Today’s readings for the 2nd to the last Sunday of the church year have a little something for everyone.
For the lawyer, we have the scene from the book of Daniel, and the heavenly courtroom. The Father, the Ancient of Days, is seated on His throne, with brilliant white clothing, and white, wooly hair. His throne is flaming with fire, and a river of fire is coming out from before Him. He is attended by thousands and thousands of angels, the hosts of heaven. The court is seated, and the books are opened. There is silence. Court is now in session.
For the athlete on your end times shopping list, we have the book of Hebrews. The scene is the end of the Olympic marathon. A stadium packed full of cheering people. Your teammates are standing on the sidelines, cheering you on. And there, just beyond the finish line, stands Jesus, crucified, risen, glorious. He is holding the victor’s crown in His hand, waiting to put it on your head as you cross the finish line. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, on His cross, on His saving death, and run the race that is set before you.
And for the naturalist and gardner, we have the Gospel according to St. Mark and the continuation of Jesus’ “little apocalypse” on His way to the cross. Last week we heard about the “birth pangs” – earthquakes, famines, wars, rumors of wars, false Christs, false religions. Today Jesus talks about the cosmic signs – the sun and moon go dark, the stars fall from the sky, and the Son of Man – Jesus – appears to collect His own.
He gives a little sign of life in the midst of death straight out of the garden. The fig tree in spring. When its twigs get fat and tender, and it begins to bud, you know that summer is near. When you see the signs of the end – signs on earth, signs in the heavens, you know that Jesus’ appearing is near. And there’s a promise to go with this sign of life in the midst of death. Heaven and earth will pass away, but not Jesus’ words. “My words will never pass away.” And that promise will keep you forever in Him.
Those are our three end times images for today – the courtroom, the long distance runner, the fig tree. Let’s spend a little time with each of them, and see where they take us on this 2nd to the last Sunday of the church year.
The courtroom. I don’t know about you, but this is one court I would not want to appear in, at least without decent representation. Talk about intimidating, if not downright terrifying! If you’ve spent any time at all in court, you realize how intimidating the law can be. Judicial benches, black robes, solemn procedures, evidence, rules, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
This heavenly court has a Judge you don’t want to mess with. Wearing white robes, gleaming with heavenly glory, surrounded by tens of thousands of attendants and worshippers. And I don’t know about you, but if there’s anything written about me in those books that are opened, I’m not sure I want to know about it. I remember the days of the old parent teacher conferences. This may date me a bit, but it was back in the days when parents were on the teachers’ side. No matter how good you were in school, you knew you weren’t perfect, and you just knew they were plotting miserable things at those parent-teacher conferences. The anxiety was thick as I waited for Mom and Dad to come home with the report.
What on earth is in those books? Well, if there’s any connection to the Revelation (and I think there is), those are the books of our works, all the stuff we’ve done. Would you want to be judged by what’s written in those books? I sure wouldn’t. Not only are there all the things you’ve done that you shouldn’t have done (sins of commission), but there’s all the stuff you should have done that you didn’t do (sins of omission). Our commissions and our omissions add up to a whole peck of trouble under the Law. Would you want to argue your own case in this court? They say, “He who represents himself has a fool for an attorney.” That saying holds double in this court. Foolish to the point of damned foolish, and I mean that quite literally. Try to argue your own case on the merits of what’s written in those books, and you’ll have the book thrown at you.
Fortunately, that’s not necessary. There is representation available. A public defender, an advocate, one who will speak in your defense. He’s in cahoots with the Judge. In fact, this advocate, the Son of Man as Daniel sees Him, has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Imagine that – the defense attorney is also the judge. And more than that, He’s already paid the price for your felonies and misdemeanors. He’s served your sentence – three days in the grave. And to top it all off, He’s taken out the prosecutor, the devil, (the title Satan means accuser) and taken away his court credentials. Now there’s someone you would want on your side, arguing your case in this fiery courtroom!
Let’s be clear. Scripture clearly says that our works will be judged. The apostle Paul says that everyone must appear before the judgment throne of God to give an account of deeds done in the body. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to be judged by your works. You can plead the mercy of the court and let your Advocate do the talking for you. You can put your life in His hands (it’s in His hands anyway, so you may as well acknowledge that and trust Him) and let His works be your works. His death is your death, His life is your life, His perfection is your righteousness. He became your sin so that in Him you might become His righteousness. This isn’t a plea bargain or some kind of a deal with the district attorney. No my friends, this is grace, pure and simple. Acquittal of the guilty all thanks to Jesus.
From the courtroom to the sports stadium. Imagine yourself running a marathon, 26 miles of hell. Your legs are burning, your lungs are aching, your vision is blurry. You enter the stadium, and a capacity crowd rises to its feet, cheering you on to the finish line. Your friends and family are there, waving flags. Your teammates are cheering you on. That’s how Hebrews pictures the Christian life – not some walk in the park or a trip to the mall, but a rough and rugged road race that seems to sap every bit of strength you have.
