The final countdown, the last three Sundays of the year, the last days. Our thoughts turn to eschatology, words about the end. Today’s readings all deal with the end, each in their own way. The reading from Hebrews reminds me a bit of my 8th grade art teacher. She believed that art should not only be good, it should be sturdy as well. She had what she called her “shake test” which every piece had to pass. She would pick up the work and give it a little shake. If anything fell off, back it went to the artist for repair. Everything had to survive the shake test.
The book of Hebrews speaks of the Lord’s cosmic “shake test,” when He will once more shake the earth and the heavens with the sound of His voice and rattle the cosmos to its rafters. And Hebrews reminds us that “once more” means that God has already done it. He shook the earth at Sinai when He delivered the law to Moses. He shook the earth at Calary when Jesus died in the darkness for the sin of the world. And He will once more shake not only the earth but also the heavens, the whole creation, on the day Jesus appears in glory.
We who live in California are used to being shaken, living on a network of seismic faults that need to slip once and while. I stll remember our first morning in southern California, when Karen and I came out here to look for a place to live as we were preparing to move. We were staying at the Pollock’s. It was about 5:30 in the morning when the whole house started to shake, rattle, and roll. Talk about a wake-up call. Having lived in northern California for seven years, I immediately knew what all the shaking was about. “Earthquake,” I said, stating the obvious. Two hours later, while we were eating breakfast out on the patio, part two of the Landers/Big Bear double feature hit, and we watched the water sloshing around in the pool. Welcome to California.
It shakes you up when the ground you walk on isn’t quite as firm as thought it was, when all of a sudden the entire house starts rattling as though a big giant had picked it up to give it a shake test. The events of September 11 two years ago left our nation badly shaken. We weren’t as safe and secure as we thought we were. Four coordinated hijackings, two destroyed superskyscrapers, a direct hit on the Pentagon, our fortress of national security.
The wildfires of two weeks ago shook most of us. Ash falling from the sky like snow flurries. A red sun rising in the east and sinking in the west. Darkened skies in the middle of the day. The satellite views were incredible. Smoke rising up from all of southern California. All that destruction – homes and trees and lives. It was almost apocalyptic, a little sneak preview of God’s grand finale. I don’t know about you, but my mental concordance recalled the biblical images of Sodom and Gomorrah and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. We don’t need a visual for, “God is a consuming fire.” We got the point.
Jesus and His disciples were exiting the temple. It was early in what we call “holy week,” the week leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the disciples are playing a bit of the tourist. “Teacher, look at those massive stones! What majestic buildings!”
Herod’s temple was an impressive sight. It was one of the wonders of the ancient. 46 years in the building, it was Herod’s attempt to buy the affections of the Jews. As much as the people hated Herod, they were proud of their temple. Yet Jesus wasn’t impressed. It was going to undergo God’s shake test, and it won’t survive. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Thirty years later, it actually happened, just as Jesus said. The Roman army invaded Jerusalem and completely destroyed the temple. The only part that survived was a small portion of the temple’s north wall, known today as the “wailing wall.” Not one stone left standing on another.
The disciples were shaken, as any Jew of Jesus day would have been. The temple was the center of their religion. It was God’s dwelling place. How could God let something like that happen to His house? Later, while sitting on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the temple grounds, they asked Jesus. When will these things happen? What is the sign that they are about to be fulfilled? Will it happen in their lifetimes? Will there be a signal, a warning? Jesus never tells them “when.” And the sign He gives is not to satisfy their curiosity or their fascination for eschatology.
We are inveterate end times junkies. We want signs. We want to know when so we can pencil it on our calendars. End of the world. Wouldn’t it be nice to know? Or would it? Jesus knows better than to tell us. But He doesn’t leave us without warning or without a promise.
“Watch out that no one deceives you.” Don’t take it for granted that you can’t be fooled; watch out. The devil’s a lot trickier than we think he is. The religious world will be a sign: false Christ’s, false religions, false gospels which are not good news at all. We have them today, pseudo-Christs and pseudo-Saviors, alternatives to Jesus, religious gurus who claim to put you in touch with God, some even sporting miracles to make the point. But they don’t point to Jesus’ cross and resurrection, to His body and His blood, to His baptism, and Word of forgiveness. The old heresies are alive and kicking, with new forms popping up all the time. Deceptive spiritualities dot the religious landscape, promise the usual peace, health, well-being, all for a price.
