sensitized to not using the law itself to do violence against innocent people. This is the gospel at work, folks! That’s why Jesus said there might be more violence before there is finally none.

We can also see it in our wars, too, can’t we? Wars have been one of our ways to try to stop violence, but one that we have increasingly seen causes many innocent victims, including among our supposed enemies. How many innocent Germans did we kill to stop Hitler? How many innocent Japanese did we kill to stop the Emperor? How many innocent victims did we kill in trying to stop communism in Viet Nam? How many innocent Iraqis did we kill trying to stop Saddam Hussein? And what has happened to our will to make war over that time? Has it become more difficult because we are increasingly aware of the innocent victims we make?

I think back to the Gulf War. I was cheering those first few weeks as the military showed us those bloodless precision strikes of ‘smart’ bombs on military targets. I cheered because we were stopping an evil person. But in those last few weeks of the war, there were those pictures out of Iraq of bombs that had missed there targets and hit apartment buildings. Dead innocent women and children were being pulled out of the ruins. Collateral damage, we called it. But the pictures were there. And I was no longer cheering. This is the gospel at work, too. Do you see it? It creates more empathy for the innocent victims and makes it more difficult for us to use our traditional means of stopping bad people like Saddam Hussein. As we seem on the brink of military action again today, I don’t know. I don’t have easy answers about what we as a nation should do.

But one thing is easy for me to know: that it becomes all that more important for me to spread the Good News that God does have another way for us, a way of love and mercy and forgiveness, a way of peace. I’ve known that grace in its fullness in my own life, and I can spread the news to others. And I can hope that as more and more people know that grace in their lives, too, that we won’t have to worry as much about bad people like Saddam Hussein, because there won’t be enough others to follow him. It makes it all the more important for me to spread the news now! We’ve got a gospel, folks, a Good News. It won’t seem like Good News to everyone at first. There’ll be some resistance to it. It won’t be easy! But we can know its gracious effects in our own lives and relationships. We have the assurance of our faith that the end-time, the Day of Judgement, will be a day of forgiveness and new life. And we have our Lord here again today to feed us and strengthen us for the task ahead of sharing that Good News with others. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 15-16, 1997

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