Greek runners ran naked. That’ll put at least an R rating on the Olympics. The Greek word for naked is gymnos from which we get gymnasium and gymnastics. Though today’s runners don’t run naked, thank goodness, they don’t run in high heels or a business suit. They wear slick, form-fitting spandex and feather light running shoes. Every stray ounce must be shed for the sake of speed and endurance. Runners don’t carry a stitch of unnecessary clothing.
What does that mean for the Christian life? “Throw off everything that gets in the way,” Hebrews says. Get rid of anything that gets in the way of your worship of Christ and your trust in Him. Whatever it is, it isn’t worth it. Strip down to the bare essentials. Remember the seed sown among the weeds in Jesus’ parable. It sprouts and grows, but is choked out but the cares and concerns of life. Cast off sin that so easily entangles, like loose shoe laces, ready to trip your feet as you sprint to the finish line.
Now I take that in two distinct ways. We need to actively engage and do battle with our old Adam and old Eve, as Paul says, to put to death the old nature which has already been crucified with Christ. Far too often, we believers try to hold on to our sins and run the race at the same time. Imagine running a marathon while carrying three suitcases and a backpack with your shoes untied. Some drink too much, some engage in immorality of one sort or another, some gossip and slander others, some are greedy for money, some hold grudges and refuse to forgive others. And all those things add up to burdensome baggage that weigh us down, rob us of the joy of our salvation, trip us up, compromise our witness, and generally mess up the cadence of our walk. These things need to be brought under discipline, be put to death, cast off like unecessary dead weight.
The other sense is that many Christians, often with hyper-sensitive consciences, try to bear the burden of their guilt. Though they may not intentionally want to do this, they try to atone for their sins by being miserable, thinking, “If I beat up on myself then God won’t beat up on me.” That’s no way to run. Listen closely. Jesus bore not only your sins on the cross, He also bore the guilt and shame of your sin. He did that so you don’t have to. There’s no excuse for a life weighed down with guilt. I don’t care what the sin is – name the worst you’ve done. Jesus has already covered it with His blood, washed it away in your Baptism, put it as far as the east is from the west. He’s the one who says, “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” He bore your sins, so why do you keep on trying to bear them? Confess them, acknowledge them. If you can’t get rid of them, bring them to confession and hear an objective and certain word from Christ. “Your sins are forgiven. You are free. Go in peace.”
There’s absolutely no excuse for guilt-ridden Christians, and especially guilt-ridden Lutherans, but we can be the worst of the lot at times. Pietism is no stranger. Get rid of it. All that guilt is nothing but religious phoney baloney, a puny attempt to make God feel sorry for you. He doesn’t. He forgives you, and He wants you to believe that you are forgiven.
Run the race that is set before you, unburdened, free, forgiven, as the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven cheer you on. And there at the finish line is Jesus, the pioneer and perfector, the author and finisher, the beginning and the end of our faith. Faith begins and ends with Jesus. And think on Jesus, who for the joy of winning your salvation, for the joy of taking away your sins and defeating your death, endured the misery of the cross, shook His divine fist at its shame, hung naked and died in the darkness and then sat down to reign at the right hand of God. That’s who is waiting to greet you and crown you at the end, so run the race with eyes glued on Jesus.
So much for the athlete, now for the gardner. We end with the fig tree. Jesus cursed a fig tree during holy week. Poor thing. There wasn’t a fig on it, so He cursed it, and the next day it was dead as dead can be, a sign of judgment against unbelief and rejection. But here, Jesus gives the opposite sign. The fig tree emerging out of winter. It appears dead and lifeless. But when its branches begin to swell with sap, and its leaves begin to bud, you know that summer is just around the corner.
The end times can be terrifying times in which to live. Things go from bad to worse. Species go extinct. Wars, earthquakes, floods, fires, famines, diseases. The inclination is toward pessimism, even fatalism. What the hell – let’s eat and drink for tomorrow we die. But Jesus would have us see life even when things appear dead. The signs of the end are “birth pangs,” He says. Labor contractions of the new creation. But budding fig tree reminds us that summer is near, even though by all appearances it is still the dead of winter.
The tree has budded. The wood of the cross has born its fruit. Jesus died, was buried, and on the third day rose again, the first-fruits of the resurrection. Though we are now in creation’s winter, the resurrection of Jesus marks the turning point. The new creation has already come, and “if anyone is in Christ, he is already a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come.”
The cosmos as we know it is rapidly coming to its end. Soon, the sun, moon, and stars will be shaken and die. But there will be light. In Genesis, in the beginning, there was light before there were sun, moon, and stars. And there will be light even when the sun, moon, and stars go out. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome. Heaven and earth will one day pass away, but His words, the words that forgive you, that words that create and sustain your faith, the words that will raise you from your grave, those words will never pass away.
In the end, it’s all about Jesus:
Jesus – your Advocate, your Defender, your Judge.
Jesus – the Pioneer and Perfector of your faith.
Jesus – the Son of Man, who comes in glory to raise the dead and gather you together with all His people.
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.