Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Thought of Heaven Leads to Care of Earth

 One of the criticisms that has been leveled at Christianity, and sometimes it is rightly leveled, is that Christians spend so much time thinking about heaven that they neglect what is going on around them in this world.  The famous illustration of this is a Christian who tells a hungry person, “Be of good cheer, God loves you.  Jesus died for you, believe in Him,” and then neglects to offer any food to that hungry person.  Although I am sure this has happened at one point or another, I personally have yet to see it happen.  In fact, most Christians that I know understand very well that our trust in Jesus means a radical reshaping of our lives and our priorities in this world and a deep desire to seek God’s kingdom and work towards God’s kingdom right here, and right now.  Some folks might get caught up in the biblical stories about the future return of Jesus to the detriment of this, but this morning, I would like to show how our faith leads us to concrete action.

 We pick up in our biblical text where we left off last week.  Jesus has been responding to his disciples’ comments and questions all through this chapter of Mark beginning with His response to a commentary about how wonderful the temple building is.  Jesus says the temple will be destroyed because it is beautiful on the outside but corrupt on the inside.  The disciples want to know when these things will take place.  Jesus begins painting a picture of what that will look like including wars, rumors of war, nation turning against nation, earthquakes, and famine.  He then talks about what will happen to the disciples in that they will experience persecution, betrayal, and death. 
 Jesus then gives some specifics.  There will be an abomination of desolation who stands where he should not be.  Believers should run when they see it because its arrival will issue in a horrible time of persecution that has not been seen since the creation of the world.  Throughout all these things, false Messiahs will spring up trying to lead people astray, and Jesus commands his followers to stand fast and not be led astray.

 Today, we read even more about these coming times.  Jesus says there will be great upheaval even in the natural world.  The sun will not shine.  The moon will turn red.  The stars will fall from the sky, and the heavens and the earth will be shaken. The Son of Man will be seen coming in the clouds–all will see Him.  Here, Jesus is picking up on the language used in the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Daniel.  There is a continuity between the past and the future.  All of this is God’s story coming to fruition.  It is culminated by the Son of Man sending the angels to gather the elect from the four corners of heaven and earth.

 Jesus then includes a bit of a parable.  It’s simply a common sense reference to the world around them.  Most of the trees in Israel were evergreen, but the fig tree was one of the few deciduous trees.  People watched the fig trees to see when they started budding out.  When these trees began to bud, everyone knew winter had come to a close and summer was on its way.  It’s like us down here–when we see the Pecan trees budding out, we know winter is over and spring has sprung.  Analogous to this is how we should understand seeing these signs of the final days.  When we see these things happening, we know the end is just around the corner–or at the gates, as Jesus says.

 And now we actually come to a very troublesome statement.  Jesus says, “30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  It’s a bit of a head scratcher, and biblical scholars are all over the map with this one.  Some believe that “all these things” refers to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. and that everything Jesus has said to this point applies to that historical situation.  Other scholars parse Jesus’ teaching here and say that “all these things” only refers to the destruction of the temple but not to the desolating sacrilege and the celestial signs.  Other scholars rightly point out that the historical record doesn’t match up with the prophesy and are left with a bit of a conundrum since it doesn’t seem like these things have come to pass and yet “this generation will not pass away.”  Can we have any confidence in what Mark is telling us if there seems to be a contradiction here?

 Let me try and smooth this out a little bit but focusing our attention on the words “this generation.”  Translating the Bible from Greek to English is not an exact science, and we need to be aware that the Greek word genea–which is translated generation can have several meanings.  Thayer's and Smith's Bible Dictionary gives the following definitions:

1.fathered, birth, nativity
2.that which has been begotten, men of the same stock, a family
 a.the several ranks of natural descent, the successive members of a genealogy
 b.metaph.  a group of men very like each other in endowments, pursuits, character  esp. in a bad sense, a perverse nation
3.the whole multitude of men living at the same time age (i.e. the time ordinarily occupied by each successive generation), a space of 30 - 33 years.

 It could very well be that Jesus is using the term “generation” not simply to refer to the people who are living around Him at that very moment.  It could be that He is using generation in a much broader term.  Let’s just consider that possibility as what Jesus means because it is consistent with how Jesus uses the term “generation” throughout the book of Mark, and it does help us resolve a problem with consistency.  What consistency?  Look at what Jesus says a short time later, “31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  If we hold generation to a much broader term–a term that is not confined to a period of 30 years or so but is much, much longer, then these two statements are not contradictory.  If you are still confused about this, I’ll be happy to speak with you about it later brining in other biblical references to paint a broader picture, but for the time being, we need to move on and get to the crux of this teaching.