Don’t be deceived. There is only one Jesus who died on a cross for you, and He’s all the Jesus you need.
The political world serves a sign – wars, rumors of war, nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom. It reads like the A secton of the newspaper, doesn’t it? Dictators, communism, militant religion. Just as peace is established in one part of the world, war breaks out in another.
The natural world serves as a sign – earthquakes in various places, famines, natural disasters. As Paul says in Romans, the entire creation groans under the burden of our sin, waiting expectantly for our resurection, the redemption of our bodies. We witnessed some of that groaning two weeks ago. We will experience more of the same. You can expect it.
Jesus isn’t trying to shake up His disciples, or cause them to doubt or despair. He’s giving them a way to look at things and to interpret what’s happening in the world from His perspective. All the wars, rumors of war, earthquakes, famines – all the deaths of this world Jesus calls “the birth pangs,” the labor contractions of the new creation. Just as giving birth is painful and often difficult, so is the coming of the new creation. It involves dying and rising – the death and resurrection of Jesus Himself, and also your own death and resurrection.
Jesus prepared His disciples for the trouble that lay ahead. He knew that His own victory over sin and death would bring opposition. His disciples would be considered heretics by the religious world that prefers to deal with God on its own terms. They would be tried in the religious courts and banished from their own houses of worship, the synagoguges they grew up in. The government would used against them. They would be hauled before kings and princes to testify. Yet Jesus assures them they would be equipped for the challenge. “Don’t worry what you’re going to say. Just speak what you are given by the Spirit.”
Think of the apostle Paul in the book of Acts, hauled before the religious high court, tried before governors and kings, and no matter where he went, no matter what the circumstances, he preached Christ, all the way to his own martyr’s death.
In the small towns of Siberia, the religious authorities, who now have a certain amount of power and control, try to suppress Lutheran congregations from gathering. They use old religious laws in their favor. Ordinary parishioners, in many cases old, frail women, are called into court and interrogated in detail about what they believe. Can you imagine being called to testify in court about the details of your faith? And they do, these solid, old confessing believers. They speak the Gospel of Jesus in open court, and much like in St. Paul’s day, the Word of the Lord spreads and grows – not in spite of persecution, but with persecution.
Jesus warned His disciples they would be betrayed, even by those closest to them. Brother would betray believing brother; children would betray confessing parents, even to their death. It happened in the first century. It happens today in our century wherever Christians are persecuted for the name of Jesus.
Jesus is not telling His disciples these things to terrify them or to discourage them. He’s preparing them, and us, to be alert to the times in which we live. Live with eyes and ears open to the signs of His coming. And He assures them. Each of this morning’s readings carries the promise of life in the midst of death, of hope just when things are least hopeful.
Daniel speaks of a terrible time ahead for God’s people, one that will bring the archangel Michael, the protector-warrior of God’s people. St. Paul wrote that the archangel’s call will signal the end, and the coming of Christ in the clouds to raise the dead and gather His believers. This comes at a time of great distress, unparalleled in the history of the world. Yet there is this promise: “Everyone whose name is found written in the book, will be delivered.” All who are in Christ, the Book of Life, will be saved. Those who are wise, that is, those who trust in the promise of God in Jesus, will shine like the brightness of the heavens.
Hebrews tells us that though the whole cosmos will be shaken by the voice of God like it has never been shaken before, yet we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, a kingdom ruled over by Christ crucified and risen, a kingdom in which sin, death, hell, and the Law are no more. That is as unshakeably yours as Jesus is unshakeably risen and you are unshakeably baptized into His death.
Jesus says, “He who endures to the end will be saved.” That’s a promise from Him whose word is sure and true. He won’t ever fail you or abandon you or go back on His word to you. You have the sure and certain signs from God Himself. You are baptized, the testimony from God that your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life. You have Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, which you take with you to the end of your days. You have His Word and promise of forgiveness, that in the death of Jesus your sins are covered, and God is at peace with you.
The last days are not days for panic, anxiety, or uncertainty. They are days for alertness, readiness, watchfulness, expectation, longing, hopefulness, patient endurance. There will be hardship, pain, difficulty but these are only the birth pangs of a new creation that has already come in Christ.
“He who endures to the end, will be saved.” You have Jesus’ promise. Trust Him to the end, for He is faithful.
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.