Watch for the End
November 29, 2015
Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today begins the new church year – out of sync with the secular calendar which has the new year beginning in January. And in addition, this day is also odd for two other reasons.
Two Other Oddities
The first one is that our Christmas celebration can’t be rushed. Others may have no trouble doing that – but Christmas for Christians takes time. So at the beginning of the year, we set aside four weeks to get ready. We need to make sure that our minds are properly focused (Colossians 3:2), our ears open (Jeremiah 26:3) and our hearts (Luke 8:15) ready for the Christmas message.
The other reason is that on this day we are reminded about the end of the world as we know it. We are to be on the watch for its ending at any time (Luke 21:36). And when it ends it will be traumatic – burning up in some wild firestorm (2 Peter 3:10). Many think this conflagration is odd if not an extreme exaggeration. But not Luther – he believed it meant exactly what it said: “This day will come all too quickly for the world…. The Day will come like a mighty thunderstorm.… Everything will be consumed in one moment” (Luther’s Works 30:197). According to Luther, then, this Biblical testimony is as scary as it sounds!
Not Our Mother Earth
These oddities, then, force us to confess our sin of relying too heavily on the world to save us. We, like so many others, think of the world as Mother Earth (M. Sjoo & B. Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, New York: HarperOne, 1987). On this view the earth guards us; provides for us; comforts us – instead of God our heavenly Father (Psalm 62:6). But even if you were to look high and low, you’d never find such a testimony about the world being Mother Earth in the Bible. That’s because we are the earth’s caretaker (Genesis 2:15, 3:23) – and not it ours. The earth isn’t stable enough for that (Carl Wieland, World Winding Down: Understanding the ‘Law of Disorder’ – and How It Demands a Creator, 2014). So our first prayer, at the beginning of Advent, is that God would disabuse us of this false belief, hear our confession, and forgive us our sin. We pray that God would reinforce the truth that we are aliens here (2 Peter 2:11) and that heaven is our home (Philippians 3:20) – for this world is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31; 2 Corinthians 4:18).
Cleaning Up Ourselves
No wonder then that our second lesson challenges us to stand “blameless before our God and father” (1 Thessalonians 3:13). Down through the generations of the Church, Christians have taken up this ball and run with it. We have tried all sorts of spiritual exercises to clean up ourselves – from fervent prayer to self-flagellation. But try though we may, we have also discovered, sooner than later, that these ploys simply don’t work. For our stains stay with us. What then will come of us when Christ returns? Will we be thrown into the fires of hell (Romans 2:5)?
Well, if 1 Thessalonians ended with our reading in chapter three, we would be lost. But it doesn’t! For in 1 Thessalonians 5:10 we are told to “obtain salvation in Christ who died for us.” Here all our spiritual scouring comes to an end. Here all our self-reliance regarding salvation comes to a screeching halt. And in their place we hear instead about what Christ has done for us. This is the great move that saves us – going from “what we are to do and give to God,” as Luther famously puts it, to “what has been given us by God” (LW 35:162). And what he has given us is to die for us.
But how does this help? The Lutheran Confessions (1529–1580) answer that question this way:
Only Christ, the mediator, can be pitted against God’s wrath and judgment. This is what we… teach. (BC p. 136)
So Christ intervenes for us on the cross. He takes the hit for us. He is punished for sin so that we won’t have to be. This is our salvation. Without Christ being our substitute (LW 22:167), we would have to suffer in hell for all of eternity because of our many transgressions. If our sins are left unforgiven, that’s what happens. Only Christ can save us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). In him we must believe. In him we must entrust our lives. In him is our hope for deliverance (Romans 7:24).
This saving death surpasses any spiritual scouring that we might do. And so the Lutheran Confessions rightly declare that this is what we teach. Or should we say are supposed to teach? Yes, more like the latter. That’s because Lutherans are in a crisis in our country. We have drifted away from our historical norms (David A. Gustafson, Lutherans in Crisis: The Question of Identity in the American Republic, 1993). We have replaced reliance on the Almighty with social engineering (Edgar R. Trexler, Anatomy of a Merger: People, Dynamics, and Decisions that Shaped the ELCA, 1991, p. 261). So our pulpits are mostly silent when it comes to God’s wrath and Christ’s mediation. Other avenues are being traveled down these days – to the delight of nearly everyone.
So extricate yourself from this mess – “save yourself from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). Pray to the Lord to increase your faith in the Christ who died for you that you may live forever. This is what the first disciples asked of the Lord Jesus long ago (Luke 17:5). So you do the same. Come to the Lord’s Supper. Bow down at the Altar and eat of the bread and drink of the cup. Do that so that your faith may increase. Do this so that you may have life and have it abundantly (John 6:53, 10:10).
Furthermore, during Advent, we also fast in order to help us with our Christian discipleship. This is what the Lord Jesus asks of us (Luke 5:35) – and so we are to fast in thankful obedience for all he has done for us (Psalm 116:12; 1 Thessalonians 3:9). But what foods we give up that we especially like, and regularly eat, is up to each of us because of the differences that are among us regarding our favorite foods and our specific health conditions. But regarding the teachings about the nature of fasting, we should all agree with what the Lutheran Confessions teach. There we read:
With regard to the mortifying of the body and the discipline of the flesh we teach… that the cross and the troubles with which God disciplines us effect a genuine and not a counterfeit mortification. When this comes we must obey God’s will…. This is the spiritual exercise of fear and faith. Besides this mortification brought on by the cross, a voluntary kind of exercise is also necessary [like fasting]…. We should undertake these exercises not as services that justify but as restraints on our flesh, lest we be overcome by satiety and become complacent and idle with the result that we indulge and pamper the desires of our flesh. In this we must be diligent at all times because God commands it at all times. ([Apology 15.45–48] The Book of Concord p. 221)
Notice that fasting adds insult to injury by increasing the troubles we already have. For fasting adds to our plight. But not so we can justify or save ourselves by making God love us. No, that comes through faith in Christ’s redeeming sacrifice (Romans 3:22–25). Fasting only helps control our sensual delights so that Christ may be glorified. Fasting does this by stopping us from indulging the desires of our flesh. I know about this pampering all too well. I who keep on eating, even when I’m full. I who know that food is fuel, but make fun out of it anyway. I who suffer from what I call “esophageal eroticism” – loving to chew and swallow food!
So pray to God for help during Advent to  fast in a way that is pleasing to him. Add this to your other two prayers – praying that God  increase your faith in Jesus who as your substitute protects you from the wrath of God by dying for you, and  pull you back from your love for Mother Earth that you might be ready for, and even watching for, her horrible and fiery end. Amen.
(printed as preached but with a