 Jesus finishes with these words, “33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

 Let me read to you what Mark Edwards says about these verses in his commentary: The parable focuses on the doorkeeper, who has but one “charge.”  The Greek word behind “charge” is exousia, the same word used of Jesus’ divine authority.  Here it connotes the responsibility that legitimizes the doorkeeper’s position, which is to watch.  Living faithfully in the present, being attentive to the signs, and being ready at any hour for the return of the master is not one job among others; it is the doorkeeper’s only job.  Disciples are like doorkeepers; their single vocation is “Therefore keep watch”, whether “in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn”. ...The end is unknown and will come suddenly: live in constant readiness."

 Now, at this point, it would be tempting to simply end right here and tell you to keep ready by working and doing what Jesus commanded.  That would be the easy way out, but let’s take a moment to deal with the reality of what actually happens, both in the biblical narrative and in our own lives. 
 I’m going to fast forward through the book of Mark to the night of Jesus’ betrayal.  I want to read to you a snippet from Mark chapter 14, which we will be visiting in a week or so:

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ 33He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ 35And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ 37He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 39And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

 Do you see what happened to the disciples?  Do you see what happened to them when they were asked to keep watch at Jesus’ time of greatest need?  Were they able to accomplish the command of Jesus?  Were they able to stay awake and keep watch?  No.  They couldn’t.  There were other things that crept upon them and overtook them in the midst of everything that was going on.  They became distracted by their physical and mental needs.  They failed miserably.

And we are very much like them.  We fail as well as we are consumed by the many voices and many activities of this world.  We fail to put our faith lives first.  We are grasped by the lure of fun and games.  We are torn away from worship and grasped by the sporting gods.  We are overcome in our weariness and pull the covers over our heads instead of coming to receive the Lord in the Sacraments.  Distracted, we miss the reality of our Lord’s call to us.  Jesus says, “Be aware; stay awake; keep watch.”  And we fall asleep and become distracted.

 Why?  Why did the disciples fall asleep?  Why do we?  I want you to stop for just a moment here and go back in time.  Think about the time you first fell in love with your significant other.  Think about what it was like longing to be with them. Think about those moments you spent during the day in eager anticipation of an approaching phone call; waiting to check the mail box (or in these days, your email); or working diligently to look nice for a date.  Why did you spend so much time obsessing over these moments?  Why did you eagerly wait and watch?  Because you loved the thought of being reunited with the one you loved.  You were consumed by the chance to be with the one who made you feel whole and complete.  You couldn’t wait for the reunion, and nothing could deter you from this.

 Why did the disciples fall asleep?  Their hearts did not truly love Jesus.  Why do we fall asleep?  Honestly, neither do we truly love Jesus.  Our hearts are not captured by Him and His love.  So, what does He do?  What does He do for His disciples?  What does He do for us?  “There is no greater love than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Jesus spoke those words, and then He followed through on them.  When you did not love Jesus and were unwilling to devote yourself to Him and keep watch for Him, He decided to show you just how much you were worth to Him.  He decided to show you just how valuable you were to Him.  He decided to win your heart by laying down His life for your own.  He loved you with a love beyond all measure and stretched out His arms and allowed them to be nailed to a cross to win your salvation.

 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.”  God sent the Son into the world not to condemn you but to save you–because He loves you.

 Ponder that for a moment.  Ponder the Son’s deep love for you.  Ponder Jesus’ great love for you and see if that moves your heart.  Knowing the lengths He was willing to go for you, does that make you want to love Him?  Does that make you want to serve Him?  Does that make you want to be reunited with Him?

 If the news that Christ laid down His life for you hits you right where you live, your heart desires this reunion.  Your heart longs to be with Him.  Your eyes lift to the skies as you await His eventual return.  But they do not simply look to the skies.  They look around the world.  They look around at what the world is, and your heart says, “Is this what I want the Savior to see?  Do I want Him to see poverty?  Do I want Him to see pain and death?  Do I want Him to see anger and division?  Do I want Him to see hatred and sorrow?  Do I want Him to see warfare and destruction?  Do I want Him to see these things that are contrary to His will?  Do I want Him to see me frustrated and angry that these things are happening but doing nothing because I am unable to sense that I am making a difference? 

 When you met your significant other, did you want him or her to come over and see a messy house?  Or did you want it to look its best?  You know the answer to that question.  When you truly love someone, you want to present the best for that person.  You want them to know you care–particularly if you know that the house actually belongs to the One who is coming.  You feel no duty to do this and be involved; instead you do such things because they are simply the right thing to do.  Christians should never, ever turn their backs on this world.  For it is the same world Christ died for.  It is the same world Christ loved.  We should love it too and work for its betterment.  Amen.

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